You’ve read that right – thru WINSTON. Anyone who’s perused the Grand Enchantment Trail website, and maybe this lonely corner of New Mexico, knows the town of Winston is the Bermuda Triangle of the route. What goes in, maybe doesn’t come back out! It’s nearly the truth, as I’ll explain.
First a disclaimer. I left Clifton on March 29, and have been off the route since April 12. So as updates go, this one is more of a history lesson. We’re moving toward post-season along the route now, and it’s doubtful anyone is out there anyway, but if anyone is or has plans to go, take the following with a pinch of salt, especially with regard to water.
At last report I’d been holed up in Clifton with gear issues, and gazing with some concern upon a boisterous San Francisco River through town. I’d attempted the practice ford as shown on the GET map set, and didn’t like how it went – either shallow with cobbles and quick, or waist/chest deep and still not slow, and usually some of each between banks. As I expected, the sand bar mentioned in the guidebook, visible from the bridge along FR 212, was submerged. This is a good indicator of fording prospects; when the sand bar is exposed, all should be well, otherwise attempt the practice ford before heading eastbound along the route.
Leaving town the next day (3/30) the river seemed just a bit lower, but I wouldn’t know anything for sure until reaching Segment 16. Meanwhile I followed the main GET route up Limestone Gulch to the Hickey Spring Trail, which I reblazed with a more durable flagging tape. This should last a couple seasons at least, and along with my recent brushing work along this heretofore neglected trail I expect the hiking throngs will be pouring in any day now. Meanwhile Segment 15 remains one of my favorites along the route, big on solitude and high desert grassland scenery.
This segment now begins where the “pack trail” shown on the map meets the San Francisco. I reached the river here on the afternoon of 3/31, and decided to bushwhack around the first two fords, arguably among the most difficult. As I was making up my mind, two guys floated by on double-hulled kayaks. “The Blue was kind of scary,” one of them shouted back, meaning shallow for the boats, but scarier for me was that they had made it at all. My first ford, the third of 14 in series, seemed more difficult than it had in the record-wet spring of ’05. So did the next ford. But farther on, the deeper fords that I remembered were above my waist that year seemed to be lower now, and not as fast. I camped half-way along, and by next morning (4/1) the remaining fords seemed easier still. I became convinced that the river was dropping by the hour, and at some point had dropped below the levels of two years ago. Checking the USGS streamflow stats now, this does indeed appear to have been the case.
San Francisco River this spring: http://tinyurl.com/345bx5
Spring of ’05: http://tinyurl.com/2lkte6
So the threshhold for manageable fording appears to be around 350 cfs. More volume than this, and it’ll be at or above the waist at the cut-bank of almost every ford. Less than 300 cfs, and only the legs get wet, current shouldn’t demand too much strength or concentration. Below 200 cfs, it’s a creek slosh. (Below 100 cfs, the ATV’s show up!)
The Blue River was fairly easy by comparison – knee deep or less – and the trackless walking not as rough this year due to scouring of the banks during last summer’s floods. I found some nice obsidian pieces scattered at creekside, and farther along, I sighted my first ever band of coatimundi! About a dozen of them in and among a grove of sycamores scattered upon my approach, huge brown tails raised in their distinctive arc. One curious fellow approached me for a better look, as vaguely witnessed here. I was surprised to encounter coatis this far east in Arizona, though I later discovered that their range extends into SW New Mexico as well.
The Wild Bunch Trail over the Blue Range was in decent shape, with water available in all the usual spots. I reflagged a bit along the higher ridges, where a spotty old burn continues to fell the odd ponderosa. “Weed-thorns” (the woody, higher elevation variety) need removal where the Horse Canyon Trail runs along the exposed east flanks of Maple Peak, but it’s not a job I intend to tackle solo with loppers! Cattle should probably be kept out of the burn area toward Charlie Moore Mountain, where the impact of hooves is taking a toll, though I tend to doubt the distant Apache NF district offices lose much sleep over the border region here.
I ran into a real-life backcountry cowboy, with his teenage son, both on horseback looking for wayward cattle up among the pines. The two were based out of Alma NM, and I received an earfull about everything from the Forest Service to environmentalists, wolves, mountain lions, and whatever else that might seem to stand between a rancher and his big fat bottom line. I was left with the however-accurate impression that ranchers and cattle are persona non grata in much of the Gila NF these days, thus the need for his backwoods travailles across the border into AZ. Mexican gray wolves, he asserted, now number “in the hundreds,” despite official figures claiming only a few dozen.
