CAUTION...watch for FALLING TREES, BLOCKED ROUTES, ERODED TRAIL. Well, I didn’t plan this one very well did I? The night before leaving for a camping and running trip, I decided to check the status of the Black Range Crest Trail (#79) in the Gila National Forest, NM. Status: OPEN (Hikers and horsemen should beware of the hazards in the burned area.)
On further research I learned that the Aldo Leopold Wilderness was hit by the Silver Fire (Silver City, NM) last summer. Not sure what we would find, my friend Mike and I traveled to the forest with a goal of running to Hillsboro Peak (10,011’ elev.) and then doing another 15 mile loop into Railroad Canyon.
On the way to our campground, we drove through the burned area which had many sections of dead trees and yellow mountains. We later learned that the Forest Service dropped seed from planes to help prevent erosion. According to InciWeb, “The aircraft are able to carry up to 4,000 pounds of seed per flight, covering approximately 75 acres. The seed is comprised of a quick germinating, non-persistent annual cereal barley that provides rapid ground cover.” That explains the yellow mountains; they planted hay.
See InciWeb photos of post fire response.
The next morning we set out on our run from the Emory Pass Vista. We started at what we thought was the trailhead but had a hard time following the trail. There was a treacherous drop down and then much loose dirt and ash. We completely lost the trail and walked around for a bit until we finally found a solid hard packed trail that led to a dirt road.
We passed a heliport, reached a single track trail and started up towards the peak. The weather was fine, but already on the warm side at 7:30am. The trail passed through stands of douglas fir and ponderosa pine while colorful wildflowers adorned the slopes. The most abundant were the Beard-lip Penstemon also known as beard-lip beardtongue. How about that for a plant name? They have many red tube like blooms that hang down from a sparsely leaved knee high stalk.
The trail was steep in places, but at other times it wasn’t too bad and I was able to slow jog. We reached a rock outcrop with great views of the valleys below. A huge open pit mining scar could be seen near Silver City, NM, about 20-30 miles to our SW.
Before long the peak came into view and then we approached a trail junction sign attached to a tree. This tall pine had a huge burl (tree growth) on the side about the size of a bushel basket. Apparently burls are highly prized by wood workers and furniture makers, and unfortunately have been poached from live California redwoods in recent years. Reputable craftsman only use burls from dead or downed trees.
When we finally reached the summit, we were greeted by Don, the friendliest fire lookout you will ever meet. “You’re early”, he says. “Are we your first customers?” I ask. The first thing I realized upon arrival is that there is a protocol when visiting this fire lookout tower and cabin. Don instructs, “Put your packs on the front porch of the cabin and have a look around inside, I have a few things to do and then will meet you to tell you about it, then we will take a tour of the lookout tower. Oh, but first we have to get a picture of you two in front of the sign. I just finished painting it. Do you want some ice and water?”
Well, the only thing you can say to that is, “OK”, “alright”, “sure” and “of course”. After getting our photo taken, we checked out the old cabin and had a snack. Don, who lives in a modern structure (7 days on/6 days off), told us that the cabin was wrapped in a fire retardant material before the Silver Fire came through last year. He then invited us to climb the lookout tower.
The stairs were extremely steep; more like a series of ladders. The 360 degree panorama was spectacular and Don pointed out all the peaks and towns in the surrounding area. In the center of the tower was an Osborne fire finder, a round turntable with a map and sights he uses to pin point the location of smoke.
After the tour we talked about our plan to run to the Railroad Canyon. “Oh you don’t want to do that”, Don says. “The trail is hard to follow because of erosion; there are downed trees across the route and widow makers above you just waiting to fall.” That would certainly ruin our day, so we decided to head part of the way back down and then come back up for some more training fun.
However, before descending we continued on the Black Range Crest trail just to see what we would find. It didn’t take any time to see that Don was right. Burned trees were laying across the trail and things looked treacherous so we turned around to run back down to Emory Pass. About half way down we reached a crew of a dozen or more Forest Service personnel working on the trail so we turned around and went back up to the peak.
By the time we reached the top for the second time, the day was getting hot so we had some ice water compliments of Don and then ran back down. We passed many trail workers on the way and thanked them for their outstanding work. They follow in the footsteps of the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) who, during the Great Depression, built a rock retaining wall along a scree slope that we passed as well as trails, roads, dams, canals and anything else that needed built.
By this time the temperature was around 90 degrees and we were definitely ready to be done. Despite my poor planning we were able to get in a tough 16 mile run with over 3000 ft of elevation gain. Cold watermelon and Jamaican ginger ale were waiting in my cooler for our return. No trip to the Gila would be complete without a stop to Sparky’s Burgers in Hatch, NM. They were voted 3rd best burger in the USA by Trip Adviser. If you are looking for an excuse to eat a double green chile cheese burger just run to the top of Hillsboro Peak.
See you on the trail.