Monday, March 21, 2016

West Curtis Canyon- Aldo Leopold Wilderness

Doug Scott took this one of me admiring the falls

Las Animas Creek

Las Animas Creek

Smaller falls in West Curtis Canyon

100 foot falls in West Curtis Canyon

These three rock fins are directly across Las Animas from the Curtis Canyon mouth.

 On Friday morning Doug Scott and I were off on another waterfall hunt, this time it was in West Curtis Canyon, twin brother to East Curtis Canyon that we had hiked to on Tuesday. All of my warnings regarding the East Curtis hike apply here,with the sole exception being there was very little thorny locust to deal with, however there is one extra caveat:  this hike is not really a day hike. It's much too long and slow. It took us nearly 12 hours  to go its 16 or 17 miles.  It would be much better to explore both East and West Curtis Canyons as dayhikes, after having backpacked in and set up camp along Las Animas Creek. Problem is, getting to Las Animas itself is no easy propositon. It's probably a two day trip starting from the only maintained entry trails,either Railroad Canyon or the Crest Trail starting from  Emory Pass( both can get you to start the Holden Prong Trail 114 which will take you all the way down to Las Animas Creek). Other options, such as Water Canyon Trail, or the Pretty Canyon,Flower Canyon route were not that great before the Silver Fire. It seems likely they are even less viable now. The section of Trail 307 from the pass southwest of Apache Peak down to Las Animas Creek ( which  we used) can't be recommended either. We counted at least 13 washouts( some quite severe) that although we managed to negotiate with our daypacks, would pose a major  concern to someone  wielding a heavy backpack.

  I met Doug at Mineral Creek at eight and we were soon off toward the Cave Creek trail head.The road to Cave Creek trail head is in serious danger of washing out in several places. This was utmost in Doug's mind in getting out there again so soon. After this summer's monsoon rains, getting there by ATV( and  being an expert rider to boot) may be the only( and perhaps not even an) option. We were on the trail at 8:50, a full hour earlier that our departure to East Curtis Spring, which was a good thing,but did not prevent us from walking back the last hour in the moonlight.The first section of FT 307 was great as before, but beyond the saddle it was different story. Besides, the aforementioned numerous( and treacherous)washouts, the tread is disappearing from lack of use. Dead and burned trees were obstacles as well,although we cleared as many  as we could.  It's a shame, because, on a previous hike many years ago going down this trail provided a quicker, relatively easy,  and scenic entrada to  the Animas Country. It's still scenic:the canyon  it follows is still mostly green having experienced only spotty burning, with fantastic views of the Las Animas valley, the rugged mountains above it, and of Apache Peak as well,but the washouts were a problem then and are still one now. In few years, without use or maintenance  this section will become little more than an idea, the thought, that a trail was once there.
 At the bottom, Las Animas Creek was running cool,clear and about 10 inches deep in a wide corridor of burnt and  dead trees standing in the thick growth of yellowed grass. The road that once ran through this valley is fast disappearing as well,but we still followed it when convenient. We tried to put the pedal to the metal, but despite this section being more or less flat,the numerous stream crossings, soft sand on the banks, and  the searching for the road, left us making average progress at best.
 The Dunn Place and the Kelso Place both had beautiful meadow areas and I imagined them both green and lush as I saw the beautiful Murphy Place further upstream 7 or 8 years ago. An impressive box section along the way had towering cliffs, and miraculously, bits of green pine forest with some truly huge trees. On the eerie side of things, there was a forest of burnt live oak trees with twisted gnarly limbs of black reaching in all directions.

