April 24 - 27, 2018
I try to do one shorter trip that is not too far from home to start the camping season. I usually either head to the south or lower elevations as it's early in the season. Short and nearby in case something goes wrong or just isn't right. It's also a good opportunity to try packing techniques or accessories that I haven't used previously. This year I decided to go south to the Magdalena Mountains and across the middle of the Gila National Forest.
Also on this trip I'd not go too far off the beaten path as my inReach Satellite Communicator had died while I was setting it up for the season. I'd drive backroads, but only through roads, just in case. I also called the appropriate Ranger District Offices to verify road conditions and check for area closures. [Update: Garmin sent a refurbished exchange unit which arrived one week after support call & activated and tested in one additional day, in case you were interested.]
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Tuesday, April 24th
I planed to stay at the USFS campground at Water Canyon between Socorro and Magdalena, NM. I had never been there, but had heard of it as it's considered a birding hotspot. I figured it would only take me about two hours to drive there, so didn't even start out until 3pm. I headed down I-25, then took US-60 west at Socorro, after I topped off my gas tank.
Water Canyon, Cibola National Forest
The turn off to the canyon is at a historical marker sign about 15 miles west of Socorro, so you can watch for that sign to find the paved road to the campground. Actually the pavement ends just before you bear right up to the CG. It's a very nice, small campground with a dozen sites and two vault toilets at 6800 feet. It is currently no-fee. There is a group campsite a bit farther up the side canyon requiring reservations. There are attractive views of the bluffs on the other side of Water Canyon.
|View to the east across Water Canyon from near my campsite.|
I took a few photos of the area and chatted with some folks camped near me in a small trailer with a dog named Booboo. They were crossing the country. It was a lovely evening and I sat out to watch darkness fall.
Wednesday, April 25
Water Canyon (continued)
|Looking up the little canyon just beyond the group campsite.|
After breakfast I walked the road up the side canyon past the group campsite. The road essentially ends at the group site and there is no turn-around. I continued a short ways beyond there, admiring the rock formation along the stream bed. About 50 yards up there was a little seepage providing water for birds and a couple Mule Deer. There was a small number of birds foraging, and though I enjoyed the pursuit, I only got one photo worth posting.
|The cactus was perched high above on the canyon rim.|
|Mule deer drinking from the seep on the canyon bottom.|
On returning to camp I packed up and hit the road. I drove a short ways farther up Water Canyon past the developed picnic area with its large grassy meadow. I only went about a mile and did see a few dispersed campsites, though none better than those in the campground. The road continues up 7.5 miles to near the top of the mountain where New Mexico Tech maintains an astronomical observatory. As the facility is not open to the public and the road was rough I didn't check it out, but returned to the highway and proceeded toward Magdalena.
|New Mexico Historical Marker - geological history in this instance.|
|Looking back toward Water Canyon from beside the Historical Marker.|
Magdalena and the VLA
12 miles west of Magdalena there are two distinctive hills north of the highway, Tres Montosas East and West (I don't know where the third Montosa is.) As you get to them look for a gravel road taking off south from US-60. This is the north end of Bear Trap Canyon Road, FR-549, or as Google calls it, Old NM 52. What I didn't realize until I drove it, is that it skirts the eastern end of the Plains of San Augustin - home of the NRAO Very Large Array. See also my 2009 VLA photo gallery with only 7 images taken with a point & shoot camera.
