Archives for posts with tag: Southern New Mexico
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.

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 Grassy Flats

Grassy Flats

Overview:

This route description serves two purposes. First, it describes a mellow, well-maintained, and lonesome trail among the gently rounded hills north of the Burro Mountains in southern New Mexico. It was a great hike on this date and in greener conditions (after the monsoon, for example) it could be terrific venture. Second, it is also describes how a thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) can go wrong. The problem is that the tread described here is beautifully engineered and CDT-signed, but in 2018 it seems to dead-end at a spot called Grassy Flats. Thru-hikers take note! In 2018 most thru-hikers will want to follow the directions (given below) to turn away from this dead-end section of the CDT and follow Forest Road 810 (FR 810) as it descends into the upper reaches of Saddlerock Canyon.

Driving Directions:

  • From Silver City, at the intersection of US-180 and NM-90, head west on US-180
  • After 13.6 miles, just past mile marker 100, turn left onto Saddlerock Road (gravel)
  • After 4.4 miles, at a wide spot in the road, pull off the road.
    • At 1.3 miles on this road you enter the National Forest over a cattle guard. It is there, I believe, that the road becomes FR 810.
    • At 1.8 miles on this road you will come to a fork, bear to the right to stay on FR 810.

My choice of trailhead parking is arbitrary. I stopped when the roadbed got softer than I liked (loose sand in the bottom of a wash), but the mighty Camry could easily have gone to the gate at the upper end of the canyon.

At its intersection with US-180 the road going up Saddlerock Canyon is signed as “Saddlerock Rd”. On Google Maps, however, this road is designated as Saddlerock Canyon Road.

Trailhead:

02 tank with algal and clear volumes

Spring/tank with some water, much algae

The trailhead is any wide spot on FR 810 where you choose to park. There are no amenities. If you drive to about 4.7 miles you should see a side-cut coming into the main canyon on your right. This side cut will probably have tire-tracks leading into it because just 100 feet off the main canyon there is a spring/metal tank, which currently has water in it. There is a considerable volume of algae bloom in this tank, but there are clear-ish volumes of water as well. This water would need to be filtered or boiled pretty hard before using.

Data:

The blue car-icon marks the “trailhead” (the spot where I left my car, your choice of trailhead may vary). The blue “wavy” icon shows where this section of the CDT dead-ends at Grassy Flats Tank. The yellow hiker icon is meant to indicate a NOBO thru-hiker who is on the CDT, just a little before arriving at the intersection of the CDT with FR-810.

  • low elevation: 5310 feet
  • high elevation: 5970 feet
  • net elevation: 660 feet
  • distance: (for day hiker route) 5.3 miles (one way)
  • maps: Mangus Springs, NM and Bullard Peak, NM quadrangles

Hike Description:

03 confluence of upper canyons

Canyon confluence

Let’s begin with a description for the day hiker who wants to get to Grassy Flats. CDT thru-hikers may want to scroll down a few paragraphs to where it says So let’s stop for a moment. From where you parked your car continue up Saddlerock Canyon. (The map above has a car-icon where I left the Camry). As mentioned, the flat and sandy canyon bottom can be enchanting on its own, particularly in early-morning light. Some of the rock has a striking yellow color and other exposures are a mineral blue.  As you near the upper end of the canyon you will pass through the first fence to appear since you drove over the cattle-guard as you entered the National Forest. On this date the fence had a wide opening that you could drive a car through. Immediately beyond you will see the confluence of two canyons. Straight ahead is a waterway signed for “riparian restoration”. The Forest Service is asking you to leave this waterway alone. Please do.

04 view from active CDT across FR 118 to dead-end trail

CDT Marker Posts on both sides of road

Hard on your right is the second canyon. FR 810 continues up this waterway. Follow this upper canyon as it ascends gently over bluish rock. This is clearly the playing area of ATV enthusiasts as the canyon bottom is packed and tracked. A half mile past the entrance to this canyon you will go through a gate in a fence, please close the gate behind you. Just past the gate FR 810 departs from the canyon bottom on your right. Take the road. It climbs steeply. At 1.1 mile come to a small height of land where the regular Continental Divide Trail comes in from your left.

