Experiences of a Hillsboro Peak Lookout

Reprinted from The Black Range Naturalist, Volume 1, Number 1

Experiences of a Hillsboro Peak Lookout
an essay by Don Precoda

Hillsboro Peak is a beautiful part of God’s country located in southwest New Mexico.  It is a tall and broad mountain with a nice meadow on top.  The peak is a way point on the Forest Service Black Range Crest Trail 79, which is also the Grant/Sierra county line from Thompson Cone to near Reeds Peak.  Crest Trail 79 is also a short segment of a longer alternate Continental Divide Trail (CDT) route that begins just north of Palomas Mexico, passing Deming and Cooke’s spring before traveling up Berenda Canyon, then climbing Sawyer Peak, Emory Pass, and Hillsboro Peak.  Most CDT thru hikers complete the 125 mile walk from Palomas to the peak in 3 to 5 days.  The alternate route continues to Mimbres Valley or Gila Hot Springs for resupply, and then joins the other CDT somewhere between the Black Range, Beaverhead area, and Collins Park.

John Weir

John Weir, who “was a volunteer for the United States Forest Service while his wife manned the look-out towers at Reeds Peak, Black Mountain and Hillsboro Peak for 18 years”, shared old log books (1920’s to 1990’s) with Don Precoda. 

Hillsboro Peak has visitors.  Most visitors are day hikers coming up from Emory Pass.  A few horse and riders come up Railroad Canyon.  Almost no one comes up the trail from Kingston, the Animas country, or North Percha Creek.  Less than ten northbound CDT hikers pass by during April.  Perhaps five southbound CDT thru hikers pass by during November and December.  The historic cabin on Hillsboro Peak is trail magic to CDT hikers and a planned overnight stop.  (A bunk out of the wind beats a stick in the eye.)  Most visitors to the peak leave written entries in a log book placed inside the old cabin.  Thoughts of God and life, stories and poetry, weather, humor, date and trail monikers are recorded.  Some visitors leave drawings, mementos, or trail magic.  These visitor log books go back in time many years.  In 1992 I saw entries by Peter Hurd (dated 1950), Dr. Werner Von Braun and colleagues (Alles auf Deutsch geschrieben in 1947), Eugene Manlove Rhodes (1928?), and other  scamps, politicos, ranchers, governors, generals, cowboys, astronauts, the noteworthy and notorious from New Mexico history.   Only a few visitors to the peak stay overnight.  Some sleep in the old cabin like Rhodes and I.  Some camp in the meadow under the stars.  Others stretch out in the old disused corral.   It’s shaded, clean, grassy and private - in a depression shielded from the winds.

Hillsboro Peak has history.  Many old mines are visible.  A few isolated relic cabins still survive.  Rabb Park is nice country.  Nearby Hillsboro Lake is always interesting.  Segments of present day Forest Road 157 were once upon a time the wagon road connecting the mining camps of Chloride, Hermosa, and Kingston.  Buffalo Soldiers rode this way to find, fight, and fall to Apaches in Massacre Canyon in September 1879.  The graves are still there.  Go and look.  Nowadays it’s the views people come for.  Everyone - geocachers, riders, thru hikers, day trippers, scientists, foreigners and locals, young and old, in-laws and outlaws, the high and the low all climb the sixty tower steps for the view.  And the view is great:  Far away the Dos Cabezas and Chiricahuas near Wilcox.  Mt. Graham near Safford.  The Organ and Franklin Mountains near El Paso.  The Sierra Juarez in Old Mexico.  Big Hatchet and Animas Peak in the boot heel.  The Sacramento Rim country behind Alamogordo.  Sierra Blanca and Nogal Peak in Lincoln County.  The Sierra Oscura above Trinity Site near US-380 in Socorro County.  The Manzano Mountains east of Belen.  Salinas Peak on the White Sands Missile Range is in the middle distance, as are the Magdalenas, San Mateos, Floridas, Mogollons, and the Gilita country.  Close by are all the Black Range Peaks.  Many and many more mountains from Arizona to Texas are visible - parts of two sovereign nations, three US states, thirteen counties, and nearly forty mountain ranges.  The view is basin and range at its best.

Hillsboro Peak has silence and solitude.  Days and months when no one tries for the top because of cold or wind or snow.  Only the wind comes whistling up the trail.  When the wind is calm one hears many sounds:  Birds in flight.  Animals calling.  Aspen leaves shaking.  Far away thunder.  Rain on the roof.  Mice.  One Sunday morning I first heard then watched the Kingston Volunteer Fire Department traveling to Hillsboro village for a structure fire.  The wail of the fire engine sirens floated up from 4,000 feet below and miles down the canyon.  In summer the roar of Harley Davidson motorcycles leaving Kingston is common on top of the mountain.  Then silence.  There is an old adage: “Solitude is the pleasure of being alone.  Loneliness is the pain of being alone.”  Both concepts exist on the peak.  Both have adherents.  Some visitors return to the peak again and again to soak up the solitude, beauty, peace, and views.  For other visitors one dose of loneliness is enough.

Hillsboro Peak has night life.  After sundown the lights of Silver City and T or C, the Mimbres and Rio Grande valleys all shine from below.  The stars above  so clear and close they might be touched.  Meteors flash by and are gone.  UFO sightings are recorded.  Nocturnal vermin slink about their business in the meadow while owls perch on tower steel, silent, waiting, and watching.  Owl parents know the coming moonrise will awaken young upon the nest…whooo…will call out for a snack.  Only then will parents swoop and slay in the meadow below.  It seems fresh warm blood greases young gullets to swallow its own weight with ease.  There are no chokers on this owl’s nest.  Kids play Frisbee in the meadow at midnight under a bright full moon.  Inside the cabin are pinochle and popcorn by gas lamp.  The nights are special.

Hillsboro peak has wildlife.  Deer graze the meadow at sunrise and sunset.  Turkeys feed their way through the meadow all day long.  Ever try counting turkey poults the size of golf balls? 31-45-36-48.  Never the same number twice in a row.  By August the brood has lost half its number and the remainder are grown to football size.  By Christmas half again will perish.  Life is tough on young turkeys.  Few will survive till spring.  A new bear comes up every few weeks.  Sometimes it’s a female with cubs, or a male bear alone, or yearling twins traveling together.  Bears are great roamers.  They stay awhile then move on.  Often they are seen, but more often it’s a fresh footprint in the mud, or a snag pushed over and pawed through, or the sound of bear running through brush that gives them away.  They grub a living for a day or a week then move on, to be replaced a day or a week later by another bear.  Other wildlife includes snakes, many butterflies, red fox chasing chipmunk, coyote, lizards and other critters.  There are many and many raptors, game birds, song birds, woodpeckers, carrion eaters, seed eaters, and hummingbirds including Magnifient.  There may be a mountain lion.  And one frog that quacks like a duck.  Don’t believe it? Read on.

Don Precoda provided the photo (above) of himself on his
birthday in 2016.  At work at 63.

Philip Conners

Philip Conners in “Beauty in the Burn” describes his encounter with the frog this way “Something bright and gently quivering caught my eye in the grass between the cabin and the outhouse: a mountain tree frog. In twelve summers of living there I’d never seen one. I sat near it and tried to remain as still as it did for the next half hour, my compatriot on an island of green. “  Orion, March-April 2015

One afternoon while in the tower scoping buffalo on the Ladder Ranch I heard a duck call out.  Then again.  I looked around the clear blue sky and saw nothing.  Over the course of two hours the same call came maybe 20 times.  Sometimes loud, other times faint.  I was sure it was a duck.  I looked and looked - no duck.  It called again.  Cleaned my eye glasses and looked - no duck.  It called again.  Cleaned the tower windows and looked - no duck.  It called again.  You know how a human mind can fixate on something and chew on it like stringy Mexican beef?  That’s how it was with that duck.  Finally it shut up and I gave up.  That night I had dreams of a duck.  I killed, cleaned, cooked, and consumed duck.  What a delicious dream.  The next dream was not so pleasant.  Some duck drank up all the water in yonder Caballo Reservoir and flew over the peak looking for me.  Then a river of something slimy came bull’s eye on my head.  Yuck. 

The next morning all was forgotten.  Clean air, robust living, and high places have that effect.  During lunch on the porch the duck starting calling again.  I stayedunder cover.  Another call.  All at once I realized three things:  It was not a duck.  The sound came from ground level just fifty feet away.  It now sounded like the croak of a frog.  Over several minutes as it croaked I slowly homed in on its call.  Then I see it - less than one inch long.  Its smooth skin and green color exactly matches the grass.  Camouflage so wonderful I lose sight of it between my feet.  Can you imagine?  A frog at 10,000 feet.  How does a frog survive?  Yes - another person [ed. Philip Conners] saw it in the same spot one year later.  He took a better photo too.

Hillsboro Peak has many tales to tell.  Stories of boots and bones, mountains and memories, sunsets and smiles.  Happy trails to you.

after the fire

Photograph by Don Precoda.  A lot of people have written about the Silver Fire and its aftermath. 
For a view of the fire, by locals, as it happened read The Silver Fire - As We Lived It

  ***Added Thoughts From The Newsletter***

Hyla wrightorum map

The USGS indicates that the northern range of Hyla wrightorum in the map to the right.  Hillsboro Peak is just south of the indicated range.  The USGS page also indicates that the species is found up to 2,900 meters, 

Hillsboro Peak is about 500 feet higher than that.  As such, the sightings by Precoda and Conners are of some significance.  The species is also found in disjunct populations southward in Mexico.  Jim Rorabaugh notes that “Populations in the Huachuca Mountains and Canelo Hills differ in morphology, calls, and mitochondrial DNA from both the Mogollon Rim frogs and H. wrightorum from the Sierra Madre Occidental of Sonora, and may represent a different subspecies or species.  These disjunct populations are small and threatened by catastrophic fire, drought, and introduced predators.” Until 2001, Hyla wrightorum was regarded as a synonym for Hyla eximia.  Some authorities now place it in the genus Dryophytes.

Hyla wrightorum

Listen to the Arizona Treefrog (audio link)  
Don Precoda provided the photograph above
of an Arizona Treefrog, Hyla wrightorum.  

© Robert Barnes 2018