Archives for category: New Mexico
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 west 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.

There is an app for navigating the CDT that I should mention (this is an unpaid endorsement). It is called “Guthook” (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.

Sierra Ladrones seen from the north (the high point lies to right of the notch)

Overview:

The rugged and ancient Sierra Ladones lie only 50 miles south of Albuquerque. You will not, however, be troubled by crowds. Unpaved roads take you to a ‘trailhead’ in a range devoid of trails. Towering above the surrounding desert, Ladron Peak is a trial for legs and a challenge for navigators. Experienced scramblers will enjoy the isolation and the demands. Novice hikers will not. The summit offers incomparable views across central New Mexico. Take strong friends and scramble Ladron.

There are two adjoining peaks that compete for “high-point” status. Older maps sometimes place the “Ladron Peak” label on the shorter, eastern summit. Current USGS maps place that label on the taller, western summit. This post follows the current convention.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) take Exit 175 (about 50 miles south of Albuquerque or 25 miles north of Socorro).
    • If you were heading north on I-25 then: 
      • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, go left following the sign for North 116. (This turn could be easy to miss, the ramp is designed to merge you directly onto US-60 East).
      • After 0.3 miles on 116, immediately before it becomes the ramp onto I-25 South, turn right onto Old Highway 60 (signed).
    • If you were heading south on I-25 then:
      • after 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, immediately turn left onto Old Highway 60. (This turn might be easy to miss because the ramp merges directly onto 116).
  • After 1.5 miles on Old Highway 60, in front of the signed gate fronting the Sivelleta National Wildlife Refuge, turn right onto County Road 12. No sign names ‘CR-12’.
  • After 20.8 miles on CR-12, a good gravel road, veer left onto County Road E-65. No signs name this road, but look for small signs on both sides of the entrance saying “Limited Area”.
  • After 0.8 rough miles on CR E-65, veer left onto a primitive road. From this point on a you will want high clearance vehicle.
  • After 1.9 miles (estimated) on the first primitive road veer left onto a second primitive road.
  • After 0.4 miles (estimated) on the second primitive road, in front of a gate in a barb wire fence, park at the trailhead.

Old Highway 60 is paved at its start. After crossing a battered bridge over the Rio Puerco the pavement breaks up and the ride is very bumpy, then the road turns to gravel. A new bridge, in mid-construction, lies upstream of the battered one – this particular road-quality concern should have a short lifespan.

I drove only 0.7 miles on the first primitive road, at which point my worries for the Aging Camry’s suspension overwhelmed my aversion to road-hiking. As a consequence the length estimates for the two primitive roads had to be taken from Google Maps.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry in front of Ladron Peak

The second primitive road ends at a gravel pad with a fire ring. There are no vault toilets, trash receptacles or water services. The flat spot where I left the sedan (off the first primitive road) offers some seclusion but little else.

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Data:

In the map above the yellow line indicates the ascent route while the orange line indicates the descent.

  • starting elevation: 6200 feet
  • ending elevation: 9209 feet
  • net elevation: 3010 feet
  • distance: 4.7 miles (one way, includes the road walk)

Hike Description:

Stone ruins beside the ranch road

On this date the hike began with a road walk of 1.7 miles. (The hiking distances listed in this description include this extra length). At the road’s end you will find a gate through a barbed wire fence. Go through the gate and onto a faint trail. After another 100 yards the trail intersects a ranch road. Make note of this junction, it would be easy to miss on return. Turn east (left on ascent) onto the road. The road soon goes through a fence opening and then passes a stone ruin. These, too, make good landmarks for your return voyage.

Frozen algae

The ranch road is cut into the south side of a hogback. A water pipe extends along the length of the ranch road. At 2.2 miles from the trailhead go past a cattle trough. It contained 6 inches of water and was frozen on this date. It also enjoyed a dense algae population. Don’t count on it as a water resource. The road soon ends, but the pipe continues along a service trail. Follow the trail until you see open grassland on the hogback above you. Ascend on loose soils past juniper and prickly pear to reach the hogback’s spine. At 3.0 miles arrive at the high point on the hogback.

View to Mt Taylor from bench on east wall of canyon (double click to enlarge)

Descend to a small saddle and then veer northeast into a canyon (left on ascent). Here you leave the juniper realm and travel into the domain of pinyon and ponderosa pines. The track shows that I kept edging up to the east to study the high ridge line. Don’t be edgy. Stick to the pleasant, duff-dominated forest floor beneath the pines and ascend to where the forest thins out. The canyon wall south of you (right on ascent) has been cleared by fire. It looks like an attractive alternative, might it be a good line for descent? Look straight up-canyon as well. Near the 8000-foot level (at 3.8 miles) deceptive sight lines make the ridge look to be five minutes away. In fact, you are looking at a “false ridge”, the true ridge line towers high above. Clamber on, pushing your way past the pinch points on the steepening canyon bottom, until you find a way to turn east – towards the high and cliff-protected ridge that leads to the summit. Climb steeply on loose soils, bands of recalcitrant rock, past shin stabbers, cholla and prickly pear to slight mellowing of the grade at 8500 feet (4.1 miles from the trailhead).