05 typical CDT marker

Typical CDT marker

Wait! Look again and you see that the post on the left side of the road has a blue-and-white CDT insignia, but the post on the right side of the road also has a blue-and-white CDT insignia. (Typically these are rounded plastic triangles printed with “CTD”; the central “T” is shaped like an arrow to point the way). It looks as if the CDT goes straight across the road. This is where the dead-end problem arises. The trail coming in from your left (inbound) is the active Continental Divide Trail. The trail going off to your right is one of the CDT’s not-yet-complete improvements. The CDT Coalition hopes to have this variant active soon. The problem is that this dead-end trail is so obvious and so very well signed that it can have a strong allure for footsore and tired thru-hikers.

So let’s stop for a moment and address thru-hiker needs. Thru-hikers who reach this junction will want to know that the obvious trail directly across the road is a dead end. How do they recognize this in 2018?

06 rolling hill country north of Burro Mts

View of hills north of Burro Mts

If you look at the map at the top of the blog you will see a yellow hiker-icon that represents a north bound CDT hiker on the active trail just before arriving at the junction.  Many such hikers carry the Guthook app and may be aware that they are near the “diverging arrows” icon at mile 142.4, which is where they arrive at this potentially troublesome junction. Alternatively, they may be following the Ley Map NM37b, which has a bold numeral 2 (enclosed in a circle) at this junction. If they carry a GPS with the Bear Creek waypoints then they should look for waypoint marked 06-260RR.

07 SOBO sign- also indicates that dead end trail is near

SOBO’s sign, NOBO’s warning

But what about the happy-go-lucky thru-hiker who is simply ambling along thinking about lunch, snakes, scenery and foot placement? There is one very valuable clue that this hiker should know about. About 200 feet before arriving at the road this north-bound (NOBO) hiker will notice an old-fashioned Forest Service sign (made of very weathered wood) that is attached high on an alligator juniper. The sign faces north and is intended to tell south-bound (SOBO) hikers that they are on the CDT and that it is 3.5 miles to FR 118. For NOBOs, this means “wake up! – there are navigation difficulties ahead”.

Once aware, however, the hiker should have little problem. NOBOs arriving at the junction in 2018 will just ignore the obvious CDT marker across the road, turn to the east (right), follow the road down to the bed of Saddlerock Canyon, then follow the canyon out to US-180.

08 sign for Grassy Flats

Grassy Flats 3 mi: a good sign (for day hikers)

Enough then, of through hiking. What should you do if your objective is to visit Grassy Flats? Day hikers can fearlessly turn north (to the right, inbound) and follow the dead-end trail. It is a beauty. Hard working trail crews have places numerous CDT insignia (I counted seven). Additionally there are a couple of those skinny, brown flat-posts, which do not necessarily say “CDT” but warn users that motorized vehicles are not permitted. Many other forms of trail-sign exist such as rock-walls built to support the tread in waterways, sawed deadfall and water bars. You will see a weathered wooden Forest Service sign that says “Continental Divide Trail 74 / Grassy Flats 3 miles / NM Hwy 180 8.5 miles”.  There are few difficulties to navigation.

09 brown flat-post at road junction

Brown flat-post at junction where the trail meets an old two-track

At 2.6 miles after turning onto the dead-end section you will come to a road junction marked with a brown flat-post. Turn to the right and follow the road uphill. You will stay on this road all the way to Grassy Flats. There are several prominent side-trails, but these are really cattle paths. Ignore them and stick to the two-track. At 3.4 miles from the start of the dead-end CDT section come to the Grassy Flats tank, a surprisingly large pond created by an earthen dam placed across a small canyon. On this date the water in the tank was a pretty thick mixture of algae, cow waste and mud.

