Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Grand Enchantment Trail and the End of the Hike

When Rachel and I got back to Chama, NM, where we flipped to Glacier National Park 4 months earlier, we knew we didn't want to keep hiking on the CDT in New Mexico.  The trail south of where we started the CDT in Grants, NM has a lot of paved road walking, is generally flat and has only a few highlights.  The trail also splits at one point, one direction takes you further east to the Black Range and the much more popular western route through the middle fork of the Gila River canyons.  The Gila route has more water (arguably too much water since you cross the river over a hundred times), canyon walls and some cliff dwellings and is shorter.    At the same time, we didn't feel like the hiking year was over yet so we decided to try and bag the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET) which happens to go through both the Black Range and the west fork of the Gila River while avoiding paved road walks and hitting more of the Southwest's sky islands, short high elevation mountain ranges that poke up out of the desert.  The GET also has more cross country sections, which I find more interesting than trail. However, we'd be starting October 14th, at least two weeks later than a typical westbound GET start date.

The GET would also give Rachel a chance at planning a long distance hike since I had already done most of the planning for the years hiking up until then.  I took care of acquiring the maps and she worked on the resupply plan and itinerary.  We figured we would have just enough time to hike from the eastern GET terminus at Sandia Mountain in Albuquerque to where the GET joins the AZT near Superior, AZ, about 130 miles from its finish and still get home for thanksgiving but it was looking tight.  We figured we would go for it and get done what we could, but a full through hike wouldn't be possible since we would probably miss the western most 30 miles of the GET.  Special thanks to Matt and Yogi who printed the maps on short notice and mailed them to us in Albuquerque all for free since I contributed in the 2015 PCT guidebook.

Brett "Blisterfree" Tucker created the GET and has an excellent website that makes the planning process easy, although there's almost too much information.  He's also very responsive to questions so feel free to contact him if you're interested in the route.

We started the trail out by taking the gondola ride up to the top of Sandia Peak, saving us most of a day and a 4,000 foot climb.  We had to pick up my new sleeping pad from REI which cost a lot of time and only got to the top of the mountain late in the day.  Since it was October, the sun was setting before 7 pm and rising around 6:30 am so we were starting to really feel the lack of daylight.  We got a few miles in, found a nice spot and dry camped.  From there the trail traversed the crest of the Sandia Mountains and dropped us off at a trailhead just up route from an unlisted on-trail Subway restaurant!  A gondola ride up to the top of a 10,000+ foot tall mountain AND lunch on trail? This was certainly no CDT!

Man that gondola ride was tough!

The Sandia Crest

After the Sandia mountains there is an option to skirt some very remote private land or hike a 27 mile roadwalk, which no one does.  That really hit home that we weren't on a national scenic trail anymore, just a route some guy thinks is cool (and it is). After that the GET climbed up to our second sky island - the rugged Manzano Range.  The trail seemed to get little use and was easy to lose at first but got more distinct as we continued.  We got a good feel for the route in this section as Brett mixed road walks, trail and short cross country sections to keep you moving to the next highlight.

Rachel in the Manzano's

Desert views from the Manzano's
That's the trail!

We hit our first hitching road to Mountainair, NM, a tiny arts and ranching community near ABQ.  The night before we camped a few miles from the road at dark and planned on catching an early ride into town.  Just as we were waking up a storm hit that dropped an insane amount of rain, flooding the ground our tent was pitched over and getting everything muddy.  You tend to get kind of lazy about campsite selection in the desert since it rarely rains.  This time we really got burned! This storm started a pattern since the next five weeks we'd see six more just like it, even though November is typically New Mexico's driest month.

From Mountainair we hiked our way into Magdelena, NM.  The section was mostly jeep trails with connecting cross country segments.  A lot of the cross country is following a (normally) dry wash, but our second storm hit several days in and we had to either avoid the washes with roads or cross them while they were flooded.  One wash in particular was looking very fast and deep so we waited almost an hour for it to recede.  That was a good plan until another storm cell approached and we decided to just go for it before that cell raised the water back up!  This was probably the worst crossing of the whole year - waist deep, fast and muddy so you can't see the bottom.  Rachel and I crossed facing together, arm in arm, walking sideways.  That way my legs could break a little of the current for her and we could use each other for stability.  It was a little more intense than we were expecting for New Mexico in fall.

An easy crossing!
Wall of water and rainbows!

