Wednesday Apr 7th, 2021, 0700-1800
Mogollon Ghost Town to Mogollon Baldy, segment 20, mm 372
I joked before we went to bed that the Mogollon towns folk might come alive as vampires at dusk, preying on innocent hikers that have wondered into the area. Or maybe they are simply straight up ghosts that would haunt us. An axe murderer to boot? When you’re camped in the woods next to a ghost town, these things go through your mind. But there were zero disturbances overnight and I slept very soundly. Maybe the ghouls and vampires just couldn’t find me in my camo tent.
We hit the road and made 7.5 miles in just 2 hours. The road was dead quite and closed to traffic a few miles up. They open it in the summer, usually around May. It goes to a campground somewhere in the Gila Wilderness then continues on. Looking at my map later, I realized I’d walked a portion of it on the CDT alternate route, north of the headwaters of the Gila River… it’s a long road! The last few miles we walked had patches of snow, which didn’t bode well for us.
At a place called Sandy Point, we found the trailhead for the Mogollon Crest Trail and a privy. I have it on good authority that former GET hikers have used it as an overnight shelter. I have yet to add a long-drop to my list of shelter options and pray I never have to. As we began the trail, an ominous sign warned “Trail not maintained, difficult to find.” We shrugged it off, since so many of the trails thus far have met that definition.
Well, I can say now that unmaintained trails are on a spectrum and this one was definitely to the far end of bad. First some stats: we made it 12 miles to the top of Mogollon Baldy, which took us almost 9 hours (with a few breaks). So we went from almost a 4 mph pace on the road to 1.5 mph pace, which is quite slow for us. And here’s the reason why:
Miles of pick-up sticks on the trail. All the reports of downed trees from blogs I’d read and locals we met in Alma gave me the idea to start counting them when we started. By the time we’d gone 5 miles to Hummingbird Pass, I’d “logged” upwards of 600. At that point I got tired of counting and just started listening to podcasts. To the top of the mountain at 10,778′, we passed well over 1,000 downed trees. Throw in some lengthy stretches of snow on the north-facing slopes along with the elevation, and our 1.5 mph pace was actually quite commendable. There was one really bad half mile that took us over an hour but we made up for it in the last 3 miles when the downfalls eased a bit.
There was never a point in the day where I was able to just walk unencumbered for more than 100 yards. Some logs required only a simple step over. Others I could just sit on and swing my legs over…though doing so repeatedly left my butt raw by the end of the day. Many required some sort of climbing via branches or other logs, which is always risky if the whole mess shifts or breaks. There were also many so high up that I had to go under, either by grabbing the log and swinging under limbo style, squatting, crawling on my hands and knees, or even taking my pack off to manipulate my body and pack into weird contortions. Several huge jumbles required all techniques at once. My favorite were when I could find a huge log running parallel to the trail and just balance-beam it for as long as it went.
I accomplished every gymnastic feat known to man throughout the day and estimate that my feet, or butt, were touching logs as much as they touched the trail. And then there was the snow. At first it was kind of fun and made the log crossings easier in some cases, as it elevated me above. That was until the afternoon when I started postholing. In the worst stretch, I knocked a hole in my knee from a branch and immediately postholed into another branch buried under the snow, further opening the wound. I left drops of blood all over the snow but luckily that was my worst injury all day. The risk from falling trees, shifting logs, broken limbs, or punctures from falling onto skewer-like branches was great. Stellar didn’t fare as well as me mainly because he postholed a lot more. He lost his shoe at one point and almost couldn’t dig it out. We were fortunate to make it through intact and with all our gear.
Why didn’t we just turn around? There was an alternate after all. Well, after going a certain distance, you become loathe to face all the obstacles you just went through again, always hoping it’s going to get better ahead. It eventually did, long after turning around seemed like an option. The massive fire that created all this mess was in 2012. For awhile it seems, the forest service kept up with the tree falling and subsequent log cutting. This actually made it quite easy to follow the trail, even in the snow. There were so many cut logs indicating the path. But I guess in the past few years, they’ve just given up. Budget cuts, covid, and massive wind storms have probably all contributed to the insurmountable task of forever clearing the trail. We think this was all part of the wilderness area, which would make it even more impossible since they can’t use chainsaws.
I really fear that this might be the fate of large sections of our long trails like the PCT and CDT. Climate change is having so many ill effects on the forests, from beetle kill to severe droughts and wildfire. Once such massive fires occur, trail maintenance crews will be facing 20 or more years of dead trees falling on the trail corridor. Not to mention just how sad and dreary it is to walk through such a landscape. We saw or heard almost nothing all day, save for a few birds. The wind howling through the dead trees was the main feature…talk about haunted.
We also only found one water source all day, besides all the snow. A tiny spring had formed a murky puddle on a south facing slope. We stopped to collect enough water for the night, since it had become apparent that we would be spending it on top of Mogollon Baldy. It was the only flat spot not burned for miles. Plus we were extremely exhausted from all the acrobatics. Ironically, the forest service managed to save the fire tower and 1923 historic cabin at the top. But I don’t see how they can get to the top now, other than by helicopter.
We arrived right around 6 pm. I immediately checked all the structures but everything was locked down tight. I had resolved to pitch my tent on the front porch of the cabin so as to get the best wind break. It was already getting very cold and I was expecting a pretty miserable night. Stellar did a sweep too, reporting that he’d found a storm shelter. I was amazed, since this little container-like thing had been the first place I checked, finding the door to be bolted shut. Well, the frame was bolted but the door opened by just the turn of the door handle, with a similar locking mechanism found on ship doors. I felt pretty stupid for so easily dismissing it but I also thought it was nothing more than a storage bin.
Inside it was empty and labeled ‘storm shelter.’ It was just the perfect size for 2 desperate hikers unexpectedly spending a cold windy night at almost 11,000′. There was even some carpet on the floor. We settled in and enjoyed dinner on the cabin porch. We watched an amazing sunset and then locked ourselves into our metal box for the night. What a day. Lots of type 2 fun.