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Tough But Glorious

Monday, September 20th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

I needed to get up early on Monday and do hard physical work, so I didn’t want Sunday’s hike to beat me up or involve hours of driving. I was running out of ideas until I noticed a trail on the Forest Service “cleared trails” map that I’d never tried before, because it didn’t seem to involve enough elevation gain.

Ironically, it was a trail I’d already approached several times from the north. The last time I did the “rolling plateau between two canyons” hike, I’d gotten a glimpse of the country traversed by this new trail. It was at the southwestern edge of the big wildfire we’d had back in June, and from the north, I’d seen how the dying fire had formed a mosaic of burned and unburned habitat over there. There was a rocky peak southeast of the trail that I’d begun dreaming about bushwhacking to – south of the new trail there was a long series of rocky peaks and ridges in the midst of a trail-less area spanning about 50 square miles, which in itself is extremely tempting.

To get to this trail, you take the long dirt road up onto the mesa, then turn onto a gravel ranch road that runs out to a spur of the mesa that overlooks the deep valley of the creek the trail is named after. The road plunges down the mesa side into the valley, and you drive past the ranch, across the creek, and up the valley toward a second ranch. Although as the crow flies it’s less than 40 miles from town, the complicated route and topography make it feel incredibly remote, and the hidden valley where the ranches lie is quite beautiful, especially now at the end of a wet monsoon.

Considering the remoteness, I was surprised to find a vehicle already parked at the trailhead. The trail sets out up a low basin that curves to the left between the mountain wall and an arm of the mesa. The basin is dissected by many gullies, and the trail winds up and down and around across this low broken land of mesquite and scrub oak for a mile or so until it begins to climb toward the mountains. The surface here is the dreaded “volcanic cobbles”, my least favorite hiking surface, but it was early and I had plenty of energy so I didn’t mind it yet.

The temperature was mild when I started out, but the sky was clear and it was forecast to reach the low 80s in town. However, town is almost a thousand feet higher than the valley I was climbing out of. I was sweating pretty bad before I even climbed out of the basin.

I flushed two dozen quail out of the mesquite – half went left, the other half went right.

Finally the trail took me up into a narrow hanging canyon below the westernmost peak, where switchbacks led to a high pass into the interior of the mountains. The footing was terrible, but I was committed and just had to deal with it. A redtail hawk soared above the head of the canyon, then plunged into the pinyon-juniper-oak forest.

Suddenly I crossed the divide between west and east and saw the peak I’d been dreaming of climbing, far to the east across an incredibly rugged landscape of white cliffs and hoodoos. It was sudden, dramatic – one of those “rim of the world” viewpoints – an exciting new world that in itself justified today’s hike. As I proceeded east, the trail traversed the long eastern slope of the peak behind me, progressively revealing more and more of the white-rock landscape to the east.

Studying topo maps at home, I’d already checked out a possible route to the rocky peak along an outlying ridge that intersected my trail, and as I hiked I kept my eye on that ridge. I didn’t really have much hope of reaching the peak today – it would probably be a 20 mile out and back hike with almost half of it routefinding and bushwhacking off trail – but if the routefinding and bushwhacking were too challenging, I could continue on this trail down to the creek for a reasonable 15 mile day hike. As I said, I didn’t want to beat myself up…

The traverse dipped in and out of deep ravines, and the farther I went, the better I could see how much farther I still had to go, just to get to the ridge that connects to the rocky peak. That ridge lies far above the big creek for which this trail is named – the creek I’d looked down into from the north on my last “rolling plateau” hike.

I’d lost count of all the side canyons I’d already crossed on this traverse when the trail began climbing a steep slope, and I suddenly emerged on a little forested plateau – the second dramatic ascent on this hike – a beautiful Ponderosa pine “park” that extended for hundreds of yards and was almost perfectly level. The occasional burned shrub and scatter of ashes at the base of the tall pines showed that a surface fire had been through here, only a few months ago, but the trees, having dropped their lower limbs long ago, had escaped it.

I’d had to put on my head net on the way up to the pass, but the flies in this pine park were the worst I’d ever found. They were so thick on the net over my face it was almost hard to see through them.

At the far end of the park, where the trail dropped steeply toward the ridge below, I saw that the fire had burned up the slope, killing the pines at the upper edge, without torching the canopy of the park itself. Amazing good fortune, and another lesson in wildfire ecology.

When I finally reached the ridge below, I got my first view north over the deep canyon of the big creek, to the terrain I’d hiked in the past. It was the second “rim of the world” viewpoint on this hike – not so sudden as the first, but dramatic nonetheless. And after another quarter mile or so climbing over bare white conglomerate and down through shady pine forest, I reached a junction where the trail I’d hiked from the north ended at the trail I was on today. The northern trail climbed steeply out of the deep canyon, and as I was photographing the trail sign, a backpacker suddenly stepped into my picture – the guy whose vehicle I’d seen at the trailhead.

