My friend, Dog and I had a full day to devote to a hike, giving us the time we needed to head a little further afield. When we have that luxury, one of the first and favorite places that pops to mind is Railroad Canyon up in the Black Range of the Gila National Forest.
Another luxury is going to the same trails throughout the seasons to watch the changes in water, in plant life, in color and smell and sounds. When we hiked Railroad Canyon last it was probably in late August, when water in Gallinas Creek still ran freely across the river rock and the wildflowers were still in their summer progression. In August, the Ponderosa still smelled like vanilla when the sun warmed them. Birds were still calling, showing us glimpses of Painted Restarts, Robins, a shy Hermit Thrush, a Red-tailed Hawk sailing on the air currents above us.
This fall day was clear and bright with a New Mexico blue sky. We found, at the entrance to the trail, an artform that someone had created since the last time we were here. This is not a trail cairn because none is needed here, but a balancing act of rock on rock.
We beat the sun into the canyon, feeling a chill for the first quarter mile until the uphill slant to the trail warmed us. The first creek crossings were dry. Gallinas Creek runs over and dips and slides under the creek bed so except in the very wettest spring, when snow melt has swelled the creek, many of the creek crossings are really rock crossings, showing only the evidence of dried algae to remind the passer-by that this ephemeral creek can run charged.
Although the sun had yet to light the canyon floor, it was filtering through the Ponderosa above us.
The south-facing canyon sides were already ablaze with golden oak in brilliant display. On the north-facing slope, seed-headed underbrush was still dully lit with the sun sitting just below the ridge. The fuzzy heads would soon be backlighted as soon as the sun edged over the hill.
But tarry we didn’t and by the time we hiked back down-trail, the sun was high and the light was lost.
We walked to the point where the trail splits into Railroad and East Railroad Trail with directional signs pointing up to the Crest Trail on the ridges of the Black Range. A good place to sit. A good place for Dog to go digging after whatever small dark creatures lived under the duff. And eventually we started back down-trail.
The sun had moved further overhead, as it is wont to do. The canyon was now warmed, and the pine needles were fragrant. Friend and I kicked at dried oak leaves on the trail, as though we were still 10 years old. Birds were moving around – Juncos, Wrens; Jays were calling. A few lingering, late-season wildflowers caught our attention: Purple Aster, Larkspur, white Yarrow, a couple of wild Geranium and one small offering of Cinquefoil. North-facing hillsides of oak and seed-headed underbrush were now limned with gold light.
And pools of water, layered with fallen leaves, reflected color back to the morning light.
Dawn came softly. I had just closed my eyes to a deep sky full of stars, and now I opened to a sky just lightening. Carol’s and Allyson’s sleeping bags were not moving, suggesting that they were both still in the Land of Nod. Behind me, though, I could hear firewood being thrown onto the morning fire. Looking past my feet into the trees, six horses moved at a hobbled pace through the grass, heads down and cropping. They had been released from their ties and sent out to breakfast.
I resisted the urge to immediately go looking for coffee, instead rolling up my sleeping bag, folding my tarps, gathering my stuff into a coherent pile and taking my saddle pads over to where the saddles and tack were stacked. My saddle blanket went with me to fireside to provide my seat cushion on the log.
Other than a bright good-morning, Corbin and Joe continued getting ready for our day: building up the fire, filling the coffee pot and the cook pot with water and setting them on the coals to boil, cutting fruit for our breakfast of oatmeal. Corbin had made a comment the evening before that there’s something therapeutic about sitting and staring into a campfire. I practiced a little pre-prandial therapy, since there was little I could do to help the preparations. Eventually, we were all gathered, coffee mugs and oatmeal in hand and the day properly begun.
As we sat and compared nighttime noise stories – I had heard a Great Horned Owl and wondered if anyone else did – occasionally either Joe or Corbin would count to six. If they only counted to five, Corbin would go in search of the missing horse. This was something I had observed previously while in camp. Even though hobbled around the front feet, a horse can make quite a bit of headway, often ranging out of sight. He would encourage them back, usually with little trouble. His horse, Biscuit, had an investigative nose. She was often poking around the food stores, poking at Corbin’s bedroll, or at anything else she found interesting. Poor Smoke, on the other hand, had little patience for her hobbles. This morning, as she tried to move forward, she stumbled over her front feet, sat back on her haunches, and stood in a quiver. Joe looked at her and just shook his head. When I curried and cajoled her later, I noticed that she had a little scrape on each front foot, just above the hoof.
Well fed, once again, and it was time to pack up for our last day. As we were ready to leave the fire, Corbin – or was it Joe? – told us that not long after we left the camp, we would come to a part of the trail that runs along on the side of a steep hill for about 1/4 mile. Looking right at me, he said, “But Smoke is an old pro at this.” Well, yes, maybe she is. But I surely am not.
