Distance: 40 miles (roundtrip)
Water: No water available for first 8 miles of trail
Season: Spring, Summer, Fall
Trail Condition: Good to Moderate
I had gotten the idea for this trip the year earlier. At a Gila Forest planning meeting, the Forest Service gave an update on an ongoing fire that was burning through the north end of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. They were letting it burn but keep it away from Diamond Creek in order to protect a relic population of Gila Trout – relic implying non-reintroduced.
By the time it was classified as a subspecies of rainbow trout in the 1950s, Gila trout were determined to be endangered. When conservation efforts began, gila trout persisted in only five streams, Diamond Creek being one of them. Today, they are doing much better and were downlisted from endangered to threatened in 2006, but most of the population exists to due stocking efforts. While this is certainly nothing to be scoffed at, the thought of catching forever wild gila trout held a certain appeal. Combined with knowing that its remote location would mean getting away from the crowds on Memorial Day weekend, I was hooked.
The drive down was long, but fairly easy to navigate. From Exit 89 on I-25, we followed NM-52 for 9 miles past the town of Winston then turned left (south) on NM-59. We turned left again at the Beaverhead Ranger Station to stay on NM-59, but continued straight a half-mile later to remain on Forest Road 150 also known as the North Star Road. About 4 miles past Wall Lake, at the bottom of a short mesa, the turnoff on 4069G ended 1/2 mile later at the trailhead for the Diamond Creek Trail – Trail #40.
The hike begins in a larger grassy floodplain interspersed with ponderosa pine. The trail begins on a two-track and starts straight down the middle of the valley after passing into the Wilderness within the first steps from the parking lot.
On a hot day, this section of trail offers little shade, so try to get an early start. It also offers extremely easy walking, although that could be said for almost the entire trail.
After about a mile, the trail passes by a stock pond after crossing the dry creek bed. When we did it, there was only a couple feet of water left in the man-made pond despite the fact that it was at least 20 feet deep.
At about the 2 mile mark, the canyon narrows considerable and oak start to join the ponderosa. Shortly thereafter, the trail crosses by another stock stock and at 4 miles, it reaches the junction with Trail #67. This trail is marked by a larger, 4 foot cairn, but not trail is discernible.
A short ways after this trail junction, Diamond Creek Trail passes through a small private inholding where there’s a corral and two small buildings. A surprising sight 4+ miles into a Wilderness, but a good explanation for the two-track, which ends here.
A short ways after the inholding, the trail passes by a dilapidated series of corrals nestled against a pretty cliff on the north side of the creek. There are a few small caves and some beautifully gnarled oaks.
By this point, the canyon has narrowed considerably. The vegetation is much denser and grass is no longer the sole ground cover. Other small shrubs have joined and the occasional spruce and fir emerge as well. Still, the trail remains flat throughout this entire section.
For the first 8 miles, the trail was completely dry except for a few puddles, suitable for Sadie, but not for us. The first short stretch of flowing water emerged at mile 8 followed by two other short bursts at miles 9 and 10. None of these temporary spring-fed oases lasted long, but if you’re running short on water, there is enough to fill-up.
NOTE: The biggest factor making this hike possible is the availability of water. Our trip followed the second driest year on record, so it is likely most other years see more consistent flows. However, by judging the vegetation in the creek bed, it is possible that many of the dry stretches of creek we saw had not seen water in many years.
Around mile 10, the canyon widens again, grass becomes the sole ground cover again, ponderosas pines dominate the tree cover, and the creek dries up for another 3 miles.
Eventually, the canyon narrows again, oak join the ponderosa, and as long as you’re able to calm your nerves about the lack of water, this section of trail (still flat) is quite lovely.
Once again, the canyon narrows, fir becomes the dominant tree cover and the creek starts to produce water for what proved to be its longest stretch – about 3 miles.
Around mile 14, the trail climbs uphill along the north side of the creek – a first in the entire trail. Shortly after this climb begins, the Caledonia Trail – Trail #42 comes in from the left. Stay straight, going upstream.