View from mellowed slope to the main ridge, the north side (left) is cliffy.

The cliff-dominated terrain directly below Ladron Peak, to the north, looms as a fortress-barrier to scramblers. Continue rising as steeply as you can but with a robust acceptance of south-trending compromises. Zig zag to avoid exposed rock faces and thickets of Gambel’s Oak – either one will blunt your pace. The rib you are climbing has several near-shelves and each shelf makes a false ridge-line to cheat your hopes.

Ridge-line carpeting

Climb undaunted until, after many rest stops, you reach a saddle on the true ridge at 4.3 miles. This is just one of many saddles on the ridge, give it some study if you plan on retracing your steps on return. Footing remains critical. Not because the ridge is steep or exposed (it is neither), but because of the columnar cacti colonies that grow everywhere. Mind toes and fingers! Turn north and follow the ridge towards the summit.

Green lichen on steep boulder pile

The ridge runs into a lichen-bedecked boulder pile at 4.4 miles. Avoid this face by swinging to the east (right on ascent) and gingerly ascending on loose talus in a steep chute. A thicket atop the chute blocks your way. Push through to the ridge and stop to memorize how this thicket conceals the chute from descending scramblers.

View from knob over an abrupt fall

The only other difficulty comes at 4.5 miles. A knob ends with a fall of about 20 feet down to the ridge. Back up a few paces and descend in a narrow, boulder-strewn and east-facing chute. Fortunately, this chute is better consolidated and devoid of thickets. From the saddle at the base you can continue ascending directly on the ridge top, although an intermittent climbers tread runs along the east side.

Summit view southwest to Magdalena Range and distant Black Range

Arrive at the summit having traveled 4.7 miles into 360 degrees of awesome. In the north rises bold Mount Taylor (snow capped on this date). Sandia Peak in the Sandia Mountains and Bosque Peak in the Manzano Mountains dominate the northeast. Distant El Capitan Peak in the El Capitan Mountains and Nogal Peak in the White Mountains round out the southeast. Strawberry Peak lies near by to the south, while South Baldy (in the Magdelana Mountains) and the entire Black Range remained snow capped to the southwest. The gigantic plains to the northwest proffer the huge volcanic neck that is Cabezon Peak.

It should be possible to return the way you came. The map above shows that I tried a slight variation, descending back to the saddle where I first hit the ridge line and then staying on the ridge line as it descends gently to a point directly above the entrance canyon. Gentle descents don’t loose much altitude, so at this point there is a long, steep drop into the canyon bottom. Two big chutes lead down to the canyon. Pick the one to the north (right on descent) as lively drops bedevil the south chute. What follows is a long, sketchy scramble down talus slopes and scratchy bashes through oak thickets. Eventually you attain the southern rim of the canyon – open and mellow terrain. Lured by the thought of easy walking on pine duff I angled off the rim onto the canyon walls. This involved side-hilling long distances, a clear mistake. The wiser course, judging from the maps, would be to stay on the canyon rim as it drops towards the hogback. It isn’t clear to me if this descent route is any improvement over the line used for ascent.

Recommendations:

Author, blocking your view of Sandia Crest

This trip includes miles of tough footing amidst vexatious vegetation. Wear boots.

Between road-end and summit you gain 2600 feet in less than 3 miles. It is strenuous. Beginning hikers and the acrophobic want to look elsewhere.

I expect that the lower terrain rattles in the warmer months. Watch where you place your hands and feet.

Two liters of water was fine for a cool day but you’ll want some more to cover emergencies. In warm weather you will want much more. Stay off these ridges when thunderstorms threaten.

There are fossils on the flanks of the hogback. The one pictured above might be a piece of coral.

Links:

American Hiking offers a suggestion (PDF) for exploring the lower Ladrons without the navigation challenges and other hazards of climbing to the summit.

The Albuquerque Journal has a brief article on the range. The summit gets described as challenging and they, too, suggest other destinations within the range.

SummitPost describes the approach roads to this scramble, know that some of the signs they mention are no longer in place. In the “Climbers Log” link the commenters make frequent use of the word ‘rough’.

The PeakBagger page has basic data on the range, but check the trip report by Phil Robinson. He provides a GPS track and adds a description of the traverse from Ladron Peak to the lower eastern peak. It sounds daunting. If I understand his report correctly then he followed the canyon bottom all the way to the ridge line, but on descent he pulled off the ridge and descended on a line similar to the the ascent described here. In the dark!

Geocaching firmly notes the difficulties of this terrain. Additionally, they offer GPS coordinates for several of the turns on these unsigned county roads.

