West Railroad Canyon (Trail 128) is a wonderful hike. Numbered among its attractions are easy access to the trailhead, running water, eye-catching terrain and a clear trail of very reasonable length and steady gains. Long-time hikers may point to the neighboring Gallinas Canyon or East Railroad Canyon, both of which share the running water (in its lowest reaches) and can claim many of the same attractions. This is true, but West Railroad Canyon remains a standout because the 2013 Silver Fire did minimal damage along this waterway. Regrettably, the same can not be said for its neighbors.
- 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: 9120
- Net Gain: 2020 feet
- Length: 4.8 miles (one way)
- Maps: USGS Hillsboro, NM quadrangle
The first 1.5 miles on Trail 129 ascends north along Gallinus Creek in a beautiful canyon setting. You will find it described in detail on the Gallinas Canyon route description. Rather than repeat the description, this route description will add a few minor points. First, the water level has risen since the Gallinas Canyon hike was described – a rise of just an inch or two that almost eliminated the promised “dry footed crossings”. There are one or two places where you can cross on logs. Alternatively, brief searches up- or down- stream may reveal stepping stones. A “mostly dry footed” ascent was possible but those stepping stones are unstable. You risk getting drenched in snow melt. Second, as the photo on the right shows, you may encounter cattle in the canyon. This one was startled awake by my approach and seemed regretful of company. Give them a wide berth.
At 1.5 miles come to the signed junction where Trail 129 departs left and ascends into Gallinas Canyon. Go straight ahead on Trail 128 as it begins a sweeping bend towards the northeast and ascends into the lower reaches of Railroad Canyon. Stream crossings become markedly easier, which is fortunate since the trail skittishly leaps the water at each bend. Scorched tree trunks and some blackened deadfall provide mute testimony to the fire of 2013, although most trees appear to be healthy. At about 2 miles from the trailhead the tread pulls away from the stream to the left and crosses a piney flat. The tread becomes fainter and grasses may obscure the trail during growing season. Returning to the stream the trail becomes fainter still. A half mile further you will find a small stream comes in from the west (left, looking uphill) and the trail becomes especially obscure. Stay on the west bank (left) so as to avoid missing the trail junction. If you were to stay on the east bank you could easily pass the junction and find yourself heading into East Railroad Canyon. At 2.2 miles from the trailhead a sign marks the junction. Go left to enter West Railroad Canyon.
The trail becomes more obvious as you enter this steep sided canyon. The music of water falling into deep pools echoes from the canyon walls. The trail pulls away from the rough and tumble of the stream bed and clings to the canyon side. There is considerable evidence of trail work in the form of sawed deadfall. Overall this trail is in great shape, with only one spot where four trees lie in a tangle across the trail. Drop down a bit and skirt the tops of the fallen trees.
At 2.9 miles from the trailhead the path returns to the stream bed where a major tributary comes in from the west. Stay on the east bank (right side, looking uphill) and work your way past the debris deposited in the canyon bottom. Above this confluence the canyon walls gentle and the grade eases. Stream crossings are a minor issue. Ponderosa pines still dominate, but there are increasing numbers of firs as well.
Follow the trail due north as the forest thins and meadows begin to open up. In warm weather keep an eye open for poison ivy. I saw one instance of ivy and it was an eye-catching shade of green – in February! On this date small patches of snow began to appear at about the 8000 foot level. It never blanketed the ground, but obviously that could change quickly. At 3.4 miles from the trail head you will find a brief series of switchbacks that pulls you away from the stream. Look through the tree tops for a first peek at the Black Range crest.
