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 east 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.

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

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.