Historic trail rises again......
by hikeaz & Moovyoaz
First, a little background on the origins of this trail...
Farmers and merchants in the mid-1870s pieced together the Safford-Morenci Trail to pack their goods to the mining country. The ragtag route faded from memory once automobiles came on the scene. Consequently, the trail never made modern maps. Generally, the original route of the Safford-Morenci Trail headed northward from Safford into the Gila Mountains, writhed through Johnny Creek Canyon, waded Bonita Creek, climbed up colorful cliffs in Midnight Canyon, stood upon 6,800-foot-high Bellmeyer Saddle, dropped into South Smith Canyon, crossed Eagle Creek, then followed Gold Gulch into Morenci. Though this journey takes hikers through some extraordinarily scenic country rich in natural and human history, the unmapped trail also demands good-to-excellent hiking and route-finding skills as it picks through challenging terrain with few trail signs and fewer water sources. The Safford-Morenci Trail follows a combination of foot trail, 4WD tracks, and cross-county drainages, and features occasional brown and (older) green metal signs marked "TRAIL." You may also encounter flagging tape along the way, such as in South Smith Canyon where a finalized route in the drainage has been scouted.
"Crack!" went the GPS on the ground as we were making our final preparations to leave the east trailhead of the Safford-Morenci Trail. Not a good omen on a trail that has little to no trail markers. Luckily, only a portion of the screen remained black, so we could at least establish our position and compare it to our topographic maps when necessary.
After a missed turn when locating the trailhead on the drive in (don't be deceived; just past the Eagle Creek Pump Station you want to make the turn to the right that appears to lead into private property
), we were a bit behind schedule, and were ready to hit the trail. We had decided to hike this trail east to west, and, in retrospect, were glad that we did.
) The trail starts out up an abandoned 4x4/wagon road in making its way gradually uphill to Smith Spring, which is on the site of an old homestead, best we could tell. The spring (mile .7 +/-) was flowing quite well with sweet water bubbling forth from the small tank. From there the "road" walking continues uphill on a gradual slope, all the time in the wash. The fist to small football-sized rocks made for a bit of tedious hiking, but the abundant tree cover made it a beautiful hike nonetheless. Eventually, the "road" peters out and a trail forms. Through this area you should encounter some small signs with "trail" marked on them, as well as occasional orange flagging tape. This trail, wonderfully earthy and mossy smelling, follows next to the wash, crossing it numerous times. After about three miles, the trail will begin to steepen, and it is sometimes VERY steep. Not to worry, though, as this signals your approach to Bellmeyer Saddle. In this steep section (remember this is March) we found a flowing spring about 10 minutes below the saddle. As you reach the saddle (Mile 4+/-) and catch your breath, prepare to have it taken away as you take in the views of lower Midnight Canyon, upper Bonita Creek, the Gila Mountains, and beyond, floating like a mirage on the horizon, the high crest of the Pinaleno Range
As we made our way off the saddle, we descended into Midnight Canyon, starting on a tight zigzag down brittle volcanic cliffs. We decided to make a detour to Toppy's Spring, which is shown on the topographic map
. The spring pours over a cliff, allowing us a well-earned shower. The area near the falls is lush, with almost tropical-looking plants.
Back on the trail after our side-trip, it is mostly road walking now, and although the views are outstanding, the road walking was less than. The road switchbacks on two separate occasions and after the second, the trail will veer into the wash and the road climbs up and out of the wash to the left. This, for us, was a great spot for a rest, as there is a gigantic juniper at this point (Mile 7.2+/-). As we resumed hiking, now in the creek-bed, we noticed chalk-like bands of soft rock within the normal sediment, and we commented that we had not seen that before. The hike continues down Midnight Canyon through a series of slot narrows that are awe-inspiring. With the creek running under-foot and the serpentine narrows, it was as if we were on another planet. Red walls reaching skyward were close enough on each side that by straddling the creek you could touch both walls
. Look up and watch for the single boulder that lies precariously across the canyon
. After about a mile from where we diverged from the road, the canyon widens, signaling Midnight's junction with Bonita Creek
. We had arranged to meet a few friends at Bonita who had hiked in from the west trailhead and spotted them straight-away. After a round of "hey, guess what we saw...", we proceeded with our sundry chores.
After a night of campfire tales and s'mores, carried in by one of our group, we had a fitful night's sleep. The weather, overcast and cool in the morning, had heated up throughout the day to about 78, but still remained at about 60 at 9PM.. You may want to make the side trip up Bonita Creek to the Old Lady Gay Cabin, about a mile upstream. At the Midnight-Bonita confluence, there is also a granary high up on the south-facing cliff.
Well, dawn brought a bright, sunny day for our remaining hike west
. After a morning of coffee and cards we set out, briefly bidding adieu to our friends. We crossed Bonita Creek (following orange flagging tape) at the beaver dam. Safely across the creek after filling our bottles, we headed up Johnny Creek, our early morning feet objecting slightly to the cobbles. After about 7/10 of a mile, there will be a trail that climbs steeply out of the drainage to your right (creek left). This trail climbs up to bypass a series of pour-offs and boulder jams. If you miss this trail turn-off you will be turned back by the boulder jam and can re-trace your steps about 1/4 mile to the trail. While on this "high-trail", take a moment to edge over and check out the canyon that you are bypassing
. When we were here the creek was running quite well and was showing off its series of falls... nice.
