Written by Jonathan Patt, Wild Arizona’s Field Operations Manager.
More than a decade since it was last open all the way through, and 8 ½ years since it was further damaged by flooding from Hurricane Odile, the South Fork Trail in the Chiricahua Wilderness has again been restored all the way from its trailhead in Cave Creek Canyon outside of Portal, Arizona to its upper terminus along the Crest Trail #270C near Finnicum and Sentinel Peaks.
Following extensive efforts by volunteers, the Forest Service, and other organizations to restore the first four miles along the main canyon bottom, Wild Arizona partnered over the past several years with the National Wilderness Stewardship Association, Chiricahua Regional Council, National Forest Foundation, and Friends of Cave Creek Canyon to fund two stages of restoration of the remainder of the trail. In 2021, the 2 mile section through the “Chute”, a steep, narrow section of canyon that climbs from the South Fork of Cave Creek to the basin below Burnt Stump Spring and Sentinel and Finnicum Peaks, was restored following extensive flood damage.
In 2022, we returned to tackle the remaining distance from there to the Crest Trail, which turned out to be some of the most challenging parts to work on due to the dense overgrowth and almost total loss of original tread from lack of use after the damage to the lower sections kept almost everyone off the trail. We partnered with several volunteer groups to go in ahead and cut out the corridor and we spent multiple hitches following behind and reestablishing the tread. After nearly reaching the top in December but being forced off the mountain by a winter storm with 17″ of snow forecast, we returned this most recent hitch in April to wrap things up.
After working our way back in, clearing the trail and removing several snags that were too close to the corridor for pack animals as we went, we arrived at High Camp on Thursday afternoon and were rewarded by the sight of water flowing right next to our camp, which saved us from having to make the 1.5 mile round trip water haul from Burnt Stump Spring, which had proved to be a real limitation from our previous visits. The weather was beautiful, aside from some high wind several days, and we quickly made great progress up the trail, fine tuning some of our work from the year before as well as finishing the remaining 1,200′ of retreading up to the Crest.
We had several visits along the way, including local hikers and partners on the project who hiked in to check out our work and visit with us, and two long-distance backpackers who had just begun their journey to northern New Mexico and were very excited to step onto brand new trail after what they had just come through. On Sunday, Lynne, our Stewardship Program Manager, hiked in to join us as well!
After completing South Fork, we spent some time digging out grass to better define the junction with the Crest Trail, and then bumped over half a mile northbound along the Crest to spend the rest of our time retreading one of the worst portions of that trail where the trail had been almost completely gone. We took some quick passes through this section to reestablish a stable walking path and get hikers able to comfortably continue further out towards Sentinel from the direction of Snowshed and Chiricahua Peaks and other parts of the Crest Trail system. There’s still much more work to be done out here, but this should be a big improvement for now!
On Wednesday, after packing up and doing a cleanup pass as well as cutting a few more logs off the trail while we hiked out, we made it back to the trailhead and drove over to an afternoon celebration held nearby with multiple people who have been involved in the South Fork Trail and its maintenance and restoration over the years in various forms. Great food and company was a fantastic way to wrap up this project!