Monday, May 20, 2024

Lower Gila Box Canyon, New Mexico

Cliffs in one of the side canyons of the Lower Gila Box in New Mexico.
(Click images to view larger)

In 1983, the late M.H. Salmon and his dog, Rojo, hiked from the source of the Gila River in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness to where it emerges from the mountains near Gila, NM. There, he picked up his cat and canoed through three box canyons (the Upper, Middle, and Lower) in New Mexico and another (
the Gila Box) in Arizona, ending his trip before the river succumbed to agricultural diversion on its way to join the Colorado near Yuma, Arizona. He called his animal companions “the crew” and sometimes left them alone by the river to forage while he wandered into nearby towns to socialize and lament the loss of an unnamed romantic partner. His book, Gila Descending, A Southwestern Journey, is a classic. Salmon was a lifelong advocate for the Gila River, and today a bill named for him and reintroduced by New Mexico Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luhan could permanently protect over 400 miles of it.


Box canyons in southern New Mexico don’t dead end like the ones in old Westerns where, depending on who was doing the chasing, good or bad guys rode in but didn’t ride out. Instead, they are cliff-lined gorges where the river meanders from side to side making walking almost impossible. Side canyons provide access here and there, and boating is possible when the water is high, but the canyon interiors remain remote and seldom visited.


Miraculously, the Gila is one of the few substantial undammed rivers in the southwest (except for irrigation diversion), rising and falling with runoff and the seasons. Despite many attempts to dam it over the years, the river has remained free-flowing thanks to the efforts of conservation groups, New Mexico Senators, and devoted individuals like Salmon.

Today, the Lower Box of the Gila is a Wilderness Study Area (WSA), meaning that it has characteristics that make it eligible for Wilderness designation by Congress. WSAs are managed to preserve these qualities until Congress makes a decision. 


Just before entering the Lower Box on his journey, Salmon wrote:

People rule the natural world today and everywhere you look we’ve made a hash of it. A rare gem like the pristine Gila only serves to balance otherwise zealous commercial interests. In juxtaposition, a free-flowing stream may be the most civilized item within our realm. More than birds can benefit from association with a wild river.

In southern New Mexico, winter is the time for desert exploring, and we made a half dozen or more trips to explore Lower Box and the surrounding area during our first cool season since moving to Silver City in 2023. I’m grateful to have such a diverse and archaeologically rich place so close to home. 

On publication of the fourth edition of his book in 2006, Salmon ended a new introduction by urging us to keep up the good fight:

More than 20 years ago, Rojo, the tomcat, and I saw the whole 220 miles of river in one trip. I thought at the time: All said, there's not a better place anywhere in the West. In spite of boosters, boomers, politicians, and certain government agencies, that's still true today. The Gila River is the last flow in New Mexico that can still teach us what a natural river should be. Improbably, it still flows free. Enjoy it. Don't let them take it away. 

Ellen in the Chihuahuan Desert preparing for a hike near the Lower Box.


The Lower Box Canyon in December with a few lingering yellow cottonwood trees. 

Hiking in a side canyon last December with Larry Scritchfield and Jane Addis (2023).

Trees and cliffs deep inside the Lower Box.

A shockingly green rock layer in one of the side canyons of the Lower Box.

Ellen in a green slot canyon.

Ellen with T Rolloff in another side canyon.

The Lower Box has been used by humans for thousands of years. Bedrock mortars like these are common.

As are petroglyphs. These are near the mouth of one of the many side canyons.

Steve Buskirk exploring in the hills above the Box Canyon.

Ellen and her brother, Terry, in a side canyon. Oddly, we've had more visitors during the winter in Southern New Mexico than we ever did when we lived in Laramie.

Petroglyphs high above the river.

Bedrock mortars at a rock outcrop a few miles north of the Lower Box.

The Jaguar Panel.

Ocotillo and poppies near the rim of the Lower Box.

An ocotillo under a New Mexican sky near the rim of the Box. March 2024.

Ellen, Bay Roberts, and Beth Buskirk hiking towards the Lower Box, March 2024.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

The Two-Track of My Fear: Backpacking the North and South Rainbow Bridge Trails


Rainbow Bridge viewed from the east, with snowy Navajo Mountain in the background. 
(Click images to view larger)

On the south flank of Navajo Mountain, deep in the Navajo Nation, we came to a fork in the dirt road leading towards the South Rainbow Bridge trailhead. A sign between the forks warned of private residences and said to “Keep Out” but didn’t specify which fork was private. 


