Archives for posts with tag: Gila National Forest
View across Aspen Canyon to Aspen Peak

Overview:

A leg of the Continental Divide Trail once ridge-rambled east from Signboard Saddle, but the ridge burned and the tread is abandoned. Once uplifting, the terrain now supports only the lightest of positive spins. Bold regrowth, views down to shadowed canyons, views up to snowy ridges and stiff navigational challenges all  find a home along the old trail. A raw helping of sadness and some danger also lurks inside this galaxy of tall and weakening snags.

Elsewhere in the Black Range the 2013 Silver Fire produced a mosaic of burned patches and unscathed patches (see West Railroad Canyon). In contrast, the old CDT departs from Signboard Saddle, threads a few patchy burns, then marches into uncontested desolation. If you are a serious student of forest recoveries then this is the trail for you. Most hikers will want to give this trail some time. Green and great by 2029!

Driving Directions:

  • In Silver City, from the intersection of US-180 and NM-90 (signed as Silver Blvd and Hudson Drive in town) turn onto US-180 East.
  • 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 (past mile marker 15) turn right onto FR-150. There is a small, brown Forest Service road sign saying, “150”.
  • After 7.8 miles on FR-150 veer right onto a gravel pad and, across the pad, onto an unsigned forest road.
  • After 0.2 miles, in a flat meadow, park your car. This leaves you 0.5 miles short of the trailhead, but for sedan drivers it represents a reasonable compromise between “getting there” and “never leaving”. 

Forest Road-150 is signed, “High Clearance Vehicles Recommended / No services 120 miles” and “Sharp Curves, Steep Grades, Trailers over 20 feet Not Advised”. Also known as North Star Mesa Road or NM-61 or Wall Lake Road, this roadbed does have rough and narrow stretches. Drive undaunted because the first 7.8 miles contains nothing worse than a steep and washboarded initial incline. Wildlife abounds. Exercise deer diligence when the moon illuminates your travels.

Sign for Mimbres River/CDT next to a gravel pad and forest road

A Forest Service trail sign for “Mimbres River Trail #77 / Continental Divide Trail #74” stands where you veer off of FR-150. A regrettably similar sign stands at mile 7.3, just after the intersection between FR-150 and FR-150A. Skilled navigators will watch for the large gravel pad and the second Mimbres River/Continental Divide trail sign.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry in meadow, next to the forest road

A flat meadow served as the trailhead. The only services are an aging corral and a signpost at the end of the forest road. There is no water, vault toilet or trash service in either place. The signs at the start of the trail point to State Road 61, the Mimbres River Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.

Data:

  • lowest elevation: 7460 feet
  • highest elevation: 8760 feet
  • net elevation: 1300 feet
  • distance: 7.3 miles (one way)

Note on the GPS track: The outward track does not begin at the meadow but rather at the end of the “unsigned forest road” (my mistake). The return portion of the GPS track shows the entire length of the trip.

Hike Description:

Signed junction with Mimbres Lake Trail

From the meadow stroll 0.5 miles to the corral and Forest Service signs at road’s end. One sign points to Signboard Saddle and asserts a distance of three and a quarter miles (a slight underestimate). Hike past this sign on a rock strewn two-track, which evolves into a single track on a gentle descent. Reach the signed junction with the Mimbres River Trail at 0.9 miles.  Go straight at the junction for the trail connecting to Signboard Saddle and the CDT. 

Cookes Peak (sharp highpoint, left), Burro Mountains (faint triplet, center) and Black-to-Signal Peak Ridge (right)

As the connector trail starts to rise you get glimpses of a forested dome ahead. Arrive at the dome’s base at 1.8 miles where the trail begins a short series of switchbacks. Keep looking over your shoulder – the southern view encompasses Tadpole Ridge and the Black Peak to Signal Peak ridge, with a purple glimpse of Mount Cooke. At the top of the switchbacks the path swings west and contours below the dome’s summit. New views open north to a vast bowl feeding into Rocky Canyon. Your path takes you east across a saddle and then bears north atop the bowl’s eastern rim. Pinyon and juniper, the lords of the lower trail, give way to ponderosa pines. To the east the slopes of the Black Range are a riot of darkling canyons.

Sign on the abandoned leg of the CDT, near Signboard Saddle junction

The trail drops gently off of the rim and barrels into the forested wonderland of Signboard Saddle at 3.7 miles. This spacious saddle houses a broad stand of tall Ponderosa. The canopy is dense, the forest floor is dark, yet the slanted morning sunlight glows warmly on cinnamon-hued trunks. The Silver Fire left the saddle singed but not roasted. 