Socorro Mountains at dawn, Strawberry Peak on the right side and distant from the main block of mountains
Socorro Mountains from I-25 (Strawberry Peak on the right, separated from the main block)

Strawberry Peak is named for its resemblance, from some perspectives, to a downside-up strawberry. An outlier from the Socorro Mountains, it towers above the desert. The peak is eye candy for mountaineers driving south on Interstate-15. Don’t get distracted! Up close this is a very moderate mountain (7000 feet) that can be scrambled. The summit block gets a class two rating since few scramblers will feel any need for a rope. The approach is a long desert ramble launched from the floor of the Rio Grande basin, rising onto a broad bajada and chasing an arroyo to the base of the peak. A short and strenuous ascent brings you from base to summit.

Land notes: the land immediately to the south of this hike belongs to the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC) at New Mexico Tech. “Energetic material” means “explosive”. Unexploded ordinance lies scattered in that terrain and the EMRTC has a vigorous enforcement effort to keep people off the test grounds. Portions of this trail cross ranch property. The ranchers have been generous in allowing hikers, runners and bicycle riders to use their land. Keep yourself safe and keep the trail open by staying on the trail.

Driving Directions:

  • From I-25 near Socorro, NM (driving either north or south) take exit 150 and follow the ramp system to where it joins California Street at an intersection with a stoplight. Reset your odometer. Proceed onto California St.
  • After 0.3 miles on California St, turn right onto Bullock St. 
  • After 0.7 miles on Bullock St, at the third stop sign, come to an intersection with Lopezville Road. Continue straight ahead onto the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology where the road becomes Olive Dr (Olive Drive is not signed at the intersection).
  • After 0.2 miles on Olive Dr, at a stop sign, turn right onto Canyon Rd.
  • After 0.5 miles on Canyon Rd turn right onto East Road.
  • After 1.1 miles on East Rd come to a gate. If the road is gated then park on the gravel pad before the gate. Otherwise, after 1.5 miles on East Rd come to a small, paved turnout on your left and park.

At the 0.4 mile mark on East Road you will come to a stop sign at a four-way intersection. To stay on East Road you must turn right. In my short experience East Road been gated on weekends. If you come on a weekday you will save yourself a total of 0.8 miles of road-walking.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry parked at locked gates across East Road

There are no services at either the gravel pad before the East Road gate or at the paved pad at the formal trailhead. The popularity of this trailhead can cause parking overflows. You might try parking on the broad shoulders of East Road. Mesquite (that side-wall killer) grows at the shoulder margins. Have care for your tires.

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Data:

  • lowest elevation: 4680 feet
  • highest elevation: 7039 feet
  • net elevation gain: 2360 feet
  • distance 7.7 miles (one way, including road walk)

Hike Description:

The first fork, just before power lines

If you’ve parked at the gate then hike north on East Road for 0.4 miles. Look for the formal trailhead – a small paved pad on the west side of the road. This unsigned trailhead offers a gate through a barbed wire fence. Close the gate after you go through and enter private ranch land. The trail meanders south and meets with another barbed wire fence in 100 yards. A high-stepping ladder surmounts this difficulty. This portion of the trail sees many bicyclists; expect the tread to have a U-shaped cross section holding tire-loosened rock. The Rio Grande runs past only a few miles away, but here you stand in the Chihuahuan desert. Creosote bush completely dominates the terrain. In warmer months you will want to watch for snakes. At 1.2 miles you will reach a power line. (All distances in this route description include the 0.4 mile road walk). Immediately before the power lines watch for a fork in the trail. Go right and follow the trail as it parallels the power line. At the top of a small rise the path swings to the west (to your left, heading in) and leaves civilization behind.

Faint fork to the right? Take it!

 The tread heads towards a tiny conical hillock, denoted as point 4874 on USGS maps. The trail splits just before reaching this hillock. Like many, many other junctions on this trail there will be an obvious fork going south and a fainter fork going north. Here is the rule: always take the faint northerly route (go right, heading in). The trail swings around the hill and climbs a bit. From the hillock the trail drops into a wash and then climbs 80 to 100 feet onto a broad bajada. From the top be sure to look back. Views extend north to Polvadera Peak, northeast to Manzano Peak in the Manzanos Range, across the Rio Grande to the Quebrada hills, southeast to the dome of Carrizo Peak and south along the front of the Socorro Mountains, past the Chupedera hills and down to the distant San Andreas Mountains.

Strawberry Peak in the distance: the gully-top is at lower-center

Wind your way west, entering BLM lands, as the trail stretches across the mellow bajada. At 2.7 miles come to another junction with a prominent fork dropping south into an arroyo and a much fainter fork heading northwest. Remember: take the faint northerly track. The bajada portion of the hike ends at 3.8 miles. Nogal Arroyo appears off to your right and you must find a way down to the bed of the arroyo. The trail first drops into a small side-cut, rises on the far side, and quickly reaches the rim of the main arroyo. Finally, nosing west along the rim, the tread comes to a gully that drops briskly to the arroyo bed. If you look west along the arroyo you should see a windmill. Descend the gully on a cow path. (The arroyo rim trail continues past the top of the gully. If you find yourself pulling away from the main arroyo above another sidecut then you’ve missed the gully. Turn back). Follow the bottom of the Nogal Arroyo west. For several hundred yards you will be crossing private land. The windmill provides water for cattle and wildlife, please stay a good distance away. 

