Archives for posts with tag: hiking in new mexico
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.

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

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

Links:

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

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

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


North Baldy from the south

Overview:

Central New Mexico contains many hiking gems, but even in that company the Hop Canyon Loop in the Magdalena Mountains is a lustrous stunner. It offers easy access, a clear tread, vertiginous canyons and an unruly mob of high and darkly forested peaks. The Hop Canyon Loop tours a sky archipelago and offers a lightly exposed extension onto North Baldy Peak. Ambitious hikers could add a second side trip to South Baldy for a rousing and exhausting day in the mountains.

Driving Directions:

  • From I-25 (going either north or south) take Exit 147 for Socorro, NM. The exit ramp turns into the northbound lanes of California Street. Reset your odometer as you pass the first gas station.
  • After 0.6 miles on California St, at the first stoplight, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.4 miles on Spring Street, at the first stop sign, turn left onto US-60.
  • After 25.8 miles on US-60, immediately past the Forest Service Station in Magdalena NM, turn left onto South Kelly Road.
  • After 2.0 miles on South Kelly Road, at a fork, veer right onto Hop Canyon Road. (There is no road sign, but a sign at the fork has a right-pointing arrow labeled “Hop Canyon”).
  • After 4.4 miles on Hop Canyon Road turn right onto the trailhead parking area, signed, “TR 25”.

Paved roads lead almost all the way to the trailhead. Hop Canyon Road becomes a gravel road after 2.0 miles. The roadbed narrows and degrades as you go further up Hop Canyon. Leave the Porshe at home. With careful steering, however, even a soft-suspended sedan can be driven to the trailhead.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry at Trail 25 trailhead

A pine-shaded gravel pad offers parking on the west side of Hop Canyon Road. There are no toilets, trash receptacles or water service. (Water flowed in a seasonal stream across the road, unreliable in warmer seasons). If you wish to follow a clockwise loop, then cross Hop Canyon Road to find the trail. There is a sign saying 25A about 20 feet into the woods. If you wish to follow a counterclockwise loop (heading for South Baldy) then stay on the west side of the road and look up-canyon for the trail. About 100 feet up that track you will find signs saying “TR25” and “North Baldy Trail #8 / 5 miles”.

Data:

  • lowest elevation: 7723 feet
  • highest elevation: 9875 feet
  • net elevation gain: 2152 feet
  • gross elevation gain: 3428 feet (GPS data)
  • gross elevation loss: 3479 feet (GPS data)
  • distance: 10.3 miles

Hike Description:

Cross Hop Canyon Road and follow the trail past a sign for trail 25A. The trail briefly descends the canyon, but then turns east to cross a waterway. On this date there was a good flow of water, but no difficulty crossing dry footed. The ponderosa in this small canyon soon disappear. The open, drier, northwest facing slopes support pinion and juniper in graciously spaced intervals. The spacing permits views down Hop Canyon to a small butte called Elephant Peak.

Peek to Withington Wilderness

The trail segues into an unnamed sidecut to Hop Canyon and begins a gentle ascent. The wall to your right lies on the flanks of point 9613 (per USGS maps). The cliff-ringed summit of this high point can be recognized from many points on this loop, a useful aid to navigation. As you climb views open over the flanking western hills to the distant and rarely visited Withington Wilderness. Keep your planning for future hikes in careful check and focus on ascending the trail you are on!

Abandoned dig

Near the top of this first canyon note the odd talus field on the right. Talus falls from many of the cliffs in the Magdalenas, but the canyon top is cliff-free. Perhaps, you might muse, the rocks are mineralized so as to be susceptible to radical freeze-thaw cycles. With that thought in mind, be rewarded by the sight of an abandoned mining dig at 1.3 miles, atop a small saddle. The trail turns southeast and begins a series of switchbacks threading through ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. On this date short patches of icy snow hogged the trail – footing was awkward on these sun protected slopes. Peek-a-boo views open to the north, including close-by Granite Mountain northeast of the town of Magdalena. At 2.4 miles from the trailhead, immediately below a second saddle, come to an obvious trail junction. Don’t be fooled – the intersecting trail is but an elk boulevard. Continue straight across and rise to the saddle.

