Archives for category: New Mexico
Sheer canyon walls and level wash

Overview:

A feast of iconic western imagery, Potato Canyon proffers sheer canyon walls, gigantic trees, wildlife, a brief slot canyon and easy hiking into the heart of the lonesome Withington Wilderness. In the hike’s uppermost reaches (barely touched in this route description) there is evidence of a recent fire. This route would be a national treasure were it not for the last six miles of the drive. Those miles are hostile. Hikers possessing a high clearance vehicle and a high tolerance for care-filled driving should pack packs and go.

Driving Directions:

True!

Stretches of this drive are ugly. A high-suspension, four-wheel drive vehicle is required (alas). In its steeper sections the forest road slaloms between boulders and quakes under extended piles of loose rock.

It is a shame because the hike up to the waterfall is as family-friendly as any hike in New Mexico.


  • Drive to Socorro, NM on Interstate-25 (I-25)
  • If you are coming from the north (e.g. from Albuquerque) 
    • Take Exit 150 from I-25.
    • After 0.4 miles on the off ramp, at the stop light on the ramp end, go straight ahead onto California Street.
    • After 1.3 miles on California St, at a stoplight, go right onto Spring St.
  • If you are coming from the south (e.g. from Las Cruces)
    • Take Exit 147 from I-25.
    • After 0.7 miles the ramp “invisibly” segues onto California Street, reset your odometer as you go past the first gas station.
    • After 0.6 miles on California St, at a stop light, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.6 miles on Spring St, at the first stop sign, go left onto US-60 (well signed).
  • After 26.4 miles on US-60, at the far end of the town of Magdelana, turn left onto NM-107 South (well signed).
    • NM-107 is paved for the first 4.3 miles, then turns to gravel. The current roadbed is in exceptionally good shape.
  • After 16.8 miles on NM-107 turn right onto Forest Road 52 (FR-52).
    • FR-52 is very rough. High clearance vehicles only. The Subaru made it, but at the cost of abuse to the suspension and tires.
    • The junction is well signed.
  • After 3.3 miles on FR-52 turn left onto FR-56
    • FR-56 is signed “Not fit for passenger cars“. This is correct.
    • The junction is well signed.
  • After 2.7 miles on FR-56 pull out onto the two-track going up Potato Canyon.
    • FR-56 drops into Big Rosa Canyon and stays there. This could be an exceptionally poor choice of parking during monsoon season.
    • At 2.1 miles the road enters the main canyon wash and the roadbed becomes significantly better!
    • The Potato Canyon trailhead is signed (see below), although the sign is getting shot-up.

Trailhead:

The Subaru in its native heath

The trailhead is a flat spot beside a two-track going up Potato Canyon. Don’t leave your vehicle on the two-track. On this date there were ATV tire tracks in the canyon bed for the first half-mile. Clearly, people do drive here. There is a shot-up sign saying, “Potato Tr”. There is no water, toilet, or trash service at the trailhead.

Data:

On this date I used a new GPS, which gathered only 44 data points. My old GPS would have collected more than 1000. Know that the track does not reflect the twists in the canyon, so distances are likely to be underestimated.

  • lowest point: 6706 feet
  • highest point: 8728 feet
  • net elevation: 2020 feet
  • distance: 5.7 miles (one way, may be understated)

Hike Description:

Depart Big Rosa Canyon by hiking the two-track west into Potato Canyon. The two-track gets lost amidst small waves of gregarious boulders and a web of gullies. The terrain is not bad for hiking, but a battering to wheeled vehicles. The canyon has the feel of a movie-set; a dry land of lonesome ponderosa, ancient alligator juniper, layered sandstone, numerous deer tracks and vertical canyon walls. The broad wash writhes, yet the footing is usually so good you can afford to stare at your surroundings. 

Early view into Potato Canyon

In a quarter mile, just past a sign for the Withington Wilderness, enter the first deep section of the canyon. Here the waters have cut down through a tall intrusion of hard rock. The south side of the canyon is a wall of this rock, but the north is far less steep; grassy and sunlight even in the early morning of a late fall day. Rather chilly (early in the morning) but the shaded nature of this hike is one of its biggest attractions. 

Foot thick gray oak

Inside the canyon there is an unexpected mixture of trees. Ponderosa pines have crept down this cool and moist environment, oddly competing with alligator juniper for the canyon’s resources. Many trees are outsized. Gray oak, for example, is typically encountered as brush. In this sun protected bottom, however, one old Gray flaunted a foot-thick bole armored with bark as corrugated as the bark of a Douglas fir. Similarly outsized Gambel oaks and big pinyon pines are everywhere. Amazing.

Western iconography

The first navigation challenge comes at 1.7 miles, in the junction of two canyons. The confluence bed is quite broad, flat and densely forested. You may need to scout around, but take the fork going southwest, not the very-prominent fork heading north of west. (That is, stay to your left, heading uphill). On this date a pretty run of water surfaced in mid-wash just west of this junction. Tracks show that turkey, deer and a cat (likely a bobcat) use this watering hole.  

Deadfall

Hiking on a sandy tread can blow out your calves. It is much more stressful than walking a regular trail of similar grade. Grit creeps into your boots. Even with gaiters you may need to stop now and then for a break to clear the those insoles. Deadfall crosses the wash, wherever running waters have undercut a tree. (In these cases you can often get around the barrier by walking past the rootball, the fall usually pulls the rootball from the bank). Some of these fallen trees make excellent benches.

Waterfall (path is to right)

At 4.0 miles the bed of the canyon rockets skywards and water sluices down its face. In early November the shadowed walls of this box can be decorated with ice. The waterfall is a navigation puzzle – look to the north side (to your right looking upstream) for the path forward. The last few steps of this path are right at the edge of the waterfall and somewhat exposed. For acrophobes it may be best to have lunch at the base of the falls and return. Others should continue on. There is a short but terrific little slot canyon immediately above the waterfall.  

Short slot Canyon

Above the slot canyon the wide wash regains control. At 4.3 miles come to the another navigational issue at a confluence of canyons. A wide, smooth wash sweeps into the junction from the southerly branch (to your left), very tempting! A much more jumbled wash comes in from the northerly branch and ends atop a three foot embankment, forming a “hanging wash”. Go northerly, clambering onto the hanging wash and continuing uphill.

Middle finger rock

This mellow beach stroll continues onward and at 5.2 miles swings due west to open up views of Mt Withington. So close! Here the grade begins to increase significantly. Scan the northern bank (on your right while ascending) for cairns that lead you steeply up into the northerly branch of the next junction. Almost immediately above this junction the trail takes a four-foot vertical leap straight up off of the canyon floor and onto the terrain that separates the two branches. The ground directly above this “leap” is only slightly less than vertical. Imagine rock-climbing, but on marginally consolidated soil. Turning back before the leap would have been the reasonable thing to do. Without making any recommendation, it is possible but exposed to climb from tree to tree until reasonable “footing” reappears. On the narrow strip of land between the canyon branches continue on the steep climb. The tread, submerged under blackened debris, dodges between roasted tree trunks. A cluster of stone pillars topped by “middle finger rock” appears. Is that a sign? Have something to eat, think over your options, and if retreat seems good then return the way you came.

(Note: for those aiming at the summit of Mount Withington, keep an eye out for a fork in the trail that appears before you encounter that rude rock. This fork is obscured by a huge old log that has fallen into the tread in three, large and rotting chunks. One fork of the trail goes down to the “southerly” canyon branch – left on ascent – and that may be the best way forward).

Recommendations:

Go.

Don’t go if there is rain in the forecast. The bottom of Big Rosa Canyon (part of the approach drive) is said to be subject to flash flooding. The slot canyon is short, but for a slot canyon it is unusually awkward to negotiate.

Wear gaiters to keep sand out of your shoes.

Check your vehicle’s spare tire and jack before going. Have spare water and warm backup clothing in the vehicle. The Withington really is wilderness.

The remoteness of this hike makes extra care worthwhile. If you’ve been lightening your pack by sacrificing some optional medical supplies you may want to temporarily restore them.

