Whitewater Canyon

Catwalk National Recreation Trail

by Sly Hardcastle

Geronimo and his Apache warriors hid out here from Army soldiers in the 1800s. Outlaw Butch Cassidy took cover here as well whenever the Pinkerton detectives were too hot on his trail later on in the nineteenth century.

Nowadays, most visitors come to the cool, clear waters of Whitewater Canyon in Southwestern New Mexico simply to dodge the heat of the sun or the stress of city living. However, more and more visitors are discovering that this is a canyon for all seasons and a great escape anytime of year.

The 1.1-mile Catwalk National Recreation Trail winds through the canyon’s steep, pink walls of volcanic rock, following the path of a pipeline built in the early 1890s to provide water and electricity for the mining town of Graham. Simply known as "the Catwalk," the trail and picnic area are located in the Gila National Forest, five miles east of Glenwood, New Mexico.

Whitewater Creek flows year round and its constant source of water in the dry Southwest supports an abundance of life and beauty. Tall, graceful western sycamores line the creek and, in the warmer months, provide dappled shade for the picnic area. In the fall, their large, five-lobed, copper-colored leaves serve as a subdued backdrop for the shimmering yellows of cottonwood trees. A few months later, the naked pale greenish-gray, almost white, branches arch against the wintry sky.

After a snowfall, tracks of the year-round canyon dwellers – rabbits, raccoons, squirrels and other small mammals – pock the trail. Deep in the canyon’s folds, snow covered branches of junipers and walnut trees muffle any sounds. As soon as the weather warms, wildflowers dot the trail, often appearing out of sheer rock. Yellow columbine, coral globe mallow and pale-lavender asters mingle with mint and Solomon’s Seal near the creek. Salt bush, sotol, prickly pear and agave grip onto the exposed, rocky surfaces.

Life quickens its pace. Insects buzz. A lizard slips into a crack in lichen-covered stone. A shiny garter snake surveys how to slither up a mica-flecked rock. Two trout glide effortlessly beneath a boulder at water’s edge. A scrub jay cries over the steady tapping of an acorn woodpecker. Leaves rustle, and four Gambel’s quail scurry into brush, taking cover from a circling red-tailed hawk. Migrating ladder-back and hairy woodpeckers are seen in the fall and spring, as well as a variety of hummingbirds passing through.

But it is the hot summer months when the Catwalk Trail and Whitewater Canyon are most appreciated by visitors. Children scramble over the rocks as they head for the waterfall-fed swimming hole halfway up the trail. Those less active stake out a shady picnic spot and dip their bare feet into the cold stream.

Summertime also offers a symphony of sight and sound. The melodic chiming of canyon wrens soften the creaking of a cliff swallow, and cooing doves join the divas of song—the thrashers and the mockingbirds. Oranges and yellows from the Western tanager mix with different shades of yellow as Scott’s and Bullock’s orioles fly by; a black-chinned hummingbird’s throat glistens like wet purple paint and a summer tanager’s fire-engine red plumage blazes in the sunlight.

Snakes, including the docile (though still dangerous) black-tail rattler, and larger animals congregate here, too. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep have been spotted along the rim, and coyotes and mountain lions wander through the canyon as they journey to and from the nearby Gila Wilderness.



Now a favorite destination for hikers, this rugged area near the Arizona border, was once famous for the gold and silver dug from the mining claims throughout the Mogollon Mountains. In fact, "the Catwalk" got its name from those colorful mining days.

John T. Graham built his ore-processing mill at the mouth of Whitewater Canyon in 1893. The mill, and later the town of Graham (population 200), were built roughly where the parking lot and picnic areas are located today. Remnants of the mill can be seen on the hillside to the west.

Water was needed for the town and the mill but, during the dry months of the year, it did not always flow beyond a mere trickle by the time it reached Graham. Since water ran year-round further up the canyon, investors of the Colorado-based mining company determined that three miles of four-inch pipeline along Whitewater Creek was the solution. If a boulder got in the way, they simply blasted out slots the height of a door to make way for the pipe and, in an engineering feat that probably would never be attempted today – much less pass government "rules and regs" – workers suspended themselves from ropes, sometimes 25 feet above the canyon floor, and chiseled out square holes to brace the supporting timbers and iron beams.

The pipeline literally hung from the west side of the canyon – along the path of today’s trail from huge bolts and rigid cables anchored into the solid rock. To keep it from freezing, workers packed the entire pipe in sawdust, then encased it in wood. A bigger pipeline was built four years later. It paralleled the original one and, while more water could rush through the 18-inch line, it was in constant need of repairs. It was those same repairmen, loaded down with tools as they balanced themselves along the pipe, who dubbed their precarious route "the Catwalk."

The mill went belly up in 1913, many blaming its demise on mismanagement. Others pointed at flash floods. Whatever the reason, Graham dried up, too, and most of the mill and pipeline were torn apart and sold for scrap metal. Residents moved to the present site of Glenwood and left Whitewater Canyon to return to its natural state.

The Civilian Conservation Corps – better known as the CCC – changed all that in the 1930s, when the corps’ Depression-era workers rebuilt the Catwalk for visitors to the Gila National Forest. Hikers followed that CCC-built Catwalk Trail until 1961, when the Forest Service constructed the steel walkways used today. The trail, much of it protected by guardrail, is considered moderate for hikers. It begins at the picnic grounds. No water is available in the picnic area or along the trail, so visitors should carry water with them. Glenwood is located on U. S. Highway 180, 65 miles northwest of Silver City, New Mexico, and 75 miles southeast of Springerville, Arizona. From Glenwood, turn east on NM 174 (also known as the Catwalk Road) and drive five miles to the parking area.

Parking costs $3 a vehicle, except for the first day of each month, when there is no charge. The picnic area is closed between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. Persons backpacking into the wilderness along Trail 207 can leave their vehicles at the parking area. More information is available at the Glenwood Ranger District 1-575-539-2481.

More information: http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/gila/recarea/?recid=2029

Catwalk National Recreation Trail map




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Link to PDF on the area

Related DesertUSA Pages
Gila National Forest
Silver City, New Mexico



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