Catron County High Point Trip Report

Whitewater Baldy (10,895 ft)

Date: September 23, 2000
Author: Scott Surgent

Whitewater Baldy is the highest peak in the Gila Wilderness, which covers over a half-million acres in Western New Mexico, mostly in Catron and Grant counties. The Gila Wilderness features numerous "interesting" sites, including cliff dwellings, old mines and ghost towns, and gobs of big peaks and remote canyons. I had intended to climb Whitewater Baldy earlier in the year but a month-long fire restriction forced closure of the lands and I didn't get a chance until September. This would be a real banzai-run: all in one day, from Phoenix to the peak and back.

I awoke at 1:30 am from my home and hit the road at 2:30 am. This being early Saturday morning, most people on the road were late-night revelers just getting home, and a bunch of cops. But traffic was very light and I made good time. I headed east through Globe and Safford in darkness, and then up through Greenlee county and the New Mexico border as the sun was rising. I finally hit US-180 around 6:30 am, headed north through the towns of Pleasonton and Glenwood, then to the junction with NM-159, the access point to the Wilderness.

NM-159 winds its way up into the mountains, becoming a one-lane road after 5 miles (it's wide enough to allow two cars side-by-side but just barely). It curves and snakes over a ridge, then descends into a canyon and into the ghost town of Mogollon at milepost 9. Mogollon sits tight in a canyon barely a quarter-mile wide and old buildings from its heyday (the 1900-1940s) still stand; a small permanent population has done a good job of maintaining the buildings and attracting tourists. After Mogollon, the pavement ends and it's another 8 miles or so up a winding gravel road to the Sandy Point parking area and the trailhead. This road is passable by passenger vehicle. It took me 45 minutes to get to Sandy Point from US-180, arriving at 7:45 am. Sandy Point's elevation is 9,132 feet.

At the parking area I met with some hikers from Tucson who were going in for a backpack. The weather was mostly clear, very cool (50s), very breezy and absolutely beautiful. Looking up, the trees were starting to turn color in preparation for Fall and I could see bands of yellow and orange mixed with the green. Very nice. I began my hike at 8:15 am.

The trail ascends at a nice, moderate grade for the first mile, gaining about 600 feet, as it contours up and around the east of the mountains. Soon, I came upon the Wilderness Boundary sign, at which time the trail flattened out nicely. The next two miles were mostly flat with about a 400 foot gain overall. I made good time along this stretch. The trail eventually comes to a saddle but the views below are for the most part obscured by the forest.

After this saddle the trail stays mainly high on the ridge, gains moderately, then goes up and down for a while, eventually climbing to about 10,500 feet. Small meadows allow for excellent views and Whitewater Baldy sits directly south, clear as day. The trail then re-enters the trees, loses about 200 feet, and comes to Hummingbird Saddle, which is just below the peak. Forest Service literature says it's 4.75 miles to Hummingbird Saddle from Sandy Point.

From Hummingbird, I left the trail and followed a path directly up Whitewater Baldy's north ridge. The trail, such as it is, is faint and in some places non-existent. Small cairns help but mostly it's common sense hiking: go up! It's also pretty steep, gaining about 700 feet in about a half-mile. Finally, I came to the summit and walked over to the big cairn sitting at the edge of some cliffs. It had taken me exactly 2 hours to gain the top. It's hardly a "Baldy": the summit is heavily tree covered, although views to the south toward Mogollon Baldy are very nice. I stayed at the top for about a half-hour and ate lunch. The wind was blowing pretty hard so I sat in the lee of the cairn. But soon I started to chill so I started down.

Coming down I missed the "trail" and actually took a bearing that was slightly off to where I needed to be. The result was I had to bushwhack for a short ways back toward Hummingbird Saddle, which added about 20 minutes. The hike out was nice and quick. I met up with the Tucson duo and talked with them for a bit about half way down. I came back to the trailhead at 12:30 pm, for an overall hike of 4 hours and 15 minutes, including the two stops. Ten miles and 1,800 feet of gain, not bad!

I drove back into Mogollon and walked around for a bit. Visited a museum and talked with the old lady that runs it. Surprisingly, this out-of-the-way ghost town sees lots of visitors, and there were a handful around when I was there. I highly recommend a visit; the town is "open" on weekends.

From Mogollon I simply drove back home to Chandler. 255 miles in, 255 miles back for a total of 510 miles. Arrived home at 6 pm.