Aldo Leopold Wilderness - Aspen Trail and Black Canyon Trail
I just returned from the Gila Mountains in southwestern New Mexico and wanted to share what we experienced.
Executive Summary – for all you backpacking execs
Even though the area is in an extended drought, it is beautifully forested with abundant Ponderosa pines, Douglass firs, alligator juniper, maples and aspen. The maples and aspen were golden, though we missed their peak color by a week, maybe two weeks. We didn’t see a lot of animals (we tend to be loud and slow) but saw signs of bear, big cats, fox, wolves, and elk. We did see mule deer and many Abert’s squirrels (big as house cats with gorgeous silver, gray, white and black fur). One of our crew is a birder and saw several birds, including woodpeckers and jays, that cannot be found in Texas – that is about all I can offer concerning the birds. He was pretty busy and seemed excited about the birds he saw...
Part 1 – getting to the Black Canyon Trail
We started at the Continental Divide Scenic National Trail Head (T 75) near Lincoln Tank, about 15 miles past the Mimbres Ranger Station. The trail head has plenty of parking, a corral, and level camping sites. We saw some large cat prints here…
The first leg was north from the trail head until we reached the Signboard Saddle. This climb was moderate (up 1,000’ over 3 miles) on dry, rocky trails with some shade provided by pine trees and alligator juniper. The top provided many panoramic views of the Continental Divide to the east and the Gila Wilderness to the west. Near the top you get into maples and we saw several golden colored trees. Far to our east we could see wide swaths of golden trees on the hills.
Soon after reaching the Signboard Saddle you begin a down slope to a crossing with the Continental Divide Trail in a grassy, park like area completely shaded by towering Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. From here it is 5 miles to the Black Canyon Trail. This is thick forest. Notice that I have not mentioned water? On the down slope to the Black Canyon Trail you cross a creek dozens of times, and if it is raining this might be a challenge, but it was completely dry for us. We each carried about a gallon of water which was justified on this 80 degree day. Eventually we arrived at a spot where the Black Canyon Trail and a running creek came together. To quote one adventurer: “paradise”. The trees were towering, the water was cold and clear, the ground was level and grassy.
That night we set up a comfortable camp with a plenty of fire wood and a pre-built fire ring. The sun set about 7:15, but was out of sight as early as 5:30. As soon as the sun dropped behind the surrounding hills the air began to cool. The breeze was light and stopped at dark, but we could feel cold, fresh air coming down from Reed’s Peak. We soon huddled around a nice fire and admired the perfect sky. That night the temp dropped more than we expected, 29 degrees, and one of our water bladders froze!! A nice break from the Texas heat... The next morning we had enough light to move around by 7:15 AM though the sun did not hit us directly until 8:45 or so.
Part 2 – going to the ranch
Our maps showed an abandoned ranch 4 miles south of our camp site, so we made a leisurely day trip to the ranch and back – actually we stopped a tad short of the ranch so I can’t tell you what to expect at the ranch. This was a very easy day hike with only 200’ of elevation change. We crossed the creek dozens of times both ways – so no need to carry water! This is a wonderful valley formed by high ridges on both sides, sky high trees, lots of maples, grassy areas, and plenty of wildlife. There were many notable cliffs and a few caves. This is where we saw a herd of mule deer, ducks, squirrels, woodpeckers, many jays and assorted other birds. I was a tad disappointed that we didn’t see any brook trout...
Part 3 – heading out
Sadly we had to return, but before leaving, on our last night, we were treated to the sounds of a lone howling wolf and a pack of yipping coyotes.. We never saw them, but they were close by. For our return we simply back tracked so there is not much to add – except for viewing a Sonoran Spiny Lizard – which was kinda cool... I would add this, many sights look different on the trail back due to angle and sunlight. So, even though I have a loop bias, backtracking has some advantages.
This is very lightly traveled country. If you want to experience beautiful old forests, and little interaction with humanity, consider hiking the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.