Oy vey. And here I thought the rest of our ride would be a stroll along the river, with the terror of yesterday’s Hells Hole put behind us. Well, as an old country song goes, “If you got your confidence with you, you can do anything.” We saddled up, mounted up, and headed out on our last 10+/-miles, including that 1/4 mile of hillside. I started working on my confidence right away.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the trail trended upward along the side of a partially wooded-partially rocky slope. It wasn’t steep enough to switchback and we weren’t climbing to the top. Rather the trail continued laterally. However, the challenge became obvious quickly. Most of the hillside was composed of talus slumped down from the top. Here was a difficulty for the horses that they didn’t have to navigate coming down Hells Hole trail. The trail was etched in across loose rock that clinked and slipped under their feet as they minced their way along. And then there was about 8 feet of slickrock slanted downhill to cross.
I engaged in both an out-loud and an under-breath conversation getting across that quarter-mile. “Watch your feet, girl. Ok, Smoke, be careful. You can do this.” Alternating with, under my breath: “f**kohf**kohsh*tTrust Your Horseahsh*tTrust Your Horseahf**k.” “Good Smoke, watch your feet, girl. Take it easy, Smoke.” Well, she did and Joe, who’d been leading on Jet, with Kissee tethered to him, was waiting on the now-wooded and pine-needled gentling slope to give me a thumbs-up. I grinned and announced the obvious, “I made it, white knuckles and all.” Allyson, riding behind me, had heard my overt exhortations to Smoke, but fortunately not my self-talk.
The West Fork Gorge is stunning. The walls are crenelated and hoodoo-ed. The river slips between the walls, sometimes pushing the trail up against the foot of the cliffs, sometimes forcing the trail up and over little ridges. A lot of rock on the river edges and in the river bed, rock of not insignificant size. Some of the riversides are a drop from a level trail, down a rocky slope and up on the far side. Smoke picked her way carefully down the rock, stepping between rocks in crossing the river and jostling up the far slope. Occasionally, her foot would step into a hole, pitching us forward. I did a lot of standing in my stirrups – stand-and-lean-back going down and stand-and-lean-forward to get up the other side. I peeked at the walls and spires of the gorge as much as I could. We stopped at several river crossings to water the horses and took advantage of those moments to pull out cameras and make record of the beauty and drama. This was part of the magic I didn’t want to miss.
Eventually we encountered people. And dogs. And noise. Backpackers setting up camp under a rock overhang. Hikers with two loose dogs; they held the dogs as we walked by. More hikers, casual as they stepped off-trail. Just as we were plunged into the vibrant fall colors and through the flood plain covered with Chamisa as we left the Gila Cliff area, we rode back into that environment after crossing the boundary out of the Wilderness.
Coming into Woodys Corral, we were met by Joe’s support team with their trucks and trailers. I got my last dismount assist, took Smoke to a rail and tied her up. I unloaded my personal gear and put it in Carol’s car. Then, I unbridled Smoke and with Corbin’s help, pulled off the saddle, the saddle pads and blanket, saddle bags, rope and all the accoutrements of the trail and took everything to Joe’s truck. Time to say goodbye to Smoke. I rubbed her muzzle and scratched her forehead and down between her eyes. I reached under her chin and gave her head a hug. Another muzzle rub and another attempt at a head-hug. I guess Smoke isn’t a hugger; she tossed her head up and away from my attention. So, ok, I get it. Well, bye, Smoke. And thanks.
The half-moon set sometime early in the night. The temperature dropped and my head got a little cold. Solved that by pulling my fleece vest from my “pillow” stack of clothes and wrapping it around my head. Peeking through the armhole of the vest, I gazed up at the star-struck night sky. Saddle pads do not a soft mattress make. Hips sore from being launched onto and sliding off a saddle do not an easy rest make. But the stars made up for a lot. I must have fallen asleep because suddenly, it was dawn.
The fire was crackling as Corbin moved around in front of the flames, throwing firewood on. Horses were released from their overnight ties and hobbled, turned out to graze on the sparse grasses. I got dressed in the confines of my sleeping bag, pulled on socks and shoes and rolled up the bedding. Stumbled over to the fire to find my cup left on a rock and made a cup of instant coffee. No creamer but mocha/chocolate powder made a sweet substitute. Rocks were fireside patio chairs, topped with saddle blankets for cushions. Breakfast was foiled and laying on the coals to heat. Red chile beef tamales, bread and fresh fruit.
We didn’t hurry breakfast, taking time for coffee and a bit of conversation even though we had about 10 miles over 5 or so hours of riding. What’s the trail and schedule for today. What is our destination. Where will we find water for the horses and for ourselves. And for me, what terror awaits.