The trail turns left in the saddle, pulling away from point 9613 and pushing towards the main ridge. Ascend sunny meadows housing lofty ponderosa, which thin to montane grasslands as you near the ridge. Contour southwest (right on ascent) around an open knoll. The main loop is going to take you south (to your right) onto the main ridge. A notch in the ridge lies below your feet. From there the ridge rises south as a crescendo of darkly forested humps, hillocks, knolls, knobs, knuckles, and frank mountain summits. The challenge is to pick out South Baldy without stumbling.

At 2.9 miles from the trailhead come to a forest service sign saying “Hop Canyon Trail #25 / Forest Rd No. 101 2.5 miles”. Here Trail 25A ends at a T-intersection with Trail 8, the North Baldy Trail. To your left the North Baldy Trail ascends on an obvious path. To your right there is a broad mass of ledge-laced, downward-sloping terrain. Look for cairns that lead across these rocky surfaces into the notch (mentioned above). For the side trip to North Baldy you first want to turn left.

Summit View: Sierra Ladrones (left), Strawberry Peak (center-right) and Socorro Mts

The trip to North Baldy summit is slightly longer than a half mile and lots of fun. The trail clings to rock surfaces on a narrow ridge top. Reaching the summit block the trail traverses the block’s south face through a long stretch of scrub oak, eventually discovering a roads-end on the southeast corner. The road corkscrews uphill on the east side of the summit block. On the north side the road plummets, so you must go off-trail on terrain blissfully free of scrub oak to gain the summit. There are fossils in some of the summit rocks (check the cairns). To the south lies the bulk of the Magdalena Range, including South Baldy. To the west lies the San Mateo Mountains, including the Withington Wilderness. The northwest quadrant is an inexpressibly vast plain. The Bear Mountains lie close-by to the north. Beyond, the huge bulge of Mount Taylor dominates the horizon. The east side is a hodgepodge of ranges, most of which were not visible on this hazy day. Close in, and visible despite the haze, was the Sierra Ladrones, Strawberry Peak and the Socorro Mountains.

If you are reading this sign you are facing the wrong direction, turn 180° and follow a faint tread into the woods

Return to the signed junction and scan below, once more, for those cairns that theoretically guide you onto the southern leg of the North Baldy Trail. Descend on friendly ledges, passing between house-sized outcroppings of pale, friable rock, to lose about 300 feet onto the notch. The trail returns to its normal self, a clearly visible trough in the ridge-top soils. This trail clearly suffered a harsh winter. Push aside as many fallen limbs as you can, going briefly off-trail to avoid deadfall that won’t be bullied. Cliff-sided Point 9613 is a beacon on your right. Arrive at a high point of 9825 feet. Dark Canyon cleaves the east-facing slopes on your left. A rubble-strewn descent delivers you to a saddle and yet another rise, this time bursting through tree line to a signed trail junction. To the south (left if going clockwise) the obvious North Baldy Trail continues to South Baldy. Go west (right if going clockwise), on a faint tread that returns to the woods.

Relax, it’s only 2.1 more miles

A brief ascent brings you to a saddle with a view to the bald south slope of South Baldy. A small ascent still remains until you leave the rim above Hop Canyon and begin descending on the slopes leading into Agua Fria Canyon. Huge old-growth ponderosa and Douglas fir grace this terrain, a rare sight. The trail switchbacks on steep terrain and, having traveled 7.6 miles, you will arrive at a gate in a barbed wire fence. In theory you should be able to unlash a stick from the post on your left, pass through the gate, then re-lash the stick to the post. That stick, however, is broken and there is no obvious way to unlash the entire thing. The system does, however, allow you to unlash the bottom part, and you can scoot under the top part. From here the trail contours to the north on very gentle terrain. You will pass through ungated fencing at 8.2 miles where a trail informs you that it is 2.5 miles back to Hop Canyon trailhead.