After an amazing night hike, walking into a rising full moon framing the Mogollon Mountains, I found good water in Vigil Canyon and made a late camp. Reliability unknown, but this is the only natural surface water in the segment, save for the San Francisco River when flowing. To find it, eastbound follow the roadwalk route across the dry drainage, then as it parallels it on the south. The drainage heads away from the road, then returns, now in a shallow gorge. Find a way the 25ft down into the gorge and look for pools in the bedrock bottom, among sycamores.
In the morning I heard a roadrunner. *Heard* is the operative word here. A deep, staccato, “whoop,” if I recall correctly. These birds are generally silent. I had absolutely no idea what animal was making the sound until I emerged from my tent to find him glaring at the object of his interest from a rock a few yards away. Then the two of them were off.
A typically diminished river here, the San Francisco was flowing ankle-deep where it crosses the county road just west of Alma. I made it into town in time for a late breakfast at the efficiently-named Alma Grill. This was my first time in, and I suspect it won’t be my last. I informed the waitress that she was serving up the best food in Alma, to which she laughed, before I assured her that I meant Glenwood too! Too bad neither the Alma Store nor Glenwood Trading Post have enough trail food to make trail life so comfy, or Glenwood and its P.O. might be entirely skippable. Unparticular hikers (like me this time) might be able to get by.
The cultural disparity between Clifton and Alma/Glenwood is remarkable. The former, though itself a small remote town, nonetheless feels linked to the modern world – even Phoenix – by the industrial mining trade at Morenci. One can see it on faces in town, hear it in the conversations, and in the music blaring from car radios during the orderly procession of traffic at “quittin’ time.” Alma, by contrast, is pure southwest New Mexico cowboy country, the anglo conservative base to Clifton’s more liberal multi-cultural leanings. Quite unintentionally, the two towns have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and the folks don’t comingle. Most have likely never been to the other; the towns are separated by many miles of forking 2-lane highways and no good reason to go. Only the backcountry traveler bridges this gap in time and space, and in 3 days along the GET moves between worlds apart, a lone vessel for this awareness.
The Mogollons Mountains still appeared to hold a lot of snow up high, so I opted to detour widely around them, first via the Mineral Creek Trail. I’d been wanting to explore this route as an alternative to the snow-detour advice detailed on the GET maps, namely entering the Gila Wilderness at the Catwalk, then bailing out of Whitewater Creek at Redstone Park and up to the Bursum Road. The Mineral Creek Trail by contrast would offer a more direct approach to the Bursum Road and the continuation of the detour around the Mogollons. And it might be nice and scenic in its own right.
It is. It’s also a lot of work following the trail, at least along the first few miles of Mineral Creek where last summer’s floods scoured the drainage from wall to wall. It’s a narrow canyon through here, not unlike the Catwalk but without the crowds or elevated pedestrian walkway. It’s easy to lose the trail where it’s washed out along the banks, and searching through the brush is work here. Finally conditions improved a bit, though the trail seemed endless, fording back and forth with few good bearings or signs to indicate progress. Scattered throughout were numerous old mining operations and encampments – curious piles of stone, heaps of timbers, and occasional iron works wherever the creek banks accommodated. One huge iron relic had been constructed in Indianapolis, of all places. Mineral Creek Canyon is surely a wilder place now, and is certainly more difficult to travel than Whitewater Creek. I’d recommend it to those who’ve already seen the latter, and who have reason to avoid the Mogollons and make time.
I continued up South Fork Mineral Creek Trail to the Bursum Road, where water was available in snowmelt pools at roadside, the snow largely clear from the roadway and forest here at 8800′. Farther down the road I entered the perimeter of last summer’s Bear Fire, which burned with varying degrees of intensity over a large area just north of the Gila Wilderness. I also believe I heard a wolf in this stretch, a brief howl from somewhere a good distance away to the north, deeper and more liquid than a coyote’s, without the barking introduction. The possibility seemed more tangible when I came across a set of large canine tracks the next day. These were along the Middle Fork of the Gila River, which I opted to follow instead of the GET’s preferred West Fork, mostly out of curiosity. I’d also bypassed the Middle Fork during my CDT hike in 2003, and was eager to experience it and compare the two. Both canyons have outstanding beauty, the Middle Fork seeming to spend extended miles in a scenic but milder, more expansive topography, while the West Fork is more hemmed in, featuring more tall spires and stuff to gawk at but it’s limited to fewer trail miles.
