Along the Great Divide

Humans and nature collude to create superior hiking (and dining) conditions on the Continental Divide Trail in Southwestern NM

The Continental Divide Trail is the crown jewel—and, at 3,100 miles, the longest—of our 30 National Scenic Trails, among which are the Appalachian and Pacific Coast trails. The CDT, as it’s known, extends across five states, from the glaciers of the Canadian border in Montana to the Mexican border in New Mexico. Some friends and I were headed to the 12 miles of it that’s in my back yard, in the southwest corner of the state, smack dab in the Gila National Forest, far from pavement and digital-age distraction.

Our group’s guide, onetime CDT Volunteer of the Year Joseph Gendron (who happens to be a neighbor of mine), quickly disabused me of what you might call the classic Continental Divide myth: that wherever you stand along the actual Divide, facing south, water flowing away from you to your right will seep toward the Pacific, while water flowing to your left will migrate toward the Atlantic. This is true in much of Colorado, Gendron said, “but it’s not quite as simple as that here. New Mexico’s topography is more complex. One watershed we’ll be hiking atop today is what’s called a closed basin: its river doesn’t reach any ocean at all.”

Furthermore, as Bob Julyan pointed out in his New Mexico’s Continental Divide Trail: The Official Guide, the actual Divide meanders wildly in New Mexico, and twice it even splits. In our state, the Divide is not even a cut-and-dried feature one can always pinpoint.

Sometimes, in fact, it even moves. As we parked a shuttle car at the end of our route (the CDT parking lot at the Sapillo Creek Forest Service campground, near the tiny enclave of Lake Roberts), Gendron said, “The whole point of the CDT is to promote roadless quiet. This portion of this trail was along a road until a decade ago. It’s hard to emphasize the difference between the two experiences.”

Gendron would know. Driving toward the marked CDT trailhead at what maps still call the Allie Canyon Trail (an hour out of Silver City along Signal Peak Road), I learned that our pending hike was designed and, in some parts, physically hand-built by Gendron himself. A strapping 63-year-old, Gendron is a fellow who wears a goofy, blissed-out permagrin the moment he leaves motorized travel behind and hits a trail. “I started volunteering for the CDT as an excuse to explore outdoors,” he told me.

To build a trail into a remote alpine forest, Gendron and his fellow trail builders used a tool called a Pickmatic: “You’re trying to make a shelf,” he explained, “turning a sloping hillside into a trailbed.” As the CDT itself was created by a federal law—the National Trails System Act of 1978—“we got a lot of help from U.S. Forest Service trail crews,” he said.

Two things Gendron loved about the route we were approaching this spring morning: one was that it was “single-track”—no chance of encounters with ATVs, or with anything made closer to the digital age than the bicycle. The other was the sheer biodiversity of the high-desert forest ecosystem in which we would be immersed. In fact, what proved to be the most unforgettable quality of the hike for me were the continuous and dramatic transitions. We began amid ponderosa pine and Douglas fir at what my GPS said was 8,500 feet, with pre-monsoon thunder rumbling like distant conversation. From there, blessedly, it was all downhill. If it was cheating gravity to hike downhill for 12 miles, I wasn’t complaining. Neither was Gendron or anyone else.

Those first couple of miles were mature forest right on the Divide. It was so pleasant, it felt as if the trail were walking me. That might be arguable, but wrens were definitely serenading us with complex trills. Idyllic, panoramic valley vistas kept popping up around bends.

Then things got enticingly weird—we dipped into the 2006 Skate Canyon Fire zone. This had been a 12,582-acre burn; when we gazed up at it from the road that morning, a dozen mountains still had a torched look. Up close, it was a very different story, one of incredibly rapid ecosystem rebirth. Three-leaf sumac was growing through black chunks of juniper and charred-out piñon, with mountain mahogany and belly-high grama grass reclaiming the soil—all just seven years after the fire. The forest and all its residents were back. We had to hopscotch around constant fox and coyote scat.

The recovering meadows I was skipping through were so alive with wildflowers and birdsong that I was reminded of how much fire is a necessary part of the high desert’s life cycle. Ponderosas need the heat for their cones to open, and species ranging from Douglas fir to deer appreciate the space.

