Archives for posts with tag: hiking
Sculpted rock formations in the Bisti Wilderness Area

Overview:

The Bisti Wilderness offers pedestal rocks, balancing rocks, seemingly preposterous examples of cantilevered stone, fins, windows, hoodoos, slot canyons, coal seams, clinker, caves, broad desert expanses and views west to the Chuska Mountains and northwest to Arizona’s Carrizo Mountains. On warm winter days it may also include some snow melt, although water is usually scarce here. It does not, however, offer any trails. A GPS is strongly recommended!

Driving Directions:

  • Take Interstate-40 (I-40) to exit 53 Thoreau, between Gallup and Grants in eastern New Mexico.
  • Go north:
    • If you were traveling west from Grants on I-40 then after 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn right onto NM-371 North
    • If you were traveling east from Gallup on I-40 then after 0.2 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left. I didn’t check this turn, but from the maps it appears that the road might be signed as “NM-612”, “Bluewater Road” or “County Road 14”. Under any name, if you turn left and go under the highway then the road becomes NM-371.
  • After 70.1 miles on NM-371 turn right onto Road 7297 (which becomes gravel after about 30 yards). There was no formal road sign for Road 7297, but look for the large brown-and-tan sign for the Bisti Wilderness Area.
  • After 1.9 miles on Road 7297, at a T-intersection, turn left onto Road 7290. Again, the road is not formally signed, but there was a small and informal sign saying “← Bisti 0.9”.
  • After 0.9 miles on Road 7290 turn right into the trailhead.
Morning light on red rock near Thoreau

All the roads were in good shape on this date (despite puddles of snow-melt in the late afternoon). It should not be a problem bringing the family sedan. A heavy rain could result in problems since these roads have a large clay component.

Trailhead:

Gravel pad of the trailhead

The trailhead is a large gravel pad with two covered picnic tables, trailhead signage and two vault toilets. There are no fees. There is space for about 20 cars here (with careful parking). On a winter Sunday there were 12 cars with plenty of leftover parking space. There is no potable water and, most of the year, no water at all.


Data:

  • starting elevation: 5710 feet
  • ending elevation: 5870 feet
  • net elevation: 160 feet
  • distance: 8.0 miles (your milage will vary!)

Hike Meander Description:

Seams of sand and coal

No exact solution exists for the problem of finding the best path between canyon features. The Badlands invite you to relax away from the usual job of trail-finding and to blunder around at random. Serendipity rules. (Never forgetting to track the direction back to the car). My own technique was to go up onto the rim of the this shallow canyon and scout for something that is (1) nearby, (2) odd, photogenic or otherwise attractive and (3) somewhat to the east. Once you have a target in sight then try to get there.

Crumbling soil walls in Alamo Canyon

Large portions of the canyon wall are made up of material that might be described as ludicrously weak rock or, in other places, unexpectedly competent soil. Avoid the broad and steep surfaces as bootprints degrade them quickly. Instead, follow the gully bottoms as they carve into the walls. The shallow grade and compacted soil in gully bottoms resist footfalls. Some gullies do dead-end, but since there are parallel gullies everywhere you only need to back up and find another approach.

Mushroom rocks

A common feature of the Badlands are the “mushroom” rock formations. These wind sculptures rarely rise higher than hip-height. The stem-and-cap arrangement arises from the limited heights to which sand and dust is carried by the wind. The stem gets hit by a lot of sand, the cap sees relatively little. It helps if there is a layer of wind-resistant rock on top of a layer of softer rock – possibly explaining why these inorganic toadstools seem to grow in such organic clusters.

Part of a petrified log

Petrified wood is also common in the Badlands. The entire Wilderness Area has been characterized as a fossilized swamp, in which coal (mineralized peat) and petrified wood might be predicted. The bark on the example shown above is very well preserved. So much so that there may be some fossilized lichen on display as well. By far the most abundant type of petrified wood are the flat wood chips seen scattered about the log. Eruptions of these chips can be found in many places in the canyon.

