Tucked 5-miles east of Glenwood, New Mexico, the Catwalk Recreation Area is home to one of New Mexico’s most interesting (and beautiful) trails. Geronimo and his band of warriors hid out from the U.S. Army in this remote canyon back in the 1880s. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid took advantage of the seclusion and the swimming hole while evading Pinkerton detectives hot on their trail.

the catwalk recreation area signCatwalk Trail

The short trail (1.25 miles) winds through a narrow slot canyon created by Whitewater creek. About half of the hike is on a suspended metal bridge, the Catwalk, bolted to the canyon walls, high above Whitewater creek. The first 1/2-mile of the trail is wheelchair-accessible. Beyond that, there are low-water crossings and an ascent that isn’t viable in a wheelchair. There are small waterfalls along the way and a nice swimming hole at the end, with small pools tucked behind boulders just off the trail.

The Catwalk is dog friendly, though dogs with small paws may not do well on the steel grating. It is probably best to tote tiny dogs. There is also a nice picnic area by the parking area, with several tables along the creek. Pit bathrooms are available.

There are two low water crossings on the drive to the parking area. I have been there when Whitewater Creek is a trickle and I have been there after heavy rain, when the creek was too high to cross. Keep that in mind during the rainy season or during spring melt-off. Check with the Glenwood Trading Post (at the NM-180 turnoff) if there is recent rainfall.

Hikers and backpackers can access 325 miles of interlocking trails in the Mogollon Range where Forest Trail 207 and Forest Trail 41, the Gold Dust Trail, split off from the Catwalk Trail. West end of the suspension bridge, near the 1.0 mile marker of the Catwalk.

The Catwalk’s History

The Catwalk’s origin traces back to the mining boom in the rugged Mogollon Mountains beyond Whitewater Canyon. James Cooney, a soldier at Fort Bayard, discovered veins of silver and gold ore while on a scouting expedition on Mineral Creek in 1870. Mineral Creek is about 8 miles northeast of present-day Glenwood. Cooney staked a claim; however, he couldn’t explore the area or develop the claim until he was discharged in 1875. Once he had the opportunity to look around, he realized the area was loaded with ore deposits, with rich veins of gold, silver, and copper.

Buoyed by his success, Cooney approached a group of investors to prospect the surrounding canyons and streams. Eventually Cooney’s partner, John Lambert, traced the veins of valuable ore a couple of miles south. The area became the heart of the Mogollon Mining District, with some of the most prolific and profitable mines in the region: the Confidence, Bluebird, Blackbird, and Redbird mines. Of these, the Confidence Mine was the most productive. The vein was mined to a depth of over 1000 feet, yielding over $1,200,000 in ore, which was considered a fortune at the time. In fact, Mogollon was home to 3000-6000 miners, entrepreneurs, investors, and opportunists during its heyday in the 1890s.

Word of Cooney’s success spread quickly, with 300-400 miners and prospectors descending on his remote camp. Cooney continued to work his claims for 5 years, amassing significant wealth. However, he didn’t live to enjoy his fortune or to see the mining boom in Mogollon. A band of Chiricahua Apache, led by Chief Victorio, ambushed him and a companion between the camp and Alma in 1880. His brother and friends carved a tomb out of a huge boulder in the canyon where he died. He is still interred there.

beginning of the catwalk trailGraham, aka Whitewater

As the mines churned out voluminous amounts of ore, the need for local processing facilities increased. John Graham, the superintendent of the Confidence Mine during its early years, realized that the profitability of the mines could be increased significantly if there was a processing mill nearby. The key factors were proximity and an ample supply of water.

The mines around the Confidence Mine were all within a mile of the sole road connecting Mogollon to the San Francisco River valley to the west, a harrowing journey at that time (present day NM-159/Bursum Road). Graham decided to build a mill on the northwest slope of Whitewater Creek Canyon, about 2 miles south of the mines, downstream from where Whitewater Creek exits a narrow, steep walled slot canyon. Bursum Road led to the south edge of Whitewater Mesa. They deposited the ore into chutes above the mill located a few hundred feet below.

