Archives for posts with tag: Southern New Mexico
View from the Cloven Shoulder: Florida Mountains, Cooke Peak and Black Range on horizon

Overview:

This scramble takes you to Sharkstooth Pass, immediately east of Sharkstooth Peak in the Organ Mountains, then down to the saddle separating North Canyon and Bar Canyon. The ascent involves “Organ-eering”, a blood-spill minimizing skillset for scrambling amidst mesquite, prickly pear, shin stabbers, chollo, banana yucca, columnar cacti and ocotillo. This, while bashing through gray oak, Gamble oak and mountain mahogany thickets. Footing will be uncertain, the terrain steep. Organeering is an acquired taste. The route crosses over the boundaries of the Fort Bliss Military Reservation. The authorities there have been quietly tolerant of hiker’s who shave the corners of the reserve. A day-long drumbeat of distant artillery confirmed, utterly, assertions of live ordinance use. Having gone, I’m left feeling that this route edges uncomfortably far into the base.

So why describe it? Two reasons. First, Baldy Peak climbers might need a plausible bug-out route. Second (in the unlikely event of artillery practice being discontinued) this route might one day form part of an official Baldy Peak Trail.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) in Las Cruces, NM, take Exit 1. 
  • At the end of the ramp turn east on University Drive
    • If driving south (e.g. from Albuquerque) turn left
    • If driving north (e.g. from El Paso, TX) turn right
  • After 4.9 miles on University Drive turn right onto Soledad Canyon Road (well signed)
    •  at some point University Drive is renamed to Dripping Springs Road, although the transition point is not clear. Ignore the rename and simply treat this as a single road.
  • After 5.2 miles on Soledad Canyon Road, at the road’s end, park in the trailhead parking lot.
    • At 0.6 miles on Soledad Canyon Road, just before a firehouse, the road makes a sharp left-hand turn. The turn is well signed.

Kudos to the Las Cruces taxpayers. Once an automotive hardship, Soledad Canyon Road is now an attractive sojourn. A terrific bike lane lies near to the road and climbs to the trailhead. Nice job LCDOT!

Trailhead:

RuTwo in an extraordinarily engineered trailhead

The short entrance road (formerly rife with gullies, edged rocks, lumpy boulders, potholes and other impending disasters) now glides to the trailhead on smooth pavement. A gate at the start of the entrance road signals that Soledad Canyon Road (a city street) has ended. There are no services here (water, toilet, or trash receptacles). No fees are required, but a trail register takes pride of place at the trail entrance. Please sign – the register helps keep Soledad Canyon Day Use Area open.

Google reports that the trailhead opens at 8:00 AM and closes at 5:00 PM, although the underlying BLM website does not show the hours. Arrive a little early! The new ease-of-access could make this a very popular weekend destination.

Data:

The yellow line in the above map depicts the route taken going into the pass. The blue line depicts the route coming back from the pass.

  • Starting Elevation: 5568 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 7639 feet
  • Net Elevation: 2070 feet
  • Distance: 3.0 miles (one way)

Hike Description

First trail junction

From the trailhead hike up-canyon past a registration box and an information kiosk. At 0.2 miles come to a fork. The left-hand branch goes north into Bar Canyon, stay right to hike into Soledad Canyon. The path generally stays on the bank of the main arroyo with occasional crossings. It used to be hard to distinguish the trail and the wash, but on this date every crossing was clearly signed.

A distant Chimney Rock

At 0.7 miles come to a second junction, unsigned. Take the fork heading southeast (go right on ascent). I walked past the branch (see the short yellow stub in the map) because there is a line of rocks across tread. These are meant to keep loop-hikers on the loop trail. Step over the rocks and continue up Soledad Canyon. This portion of the trail runs on an old two-track that occasionally churns straight up the canyon bed. Ahead of you towers Chimney Rock, the throat of an ancient volcano.

Fort Bliss Border signage

Soledad Canyon soon begins to close in. At 1.3 miles, with Chimney Rock directly opposite your left shoulder, come to a steel fence across the two-track. Stern and accurate signage asserts a base border and reminds you of the inadvisability of messing with unexploded ordinance. If you still want to organeer, turn northeast, towards Chimney Rock, and follow the fence line up hill. The steel posts of this fence soon give out and a bold climber’s tread heads uphill and to the east.