There are plenty of good camp sites throughout the trail where there is water including here, although if you go more than a mile past the junction with the Caledonia Trail, the canyon becomes too narrow to find a place to place a tent.
We got to camp around 3 and enjoyed relaxing with our boots off. Although I was nearing an ethically boundary by putting to use the fly rod I had carried all day, I couldn’t resisting catching at least one of these fish I had traveled so long to see. After an hour of fishing, I had caught ten, and my curiosity had been more than satiated.
However, I was distraught at the prospective outlook for this unique population of Gila Trout. They have survived millenia of fire, drought and other threats, but getting a look at them and the stream they’ve called home in 2018, made me worry for their future. On top of everything else, we witnessed a small herd of cattle tromping through and around the longest, wettest section of creek. What this says for the future is difficult to determine.
Initially we intended to do a loop, coming down the South Diamond Creek Trail – Trail #68, but according the map, the creek remained “intermittent” for much longer than the main Diamond Creek and given how sporadic that water had been, we decided not to take a chance.
Instead, we left our camp intact and only took a day pack’s worth of gear up to Diamond Peak. Again, the first 2 miles of trail remained flat and easy to follow. The forest here became even more lush, and ferns even appeared.
A little more than 2 miles from the junction with Trail #42, a large cairn appeared marking the junction with Trail #67. Again, while the junction was marked, I could not discern any trail.
Just a little past this, however, the trail passes a signed junction with the Fisherman’s Canyon Trail – Trail #48. We had decided to make this day trip a loop by going up Fisherman’s Canyon Trail, going south on the Continental Divide Trail – Trail #74, and looping back down Diamond Creek Trail.
The Fisherman’s Canyon Trail was in good condition and easy to follow. For 1 a mile, it climbs steeply to the ridge to meet the CDT. At points, the forest cover is light making the trail slightly difficult to make-out, but an experienced hiker will have zero difficulty.
Upon reaching the marked junction with the CDT, you will get some of your first views of the entire trip.
From the junction, go right (south) along the CDT through an area that burned in 1989. The aspen forest has come back well and is extremely dense in certain areas.
The trail contours close to the top of the ridge, descending into a few saddles along the 3.5 to 4 miles back to the junction with Trail #40. In parts it was slightly overgrown and contained some deadfall, but was easy to follow.
There are also a handful of views to the east looking over the Rio Grande Valley toward Elephant Butte Lake and Truth or Consequences.
From the marked junction with Trail #40, the CDT continues 1/2 mile south to the top of Diamond Peak. Along the way, it passes the junction for Trail #67 and the South Diamond Creek Trail – Trail #68. At this junction, take the uphill trail to the left and complete the switchbacks toward the peak. In the last 100 yards, the trail leaves the burn area and reenters old growth ponderosa forest providing pleasant shade opportunities.
Although Diamond Peak is neither prominent nor distinctive, it offers amazing views to both the north and the south. To the north, the San Mateo Mountains and the Apache Kid Wilderness, and to the south, the rest of the Black Range and the entire Aldo Leopold Wilderness.
At the junction with Trail #40, we went left, downhill to follow the trail back to our camp. This was the roughest section of trail the entire trip. It had only been cleared recently but still contained enough debris from rotting trees, loose rock and other obstacles to make for tenuous footing. The trail is mostly easy to follow despite there not being an obvious tread for much of the next 2 miles.
Once it reenters the older forest, the trail improves, but it is clear that few feet ever find this path. Water begins flowing after about a mile, but I would wait for a small, clear spring that crosses the trail about 1.5 miles from the junction with the CDT before refilling, if possible.
After returning to camp, we packed our stuff and started our return hike in order to make the next day as short and quick as possible. We hiked for about 4 miles until we hit water about 10 miles from the trailhead. We made camp in picturesque oak grove and enjoyed the rest of the long, late spring day.
Waking up early, we packed camp and were on the trail in about an hour. Everything was as it had been two days earlier. But on our first day, the sky had been overcast so the first shadeless miles were fairly pleasant. On the return trip, however, there were no clouds in sight and the sun baked down on as as we hurried through the final miles back to our car where there were some barely cold beers awaiting our return.