Pine needles usually carpet the saddle, although crunchy old snow covered the ground on this date. The connector trail passes over the height of the saddle to intersect the CDT. On your left the CDT departs south to the Mexican border. Ahead a new leg of the CDT departs north to the Canadian border. On your right the old leg of the CDT (once the official northern branch) lies camouflaged by bracken, pine needles and seasonal snows. A wooden sign on the old trail says “not maintained, dangerous”. Concede the point gracefully if the winds are picking up.

Initial signs of fire damage along the trail

Got yourself a windless day? The old trail rises on the east flank of the saddle, tops on a spacious hillock and drops into an expansive headwater much like Signboard Saddle. These locations endured some flames but retain most of their big trees. The trail strives to stay on the 8400 foot contour, weaving out for each new ridge and weaving in for each new hollow. On the third outward weave the the fire’s stark effect becomes evident. Standing snags outnumber living trees. Even the tough mountain brush, grey oak and mountain mahogany, are spread thin. The forest floor seems unnaturally free of living obstacles. A singular shrub thrives, however. It often grows as a solo, waist-high shoot and is decorated with scimitars disguised as hefty thorns. The thorns attack synthetic fleece, giving high gaiters another reason to exist. Expect the tread to become intermittent. The path snakes below a much abused barbed wire fence. If you lose the path try following along the fence.

Canyons above the south branch of Mimbres River (from off-trail on saddle)

At 4.9 miles the trail comes close a saddle top. Go briefly off-trail for views to cliffs, canyons, mesas and alluvial fans that grace these mountains. The forest that once adorned these slopes is gone; leaving plain a story spoken in rock and snow beginning on the Black Range ridge, coursing to its middle in a confusion of canyons and ending on the Mimbres River. 

Snow over trail

Round the next rib and enter a hollow at 5.2 miles. Here navigation-by-trail becomes wishful thinking augmented by misplaced trust. Deadfall occludes the trail. A slow motion landslide afflicts these ridgeside soils, tossing stones and piling debris onto the trail. Part of this tread has twisted into alignment with the hillside. A line of tall grass tufts marks the tread’s rolled remains like a vegetative gravestone rubbing.  The main ridge stays visible above you and offers some guidance. Watch for several high ribs that strike north into the Aspen Canyon bowl. If you find yourself on a prolonged northerly descent you’ve mistaken a rib for the ridge. (The excursion north shown on the map at mile 6.2 was just such a mistake). 

Fire sculpted snag

Finished with wiggling east, the trail begins a northeasterly trend. There is a switchback at 5.8 miles. It may be obvious in warmer conditions but it was easy to miss on this date. Beyond the switchback is a steep swale, so when your thoughts turn to, “that really doesn’t look right”, then scan uphill for the broken fence line. Weaving out on the next rib you encounter a heartening grove of ponderosa saplings. Perhaps the fire was less intense here, allowing the seeds to survive. Aboreal armageddon visited the next hollow, where ranks of bleaching snags scorn any thought of swift recovery. The snags themselves are enormous. Fifty-foot high and fire-sculpted tree trunks have braved six years of mountain weather in a peculiar display of post-mortem toughness. Be amazed, unless the trail goes near one of these widow makers. Then, be quick.

View back to shoulder (left side) on the approach ridge

At 6.6 miles the main ridge hits a shoulder where the tread drops 100 feet. The shoulder’s north face supports a bastion of thorn bushes. The trail disappears. Hack through this bastion and arrive on another saddle, warmed by the midday sun and snowmelt soaked. The glide of these squishy soils into the canyons seems palpable under foot. Push past deadfall on the far side of the saddle and regain the trail where it rises along the west face of the ridge. Rounding a knoll at 7.3 miles the trail turns back east. The views, grim and magnificent, cross the Aspen Canyon headwaters to the charred summit of Aspen Peak. Take a seat on a sun-bleached log, take a pull on your water bottle, take out the lunch fixings and take in the view. Fast hikers could continue all the way to Aspen Peak. Out of time? Return the way you came in.

