The PUP Chronicles, Part 4: Elements of Surprise

Our next weekend excursion with the pop-up (PUP) took us back to Gila National Forest in a quest to further explore the lower elevations of the western Mogollon Range. We were not quite as lucky in finding a scenic spot to camp this trip, ending up in a nondescript, partially-shaded grass and juniper valley well below the 10,000-foot peaks looming to the east, but it was quiet and secluded – which are our two main requirements. I didn’t end up taking a photo of our spot this time, but on our last morning/early-afternoon we hiked about 3 miles out from camp across the overgrazed foothills to the north, ending up with a pretty nice view of the volcanic pinnacles that edge the high country which gives you an idea of the scenery.

The first full morning we drove a short ways toward the Mogollons to the trailhead for Sacaton Creek, a surprisingly lush oasis cut deep into the arid peaks. As we descended into the narrow canyon bottom the foliage grew dense and even more green, transporting us to more fertile landscapes more common near the 100th meridian. Unfortunately we were forced to abort our hike as we encountered enormous amounts of poison ivy, quantities that would be considered excessive even not by New Mexico standards. By far it was the most I’ve seen ever in the state; the sheer number of plants growing on the canyon floor was totally unexpected. If you’ve been following this blog for a few years you’ll know I’m ridiculously allergic to the evil plant – as in, my eyes and throat swell shut and I require a trip to the emergency room – so naturally I avoid it at all costs. The further we progressed up the trail the more the urushoil-bearing leaves encroached on the trail until the path became so overgrown and obscured that it became impossible to outmaneuver. And so reluctantly we turned back after an hour and a half, cutting our hike short by more than a few miles – but saving me a trip to the hospital in the process.

Our second day we abandoned the plan to hike into another canyon, instead traveling into the mountains via a forest road with the intent to hike an undetermined high country trail along the route. Almost a dozen miles of narrow switchbacks later we spotted a pull out which, after hiking out a few hundred feet, revealed itself to be a spectacular vantage point over some buildings as well as a collection of mines buried into the steep pine and juniper hillsides. It was intriguing. After crawling around for awhile on the rocky outcroppings above the settlement we returned to the truck coasting the curves downwards into what turned out to be a restored mining town.

Settled in the late 1880s, the town of Mogollon hosted a sizable population of workers from the numerous nearby gold and silver mines until the currency disruption of the world wars but from the early 1910s the population steadily dropped over the next few decades. Due to the remote location, numerous attacks by Apache raiders attempting to displace the trespassers, the recurring fires, and the devastation of intermittent flooding the town was quickly abandoned after the profitability of operating the mines tanked in the first half of the twentieth century; today it is home to less than a dozen permanent residents who maintain the rehabilitated businesses that cater to tourists.

The year 1987 saw the settlement added to the National Historic Register and directed a resurgence in the restoration of the remaining structures, but another catastrophic flood down Silver Creek Canyon in 2013 severely damaged the remaining structures and stranded the humans present. Luckily the designation as a National Historic District funneled funds their way allowing not only critical repairs to buildings in Mogollon but also the construction of a rock-lined channel to funnel future floodwaters safely through the narrow canyon. This prominent feature was impossible to ignore as we made our way on foot down the main street.

Most of the businesses, including the museum, were closed due to COVID but we wandered around for awhile anyway observing the exteriors of the decaying structures, reading the historical plaques, and inspecting the substantial flood control channels built into the canyon. Vowing to make a return trip we then continued up canyon and began the slow crawl up into the high peaks adjacent to the Gila Wilderness. As the road deteriorated our trek slowed until we finally agreed after an hour that the next trailhead – wherever it might lead – would be sufficient for our daily walk. While we we continued our ascent we noted with pleasure the health of the forest and the gorgeous towering firs that were becoming the dominant species on the steep hillsides as the elevation increased. It was nothing short of glorious.

At 8,600 feet we encountered the Redstone Trail and without further ado, began our walk. The first quarter mile was a pleasant ascent; the tall conifers had been joined by a collection of monster aspen, and the sunlight and fragrance of pine lulled us into contentment immediately. Within minutes however the trail increased in grade significantly as it turned towards the canyon rim – and the effort required to continue also increased. Nearing the ridge evidence of fire became more noticeable until the final push brought us face to face with swaths destruction as far as we could see. Skeletons of once-mature trees and rock laid bare surrounded us, interspersed with pockets of green where young aspen had regained hold. Observing that the trail would lead us into obliterated forest with significant deadfall we opted to return and explore elsewhere, though not without first taking pause to observe the expansive views.

Surprisingly, elsewhere turned out to be a stretch of the San Francisco River – a major tributary of the Gila – once we’d descended back into the valley. Approaching a sign for an access point I turned hard right, steering us onto a dirt 2 track plunging into the basin. Once we’d parked in the sandy banks off the road we removed our shoes and walked downstream, forging the shallow current flowing through the cottonwood- and salt brush-lined banks. Though we’d come down about 4,000 feet – which earned us 20-plus more degrees – the stroll through the water was refreshing in a different way than the cooler mountain temps, and was very possibly the best way to end our day.