Archives for category: Gila Wilderness

01 View into the canyon near the start

Overview:

The Little Dry Creek Trail rises through spectacular canyon terrain on the wild west side of the Mogollon Mts. Despite its name, the water in the creek bed was flowing cheerfully on this post-monsoon date. A sign at the trailhead says the trail is abandoned, but it looks as though someone has put a great deal of recent effort into keeping the path open for the first three miles – to the point where you first see trunks charred by of 2012 Whitewater Baldy fire. The older maps show that the trail used to continue upward to Windy Gap, which once made for a nice 2000-foot gain. Unfortunately the higher terrain is deeply littered with debris from the fire and is now home to remarkably thorny brush. It has to be admitted that I did not find the upward continuation of the trail. Most people, I think, will want to have a mellow day in the gorgeous lower canyon lands and turn back where the first charred trunks appear. The more adventurous will want to wear ballistic fiber gaiters and maintain a high degree of pace patience. 

Driving Directions:

  • In Silver City NM, starting at the junction of US-180/NM-90, go west on US-180. In Silver City the street signs call these roads “Silver Heights Blvd” and “Hudson Street”, respectively.
  • After 50.5 miles on US-180, past mile marker 63, go right onto Sacaton Road (becomes gravel). 
  • After 2.9 miles on Sacaton Road make a left onto Little Dry Creek Road (signed as Forest Service Road 196). You might be expecting a fork if you’re looking at Google Maps, but the junction looks much more like a T-intersection.
  • After 3.4 miles on Dry Creek Road, at its end, park at the trailhead.

EDIT: the Sacaton Road was re-graded sometime in December. As of 12/25/2018 the road was in quite good shape. The following “original comment” is being left in place to warn drivers that the road can be rough.

The Sacaton Road [was] in poor shape. Fist-sized talus lies strewn across the road in many places and there are sudden dips where the numerous small washes cross over the road. My low-slung Camry made it, but family sedan drivers will want to drive very slowly at each wash crossing. Fortunately, Dry Creek Road is in much better shape. 

Trailhead:

02 the Mighty Camry at Dry Creek Trailhead

Kiosk backing the Mighty Camry

The trailhead is just a wide gravel pad with an information kiosk at the end of Little Dry Creek Road. There is no water, trash receptacles or water. There should be little competition for parking space, but you should try to leave space so that folks pulling horse trailers can turn around.

Data:

The map above has a red waypoint marker to show where the trail turns away from the stream bed to ascend the west-side wall (on your left, ascending). The blue markers indicate earlier trail features that may be useful in identifying the departure point.

  • start elevation: 6280
  • ending elevation: 7720
  • net elevation: 1440 feet
  • Distance: 4.2 miles (one way)

(A note on blogging conventions: most of the earlier posts made explicit mention of the USGS map (or maps) that cover the trail. This is beginning to seem like a disservice as other mapping options now seem better suited to hiking. Hikers should look into online options such as CalTopo. I haven’t yet used any of the other services, but many online commenters make favorable mention of AllTrails or Open Street Maps as well ).

Hike Description:

03 flood warning

Little Camping Next 3 Miles!

The trail begins immediately to the right of the information kiosk. You will note a bright yellow sign to the left of the kiosk warning that flooding occurs and that camping in flood plains is not recommended. The canyon bottom is narrow, the canyon walls are steep and you will find little camping space outside of this essentially continuous flood plain. The trail ascends for the first quarter mile on an aging and rock-strewn two-track. At the top is a terrific view towards West Baldy and the large folds of weathered rock that conceal this enormous canyon. Drink in the view and continue forward as the two-track dives towards the canyon bed. There isn’t much room for cattle in the canyon bottom so it seems unlikely that ranchers would have developed this road. This two-track may be a product of the generally unsuccessful effort to find mineral wealth in the Mogollon Mountains. 

02 an intrusion of hard rock nearly damming Dry Creek

Intrusion of hard rock, left side of photo

The two-track reforms into a single track path at the canyon bottom. Immediately ahead is an enormous curtain of hard rock that almost dams the creek. The stream beats the seam, however, and water has sawn a narrow slot right through the formation. The trail builders have found a way up the west wall of the canyon (to your left on ascent) to take you safely past this barrier. This establishes a noticeable pattern on the trail. It will amble along peaceably and then suddenly lurch towards the sky to surmount the next waterfall. 

05 waterfall across a hard intrusion

One of many waterfalls in Dry Creek

The creek meanders considerably and the steep outside wall of each bend is hostile to the intent of trail engineers. Consequently, the trail displays a creek-leaping tendency each time a new inside-bend presents itself. It was possible to ascend dry footed on this date, but in wetter seasons it could be a challenge. As mentioned there is a pattern of waterfalls where harder rock intrudes. You may find it worth while to head upstream, off-trail for a short distance, to investigate some of these pretty falls and their deep pools. It can be chilly on an autumn morning. The sun does not reach the canyon bottom until late in the day. Dense stands of pinion pines and scrub oak (Arizona White Oak, making a cross-boundaries appearance) provide further shade for the first two miles of the hike.

06 abandoned mining cabin

Miner’s Cabin

At about two miles you will find a weather beaten,  cabin, falling into ruin. This may be the upper limit of where pack animals could reach and the most convenient place to drop off mining supplies. Building roads and erecting cabins is hard work, testimony to the persistence of those seeking a living in this rugged landscape. Maps indicate that one old mine, the Maverick Prospect, might be found on the east wall above this cabin.

06 water to sky

Canyon Bed to Canyon Rim

From time to time the walls angle steeply back and admit a little sunlight to the creek. In such places the trail warms up and the vegetation thrives. You may get peek-a-boo views of the canyon ahead, where towering rock walls (300 feet high? 600?) will cast the trail back into cool canyon gloom. These are the places where you will see most of the animal sign. There was bear scat on the trail and occasional evidence of elk. At 2.4 miles from the trailhead you will note that the pinyon pine that dominated the lower route has given way to enormous ponderosa pine.