Links:

A rock climbing site explains that Potato Canyon is named for The Great Potato rock formation found on the San Mateo ridgeline, high above the canyon. The photos are great.

A. Jackson Frishman has done an excellent job of capturing the feel of Potato Canyon at the FrishmanPhoto site. Scroll down to the second photograph.

Similarly, the writeup at DoughScottArt has a terrific photo of the waterfall, which gets named as the “Pink Cascade”. The text cautions that the Cascade disappears during the dry seasons, and a very clear map indicates exactly where to expect to find the cascade.

At the Wilderness 50 Challenge site the author makes some pointed remarks about the inadvisability of taking a sedan into the Wilderness (based on actual experience).

There is a thoughtful writeup of this trail (PDF, scroll to page 35) from the Forest Service. They give a pretty detailed description and caution, as mentioned above, that water does not always flow in the canyon. It is surprising to see this trail given a “most difficult” rating, but they explain that the primitive condition of the tread and the remoteness of the area serve to weight the decision.

A writeup in the Albuquerque Journal suggests that passenger vehicles can make this drive, despite the signs suggesting otherwise. Please note that this writeup comes from 1999!

The NMTrails website includes a trip report from 2017. The author notes the difficulty of finding the trail once you enter the old burn, and the stark incisions made into the flanks of Mount Withington by flooding after the fire.

View from the Cloven Shoulder: Florida Mountains, Cooke Peak and Black Range on horizon

Overview:

This scramble takes you to Sharkstooth Pass, immediately east of Sharkstooth Peak in the Organ Mountains, then down to the saddle separating North Canyon and Bar Canyon. The ascent involves “Organ-eering”, a blood-spill minimizing skillset for scrambling amidst mesquite, prickly pear, shin stabbers, chollo, banana yucca, columnar cacti and ocotillo. This, while bashing through gray oak, Gamble oak and mountain mahogany thickets. Footing will be uncertain, the terrain steep. Organeering is an acquired taste. The route crosses over the boundaries of the Fort Bliss Military Reservation. The authorities there have been quietly tolerant of hiker’s who shave the corners of the reserve. A day-long drumbeat of distant artillery confirmed, utterly, assertions of live ordinance use. Having gone, I’m left feeling that this route edges uncomfortably far into the base.

So why describe it? Two reasons. First, Baldy Peak climbers might find need a plausible bug-out route. Second (in the unlikely event of artillery practice being discontinued) this route might one day form part of an official Baldy Peak Trail.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) in Las Cruces, NM, take Exit 1. 
  • At the end of the ramp turn east on University Drive
    • If driving south (e.g. from Albuquerque) turn left
    • If driving north (e.g. from El Paso, TX) turn right
  • After 4.9 miles on University Drive turn right onto Soledad Canyon Road (well signed)
    •  at some point University Drive is renamed to Dripping Springs Road, although the transition point is not clear. Ignore the rename and simply treat this as a single road.
  • After 5.2 miles on Soledad Canyon Road, at the road’s end, park in the trailhead parking lot.
    • At 0.6 miles on Soledad Canyon Road, just before a firehouse, the road makes a sharp left-hand turn. The turn is well signed.

Kudos to the Las Cruces taxpayers. Once an automotive hardship, Soledad Canyon Road is now an attractive sojourn. A terrific bike lane lies near to the road and climbs to the trailhead. Nice job LCDOT!

Trailhead:

RuTwo in an extraordinarily engineered trailhead

The short entrance road (formerly rife with gullies, edged rocks, lumpy boulders, potholes and other impending disasters) now glides to the trailhead on smooth pavement. A gate at the start of the entrance road signals that Soledad Canyon Road (a city street) has ended. There are no services here (water, toilet, or trash receptacles). No fees are required, but a trail register takes pride of place at the trail entrance. Please sign – the register helps keep Soledad Canyon Day Use Area open.

Google reports that the trailhead opens at 8:00 AM and closes at 5:00 PM, although the underlying BLM website does not show the hours. Arrive a little early! The new ease-of-access could make this a very popular weekend destination.

Data:

The yellow line in the above map depicts the route taken going into the pass. The blue line depicts the route coming back from the pass.

  • Starting Elevation: 5568 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 7639 feet
  • Net Elevation: 2070 feet
  • Distance: 3.0 miles (one way)

Hike Description

First trail junction

From the trailhead hike up-canyon past a registration box and an information kiosk. At 0.2 miles come to a fork. The left-hand branch goes north into Bar Canyon, stay right to hike into Soledad Canyon. The path generally stays on the bank of the main arroyo with occasional crossings. It used to be hard to distinguish the trail and the wash, but on this date every crossing was clearly signed.

A distant Chimney Rock

At 0.7 miles come to a second junction, unsigned. Take the fork heading southeast (go right on ascent). I walked past the branch (see the short yellow stub in the map) because there is a line of rocks across tread. These are meant to keep loop-hikers on the loop trail. Step over the rocks and continue up Soledad Canyon. This portion of the trail runs on an old two-track that occasionally churns straight up the canyon bed. Ahead of you towers Chimney Rock, the throat of an ancient volcano.

Fort Bliss Border signage

Soledad Canyon soon begins to close in. At 1.3 miles, with Chimney Rock directly opposite your left shoulder, come to a steel fence across the two-track. Stern and accurate signage asserts a base border and reminds you of the inadvisability of messing with unexploded ordinance. If you still want to organeer, turn northeast, towards Chimney Rock, and follow the fence line up hill. The steel posts of this fence soon give out and a bold climber’s tread heads uphill and to the east.

Chimney Rock Tank

At 1.5 miles the tread drops to the upper end of Chimney Rock Tank, one of the rare water-resources in the Organ Mountains. The water was algae-green on this date, although you could filter treat it. Wild life and cattle depend on this tank so try not to linger. Instead, look upstream and pick out the game trail that ascends along the tank’s easterly bank (the rib on your right as you look uphill). Follow this many-branched trail to gain top of the rib. It may feel as if you are climbing up to a local highpoint, but the rib surprises by simply spreading out into an Upper Sonoran meadowland. Sharkstooth Peak soars above you. It may be tempting to push east, getting positioned directly below the pass. Resist temptation! The open meadows above are a treat compared to the heavily vegetated arroyos to your right.

Open meadows beneath Sharkstooth Peak

As you ascend study the folds of land between you and the pass. One prominent rib makes a shallow saddle and looks relatively open. Aim for it. Climb in the meadows until you are at about the same elevation as the outer end of the saddle. A thickly vegetated arroyo skulks between you and those open slopes. It looks tough, but don’t simply bash through!

Juniper (top, right) in arroyo where game trails converge

Instead, scan that arroyo for a prominent juniper. Several game trails go past that tree and offer unscathed passage into the flanks of the saddle. Once you get onto the saddle, at about 2.1 miles from the trailhead, again look east and above you. The heavy vegetation on the flanks of the next rib thins, leaving the rib-top open. Immediately depart from the saddle, battle past a narrow band of thickets, then attain the open-topped rib. (On return I tried the higher terrain immediately above the saddle – not a happy experience).

Looking back, past ocotillo, to Soledad

The “open topped rib” gets its character because it has been scrubbed of soil. The angle of attack increases and shattered rock supports your boot soles. A forest of ocotillo plants thrives in this scant soil. Some ocotillo extend 8 feet into the air and enjoy wide spacing. “Easy!”, you think. Those big ocotillo, however, have numerous smaller cousins clinging close to the rock. These are vegetative hacksaws. Position your shins carefully. Look up to see that Sharkstooth’s summit now positioned slightly to your left. Sheer cliffs adorn the east face and wall-in the east side of the pass. Set your sights on the talus field below the pass and battle over as soon as you can.

Talus below Sharkstooth Pass

The moderate talus angle makes for quick climbing. If you slide back a little for each step forward, at least you’re not being thwarted by thickets. Game trails along the edge help the climber. A serious brush bash glowers down from the top of the talus field. Scout for the most obvious game trail you can find. On this date I frequently crawled under low juniper branches, but those branches keep the brush away!

