01 Meadow in Buckhead Canyon Confluence.jpg

Meadow where the CDT turns east, ascending toward the Black Range

Overview:

Trail 77 runs to Mimbres Lake but there is a connector off of Trail 77 that leads to a ridge where it joins the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). The CDT junction lies in a saddle possessing that magic peculiar to high places dominated by huge ponderosa. Look up “numinous” in your dictionary and you are likely to find photographs of Signboard Saddle. Recently the northbound CDT branch, which once ran from the saddle to the east, was re-routed. Now the northbound CDT goes north from Signboard Saddle down a series of spellbinding canyons. Water is currently abundant here, but it is the large firs and huge pines that make this trail an open, airy and engaging hike. Eventually the tread enters a large meadow at the confluence of two canyons and the CDT turns east again to ascend the Black Range. At this is the point a day hiker should consider returning to the trailhead. Be warned, this joy of a trail will tempt you onward towards Canada.

Driving Directions:

02 sign for forest road to trailhead

Sign on FR-150, beside the gravel pad and forest road leading to the trailhead

  • From the junction of US-180 and NM-90 in Silver City, go east on US-180. In Silver City these roads are signed as “Silver Heights Blvd” and “Hudson Street”, respectively.
  • After 7.6 miles on US-180 turn left onto NM-152. The junction is well signed.
  • After 14.4 miles on NM-152 turn left onto NM-35. The junction is well signed. 
  • After 15.3 miles on NM-35 turn right onto Forest Road 150. This is a gravel road with a cattle guard at its start. Currently there is only a small brown Forest Service sign saying “150” to indicate the road. There used to be a conventional road sign that read, “N Mesa Rd”, but some nitwit has stolen it.
  • After 7.8 miles on FR-150, veer right into a large gravel pad and follow a rough and unsigned forest road uphill.
  • After 0.7 miles on the unsigned forest road, immediately past an old corral, reach the trailhead.

Cautions:

FR-150 is also known as North Star Mesa Road and as NM-61 and, sometimes, as Wall Lake Road. At its start there are two bright yellow signs. The first says “HIGH CLEARANCE VEHICLES ADVISED. NO SERVICES 120 MILES”. The next says “SHARP CURVES, STEEP GRADES, TRAILERS OVER 20 FT UNSAFE”. It is true that portions of this long road can be dire. The first 8 miles of road, however, is currently well-maintained. The first half mile is steep and the drop-off from the passenger side can be stimulating, but the road bed itself suffers only from heavy washboard. It was fine to take a sedan.

At 7.3 miles on FR-150 there is a right-hand turn signed for FR-150A to Mimbres River. You want to go straight past this turn, staying on FR-150.

There is no road sign for the unsigned forest road. Look instead for a large brown trail sign saying “Mimbres River Trail 77/Continental Divide Tr 74”. This sign is found at the point where you veer right to turn off of FR-150

The unsigned forest road off of FR-150 is in acceptable shape for about 0.3 miles (crushed rock has been put down) but then it becomes a significant problem. If you have a high clearance vehicle then you will probably be OK. In hindsight, it was a mistake to take the Camry over that last 0.4 miles. There is a small parking spot at the end of the first 0.3 miles and it would have been much smarter to park there and walk that last stretch. Be extra careful if the road is wet. It looks like you could get mired at several different points.

Trailhead:

03 The Mighty Camry and corall

The Mighty (beat) Camry and the corral at the trail head

The trailhead is just a rocky pad at the end of the unsigned forest road. There are no toilets, trash receptacles or water sources. Be careful parking your vehicle in the grass that edges the turn-about. The underlying geology is productive of boulders, some of which might come into conflict with your oil pan. There are weathered wooden forest service signs to let you know that both the Mimbres River Trail #77 and the CDT Trail #74 can be reached from here.

Data:

  • lowest elevation: 7200 feet
  • highest elevation: 8560 feet
  • net elevation: 1360 feet
  • distance: 8.7 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

04 trailhead sign

Weathered wooden Forest Service sign at the trailhead.

The trailhead has a yellow sign warning of fire damage, eroded trails and risk of deadfall. There are several trails you might reach from this trailhead and those risks may be present on those other trails. The route described here was rather the opposite, about as risk-reduced as a trail building party could make it.