Chimney Rock Tank

At 1.5 miles the tread drops to the upper end of Chimney Rock Tank, one of the rare water-resources in the Organ Mountains. The water was algae-green on this date, although you could filter treat it. Wild life and cattle depend on this tank so try not to linger. Instead, look upstream and pick out the game trail that ascends along the tank’s easterly bank (the rib on your right as you look uphill). Follow this many-branched trail to gain top of the rib. It may feel as if you are climbing up to a local highpoint, but the rib surprises by simply spreading out into an Upper Sonoran meadowland. Sharkstooth Peak soars above you. It may be tempting to push east, getting positioned directly below the pass. Resist temptation! The open meadows above are a treat compared to the heavily vegetated arroyos to your right.

Open meadows beneath Sharkstooth Peak

As you ascend study the folds of land between you and the pass. One prominent rib makes a shallow saddle and looks relatively open. Aim for it. Climb in the meadows until you are at about the same elevation as the outer end of the saddle. A thickly vegetated arroyo skulks between you and those open slopes. It looks tough, but don’t simply bash through!

Juniper (top, right) in arroyo where game trails converge

Instead, scan that arroyo for a prominent juniper. Several game trails go past that tree and offer unscathed passage into the flanks of the saddle. Once you get onto the saddle, at about 2.1 miles from the trailhead, again look east and above you. The heavy vegetation on the flanks of the next rib thins, leaving the rib-top open. Immediately depart from the saddle, battle past a narrow band of thickets, then attain the open-topped rib. (On return I tried the higher terrain immediately above the saddle – not a happy experience).

Looking back, past ocotillo, to Soledad

The “open topped rib” gets its character because it has been scrubbed of soil. The angle of attack increases and shattered rock supports your boot soles. A forest of ocotillo plants thrives in this scant soil. Some ocotillo extend 8 feet into the air and enjoy wide spacing. “Easy!”, you think. Those big ocotillo, however, have numerous smaller cousins clinging close to the rock. These are vegetative hacksaws. Position your shins carefully. Look up to see that Sharkstooth’s summit now positioned slightly to your left. Sheer cliffs adorn the east face and wall-in the east side of the pass. Set your sights on the talus field below the pass and battle over as soon as you can.

Talus below Sharkstooth Pass

The moderate talus angle makes for quick climbing. If you slide back a little for each step forward, at least you’re not being thwarted by thickets. Game trails along the edge help the climber. A serious brush bash glowers down from the top of the talus field. Scout for the most obvious game trail you can find. On this date I frequently crawled under low juniper branches, but those branches keep the brush away!

Baldy Peak (center) and Organ Peak (right) from Sharkstooth Pass

Sharkstooth Pass, a narrow cleft, opens to a 2600-foot wall that tumbles from Organ Peak summit to the North Canyon bed. Want more? Vexatious vegetation guards the those northern slopes. Fortunately, a steep game trail will take you directly down from the pass to another talus field. This field is steep and loose. Scramblers must work their way down to a well-compacted animal trail contouring across the field. Follow this compacted trail west (to your left). The path soon enters brush that is so dense that even deer are unable to go off-trail. Eventually you poke through into a grass-covered gully coming off of Sharkstooth. Take note of where you exit the brush! The map shows that I tried to find an alternative, higher path on return to the pass. That route cannot be recommended.

Cloven Shoulder (left), Baldy Peak (mid-left) and Organ Peak (right of center)

The grassy gully offers a steep scramble that quickly brings you to a shoulder jutting boldly north. (This shoulder is part of the rib that connects Sharkstooth to Baldy Peak). Look east across the summit of Squaw Mountain, where the Florida Range, Cookes Range and the Black Range dominate the horizon. Look east where North Canyon gouges the crumpled earth. Hmm, is this a “new” way to get to the Sharkstooth summit? Nope, not from this shoulder! A yawning chasm invites paragliders and spurns scramblers. The shoulder is cleaved by a deep, vertical gash – I could find no way to get to the high point only 50 feet away. Soak in the views and depart “Cloven Shoulder” by dropping back down the gully.

View of saddle connecting Sharkstooth to Baldy Peak

At the gully base turn east (left, descending) and traverse a semi-open slope. In a few hundred yards gain the rib connecting to Baldy Peak. Bar Canyon opens to the west. North Canyon opens to the east. Have a seat. Enjoy the solitude. Lunch. When done, return the way you came.