10 Grassy Flats tank

Grassy Flats Tank

I scouted around but did not see any signed trails leading further north from Grassy Flats. The old road, which has become quite faint, seems to continue by climbing onto the rim of the canyon that contains the tank. Perhaps that will be the eventual path that the CDT takes in its final configuration. For now, find a place reasonably free of cow patties and rest your legs. Enjoy the remarkably open terrain and the skittish bovine company. Once you’ve had enough, return the way you came.

Recommendations:

11 View south towards Burro Mountains

View from trail south towards the Big Burro Mountains

This is an excellent training route for spring time hikers looking to regain some lost trail tone. Bring along some friends and enjoy cool, late-February or March hiking in these hills.

On this outing I only consumed a liter of water.  It is probably a good idea to carry your water and not have to drink from Grassy Flats tank. You might be able to find some cleaner water if you continue a ways down the canyon that contains the tank, but that is not guaranteed.

The cattle around Grassy Flats were clearly alarmed by my presence. I doubt they see very many people. It helps to try and detour widely around them, particularly in the open Flats area. Cattle flee less gracefully than gazelles, so try to avoid stressing them.

Links:

Dan Bedore’s website makes mention of Grassy Flats and, notably, of seeing a black bear there. He also says that bushwhacking out from Grassy Flats to US-180 was hard work. I can surely believe that.

01 Black Peak from CDT

Black Peak seen from the Continental Divide Trail

Overview:

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

Driving Directions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailhead:

03 the Mighty Camry at the trailhead

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

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

Data:

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

Hike Description:

04 old roadbed

Washouts in the road bed

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

05 semi-ambiguous fork

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

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

06 Fog shrouded western Gila Forest

The western Gila mountains, atypically shrouded in low clouds.

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

6a road sign at otherwise unsigned junction

Remaining sign near trail junction.

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

07 Twin Sisters

Twin Sister summits

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

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

12 Unsigned junction to Black Summit

Cairn at base of burned tree marking summit junction.

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

Recommendations:

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

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

 

01 Signal Peak LookoutOverview:

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

Driving Directions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailhead:

02 The Mighty Camry

The Mighty Camry, midst snow and ice.

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

Data:

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

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

Hike Description:

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

04 Rock wall marking switchbacks

Snow dusted trail alongside boulders

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

05 View SW from below summit block

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

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

08 tower view of Black Range

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

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

13 sign past the gate

Entrance to CDNST/Signal Peak trail overlap.

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

17 Sunny saddle before black peak

Sunny and open saddle

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

16 cairn indiating trail to Black Peak

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

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

Recommendations:

18 author on signal peak

Author on Signal Peak

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

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

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

Links:

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

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

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

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

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

Overview:

The cleft summit of Brushy Mountian. The higher bump is the one on the left

The cleft summit of Brushy Mountian. The higher bump is the one on the left (looking west towards the Black Range).

This hike is follows a jeep road up a canyon and then along the ridge-top of the Caballo Mountains. Frankly, it doesn’t merit the same superlatives awarded to other hikes described on this website. The road bed is dense with rubble – seemingly sized to twist ankles. Any sense of remoteness is eroded by the antenna thicket atop Timber Mountain and a set of ridge-top cabins. You may have to stand aside for ATV and motorcycle traffic on the trail. Against that, this is a healthy day’s outing, reasonably close to Truth Or Consequences. The view down to Caballo Reservoir and the view north to Elephant Butte Reservoir are both striking. The vista sweeps in the San Andreas Range, the Dona Ana Mountains, Organ Mountains, Robledo Peaks, the Cook Range and the Black Range. There are distant views – on a good day – of the Sacramento Mountains, the Franklin Mountains, the Florida Mountains, remote peaks of the Gila Wilderness and distant ranges in Mexico. Caballo ridge is lined with juniper and pinyon and is still showing an abundance of wildflowers.

Driving Directions:

Sign for private rail crossing, making the southern approach inadvisable.

Sign for private rail crossing, making the southern approach inadvisable.