We chose wrong, of course, and as we turned to go back the way we’d come, a Navajo man came out of his house to speak to us. I apologized nervously, but he was friendly, directing us to another road that bypassed his property. In the background, a woman stood in the doorway speaking loudly in Navajo, probably reminding us to read the damn road signs. The man ignored her, looking at my Transit camper (AWD, but still a van) and remarked, leaning over a little to check the clearance, that the road to the trailhead was “a little rough” but that I could “probably” make it. Scott and Bay were in a 4WD Tacoma, better suited to bad roads.


Once on the bouldery two-track leading to the trailhead, I realized two things: 1) the road was not a “little” rough, and 2) once you started up, there was no turning around. Several days later, we met a group from Moab hiking the opposite direction with a young Navajo woman. One of them asked a little incredulously, “Is that your van at the trailhead!!??," assuring me that, "We’ll keep you in our thoughts.”


The next morning, we loaded our packs into Scott and Bay’s Tacoma and drove to the North Trailhead on a less rocky but steeper road to begin the 35-mile hike around Navajo Mountain to Rainbow Bridge and back to the van. 


Navajo Mountain is igneous, protruding through Navajo Sandstone cut into deep canyons extending radially from its foothills. Some of the canyons drain directly west into Lake Powell while others take a more circuitous route to the Colorado River. The challenge is climbing in and out of canyons as you walk across the grain of the drainages, but the rewards are glimpses of beautiful riparian oases just greening up in the early spring warmth, dotted with blooming redbud trees, and of course Rainbow Bridge itself, a huge arch spanning Bridge Canyon. Most people who see Rainbow Bridge come from Lake Powell, leaving rented houseboats at a Park Service dock a mile or so west of the formation, but the first glimpse of the Bridge from the east is unique and untainted by the bathtub ring left by the shrinking reservoir.


On each of the four nights we spent on the hike, we turned in soon after dark, as campers of a certain age do when the chill of evening sets in. In my tent, I read David Roberts’ “On the Ridge Between Life and Death,” his memoir grappling with his climbing obsession and its consequences. Roberts retells the story from his first book, “The Mountain of my Fear,” an account of the first ascent of a fierce alpine route on Mt. Huntington in the Alaska Range, where one of his partners was killed in a rappelling accident after summiting. Later, after putting the book aside, I lay awake wondering if I’d be able to drive the van back to the highway at the end of the trip, and the consequences if I couldn’t. I doubt that my anxiety matched that of freezing alpinists fighting storm-battered and corniced Alaskan ridges, but it kept me awake for a at least a while each night when I should have been thinking about redbud blossoms or listening to the Western screech owl outside my tent.


We awoke on the final morning to the sound of light rain on our tents, but a nearby sandstone alcove provided a dry place to make breakfast, and the rain stopped just in time to start the long climb to the south trailhead where the van waited. As we climbed, the rain turned to snow but never accumulated. And in the end, the drive out was mostly downhill, easier than the drive in with gravity helping to push the van over the rocks. We camped that night on the north flank of Navajo Mountain just as the storm cleared, with expansive views over intriguing canyon country deep in Navajo country. Bay rode my bike the last three miles to retrieve her Tacoma, saving me the risk of getting stuck on the steep, muddy road, while Scott and I enjoyed a cold drink and got dinner organized. 


Anxiety is seldom caused by time away from modern conveniences (like camper vans) but instead by the specter of returning to them. 

Scott Lehman and Bay Roberts packing gear at the south trailhead, where we camped before shuttling. 

Hiking into a vast Navajo Sandstone landscape on the first day after leaving the north trailhead.

A modern Navajo petroglyph, reminiscent of older Navajo petroglyphs at Sand Island along the San Juan River NE of this hike.

Descending into a canyon on the first day.

Surprisingly, we saw very little archaeology on this hike, but I found this arrowhead (and left it where found) in some dunes near the trail.

In mid-March, it was early spring in the foothills of Navajo Mountain, with cottonwoods and Gambel oaks greening up and redbud trees starting to bloom. 

Our first view of Rainbow Bridge. At first it seemed like a geomorphic impossibility, but as we walked closer it revealed some of its secrets.

Rainbow Bridge from the northwest.

The Echo Camp near Rainbow Bridge was home to at least a dozen folding metal cots. If only they had left folding metal chairs. The camp was home to a pair of Western screech owls and lots of bats. We spent two nights at the Echo Camp and day-hiked to the Rainbow Bridge and Lake Powell.

One of the cots, none of which appeared compatible with the inflatable thermarest mattresses we carried.

Bay and Scott hiking through narrows on our fourth day.

