The Catwalk National Recreation Area in the Gila National Forest serves as a testament to man’s ingenuity, tenacity, and engineering acumen. This recreation area provides today’s visitors to the Glenwood River District site with a glimpse into western New Mexico’s mining past of more than a century ago and the natural splendor of a slot river canyon.
The Catwalk, as it is commonly known, derives its name from the original plank-board walkway placed atop a three-mile steel pipeline constructed in Whitewater Canyon in the 1890s to funnel water to a silver and gold ore processing plant near the canyon’s mouth. Although little remains of the old pipe, the modern, all-access trail, which features elevated steel bridges (catwalks) bolted to the massive rock canyon walls, follows the original pipeline route above Whitewater Creek.
Make it a day trip
My wife, Judy, and I spent part of a hot summer afternoon amid dozens of hikers and strollers of all ages who had sought out one of the Southwest’s most unique attractions — the Catwalk National Recreation Area. Facing a bit of a time crunch, we stuck to the easily traversed first half-mile of the 1.3-mile trail that becomes a bit more rugged further up the canyon.
Plan on about an hour and a half for the round trip along the trail that climbs 350 feet in elevation from the parking lot. With a network of canyon-wall-mounted steel footbridges a dozen feet above the creek, this ultimate in adult Erector Sets highlights the portion of the kid- and dog-friendly trail that experiences the most foot traffic. What you see today was constructed after a mega-flood in 2013 on the heels of the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy fire that closed the Catwalk for four years.
Soaring canyon walls topped by volcanic rock spires, towering native trees, tumbling waterfalls, and clear pools of sparkling water hidden behind boulders compete for the visitor’s attention along the trail. Those who venture beyond the bridge system can follow a cleared trail for another half mile or more that crosses the creek, proceeds across a fiberglass bridge, and passes through an arch.
Remnants of the walls for the mill built by John T. Graham in 1893 still cling to the west side of the canyon near the Catwalk entrance. They serve as the only reminder of the area’s glory days, when mines were worked above the canyon from 1889 to 1942. A town named for Graham, later called Whitewater, grew up around the mill. A larger, 18-inch pipeline built in 1897 carried water to the town and to an electric generator at the mill. Those original larger pipes and iron supports — secured in brace holes drilled into the solid rock walls — formed what came to be known as the Catwalk.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a suspended, wood version of the Catwalk as a recreational trail. In 1961, the Forest Service built a metal catwalk. Seventeen years later, the route was designated as National Recreational Trail #207. It is open for day use only, but also provides access for backpackers to other Gila National Forest trails further up the rugged canyon, which can be hazardous to public safety.
Most visitors, however, pursue less strenuous endeavors on the readily accessible first half-mile section of the Catwalk trail. Some families make a day of it by packing snacks and drinks to enjoy in the recreation area’s shaded creekside picnic area that offers tables and grills. No drinking water is available at this time.
Efren Aleman, 33, of Las Cruces, enjoys taking his 7-year-old son, Efren Jr., and 4-year-old daughter, Ivy, to the Catwalk. It’s about a 140-mile trip from Las Cruces via Silver City, which lies about an hour east of the recreation area.
“It’s accessible for lots of ages and various skill levels, and an inexpensive way to get outside and make memories,” says the Santa Teresa native. “The Catwalk isn’t threatening. It’s a good start for folks who don’t regularly do outdoor outings. It’s a perfect combo of limited gentrification that doesn’t intrude on the ecosystem.”
The Alemans are part of a slow uptick in visitors to the recreation area over the past few years. However, the Catwalk area saw a dramatic surge of people during the pandemic-impacted summer months that eclipsed the average annual visitation of 40,000, according to Erick Stemmerman, Gila National Forest Glenwood District ranger.
Recovering from fires and floods
“The Catwalk is a nice, safe place to experience the outdoors,” the ranger points out. “The new catwalks are much more structurally sound than the old ones destroyed by a perfect storm of a 10,000-year flood on top of a wildfire scar. I don’t know of any other place in the world like the Catwalk that’s so easily accessed.”
Ranger Stemmerman, who has been headquartered at the Glenwood District office for almost three years, is responsible for managing the more than 525,000 acres and 322 miles of trails. He says he’s been pleased to see the recreation area rebounding from the massive devastation to the canyon environment.
“The river is reestablishing itself and the swimming hole is coming back nicely,” he says. “Other smaller pools are filling up as well, depending on the creek flow.”
The creek’s natural swimming holes, like those found at the Catwalk, remind us all that in a desert environment, especially during sweltering summer months, abundant water can be as precious as silver and gold.
Where to find it
The Catwalk National Recreation Area is located at the end of State Highway 174 roughly five miles from Glenwood, New Mexico. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is a $3 per vehicle fee. For more information, call the Glenwood Ranger District at 575-539-2481.
During the rainy season, call before you go because the low-water crossing at the entrance to the recreation area may be closed due to high water.
Written and photography by Rob McCorkle
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2020