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Monday, April 8th, 2019

In Search of the Lost Trail

Monday, April 8th, 2019: Sky Island, Trips.

After a ten-day hiking hiatus, I was anxious for a big weekend hike. And I wanted something more special than the boring dirt-floored forests we have near home. I wanted exposed rock!

I’d already checked out everything within an hour’s drive. I’d already pushed that radius out to two hours, exploring a suitable mountain range a couple hours away (see The Perfect Sunset Hike). Now, I continued that radius around in all directions, so that it encompassed a second range to the southwest. I spent hours studying the Forest Service website and various hiking websites that mapped and described trails, and trip logs from previous hikers that included photos. If I was going to drive that far, I wanted some idea of what I would find. I knew that most terrain would be just a copy of what I already had near home: forest and more forest. I wanted some variety!

I’d recently acquired a better exploring vehicle, a cheap little 4WD that could get me places my 2WD truck wouldn’t reach. So eventually I settled on a trail in the “Sunset Hike” mountains that would offer me a big hike, with plenty of distance and elevation, and plenty of rock.

The Forest Service website had a description of the trail. The hiking websites had topo maps showing the trail. It went up an outlying ridge on the west side of the major canyon on the range’s south face, a canyon I’d looked down into from above, when I first visited these mountains last year (see Consuming the Final Frontier). Detailed information was sparse, confusing and contradictory. There were no trip logs or photos, and every web page showed different figures for both distance and elevation. Trail length ranged from 5.3 to 6.5 miles, and elevation gain ranged from 3,700′ to 5,700′. Were any of these figures correct? Careful study of the topo maps showed that the actual elevation gain would be just over 4,000′.

Even if the lower mileage was accurate, the round trip would still be a bigger hike than I’d done in the past decade of joint failure and injury. It would take me up a canyon lined with cliffs and dramatic rock outcrops, from open desert through sparse pinyon-oak-juniper forest into the shady groves of mixed-conifer forest dominated by tall ponderosa pines, a tantalizing variety with endless views at every point. So I packed up and started driving west.

Two hours and change later, I was 45 miles from the nearest town, driving north up a desert plain toward an extremely remote state prison, the dark mountains looming behind with patches of snow near the crest. The prison had been a 19th century fort, established beside the major stream that ran down from the 10,700′ peak and out into the plain. The Forest Service said the trail had been built for, and used by, pack trains traveling back and forth between the fort and the crest of the range, more than a hundred years ago.

The Forest Service website instructed me to drive around the prison and through the staff housing, where I would find a locked gate blocking an old dirt road. I could supposedly get a key for this gate at the guardhouse.

Having driven up the plain to the prison, I was at the northern edge of a truly vast desert basin, between 4,000′ and 5,000′ in elevation, ranging from 20 to 30 miles wide and extending for over a hundred miles from north to south, all the way into Mexico. Bordering it on the east and west were various stark mountain ranges, and ahead of me, rising behind the prison, was the tallest of them, the penultimate sky island. And behind me, far out in the open basin, were a few green patches of isolated farms and ranches, irrigated with groundwater draining from the sky island.

It was a small prison, quiet and inactive on an early Sunday morning, and I followed a paved road right around the fence on the northeast, and immediately entered the staff housing, a tiny suburb of modest, identical suburban homes surrounded by kids’ bikes and toys, right outside the razor wire fence, the whole thing about as isolated as you could get from the rest of society.

A sign directed me through the housing to the Forest Service gate, which turned out to be wide open. The hiking websites had hinted that the Forest Service road might become impassable, and that I might need to walk some distance before reaching the actual trailhead, adding significantly to my overall distance. And in fact, before reaching the foot of the mountains, the dirt road turned out to be blocked by the creek, roaring and raging in flood from the winter’s heavy snows, from one to three feet deep and choked with boulders.

I could see from tracks that somebody in a hardcore Jeep had recently crossed, but my vehicle still had road tires and would’ve ended up shipwrecked, so I parked on the bank above the creek, loaded my pack, and scrambled upstream through the riparian forest looking for a place to cross. A hundred yards up, I found a log that someone had manhandled across a narrow spot between a couple of boulders, and I very carefully shimmied across, whitewater spraying my boots.

