While most of the Gila National Forest is remote and unreachable (without a long hike or horseback ride), you can easily explore one corner of the wilderness area, by hiking the Catwalk Trail.
[tmt_info =””]From US 180, turn right on Catwalk Road, also known as NM Rte. 174. The trailhead is at the end of the narrow, winding, and dip-filled road, about 5 miles away.[/tmt_info]
On the way, you’ll pass the Santa Nino Catholic Church. I stopped to take a picture of it, since I had never seen such a rustic Catholic church before (complete with an outhouse!). Drive a little further and you arrive at the trailhead.
The Catwalk Trail follows the path of an old pipeline through narrow Whitewater Canyon. The pipeline was built back in the 1890’s to provide water to the new town of Graham, and its mill. (The town of Graham is now completely gone, and only the foundation of the mill remains.) In the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a trail that followed the path of the old pipeline.
[tmt_info =””]Parking at the trailhead costs $3. Make sure you have exact change before you leave civilization, since you must drop your cash in an envelope at a self-pay station, and no change is available.[/tmt_info]
While the Catwalk Trail is famous for its pathways made from narrow steel grates, most of the trail is on solid ground. Of the parts that are suspended, some sections of the original catwalk have been replaced, other sections are clearly quite old (but still sturdy).
[tmt_info =””]From trailhead to end, the Catwalk Trail runs 1.1 miles. Over the first 1/2 mile, you have two options: the original trail (rated moderate) or a newly-completed, easy, handicapped accessible trail. Beyond the 1/2 mile marker, the trail becomes steeper and narrower. You’ll gain altitude the entire way, but you don’t just go straight uphill. The trail takes you over one peak and dip after another, making the path very tiring, especially if you’re not in shape.[/tmt_info]
One of the most impressive engineering feats is near the beginning of the trail, where the catwalk is suspended in the middle of a slot canyon, between two narrow walls. Here, the stream runs directly below your feet.
Not all of the Catwalk’s bridges are metal. Some are wood.
If you’re not exhausted when you reach this small waterfall, considering climbing down this long flight of stairs for a closer look.
The view from the bottom is beautiful, even if the stairs are somewhat scary.
If you’re afraid of heights, this isn’t the trail for you. A couple of the bridges pass between boulders, high over the small stream. And since the bridge floor is nothing more than a steel grate, your knees might get a bit shaky.
While the old pipeline is now gone, you’ll still notice the concrete footings that held it in place.
Okay, you’ve hiked a mile without giving up, all the while suppressing your fear of heights. Your reward? One more rickety old bridge–but you may find this one more frightening than the rest. It’s a narrow suspension bridge, spanning a deep chasm. And yes, it does sway. A lot.
There’s really no reason for this bridge to even exist. The trail only runs a few hundred feet farther…
… underneath a nice, shady rock. So, if you just can’t bring yourself to cross the old suspension bridge, don’t feel too disappointed. During my visit, I saw people turning back at this point.
On the way up and back, keep an eye peeled for wildlife. Thanks to the Gila National Forest’s wilderness status, animals are well protected and can show up anywhere. I spotted this mountain goat on a cliff about 50 feet above the trail, along with several others.
Note: This trip was first published in 2006.