2020-05-20 Road From ABQ and Mount Graham

Two corrections: Thanks to the astute observations of readers Celestyn Brozek and Lori Conrad, I’ve learned my “Cassin’s Vireo” is the wrong Solitary Vireo. The proper identification is Plumbeous Vireo. And to Jeff Brake for pointing out that Mount Graham, while the tallest in Southern Arizona, is not the second highest, but the 14th highest in the state. I’ve edited the text and the gallery to reflect these corrections.

Red-Faced Warbler - Cardellina rubrifrons
Mount Graham is the highest mountain in southern Arizona, and the road that ascends it is the highest in the state and great for finding the high elevation loving Red-Faced Warbler in spring.

Mount Graham is the 14th highest mountain in Arizona, but the road that ascends it is the highest in the state and great for finding the high elevation loving Red-Faced Warblers in spring.

I said goodbye to my friend Jerry in Albuquerque early Wednesday morning and drove south on the interstate to Socorro, then breathed a sigh of relief as I left the I-25 and turned westbound on US-60. I’ve never been shy about stating how much I dislike the push and shove of the busy roads. To be honest, the section of freeway south of Albuquerque wasn’t as horrible as interstates sometimes get, but I get a sense of relief when I leave the freeway because when I travel the two-lane blacktops I love, I’m able to stop along the roadside to look and listen to nature at my leisure.

This was not my first time to traverse US-60. I’ve done it several times in the past, but it had been a while since my last ride on this road. I’d passed through Magdalena to Datil across the high plateau grasslands that lay below the peaks in the Apache Kid Wilderness. I’d seen the giant 82 foot diameter dishes of the Very Large Array on the network of train rails and I knew these 27 dishes listen for extraterrestrial signals from “out there”. I also knew that the Continental Divide crossing over northern foothills of the Gila Range was gorgeous. I turned left on NM-12 at the town of Datil and continued toward my intended destination. I had hoped to pay a visit to the Catwalk trail east of Glenwood, where a network of bridges and trails provided entry into the deep canyon cut by Whitewater Creek through the mountains. In August 2003 I visited the Catwalk and I’ve not been able to do so again. After a massive July 2012 fire decimated the forests in the Gila Mountains, a powerful flood took out a 30 foot section of the bridge and trail system in September 2013. I passed here again in March 2016, two months before they reopened following the reconstruction. 

Plumbeous Vireo - Vireo plumbeus
Driving along the Tularosa River near Apache Creek, New Mexico, I stopped at a likely looking location to look for birds, where this Plumbeous Vireo came to investigate my presence in his domain.

Tired of driving, I found a wide spot above Tularosa Creek several miles before its confluence with Apache Creek. I was immediately greeted with a Western Wood-Pewee, and later Ash-Throated Flycatchers, a Plumbeous Vireo, and a Chipping Sparrow. A juvenile Common Black Hawk foraged in the creek below me. Forty minutes later I was on my way again, re-energized for the drive ahead.

Fifty miles of beautiful mountain highway later I reached Glenwood, but to my disappointment, the highway sign for the turnoff to the Catwalk was posted as “Closed”, so I continued south, frustrated once again in my quest to explore a pristine natural place. I assumed the closure was related to Covid-19, but I’ve since learned this was not to be the case. I read reports on the AllTrails.com website about visits others made on 5/3 and 5/25, so I do not understand why the signage was placed on the highway.

I bought fuel in Glenwood and continued south on US-180, then followed signs to the Leopold Vista Picnic area. As I approached the picnic area on this side-road, I encountered barricades adorned with a paper sign stating the grounds were closed due to the pandemic. I was fatigued from the drive, and in front of the barricades was a wide pullout. I resolved to park here for the night with spectacular views of the Gila Mountains looking down from the east. 

Camped by the Gila Mountains - Scenery
I reached Leopold Vista after driving all day and spent the night in view of the canyons and peaks of the Gila mountains.

Thursday morning I woke up and fed myself before continuing four more miles south on US-180 then I turned west on NM-78. In a way I’d come full circle since leaving home February 21st on my Texas Expedition. Stopping along my way through Arizona, I’d driven east on this same road (AZ/NM-78) after visiting with my friend Linda and her sister Donna last February 27. I crossed the Arizona-New Mexico border driving this road and turned south on US-180, eventually reaching Hatch and Las Cruces. Today I approached the road from the north and turned west. As I neared the summit on this road I stopped to look and listen for local birds. I did not attempt any image captures, but I found Black-Headed Grosbeaks singing, mockingbirds, robins, Cassin’s Kingbird, Western Wood Pewee, and a few birds I wasn’t able to ID. Later, at a roadside picnic area I heard Solitary Vireos, most likely Plumbeous Vireos, and probably juncos and more robins.

The grade descending west toward Safford Arizona is long and steep. After passing through the relatively flat terrain in Mule Creek New Mexico, the road crosses the mountains and the state line into Arizona and follows Black Jack Canyon which winds down into eastern Arizona. Views from the grade looking east to Mount Graham are breathtaking.

Black Jack Pass - Scenery
Near the top of Black Jack Pass and looking over the steep canyon below the rugged cliffs the views were impressive.

I always enjoy visits with my friend Linda and her sister Donna, but the duties waiting back home prevented me staying as long as I’d wished. I found my way to her home in Thatcher at about 9:30am on Thursday the 21st, but had to resume my journey home on Tuesday the 26th. 

While I stayed with Linda, she, Donna and I all drove up to Mount Graham in her truck on Friday morning. If I’d had more time I would have tried to spend a night on this second (sic: 14th) highest mountain in Arizona. The road we drove ascends to over 9,000 feet and is the highest road in the state. Linda and Donna wanted to look for wild mushrooms, but found conditions too dry, but I wanted to see what birds might be around. I had limited time to photograph, but was delighted to find Red-Faced Warblers and get a few decent frames captured.

During my drive away from Thatcher on Tuesday I was informed that the date for me to accomplish my tasks at home shifted from the 8th to the 15th. I regretted not taking the trip up the mountain in the RV to wring out a few more of the high elevation birds lurking in the conifers.

The gallery below shows samples of the sights from these times.

Click map markers to reveal further information