GET sequel: Santa Teresa Wilderness

So what’s new in GET land?

After my hike from ABQ to Safford this fall I came back out with a rental car for some Targeted Recon. The Santa Teresa Wilderness passage (or lack thereof, as it were) has been nagging me since Day One. And my yearly-or-so attempts to make it work have always been complicated by the thru-hike nature of the journey: With a finite supply of food and a distant resupply point ahead, one can thrash around in one place only for so long. But now, with a vehicle back at the trailhead and a few days to kill, maybe I could actually make some headway.

The drive to Klondyke was long and dusty, but surprisingly easygoing, as Klondyke Road is well maintained. Just about anyone with four wheels and a little perseverance can reach Fourmile Campground, and the proof was waiting for me when I arrived after dark. In fact the campground was completely full, crammed with RV’s and diesel-engine pickups what with deer hunting season underway. Otherwise, the campground would typically be a ghost town. I parked well away from the hordes and made a squatter’s camp for the night.

Next morning, sometime between the early-bird hunters and all-day stragglers I managed to break free of camp, and made my way on foot up Klondyke Road toward the mountains. My goal was to follow the “main GET route” into the Santa Teresa Wilderness, down spectacular Holdout Canyon toward Black Rock, then try to find a way south over the range back to Klondyke Road. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would bomb out to that road, but anything workable that would link up with the next segment eastbound would surely leave me ecstatic.

Fifty feet south of where FR 94 leaves Klondyke Road an unmarked dirt 2-track heads east. I took it, ignoring a Private Property sign – the road passes through a small parcel deeded in-absentia to the mayor of Safford, who, I had it on good authority, allows public access. The 2-track eventually becomes a more established 4WD road and in a few miles reaches the Coronado National Forest boundary. Just beyond, Reef Tank Trail 68 leaves the road en route to, you guessed it, Reef Tank. I’d discovered this trail only last spring and had flagged it where helpful, but for the most part the trail is good, albeit little-used and brushy. I now added a bit more flagging and made a note to pack loppers on my next trip. In any case, Trail 68 certainly beats the original route (circa ’05-’06) to Reef Tank, via FR 94 with its steep and crumbly grades. I even found a few pools of water in Laurel Canyon.

To my surprise Reef Tank was completely dry. Apparently this mid-elevation stock pond – now more a wildlife pond – is recharged mostly during the winter months. Just beyond, unsigned Trail 69 turns east and makes its way up a low ridge, then undulates unassumingly toward a meeting with Holdout Canyon. Here again, last spring’s flagging led the way, which I bolstered here and there anew. As usual, the sight of Holdout staggered and delighted, what with its incredible array of strange rock formations – domes, fins, hoodoos, and the like. Anyone who’s driven Interstate 10 over Texas Canyon Summit west of Willcox AZ has an idea of what’s in store here, only Holdout Canyon is on a much more impressive scale (and lacks a highway rest area).

Inspired, I paused to capture some grainy point-and-shoot video, seen here:

I needed water, and had my doubts that Holdout Creek would be flowing so late in the season, especially with it being so dry and warm lately. Surprises, again. I was able to fill my bottles freely wherever the trail dabbled with the drainage, although the creek was clearly diminishing by the day. The trail in Holdout Canyon is as fun as the surrounding terrain, weaving unpredictably around rocky protrusions and over swales of bedrock in the company of a scattered pinyon forest. It’s one of those hikes where the trail is boss; it knows the way through the maze, and without it, you don’t. A quick hike it isn’t – in fact I’d managed to locate, cairn, and flag the entire trail only last spring – but then rushing through this scenery seems unnatural anyway. Nothing like following one’s own breadcrumbs, though, my pre-set cairns and flagging now keeping my mind elsewhere than on routefinding this time. Again, I made a mental note to pack loppers next spring.

Next morning I reached Black Rock Canyon and followed it east. Maps indicate a Trail 292 following the drainage here, but in fact it’s a cross-country hike and always has been. Still, knowing that I was “on trail” – with official sanction – somehow made the walking more compelling, which seems odd really. In any case I found bear tracks in the wash, in fact I followed them all the way out to Black Rock, along with those of someone traveling out-and-back on foot. I also found water here and there. Actually my sense now is that hikers are likely to find water around here most of the time, barring prolonged drought perhaps.

