The United States Congress designated the Capitan Mountains Wilderness (map
) in 1980 and it now has a total of 34,658 acres
All of this wilderness is located in New Mexico
and is managed by the Forest Service.
The birthplace of Smokey the Bear, discovered here as a cub in 1951, is a rugged piece of mountain real estate that straddles something that's unusual in New Mexico: an east-west-running range. Numerous canyons cut into the north side of the rocky range, while rocky outcroppings distinguish the region to the south. The terrain flattens now and then along the main ridge, and then opens out into meadows and groves of aspen.
The Wilderness measures 12 miles long and two to six miles wide, with elevations varying from about 5,500 feet near the eastern boundary to 10,083 feet on Capitan Peak (sometimes called El Capitan Mountain). At the lower elevations, pinion and juniper woodland flourishes, with ponderosa pine making an appearance midslope, followed by mixed conifers (Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, corkbark fir, and pine) on the main ridge.
The original Smokey, the world-famous symbol of forest fire prevention, lies buried in nearby Capitan, but plenty of his kinfolk still reside in these woods. Other denizens include large populations of mule deer and wild turkey, both of which attract hunters in the fall (as do the black bears). Anglers can try to catch small brook trout at Pine Lodge, Copeland Canyon, Kelly Canyon, and Seven Cabins Canyon.
Of the dozen or so hikes in the Wilderness, 8.2-mile Summit Trail follows the main ridge and probably offers some of the best views. Foot traffic is usually heaviest on the Capitan Peak Trail, which takes 5.7 miles of steep switchbacks to reach El Capitan's summit.