Archives for category: Aldo Leopold Wilderness
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.

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 Meadow in Buckhead Canyon Confluence.jpg

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

Overview:

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

Driving Directions:

02 sign for forest road to trailhead

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

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

Cautions:

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

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

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

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

Trailhead:

03 The Mighty Camry and corall

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

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

Data:

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

Hike Description:

04 trailhead sign

Weathered wooden Forest Service sign at the trailhead.

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

04a Trail 77 Mibres River Trail sign

Junction with Trail 77

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

05 Dome from Trail 77 connector

View to tree covered dome

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

06 bowl to north of dome

View across large bowl to northern rim

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

07 Signboard Saddle signs

New signboard in Signboard Saddle. Note the turn.

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

08 Dry Confluence Cairn

Cairn at first confluence

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

10 Ponderosa meadow

First of the ponderosa meadows

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

11 Park Bench at confluence

“Park bench” at second confluence

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

13 Blazes, cairns and tread

Blazes and cairns

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

14 signs in Corner Meadow

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

Recommendations:

15 author in Corner Meadow

Author attired for turkey hunting season.

Do this hike. Bring friends. Take your time.

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

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

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

Overview:

View from Crest into West Railroad Canyon

View from Crest into West Railroad Canyon

West Railroad Canyon (Trail 128) is a wonderful hike. Numbered among its attractions are easy access to the trailhead, running water, eye-catching terrain and a clear trail of very reasonable length and steady gains. Long-time hikers may point to the neighboring Gallinas Canyon or East Railroad Canyon, both of which share the running water (in its lowest reaches) and can claim many of the same attractions. This is true, but West Railroad Canyon remains a standout because the 2013 Silver Fire did minimal damage along this waterway. Regrettably, the same can not be said for its neighbors.

Evening view from NM-152 from Emory Pass to Caballo Range

Evening view from Emory Pass on NM-152 to the Caballo Range

Driving Directions:

  • From Lohman Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 heading north
  • After 59.2 miles, take exit 63 for NM route 152.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the exit ramp, turn west (left) onto NM-152
  • After 37.3 miles pass the sign for the Railroad Campground, then (in about 200 more feet) make a U-turn and park in a pull-out area beside NM-152.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry in front of a sign for Railroad Campground

The mighty Camry in front of a sign for Railroad Campground

Railroad Campground is currently closed and the entrance is gated for the season. It is not recommended that you park in front of the gate. The entrance is steep and narrow, leaving little room should there be an emergency (e.g. fire) where crews would need to enter. Instead, park in the turn-out down the road. During the regular season the campground would be open and offer parking, tables, fire rings, trash receptacles and a vault toilet (currently locked). The canyon runs past the campground so you only need bring a water filter. On this date the water was clear (no murk from the burn).

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7100 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9120
  • Net Gain: 2020 feet
  • Length: 4.8 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Hillsboro, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

Cow in the Railroad Campground.

Cow in the Railroad Campground.

The first 1.5 miles on Trail 129 ascends north along Gallinus Creek in a beautiful canyon setting. You will find it described in detail on the Gallinas Canyon route description. Rather than repeat the description, this route description will add a few minor points. First, the water level has risen since the Gallinas Canyon hike was described – a rise of just an inch or two that almost eliminated the promised “dry footed crossings”. There are one or two places where you can cross on logs. Alternatively, brief searches up- or down- stream may reveal stepping stones. A “mostly dry footed” ascent was possible but those stepping stones are unstable. You risk getting drenched in snow melt. Second, as the photo on the right shows, you may encounter cattle in the canyon. This one was startled awake by my approach and seemed regretful of company. Give them a wide berth.

Sign at the junction of East and West Railroad Canyon

Sign at the junction of East and West Railroad Canyon

At 1.5 miles come to the signed junction where Trail 129 departs left and ascends into Gallinas Canyon. Go straight ahead on Trail 128 as it begins a sweeping bend towards the northeast and ascends into the lower reaches of Railroad Canyon. Stream crossings become markedly easier, which is fortunate since the trail skittishly leaps the water at each bend. Scorched tree trunks and some blackened deadfall provide mute testimony to the fire of 2013, although most trees appear to be healthy. At about 2 miles from the trailhead the tread pulls away from the stream to the left and crosses a piney flat. The tread becomes fainter and grasses may obscure the trail during growing season. Returning to the stream the trail becomes fainter still. A half mile further you will find a small stream comes in from the west (left, looking uphill) and the trail becomes especially obscure. Stay on the west bank (left) so as to avoid missing the trail junction. If you were to stay on the east bank you could easily pass the junction and find yourself heading into East Railroad Canyon. At 2.2 miles from the trailhead a sign marks the junction. Go left to enter West Railroad Canyon.

Tall trees, sunlit hoodoos and steep sided canyons in the entrance to West Railroad Canyon.