The road crossed the train tracks they use to move individual radio dishes and this day there was one near the road, as well as one or two even farther out. I stopped for a few photos. While next to one I heard a whirring sound. Lo and behold, they were moving the dishes to point to a different point in the sky. So cool to see them all move, and in concert.
|Looking toward the central hub and observatory control building along the rails used to move the dishes.|
|A closer view of one radio telescope dish after it changed orientation. You can see others in the distance.|
I continued south, startling a lone pronghorn along the way. The road climbs up into the Magdalena Mountains and this side is very dry. Evidence of a long past wildfire can be seen with no regrowth due to the arid condition.
|Looking back as I climb into the mountains. Look carefully and you can just make out the VLA.|
Bear Trap Canyon
As soon as the road crests the pass, the forest becomes very verdant. There are four steep, tight switchbacks and then the entrance to the Bear Trap Campground. This USFS no-fee site is small with a single vault toilet and a dispersed camping vibe due to there being no developed sites. It sits at about 8600 feet. I stopped for a pleasant picnic lunch.
|Picnic lunch at Bear Trap Campground.|
A few miles farther down the road is the tiny Hughes Mill Campground. No sign of a mill that I could see. Just an open area, but apparently there are popular hiking trails there. Once I turned onto Bear Trap Canyon Road I did not see another vehicle on the road for its entire length.
The forest road continues to the southwest until it steeply climbs out of the green canyon, across the drier pinon/juniper woods, then out of the national forest to a junction with NM-52. This state highway is a gravel road through cattle country with a ranch road every several miles.
|NM State Highway 52.|
|For my fellow geeks, engineers, and technophiles: cool transmission tower design.|
Gila National Forest
After about 20 miles pavement appears. This black-top is coming from I-25 near T or C and continuing west as NM-59 toward Beaverhead USFS Work Center. I turned that direction. The highway winds though an area of Ponderosa pine forest with some residential in-holdings.
Just before Beaverhead NM-59 makes a left turn, then soon a right turn climbing up to a plateau and passing a landing strip - follow the signage toward Snow Lake. From here to the lake the route is named Loco Mountain Road. The gravel road is fairly smooth and after a few miles you come to the turn off for the Wolf Hollow Trailhead Campground. This side road looked like it had been recently gravelled and would now be all-weather. This is one of the main trails for entering/leaving the Gila Wilderness from the north. There were a number of vehicles and a few tents set up in the campground. There are several corrals for pack animals, none occupied.
|Wolf Hollow Campground|
|North-easterly view from NM-52. Gila Wilderness is at my back.|
I continued westerly at good speed on NM-59 until that route, the state maintenance and gravel ends at the junction with FR-142 where I turned left. The road becomes much narrower and bumpier alternating between open pinon/juniper woods and Ponderosa forest. The road became very rocky and I finally gave up and lowered the air in my tires. Slow going along this stretch.
About 5 miles from Snow Lake the road becomes somewhat less rocky and there is another trailhead campground - Aeroplane Mesa Trail that leads to the Gila River in the wilderness.
|Aeroplane Mesa Campground.|
It was a relief to come out above Snow Lake and onto a gravel surface again. I didn't visit the lake or campground there. You can see my post, referenced below, if you are interested. I continued on 142 to the junction of FR-28 where I turned left toward Willow Creek. The plateau west of Snow Lake was consumed by wildfire several years ago, but once you drive down into the canyon containing Willow Creek you escape the burn area.
There are two small no-fee Forest Service campgrounds along the creek and one open area where those who take horses into the wilderness park and camp. (Note: older maps also show the Gilita Campground, but this was destroyed by wildfire and permanently closed.) You access the Willow Creek CG by fording the creek; Ben Lilly Campground*, where I camped a few years ago, is a bit farther down the road. I ended up in the exact campsite, next to the creek, as I'd landed on that previous trip. See also my earlier post.
