Archives for posts with tag: CDT
View to Chain of Craters from NM-117

Overview:

This backpacking route explores a long chain of small volcanic cinder-cones and finishes with a crossing of the El Malpais (“Bad Country”) National Monument on the the dramatic Zuni-Acoma Trail. It features desert grasslands, juniper and ponderosa forest, cinder cones, lava tubes and the opportunity to dance the Scoria Shuffle. This hike could be done as a loop that includes a 20 mile walk on NM-117 (paved). Most hikers will prefer to set up a shuttle or to hitch-hike the paved section.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-40, west of Albuquerque, take exit 89 signed for NM-117 East / Quemado.
  • At the end of the exit ramp turn onto NM-117 East. The initial direction is actually south; west-bound drivers will turn left and and east-bound drivers will turn right.
  • After 14.9 miles on NM-117 turn right into the Zuni-Acoma trailhead. There is a brown Forest Service sign for the trailhead on NM-117. If you are setting up a shuttle then leave the first car here.
  • After 19.2 more miles on NM-117-E turn right onto County Road 42 (dirt). The junction is signed. You can thank your driver and stop hitching when you reach this corner.
  • In less than 0.1 miles on County Road 42, besides an information kiosk (that is, a signboard) on your left, park the second shuttle car.

A sign at the start of County Road 42 warns that this road is unusable when wet. Judging from the deep ruts on this date, that sign is not exaggerating.

Trailhead:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cdt-logo1-Converted-e1450300899983.png
image from the Continental Divide Coalition

Apart from the information posted on the kiosk there are no services at either the Zuni-Acoma trailhead or on Co. Road 42. The CDT leaves from the east side of the Co. Road 42, across the road from the kiosk. Look for cairns or the white and blue plastic tags that mark the trail.

On this route the trail bears northwest, then north, northeast and southeast. All of this meandering is simply described as “north” in the text below.

Data:

Map note: my GPS unit is still misbehaving. The above map is not a GPS-measured track. Instead, it is a “route” traced from the CDT map on Caltopo. The line traced on this map may be somewhat distant from your actual position in the wilderness!

Distance between trailheads: 55.8 miles

Chain of Craters / Zuni-Acoma Elevation Profile

Hike Description:

A loess-filled and grassy depression in the malpais

From the kiosk on County Road 42 find the trail and follow it as it slowly diverges away from the road. This is open desert grassland and the trail usually leaps out at you. But, setting a major pattern, the tread will occasionally play out. Sometimes it simply sinks into the grasses and at other times it weaves into cattle paths that are much better defined than the official trail. Look for cairns. At 1.2 miles from the trailhead the trail arrives at the edge of lava flow. Initially the trail skirts to the left, but soon nerves-up and leaps onto the black and convoluted surface. Bobbing east, ducking north, swerving west and even veering south, the trail tracks lava tubes, chases lava crevasses, mounts lava mounds and dives lava depressions. The last of these can be loess-filled and grassy, but scoria still protrudes above the soil. Watch your footing! That’s hard, because you must also watch constantly for cairns, your only guide across this trackless terrain.

First cinder cones – Cerro Brillante (glowing hill) is the cone on the right

At about 2.2 miles the trail leaves the lava and regains the grassland. The pace picks up as the tread improves. At roughly 5 miles from the trailhead you will see a windmill to the south (on your left for north-bound hikers). On this date the mill appeared to be in good repair and was spinning – there might be some water there. The trail swoops across shallow depressions and threads rocky outcrops, but on balance it gently rises. Very large cairns are placed off the trail on the top of the higher knolls. These may be intended as beacons for the lost. At about 10 miles, nearing the Cerro Brillante cone, a juniper forest makes a tentative first appearance.

Tire tank – also check the barrel nearby, sometimes that water is better.

The tread swings southwest to contour around the small cone adjacent to Cerro Brillante. It then contours north and gains a small amount of vertical (that alarming spike shown in the elevation profile at 12.7 miles). Aside from the scoria underfoot this is very pleasant walking. Ponderosa pines offer gratifying shade. The woodlands are open. Deer, elk and cattle regard you with dark suspicion. At 13.3 miles cross a faint two-track and look to your left to find a water tank made of an old tractor tire. (It is at several hundred yards off-trail). On this date the water in the tank was pretty good, although green enough to encourage careful filtering.