Point 9613 shrouded in snow

At 9.0 miles the tread regains the rim above Hop Canyon. Point 9613 returns to sight. Follow the rim west, along side wire fencing. Eventually the trail unexpectedly pivots back east (where did the fence go?) and writhes down the walls of the canyon. Arrive back at the car having traveled 10.3 miles. Stop in Magdalena for an ice cream, you’ve earned it!

Recommendations:

Author, blocking Timber Peak view

As usual with trails nearing 10,000 feet, Acute Mountain Sickness (a.k.a. altitude sickness) is a concern. AMS shows small respect for gumption, strength or experience. If your party includes hikers newly arrived from Portland (Maine or Oregon) then give them a chance to stretch out on a lower tread.

If your group is adapted to altitude, then consider adding a side hike to South Baldy. That would not be especially easy (South Baldy rises to 10,800 feet) but it is fun to see the astronomical observatory and the hefty gear used at the Langmuir Laboratory lightening research facility. Clearly, you will want to avoid these ridges during monsoon season.

I never put on my microspikes. That part of the Magdalena hiking season seems to have passed.

Some older maps will show the North Baldy Trail clinging to the east side of the ridge line. That was not my experience. In many places it was square on top of the ridge, but where it had to depart it did so to the west.

On a cold late-March day two bottles of water were fine. In warmer weather bring much more. There aren’t any reliable springs near the ridge that I could find.

Links:

Tom Lohr, at the SkyAboveUs site, reports on doing this trip in the counter-clockwise direction. He mentions concerns regarding pets on this hike, with emphasis on the risks poised by mountain lions. He also mentions places where you can see the Very Large Array of radio telescopes.

The HikeArizona site describes the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET) where it crosses the Magdalenas, overlapping with some of the loop described here. It has suggestions on where water might be found. No guarantees! Water quality on the GET can be very poor – treat any water you take.

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  Black - Sacaton Mt to Mogollon Mt

View to Black Mountain (extreme left), Sacaton Peak (center) and Mogollon Baldy (white peak above the saddle between Black and Sacaton Peaks)

Overview:

The Holt-Apache Trail, #181, takes you up the west-facing slopes of the Mogollon Mountains to a view point on the summit block of Holt Mountain. A history of wind and fire has resulted a thin patch of snags that opens to terrific views across the Dry Creeks region of the Mogollons. My turn-back time had arrived so this report does not describe the trail where it ascends the last few hundred feet to the summit of Holt Peak. On a longer day that should be easy to do. It might be even more rewarding to continue along the Apache-Holt trail for another half mile while searching for views down Whitewater Creek and into the heart of the Gila Wilderness. The trail is moderately steep, clinging to canyon bottoms in the first stretch and then mounting well-engineered switchbacks to bring you up out of the canyon. Unfortunately, the trail is being abandoned by the Forest Service. You are needed! Hike this trail and your very tracks will assist in keeping this gorgeous national resource open.

Driving Directions:

  • From US-180 and NM-90 in Silver City, NM, go west onto US-180.
  • After 53.7 miles on US-180 go right onto Sheridan Corral Rd (gravel). The road is officially signed CO54, but there is an informal sign attached to a fence saying “Sheridan Corral”.
  • After 4.0 miles on Sheridan Corral Rd arrive at trailhead at end of road

Sheridan Corral Road is currently in good shape. All the maps I’ve seen depict a loop at the end of Sheridan Corral Road. That loop may exist, but it looks as if it might only be accessible to ATV drivers. If you are driving a truck or car then the end of the road is a smallish gravel pad in front of a weathered trailhead kiosk. I suspect that horse-folk use this trail. Please leave the gravel pad open so that those dragging a horse trailer can turn about. There is a gravel pull-out beside the road just before the pad. You can park in that pull-out.