I found no other human footprints along the Middle Fork so early this spring, so the canine tracks surely were not those of man’s best friend.
The Gila’s Middle and West Forks were each flowing at 70 cfs or less, fordable without issue, although the beds of each creek can be slippery where solid rock. I linked the two creeks using the CDTS route, the trails of which are very popular with equestrians in this stretch and getting wider and rockier each year.
Day before Easter at Doc Campbell’s Post, and I arrived to live entertainment, compliments of a local guitarist and artist who was serenading passersby, his wares on display out front. Hearing original folk songs about the Gila River after hiking it is neat! Otherwise, Doc’s was its familiar self – not much to eat but the ice cream was good. A dozen or more yellow bottles of HEET were on display by the front window. Paul the owner stepped outside briefly, explaining to an incredulous motorist how to inflate his car tire by mouth, because the air pump (functional, on premises) “will run for half an hour.” It was a good time.
Easter morning while breaking camp near Little Creek just outside Gila Hot Springs I thought it odd to hear a white-winged dove calling. According to the Gila National Forest “bird handout” I found at the Cliff Dwelling’s Visitors Center, white-winged doves – the familiar “who-cooks-for-you” doves of metro Tucson and Phoenix – are considered uncommon in this area.
The GET heads up the Middle Fork for a few miles, then over North Mesa to the East Fork. This was the easiest of all, just a single ford, a quick splash across its gentle flow, as usually it seems to be. The Black Range from which it drains just doesn’t receive snowpack like the taller Mogollon Mountains. Diamond Creek also presented easy fords, and the social trail along it was better defined than a year and a half ago, likely due to increased equestrian use by “Links Ranch” as shown on maps.
I added to existing flagging, showing the way over to Tom Moore Canyon via the GET’s little-used trails in this remote part of the Gila. A herd of a dozen elk were grazing in Tom Moore, unaware of my presence some 200 yards away. Although I remained motionless in the gathering dusk, I was standing upwind of them. A head went up, signaling unease. It went back down and grazing continued. Up again, then another. Without actually spotting me the group instinctively bounded away from my scent, then bunched together partway up the hillside, watching with seeming relief as my movements betrayed me as human. This was springtime, after all, not hunting season. They moved on at length, more casually this time. I was not a wolf, or a mountain lion.
Tom Moore Canyon had water, starting just above the box, then again as a flowing creeklet a few miles farther up-canyon. Incongruously, I found a small notepad in the road along FR 150, full of names and phone numbers and written in Spanish. It appeared to have been lying there for some time. This would be my one vestige of humanity between Gila Hot Springs and Winston; no people, no vehicles the entire way. (More on GET prospects for solitude in a follow-up note.)
Into the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, just beyond the Me Own Helitack Site, then around Me Own Hill following Me Own Trail, but accidentally dropping down to Me Own Tank, which was full. Some of the signs around here list “Meown,” as if to be extra clever.
South Diamond Creek presented chilly but generally ankle-deep crossings. I was reminded again of the widespread effects of last summer’s floods, noting places where the creekbanks had eroded into the trail, leaving steep little dropoffs to maneuver around. Approaching the Black Range I entered the burn zone in Burnt Canyon, which historically hasn’t always been burnt. The latest burn is fairly recent, but the trail here has seen a crew and is in fine shape approaching the Divide.
Thus ends the GET’s own unique route through Gila country, here joining the CDT official route north along the crest of the Black Range. This whole stretch through the Gila is arguably the highlight of the GET experience, mile after mile of nearly seamless travel along established trails, with plenty of water, wildlife and shade, but few road crossings and even fewer people.
Diamond Peak (9800′) held no snow to speak of, though it offered views south to taller Reeds Peak which did. Diamond Peak Spring was meager but usable, and could certainly stand to be improved before the trail that slabs across it finally causes its demise.
I found water south of Fishermans Bluff, where the trail crosses a small wooden bridge over a minor drainage (near the T in ‘Continental’ on USGS maps). This creeklet seems to flow in springtime during and following the snowpack melt. North of Fishermans Bluff I added fresh flagging in the burn, which has now felled most trees over a trail distance of half a mile, not presenting a blowdown hassle so much as a routefinding issue. The standing trees seem well-anchored and the flagging will hopefully keep for a couple of seasons or until crews can perform rehab.
