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Mogollon Crest

Whole Body Workout

Monday, December 7th, 2020: Hikes, Mogollon Crest, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southwest New Mexico, Wildfire.

When I first moved here, I discovered right away that the Mogollon Mountains were the tallest nearby range, and there was a five-mile crest trail to the highest peak that looked like a walk in the park, with less than 2,000′ of cumulative elevation gain.

But I lost interest when I read the trip reports of other hikers. The entire distance, including the top of the peak, was densely forested, so there were no views anywhere.

That changed after the 2012 wildfire, because the trail now traversed the heart of the burn area, a “moonscape” in which all vegetation had been destroyed. I figured there might be some decent views up there now. The crest trail starts at a forest road in the far north and runs more than 24 miles one-way to the southernmost high peak, so it has a history of use by backpackers aiming to complete the entire route.

However, the crest trail wasn’t included on the most recent Forest Service maintenance log. And in May of this year, a hiker reported that he was only able to do 3 miles, after dealing with more than 100 deadfall logs across the trail.

So I forgot about it until Sunday morning, when I did another search and found 3 trip reports from August, September, and October. They all claimed the trail had been cleared over the summer. The report in mid-October said the trail was completely clear up to a half-mile north of the peak, where some moderate deadfall began.

Yeah, the drive to the trailhead would take at least two hours, to a place that’s only 30 miles from my house as the crow flies. But I’d done a couple of hikes in Arizona recently that required a two hour drive. It would limit my hiking time, but I’d get an early start and I’m a fast walker.

The final road to the trailhead is legendary – I’d driven the first few miles of it last winter, but the rest of it had been gated – it’s usually closed all winter. It climbs from the old mining ghost town – itself reached by a scary one-lane paved road – over a 9,000′ pass to the high plateau north of our huge wilderness area. I was all stoked to put in another 15-mile day at 10,000′ elevation, with forays onto branch trails, and it didn’t even occur to me until I reached the ghost town that the forest road was almost certainly closed. I wouldn’t even reach the damn trailhead!

My heart sank, but I decided to keep going, knowing there were a couple of earlier trailheads I could take instead, for an alternate hike into lower elevations.

I was a little surprised to find patches of snow on the road through the ghost town – it’s in a deep canyon that remains in shadow through the winter. The storm had hit last Tuesday night, and was limited to the highest mountains – we didn’t even get any clouds in town.

I drove through onto the rough, rocky forest road, and after the first few miles, was surprised to find the gate open. That’s where it gets steep, and I was not even sure my 2wd truck would make it, especially if I hit snow higher up.

But the truck did okay. The road lived up to its legend, climbing up above the world for some truly spectacular views, but the snow was limited to inch-deep, fairly level stretches near the high pass. I passed only one other vehicle, a new-model Subaru with Texas plates parked in a forested, primitive camping area at 9,000′.

A mile or so beyond that was a large, cleared ledge with a Forest Service restroom and an incredible view to the northwest. My trailhead was across the road at the foot of a densely forested slope blanketed with 2″ of snow. It really felt like the top of the world, and the temperature was close to freezing, but the sky was perfectly clear, and since I expected most of the hike to be exposed, I packed my long johns rather than pulling them on.

As soon as I started up the trail, I encountered recent deadfall. Another hiker had recently told me that our local volunteer trail group had tried to clear this end of the trail but had given up because more trees were falling every day, so that was another piece of second-hand info floating around in my mind. I climbed around the first deadfall, but obstacles continued throughout the intact forest that lined the early part of the trail.

After a quarter mile or so, I left the intact forest and entered the burn scar, and the deadfall got really bad. Had all these trees really fallen since mid-October, when the last trip report claimed it fully cleared? It was hard to believe.

I’d recently decided to just accept the obstacles as the new normal, so I persevered. I might not get any decent mileage or elevation, but I’d get a whole-body workout instead. Many logs leaned over the trail at chest-height or higher, and those I could sometimes grab and swing under, with care for the rotator cuff tears in both shoulders. Some could be straddled and rolled over, and some huge logs had a gap underneath that could be crawled through. Others were so broad they had to be climbed over or around, and many involved multiple criss-crossing trunks that required precarious rock-climbing moves with outstretched legs, over a distance of several yards. Of course, a few were simply insurmountable, and I had to find a detour around them.

In a few places I found sections of clear trail that lasted for up to a hundred feet, where I would practically run to make up time. Climbing steadily, the trail traversed from a north slope around to an east-facing slope, and the view east, over country I’d never seen, was welcome. Still, I was hoping to reach a saddle with views to both east and west, and that was slow coming.

As I worked my way hopefully up the long east-slope traverse toward the crest, I encountered more animal tracks in the snow, finally coming upon really fresh mountain lion tracks, maybe from last night or this morning. The lion had been coming down the trail from the opposite direction, and its tracks continued for more than a mile. I envied it the ability to walk under many of the fallen logs that I had to climb over or around.