Baldy Peak (center) and Organ Peak (right) from Sharkstooth Pass

Sharkstooth Pass, a narrow cleft, opens to a 2600-foot wall that tumbles from Organ Peak summit to the North Canyon bed. Want more? Vexatious vegetation guards the those northern slopes. Fortunately, a steep game trail will take you directly down from the pass to another talus field. This field is steep and loose. Scramblers must work their way down to a well-compacted animal trail contouring across the field. Follow this compacted trail west (to your left). The path soon enters brush that is so dense that even deer are unable to go off-trail. Eventually you poke through into a grass-covered gully coming off of Sharkstooth. Take note of where you exit the brush! The map shows that I tried to find an alternative, higher path on return to the pass. That route cannot be recommended.

Cloven Shoulder (left), Baldy Peak (mid-left) and Organ Peak (right of center)

The grassy gully offers a steep scramble that quickly brings you to a shoulder jutting boldly north. (This shoulder is part of the rib that connects Sharkstooth to Baldy Peak). Look east across the summit of Squaw Mountain, where the Florida Range, Cookes Range and the Black Range dominate the horizon. Look east where North Canyon gouges the crumpled earth. Hmm, is this a “new” way to get to the Sharkstooth summit? Nope, not from this shoulder! A yawning chasm invites paragliders and spurns scramblers. The shoulder is cleaved by a deep, vertical gash – I could find no way to get to the high point only 50 feet away. Soak in the views and depart “Cloven Shoulder” by dropping back down the gully.

View of saddle connecting Sharkstooth to Baldy Peak

At the gully base turn east (left, descending) and traverse a semi-open slope. In a few hundred yards gain the rib connecting to Baldy Peak. Bar Canyon opens to the west. North Canyon opens to the east. Have a seat. Enjoy the solitude. Lunch. When done, return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author on Cloven Shoulder

Your best friends in the Organ Mountain are: thick soled boots, ballistic fiber gaiters and long pants. This terrain slices and dices; hiking shoes and shorts will sacrifice flesh. One hiking pole helps. The second pole impedes.

Carry water. I had two liters and wished for a third. Chimney Rock Tank is often dry

Deer and a rabbit come into view, but you would see more with a light pair of binoculars.

In warmer weather some lifeforms will rattle.

Links:

Couldn’t find any! Colorado has a Sharkstooth Pass that gets some attention, but the inter-web has nothing about this New Mexico pass.

Peñasco Blanco

Overview:

Roughly 1200 years ago the Ancestral Puebloans raised monumental rock structures along Chaco Wash. This hike follows the Wash past several enormous structures, turns back at the Peñasco Blanco ruin and finishes by ascending a narrow cleft to a pair of the high pueblos. Go! There is no better way of introducing newcomers to hiking in the desert southwest.

Driving Directions:

  • From I-25 near Bernalillo (just north of Albuquerque) take exit 142 for US-550 North.
  • At the end of the ramp turn onto the north-bound lanes of US-550. If you are coming from the south then the ramp will be 0.2 miles long and you will want to follow it as it follows an extensive bend to the driver’s left.
  • After 112.6 miles on US-550, after a National Park sign for Chaco Canyon Culture Nation Park and after mile marker 112, turn left onto Indian Service Road 7061. There is no sign naming this road, but about 100 feet down the road is a large NP sign for Chaco Canyon National Historic Park.
  • After 5.0 miles on ISR 7061 turn right onto County Road 7950 (signed). This road is initially paved, but turns to gravel in 2.9 miles.
  • After 12.4 on CR 7950 miles veer sharply left onto CR-7900 (not signed). The turn is obvious – there is a “straight ahead” option but that alternative sees very much less traffic.
  • After 5.8 miles on CR7950 (which becomes paved as you enter the park) come to the Vistor’s Center. Registration is required, see below, so stop in. On exiting turn right to continue on the Park’s Loop Road. You will pass several ancient pueblos on the Loop Road and each is worth a substantial visit.
  • After 3.4 miles on the Loop Road come to a junction where an extension road (not named) continues straight down the wash towards the trailhead. (The Loop Road goes left at the junction). Go straight ahead. Note: there is a parking lot just before this junction for the Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl complexes. Both are amazing.
  • After 0.4 miles, in the parking lot at end of the extension, park your car.
Sign at start of ISR 7061

It is also possible to come into Chaco Canyon from the south, on NM-57. On this date I drove that way while leaving the park and the experience cannot be recommended. It was perfectly passable for high-clearance vehicles but it is a dusty, bumpy, long, slow drive. Deep ruts could be found mid-road in all the low spots, frequently accompanied by tall piles of displaced dirt. A low-slung sedan would not be happy with this experience. There are numerous cattle guards in the road. Sometimes the initial ridge on the cattle guard can be exposed several inches above the roadbed. It is tire hell. Definitely stay away from NM-57 if the conditions are wet.

Trailhead:

Rutwo below the north canyon wall

A park fee is charged at the Visitor’s Center. Each car is $25. If you come in by some other means then it is $15 per person. National Park and military passes are accepted in lieu of payment. Ranger guided tours are available. I briefly overlapped with a guided group and it seems like a good option. The restrooms are currently closed although port-a-potties are available. There are trash receptacles. There is quite a museum and drinking water is said to be available in the Visitors Center.

At the trailhead you might want to leave your pack in the car and go get the paperwork out of the trail register. The paperwork records the date on which you start your hike and the make and model of your car. This paperwork just gives the rangers an edge at finding the lost hikers. You will need to return to your car to leave part of the registration ticket on your dashboard. Now pick up your pack and off you go!

Data:

The altitude gained and lost is small, although acrophobes may want to stay off the steep climb up to Pueblo Alto.

Distance: 10.8 miles

Hike Description:

Follow the broad gravel road as it heads northwest, past the trail register. A relatively small ruin know as Kin Kletso (Yellow House) is well-preserved and very much worth exploring. This construction makes use of relatively large and uniform sandstone blocks that resemble bricks. Evidently this style of construction arose later than the style found in other complexes such as Chetro Ketl. Behind the ruins a trail leads steeply onto the canyon rim, as described below.

Casa Chiquita

The roadbed bends sharply into a side canyon but swings right back, reaching Casa Chiquita in1.2 miles. The centuries have been less kind to the “Small House” (although it anything still standing after 1000 years gets good marks for ruggedness). With 50 rectangular rooms and two large round-rooms it tells a story of enormous public commitment, even while distaining to name what aroused that commitment. It is reported that this ruin has not been excavated, so some of the rooms hide beneath wind-deposited sand and silt.

At this point the road narrows into a single track, but one that obviously receives a great deal of expert care and attention. You won’t get lost. At 1.7 miles take a fork to the right (signed as Petroglyph Trail) to follow a side loop that keeps close to the north-eastern canyon wall. At scattered points along the wall the ancestral puebloans pecked images and geometric shapes that have survived the ensuing millennium. Spirals are a very common motif, although it is not obvious what this meant to the artists. The Una Vida trail (near the Visitor’s Center) has at least one glyph depicting a person holding a spiral like a shield.

This is parched terrain. Four-wing saltbush, apache plume, and claret cactus all dwell here, competing for water but not for sunlight. Signs warn of the danger where the trail crosses the Wash bottom. That is probably true, but on this date the key element (water) just wasn’t present. Looking further down canyon (northwest) you will see a wall. This is not a dam, but rather the confluence where the Chaco Wash joins the Chaco River. At 3.2 miles come to a puzzling sign saying “Supernova Pictograph”. Look directly above the sign for rock art showing a hand, a moon, and an image often interpreted as the supernova of 1054 (bright enough to remain visible during the day for 23 days)

Once-Oculated Rock

The trail gently switchbacks up onto the southwest rim of the canyon, bringing you to the site of the Peñasco Blanco complex at 4.1 miles. This site, like Casa Chiquita seems to be preserved for future excavation. The visible walls, unprotected by the canyon, have taken a beating by frost and sun. The remaining walls show extraordinary artfulness, with alternating rows of larger and smaller rock panels. Evidently this work was either meant for the amusement of wall-builders or as offerings to the supernatural since these rocks were usually covered with adobe and hidden from sight.