I went to find Smoke, who was hobbled and befuddled. I tried to lead her back; she stumbled and mumbled. Once I took the hobbles off, she was happier and came along peaceably. We curried, saddled and packed. The packhorse, Kissee, was loaded and strapped. Breakfast fire was extinguished. We were up and off.
We had several miles of quiet, peaceful Ponderosa pine forest to travel along the Prior Creek drainage. Prior Creek was full and running, and the horses slurped water up through their “straws.” Upstream a little further, we dismounted, let the horses graze and filled our own water bottles at the spring source. Joe and Corbin trusted the spring water and only filtered it through their kerchiefs into their bottles. The three of us took advantage of Carol’s filtration system to remove all doubt, filled 3 water bottles each for a total of about 6 liters. This water had to last us until tomorrow.
I rode second in our line, behind Corbin in the lead. Behind me, I could hear Carol, Allyson and Joe in conversation, though I could not hear enough to follow. A word or phrase but not a thread. I let that go and just rode, staying present and holding in memory my surroundings, my experience of Wilderness, and my body’s movement in concert with my horse. Looking at the Ponderosa forest, seeing an owl take silent wing from a low-hanging branch. Knowing in the moment that this would be one of the highlights of this trip.
We cut across from Prior Creek trail to Lilley Park trail, somewhat reversing direction and headed for our lunch stop.
Hells Hole. There is only one way to get from the plateau to the river and that is down. Hells Hole is the point Joe chose to make that descent. It is called Hells Hole because when you are on the edge of it, you can’t see the bottom. One and one-quarter mile down the side of the gorge. A narrow trail switchbacking along a sheer face and definitely no gentle fall-away. And me with my fear of heights and edges. Compound that by being several feet off the ground on a horse and not in control of my own fear – um, feet.
Of course I knew it was coming. Joe told us the route well in advance and I had the topo map. He had ridden the route a couple of weeks before to check the trail conditions and water sources and confirmed that even he was a bit nervous going down; he assured me I could walk if I needed to. From our lunch stop to the edge of the abyss, I repeated my mantra: “Trust your horse. I can do this. Trust your horse. I can do this.” I got as far as the first switchback, looked down into an eternity of empty space and called out, “Joe, I can’t do this.” We stopped the horses, he got me down off Smoke, neither of us went over the side in the process. For the next 1/2 mile or so, I walked at a horse’s pace behind Joe, the pack horse and Smoke, followed by Allyson, Carol and Corbin on their horses. Joe walked too, to slow the pace enough for me to keep up. I could hear the breath of Allyson’s Young Gun at my back and her frequently calling “Ho” to slow him down. Finally, I could see trees and a slight leveling of the trail. Joe stopped the horses, came and boosted me up on Smoke and I felt, whew, we’re almost there. No. We rode the trail for a few hundred yards around several more switchbacks and then out onto open edges again. Back off my horse, back on my own two feet, down another 1/2 mile at horses’ pace. Until finally, the river was in sight – and a most wonderful sight it was. I got back on Smoke, to let her do the walking and to rest my burning thighs.
We dropped into the river, literally, crossed over and continued for a mile or so to the campsite Joe had planned for the night. Repeating the routine of the night before, we unsaddled and hobbled the horses, staked out sleeping areas, gathered firewood and started the dinner fire.
This night, the sun set on the cliffs and hoodoos of the West Fork gorge. We sat by the fire later into the night, talking and sipping hot tea. I found a spot for my sleeping bag that had a nice little concave area, perfect for resting sore hips. I crawled into my sleeping bag with my saddle blanket on top for warmth, wrapped my head in my fleece vest again, and watched the stars brighten until I found sleep.
I’ve never backpacked. I am not a horsewoman. So I’ve never been able to experience true Wilderness. Last year I decided that I wanted to take a pack trip into the Gila Wilderness on horseback for my 70th birthday.
We didn’t get out on the trip until the last weekend of September this year, thanks to a full schedule last year and two forest fires this summer that forced postponements.
We gathered at Woody’s Corral at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. We started with lessons on currying our horses, slipping the bit between unwilling teeth and getting the saddlebags on either side of the horse as close to equally weighted as possible. Everything we would have at our disposal for three days and two nights was loaded into those saddlebags. In addition to our clothing and personal items, that included one bowl, one cup and one spoon, one roll of TP, one small knife, one flashlight, one bandana and one pair of work gloves, all provided by the outfitter. Be sure to put the bowl, cup and spoon in spots where they wouldn’t rattle and clack against each other.
Joe, our outfitter, is Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache and is a practicing advocate of the historic and cultural ways. Once everyone was packed, balanced, bitted and bridled, Joe came to each of us and our horse. Stand, hold hands out in front and receive the blessing, with pollen touched on forehead, chest, each hand and each foot, while Joe whispered the prayer. Each horse was just as solemnly blessed with pollen on the forehead. I and my horse wore our pollen for the rest of the day; the spirit of the blessing surrounded us through the entire trip.