Clinker

A distinct reddish rock lies in piles at other points. The product of an ancient, subterrainean coal fire, clinker is coal ash that has been fused together. It looks very much like pottery shards and gets its name from the sound made when these fragments are jostled together. When you start off from the trailhead you might note a pair of reddish mounds about a half mile to the east (another useful navigation aid). These mounds are covered in clinker.

Hawk’s nest on a rock shelf off of a tall rock fin

One final item to look for as you explore the canyon is a pile of branches mysteriously lodged on a cantilevered rock shelf extending from a tall fin. Evidently some remarkably stout hawks managed to hoist these boughs onto the shelf. Given the complete absence of animal life on this date (and the nearly complete lack of vegetation) it is hard to imagine how they justified the calorie expenditure. It is near this nest where the main bed of Alamo Canyon begins to fork into numerous upstream cuts. Don’t let that stop you! Caves and slot canyons (and much more) await you in those cuts.

Recommendations:

Random walker

Go!

It is not hard to navigate along the canyon bottom, but a GPS would be a very good thing to have if you are temporarily “bewildered”. Take note of the Chuska Mountains to the west (and a power plant in the middle distance) since these are rough guides back to to the parking lot.

So many geological processes are revealed so clearly that this trip might transform you in to a geologist. You’ve been warned! Take a look at some of links below, as fore-knowledge of these processes can take a good day and make it a great day.

Links:

The Bisti Hiker website has many useful pages, including photos of landmark features (with their coordinates) and an annotated map. That author notes that the Bisti (described here) and the De-Na-Zin were once separate wilderness areas but now are simply different trailheads for one very large area.

The Bisti Badlands is a relatively celebrated site. If you are looking for a less traveled option then you might consider the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area. The Atlas Obscura site characterizes it as “a martian planet”, “obscure” and “remote”. There’s some difficult road, but it looks very interesting.

A student in the introductory geology course at San Juan College, Neykar Kotyk, has written such an accessible term paper on the Bisti Badlands that the folks in Aztec New Mexico have posted it on their website. Some of the terminology is a little opaque for non-geologists, but it will give you lots to think about as you tour the Wilderness. Give it a quick read.

The site, “TheWave” has some commentary and a great gallery of photos.

StavIsLost also has numerous, fun photos. It is mentioned, especially, because the writer confesses an unstoppable urge to take photographs. You will know exactly how he felt once you’re there yourself!

FirefallPhotography lists tips meant specifically for photographers. There is good advice here – some explicit (bring a GPS) and some implicit (the nighttime images are terrific).

Steep meadows before the summit of Timber Peak

Overview:

The South Baldy Trail #11 ascends from a darkling canyon bed up to the sunny ridgeline of the Magdalena Mountains. Access is easy and the grade is moderate. The subsequent views from the Timber Peak Trail #70 sweep the region; from the San Juans in southern Colorado to the Black Range in southern New Mexico. Pick a clear day and go! Novice hikers should know that snow sometimes obscures the trail. If you have doubts about your navigation skill then come anyway, bringing a resolute willingness to turn back when the tread becomes doubtful.

Driving Directions

  • Drive to Socorro, NM on Interstate-25 (I-25)
    • If you are coming from the north (e.g. from Albuquerque) 
      • Take Exit 150 from I-25.
      • After 0.4 miles on the off ramp, at the stop light on the ramp end, go straight ahead onto California Street.
      • After 1.3 miles on California St, at a stoplight, go right onto Spring St.
    • If you are coming from the south (e.g. from Las Cruces)
      • Take Exit 147 from I-25.
      • After 0.7 miles the ramp “invisibly” segues onto California Street, reset your odometer as you go past the first gas station.
      • After 0.6 miles on California St, at a stop light, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.6 miles on Spring St, at the first stop sign, go left onto US-60 West (signed).
  • After 14.9 miles on US-60 West turn left onto Water Canyon Road. Just before the turn you will see a sign on US-60 saying, “Water Canyon Campground”. There is a state historic marker at the junction as well. 
  • After 4.6 miles on Water Canyon Road, at the Water Canyon Campground (signed), turn left onto Forest Road 235 (signed, roadbed becomes gravel)
  • After 2.1 miles on Forest Road 235, at a wide and level spot on the right side of the road, park at the trailhead. A sign for  “South Baldy Trail No. 11” should be visible. (FR-235 is numbered with small, blue signs about every tenth of a mile, the trailhead is about 100 yards past the blue sign saying “24” and a second sign saying “ELEV 7500 FT”).