Pueblo Bonito

Return the way you came. Energetic hikers can then take the trail leading from behind the Kin Kietso site to the northeast rim. The tread leaps up the northeast wall, using a cleft behind a fin of rock to bring you to the top. From the rim you have many options, including a spectacular overlook of Pueblo Bonito and a loop trail that will take you past the Pueblo Alto complex.

Recommendations:

Standard desert hiking advice holds, including:

  • Your car can fail out here. Bring gear. You want to have extra clothing (adequate for waiting out a cold night), extra water in the car, jumper cables, a well-greased jack and an inflated spare tire. Check your gear before leaving home.
  • There might be a cell tower in the park, but that is line-of-sight transmission and there are long miles in the surrounding canyon land where you will have no cell coverage. As always, it is a good idea to have someone outside of your hiking group who knows your travel and hiking itinerary.
  • There are long stretches of trail where there is no protection from the sun. Even in October that can be draining. Water, sunscreen, sunglasses are necessities. If you have a larger group then it would be a great idea to have a couple umbrellas to provide shade if someone gets too roasted.
Pueblo Bonito door frames

The park’s campground is very popular and currently is offered on a first-come, first-served basis. If you do want to camp then you will also want to come with backup plans.

Links:

The Hiking and Walking site has a nice description of the Peñasco Blanco hike, which includes a chart of elevation change (and obligatory warnings about the quality of the roadbed leading into the park!).

The folks at Explore New Mexico give the loop route to Pueblo Alto a big thumbs up. Their post includes some photos of people ascending up the slot that leads to the rim of the canyon.

Taos News also has a writeup, which includes some of the history and a warning about the changeable weather in the desert.

There is a detailed description of this hike at the Hiking Arizona site (a great general resource for southwest hiking).

Overview:

This could be the most beautiful hike in New Mexico.

High sediment loads in the San Francisco River can give the water a muddy coloration. Don’t be put off! The hike remains gorgeous.

Stay away if the weather looks stormy. Flash flooding is a real risk.

Driving Directions:

  • Drive to Socorro, NM on Interstate-25 (I-25)
  • If you are coming from the north (e.g. from Albuquerque) 
    • Take Exit 150.
    • After 0.4 miles on the off ramp, at the stop light on the ramp end, go straight ahead onto California Street.
    • After 1.3 miles on California St, at a stoplight, go right onto Spring St.
  • If you are coming from the south (e.g. from Las Cruces)
    • Take Exit 147
    • After 0.7 miles the ramp “invisibly” segues onto California Street, reset your odometer as you go past the first gas station.
    • After 0.6 miles on California St, at a stop light, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.6 miles on Spring St, at the first stop sign, go left onto US-60.
  • After 62.2 miles on US-60, at a blinking yellow light in Datil, NM, turn left onto NM-12 (well signed).
FR-49 is just past this sign
  • After 61.7 miles on NM-12, past mile marker 13 and immediately after the “JTS Park 6” sign, turn right onto Forest Road 49 (gravel)
    • [there is a sign 50 feet down FR-49 (rendered illegible by gun-toting idiots) that seems to identify this road as County Road 113]
  • After 0.4 miles on FR-49, immediately past a small brown Forest Service sign saying “49”, make a hard left turn onto Forest Road 41 (unsigned).
  • After 4.4 miles on FR-41 come to the first ford of the San Francisco River. If you want to leave your car here then there is a rough turn-out on the right side of the road. In nice weather many cars can drive the remaining 1.7 miles to the official trailhead. Know the perils!

Trailhead:

RuTwo on the dirt turnout

The turn-out just before the first ford of the San Francisco River is a weed-covered dirt pad raised a few inches above the road. If you are driving a low-slung car then driving up onto the dirt pad may be awkward. A shovel could be handy if you should need to grade the lip of the rise, especially if a county bulldozer recently been through. There are no services at this trailhead.

Data:

  • high point: 6505
  • low point: 5900 
  • net elevation change: 610 feet
  • distance: 7.1 miles (one way!)

GPS signal gets badly scrambled in the confines of this deep canyon, so the data given above should be treated as rough estimates. Note that wading deep pools and clambering over boulders can make the trip more stressful than the numbers might suggest.

Hike Description:

Road walk in open valley

The first ford of the river was only 6 inches deep and roughly 15 feet wide on this date. The firm sand in the streambed showed little risk of bogging your vehicle if you choose to drive across. A scattering of river stones slightly upstream of the crossing might allow you to make the ford dry footed. This is an exceptionally pleasant road ramble. The six river crossings offer a minor challenge and the terrain is gorgeous. Deep debris fields surround the San Francisco Mountains and the river has etched into these bajadas, leaving tall walls of stony composite that peek at you over the tops of hardwood trees. There was a surprising population of runners and mountain bikers. It would be hard to find a more pleasant training ground.

Well said.

At 1.7 miles arrive at the official trailhead for Trail #762. A kiosk reminds hikers of “bear country” concerns and a second sign warns sternly of flash flooding risk. Head up the trail as it switchbacks onto the bajada top. Single-seed juniper and pinyon pine offer patches of shade. Prickly pear, columnar cacti and banana yucca threaten to poke you. Grama grass blankets the occasional meadow. Lizards and horned toads scurry from your footfall. The tread initially moves northeast; away from the river and avoiding private property bounds. At 3.4 miles from turnout the trail abruptly turns west (to your left, inbound) and traverses towards the canyon entrance. The trail goes through two gates (please close ’em!). At 4.7 miles the tread makes a sharp switchback and begins the steep drop to the river bottom.

Sign at junction with two-track

At 5.2 miles the trail reaches a junction with a two-track. Note the sign so you will know where to depart from the road on your return. Turn right and follow the two track as it leaves the sunny Sonoran and penetrates the leafy domain of the bosque.

Pipe suspended over the river

In a few hundred feet you will see a large rusty pipe (about 12 inches in diameter) fronted by a sign saying “private property”. Begin scanning to your left to find a track that drops down to the river bank and goes underneath the pipe. On the river bank the trail becomes hard to find. Go upstream, about 30 yards past the pipe, then cross to the left-hand bank (looking upstream). The trail stays on that side for less than a quarter mile, then recrosses to the right-hand bank. If you loose the trail just continue upstream.

Entering the Box

The trail departs from the river to cross a wide meadow, then rejoins where the river makes a broad bend to the north. Here the walls begin to rise and press in. Soon there is little or no bank on which to make a trail. Oh ohh. Plunge in. The river is the tread. There is no fixed turn-back point. Hike until your turn-around time arrives. If you need a destination then other reports indicate that there is a warm spring about two miles beyond my turn-back point.

Recommendations:

Author at turn-back point

Take your time. This is not a hike to be rushed!

Bring a great camera. My cell phone camera was not up to the task of recording this amazing trip.

Ice could make this a dangerous and unpleasant trip. Similarly, meltwater from mountain snows could introduce your party to hypothermia. Schedule the hike for the warm weather just-before or just-after New Mexico’s monsoon season.

Monitor the forecast for Luna, NM (upstream) for storms in this area. If you drive over the fords to the trailhead, then even a gently rising stream might prevent you from driving out. A stash of extra food, dry clothing and a good book might make the wait more pleasant.

Soaked boots can get heavy. This hike calls for fast-drying (not “water proof”) shoes. Your electronics need to be protected. Ziplock bags can keep your GPS and phone functioning. On this date I was able to stay (mostly) dry, but only after rolling up the legs of my shorts as high as they could go. Others have reported swimming in order to cross the deeper pools.

I was very happy to have a water filter with me on this hike.

Links:

I’m not certain why the river is so deeply brown. It is possible that char from wildfires is being washed down the stream. Back in 2011 the enormous Wallow wildfire burned the headwaters of the river (south and west of Alpine, AZ), but that seems like a long time ago. We’ve had an active monsoon, so runoff from the rains may contribute as well.

