OverviewThe Capitan Mountains are located in southern New Mexico in Lincoln County, north of the town of Capitan and near the city of Ruidoso. The mountains are a granitic intrusion, creating a small (10 by 20 mile) massif that rises dramatically above the plains and lava fields of south-central New Mexico. Capitan Peak (el. 10,083 feet) is a popular summit destination, but it is not the highest point in the range. A small bump at 10,201 feet is the range highpoint. A small wooden sign at the summit is marked as "Palko Peak", but this name is never seen on any maps or other publications. It is apparently not an official name.
A large wilddfire torched the Capitan Mountains in 1950, and firefighters found a small bear cub clinging to a tree, its hind legs burned. The cub was rescued and given the name Smokey, and eventually became the living embodiment of "Smokey Bear", the familiar bear used by the Forest Service to educate and warn against wildfires. The actual Smokey Bear concept had been around since World War II; the small cub conveniently became its mascot, more or less. The town of Capitan capitalizes on this theme, and there is a small museum dedicated to Smokey Bear, and of the broader task of educating the public against fires.
Getting ThereFrom the small town of Capitan on US 380, drive two miles east on US 380 to the signed Capitan Gap turnoff. Turn left (north), and drive about six miles to Capitan Gap. This road is known as County Road 001 and Forest Road 56. The road is good up to Capitan Gap. Once at the Gap, turn right onto Forest Road 56, and start driving up the mountain. The road steepens significantly just above the Gap. After about six miles on this secondary road, slightly past Padilla Point, the road turns southeast and starts heading downhill. You should park here just before it starts descending, as the road gets very rough.
Mountain ConditionsContact the Smokey Bear Ranger District in Ruidoso for the latest conditions. Their number is 505-257-4095. The peak is within the Capitan Wilderness.
Forest Service Map: Lincoln National Forest.
Topo Maps: Capitan Pass; Capitan Peak.
CampingThe Baca Campground is located at the southern base of the Capitan Mountains.
Route InformationThe shortest route is from the end of the road near the communications towers atop Peak 10,179 (Summit Benchmark). From here, the Summit Trail (Trail 58) starts and covers about a mile until it skirts below the highpoint. Some beaten paths and simple cross country lead to the highest point, which is lightly wooded and features the sign mentioning Palko Peak. Counting some of the road which will need to be hiked, the typical round trip will cover about 6 miles with about 700 feet of gain on the ascent, and about 500 feet of drop that will need to be regained on the descent. Still, the roads and trail make for an easy, quick hike. Note: portions of the trail may be indistinct. The range crest features a mix of forest and meadow and is very broad. Navigation is easy.
Longer routes to the summit exist. From the Baca Campground (el. 6,400), the Mitten Bar Trail (#60) gains steeply up Mitten Bar Canyon and ends at the road, about a mile west of the towers. Other trails that start low include the Seven Cabins Trail, Pierce Trail, Pancho Canyon and Capitan Peak Trails. All of these would entail a full day of hiking with up to 4,000 feet of gain, and upwards of 16 miles round trip, depending on route and possible loops.