Windmill and Strawberry Peak from arroyo

The arroyo bottom has long stretches of compacted sand interspersed with jumbles of basketball-sized boulders. Plates of a whitish and fibrous mineral, most likely a form of gypsum, are abundant. At 5.5 miles from the trailhead come to a confluence where the main arroyo bends to the south. Take the northerly fork.

The map shows that I took the wrong fork and found myself trending further and further south. Piles of desk-sized boulders clog the south fork, you won’t find such piles elsewhere on this hike. On this date there were pools of water as well, but the salts precipitated next to the pools make drinking from them inadvisable. If you are worried about your course then you can scramble up the sides of the arroyo and look for the ruins of a rock house. If the ruins are north of you then you are off course. Best practice: stay close to the north side of the arroyo as you near Strawberry Peak – that will take you into the north fork and keep the Peak on your left.

Caprock on a rubble pile

At 5.7 miles from the trailhead the terrain on the south side of the north fork (left on ascent) starts to rise. Watch that side for a big pile of loose rubble topped with a thick and slanted slab of cap rock. Just past this odd configuration a gully leads steeply up the foot of Strawberry Mountain. Leave the bed of Nogal Arroyo and ascend on the south side of the gully (left on ascent). After the initial steep pitch the angle mellows. Pick your way around juniper, prickly pear, and boulders towards a pair of cliff-fronted knolls. At the base of the knolls the terrain flattens to a narrow and grassy shelf. Cross the shelf and ascend between the knolls. A cattle path rising between the knolls offers solid footing. 

Second shelf: wide and flat

Past the knolls the terrain flattens dramatically in a wide shelf. Cattle love this place – every tuft of grass has been grazed to its roots. Watch your footing because tiny but prodigiously armed cacti lie scattered on this small plain. Cross to the base of a second pair of knolls and ascend the gully between them. Once again a cow path up this gully improves the footing considerably. 

Third shelf: lumpy. Look for the waterway to the left.

Past these knolls the terrain forms a third shelf, distinctive for its numerous lumps and hollows. On this date I crossed these lumps directly toward Strawberry Peak. The footing on the next rise was not attractive. You may want to wind around the lumps going south and catch the waterway that rises to the fourth (and final) shelf.

Fourth shelf: below the summit block

At the edge of the final shelf take a moment to study the scramble ahead of you. You will be ascending the southwest facing slope (the left-facing slope in the picture). Also, take note of where you are standing. The open shelf offers many options for descent, some of these options could make you very grumpy. When you know how to enter and how to leave then cross the shelf, contouring to the south (left on ascent), to attain a low shoulder.

View of the Magdelana Mountains from summit.

From the shoulder climb directly to the summit on steep, scree-covered terrain. The scree lasts for a rise of about 400 feet. At this point the surface becomes more rocky but maintains the steep pitch. After having ascended a total of 600 feet the angle mellows. The summit block has mild exposure, but the chief risk from a tumble comes from the belligerent vegetation. Arrive at the summit having travelled 7.7 miles. The summit houses offerings to space aliens and includes a phone for calling home. The views are grand. To the north lies the nearby Ladron Mountains, the semi-distant Manzano Mountains and Sandia Peak in the far Sandia Mountains. To the east find Carrizo Peak, the El Capitan Range and the north end of the White Mountains. The Socorro Mountains dominate the south. To the west, across La Jencia plain, find South Baldy amidst the entirety of the Magdelana Mountains. Sign the climbers log, phone home and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Alien offerings

The summit log has several entries from people who ran the entire length of this trail. I am impressed. Still, it would not be much fun to have your foot stabbed by the cacti and mesquite found here. More importantly, the ascent on loose scree begs for both foot protection and ankle reinforcement. Wear boots.

Two liters of water was enough for an overcast, windy and cool autumn’s day. In warmer conditions you will need at least twice that amount.

I treated this hike as a training exercise and took a full backpack. Mistake! The excess gear (together with some strong winds) threatened my stance on the steep-sided summit block. This tread rewards those who pack lightly.

The land owners along this route deserve your thoughtful consideration. Pack out litter. Give any cattle you encounter as wide a berth as you can. The windmill is a working piece of ranch gear and you can avoid stressing the cattle by staying away from it.

Links:

An valuable Summitpost entry gives due consideration to the possibility that you may end this hike in a secret CIA prison.

An entry on Peakbagger provides the basic data on this hike. Take a look at the trip report by Thomas Denham for another GPS track and more recommendations on route decisions.