08a Massive cliff flank of West Baldy

Peek-a-boo view to major canyon wall

A mighty wall of rock descends from the flanks of West Baldy Mountain to the east side of the stream bed, and it is chiefly this wall that you will have seen from those earlier peek-a-boo views. Before reaching the foot of this wall, at about 2.8 miles from the trailhead and just before a prominent waterfall, watch for the tread to depart sharply uphill. The trail ascends on the east side (right side, looking up-canyon) and makes a switchback or two. Looking up this eastern cut you will see a large hoodoo high above. This is a clear sign that you are nearing the point where the old trail diverged from the canyon bottom.

A short distance further, at 3.0 miles, come to the end of the cleared portion of the trail. Here you will see the first evidence of fire damage along the trail. There is a camping spot with a fire-ring on a protected shelf beside the trail. This is where the maps show the old Little Dry Creek Trail departing from the stream bed and clambering along above the bed for about a quarter mile, then entering a side cut. This side cut (possibly called Rainwater Canyon) leads to Windy Gap on the ridge. Satellite images show a very obvious tread once you get about 100 feet above the canyon bed, but below the trail is screened by the Ponderosa and Douglas fir that dominates near the water.

08 Mogollon Ridge from turnback point

View to the ridgeline of the Mogollon Mountains

Frankly, I missed the point where the trail departed the canyon bottom and simply continued uphill along the stream bed. The terrain is as wild as any I’ve seen and, despite the fire, quite beautiful. It is markedly more difficult hiking. Part of the difficulty is due to the vegetation that has grown up in the years since the fire. Thorny, tough and dense, it covers holes in the ground and screens the lurking piles of burn debris. Navigation is easy in the canyon bottom but your pace will be slow. Look for short stretches where Little Dry Creek has scrubbed away plants and dirt alike, providing a sidewalk-like path on naked rock. Beware! Ice on this rock can persist all day long. In other places short stretches of animal trail can ease your passage markedly. I turned back after reaching 4.2 miles and having found clear views to the main ridgeline of the Mogollon Mountains. A great day, even though my gaiters will never be the same!

Recommendations:

10 Author in hunting season attire

Author in hunting season attire

The trailhead is only 6.3 miles from US-180, but don’t let that fool you. This is wilderness. Bring a shovel and perhaps a bow saw in your car, so that you can handle any minor issues that may occur on the roads leading to the trailhead. A single thunderstorm could create real problems.

I suspect that Little Dry Creek really is dry most of the year. Bring plenty of water. I went through one liter and that was fine for a pre-Thanksgiving day, but in warmer weather you will need a lot more. The Mogollon ridge line can be very dry, so if you are heading up there be extra careful about your supplies.

From the trail the miner’s cabin appears to be in good shape (for an untended “historic place”) but it is not so very good that it couldn’t fall on you. Moreover, it probably houses a population of mice and in New Mexico there is a genuine concern with mice as carriers of hanta virus.

In this deep canyon cell phone service may be non-existent. Let people know where you are going and when you expect to return.

The shade from rock and vegetative sources may make this a nice warm season hike, particularly if you are going to stay in the lower stretches of the canyon.

Links:

The Casitas de Gila Nature Blog has an interesting discussion of the trail and its link to mining history in New Mexico and a separate post describing some other historical aspects and the geology of the region.

Doug Scott Art has a very enthusiastic review of the hike (this blog is a terrific resource on the slot canyons and waterfalls in New Mexico).

01 Black Peak from CDT

Black Peak seen from the Continental Divide Trail

Overview:

This is a mellow hike along a wonderfully maintained tread to a 9000-foot summit and back. Despite the altitude and season the tread was almost entirely snow-free. On a sunny day you could hardly ask for a better mid-winter exercise. Of course we’ve just been through months of drought conditions and that has a big effect on the snow – your milage may vary. If you are searching for a true wilderness experience then the thicket of antennae atop Black Peak may not be to your taste. That said, any stroll in the Gila is a sovereign cure for the cabin-fever blues.

Driving Directions:

02 NM-15 just before CDT crossingThe Interstate Highway 10 corridor (I-10) links  El Paso, Texas to Las Cruces, Deming and Lordsburg in New Mexico, then heads towards Tuscon, Arizona. To get to the trailhead you first need to get to Silver City, which lies north of the I-10 corridor. If you are coming from the east then take route US-180 north out of Deming. If you are coming from the west then take route NM-90 north out of Lordsburg.

If you come into Silver City from Lordsburg on NM-90

  • At the intersection with US-180 in Silver City turn right onto US-180 East.
  • After 0.5 miles, at a stoplight, go left onto NM-15 (a.k.a Pinos Altos Road)
  • After 8.3 miles turn left onto a small gravel turnout and park.

If you come into Silver City from Deming on US-180

  • As you approach Silver City you will see a “Silver City/Altitude 5900 ft” sign on your right at the top of a small hill.
  • After 0.5 miles, at the first stop-light in town, turn right onto 32nd St.
  • After 1.3 miles, at a 4-way stop, turn right onto NM-15/Pinos Altos Dr.
  • After 7.3 miles turn left onto a small gravel turnout and park.

NM-15 is a twisty and demanding drive, making it easy to miss the gravel turnout. Watch for a sign on the left side of the road saying “Gila National Forest” (shown above). In a few hundred feet past this sign you will see a gravel road departing to the left signed as “4258J” (this is where the CDT rises up to NM-15). In another 100 feet the gravel turnout will be on your left. Past the turnout, in another 150 feet you, will see a large sign saying “WELCOME / Trail of the Mountain Spirits”.

Winter driving on NM-15 can be hazardous. Snow on the road banks tends to melt during the day and then form ice patches as the sun sets. Similar mechanisms scatter rocks onto the roadbed during the night. It pays to be extra careful on this part of the drive.

Trailhead:

03 the Mighty Camry at the trailhead

The Mighty Camry in its native heath. Notice the purple sign past the gravel turnout saying, “Welcome / Trail of the Mountain Spirits”

The trailhead is just a gravel pad on the side of the road. There is no water, trash receptacles or toilet. I brought water with me, but Bear Creek is nearby. If you were to head downhill on the CDT you might find water there. The Ley maps for the CDT indicate that this is an uncertain water source. It looks like 2018 could be a drought year so it is probably best to bring your water with you.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 6750 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9010 feet
  • Net Elevation: 2260 feet
  • Distance 7.8 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Twin Sisters and Fort Bayard quadrangles

Hike Description:

04 old roadbed

Washouts in the road bed

From the trailhead go back along NM-15 to the junction with Forest Road 4258J. Look uphill, opposite the forest road, and you will see the trees bearing the rounded-triangle CDT logo. Head uphill along the trail. The lowest reaches of the trail have recently received a great deal of attention. The tread is clear and there are numerous large cairns. At 0.3 miles from the trailhead there is a junction with a road. If you look right you will see trailhead parking at the end of Forest Road 4258 and straight ahead is an animal track. Turn left, and follow the washed out road as it climbs.  A side road comes in from your right at 0.6 miles (you need to veer slightly left to stay on the CDT). The tread rises steadily and is demanding enough to keep you warm on a mid-winter’s morning.