The tread returns to the creek, now a tiny stream and almost certain to be dry in the warmer months. Stay to the west side (left, looking uphill) because at 3.6 miles the main path makes a distinct turn, to just-west of north, and begins switchbacking along side what appears to be a minor rivulet. The terrain becomes steeper as you approach the high ground near the crest. Very near the crest, at about 4.3 miles from the trailhead, pass through a carefully maintained gate in a barbed wire fence. Just above the fence you will enter the only serious burned patch on the entire trip. Forest recycling is evident as more and more of the charred snags show signs of fungal colonization. Fortunately this burned patch is small (nothing compared to the devastation at the top of Gallinas Canyon) and is quickly traversed.
Reach a saddle on the crest at 4.3 miles from the trailhead. There are excellent views to the west where the mountains of the Gila National Forest crowd the skyline. The views east are limited, but at least it is a healthy, unburned swath of forest that crowns the ridge above Holden’s Prong.
In the saddle you will find an intersection with the Crest Trail, #79. There are several possible loops you could make, but on a short winter’s day it seemed best to head west on the Crest Trail to a nearby height of land with views east. Follow trail #79 for an additional 0.3 miles, where it sharply rounds a prominent rib. Go off-trail and follow the rib to a small prominence crowded with scrub oak. A bit of bulling through the oak will bring you to vistas into Holden’s Prong and out across the basin to the Caballo Range in the east. Return the way you came.
Folks who live in El Paso, Las Cruces, Deming, Silver City, Truth-Or-Consequences (or any nearby community) all share recreational gold in this resource. If getting out of the house sounds good, then pull on those hiking boots and give West Railroad Canyon a shot. You could hardly ask for a more beautiful spot in which to stretch your legs. Want to impress your hiking friends (or trying to recruit someone who hikes)? Send them here.
The season will matter. On this date the morning was cold enough to merit three layers (polypro undershirt, flannel midlayer and a fleece vest). However, the moment the sun’s rays penetrated to the canyon bottom both the polypro and the fleece came off. Even on the ridge it was warm enough to make the flannel a little too much. In the warm months this west-facing terrain probably bakes – you’d have real reason to celebrate the shade offered by those Ponderosa pines. This is just a guess, but the best time of year might be early spring. In late March, April or early May the days would be long enough to permit exploration without the sweltering or the lightening risk that comes with summer days.
I got through three liters of water – despite the February date it was warm after mid-morning. On a hot day you’ll want at least two or three more liters.
The risks are pretty standard for hiking in New Mexico. Snow patches were found along the trail but on this date they offered no serious barrier to hiking . There was no evidence that I could find of avalanche risk. That said, deep snow has been reported here, hikers should have a clear idea of the limits to their risk-tolerance. In warm weather the terrain probably rattles. There was enough evidence of the Silver Fire that strong winds would be a concern. The fire has reduced the fuel-load on these slopes so future fire risk is probably diminished – but certainly not eliminated. In drought conditions the entire waterway may be dry so bring your water from home.
Desert Lavender describes a camping trip up West Railroad Canyon then across the Black Range crest to Emory Pass.
Southern New Mexico Explorer has a report on hiking in West Railroad Canyon (and the neighboring canyons). He visited before the fire and captured some very nice photos of aspen in their fall colors.
The Gila Back County Horsemen of New Mexico were here in April and described their efforts in opening this trail. Many thanks to those folks!
The Forest Service has a page for Railroad Canyon. It mentions that a loop could be formed by ascending Railroad Canyon (Trail 128), traversing the Black Range Crest (Trail 79) and descending Gallinas Canyon (Trail 129). That could be done by hikers who are faster than me or who chose to explore on a day with longer daylight hours. Curiously, they make no mention of East Railroad Canyon, which would also make a great loop. There are important navigation challenges for these loops. The junction between the Crest Trail and Gallinas Canyon Trail is in a stand of badly burned aspen and there was no sign marking the junction when I was last there. I assume that the sign was lost in the fire. In contrast, the junction between the Crest Trail and East Railroad Canyon is clearly signed. Some stretches of the tread into East Railroad Canyon, however, have been obliterated by wholesale rearrangement of forest soils. It would require good path-finding skills to follow it into East Railroad Canyon.