04a Trail 77 Mibres River Trail sign

Junction with Trail 77

From the trailhead follow a two-track north. This track has a full allotment of rock rubble and you will need to watch constantly for safe foot landings. The trail drops gently for 0.4 miles where it reaches a signed trail junction. Trail 77 departs to the right for the Mimbres River. You will want to go straight ahead on the connector trail. This begins a mild ascent amidst large alligator junipers and pinyon pines, at the limit of the Upper Sonoran life zone.

05 Dome from Trail 77 connector

View to tree covered dome

For much of its length this connector trail will run as a single-track close to a barbed wire fence. You have to imagine that ranchers got here under much wetter climate conditions, currently there doesn’t seem to be enough water for cattle to live on. There are occasional views southeast to the southern end of the Black Range and a huge fin of distant rock that might be Cookes Peak. Eventually, in places where the pinyon pines thin, you will get views ahead to a tree covered dome of rock. That dome forms the highest point you will hit on this trip. Trail builders have worked hard here, building switchbacks on the steepest faces about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. As you get near the top views open to the Mogollon Mountains on the western edge of the Gila National Forest and south to the much-closer Tadpole Ridge.

06 bowl to north of dome

View across large bowl to northern rim

The trail does not go all the way to the top of the dome. As soon as the angle eases the tread contours to the dome’s west side and then to the north side. Looking north you will see a huge bowl. The CDT is coming to meet you along the northern rim of this bowl. The trail continues a bit further to the east and then heads north on the bowl’s eastern-most rim. Here the smaller pinyon pines fade and large ponderosa begin to dominate. Long stretches of the trail that are pleasantly covered with duff and improbable heaps of Gamble oak leaves. These stretches are cruelly interspersed with segments paved with golfball-sized rock. Even with this risk to your ankles it can be hard to pull your eyes away from the muscular canyon terrain that dominates the east. It is a sobering view, as well, since there are several burned summits in that direction. These may be testimony to the vigor and travel of the Silver Fire back in 2013. 

07 Signboard Saddle signs

New signboard in Signboard Saddle. Note the turn.

 Eventually the bowl’s eastern rim meets up with that northern rim you spotted earlier. A height of land lying just to the east shapes Signboard Saddle, the domain of soaring old ponderosa pines. The saddle’s walls and the towering pine boles create a cathedral like atmosphere. Some hikers may want to come just for the experience of this saddle. If you choose to push over the top of the saddle then you will come to a trail junction at 3.4 miles from the trailhead. It is here that the connector trail meets the Continental Divide Trail. The old CDT used to come up from the south on your left and departed to the north on your right. The trail to the right, however, is now signed as, “no longer maintained”. You are cautioned against its dangers. The trail builders have decided to re-route the CDT down and away from these risks. Instead of turning right, go directly across the junction onto what used to be called Aspen Canyon Trail #75. Thirty feet further you will see a sign reaffirming that this is the “New CDT”. Initially the tread roams a broad, swale-like drainage. As you descend the walls of the drainage rise and soon you are in the V-shaped space of an unmistakable canyon. There was no surface water in this upper canyon; flow probably occurs only after monsoon rains or rapid snow melt. The trail is in excellent shape however and it offers great cruising.

08 Dry Confluence Cairn

Cairn at first confluence

At 4.7 miles from the trailhead come to a cairn built slightly above a confluence with a similarly sized canyon. The cairn tells returning hikers, “here is the CDT”. This fact can get lost when grass and brush have overgrown the trail and you have two canyons from which to choose. There was no water right at this confluence but on this date the first pools appeared a few hundred feet further down canyon. These pools were laced with algae. CDT hikers coming up from the New Mexico’s Bootheel have seen much worse water sources and a good filter should take care of the problem. Like many waterways in New Mexico the water appears and disappears intermittently. In another quarter mile, past a few minor side cuts, the water becomes much clearer and flows well enough to have a visible current. It could be worth the wait. 

10 Ponderosa meadow

First of the ponderosa meadows

Overall the rate of descent in these canyons is mellow. The steepest sections come just below that cairned confluence. The stream has sawn sharply through dirt and rubble and runs on exposed bedrock, babbling away. At a second confluence, 5.7 miles from the trailhead, the joined debris flow and easing slope have combined to build the first of many spectacular meadows. These are dominated by huge and widely spaced ponderosa but also exhibit equally huge deciduous trees with deeply fissured bark. The ground is strewn with Gamble oak leaves but I don’t think that Gamble oaks ordinarily form 2-foot thick boles. These may be some form of white oak instead. A navigation problem can occur in these meadows. The trail continues to hop from one stream bank to the other. In these flat meadows the stream sometimes churns up soil and boulders alike, confusing the tread. Solving the problem is usually a matter of continuing downhill until the walls of the canyon pull back together and you again see sawed logs or cairns.