Ponderosa shaded flanks of a cinder cone

The tread bumps upward on the flanks of the next cinder cone and then descends to the plain that will lead to the cone beyond, creating a new pattern. In this way you pass Cerro Colorado (Red Hill), Cerro Negro (Black Hill), Cerro Chatito (Dawn Hill, maybe?) and Cerro Chato (Flat Top Hill? – it is a cratered cone with a huge breach in its northern wall). The trail comes its high point on the flanks of Cerro Lobo (Wolf Hill). The trail is nowhere steep and the ponderosa offer numerous and comfortably shaded rest spots.

Camping on warm and soft duff

Camping between the cinder cones is easy. The conifers put down a lot of duff and level ground is abundant. Beyond Cerro Lobo there is a scattering of very small cones, often hidden by the forest. Then then CDT climbs the flanks of a second cinder cone dubbed “Cerro Negro” and descends to a crossroad at 24.7 miles. Watch for it! If you go off-trail, 0.5 miles to the east along the road, then you will come to a metal tank. On this date the tank had very good water in it. The regulator looked broken – it is possible that the tank has water only when the rancher has recently activated the pump! Return to the trail and continue north.

Shallow earthen tank

The trail, which has been heading almost due-north, now bends to the northeast. Passing Cerro Leonides (Lion Hill), Cerro Americano and Cerrito Comadre (Midwife Hill?), the trail returns to County Road 42 at mile 30.2. Follow the road north (go left if you are north-bound). But, if you happen to be short on water, then first turn right onto the road and walk about 200 yards to an earthen water tank. On this date it was extremely shallow and muddy – but it could be a life saver.

NM-53 crossing the divide

The CDT stays on County Road 42 for the next 5.7 miles. This seems like an odd trail-engineering decision. Soon, however, you come to to a region where the terrain on your right is paved with shattered and knife-edged lava; the reason for staying on the road becomes evident. Towards the end of the road, just past Cerro Bandera (Flag Hill), watch for a second earthen tank on the left side of the road. On this date the tank had barely an inch of water in it, but the water was exceptionally clear. County Road 42 ends at a T-intersection with NM-53, which is paved. Go east (right for hikers going north) on NM-53. At 37.5 miles from the trailhead you regain the signed top of the continental divide.

Whew! An obvious cairn!

The road-walk ends at the El Malpais Information Center, 39.6 miles from the trailhead. The CDT goes into this complex and passes on the west side of the eastern-most building. On the west side of this building is a water faucet. An attendant at the complex said that hikers can use that faucet. There is every conceivable luxury: picnic tables, clean water and even a trash receptacle! Make a meal here because there is no water for the remainder of this hike. Camel-up, fill your bottles and go to the other side of the building to regain the tread. Oddly, this tread gets on top of an earthen berm and stays there for more than a mile. Is it an old railway? An abandoned aquecia? It is hard to say. Past the berm the tread becomes entirely sketchy. The ground is piled with scoria and in many places there is no tread. It becomes routine to stop and scan (and rescan) the surrounding woods to find that next cairn.

Peering into a cave formed by a collapsed lava tube

At 41.8 miles, on ground characterized by brown dirt, brown grass and brown rock, come to a T-intersection with a trail that has been covered with crushed white limestone. Suddenly, almost surreally, you are presented with a foot path that could not be more obvious. Turn left and enjoy this short break from navigational challenges. Those challenges return when the trail brings you to a trailhead boasting vault toilets. Go left around the toilets, where the trail regains its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t nature. The trail jukes and jives as it winds its way around huge, winding, and partially collapsed lava tubes. Give yourself extra time in this leg of the trip, the footing is an authentic challenge.

Sign at junction with the Zuni-Acoma Trail

Come to the last of the cinder cones, Encerrito, at 47.6 miles from the trailhead. This is the last good opportunity to camp before entering the heart of the malpais. Ponderosa and juniper produce duff here, although the ground bristles with scoria. Setting a tent peg is difficult. The trail loops around the south end of Encerrito. On the east side the CDT reaches a signed junction with the Zuni-Acoma Trail. Go east (right if going north) and follow the combined trails into the heart of the malpais.

Lava landscape in the El Malpais

This is extraordinary terrain. Much of it is naked lava, forming steep hillsides and narrow gullies. Vegetation will not be denied, however, and every crack in the rock is an invitation for claret cup cactus, grama grass, juniper and mullein to colonize. Some of these cracks, moreover, are less like “crazes” in a sidewalk and more like crevasses in a glacier. Stresses in the cooling rock apparently introduced yard-wide gaps, gaps that cleave downward more than 25 feet. Fortunately, trail builders have been at work here for more than a 1000 years. Bridges were constructed by dropping rocks into the crevasses to chock across the gap, then pouring more rocks on top of the chock stones. These bridges makes crevass-crossing much easier, but looking down is still vertigo-inducing. And, again, navigation is not trivial. It takes time, but try to find that next cairn before leaving the previous cairn. Eventually the lava ends. It is just another two miles until, having traveled 54.8 miles, you arrive at the Zuni-Acoma trailhead.