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry

The Mighty Camry in the pull-out

The trailhead is just a gravel pad and kiosk. There is no trash, vault toilet or water service. You should not count on water running in the canyon (bring your own). There are picnic tables and vault toilets in the Aldo Leopold Vista on US-180, near mile marker 63 (just a few miles south of Sheridan Corral Road). A sign near the start of the trail says that the trail is no longer maintained and that it may be hard to find in places. That last warning is not currently warranted. Finding the trail was straight forward, even when the tread was buried in a half foot of snow.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 6354 feet
  • ending elevation: 9377 feet
  • net elevation gain: 3023 feet
  • total gain: 3804 feet (gps)
  • total decent 3832 feet (gps)
  • distance: 5.0 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

03 Sheridan Mountain

Sheridan Mountain

There is an apparent trail junction right behind the trailhead kiosk. Veering off to the east (to your right, looking uphill) lies a two-track. This may be part of the old loop that once graced the end of Sheridan Mountain Road. You will want to bear northeast (to your left looking uphill). That will take you past a bright yellow warning sign saying that the trail is abandoned and may be hard to find. The trail ascends for a short ways, gaining the top of the ridge between Sheridan Corral Creek and the unnamed canyon to the north. On the ridge the trail meanders back and forth until you enter the Gila Wilderness at 0.6 miles from the trailhead. The signage for the Wilderness boundary is falling to pieces. Past the signs the trail begins a short drop to the canyon bottom. The tread rounds a broad buttress and views open to Sheridan Peak on the east side of the canyon. Above you, on the west side, is much evidence of the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire of 2012. It must have burned hot. Even now, seven years on, the hillside is covered with patchy grass and a strikingly sparse scattering of gray oak. 

05 fallen hoodoo

Post-hoodoo

The fire damage extends all the way to the canyon bottom. This region, protected from winds by canyon walls, is a continuous display of shriveled firs and blackened pines. On this day the creek in the bottom of the canyon was roaring away, displaying a gray-green coloration from the sand and clay it was hauling down from the heights. (There had been recent rain and snow storms). As you continue upstream you will encounter a monumental boulder in the canyon bottom, at 1.5 miles from the trailhead. This boulder may have once been a fin of rock that then wore into a hoodoo, then into a “hanging rock” and then losing to gravity to become a “settling rock”.

06 Holt and Big Dry Creek fork

Junction with N. Fork, Big Dry Creek Trail

The trail twists back and forth across the creek while ascending at a gentle rate. As you pass the boulder you may notice that the fire devastation has eased. Huge old ponderosa and Doug Firs are present, sometimes blackened around their bases but still thriving. At 2.0 miles the trail enters a level, meadowy stretch and comes to a signed junction. The North Fork Big Dry Creek Trail #225 departs to the right. Veer slightly left to stay on the Apache-Holt Trail.

07 spires and fins on canyon rim

Proto-hoodoo

Both of the canyon rims lower as you ascend. The canyon walls open broadly to the sky. The creek bottom is warmer and brighter. The canyon is still quite dramatic, as the rim features tall hoodoos, fins and crown-shaped outcrops. Apparently this segment escaped the fire entirely. The understory includes a particularly clingy form of bramble that can slow your progress considerably. It was a good idea to have gaiters just to deal with the brambles. On this date footprints in the snow showed the passage of both deer and elk. 

08 small death cookie

Snow Pinwheels above the trail

At 3.4 miles the trail leaves the bottom of the canyon and begins a series of carefully constructed switchbacks. The trail builders have thrown long rock walls to shore up the downside of the trail wherever needed. Scratch your head and ask how it is possible that such an investment could possibly be abandoned. The slope above the trail is steep in places. In wintertime you may see snow pinwheels (also known as “death cookies”) scattered along the hillside. These are thought to be evidence of unstable conditions. Exercise some thought before crossing any snow-choked chutes. Up and up and up! Although really it is only a half mile of switchbacks before the trail lurches to your right and makes a long, flat contour to the east. A mosaic of all-green patches and all-burned patches arise at this level, with the burned patches providing you with views back down the canyon.