It is a lovely spot and after setting up I sat in my chair listening to the creek and enjoying the scenery. There was one other camper in the 5 site campground; across from me was a car with a small Scamp trailer where a single person was camping.
|Willow Creek next to my campsite.|
Thursday, April 26th
Willow Creek (continued)
|Looking at my campsite from near the road.|
|The road upstream from the campground. See the creek in the shade at bottom left?|
After breakfast I took my long lens and walked up the road looking for birds and/or other wildlife and simply enjoying the beautiful morning. The road is closed at private land about a mile up from the campground. Coming back after turning around at the gate, there were lots of warblers high in the firs across the creek. I was assuming they were all Yellow-rumped Warblers, a very common species in NM, but for some reason I raised my binoculars to look at one across the way and was astonished to see bright red! OMG, could this be a Red-faced Warbler? Yes, it was and I found two others later on the walk. I took lots of photos even though I knew the birds were too far away for good images (indeed, the photos were blurry and noisy, but have included one simply because it such a cool bird). Over the years I've made four trips to SE Arizona to bird watch and one of my target species I'd never found was here along Willow Creek. Made my day.
|Photo of Red-faced Warbler high in a tree far across the creek in the shade.|
I also found a dragonfly along the creek next to the road. I was surprised as it is early in the season for them to be out. I spotted a second of the same species about a hundred feet farther down the road, but no others of any species.
|Dragonfly along the creek. Very early in the season for Odonata.|
I returned to camp to make lunch. Somewhere along the line I decided to stay here another night as it was such a lovely, restful spot. After lunch while taking an obligatory photo of my campsite I met my neighbor. She was a bow-hunter from Sandia Park, NM here for turkey season and was expecting a couple of friends to join her the next day. We had a pleasant conversation. I said I hadn't seen any turkeys on this trip. She said she was up early and one walked right through camp.
I sat out near the creek through the afternoon in my chair, alternately reading the new Anne Hillerman Navajo Tribal Police mystery novel, Cave of Bones, and watching the birds and clouds. Speaking of which, high clouds were moving into the area - not enough to diminish the day, but my neighbor said rain could be moving in from the west by Friday night. I had been flirting with the idea of driving into the Apache National Forest in Arizona, down along the Blue River, but I decided to head home on Friday instead.
|My campsite as seen from across Willow Creek.|
As evening approached I used some stepping stones to cross the creek. The birds were too wary to allow me near enough for photos. I saw lots of elk scat. Later as it was starting to get dark I heard turkey calls up the hill north of camp.
Friday, April 27th
Willow Creek (continued)
I woke to the sounds of more turkeys calling. I noticed my neighbor's car was gone. Perhaps she drove up to the other side of the hill to hunt. I packed up, but she had not returned by the time I left.
On the way out I forded the creek to check out the Willow Creek Campground. Only one of the four(?) sites was not taken - a popular place. The website says "tent only", but no problem for pick-up campers. It does have the advantage that the sites are farther apart than at Ben Lilly, so you have a bit more privacy. I didn't take any photos.
|The smooth gravel surface of FR-28 through the Ponderosa forest.|
I drove north on FR-28 which was a smooth gravel surface. At the junction with FR-141, which leads eventually to Reserve, NM, I turned right to stay on 28. The remainder of this route was much narrower, but still a smooth gravel surface. A few miles along I saw a hiker ahead. I knew the Continental Divide Trail was somewhere around and I'd seen hikers on previous trips. I slowed to reduce the dust kicked up by my truck.
As I got closer I saw that it was a grey-haired lady sticking her thumb out to me. I stopped and asked how she was doing. She said her back was giving out and was there a chance I could give her a ride to Reserve. I said I was not going that direction. I pulled out my map and said I was headed to Apache Creek then would turn the opposite direction of Reserve. She said she'd be glad to go to Apache Creek as there was a store there where she could call for a ride to the hotel in Reserve. I explained I'd have to move some of my stuff to make room for her and pulled over to the side of the road. I keep my camera bags in the passenger foot well and a caddy on the passenger seat. I moved my stuff and put her heavy backpack in the camper.
She explained she's a Section Hiker, doing one section of a trail at at time, rather than a Thru Hiker, hiking the entire trail in one go. She said she'd hiked up the length of the Gila River (which I didn't question at the time, but don't believe is actually part of the CDT.) We had a pleasant conversation and I learned a bit more about hiking the major American trails. She's a retired civil engineer living in Reno and when we exchanged names, said she's known in hiking circles as Stone Dancer - for the manner she crosses streams. She was interested in my camper and was excited to hear about Overland Expo as she thought she might have to give up backpacking if her back didn't get better, but wouldn't give up going into the outdoors.