05 semi-ambiguous fork

Ambiguous fork. The white patch on the left is a sign saying “Trail”.

At 0.8 miles come to a slightly ambiguous fork. The right-hand fork heads straight up the rib face while the left-hand fork levels off and contours around the western end of the rib. The left fork is signed as “Trail” but does not specify which trail. Take the left fork. You are still on a gently rising and rock-strewn 2-track, but at this point you have risen considerably above the floor of Bear Creek and get great views into the western domains of the Gila National Forest.

06 Fog shrouded western Gila Forest

The western Gila mountains, atypically shrouded in low clouds.

Eventually the road rounds the end of the rib, turns to the east and steepens to approach the rib top. The steeper angle seems to bring out the talus – watch those ankles! On your left is a heavily corrugated bowl containing both Miller Creek and Little Cherry Creek. At 1.9 miles the trail reaches the rib top and levels out. On this date recent rains brought new problems into play. Atop the rib the road bed contains an improbable amount of clay. When wet this clay is clingy stuff. It can form snowshoe-like masses of dirt around hiker’s boots. Did it come in on the winds? Was it deposited on an ancient sea floor and is now being exposed by erosion? If you are hiking at a later point in the season then you are not likely to have this particular problem. Instead you may encounter these clay particles as wind blown dust.

6a road sign at otherwise unsigned junction

Remaining sign near trail junction.

At 3.0 miles from the trailhead the road comes to a junction where aged sign-boards survive but the text that once adorned these boards has burned out and faded away. On the far side of the junction there is a stake identifying the road you are on as FR 4258. Leave the road by turning left (on ascent) and continue eastward towards Twin Sister Peak. The new tread is a long -neglected forest road that has almost fully evolved into  a regular foot trail. It makes a long approach along the rib top, past agave gardens and through stands of pinion and aligator juniper. At 3.7 miles come to an unsigned junction with another aging woods road and go straight across.

07 Twin Sisters

Twin Sister summits

Eventually the pair of knolls for which Twin Sisters Peak is named pulls into view. As you near them the pinion yields to ponderosa. The trail rises sharply then contours around the northwestern base of the knolls. Beyond them you gain the rib-top proper and are rewarded with good views to the south. Immediately below your feet is the canyon containing Twin Sisters Creek. In the medium distance you will see the strikingly prominent Bear Peak and the slightly more distant, triple-humped Burro Range. In the far distance lie the low hills above Lordsburg, New Mexico. The terrain steepens and the trail obligingly begins to switchback. A huge effort has gone into making this trail. Boulder fields have been re-organized into easy treads. Gully crossings are supported by rock walls.

09 forested flank of Black PeakFor a long stretch the trail takes you through gorgeous old-growth ponderosa pines, more park-like than any “real forest” has right to be. Each large tree is separated from its neighbors by 30 feet or more and the forest floor is covered in needles. In fact, the trail itself is covered in needles; remaining visible only as a faint furrow in the forest floor. Look for artifacts such as water bars and sawed-off deadfall help to confirm you are on course.  At about 5.9 miles come to a signed intersection with the Little Cherry Creek trail, departing to your left. Stay on the CDT and in a few hundred more feet come to a circle of five Forest Service trail signs. Here the Sawmill Wagon Road Historic Trail comes in from the south (on your right on ascent) and it appears that a connector trail goes down to the Little Cherry Creek trail on your left. Veer slightly to your right to stay on the Continental Divide Trail.

12 Unsigned junction to Black Summit

Cairn at base of burned tree marking summit junction.

Douglas firs begin to make an appearance as you near the top . Also making an appearance are certain grim reminders of a recent burn. The trail swings to the northwest and at 7.6 miles comes to a fork that is clearly signed. CDT through-hikers will want to stay to the right, but to get to the summit of Black Peak you should veer to the left onto the Signal Peak Trail. In another 0.1 miles come to an junction marked by a prominent cairn at the base of a large burned tree. Turn sharply south (left on ascent) and follow an informal tread to the summit of Black Peak. Antennae crowd this summit, but there are terrific views across Silver City, past the Burro Mountains and into true basin and range territory down in the boot heel. Return the way you came.

Recommendations:

99 author loosing weightMost hikers will not have to deal with the “feet of clay” problem since these mountains are normally dry. So dry, in fact, that you don’t want to gamble on finding any water along the trail. Bring a full day’s worth.

In the picture to the left I’m pouring out a gallon of water. Normally I don’t squander water on dry trails, but on today’s hike I took the extra gallon as part of getting into shape. Pouring this weight off while on the summit makes the descent much easier on the knees.

Sadly, there was only one thin and small patch of snow along the entire route. Since there has been two days of rain in Silver City I was hoping for much more. Even the higher Mogollon mountains to the west looked to be snow free. This is shaping up as another bad year for fires.

As with the neighboring Signal Peak trail, this is a beautiful, easily accessed and very well maintained trail. Folks in southern New Mexico who have tired of winter trips across Baylor Pass or around the Pine Tree trail should consider this venture to Black Peak as a terrific alternative.

Links:

The Gila Back Country Horsemen of New Mexico have done some of the maintenance along the CDT, for a writeup see a post on their website here. In it they suggest an interesting 13 mile loop up the Signal Peak trail to Black Peak (so a much different approach than the route described here) and a return via the CDT and Forest Road 89.

Rather strangely, that’s about all of the write-ups I’ve found on hiking the CDT from NM-15 up to Black Peak. Don’t let that dissuade you, this is a great day hike.