The obstacles never ended, and although I can hike for hours up much steeper trails without getting fatigued, my whole body was getting worked a lot harder than usual. I wondered how much more of this I could endure.

Finally I reached the crest, a point where the trail crossed over from the east to the west slope. I could now see the interior of the wilderness to the west, the headwaters of the biggest canyon, and the western peak and ridge that I hike regularly, where I’d recently cleared thorny locust with my Dad’s machete. But there was still a maze of charred snags masking my trailside view.

This trail gradually climbed and traversed through more deadfall until I eventually came in view of the highest peak. There was a rocky outcrop where I could climb out above the snags and get an unobstructed panorama of the entire west of the range. What a relief to rise clear of all those dead tree trunks! The peak was close, but it was also clearly covered with snags. There would be no unobstructed view up there! And apparently there was no trail either – it would just be a scramble over fallen logs the whole way up.

I continued to a saddle about a mile short of the peak, and there, at an elevation of almost 10,400′, I met my nemesis. On most of this winding trail, visibility had been limited to a few dozen feet, but facing me ahead was a long, straight uphill section that was a continuous maze of dense deadfall. I’d finally had enough of this, especially since the big peak wasn’t offering the payoff of a decent view.

Reflecting on the multiple recent trip reports that claimed this trail cleared, what amazed me most was that all those snags could’ve fallen on this 4 miles of trail in only a month and a half. The number of fallen trees I’d encountered in that distance may have been as high as 2,000. Yes, we’d had high west winds in November – that’s apparently what had brought them down – but the deadfall was nearly continuous along the whole trail, including forested sections, north, east, south, and west slopes.

After my leg cramp scare last week, I’d been drinking water more regularly, and I’d brought an electrolyte supplement I could add halfway through. I didn’t linger in that saddle because for once, with a two-hour return drive facing me, half of it on that difficult one-lane forest road, I was actually anxious to just get this damn hike over with. And I knew the hike back, battling all that deadfall over again, would really wear me out.

So I took it a little easier on the way down, stopping regularly to try and identify landmarks on the unfamiliar horizon. During the final traverse, a mile or so from the end, I noticed an out-of-place color on the trail ahead. Other hikers, here at the end of the day!

A man stood up and waved, a woman rising behind him. They were carrying medium-sized overnight packs, and appeared to be in their mid-to-late 30s. The woman was beautiful, but the man took over the conversation so I had to keep my attention on him.

They were clearly urban professionals, from San Antonio. I’ve gotten used to most of our visitors being from Texas – they’re always anxious to escape their state, and to them, New Mexico seems like paradise. They’d apparently just driven straight here, and were hoping to spend at least a couple nights out, maybe reaching the end of the 24-mile trail. I knew they wouldn’t make it, and I hadn’t seen any promising campsites in my 4-mile jaunt. They wouldn’t even make it as far as I had, in the time remaining tonight.

I told them the deadfall was bad but didn’t try to discourage them. I was just amazed that anyone would even try backpacking on this trail, in this condition. They’d find out for themselves.

Despite the late hour, it seemed the man could’ve stood there chatting with me forever, but his less enthusiastic companion was getting cold and wanted to keep moving, so he reluctantly bid me farewell and hurried to catch up with her.

I felt sorry for that young couple, forced to clear out a tiny campsite in the maze of charred deadfall somewhere short of the crest, on a night with temps well below freezing. I’ve been there many times myself, you just add to your store of experience. You can imagine my relief when I reached the truck, in plenty of time to enjoy the last light on the peaks and canyon walls, in plenty of time to reach the highway before full dark.

Subtracting stops, it’d taken me 5-1/2 hours to hike that 8 mile round-trip. Compare that with two months ago, when twice as far on clear trail took only a half hour longer. I wouldn’t be exploring this trail again without confirming it was clear!

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Life Renewing on the Burned Crest

Monday, August 15th, 2022: Hikes, Mogollon Crest, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Much of the story about this Sunday’s hike is not shown in the pictures. Of all the hikes I do in our region, this is the hardest to get to. It’s only 50 miles from home as the crow flies, but like many hikes in our local wilderness, it requires a much longer drive than the hikes I do 80-90 miles away in Arizona.

I always forget how bad the road is. It begins at 5,000′ as a paved 2-lane in good condition. It climbs onto a flat mesa at 5,600′, at the end of which it begins the serious climb, turning into a one-lane with blind hairpin curves and sheer drop-offs with no guard rails. Here, the rough pavement is littered with rocks that have fallen off the cliffs above.

After climbing to over 7,000′ in the foothills, the paved road drops into a narrow canyon where the ghost town nestles. There, the pavement ends, and it turns into a forest road up a dark, narrow canyon lined with flash-flood debris and shaded by old-growth conifers. As it slowly ascends the canyon, fording the creek again and again, it just gets rougher and rockier, until it crosses the creek one last time and begins the serious climb to the crest. Here, I switch into 4wd, and high ground clearance is essential.

