Archives for posts with tag: camping

01 North Truchas PeakOverview:

This two-day backpack begins with a riparian ramble through forests of Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce, meanders through stands of tall aspen, ascends across a series of narrow riverside meadows and segues to a series of switchbacks that rise swiftly to a beautiful tarn-side camp. This same tread leads onward to a col separating the north-flowing Rio Santa Barbara from the south-flowing Pecos River. From the col it’s an off-trail scramble up the wide-open slopes of North Truchas Peak – home to mountain goats and an eagle’s view of the Santa Fe Mountains. Allot all the time you can (it still won’t be enough).

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Outlook Mt/Ski Apache (behind a forested rise) and Sierra Blanca

Sierra Blanca rises to 12,003 feet (3660 m) and is one of the highest peaks in southern New Mexico. Next to it is Lookout Peak, home to the Ski Apache resort. Portions of the hike go through terrain burned in the Little Bear fire (2012). Due to this burn, both the Forest Service and the Mescalero Apache Travel Office have closed the trail at least until Spring of 2013.


Sierra Blanca forms part of the Mescalero Apache Reservation. In normal years a permit is required for the summit portion of this trip. This year both the Mescalero Tribe and the Forest Service have closed the terrain to hikers due to fire damage. Both the Mescalero Apache Travel Office (575-464-4494) and the Smokey Bear Ranger Station (575-257-4095) state in the strongest possible terms that the danger to hikers from dead fall and the even greater danger to the region from fire make it imperative to keep people out until the winter has come and gone. They were very polite, but state unambiguously that hikers should wait until spring of 2013, then check back to see if the trails have been re-opened and permitting re-established.

Driving Directions:

  • Take Exit #6 from I-25 in Las Cruces, heading east on US 70 (towards Alamogordo).
  • After 62.0 miles (100 km) take the exit for the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route. (US 70 in Alamogordo can be slow since it is lined by businesses. The “Relief Route” takes you around the busy stretch. The exit is just past the third stoplight you encounter in Alamogordo, signalling for the junction of US 70 with US 54 South).
  • After 4.8 miles (7.7 km), go left at the stoplight back onto US 70 East.
  • After 42.4 miles (68.2 km), turn left onto Sudderth Dr. (on the outskirts of Ruidoso).
  • After 3.4 miles (5.5 km), turn right onto Mechem Dr. (in the center of Ruidoso).
  • After 5.3 miles (8.5 km), turn left onto County Road 532.
  • After 11.0 miles (17.7 km) this year you will encounter a sign saying Road Closed. (See the warnings under “permits”, above). Once the road re-opens it should be possible to go a bit further than a mile to get to the normal trailhead. According to other reports the trailhead is found at a sharp, left-hand switchback near the ski area.

I stopped off at the All American Diner in Ruidoso (390 Sudderth Dr.) for a bite to eat. Its sign indicated American/Mexican cuisine, and the staff were speaking Spanish. My server was very nice. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the combo plate. The chile rellenos tasted about the same as the refried beans. In place of cream they serve a vastly regrettable food-like substance in the “coffee whitener” clade. For future reference, across the street from the All American there is a promising sign for the Cornerstone Bakery. Further down the road Farley’s Pub had the fullest parking lot on both Saturday and Sunday. The sign on that building says “Ribs, Burgers, Dogs”.


Map of actual trail (not the dirt road route through burned forest):

CR 532 is closed here at mile marker 11. 

County Road 530 follows a gently inclined stream bed to reach an altitude of 8000 feet (2440 m), then explodes upward in a series of switchbacks to reach the 10,000 ft (3050 m) contour. At the 11 mile marker it reaches a pass. Normally you would drive down to the ski area from the pass. This year the road is closed at the pass. As reviewed in the “permits” section, travel is not permitted while the region recovers from the near-term effects of fire.

By spring of 2013 it may be possible to continue about another mile on CR 532 to a left-hand hairpin turn and park there. Internet reports say that the trailhead is located near a gate for the ski area. Also, the gate is closed after dark so hikers will want park outside the ski area.


The legitimate trail goes from a trailhead at 9840 feet (3000 m) to the summit at 12,000 feet (3660 m) for a gain of 2160 feet (660 m) in 4.3 miles, one way. It appears that the trails used are T15 to an intersection with T25, then T25 to an intersection with T78, then T78 to the summit.

The route taken began at the pass at 10,100 feet for a net gain of just 1900 feet (580 m) in 6.3 miles (10.1 km) one way.

Hike: (not open at least until spring 2013, see “Permits” above)

Two burned trees (at either edge of photo) carry twin blazes to mark the point where the trail departs the road.