Tall trees, sunlit hoodoos and steep sided canyons in the entrance to West Railroad Canyon.

The trail becomes more obvious as you enter this steep sided canyon. The music of water falling into deep pools echoes from the canyon walls. The trail pulls away from the rough and tumble of the stream bed and clings to the canyon side. There is considerable evidence of trail work in the form of sawed deadfall. Overall this trail is in great shape, with only one spot where four trees lie in a tangle across the trail. Drop down a bit and skirt the tops of the fallen trees.

..

Waterfall in West Railroad Canyon

Waterfall in West Railroad Canyon

At 2.9 miles from the trailhead the path returns to the stream bed where a major tributary comes in from the west. Stay on the east bank (right side, looking uphill) and work your way past the debris deposited in the canyon bottom. Above this confluence the canyon walls gentle and the grade eases. Stream crossings are a minor issue. Ponderosa pines still dominate, but there are increasing numbers of firs as well.

First view of the Black Range crest from the trail

First view of the Black Range crest from the trail

Follow the trail due north as the forest thins and meadows begin to open up. In warm weather keep an eye open for poison ivy. I saw one instance of ivy and it was an eye-catching shade of green – in February! On this date small patches of snow began to appear at about the 8000 foot level. It never blanketed the ground, but obviously that could change quickly. At 3.4 miles from the trail head you will find a brief series of switchbacks that pulls you away from the stream. Look through the tree tops for a first peek at the Black Range crest.

Gated fence in deep forest near the crest.

Gated fence in deep forest near the crest.

The tread returns to the creek, now a tiny stream and almost certain to be dry in the warmer months. Stay to the west side (left, looking uphill) because at 3.6 miles the main path makes a distinct turn, to just-west of north, and begins switchbacking along side what appears to be a minor rivulet. The terrain becomes steeper as you approach the high ground near the crest. Very near the crest, at about 4.3 miles from the trailhead, pass through a carefully maintained gate in a barbed wire fence. Just above the fence you will enter the only serious burned patch on the entire trip. Forest recycling is evident as more and more of the charred snags show signs of fungal colonization. Fortunately this burned patch is small (nothing compared to the devastation at the top of Gallinas Canyon) and is quickly traversed.

View west into the Gila National Forest

View west into the Gila National Forest

Reach a saddle on the crest at 4.3 miles from the trailhead. There are excellent views to the west where the mountains of the Gila National Forest crowd the skyline. The views east are limited, but at least it is a healthy, unburned swath of forest that crowns the ridge above Holden’s Prong.

Point 9335 seen from a height of land north of the saddle.

Point 9335 seen from a height of land north of the saddle.

In the saddle you will find an intersection with the Crest Trail, #79. There are several possible loops you could make, but on a short winter’s day it seemed best to head west on the Crest Trail to a nearby height of land with views east. Follow trail #79 for an additional 0.3 miles, where it sharply rounds a prominent rib. Go off-trail and follow the rib to a small prominence crowded with scrub oak. A bit of bulling through the oak will bring you to vistas into Holden’s Prong and out across the basin to the Caballo Range in the east. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

14 author

Author, near point 9217

Folks who live in El Paso, Las Cruces, Deming, Silver City, Truth-Or-Consequences (or any nearby community) all share recreational gold in this resource. If getting out of the house sounds good, then pull on those hiking boots and give West Railroad Canyon a shot. You could hardly ask for a more beautiful spot in which to stretch your legs. Want to impress your hiking friends (or trying to recruit someone who hikes)? Send them here.

The season will matter. On this date the morning was cold enough to merit three layers (polypro undershirt, flannel midlayer and a fleece vest). However, the moment the sun’s rays penetrated to the canyon bottom both the polypro and the fleece came off. Even on the ridge it was warm enough to make the flannel a little too much. In the warm months this west-facing terrain probably bakes – you’d have real reason to celebrate the shade offered by those Ponderosa pines. This is just a guess, but the best time of year might be early spring. In late March, April or early May the days would be long enough to permit exploration without the sweltering or the lightening risk that comes with summer days.

I got through three liters of water – despite the February date it was warm after mid-morning. On a hot day you’ll want at least two or three more liters.

The risks are pretty standard for hiking in New Mexico. Snow patches were found along the trail but on this date they offered no serious barrier to hiking . There was no evidence that I could find of avalanche risk. That said, deep snow has been reported here, hikers should have a clear idea of the limits to their risk-tolerance.  In warm weather the terrain probably rattles. There was enough evidence of the Silver Fire that strong winds would be a concern. The fire has reduced the fuel-load on these slopes so future fire risk is probably diminished – but certainly not eliminated. In drought conditions the entire waterway may be dry so bring your water from home.

Links:

Desert Lavender describes a camping trip up West Railroad Canyon then across the Black Range crest to Emory Pass.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has a report on hiking in West Railroad Canyon (and the neighboring canyons). He visited before the fire and captured some very nice photos of aspen in their fall colors.

The Gila Back County Horsemen of New Mexico were here in April and described their efforts in opening this trail. Many thanks to those folks!

The Forest Service has a page for Railroad Canyon. It mentions that a loop could be formed by ascending Railroad Canyon (Trail 128), traversing the Black Range Crest (Trail 79) and descending Gallinas Canyon (Trail 129). That could be done by hikers who are faster than me or who chose to explore on a day with longer daylight hours. Curiously, they make no mention of East Railroad Canyon, which would also make a great loop. There are important navigation challenges for these loops. The junction between the Crest Trail and Gallinas Canyon Trail is in a stand of badly burned aspen and there was no sign marking the junction when I was last there. I assume that the sign was lost in the fire. In contrast, the junction between the Crest Trail and East Railroad Canyon is clearly signed. Some stretches of the tread into East Railroad Canyon, however, have been obliterated by wholesale rearrangement of forest soils. It would require good path-finding skills to follow it into East Railroad Canyon.

Overview:

Open and rolling terrain (if badly burned) near the saddle on the Black Range Crest

Open and rolling terrain (badly burned) near the saddle on the Black Range Crest

The Black Range in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness was severely burned in 2013. The Gallinas Canyon Trail #128 (gallinas is Spanish for “hens”) gives you a tour along the western edge of the disaster. There are stretches where little is left but grass and standing char, but don’t despair. The fire burned mosaic fashion, leaving patches of still-green trees threaded by a beautiful stream in a remarkably mellow alpine environment. This is relatively open terrain and it is laced by numerous side canyons that invite further exploration. Moreover, this trail has received careful attention from trail builders since the fire. It is in much better condition than the trail up the neighboring East Railroad Canyon. Most of the improvements seem to end at the new corral in the upper canyon, so it seems reasonable to guess that the horse-riding community has been active here along with the Forest Service. They deserve our thanks. Gallinas Canyon might make an excellent doorstep for those seeking entrance to the unburned northwest corner of the Wilderness.

Driving Directions:

Evening view from Emory Pass on the drive back from Gallinas Canyon

Evening view from Emory Pass on the drive back from Gallinas Canyon

  • From Lohman Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 heading north
  • After 59.2 miles, take exit 63 for NM route 152.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the exit ramp, turn west (left) onto NM-152
  • After 37.3 miles pass the sign for the Railroad Campground, then (in about 200 more feet) make a U-turn and park in a pull-out area beside NM-152.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, parked alongside NM-152 near the Railroad Canyon trailhead. The snow at this altitude only remained where it had been plowed.

The mighty Camry, parked alongside NM-152 near the Railroad Canyon trailhead.

Railroad Campground is currently closed and the entrance is gated for the season. It is not recommended that you park in front of the gate. The entrance is steep and narrow, leaving little room should there be an emergency (e.g. fire) where crews would need to enter. Instead, park in the turn-out down the road. During the regular season the campground would be open and offer parking, tables, fire rings, trash receptacles and a vault toilet (currently locked). The canyon runs past the campground so you only need bring a water filter. On this date the water was clear (no murk from the burn).

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7100 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 8975 feet
  • Net Elevation: 1875 feet
  • Distance: 5.75 miles (one way)
  • Map: USGS Hillsboro, NM quadrangle

My copy of the 2013 edition of the Hillsboro quadrangle does not show the trails in the Wilderness. In contrast, my copy of the 1999 edition does show the trails. This may be due to an error on my part in downloading the 2013 map, but check your maps before going out into the hills.

Hike Description:

04 signs in quarry

Cautionary signs in the rock quarry (double click to enlarge images).

From the turnout beside NM-152, walk uphill to the entrance to Railroad Campground and descend into the camping area. Cross to a berm of rocks at the far end and follow a two-track into the woods and then into a rock quarry. The trail leaves the quarry below a sign warning you of elevated risk due to fire damage. Very true. The tread immediately makes the first of its numerous stream crossings in the lower stretches of Gallinas Creek. A sign on the far side of the creek informs you that you are on Gallinas Trail #128. Trail 128 is very well maintained and leaps back and forth across the creekbed. In periods of high water flow this may be a bit sketchy, but at this time of year the crossings could all be made dry-footed. After about 0.6 miles, cross a wide shelf that has a decaying corral to the left of the trail and then follow the tread back to the stream as it pursues a course north into the mountains. At 0.8 miles the trail pulls away from the stream again and climbs about 50 feet above the stream bed. This is a good spot to look around and get a feel for the lower canyon.

A rock fin near to the point where Gallinas Canyon joins Railroad Canyon.

A rock fin near to the point where Gallinas Canyon joins Railroad Canyon.

The canyon twists through large, oxbow-like bends and then presents a prominent rock fin high atop the canyon’s west bank. In the early morning it can reflect a spectacular amount of light into the dim canyon bottom. At 1.4 miles from the trailhead, come to a signed fork in the trail. Going straight ahead would take you to the Railroad Canyons (East and West).

