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Fairbank to San Pedro House
On 26 DEC 2008, my dad and I decided to take our calculated chances with the winter storm warning for most of southern Arizona by hiking along and through the San Pedro River. We parked my car at the San Pedro House, which sits off Hwy 90, and then drove his car up to Fairbank, which sits off Hwy 82 about 15 miles to the north. We had a look-see around the Fairbank site. The site and nearly 57,000 acres of public land (including about 40 miles of the San Pedro) between St. David and the border with Mexico is part of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, which the BLM controls. Fairbank was founded in 1882 due to the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad constructing a "Y" at the spot to turn locomotives on the route between Benson and Nogales. The town was named after N.K. Fairbank, who organized the Grand Central Mining Company in Tombstone and was a shareholder in the railroad. A few structures are left and somewhat protected on the north side of Hwy 82, where we parked.
We crossed Hwy 82, went through a gate, and turned right (W) toward the river. Shortly, we came upon an old railroad track bed... all the rails and ties had been removed. The bed runs parallel with the river on the river's east side. Because it was already about 1000 at this point, and we were told by the docent at Fairbank that they would lock the gate to the parking lot at dark, we decided to stick with the bed for a few miles to make up time as this would be faster than immediately trudging through and along the river. We cruised for about 3 miles along the old line. Nothing fantastic here: just a long, reasonably straight, black path of crushed rocks with Chihuahuan Desert scrub to the east, occasional bridges, and glimpses of the San Pedro and, off in the distance to the south, the Charleston Hills along its banks. At about 3 miles, we crossed through some barbwire fencing and descended into the dormant riparian system of the San Pedro. Had it been spring or summer, this would have been very green and very thick. Alas, "All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey. I went for a walk on a winter's day." When we reached the river, it was flowing north quite well, although using only a fraction of the space that we could see it uses from time to time--albeit in ever decreasing frequency. Like many Arizona rivers, there was a time when the San Pedro was much bigger than it is now. Hey, at least it still exists! The air was about 40 degrees, and the water was cold. We put on neoprene socks and in we went. Hiking south against the current through the soft mud and sand was slow. Soon, though, we were crisscrossing the river and bushwhacking along the banks wherever we could. There were use paths here and there through tall grass.
Some users had left items behind... empty backpacks, discarded clothes, and even a kayak. Overall it was pretty clean, though. I did find one battered backpack that was full. Inside, it was lined with a garbage bag. I opened the garbage bag to find a neatly folded, colorful wool blanket, like something you'd see for sale in Nogales. Who had tried to keep warm with this blanket? Who might find it and use it again? What are their stories? I left it where I found it, said a little prayer, and was reminded again how fortunate I am to have won what Warren Buffet calls the "Ovarian Lottery".
At about 7 miles, we came upon the Charleston Hills. This would be the most scenic part of our trip, with the terrain slotting up a bit, vegetation picking up, and of course, the mystique and ruins of Charleston. Charleston was one of several stamp-mill towns along the upper San Pedro. These stamp-mill towns processed the ore from the silver mines in the Tombstone Mountains. None of these towns lasted more than ten years. We snapped some photos of various remains (including a fantastic adobe wall) visible from the river, but we only had time to scratch the surface. The threat of not making it back to the car at Fairbank before the gate was locked loomed.
At about 8 miles, we reached the Charleston Bridge and grimaced at the graffiti on its underside. We kept going south along the river, and it was early afternoon. Yes, it was early afternoon, on a stormy, dark Friday after the Christmas holiday, and the margin of safety at this point for even making it to the car parked at that San Pedro House before that gate was locked at dusk was getting slim. It was time to scramble out of the riverbed, get back on the old train route, and hike fast. Back on the "tracks", we saw some deer to the left (E)... first deer all day. A few miles south along the tracks, we had the pleasure of being frightfully cornered by two large, rough-looking mutts and a gigantic alpha Rottweiler who were guarding the perimeter of a lovely ranch house and its inhabitants. Fortunately, the owner called them off, and we continued unscathed. At about the 12-mile mark, we came upon some brick ruins at Lewis Springs. We made it back to the San Pedro House just as they were closing up in about three more miles. They called up to the Fairbank site and told them that we were on our way. The groundskeeper waited for us as the occasional rain and sleet through which we hiked the last 4 miles turned into a full-fledged snowstorm.
I would not recommend doing San Pedro from Fairbank to the San Pedro House in one day. With setting up the shuttle and the 15-mile length of the trek, it is too rushed. If you are interested in the San Pedro, I'd recommend parking somewhere near the Charleston Bridge and then slowly hiking north for a few miles in and along the river. This stretch snaking through the Charleston Hills is quite scenic, and you can take your time to seek out the ruins. Note, if you want ruins to be the focus of your trip, go during the winter or fall when visibility and accessibility are better. If you go in the summer or spring, expect significant bushwhacking and heavily camouflaged ruins. Also, there are many more ruins along the San Pedro: Sunset (Bullion City), Contention City, Grand Central, Emory City (Boston City), Millville, and Santa Cruz de Terrenate, for example. Thus, if ruins are your game, you'll have plenty of exploring to do along the San Pedro!
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Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.