He was about my age, and he’d been out alone for two nights, camping in the pine park the first night, and on the creek below last night.

I was now in the burn scar. The next section of trail wasn’t listed as recently cleared, so I didn’t know what to expect. It contined for the better part of a mile along the burned ridge, overgrown with wildflowers and with no recent tread – you had to be right on top of the old trail to see where the path was. But with all my experience it was only hard to follow in one or two places.

This area was like a vast, living textbook on how landforms, geology, and habitat shape wildfire – from the pine park where the trees’ growth habit protected them, to the broad slopes of solid rock which support only sparse fuels, to the cliffs, hoodoos, and boulder mazes which interrupt and redirect the fire’s growth.

Without forest cover, I could easily see where I’d have to leave the trail to climb toward the rocky peak. It turned out to be the place where the ridge trail began to descend into the canyon of the big creek. The slope I needed to bushwhack up looked doable – the white rock didn’t support continuous vegetation, although there were outcrops and rimrock I’d have to climb around.

As I started to traverse the first peak of this outlying ridge, I discovered it was best to just go straight up, because the scrub was sparser near the top. Up there, I found I could work my way southeastward along the ridge, where each little peak was slightly higher than the previous.

Although my focus was on the ridge I was following toward the distant peak, when I first crested that ridge it was yet another “rim of the world” experience. I now had a new view, a dozen or more miles back into the wilderness, of the upper canyon of the big creek, zigzagging back and forth to the far horizon, walled by low cliffs. A narrow strip of tall pines lined the bottom of the canyon, a thousand feet below me, where the trail I’d started on continued for dozens of miles and connected with many other trails, mostly abandoned after the 2012 wildfire, which could only be accessed on long backpacking trips.

Then I came to the base of a dramatic hill of solid white rock. I traversed steeply up its western slope on giant stone steps, and on the other side, found a maze of boulders that led down to the next little saddle at the base of the next little peak. Descending through that boulder field looked hard but was actually fun. It reminded me of the granitic landscapes in the Mojave, where you can jump from boulder to boulder.

I was starting to watch the time – I’d only had 45 minutes available when I’d left the trail. In the end, I was only able to climb two more of the little hills on the ridge leading to the big rocky peak. But it felt great to be exploring new terrain and doing it off-trail. For the first time in months, I wasn’t drenched, I wasn’t in pain, and I was actually having fun on a hike!

Wanting to get home before dark, I didn’t hang out up there. The views were spectacular, but there were cowpies under the junipers – not recent, but I’d seen sign of trespass cattle everywhere in this part of the wilderness. No doubt they were from one or both of the ranches in the valley of the big creek. The Forest Service estimates there are now between 200 and 300 trespass cattle in our local wilderness, and after a long, drawn out lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, the feds have finally promised to do something about it – against fierce opposition by the cattle industry. I’m not holding my breath.

As usual, now that I knew my route, the return to the trail went smoother. Cumulus clouds had formed all across the region, and now, half the time I was in shade. I was looking forward to climbing to the pine park again, and hiking the traverse with the long view over the white rock interior. What a wonderful day!

My joy turned to aggravation when I crossed the east-west pass and began the final descent, on that terrible surface of loose, roughly foot-sized rocks that went on for miles. I suddenly realized something that had been only on the verge of consciousness during the past three years.

I used to believe our Mojave Desert mountains represent some of the ruggedest terrain on earth, and my new local trails in southwest New Mexico are tame in comparison. But actually, hiking in the desert, where there are no trails, turns out to be much easier than hiking the trails of the Gila Wilderness. The geology here, where all the rock is ancient volcanic ejecta or tuff-based volcanic congomerate, is just not conducive to trails. I’m convinced that the dangerous, unstable surface of most of our trails is a reason why they get so little traffic – ironically, the poor footing helps protect our wilderness, because you have to be really tough and determined to penetrate it.

It’s conceivable that I’ll eventually give up trying to hike these trails. It’s just too hard to avoid injury on all those loose rocks.

The last 2 or 3 miles of this hike are totally exposed, the earlier clouds had dispersed, and it felt like 90 degrees in late afternoon. I’d drunk all of the 4 liters of water I’d carried in my pack, and was getting dehydrated. Although I had a spare water bottle awaiting me in the vehicle, I hadn’t packed it in ice like I sometimes do, so it would be hot.

But I made it to the vehicle. 14 miles out and back, and the elevation gain had been over 3,000′, better than I’d expected. Despite the hot water bottle, the drive out, during the long sunset, was glorious. Although rain hadn’t been forecast, it was actually raining in town as I drove home, and had just ended when I arrived.

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