Crawling over shelves of rock, slowing for steep sections and erosional gullies, watching carefully for approaching vehicles – including big trucks towing trailers – that I may need to stop or back up for, I finally reach the crest, at over 9,000′. Here, after our exceptional monsoon rains, a section of the road is flooded to 9″ deep, a muddy lake almost high enough to reach the door sills of my vehicle.

It’s always a huge relief to reach the ledge with its big parking area and incongruous permanent restroom. Surrounded by a steep drop-off with a forever view, it’s a platform in the sky that emphasizes how you’ve driven 4,000′ above the surrounding countryside.

I parked next to two other vehicles. I wasn’t particularly surprised – this is a legendary road, and on my one previous hike I’d met a couple from Texas.

We’d been getting a lot of rain, with cloudy skies and cool temperatures. At 9,200′ it was in the low 60s and positively clammy.

My goal was to get as far along the crest as possible, but what had drawn me back here now was curiosity. My previous visit, almost two years ago, had been a few weeks after an extreme wind event had toppled thousands of fire-killed snags across the trail. In a masochistic determination not to let that stop me, I’d fought my way over, under, and around a couple thousand fallen logs, and it was such a miserable experience I swore not to return until the trail had been cleared.

Earlier this year, in late winter, I spoke to the Forest Service trails supervisor, and she’d said that clearing that trail was a priority for the coming season. Then in early June, a hiker posted a report on the most popular hiking website, saying they’d encountered a trail crew clearing that trail and planning to reach the first milestone, a popular saddle below the peak of the range, by the middle of the month. But around that time, our monsoon storms started early, and I could find no update on trail condition anywhere.

So I took a big risk making that epic drive, hoping the trail would be clear.

The most recent entry on the trailhead log, from a month ago, was from a hiker who claimed to have climbed the peak. That was encouraging, because surely the trail to the saddle had to have been cleared. Nobody was as crazy as me, to fight their way through fallen logs just to reach a forested peak that didn’t even have a view!

So I started up the trail, soon leaving the small margin of intact forest behind and entering the moonscape burn scar, which has been filled by a thicket of aspen and thorny locust. I knew most of the crest would be like this. Despite being the highest-elevation trail in our region, it’s not a scenic hike – it runs through a devastated landscape, and your view is mostly obstructed by a dense ghost forest of dead tree trunks. But you do get glimpes, between the snags, of the surrounding mountains, to remind you how high up you are.

Just before emerging from the intact forest, I spotted a hiker up ahead, returning down the trail. He had a big gray dog, and it bounded down the trail toward me. I said something friendly and reached out my hand, and the dog started barking violently, jumping around me in a circle, threatening to attack. The owner approached, and I said, “Your dog seems a little suspicious!”

“No, he never bothers anybody.” Like it can’t possibly bother me to have a dog barking and threatening me. I love how dog owners always deny what’s happening before their eyes – despite the evidence, their pet can’t possibly bother anyone. I’m sure it comes from the lazy owner’s sense of guilt at not making the effort to train their pet – not to mention disobeying the leash rule on public trails.

Because the trail runs along the crest of a ridge connecting the highest mountains, it involves little climbing, and I was hoping I could move fast, and if enough of the trail was clear of blowdown, at best I might be able to go as far as 9 miles, and reach a cabin on a connecting trail, far beyond the highest peak.

And in fact, when I reached the point, about a mile in, where the blowdown had begun, I found a broad path had been cut through the logs. Smooth sailing!

About 3 miles in, the trail switches from the northeast to the southwest side of the ridge, an important milestone for me because you finally get glimpses of the interior of the range, where I do most of my hiking. And about 4 miles in, you reach a rocky outcrop where your view is for once actually unobstructed by dead trees.

And shortly beyond this, the cleared trail ended.

My heart sank when I saw those criss-crossed logs blocking the trail ahead. Why hadn’t they finished the job and cleared it all the way to the saddle, as promised? Hiking to this point, and no farther, made no sense.

Maybe the early storms had stopped them. Or maybe the money ran out. In any event, the Forest Service hadn’t updated its public trail information in almost a year – maybe they were ashamed to admit they hadn’t met their goals.

I knew the saddle wasn’t much farther, so I fought my way through the logs for another half mile. Then I encountered a logjam where the tread completely disappeared in a thicket of thorny locust. That was too much even for me, and I gave up and stopped for lunch in a small, sunny clearing where I sat and watched pollinators working the wildflowers.

At one point I glanced over my shoulder to find a chipmunk sitting on a log about 9 feet away, watching me in curiosity.

A big storm was dumping to the northeast as I headed back. Another began building to the southwest, and just as I entered the margin of intact forest before reaching the trailhead, I felt the first drops of rain.

The other two vehicles were still there. They must be backpacking. I couldn’t believe they’d fought their way through that logjam – another trail started here, running down into a side canyon – maybe that’s where they’d gone.

It rained on and off during the drive back, making for spectacular skies. For once, since my planned hike had been cut short, I would get home early enough to make a decent dinner.

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