We stopped briefly at the plaque and white grave markers, now half buried in sand that flowed out of a side canyon, that are there for those soldiers who died in a battle with the Apache warrior Victorio in  a nearby canyon. A  tattered rag of an American flag flapped in the breeze.
Soon afterwards, we saw a side channel joining Las Animas Creek on the south side, which we knew to be the combined flow of East and West Curtis Canyons. There was zero indication of the trail that once began here and headed up East Curtis,but the going was relatively easy up to the confluence of the two canyons.
Confluence of East and West Curtis Canyons

Heading up West Curtis almost immediately became a serious scramble through boulders, on ledges,in the loose dirt on the hillsides, around many  smaller waterfalls and in the stream itself. The progress was slow, and I despaired of eventually being blocked out of seeing the high falls altogether. Along the way, I noticed an impressive riparian area still survived in the narrow north facing canyon. There were massive alder trees, chokecherry trees with their blossoms just fading( and one small one already leafed out),  and abundant gambel oaks that were just beginning to bud. There were also evergreens: douglas firs and ponderosa pine that had made it through as well. There was burning here as well, because it seemed every other tree I reached out for would leave charcoal stains on my hands, but it wasn't anywhere nearly as severe as the Las Animas valley, East Curtis,or the nearby mountain tops, and high plateaus.

 Finally, we came to the two falls just below the high falls: a wide 30 or 40 foot shimmering cascade that spread the flow of a three or four foot wide( and 25 foot high)pour off just above.

We left our packs behind for the improbable last pitch up a dirt and gravel chute that afforded us safe passage up the left side. I felt like a new man without the weight of my pack and we climbed up easily and then made our way down easily as well. The falls winds blew as they did at East Curtis, and temperature dropped at least 10 degrees or more. I was even a bit chilled, as I stood on the shore of  the large pool a beneath the magnificent 100 foot falls that streamed down the sculpted rock face before me.

  I thought,in my neurotic way, what a strange place it would be to come to if the water wasn't there. But it was there, and it flowed and flowed. After the droughts, and after the fire and floods, there was this clear, cool flowing of water. I imagined a place in a  more rain or snow blessed part of our country.  It's hard to believe,even for me as I stood there that this place, perhaps 10 miles as the crow  flies from the desert, could exist with the sound  of the cold, last of snowmelt,mid-March stream  rushing,falling and ringing in my years. Loud enough that we had to shout and still couldn't be heard until  we retreated lower down and ate our lunches.
The way back down was slow, almost as slow as up, and rough. At one point we traversed the divide and hiked down into East Curtis to avoid a difficult climb down. We immediately found a 20 foot  waterfall over there, which alerted us to the potential  of the unexplored stretch of that canyon.
20 foot falls in East Curtis Canyon
  We ground out the miles along the Animas as fast as we could, finding an elk carcass and shed at some springs along the way,but the light was fading as we began the climb out of the valley. We even lost the trail a couple of time before reaching the pass. Now we walked the clear,but rocky last part of FT 307 in the light of a three quarters moon.

 Note:  If you haven't figured out yet,this hike, scramble  is not only extremely strenuous,but requires a significant investment of time in researching  all aspects of the area to insure success.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

East Curtis Spring- Aldo Leopold Wilderness

Doug Scott photo of me at East Curtis Spring

Apache Peak

Looking down to Las Animas Creek

I'm going to get all my warnings about this hike right out in front. First, FR 157 S, the North Percha Road is a reasonably well maintained dirt road for the 10 or so miles from the highway( NM 152) to where it crosses North Percha Creek. After that, it becomes increasingly rough. High clearance is an absolute and the going will be slow. The final few pitches, before settling down into Cave Creek and arriving at the trailhead  for FT 307 will require four wheel drive even in dry weather. If the weather is wet consider the entire stretch from North Percha Creek  a four wheel drive only affair.
 Second, FT 117  is good trail from its junction with FT 307 for about a mile until reaching the burn in Magner Park  where it disappears completely. There are a few cairns about,but they are easy to miss. There are no blazes distinguishable on the burnt trunks of trees. Furthermore, setting waypoints by the old trail line makes little sense because it unnecessarily diverted us around a knob on a hill to the south, and took us through some heavy oak and mountain mahogany brush . Had we continued to follow it, it would have put us on an extremely treacherous line on a near vertical hillside and through a gap in an enormous fin of rock that protrudes from the southeast into East Curtis Canyon.After that, had we chosen that route we would have been delivered  to a steep,rocky ravine ,which,were there any remnant of the trail to follow would have been completely washed out.
We could see the old trail traversing the notch in this enormous rock fin.
Maps confirmed that was the old route.