Recommendations:

Author on Cloven Shoulder

Your best friends in the Organ Mountain are: thick soled boots, ballistic fiber gaiters and long pants. This terrain slices and dices; hiking shoes and shorts will sacrifice flesh. One hiking pole helps. The second pole impedes.

Carry water. I had two liters and wished for a third. Chimney Rock Tank is often dry

Deer and a rabbit come into view, but you would see more with a light pair of binoculars.

In warmer weather some lifeforms will rattle.

Links:

Couldn’t find any! Colorado has a Sharkstooth Pass that gets some attention, but the inter-web has nothing about this New Mexico pass.

View of San Mateo Mountains from the Black Range ridge

Overview:

This three-day, out-and-back, backpacking route follows the Continental Divide Trail along northern spine of the Black Range. The grade is gentle, access is easy and the views traverse most of mid-state New Mexico. Hiking the fire-wracked Black Range sounds daunting, but the trail possesses an uncanny knack for threading the dark green patches that survived the flames. Even the devastated slopes exhibit a budding green haze from colonizing aspen groves.

The title has an asterisk next to “Diamond Peak”. It makes me grumpy, but time was short and water in the Diamond Peak Spring was scant. I turned back at the spring rather than climbing to the nearby summit. A pity!

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (north-bound or south-bound) take Exit 89 to NM-181.
  • At the end of the ramp turn west onto NM-181-South. (North-bound travelers will turn left. South-bound travelers will turn right).
  • After ~0.2 miles, from a stop sign at a T-intersection, turn left to continue on NM-181-South.
  • After 2.9 miles go right onto NM-52 (well signed)
  • After 38.0 miles turn left onto NM-59 (well signed)
  • After 13.8 miles turn left onto a Forest Service trailhead (signed)

All roads are paved. There are numerous small depressions along NM-59 where the road crosses arroyos, signed “Dip”. The savagely eroded road-margins in these dips are a threat. Watch your passenger side tires.

On NM-59 you will go over the geologic Continental Divide, which is signed. There is a turn-out on the left side of the road, but that is NOT the trailhead. You need to stay on the road for the full 13.8 miles. To the best of my recollection there’s roughly a half-mile from the geological Continental Divide to the CDT trailhead.

Trailhead:

The Mighty Camry at the CDT trailhead on NM-59

The trailhead is a gravel parking pad with a vault toilet. There are no water services or trash receptacles. The pullout sees lots of people pulling trailers and they need to be able to drive the full circle around the vault toilet in order to exit. Please leave as much clearance for them as you can.

Data:

IMPORTANT: my GPS device flatlined on this hike. Instead of being a GPS track the above map shows a trace of the CDT from Caltopo. There may be significant deviations from the actual trail!

  • starting elevation: 7702 feet
  • highest elevation: 9648 feet
  • net elevation: 1946 feet
  • distance: 26.1 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

Burned trunks and sparse understory

Day 1

Follow the trail south from the trailhead. On this date an extremely kind “trail angel” provided 10 full gallons of water. These are intended for CDT thru-hikers. We weekend backpackers should leave them alone.

The initial mile rises in a forest of young and severely burned ponderosa pines. Either the fire was unimaginably hot or a forest crew has been through and manually cleared out the remaining fuel from the forest floor. There are almost no burned logs on the ground. You do not see the crowded, bushy understory that normally springs up after a fire. It has the atmosphere of a forest singularly protected against the next major burn.

Spring feed tank

As the trail continues to rise mountain mahogany and gray oak do make an appearance. The terrain offers convoluted testimony to the ingenuity of trail designers – it is a minor miracle that the grade rises at such a steady rate. In places there are short drops where surprising groves of Douglas firs shade the tread. Much of the tread follows a barbed wire fence. At 5.3 miles from the trailhead come to a broad and sandy flat spot on the ridgeline. Look to your left for a gate in the fence with yellow signs asking, “Please Close Gate”. Water is available if you go through the gate and follow a side trail 0.3 miles down to a spring that drains into a small open tank. On this date the water was cold and free of algae, if slightly murky. Filtering is recommended.

Trick Tank or flying saucer?

Views open to the east. The Cuchillo Negros Range (Spanish for “black knife”) form a small ridge between the Black Range and the massive cliff faces on Vicks Peak in the San Mateo Mountains. At 8.7 miles from the trailhead the trail reaches a high point for the day, about 8700 feet. From there the trail bumps downward, reaching Forest Road 226A at 11.5 miles. You will see this road through the trees as you descend towards it – at this position you might want to scout about 100 feet off-trail to the northwest. There is a trick tank there. (A trick tank is one that collects rain water). On this date there was about 8 inches of water in the tank, thick with algae but still suitable for filtering.

