Aldo Leopold Wilderness, 2020

Aldo Leopold’s burned legacy: forgettable hike in wilderness that bears his name

We had planned to revisit the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in southern New Mexico for years. Our first trip in late May 1982 whisked through the area on a loop encompassing part of the Black Range (on a short segment of the Continental Divide Trail), Gila River crossings and more time in the adjacent Gila Wilderness. It was too hot in the pinyon-juniper country and the higher elevation Mogollon mountains were too snowy for pleasant passage.

I had always wanted to hike the Black Range Crest Trail from south at Emory Pass Vista to north end near Lookout Mountain. For some reason we did not do that in 1982. This year, David hoped to make this northbound trek but soon learned that the Silver Fire of 2013 had wiped out most of the southern leg of the crest trail. He designed a trip using only trails known to be recently cleared and avoiding the worst recent fires. However much older fires had decimated the Black Range Crest and conifer trees are not returning.

In fact, after two days of hiking badly burned ridges, navigating through New Mexican locust, downed logs and a lot of bare slopes, I was ready to leave the high country.

The Aldo Leopold Wilderness was designated in 1980; we first came in 1982 and big fires came shortly afterwards. What little we remember no longer exists. And other than a little volunteer work, old trails are not being restored. Neither the Forest Service nor the Continental Divide Trail Association seem to have much interest in keeping trails on this high elevation ridge.

Although fire records are difficult to obtain before 2000, local contacts say the area started burning more frequently in the 1980s. Over 10 more fires including the 2013 Silver Fire (which burned almost 140,000 acres) have scorched the area since 2000. Fire effects definitely dominated our 2020 visit to the area.

The area was initially part of the Gila Wilderness named in 1924 by the Forest Service and included in the original Wilderness Act of 1964. In 1980, this section east of the national forest road 150 was made a separate wilderness to honor conservationist Aldo Leopold, who spent his early career in New Mexico and first suggested the Gila Wilderness.

Aldo Leopold Wilderness has been called the “wildest wilderness in New Mexico”—but this remote area along the crest of the Black Range likely gets few visitors because much is burned.
Frequent fires since the 1980s culminating in large Silver Fire of 2013 have charred the 9000-foot elevation crest. Big down logs, treeless windy slopes, slippery contours, and biting New Mexican locust thorns have marred the legacy trail winding its way through stumps of mostly burned mixed- conifer forest. Much will be a dense aspen corridor but that is still a few decades away barring no more large fires or drastic climate changes.
The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) formerly followed Black Range of but some has been rerouted through canyons because of too many large fallen logos (with more ever falling) and exploding New Mexican locust. Most CDT thru-hikers now skip the Aldo due to poor trail conditions and lack of water, hiking the Gila Wilderness instead which also cuts off 80 miles.
Our April 2020 hike, second visit in almost 40 years, started on Forest Road 150 to connect to CDT on the Continental Divide, then followed CDT reroute down Aspen Canyon and up Black Canyon to Black Range crest; next on over Diamond Peak, leaving CDT at South Fork Diamond Creek Trail and ending on obscure but good trail over a pinyon-juniper mesa to Forest Road 150 that bisects Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas. Highlight was Reed’s Meadow, unburned area cloaked in forest and frequented by turkey and elk. Creeks were running well and wildflowers just starting at lower elevations; pockets of large fire-resistant ponderosa pine were a relief in the burned canyons.
Visit statistics: 7 days, 82 miles at 2 mph, and 450 feet per mile average elevation change; average pace was inflated by 9 miles road hiking at start of trip and good Gila trail at end—1.6 to 1.7 mph was pace on Aldo Leopold trails.
See map below for detailed daily routes, mileages, elevation changes, and photos.

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In 1982 we hiked (what is now called) the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) into the Aldo Leopold Wilderness starting from Lake Roberts. This time we skipped the first 13 miles (in the Gila Wilderness), driving Forest Road 150 a couple hours to a trailhead between Diamond and Black canyons where we planned to emerge. Leaving our vehicle, we hiked road a bit over nine miles back to Rocky Point to start our backpack on the CDT.

