Fire, Floods & Cow Pastures—Oh My!
We used to admire the Blue Range—a sprawling hunk of high-elevation wild country on the Arizona-New Mexico border—during our student days in Tucson. We often hiked the nearby and better known Gila Wilderness, and could see the “Blue” ridge upon ridge from Gila peaks only about 30 miles away.
It was on our bucket list in the 1970s. Too bad we never got there.
In 2011, we took a road trip from Washington D.C. area back to our native West to visit favorite areas. We had planned a brief foray into the Blue Range Wilderness in New Mexico and perhaps further into the primitive area in Arizona. However, when we got to New Mexico, the only place not burning that we could visit was west end of the Gila Wilderness—the Wallow Fire was already in progress. The Blue would have to wait.
The Wallow Fire, which jumped the highway into the Blue Range from adjacent Bear Wallow Wilderness, burned about 540,000 acres; forcing evacuation in town of Alpine and decimating most of the high elevation mixed-conifer forest that dominates the northwestern primitive area..
We finally got to the Blue Range Primitive Area in April 2017. Lacking good planning information, we unfortunately spent most of our time in the heavily burned northwest end where the Wallow Fire had left only remnant cienegas (Spanish for wet meadow) with few trees, only a little old-growth conifer and oak and many trails damaged or obliterated by fire. East side of river was nicer but dryer; with minimal water and lots more cattle.
Our trip beganin unburned forest near Hannagan Meadows, but soon dropped into an area of green grass and tree skeletons—the most common sight throughout the high country. We found considerable old-growth ponderosa pine that survived the fire, also often occupied by cattle.
Grey skies and rain showers dominated a several of evenings, otherwise weather was mostly pleasant with some chilly mornings. We had to plan carefully to work around limited dependable water on the east side. Trails were fairly in fairly good condition to follow except upper Foote Creek trail washed out in canyon and over-grown with brush on hillside; also some down logs on ridges in the high country.
After our trip we did some reading on the area’s history and were surprised to learn that overuse of the Blue Range began 140 years ago, changing vegetation, which led to floods washing out the Blue River Valley farms, and perhaps setting the stage for catastrophic fire in the new millennium.
Blue Range Primitive Area in Arizona is the only national forest primitive area left in United States not reclassified wilderness—most likely due to local politics. Local ranchers have consistently opposed wilderness designation of this 180,000-acre area.
Our April 2017 visit to the northern half of the primitive area looped from Hannagan Meadows on westside, descending highly burned ciengas (wet areas) and crossing the Blue River twice, once in a remote area and once in community of private inholdings along Blue Road. Highlights were Bear Mountain lookout and nearby Devil’s Monument in New Mexico’s Blue Range Wilderness.
Wallow Fire of 2011, the largest in recent history in Arizona, severely damaged the northwest quarter of the Blue Range Primitive Area by killing most of the high-elevation mixed-conifer forest on western side and subsequent flooding that scoured many streams and left rock heaps. Rolling ponderosa pine on the northeastern side fared better but that area is called—quite accurately—“pasture” by local cattle ranchers. Post-fire hiking barriers included lost trails, down logs, and riparian canyons converted to boulder fields. Limited water particularly on the eastside offered additional challenge.
But ecological demise of the Blue Range probably started much earlier; see the story for more.
Old-growth ponderosa pine were abundant on eastside and survived fire on some ridges and in canyons on westside; periodic white-rock formations captivated attention. We regretted not visiting this area before the Wallow Fire, ironically started by careless backpackers in the nearby Bear Wallow Wilderness.
Water availability varies and should be checked out in advance. We often use nearby U.S. Geological Survey real-time gauging stations (found online) to judge area water availability. For example, USGS 09444200 station on Blue River 7 miles south of primitive area boundary showed about 20 cubic per second flow (cps) during our 2017 visit (about 5 cps below normal. Therefore, one could check current flow conditions just before a trip and compare with data for our 2017 trip to expect more or less water than we found.
Visit statistics: 8 days, 69 miles, and 450 feet per mile average elevation change. GPS records were lost so statistics based on map data; we have no estimate of mph, but know it was slow going in burned areas.
See map below for trailheads, detailed daily routes, mileages, elevation changes, and photos.
