CDT 2021: Day 15, Swinging Cross Canyon to Bursum Road

With a ranger's hat and shovel and a pair of dungarees

A lone tree stands under darkening clouds

Light rain was falling on my tent when I woke up this morning. I hoped it would end soon, so I decided to slowly pack my gear. If I didn't hurry, maybe the rain would stop by the time I was ready to exit my tent.

My timing was perfect.

DateTuesday, April 27, 2021
WeatherLight rain, then mostly cloudy with occasional light sleet; temperatures from the mid-30s to upper-50s
Trail ConditionsA big climb, followed by a modest descent and an easy climb; includes long road sections
Today's Miles16.1
Trip Miles227.2

When the rain stopped and I opened my tent door, I saw who the hiker was that arrived at our campsite after I had gone to bed. It was Beer Goddess, a hiker I met briefly several days ago. It was fun to see her again.

Beer Goddess was hiking the full river route, so when Zigzag and I left camp at 7:40 a.m., we were going in separate directions.

the Middle Fork of the Gila River

Right away, we crossed the Middle Fork of the Gila River. This wasn't the last time we would cross the river, but it was the last time there would be water in it.

For the first three-tenths of a mile of the trail, we followed the Gila River Alternate and the river downstream. Then we again picked up the Gila High Route.

The trail climbs above the river

The trail immediately took us on a steep climb out of the canyon. Before long, I could look back to see a long stretch of the meandering river.

The trail goes steeply up

The climb went up more than 600 feet in less than a mile. The trail led us up the sidewall of Aeroplane Mesa.

Zigzag stops to look at a rusted old truck

Once we reached the mesa's top, we came upon a surprising find. It was a rusted old pickup truck. I had difficulty imagining how it got here and why. It wasn't parked on a road, so it must have taken the driver on a bumpy ride before stopping here on the edge of the mesa.

Aeroplane Mesa

Aeroplane Mesa was dotted with a few trees, but otherwise was a flat, grassy plain (no pun intended).

The Place Names of New Mexico has a story about how the mesa got its name, though it may be apocryphal.

Supposedly, U.S. Army mail service pilots would land here on their delivery route, then hike down to the river to fish. One of the pilots, Claire Chennault, who later gained fame as the leader of the Flying Tigers in World War II, is said to have crashed his plane here.

A trail maintenance crew

As Zigzag and I walked across the mesa, we met 17 people hiking to the river canyon. They were members of a trail maintenance crew on their way to make repairs where a flood badly damaged the trail in 2013.

The volunteers were members of or were supported by the Gila Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of New Mexico, New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, the National Forest Foundation, and the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance.

A team of horses

When we arrived at Aeroplane Mesa Campground at 10:15 a.m., a team of horses was just leaving. They were carrying supplies for the trail maintenance crew.

One of the riders leading the horses was Mike from Doc Campbell's Post. He recognized us when we waved hello.

The weather was becoming cold and blustery. Zigzag and I tried to get out of the wind for a short break by sitting against the campground's privy.

Sleet pelts Zigzag as he walks along a gravel road

Sleet began to fall about the same time we started walking again. I called it "freeze-dried rain" when I saw it instantly dry and disappear as it hit the ground. Rain jackets were unnecessary because there was so little moisture in the sleet.

Zigzag is far ahead on the gravel road

The trail followed a gravel road after leaving the campground. For part of the way, ponderosa pines provided a little protection against the wind.

Clouds billow on the horizon

The sun and the sleet faded in and out all morning. In the distance, I could see darker clouds where it appeared the precipitation was much heavier. They never reached us.

We saw one other hiker in this stretch. He was too far away to tell who he was, and he was the only hiker we saw all day today.

A Forest Service sign with Smokey Bear

After walking 8.1 miles since leaving our campsite this morning, we crossed the Middle Fork of the Gila River again. More correctly, we passed an empty ditch that was sometimes the river. Today, it was completely dry.

Immediately after that, we came to another road, which was where the Gila High Route Alternate ended. If we were to turn left, we could have walked past a reservoir called Snow Lake and followed the river back to where we camped this morning.

Before we turned at the junction to begin walking in the other direction on the Gila River Alternate, we took a break for lunch. Though we didn't get much protection from the wind, we hunkered down at the base of a Smokey Bear sign. It warned we were in a high danger time for forest fires.