 

01 Signal Peak LookoutOverview:

This is a short hike, steep in the early stretches and distinctly civilized in terms of the antennae and fire lookout on Signal Peak.  The tread is clear, much of the route is sunny and at 9000 feet it is low enough to to tempt when winter starts to drag. This outing demands little in terms of planning. Just grab your pack, round up all the cabin fever victims and head into the Gila National Forest.

Driving Directions:

The southern part of New Mexico is traversed by Interstate Highway 10 (I-10). From east to west this highway links El Paso (TX), Las Cruces, Deming, Lordsburg and then heads towards Tuscon (AZ). To get to the trailhead you first need to get to Silver City, which lies north of this corridor. If you are coming from the east then take route US-180 north out of Deming. If you are coming from the west then take route NM-90 out of Lordsburg.

If you come into Silver City from Lordsburg on NM-90

  • At the intersection with US-180 turn right onto US-180 East.
  • After 0.5 miles, at a stoplight, go left onto NM-15 (a.k.a Pinos Altos Road)
  • After 14.4 miles, immediately before a cattle guard, turn left into the parking for the Signal Peak Trail (there are signs for the trail on the road).

If you come into Silver City from Deming on US-180

  • As you approach Silver City you will see a “Welcome To Silver City/Altitude 5900 ft” sign at the top of a small hill.
  • After 0.5 miles, at the first stop-light in town, turn right onto 32nd St.
  • After 1.3 miles, at a 4-way stop, turn right onto NM-15/Pinos Altos Dr.
  • After 13.3 miles, immediately before a cattle guard, turn left into the parking for the Signal Peak Trail (there are signs for the trail on the road).

Winter driving on NM-15 can be hazardous. Snow on the road banks tends to melt during the day and form ice patches when the sun sets. The road twists enough to inflict motion sickness on a rattlesnake and it performs these contortions on the cliffs above Bear Creek. Learn to love the traction.

If you are returning home by way of Deming then it can be easy to miss the point where you turn left onto 32nd St. Look for a 4-way stop. Just before the stop there are signs signs on NM-15 indicating that you should turn left to get to the Nation Forest Service Offices. At the stop you should see a fire station on your right.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry

The Mighty Camry, midst snow and ice.

The trailhead is just a gravel parking area. There are no toilets, water or trash receptacles. There is only space for two or three cars. If it is full then the reports say there is additional parking a few hundred feet up NM-15. There is an old forest road, signed 4257E, that departs to the west (wrong direction) out of the parking area, don’t go that way! Instead, cross NM-15 to the signed entrance to the Signal Peak trail #742.

Data:

Note on KML file: I left my GPS unit turned off at the start of the hike. Consequently, the initial 0.6 miles is missing but the tread is obvious and the return track shows the entire route.

  • Starting Elevation: 7220 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9010 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 1790 feet
  • Distance: 3.9 miles (one way)
  • Maps: USGS Twin Sisters quadrangle

Hike Description:

03 Sign on far side of NM-15Cross NM-15 to find the signed start of the Signal Peak trail. The tread drops into a broad meadow, strikes the foot of Signal Peak and begins climbing in earnest. On a cool winter morning your fingers stay chilled for a while but the rest of you warms up fast. The tread is obvious even where it was cloaked in an inch or so of snow. The terrain is populated by young ponderosa pine and (if you look into the woods on either side) rotting old stumps. Apparently the trail you’re on is an old woods road. The largest growing trees looked to be about 10 to 12 inches in diameter, so perhaps the logging occurred 80-100 years ago.

04 Rock wall marking switchbacks

Snow dusted trail alongside boulders

At the half mile point the trail passes a wall of 20-foot tall boulders and begins switchbacking steeply to gain the top of a rib. The rib is itself steep enough to keep those switchbacks coming. At 0.9 miles you will reach a broad shelf and a glimpse through the surrounding ponderosa of the summit block. To your right you will get views to the southeast, including the round-top Twin Sister Peak (apparently the namesake of the USGS quadrangle) and the more distant Bear Mountain. The trail now contours around the summit block and makes a rising traverse along the block’s southeast face. Openings in the trees provide views to the southeast.

05 View SW from below summit block

Twin Sisters Peak (left, rounded hill in middle distance) and Bear Mountain (on horizon just right of middle)

The traverse ends at a small watercourse (1.9 miles from the trailhead) and makes a brisk turn to the north. In another tenth of a mile it comes to what seems to be a junction. To your left an obvious tread that ascends steeply towards a large block of stone that is partially screened by a small ponderosa. It turns out that this is a dead end. Instead, turn right and follow the tread as tops another rib and then follows the rib past hoodoos and scrub oak to gain the summit of Signal Peak, 2.2 miles from the trailhead.

08 tower view of Black Range

Black Range on horizon and snow-clad approach road below the tower.

The summit is populated with antennae, a fire tower, supply hut, picnic table (with grill), a rustic helicopter pad and a strikingly well-maintained road coming up on from the southeast. This is a great place to take a break and drink in the surrounding views. The top of the tower is padlocked for the season, but you can still ascend the tower steps to get distant views north and east. (The south and west are blocked by trees). To the southeast lies the forested dome of Black Peak. Is your party up for a nice ridge ramble? Pick up that bag and follow the road out.

13 sign past the gate

Entrance to CDNST/Signal Peak trail overlap.

The road arrives at a sturdy metal gate at 2.5 miles from the trailhead. Immediately past the gate the road makes a sharp turn to the left and begins to descend from the ridge. You should stay high and find the entrance to the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST). It is currently flagged with a yellow sign warning hikers that trees along the trail are fire-damaged and especially prone to fall. True that; you will almost immediately begin to see fire scars on some of the trunks. The trail stays below the ridge top, on the northeast side. That does provide some amount of shelter from the prevailing winds.

17 Sunny saddle before black peak

Sunny and open saddle

At 3.1 miles the trail begins a traverse of fire killed trees. It makes for a desolate winter scene. It also, however, opens expansive views to the north. You can only hope that the soils remain stable long enough to get this terrain reforested. Keep an eye out for woodpeckers – they seem to have no problem with coniferous devastation. In less than a quarter mile the fire damage eases and the tread resumes its quiet, rise-and-fall ramble through the trees.  Watch for a sunny and open saddle above you, that is a sign you are nearing Black Peak.

