01 Dry Creek Drainage to West Baldy

View up Little Dry Creek to West Baldy

Overview:

This is a splendid trail. It wanders more than three miles along a creek that currently enjoys a pleasant run of water. The “creek” is flanked with enormous canyon walls. Eventually the trail leaves the canyon bottom and offers you a brisk, mile-long ascent onto a high ridge line in the Mogollon Mountains. The trailhead is easy to access. Views, wildlife and solitude abound. 

In fact, that solitude may be a bit too abundant. Forest Trail #180 is in painful need of hiker affection. In its upper reaches there is some deadfall to clamber across. In places the trail is slowly rolling back into conformation with the hillside. Tufts of grass grow in the tread and brush is starting to encroach at knee level. You are needed! Get out there and show some boot-sole sympathy for this great diversion into the Gila National Forest. The Mogollons are magnificent and your hike will maintain access to this high terrain.

Driving Directions:

  • In Silver City, NM set your odometer to zero at the intersection of US-180 (signed as “Silver Heights Blvd”) and NM-90 (signed as “Hudson Street”) and go west on US-180.
  • After 50.5 miles, past mile marker 63 and immediately past the signed bridge over Little Dry Creek, turn right onto Sacaton Road (gravel, well signed).
  • After 2.8 miles, at a T-intersection, turn left onto Forest Road 196 (signed as “196”), also known as Little Dry Creek Road.
  • After 3.3 miles, at the road end, park at the trailhead.

Sacaton Road has been recently graded and is in very good condition. FR-196 is also in good condition. There was no problem with using a sedan to get to the trailhead.

Trailhead:

02 Mighty Camry


The Mighty Camry at the trailhead

The trailhead is a turn-about at the end of FR-196. There is a kiosk and a yellow warning sign to let you know that recent fires have created certain risks along the trail. There is no water, no trash receptacles nor vault toilets. If you are coming from Silver City then the Aldo Leopold Vista on the west side of US-180 (0.6 miles before the Sacaton turn) provides both vistas and vault toilets. When parking at the trailhead please leave space so that folks pulling horse trailers can maneuver.

Data:

  • Lowest Elevation: 6252 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 8455 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 2203 feet
  • Total Elevation Gain: 3324 feet (per GPS)
  • Miles: 4.7 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

The lower stretch of Little Dry Creek Canyon has been described previously on this blog. For greater narrative detail you can link to that description here. This post will simply show some landmarks along that mellow tread, and then resume a narrative of the hike when the trail leaves the canyon bottom.

03 first fin of rock

First fin, nearly damming the creek

From the trailhead, climb briefly on a rock-riddled two-track  and arrive at a height of land with wonderful views of the canyon. The trail then descends to the canyon bed. At 0.9 miles from the trailhead come to a deep cut where Little Dry Creek has sawed into a fin of rock. The trail rises on the west side (to your left on ascent) to get around this fin.

04 reflected light

Light reflected off the west wall

Continuing upstream, the trail hop-scotches the stream bed and arrives at a second fin (with a short detour to a pretty waterfall) at 1.4 miles. In the early morning most of the light in the canyon bed has been reflected off of the western walls of the canyon.

05 midforest water faucet

Orphaned faucet

At 1.5 miles you will pass a faucet strangely stranded in the middle of the woods. Water pressure must be good, since it was dripping briskly on this date. The rationale for this faucet arrives at 2.1 miles where an abandoned cabin stands. As always, be careful around abandoned buildings in New Mexico. Hanta virus is a genuine threat and those sagging walls don’t look any too sturdy.

At 2.7 miles come to a small meadow that extends to the west from the stream. Take note of the trail junction in this meadow. On your return you will want to bear to your left at this junction and stay near the bed of Little Dry Creek.

07 pinched trailbed below main wall

Pinched stream bed

Looking ahead you will see a tremendous canyon wall dropping down on the east side of the creek. As you enter this part of the creek steep walls on the west side come down to create a strikingly pinched passage. This is close to being a slot canyon – although the walls are not quite vertical.

Another hard rock intrusion at 3.3 miles forces the trail to rise about 30 feet into a side cut. Visible high above you in the side cut is a towering hoodoo.