First side note: this is the third or fourth time that I’ve tried to approach the Caballo Mountains Road from the south. The first few times I was turned back where low spots in County Road A070 were either submerged or too deep in muck for a low-suspended car. This time (following Greg Magee’s excellent directions in his “Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces – El Paso Area” guide) there was a new snag. Magee’s directions indicate that you depart County Road A070 to the left (west), going through a gate, over the railroad tracks, and then immediately through a second gate. This departure point is evident, but now it is posted with a sign saying that the rail crossing is private. Use of the rail crossing requires permission of either the railroad or of the owner of the property. Many land holders are generous with hikers, hunters and horseman so I backed off and spent a large part of the morning exploring alternative routes. The directions below describe the best route I found. Some distances have been estimated from Google Maps and these are indicated with “(G)”.

  • From University Ave in Las Cruces, enter I-25 heading north.
  • After 73.7 miles (G) take Exit 75 for Williamsburg.
  • After 0.3 miles (G) the exit ramp merges onto the I-25 Business Loop (South Broadway) going northeast.
  • After 2.5 miles (G) South Broadway forks onto one-way roads. Drivers going north-east veer slightly to the right onto North Broadway Street (a continuation of the I-25 Business Loop)
  • After 0.5 miles (G) North Broadway curves to the left and at the next intersection the I-25 Business Loop forks. You could make a hard-left onto Main Ave (taking you back in the direction of Exit 75) or go straight onto Date Street. Go straight onto Date Street.
  • After 0.3 miles (G) turn right onto NM-51 (also known as Third Street)
  • After 10.2 miles turn right onto Windmill Road (signed, the roadbed is gravel). On most maps this road is also designated County Road Ao08. It can be somewhat tricky to stay on CR-Ao08.
    • At 0.8 miles from the start you will come to an unsigned fork. Go right to stay on Windmill Road.
    • At 4.8 from the start you come to a signed intersection with Nelson Road (useful as a navigation check), go straight ahead to remain on Windmill Road.
    • At 6.3 miles from the start the road merges with another road coming in obliquely on your right (maps denote this “other road” as also being County Road Ao08). Stay on the combined CR-Ao08 as it veers slightly to the left.
  • After 6.9 miles on Windmill Road/CR-Ao08 a road coming in obliquely from your right merges with Ao08 and the combined road veers slightly to the left. This new combined road is called Powerline Road, presumably because it runs in a perfectly straight line along side a major power line.
  • After 3.0 miles on Powerline Road turn right onto Slater Road (signed).
  • After 1.5 miles come to a T-intersection with Lyons Road (signed). Go right onto Lyons road.
  • After 0.6 miles, rising up in hilly country, come to an intersection with an unsigned road. On the maps this is County Road Ao03. Go left onto Ao03. (See photo of intersection, below).
  • After 3.8 miles, as the road rises onto the flank of Timber Mountain, come to a flat (-ish) spot that can be used as a trailhead. This is where I parked. People with high-clearance vehicles can drive all the way to the top. Bikers and ATVers can drive the entire length of the trail.

View from Lyons Road up unsigned County Road Ao03 in the direction of Timber Mountain

View from Lyons Road up unsigned County Road Ao03 in the direction of Timber Mountain

Second side note: exit 79 off of I-25 can ordinarily be used to enter or leave Truth Or Consequences. On this date, however, exit 79 was partially blocked – you couldn’t get onto I-25 South at exit 79. New Mexico’s DOT has a press release (pdf) saying that work on the exit is expected to continue for about 80 days (more or less). That would put the re-opening at about Christmas, 2014. The press release also says that “the public will have access to the northbound off ramp”. So, you might be able to use exit 79 to enter the city from the south (caveat emptor).