The Albuquerque Journal presents a useful list of suggested hikes for this region that includes Strawberry Peak, although that route description seems to have been taken from the SummitPost entry.

View across Aspen Canyon to Aspen Peak

Overview:

A leg of the Continental Divide Trail once ridge-rambled east from Signboard Saddle, but the ridge burned and the tread is abandoned. Once uplifting, the terrain now supports only the lightest of positive spins. Bold regrowth, views down to shadowed canyons, views up to snowy ridges and stiff navigational challenges all  find a home along the old trail. A raw helping of sadness and some danger also lurks inside this galaxy of tall and weakening snags.

Elsewhere in the Black Range the 2013 Silver Fire produced a mosaic of burned patches and unscathed patches (see West Railroad Canyon). In contrast, the old CDT departs from Signboard Saddle, threads a few patchy burns, then marches into uncontested desolation. If you are a serious student of forest recoveries then this is the trail for you. Most hikers will want to give this trail some time. Green and great by 2029!

Driving Directions:

  • In Silver City, from the intersection of US-180 and NM-90 (signed as Silver Blvd and Hudson Drive in town) turn onto US-180 East.
  • 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 (past mile marker 15) turn right onto FR-150. There is a small, brown Forest Service road sign saying, “150”.
  • After 7.8 miles on FR-150 veer right onto a gravel pad and, across the pad, onto an unsigned forest road.
  • After 0.2 miles, in a flat meadow, park your car. This leaves you 0.5 miles short of the trailhead, but for sedan drivers it represents a reasonable compromise between “getting there” and “never leaving”. 

Forest Road-150 is signed, “High Clearance Vehicles Recommended / No services 120 miles” and “Sharp Curves, Steep Grades, Trailers over 20 feet Not Advised”. Also known as North Star Mesa Road or NM-61 or Wall Lake Road, this roadbed does have rough and narrow stretches. Drive undaunted because the first 7.8 miles contains nothing worse than a steep and washboarded initial incline. Wildlife abounds. Exercise deer diligence when the moon illuminates your travels.

Sign for Mimbres River/CDT next to a gravel pad and forest road

A Forest Service trail sign for “Mimbres River Trail #77 / Continental Divide Trail #74” stands where you veer off of FR-150. A regrettably similar sign stands at mile 7.3, just after the intersection between FR-150 and FR-150A. Skilled navigators will watch for the large gravel pad and the second Mimbres River/Continental Divide trail sign.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry in meadow, next to the forest road

A flat meadow served as the trailhead. The only services are an aging corral and a signpost at the end of the forest road. There is no water, vault toilet or trash service in either place. The signs at the start of the trail point to State Road 61, the Mimbres River Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.

Data:

  • lowest elevation: 7460 feet
  • highest elevation: 8760 feet
  • net elevation: 1300 feet
  • distance: 7.3 miles (one way)

Note on the GPS track: The outward track does not begin at the meadow but rather at the end of the “unsigned forest road” (my mistake). The return portion of the GPS track shows the entire length of the trip.

Hike Description:

Signed junction with Mimbres Lake Trail

From the meadow stroll 0.5 miles to the corral and Forest Service signs at road’s end. One sign points to Signboard Saddle and asserts a distance of three and a quarter miles (a slight underestimate). Hike past this sign on a rock strewn two-track, which evolves into a single track on a gentle descent. Reach the signed junction with the Mimbres River Trail at 0.9 miles.  Go straight at the junction for the trail connecting to Signboard Saddle and the CDT. 

Cookes Peak (sharp highpoint, left), Burro Mountains (faint triplet, center) and Black-to-Signal Peak Ridge (right)

As the connector trail starts to rise you get glimpses of a forested dome ahead. Arrive at the dome’s base at 1.8 miles where the trail begins a short series of switchbacks. Keep looking over your shoulder – the southern view encompasses Tadpole Ridge and the Black Peak to Signal Peak ridge, with a purple glimpse of Mount Cooke. At the top of the switchbacks the path swings west and contours below the dome’s summit. New views open north to a vast bowl feeding into Rocky Canyon. Your path takes you east across a saddle and then bears north atop the bowl’s eastern rim. Pinyon and juniper, the lords of the lower trail, give way to ponderosa pines. To the east the slopes of the Black Range are a riot of darkling canyons.

Sign on the abandoned leg of the CDT, near Signboard Saddle junction

The trail drops gently off of the rim and barrels into the forested wonderland of Signboard Saddle at 3.7 miles. This spacious saddle houses a broad stand of tall Ponderosa. The canopy is dense, the forest floor is dark, yet the slanted morning sunlight glows warmly on cinnamon-hued trunks. The Silver Fire left the saddle singed but not roasted. 