The USDA/Forest Service site has general information and safety alerts. In New Mexico summers it is always useful to check for wildfire warnings.

Doug Scott’s site (a go-to destination for slot canyon hikes) has great maps and some warnings about the seasons to avoid for this hike. One of the maps shows an alternative route that keeps you east of the river until you reach Devil’s canyon (a tributary feeding into the San Francisco River above the Frisco Box). You could return down the river and make a loop out of it.

Sadly, I saw no fish larger than inch-long fry. The restocking efforts might have suffered a setback from the large amounts of suspended sediment. Hopefully the drought is about over, allowing matters to improve.

View to Chain of Craters from NM-117

Overview:

This backpacking route explores a long chain of small volcanic cinder-cones and finishes with a crossing of the El Malpais (“Bad Country”) National Monument on the the dramatic Zuni-Acoma Trail. It features desert grasslands, juniper and ponderosa forest, cinder cones, lava tubes and the opportunity to dance the Scoria Shuffle. This hike could be done as a loop that includes a 20 mile walk on NM-117 (paved). Most hikers will prefer to set up a shuttle or to hitch-hike the paved section.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-40, west of Albuquerque, take exit 89 signed for NM-117 East / Quemado.
  • At the end of the exit ramp turn onto NM-117 East. The initial direction is actually south; west-bound drivers will turn left and and east-bound drivers will turn right.
  • After 14.9 miles on NM-117 turn right into the Zuni-Acoma trailhead. There is a brown Forest Service sign for the trailhead on NM-117. If you are setting up a shuttle then leave the first car here.
  • After 19.2 more miles on NM-117-E turn right onto County Road 42 (dirt). The junction is signed. You can thank your driver and stop hitching when you reach this corner.
  • In less than 0.1 miles on County Road 42, besides an information kiosk (that is, a signboard) on your left, park the second shuttle car.

A sign at the start of County Road 42 warns that this road is unusable when wet. Judging from the deep ruts on this date, that sign is not exaggerating.

Trailhead:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cdt-logo1-Converted-e1450300899983.png
image from the Continental Divide Coalition

Apart from the information posted on the kiosk there are no services at either the Zuni-Acoma trailhead or on Co. Road 42. The CDT leaves from the east side of the Co. Road 42, across the road from the kiosk. Look for cairns or the white and blue plastic tags that mark the trail.

On this route the trail bears northwest, then north, northeast and southeast. All of this meandering is simply described as “north” in the text below.

Data:

Map note: my GPS unit is still misbehaving. The above map is not a GPS-measured track. Instead, it is a “route” traced from the CDT map on Caltopo. The line traced on this map may be somewhat distant from your actual position in the wilderness!

Distance between trailheads: 55.8 miles

Chain of Craters / Zuni-Acoma Elevation Profile

Hike Description:

A loess-filled and grassy depression in the malpais

From the kiosk on County Road 42 find the trail and follow it as it slowly diverges away from the road. This is open desert grassland and the trail usually leaps out at you. But, setting a major pattern, the tread will occasionally play out. Sometimes it simply sinks into the grasses and at other times it weaves into cattle paths that are much better defined than the official trail. Look for cairns. At 1.2 miles from the trailhead the trail arrives at the edge of lava flow. Initially the trail skirts to the left, but soon nerves-up and leaps onto the black and convoluted surface. Bobbing east, ducking north, swerving west and even veering south, the trail tracks lava tubes, chases lava crevasses, mounts lava mounds and dives lava depressions. The last of these can be loess-filled and grassy, but scoria still protrudes above the soil. Watch your footing! That’s hard, because you must also watch constantly for cairns, your only guide across this trackless terrain.

First cinder cones – Cerro Brillante (glowing hill) is the cone on the right

At about 2.2 miles the trail leaves the lava and regains the grassland. The pace picks up as the tread improves. At roughly 5 miles from the trailhead you will see a windmill to the south (on your left for north-bound hikers). On this date the mill appeared to be in good repair and was spinning – there might be some water there. The trail swoops across shallow depressions and threads rocky outcrops, but on balance it gently rises. Very large cairns are placed off the trail on the top of the higher knolls. These may be intended as beacons for the lost. At about 10 miles, nearing the Cerro Brillante cone, a juniper forest makes a tentative first appearance.

Tire tank – also check the barrel nearby, sometimes that water is better.

The tread swings southwest to contour around the small cone adjacent to Cerro Brillante. It then contours north and gains a small amount of vertical (that alarming spike shown in the elevation profile at 12.7 miles). Aside from the scoria underfoot this is very pleasant walking. Ponderosa pines offer gratifying shade. The woodlands are open. Deer, elk and cattle regard you with dark suspicion. At 13.3 miles cross a faint two-track and look to your left to find a water tank made of an old tractor tire. (It is at several hundred yards off-trail). On this date the water in the tank was pretty good, although green enough to encourage careful filtering.

Ponderosa shaded flanks of a cinder cone

The tread bumps upward on the flanks of the next cinder cone and then descends to the plain that will lead to the cone beyond, creating a new pattern. In this way you pass Cerro Colorado (Red Hill), Cerro Negro (Black Hill), Cerro Chatito (Dawn Hill, maybe?) and Cerro Chato (Flat Top Hill? – it is a cratered cone with a huge breach in its northern wall). The trail comes its high point on the flanks of Cerro Lobo (Wolf Hill). The trail is nowhere steep and the ponderosa offer numerous and comfortably shaded rest spots.

Camping on warm and soft duff

Camping between the cinder cones is easy. The conifers put down a lot of duff and level ground is abundant. Beyond Cerro Lobo there is a scattering of very small cones, often hidden by the forest. Then then CDT climbs the flanks of a second cinder cone dubbed “Cerro Negro” and descends to a crossroad at 24.7 miles. Watch for it! If you go off-trail, 0.5 miles to the east along the road, then you will come to a metal tank. On this date the tank had very good water in it. The regulator looked broken – it is possible that the tank has water only when the rancher has recently activated the pump! Return to the trail and continue north.

Shallow earthen tank

The trail, which has been heading almost due-north, now bends to the northeast. Passing Cerro Leonides (Lion Hill), Cerro Americano and Cerrito Comadre (Midwife Hill?), the trail returns to County Road 42 at mile 30.2. Follow the road north (go left if you are north-bound). But, if you happen to be short on water, then first turn right onto the road and walk about 200 yards to an earthen water tank. On this date it was extremely shallow and muddy – but it could be a life saver.

NM-53 crossing the divide

The CDT stays on County Road 42 for the next 5.7 miles. This seems like an odd trail-engineering decision. Soon, however, you come to to a region where the terrain on your right is paved with shattered and knife-edged lava; the reason for staying on the road becomes evident. Towards the end of the road, just past Cerro Bandera (Flag Hill), watch for a second earthen tank on the left side of the road. On this date the tank had barely an inch of water in it, but the water was exceptionally clear. County Road 42 ends at a T-intersection with NM-53, which is paved. Go east (right for hikers going north) on NM-53. At 37.5 miles from the trailhead you regain the signed top of the continental divide.

Whew! An obvious cairn!

The road-walk ends at the El Malpais Information Center, 39.6 miles from the trailhead. The CDT goes into this complex and passes on the west side of the eastern-most building. On the east side of this building is a water faucet. An attendant at the complex said that hikers can use that faucet. There is every conceivable luxury: picnic tables, clean water and even a trash receptacle! Make a meal here because there is no water for the remainder of this hike. Camel-up, fill your bottles and go to the other side of the building to regain the tread. Oddly, this tread gets on top of an earthen berm and stays there for more than a mile. Is it an old railway? An abandoned aquecia? It is hard to say. Past the berm the tread becomes entirely sketchy. The ground is piled with scoria and in many places there is no tread. It becomes routine to stop and scan (and rescan) the surrounding woods to find that next cairn.

