Socorro, NM to Tucson, AZ | Driving through the VLA and over the Continental Divide | Hiking the Catwalk in Gila National Forest | November 29, 2021
We awoke on Monday just knowing that today would be a great day. We only had 6 more hours of driving to reach Tucson, and we had a few exciting stops planned. For the remainder of our trip, we would be following the route through the Gila Mountains that Curtis took alone when driving to Iowa in May 2013, two months before we would get married. He knew this would be a scenic and enjoyable drive, and not as tedious as driving around all the twists and turns through the White Mountains on the US-191 in AZ.
After breaking camp and repacking the car, we exited Water Canyon, enjoying the views we had missed by arriving after dark. We resumed our drive heading West on US-60, and soon entered Catron county, which was a new one for me.
The first “attraction” that we drove through this morning was the VLA, or Very Large Array, an enormous Radio Telescope built by the National Science Foundation in the ‘70’s. It is comprised of 27 antennae on tracks 13 miles long. The signals from each of the antennae is combined through an interferometer, making the entire site one of the largest telescopes on earth. We actually were able to see one of the antennae up close when we lived in Tucson, as a spare antennae was transported (in an incredible shipping feat of ingenuity) to the top of Kitt Peak. We stopped near an informational sign so Curtis could get a letterbox. He recounted things he remembered learning about this area, as well as other college memories as an astronomy student, and conspiracies about the VLA and the Plains of San Agustin (part of the Roswell Alien Incident was VERY loosely linked to an archaeological study in the Plains, and the construction of the VLA was deemed a cover up).
After that, we went West on NM-12. Our next stop was at the Continental Divide, where we stopped for another letterbox and a short walk on the CDT. We didn’t walk too far, joking that we didn’t want to “spoil the trail” for ourselves should we ever decide to through-hike it. (Curtis says that’s not on the top of his list for right now since so much of the trail is road walking, especially in New Mexico.)
We continued following NM-12 through the Gila Mountains, then took US-180 to NM-78. This drive was just beautiful as we followed the San Francisco River and through Gila National Forest. There were even some fall colors hanging on here — we thought it was fun how we’d managed to stretch the fall season out for over two months, starting in North Dakota and Montana in September, Minnesota in October, and Nebraska all the way down to New Mexico in November.
At this point in our drive, we were within 4 hours of Tucson — which to us today means that this would be within a potential “weekend getaway” radius. And yet, for the entire 2 years that we lived in Arizona, we never even thought of coming out here for camping or hiking. In retrospect, we realized how little we camped while we lived in Tucson, or even in South Carolina, and how our style of travel has changed over the years. Maybe New Mexico wasn’t a priority back then, but we were now seeing exactly what and how much we were missing out on. New Mexico is actually a beautiful state, as it turns out, and to think we used to make fun of it just because to us it wasn’t as beautiful as Arizona, and we only knew it as one of the states we had to drive across to get back to Iowa.
Nothing we did today could remedy the fact that we now knew we had missed out (and were still missing out) on so much beauty within these mountains, but we did have one hike planned to at least enjoy what we could and make some more memories on this drive. In the town of Glenwood, we followed signs heading East leading us to the trailhead for the Catwalk. The amount of signs pointing us in the right direction and the large parking lot made us think that this is a rather popular hike, but since we were here on a Monday morning there was only one other car here. We gathered some water bottles and began our walk along the river.
The trail started out as an easy dirt path following White Water Creek, a tributary of the Gila River, and as we walked further back the canyon walls came in closer. We then came across the “catwalk” — a platform that took us through the narrow canyon walls over the water. The area was originally a mining town for the gold and silver rich Mogollon Mountains (a sub-range of the Gilas). Water from up the canyon was piped down in large pipes to power the mill at the base of the canyon. These pipes were suspended above the flowing stream on a precarious network of bridges and spans known as ‘the Catwalk’. The original catwalk was a victim to time, but was resurrected in the 1930’s by the CCC, but after the 2011 Baldy Fire, flooding swept away the CCC’s efforts. The new setup is very accessible and appears durable. Charlotte was apprehensive at first about walking on the metal grating while seeing rushing water underneath her, but she quickly overcame her fear and led us confidently through the canyon. We walked back as far as we could until we came across a trail closure, then turned around. The hike was about 2 miles round trip, easy and very enjoyable — we can see why it would be popular!
Finally, it was time to enter Arizona! We counted down the mile marker signs as we approached the state line, and when we arrived we got out and took some pictures. We made it! Well, we still had 3 hours to drive, but just being back in one of our “home states” filled us with happiness. We drove AZ-78 to US-191, taking it to Safford. As we drove out of the mountains, we started to see other mountain ranges to the West that we recognized. After driving through so much unfamiliar territory in New Mexico, it felt almost comforting to see mountain ranges that we knew so well. After getting gas, we drove South to the I-10 and took that all the way to Tucson, with smiles on our faces the whole way there.
When we arrived, we got settled in to our hotel and picked up In-N-Out for dinner. We had so much planned for our week here, but we were thankful to have tonight to take it easy and relax after our drive. We’ve moved around the US quite a bit, but we’ve hardly ever revisited cities we’ve lived in after moving away. There was no denying that we were so happy to be back here, and we were quickly being reminded of why and how much we love the desert.