Archives for posts with tag: Black Range
View of San Mateo Mountains from the Black Range ridge

Overview:

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

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

Driving Directions:

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

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

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

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry at the CDT trailhead on NM-59

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

Data:

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

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

Hike Description:

Burned trunks and sparse understory

Day 1

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

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

Spring feed tank

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

Trick Tank or flying saucer?

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

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

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

Ruins of a shelter

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

Caledonia sign with out CDT markers? A warning!

Day 2.

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

A longer stretch of burned terrain on the Black Range

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

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

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

Recommendations:

Author enjoying a crisp late-April morning

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

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

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.