We mounted up, all except me. Joe and I led my horse to a large rock, from which I was boosted into the saddle, stretching to get my leg up and over, not just the saddle, but the pack behind the saddle that held my sleeping bag. This would become the ritual for the remainder of the trip: find a rock or log, be boosted into the saddle and likewise assisted down. For Joe and his wrangler,Corbin, this was a lot of boosting and assisting, since we stopped for breaks morning and afternoon as well as lunch and for the night.
We headed out of the corral and along the trail that passed by the foot of the trail up to the Cliff Dwellings. Cars, picnickers, dogs all making noise I would be happy to leave behind. And we did – we left all behind within a mile. We plunged into verdant growth of narrow leaf cottonwood, willow and undergrowth. The Virginia Creeper made scarlet notes on the trunks of trees showing gold and yellow. Another half-mile and we were in the flood plain of the river and a meadow of Chamisa, colloquially called rabbit bush. Chamisa is a sage-green bush with bright yellow flower heads which usually attract every species of butterfly in the county. Evidence of the severe drought and uneven weather, we did not see a single butterfly as we rode through.
We reached the boundary between the National Monument and the Gila Wilderness and took the trail to the right, starting up Big Bear Trail. Boy, do I mean UP. Joe stopped us briefly to tell us just how to “help” our horses climb 540 feet in less than ½ mile. “Stand in your stirrups. Lean forward. Grab the mane. The horse must run up the hill; she’ll never make it if she tries to walk. Keep her moving. Oh, by the way, there are steps she has to scramble up.” We stopped on two sort-of flat stretches between switchbacks and steps to let the horses catch their breath. Smoke was sweating and breathing heavy, sides heaving between my knees. At the top, we rested again until all horses were cooling and breathing normally.
We were now on top of the plateau in a dry-grass landscape. There was no water here. We had enough for ourselves, but none for the horses. It’s 5+ miles on Big Bear trail to the next trail juncture. At about 2+/- miles per hour, that’s a little over two hours. But I wasn’t in a hurry; I was too busy looking around. Plus we had a lunch stop to look forward to and a chance to go two-legged for a little while.
We stopped at Eagle Point. From this vantage point, we could see down into the Middle Fork of the Gila River. Views were stunning. Although I couldn’t see the River itself, I could follow the lushness of the Cottonwood trees until both river and tree fringe turned into the heart of the gorge.
We didn’t have a lot further to go before we stopped for the night. There were about two hours before sunset to unpack and unsaddle the horses, get the saddle pads and blankets on the line to dry, drag over firewood to get a dinner fire started, and choose our “sleeping quarters.” Joe and Corbin got the fire going and started dinner. The saddle pads served as our mattresses, with a saddle blanket as “pillow top.” Throw down a sleeping bag, put clothes into a little pile for a pillow, and go eat dinner. Joe traveled lean but he fed us well: beef stew with corn bread for dinner, plus fresh fruit. A little time by the fire, a cup of tea and into the sleeping bag under a half-moon.
Here are two pictures, taken a very short distance apart on a trail along the Gila River. Which belongs? Which does not?
Fair warning: I am going to rant a bit. Live up to that tag line I believe in: A Public Lands Advocate.
I have been hiking and camping our National Forests, National Parks and National Monuments for the last several years. In fact, that’s what motivated me to start sharing my stories and photographs. Mostly, my stories are about my personal experiences, my photographs share my awe and wonder. Occasionally I lapse into “trainer” mode. I try to avoid “preacher” mode. Today, I’m all of those: storyteller, trainer, preacher.
I am wedded to the Gila National Forest, including the Gila River because that is my door-step. I have found my solace and soul here during these last difficult months when we are socially distant from our friends and family, not traveling, zoom-stuck and zoom-weary. If you’ve read any of my stories this year, you have traveled these trails with me, my dog and a friend or two.
It seems we are not the only ones moving into the Forest and along the River. Folks are coming from neighboring states and from farther away. Sadly, many who are finding their way this way are not here for the quiet and solitude that a Wild and Scenic River or a Wilderness experience can offer. They come, rather, in clusters and groups and occasionally, hordes. And it’s not so much that folks are coming. These wildlands and waterways are, after all, open to all of us; we all own these public lands. It is what folks are leaving behind when they go. Here are the most recent pictures I’ve taken of the trash that they’ve left. Trash that includes human waste (I blurred one part of one picture that was explicit).
And here are some excerpts from recent news coverage in our local paper of what others who, like me, are passionate about our wildlands, have found—and removed.