Recommendations:

Finding the trail divisive.

I did this in two and a half days, which was silly. A four day schedule would be better and there is currently enough water to support such a trip. Give yourself time to explore some of the cinder cones and investigate (cautiously) some lava caves.

This has been a markedly cool and wet year. Warm gear was a huge asset at 8000 feet. Good water-filtering gear, including filter-flushing gear, is essential.

The CDT Water Report presents a table listing water reports filed by CDT hikers. This one table covers the entire CDT. As a consequence it is huge and awkward to navigate. The easiest way to get started is to use the “Search By Mile Number” option at the top of the page. If you search for mile number “471.9” (without the quotes) then you should get an entry named “Junction To Water Tank”. This is the first water report on the Chain of Craters segment. It displays the single, most-current report for the tire tank. You can click on the “read more” button to see if there have been other reports for this resource. Browse down the table to check out the remaining water resources – the last relevant report is for the El Malpais Information Center.

Other than the faucet at the El Malpais Information Center, all water resources are provided by ranchers. It would not be possible to hike this stretch without their profound courtesy. Please return the favor by quickly collecting water and moving away from each water source. Your presence can stress the cattle (and wild life) badly.

This is not a good place to test out shoeless hiking! The sharp-edged lava is merciless – even the soles of trail shoes will take a beating. Consider wearing boots since the opportunity to twist an ankle is exceptionally high.

Links:

A short and approachable discussion of the geology of this region is presented by New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources here.

A succinct and well-written discussion of the Chain of Craters portion of this hike can be found at the Four Corners Tourism site, here. (Note that the southern-most portion of the trail no longer stays on County Road 42, but instead departs immediately from the Co Rd 42 at the kiosk).

Rambling Hemlock, an experienced backpacker, has a report on hiking the Chain of Craters as a two day venture in 2015. Some of the water resources were dry, and the hikers got by on the strength of tiny snow patches.

New Mexico Nomad has compiled an extensive report on the outdoor resources near the El Malpais National Monument, including the Narrows Rim Trail. If you are visiting and want to see it all, then this is a valuable resource.

View of San Mateo Mountains from the Black Range ridge

Overview:

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

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

Driving Directions:

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

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

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

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry at the CDT trailhead on NM-59

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

Data:

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

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

Hike Description:

Burned trunks and sparse understory

Day 1

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

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

Spring feed tank

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

Trick Tank or flying saucer?

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

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

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

Ruins of a shelter

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

Caledonia sign with out CDT markers? A warning!

Day 2.

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

A longer stretch of burned terrain on the Black Range

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

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

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

Recommendations:

Author enjoying a crisp late-April morning

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

01 Meadow in Buckhead Canyon Confluence.jpg

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

Overview:

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

Driving Directions:

02 sign for forest road to trailhead

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

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

Cautions:

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

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

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

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

Trailhead:

03 The Mighty Camry and corall

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

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

Data:

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

Hike Description:

04 trailhead sign

Weathered wooden Forest Service sign at the trailhead.

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

04a Trail 77 Mibres River Trail sign

Junction with Trail 77

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

05 Dome from Trail 77 connector

View to tree covered dome

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

06 bowl to north of dome

View across large bowl to northern rim

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

07 Signboard Saddle signs

New signboard in Signboard Saddle. Note the turn.

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

08 Dry Confluence Cairn

Cairn at first confluence

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

10 Ponderosa meadow

First of the ponderosa meadows

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

11 Park Bench at confluence

“Park bench” at second confluence

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

13 Blazes, cairns and tread

Blazes and cairns

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

14 signs in Corner Meadow

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

Recommendations:

15 author in Corner Meadow

Author attired for turkey hunting season.

Do this hike. Bring friends. Take your time.

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

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

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

01 Jack's Peak

View past pines to summit of Jack’s Peak

Overview:

The Jack’s Peak Trail is an out-and-back expedition into the Burro Mountains of southern New Mexico that has much to offer. It is easy to access, it is fun to hike, it crosses two significant life zones, it offers a great morning’s exercise (well within the ability of most hikers), and provides views all the way to the the distant mountains of northern Mexico. Jack’s crown of antennae diminishes the Peak’s claim to wilderness, but those of us who carry cell phones into these mountains cannot complain too much about that. Frankly, it seems unlikely that people will travel from Albuquerque or Tuscon just just to hike this particular trail. For folks who live in the Silver City – Las Cruces – Lordsburg area, however, this destination offers a sovereign cure for the perils of cabin fever. 