16 cairn indiating trail to Black Peak

Burned trunk with cairn; trail goes up along the right side of the photo

The fire has produced an unusual amount of deadfall and this deadfall can obscure trail junctions. Keep an eye open as you reach 3.8 miles from the trailhead, about 8940 feet of elevation. There is a blackened tree trunk on the right side of the trail (which may be the source of some of the deadfall) with a cairn at it’s base. Go off the CDNST and follow the short, boot beaten tread steeply uphill to Black Peak, 3.9 miles from the trailhead. This is another antenna-dominated summit, but one with terrific views to the south and west. Enjoy the views and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

18 author on signal peak

Author on Signal Peak

This is an exceptionally clear tread, which is useful when there is a dusting of snow that might otherwise raise navigation issues. If you’re looking for a mellow winter hike and are getting a little bored with the Pine Tree Trail in the Organ Mountains then drive over to Silver City and enjoy a new winter destination.

On this date there was just a dusting of snow, rarely getting over the top of my hiking shoes. I was happy to have gaiters with me as they protect the opening of the shoes and add warmth. If the snows got any deeper then it would be very advisable to wear boots and to watch for navigational challenges that pass your comfort level. Turning back is the smartest option under those conditions.

The side-trail up to Black Peak can be a little hard to detect, particularly in contrast with the well defined CDNST. Watch for that sunny saddle and the cairn, keep your map in hand and monitor the ridge top. I had an altitude watch and found it very useful for checking the location on my map.

Links:

Fire closures are a real thing, as this hike makes obvious. It pays to check in with the National Forest Service website, here. It includes good additional instructions about how to find parking for this hike if the first parking area is filled.

The 100 Hikes Near Silver City website documents a summer approach to Signal Peak. They note that it is a popular trail and they encountered several other parties on an April outing.

Southern New Mexico Explorer provides a brief description of this trail and comments about being invited up onto the top of the lookout tower – evidently the views are great.

The Hike Arizona site also describes the trail and recommends it for people who are traveling along NM-15 to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Finally, the Summit Post writeup suggests that you can drive to the summit and provides directions. (I doubt that they meant for you to try this in wintertime).

Overview:

2013-05-04 21 chalkwhite boulder and cliff (better)

Cliffs and boulders above the Gila River

I hiked this trail only after being shut out of the northern part of the Crest Trail in the Gila Wilderness (see “Recommendations” below). For a “fall-back” plan, this hike was  amazing. You begin following a road that criss-crosses the river. If you are as new to the New Mexico wilderness as I am then watch in amazement as people place vans, trucks and SUVs into two foot deep running water without any appearance of concern. Near the confluence of Turkey Creek and the Gila River the cars can make one last crossing (and not many bother with that). You can choose to go left (north) to follow Turkey Creek and seek out it’s famed hot spring. Or you can abide along the east trending Gila, walking in the the river, passing grottos used by ancient hunters and camping beneath tall cliffs and soaring birds of prey. This trip report describes a little of both waterways.

There are supposed to be several hotsprings in this region. The guidebooks and the Forest Service all labor to warn visitors that these springs can contain a protist called Naegleria fowler, the causative agent for amoeboid meningitis. The usual advice is to keep your head above water when using the springs.

Driving Directions:

Since I was headed for a different trailhead, these numbers are mostly taken from Google. Sorry about that!

  • From Las Cruces, take Rt 70 to the intersection with I10 and enter the highway going west toward Deming.
  • After 51.9 miles, take exit 82B onto I10-Frontage-Road in Deming. You could take 82A, but that leaves you less time to move over to the right for the next turn.
  • After 0.2 miles, go right (north) onto North Gold Ave/US Rt 180
  • After 80.7 (more) miles, turn right onto Rt 211 (signed for Gila). This is the second junction between US Highway 180 and Rt 211.
  • After 2.3 miles, turn left onto Rt 153
  • After 3.6 miles the pavement ends and I think Rt 153 becomes Rt 155/Turkey Creek Road.
  • After 4.4 (somewhat difficult) miles descend to a floodplain surrounding the Gila River  and come to a camp site on your left – just above a gully. This will be the highest available parking spot if you think that flooding is a possibility. Otherwise you can go as far as 5.5 miles before the road makes its first river crossing.

It looks to me as if Rt 155 has been recently graded.  That does not mean that it treats the family sedan kindly. In many places the roadbed is steeply inclined bedrock. Rocks of various sizes tend to accumulate in any depression. If you allow your drive tires spin, then they can kick these stones into the undercarriage with remarkable force. To get by these spots you need momentum. On the other hand, if you go fast over a bedrock ledge and crash the undercarriage against that lump of rock then you may have some explaining to do to your oil pan. Take a high clearance vehicle if you can.

Trailhead:

2013-05-03 04 camp at trailhead

Tent and car at uppermost campsite above the flood plain

This trailhead is vast. It begins above a gully – about 50 feet above the flood plain, but continues along the river for two more miles. Constant vehicular use has ground the flood plain to dust, although trees do provide shade immediately alongside the river. If you are skilled at predicting flooding then you can easily drive the next mile and save on the sub-stellar hiking. There are no amenities.

If you are confident in your ability to cross waterways in your vehicle, then driving to the confluence of Turkey Creek and the Lower Gila will save you about another mile of road hiking.

Due to the limited number of open trailheads this one is attracting a crowd.  (See “recommendations”, below).

Data:

  • Trailhead: 4800 feet.
  • Turkey Creek Turnaround: guestimated to be 5300 (500 feet of elevation gain).
  • Gila River Turnaround: guestimated to be 5500 feet (an additional 700 feet of gain).
  • Mileage for round trip: guestimated at about 16 miles
  • USGS Map: Canyon Hill, Diablo Range

There is ample hiking beyond my turn-around points. Your milage may vary.

Hike:

2013-05-04 08 volcanic neck above Turkey CreekFrom the first parking spot follow the road across the flood plain to where the canyon narrows and the road is forced to the river – about 1.1 miles. The water depth at this first crossing was about 2 feet deep. It is the deepest crossing that I made on this trip. The road continues on the far shore and quickly makes another crossing. From that point you can follow either road or river up to the confluence of Turkey Creek and the lower Gila River. That represents another mile. Both streams had handsome water flows. At the confluence there is a deep spot that was being worked by fishermen on Saturday morning. One guy pulled in a 20 inch catfish as I walked by. On Sunday it was the property of several deeply tanned and cheerfully foul-mouthed preteens. The road crosses the river one last time, but this crossing is not popular with the motorized set. There was just a one SUV parked on the far side. Here you need to make a decision. Do you want to go to the left (northerly) and follow Turkey Creek or to the right (easterly) and follow the Gila? My choice was to do both, but to do Turkey Creek first.