Recommendations:

former CDT cairn doggedly marking the old trail
  • Avoid windy days. Gain an edge by scouting your favorite forecast website for a block of two or three windless days.
  • Question why you would pick this particular hike. I do want to revisit this corner of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, pending a decade exploring elsewhere.
  • On this date the snow rose as far as my boot tops, obscuring enough of the tread that I made frequent map and GPS checks. Go when the snow is gone to ease navigation. That said, grass grows in long stretches of the trail, deadfall lies in heaps and broken tree limbs mat over the tread many inches deep. Novice navigators need another destination.
  • Two liters of water was plenty, despite a balmy 45 degrees on the ridge lines. In warmer (but still windless!) weather the absence of shade will factor into water considerations.

Links:

The Forest Service refers to this trail as the Aspen Mountain Trail in its list of “Trails Not Recommended”. They make special mention of the New Mexico Locust (described above as “decorated with scimitars”) in concluding that this trail is impassable.

That’s all that I could get out of Google. The vast majority of “hits” were thru-hiker blogs describing the Black-Range/Gila-River alternative routes and why they (invariably) chose the Gila. Please leave a comment if you’ve know of other links.

01 Ridge Containing Black Mountain

View of ridge containing Black Mountain from NM-59 (foreground peak is probably Beaver Points Mountain).

Overview: 

This hike is a mellow stroll to a lookout tower on the northern edge of the Gila Wilderness. Wolf Trail #773 has a clear tread, a manageable vertical gain and a summit low enough to be snow-free for much of the year. The summit view swings from Vick’s Peak in the San Mateo Range to the northeast, passing Hillsboro Peak in the Black Range to the east, Black Peak in the Pinos Altos Range to the south and winding up on Whitewater Baldy in the Mogollon Mountains to the west. There may be no better place for getting an overview of this huge and varied National Forest. The roads are paved for much of the way, so access is relatively easy. These roads do wiggle and writhe, however, so getting here is not especially fast.

To be clear, this is Black Mountain in Catron County on the northern boarder of the Gila National Forest. It is not Black Peak (near Signal Peak) on the southern border of the Gila National Forest. Nor is it Black Mountain (near Whitewater Baldy) on the western border  of the Gila National Forest. In fact, none of these peaks lie within the Black Range on the western border of the Gila National Forest.

Driving Directions:

02 Turn off of NM-59 (FR-141)

Sign for trailhead

The directions given here are from Silver City, NM, south of the Gila National Forest. Many people going to this trail will come from the Interstate-25 (I-25) corridor. Those people may want to skip down to where it says, “veer right onto the Exit 83” and follow from there.

  • From the junction of US-180 and NM-90 in Silver City, go east on US-180.
  • After 7.6 miles on US-180 turn left onto NM-152. The junction is well signed.
  • After 66.1 miles on NM-152 turn left onto the on-ramp for I-25 NorthThe junction is well signed.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the on-ramp, merge onto I-25 North
  • After 20.0 miles on I-25 North veer right onto the Exit 83 off ramp for Elephant Butte.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the off-ramp, turn left onto NM-52/NM-181. These roads were not signed at this junction. Instead, look for a sign that has a large, left-pointing arrow labeled, “CHUCHILLO”. That  arrow will point you in the right direction.
  • After 2.4 miles on NM-52/NM-181 turn left onto NM-52 North. (NM-181 continues straight ahead). The junction is well signed.
  • After 38.0 miles on NM-52 North turn left onto NM-59. The junction is well signed.
    • At 31.4 miles on NM-59, just after a cattle guard, the road turns to gravel and splits. You should turn left to stay on NM-59. The road quality here is currently very good. Google Maps seems to think that this gravel segment is a combination of both NM-61 and NM-59, but currently it is only signed for NM-59. 
    • At 32.0 miles on NM-59 turn right.  An unsigned gravel road continues straight ahead, but it is not NM-59. The turn at this junction is well signed. The road quality remains fairly good but in places the road bed has numerous embedded rocks to rattle your vehicle. This portion of NM-59 also has Forest Service signs indicating it is also known as Forest Road-141.
  • After 37.5 miles on NM-59 (just past mile marker 37) turn left onto Forest Road 991, also signed for Wolf Hollow Campground.
  • After 0.7 miles on FR-991 come to a loop at the end of the road, in a Forest Service campground.

There are numerous places along NM-52 where the road descends sharply into washes and are signed “DIP”. When water is flowing in the wash it will go directly across the crown of the road. Be careful under wet conditions. In many of these dips flowing water has sculpted deep holes in the sand adjacent to the paved road. Don’t let your passenger side tires ride out onto the road margins.