Driving Directions:

03 kiosk at start of trail

Trailhead kiosk

  • From Silver City, at the junction of US-180 and NM-90 (signed as Silver Heights Blvd and N. Hudson Road within the City), go south on NM-90.
  • After 21.4 miles on NM-90, past a sign saying “Continental Divide Trail”, turn right onto Forest Road 4090-O (turns to gravel).  You’ll find the sign and the turn just past mile marker 22. 
  • After 0.3 miles on FR 4090-O, at the far end of a closed loop in the road, park at the trailhead. The trailhead is marked by a kiosk saying “Jack’s Peak – CDNST Trailhead”

FR 4090-O is rutted. It is perfectly passible in a sedan but a little caution is advised.

If you are driving north on NM-90 out of Lordsburg you will go past mile marker 21 (it’s there, I checked). Then you will drive over a small hill with a sign saying “Continental Divide 6355 feet”. Near the bottom of the hill there is another sign saying “Continental Divide Trail” after which you’ll find the left turn onto 4090-O.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry at Jack's Pk trailhead

The trailhead is simply a wide spot along FR 4090-O. There are no toilets, water or trash recepticals. Indeed, a sign on the kiosk marking the trailhead pleads with visitors to pack out any garbage they bring in with them. It seems that visitors do pay attention. There was little litter along the trail. The loop at the end of FR 4090-O brings you through a large and very attractive meadow. Even in the chilly month of October it was home to several RVs and campers.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 6380 feet
  • ending elevation: 7960 feet
  • net elevation: 1580 feet
  • distance: 4.2 miles (one way)
  • maps: USGS Burro Peak quadrangle

The CDT no longer runs exactly as shown on the 1999 version of the USGS map. See the GPS route in the map above for more current guidance.

Hike Description:

04 Broad height of land above trailhead

This height of land obscures the view to Jack’s Peak

From the kiosk head north in sandy, juniper-shaded terrain.  Ahead of you is a broad and steep height-of-land that prevents you from seeing the summit of Jack’s Peak. In about a quarter mile the trail comes to the foot of this steep landscape and swings to the west, preferring a long ascending contour rather than a direct assault. Soon, however the land is slashed north-to-south by Whitetail Canyon. Here the trail turns up-canyon, clinging to the upper reaches of the canyon walls. This is Upper Sonoran terrain. The cholla and prickly pear cacti compete with with banana yucca and mountain mahogany. It is surprising to learn, from Julyan’s valuable The Mountains Of New Mexico, that the core of the Burro Mountains is igneous. The fist-sized talus under your feet has the pale coloration and granularity of sandstone. Perhaps these are the remains from the sedimentary layer that suffered the igneous intrusion. 

06 Yellow Cliff

Yellow cliff below the high ridge

Eventually the trail clambers up onto the canyon rim just above a knoll, which makes a good landmark for your return trip. Whitetail Canyon remains on your left while an unnamed drainage falls sharply off on your right,  leaving you atop a rib. Follow this rib as it ascends, “staircase style”, with steep passages over softer rock alternating with relatively level passages on the hard stuff. After four or five of these steps you will note that the trail is heading directly toward a high ridge fronted by yellowish cliff. Pinyon pine becomes more dominant. Suddenly the trail comes to an unexpected gap where the terrain drops steeply into a canyon draining to the east. 

05a (maybe) layer cake

A level stretch before the next riser

Here the trail loses it’s northerly fixation and swings to the northwest. It becomes  a mild up-and-down ramble as the trail skirts around the headwaters of the intervening canyon and eventually swings back north. There is another short pattern of slogging up steep risers and crossing brief shelves. Eventually, at about 2.6 miles from the trailhead, come to the top of the ridge that is fronted by that yellow cliff band. As you arrive you will leave the Upper Sonoran behind and enter the Transition life zone. Juniper and pinyon  give way to Ponderosa Pine. 

07 Florida Mts from top of yellow ledge

view to the Florida Mountains

At the ridge the trail turns sharply east. Glimpses north thru the pines reveal the antenna-strewn summit that is your destination. Views open up to the southeast, where the Florida Range dominates the horizon. The large bowl to the northwest contains the headwaters for Sawmill Canyon. Reaching point 7651 (shown on the USGS map) the trail finds a narrow ridge that will again allow it to resume its northerly course. This is very pleasant, Ponderosa-shaded terrain. There were deer, cow and horse tracks on the trail, but surprisingly little evidence of bootprints. Scattered along this section of trail is snowy white quartzite – sandstone that has seen some high temperature and pressure.