Towards the end of the segment we had the option of fording the Rio Grande, whose headwaters we drank from in Colorado a month earlier, or taking a long dirt road walk to a bridge.  We played it safe and took the bridge since the river would probably be in flood stage.  The next storm hit a day later and we got treated to half a dozen rainbows, including three at one time!

The last few days on that stretch we started seeing several sets of boot prints on some of the cross country.  We unexpectedly found their owners ten miles before town - a trio of german hikers with big packs and big leather boots to match!  They were aghast at our lightweight packs and trail runners and we hung out a bit in town and camped together the next night.  They were out for a few weeks and had just started after the Rio Grande crossing.  Unfortunately one of them hurt her ankle in the weeks leading up to the trip and it hadn't healed.  She wasn't able to go very far so they decided to modify their trip and hitch to the Gila hot springs area.  They were amazed when the woman at the post office gave them the number of a woman in Silver City who would host and drive them around. I guess that's unusual in Germany!

The trail after Magdalena climbs up to South Badly at 10,783 feet and past an observatory.  There's a nice trail down to a road but the trailhead is on private hunting land. Apparently the owners decided they don't want people crossing their land so we had to do a slow and circuitous bushwack around it.  It was steep and rough, full of thorns and especially frustrating when you could be cruising down a trail and dirt road.

Our next highlight was Potato Canyon - a really cool riparian area with lots of water and steep canyon walls.  The trail in the canyon was tricky to follow until we climbed up out of the canyon to the base of Mount Withington. Then we had a pleasant roadwalk with occasional views of the desert floor below and our next mountain range - the San Mateo's.

The GET used to follow the San Mateo Range south, then go through Monticello Canyon - supposedly a beautiful riparian corridor ending in a magnificent box canyon.  Unfortunately a new landowner has closed one section of the canyon, requiring an alternate around it.  Brett has one listed but he never actually hiked it, so it turns out we were the guinea pigs.

We first shortened the route by taking a side trail down San Mateo canyon rather than continuing south along the ridge, then heading north to the alternate.  The trail in the canyon was difficult to follow but you're in a canyon, so you'll find it eventually.  There were a lot of blow downs for several miles too, which is annoying.  The nice part was the perennial stream in the canyon that would mean east bounders climbing up wouldn't have to carry water until the switchbacks that lead up to the ridge.

We connected to Brett's reroute on a steep descent into Kelly Canyon then following up a side canyon.  We were a little surprised by a 6 or 7 foot pour off - a low cliff - at the very start of the side canyon but scrambled up to the right of it pretty easily.  Then another pour off and some scrambling up slabs.  It was tricky to figure out which branch of the canyon to stay in, so we climbed up out of it for a minute to get a better view, then down back into the main side canyon.   Staying right worked up until the top and we made it out just before dark.  We then had some dirt road walks past dry or gross water sources until hitting some newly installed solar wells.

We reached the road to Winston - a tiny ranching community we sent a box to 20 miles away - around lunchtime and hoped for a ride within a few hours.  It was looking grim with only three trucks going the wrong way by 2 pm and another storm system moving rapidly towards us when a truck pulled over.  The woman driving asked if we wanted to get inside somewhere for the storm, even though she lived three miles in the wrong way.  We said sure and suddenly found ourselves being spoiled by the wife and friend of a local hunting guide!  They were just finishing up the season and had lots of extra food to get rid of - a hikers fantasy!

Annika asked if we had been in San Mateo canyon the day before; apparently two hikers had spooked a big elk her husband and client were stalking - oops!  Later that day the guide came home, he was packing out the elk that didn't run when we walked by, and wasn't too happy about us being there initially but quickly warmed up.  I think people who spend a lot of time in the outdoors have a deep connection that makes itself apparent, whether or not you do entirely different things.  Their family has lived in the area for five generations and they were more concerned with protecting it than the average Subaru driving environmentalist.  Anyhow, Annika and her husband hosted us that night and had a friend pick up our boxes from Winston.  We showered, did laundry, which we couldn't do in Magdelena so things were getting nasty, and ate a ton of great food.  They even sent us packing with a pound of elk sausage!

The next stretch actually took us back onto the official CDT in the Black Range.  It was pretty mellow for a mountain range and full of burn.  At one point we couldn't find a campsite until almost 9 pm because the burned plants grew back in too thick and the trail traversed a steep ridge for miles and miles.  Usually you can pick saddles or flat spots out from your topographic map but everything was covered in new growth.  We ended up camping on top of Diamond Peak, over 10,000 feet again!