11 Park Bench at confluence

“Park bench” at second confluence

A third major confluence is encountered at 7.2 miles from the trailhead. Here the canyon floor is as broad and flat and the walking is easy. So, of course, the trail engineers have decided to place the tread high on the east wall (on your left on descent). There is sense to this – trails on flat canyon bottoms get wiped out by every gully washer to come along. In this part of the canyon the surface water was more consistent, rarely sinking below the stream bed. Right at the confluence there is a thick section of unbarked log that serves as a fine park bench. If you have problems finding the trail look for it 20 feet above and behind this ‘bench’.

13 Blazes, cairns and tread

Blazes and cairns

What follows may be the finest mile-and-a-half of easy strolling on the New Mexico CDT. The trivial navigation problems persist as the trail switches banks, but between blazes and cairns you can hardly go wrong. There is a mixture of shaded and sunny spots. The shade would be most welcome in the warmer months but on this date the temptation was to dally in the sun. There is abundant grass everywhere, a rarity in this part of the state. There are numerous potential campsites. The walls rise and fall, in places creating a hallway-like feeling and in others a sense of being flanked by rolling hills. 

14 signs in Corner Meadow

At 8.7 miles from the trailhead come to a junction of trails formed at a confluence of canyons. Water ran in the streams issuing from both canyons. A trail sign at this junction indicates that the trail heading west will return you to FR-150 (but not to your original trailhead!). To continue north on the CDT you have to turn sharply right and ascend to the east, going upstream toward Reed’s Meadow and the northern Black Range. Tempting! Tempting! Lean your pack against a big old oak, pull out your sit pad, your lunch and a water bottle, then take some time to think it through. If you have to return to the real world then go back the way you came. Otherwise, know that there are only 2800 CDT miles remaining north of this spot. It may not be enough.

Recommendations:

15 author in Corner Meadow

Author attired for turkey hunting season.

Do this hike. Bring friends. Take your time.

Be sure to say “thanks” the next time you see a trail team.

Be wary when driving the unsigned forest road that leads to the trailhead. Carry a shovel and a bow saw in your vehicle.

Two liters of water was plenty for a cool November day. Warmer days will naturally demand more.

The choice of a turn-back spot was arbitrary. If you have a strong party and longer daylight hours then the trail towards Reed Meadow should be well worth exploring.

Links:

In 2017 and 2018 the US Forest Service was working hard to clear the tread of the CDT from its intersection with NM-35 all the way past the northern border of the Gila National Forest. My thanks to those teams, you folks have given southern New Mexico a gem!

This re-route of the Continental Divide Trail is recent. Even the Continental Divide Trail Association’s own interactive map still shows the CDT going east to west along the ridge between Rocky Point and Aspen Mountain. (You will have to zoom to big green splotch in southern New Mexico, representing the Gila National Forest. Signboard Saddle is labelled as 10_048XX, which is a Bear Creek designation). Similarly, my copy of the Guthook phone app , which was up-to-date as of the start of 2018, still shows the CDT clinging to the ridge top. Caltopo shows the trails described here, but only as dashed lines documented with distance values. The trails are not identified by trail-number or trail-name. (In that Caltopo link Signboard Canyon is located where two trails cross in the center of the window). The AllTrails site similarly shows the CDT as going past Aspen Mountain along the ridge. The new CDT re-route going north from Signboard Saddle is labeled “Aspen Canyon Trail #75”. The Open Street Map identifies the new CDT where it ascends to the northern Black Range as “Black Canyon Trail #72”.

Blog posts from before 2017 will probably not reflect the re-route of the CDT. The first four miles of this route is described in a 2015 post from the 100 Hikes Near Silver City blog (scroll down to where the text reads, “Name: Continental Divide Trail between North Star Mesa Road to Signboard Saddle”). So much has changed since 2015 that the old description is barely recognizable.

CDT hikers should take this report of water in the canyons with a huge grain of salt. Other reports indicate that Aspen Canyon can be dry in drought years. Know that this region has suffered drought or near-drought conditions since the early 2000’s.