She pointed specifically to trash littering the sides of forest roads, recreation areas, and stretches of the Gila River. [She] invited the Daily Press to visit the Mogollon Box Day-Use Area last Friday, where about 150 to 200 people were posted up in a variety of groups, both large and small — but nearly none below the state-mandated size of five or fewer.
…half of the 20 people we spoke to were from elsewhere. Ohio, California, Arizona and Texas were a few of the states folks visiting the Gila last Friday called home.
…10 pounds of trash that [she] picked up during a 30-minute walk… Toilet paper and unburied human feces were seemingly everywhere on the riverbank, just yards from two sets of bathrooms maintained by the Forest Service.
Besides the obvious problems of trash and waste ruining the aesthetics of the outdoors, and noise pollution disrupting the peace that at least some visitors are seeking, there’s the issue of wild creatures getting used to trash as a food source.
What happens when people leave garbage…is that skunks, bears and other critters habituate to it. Having those animals getting used to being around people — that’s cute to some degree, but only until there’s a bear jumping on someone’s car. Silver City DailyPress, 6/15/20
If you are escaping to the Gila National Forest. Or to any Forest. Or Park. Or Monument. Or Bureau of Land Management wildland, here are the guidelines for Leave No Trace.
7 Leave No Trace principles to minimize impact:
Plan ahead and prepare
Travel and camp on durable surfaces [Note—Respect USFS signs for no motorized vehicles, including ATV, UTV and dirt-bikes.]
Minimize campfire impacts [Note–open fires are currently forbidden in the Gila National Forest]
Leave what you find
Be respectful of other visitors
Dispose of waste properly
Please be a Public Lands Advocate. The animals depend on you. The rivers depend on you. The forests depend on you. I depend on you.
Summertime in southwestern NM in times of social distancing, closures and forest fires. Challenges about where to hike. Criteria include an amenable temperature, amenable air quality and amenable solitude.
Summer temps typically lead me higher into the Gila National Forest where trails can be 10 to 20° cooler at 7,000’+ than in town, at 6,000’. However, since lightning strikes on June 6, there is a 6,000 (and growing) acre wildfire 12 miles from town that has caused the closure of the main road into the forest from here. Tailheads are all inaccessible, and some favorite trails are engulfed as the Tadpole Fire smolders and flames along the ridge and runs up Rt 15 to Signal Peak and Meadow Creek forest roads. We worry for our firefighters – notice how easy it is to take possession of what we value – out there fighting a so-far uncontained wildfire in the time of a coronavirus pandemic.
credit USFS Gila National Forest
Smoke becomes a fact of daily life and a factor in where to hike. If I can’t head “up the hill” into the forest, I’ll head west to the Gila River for a walk IN the river, the river now being much reduced and more compatible to wading.
On Wednesday, my friend, Dog and I head to a campground on the Gila which provides easy access into the river for a cooling walk. We comment as we drive west that the smoke that had been so oppressive in town has lessened this morning. Then we begin to notice that the air is thickening the further away we get from the Tadpole Fire and the closer we get to our destination. At some point, the Mogollons disappear in the smoke and we begin to wonder where all this smoke is blowing in from. We arrive at the crest of the road down into the river-side campground only to see smoke blanketing the cottonwoods, the river itself now invisible. This is not what we anticipated nor where we want to exercise our lungs.
We decide to go back to the Gila Bird Area, the stretch of river we hiked along yesterday. We can dip our feet in the river there and wander along the shallows and wade the riffles. Back down the road, with Dog in the backseat getting a bit antsy. We turn down the track that leads to the giant sycamore that shelters the trailhead and river at Pancho Canyon. Round the last little bend to encounter a virtual tent city. Where the hell did all these people come from; they weren’t here yesterday! Six, maybe seven tents all crowded under the sycamore arms, facing each other as though creating a thoroughfare. Ice chests, camp chairs, other miscellany scattered around tents and a couple of children wandering along the “street.” While it’s not my thought to deny others the enjoyment of “my” (there’s that possessive again) Gila River, this is unexpected. Because so many official campgrounds are closed and because NM is surrounded by states that have taken no health precautions against Covid-19 and thus have soaring rates of infections, we are seeing campers in tents and rv’s and vans with out-of-state license plates pitched up in dispersed camping areas in the forest. No problem. Except when folks congregate where there is no bathroom, no water and no trash containment. Where are they going to poop? Behind a tree, in the weeds, among the rocks – and then leave it and the paper they used. Ugh and disgusting. One would think…but then most people don’t.
Needless to say, we leave only the dust of our quick departure, head back out to Rt 180 and now try to figure out just where the heck to go.
The Iron Bridge! We joke that we can see my truck tracks coming and going as we once again backtrack west. Fortunately the Iron Bridge is just down the road a couple of miles and we find the parking area deserted!