Trailhead:

Trailhead viewed from Ao03 (the level area to the right)

Trailhead viewed from Ao03 (the flat area by the white truck)

The trailhead used on this trip is simply the last near-level spot beside the road up to Timber Mountain. Above this spot the road becomes steeper, much more gullied and rock-strewn. There are no trailhead services.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 6020 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7350 feet
  • Net Elevation: 1330 feet
  • Distance: 5.6 miles one way
  • Map: USGS Apache Gap quadrangle

Hike Description:

View from trailhead to Elephant Butte

View from trailhead to Elephant Butte

At the trailhead there are good views north to the Elephant Butte reservoir. With that reminder, make certain you have adequate water supplies, shoulder your pack and head up Hadley Canyon on the road. Looking down, note that Sierra County has made strenuous effort to keep the road bed well above the bed of the canyon – good engineering practice. On steep spots someone has also put down patches of concrete, apparently to resist the damaging effect of spinning tires and running water. The concrete, however, has long-since broken up and now forms part of the rubble that is typical of steeply inclined gravel roads. This is no place for the family sedan. Watch your footing.

View into Hadley Canyon from CR-Ao03. The long, wavering line of exposed bedrock is a common sight on the east side of the Caballo Range.

View into Hadley Canyon from CR-Ao03. The long, wavering line of exposed bedrock is a common sight on the east side of the Caballo Range.

If you have seen the Caballo Mountains from I-25, then you might think of the range as a near-barren domain of soaring cliffs. Here on the east side the terrain is more gentle and lightly forested. The trees seem to be mostly juniper. These appear to be the one-seed juniper reported to be common across much of New Mexico. Many of these junipers were carrying bluish-purple berries. It looks like good terrain for deer. In fact, there were two hunters on the road who had had a successful morning. The road climbs up and across the north face of Timber Peak, heading west.

Limestone cliffs defend the north approach to Timber Mountain

Limestone cliffs defend the north approach to Timber Mountain

At 0.9 miles you come to a low saddle and get your first views to the west. At your feet lies the north end of the Caballo Reservoir. On the horizon are the mountains of the Black Range. The road switchbacks and begins a gentle contour back towards the east for 0.4 miles, switchbacks again, and returns you to a much higher point on the Caballo Mountains ridge. The antennas that occupy the summit of Timber Mountain are seen above a sheer cliff showing numerous layers of sedimentary rock. Indeed, the rock you are standing on, the rock into which the road has been gouged, is a thick band of limestone.

Scorched terrain below Timber Mountain and view to distant Bushy Mountain.

Scorched terrain below Timber Mountain and view to distant Brushy Mountain.

Initially the road charges up the ridge straight towards the cliffs, but then loses its nerve and curls east and then south to skirt the summit block. At 2.3 miles from the trailhead the road arrives back at the ridge line, south of the antenna thicket. The ridge here is quite broad and might, in earlier times, have supported a forest. Currently this part of the crest is recovering from a fire. Since there are scattered junipers that remain green it appears that the fire was not particularly intense. This may be the Timber Mountain Prescribed Fire Project. Prescribed fires are a fairly tough form of medicine, but a great deal better than the fire bombs that have so damaged the Gila Wilderness and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.

From here you could either turn north and ascend to the antennas or turn south and descend towards Brushy Mountain. This report describes the southerly route. In part this is a judgement error, reflecting my low enthusiasm for summiting among high-intensity microwave towers. It turns out that the microwave towers are not on the true summit (see “Links”, below). Hikers who follow the road up and past the antennas should find a short leg of ATV-trail hiking that will take them to the true Timber Mountain summit.

View from ridge back towards Timber Mountain

View from ridge back towards the west face of Timber Mountain

To go on the southerly route turn left and follow the road down the gentle incline of the ridge line. The views are excellent. To your left lies the Jornada del Muerto Desert Basin, confined on it’s easterly side by the San Andreas Mountains. To the south the Doña Ana Mountains poke up from the desert floor, and beyond them you’ll find the high spire of the Organ Needle topping the Organ Mountains. The view to the west is dominated by the Black Range. South of those mountains lies the prominent cone of Cooke’s Peak in the Cooke Range. In several spots you may be able to pick out South Florida Peak in the distant Florida Mountains as they tower over the town of Deming, NM. Watch your footing, as it is easy to get caught up in this panoply of New Mexico mountains. The view back towards Timber Mountain presents an epic display of stratigraphy.

First fork in the ridge-top road. Ascend to the right to go to Brushy Mountain.

