01 Grassy Flats

Grassy Flats

Overview:

This route description serves two purposes. First, it describes a mellow, well-maintained, and lonesome trail among the gently rounded hills north of the Burro Mountains in southern New Mexico. It was a great hike on this date and in greener conditions (after the monsoon, for example) it could be terrific venture. Second, it is also describes how a thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) can go wrong. The problem is that the tread described here is beautifully engineered and CDT-signed, but in 2018 it seems to dead-end at a spot called Grassy Flats. Thru-hikers take note! In 2018 most thru-hikers will want to follow the directions (given below) to turn away from this dead-end section of the CDT and follow Forest Road 810 (FR 810) as it descends into the upper reaches of Saddlerock Canyon.

Driving Directions:

  • From Silver City, at the intersection of US-180 and NM-90, head west on US-180
  • After 13.6 miles, just past mile marker 100, turn left onto Saddlerock Road (gravel)
  • After 4.4 miles, at a wide spot in the road, pull off the road.
    • At 1.3 miles on this road you enter the National Forest over a cattle guard. It is there, I believe, that the road becomes FR 810.
    • At 1.8 miles on this road you will come to a fork, bear to the right to stay on FR 810.

My choice of trailhead parking is arbitrary. I stopped when the roadbed got softer than I liked (loose sand in the bottom of a wash), but the mighty Camry could easily have gone to the gate at the upper end of the canyon.

At its intersection with US-180 the road going up Saddlerock Canyon is signed as “Saddlerock Rd”. On Google Maps, however, this road is designated as Saddlerock Canyon Road.

Trailhead:

02 tank with algal and clear volumes

Spring/tank with some water, much algae

The trailhead is any wide spot on FR 810 where you choose to park. There are no amenities. If you drive to about 4.7 miles you should see a side-cut coming into the main canyon on your right. This side cut will probably have tire-tracks leading into it because just 100 feet off the main canyon there is a spring/metal tank, which currently has water in it. There is a considerable volume of algae bloom in this tank, but there are clear-ish volumes of water as well. This water would need to be filtered or boiled pretty hard before using.

Data:

The blue car-icon marks the “trailhead” (the spot where I left my car, your choice of trailhead may vary). The blue “wavy” icon shows where this section of the CDT dead-ends at Grassy Flats Tank. The yellow hiker icon is meant to indicate a NOBO thru-hiker who is on the CDT, just a little before arriving at the intersection of the CDT with FR-810.

  • low elevation: 5310 feet
  • high elevation: 5970 feet
  • net elevation: 660 feet
  • distance: (for day hiker route) 5.3 miles (one way)
  • maps: Mangus Springs, NM and Bullard Peak, NM quadrangles

Hike Description:

03 confluence of upper canyons

Canyon confluence

Let’s begin with a description for the day hiker who wants to get to Grassy Flats. CDT thru-hikers may want to scroll down a few paragraphs to where it says So let’s stop for a moment. From where you parked your car continue up Saddlerock Canyon. (The map above has a car-icon where I left the Camry). As mentioned, the flat and sandy canyon bottom can be enchanting on its own, particularly in early-morning light. Some of the rock has a striking yellow color and other exposures are a mineral blue.  As you near the upper end of the canyon you will pass through the first fence to appear since you drove over the cattle-guard as you entered the National Forest. On this date the fence had a wide opening that you could drive a car through. Immediately beyond you will see the confluence of two canyons. Straight ahead is a waterway signed for “riparian restoration”. The Forest Service is asking you to leave this waterway alone. Please do.

04 view from active CDT across FR 118 to dead-end trail

CDT Marker Posts on both sides of road

Hard on your right is the second canyon. FR 810 continues up this waterway. Follow this upper canyon as it ascends gently over bluish rock. This is clearly the playing area of ATV enthusiasts as the canyon bottom is packed and tracked. A half mile past the entrance to this canyon you will go through a gate in a fence, please close the gate behind you. Just past the gate FR 810 departs from the canyon bottom on your right. Take the road. It climbs steeply. At 1.1 mile come to a small height of land where the regular Continental Divide Trail comes in from your left.

05 typical CDT marker

Typical CDT marker

Wait! Look again and you see that the post on the left side of the road has a blue-and-white CDT insignia, but the post on the right side of the road also has a blue-and-white CDT insignia. (Typically these are rounded plastic triangles printed with “CTD”; the central “T” is shaped like an arrow to point the way). It looks as if the CDT goes straight across the road. This is where the dead-end problem arises. The trail coming in from your left (inbound) is the active Continental Divide Trail. The trail going off to your right is one of the CDT’s not-yet-complete improvements. The CDT Coalition hopes to have this variant active soon. The problem is that this dead-end trail is so obvious and so very well signed that it can have a strong allure for footsore and tired thru-hikers.