14 pocket canyon hanging above Gallinas

“Pocket Canyon” on flanks of Gallinas Canyon

Instead, go left and begin a short ascent to get into Gallinas Canyon. Although it is only 0.2 miles, the ascent is one of the steepest stretches of the entire trail. It will remove any remaining chill you may have experienced on the way in. At the top of this ascent you will enter a curiously shallow canyon, with a particularly low wall on its west side. Go briefly off-trail and ascend this wall and you will find yourself staring into the much deeper drainage of the main Gallinas Canyon. Apparently the trail is taking you into a canyon within a canyon. Cool!  Return to the trail and follow the pocket canyon as it gently climbs. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead you will encounter an old barbed wire fence with a wide gap. There are several boot beaten tracks at this point, but the main tread goes through the gap and follows the rusty fence as it contours gently into the bed of the main canyon.

A bit of trail (extreme left of picture) and typical view of the gently ascending terrain of Gallinas Canyon

A bit of trail (extreme left of picture) and typical view of the gently ascending terrain of Gallinas Canyon

The trail is quite obvious here (although a season of heavy grass growth could obscure things). The canyon bottom is fairly broad and the stream is at such a shallow gradient that water falls and pools are fairly rare. At mile 2.3 you will find the confluence where Turkey Run Canyon joins the Gallinas Creek bed. It isn’t immediately obvious which of the two streams is largest, but Gallinas is the stream coming in from the north (on your right looking uphill). The trail pulls a brief disappearing act beneath deposits left by the colliding streams. To recover the tread, cross to the wedge of land between the two streams and ascend as if you were trying to stay equally distant from both creeks. In just 40 or 50 feet you should find an obvious track.

Footprints in a trail identifiable only as a depression in the surrounding field of snow

Footprints in a trail identifiable only as a depression in the surrounding field of snow

The fire did burn in mosaic fashion, but it has to be admitted that the green and thriving patches are small compared to some of the roasted and grim patches. Sharpen your awareness of wind speeds and watch for  semi-fallen trees hung up on the charred limb stumps of still-vertical snags. At the same time, note the conifer saplings growing in the wetter spots and in those places where the fire did intermediate levels of damage. The forest is struggling back. One particularly green stretch arises about 3.1 miles from the trailhead, where another tributary, unnamed, flows in from the west. Once again the debris deposit obscures the tread. Simply cross the tributary and then cross to the east bank (right side, looking uphill) of Gallinas Canyon. The tread is immediately obvious. On this date snow banks often obscured the trail. More or less constant snow began at about 3.6 miles from the trailhead (about 8200 feet altitude). From that point on this “trail description” becomes more of a “canyon description”.

Corral on shelving terrain near the Black Range crest

Corral on shelving terrain near the Black Range crest

At 4.3 miles the terrain starts to shelve and you will encounter a new corral adjacent to the trail. Surprisingly, the deer seem to love this structure – the snow was positively crushed by deer tracks around and within the corral. The trail up to this point was in terrific condition, with much hard work going into clearing the downed trees and pushing rockfall out of the tread. The trail continues to be obvious above the corral, although the quality drops somewhat and there are stretches where even light snow would obscure it completely. Where the path is not obvious stay close to the creek bed. Generally the trail stays to the west side (left, looking uphill) in this area.

Artifacts of the west - a coil of wire abandoned on the crest of the Black Range.

Artifacts of the west – a coil of wire abandoned on the crest of the Black Range.

You approach the crest in surprisingly open terrain where Black Range “peaklets” create a sense of rolling hills. Despite that quality the tread is steadily upwards. In the last quarter mile (starting about 5.2 miles from the trailhead) the terrain steepens again. Watch through the trees to your right for evidence of the saddle between Gallinas Canyon and a waterway on the far side of the range called Sid’s Prong. When the saddle becomes obvious, depart from the creek bed and climb through aspen trees directly to the saddle. The saddle is densely loaded with burned trees and it could be windy. Caution is needed here. On this date the intersection of the Gallinas Canyon Trail #128 with the Crest Trail #79 was under snow and not especially obvious. If it had been signed then those signs are now gone. A large roll of plain wire (perhaps abandoned by long-ago fencers) was the only clear sign that others had ever visited here.

Recommendations:

12 author on saddle

Author on the Black Range Crest

♦Despite the fire this is very attractive terrain. It deserves a longer day than what you get in January, so a late spring day might be ideal. The usual weather risk is compounded by the stands of burned trees. Be especially careful if there are new snow loads or when high winds arise that might collapse a “widow maker”.

♦Much hard work has already gone into opening the lower portions of this trail. Much more needs to be done on this trail and in this Wilderness. Support funding for the Forest Service!

♦Please bear in mind that this route description arises from a trip when the grasses have died back and trail finding is at its easiest. Even though the trail stays in (or very near) a canyon bottom it would not be too hard to get confused. People have gotten lost here. See the links below.