After bypassing these impediments, the trail drops back in the creek-bed and it is cobble hiking again. If it is running like when WE were there, do not bother trying to keep your shoes dry. You'll save time and energy by just admitting defeat and stepping into the creek. To a degree, this hiking is tedious, but this canyon holds many awesome sights; it gets prettier by the mile. The cobbles are often broken up by roads of bedrock. The hike leaves the creek-bed after about 3 miles, switch-backing up an old road to the left (creek right). The road climbs up out of the creek and makes its way over undulating hills for about two miles where it intersects a gulch. As you climb up this gulch you will crisscross it numerous times. As you check your back-trail, remember to look out over what you have just hiked... this is beautiful, wild country
. You will begin to see that the trail is rock-lined at this point, and you will continue to see this, intermittently, all the way to the west trailhead. As you reach the head of this gulch you will have reached the last high spot, and it's all downhill from here all the way to the west trailhead
. - Apr 03 2007 hikeaz & Moovyoaz BLM Division Reports
Pioneer ranchers and farmers in the Gila Valley built this trail about 1874 to haul their products to the booming mines of the Clifton-Morenci area. After the advent of the automobile in the early 1900s, new roads were constructed along other routes. One was the Safford-Clifton Road (now called the Black Hills Back Country Byway). Decreasing use of the Safford-Morenci Trail resulted in little maintenance, and it became more difficult to follow.
Today, the Safford-Morenci Trail is managed by the BLM as a recreation trail for non-motorized uses. Although the trail was originally used as a pack trail for supplying mining camps in and around Morenci it is now impassable in places for horseback riders.
Location and Description: The trail is 18 miles long one way, with an elevation range of 3,700 to 6,200 feet. It winds through the rugged canyons of the Gila Mountains and Turtle Mountain.
With the exception of Bonita Creek, streams and springs are scarce along the route. Follow bear and mountain lion country precautions as these creatures are becoming more common along Bonita Creek. The creek's clear, cool water is inviting for a soak, but must be treated before drinking due to human, cattle, and wildlife activity upstream. Carry plenty of drinking water with you. Few people travel this remote route and it remains difficult to follow because it crosses land of mixed ownership. You will need topo maps and a compass to hike this moderate to difficult trail. The best time to hike is fall through the spring months because there is little water and shade. Snow is possible in the high elevations during the winter months.
Attractions: Hikers can enjoy a variety of desert and riparian environments along the trail. Bonita Creek, part of the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, is crossed about midway and makes a good primitive camping spot. Javelina, black bear, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions inhabit this area. Numerous birds, including raptors such as golden eagles and peregrine falcons, may also be seen. Riparian areas are especially good for colorful neotropical migratory birds. Hikers can encounter prehistoric cliff dwellings, remnants of early homesteads, majestic rock outcrops, and sweeping views of the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, the Gila Mountains, and the high points beyond. All prehistoric and historic objects are protected by federal law; enjoy viewing the sites, but leave objects in place for others to enjoy as well.
Access: The West Trailhead near Bear Springs is about 12 miles northeast of Safford via the Solomon Pass and Salt Trap Roads. To reach the trailhead, take 8th Avenue north out of Safford. A half mile after crossing the Gila River bridge, take the right fork onto Airport Road. Drive 4.3 miles to Aviation Way. Turn left onto Aviation Way, then another immediate left onto the paved unsigned road. This is the Solomon Pass Road, follow it 8.0 miles to the Solomon Pass ? Salt Trap Road Junction. Take the left fork onto Salt Trap Road and follow 1.8 miles. Turn left and continue about 6 miles west to the West Trailhead. If you reach Salt Trap tank with corrals, you?ve missed the turn. A 4WD high-clearance vehicle is needed for sections of the last 6 miles.
To reach the East Trailhead (6 air miles west of Morenci), take the Lower Eagle Creek/Black River Road off of Highway 191, just north of Morenci. The turnoff is about a quarter mile past a historic hillside cemetery on your right. Take the left into what appears to be a dirt parking area; the road begins there. The Eagle Creek road begins there. You will need to ford Eagle Creek just below the water pipeline at the ranch house, continue on for about another 4 miles. The trailhead is signed. Although the Lower Eagle Creek/Black River Road is maintained gravel, the river crossing may require a high clearance vehicle during high water events.
BLM Surface Management Maps: Arizona 7.5 minute - Lone Star Mountain, Bonita Spring, Copper Plate Gulch
Elevation: 3,700' - 6,200'
Facilities: Trailhead signs
Permits/Fees: A recreation permit is needed for crossing Arizona state trust land one mile southwest of the East Trailhead. Permits are available by mail or in person at the Arizona State Land Office in Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff, and from the Arizona Public Lands Information Center in Phoenix.
A San Carlos Apache Tribal recreation permit should be obtained if you wish to cross the short section of the trail that passes through the reservation in T. 4 S., R. 28 E. Permits are available from the Tribal Recreation and Wildlife Department in Peridot, or from convenience stores in Safford and Pima.