08 earthern cattle tank

Earthen water tank along the trial

At 3.6 miles from the trailhead come to an earthen water tank. It seemed nearly full on this date, but this is the end of monsoon season and in other times of year the water levels will vary. It is very muddy. You would want a serious pre-filter and filter system before using this water. (In fact, there is a water source just minutes away that often has clear water so you may want to hold off).  Past the tank come to the Jack’s Peak Road, a well maintained gravel road used to service all those antennae. Study this intersection carefully as you’ll want to recognize it on return. Then follow the road uphill. 

10 Mimbres basin and Cookes Peak

View across the Mimbres Basin, east to Cooks Peak

As you near the summit you will find a level stretch where a cabin once stood. All that is left is a foundation and a freestanding chimney. Are you looking for water? Go straight north, past the right-hand side of the chimney, and ascend a small rise. At the top you will find a large rectangular concrete catchment. From the north edge of catchment a pipe runs to a corrugated steel water tank and (below the tank) there is an open concrete trough. The trough currently holds about 6 inches of clear water.  To the north lies the highpoint of the range, Burro PeakFrom the trough return to the road and follow it to the summit. There is some serious looking communications gear here. Take a few fast snaps of the incredible terrain, including the eye-catching Cookes Peak, then get away from all that microwave activity.  Have lunch amidst the pines and return the way you came.

Recommendations:

11 author at chimney

The author, dressed for hunting season

This is a wonderful hike on an autumn day. It might be chilly but it should be doable on most midwinter days. The lower slopes are poorly protected from the sun. It would be best to find another hike on scorching, midsummer days.

Most people will want to carry their own water for this hike. On this date a 700 ml bottle was plenty. On warmer days, of course, you would want much more. Comments on the Guthook app (a phone-based navigation app) report that the concrete trough near the summit was dry at earlier times this year. Try to keep your stays short when stopping near the earthen water tank and the summit trough. Those are both likely to be critical resources for wildlife in the Burros.

I saw a surprising number of cattle along the trail. Give the lack of grass on this hike these cattle may be pretty stressed. Go gently and give them as wide a berth as you can.

I saw a grand total of one lizard on this date. I suspect that the chilly nights of late have encouraged the others to den up.  The challenge poised by our venomous neighbors on the trail may be close to a minimum.

Links:

The 100 Hikes In Silver City site has a brief report on the trail (although not all the way to the summit).

CDT hikers give mention to this part of the CDT: Peter Shaw in 2011 here, Mudbug in 2016 here, and Kate On The Road Less Traveled in 2015 here (scroll down to Day 15). It is hard to do much more than hike, eat and sleep on the trail so these mentions are understandably brief.

 

 

01 Grassy Flats

Grassy Flats

Overview:

This route description serves two purposes. First, it describes a mellow, well-maintained, and lonesome trail among the gently rounded hills north of the Burro Mountains in southern New Mexico. It was a great hike on this date and in greener conditions (after the monsoon, for example) it could be terrific venture. Second, it is also describes how a thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) can go wrong. The problem is that the tread described here is beautifully engineered and CDT-signed, but in 2018 it seems to dead-end at a spot called Grassy Flats. Thru-hikers take note! In 2018 most thru-hikers will want to follow the directions (given below) to turn away from this dead-end section of the CDT and follow Forest Road 810 (FR 810) as it descends into the upper reaches of Saddlerock Canyon.

Driving Directions:

  • From Silver City, at the intersection of US-180 and NM-90, head west on US-180
  • After 13.6 miles, just past mile marker 100, turn left onto Saddlerock Road (gravel)
  • After 4.4 miles, at a wide spot in the road, pull off the road.
    • At 1.3 miles on this road you enter the National Forest over a cattle guard. It is there, I believe, that the road becomes FR 810.
    • At 1.8 miles on this road you will come to a fork, bear to the right to stay on FR 810.

My choice of trailhead parking is arbitrary. I stopped when the roadbed got softer than I liked (loose sand in the bottom of a wash), but the mighty Camry could easily have gone to the gate at the upper end of the canyon.

At its intersection with US-180 the road going up Saddlerock Canyon is signed as “Saddlerock Rd”. On Google Maps, however, this road is designated as Saddlerock Canyon Road.