Graham needed a consistent source of water to operate the mill. Whitewater Creek’s water level changed dramatically throughout the year, often delivering little more than a trickle out of the canyon. However, the water flow was reliable year around deeper in the canyon. Graham came up with an ambitious plan to build a 4-inch pipeline to pull water to the mill from 3-miles upstream. With the help and partnership of ex-Colorado Governor David Moffat, the mill was completed in 1893, with a four-inch water pipeline running through the narrow slot canyon formed by Whitewater Creek.

From Boom to Bust

The mill, and the town that evolved around the mill, were named after its founder, John Graham, though some locals preferred to call it Whitewater. The town’s population peaked at around 200. They had a dance hall, saloon, general store, and laundry during the decade the mill operated, but the mill closed permanently in 1913. Businesses closed and residents moved on or relocated to other communities nearby, like Alma and Glenwood. The mill and much of the pipeline was dismantled and sold as scrap. Between the demise of Graham in 1913 and the development of the Catwalk Trail in 1934, Whitewater Canyon was left to the water, wind, and wildlife.

The parking lot for the Catwalk Recreation Area is the original townsite. Look for the brick foundation of the mill on the cliff west of the parking area.

the catwalk recreation areaThe Original Catwalk

Installing the pipeline in such a remote location was a remarkable feat of engineering. Workers dropped into the canyon on ropes, dangling high above the creek. They chiseled square holes to brace the timbers and iron beams used to support the pipeline, which hung from the west side of the canyon from huge bolts and cables anchored into the stone. Workers packed the pipe in sawdust and encased it in wood to keep it from freezing during the harsh winter months. The “brace holes” drilled a century ago are visible along the trail, because the Catwalk follows the original pipeline.

The 4-inch pipe wasn’t big enough to support the water needs of the mill and the growing village of Graham so they built an 18-inch pipeline in 1897. It ran parallel to the original. Whereas the larger pipeline effectively supplied more water, it was a maintenance nightmare, because Whitewater Creek is prone to flooding during the spring runoff and after heavy rainfall. Debris washing downstream in the narrow canyon would frequently damage the pipeline, requiring a team of men to patrol and repair regularly, hiking the length of the pipeline on a platform of wood planks. The repairmen dubbed the perilous trek “the catwalk.”

New Deal Project

President Roosevelt launched a series of programs known as the New Deal between 1933 and 1939 to pull the country out of the Great Depression. He established the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) in 1933, putting millions of men to work on environmental projects. The CCC helped create the early infrastructure of the national and state parks we enjoy today, including the Catwalk Trail.

In 1935, the U.S. Forest Service tasked a crew of CCC men with rebuilding the Catwalk and developing the lower portion of Whitewater canyon as a recreation area within the Gila National Forest. The project took two years to complete, with the trail open to the public in 1937. That version of the Catwalk lasted until 1961. Storms and frequent flooding battered the wood over the decades. As a result, the Forest Service replaced the wood version with a metal catwalk.

the catwalk recreation area
The Catwalk portion of Forest Trail 207 and an additional 1.15 miles of trail at the junction of Whitewater Creek and Southfork were designated as a National Recreation Trail in 1978.

Current Incarnation of the Catwalk

The Whitewater-Baldy Fire in 2012 left major burn scars in the area. Heavy rains in 2013 caused devastating flooding, cutting nearby Mogollon off from the world for several days (with 18 tourists stranded), and wiping out the Catwalk. The U.S. Forest Service contracted with an Albuquerque company to rebuild, giving them a project timeline of 9 months, requiring precision project management.