Gravity and Smokey Bear

While we ate our lunch, Zigzag offered to collect some water from the lake. We didn't need water yet, but this seemed like a good idea after seeing the dry river bed. I stayed behind with Smokey.

When Zigzag returned, he said the water appeared to be filled with a lot of sediment. We decided to carry the water unfiltered. This way, we could just dump it if we found better water up the trail. We didn't want to risk clogging our filters if we didn't have to.

Walking again on a gravel road

We then followed the Gila River Alternate north on a gravel road. Besides the hiker and maintenance crew we saw earlier, the only other people spotted on the road were a Forest Service worker in a truck and a family in an SUV.

A large ant hill

Every now and then, the road passed huge ant hills. I didn't see any ants crawling over or around the hill, but the chilly weather probably had a lot to do with that.

The trail follows a dirt road

After following the gravel road for about 1.5 miles, the trail switched to a dirt two-track road. We were still walking over grassy hills with only a few trees.

The trail continued with an ascent so gradual it felt like walking on flat, even ground.

Murky water at a spring

Ninety minutes after leaving our lunch spot, we found a small pool of water seeping from a spring. It was murky but a little cleaner than what Zigzag collected from the lake. We dumped the lake water and filtered some from the spring.

The trail makes a rough climb

A steeper climb was next. We were still following the dry stream bed of the Middle Fork of the Gila River.

If there had been any water flowing here, it would continue to Arizona and into the Colorado River. That is, the water would get there if it weren't diverted first to irrigate farm fields and to supply the more than five million people living in Phoenix and Tucson. Where the Gila reaches the confluence with the Colorado, the river is usually like we saw today, bone dry.

A shallow pool of water

Farther upstream, however, we found more water. This time, it was collected in a small, shallow pool. The water didn't appear to flow anywhere, but it wasn't so stagnant that we didn't want to collect some.

The trail goes through a grassy valley

As the climb continued, we saw fewer and fewer trees and shrubs. Before long, they were mostly gone, replaced by outcroppings of rough volcanic rocks.

Zigzag walks past the stream bed

The channel for the river was now barely a foot or two wide. We were almost to its headwater.

A water retention pond

As if to foretell the river's fate downstream, a dam stood near where the river started. Water was stored here for livestock. It may have been clean enough to filter, but we already had enough and didn't stop to collect more.

Wide open spaces

The trail made one more big climb as it passed the dam. From here, the large rock outcroppings disappeared. There were only grassy, rolling hills in the sweeping view ahead, lying underneath a deep blue sky with scattered puffy clouds.

We weren't walking here for long before the clouds thickened and grew darker. As they did, the temperature dropped. It became cold and gusty enough that I stopped to put on my wind shirt.

The trail follows a road into a forest

The terrain began to flatten and the trail began to pass trees again. The wind gradually diminished as I walked into a forest.

Near where the trail intersected with Bursum Road, I saw a white van parked ahead. Then I saw a small sign. The van looked like the one that belonged to Solo, the trail angel we met on Day 7 outside of Silver City. The handwriting on the sign reminded me of the sign I saw as I approached her van.


It wasn't Solo who was in the van, but it was a trail angel. His name was Guru, and he hiked the PCT in 2018. He explained he met Solo a few days ago. She made the sign for him when he told her he wanted to do some trail magic like her.

We chatted with Guru for a few minutes and ate some of the snacks he shared, but the time was now past 6 p.m., and the temperature was becoming too cold to stand around. It probably felt colder than it really was. Still, we decided we were done with hiking and wanted to set up camp before the temperature dropped more.

The entire forested area around Guru's van was flat. We had no problem finding spots to pitch our tents.

Later, well after we had finished dinner and had gone to bed, another hiker arrived. The hiker set up behind my tent, so I couldn't see who it was.

With a ranger's hat and shovel
And a pair of dungarees
You will find him in the forest
Always sniffin' at the breeze
People stop and pay attention
When he tells 'em to beware
'Cause everybody knows that
He's the fire prevention bear

Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear
Prowlin' and a growlin' and a sniffin' the air
He can find a fire before it starts to flame
That's why they call him Smokey
That was how he got his name


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.