The Iron Bridge is on the old Rt 180, now in disuse except for swallows and hikers. It’s a beautiful old structure. The Gila runs under the bridge, along private ranch land and through property now owned by The Nature Conservancy. No official trails, but paths that are trod enough to keep the weeds down. It is getting warm, though and we are pretty exposed. We encounter a young man coming toward us as we stand uncertain, trying to discern where through the weeds we are meant to go. We head down the parting in the weeds that he just left.
We reach a cluster of trees and find a small citizens science project underway. A teacher and kids from Aldo Leopold High School have set up a bird-banding station. They have caught birds in mist nets and “bagged” the birds, one each in little bags hung from the branches of the tree. When we arrive, they are just in the process of banding four sibling Yellow Warblers, recently fledged. We stop and watch, and get a brief lesson in tagging each of these little guys with US Fish & Wildlife numbered tags. These small birds don’t ruffle very much as they are held, weighed, banded and finally, taken back into the cluster of trees where they were netted to be released.
Encountering this group of young scientists-to-be and environmentalists-in-fact is a treat and a pleasure. A reassurance that our world hasn’t entirely gone up in smoke, pestilence and overcrowding.
First, let me locate us on the map. We are in the Black Range of the Gila National Forest, just shy of Emory Pass. Here is the full hike loop from NMWild’s new Hiking Guide. While the trail loop is a total of 10+ miles, we didn’t go the distance. We hiked up past the juncture shown on the map of Gallinas and Railroad Canyons, taking the Railroad Canyon trail to the right, to a not-shown juncture with East Railroad Canyon trail. That’s about 2 ½ miles from the campground/trailhead or about 5 miles round trip.
Every summer, when my favorite trails get too warm – or rather, when the summer temperatures are too warm for my favorite trails at lower elevations and exposure, I “head for the hills.” On this day, a friend, Dog and I were grateful to leave an already 70°-something morning at 7:30 am to arrive at the trailhead at something closer to 60° about an hour later.
One half of the canyon follows Gallinas creek (Guy-ē-nas). The creek was running full, though not as full as it would have been earlier in the Spring with snow melt and will be again with monsoons. The trail crossed the creek any number of times but given the lower level of the water, the stepping stones were raised and dry.
We were canopied by Ponderosa pine and mixed hardwoods, mostly oak. Along the creek, willow and coyote willow hosted Robins, Hermit Thrushes and smaller, shyer birds. Monkeyflower and lupine bloomed in the moisture among the rocks and in the duff under the pines. Bird song followed us though the canopy hid the singers. We were fortunate enough to see Red-faced Warblers and Painted Redstarts darting among the Ponderosa boughs.
One half of the canyon is Empire-sized stone shoulders and wind-and-rain-carved hoodoos. In the lower part of the canyon, we only glimpsed the heights through openings in the dominant green. As the trail and creek climbed the canyon, though, where the oak thinned and Ponderosa mixed with fir trees, we had views of the massive rock sides. We passed large boulders balanced on each other. Our trail zigged, switchbacking up rocky slopes and zagged back down to the creek and a respite of tree cover. Here, we found wild rose, delicately scenting the air. On the sunnier side of the trail, there was cactus blooming and other wildflowers providing color. Banana yucca held up cream-colored stalks on far rock slopes.
One half of the canyon burned in a major wildfire that tore through the Black Range a few years go. The higher we climbed up the canyon, the more the burn scars became apparent. We walked through patches of standing forest into patches of stark burned trunks. There were places where we could see the fire behavior had rolled through the underbrush leaving trunks of healthy Ponderosa blackened up 10 or 12 feet. This is as it should be in a “good” wildfire. Another hundred feet and we’d step into a clearing created by a hot spot that crowned and destroyed the pine and fir. A natural post-fire rehabber, the New Mexico locust covered the hillsides, just now fully in bloom.
And one half of the canyon is deeply shaded glades surrounding pools and riffles of the creek. On the way back down the canyon, as the rising heat of the day hurried us below the rocks and scars back to tree cover, we stopped for lunch to sit on rocks, dangling our feet over the water as it burbled below us. Dog stood chest deep, slurping and dribbling cool water, then climbing on my rock to lean on me and request a share of my apple and then another and another.
I got to Pancho Canyon thrice in a week, twice w Dog and once without her; all three times with one or two friends. Twice I spent my time looking mostly down and once, mostly up.
Pancho Canyon is on the Gila River at one end of the Gila Important Bird Area (IBA). How it got the name Pancho I haven’t a clue. Nevertheless, Pancho Canyon it is, for birding, tracking, and fishing if you’re looking to catch something wilder than you’ll hook in nearby Bill Evans stocked lake.