09 thru-the-trees peak at frosted Holt Peak

Peek to frosted Holt Mountain

The trail eventually reaches a rib-top and turns uphill to follow the rib towards the high ridgeline. Views of Holt Peak can be seen filtered through the evergreens. This is a gorgeous ramble through dense Douglas firs. The snow began to accumulate (on this date) and the junction of the Apache-Holt trail with Holt Gulch Trail #217 was obscured. Fortunately there was enough trail evidence (such as sawn logs or water bars) poking through the snow that the main trail could be followed to the ridge.

10 Viewpoint looking west to Mangas Trench

View south and west to Arizona

The trail slowly climbs to the main ridge line. When you reach the ridge it is worth turning north, off trail, and ascending towards Holt Peak for another hundred feet through open forest. You will find a stark, nearly snag-free burn with views swinging from the east down to the southwest. Looking across both the Big Dry Creek and Little Dry Creek drainages you will see Black Mountain and Sacaton Mountain, with Mogollon Baldy peeking over the ridge between them. You have almost innumerable options at this point. If you have enough daylight hours then the summit of Holt Peak is immediately above you. Energetic campers will want to continue along the Holt-Apache trail into the Mogollon’s high country. Time-limited day hikers, however, will probably want to soak in the sights and return the way they came.

Recommendations:

11 author on Sheridan Corral Trail #181

Author, sheltering from the breeze

  • As with other hikes in the Mogollon Mountains, dedicating just a single day to this hike is going to be frustrating. There is so much you won’t get to see! From my turn-back point it would be only 4.6 more miles to Spider Saddle. From the saddle a range of summits becomes accessible. These include Grouse Mountain, Indian Peak, Black Mountain, Center Baldy, Whitewater Baldy, Willow Mountain and many others. If you have the time then treat this hike as just the approach-leg for an extended stay.
  • Haven’t got a free weekend? Then just do this hike! The canyon is beautiful and the views at the top are great. Plus, this trail (like many others in the Gila) badly needs greater boot-sole solace. Your efforts here will help to keep open a hiking gem.
  • I went through one and a half liters of water on a warm (50 degree) winter’s day. That was plenty. If your own trip is planned for the truly warm months, however, then factor in the effects returning through burned areas (with little shade) in a southwest-facing canyon. The rush of water described in this report was strongly influenced by a recent snow storm and a subsequent rain storm. The canyon bed is likely to be dry in the pre-monsoon season.
  • Consult the weather reports before going on this hike. The remaining snags are aging fast and wind will eventually topple them all. In recent years the snow pack has been terribly light and avalanche concerns have been almost negligible. That said, do watch for patterns of storms that might suddenly increase the risk. There are chutes here that raise your wintertime risk-levels. 
  • I heard just one sharp sound that may have been gun fire. The Gila Wilderness does open for hunting. A National Park Service report (undated) says that turkey season is late April and early May. Deer and elk season for bow hunters is the first three weeks of September, while deer and elk season for rifle hunters is October and November. Bear and cougar season is December and January. An orange wardrobe will continue to be useful for at least another couple weeks.

Links:

There is a detailed route description from 2016 (i.e. post fire) at HikeArizona.

Closures and other official information can be found at the Forest Service site.

“Stav Is Lost” has a trip report that describes a foggy-day approach in wintertime New Mexico. The photos will give you a good idea of what you are heading into, with emphasis on how the 2012 Whitewater Baldy Complex fire took a big toll on this part of the world.

The Casitas de Gila page has a 2015 trip report, but one that only extends for the first 1.5 miles of the hike. The geological discussion at the end is very interesting. They also recommend picking a calm day.

01 Dry Creek Drainage to West Baldy

View up Little Dry Creek to West Baldy

Overview:

This is a splendid trail. It wanders more than three miles along a creek that currently enjoys a pleasant run of water. The “creek” is flanked with enormous canyon walls. Eventually the trail leaves the canyon bottom and offers you a brisk, mile-long ascent onto a high ridge line in the Mogollon Mountains. The trailhead is easy to access. Views, wildlife and solitude abound. 