Trailhead:

02 tank with algal and clear volumes

Spring/tank with some water, much algae

The trailhead is any wide spot on FR 810 where you choose to park. There are no amenities. If you drive to about 4.7 miles you should see a side-cut coming into the main canyon on your right. This side cut will probably have tire-tracks leading into it because just 100 feet off the main canyon there is a spring/metal tank, which currently has water in it. There is a considerable volume of algae bloom in this tank, but there are clear-ish volumes of water as well. This water would need to be filtered or boiled pretty hard before using.

Data:

The blue car-icon marks the “trailhead” (the spot where I left my car, your choice of trailhead may vary). The blue “wavy” icon shows where this section of the CDT dead-ends at Grassy Flats Tank. The yellow hiker icon is meant to indicate a NOBO thru-hiker who is on the CDT, just a little before arriving at the intersection of the CDT with FR-810.

  • low elevation: 5310 feet
  • high elevation: 5970 feet
  • net elevation: 660 feet
  • distance: (for day hiker route) 5.3 miles (one way)
  • maps: Mangus Springs, NM and Bullard Peak, NM quadrangles

Hike Description:

03 confluence of upper canyons

Canyon confluence

Let’s begin with a description for the day hiker who wants to get to Grassy Flats. CDT thru-hikers may want to scroll down a few paragraphs to where it says So let’s stop for a moment. From where you parked your car continue up Saddlerock Canyon. (The map above has a car-icon where I left the Camry). As mentioned, the flat and sandy canyon bottom can be enchanting on its own, particularly in early-morning light. Some of the rock has a striking yellow color and other exposures are a mineral blue.  As you near the upper end of the canyon you will pass through the first fence to appear since you drove over the cattle-guard as you entered the National Forest. On this date the fence had a wide opening that you could drive a car through. Immediately beyond you will see the confluence of two canyons. Straight ahead is a waterway signed for “riparian restoration”. The Forest Service is asking you to leave this waterway alone. Please do.

04 view from active CDT across FR 118 to dead-end trail

CDT Marker Posts on both sides of road

Hard on your right is the second canyon. FR 810 continues up this waterway. Follow this upper canyon as it ascends gently over bluish rock. This is clearly the playing area of ATV enthusiasts as the canyon bottom is packed and tracked. A half mile past the entrance to this canyon you will go through a gate in a fence, please close the gate behind you. Just past the gate FR 810 departs from the canyon bottom on your right. Take the road. It climbs steeply. At 1.1 mile come to a small height of land where the regular Continental Divide Trail comes in from your left.

05 typical CDT marker

Typical CDT marker

Wait! Look again and you see that the post on the left side of the road has a blue-and-white CDT insignia, but the post on the right side of the road also has a blue-and-white CDT insignia. (Typically these are rounded plastic triangles printed with “CTD”; the central “T” is shaped like an arrow to point the way). It looks as if the CDT goes straight across the road. This is where the dead-end problem arises. The trail coming in from your left (inbound) is the active Continental Divide Trail. The trail going off to your right is one of the CDT’s not-yet-complete improvements. The CDT Coalition hopes to have this variant active soon. The problem is that this dead-end trail is so obvious and so very well signed that it can have a strong allure for footsore and tired thru-hikers.

So let’s stop for a moment and address thru-hiker needs. Thru-hikers who reach this junction will want to know that the obvious trail directly across the road is a dead end. How do they recognize this in 2018?

06 rolling hill country north of Burro Mts

View of hills north of Burro Mts

If you look at the map at the top of the blog you will see a yellow hiker-icon that represents a north bound CDT hiker on the active trail just before arriving at the junction.  Many such hikers carry the Guthook app and may be aware that they are near the “diverging arrows” icon at mile 142.4, which is where they arrive at this potentially troublesome junction. Alternatively, they may be following the Ley Map NM37b, which has a bold numeral 2 (enclosed in a circle) at this junction. If they carry a GPS with the Bear Creek waypoints then they should look for waypoint marked 06-260RR.

07 SOBO sign- also indicates that dead end trail is near

SOBO’s sign, NOBO’s warning

But what about the happy-go-lucky thru-hiker who is simply ambling along thinking about lunch, snakes, scenery and foot placement? There is one very valuable clue that this hiker should know about. About 200 feet before arriving at the road this north-bound (NOBO) hiker will notice an old-fashioned Forest Service sign (made of very weathered wood) that is attached high on an alligator juniper. The sign faces north and is intended to tell south-bound (SOBO) hikers that they are on the CDT and that it is 3.5 miles to FR 118. For NOBOs, this means “wake up! – there are navigation difficulties ahead”.