Peering into a cave formed by a collapsed lava tube

At 41.8 miles, on ground characterized by brown dirt, brown grass and brown rock, come to a T-intersection with a trail that has been covered with crushed white limestone. Suddenly, almost surreally, you are presented with a foot path that could not be more obvious. Turn left and enjoy this short break from navigational challenges. Those challenges return when the trail brings you to a trailhead boasting vault toilets. Go left around the toilets, where the trail regains its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t nature. The trail jukes and jives as it winds its way around huge, winding, and partially collapsed lava tubes. Give yourself extra time in this leg of the trip, the footing is an authentic challenge.

Sign at junction with the Zuni-Acoma Trail

Come to the last of the cinder cones, Encerrito, at 47.6 miles from the trailhead. This is the last good opportunity to camp before entering the heart of the malpais. Ponderosa and juniper produce duff here, although the ground bristles with scoria. Setting a tent peg is difficult. The trail loops around the south end of Encerrito. On the east side the CDT reaches a signed junction with the Zuni-Acoma Trail. Go east (right if going north) and follow the combined trails into the heart of the malpais.

Lava landscape in the El Malpais

This is extraordinary terrain. Much of it is naked lava, forming steep hillsides and narrow gullies. Vegetation will not be denied, however, and every crack in the rock is an invitation for claret cup cactus, grama grass, juniper and mullein to colonize. Some of these cracks, moreover, are less like “crazes” in a sidewalk and more like crevasses in a glacier. Stresses in the cooling rock apparently introduced yard-wide gaps, gaps that cleave downward more than 25 feet. Fortunately, trail builders have been at work here for more than a 1000 years. Bridges were constructed by dropping rocks into the crevasses to chock across the gap, then pouring more rocks on top of the chock stones. These bridges makes crevass-crossing much easier, but looking down is still vertigo-inducing. And, again, navigation is not trivial. It takes time, but try to find that next cairn before leaving the previous cairn. Eventually the lava ends. It is just another two miles until, having traveled 54.8 miles, you arrive at the Zuni-Acoma trailhead.

Recommendations:

Finding the trail divisive.

I did this in two and a half days, which was silly. A four day schedule would be better and there is currently enough water to support such a trip. Give yourself time to explore some of the cinder cones and investigate (cautiously) some lava caves.

This has been a markedly cool and wet year. Warm gear was a huge asset at 8000 feet. Good water-filtering gear, including filter-flushing gear, is essential.

The CDT Water Report presents a table listing water reports filed by CDT hikers. This one table covers the entire CDT. As a consequence it is huge and awkward to navigate. The easiest way to get started is to use the “Search By Mile Number” option at the top of the page. If you search for mile number “471.9” (without the quotes) then you should get an entry named “Junction To Water Tank”. This is the first water report on the Chain of Craters segment. It displays the single, most-current report for the tire tank. You can click on the “read more” button to see if there have been other reports for this resource. Browse down the table to check out the remaining water resources – the last relevant report is for the El Malpais Information Center.

Other than the faucet at the El Malpais Information Center, all water resources are provided by ranchers. It would not be possible to hike this stretch without their profound courtesy. Please return the favor by quickly collecting water and moving away from each water source. Your presence can stress the cattle (and wild life) badly.

This is not a good place to test out shoeless hiking! The sharp-edged lava is merciless – even the soles of trail shoes will take a beating. Consider wearing boots since the opportunity to twist an ankle is exceptionally high.

Links:

A short and approachable discussion of the geology of this region is presented by New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources here.

A succinct and well-written discussion of the Chain of Craters portion of this hike can be found at the Four Corners Tourism site, here. (Note that the southern-most portion of the trail no longer stays on County Road 42, but instead departs immediately from the Co Rd 42 at the kiosk).

Rambling Hemlock, an experienced backpacker, has a report on hiking the Chain of Craters as a two day venture in 2015. Some of the water resources were dry, and the hikers got by on the strength of tiny snow patches.

New Mexico Nomad has compiled an extensive report on the outdoor resources near the El Malpais National Monument, including the Narrows Rim Trail. If you are visiting and want to see it all, then this is a valuable resource.

View of San Mateo Mountains from the Black Range ridge

Overview:

This three-day, out-and-back, backpacking route follows the Continental Divide Trail along northern spine of the Black Range. The grade is gentle, access is easy and the views traverse most of mid-state New Mexico. Hiking the fire-wracked Black Range sounds daunting, but the trail possesses an uncanny knack for threading the dark green patches that survived the flames. Even the devastated slopes exhibit a budding green haze from colonizing aspen groves.

The title has an asterisk next to “Diamond Peak”. It makes me grumpy, but time was short and water in the Diamond Peak Spring was scant. I turned back at the spring rather than climbing to the nearby summit. A pity!

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (north-bound or south-bound) take Exit 89 to NM-181.
  • At the end of the ramp turn west onto NM-181-South. (North-bound travelers will turn left. South-bound travelers will turn right).
  • After ~0.2 miles, from a stop sign at a T-intersection, turn left to continue on NM-181-South.
  • After 2.9 miles go right onto NM-52 (well signed)
  • After 38.0 miles turn left onto NM-59 (well signed)
  • After 13.8 miles turn left onto a Forest Service trailhead (signed)

All roads are paved. There are numerous small depressions along NM-59 where the road crosses arroyos, signed “Dip”. The savagely eroded road-margins in these dips are a threat. Watch your passenger side tires.

On NM-59 you will go over the geologic Continental Divide, which is signed. There is a turn-out on the left side of the road, but that is NOT the trailhead. You need to stay on the road for the full 13.8 miles. To the best of my recollection there’s roughly a half-mile from the geological Continental Divide to the CDT trailhead.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry at the CDT trailhead on NM-59

The trailhead is a gravel parking pad with a vault toilet. There are no water services or trash receptacles. The pullout sees lots of people pulling trailers and they need to be able to drive the full circle around the vault toilet in order to exit. Please leave as much clearance for them as you can.

Data:

IMPORTANT: my GPS device flatlined on this hike. Instead of being a GPS track the above map shows a trace of the CDT from Caltopo. There may be significant deviations from the actual trail!

  • starting elevation: 7702 feet
  • highest elevation: 9648 feet
  • net elevation: 1946 feet
  • distance: 26.1 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

Burned trunks and sparse understory

Day 1

Follow the trail south from the trailhead. On this date an extremely kind “trail angel” provided 10 full gallons of water. These are intended for CDT thru-hikers. We weekend backpackers should leave them alone.

The initial mile rises in a forest of young and severely burned ponderosa pines. Either the fire was unimaginably hot or a forest crew has been through and manually cleared out the remaining fuel from the forest floor. There are almost no burned logs on the ground. You do not see the crowded, bushy understory that normally springs up after a fire. It has the atmosphere of a forest singularly protected against the next major burn.

Spring feed tank

As the trail continues to rise mountain mahogany and gray oak do make an appearance. The terrain offers convoluted testimony to the ingenuity of trail designers – it is a minor miracle that the grade rises at such a steady rate. In places there are short drops where surprising groves of Douglas firs shade the tread. Much of the tread follows a barbed wire fence. At 5.3 miles from the trailhead come to a broad and sandy flat spot on the ridgeline. Look to your left for a gate in the fence with yellow signs asking, “Please Close Gate”. Water is available if you go through the gate and follow a side trail 0.3 miles down to a spring that drains into a small open tank. On this date the water was cold and free of algae, if slightly murky. Filtering is recommended.

Trick Tank or flying saucer?

Views open to the east. The Cuchillo Negros Range (Spanish for “black knife”) form a small ridge between the Black Range and the massive cliff faces on Vicks Peak in the San Mateo Mountains. At 8.7 miles from the trailhead the trail reaches a high point for the day, about 8700 feet. From there the trail bumps downward, reaching Forest Road 226A at 11.5 miles. You will see this road through the trees as you descend towards it – at this position you might want to scout about 100 feet off-trail to the northwest. There is a trick tank there. (A trick tank is one that collects rain water). On this date there was about 8 inches of water in the tank, thick with algae but still suitable for filtering.