We drove out of the pine forest onto the grasslands of Collins Park. At a junction the route to Apache Springs changed from 28 to FR-94. As we entered a canyon on the north side of the park a small group of javelinas crossed the road.
|One of four javelina that crossed the road in front of us.|
We drove over the saddle and down to Apache Creek. I stopped near the store on NM-12 to let her out and we exchanged cards as I got her pack out of the camper. We wished each other a safe journey and I turned around to go the very short way back to the Apache Creek Campground where I made a sandwich and put air into my tires in preparation for pavement.
From Apache Creek I drove north on NM-32 into Apache National Forest. Several small convoys of USFS Wildfire Crews passed headed south. I guessed the Bluewater and Diener Canyon fires in western NM must have been controlled enough to redeploy these assets. At Quemado, I jogged east on US-60 just far enough to pass through the village before turning north on NM-36. That highway would lead to NM-117 which passes through El Malpais National Monument to I-40.
In an interesting coincidence of life meeting art, a significant portion of Anne Hillerman's new novel took place at The Narrows in El Malpais. This is place where the hundreds of square miles of lava flow stopped just short of a line of 500' tall sandstone bluffs. The highway passes through there now, but so did the trails of the native peoples and pioneers. I'd driven though there before and once in 2008 hiked some of the Narrows Trail. This area is along the highway and I had time this afternoon to stop for a short time. I pulled into The Narrows picnic area and parked near the trailhead.
|Trailhead. Photo a bit out of focus.|
For more info: NPS National Monument website - BLM National Conservation Area website
I strapped on my hiking boots, pulled on a fishing shirt, and took my landscape camera, a full Camelback, a energy bar, my phone, walking stick, and just in case - waterproof matches and a space blanket. I took lots of photos even though it was somewhat overcast resulting in flat, low-contrast light. Nonetheless, it was beautiful and the vistas magnificent!
|Natural staircase at the trailhead.|
|A short distance from the trailhead you can see the highway entering The Narrows from the south.|
See also my earlier post where I passed through this way. Post includes the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, La Ventana Arch, and the Lava Falls Trail.
|Lava field, bluff top, tree leaning left.|
|Lava field, bluff edge, crooked tree.|
|Lava field, bluff edge, straight tree.|
|Looking down at The Narrows.|
|Lava field. Note the path of a collapsed lava tube.|
|Trail side cactus.|
After my short hike I headed north on 117. I checked out BLM's Joe Skeen Campground (see BLM NCA link above) which is about 12 miles south of I-40. This no-fee campground has 10 sites and vault toilets. It's first-come and at 4pm on an April Friday all sites were taken. Even with the ramadas over the tables, I suspect this place broils in summer. For cooler, less frequented overnight camping near Grants & I-40, I recommend Lobo Canyon or Coal Mine Campgrounds; see my earlier post.
Once on the freeway I headed east toward home. I stopped in Laguna for one of their famous Laguna Burgers at 66 Pit Stop. Yum! (I do not recommend their Albuquerque location; I've not tried the Rio Puerco location.)
I got stuck in traffic on Coors Blvd in west Albuquerque due to tow trucks clearing two separate collisions, but I made it home safely. Thanks for viewing my first post of 2018.
Warning - Opinion: A friend, when I wrote of my plans for the trip, mentioned there was a Ben Lilly Memorial outside Silver City, but he hadn't checked it out. I Googled the name to find out about this person who had at least two places named for him in southern NM. I was unhappy to find a number of sources where he was labeled a "great" or the "greatest" hunter simply for the extreme numbers of cougars and bears, so called "malefic creatures", he exterminated in the southwest. Wikipedia uses the term "notorious" which I think is more appropriate and their bio seems to be more balanced than most.