The Black Range in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness was severely burned in 2013. The Gallinas Canyon Trail #128 (gallinas is Spanish for “hens”) gives you a tour along the western edge of the disaster. There are stretches where little is left but grass and standing char, but don’t despair. The fire burned mosaic fashion, leaving patches of still-green trees threaded by a beautiful stream in a remarkably mellow alpine environment. This is relatively open terrain and it is laced by numerous side canyons that invite further exploration. Moreover, this trail has received careful attention from trail builders since the fire. It is in much better condition than the trail up the neighboring East Railroad Canyon. Most of the improvements seem to end at the new corral in the upper canyon, so it seems reasonable to guess that the horse-riding community has been active here along with the Forest Service. They deserve our thanks. Gallinas Canyon might make an excellent doorstep for those seeking entrance to the unburned northwest corner of the Wilderness.
- 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.
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).
- Starting Elevation: 7100 feet
- Ending Elevation: 8975 feet
- Net Elevation: 1875 feet
- Distance: 5.75 miles (one way)
- Map: USGS Hillsboro, NM quadrangle
My copy of the 2013 edition of the Hillsboro quadrangle does not show the trails in the Wilderness. In contrast, my copy of the 1999 edition does show the trails. This may be due to an error on my part in downloading the 2013 map, but check your maps before going out into the hills.
From the turnout beside NM-152, walk uphill to the entrance to Railroad Campground and descend into the camping area. Cross to a berm of rocks at the far end and follow a two-track into the woods and then into a rock quarry. The trail leaves the quarry below a sign warning you of elevated risk due to fire damage. Very true. The tread immediately makes the first of its numerous stream crossings in the lower stretches of Gallinas Creek. A sign on the far side of the creek informs you that you are on Gallinas Trail #128. Trail 128 is very well maintained and leaps back and forth across the creekbed. In periods of high water flow this may be a bit sketchy, but at this time of year the crossings could all be made dry-footed. After about 0.6 miles, cross a wide shelf that has a decaying corral to the left of the trail and then follow the tread back to the stream as it pursues a course north into the mountains. At 0.8 miles the trail pulls away from the stream again and climbs about 50 feet above the stream bed. This is a good spot to look around and get a feel for the lower canyon.
The canyon twists through large, oxbow-like bends and then presents a prominent rock fin high atop the canyon’s west bank. In the early morning it can reflect a spectacular amount of light into the dim canyon bottom. At 1.4 miles from the trailhead, come to a signed fork in the trail. Going straight ahead would take you to the Railroad Canyons (East and West).
Instead, go left and begin a short ascent to get into Gallinas Canyon. Although it is only 0.2 miles, the ascent is one of the steepest stretches of the entire trail. It will remove any remaining chill you may have experienced on the way in. At the top of this ascent you will enter a curiously shallow canyon, with a particularly low wall on its west side. Go briefly off-trail and ascend this wall and you will find yourself staring into the much deeper drainage of the main Gallinas Canyon. Apparently the trail is taking you into a canyon within a canyon. Cool! Return to the trail and follow the pocket canyon as it gently climbs. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead you will encounter an old barbed wire fence with a wide gap. There are several boot beaten tracks at this point, but the main tread goes through the gap and follows the rusty fence as it contours gently into the bed of the main canyon.
The trail is quite obvious here (although a season of heavy grass growth could obscure things). The canyon bottom is fairly broad and the stream is at such a shallow gradient that water falls and pools are fairly rare. At mile 2.3 you will find the confluence where Turkey Run Canyon joins the Gallinas Creek bed. It isn’t immediately obvious which of the two streams is largest, but Gallinas is the stream coming in from the north (on your right looking uphill). The trail pulls a brief disappearing act beneath deposits left by the colliding streams. To recover the tread, cross to the wedge of land between the two streams and ascend as if you were trying to stay equally distant from both creeks. In just 40 or 50 feet you should find an obvious track.
The fire did burn in mosaic fashion, but it has to be admitted that the green and thriving patches are small compared to some of the roasted and grim patches. Sharpen your awareness of wind speeds and watch for semi-fallen trees hung up on the charred limb stumps of still-vertical snags. At the same time, note the conifer saplings growing in the wetter spots and in those places where the fire did intermediate levels of damage. The forest is struggling back. One particularly green stretch arises about 3.1 miles from the trailhead, where another tributary, unnamed, flows in from the west. Once again the debris deposit obscures the tread. Simply cross the tributary and then cross to the east bank (right side, looking uphill) of Gallinas Canyon. The tread is immediately obvious. On this date snow banks often obscured the trail. More or less constant snow began at about 3.6 miles from the trailhead (about 8200 feet altitude). From that point on this “trail description” becomes more of a “canyon description”.