A sign at the start of FR-235 recommends against driving the road unless you have a high-suspension, 4-wheel drive vehicle. For now, however, almost any normal passenger car can make it as far as the trailhead.

Trailhead:

Trailhead (double click to get a better view of the sign)

A wide spot on the right side of the road, tucked into the floor of Water Canyon, forms your trailhead. On this date there was some water moving in the canyon, but you should not count on it as a resource. There are no services at the trailhead, although you will pass several campgrounds along FR-235 that have vault toilets. Water Canyon Campground is currently open and you can check on its status here. Important note! About 100 yards before this trailhead there is another trailhead, signed for “South Canyon Trail No. 15”. That is a separate trailhead for a separate trail! 

Data:

  • starting elevation: 7,540
  • ending elevation: 10,510
  • net elevation: 2970
  • distance: 4.3 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

Warm morning sunlight strikes the canyon rim.

At 7500 feet you might expect juniper and pinyon pine, yet this cool canyon shelters a narrow forest of tall and thriving pines. Some have the cinnamon bark of ponderosa pine, but others had a dark gray, vertically furrowed bark typical of a Chihuahua white pine. Recent snowfall has toppled some of the old snags. True to Murphy, these always seem to fall directly across the tread. Dodge those trunks and hike on – all such impediments fade away in less than a half mile. 

South facing wall of Water Canyon

December mornings refrigerate the canyon bottom. Fortunately, the trail departs the canyon bed at 0.8 miles. A long switchback pulls you onto the south-facing wall of the northern-most tributary to Water Canyon. Climb into morning sunshine and feel it going to work! Off come the wool hats and puffy coats. At the switchback’s end the trail turns up-canyon and begins a carefully engineered slog that slowly creeps up the wall – almost reaching the rim. At some point you may want to dash up onto the rim for a fine view down into Copper Canyon and across the east-facing slopes of the Magdalenas.

Snow covered trail

Below you the tributary bottom starts to soar and at 1.9 miles the bed rises to meet the trail. Here, on this date, snow began covering the trail. Those with little navigation experience should recognize this turn-back signal. For others, follow the trail as it crosses the tributary and turns southeast, traversing into the large bowl encompassing the canyon’s headwaters. The trail slaloms between the forested hillocks that dominate the ridgeline. You may hear some traffic noise – the main ridgeline houses both the Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO) and the Langmuir Laboratory. At 2.9 miles the South Baldy Trail ends at its upper junction with Forest Road 235.

Sign at trail’s intersection with FR-235

If you were to turn right and follow the road uphill you would come to South Baldy, the highest peak in the Magdalenas. For this route, however, turn left and follow the road as it gently descends a quarter mile. Find the heavily weathered sign for Timber Peak Trail #70 at a traffic turnout. (Curiously, the turnout had been plowed – possibly to make room for later snow accumulations). Depart the road and follow the tread up the ridgeline.

South Baldy Peak (MRO is midway across the ridge’s snow field)

A series of bumps populates this ridge. The trail makes several westerly-detours to contour below them. The views are terrific. Above and west of you lies the summit of South Baldy, snow clad in winter and grassland in summer. The MRO is a prominent, white, ridge-top building capped with a shiny aluminum dome. Below and east of you lies the Socorro Mountains. Straight ahead (south) lie views into the depths of Sawmill Canyon. At 3.8 miles the tread rejoins to the ridgeline and barrels straight at Timber Peak.

San Juans (snow capped, left-third on the horizon) and Ladron Peak (right-third, middle distance)

Snowy conditions can make that ascent demanding. Postholing at altitude! A broad meadow graces the flanks of the summit block and it is pitched steeply enough to require kicking steps into the snow. The grade finally gentles and you are guided into a small alcove framed by fir trees. You might think that you’ve arrived. False hope! The true summit lies 20 or so feet above you. This is not technical terrain, but you may have to probe the snow with your boots to find adequate foothold. Finally, at 4.3 miles from the trailhead, join the weather-station sensors crowning this summit.