I’d started hiking at 9:30am, which is fairly early for these drive-to hikes. It was a beautiful spring day, mostly clear with scattered clouds. From the weather forecast in nearby towns, I’d expected temps in the 50s, but it felt warmer already. From the creek crossing, I walked east up the old road, opening and re-closing a stock gate, and finally turned left, making a dramatic entrance to the mouth of the canyon, with its boulder-choked creek roaring out through a dense, canopied riparian forest of oaks and sycamores. The first thing I saw ahead was the feathery, upraised tail of a whitetail buck, bouncing over a rise in the shaded tunnel of the road.

After hiking another half mile or so through the riparian forest, up the boulder-embedded, sandy roadway, climbing several hundred feet in the process, I eventually reached the trailhead, marked by a Forest Service sign. It’d taken me a half hour to get there from my vehicle, and checking topo maps I’d brought on my iPad, I could see I’d walked 1-1/2 miles from the creek crossing. The Forest Service sign showed the full trail distance as 7 miles, for an overall distance of 8-1/2 miles from where I parked.

I figured it was unlikely that I could hike 17 miles round-trip and get back in time to drive to Silver City before dark, so I needed to plan on how far to hike before turning back. Ideally I’d get back in time to drive to the nearest town, get an early dinner, and drive the two hours back to Silver City by about 7:30pm. So I figured I needed to be back at the vehicle by 4:30, giving me seven hours to hike. Halving that, I’d need to stop and turn back at about 1pm.

But in my eagerness to hike farther and higher, I forgot about the time difference – I was now in a time zone that was one hour behind Silver City – and I conveniently overlooked the fact that I still had a 45-minute drive back to town for dinner. And lastly, unless the hike turned into a major bummer, I was likely to keep going 30 minutes to an hour beyond my planned turn-back point. That would only be human nature.

The trail twisted and turned its way up the foot of the ridge, out in the open between granite boulders and dense shrubs, alternately appearing and disappearing. Sometimes I would find myself climbing through the dry, chest-high bunchgrass without any evidence of a trail, only to emerge on a ledge with a narrow path leading onward, looking more like a game or cattle trail than a hiking trail. But here and there were cairns, often only a single rock perched on a boulder. The old pack trail had seen a lot of use more than a century ago, by men riding horse or mule, but now seemed virtually abandoned by humans, and only used sporadically by game and livestock.

Still, I was grateful for what trail I did find, because the vegetation on this slope was largely chaparral – dense thickets of shrub that would’ve been a nightmare to bushwhack around. As I mentioned earlier, I’d expected temps in the 50s, dropping as I climbed higher. But on this exposed slope it felt close to 70 degrees at mid-morning, and I was sweating profusely from the start of the climb. I’d started at 5,150′ elevation, and once I reached 7,000′, I hoped to find cool, shady pine forest and easier footing for the remainder of the climb.

Whereas many of the trails I’ve hiked have been damaged by erosion and deadfall in the aftermath of wildfire, this trail just seemed abandoned and overgrown. There was lots of evidence of trail work from the distant past – rock berms to divert runoff or mark the turn of a switchback – but they, as well as the trail itself, were often buried deep under thick grass or shrubs. Still, I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the ground, and I managed to stay on the path until the trail crested out on a high shoulder overlooking the main canyon. Here there was lots of evidence of isolated sparking from the last wildfire that had mainly burned the upper slopes, thousands of feet above.

And here I really lost the trail.

When you lose a trail, you need to stop focusing in front of your feet and look around at the landscape holistically, as a tapestry that might hold barely visible clues. If there are shrubs or big trees around, where are the natural openings between them? Can you spot any disturbed or trampled vegetation, cairns or other man-made rock formations, patches of bare ground, saw-cut stumps or branches? Sometimes, off in the distance, you’ll sense just the barest hint of a path.

There on the shoulder of the ridge, there were lots of man-made rock piles scattered around, probably the remains of old campfires. A hill loomed above, but the shoulder I stood on was fairly level and there were big junipers for shade, and a lot of cow shit. Some kind of ancient cowboy campground and recent bovine resting place.

I circled the area and set off in every direction that looked promising, but after a half hour of careful searching, I never found the trail. I could see some challenging terrain ahead, sheer cliffs, and whenever I tried to traverse around the hill to get to the upper ridge, I ran into a wall of boulders. So finally I just scrambled up the hill, and on top, in the least intuitive place, I found the trail again, about a quarter mile from where it had disappeared.

This trail is switchback-crazy. There are switchbacks with sections only a half dozen feet long, following natural fracture zones in the rock. Zigging and zagging, climbing and climbing through sparse oak and juniper forest, I finally reached some thin stands of short ponderosa pine, many of which had burned in the big wildfire a few years ago. It was now my planned turn-around time, so I stopped to have lunch. Another item I hadn’t factored into my schedule for the day.

