Really, Really, Really Need to Start Reading Trail Descriptions: Black Range Crest Trail, Gila National Forest

After weeks in the desert I was in serious need of trees and mountains. So on a whim – as in, the morning of – I decided to hike in the Gila National Forest rather than do another lower elevation hike nearby. This necessitated a bit of a mad rush when I woke up since I’d be driving 2 hours to the trailhead as opposed to the half hour but I went into whirlwind-mode, quickly shoving spoonfuls of oatmeal into my face I scanned trail descriptions that I’d bookmarked previously. The Black Range Crest Trail to Hillsboro Peak, a 10 mile, 1,900ft elevation gain hike, caught my eye and I plugged the directions into my phone before grabbing what I needed and putting Abby in the car.

I very clearly did not read the trail description however or I forgot a key detail; all I recalled as I drove up the east side of the mountains was that the trailhead was located at Emory Pass. And so when I approached the pass and saw a trailhead marker with the correct number I parked and started walking. We began a fairly easy ascent through ponderosa pine but quickly entered a burn area which, after we continued to gain elevation, provided me with visibility to see the incredible contours and textures of the mountains to the west, north, and east. Despite the somber appearance of the charred stumps and dead, needle-less trees the vistas were thrilling as we circled peaks and crossed ridges. In fact, the only thing that was less than perfect were the 25mph sustained winds: I had anticipated temperatures in the 30s and was dressed appropriately but had not given much thought to the wind chill. I was carrying my winter pack however which includes all manners of layers and hats and headbands, but I mentally scolded myself for not paying attention to the weather.

About 2 hours into the hike I began to have the inkling that I hadn’t paid attention to something more important perhaps. As I said, we’d been following the ridgeline, mostly circling the peaks and steadily – but not drastically – gaining elevation since we’d first crossed into the burn area n at about the first mile. After we crested another hill at about the 4 mile mark I surveyed the terrain, noting the downward path of the trail and the lack of visible prominent peaks. But we walked on – until 15 more minutes of descent later I realized I was nowhere near any sort of mountain matching the elevation of Hillsboro Peak. I would have continued walking anyway but the descent appeared to continue and the views had evaporated so I decided this was a good turn around point.

Trudging back uphill we crossed the hill where I’d stopped and had begun the gentle walk downhill when I stopped short in front of some recent scat in the middle of the trail. I was nearly certain this hadn’t been here 30 minutes ago and turned to look for Abby who was behind me, scanning the trees. It was then that I realized she’d been scanning every time I’d looked back during the last 10 minutes, which more or less confirmed that there was something nearby. I say “something” because it was a predator — either a large coyote or a wolf — and I wasn’t sure which. I wasn’t very concerned about a single animal but I kept Abby close to me as we continued hiking just in case it was a pack. This incident wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that 2 miles later as we started down the switchbacks in a clear area that the fire had razed, I saw the wolf, 200 feet ahead and below me, slinkily trotting down the trail. Abby was behind me, looking the other way so I first called her to me and then, as the wolf turned her head at the sound of my voice, shouted at the sleek, gray mammal watching her pick up speed and scamper up the mountain. She was a beautiful animal and once I was certain she wasn’t going to bother us, I stood and watched her until she disappeared over the next ridge.

Very shortly after, we returned to the trailhead and walked across the road following signs for the lookout at the Emory Pass. Here I read about the Silver Fire that decimated the ponderosa forest in 2013 and a short history of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness to the north while I enjoyed the spectacular views over the valley to the east. Then I turned and saw another trailhead – the one heading north to Hillsboro Peak. It then occurred to me that I very clearly had not just skipped the description of the trail but hadn’t bothered to even look at a map because I knew I was going south the entire time I was hiking and I obviously hadn’t known that the peak was to the north of the pass. But honestly, it was a wonderful hike and I wouldn’t have traded the views for anything.

View from Emory Pass lookout: