Withington Wilderness

Loved this guy!

Loved this guy!

“The wild, wild Withington.”

First thing’s first. I don’t care what anyone tells you or what you read online—don’t try to access the Withington Wilderness without a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle. Just don’t. At least not in the middle of a rainy August.

The Withington Wilderness is one of the least visited (and least known due to my scientific analysis of talking to fellow wilderness lovers about my intent to go here) wilderness areas in the state. That could be because it’s so difficult to get to. And when you do get there, the trails are scarce if not non-existent. But the solitude…the silence…

I started my day at 5:30 a.m. I anticipated a 2.5-hour drive to the Withington, which is situated not too far from the Village of Magdalena. My friend met me at my house. We had originally talked about taking his truck, but decided on my sedan instead because we had three dogs with us (we wanted them all in the air-conditioned cab and his truck could only accommodate two inside, one in the bed).

This was a mistake.

The day started out smooth enough, however. My directions were accurate, and we were making good highway time. And then we came to our first forest road…

In Potato Canyon.

In Potato Canyon.

You see, online I had read about the route into the Withington Wilderness. The information I had found told me that the primitive forest roads were rough, but passable in a passenger vehicle (with careful driving). And for the most part, it was “passable,” but I still shudder at the sound of those huge rocks scraping the underbelly of my poor car. No, this was a truck kind of road…my car did not belong here. We traveled about six miles on this road before we came to a point where I really could go no further. We decided to get out and hike to the Potato Canyon trail head from here. It wasn’t the hike I had planned, but it was less than a half a mile away.

We hiked Potato Canyon for a good three hours. I hesitate to call this a trail…we just followed the arroyo. If I would have come here in the spring, I’m sure I would have seen the amazing looking waterfall that was described in my guidebook, but the landscape was dry and arid—I’m sure it had dried up months earlier. After awhile, fallen trees became dense and we decided to turn around. We returned to the trail head and headed back up the road by foot three miles to the Water Canyon Trail.

The hike up the road, though not in the wilderness, was quite pleasant. There was a certain stillness around us and the view of the San Mateo Mountains (also little known) was enjoyable. We were surprised about two miles in to see a white truck slowly scooting toward us with two children on top (both wearing bicycle helmets). I was really just shocked to see anyone else out here, and more shocked to see the two children hanging on top of the truck cab. We said hello as they passed and continued on our way.

Finally we made it to the Water Canyon trail head. My friend set up his tripod and we took a photo in front of the trail sign, which said “ter Canyon.” We looked ahead just in front of the actual wilderness boundary—our friends in the truck had set up quite a camp complete with a zip line for the kiddos.

I was pretty impressed with how nice this wilderness sign was.

I was pretty impressed with how nice this wilderness sign was.

We entered the wilderness again on the Water Canyon Trail. Again, we hugged the (dry) stream, although there was really no way to get lost since we were in a canyon that headed one way. The trail disappeared and reappeared a few times and then completely disappeared into the fallen trees, which ultimately became the biggest barrier of this hike. We hiked in the dry Water Canyon (I protest the false advertisement in the name) for about an hour or so and turned around to call it a day (it was about 4 p.m. at this point).

When we got back on the road we noticed my friend’s dog Luna was walking painfully slow. All day she had been lagging a little but she was now sitting in the shade at every chance and limping a bit. Then we discovered the culprit—at some point she had scraped the pads right off her poor little feet. But we had three miles left…what to do?

My friend carried her off and on for the remainder of the hike (she is a 60-pound dog, so this was not easy, but we had no choice). It was a long journey back to the car for all of us, but we finally arrived. And when we arrived all I could think about was the drive out of here. My friend drove this time and I listened again to the occasional scraping of rocks on my car’s belly. After another hour, we had made it. We passed some cows as we left the primitive road. As if to say goodbye, my dogs gave them a good bark and growl, and we were on our way back to Magdalena.

Withington was a challenge. It was a challenge to get to. It was a challenge to hike there because of the scarcity (or even complete absence) of trails. There was little signage.

However, what the Withington lacked in ease of accessibility it made up for in solitude. Again, although I was surprised to see the family with the encampment near the wilderness boundary, I could tell that this land was touched by very few travelers. In a way it felt like stepping back to another time before humans “conquered” the West. This was still a land that seemed to avoid man’s never ending thirst for conquest, and I hope it stays that way.

There was a stunning silence to the forest. In fact, I noted this out loud to my companion as we hiked. This was possibly the quietest forest I’d ever been in…eerily but wonderfully so. There was a certain stillness to the trees also. As if the forest had an inner calm of being practically untouched by the hands of man.

I have mixed feelings about my trip to the Withington Wilderness. The challenge of getting in and getting out in my vehicle was a bit stressful and frustrating (Although I have been told that monsoon rains might have accounted for the poor quality of the road, so it may not be such a problem in the spring time. I wonder, however, why those monsoon rains had left Water Canyon so dry). The lack of trails made the wilderness seem less accessible also. However, what I experienced was one of the more “wild” and organic experiences I’ve had in New Mexico wilderness. I also felt special knowing that I am one of the very few people who have or will experience this wilderness area. This is no Sandia Mountain Wilderness or Wheeler Peak Wilderness. This is the Wild Withington.

1 thought on “Withington Wilderness

  1. Susan Ostlie

    Last May 12 Great Old Broads for Wilderness hiked to Panther Canyon and and also from the Apache Kid trailhead in this area (at the end of the road past the Withington – Grassy Lookout). Lots of bear scat and a javelina in Panther Canyon and several downed trees and an elk on the Apache Kid trail, but the AK trail, once we found it, was pretty clear. Panther Canyon trail from Hughes Mill area was almost completely unmarked. It was a 2 1/2 hour drive from Magdalena to Grassy Lookout, and yes, indeed, a 4WD high clearance vehicle was useful. Ranger Aldridge told us that there had been so little snow last winter – under 6 inches, that the roads were rough but passable. That’s probably why the canyons were so dry. Neither group saw anyone that day, even on the road.

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