Chloride Creek and the drainage feeding it from the south both held plenty of water; in three hikes, both spring and fall, I’ve never seen these dry.
I left the CDT / GET before the end of GET Segment 24, at the crossing of FR 226. As usual, I wanted to keep going but had run out of time. Down to Winston, I decided. I hadn’t yet been there, despite its being a genuine GET Trail Town, listed in the Town Guide along with all sorts of unverified hearsay about it. From Winston I’d try hitching out to Truth or Consequences, where I could catch a bus.
Less than a mile east of the Divide on FR 226 I came to Monument Park Cabin, operated by the Forest Service, locked but available for rent, apparently. The covered front porch was accessible, and the setting was beautiful. Even a regulation FS toilet sat across the road.
Farther down the road, a strange thing happened around sunset. An elk emerged from the brush and walked across the road, back into the brush. Not so strange. But then as I continued on a few feet a group of 4 or 5 cattle spooked from the same area. Not as casual, the cows bolted down the road away from me. Looking off the road, down where the cows had been, I saw a large bull elk standing idly by, gazing at me indolently. Obviously the cows and elk had been feeding, or possibly watering, in a group of sorts, each accepting the other’s presence. And possibly benefiting from it, I imagined, in terms of scouting for danger. Maybe the elk knew the cows would play the canary in the coalmine, singing at everything – my presence in this case. In any event, the bull elk finally turned and trotted off, probably more annoyed than concerned.
I camped back at Chloride Creek, then the next morning followed the 4WD road without traffic for the remaining long miles out to civilization. (12 miles total, 3000’+ elevation loss) This is no resupply route for GET or CDT hikers, for sure. The town of Chloride would be a ghost town, I knew, but no! People here, habitable structures. Even a functional storefront, aimed at the occasional auto tourist heading here on the so-called “Geronimo Trail.” I spoke with the proprietor, a lifelong resident, who told me about cabins for rent in town, and also more about Chloride Creek, which she said ceased flowing year-round in 1978. Now it runs only sporadically, as the snow melts in spring and whenever it rains enough. I liked Chloride, virtually serviceless though it was. The nearby Cuchillo Hills looked inviting, a remote island of a range only tall enough to support a sea of lion-colored grasses and the occasional juniper.
Winston, by contrast, appeared to be in a slump. Many of the yards I passed were stockpiled with unknowable junk. I found the Winston Saloon, right in the midst of this setting, then across the street noted the now-defunct Winston Bed & Breakfast. Main Street appeared vacant except for a gas company worker running about reading meters. He pointed me up the road to the Winston General Store, the meat and potatoes of town life. Here I found mostly snack foods, along with fresh-made microwaveable sandwiches and burritos. Better still was the Winston General Store Official Merchandise: I scored a namesake camo ball cap, which I assured the bemused clerk would improve my chances of catching a ride out of town.
It didn’t. But then I didn’t care to walk, knowing it was 40 paved miles to T or C, with little public land or water en route. T or C now has a taxi company, but the driver won’t run beyond city limits. Out with the thumb. How hard can it be to get a lift? Actually I’d had a fitful night’s sleep, worrying about this hitch. I’d even formulated a plan to buy a used bicycle in Winston, if available. None were. “Some days the road gets traffic, other days not much,” the clerk advised me. “How has today been?” I’d asked. “Kind of slow,” she’d replied.
NM Highway 52 runs through Winston, a straight shot from T or C. Almost all traffic heading east goes to T or C. So it’s not a problem once the vehicle pulls over, it’s finding one to hail. I stood around for about an hour, during which time a total of 3 cars passed, all heading the other way. Little did I know how remote the DIVIDE was, I now thought!
Finally a large van pulled over, miners carpooling home from the nearby St. Cloud mine. Thanks, miners. I learned a bit about the operation, though never did figure out what they were mining. It wasn’t copper. And in any case, I felt overwhelmed just being in a moving vehicle, speeding down the rollercoaster highway at a commuter’s pace, my first car trip since my shuttle had dropped me at the foot of the Superstitions, some 40 days prior.
It was a fun, rewarding, and as always, a challenging trip. I hope to return to the GET this fall, heading westbound from Albuquerque. I’ll probably bypass Winston, though.