The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument was established in 2014 and consists of four sections in southern New Mexico near Las Cruces - the Organ Mountains, the Desert Peaks, the Portrillo Mountains, and the Doña Ana Mountains.
Today, we hiked what some call the most scenic trail in the Organ Mountains - the Pine Tree Loop.
The Pine Tree Loop is on the eastern side of the Organ Mountains, and the trailhead is within the Aguirre Spring Campground. Even if you don't want to do the hike, it's a nice scenic drive.
Note: This is a fee area. Day use is $5 and campsites are $7 per night. Also, this is a primitive campground with no utilities and only pit toilets. Water is available only at the camphost site which is NOT in the campground - it is four miles before the campground on Aguirre Springs Road.
Hike or drive, we would recommend going in the morning for the best lighting.
Depending on the source, the hike is 4 to 4.5 miles with an elevation increase of about 1,000 feet. The half-way point is at 6,880 feet, so altitude certainly may be an issue for flatlanders.
We paid our fee at the campground entrance, and then proceeded to the trailhead parking area where we parked, signed in at the register ....
and got on the trail around 11:00 a.m. on this brisk December morning. From the beginning, we had views of the prominent "Rabbit Ears" in the photo above and the "Needles" in the photo below.
Early on the trail is a hollow tree that I'm sure has been used for many a photo op.
It's a short walk uphill and through a hiker gate ....
where we came to a metal signpost at the point the trail becomes a loop. There is a crude map of the trail that shows a primitive campsite that is approximately the half-way point.
It was decision time. Right or left? Clockwise or counter-clockwise?
Since the sun was already working its way over the mountains, and we would be losing good photo lighting soon, we decided to go left to do the loop clockwise and stay in the sun as long as possible.
It was a gentle climb on a easy-to-follow, meandering path that always had a view.
We were in no hurry and slowly climbed among boulders and desert vegetation admiring the views, doing some bird-watching, and just enjoying the quiet solitude.
I scanned the mountains, and saw a large bird soaring. It's just a dot in the photo. With binoculars, we confirmed it was a Golden Eagle. We think we've seen one in our prior travels, but this was the first one we definitely could confirm.
Also, we've seen enough nature documentaries to know that the terrain looked like perfect Mountain Lion habitat. I mentioned this to Linda at the exact same time we flushed a covey of quail ... scaring both of us half to death.
We took a break on an exposed rock and searched the hills for wildlife.
After our short rest, we continued on. I thought we were about half way at that point, but we were probably only about a mile in, a quarter of the way.
One of our mantras when hiking is "Take time to stop and look behind you", so we do that often and take in views we might have otherwise missed.
A little farther up, we got a view to the east of the residential area of the White Sands Missile Range in the Tularosa Basin.
Continuing, we soon got our first look at Sugarloaf Peak, a smooth, rounded peak much different from anything else in the Organ Mountains.
Sugarloaf joined the Rabbit Ears and the Needles as another of the prominent features in view during the rest of our hike depending on which way the trail turned.
That was one of the things we really liked about this trail. There was a variety of terrain and views as the trail climbed and turned, but it wasn't in a typical zig-zag, switch-backy kind of way.
We watched Dark-eyed Juncos, Spotted Towhees, and Stellar Jays, as we passed large Alligator Junipers. This one looked like it had been impaled.
The name Alligator Juniper comes from the appearance of the tree's bark which looks like the scales on the back of an alligator.
Every once in a while, I would pinch off a couple of juniper needles/leaves and smell the wonderful fragrance. I tend to sniff a lot of trees and plants out in the wilderness to further connect with the natural surroundings.
We turned toward the mountains thinking we must be approaching the half-way point and the end of the outward bound portion of the hike.
But then we turned again for another look at the Rabbit Ears ....
before turning again to face Sugarloaf Peak.
The trail twisted a few more times, and I took more photos of the landmarks. Sorry if I've bored you with photos of the same things - I can't help myself.
We started seeing more and more of the Ponderosa Pines. for which the trail is named, as we reached the highest elevation of the hike.
The trail circled to the east toward the mountain wall and we lost the sun. Most of the rest of the way was shaded and much cooler.
We came to a small stream that was partially frozen.
But we could see the water flowing beneath the ice. We thought that was pretty neat, cool, or whatever word from the 70s or 80s that conveys something more than just "interesting". Here's a short video (ignore my comment about a low battery).
After a couple of hours, we finally made it to the half-way point. That seemed a lot longer than two miles.
We started the return trip with a great, wide view of the Tularosa Basin.
That half of the trail was more forest-y and less desert-y.
Still, there wasn't much in the way of wildlife except the birds. And even they were hard to photograph. All I got was this quick picture of a Spotted Towhee.
Scanning with her binoculars, Linda found another distant Golden Eagle in a dead tree in the middle of the hiking loop. I got this blurry evidence, but it was just too far away.
We watched as it flew to a tree on the other side of the trail where we had hiked earlier - figures.
This side of the trail seemed to be a bit steeper with some higher steps as we descended, and we were glad we had chosen the clockwise route.
A little later, we came upon this dead tree. Linda concluded it was her favorite spot on the trail with the character of the tree, the boulders, and the view.
Now, Linda recently bought a fancy "selfie stick", and though we're not very good at "selfies" ('cause we're old), this one turned out okay.
After that brief stop, we moved on more quickly. It was a little cold in the shade.
I couldn't help but wonder what these beautiful mountains would have looked like in the early morning sun.
Eventually, we completed the loop and made our way back to our Jeep.
We thoroughly enjoyed the Pine Tree Loop Trail.
The views were fantastic, the trail was good and easy to follow, there was a lot of variation in the terrain, it was just difficult enough to to get some good exercise, it was a nice length for us 50-somethings, and it is remote enough to limit the people. We saw nobody else on the trail, and there was only one other car in the parking area.
Immersed in natural beauty, all alone, with only the sounds of the birds chirping, singing, and scratching in the underbrush - it doesn't get much better than that.