Archives for posts with tag: Hillsboro
View from Crest into West Railroad Canyon
View from Crest into West Railroad Canyon


West Railroad Canyon (Trail 128) is a wonderful hike. Numbered among its attractions are easy access to the trailhead, running water, eye-catching terrain and a clear trail of very reasonable length and steady gains. Long-time hikers may point to the neighboring Gallinas Canyon or East Railroad Canyon, both of which share the running water (in its lowest reaches) and can claim many of the same attractions. This is true, but West Railroad Canyon remains a standout because the 2013 Silver Fire did minimal damage along this waterway. Regrettably, the same can not be said for its neighbors.

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Open and rolling terrain (if badly burned) near the saddle on the Black Range Crest
Open and rolling terrain (badly burned) near the saddle on the Black Range Crest


The Black Range in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness was severely burned in 2013. The Gallinas Canyon Trail #128 (gallinas is Spanish for “hens”) gives you a tour along the western edge of the disaster. There are stretches where little is left but grass and standing char, but don’t despair. The fire burned mosaic fashion, leaving patches of still-green trees threaded by a beautiful stream in a remarkably mellow alpine environment. This is relatively open terrain and it is laced by numerous side canyons that invite further exploration. Moreover, this trail has received careful attention from trail builders since the fire. It is in much better condition than the trail up the neighboring East Railroad Canyon. Most of the improvements seem to end at the new corral in the upper canyon, so it seems reasonable to guess that the horse-riding community has been active here along with the Forest Service. They deserve our thanks. Gallinas Canyon might make an excellent doorstep for those seeking entrance to the unburned northwest corner of the Wilderness.

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Hillsboro Peak from Hillsboro Bypass Trail. The  burn in the center is flanked by a mosaic of still-green trees.

Hillsboro Peak from Hillsboro Bypass Trail. The burn in the center is flanked by a mosaic of still-green stands.

This is a beautiful venture in the too-rarely-visited Aldo Leopold Wilderness. Before the Silver Fire it may have been a normal hike of twelve miles and 2000 feet gain. Post fire, we are left with a mosaic of “barely touched” evergreen stands that alternate with grimmer swatches of standing char. The high canyon walls, the “barely touched” stands and the flowing water make for a beautiful adventure in southern New Mexico. The patches of blackened trees are freighted with awkward footing (due to fire-induced, slow-motion rockfall into the canyon) and carries a tread that disappears into the grasses for long stretches. This is the price of admission. Do this scramble! Pick a day with little wind (snags) and long hours (uncertain footing) and gain access to spectacular terrain.

Driving Directions:

View of sunrise from the east side of Emory Pass - on short days you'll want to arrive at the trailhead early!

View of sunrise from the east side of Emory Pass – on short days you’ll want to arrive at the trailhead early!

  • From Lohman Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 heading north
  • After 59.2 miles, take exit 63 for NM route 152.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the exit ramp, turn west (left) onto NM-152
  • After 37.3 miles pass the sign for the Railroad Campground, then (in about 200 more feet) make a U-turn and park in a pull-out area beside NM-152.

The drive is entirely on paved roads.


The mighty Camry, seen parked along NM-152 a short distance from the entrance to the Railroad Canyon Campground.

The mighty Camry seen parked along NM-152 a short distance from the entrance to the Railroad Canyon Campground.

Railroad Campground is currently closed and the entrance is gated for the season. It is not recommended that you park in front of the gate. The entrance is steep and narrow, leaving little room should there be an emergency (e.g. fire) where crews would need to enter. Instead, park in the turn-out down the road. During the regular season the campground would be open and offer parking, tables, fire rings, trash receptacles and a vault toilet (currently locked). The canyon runs past the campground so you only need bring a water filter. On this date the water was clear (no murk from the burn).


  • Starting Elevation: 7070 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9260 feet
  • Elevation gain: 2190 feet
  • Distance: 6.1 miles (one way)
  • Map: USGS Hillsboro Peak quadrangle.

Hike Description:

Railroad Canyon Campground, with tables and fire rings (viewed from NM-152)

Railroad Canyon Campground, with tables and fire rings (viewed from NM-152)

Cross the campground, pass a berm of rocks, then follow a two-track into the woods where it leads to a quarry. A sign at the far end of the quarry shows where the trail begins. The sign notes that the recent fire has raised the risk level for trail users, which is certainly true. On USGS maps this trail is labeled as #129, although some descriptions seem to call it #128. Either way, follow the trail as it leads immediately to the waters of Gallinas Creek and the first of innumerable crossings. This portion of the canyon is spectacular and easy hiking. Rock pinnacles atop the canyon walls dazzle in the morning light while you strain to pick out the tread along the dim canyon bottom. The canyon twists and turns as it furrows north, parallel to the crest, for 1.3 miles. At this point Trail #129 departs northwest (to your left, looking uphill), into Gallinas Canyon. Trail #128 goes straight ahead, then begins a broad swing to the east and brings you to the confluence of East  and West Railroad Canyon.

