Overview:

Hillsboro Peak from Hillsboro Bypass Trail. The  burn in the center is flanked by a mosaic of still-green trees.

Hillsboro Peak from Hillsboro Bypass Trail. The burn in the center is flanked by a mosaic of still-green stands.

This is a beautiful venture in the too-rarely-visited Aldo Leopold Wilderness. Before the Silver Fire it may have been a normal hike of twelve miles and 2000 feet gain. Post fire, we are left with a mosaic of “barely touched” evergreen stands that alternate with grimmer swatches of standing char. The high canyon walls, the “barely touched” stands and the flowing water make for a beautiful adventure in southern New Mexico. The patches of blackened trees are freighted with awkward footing (due to fire-induced, slow-motion rockfall into the canyon) and carries a tread that disappears into the grasses for long stretches. This is the price of admission. Do this scramble! Pick a day with little wind (snags) and long hours (uncertain footing) and gain access to spectacular terrain.

Driving Directions:

View of sunrise from the east side of Emory Pass - on short days you'll want to arrive at the trailhead early!

View of sunrise from the east side of Emory Pass – on short days you’ll want to arrive at the trailhead early!

  • From Lohman Avenue in Las Cruces, enter Interstate-25 heading north
  • After 59.2 miles, take exit 63 for NM route 152.
  • After 0.2 miles, at the end of the exit ramp, turn west (left) onto NM-152
  • After 37.3 miles pass the sign for the Railroad Campground, then (in about 200 more feet) make a U-turn and park in a pull-out area beside NM-152.

The drive is entirely on paved roads.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry, seen parked along NM-152 a short distance from the entrance to the Railroad Canyon Campground.

The mighty Camry seen parked along NM-152 a short distance from the entrance to the Railroad Canyon Campground.

Railroad Campground is currently closed and the entrance is gated for the season. It is not recommended that you park in front of the gate. The entrance is steep and narrow, leaving little room should there be an emergency (e.g. fire) where crews would need to enter. Instead, park in the turn-out down the road. During the regular season the campground would be open and offer parking, tables, fire rings, trash receptacles and a vault toilet (currently locked). The canyon runs past the campground so you only need bring a water filter. On this date the water was clear (no murk from the burn).

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 7070 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 9260 feet
  • Elevation gain: 2190 feet
  • Distance: 6.1 miles (one way)
  • Map: USGS Hillsboro Peak quadrangle.

Hike Description:

Railroad Canyon Campground, with tables and fire rings (viewed from NM-152)

Railroad Canyon Campground, with tables and fire rings (viewed from NM-152)

Cross the campground, pass a berm of rocks, then follow a two-track into the woods where it leads to a quarry. A sign at the far end of the quarry shows where the trail begins. The sign notes that the recent fire has raised the risk level for trail users, which is certainly true. On USGS maps this trail is labeled as #129, although some descriptions seem to call it #128. Either way, follow the trail as it leads immediately to the waters of Gallinas Creek and the first of innumerable crossings. This portion of the canyon is spectacular and easy hiking. Rock pinnacles atop the canyon walls dazzle in the morning light while you strain to pick out the tread along the dim canyon bottom. The canyon twists and turns as it furrows north, parallel to the crest, for 1.3 miles. At this point Trail #129 departs northwest (to your left, looking uphill), into Gallinas Canyon. Trail #128 goes straight ahead, then begins a broad swing to the east and brings you to the confluence of East  and West Railroad Canyon.

East meets West at the Railroad Canyons confluence.

East meets West at the confluence of Railroad Canyons.

The trail continues its frenetic creek hopping for another half mile, but then hits a basin and surprises with the decision to pull away from the running water. The path crosses a flat expanse of grass and forest (perhaps the remains of an old beaver pond). Eventually the trail rejoins the water and here the trail fades out a little. Continue probing upstream and watch for hints of trail on the north bank (on your left going uphill). At 2.1 miles from the trailhead you should find a junction where the trail up West Railroad Canyon goes off to your left and the trail up East Railroad Canyon goes off to your right. The junction is signed, as shown in the photo above. Go right.

U-shaped abrasion through hard rock, just before trail above waterfalls.

U-shaped abrasion through hard rock, just before a stretch of trail that takes you above waterfalls.

Here the trail begins a serious disappearing act. Find the main stream bed for East Railroad Canyon, cross it and continue upstream on the south bank. In a few hundred feet the walls of the canyon pinch the stream bed very closely and the waters have scoured a U-shaped indentation in hard rock. Just past this pinch-point watch the north bank for a faint tread that leaves the stream bed and rises about 50 feet above the stream. The path’s start is marked by a cairn. This tread will take you above a waterfall that might otherwise be difficult to surmount. Just past the waterfall the tread descends steeply back to the canyon bed.

08 cairn

A cairn in an otherwise untracked meadow.

This is large mammal country. On this date there were numerous deer tracks and several cat tracks. A bear with two cubs was roaming this area on the return portion of the hike.

As a rule of thumb, it seems best to ascend towards the inside of canyon curves, where the terrain usually shelves. Don’t commit to crossing the stream, however, until you can see into the flattened area. These shelves sometimes carry log jams that are severe impediments to travel. My impression is that the old trail stayed mostly along the north bank, making frequent but short jumps to the south whenever the north bank becomes uncomfortably steep. Here and there you will find lichen-coated cairns poking up through the dying grasses and looking sadly misplaced in stretches where all signs of a trail have disappeared.

Burn extending to canyon bottom.

Burn extending to canyon bottom.

As you ascend further into East Railroad Canyon the severity of the burn increases. In places the burn extends all the way to the canyon bottom. Abundant grasses grow in these patches (helping to explain the numerous deer prints found in the sand beds). At about 4.1 miles from the trailhead, in a badly burned patch, come to another spot where the canyon walls pinch closely together. Rock spires tower over a pretty 6-foot waterfall. Despite the devastation it is a great spot to have a snack, a drink of water and to soak up some sun. The walk continues above the falls, but it is about to get steeper.

View across the steep sided ravine to a particularly clear stretch of trail.

View across the steep sided ravine to a particularly clear stretch of trail.

Above the waterfall the forest remains burned for about a quarter mile, slowly regaining a green hue thereafter. There are many tributaries in the upper canyon. At each confluence, choose the stream that has the largest flow of water. Where it gets dry, choose the stream bed with the gentlest incline. Eventually you will encounter terrain in which the stream disappears below the stream bed, making only brief appearances where rock shelves force water to the surface. Above, you will begin to see hints of the Black Range crest. Try to stay on the north bank (left, looking uphill) to find a path that pulls you away from the east-trending canyon and into a steep-sided ravine coming in from the north. There is a scattering of log-ends sawed flat by trail teams before the fire. These sawn surfaces are now fire-blackened. The trail falls into the ravine and pops steeply up the far side several times.

View across swale where a possible trail skirts below the rock and contours around the end of the rib

View across swale where a possible trail skirts below the rock outcropping and contours around the rib to the right.

The trail crosses the steep-sided ravine for a final time and then switchbacks steeply to the top of a minor rib. The rib-top is part grassy meadow and part rock ledges. Looking uphill, the steep-sided ravine will be on your left and a much shallower, swale-like drainage will be on your right. The tread runs through the grasses towards a pile of three or four burned logs in the swale. Here the trail seems to stop. Better pathfinders might discern a possible tread that comes out of the logs, traverses below a big rock outcropping and swings around the next rib (I didn’t see it until I was on descent). For the track followed on this date, look across the swale to it’s far bank and raise your eyes to a minor saddle about 200 feet above. Climb to the saddle, which is grassy and holds widely spaced trees. In earlier eras it must have been a terrific camp site. The mountains along the Black Range crest come clearly into view.