The next few days we spent on a horse trail that follows Diamond creek.  The creek meanders overtime between low canyon walls which means the trail has to cross them since you can't just climb the canyon wall.  That's fine if you're on a horse but crossing a freezing cold creek when there's still frost on the ground at noon is a new kind of suffering!  The canyons don't get much sunlight and cold air sinks into them at night. Rachel has raynaud's so her feet really really hurt to the point where she had trouble walking.

We walked into the Gila Hot Springs area and got a ride to Doc Campels post - a tiny general store run by an ornery old man.   Turns out the box I had prepared from the CDT was the second part of a two box resupply and had almost no food in it.  Rachel bummed me some and we figured we'd resupply again at the tiny town of Alma which has just a convenience store.  Another storm blew in that night and dropped snow above about 6,000 feet.  We decided to give it a day and let things melt so we forked over more money than normal for a room across the street from Docs.  Bonus: heated floors!

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument didn't open until 10 am the next day and it took us a while to get there without a car.  We ended up staying for the 11 am tour and not hitting the trail until after noon.  Of course the trail crosses the west fork of the Gila River about seventy times over the next seventeen miles.  The crossings got progressively deeper after we passed the option to hike out of the canyon on a series of longer but parallel trails.  We should have gone back but I was kind of stubborn and though the canyon was cool.   Rachel was freezing!  We camped only eight miles or so in and still had at least half the crossings left.  The night was clear so we made a fire to dry out our pants and shoes so they didn't freeze overnight.  You can't really dry out shoes completely so we still had to warm them up on the stove the next morning.

The next morning we tried to climb out of the canyon but got cliffed out and had to turn around.  We were going to wait until it warmed up to start "hiking" (swimming?) anyway so we didn't lose too much time but it was sketchy going back down.  We finally made it out of the canyon and up to a decent campsite around dusk.  Another fire, although the wood was kind of wet and our shoes were only partially frozen the next morning.

Some cliff dwellings a few miles from the national monument site.
The next part of the trail was burned for a few miles, covered in blow downs and thorns and I misread the map and thought it would stay like that all day.  We almost turned around!  Fortunately the burn was better after a few miles and we spotted a Mexican gray wolf!  They were reintroduced in the area but are still very rare.  In 3,000 miles this was our first wolf sighting!

We hit some snow on Mogollon Baldy but just a few inches deep, enough to see mountain lion, bear, wolf, elk, deer and rabbit prints all over the trail but no footprints! The views were really fantastic but we had to night hike to make it to a snow-free campsite at the trailhead.  Sleeping on snow with summer weight sleeping pads is a great way to spend a freezing cold night out and all the flat spots between had a few inches of crust.

The next day was an easy roadwalk down off the mountain and then into yet another canyon filled with creek crossings! At least this one ended in a riparian slot canyon near Alma!

From Alma we hiked through some lower but very rugged mountains into Arizona and eventually to the mining town of Morenci.  Initially we were excited since the motel, grocery store, post office and all you can eat pizza are within spitting distance of each other.  Sadly, the motel was full of mining contractors and we had to call up the motel in Clifton for a ride and a very expensive room.

I think at this point we were getting pretty frustrated with the weather, the fords and the towns.  The hike into Safford was pretty nice, mostly on the Safford-Morenci trail, a rugged historical trail between the two mining towns.  The way out of safford we hit yet another storm that dropped snow on the last high elevation part of the trail - Mount Graham.  At this point we were scheduled to get to Phoenix a day or two ahead of my flight out on Monday, were sick of the weather and tired from 8 months of hiking.  We decided to throw in the towel a days walk out of Safford.  So we walked and then hitched back to town, pigged out and rented a car in Globe to drive around Arizona for a few days.  We went up to Sedona for a night, which was nice but no Zion, check out some hieroglyphs and did some roadside camping.  Mostly it was just nice not to be walking, cold and wet and dependent on hitch hiking for the first time in eight months.

I think this was a much easier transition than trying to finish the GET, and now I have a week+ long backpacking trip I can do sometime in the future.

Overall the GET is a fantastic route.  Every day is both scenic and totally different from the last.

Photo's are here!


  1. Nice recap! I'll have to look into this trail more.

  2. Great recap! Looking forward to starting the GET in a few weeks.