In fact, that solitude may be a bit too abundant. Forest Trail #180 is in painful need of hiker affection. In its upper reaches there is some deadfall to clamber across. In places the trail is slowly rolling back into conformation with the hillside. Tufts of grass grow in the tread and brush is starting to encroach at knee level. You are needed! Get out there and show some boot-sole sympathy for this great diversion into the Gila National Forest. The Mogollons are magnificent and your hike will maintain access to this high terrain.

Driving Directions:

  • In Silver City, NM set your odometer to zero at the intersection of US-180 (signed as “Silver Heights Blvd”) and NM-90 (signed as “Hudson Street”) and go west on US-180.
  • After 50.5 miles, past mile marker 63 and immediately past the signed bridge over Little Dry Creek, turn right onto Sacaton Road (gravel, well signed).
  • After 2.8 miles, at a T-intersection, turn left onto Forest Road 196 (signed as “196”), also known as Little Dry Creek Road.
  • After 3.3 miles, at the road end, park at the trailhead.

Sacaton Road has been recently graded and is in very good condition. FR-196 is also in good condition. There was no problem with using a sedan to get to the trailhead.

Trailhead:

02 Mighty Camry


The Mighty Camry at the trailhead

The trailhead is a turn-about at the end of FR-196. There is a kiosk and a yellow warning sign to let you know that recent fires have created certain risks along the trail. There is no water, no trash receptacles nor vault toilets. If you are coming from Silver City then the Aldo Leopold Vista on the west side of US-180 (0.6 miles before the Sacaton turn) provides both vistas and vault toilets. When parking at the trailhead please leave space so that folks pulling horse trailers can maneuver.

Data:

  • Lowest Elevation: 6252 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 8455 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 2203 feet
  • Total Elevation Gain: 3324 feet (per GPS)
  • Miles: 4.7 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

The lower stretch of Little Dry Creek Canyon has been described previously on this blog. For greater narrative detail you can link to that description here. This post will simply show some landmarks along that mellow tread, and then resume a narrative of the hike when the trail leaves the canyon bottom.

03 first fin of rock

First fin, nearly damming the creek

From the trailhead, climb briefly on a rock-riddled two-track  and arrive at a height of land with wonderful views of the canyon. The trail then descends to the canyon bed. At 0.9 miles from the trailhead come to a deep cut where Little Dry Creek has sawed into a fin of rock. The trail rises on the west side (to your left on ascent) to get around this fin.

04 reflected light

Light reflected off the west wall

Continuing upstream, the trail hop-scotches the stream bed and arrives at a second fin (with a short detour to a pretty waterfall) at 1.4 miles. In the early morning most of the light in the canyon bed has been reflected off of the western walls of the canyon.

05 midforest water faucet

Orphaned faucet

At 1.5 miles you will pass a faucet strangely stranded in the middle of the woods. Water pressure must be good, since it was dripping briskly on this date. The rationale for this faucet arrives at 2.1 miles where an abandoned cabin stands. As always, be careful around abandoned buildings in New Mexico. Hanta virus is a genuine threat and those sagging walls don’t look any too sturdy.

At 2.7 miles come to a small meadow that extends to the west from the stream. Take note of the trail junction in this meadow. On your return you will want to bear to your left at this junction and stay near the bed of Little Dry Creek.

07 pinched trailbed below main wall

Pinched stream bed

Looking ahead you will see a tremendous canyon wall dropping down on the east side of the creek. As you enter this part of the creek steep walls on the west side come down to create a strikingly pinched passage. This is close to being a slot canyon – although the walls are not quite vertical.

Another hard rock intrusion at 3.3 miles forces the trail to rise about 30 feet into a side cut. Visible high above you in the side cut is a towering hoodoo.

09 Wintery View of Mogollon Ridge

wintery view as the trail rises above the stream bed

At 3.6 miles come to a raised shelf on the west side of Little Dry Creek. This would make a good camping spot that already contains a substantial fire ring. The previous post on Little Dry Creek describes a departure from the trail from this spot to follow Little Dry Creek as it reaches up towards Packsaddle Canyon. To reach Windy Gap you should scout the canyon wall above the fire ring and you will find the tread as it snakes around deadfall and past Douglas fir into higher and colder terrain.