Third, this was not a pretty hike. Although the Cave Creek valley is still nice and green, and Cave Canyon and the ridge above are mostly unscathed, once we entered Magner Park, we were  in areas of high burn severity all the way to East Curtis Spring. The views into East Curtis and down to Las Animas are majestic,but are tempered by having much of the trip through thorny locust that has taken over where the pine forest once stood. We were poked and scratched so much I felt and looked like I was some sort of human pin cushion.Oh, and lest I forget, if you haven't figured it out already, the hike is almost completely without shade which wouldn't be so bad if not for the accumulated 2200 feet of vertical involved, and the fact that it was nearly 80 degrees out there in mid- March.
Cave Creek valley
Forest Trail 307

Now, if that  hasn't discouraged  just about everyone,let me just say that the pay off for the hike probably made it all worth it.What can't be known from a place name on a map is that there is a spectacular nearly 200 foot waterfall, about half of which is free falling, at East Curtis Spring.
 We had seen it, from across the canyon while we ate our lunches in the rhyolite cliffs. We could also spy the old trail impressions, which led us to invent our route that circled around on the ridge to the south and brought us quite safely down to the creek above the falls.
Above East Curtis Canyon

East Curtis falls is in the shadow at the center of the picture
Falls in the shadow
  Here was bedrock box canyon with one small falls and one quite higher one. My colleagues, who climbed around on the rocks  above  trying unsuccessfully to get a  look,  estimated it to be 30 or 40 feet.  I climbed over some rock on the other side  and saw what might have been a way to get down to the bottom to view it head on, but it was impossible to  completely see if the route was safe without gravity committing you to taking it anyway.

 We got out of the creek bottom where a brief debate ensued about whether to  go down to the bottom to see the high falls close up. I was of the mind that I had not come all this way through locust, brush,burnt trees and hot climbs just to have only seen these falls from a 1/2 mile away, so soon, we were rapidly descending 400 feet, at times using the old trail, its switchbacks still vaguely to be discerned.
 Even at the very base of the falls, the trees were burned,but that hardly mattered as we basked in the cool shadows of an immense wall of rock from which the stream of water arced out, plummeted a hundred feet in free fall, then splashed on a platform before turning into  a ribbon of white, cascading down another 100 feet into the shallow pool at its base. We lingered a bit, taking photos and such,but mostly letting this place bless us and strengthen us for our return journey.

The 800 feet  of climbing back up to Magner Park was slow going for me and my knee only gave me a few twinges on the way back down Trails 117 and 307. We were in good shape,mostly. My friend Doug had cut on his hand and his nose. Nate, a hiking friend of Doug's and now mine also, had his legs thoroughly scratched. I was dehydrated, hungry, sunburned and had the aforementioned myriad pin holes,but we were good.  We talked and recovered a bit at the Doug's jeep on Cave Creek. When we got back to my truck at Carbonate Creek, we talked and recovered a bit more,before finally parting. What a strange and difficult journey we had made to a magical spot, all in a day.
 In Hillsboro, as I drove home at dusk,six or seven deer  took their time crossing the road in front of me. I thought of the deer we had seen in the morning  back in the  forest of black trees,calmly looking at us in the same way. So many things seem like miracles on a good day. My green chile cheeseburger at the Arrey Cafe was another.