East meets West at the Railroad Canyons confluence.

East meets West at the confluence of Railroad Canyons.

The trail continues its frenetic creek hopping for another half mile, but then hits a basin and surprises with the decision to pull away from the running water. The path crosses a flat expanse of grass and forest (perhaps the remains of an old beaver pond). Eventually the trail rejoins the water and here the trail fades out a little. Continue probing upstream and watch for hints of trail on the north bank (on your left going uphill). At 2.1 miles from the trailhead you should find a junction where the trail up West Railroad Canyon goes off to your left and the trail up East Railroad Canyon goes off to your right. The junction is signed, as shown in the photo above. Go right.

U-shaped abrasion through hard rock, just before trail above waterfalls.

U-shaped abrasion through hard rock, just before a stretch of trail that takes you above waterfalls.

Here the trail begins a serious disappearing act. Find the main stream bed for East Railroad Canyon, cross it and continue upstream on the south bank. In a few hundred feet the walls of the canyon pinch the stream bed very closely and the waters have scoured a U-shaped indentation in hard rock. Just past this pinch-point watch the north bank for a faint tread that leaves the stream bed and rises about 50 feet above the stream. The path’s start is marked by a cairn. This tread will take you above a waterfall that might otherwise be difficult to surmount. Just past the waterfall the tread descends steeply back to the canyon bed.

08 cairn

A cairn in an otherwise untracked meadow.

This is large mammal country. On this date there were numerous deer tracks and several cat tracks. A bear with two cubs was roaming this area on the return portion of the hike.

As a rule of thumb, it seems best to ascend towards the inside of canyon curves, where the terrain usually shelves. Don’t commit to crossing the stream, however, until you can see into the flattened area. These shelves sometimes carry log jams that are severe impediments to travel. My impression is that the old trail stayed mostly along the north bank, making frequent but short jumps to the south whenever the north bank becomes uncomfortably steep. Here and there you will find lichen-coated cairns poking up through the dying grasses and looking sadly misplaced in stretches where all signs of a trail have disappeared.

Burn extending to canyon bottom.

Burn extending to canyon bottom.

As you ascend further into East Railroad Canyon the severity of the burn increases. In places the burn extends all the way to the canyon bottom. Abundant grasses grow in these patches (helping to explain the numerous deer prints found in the sand beds). At about 4.1 miles from the trailhead, in a badly burned patch, come to another spot where the canyon walls pinch closely together. Rock spires tower over a pretty 6-foot waterfall. Despite the devastation it is a great spot to have a snack, a drink of water and to soak up some sun. The walk continues above the falls, but it is about to get steeper.

View across the steep sided ravine to a particularly clear stretch of trail.

View across the steep sided ravine to a particularly clear stretch of trail.

Above the waterfall the forest remains burned for about a quarter mile, slowly regaining a green hue thereafter. There are many tributaries in the upper canyon. At each confluence, choose the stream that has the largest flow of water. Where it gets dry, choose the stream bed with the gentlest incline. Eventually you will encounter terrain in which the stream disappears below the stream bed, making only brief appearances where rock shelves force water to the surface. Above, you will begin to see hints of the Black Range crest. Try to stay on the north bank (left, looking uphill) to find a path that pulls you away from the east-trending canyon and into a steep-sided ravine coming in from the north. There is a scattering of log-ends sawed flat by trail teams before the fire. These sawn surfaces are now fire-blackened. The trail falls into the ravine and pops steeply up the far side several times.

View across swale where a possible trail skirts below the rock and contours around the end of the rib

View across swale where a possible trail skirts below the rock outcropping and contours around the rib to the right.

The trail crosses the steep-sided ravine for a final time and then switchbacks steeply to the top of a minor rib. The rib-top is part grassy meadow and part rock ledges. Looking uphill, the steep-sided ravine will be on your left and a much shallower, swale-like drainage will be on your right. The tread runs through the grasses towards a pile of three or four burned logs in the swale. Here the trail seems to stop. Better pathfinders might discern a possible tread that comes out of the logs, traverses below a big rock outcropping and swings around the next rib (I didn’t see it until I was on descent). For the track followed on this date, look across the swale to it’s far bank and raise your eyes to a minor saddle about 200 feet above. Climb to the saddle, which is grassy and holds widely spaced trees. In earlier eras it must have been a terrific camp site. The mountains along the Black Range crest come clearly into view.