The CDT was quite nice for the first couple miles, flanked by remnant pine and many logs cut out by chainsaw outside wilderness boundary. Once into the wilderness, fewer logs were cut and the old trail contoured its way through barren slopes, with a steep rocky drop to a saddle. We were happy when trail contoured side slopes in trees out of the howling April wind. At heavily burned Signboard Saddle, a sign indicated a CDT reroute off the ridge (into Aspen Canyon) due to down trees and dangerous conditions.

After a windy camp below the saddle, we followed the reroute down the canyon. A couple miles down, burn effects lessened and we were in nice pine groves or meadow most of the way to Black Canyon. Only a few trees had been sawed out; we soon learned why. The heavily loaded older fellow (with a female helper) said he was steward for this segment. A week ago he came in to clear the trail and his small dog ran away. He had focused on nothing else since.

Black Canyon, a piney flat at the confluence with Aspen Creek, narrowed on the way up with increasingly deep creek crossings that led me to exchange boots for running shoes and slosh my way across them. Grass was clumpy, perhaps effect of post-fire flooding. We met the only other people of the trip—members of a turkey hunting party with a big base camp back at the confluence.

Midday on the third day we topped the crest at Reed’s Meadow, throwback to the old days: a mostly intact park flanked by ponderosa pine, spruce, and other mixed-conifers. We decided to stop for a couple nights, dropping packs under spruce at head of meadow. That afternoon we followed a cleared trail up the meadow, east over the burned ridge, and down a steep eroded path to burned saddle above Rattlesnake Canyon. The entire eastside watershed was burned bare of much vegetation.

Next day we hiked south on crest to Reeds Peak. Leaving the meadow forest, we ascended wide trail through dense juvenile aspen from a fire at over 20 years old, then contoured around burned slope to remnant mixed-conifer and a meadow. It was the old route of the “closed” CDT but was recently cleared with locust cut. (CDT section from Signboard Saddle to Reeds Peak is on the Forest Service’s “not recommended” trails list but CDT from Reeds Peak to Meadow is on the “trails cleared” list.) To our surprise, the old fire lookout and cabin on Reeds Peak were intact. Other highlight was wild turkeys in Reeds Meadow. I saw two hens and David a big tom with puffed-out tail feathers.

Beyond Reeds Meadow, the crest and CDT were mostly barren, thorny, and not recently cleared of logs. I did not like the trail that streaked up Diamond Peak and the unsightly peak over-grown with brush did not even offer views. Only foundation blocks of an old lookout remained. We dropped down the backside of the peak through a nice stretch of remnant old-growth trees, then switchbacks through burned area and dried ferns that once contained Diamond Peak Spring.

Distracted by the masses of ferns draped over everything and a downed log, we missed our turnoff for South Diamond Creek Trail. We thought perhaps trail had been rerouted from the four-way junction below, and headed down a nicely cleared trail (with aspen pruned to the roots). A quarter mile down, David called a halt. Wrong trail. The “Diamond” sign did omit “South” and we were clearly heading to main Diamond Creek.

We trudged back up the mountain and found the fallen South Diamond sign obscured in brush exactly according to correct GPS location! Trail was good from there onward, other than a very steep drop into the creek, I gladly would have missed.

We made camp at confluence of Burnt and South Diamond canyons in a remnant ponderosa stand. Just above the junction, I startled an elk and saw a big brown rump bounding down the trail. The canyon on down widened, old-growth ponderosa was abundant, and trail was mellow; only mishaps were boggy meadows and a few challenging creek crossings. The trail switchbacking out of canyon towards Meown Hill was an excellent legacy trail reminiscent of pre-fire hiking; after the hill, a cut-off trail across a pinyon-juniper mesa was level and easy. A marked trail joined us from Black Canyon; David thought this might have been our route out of the wilderness in 1982.

Back at the vehicle, we drove north and hiked in Tom Moore Trail to camp in old-growth ponderosa pine in the Gila Wilderness. This canyon was also burned but much pine and grassy flats were left so hiking was fast and pleasant. We easily pulled off a 13-mile round trip morning to the end of the canyon the next day, passing old tanks and other water developments from past grazing. Saw no cattle anywhere.

We later learned the trail work we saw around Reeds Meadow was done by a university group that studies cougars. Interestingly, David saw cougar tracks on one of the cleared trails. We saw no thru-hikers on the CDT; only one “thru” bicyclist on his way to Canada riding FR-150 between the two wilderness areas (CDT offers parallel bike routes outside of wilderness and other sections not fit for mountain bikes).

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