"Trifecta", the highland separating Turkey Creek and Gila River

“Trifecta”, the highland separating Turkey Creek and Gila River

Between Turkey Creek and the Gila River there is a striking peak with a tall summit in the center and high shoulders on either side. Lacking any map I started calling it Trifecta. (It isn’t named on either Google Maps or the USGS map. However, behind the summit is a striking bit of flatland that the USGS map labels as Hidden Pastures). I had no map for my fallback hike, so what follows is necessarily speculative. Keeping “Trifecta” on my right I followed a small watercourse past the base of the mountain (wondering what happened to the “handsome water flow” that I saw earlier at the confluence). My recollection of the hike description in the Cunningham and Burke guide was that there should be a hot spring along the stream, with a waterfall and a water-slide above it. As the guidebook notes, there is no shortage of poison ivy in this region of the world. The ivy seems to love the loose soil immediately adjacent to the hard-packed trail. It can be hard to pull your eyes down from the canyon walls and the sight of caves and crevices in the rock. Generally, however, it is worth working to avoid urishiol induced contact dermatitis.

2013-05-04 07 sign at turn-aroundI headed upstream for about 2 miles, until I found a trail that branched left, away from Turkey Creek. You will find a very large cairn at the trail branch. It is based on three very large boulders onto which someone with a great deal of energy has placed numerous boulders in the 50-lb league. It rises to about four feet in height. If you step back a few paces and look up-Creek to your right, then you will see a sign saying that the barely visible easterly trail is not maintained, is dangerous and is not recommended for livestock. It seemed like a reasonable turn-around spot. From the Cunningham and Burke guide, it would seem that the hot spring is about a mile further up Turkey Creek.

Waterfall and slide, but no warm water

Waterfall and slide, but no warm water

On the return to Gila River I met a group of about four or five younger guys who were also new to this part of the world and looking for the hot springs. There would only be about three other hiking groups that I encountered on this hike. That seems to be remarkably few, given that this is supposed to be one of the more popular hikes in the Gila Wilderness.

Back at the Gila River, follow the main stream as it swings to the east (south of “Trifecta Mountain”). Initially the way must be found in a cobweb of ATV tracks, but just stay close to the river and soon you will see a gate composed of a couple metal poles protected by large boulders. The way narrows immediately to a trail and follows the river bank closely. This is a much broader stream than Turkey Creek and the numerous crossing make for wet feet. It feels wonderful on a hot day and the stream crossings can not come fast enough. About four miles up the river cross to the north bank (left side headed upstream) and find a well used trail coming at you from the downstream direction.  Follow this trail for less than 100 feet and come to a grotto, complete with faint petroglyphs that look like the real thing (along, inevitably, with the magic marker etchings of certain feeble minded moderns). Note, too, the unbelievable abundance of poison ivy.

Caves above Gila

Caves above Gila

A mile or so upstream there is an aging corral. I suppose it is a spot for the horsemen among us to keep their charges under close control. A few hundred feet past that point there is another river crossing. I could see no especially attractive camping opportunities and so headed back downstream for a spot on a sandy shelf covered with evergreens for the night. There were no loud distractions here, other than the lull of river noises and the susurration of the pines. On awakening the first thing I saw was the silhouette of pine branches against a robins-egg blue sky.  The first thing I thought was, “how impossibly beautiful”.  A good way to begin your day.

Cliffs opposite camp site

Cliffs opposite camp site

Other trip reports suggest that there are miles of beautiful canyoneering to be had as you ascend the Gila. My hourglass was starting to run down, however. After a breakfast of dates-and-nuts oatmeal and “Via” coffee laced with Mini-Moo (insane luxury), my wet boots and I turned back downstream for a leisurely three hour trip back to the car.

Recommendations:

This trip report describes hiking along the Gila River in a region well below the confluence of the West, Middle and East Forks (see the description of the West  Fork to Middle Fork traverse  for some details) and numerous other tributaries. It has become a larger river. In this nearly snowless and warm year it was comfortable to hike in early May. High water could make the trip much more challenging.

Burn damage from Bursum Road

Burn damage from Bursum Road

I started this weekend with no intention of going to the Gila River. Instead, I had printed out USGS topo maps for the Crest Trail. The mighty Camry was easing up the Bursum Road (NM 159), past Mogollon, when the fist-size rocks clustered on the roadbed and the obvious tracks from recent heavy-equipment usage made me think that Something Might Be Wrong. That thought was confirmed by several new, large, bright yellow signs emphatically stating that high-clearance vehicles were recommended for the road. Fortunately, a Forest Service truck came down the road towards me. I backed up into a near wide-spot and talked to the guys in the truck when they edged past. They said that the stark effects of the 2012 burn would become evident within a quarter mile, and that the burn goes on and on for many miles past that point.

Those guys saved me miles of harsh and unrewarding driving, for which I want to say thanks. Perhaps they didn’t notice my pack or perhaps they were too polite to assume my ignorance, but they didn’t tell me that the Forest Service has closed the trails that go through the burn,including the northern portion of the Crest Trail. I learned this back at the Glenwood Ranger Station bulletin board. The Service has a very useful map that shows all the trail closures . Part of the reason for the state of the roadbed is that Bursum Road was subjected to heavy flooding this past autumn. The tiny stretch of road that I saw was only marginally passable to the Camry and there may be much rougher stretches.

In the spirit of “do as I say, not as I do”, for 2013 and 2014 it would be useful to check the status of the trails before heading off to Gila Wilderness Area. There is a ton of damage up there. You’ll avoid the “grumpiness tax” that falls onto those of us who ignore Mother Nature’s little strictures. There was some evidence of fire damage along the Lower Gila, but just a little. There are many safe camping places. It was a good idea to change plans.