♦Before diverting into Gallinas Canyon the trail is almost untouched by fire, has easy hiking and is extraordinarily beautiful. It would be a great place to bring the youngest of hikers. The trail up Gallinas Canyon is mellow, although somewhat long. Careful mentors might want to bring slightly older hikers into this scorched but attractive terrain.

♦In warmer weather it is likely that you will need to watch for snakes and carry quite a bit of water. In midwinter conditions I consumed just over a liter of water. In the winter gaiters are very advisable. The deeper snow on the crest could easily get into your boots. I saw little evidence of avalanche terrain, but a heavy snow year could alter that quickly.

♦Judging from the available maps of the Silver Fire, the northern end of Gallinas Canyon isn’t very far from the western edge of burned area. It might be possible to take a pack up to the intersection with the Crest Trail #79  and then work into the unburned regions of the Aldo Leopold Area. I haven’t tried it, but the upper reaches of East Canyon or Bear Trap Canyon might be within reasonable range.

Links:

♦Southern New Mexico Explorer (recording trips made before the Silver Fire) compares the hikes in Railroad Canyon and Gallinas Canyon. He reports the mysterious (if unmistakable) allure of the terrain leading down into Sid’s Prong and into the interior of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. If you are going in warm weather, then you will want to make note of his observations regarding poison ivy as well.

Patrick Alexander has some great landscape photos of this terrain before the fire. It certainly makes me wish that I had been more industrious about getting there when the getting was best.

♦The Las Cruces Sun-Times has a story about one hiker who came into this area to do a loop and got lost. (Suffering severe frostbite and pneumonia as a consequence). That hiker’s conclusion was that his decision to push into an unplanned scramble was a mistake. It can be.

♦A select list of hikes in the Gila/Aldo Leopold Wilderness, which includes milage and recommendations for seasons, can be found here.

♦The speculations about helpful horse-folks clearing the trail (above) has some bearing in fact. A report from the Gila Back Country Horsemen indicates that they worked on the trail this past April. Many thanks for their efforts!

♦The New Mexico Herpetological Society has a report indicating that Gallinas Canyon can rattle. In particular, they mention the banded rock rattler.

Overview:

Hillsboro Peak from Hillsboro Bypass Trail. The  burn in the center is flanked by a mosaic of still-green trees.

Hillsboro Peak from Hillsboro Bypass Trail. The burn in the center is flanked by a mosaic of still-green stands.

This is a beautiful venture in the too-rarely-visited Aldo Leopold Wilderness. Before the Silver Fire it may have been a normal hike of twelve miles and 2000 feet gain. Post fire, we are left with a mosaic of “barely touched” evergreen stands that alternate with grimmer swatches of standing char. The high canyon walls, the “barely touched” stands and the flowing water make for a beautiful adventure in southern New Mexico. The patches of blackened trees are freighted with awkward footing (due to fire-induced, slow-motion rockfall into the canyon) and carries a tread that disappears into the grasses for long stretches. This is the price of admission. Do this scramble! Pick a day with little wind (snags) and long hours (uncertain footing) and gain access to spectacular terrain.

Driving Directions:

View of sunrise from the east side of Emory Pass - on short days you'll want to arrive at the trailhead early!

View of sunrise from the east side of Emory Pass – on short days you’ll want to arrive at the trailhead early!

  • From Lohman Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 heading north
  • After 59.2 miles, take exit 63 for NM route 152.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the exit ramp, turn west (left) onto NM-152
  • After 37.3 miles pass the sign for the Railroad Campground, then (in about 200 more feet) make a U-turn and park in a pull-out area beside NM-152.

The drive is entirely on paved roads.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, seen parked along NM-152 a short distance from the entrance to the Railroad Canyon Campground.

The mighty Camry seen parked along NM-152 a short distance from the entrance to the Railroad Canyon Campground.

Railroad Campground is currently closed and the entrance is gated for the season. It is not recommended that you park in front of the gate. The entrance is steep and narrow, leaving little room should there be an emergency (e.g. fire) where crews would need to enter. Instead, park in the turn-out down the road. During the regular season the campground would be open and offer parking, tables, fire rings, trash receptacles and a vault toilet (currently locked). The canyon runs past the campground so you only need bring a water filter. On this date the water was clear (no murk from the burn).

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7070 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9260 feet
  • Elevation gain: 2190 feet
  • Distance: 6.1 miles (one way)
  • Map: USGS Hillsboro Peak quadrangle.