My tent on the last morning of the hike. Rain turned to snow as we climbed to the south trailhead, but it was beautiful to see water flowing in the canyons.

Waterfalls and potholes.

Scott and Bay starting the long climb to the south trailhead.

The view from near the top of the climb on the last day. Our last camp was in the narrow part of the valley far below.

Logistics and Links

  • The North and South Rainbow Bridge Trails can each be hiked as out-and-backs or connected as a point-to-point hike (~35 miles) like we did if you shuttle cars. 
  • A permit from the Navajo Nation (easily obtained) is required, and hikers are asked to stay on route (the permit isn't a license to explore other parts of the Navajo Lands). 
  • The south trailhead is approached from a dirt road off of Navajo route 161, which itself is a fork of Rt. 16. Detailed directions and information about the South Trail are found here. Once on the dirt road, stay LEFT at the sign announcing private residences and then turn right once past the sandstone dome. 4WD and high clearance are strongly recommended for the final 2 miles to the trailhead.
  • The north trailhead is also approached from farther north on Rt. 16. The dirt road off of 16 is good to the top of a steep drop (camping on the left before the drop) but then deteriorates quickly. 4WD and clearance is again recommended for the final 3 miles to the trailhead. Detailed directions to the north trailhead and information about the North Trail are found here.
  • The hike is about 35 miles. Traveling from north to south, there was water and camping at Surprise Valley, the Echo Camp (near Rainbow Bridge), and the First Water camp when we hiked in March, 2024. These water sources are well-spaced for camping on a 4-day/3-night hike. Check for current water availability if possible. General information about the hike is found here.
  • There are many online accounts of people's hikes to Rainbow Bridge (e.g., Arizona Highways). 

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The Cooke's Range, New Mexico

Ocotillo on Massacre Peak in the southern part of the Cooke's Range. 
(Click images to view larger)

Cooke’s Peak rises 2,400 feet above the remote trailhead where seven of us (and three dogs) gathered on a chilly January day for a long-anticipated hike to the top. The route climbs an alluvial fan and turns into OK Canyon where it winds through oak, sotol, and juniper before launching steeply upwards over two saddles to a short third-class summit scramble. We hoisted our daypacks and set off up the trail while the dogs ran around finding old bones and muddy puddles, covering at least twice the distance we did during an already long day.

Cooke's Peak (the pointy one) viewed from Mimbres Valley northwest of the range.

On the trail to Cooke's Peak with the Chihuahuan Desert far below.

The view east from near the summit of Cooke's Peak.


The peak dominates the northern end of the Cooke’s Range, one of many obscure “sky islands” rising from the desert basins of Southern New Mexico. Thanks to a perennial spring, it played a disproportionate role in U.S. and Mexican history and the U.S. doctrine of manifest destiny. Military, mail, and passenger routes between the East and California stopped at Cooke’s spring rather than bypassing the mountains because it offered the only reliable water between the Rio Grande and the Mimbres River. 

A lone ocotillo on Massacre Peak in the southern Cooke's Range with the Florida Mountains in the distant background. The easiest  east-west route is between the Floridas and the Cooke's Range, but there isn't any water.


Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke traveled the route in 1846-47 with a ragtag battalion of Mormon “soldiers” recruited in Iowa to bolster the U.S. military presence in the southwest, much of which was still owned by Mexico, and to diffuse tensions with the Mormons. They welcomed this because it gave them a chance to travel west funded by the military, escaping persecution in Iowa. After prolonged conflict and negotiation with Mexico, the Gadsen Treaty established the international border about where it is today, and the U.S. gained possession of Cooke's route.

Ellen near the summit of Massacre Peak just south of Cooke's Gap and west of the spring. A plaque commemorated the Cooke expedition as well as a group of boy scouts who visited the summit more recently, presumably to install the plaque.


Long before Europeans started arguing over ownership, the Mimbres chipped petroglyphs in the hills and canyons of the range. They are often fantastical, though some depict easily recognized rattlesnakes, sheep, bear prints, and yuccas. There are even the outlines of scarlet macaws on boulders in at least two sites. These tropical birds were traded (and maybe bred?) as far north as Chaco Canyon and its outliers and clearly had religious and cultural significance. Their feathers have been found attached to prayer sticks and ceremonial clothing. The Mimbres abandoned the area around 1150 AD, perhaps migrating south into Mexico. Bands of Apaches later established ephemeral camps in and around the Cooke's Range where they hunted and organized raids.

Petroglyphs in the Cooke's Range.

More petroglyphs including a possible macaw and Santa Claus roasting a dead rat over a fire??!!

Grinding holes in sandstone.