Intersection with obvious trail, looking west into the Gila National Forest

Intersection with obvious trail, looking west into the Gila National Forest

Turn uphill (almost due north) and climb, huffing and puffing, on steeply inclined meadows. The rib top is punctuated with rocky outcrops. Initially, stay to the east (right) of these outcrops. After ascending about 300 feet you will find yourself on a sandy shelf with further progress on the east side blocked. Cross the rib on the shelf, pushing past pinyon pines and ascend along the base of cliff-like outcroppings until you strike a very obvious, but unsigned, trail. Make very certain you will recognize this spot on return! Turn to the east (right) on the trail and follow it as it traverses the upper end of East Railroad Canyon. The trail is generally in good shape, save in a few short sections where the forest soil has been plowed up by new waterways. After less than half a mile, come to a signed intersection with the Hillsboro Bypass Trail. Hillsboro Peak lies to the north. Go a few yards south along the trail for great views to the west and the mountains of the Gila National Forest. The views to the east are screened by severely injured forest. It is a sobering way to view the huge cliffs on Timber Mountain and Bushy Peak in the Caballo Mountains. If you have time, consider a hike up to Hillsboro. Those who are short on daylight hours will want to return the way that they came.


Author on Hillsboro Bypass Trail, below Hillsboro Peak

Author on Hillsboro Bypass Trail, below Hillsboro Peak

♦The stem of the canyon, before it branches into east and west canyons, is a great short hike in magical terrain. The path up to the junction is obvious and the incline is very mild. This would be a wonderful place to take a youngster old enough to handle the distance and do the stream crossings.

♦Consider turning around if the winds come up strongly. On a nearly windless day I heard far more rockfall than tree fall, but those big, black snags are not going to stand forever.

♦The rock-strewn trail in East Railroad Canyon demands vigorous attention. I was surprised by the drain this put on my sense of reserve strength. If you’ve hiked the trail before the fire, then you might want to nudge its difficulty rating up a notch.

♦At this time of year the grasses are dying back and making it much easier to pick out the trail. Expect trail finding to be considerably more difficult during the growing season.

♦On the December hike described here all crossings were dry-footed. The trip is likely to be much wetter after a late-monsoon storm. Springtime snow melts typically accelerate in the afternoon, especially on west facing terrain. Your morning’s ultra-chilly crossings might turn daunting as the sun deploys to its full afternoon power.

♦At 9200 feet some folks are going to feel the altitude. Check on your party’s experience with altitude sickness. If you need a refresher, here is a succinct description of the symptoms.

♦Many pre-fire online reports mention the poison ivy in East Railroad Canyon (see links below). On this December hike I did not see any (as you might expect). Those who are not familiar with the plant can find exceptionally clear photos here.

♦ I started hiking just as it got light enough to see the tread and got back just as it was getting dark, feeling pressed for daylight. The longer days of late spring might have been a better choice. The morning portion of this December hike was very chilly. Watch for ice on the rocks where you cross the creek. Gloves and a fleece vest came in very handy.

♦(There will be a brief hiatus in posts until after New Years. Happy holidays!)


♦The plant-friendly blog has a description of the first 2.5 miles of the canyon (up to the junction of East and West Railroad Canyons).

♦Southern New Mexico Explorer compares and contrasts the hikes in both East Railroad Canyon and Gallinas Canyon, and comments about the plants and wildlife found along the trail. The trail up Gallinus branches off at about 1.3 miles into the hike. The Gallinas trip sounds terrific.

♦The Silver City Sun-News has a story of someone who was lost for three and a half weeks in this area. (She may have wanted to be lost, the story is not clear). I’m going to quarrel with their list of emergency items to carry. The Seattle Mountaineers have given this a great deal of thought and their 10 essentials is excellent advice.

♦Desert Lavender describes a shuttle trip that begins in the Railroad Canyon Campground, but diverts into the West Railroad Canyon trail to gain the crest, then follows the crest back to Emory Pass. Like the Gallinas trail (above), this sounds like great trip.


Autumn view, with a streak of yellow near the summit from a broad-leafed tree. Could it be aspen?

This hike is a terrific introduction to the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. The car does the hard work and leaves you at an elevation of 8149 feet (2480 m) at Emory Pass. From there, follow a brilliantly maintained trail as it craftily navigates along ridge-tops and around hillocks to maintain an even strain and bring you to Hillsboro Peak at 10,011 feet (3050 m).

UPDATE  2/1/2014 – The Silver Fire has greatly altered the nature of this hike. See the Railroad Canyon post for a description of the effects of the fire. Greg, at Greg’s Running Adventures, has a post indicating that trail 79 to Hillsboro Peak is open.