Brutally weathered sign (left) and trail gate (right)

Across the FR-226A the tread descends along a closed road and enters a long, skinny valley crowded with trees. Doug fir and Ponderosa grow here, along with a conifer that produces an exceptionally large cone – possibly a Rocky Mountain Pine. Near the end of the valley someone has carved “CDT” and a left arrow into a huge standing snag. Go past the snag and follow the white-and-blue CDT signs as the trail climbs out of the valley. Near the top of the rise the trail joins another road. Go left onto the road as it reaches and then descends into the Chloride Creek drainage. The descent slogs along a rutted road – not foot-friendly. The road levels out where a feeder stream stream crosses from the left to the right side. An old and brutally weathered sign stands mutely on the right side of the road. A close look will show a CDT insignia branded into the lower left corner.Here the CDT starts an overlap with the Catalenia trail, #42. Go off the road, through a gate and follow the track as it meanders along side the stream.

Ruins of a shelter

The trail turns uphill where a second feeder stream joins in, about a quarter mile past the sign. This stream lies at the bottom of a narrow canyon, but the canyon bottom has occasional places where it flattens out and camp sites are available. On this date the stream was intermittent, but there were pools of water four or more inches deep, particularly at on the lower stretches. There is evidence under foot that cows like this cool and well-watered place. Filter your water. A crumbling chimney standing alone in the forest testifies that cowhands also once sheltered in this canyon. At 17.1 miles from the trailhead, near the upper reaches of the canyon and the last of the canyon pools, find a level spot for camping.

Caledonia sign with out CDT markers? A warning!

Day 2.

From the campsite climb steeply out of the canyon on switchbacks. The severely burned terrain could be unsettling, but a transition from carbon black back to green is under way. Budding young aspen colonies lead the way. The trail contours around a bump on the ridge then climbs to a saddle. In that saddle the Caledonia Trail splits away from the CDT and drops into a spectacularly beautiful, but entirely off-route, canyon. I lost a couple miles that way and it put me behind for the day – you are advised to stick with the CDT! And why not? This is ridge line hiking at its best. To the east lie the San Mateo Mountains, to the west snow still clings to the high summits in the Mogollon Mountains. On the ridge itself, 22 miles from the trailhead, lies the vertical walls of Fisherman’s Bluff.

A longer stretch of burned terrain on the Black Range

The damage done by the Silver Fire should not be understated. There are a few stretches of badly burned terrain that are grim and much plagued by deadfall. The trail builders have done their best to minimize the length of these stretches and, it must be said, that the recent winter hit the healthy patches of fir and ponderosa hard. Many fallen trees still have green needles on their branches. This is no place to wait out a wind storm.

Diamond Spring: a shallow skim of water from a muddy seep.

At 26.1 miles from the trailhead come to a wonderfully verdant hillside with a notable barrier of green-needled deadfall heaped across the trail. In the middle of the jumble is a sign of four lines saying, “Diamond Peak / Spring Mt. / Diamond Cr. / South Diamond Cr. Tr”. Above this jumble you will see a vertical rock wall. Look at the foot of the rock wall to find a boot-beaten path heading uphill. Follow this for roughly 40 feet and you find the Diamond Peak Spring. This is actually a seep; a mass of wet, black mud slowly releasing water onto the slopes below. I needed the water but I didn’t have the time to accumulate it from this slow flow. If you haven’t made the navigation errors I did then you will probably have time to ascend the next half mile of trail to the summit of Diamond Peak. From there you could continue south to reach Reeds Peak and even test out the new leg of the CDT where it descends from Reeds Meadow down Black Canyon Creek. Or, if the day wanes, you can hike back to camp and from there return to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Author enjoying a crisp late-April morning

The 2018-2019 winter season was unusually good for snow and rain. Water may be much harder to find in other years. You can get hints on the locations and conditions of various water sources at the CDT Water Report. These are social media reports and (for the Black Range) regrettably few in number. They carry no guarantees. You must assess the risks as you go along. The designations for springs and streams arise from the Bear Creek Survey. A sample of their work can be found here. Their designations (like “10_236WR”) are explained on page vii. A critical map of the trail “segments” (those initial numerals in the designation) is presented on page iii.

EDIT: Inaki Diaz de Etura, a 2019 CDT thru-hiker, reported on Facebook that he found water in October along this section of trail. The first spring (at 5.3 miles), the trick tank, and the stream along side Catalina Trail all had water (although the stream was just “pools”, not running). Moreover, after he passed Diamond Peak Spring and got to Reeds Meadow (further down trail than discussed in the guide above) he found running water in Black Canyon and Aspen Canyon. That’s good to know if you are planning a hike later in the season. Keep in mind that the monsoon was productive in 2019 – in dryer years the water may be more elusive.

There is an app for navigating the CDT that I should mention (this is an unpaid endorsement). It is called “Guthook” after the trail name of it’s author. You can find links to it from the publisher, Atlas Guides. The app shows you a map of the trail and your currently position – navigation made astonishingly simple! Plus it has a social media aspect, including water reports from other Guthook users. As an old-school “paper map navigator” I initially resisted using the app. While hiking the CDT last year that resistance crumbled immediately.

On windy mornings the ridges were cold and on windless afternoons the trail was hot. You will want good gear. Hiking the ridges during monsoon season would be challenging – you will need “bug out plans” for dealing with thunderstorms.

Links:

A post in Mudtribe reports on how the longstanding drought is affecting western trails, including the CDT. It was written in 2018, a bad summer for finding water.

One of the few through hikers to record their experiences in the Black Mountains is cu.ri0.us. He seems to have hiked the CDT several times and offers a retrospective video that includes a comparison between the Columbus NM route and the Lordsburg NM route (two choices at the southern terminus of the CDT). He has also done both the Black Range and the Gila River alternative. Most northbound hikers going onto the Black Range follow the official CDT as it leaves directly from Silver City. In sharp contrast, cu.ri0.us chose to hitchhike to the crest of the Black Range, taking NM-152 to Emory Pass. The Silver Fire (2013) hit that region hard and it imposed some very tough conditions on his hike.

Almost all the existing reports mentioning the Black Range leg of the CDT do so only to say that they the author decided to take the Gila River alternative. If you know of other reports, or if you’d like to describe your own experience, then please use the Comments tool below. If you don’t see an option for making a comment then click on the title for this report. That will re-format the report and the comment section should appear at the bottom.


North Baldy from the south

Overview:

Central New Mexico contains many hiking gems, but even in that company the Hop Canyon Loop in the Magdalena Mountains is a lustrous stunner. It offers easy access, a clear tread, vertiginous canyons and an unruly mob of high and darkly forested peaks. The Hop Canyon Loop tours a sky archipelago and offers a lightly exposed extension onto North Baldy Peak. Ambitious hikers could add a second side trip to South Baldy for a rousing and exhausting day in the mountains.

Driving Directions:

  • From I-25 (going either north or south) take Exit 147 for Socorro, NM. The exit ramp turns into the northbound lanes of California Street. Reset your odometer as you pass the first gas station.
  • After 0.6 miles on California St, at the first stoplight, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.4 miles on Spring Street, at the first stop sign, turn left onto US-60.
  • After 25.8 miles on US-60, immediately past the Forest Service Station in Magdalena NM, turn left onto South Kelly Road.
  • After 2.0 miles on South Kelly Road, at a fork, veer right onto Hop Canyon Road. (There is no road sign, but a sign at the fork has a right-pointing arrow labeled “Hop Canyon”).
  • After 4.4 miles on Hop Canyon Road turn right onto the trailhead parking area, signed, “TR 25”.

Paved roads lead almost all the way to the trailhead. Hop Canyon Road becomes a gravel road after 2.0 miles. The roadbed narrows and degrades as you go further up Hop Canyon. Leave the Porshe at home. With careful steering, however, even a soft-suspended sedan can be driven to the trailhead.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry at Trail 25 trailhead

A pine-shaded gravel pad offers parking on the west side of Hop Canyon Road. There are no toilets, trash receptacles or water service. (Water flowed in a seasonal stream across the road, unreliable in warmer seasons). If you wish to follow a clockwise loop, then cross Hop Canyon Road to find the trail. There is a sign saying 25A about 20 feet into the woods. If you wish to follow a counterclockwise loop (heading for South Baldy) then stay on the west side of the road and look up-canyon for the trail. About 100 feet up that track you will find signs saying “TR25” and “North Baldy Trail #8 / 5 miles”.