The water in the Gila was dense with soot. Bring along an empty jug to allow the water to settle overnight before filtering or you may clog your water filter. Empty ,one-gallon plastic water-jugs are very light. I had one, but at both breakfasts I was wishing that I had brought along a second.

Summit pose in a grotto!

Summit pose in a grotto!

On Friday evening I camped at the Lower Gila trailhead.  That was a mistake.  There are not many open trailheads on the west side of the Gila Wilderness, so people gather at those places that are open. Traffic started piling down the road just as the stars came out. Trucks and SUVs filled the riverside sites. Boom boxes did what boom boxes do. It was not conducive to getting a good night’s rest. It would be a good idea to camp at least two miles upstream. You are not made safe by the river. People routinely drive back and forth across the Gila. (I’m guessing that the river road is needed to service private property that exists upstream.)

On the trip out from Las Cruces I stopped in Deming for a burger at the Membres Valley Brewing Company (200 South Gold, not annotated in the driving directions – go left rather than right onto Gold/US180). I had an assembly called “The Works” that is a cheeseburger and egg arranged with chilies and bacon. It was excellent – surprising since these assemblies are usually more bloat-producing than satisfying. The french fries were  standard pub fair – OK but not up to the high standard of the burger. The Brown Porter was good but not over the top. Service was prompt and courteous. Street parking was easy. MVB was a little pricey, but it sets “the bar” very high for road food.

11 pretty view of tower through treesOverview

When people speak of canyon hiking in tones of hushed reverence, this must be the sort of place they have in mind. Here there are swift flowing waters, towering rock walls, Mogollon ruins, tall pines, scrub oak, hot springs, vultures, trout, humming birds, deer and on rare occasions there are even other campers. The hike described here ascends a few miles along the West Fork of the Gila River, then goes over a height of land on trail signed for “Meadows” (but mapped as T28) and returns down the impressive Middle Fork.

There are two non-obvious concerns for us newcomers to the New Mexican heights. The first is the potential for flooding, especially flash flooding, in the canyons. A big rainstorm could make either Gila fork excessively exciting. In years where the Forest receives large amounts of snow the springtime runoff can make the canyons impassible. The second concern is with a hotspring-loving protist called Naegleria fowleri. This beast produces a form of meningitis. The good news is that this form of meningitis is rare. The bad news is that when the disease occurs is usually fatal. Since the protist attacks via nerves exposed in the human nasal cavity, the advice is for hot spring users to always keep their heads above water.

Driving Directions

  • Leave Las Cruces (I used the Motel Blvd ramp) heading west on I10 towards Deming.

    17 view from ridge drive out.

    View of Gila National Forest from ridge top-running Rt 15

  • After roughly 52 miles, take exit 82A
  • At end of ramp, merge onto I10 Frontage Rd.
  • After 0.1 miles, turn left onto US 180 W (a.k.a N. Gold Blvd).
  • After 49.3 (more) miles, turn right onto 32nd Street Bypass in Silver City.
  • After 1.4 miles, turn right onto NM Rt 15.
  • After 45.7 (more) miles NM 15 makes a 90° left-hand turn to reach the Gila Cliff Dwelling trailhead. Instead of turning go straight ahead on the access road for the Visitors Center (the Center is visible from the turn).
  • After 0.5 (more) miles (passing the Visitor’s center) turn left onto the gravel parking lot for the Middle Fork Gila River trailhead.

The last 47 miles are extraordinarily “twisty”. Budget some extra time. The trip took more than four hours for me, although that includes stopping in Silver City for dinner and to get maps at the ranger station.

The trailhead is just past the Gila Visitor’s Center parking lot, perhaps by two-tenths of a mile.

Trailhead.

The Middle Fork trailhead described here is just a gravel parking lot. It is very close to the visitor’s center, which has bathrooms and running water. The visitor center does not have trash removal. We not only “pack it out” but we also “drive it out”. The West Fork trailhead, which is adjacent to the Cliff Dwellings, seemed pretty well developed (there are buildings at the trailhead). I was running late and didn’t notice what facilities they have there.

West Fork hoodoo

West Fork hoodoo

You may have noted that the plans called for pushing up past the West Fork trailhead, but that the car was parked at the Middle Fork trailhead. The two trailheads are joined by a relatively dreary 2.1 miles of paved roads. I chose to get that part of the hike over right at the beginning and spare feet destined to be wet and weary by trail’s end.

Data

USGS 7.5 Minute Maps:

  • Gila Hotsprings
  • Little Turkey Park
  • Woodland Park
  • Burnt Corral Canyon

The trip described here is a loop. It began on a Friday evening for 3.5 miles, continued Saturday for 10 miles, and finished Sunday for another 12.5 miles. All together, about 26 miles for the loop. The USGS maps refer to the trails as T151 along the West Fork of the Gila, T28 going across the height of land between the forks, and T157 descending the Middle Fork. However, these numbers are not used on Park signs. The low point was 5600 feet and the high point was 7200, so the net gain was only 1600 feet. In this low-snowpack year the water rose to just above my knee (I’m six feet tall). In the warm part of the day the water temperatures were very enjoyable. The air temperature got quite low at night (I didn’t check the thermometer on my pack at 3:00 am, but it must have been into the low 20s), and became pleasantly warm in the afternoons. It reached 74°F in upper Bear Canyon on Saturday.

Hike

Broad meadows near West Fork trailhead

Broad meadows near West Fork trailhead

Leave the Middle Fork trailhead walking away from the trail and follow the paved road past the Visitor’s Center, over the West Fork bridge, then turn right onto the tail-end of NM 15 and follow it to where it ends at the Cliff Dwellings trailhead on the West Fork. There! Done with the paved roads.

If you have time you can cross the river on an actual bridge and explore Mogollon cliff dwellings. I’m still looking forward to that experience, since my schedule was pretty well exploded by the time the West Fork trailhead came into sight. Trail T151 starts on the north bank but quickly begins to career across the water with each river bend. Gravel shingles tend to form on the inside of each bend and the trail typically leaps from shingle to shingle. The tread is sometimes washed away from the gravel, but you can usually see where the trail enters grassy terrain away from the water. Canyoneering involves wet feet.

