Friday, June 12, 2009

Starving Artist Spiritual Retreat is 2 weeks (at least) camping in Gila National Forest

This is where I am headed.

The North Star Road

Last updated on Friday, July 18, 2003

Gila River Canyon. Photo by Carla DeMarco
Gila River Canyon. Photo by Carla DeMarco

The North Star Road (Forest Route 150 on the Gila National Forest map), an unpaved road connecting New Mexico's Mimbres Valley with Wall Lake, has an undeserved bad reputation. On checking with the Mimbres Ranger Station , I was cautioned to use a high clearance vehicle. I have driven the entire route several times, only once with a high clearance vehicle. I cross-examined the Forest Service person about creek crossings and they all seemed to be fine, so I gassed up my Subaru wagon. We loaded it with a picnic supper and took off.

The bad reputation this road has is twofold: One is the high clearance, four-wheel-drive caveat, which only applies when a person shouldn't be out driving dirt roads anyway - in heavy rain or snow. The other count against it is that it's rough. This is true. Wash-boarded and rocky, it is not a drive for making good time - it is strictly a stop-and-look road. It is also remote: A road sign announces as you are turning onto it, "No Gas or Food 127 Miles." The best way to enjoy this road is to plan ahead. Fill up your gas tank before you go, and take plenty of food and water.

Our first stop was on a curve overlooking the Mimbres Valley as the road climbs North Star Mesa from Highway 35. I don't know of any place else with as splendid a view of the Mimbres Valley. A storm cell obscured Signal Peak from us, but we could see the GOS Ranch and the headwaters of the Sapillo to the northwest.

It had rained on North Star Mesa, but the road was fine. We passed bowhunters' camps, and the road that branches down into Cooney Campground and the Mimbres canyon. From the vicinity of the campground, the hiking trail into the Mimbres Canyon is one of the finest on the forest.

After six to seven miles of easy driving across North Star Mesa, the road twists down into Terry Canyon, then over into Rocky Canyon. Between the two we made another stop to admire fields of yellow wildflowers and let the dogs drink at a small stream. We were an hour out from Silver City and deep in a Ponderosa pine forest.

Where the road follows Rocky Canyon itself and one of its forks, there are numerous crossings. This is the worst part of the whole road, in my opinion, and the only place where we got out and removed rocks that looked dangerous to the Subaru's undercarriage. If there is flooding in Rocky Canyon, forget a trip up the North Star Road.

By then we were oohing and aahing over a variety of roadside colors. We saw red rosehips, red and yellow columbine, white yarrow, fuchsia geranium, blue larkspur, and orange mallow. They populated the shady forest floor like an assortment of little gems.

From Rocky Canyon up to the Diamond Creek crossing the North Star Road is surrounded by federally protected Wilderness. For 15 miles the Gila Wilderness is on the west, the Aldo Leopold Wilderness on the east. If it were not regularly maintained (it is bladed every spring), this road would go back to wilderness, and do it quickly. It skirts canyons draining the west side of the Black Range ; winter snows and flooding from summer rains would soon wipe it out. Wilderness advocates would like to see that very thing happen: The North Star Road splits Forester Aldo Leopold's original 1924 wilderness proposal into the two present units.

We stopped at Meason Park for our picnic supper. The park is about fifteen acres of green grass and all manner of wildflowers. Some very tall Ponderosa pine crowns lofted above the younger growth, evidence of the various stages of forest life always in process. We ate, and wandered the meadow, vowing to come back in the spring to see the many wild iris that would be in bloom.

From Meason Park the road winds down into Black Canyon , where there are two hardly-used campgrounds. In the Black Canyon area one can begin to doubt one will ever see civilization again; with its axle-high grass the road looks more abandoned all the time. It climbs out of Black Canyon to the Me Own landing strip which the Forest Service uses during fire season. A broad, graveled boulevard brings you to the Diamond Creek crossing, and from there to Wall Lake is an easy drive mostly in tall cottonwoods.

Wall Lake has a good campground, situated only nine miles from State Highway 59, the paved road to Truth or Consequences. Patrons of Wall Lake are mostly from "T or C."

We headed home from our picnic at Meason with dusk coming on. A steady rain began at Terry Canyon and continued all the way across North Star Mesa. I had no trouble with the road surface, but I drove very cautiously, and I did have four-wheel-drive if I needed it. Good old Subaru.

We were back in Silver City after dark. Meason Park is considerably short of being halfway between the Mimbres Valley and Wall Lake, and the round trip took a good eight hours. A full day should be allowed for the drive to Wall Lake or Beaverhead Work Station, the next Forest Service installation. Please do not have auto trouble of any kind on this road! If there is ever a time to "Be Prepared" it's on a junket along the North Star Road. Your rewards, however, are miles of beautiful forest with many hiking trails and the singular experience of knowing true wilderness surrounds you on all sides.

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