Hike Description:

Railroad Canyon Campground, with tables and fire rings (viewed from NM-152)

Railroad Canyon Campground, with tables and fire rings (viewed from NM-152)

Cross the campground, pass a berm of rocks, then follow a two-track into the woods where it leads to a quarry. A sign at the far end of the quarry shows where the trail begins. The sign notes that the recent fire has raised the risk level for trail users, which is certainly true. On USGS maps this trail is labeled as #129, although some descriptions seem to call it #128. Either way, follow the trail as it leads immediately to the waters of Gallinas Creek and the first of innumerable crossings. This portion of the canyon is spectacular and easy hiking. Rock pinnacles atop the canyon walls dazzle in the morning light while you strain to pick out the tread along the dim canyon bottom. The canyon twists and turns as it furrows north, parallel to the crest, for 1.3 miles. At this point Trail #129 departs northwest (to your left, looking uphill), into Gallinas Canyon. Trail #128 goes straight ahead, then begins a broad swing to the east and brings you to the confluence of East  and West Railroad Canyon.

East meets West at the Railroad Canyons confluence.

East meets West at the confluence of Railroad Canyons.

The trail continues its frenetic creek hopping for another half mile, but then hits a basin and surprises with the decision to pull away from the running water. The path crosses a flat expanse of grass and forest (perhaps the remains of an old beaver pond). Eventually the trail rejoins the water and here the trail fades out a little. Continue probing upstream and watch for hints of trail on the north bank (on your left going uphill). At 2.1 miles from the trailhead you should find a junction where the trail up West Railroad Canyon goes off to your left and the trail up East Railroad Canyon goes off to your right. The junction is signed, as shown in the photo above. Go right.

U-shaped abrasion through hard rock, just before trail above waterfalls.

U-shaped abrasion through hard rock, just before a stretch of trail that takes you above waterfalls.

Here the trail begins a serious disappearing act. Find the main stream bed for East Railroad Canyon, cross it and continue upstream on the south bank. In a few hundred feet the walls of the canyon pinch the stream bed very closely and the waters have scoured a U-shaped indentation in hard rock. Just past this pinch-point watch the north bank for a faint tread that leaves the stream bed and rises about 50 feet above the stream. The path’s start is marked by a cairn. This tread will take you above a waterfall that might otherwise be difficult to surmount. Just past the waterfall the tread descends steeply back to the canyon bed.

08 cairn

A cairn in an otherwise untracked meadow.

This is large mammal country. On this date there were numerous deer tracks and several cat tracks. A bear with two cubs was roaming this area on the return portion of the hike.

As a rule of thumb, it seems best to ascend towards the inside of canyon curves, where the terrain usually shelves. Don’t commit to crossing the stream, however, until you can see into the flattened area. These shelves sometimes carry log jams that are severe impediments to travel. My impression is that the old trail stayed mostly along the north bank, making frequent but short jumps to the south whenever the north bank becomes uncomfortably steep. Here and there you will find lichen-coated cairns poking up through the dying grasses and looking sadly misplaced in stretches where all signs of a trail have disappeared.

Burn extending to canyon bottom.

Burn extending to canyon bottom.

As you ascend further into East Railroad Canyon the severity of the burn increases. In places the burn extends all the way to the canyon bottom. Abundant grasses grow in these patches (helping to explain the numerous deer prints found in the sand beds). At about 4.1 miles from the trailhead, in a badly burned patch, come to another spot where the canyon walls pinch closely together. Rock spires tower over a pretty 6-foot waterfall. Despite the devastation it is a great spot to have a snack, a drink of water and to soak up some sun. The walk continues above the falls, but it is about to get steeper.

View across the steep sided ravine to a particularly clear stretch of trail.

View across the steep sided ravine to a particularly clear stretch of trail.

Above the waterfall the forest remains burned for about a quarter mile, slowly regaining a green hue thereafter. There are many tributaries in the upper canyon. At each confluence, choose the stream that has the largest flow of water. Where it gets dry, choose the stream bed with the gentlest incline. Eventually you will encounter terrain in which the stream disappears below the stream bed, making only brief appearances where rock shelves force water to the surface. Above, you will begin to see hints of the Black Range crest. Try to stay on the north bank (left, looking uphill) to find a path that pulls you away from the east-trending canyon and into a steep-sided ravine coming in from the north. There is a scattering of log-ends sawed flat by trail teams before the fire. These sawn surfaces are now fire-blackened. The trail falls into the ravine and pops steeply up the far side several times.

View across swale where a possible trail skirts below the rock and contours around the end of the rib

View across swale where a possible trail skirts below the rock outcropping and contours around the rib to the right.

The trail crosses the steep-sided ravine for a final time and then switchbacks steeply to the top of a minor rib. The rib-top is part grassy meadow and part rock ledges. Looking uphill, the steep-sided ravine will be on your left and a much shallower, swale-like drainage will be on your right. The tread runs through the grasses towards a pile of three or four burned logs in the swale. Here the trail seems to stop. Better pathfinders might discern a possible tread that comes out of the logs, traverses below a big rock outcropping and swings around the next rib (I didn’t see it until I was on descent). For the track followed on this date, look across the swale to it’s far bank and raise your eyes to a minor saddle about 200 feet above. Climb to the saddle, which is grassy and holds widely spaced trees. In earlier eras it must have been a terrific camp site. The mountains along the Black Range crest come clearly into view.