Pine needles usually carpet the saddle, although crunchy old snow covered the ground on this date. The connector trail passes over the height of the saddle to intersect the CDT. On your left the CDT departs south to the Mexican border. Ahead a new leg of the CDT departs north to the Canadian border. On your right the old leg of the CDT (once the official northern branch) lies camouflaged by bracken, pine needles and seasonal snows. A wooden sign on the old trail says “not maintained, dangerous”. Concede the point gracefully if the winds are picking up.

Initial signs of fire damage along the trail

Got yourself a windless day? The old trail rises on the east flank of the saddle, tops on a spacious hillock and drops into an expansive headwater much like Signboard Saddle. These locations endured some flames but retain most of their big trees. The trail strives to stay on the 8400 foot contour, weaving out for each new ridge and weaving in for each new hollow. On the third outward weave the the fire’s stark effect becomes evident. Standing snags outnumber living trees. Even the tough mountain brush, grey oak and mountain mahogany, are spread thin. The forest floor seems unnaturally free of living obstacles. A singular shrub thrives, however. It often grows as a solo, waist-high shoot and is decorated with scimitars disguised as hefty thorns. The thorns attack synthetic fleece, giving high gaiters another reason to exist. Expect the tread to become intermittent. The path snakes below a much abused barbed wire fence. If you lose the path try following along the fence.

Canyons above the south branch of Mimbres River (from off-trail on saddle)

At 4.9 miles the trail comes close a saddle top. Go briefly off-trail for views to cliffs, canyons, mesas and alluvial fans that grace these mountains. The forest that once adorned these slopes is gone; leaving plain a story spoken in rock and snow beginning on the Black Range ridge, coursing to its middle in a confusion of canyons and ending on the Mimbres River. 

Snow over trail

Round the next rib and enter a hollow at 5.2 miles. Here navigation-by-trail becomes wishful thinking augmented by misplaced trust. Deadfall occludes the trail. A slow motion landslide afflicts these ridgeside soils, tossing stones and piling debris onto the trail. Part of this tread has twisted into alignment with the hillside. A line of tall grass tufts marks the tread’s rolled remains like a vegetative gravestone rubbing.  The main ridge stays visible above you and offers some guidance. Watch for several high ribs that strike north into the Aspen Canyon bowl. If you find yourself on a prolonged northerly descent you’ve mistaken a rib for the ridge. (The excursion north shown on the map at mile 6.2 was just such a mistake). 

Fire sculpted snag

Finished with wiggling east, the trail begins a northeasterly trend. There is a switchback at 5.8 miles. It may be obvious in warmer conditions but it was easy to miss on this date. Beyond the switchback is a steep swale, so when your thoughts turn to, “that really doesn’t look right”, then scan uphill for the broken fence line. Weaving out on the next rib you encounter a heartening grove of ponderosa saplings. Perhaps the fire was less intense here, allowing the seeds to survive. Aboreal armageddon visited the next hollow, where ranks of bleaching snags scorn any thought of swift recovery. The snags themselves are enormous. Fifty-foot high and fire-sculpted tree trunks have braved six years of mountain weather in a peculiar display of post-mortem toughness. Be amazed, unless the trail goes near one of these widow makers. Then, be quick.

View back to shoulder (left side) on the approach ridge

At 6.6 miles the main ridge hits a shoulder where the tread drops 100 feet. The shoulder’s north face supports a bastion of thorn bushes. The trail disappears. Hack through this bastion and arrive on another saddle, warmed by the midday sun and snowmelt soaked. The glide of these squishy soils into the canyons seems palpable under foot. Push past deadfall on the far side of the saddle and regain the trail where it rises along the west face of the ridge. Rounding a knoll at 7.3 miles the trail turns back east. The views, grim and magnificent, cross the Aspen Canyon headwaters to the charred summit of Aspen Peak. Take a seat on a sun-bleached log, take a pull on your water bottle, take out the lunch fixings and take in the view. Fast hikers could continue all the way to Aspen Peak. Out of time? Return the way you came in.

Recommendations:

former CDT cairn doggedly marking the old trail
  • Avoid windy days. Gain an edge by scouting your favorite forecast website for a block of two or three windless days.
  • Question why you would pick this particular hike. I do want to revisit this corner of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, pending a decade exploring elsewhere.
  • On this date the snow rose as far as my boot tops, obscuring enough of the tread that I made frequent map and GPS checks. Go when the snow is gone to ease navigation. That said, grass grows in long stretches of the trail, deadfall lies in heaps and broken tree limbs mat over the tread many inches deep. Novice navigators need another destination.
  • Two liters of water was plenty, despite a balmy 45 degrees on the ridge lines. In warmer (but still windless!) weather the absence of shade will factor into water considerations.

Links:

The Forest Service refers to this trail as the Aspen Mountain Trail in its list of “Trails Not Recommended”. They make special mention of the New Mexico Locust (described above as “decorated with scimitars”) in concluding that this trail is impassable.

