Elevated Exploration: The Highest Mountains in New Mexico

Think the 47th state is all sand and spiky succulents? One look at New Mexico's highest peaks is sure to make you think again.

Travel and Exploration
14 December 2023

The fifth largest state in the US is often portrayed as an arid expanse of desert plains, plateaus and canyons. And, indeed, around a third of New Mexico’s landscape is part of the Great Plain. But it’s also a land of mountains, some of them ice-capped, some volcanic, with close to 90 named mountain ranges. In the north, it even falls within one of the most significant systems in North America, The Rocky Mountains. It’s in the Rockies that we begin our search for the highest mountains in New Mexico.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Sunset at the Mesa Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico. (Credit: benedek via Getty Images)

Stretching from southern Colorado to northern New Mexico, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are the most southern edge of the American Rockies. They’re also where one finds the tallest mountain in New Mexico. Pushed up millions of years ago, they are fault block mountains, created by shifts in the Earth’s crust. And they encompass some of the highest mountains in New Mexico.

There are several subranges of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains within the state, including one confusingly named the Sangre de Cristo range. This is the most northerly of the ranges, followed by the Crestones, the Spanish Peaks, the Culebras, the Taos Mountains, the Cimarron Range, the Rincon Mountains, and the Santa Fe Mountains.

Wheeler Peak

The valley of Taos, New Mexico, as seen from Wheelers Peak (Credit: RoschetzkyIstockPhoto via Getty Images)

Several of the range’s high summits are located in the northern county of Taos, known together as the Taos Mountains. And the tallest of them all, found in the Carson National Forest, is Wheeler Peak, the biggest mountain in New Mexico. Like many of the Taos Mountains, it’s characterised by an intricate mix of volcanic and metamorphic rock rising to an alpine peak reaching 13,161 feet.

Truchas Peak

Truchas in New Mexico, USA. (Credit: ablokhin via Getty Images)

South Truchas Peak is the second tallest mountain in New Mexico and part of the Santa Fe Mountains. Located within the Pecos Wilderness in the Santa Fe National Forest, its name means “trout” peak, which some attribute to the abundance of the fish in nearby lakes. While the second highest point in New Mexico is often referred to as simply Truchas Peak, this is incomplete. There are in fact four peaks in the Truchas massif, of which the South Truchas Peak is the pinnacle at 13,101 feet above sea level. Formed by glaciers, the Truchas massif is made up of some of the oldest known rock in the state.

Venado Peak

Taos Mountains, New Mexico (Credit:Walter Bibikow via Getty Images)

In the Latir Peak Wilderness, we find another of the highest mountains in New Mexico. Part of the Taos Mountains, Venado Peak rises to 12,739 feet amid remote forests and alpine tundra. The word Venado means “deer,” and there are indeed mule deer in the area, along with mountain lions, black bears, badgers, beavers, and ferrets, to name a few.

Gold Hill

Colourful clouds gather over Gold Hill Road in southern New Mexico (Credit: Ben LaMarca via Getty Images)

Gold Hill is the rather illustrious moniker of the next highest point in New Mexico. Named for the state’s long history of gold mining, its setting is the Columbine–Hondo Wilderness. Standing at some 12,716 feet, it too is one of the Taos Mountains.

Santa Fe Baldy

The snow-capped peak of Santa Fe Baldy, New Mexico (Credit: Jim Ekstrand via Getty Images)

Around 11 miles southwest of Truchas Peak and also within the Pecos Wilderness, Santa Fe Baldy rises to a height of 12,622 feet. As well as being one of New Mexico’s highest peaks, it overlooks one of its highest lakes, Lake Katherine.

Other “Twelvers”

Little Costilla Peak, New Mexico (Credit: Jim Ekstrand via Getty Images)

There are two more New Mexico mountains that exceed 12,000 feet in elevation, also known as 12ers. Little Costilla Peak of the Culebra group reaches 12,589 feet, while in the Cimarron group in Colfax County, Baldy Mountain rises to 12,441 feet. However, elevation is just one way of classifying a mountain’s size. There’s another way which significantly alters any list of the highest mountains in New Mexico.

Another Level of Measurement

Landscape from Wheeler Peak, northern New Mexico (Credit: RoschetzkyIstockPhoto via Getty Images)

While elevation is a measure of the height of a mountain’s summit from sea level, prominence is a mountain’s height relative to its surroundings. With a prominence of 3,409 feet, Wheeler Peak is the eleventh most topographically prominent summit in New Mexico. In fact, the only one of the list above to make it into the top ten is Truchas Peak at 4,001 feet. Instead, the state’s most prominent mountain is Sierra Blanca Peak of the Sacramento Mountains at 5,553 feet.

And that’s not all. Even within the list of the highest elevations, prominence makes a difference. Because some peaks with higher elevations don’t even make the list at all. Why? Because their low prominence means they aren’t considered peaks in their own right, but rather part of higher ones. Thus, the 13,141-foot Mount Walter isn’t listed above despite being higher than Truchas Peak, because its topographic prominence of 53 feet means it’s considered a subpeak of Wheeler.

New Mexico's Highest Peaks

Sunset over Shiprock, a famous landmark in New Mexico. (Credit: suprun via Getty Images)

It’s nicknamed the land of enchantment. And New Mexico’s highest peaks are indeed mesmerising in their grandeur, stature and biodiversity.


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