Blue Range Settlement History
The Blue Range is a series of plateaus along the Blue River, which flows south from the Mogollon Rim to the Gila River. Remote, rough, and roamed by Apache Indian bands, the Blue did not attract white pioneers until 1880s when Texas stockmen brought cattle to graze open (unregulated) range and farmers homesteaded on the river—a community of 300 by 1890.
Many early settlers had no formal land claim on these unclassified public lands which became part of the Black Mesa Forest Reserve in 1897 and were transferred to the new Forest Service in 1905. Some Forest Service officials tried to evict the squatters but most eventually obtained a patent for 160-acre homesteads and a lease of federal grazing lands costing about 50 cents to $1 per acre per year (Stauder, 2009).
According to historian Stauder, this overgrazing had devastating effect on the Blue River around the turn of the century. After settlers cut trees, plowed and planted crops, diverted flows for irrigation and grazed the area, a drought followed by wet years resulted in unprecedented flash flooding that washed away three-fourths of the once lush bottomlands and left a wide wash full of boulders. Many farmers left.
Conservationist Aldo Leopold was sent by the Forest Service to inspect the Blue Range in the 1920s and was the first to note possible ecological effects of overgrazing. He wrote his reflections on Blue Range situation in an unpublished 1924 manuscript, later paraphrased in a book on the evolution of Leopold’s ideas on ecology (Flader, 1974) as summarized below:
In the late 1800s, the Southwest boasted vast summer grasses stirrup high. By the 1920s, grass had been replaced by vast brush fields and higher up, dense thickets of yellow pine. From fire scars in junipers 500 years old, ending just after white settlement, Leopold saw a record of periodic fire caused by lightning or set by Indians that lightly thinned brush and kept a mosaic of grass and trees. But overgrazing by hundreds of thousands of cattle and sheep thinned the grass which had carried fire, and bush began to take the country.
The Forest Service designated Blue Range as primitive area in 1933 and recommended wilderness in 1971. Congress designated a Blue Range Wilderness in New Mexico in 1980 but never made the Arizona part wilderness; today it is the only national forest primitive area.
Our 2017 visit to northern Blue Range Primitive Area
Almost 100 years after Aldo Leopold’s inspection, we found the Blue Range dry, still impacted by erosion and overgrazing, home to unfriendly in-holders, and further devasted by fire. We also wondered if the dense forest Leopold saw in 1920 had increased and helped fuel the Wallow Fire.
After two days hiking through the Wallow burn from Hanagan Meadows, we crossed the Blue River to find ponderosa pine and grass forest, less fire damage (from other fires, Wallow Fire did not cross the River), and historic highlights such as Bear Mountain Lookout and Franz Cabin. We hiked into the Blue Range Wilderness in New Mexico to see the Devil’s Monument of soaring grey sandstone. We worked around limited water options for this part of the trip.
Biggest surprise occurred when we looped back to Blue River on national forest trail that abruptly ended up in someone’s backyard; one of several private properties in the unincorporated area of Blue River Valley. First, our trail came to a Forest Service sign reading Hinkle Spring and Bonanza Bill, where we had just come from. Beyond sign was a wire gate, some buildings, and vehicles but no people. We continued down the road to a metal gate which we climbed over.
On the other side of gate was a sign with a gun pointing out and labeled “There is nothing here worth dying for.” Glad we missed this unhospitable landowner. Further investigation of a mailbox (marked “Gaddy”) indicated a long absence; several years of mail had accumulated.
We went on around a bend into forest and headed to the Blue River for a bath. I had zipped off pant legs to cross the river and left them on a rock. Ants! Distracted, I forgot the pants legs and continued up the road in my shorts—and remembered them that evening, far up Foote Creek Trail. When hiking got rough, I hiked in rain pants until it got too hot.
Upper Foote Creek was a washed-out boulder field with ghost-white dead trees, down logs, brush, and a few remnant ponderosa pine. Little trail remained, but we saw cairns and fairly new flagging in spots. A hot hike across a rocky mesa of mostly burned mixed-conifer forest brought us back to our trailhead. We left with little desire to return.
Guess we’ll leave the northern Blue Range to the Blue River Valley in-holders and their cattle.
- Google Earth map (kmz)
- GPS data lost
(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVAGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)