Bluntly, building the Catwalk wasn’t easy a century ago and it isn’t easy now. There are no stores to pick up supplies. Silver City is 60-miles away. However, they took advantage of modern technology, designing the new Catwalk with 3-D modelling. Additionally, they built it with prefabricated walkways in 12 to 20-foot sections.

Geology of the Catwalk

The beautiful, rugged mountains of the Gila Wilderness, Gila National Forest, and Aldo Leopold Wilderness are sculpted remnants of a cluster of super-volcanoes. There are at least 4 mega-calderas in the region, with explosive periods of volcanic activity between 20-35 million years ago. The Emory Caldera, the Gila Cliff Dwellings Caldera, the Bursum Caldera, and the Mogollon Caldera are part of the expansive Mogollon-Datil volcanic field, which stretches from Datil to Piños Altos.

The Catwalk Trail provides an outstanding opportunity to see most of the dominant volcanic rock found on the western side of the Gila Wilderness. Thick deposits of volcanic material from the Mogollon caldera and Bursum caldera are exposed on the trail. Geologists named the thick layer of compacted volcanic sediment the Cooney Tuff formation. It consists primarily of various types of welded ash fall and ash flow tuffs. The steep canyon walls are mostly rhyolite, casting pink to orange hues depending on the light and time of day. The entire area is a geologic smorgasbord and a hiker’s delight.

the catwalk recreation areaCatwalk Recreation Area

Glenwood Ranger District
Erick Stemmerman, District Ranger
Hwy 180 S, 18 Ranger Station Rd., P.O. Box 8
Glenwood, NM 88039
(575) 539-2481

Gila National Forest
Camille Howes, Forest Supervisor
3005 E. Camino del Bosque
Silver City, NM 88061
(575) 388-8201

Directions: The area is approximately 5 miles from Glenwood, NM, at the end of NM Hwy 174 (Catwalk Road). The parking area is paved and marked.

Hours: Dawn to dusk. Day-use only.

Fees: There is a $3 per vehicle fee. The America the Beautiful – National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Passes honored are: the Annual Pass, the Military Pass, the 4th Grade Pass, the Access Pass, the Senior Pass and the Volunteer Pass. Make sure to display your Interagency Pass on your mirror or your dashboard.

the catwalk trailTrails

Catwalk National Recreation Trail #207 – The Catwalk National Recreation Trail is only the first 1/2 mile of trail #207. The trail goes on, taking approximately 1.5 hours for a round trip. The first 1/2 mile is a universal design trail with ADA accessibility. However, if you hike the loop back on the side of the trail that is part of the original CCC system, that part is not ADA accessible.

For backpackers, the Catwalk National Recreation Trail #207 becomes a forest trail that leads into the Gila Wilderness. A closure remains in place beyond the swimming hole due to a dangerous rock overhanging the trail.

Know Before You Go:

  •  Dogs must be on a leash at all times in all developed recreation sites. Please pack out your dog’s solid waste.
  • No water. Hydrate well and bring extra water and sunscreen.
  • Recommend wearing closed toe shoes.
  • Watch out for rattlesnakes and other wildlife.
  • If the trash receptacles are full, pack out your trash.
  • Be careful about crossing the creek before the parking area if it is running strong after recent rainfall (or during spring runoff). It can be deeper (and rockier) than it looks. Not really a problem if you have 4WD.
Mogollon Main Street
Mogollon, an “almost” ghost town with about 15 full-time residents.

Travel Tips

  • The Gila is huge and there isn’t a lot of development, which means there aren’t many roads going east-west. For example, if you want to visit the Catwalk and the Gila Cliff Dwellings, allocate at least two days and add Mogollon, Silver City, City of Rocks, and Mimbres to your list of day trip options.
  • Glenwood is isolated, with some of the darkest skies in the United States. The Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary is located about 15 miles from Glenwood. It is 1 of 12 dark sky sanctuaries in the world. The sky gets disturbingly dark here, attracting people from near and far to experience the stars and Milky Way in vivid detail.

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