View over Sawmill Canyon to Hardy Ridge, San Mateo Mts and (visible just above San Mateos) the distant Black Range.

Views include the snow clad San Juan Mountains directly north, Ladron Peak to the northwest, along with hazy views of the Sandia Mountains and Manzano Peak in the Manzano Mountains. To the southwest lie the Oscura Mountains and the rounded dome of Carrizo Peak. Look west, over the vast gulf of Sawmill Canyon, to find San Mateo Peak in the San Mateo Mountains. Beyond the San Mateos (in the far distance) glimpse the north end of the Black Range.

Recommendations:

Author, obscuring your view of the Oscura Mountains

Postholing became a problem above 9500 feet. In preparation, I brought along my elderly MSR snowshoes but failed to examine them closely. Alas! The ancient elastomers that made up the straps had quietly succumbed to old age. I had gone no further than 20 feet when the bootstrap on the left shoe broke. The right shoe straps broke about 100 yards later. Fortunately, it was rare to plunge more than a foot or so. If you have functioning snowshoes take them with you in the car. As you approach on US-60 take a look at the summit of South Baldy. If you can see snow up there then you will want to carry your snowshoes into the upper reaches.

I didn’t carry an ice ax. There was no need for the South Baldy Trail. The Timber Peak Trail has several segments of side-hilling on steep meadows where an ax might be advisable.

On a cool day I went through just one liter of water. I was glad to have two, however, as the sun in the afternoon shone warmly on the west-facing slopes and water breaks were frequent.

Kicking steps at 10,000 feet is hard work. Has your party just come from sea level? Then keep an eye out for signs of acute mountain sickness.

Links:

Solphoto has a writeup and nice photos of the tremendous views you get from the ridge leading to Timber Peak. Check it for what this part of the hike might be like in warm weather.

The Chamber of Commerce in Magdalena, NM has an extensive description (PDF) of nearby trails including the South Baldy Trail and the Timber Peak Trail. Bookmark it if you need route suggestions for hiking in this area.

The HikeArizona site, a great resource, provides a brief description of a variation which you’d hike up the South Baldy Trail No. 11 all the way to South Baldy Peak.

In milder weather folks with high-clearance vehicles drive to the Timber Peak trailhead and do just the upper part of this route. George at Ondafringe has a description with numerous photos to give you an excellent idea of what to expect in warmer seasons, extending the trip to an open part of the ridge beyond Timber Peak.

A post at the New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors explains how it is that the South Baldy Trail is in such excellent shape. Thanks to Nick T and all the other volunteers!

Sheer canyon walls and level wash

Overview:

A feast of iconic western imagery, Potato Canyon proffers sheer canyon walls, gigantic trees, wildlife, a brief slot canyon and easy hiking into the heart of the lonesome Withington Wilderness. In the hike’s uppermost reaches (barely touched in this route description) there is evidence of a recent fire. This route would be a national treasure were it not for the last six miles of the drive. Those miles are hostile. Hikers possessing a high clearance vehicle and a high tolerance for care-filled driving should pack packs and go.

Driving Directions:

True!

Stretches of this drive are ugly. A high-suspension, four-wheel drive vehicle is required (alas). In its steeper sections the forest road slaloms between boulders and quakes under extended piles of loose rock.

It is a shame because the hike up to the waterfall is as family-friendly as any hike in New Mexico.