Brutally weathered sign (left) and trail gate (right)

Across the FR-226A the tread descends along a closed road and enters a long, skinny valley crowded with trees. Doug fir and Ponderosa grow here, along with a conifer that produces an exceptionally large cone – possibly a Rocky Mountain Pine. Near the end of the valley someone has carved “CDT” and a left arrow into a huge standing snag. Go past the snag and follow the white-and-blue CDT signs as the trail climbs out of the valley. Near the top of the rise the trail joins another road. Go left onto the road as it reaches and then descends into the Chloride Creek drainage. The descent slogs along a rutted road – not foot-friendly. The road levels out where a feeder stream stream crosses from the left to the right side. An old and brutally weathered sign stands mutely on the right side of the road. A close look will show a CDT insignia branded into the lower left corner.Here the CDT starts an overlap with the Catalenia trail, #42. Go off the road, through a gate and follow the track as it meanders along side the stream.

Ruins of a shelter

The trail turns uphill where a second feeder stream joins in, about a quarter mile past the sign. This stream lies at the bottom of a narrow canyon, but the canyon bottom has occasional places where it flattens out and camp sites are available. On this date the stream was intermittent, but there were pools of water four or more inches deep, particularly at on the lower stretches. There is evidence under foot that cows like this cool and well-watered place. Filter your water. A crumbling chimney standing alone in the forest testifies that cowhands also once sheltered in this canyon. At 17.1 miles from the trailhead, near the upper reaches of the canyon and the last of the canyon pools, find a level spot for camping.

Caledonia sign with out CDT markers? A warning!

Day 2.

From the campsite climb steeply out of the canyon on switchbacks. The severely burned terrain could be unsettling, but a transition from carbon black back to green is under way. Budding young aspen colonies lead the way. The trail contours around a bump on the ridge then climbs to a saddle. In that saddle the Caledonia Trail splits away from the CDT and drops into a spectacularly beautiful, but entirely off-route, canyon. I lost a couple miles that way and it put me behind for the day – you are advised to stick with the CDT! And why not? This is ridge line hiking at its best. To the east lie the San Mateo Mountains, to the west snow still clings to the high summits in the Mogollon Mountains. On the ridge itself, 22 miles from the trailhead, lies the vertical walls of Fisherman’s Bluff.

A longer stretch of burned terrain on the Black Range

The damage done by the Silver Fire should not be understated. There are a few stretches of badly burned terrain that are grim and much plagued by deadfall. The trail builders have done their best to minimize the length of these stretches and, it must be said, that the recent winter hit the healthy patches of fir and ponderosa hard. Many fallen trees still have green needles on their branches. This is no place to wait out a wind storm.

Diamond Spring: a shallow skim of water from a muddy seep.

At 26.1 miles from the trailhead come to a wonderfully verdant hillside with a notable barrier of green-needled deadfall heaped across the trail. In the middle of the jumble is a sign of four lines saying, “Diamond Peak / Spring Mt. / Diamond Cr. / South Diamond Cr. Tr”. Above this jumble you will see a vertical rock wall. Look at the foot of the rock wall to find a boot-beaten path heading uphill. Follow this for roughly 40 feet and you find the Diamond Peak Spring. This is actually a seep; a mass of wet, black mud slowly releasing water onto the slopes below. I needed the water but I didn’t have the time to accumulate it from this slow flow. If you haven’t made the navigation errors I did then you will probably have time to ascend the next half mile of trail to the summit of Diamond Peak. From there you could continue south to reach Reeds Peak and even test out the new leg of the CDT where it descends from Reeds Meadow down Black Canyon Creek. Or, if the day wanes, you can hike back to camp and from there return to the trailhead.

Recommendations:

Author enjoying a crisp late-April morning

The 2018-2019 winter season was unusually good for snow and rain. Water may be much harder to find in other years. You can get hints on the locations and conditions of various water sources at the CDT Water Report. These are social media reports and (for the Black Range) regrettably few in number. They carry no guarantees. You must assess the risks as you go along. The designations for springs and streams arise from the Bear Creek Survey. A sample of their work can be found here. Their designations (like “10_236WR”) are explained on page vii. A critical map of the trail “segments” (those initial numerals in the designation) is presented on page iii.

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

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.