First fork in the ridge-top road. Ascend to the right to go to Brushy Mountain.

Eventually the ridge-top levels out, bumps along for a ways and at 4.3 miles from the trailhead you come to a fork in the road. The left-hand fork is where CR-Ao03 officially leaves the ridge and descends back into the Jornada del Muerto Desert Basin. To the right is a more heavily utilized roadbed that rises towards Brushy Mountain. In the fork there is a dense juniper tree that offers a little shade to weary travelers.

Second fork - this time stay to the left (on the lesser-used road) to get to the summit.

Second fork – this time stay to the left (on the lesser-used road) to get to the summit.

The ascent to Brushy Mountain is a very gentle one. The road ambles over small bumps and winds its way past stands of junipers and pinyon pine. Looking ahead you will see that the summit is spit in two, with both sides of the spit appearing to be the same height. (See the image at at the start of the post). It is the bump on the left that claims greater prominence. Consequently, when you come to a second fork, one where the more heavily utilized roadbed falls off to your right, you will want to go straight ahead on the lesser-used road bed.

View of Timber Peak from Brushy Mountain summit.

View of Timber Peak from Brushy Mountain summit.

At 5.6 miles from the trailhead arrive at the road’s end above the west-facing cliffs of Brushy Mountain. The summit’s high-point is off-road. Wend your way about 100 feet past cacti, juniper and pinyon pine to arrive at the summit. Take in views north to Vick’s Peak in the San Mateo Range and a glimpse over the Black Range at peaks in the Gila Wilderness. Have some water, take in some nourishment, and after resting up return the way you came.

Recommendations:

♦One of my earliest hikes in New Mexico was to Hillsboro Peak – a great hike. The return drive along NM-152 points you straight at the towering cliffs of the southern Caballo Mountains. These cliffs, hanging improbably over the blue waters of Caballo Reservoir, are a visual feast and perhaps gave rise to exaggerated expectations for this ramble. On balance, I would recommend that newcomers to the range first hike Turtleback Mountain, further north in the range. That peak is not nearly as striking, but the terrain has a much wilder feel.

♦At this writing it is easier to get to the trailhead from the north (exit 75 on I-25) than it is to come in from the south (exit 32). If you have Magee’s guidebook you may want to annotate the driving directions. In any case, navigating the roads in the Jornada del Muerto Desert Basin is unusually challenging. Bring good maps. I have the New Mexico Gazetteer and it was tremendously helpful.

♦Don’t forget your camera! I did and the quality of the photography took a hit after resorting to my cell phone. Photographing the mountains is an oddly difficult task, but a good zoom lens makes the job much more approachable.

♦There is very little protection from the sun on this hike. Even in October insolation at 7000 feet can be strong enough to wear on a hiker. A good hat, sunscreen and lots of water are still very necessary.

♦Hunting season is still on. Take advantage of the remaining days before Halloween to get a supply of orange clothing stored away.

Links:

♦Fun facts: Peakery.com rates Brushy Mountain as the 1107th highest point in New Mexico and the 12,349th highest peak in the United States.

♦The folks at Geocaching.com have caches up on the ridge. Their website shows photos of the Caballo Reservoir taken from the ridge in times of markedly lower drought stress.

♦Southern New Mexico Explorer has done this hike and provided a brief report and offers several photos capturing the muscular nature of the terrain.

♦Scott Surgent reports on a trip to Timber Mountain. That report rehearses the potential frustrations with the roads out in the Jornada del Muerto Basin (do bring good maps). He summits on Timber Mountain (which I did not do on this hike).

♦Donna Catterick has a captivating photo of this portion of the Caballo range. It appears to have been taken near Truth Or Consequences and it looks eastward into Burbank Canyon. This canyon pushes up against the ridge between Timber Mountain and Brushy Mountain. I got the sense that ascending Burbank Canyon might lead up to Brushy Mountain. Later, driving on I-25 and looking directly at the same terrain, I got the sense of, “what, are you crazy?”. Those are colossal cliffs.