01 Signal Peak LookoutOverview:

This is a short hike, steep in the early stretches and distinctly civilized in terms of the antennae and fire lookout on Signal Peak.  The tread is clear, much of the route is sunny and at 9000 feet it is low enough to to tempt when winter starts to drag. This outing demands little in terms of planning. Just grab your pack, round up all the cabin fever victims and head into the Gila National Forest.

Driving Directions:

The southern part of New Mexico is traversed by Interstate Highway 10 (I-10). From east to west this highway links El Paso (TX), Las Cruces, Deming, Lordsburg and then heads towards Tuscon (AZ). To get to the trailhead you first need to get to Silver City, which lies north of this corridor. If you are coming from the east then take route US-180 north out of Deming. If you are coming from the west then take route NM-90 out of Lordsburg.

If you come into Silver City from Lordsburg on NM-90

  • At the intersection with US-180 turn right onto US-180 East.
  • After 0.5 miles, at a stoplight, go left onto NM-15 (a.k.a Pinos Altos Road)
  • After 14.4 miles, immediately before a cattle guard, turn left into the parking for the Signal Peak Trail (there are signs for the trail on the road).

If you come into Silver City from Deming on US-180

  • As you approach Silver City you will see a “Welcome To Silver City/Altitude 5900 ft” sign at the top of a small hill.
  • After 0.5 miles, at the first stop-light in town, turn right onto 32nd St.
  • After 1.3 miles, at a 4-way stop, turn right onto NM-15/Pinos Altos Dr.
  • After 13.3 miles, immediately before a cattle guard, turn left into the parking for the Signal Peak Trail (there are signs for the trail on the road).

Winter driving on NM-15 can be hazardous. Snow on the road banks tends to melt during the day and form ice patches when the sun sets. The road twists enough to inflict motion sickness on a rattlesnake and it performs these contortions on the cliffs above Bear Creek. Learn to love the traction.

If you are returning home by way of Deming then it can be easy to miss the point where you turn left onto 32nd St. Look for a 4-way stop. Just before the stop there are signs signs on NM-15 indicating that you should turn left to get to the Nation Forest Service Offices. At the stop you should see a fire station on your right.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry

The Mighty Camry, midst snow and ice.

The trailhead is just a gravel parking area. There are no toilets, water or trash receptacles. There is only space for two or three cars. If it is full then the reports say there is additional parking a few hundred feet up NM-15. There is an old forest road, signed 4257E, that departs to the west (wrong direction) out of the parking area, don’t go that way! Instead, cross NM-15 to the signed entrance to the Signal Peak trail #742.

Data:

Note on KML file: I left my GPS unit turned off at the start of the hike. Consequently, the initial 0.6 miles is missing but the tread is obvious and the return track shows the entire route.

  • Starting Elevation: 7220 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9010 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 1790 feet
  • Distance: 3.9 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Twin Sisters quadrangle

Hike Description:

03 Sign on far side of NM-15Cross NM-15 to find the signed start of the Signal Peak trail. The tread drops into a broad meadow, strikes the foot of Signal Peak and begins climbing in earnest. On a cool winter morning your fingers stay chilled for a while but the rest of you warms up fast. The tread is obvious even where it was cloaked in an inch or so of snow. The terrain is populated by young ponderosa pine and (if you look into the woods on either side) rotting old stumps. Apparently the trail you’re on is an old woods road. The largest growing trees looked to be about 10 to 12 inches in diameter, so perhaps the logging occurred 80-100 years ago.

04 Rock wall marking switchbacks

Snow dusted trail alongside boulders

At the half mile point the trail passes a wall of 20-foot tall boulders and begins switchbacking steeply to gain the top of a rib. The rib is itself steep enough to keep those switchbacks coming. At 0.9 miles you will reach a broad shelf and a glimpse through the surrounding ponderosa of the summit block. To your right you will get views to the southeast, including the round-top Twin Sister Peak (apparently the namesake of the USGS quadrangle) and the more distant Bear Mountain. The trail now contours around the summit block and makes a rising traverse along the block’s southeast face. Openings in the trees provide views to the southeast.