Intersection with obvious trail, looking west into the Gila National Forest

Intersection with obvious trail, looking west into the Gila National Forest

Turn uphill (almost due north) and climb, huffing and puffing, on steeply inclined meadows. The rib top is punctuated with rocky outcrops. Initially, stay to the east (right) of these outcrops. After ascending about 300 feet you will find yourself on a sandy shelf with further progress on the east side blocked. Cross the rib on the shelf, pushing past pinyon pines and ascend along the base of cliff-like outcroppings until you strike a very obvious, but unsigned, trail. Make very certain you will recognize this spot on return! Turn to the east (right) on the trail and follow it as it traverses the upper end of East Railroad Canyon. The trail is generally in good shape, save in a few short sections where the forest soil has been plowed up by new waterways. After less than half a mile, come to a signed intersection with the Hillsboro Bypass Trail. Hillsboro Peak lies to the north. Go a few yards south along the trail for great views to the west and the mountains of the Gila National Forest. The views to the east are screened by severely injured forest. It is a sobering way to view the huge cliffs on Timber Mountain and Bushy Peak in the Caballo Mountains. If you have time, consider a hike up to Hillsboro. Those who are short on daylight hours will want to return the way that they came.

Recommendations:

Author on Hillsboro Bypass Trail, below Hillsboro Peak

Author on Hillsboro Bypass Trail, below Hillsboro Peak

♦The stem of the canyon, before it branches into east and west canyons, is a great short hike in magical terrain. The path up to the junction is obvious and the incline is very mild. This would be a wonderful place to take a youngster old enough to handle the distance and do the stream crossings.

♦Consider turning around if the winds come up strongly. On a nearly windless day I heard far more rockfall than tree fall, but those big, black snags are not going to stand forever.

♦The rock-strewn trail in East Railroad Canyon demands vigorous attention. I was surprised by the drain this put on my sense of reserve strength. If you’ve hiked the trail before the fire, then you might want to nudge its difficulty rating up a notch.

♦At this time of year the grasses are dying back and making it much easier to pick out the trail. Expect trail finding to be considerably more difficult during the growing season.

♦On the December hike described here all crossings were dry-footed. The trip is likely to be much wetter after a late-monsoon storm. Springtime snow melts typically accelerate in the afternoon, especially on west facing terrain. Your morning’s ultra-chilly crossings might turn daunting as the sun deploys to its full afternoon power.

♦At 9200 feet some folks are going to feel the altitude. Check on your party’s experience with altitude sickness. If you need a refresher, here is a succinct description of the symptoms.

♦Many pre-fire online reports mention the poison ivy in East Railroad Canyon (see links below). On this December hike I did not see any (as you might expect). Those who are not familiar with the plant can find exceptionally clear photos here.

♦ I started hiking just as it got light enough to see the tread and got back just as it was getting dark, feeling pressed for daylight. The longer days of late spring might have been a better choice. The morning portion of this December hike was very chilly. Watch for ice on the rocks where you cross the creek. Gloves and a fleece vest came in very handy.

♦(There will be a brief hiatus in posts until after New Years. Happy holidays!)

Links:

♦The plant-friendly blog explorenm.com has a description of the first 2.5 miles of the canyon (up to the junction of East and West Railroad Canyons).

♦Southern New Mexico Explorer compares and contrasts the hikes in both East Railroad Canyon and Gallinas Canyon, and comments about the plants and wildlife found along the trail. The trail up Gallinus branches off at about 1.3 miles into the hike. The Gallinas trip sounds terrific.

♦The Silver City Sun-News has a story of someone who was lost for three and a half weeks in this area. (She may have wanted to be lost, the story is not clear). I’m going to quarrel with their list of emergency items to carry. The Seattle Mountaineers have given this a great deal of thought and their 10 essentials is excellent advice.

♦Desert Lavender describes a shuttle trip that begins in the Railroad Canyon Campground, but diverts into the West Railroad Canyon trail to gain the crest, then follows the crest back to Emory Pass. Like the Gallinas trail (above), this sounds like great trip.

Overview

Autumn view, with a streak of yellow near the summit from a broad-leafed tree. Could it be aspen?

This hike is a terrific introduction to the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. The car does the hard work and leaves you at an elevation of 8149 feet (2480 m) at Emory Pass. From there, follow a brilliantly maintained trail as it craftily navigates along ridge-tops and around hillocks to maintain an even strain and bring you to Hillsboro Peak at 10,011 feet (3050 m).

UPDATE  2/1/2014 – The Silver Fire has greatly altered the nature of this hike. See the Railroad Canyon post for a description of the effects of the fire. Greg, at Greg’s Running Adventures, has a post indicating that trail 79 to Hillsboro Peak is open.