The river is lined with ancient cottonwoods and Arizona Sycamore. The sycamore are living sculptures of white-barked branches that arc and arch, intertwine and soar. They must be seen without leaves in order to truly appreciate their magnificent structure.
The cottonwoods earn their name this time of year, filling the air with threads and clumps of white fluff. Cottonwood snow covers everything: rock walls, trails and parking area, and any tree or bush within their snow-shed.
This couple of months are a birder’s heaven along the river. Standing on the river bank, I watched Cedar Waxwings hawking insects over the river. They dashed out from the overhanging branches, darting in C shapes from branch end, out and back to branch end. Four or five of these beautiful birds congregated in one tree-top, hawking in concert. That same flock was in the same territory – the same treetops – every day that I visited.
Red, yellow, rust, black, gray flashed through the understory and canopy. Birds moved so quickly that it was tough to find them still long enough to identify them. Colors helped. That robin-sized red bird was a Summer Tanager. The littler red bird with a quip of black was Vermillion Flycatcher. Waitwait, yellow and red shining in the sunlight across the river – that had to be a Western Tanager. Willow Flycatchers were not eye candy, but their “fitz-pew” was clear from the mid-story. Willow Flycatchers are one of two species that may help us protect the Gila River from diversion – they and Yellow-Billed Cuckoos are locally familiar but officially endangered. Way up at the top of a cottonwood was a shy Yellow Warbler, recognized by the rust streaks down its breast. Violet-green swallows swarmed around a sycamore where we parked, landing at the ends of trunks where branches had broken off, leaving hollow spaces now filled with nestlings anxious to be fed. These were about one-quarter of the birds active along the river and trail alongside. The rest were songs and chips in the trees above us, hidden in the new green leaves.
Overhead, soaring, one of three Common Blackhawks we saw. These large black hawks with a white stripe across their tails are common now, though at one time, I think they may have been less frequent residents. There are numerous pairs nesting along the river, here and further down-stream.
And all this on just one morning.
The other two mornings, we focused on the ground, doing some “dirt work” for our tracking class. The river was recently above its banks and upon receding, left layers of silt and mud, just perfect substrate for tracking. Especially little critters. And critters there were. Most were going incognito, as far as our identification skills stand at this point in time. However, we did get to see tracks being laid down even as we watched. Now, the pictures in our online course make a lot more sense.
caterpillar leaving tracks in sand
beetle at the top of the pic leaving tracks in the silt
A brief story of Dog: She loves to wade into river and streams. Belly deep is just right for lapping up water, snuffling under the surface or watching that leaf or this water-skeeter. Somehow, she must have missed her swimming lessons as a pup. At the edge of the river, she was tentatively edging her way along the visible bottom toward the point where the bottom dropped away into the river’s flow. Uncertain, she stretched out her right front leg, paw extended and spread, above water but obviously an attempt to anticipate bottom. Imagine that you are reaching your arm to its full length and spreading your fingers reaching for something unseen. It did not help Dog for me to remind her that she is one-half Labrador Retriever and that webbing between her toes is meant for swimming. Nope. She wasn’t going under. Not getting her head wet. Not today. Backing up, she glanced up at me and scrambled up out of the water to give a solid not-me-not-today shake off water.
My friend, Dog and I go up to Cherry Creek trail early this morning while it is still cool. This Gila National Forest trail is one of my favorites, especially in warm weather because it drops down from the road, following a creek through a canyon. It may be 75° at 6,000 feet (where my house is) at 8 am; there in the canyon it is 55° and green.
Today, we take binoculars because there are several species of spring arrivals that we hope to see; that is, if Dog will be patient enough to let me put binocs to eyes and focus on the branches overhead.
The meadow, woods and riparian stretches are great attractors for warblers, wrens, vireos, and more. The challenge, of course, is that the trees are leafing out, giving those little guys lots of opportunities to flit from behind one leaf to behind the next, with a duck behind a tree trunk along the way. This is social distancing at its most frustrating.
One constant on this trail, at least at this time of year, is the sound of running water. There are numerous crossings of Cherry Creek to be made, hopping from rock to rock and hoping that Dog, always leashed, doesn’t get too exuberant and pull me into the water.
Friend and I make poor time as hikes go, but great time for birding. Neither of us are particularly good at identifying by song and not a whole lot better identifying what we see. Still, there are a few spring celebrants who are impossible to mistake, assuming we can find them high above.
Those lovelies that we see and recognize today include Red Faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, House Wrens, Robins, Juncos, Stellar Jay, Vireo, Acorn Woodpecker, Swifts and an unidentified hawk. If those warblers weren’t so good at staying socially distant, despite my noisy efforts to pish them down, we might see more.