Once aware, however, the hiker should have little problem. NOBOs arriving at the junction in 2018 will just ignore the obvious CDT marker across the road, turn to the east (right), follow the road down to the bed of Saddlerock Canyon, then follow the canyon out to US-180.

08 sign for Grassy Flats

Grassy Flats 3 mi: a good sign (for day hikers)

Enough then, of through hiking. What should you do if your objective is to visit Grassy Flats? Day hikers can fearlessly turn north (to the right, inbound) and follow the dead-end trail. It is a beauty. Hard working trail crews have places numerous CDT insignia (I counted seven). Additionally there are a couple of those skinny, brown flat-posts, which do not necessarily say “CDT” but warn users that motorized vehicles are not permitted. Many other forms of trail-sign exist such as rock-walls built to support the tread in waterways, sawed deadfall and water bars. You will see a weathered wooden Forest Service sign that says “Continental Divide Trail 74 / Grassy Flats 3 miles / NM Hwy 180 8.5 miles”.  There are few difficulties to navigation.

09 brown flat-post at road junction

Brown flat-post at junction where the trail meets an old two-track

At 2.6 miles after turning onto the dead-end section you will come to a road junction marked with a brown flat-post. Turn to the right and follow the road uphill. You will stay on this road all the way to Grassy Flats. There are several prominent side-trails, but these are really cattle paths. Ignore them and stick to the two-track. At 3.4 miles from the start of the dead-end CDT section come to the Grassy Flats tank, a surprisingly large pond created by an earthen dam placed across a small canyon. On this date the water in the tank was a pretty thick mixture of algae, cow waste and mud.

10 Grassy Flats tank

Grassy Flats Tank

I scouted around but did not see any signed trails leading further north from Grassy Flats. The old road, which has become quite faint, seems to continue by climbing onto the rim of the canyon that contains the tank. Perhaps that will be the eventual path that the CDT takes in its final configuration. For now, find a place reasonably free of cow patties and rest your legs. Enjoy the remarkably open terrain and the skittish bovine company. Once you’ve had enough, return the way you came.

Recommendations:

11 View south towards Burro Mountains

View from trail south towards the Big Burro Mountains

This is an excellent training route for spring time hikers looking to regain some lost trail tone. Bring along some friends and enjoy cool, late-February or March hiking in these hills.

On this outing I only consumed a liter of water.  It is probably a good idea to carry your water and not have to drink from Grassy Flats tank. You might be able to find some cleaner water if you continue a ways down the canyon that contains the tank, but that is not guaranteed.

The cattle around Grassy Flats were clearly alarmed by my presence. I doubt they see very many people. It helps to try and detour widely around them, particularly in the open Flats area. Cattle flee less gracefully than gazelles, so try to avoid stressing them.

Links:

Dan Bedore’s website makes mention of Grassy Flats and, notably, of seeing a black bear there. He also says that bushwhacking out from Grassy Flats to US-180 was hard work. I can surely believe that.

Snow on the Big Burro Mountains

Overview:

This route is a pleasant morning’s stroll into the Big Burro Mountains. The trail takes you from an easily accessed trailhead across ponderosa strewn slopes and across sunny meadows. There are views from the Big Burro Mountains across the northern end of the Mimbres Basin to the Cobre Mountains. This would be a great place for introducing newcomers to the backcountry.

Note that the CDT braids out in the Big Burro Mountains. This particular “strand” lies on the CDT route that takes you from the Big Burro Mountains all the way up to US-180, about 12 miles west of Silver City.

Driving Directions:

03 Note the Q!

Note the “Q”

If you are coming from the south then drive Interstate Highway 10 to Lordsburg and take the exit for NM-90 north towards Silver City.

  • After mile-marker 30 on NM-90 watch for a yellow junction sign labeled “TYRONE RD”.
  • Go left onto Tyrone Thompson Road (signed), which is gravel.
  • After 7.4 miles, where the road briefly levels, look for Forest Road 4248Q on your right and park in the tiny turnout there. The “Q” is important! There are quite a few alphabetic variations of FR-4248 departing from the Tyrone Road.

If you are coming from the north then drive to the intersection of US-180 and NM-90 in Silver City. (Inside the city these roads are named Silver Heights Blvd and N. Hudson St, respectively).

  • Turn south on NM-90/N Hudson St
  • After 12.4 miles, past mile marker 31, turn right onto Tyrone Thompson Road and proceed as above.

Tyrone Road has two slightly ambiguous forks. The first is at 5.8 miles and has a brown forest service sign pointing left for “Burro Mountain Homestead “. Go left. The second fork is at 6.5 miles and has a commercial sign saying “Burro Mountain Homestead” (no arrow). Go right.