Data:

  • lowest elevation: 7723 feet
  • highest elevation: 9875 feet
  • net elevation gain: 2152 feet
  • gross elevation gain: 3428 feet (GPS data)
  • gross elevation loss: 3479 feet (GPS data)
  • distance: 10.3 miles

Hike Description:

Cross Hop Canyon Road and follow the trail past a sign for trail 25A. The trail briefly descends the canyon, but then turns east to cross a waterway. On this date there was a good flow of water, but no difficulty crossing dry footed. The ponderosa in this small canyon soon disappear. The open, drier, northwest facing slopes support pinion and juniper in graciously spaced intervals. The spacing permits views down Hop Canyon to a small butte called Elephant Peak.

Peek to Withington Wilderness

The trail segues into an unnamed sidecut to Hop Canyon and begins a gentle ascent. The wall to your right lies on the flanks of point 9613 (per USGS maps). The cliff-ringed summit of this high point can be recognized from many points on this loop, a useful aid to navigation. As you climb views open over the flanking western hills to the distant and rarely visited Withington Wilderness. Keep your planning for future hikes in careful check and focus on ascending the trail you are on!

Abandoned dig

Near the top of this first canyon note the odd talus field on the right. Talus falls from many of the cliffs in the Magdalenas, but the canyon top is cliff-free. Perhaps, you might muse, the rocks are mineralized so as to be susceptible to radical freeze-thaw cycles. With that thought in mind, be rewarded by the sight of an abandoned mining dig at 1.3 miles, atop a small saddle. The trail turns southeast and begins a series of switchbacks threading through ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. On this date short patches of icy snow hogged the trail – footing was awkward on these sun protected slopes. Peek-a-boo views open to the north, including close-by Granite Mountain northeast of the town of Magdalena. At 2.4 miles from the trailhead, immediately below a second saddle, come to an obvious trail junction. Don’t be fooled – the intersecting trail is but an elk boulevard. Continue straight across and rise to the saddle.

The trail turns left in the saddle, pulling away from point 9613 and pushing towards the main ridge. Ascend sunny meadows housing lofty ponderosa, which thin to montane grasslands as you near the ridge. Contour southwest (right on ascent) around an open knoll. The main loop is going to take you south (to your right) onto the main ridge. A notch in the ridge lies below your feet. From there the ridge rises south as a crescendo of darkly forested humps, hillocks, knolls, knobs, knuckles, and frank mountain summits. The challenge is to pick out South Baldy without stumbling.

At 2.9 miles from the trailhead come to a forest service sign saying “Hop Canyon Trail #25 / Forest Rd No. 101 2.5 miles”. Here Trail 25A ends at a T-intersection with Trail 8, the North Baldy Trail. To your left the North Baldy Trail ascends on an obvious path. To your right there is a broad mass of ledge-laced, downward-sloping terrain. Look for cairns that lead across these rocky surfaces into the notch (mentioned above). For the side trip to North Baldy you first want to turn left.

Summit View: Sierra Ladrones (left), Strawberry Peak (center-right) and Socorro Mts

The trip to North Baldy summit is slightly longer than a half mile and lots of fun. The trail clings to rock surfaces on a narrow ridge top. Reaching the summit block the trail traverses the block’s south face through a long stretch of scrub oak, eventually discovering a roads-end on the southeast corner. The road corkscrews uphill on the east side of the summit block. On the north side the road plummets, so you must go off-trail on terrain blissfully free of scrub oak to gain the summit. There are fossils in some of the summit rocks (check the cairns). To the south lies the bulk of the Magdalena Range, including South Baldy. To the west lies the San Mateo Mountains, including the Withington Wilderness. The northwest quadrant is an inexpressibly vast plain. The Bear Mountains lie close-by to the north. Beyond, the huge bulge of Mount Taylor dominates the horizon. The east side is a hodgepodge of ranges, most of which were not visible on this hazy day. Close in, and visible despite the haze, was the Sierra Ladrones, Strawberry Peak and the Socorro Mountains.

If you are reading this sign you are facing the wrong direction, turn 180° and follow a faint tread into the woods

Return to the signed junction and scan below, once more, for those cairns that theoretically guide you onto the southern leg of the North Baldy Trail. Descend on friendly ledges, passing between house-sized outcroppings of pale, friable rock, to lose about 300 feet onto the notch. The trail returns to its normal self, a clearly visible trough in the ridge-top soils. This trail clearly suffered a harsh winter. Push aside as many fallen limbs as you can, going briefly off-trail to avoid deadfall that won’t be bullied. Cliff-sided Point 9613 is a beacon on your right. Arrive at a high point of 9825 feet. Dark Canyon cleaves the east-facing slopes on your left. A rubble-strewn descent delivers you to a saddle and yet another rise, this time bursting through tree line to a signed trail junction. To the south (left if going clockwise) the obvious North Baldy Trail continues to South Baldy. Go west (right if going clockwise), on a faint tread that returns to the woods.

Relax, it’s only 2.1 more miles

A brief ascent brings you to a saddle with a view to the bald south slope of South Baldy. A small ascent still remains until you leave the rim above Hop Canyon and begin descending on the slopes leading into Agua Fria Canyon. Huge old-growth ponderosa and Douglas fir grace this terrain, a rare sight. The trail switchbacks on steep terrain and, having traveled 7.6 miles, you will arrive at a gate in a barbed wire fence. In theory you should be able to unlash a stick from the post on your left, pass through the gate, then re-lash the stick to the post. That stick, however, is broken and there is no obvious way to unlash the entire thing. The system does, however, allow you to unlash the bottom part, and you can scoot under the top part. From here the trail contours to the north on very gentle terrain. You will pass through ungated fencing at 8.2 miles where a trail informs you that it is 2.5 miles back to Hop Canyon trailhead.

Point 9613 shrouded in snow

At 9.0 miles the tread regains the rim above Hop Canyon. Point 9613 returns to sight. Follow the rim west, along side wire fencing. Eventually the trail unexpectedly pivots back east (where did the fence go?) and writhes down the walls of the canyon. Arrive back at the car having traveled 10.3 miles. Stop in Magdalena for an ice cream, you’ve earned it!

Recommendations:

Author, blocking Timber Peak view

As usual with trails nearing 10,000 feet, Acute Mountain Sickness (a.k.a. altitude sickness) is a concern. AMS shows small respect for gumption, strength or experience. If your party includes hikers newly arrived from Portland (Maine or Oregon) then give them a chance to stretch out on a lower tread.

If your group is adapted to altitude, then consider adding a side hike to South Baldy. That would not be especially easy (South Baldy rises to 10,800 feet) but it is fun to see the astronomical observatory and the hefty gear used at the Langmuir Laboratory lightening research facility. Clearly, you will want to avoid these ridges during monsoon season.

I never put on my microspikes. That part of the Magdalena hiking season seems to have passed.

Some older maps will show the North Baldy Trail clinging to the east side of the ridge line. That was not my experience. In many places it was square on top of the ridge, but where it had to depart it did so to the west.

On a cold late-March day two bottles of water were fine. In warmer weather bring much more. There aren’t any reliable springs near the ridge that I could find.

Links:

Tom Lohr, at the SkyAboveUs site, reports on doing this trip in the counter-clockwise direction. He mentions concerns regarding pets on this hike, with emphasis on the risks poised by mountain lions. He also mentions places where you can see the Very Large Array of radio telescopes.

The HikeArizona site describes the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET) where it crosses the Magdalenas, overlapping with some of the loop described here. It has suggestions on where water might be found. No guarantees! Water quality on the GET can be very poor – treat any water you take.