The Apaches were antagonized by the stream of Europeans threatening their sovereignty. Cooke’s Pass, just west of the spring and sandwiched between steep cliffs and hills for over a mile, was a perfect place to attack travelers, and the Apaches took full advantage. During one well-known attack in July of 1861, Mangas Coloradas and Cochise, two famous Apache leaders, ambushed seven members of the Freeman Thomas Mail Party as they entered the canyon, forcing them up a side canyon to the south where they built rudimentary rock shelters and fought the warriors until their inevitable deaths. According to an account by Jay Sharp, the stripped and mutilated bodies of Thomas and his companions were found two days later by passing freighters who described the scene:


The ferocity of the battle, the freighters said, could be measured by the numerous shell casings littering the ground and the bullet marks covering the rocks and trees around the stone barricades.”  


Ellen hiking through Cooke's Pass in November and feeling somewhat less terrified than travelers 150 years earlier, despite the 8-mile shadeless round-trip. 

We spent a day trying to find the site of this attack, but aside from a few ambiguous rock shelters, any signs of the battle have been erased by 160 years of weather and scavenging. This and many other attacks led to the construction of Fort Cummings near the spring in 1863 and deployment of military personnel to protect the vital transportation route. Today, all that remains of the fort are a few decaying adobe walls and a barren cemetery. 

Decaying adobe walls at Ft. Cummings, once a busy military outpost positioned to protect travelers from Apache attacks.
Lonely graves at the Ft. Cummings cemetery. The military was tasked with collecting human remains that had been left scattered along the route through Cooke's Pass and relocating them to this cemetery. The bones and bodies contributed to the terror travelers felt as they passed through the canyon.

After the Indian Wars, the Cooke’s Range was occupied by miners, goat herders, and ranchers. Abandoned towns dot the foothills today, and old mines are everywhere. To the west, Flourite Ridge is riddled with adits where miners extracted its namesake mineral, used to make steel, especially during WWII. Also during WWII, in the basin to the east, pilots dropped bombs containing small amounts of explosive and a lot of flour to mark the spots where they exploded, helping them evaluate their aim.

A stone house probably used by miners near the north end of Fluorite Ridge.

On the northeast flanks of the range, the once prosperous mining town of Cooks Town (spelled without the “e”) is mostly gone save for remnants of a few buildings. The town was established in 1876 and mostly abandoned by the beginning of WWII but it once had as many as sixteen saloons (and no churches!). Donald Couchman (Couchman 1990), in his comprehensive Master’s thesis on the history of the region, tells a story of intrepid partiers from Cooks Town: 

Many of the community social functions were conducted at the schoolhouse…People would come from as far away as Deming, Lake Valley, Las Cruces, Hatch, Hatchita, and the settlements along the Mimbres River. The revelers pushed the school furniture against the wall for room to dance and used the seats for beds for the children when they could no longer stay awake…Sometimes after dancing all night, the participants would climb the remaining distance to Cooke’s Peak and enjoy the dawning of a new day together. 

We stopped for a snack below the summit headwall and then scrambled to the top where a little snow and rime from the previous night’s storm clung to rock and a few hardy desert plants. To the south, the craggy Florida (pronounced Flor-eed-ah)  and Tres Hermanas Mountains rose behind the town of Deming; to the west the Big Burro Mountains and Apache Peak guarded the New Mexico-Arizona border; sixty miles to the east, the Organ Mountains stood behind Las Cruces; and to the north lay Silver City and the vast Gila National Forest. A lot had happened in the country visible from the peak since humans found their way into the southwest. A little reluctantly, we started down, tired from the hike even without having danced all night.  

Ellen and our friend, Beth, at the summit of Cooke's Peak.

Carlos, Beth, and Ellen, starting the descent from the summit.

A last view to the east during the descent back to the trailhead.

Proposed Mimbres Peaks National Monument


Along with the Floridas, the Tres Hermanas, and the Goodsight Mountains, the Cooke’s Range is included in a proposed Mimbres Peaks National Monument, which would include just over 245,000 acres. Together, these sky islands account for remarkable biological diversity, numerous cultural sites, and unlimited opportunities for adventure. 





Barbour, Matthew J. 2014. Journey Through the Mining Camps of Cookes Peak in New Mexico Where Mineral Riches Once Thrived.


Couchman, Donald Howard. 1990. Cooke’s Peak – Pasaron Por Aqui. A Focus on United States History in Southwestern New Mexico. Cultural Resources No. 7. Bureau of Land Management, Las Cruces, New Mexico.


Sharp, Jay. Cooke’s Canyon. Journey of Death.