That’s all that I could get out of Google. The vast majority of “hits” were thru-hiker blogs describing the Black-Range/Gila-River alternative routes and why they (invariably) chose the Gila. Please leave a comment if you’ve know of other links.

01  Black - Sacaton Mt to Mogollon Mt

View to Black Mountain (extreme left), Sacaton Peak (center) and Mogollon Baldy (white peak above the saddle between Black and Sacaton Peaks)

Overview:

The Holt-Apache Trail, #181, takes you up the west-facing slopes of the Mogollon Mountains to a view point on the summit block of Holt Mountain. A history of wind and fire has resulted a thin patch of snags that opens to terrific views across the Dry Creeks region of the Mogollons. My turn-back time had arrived so this report does not describe the trail where it ascends the last few hundred feet to the summit of Holt Peak. On a longer day that should be easy to do. It might be even more rewarding to continue along the Apache-Holt trail for another half mile while searching for views down Whitewater Creek and into the heart of the Gila Wilderness. The trail is moderately steep, clinging to canyon bottoms in the first stretch and then mounting well-engineered switchbacks to bring you up out of the canyon. Unfortunately, the trail is being abandoned by the Forest Service. You are needed! Hike this trail and your very tracks will assist in keeping this gorgeous national resource open.

Driving Directions:

  • From US-180 and NM-90 in Silver City, NM, go west onto US-180.
  • After 53.7 miles on US-180 go right onto Sheridan Corral Rd (gravel). The road is officially signed CO54, but there is an informal sign attached to a fence saying “Sheridan Corral”.
  • After 4.0 miles on Sheridan Corral Rd arrive at trailhead at end of road

Sheridan Corral Road is currently in good shape. All the maps I’ve seen depict a loop at the end of Sheridan Corral Road. That loop may exist, but it looks as if it might only be accessible to ATV drivers. If you are driving a truck or car then the end of the road is a smallish gravel pad in front of a weathered trailhead kiosk. I suspect that horse-folk use this trail. Please leave the gravel pad open so that those dragging a horse trailer can turn about. There is a gravel pull-out beside the road just before the pad. You can park in that pull-out.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry

The Mighty Camry in the pull-out

The trailhead is just a gravel pad and kiosk. There is no trash, vault toilet or water service. You should not count on water running in the canyon (bring your own). There are picnic tables and vault toilets in the Aldo Leopold Vista on US-180, near mile marker 63 (just a few miles south of Sheridan Corral Road). A sign near the start of the trail says that the trail is no longer maintained and that it may be hard to find in places. That last warning is not currently warranted. Finding the trail was straight forward, even when the tread was buried in a half foot of snow.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 6354 feet
  • ending elevation: 9377 feet
  • net elevation gain: 3023 feet
  • total gain: 3804 feet (gps)
  • total decent 3832 feet (gps)
  • distance: 5.0 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

03 Sheridan Mountain

Sheridan Mountain

There is an apparent trail junction right behind the trailhead kiosk. Veering off to the east (to your right, looking uphill) lies a two-track. This may be part of the old loop that once graced the end of Sheridan Mountain Road. You will want to bear northeast (to your left looking uphill). That will take you past a bright yellow warning sign saying that the trail is abandoned and may be hard to find. The trail ascends for a short ways, gaining the top of the ridge between Sheridan Corral Creek and the unnamed canyon to the north. On the ridge the trail meanders back and forth until you enter the Gila Wilderness at 0.6 miles from the trailhead. The signage for the Wilderness boundary is falling to pieces. Past the signs the trail begins a short drop to the canyon bottom. The tread rounds a broad buttress and views open to Sheridan Peak on the east side of the canyon. Above you, on the west side, is much evidence of the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire of 2012. It must have burned hot. Even now, seven years on, the hillside is covered with patchy grass and a strikingly sparse scattering of gray oak. 

05 fallen hoodoo

Post-hoodoo

The fire damage extends all the way to the canyon bottom. This region, protected from winds by canyon walls, is a continuous display of shriveled firs and blackened pines. On this day the creek in the bottom of the canyon was roaring away, displaying a gray-green coloration from the sand and clay it was hauling down from the heights. (There had been recent rain and snow storms). As you continue upstream you will encounter a monumental boulder in the canyon bottom, at 1.5 miles from the trailhead. This boulder may have once been a fin of rock that then wore into a hoodoo, then into a “hanging rock” and then losing to gravity to become a “settling rock”.

06 Holt and Big Dry Creek fork

Junction with N. Fork, Big Dry Creek Trail

The trail twists back and forth across the creek while ascending at a gentle rate. As you pass the boulder you may notice that the fire devastation has eased. Huge old ponderosa and Doug Firs are present, sometimes blackened around their bases but still thriving. At 2.0 miles the trail enters a level, meadowy stretch and comes to a signed junction. The North Fork Big Dry Creek Trail #225 departs to the right. Veer slightly left to stay on the Apache-Holt Trail.