Nice campsite on shelf just past EE Canyon

Nice campsite on shelf just past EE Canyon

My USGS map had last been updated in 1999 (USGS Little Turkey Park). That map shows the trail arriving at a wide meadow, hugging the north canyon wall, and then making a sharp left to cross the meadow back to the river and following the banks closely thereafter. In the Google map (above, click to change the scale and move it about) you’ll see that I took that advice and soon lost the tread near the water. It turns out that a very clear trail does exist on the south side of the river, but not immediately beside the water (where floods would routinely erase it). Perhaps the Park Service moved the trail onto a slightly higher shelf where it would resist being washed away. The “new” tread is visible on Google satellite imagery, so it is something of a wonder to me that it should have been so elusive on the ground. In any event, it was easy to push up stream, but a little uneasy since the junction with trail T28 was something I wanted to find. The mouth to EE Canyon provided flat terrain for setting up camp. The trees there are fire blackened and presumed to be weakened – uneasy camping if the wind comes up. There are better camping spots on a higher shelf about 200 feet upstream.

Murky waters: soot in the flow of the Middle Fork

Murky waters: soot in the flow of the Middle Fork

The waters looked pretty dark this year. According to the rangers at Silver City, this is mostly due to last year’s fires. Soot is not only darkening the water it is also clogging water filters. They recommend that you allow river water to settle in a spare jug before using filters. It seemed like good advice, although that meant having a gallon of river water, the butane container from my stove and two soaked hiking boots under the sleeping bag with me to avoid freezing during the night. Lumpy.  But my wet socks (which I had wrung and left to dry outside on a tripod of sticks) were rock solid the next morning. A small container of Nutella hung in the food bag that night and was still frozen when hauled out at noon. It would have been an uncomfortable night, save for a pair of heavy fleece pants and a fleece jacket.

There is an unmistakable trail just 100 feet or so up EE Canyon. It rapidly rises and pulls away from the river.  Rather than risk missing the intersection with T28 I tried to push up along the riverbank. It proved to be an exceptionally wet and slow way to hike, and eventually it seemed worth turning back and “risking” the obvious trail. That worked just fine, and in a little more than a mile I made the last crossing of the West Fork to find the intersection of T151 and T28 (the wooden sign actually says “Meadows 6 1/4 mile”).

View back towards the West Fork

View back towards the West Fork

The trail to the Meadows on the Middle Fork ascends gently along a side-canyon and then follows a rib extending from a prominent spine that runs east-to-west. Past that spine the trail descends slightly into Big Bear Canyon. The trail is obvious for most of it’s length, save where large pines in the upper reachers of Big Bear Canyon obscure it with needles. Clearly, not many people hike into this country. Thats a shame, because it isn’t often that you see big timber in New Mexico.  There are three trail  junctions.  The first is with T164 coming in from the east. The sign at the junction keeps you on track by pointing to “The Meadows”.  The second is when T164 leaves to the west, again follow arrows to “The Meadows”.  The third is with T156 right on the rim of the Middle Fork.  Since you want to get to the river, follow T28 as it descends from the rim.  The miles along T28 were completely dry this year, Big Bear Canyon had no running water.  It would be a magical place with just a small stream. Any small disappointment can be obviated with a bagel lightly seasoned with spork-scraped frozen Nutella chips  and a mug of water. Along with a brief nap, that’s great dining.

View forward (and down!) into the Middle Fork of the Gila River

View forward (and down!) into the Middle Fork of the Gila River

The trail down to the Middle Fork is on steep terrain. The Google map, above, only gives a mild impression of how severely switchbacked it becomes. The park has done a great job of trail engineering, so that what could have been a hugely jarring experience was merely  protracted. (Going the other direction is probably something of a thigh burning experience). No complaining! The views to the adjacent canyonland, bird life, forest and hoodoos are inspiring.

Dining al fresco along the the Middle Fork campsite

Dining al fresco along the the Middle Fork campsite

The meadow is an exceptionally beautiful spot and I was tempted to stop there. There was flowing water in Indian Creek, almost the only side canyon with water that I recall seeing. It looks as though the beaver population has been living up to its reputation for busyness. But, the day was not so terribly elderly and the canyon narrows were beckoning. Movement downstream was initially slow, there are shrub thickets on the banks near the Meadows. Eventually the trail picked up the old shingle-hopping tactics and I moved along.  Night comes early in the canyons. I picked an extra-wide shingle with a reasonable escape route in case the waters should come up (this year, we should be so lucky). It was a pleasant site, although the walls reflect the sound of rushing water enough so that this could be called Loud Canyon. It is hard to believe that anyone could be so avid for chicken flavored ramen noodles or even a mug full of hot chocolate.

08 morning light on canyon

Morning sunshine still high above the canyon bed

The next morning I ran out of fuel for the Jetboil. It is only barely possible to regard tepid tea and a granola bar as replacement for a repast of double-strength instant oatmeal with raisins and dates. Epic tragedy. I may even have grumbled as my boots entered that chilly first river crossing. But sunshine comes even to the canyon beds. Hoodoos abound, spires leap to the sky and at one point a hawk grabbed a fishy meal out of the river right beside me.

It is almost impossible to get lost when you only need to follow a canyon downstream, but my training is such that knowing where I am seems needful. That can be hard in often-anonymous canyon bottoms. One trick that became evident was too look for places where the river flowed in unusual directions. For example, the Middle Fork only has a few places where it flows to the southwest or flows directly north. By comparing the maps against these flow patterns it isn’t hard to monitor location.

hot spring near the trailhead

hot spring near the trailhead

It is a long drive from the Middle Fork trailhead back to Las Cruces. It is weary work to clean up a tent and get the ground cloth hung to dry after arriving back home. But, the one real complaint about this hike isn’t the end, but that it had to end.

Recommendations

Floods and protists are unlikely but real threats, just keep ’em in mind while enjoying the Gila.

A weekend is a miserly thing to expend for a trip like this. It is easily worth setting up for a four day venture.

Me, enjoying a pack-down moment on a shelf above the Middle Fork

Me, enjoying a pack-down moment on a shelf above the Middle Fork

One complaint that I can sympathize with came from a guy who had traveled a long way to sample the fishing in the Gila Wilderness. It may be that the low and warm water conditions, coupled with the soot in the streams, have wrecked the fishing for a little while. There were some small fish in the waters near the meadows, but this might not be the best year for your fishing friends.

Next time I will have a backup fuel canister.