10 steep terrain.

view to Mogollon ridge line

The trail now has a spirited go at gaining altitude. No more Mr. Mellow Fellow. Passing through small stands of fir separated by brush-filled terrain, the ascent provides unsettling views into the fire-decimated upper reaches of Little Dry Creek. You will note a change in the quality of the trail as well. In places the path is strewn with branches or rocky debris. In other places the tread is drifting downslope, so that you have to angle your ankles to get a good grip on the side of the mountain. More boots are needed to keep this trail open!

11 dense fire-kill near Windy Gap

Fire kill

At 3.9 miles from the trailhead the trail crosses a small ravine and gentles slightly. Contouring around one last buttress it enters Rainstorm Canyon and tracks the canyon to a saddle on the long ridge that separates Little Dry Creek to the east from Big Dry Creek to the west. This is an increasingly somber bit of trail. At first the fire damage seems pretty minimal – just an occasional snag or two remains standing near to the trail. But as you ascend each stand of snags get thicker and these stands get closer together. The fire has introduced an entirely new ground story. This canyon wall is thick with grey oak, Gambel’s oak, small mountain mahogany and a plentitude of single-stalk, long-thorned plants that you may learn to avoid. A nice ponderosa forest would have been wonderful, but clearly the flora in these mountains are coming back.

12 Windy Gap looking over Big Dry Creek

View across Big Dry Creek from Windy Gap

The fire was not as intense at Windy Gap and a nice stand of fir trees remain standing. That they were damaged is not in doubt (the trail was thick with fallen branches). But this patch of surviving forest makes for a nice segue onto the ridge line. From the Gap the chief view is across the upper reaches of Big Dry Creek. Holt Mountain stands to the northeast and Grouse Mountain stands to the north. On this date Windy Gap was well named, provoking a quick change into warmer attire. December is wintery, even in this far-southern mountain range.

12 Elk horn ridge, looking down Little Dry Creek

View from Elk Horn Rib

The ridge crest and the northeast side of the ridge suffered greater damage than the Little Dry Creek side. You may find that the trail above you is strewn with debris. Don’t let that stop you. It is perfectly possible to pick your way past the deadfall and rise up into the higher reaches of the Mogollons. On this date I was only able to go another half mile before hitting my turnaround time. There is a small, flat-topped rib that juts south into the upper basin of Little Dry Creek. The rib terminates with a dramatic cliff. Some generous soul has positioned a big, bleached elk horn on the top of that cliff. Past the horn you get a fantastic view down Little Dry Creek and your path back to the trailhead. 

Recommendations:

14 author before ridge to West Baldy

Author, blocking your view to the ridge connecting to West Baldy

  • Get those boots on and go. The internet is nothing compared to Little Dry Creek.
  • There were quite a few cattle along the starting stretch of the trail. They seemed to be pretty comfortable around people, but if you encounter them then give them as wide a berth as you can. They are not gazelle-like in any way and they do not move comfortably on uneven terrain.
  • I went through a liter of water and had another two liters available. That was probably overkill for a cool winter’s day. I suspect that Little Dry Creek earns its middle name in most months. It would be wisest to bring along all the water you may need. 
  • It would have been great to have a few more hours in the day. This would be a terrific mid-May hike if you wanted to get to the summit of Sacaton Mountain or Black Peak. 
  • Consider bringing along some garden shears and a harsh attitude towards thorn bushes.  Hopefully, your efforts will make others more comfortable on the trail and perhaps the Forest Service may take note of increased public interest.

Links:

As mentioned in the earlier post, there are descriptions and discussion of this trail at both the Casitas de Gila Nature Blog and at Doug Scott Art. 

The Forest Service website has a report dated 2012 that indicates that the Little Dry Creek Trail is officially closed. (The site also notes that it is not being actively update due tot the the partial government shutdown of late December, 2018). They tell readers, “Visitors are reminded that wildernesses are places where safety is a personal responsibility.” This is true.

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.