  • Drive to Socorro, NM on Interstate-25 (I-25)
  • If you are coming from the north (e.g. from Albuquerque) 
    • Take Exit 150 from I-25.
    • After 0.4 miles on the off ramp, at the stop light on the ramp end, go straight ahead onto California Street.
    • After 1.3 miles on California St, at a stoplight, go right onto Spring St.
  • If you are coming from the south (e.g. from Las Cruces)
    • Take Exit 147 from I-25.
    • After 0.7 miles the ramp “invisibly” segues onto California Street, reset your odometer as you go past the first gas station.
    • After 0.6 miles on California St, at a stop light, turn left onto Spring Street.
  • After 0.6 miles on Spring St, at the first stop sign, go left onto US-60 (well signed).
  • After 26.4 miles on US-60, at the far end of the town of Magdelana, turn left onto NM-107 South (well signed).
    • NM-107 is paved for the first 4.3 miles, then turns to gravel. The current roadbed is in exceptionally good shape.
  • After 16.8 miles on NM-107 turn right onto Forest Road 52 (FR-52).
    • FR-52 is very rough. High clearance vehicles only. The Subaru made it, but at the cost of abuse to the suspension and tires.
    • The junction is well signed.
  • After 3.3 miles on FR-52 turn left onto FR-56
    • FR-56 is signed “Not fit for passenger cars“. This is correct.
    • The junction is well signed.
  • After 2.7 miles on FR-56 pull out onto the two-track going up Potato Canyon.
    • FR-56 drops into Big Rosa Canyon and stays there. This could be an exceptionally poor choice of parking during monsoon season.
    • At 2.1 miles the road enters the main canyon wash and the roadbed becomes significantly better!
    • The Potato Canyon trailhead is signed (see below), although the sign is getting shot-up.

Trailhead:

The Subaru in its native heath

The trailhead is a flat spot beside a two-track going up Potato Canyon. Don’t leave your vehicle on the two-track. On this date there were ATV tire tracks in the canyon bed for the first half-mile. Clearly, people do drive here. There is a shot-up sign saying, “Potato Tr”. There is no water, toilet, or trash service at the trailhead.

Data:

On this date I used a new GPS, which gathered only 44 data points. My old GPS would have collected more than 1000. Know that the track does not reflect the twists in the canyon, so distances are likely to be underestimated.

  • lowest point: 6706 feet
  • highest point: 8728 feet
  • net elevation: 2020 feet
  • distance: 5.7 miles (one way, may be understated)

Hike Description:

Depart Big Rosa Canyon by hiking the two-track west into Potato Canyon. The two-track gets lost amidst small waves of gregarious boulders and a web of gullies. The terrain is not bad for hiking, but a battering to wheeled vehicles. The canyon has the feel of a movie-set; a dry land of lonesome ponderosa, ancient alligator juniper, layered sandstone, numerous deer tracks and vertical canyon walls. The broad wash writhes, yet the footing is usually so good you can afford to stare at your surroundings. 

Early view into Potato Canyon

In a quarter mile, just past a sign for the Withington Wilderness, enter the first deep section of the canyon. Here the waters have cut down through a tall intrusion of hard rock. The south side of the canyon is a wall of this rock, but the north is far less steep; grassy and sunlight even in the early morning of a late fall day. Rather chilly (early in the morning) but the shaded nature of this hike is one of its biggest attractions. 

Foot thick gray oak

Inside the canyon there is an unexpected mixture of trees. Ponderosa pines have crept down this cool and moist environment, oddly competing with alligator juniper for the canyon’s resources. Many trees are outsized. Gray oak, for example, is typically encountered as brush. In this sun protected bottom, however, one old Gray flaunted a foot-thick bole armored with bark as corrugated as the bark of a Douglas fir. Similarly outsized Gambel oaks and big pinyon pines are everywhere. Amazing.

Western iconography

The first navigation challenge comes at 1.7 miles, in the junction of two canyons. The confluence bed is quite broad, flat and densely forested. You may need to scout around, but take the fork going southwest, not the very-prominent fork heading north of west. (That is, stay to your left, heading uphill). On this date a pretty run of water surfaced in mid-wash just west of this junction. Tracks show that turkey, deer and a cat (likely a bobcat) use this watering hole.  

Deadfall

Hiking on a sandy tread can blow out your calves. It is much more stressful than walking a regular trail of similar grade. Grit creeps into your boots. Even with gaiters you may need to stop now and then for a break to clear the those insoles. Deadfall crosses the wash, wherever running waters have undercut a tree. (In these cases you can often get around the barrier by walking past the rootball, the fall usually pulls the rootball from the bank). Some of these fallen trees make excellent benches.