Driving Directions

  • From Las Cruces, take I25 North from Lohmann Av.
  • After 59.9 miles (96 km), get off I25 at Exit 63.
  • At end of exit, turn left onto NM 152.
  • After 33.4 miles (54 km), turn right onto Emory Pass Vista Rd.
  • After 800 feet (245 m), the road ends at the trailhead

All the roads leading to the trailhead are paved. The last few miles of NM-152 are heavily switch-backed and likely to be hard on folks who are susceptible to motion sickness.


N 32 54.596′
W 107 45.839

Classic Forest Service trailhead. To following text, note the pit toilet at the top right of the picture.

The trailhead has a pit toilet and trash receptacles. I didn’t see any source of water. It is a large parking lot, but even at this time of year it was pretty busy by mid-day, the views are outstanding. To find the trail, walk back towards NM 152 (as if you were leaving). The trail departs from the road just past the toilet.


View east from trailhead. Looks like a great day ahead.

The hike is approximately 5 miles (8 km) long, one way. It begins at an elevation of 8140 feet (2480 m), and provides a net gain of 1,870 feet (570 m). This is reported to be a popular trail so an early start is worthwhile. The photo shows a dawn view from the trailhead.

The map of the hike, shown above, shows the trailhead in the south and the summit to the north. The trail depicted is somewhat speculative. Much of the hike is through forest and hard to spot from Google satellite photos. In particular the switch-backs depicted near the summit are creatures of creative cartography. However, the total distance is about correct and, be assured, you do encounter switchbacks near the summit. The two blue markers along the trail show where reliable GPS co-ordinates were taken.

An example of the large investment of labor hours on the Emory Pass to Hillsboro Peak trail.

A few notes on the trail. Most of the trail is maintained to a level rarely found outside of National Parks. The stone wall construction shown in the photo on the right attests to quite a few back-breaking hours.

As you leave the trailhead you take a normal track for a short distance – perhaps 0.2 miles (0.3 km) – before intersecting with a road. Remember this intersection!  Go right (uphill) past a heliport to follow the road to its end.  Again, study the intersection. There is a sneaky little trail coming in from behind you that might lure a weary but unwary hiker to an unplanned bivouac.

Point on trail at which the trail divides, to the left of the tree is the trail leading to the summit.

There are a couple other trail intersections, but these are almost all well-marked. The single exception is a fork in the trail encountered as the tread nears the summit. Common sense works, take the branch that goes most steeply uphill. That uphill tread, however, is not so obvious that you couldn’t walk past it in a trail-trance. The picture on the left shows a tree with a blaze. The summit trail goes to the left of the tree and the lower trail goes to its right.

The sign says GO BACK! (Actually, if you were to turn left (uphill) at this point, the trail will take you to the ranger station).

If you miss this junction and continue on the lower trail, then in just a few hundred feet you’ll come across signs for another intersection, shown on the right. Not to be discouraged!  It means you are very close.

Photo from tower: view of cabin and mountains to the east of Hillsboro Peak.

At the summit there are two cabins and a fire watch tower. The highest level of the watch tower was locked, but from penultimate level you can still get outstanding views.  The picture on the left shows one of the ranger cabins taken from the tower.

Descent is by the same route. The only navigational puzzle comes as you near the trailhead.  There, you will find a fork marked by a helpful (“HEY, WAKE UP”) cairn placed ambiguously between the two prongs. Go right, onto what is clearly the road that goes past the heliport. That will take you a short distance before you have to depart the road (to the left) for the trail leading back to the trailhead.


The trailhead at dawn.

Although an early start is recommended, you can over-do it (see photo to the right). In particular, a cool morning stroll is preferred since there was no hint of water along these ridgelines until you get to the summit. Other trip reports state that the ranger will often allow hikers to replenish from the summit cisterns. It appears, however, that the summit cabin is not manned at this time of year and two of the three cisterns were locked. The remaining cistern looked like it had dried out at about the same time that the dinosaurs perished. Just below the summit there is a sign saying “spring”, but my scouting efforts failed to turn up any flowing water. I had a little under a gallon in my pack, which was fine for this time of year.

View from where the trail first hits the dirt road leading to the helipad.

Aside from water issues, an early departure from the trailhead may reveal the sort of lurid-pastel landscapes that New Mexico is famous for. The morning sunlight penetrating into the forest and lighting up the surrounding hills was really amazing. It was so photogenic on this weekend that my progress through the woods was heavily compromised.

The skies were clear on the drive in, so it was chilly up at 8000 feet. It was nice to have a heavy shirt to wear over my normal hiking attire.

Possibly the best lunch spot in New Mexico.

Even in October, however, the need for extra layers faded by 10:00 a.m. Having lunch on the summit was pretty great. There probably isn’t much wisdom, however, in gambling that the winds will always be so still and the sun so much in evidence.