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Twelve Years After

Monday, February 19th, 2024: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico, Whitewater.

The trail up the main canyon on the west side of our high mountains, the canyon that drains the highest peaks of the range, has been catastrophically washed out and inaccessible since the mega-wildfire turned the upper slopes into a moonscape twelve years ago.

While looking for another snow-free low-elevation hike for this Sunday, I thought of one that leads to that abandoned trail. So I checked the trail maintenance log, and to my surprise, discovered that the canyon trail was cleared last fall, to 3-1/2 miles beyond the junction. Even better, a trail up a major side canyon was cleared to about the same distance. Long-abandoned trails in the heart of the wilderness are opening up – at least until the next wildfire or erosion event.

The frost on the windshield was fairly light when I started on Sunday morning. The sky was mostly clear and the high in town was forecast to reach 60. It takes an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the trailhead, perched on a spectacular mesa high above the mouth of the canyon.

I’ve only hiked the trail into the canyon twice in seventeen years – it’s too short and involves too little elevation gain to make the drive worthwhile for a day hike. But it’s a popular trail so I was surprised to find the trailhead parking empty.

When I surmounted the first outlying ridge and could see up-canyon, I realized this two-mile trail into the canyon is actually a spectacular hike in itself – because this is one of the most dramatic canyons in the range, lined with cliffs and studded with monumental, colorful rock outcrops.

Halfway between the trailhead and the canyon bottom, the trail swerves back into a deep side canyon. I was to learn that with all the snow we’ve received, every side canyon now hosts a running stream.

Climbing back out of the side canyon, you find yourself traversing the north slope of the main canyon below isolated outcrops, with the creek roaring far below. Across the canyon on your right loom nearly sheer cliffs. Eventually you encounter switchbacks that take you down toward the creek.

I’d expected the creek to be in flood, and I wasn’t wrong. The newly cleared trail up the side canyon is a little over a mile beyond the junction, past a big washout that had stopped me in the past. Sure enough, last fall’s trail crew had cleared a path across the washout, but when I reached the mouth of the side canyon, about thirty feet of icy, foot-deep water separated me from the opposite trail. I would have to continue up the main canyon.

Now I was in view of the rock towers on the high ridge between the two canyons. And in a third of a mile I expected to reach another trail that comes down the north slope at my left. The upper part of that trail is an abandoned mine road that had long been washed out and buried in debris – I’d descended it two or three times shortly after moving here, to reach a swimming hole in the creek. But now, when I reached the biggest washout, I discovered someone had recently brought a Caterpillar down the road, clearing it and filling the washout in the trail.

Past that road, the trail climbs higher and higher above the creek, meeting the wilderness boundary after another third of a mile. Now the canyon was beyond spectacular – but clouds were darkening the sky overhead. I began noticing how much work had once been put into building this trail, across talus slopes, rock faces, and slopes of loose dirt. I’d never seen a trail anywhere in this region that had been built like this – with dry-stone retaining walls up to fifteen feet tall supporting terraces up to 80 feet long, and walkways across gullies reinforced with one-inch rebar and heavy wire mesh. By contrast, our recent trail crew had only been able to clear a temporary path that would wash out at dozens of gullies in the next heavy rain.

Eventually, the trail began dropping toward the canyon bottom.

In the canyon bottom, I found some recent deadfall blocking the trail – the first I’d encountered today. Here, at about 6,200 feet elevation, shade had kept snow from melting, and I found the very recent tracks of two hikers and a dog. They ended at the first creek crossing in the entire distance of this trail so far – where I would have to stop as well. The trail crew had stopped here, but the old, abandoned trail continues for another ten miles, climbing to the 10,000 foot crest just below the highest peak in the range. From the highest parts of the trail, I could just glimpse that crest, its deforested, snow-blanketed slopes glittering in occasional sunlight.

The clouds gradually broke up as I headed back, and sunlight brightened the colors of lichen on the outcrops above me.

Past the flooded junction with the side canyon trail, the trail enters the shade of the canyon’s nearly sheer south wall. And I began noticing how big the sycamores grow here along one of the range’s few perennial streams.

Reaching the junction with the trail out of the canyon, even after climbing the switchbacks I was still mostly in shade from the south wall. But when I reached the deep side canyon with its spectacular rock bluffs, I finally found myself on a west-facing slope, catching some warming rays from the setting sun.

Past the side canyon, I was in the home stretch, and once I’d climbed the opposite side I was back in the last of the sunlight. It’d taken me almost 8 hours to go less than twelve miles, but I’d gone slowly, stopping often to admire the view and take pictures, and that newly cleared trail had involved a lot of careful scrambling. I’m looking forward to returning when the creek’s low to explore that side canyon trail!

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