Fire Tower Excursions: Signal Peak

A few days following our return to work after winter break we had some snow in the desert of Las Cruces, which boded very well for significant accumulation in the mountains. Except that the storm was followed by 2 days of unseasonably warm weather that would certainly have melted the freshly-fallen flakes in the meadows of the Sacramento Mountains where I’d been hoping to snowshoe. Feeling confident that I’d get another shot at snowshoeing in the coming months (it was only the beginning of January!) I turned to my list of hikes and immediately settled upon the Signal Peak Trail in the Gila National Forest, having recently read Philip Connors’ book A Song for the River over Christmas. Song is a beautiful, heart-wrenching ode to the Gila River and is an incredible book in its own right but the reason the Signal Peak hike leapt mind was due to Connors’ previous work, the superlative Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, which chronicles his summers as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness. The poetic prose, transporting descriptions of the landscape, analytical discussions on forestry policy, and meditations on solitude have endeared this book to my heart and spurred an interest in seeing more of the places he so lyrically depicts.

And so, on a sunny Sunday Gail and Abby and I drove out to the Signal Peak Trailhead to ascend the almost 2,000 feet to the fire tower perched atop the peak. Lucky for us the steep north-facing slopes of the canyon had retained much of their snow and the trail were blanketed in 3-7 inches of powder. The rocky, stepped trail would have been unsuitable for snowshoes but was a perfect snow hike with our microspikes – and a very beautiful one at that. We wound our way up the switchbacks and the long inclines that morning under full sun, luxuriating in the warm rays as we crunched our way up to the peak. Upon breaking our of the trees at the top we immediately layered up against the cold wind and the sudden halt of activity, and then made our way up the stairs of the tower to just below the cab, locked up for the winter season. We soaked up the views here for a little too long, shooting video and taking photos while Abby paced below before making our retreat back down.

Encouraged by the bare ground on the far side of the peak we decided to continue to the hike down the access road but were unfortunately turned back after repeatedly sinking in thigh high drifts not far below the peak. Ultimately we decided to return the way we came, retreating back down the canyon. Though this shortened our excursion to only 6 miles or so I was really so enamored with hiking through big trees – and the views we’d observed from the tower – that I could have cared less about the distance. It really was a wonderful hike. Plus knowing we had plenty of daylight, we lingered in multiple places along the trail appreciating the snow-clad boulders clinging to the cliff faces and the streaming sunlight through the trees.