FR-991 looks as if it recently received a couple loads of crushed rock, which is great.  Unfortunately, the crushed rock is not very well packed down. It can hide the tops of pretty substantial rocks. By going slow and steering carefully it is perfectly possible to take a sedan.

Trailhead:

03 The Mighty Camry in Wolf Hollow Campground

The mighty Camry in Wolfs Hollow Campground

This is a Forest Service campground. There is a vault toilet, picnic tables and a corral. I did not see trash receptacles or any source of water. At the southern end of the loop there is a small kiosk that says “Wolf’s Hollow Campground” and a second sign saying only, “Trail”. This is trail 773 to the Black Mountain lookout tower. A second sign, next to the “Trail” sign, warns that this is a wolf relocation area. 

Data:

  • starting elevation: 7840 feet
  • ending elevation: 9288 feet
  • net elevation gain: 1448 feet
  • distance: 4.7 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

04 Ponderosa path in Wolf's Hollow

Trail into Wolf’s Hollow

The trail leaves the campground and immediately enters a broad waterway – a hollow rather than a canyon. The tread is clear and the the angle is shallow. On this date there was a thin scatter of snow on the ground but there did not seem to be any water flowing out of the hollow. This is the domain of small ponderosa and some firs. At first these firs may look a little unfamiliar. The cones scattered nearby, however, will all have “mouse tail” bracts showing that these trees are all Douglas fir. Douglas fir likes moist, cool conditions and it may be that these trees are so stressed that the bark and limbs have been affected.

05 Cattle gate 1

First cattle gate

In 0.3 miles you will reach the first of the four gates on this trail. You are welcome to unlatch them and pass through, but please be sure to re-latch them before heading on.  The gentle ascent continues, past a second gate, and reaches the hollow’s upper basin in about 1.7 miles. The upper basin appears to be the scene of a fire, most likely the Miller fire of 2011. There is deadfall scattered all over the basin but none on the trail (it was cleared in 2017). The angle steepens modestly and at 2.1 miles you will reach a long switchback that will carry you out of the basin and onto a shoulder leading towards a height of land. This is a false summit and you may scold yourself for thinking that you might be approaching the peak. There are miles to go! 

06 view north from upper hollow

Pale grasslands seen from the upper basin of Wolf Hollow

From the shoulder, looking north, you will see that the dark, coniferous terrain of the Gila National Forest gives way to pale grasslands. The terrain in the National Forest is considered to be volcanic in origin; numerous calderas have formed and eroded, while Black Mountain itself seems to have been formed by rhyolitic ash-flow tuffs. This soft rock has been carved into innumerable canyons and hollows that radiate, star-like, in all directions from the summit. In contrast, the region north contains broad areas of sedimentary rocks. It may be that the difference in vegetation is a reflection of the geology. 

08 1st saddle to Black Range

View from first saddle to the Black Range

The tread climbs the rib as if it were going to the false summit. Instead, it contours below that deceptive knoll to arrive at a saddle about 2.7 miles from the trailhead. There are “peek-a-boo” views thru the trees to the Black Range. On this date the snow had an inch or two in depth, the most accumulation along the tread. Ahead of you is the upper basin of a second hollow that (like Wolf’s Hollow) drains to the northeast. The tread follows the westernmost wall of this waterway while hugging the 9000 foot contour. Eventually it reaches a second saddle at the head of the basin, trespasses briefly on the easternmost wall, and then goes over that wall on a third saddle about 3.5 miles from the trailhead. This saddle has been signed to let you know you are entering the Gila Wilderness Area.

11 Bear Prints

Bear there.

At this third saddle you are at the headwaters of another canyon, this one draining due east. The trail makes a broad swing from south to west, dropping slightly, to bring you around uppermost rim of this canyon. You will reach the fourth and last of the saddles at 4.1 miles from the trailhead and go through the fourth and last of the gates. Above and ahead lies the summit block for Black Mountain. The tracked snow on this part of the trail indicated that this region is home to deer, elk, rabbits and bear, with occasional visits from horses. There were no obvious wolf tracks on this date. 

13 Mogollon Mountains

Mogollon Mountains seen from the fire tower.

The trail now ascends briskly, aided by a switchback or two, to attain the summit at 4.7 miles. The fire tower on the summit is reported to be permanently closed. The stairs up to the observation deck are painted and strong, however, and there are stellar views from a perch just below the observation deck. As promised, the entire Gila National Forest is laid out in front of you. It is clear that the forest is walled in to the east by the Black Range and to the west by the Mogollon Mountains. A ripple in the terrain far south of the Black Mountain is Tadpole Ridge. A surprising number of trails depart from this summit: the Sam Martin Trail, #23, the Cassidy Spring Trail #26, the Jordan Trail (signed as #26, but shown as #20 on most maps) and a trail signed CCC /East Fork (which is likely the CCC Canyon Trail #772) venture off in various directions.  Pull on some warm gear, have a bite to eat and consider your many options. Most day hikers will probably return the way they came, down the Wolf Trail, #773.

Recommendations:

14 author, off the summit block

Author, in the saddle before the summit block

It was a poor decision to go hiking in December in trail shoes. Boots would be warmer and more resistant to snowmelt. On this date the accumulation of snow did not call for either micro spikes or poles, but that is very subject to change. 

This seems to be a notably lonesome hike. Arrange matters so that someone will know when you are supposed to return. 

It isn’t clear how much of a safety issue arises with the wolf-release program. I haven’t seen reports of wolf encounters with hikers, hunters or ranchers. Injuries and fatalities to livestock are known, however. A recent report indicated that there were 50 such incidents in the first half of 2018, or about two per week in New Mexico. 

If you want to explore in rarely-visited terrain the the trails leading from the summit could be the answer to your wishes. A large loop could be constructed by heading out on the Jordan trail and returning via the Sam Martin Trail (with several other trails used to link). The quality of these treads is unusually uncertain and you’d want to think carefully about how to secure water along the way.  

As noted in the Overview section, there are many heights of land nearby that are named “Black”. Internet searches will turn up many false positives for this trail!

Links:

There is a fascinating website called PeakVisor.com in which you can enter a summit name and get a sketch of the surrounding peaks along with labels for them. Scrolling left or right allows you to go around the full compass circle. There is an associated phone app with similar capacity and it might be a great tool for backcountry navigation. (I haven’t tested it). This is the link to the sketch from Black Peak.

The Forest Service site has a map, and is particularly useful for getting information on the official trail numbers for all those trails leading off of the summit. The NaturalAtlas site is even better since it includes names as well as trail numbers.

It is slightly shocking to report, but either my internet search skills have deserted me or this mellow gem seems to be completely unknown on the web. Please let me know if you find a link or have added a trip report of your own.

01 Black Peak from CDT

Black Peak seen from the Continental Divide Trail

Overview:

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

Driving Directions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailhead:

03 the Mighty Camry at the trailhead

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

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

Data:

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

Hike Description:

04 old roadbed

Washouts in the road bed

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

05 semi-ambiguous fork

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

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

06 Fog shrouded western Gila Forest

The western Gila mountains, atypically shrouded in low clouds.

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

6a road sign at otherwise unsigned junction

Remaining sign near trail junction.

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

07 Twin Sisters

Twin Sister summits

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

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

12 Unsigned junction to Black Summit

Cairn at base of burned tree marking summit junction.

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

Recommendations:

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

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

 

01 Signal Peak LookoutOverview:

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

Driving Directions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry

The Mighty Camry, midst snow and ice.

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

Data:

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

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

Hike Description:

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

04 Rock wall marking switchbacks

Snow dusted trail alongside boulders

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

05 View SW from below summit block

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

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

08 tower view of Black Range

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

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

13 sign past the gate

Entrance to CDNST/Signal Peak trail overlap.

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

17 Sunny saddle before black peak

Sunny and open saddle

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

16 cairn indiating trail to Black Peak

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

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

Recommendations:

18 author on signal peak

Author on Signal Peak

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

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

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

11 pretty view of tower through treesOverview

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

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

Driving Directions

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

    17 view from ridge drive out.

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

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

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

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

Trailhead.

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

West Fork hoodoo

West Fork hoodoo

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

Data

USGS 7.5 Minute Maps:

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

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

Hike

Broad meadows near West Fork trailhead

Broad meadows near West Fork trailhead

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

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

Nice campsite on shelf just past EE Canyon

Nice campsite on shelf just past EE Canyon

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

Murky waters: soot in the flow of the Middle Fork

Murky waters: soot in the flow of the Middle Fork

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

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

View back towards the West Fork

View back towards the West Fork

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

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

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

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

Dining al fresco along the the Middle Fork campsite

Dining al fresco along the the Middle Fork campsite

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

08 morning light on canyon

Morning sunshine still high above the canyon bed

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

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

hot spring near the trailhead

hot spring near the trailhead

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

Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

Next time I will have a backup fuel canister.