So let’s stop for a moment and address thru-hiker needs. Thru-hikers who reach this junction will want to know that the obvious trail directly across the road is a dead end. How do they recognize this in 2018?

06 rolling hill country north of Burro Mts

View of hills north of Burro Mts

If you look at the map at the top of the blog you will see a yellow hiker-icon that represents a north bound CDT hiker on the active trail just before arriving at the junction.  Many such hikers carry the Guthook app and may be aware that they are near the “diverging arrows” icon at mile 142.4, which is where they arrive at this potentially troublesome junction. Alternatively, they may be following the Ley Map NM37b, which has a bold numeral 2 (enclosed in a circle) at this junction. If they carry a GPS with the Bear Creek waypoints then they should look for waypoint marked 06-260RR.

07 SOBO sign- also indicates that dead end trail is near

SOBO’s sign, NOBO’s warning

But what about the happy-go-lucky thru-hiker who is simply ambling along thinking about lunch, snakes, scenery and foot placement? There is one very valuable clue that this hiker should know about. About 200 feet before arriving at the road this north-bound (NOBO) hiker will notice an old-fashioned Forest Service sign (made of very weathered wood) that is attached high on an alligator juniper. The sign faces north and is intended to tell south-bound (SOBO) hikers that they are on the CDT and that it is 3.5 miles to FR 118. For NOBOs, this means “wake up! – there are navigation difficulties ahead”.

Once aware, however, the hiker should have little problem. NOBOs arriving at the junction in 2018 will just ignore the obvious CDT marker across the road, turn to the east (right), follow the road down to the bed of Saddlerock Canyon, then follow the canyon out to US-180.

08 sign for Grassy Flats

Grassy Flats 3 mi: a good sign (for day hikers)

Enough then, of through hiking. What should you do if your objective is to visit Grassy Flats? Day hikers can fearlessly turn north (to the right, inbound) and follow the dead-end trail. It is a beauty. Hard working trail crews have places numerous CDT insignia (I counted seven). Additionally there are a couple of those skinny, brown flat-posts, which do not necessarily say “CDT” but warn users that motorized vehicles are not permitted. Many other forms of trail-sign exist such as rock-walls built to support the tread in waterways, sawed deadfall and water bars. You will see a weathered wooden Forest Service sign that says “Continental Divide Trail 74 / Grassy Flats 3 miles / NM Hwy 180 8.5 miles”.  There are few difficulties to navigation.

09 brown flat-post at road junction

Brown flat-post at junction where the trail meets an old two-track

At 2.6 miles after turning onto the dead-end section you will come to a road junction marked with a brown flat-post. Turn to the right and follow the road uphill. You will stay on this road all the way to Grassy Flats. There are several prominent side-trails, but these are really cattle paths. Ignore them and stick to the two-track. At 3.4 miles from the start of the dead-end CDT section come to the Grassy Flats tank, a surprisingly large pond created by an earthen dam placed across a small canyon. On this date the water in the tank was a pretty thick mixture of algae, cow waste and mud.

10 Grassy Flats tank

Grassy Flats Tank

I scouted around but did not see any signed trails leading further north from Grassy Flats. The old road, which has become quite faint, seems to continue by climbing onto the rim of the canyon that contains the tank. Perhaps that will be the eventual path that the CDT takes in its final configuration. For now, find a place reasonably free of cow patties and rest your legs. Enjoy the remarkably open terrain and the skittish bovine company. Once you’ve had enough, return the way you came.

Recommendations:

11 View south towards Burro Mountains

View from trail south towards the Big Burro Mountains

This is an excellent training route for spring time hikers looking to regain some lost trail tone. Bring along some friends and enjoy cool, late-February or March hiking in these hills.

On this outing I only consumed a liter of water.  It is probably a good idea to carry your water and not have to drink from Grassy Flats tank. You might be able to find some cleaner water if you continue a ways down the canyon that contains the tank, but that is not guaranteed.

The cattle around Grassy Flats were clearly alarmed by my presence. I doubt they see very many people. It helps to try and detour widely around them, particularly in the open Flats area. Cattle flee less gracefully than gazelles, so try to avoid stressing them.

Links:

Dan Bedore’s website makes mention of Grassy Flats and, notably, of seeing a black bear there. He also says that bushwhacking out from Grassy Flats to US-180 was hard work. I can surely believe that.