Driving Directions

  • From Las Cruces, take I25 North from Lohmann Av.
  • After 59.9 miles (96 km), get off I25 at Exit 63.
  • At end of exit, turn left onto NM 152.
  • After 33.4 miles (54 km), turn right onto Emory Pass Vista Rd.
  • After 800 feet (245 m), the road ends at the trailhead

All the roads leading to the trailhead are paved. The last few miles of NM-152 are heavily switch-backed and likely to be hard on folks who are susceptible to motion sickness.

Trailhead

N 32 54.596′
W 107 45.839

Classic Forest Service trailhead. To following text, note the pit toilet at the top right of the picture.

The trailhead has a pit toilet and trash receptacles. I didn’t see any source of water. It is a large parking lot, but even at this time of year it was pretty busy by mid-day, the views are outstanding. To find the trail, walk back towards NM 152 (as if you were leaving). The trail departs from the road just past the toilet.

Hike

View east from trailhead. Looks like a great day ahead.

The hike is approximately 5 miles (8 km) long, one way. It begins at an elevation of 8140 feet (2480 m), and provides a net gain of 1,870 feet (570 m). This is reported to be a popular trail so an early start is worthwhile. The photo shows a dawn view from the trailhead.

The map of the hike, shown above, shows the trailhead in the south and the summit to the north. The trail depicted is somewhat speculative. Much of the hike is through forest and hard to spot from Google satellite photos. In particular the switch-backs depicted near the summit are creatures of creative cartography. However, the total distance is about correct and, be assured, you do encounter switchbacks near the summit. The two blue markers along the trail show where reliable GPS co-ordinates were taken.

An example of the large investment of labor hours on the Emory Pass to Hillsboro Peak trail.

A few notes on the trail. Most of the trail is maintained to a level rarely found outside of National Parks. The stone wall construction shown in the photo on the right attests to quite a few back-breaking hours.

As you leave the trailhead you take a normal track for a short distance – perhaps 0.2 miles (0.3 km) – before intersecting with a road. Remember this intersection!  Go right (uphill) past a heliport to follow the road to its end.  Again, study the intersection. There is a sneaky little trail coming in from behind you that might lure a weary but unwary hiker to an unplanned bivouac.

Point on trail at which the trail divides, to the left of the tree is the trail leading to the summit.

There are a couple other trail intersections, but these are almost all well-marked. The single exception is a fork in the trail encountered as the tread nears the summit. Common sense works, take the branch that goes most steeply uphill. That uphill tread, however, is not so obvious that you couldn’t walk past it in a trail-trance. The picture on the left shows a tree with a blaze. The summit trail goes to the left of the tree and the lower trail goes to its right.

The sign says GO BACK! (Actually, if you were to turn left (uphill) at this point, the trail will take you to the ranger station).

If you miss this junction and continue on the lower trail, then in just a few hundred feet you’ll come across signs for another intersection, shown on the right. Not to be discouraged!  It means you are very close.

Photo from tower: view of cabin and mountains to the east of Hillsboro Peak.

At the summit there are two cabins and a fire watch tower. The highest level of the watch tower was locked, but from penultimate level you can still get outstanding views.  The picture on the left shows one of the ranger cabins taken from the tower.

Descent is by the same route. The only navigational puzzle comes as you near the trailhead.  There, you will find a fork marked by a helpful (“HEY, WAKE UP”) cairn placed ambiguously between the two prongs. Go right, onto what is clearly the road that goes past the heliport. That will take you a short distance before you have to depart the road (to the left) for the trail leading back to the trailhead.

Recommendations

The trailhead at dawn.

Although an early start is recommended, you can over-do it (see photo to the right). In particular, a cool morning stroll is preferred since there was no hint of water along these ridgelines until you get to the summit. Other trip reports state that the ranger will often allow hikers to replenish from the summit cisterns. It appears, however, that the summit cabin is not manned at this time of year and two of the three cisterns were locked. The remaining cistern looked like it had dried out at about the same time that the dinosaurs perished. Just below the summit there is a sign saying “spring”, but my scouting efforts failed to turn up any flowing water. I had a little under a gallon in my pack, which was fine for this time of year.

View from where the trail first hits the dirt road leading to the helipad.

Aside from water issues, an early departure from the trailhead may reveal the sort of lurid-pastel landscapes that New Mexico is famous for. The morning sunlight penetrating into the forest and lighting up the surrounding hills was really amazing. It was so photogenic on this weekend that my progress through the woods was heavily compromised.

The skies were clear on the drive in, so it was chilly up at 8000 feet. It was nice to have a heavy shirt to wear over my normal hiking attire.

Possibly the best lunch spot in New Mexico.

Even in October, however, the need for extra layers faded by 10:00 a.m. Having lunch on the summit was pretty great. There probably isn’t much wisdom, however, in gambling that the winds will always be so still and the sun so much in evidence.