09 Wintery View of Mogollon Ridge

wintery view as the trail rises above the stream bed

At 3.6 miles come to a raised shelf on the west side of Little Dry Creek. This would make a good camping spot that already contains a substantial fire ring. The previous post on Little Dry Creek describes a departure from the trail from this spot to follow Little Dry Creek as it reaches up towards Packsaddle Canyon. To reach Windy Gap you should scout the canyon wall above the fire ring and you will find the tread as it snakes around deadfall and past Douglas fir into higher and colder terrain.

10 steep terrain.

view to Mogollon ridge line

The trail now has a spirited go at gaining altitude. No more Mr. Mellow Fellow. Passing through small stands of fir separated by brush-filled terrain, the ascent provides unsettling views into the fire-decimated upper reaches of Little Dry Creek. You will note a change in the quality of the trail as well. In places the path is strewn with branches or rocky debris. In other places the tread is drifting downslope, so that you have to angle your ankles to get a good grip on the side of the mountain. More boots are needed to keep this trail open!

11 dense fire-kill near Windy Gap

Fire kill

At 3.9 miles from the trailhead the trail crosses a small ravine and gentles slightly. Contouring around one last buttress it enters Rainstorm Canyon and tracks the canyon to a saddle on the long ridge that separates Little Dry Creek to the east from Big Dry Creek to the west. This is an increasingly somber bit of trail. At first the fire damage seems pretty minimal – just an occasional snag or two remains standing near to the trail. But as you ascend each stand of snags get thicker and these stands get closer together. The fire has introduced an entirely new ground story. This canyon wall is thick with grey oak, Gambel’s oak, small mountain mahogany and a plentitude of single-stalk, long-thorned plants that you may learn to avoid. A nice ponderosa forest would have been wonderful, but clearly the flora in these mountains are coming back.

12 Windy Gap looking over Big Dry Creek

View across Big Dry Creek from Windy Gap

The fire was not as intense at Windy Gap and a nice stand of fir trees remain standing. That they were damaged is not in doubt (the trail was thick with fallen branches). But this patch of surviving forest makes for a nice segue onto the ridge line. From the Gap the chief view is across the upper reaches of Big Dry Creek. Holt Mountain stands to the northeast and Grouse Mountain stands to the north. On this date Windy Gap was well named, provoking a quick change into warmer attire. December is wintery, even in this far-southern mountain range.

12 Elk horn ridge, looking down Little Dry Creek

View from Elk Horn Rib

The ridge crest and the northeast side of the ridge suffered greater damage than the Little Dry Creek side. You may find that the trail above you is strewn with debris. Don’t let that stop you. It is perfectly possible to pick your way past the deadfall and rise up into the higher reaches of the Mogollons. On this date I was only able to go another half mile before hitting my turnaround time. There is a small, flat-topped rib that juts south into the upper basin of Little Dry Creek. The rib terminates with a dramatic cliff. Some generous soul has positioned a big, bleached elk horn on the top of that cliff. Past the horn you get a fantastic view down Little Dry Creek and your path back to the trailhead. 

Recommendations:

14 author before ridge to West Baldy

Author, blocking your view to the ridge connecting to West Baldy

  • Get those boots on and go. The internet is nothing compared to Little Dry Creek.
  • There were quite a few cattle along the starting stretch of the trail. They seemed to be pretty comfortable around people, but if you encounter them then give them as wide a berth as you can. They are not gazelle-like in any way and they do not move comfortably on uneven terrain.
  • I went through a liter of water and had another two liters available. That was probably overkill for a cool winter’s day. I suspect that Little Dry Creek earns its middle name in most months. It would be wisest to bring along all the water you may need. 
  • It would have been great to have a few more hours in the day. This would be a terrific mid-May hike if you wanted to get to the summit of Sacaton Mountain or Black Peak. 
  • Consider bringing along some garden shears and a harsh attitude towards thorn bushes.  Hopefully, your efforts will make others more comfortable on the trail and perhaps the Forest Service may take note of increased public interest.

Links:

As mentioned in the earlier post, there are descriptions and discussion of this trail at both the Casitas de Gila Nature Blog and at Doug Scott Art. 

The Forest Service website has a report dated 2012 that indicates that the Little Dry Creek Trail is officially closed. (The site also notes that it is not being actively update due tot the the partial government shutdown of late December, 2018). They tell readers, “Visitors are reminded that wildernesses are places where safety is a personal responsibility.” This is true.