Butterflies are also warming to spring. A variety of whites, blues, sulphurs and brightly-marked butterflies flutter from flower to leaf to blooming grasses. Those I recognize are Sara Orangetip, Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur and Swallowtails. I think I notice a Mourning Cloak – or is that an Arizona Sister? Such engaging names we give these creatures.
Hard to take pictures of those fast-moving, darting beings. I am reduced to beings that don’t move much except as the breeze stirs them. A wild clematis in bloom – I’ve never seen one before. Various yellow wildflowers, aka dyc or damn yellow composite–they are the equivalent of an LBJ to a birder—fill the sunny spots. And there’s my hugging tree—a gnarled old grandmother cottonwood. Since we can’t hug our two-legged friends these days, a hug of that old cottonwood gives back a grounded energy.
Depending upon your frame of reference, the damper to the day or the interesting and unexpected find is a mule deer that had been taken by a predator, partially eaten and left right on the side of the campground entrance where we are parked and only 20 feet or so off the main road. Since I’m used to finding evidence of our four-legged neighbors that is far less graphic, I can’t resist taking some pictures and posting them to my tracking group to see if anyone has a clue whether this deer was taken by a mountain lion or coyotes. My guess is mountain lion. As I said, it all depends on your frame of reference.
I’ll be leading a hike along Cherry Creek for our lifelong learning organization in July. By then, the birds will be quieter, having found mates and being busy raising peeps. By then, the water will probably be found only in residual pools. By then, a whole new succession of dyc’s will be in bloom. But it will still be cool. And green. And old grandmother cottonwood will still be giving and receiving hugs in a time of human social distancing.
This morning dawned New Mexico blue, offering an invitation to take Dog and go up to a favorite section of the CD Trail, a short 15 minute drive from home. My hike on this portion of trail is usually about 3 miles round trip and takes Dog and I roughly two hours. We frequently have this section of trail to ourselves.
As I pulled into the parking at the trailhead, a good friend pulled in behind me. Meeting was totally random but welcome. Up until this morning, we have seen each other through computer cameras and zoom. Dog was thrilled; this is one of her most favorite persons who usually has a bit of doggy bacon in his pocket. We visited for a few minutes at the distance of Dog’s 18 foot leash, then he went down-trail and I went up.
We didn’t get too far before meeting up with another hiker and her dog, Jack. Jack and Dog know each other from the town’s dog park, so they shared a brief greeting and a sit-down while she and I caught up a bit. Good to see folks I know, doing the same things I love in the places that make us smile and feel grounded.
Pine cone and lichen
Signs that this section of trail is loved and valued: someone left a painted rock on a tree trunk next to the trail. Another someone carefully positioned a pine cone and a pebble on a lichen-covered rock. A little cactus, unusual to be found at this elevation and in this habitat, has been rocked off to protect it from mountain bikes. These touches mean a lot in a time when human connection is more difficult to sustain.
Flowers are beginning to pop up. And the oaks are turning golden, ready to drop their leaves in favor of new buds. As an aside, when I first moved here and saw all the oaks turning yellow in April, I thought they were dying of some dread disease. Coming from the East Coast where all the trees turn and drop leaves in the fall, I had no idea that here, this is the natural order of things. Oaks drop their leaves in the spring so that the monsoons, when they come, can water the trees into full new leaf.
Caterpillar on flower
Another welcome sign on the trail: the rancher who had a lease to graze this section of forest must have moved the cows somewhere else. For a full year, I found no tracks, no scat, no sign of the wild animals that inhabit the forest. Only cow tracks breaking up the trail, crossing and tearing down the hillside, denuding the earth of its grasses. And piles of cow dung. Now that the cows have been removed, sign is coming back. The gray fox has been marking the rocks in the trail. Hawks or owls are sitting on overhanging branches, munching their lunch and leaving white stains of uric acid on the ground underneath them. And this morning, I heard a warbler calling in the trees nearby. I could see it flitting through the branches, but not well enough without my binoculars to identify the little guy. I pished at him for a couple of minutes but only succeeded in getting curious stares from Dog, while the warbler darted on off among the treetops.
By the time I got back to my truck, the day was growing hotter. The Ponderosa pines were scenting vanilla and cinnamon on the breeze and the earth, in the sunny spots, was smelling flannel-warm.
During this time of social distancing, our Gila National Forest, like other parks, forests and wildlands, is getting heavily used. Sadly, not everyone escaping to the forests or parks is treating their wildland of choice with respect, care and protection. Trash and worse are left along the trails and piled around the locked bathrooms and trashcans, creating health and safety risks for humans who have to clean it up as well as danger to animals. Graffiti mars petroglyphs. ATVs cut tracks where only deer should be leaving theirs. So a plea from one who finds sanity and peace on our public lands: be careful-be responsible-be safe and keep it clean. Remember — Do No Harm.