The dirt road at the pass stays close to the 10,000-foot contour for a about 1.3 miles (2.1 km). Views to Lookout Mt show the wildfire damage done to Ski Apache (see newspaper images). The forest that the road traverses is entirely burned. The trail departs from the road about 100 feet (30 m) before a sharp right-hand switchback on a forested saddle. The departure is marked by twin ax-blazes on a pair of burned trees on the down-hill side of the road, shown on the photo to the left. Beyond the trees is a steep meadow. Trail T25 traverses this hillside close to the low end of the meadow.

At the end of the meadow T25 winds through a burned wood, then joins with another trail in a second meadow and goes sharply right. I think the other trail might be T15, the connector to the normal trailhead (but I didn’t explore it). T25 becomes mostly level at this point, passing a small stream flowing in a deep V-notch, swinging around a broad rib and reaching a meadow below another saddle. Here the trail turns sharply left and begins to ascend via several switchbacks towards Icy Spring. There were numerous elk around the meadow, and their bugling was tremendous. In places grass is growing in the trailbed just as densely as in the adjacent forest floor. An enormous amount of work has been put into clearing burned logs from the trail and leaving twin ax-blazes for navigation.

Icy Spring was flowing, and one offshoot of the trail crosses the deep stream bed. For this venture I stayed on trail T25 (there are signs at the Icy Spring crossing) to ascend to the ridge crest. On the crest there is a signed junction with T78. To get to Lookout Mt and thence to Sierra Blanca follow T78 south. There are several saddles on the crest that provide good camping spots.

Looking into the sunset at camp near T25 and T78 junction.

Leaving the car at 4:30 p.m. proved unwise, since it led to a hasty camp setup. At 11,200 feet (3410 m) in New Mexico you get an eyeful of nighttime sky. The light from a half-moon was bright enough to cast vivid shadows. The ridge could be a severely windy spot, but on this evening it was peaceful. Sleep was elusive since I’m not acclimated to the altitude. The down-insulated hood on my sleeping bag was a deeply appreciated design feature.

View from Lookout summit to Sierra Blanca

From the intersection the trail bumps southerly along the ridge, with views out to Tularosa Basin and its White Sands Monument in the west. It drops slightly to intersect a ski trail signed “Ambush” and then ascends the ski trail to Lookout Peak. On the highest point (above the lifts) there is a circular concrete bench. The views from this bench were not any better than from the ridge, and there is a ski-road that avoids most of the gratuitous gain if you prefer. From the south side of the summit block you have a fine view of the grassy rise that precedes the knife-edge ridge to Sierra Blanca summit.

View from Sierra Blanca summit back towards Lookout Peak

Drop from Lookout Mt straight towards Sierra Blanca and ascend the grassy rise. Between the altitude and the steepness of the rise, expect a vigorous cardio workout. The rise hits a prominent shoulder with a good view of the knife-edge. There are faint climber’s treads along that ridge, but it is advisable to look for steep stream bed that drops away towards the west (right side, looking uphill), Just past this proto-canyon, find a tread that drops down a short distance on the western side. It offers a way of getting around the tricky little rise in the middle of the ridge and provides good footing for the ascent. Near the summit the terrain becomes entirely rock, the tread disappears and it becomes a scramble to the summit proper.


It was a mistake to head into such damaged terrain. It would have been perfectly possible to find other hikes in this region that were robust and open to hikers. That said, don’t stay away next spring! Call the numbers for the Tribe and for the Forest Service to see if this beautiful trail has been re-opened. There were trucks going back and forth on the closed section, presumably to re-open the road for the 2012-2013 ski season.

This scramble took place at the end of New Mexico’s “monsoon” season. Admittedly, it has been a terribly dry monsoon this year, but be cautious in planning for water on this trail. I have no idea if any of the described streams would be flowing before the monsoon begins. Six liters in my bag were enough. In fact, two liters survived the trip out and back, but it’s reassuring to have extra.

County Road 532 is home to miles of savagely abused roadside cable-barriers as it climbs to 10,000 feet (3050 m). Apparently it pays to keep your wheels on the tarmac. I kept my car in second gear during descent to take some stress off of the brake pads.

The summit of Sierra Blanca is wide and surprisingly grassy. It’s a great place for a nap or watching the many raptors. It would have been a good place for a self-portrait, if only I had remembered to bring my camera along. The other photos shown here are from my cell phone. It’s an aged Android app and does not seem to have a timer feature.

The night was cold – there was frost on the broad-leaf ground cover when the sun rose. I was otherwise very lucky with the weather. The ascent took advantage of cool temperatures and experienced just enough sunshine to make writing in the summit register a joy. In contrast, a wet and windy descent would make for a memorably bleak experience. This is not a good place for acrophobes. Let’s be careful up there.