Trailhead:

Burro Pk trailhead

The Mighty Camry, at intersection of Tyrone and4248Q

There is parking for just one car at junction with FR 4248Q. There is a marginal widening of the roadway about 50 feet further and a second forest road entrance about 250 feet beyond that (on the left of Tyrone Road). The problem is that the road grader has left tall banks of gravel at the road edges, so you will need either a high clearance vehicle or a good shovel to park safely in those two alternative spots.

Data:

  • start elevation: 6740
  • end elevation: 7560
  • net elevation: 850 feet
  • maps: Burro Peak, NM quadrangle

Hike Description:

04 Meadows and mountains

Meadows below Ferguson Peak

From FR 4248Q continue up Tyrone Road to where the CDT crosses the road. Turn south (to your left) to enter onto the trail. The initial two miles is an easy ramble on a generally obvious tread. The trail winds through stands of ponderosa, crosses the occasional grassy meadow and concerns itself chiefly with dropping into and rising out of the numerous small waterways that furrow the flanks of the Big Burro Mountains. This terrain is still under the influence of the Chihuahuan desert, with much prickly pear, cholla and even a few small columnar cacti poking out along the flanks of the tread, while alligator juniper and pinyon pine compete for the skyward reaches.

05A Mud Spring

Mud Spring (there is a trough below the spring)

The trail goes almost due south towards Burro Peak, crossing a woods road at mile 1.1. Generally the tread is very clear, and where ambiguities arise there are cairns and (occasionally) the rounded triangle emblem used to signify the CDT. Watch these, as the trail builders have often placed these at the end of switchbacks, particularly where you might wander off the trail onto watercourses that have strikingly trail-like features. At 1.6 miles the trail reaches the base of the northern most peak, Ferguson Mountain. The tread swings to the east and begins a gradual rising ascent along the northeastern flank of the mountain. At 2.1 miles you will note a profusion of tracks leading downhill. There, just 30 feet below the trail, is Mud Spring. On this date Mud Spring was full and the trough below the spring had a thickening skein of ice.

07 Trail junction (looking back)

Signed junction (click to enlarge)

Ponderosa begins to dominate the terrain. On this date snow dusted the forest floor. A chilly February wind can make you very glad to have a jacket with you. At 2.7 miles from the trailhead come to a junction (signed) with another “braid” in the network of trails that is the CDT. It may be that the departing trail heads down Deadman Canyon to an intersection with Tyrone Thompson Road, offering another approach to the Big Burro Mountains. (This seems very likely from the maps, but I have not as yet checked it out).

08 Burro Peaks & distant mts in Gila NF

View from turnaround point back to Ferguson Peak.

Continue on the main CDT trail as it turns south and enters the dale separating Mt Ferguson from Burro Peak. Here some sort of localized disaster has struck the ponderosa population – there are a few acres of logs flattened higgelty-piggelty. It may be some combination of drought and beetle stress plus a strong microburst laid these trees low. Fortunately the trail builders have been out in force, and the tread threads the maze without the need for high stepping. On this date I managed a few of the switchbacks above the dale, trying to get to Burro Peak. At 2.8 miles from the car I hit my turnaround time – just as views were opening up to Mt Ferguson and out across the sere Mimbres Valley. Was that snow up on the distant Black Mountains? I couldn’t be sure, but it seems likely given the local dusting. I turned back but you may be more fortunate. Burro Peak lies just above! Beyond that lies the siren call of Jack’s Peak with its stunning (if antennae-laced) views of the basin and range domains to the south. Happy hiking!

Recommendations:

Get all your non-hiking friends together and go! They may complain about blisters, fatigue or appointments but this is a sure cure for the mid winter blues.

These peaks are pretty far south and they are not very high. Still, bring warm clothing. The winds can be cutting.

Mud Spring looked clean but it is clearly visited by all sorts of creatures and a filtering system is going to be useful. I’m not certain how reliable this water will be later in the season, so even though one liter should be enough for one person, you might want to bring two.

Links:

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition recommends an 8-mile traverse of the range with a shuttle setup.

As mentioned above, there is a second trail leading from Tyrone Road to Burro Peak that joins the trail described here. There is an entry at SummitPost that I believe describes this alternative route.

The post at Southern New Mexico Explorer also indicates that the side road off of Tyrone Road, “shortly after the Gila National Forest sign” is the Deadman Canyon approach into the Burro Mountains. Take note – he describes the summit of Burro Peak as forested and with limited views. Also, he describes a nearly-70 degree day for which short sleeve shirts were perfectly adapted.

 

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.