But this was no kind of a destination. I hadn’t reached the cool, shady mixed-conifer forest that I’d expected at this elevation. There were cliffs towering above me, and I figured I still hadn’t hiked half the trail. I just couldn’t stop here. Chances are I wasn’t going to make it back home tonight, in any event.

So I continued, around and up the next level of the ridge, and around and up the next level after that. Here, after staying on the east side of the ridge for a long time, the trail crossed back over to the west side, where I lost it again. This time, it only took me ten minutes to relocate it.

It kept climbing for a short distance then began going gently down, for the first time on this hike, which was something I wasn’t excited about. I’d saved some detailed topo maps on my iPad, and consulting them, I could see exactly where I was, at slightly less than 8,300′. Again, this was no kind of destination. The trail was getting ready for another major ascent of nearly a thousand feet, to the crest. I still hadn’t found the tall, shady pine forest I’d expected, but I’d climbed more than 3,000′ already, covering at least 6 miles one-way, and I really needed to turn back. I spent a few minutes stretching, in an attempt to ease my hip pain, then shouldered my pack and started down.

It was weird how elsewhere on this south side of the range, you would find dense forests of tall ponderosa pines at this elevation. But on this outlying ridge, it was all open terrain, dominated by scattered oak and juniper, in what the Forest Service calls a “transition zone” amounting to more than 3,000′ in elevational thickness. It may be that the exposed rock cliffs and outcrops I came here for create a microhabitat hostile to the establishment of true forest at these elevations.

Down hiking isn’t necessarily easier than climbing. In this overgrown terrain, the dry grasses concealed loose rocks the size of tennis balls that twisted my ankle and made me stumble repeatedly, so that I really had to concentrate with every step. Apparently my new boots have really good support, because I made it without injury.

I lost the trail twice more on the way down, in different places this time, adding another 20 minutes to my hiking time. I was wearing shorts for the first time this season, and my skin had some kind of allergic reaction to the grasses on the trail, so my shins and the sides of my lower legs were quickly covered with an angry red rash. And I’d failed to apply sunscreen at the beginning, and now my calves were burned pretty badly. But when I reached the trailhead, and worked my way carefully down the old road of water-polished boulders, in the late-afternoon shade of the riparian canopy, I felt better than I had at the end of other, shorter hikes in the past months. It seemed I was actually making progress.

I got to town at sunset, found a cheap motel room, and discovered that since it was Sunday night, almost all the restaurants were closed. So I found myself ordering dinner and a margarita in a cavernous, obviously unpopular new place where only one other table was occupied. But I was really dehydrated – I hadn’t taken enough water on my hike and ran out hours ago – and I started feeling nauseous shortly after my food arrived, so I had to pack it up for the next day.

In my room that night, I checked the maps carefully to verify my distance and elevation. It’s clear from the topo maps that I climbed 3,150′, but considering how many times I lost the trail and had to scout far and wide to find it, and considering how many dozens of short switchbacks there were, distance is hard to estimate. I had to have covered at least 12 miles round trip in 7-1/2 hours of hiking – that’s the minimum, based on the detailed topo map/elevation profiles on hiking websites, and including the cut-off part of the old road that I had to walk back and forth to the trailhead. But I’m used to averaging a mile every 24 minutes, even with frequent stops, on our steep trails at home, which would yield almost 19 miles for the day. Highly unlikely, so I’m just calling it 12 miles and 3,150′.

Physically, in terms of my fitness and conditioning, it was a resounding success. I’ve been doing weekly cardio workouts for almost 30 years, but nothing like what I’m trying to maintain now. When I lived in the city, I did 4-mile runs, with little elevation gain, or mountain bike rides with at most a thousand feet of elevation. Now I’m climbing up to three peaks per week, typically walking fast, totaling up to 20 miles and 4,000′ of elevation gain. It seems crazy. I don’t want to overdo it, but I believe it’s good for me, and at my age, I need to work hard just to maintain my ability to do the things I want to do. Because as you age past a certain point, your body’s natural tendency is to deteriorate, to rapidly lose strength and capacity. You can’t just sit at a desk for months and then go out and do a 20-mile hike, like you could when you were in your 20s. And hiking is much more rewarding than the running or biking ever was, because it connects me better with nature.

But this abandoned, overgrown trail, with little variation from bottom to top, was a hike I won’t be doing again, anytime soon. Just too much work for too little reward!

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