At 4.3 miles the terrain starts to shelve and you will encounter a new corral adjacent to the trail. Surprisingly, the deer seem to love this structure – the snow was positively crushed by deer tracks around and within the corral. The trail up to this point was in terrific condition, with much hard work going into clearing the downed trees and pushing rockfall out of the tread. The trail continues to be obvious above the corral, although the quality drops somewhat and there are stretches where even light snow would obscure it completely. Where the path is not obvious stay close to the creek bed. Generally the trail stays to the west side (left, looking uphill) in this area.
You approach the crest in surprisingly open terrain where Black Range “peaklets” create a sense of rolling hills. Despite that quality the tread is steadily upwards. In the last quarter mile (starting about 5.2 miles from the trailhead) the terrain steepens again. Watch through the trees to your right for evidence of the saddle between Gallinas Canyon and a waterway on the far side of the range called Sid’s Prong. When the saddle becomes obvious, depart from the creek bed and climb through aspen trees directly to the saddle. The saddle is densely loaded with burned trees and it could be windy. Caution is needed here. On this date the intersection of the Gallinas Canyon Trail #128 with the Crest Trail #79 was under snow and not especially obvious. If it had been signed then those signs are now gone. A large roll of plain wire (perhaps abandoned by long-ago fencers) was the only clear sign that others had ever visited here.
♦Despite the fire this is very attractive terrain. It deserves a longer day than what you get in January, so a late spring day might be ideal. The usual weather risk is compounded by the stands of burned trees. Be especially careful if there are new snow loads or when high winds arise that might collapse a “widow maker”.
♦Much hard work has already gone into opening the lower portions of this trail. Much more needs to be done on this trail and in this Wilderness. Support funding for the Forest Service!
♦Please bear in mind that this route description arises from a trip when the grasses have died back and trail finding is at its easiest. Even though the trail stays in (or very near) a canyon bottom it would not be too hard to get confused. People have gotten lost here. See the links below.
♦Before diverting into Gallinas Canyon the trail is almost untouched by fire, has easy hiking and is extraordinarily beautiful. It would be a great place to bring the youngest of hikers. The trail up Gallinas Canyon is mellow, although somewhat long. Careful mentors might want to bring slightly older hikers into this scorched but attractive terrain.
♦In warmer weather it is likely that you will need to watch for snakes and carry quite a bit of water. In midwinter conditions I consumed just over a liter of water. In the winter gaiters are very advisable. The deeper snow on the crest could easily get into your boots. I saw little evidence of avalanche terrain, but a heavy snow year could alter that quickly.
♦Judging from the available maps of the Silver Fire, the northern end of Gallinas Canyon isn’t very far from the western edge of burned area. It might be possible to take a pack up to the intersection with the Crest Trail #79 and then work into the unburned regions of the Aldo Leopold Area. I haven’t tried it, but the upper reaches of East Canyon or Bear Trap Canyon might be within reasonable range.
♦Southern New Mexico Explorer (recording trips made before the Silver Fire) compares the hikes in Railroad Canyon and Gallinas Canyon. He reports the mysterious (if unmistakable) allure of the terrain leading down into Sid’s Prong and into the interior of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. If you are going in warm weather, then you will want to make note of his observations regarding poison ivy as well.
♦ Patrick Alexander has some great landscape photos of this terrain before the fire. It certainly makes me wish that I had been more industrious about getting there when the getting was best.
♦The Las Cruces Sun-Times has a story about one hiker who came into this area to do a loop and got lost. (Suffering severe frostbite and pneumonia as a consequence). That hiker’s conclusion was that his decision to push into an unplanned scramble was a mistake. It can be.
♦A select list of hikes in the Gila/Aldo Leopold Wilderness, which includes milage and recommendations for seasons, can be found here.
♦The speculations about helpful horse-folks clearing the trail (above) has some bearing in fact. A report from the Gila Back Country Horsemen indicates that they worked on the trail this past April. Many thanks for their efforts!