07 spires and fins on canyon rim

Proto-hoodoo

Both of the canyon rims lower as you ascend. The canyon walls open broadly to the sky. The creek bottom is warmer and brighter. The canyon is still quite dramatic, as the rim features tall hoodoos, fins and crown-shaped outcrops. Apparently this segment escaped the fire entirely. The understory includes a particularly clingy form of bramble that can slow your progress considerably. It was a good idea to have gaiters just to deal with the brambles. On this date footprints in the snow showed the passage of both deer and elk. 

08 small death cookie

Snow Pinwheels above the trail

At 3.4 miles the trail leaves the bottom of the canyon and begins a series of carefully constructed switchbacks. The trail builders have thrown long rock walls to shore up the downside of the trail wherever needed. Scratch your head and ask how it is possible that such an investment could possibly be abandoned. The slope above the trail is steep in places. In wintertime you may see snow pinwheels (also known as “death cookies”) scattered along the hillside. These are thought to be evidence of unstable conditions. Exercise some thought before crossing any snow-choked chutes. Up and up and up! Although really it is only a half mile of switchbacks before the trail lurches to your right and makes a long, flat contour to the east. A mosaic of all-green patches and all-burned patches arise at this level, with the burned patches providing you with views back down the canyon.

09 thru-the-trees peak at frosted Holt Peak

Peek to frosted Holt Mountain

The trail eventually reaches a rib-top and turns uphill to follow the rib towards the high ridgeline. Views of Holt Peak can be seen filtered through the evergreens. This is a gorgeous ramble through dense Douglas firs. The snow began to accumulate (on this date) and the junction of the Apache-Holt trail with Holt Gulch Trail #217 was obscured. Fortunately there was enough trail evidence (such as sawn logs or water bars) poking through the snow that the main trail could be followed to the ridge.

10 Viewpoint looking west to Mangas Trench

View south and west to Arizona

The trail slowly climbs to the main ridge line. When you reach the ridge it is worth turning north, off trail, and ascending towards Holt Peak for another hundred feet through open forest. You will find a stark, nearly snag-free burn with views swinging from the east down to the southwest. Looking across both the Big Dry Creek and Little Dry Creek drainages you will see Black Mountain and Sacaton Mountain, with Mogollon Baldy peeking over the ridge between them. You have almost innumerable options at this point. If you have enough daylight hours then the summit of Holt Peak is immediately above you. Energetic campers will want to continue along the Holt-Apache trail into the Mogollon’s high country. Time-limited day hikers, however, will probably want to soak in the sights and return the way they came.

Recommendations:

11 author on Sheridan Corral Trail #181

Author, sheltering from the breeze

  • As with other hikes in the Mogollon Mountains, dedicating just a single day to this hike is going to be frustrating. There is so much you won’t get to see! From my turn-back point it would be only 4.6 more miles to Spider Saddle. From the saddle a range of summits becomes accessible. These include Grouse Mountain, Indian Peak, Black Mountain, Center Baldy, Whitewater Baldy, Willow Mountain and many others. If you have the time then treat this hike as just the approach-leg for an extended stay.
  • Haven’t got a free weekend? Then just do this hike! The canyon is beautiful and the views at the top are great. Plus, this trail (like many others in the Gila) badly needs greater boot-sole solace. Your efforts here will help to keep open a hiking gem.
  • I went through one and a half liters of water on a warm (50 degree) winter’s day. That was plenty. If your own trip is planned for the truly warm months, however, then factor in the effects returning through burned areas (with little shade) in a southwest-facing canyon. The rush of water described in this report was strongly influenced by a recent snow storm and a subsequent rain storm. The canyon bed is likely to be dry in the pre-monsoon season.
  • Consult the weather reports before going on this hike. The remaining snags are aging fast and wind will eventually topple them all. In recent years the snow pack has been terribly light and avalanche concerns have been almost negligible. That said, do watch for patterns of storms that might suddenly increase the risk. There are chutes here that raise your wintertime risk-levels. 
  • I heard just one sharp sound that may have been gun fire. The Gila Wilderness does open for hunting. A National Park Service report (undated) says that turkey season is late April and early May. Deer and elk season for bow hunters is the first three weeks of September, while deer and elk season for rifle hunters is October and November. Bear and cougar season is December and January. An orange wardrobe will continue to be useful for at least another couple weeks.

Links:

There is a detailed route description from 2016 (i.e. post fire) at HikeArizona.

Closures and other official information can be found at the Forest Service site.

“Stav Is Lost” has a trip report that describes a foggy-day approach in wintertime New Mexico. The photos will give you a good idea of what you are heading into, with emphasis on how the 2012 Whitewater Baldy Complex fire took a big toll on this part of the world.

The Casitas de Gila page has a 2015 trip report, but one that only extends for the first 1.5 miles of the hike. The geological discussion at the end is very interesting. They also recommend picking a calm day.