Intersection with obvious trail, looking west into the Gila National Forest

Intersection with obvious trail, looking west into the Gila National Forest

Turn uphill (almost due north) and climb, huffing and puffing, on steeply inclined meadows. The rib top is punctuated with rocky outcrops. Initially, stay to the east (right) of these outcrops. After ascending about 300 feet you will find yourself on a sandy shelf with further progress on the east side blocked. Cross the rib on the shelf, pushing past pinyon pines and ascend along the base of cliff-like outcroppings until you strike a very obvious, but unsigned, trail. Make very certain you will recognize this spot on return! Turn to the east (right) on the trail and follow it as it traverses the upper end of East Railroad Canyon. The trail is generally in good shape, save in a few short sections where the forest soil has been plowed up by new waterways. After less than half a mile, come to a signed intersection with the Hillsboro Bypass Trail. Hillsboro Peak lies to the north. Go a few yards south along the trail for great views to the west and the mountains of the Gila National Forest. The views to the east are screened by severely injured forest. It is a sobering way to view the huge cliffs on Timber Mountain and Bushy Peak in the Caballo Mountains. If you have time, consider a hike up to Hillsboro. Those who are short on daylight hours will want to return the way that they came.

Recommendations:

Author on Hillsboro Bypass Trail, below Hillsboro Peak

Author on Hillsboro Bypass Trail, below Hillsboro Peak

♦The stem of the canyon, before it branches into east and west canyons, is a great short hike in magical terrain. The path up to the junction is obvious and the incline is very mild. This would be a wonderful place to take a youngster old enough to handle the distance and do the stream crossings.

♦Consider turning around if the winds come up strongly. On a nearly windless day I heard far more rockfall than tree fall, but those big, black snags are not going to stand forever.

♦The rock-strewn trail in East Railroad Canyon demands vigorous attention. I was surprised by the drain this put on my sense of reserve strength. If you’ve hiked the trail before the fire, then you might want to nudge its difficulty rating up a notch.

♦At this time of year the grasses are dying back and making it much easier to pick out the trail. Expect trail finding to be considerably more difficult during the growing season.

♦On the December hike described here all crossings were dry-footed. The trip is likely to be much wetter after a late-monsoon storm. Springtime snow melts typically accelerate in the afternoon, especially on west facing terrain. Your morning’s ultra-chilly crossings might turn daunting as the sun deploys to its full afternoon power.

♦At 9200 feet some folks are going to feel the altitude. Check on your party’s experience with altitude sickness. If you need a refresher, here is a succinct description of the symptoms.

♦Many pre-fire online reports mention the poison ivy in East Railroad Canyon (see links below). On this December hike I did not see any (as you might expect). Those who are not familiar with the plant can find exceptionally clear photos here.

♦ I started hiking just as it got light enough to see the tread and got back just as it was getting dark, feeling pressed for daylight. The longer days of late spring might have been a better choice. The morning portion of this December hike was very chilly. Watch for ice on the rocks where you cross the creek. Gloves and a fleece vest came in very handy.

♦(There will be a brief hiatus in posts until after New Years. Happy holidays!)

Links:

♦The plant-friendly blog explorenm.com has a description of the first 2.5 miles of the canyon (up to the junction of East and West Railroad Canyons).

♦Southern New Mexico Explorer compares and contrasts the hikes in both East Railroad Canyon and Gallinas Canyon, and comments about the plants and wildlife found along the trail. The trail up Gallinus branches off at about 1.3 miles into the hike. The Gallinas trip sounds terrific.

♦The Silver City Sun-News has a story of someone who was lost for three and a half weeks in this area. (She may have wanted to be lost, the story is not clear). I’m going to quarrel with their list of emergency items to carry. The Seattle Mountaineers have given this a great deal of thought and their 10 essentials is excellent advice.

♦Desert Lavender describes a shuttle trip that begins in the Railroad Canyon Campground, but diverts into the West Railroad Canyon trail to gain the crest, then follows the crest back to Emory Pass. Like the Gallinas trail (above), this sounds like great trip.

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