Waterfall (path is to right)

At 4.0 miles the bed of the canyon rockets skywards and water sluices down its face. In early November the shadowed walls of this box can be decorated with ice. The waterfall is a navigation puzzle – look to the north side (to your right looking upstream) for the path forward. The last few steps of this path are right at the edge of the waterfall and somewhat exposed. For acrophobes it may be best to have lunch at the base of the falls and return. Others should continue on. There is a short but terrific little slot canyon immediately above the waterfall.  

Short slot Canyon

Above the slot canyon the wide wash regains control. At 4.3 miles come to the another navigational issue at a confluence of canyons. A wide, smooth wash sweeps into the junction from the southerly branch (to your left), very tempting! A much more jumbled wash comes in from the northerly branch and ends atop a three foot embankment, forming a “hanging wash”. Go northerly, clambering onto the hanging wash and continuing uphill.

Middle finger rock

This mellow beach stroll continues onward and at 5.2 miles swings due west to open up views of Mt Withington. So close! Here the grade begins to increase significantly. Scan the northern bank (on your right while ascending) for cairns that lead you steeply up into the northerly branch of the next junction. Almost immediately above this junction the trail takes a four-foot vertical leap straight up off of the canyon floor and onto the terrain that separates the two branches. The ground directly above this “leap” is only slightly less than vertical. Imagine rock-climbing, but on marginally consolidated soil. Turning back before the leap would have been the reasonable thing to do. Without making any recommendation, it is possible but exposed to climb from tree to tree until reasonable “footing” reappears. On the narrow strip of land between the canyon branches continue on the steep climb. The tread, submerged under blackened debris, dodges between roasted tree trunks. A cluster of stone pillars topped by “middle finger rock” appears. Is that a sign? Have something to eat, think over your options, and if retreat seems good then return the way you came.

(Note: for those aiming at the summit of Mount Withington, keep an eye out for a fork in the trail that appears before you encounter that rude rock. This fork is obscured by a huge old log that has fallen into the tread in three, large and rotting chunks. One fork of the trail goes down to the “southerly” canyon branch – left on ascent – and that may be the best way forward).

Recommendations:

Go.

Don’t go if there is rain in the forecast. The bottom of Big Rosa Canyon (part of the approach drive) is said to be subject to flash flooding. The slot canyon is short, but for a slot canyon it is unusually awkward to negotiate.

Wear gaiters to keep sand out of your shoes.

Check your vehicle’s spare tire and jack before going. Have spare water and warm backup clothing in the vehicle. The Withington really is wilderness.

The remoteness of this hike makes extra care worthwhile. If you’ve been lightening your pack by sacrificing some optional medical supplies you may want to temporarily restore them.

Links:

A rock climbing site explains that Potato Canyon is named for The Great Potato rock formation found on the San Mateo ridgeline, high above the canyon. The photos are great.

A. Jackson Frishman has done an excellent job of capturing the feel of Potato Canyon at the FrishmanPhoto site. Scroll down to the second photograph.

Similarly, the writeup at DoughScottArt has a terrific photo of the waterfall, which gets named as the “Pink Cascade”. The text cautions that the Cascade disappears during the dry seasons, and a very clear map indicates exactly where to expect to find the cascade.

At the Wilderness 50 Challenge site the author makes some pointed remarks about the inadvisability of taking a sedan into the Wilderness (based on actual experience).

There is a thoughtful writeup of this trail (PDF, scroll to page 35) from the Forest Service. They give a pretty detailed description and caution, as mentioned above, that water does not always flow in the canyon. It is surprising to see this trail given a “most difficult” rating, but they explain that the primitive condition of the tread and the remoteness of the area serve to weight the decision.

A writeup in the Albuquerque Journal suggests that passenger vehicles can make this drive, despite the signs suggesting otherwise. Please note that this writeup comes from 1999!

The NMTrails website includes a trip report from 2017. The author notes the difficulty of finding the trail once you enter the old burn, and the stark incisions made into the flanks of Mount Withington by flooding after the fire.