05 View SW from below summit block

Twin Sisters Peak (left, rounded hill in middle distance) and Bear Mountain (on horizon just right of middle)

The traverse ends at a small watercourse (1.9 miles from the trailhead) and makes a brisk turn to the north. In another tenth of a mile it comes to what seems to be a junction. To your left an obvious tread that ascends steeply towards a large block of stone that is partially screened by a small ponderosa. It turns out that this is a dead end. Instead, turn right and follow the tread as tops another rib and then follows the rib past hoodoos and scrub oak to gain the summit of Signal Peak, 2.2 miles from the trailhead.

08 tower view of Black Range

Black Range on horizon and snow-clad approach road below the tower.

The summit is populated with antennae, a fire tower, supply hut, picnic table (with grill), a rustic helicopter pad and a strikingly well-maintained road coming up on from the southeast. This is a great place to take a break and drink in the surrounding views. The top of the tower is padlocked for the season, but you can still ascend the tower steps to get distant views north and east. (The south and west are blocked by trees). To the southeast lies the forested dome of Black Peak. Is your party up for a nice ridge ramble? Pick up that bag and follow the road out.

13 sign past the gate

Entrance to CDNST/Signal Peak trail overlap.

The road arrives at a sturdy metal gate at 2.5 miles from the trailhead. Immediately past the gate the road makes a sharp turn to the left and begins to descend from the ridge. You should stay high and find the entrance to the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST). It is currently flagged with a yellow sign warning hikers that trees along the trail are fire-damaged and especially prone to fall. True that; you will almost immediately begin to see fire scars on some of the trunks. The trail stays below the ridge top, on the northeast side. That does provide some amount of shelter from the prevailing winds.

17 Sunny saddle before black peak

Sunny and open saddle

At 3.1 miles the trail begins a traverse of fire killed trees. It makes for a desolate winter scene. It also, however, opens expansive views to the north. You can only hope that the soils remain stable long enough to get this terrain reforested. Keep an eye out for woodpeckers – they seem to have no problem with coniferous devastation. In less than a quarter mile the fire damage eases and the tread resumes its quiet, rise-and-fall ramble through the trees.  Watch for a sunny and open saddle above you, that is a sign you are nearing Black Peak.

16 cairn indiating trail to Black Peak

Burned trunk with cairn; trail goes up along the right side of the photo

The fire has produced an unusual amount of deadfall and this deadfall can obscure trail junctions. Keep an eye open as you reach 3.8 miles from the trailhead, about 8940 feet of elevation. There is a blackened tree trunk on the right side of the trail (which may be the source of some of the deadfall) with a cairn at it’s base. Go off the CDNST and follow the short, boot beaten tread steeply uphill to Black Peak, 3.9 miles from the trailhead. This is another antenna-dominated summit, but one with terrific views to the south and west. Enjoy the views and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

18 author on signal peak

Author on Signal Peak

This is an exceptionally clear tread, which is useful when there is a dusting of snow that might otherwise raise navigation issues. If you’re looking for a mellow winter hike and are getting a little bored with the Pine Tree Trail in the Organ Mountains then drive over to Silver City and enjoy a new winter destination.

On this date there was just a dusting of snow, rarely getting over the top of my hiking shoes. I was happy to have gaiters with me as they protect the opening of the shoes and add warmth. If the snows got any deeper then it would be very advisable to wear boots and to watch for navigational challenges that pass your comfort level. Turning back is the smartest option under those conditions.

The side-trail up to Black Peak can be a little hard to detect, particularly in contrast with the well defined CDNST. Watch for that sunny saddle and the cairn, keep your map in hand and monitor the ridge top. I had an altitude watch and found it very useful for checking the location on my map.

Links:

Fire closures are a real thing, as this hike makes obvious. It pays to check in with the National Forest Service website, here. It includes good additional instructions about how to find parking for this hike if the first parking area is filled.

The 100 Hikes Near Silver City website documents a summer approach to Signal Peak. They note that it is a popular trail and they encountered several other parties on an April outing.

Southern New Mexico Explorer provides a brief description of this trail and comments about being invited up onto the top of the lookout tower – evidently the views are great.

The Hike Arizona site also describes the trail and recommends it for people who are traveling along NM-15 to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Finally, the Summit Post writeup suggests that you can drive to the summit and provides directions. (I doubt that they meant for you to try this in wintertime).