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In Search of a View

Monday, December 26th, 2022: Hikes, Middle Fork, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

I should’ve been all hiked out. I’d walked 28 miles and climbed almost 9,000 vertical feet in the past week.

But it was Sunday, and if I didn’t hike, I’d probably just lie around reading a book I’d already read multiple times.

And it was Christmas – I should have been with my family. I thought about dropping in on my neighbors, but they had families too, and small houses that were even less set up for entertaining than mine. I didn’t want to put them in an awkward position.

Looking at the map of our local wilderness area, I suddenly had a brainstorm. I’d learned in the past year that there were dramatic canyons tucked away in the north part. You can reach them either from the far north, which is a four hour drive from town, or from the center, which is an hour and a half away. I found a trail from the center that should either take me into one of those canyons, or along the rim, in only about 4 miles one-way.

By the time I figured that out, it was pretty late. But it would likely be a short hike, so I hit the road.

Unfortunately, on the way out of town I immediately found myself behind a couple of bloated minivans from Texas. They turned out to be sightseers traveling together, driving well below the speed limit, and it’s a two-lane mountain road with hairpin turns and no opportunity for passing. Every time we passed a turnout, I prayed for them to pull over and let me pass. But they never did. They held me up for an hour and fifteen minutes until we all reached the big scenic overlook, where they finally pulled off to take pictures and I got back up to normal speed.

I’ve avoided trails in the center of the wilderness because it’s strictly lower elevation pinyon-juniper-oak habitat, and the Forest Service and Park Service have designated that area as the focal point for tourism. People flock there from all over the world, which is exactly what I try to avoid. Plus, it’s where the three forks of our famous river meet, and the main trails involve dozens of river crossings, which is no fun in winter. But the center is where the most trail maintenance has occurred, so the trails there tend to be in the best condition.

As expected there were already several vehicles at the trailhead when I got there, despite it being Christmas Day. But what bothered me the most was the condition of the trail I’d picked. It turned out to be an equestrian highway, and their hooves had churned it into a mud bog. It was still partly frozen at 11am, but it was forecast to be warmer, and I knew it would all melt by the time I headed back in afternoon.

This is the kind of trail I normally find boring – a very gradual ascent north through grassy meadows and open woodland to a low saddle. From the saddle, it descends into the canyon of the middle fork of the river, which is heavily forested, primarily with tall ponderosa pine. But just before the saddle is a junction where the “rim” trail takes off to the west.

My tentative plan was to go west along the rim, hoping for a view of the canyon from above. The problem with canyon trails here is that you’re mostly buried under the riparian canopy and can’t see the spectacular cliffs and rock formations above you.

But just east of the saddle I could see a point where I might get my first view over the canyon, so I clambered over there.

The view wasn’t very enlightening, since the dramatic part of the canyon was hidden behind a butte. But I did have a perspective west on where the rim trail would take me.

So I went back to the junction and headed west. This was immediately a better trail – narrow, traveled only by wildlife. The map showed a shortcut that bypassed some of the first trail along the ascending ridgetop, and I found its outlet and decided to try it on my return.

This rim trail wasn’t intended as a rim trail – these are not sheer-walled canyons cut through flat plateaus like the ones in northern Arizona and Utah. This trail simply traverses upper slopes on its way to junctions with other trails, farther west. Gullies in those slopes take it in and out and up and down along the way, always through forest, so I never got a satisfying view of the canyon – only tantalizing glimpses through the trees, of white pinnacles and strangely fluted cliffs. There were some nice red capstone bluffs above me, and some cool white ones across the canyon in the distance, but no trails go there.

Keeping in mind my late start and the stressful drive back on that mountain road, I was watching the time. I figured I had about 4-1/2 hours to hike if I wanted to get back before dark. But I’d gone slowly and made a lot of stops and sidetracks, so I kept going until I had less than 2 hours left. Thinking of the unexpectedly slow progress I’d made last week in Arizona, I guessed I’d only gone between 3 and 4 miles so far and should get back to the vehicle with plenty of driving time.

With the trail in good shape and no serious climbs, I was back to the “shortcut” in no time. I followed what looked more like a game trail down the narrow ridgetop, but it eventually disappeared. The ridge got steeper and steeper, but never reconnected with the main trail. Eventually I reached the edge of a bluff, and could see no sign of the trail below. Was I even on the right ridge? I felt totally lost, and turned back to return to the rim trail.

Back on the main trail, just past the junction with the rim trail, I met a young couple, tourists doing a late hike. The man asked me how much farther it was to the end, wondering if they would have enough time to get back before dark. It wasn’t clear what he meant by the “end” – as I said, the trail goes over the saddle and descends to the river, and the total distance is over 4 miles, but he believed it was only 3 miles to the end of the trail. I just said they had more than 2 miles to go to reach the river, and after leaving them, wished I’d clarified there was no way they’d get back before dark.

For my part, I got back with plenty of time. And at home, plotting my route on Caltopo, I discovered that with all the stops and sidetracks, I’d gone almost 10 miles in 5 hours – not too shabby for a hastily-conceived reconnaissance with lots of stops. It was now clear that to get a proper view of that rugged canyon, I’d have to approach it from the north, and that would not be a day trip.

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