Gila River, Alum Trail( FT 788)- Gila National Forest


My friend Doug's was planning hike down the Gila River to find a very obscure waterfall in on the south facing cliffs of Murtocks Hole. He planned to use the Alum Trail, which put in my mind of my very first fishing trip to the main stem of the Gila River in the spring of 2006, using this very same trail to get to the water. There was ample parking near the trail head which is on NM 15( Cliff Dwellings Highway). I set off energetically down the steep and rocky trail. It was easy to follow, and I stopped every so often for views down to the river far below.

At the bottom,  I stashed my hiking boots,extra clothes( it was still cool there on an early April morning) and walking stick.. If you go, get a good feeling for where this spot is for your return trip, it's easy to walk right by it. I then assembled my rod under some newly leafing trees, and then turned downstream for my day of fishing. There were no trout to be had on that day, and all my luck came at a very deep spring fed pool, where I caught several ten and eleven inch smallmouth bass. On the way back I found the old chimney of a cabin that once sat near the mouth of Alum Canyon.

 I had been fishing smaller streams in the Gila for almost eight years. It seems odd, in retrospect, to have waited so long to fish the  river itself.  I enjoyed the tangle free casting, the expansive views and the simple pleasure of  getting in the water to fish.
 I don't know exactly how far down I made it that day. I have feeling, I turned around somwhere between a place called El Rincon and the beginning of Murtocks Hole. The hike back out was steep and slow, but mercifully short. I realized later that the Alum Trail is the quickest way to access a hot spring that is just upstream, from where  the trail meets the river.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Carbonate Creek Waterfalls- Gila National Forest

If you look through the archives of this blog, you will know that I have hiked and camped at Carbonate Creek many times. It has been a good friend over the years. The last time I was out here was just a few months after the Silver Fire( See Carbonate Creek after the Silver Fire blog from October, 2013), and the canyon had changed drastically. I thought I might be done with the place. I didn't have the heart( or the time really, after a now much harder hike over rougher terrain) to see if  the beautiful maple grove  about a mile above the cabin had survived.
 Then, six months ago,that ever diligent seeker of New Mexico waterfalls, Doug Scott, tells me there are  some waterfalls further upstream than I've ever walked. Doug has never been there. He works some sort of voodoo with topo maps and Google Satellite images, and probably some kind of sixth sense as well, to divine where these waterfalls are and he is  almost always right, so off we went on Saturday morning.
 It always seems rougher and slower going up, not just because we were going uphill but because it's frequently the case that more of the old road/trail is found on the return.
Carbonate didn't suffer nearly as badly as many other canyons in the Black Range.Sadly, though, the maple grove was damaged,but I was cheered by the fact that many of the trees were growing back from their roots. In addition,there are  still many dead and downed trees,massive pile ups of rocks,gouged out side canyons  and thickets of dried out weeds that must be dealt with.  That being said, the stream had good flow,the air temperature  was perfect, and the willows were  already budding, as we happily walked up to our first  waterfalls two hours after starting out from where we parked  just off  FR 157S( Note: on the newest Aldo Leopold Wilderness Map FR 157S is now called 4088 N although on the big Gila  National Forest Map it is still called 157. On both maps the first section to Sawpit Canyon is called County Road B012)

Shortly after that, we came upon another in the narrowest part of the canyon. There were remnants of the old trail here and  and even barbed wire gate anchored to the rock above the falls.

A short walk further upstream, brought us to yet another flowing beside a massive snow drift. We kept going to one more bend in the stream to find our last one before turning around, but I believe there may be even one more even further upstream.

 Heading back down we explored up a running side stream on the north side of the main creek to find a very high zig-zaggy falls, without the prodigious flow of the main creek, but beautiful nonetheless.

 On the way back down, we looked at the old  cabin and nearby mine. We were back at our vehicles five hours after starting. I went back to Las Cruces, after eating my lunch at the Kingston Campground. Doug went off to find the Cave Creek falls further to the north on FR 157S.
 Carbonate Creek and its falls, like any water feature on the east side of the Black Range have good flow in the early spring, and in the late summer /early fall if we've had good summer rains. Much of the rest of year, I would lower my expectations considerably.