By mid-afternoon, with a hint of creosote-scented rain keeping the temperature pleasant and smearing the sky in violet streaks down the western horizon, we sank into a vast garden of budding agave, some eight feet tall, that seemed to continue unbroken for a mile. If you dropped one alien in the ponderosa groves that started our day, and another here in this Dr. Seuss–scape, they’d come back insisting they’d visited different planets.

The birdcalls here were totally distinct from those we heard in the first part of the hike. In fact, the broad diversity resulting from the constantly transitioning ecosystems is why the Gila National Forest, at 2,710,659 acres, has at least 574 species of plants and animals, according to a 2008 Nature Conservancy study. By mid-afternoon, I felt as if I’d seen about 523 of them.

You work up quite a hunger hiking a dozen miles, even when it’s all downhill. That’s why our first stop was the new Little Toad Creek Inn and Tavern, three miles from Lake Roberts, a 15-minute drive from our parked rig. There, the herbs in your appetizer are likely to have been gathered in the same forest we’d just hiked through. On the deck that overlooks the Sapillo Valley, I had a home-brewed Toad Creek Amber. But what I’m still dreaming about is the main course I enjoyed in the handsome main dining room. Oh, that Shrimp Poblano—with a cream sauce containing just the right spicy bite, served over rice and seasonal veggies.

Joseph Gendron maintained his grin during the ale-accompanied sunset and meal. I got the sense that this kind of day never gets old for the guy, even though he’s been working on the Continental Divide Trail since 1997.

“The whole experience has left me with appreciation of Continental Divide geology,” he admitted. “I’m just feeling lucky to live along this stretch of it.”

Need to Know

Continental Divide Trail Hike from the Old Allie Canyon Trailhead to Sapillo Creek Campground: Hike the spine of the continent in the heart of the Gila National Forest. Overlook the Black Range Wilderness and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness while traversing a high-desert eco-system that transitions from Douglas fir and ponderosa pine to fire-scarred juniper and piñon and, finally, agave gardens in the course of one 12-mile downhill hike.

Getting There: From the junction of U.S. 180 and N.M. 15, in Silver City, travel 8 miles N. to the community of Pinos Altos, then another 8 miles N. to the intersection, on the right, with Signal Peak Road (F.S.R. 154). From there it’s approximately 6 miles to the marked CDT trailhead, at what maps still call the Allie Canyon trailhead pull-off (no designated parking area). Signal Peak Rd. is an improved dirt road accessible by two-wheel-drive vehicle except in extremely wet weather. We first parked a shuttle car at the end of our route (the CDT parking lot at the Sapillo Creek Forest Service campground, 2 miles SE of Lake Roberts). This is highly recommended; otherwise, you have to hike back uphill at whatever you decide is your midway point.

Continental Divide Trail: For trail-access info throughout New Mexico: continentaldividetrail.org. Joseph Gendron recommends the Arrastra Site Trail, off N.M. 15, N. of Pinos Altos; and a trailhead north of Little Walnut picnic area, just outside Silver City along FSR 506. In northern New Mexico, a favorite is the San Pedro Parks Wilderness Route, a 26-mile hike between Cuba and the Río Capulín trailhead, at the northern end of the San Pedro Parks Wilderness.

Further reading: Though in places outdated and not so easy to find, a helpful guidebook is New Mexico’s Continental Divide Trail, by author Bob Julyan and photographers Tom Till and William Stone (Westcliff, 2001).

LODGING AND DINING

Little Toad Creek Inn and Tavern: Locavore dining and microbrewery; Rooms from $45. 1122 N.M. 35, Mimbres, at the junction of N.M. 15 and N.M. 35; (575) 536-9649; littletoadcreek.com

Wilderness Lodge and Hot Springs: Full lodge bookings only; from $550 per night for up to 16 people. Gila Hot Springs; (575) 536-9749; gilahot.com

CAMPING

Sapillo Creek Campground: Gila National Forest, 2 miles SE of Lake Roberts via N.M. 35; publiclands.org/explore/site.php

PROVISIONS
Silver City Food Coop: 520 N. Bullard St., Silver City.(575) 388-2343