Black Rock is actually a series of rocks, not black but imposing – a sheer volcanic plug standing alone at the edge of the range. I walked beneath the impressive scene via a private inholding. The ranch owners were reachable beforehand by phone, and had explained their policy of allowing access to the surrounding public land, “but stay in the wash, not on the road.” I continued down Black Rock wash in search of Trail 66, a trail I’d tried and failed to locate during my first hike in ’05. Strangely, I found it this time, and without much effort. Passing through a gate along the south bank just before Black Rock Canyon boxes up, I followed trail alongside Preacher Canyon, heartened to see horse plop and signs of water works serving the ranch.

Murphy’s Law of Neglected Trails soon cast its implacable shadow across the afternoon. “Whatever trail can be lost, will be lost, and not long after finding it.” I managed to follow the pack trail as far as Preacher Spring, before realizing a couple of things. For one, the trail ended there. And two, according to my map, Trail 66 doesn’t go to Preacher Spring. The spring was wet, at least, so I filled up then backtracked down the drainage. I was baffled, not just by the circumstances, but by how anyone else could have made it on to Kane Spring, farther along the actual Trail 66. From prior research I’d learned that another, neighboring rancher was on a hunting trip by horseback up to Kane Spring. I’d assumed the horse manure I’d been seeing was his, but how did he manage to proceed from “here” to “there”? The steep chaparral-cloaked hillsides offered no obvious clues – no clear evidence of a trail climbing away.

I returned to Preacher Canyon and poked around in vain for a diverging trail, then captured my frustration on tape:

If I’ve learned anything on my pioneering outings it’s the requirement to possess an unflinching, even inanely stubborn resolve in the pursuit of unattainable perfection. Can’t give up so easily, must try something else, keep pressing ahead. I made my way cross-country along a line which the trail *should* follow, hoping to intercept it farther along. From the canyon bottom I headed east, up an open slope toward the National Forest boundary. Where there’s a boundary line, there’s usually a fence, and there might be a gate where the trail meets that fence. Reaching the crest of a broad ridge I gained a vantage east down Beauchamp Canyon and toward Jackson Mountain, terrain I’d considered negotiating cross-country as part of a “North Santa Teresa Alternate” but now roundly dismissed as ludicrous given the rough topography before me. Gotta find that trail…

Lo and behold, there, not far ahead, was the fenceline I’d expected. And just beyond it, a paralleling trail, well used by horsepackers it appeared. Eureka! (These tiny moments of discovery, I must say, are now more exciting to me than having finally reached Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail a few years ago.) I hopped the fence and joined the trail southbound, cooing at its fine condition and well-engineered gradient as it slipped into a fold of Beauchamp Canyon and neared Kane Spring. I pressed on for a bit, then realized the late hour and thought better about continuing into uncharted terrain toward nightfall. Besides, my allotted time with the rental car would soon be running short. Rather than make passage across the Santa Teresa Wilderness, continuing on Trail 66 over Cottonwood Mountain and down to Sand Tank, I’d need to backtrack again, soothed for the time being at least by the probability of success upon my next exploration.

On the way back down to Black Rock Canyon I stayed with my newfound trail to see where it might lead. Would a good trail fade into nothing, or might it take me somewhere other than where I’d originally been searching? The answer, it turned out, was both. It seems Trail 66, as shown on the map, is in fact unused between Preacher Canyon and the FS boundary. This is why I couldn’t find it. The good trail I was now following back downhill didn’t go to Preacher Canyon at all, but directly to a private ranch – the rancher’s personal pack trail into the Wilderness. If it was originally built by the Forest Service, then it was all but a private entity now, apparently maintained by – and used exclusively by the rancher (who, for the record, has all but permanently locked his gate on FR 94, preventing the public, and even the Feds, from accessing the Wilderness). This sort of unfair status-quo “Old West” exclusivity irks me to no end, but we can strive for change, not head-on but by sharing information that allows the public to legally access public land. (Of course, working with reasonable landowners for access across private land is fair game, too.)

In any case, maybe the above description would be useful to anyone thinking of trying the “main GET route” across the Santa Teresa Wilderness. GET Guidebook, Segment 8, details the Buford Hill Alternate Route, avoiding the Wilderness, which remains the best bet for hikers looking to make time and avoid potential hassles. Hopefully I’ll be able to add a more detailed account of the main route through the Wilderness once I’ve had a chance to explore it in full. For now, suffice it to say that what remains to be explored occurs from Kane Spring south along Trail 66 to its intersection with Trail 65. Beyond, Trail 66 is known to be followable all the way to its end near Sand Tank. If this route works – and I think there’s a good chance it will – then this is how the main GET route in Segment 8 will proceed.

Oh, and in the meantime, the latest GET topo map set shows the above route, with spot waypoints and maybe enough detail for some folks.

– blisterfree


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