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Lincoln National Forest – Crest Trail – White Mountain Wilderness

Three hours of sustained rain is enough to make anyone quit. As soon as we pulled up to the Turkey Canyon Trailhead it started to rain. My friends and I pulled out the rain gear and strapped on our packs anyway. Nothing was going to stop us from spending the weekend in the backcountry. Three hours later, soaking wet and cold, we wondered if we had made the wrong decision.

Lincoln National Forest – White Mountain Wilderness

Our plan was to spend two nights in the White Mountain Wilderness of the Lincoln National Forest outside of Ruidoso New Mexico. I have heard a lot of good things about the 20 mile Crest Trail (No. 25) and wanted to spend some time on it myself. Although doing the whole trail wasn’t going to work out for us logistically, we planned to hit a large portion of the trails middle section. We started just east of the Argentina Bonito Trail Head on the Turkey Canyon Trail (No. 40). From here it is just two and a half miles to it’s junction with the Crest Trail where we would spend the night.

Turkey Canyon Trail

That night we cooked dinner and hung our bear bag in the dark. We stripped off all of our wet clothes and draped them out inside our tents hopping they would dry as we slept. We crawled in our sleeping bags, praying the rain would stop.

Our Campsite near Turkey Spring

Turkey Canyon lived up to its name. All along the trail, during the brief moments when the rain would let up, we could hear wild turkeys gobbling. We could tell they were close, but we never saw them. We went to sleep and woke up the next morning to the sounds of wild turkeys.

The morning was beautiful. The sun was shining and the sky was clear. A dense fog rested in the canyon below us. It looked to be a great day, but we knew more rain was in the forecast. We couldn’t take another three hour or longer rain when most of our gear was still wet. We talked about heading back to the car, but the morning was simply too perfect. We packed up our wet gear and postponed our dicsion. There was another trail heading back to the car that we could bail out on if the rain started again. So we set out heading South on the Crest Trail taking in the views of Turkey Canyon in the early morning. Before long we saw a heard of Elk across the canyon from us. At first there were four or five, then ten or twelve, and before long two to three dozen Elk were grazing across the Canyon. It was going to be a good day.

View from our first campsite
Elk in the Lincoln National Forest
Elk – Lincoln National Forest

With in a hour we had made it to the Junction of the Argentina Canyon Trail (No. 39). This was the trail we were going to bail on if the rain started up again, but it was still a beautiful day. We decided to keep going, knowing there were more options to get out of the mountains if we needed to.

Backpacking in Lincoln National Forest – White Mountain Wilderness
White Mountain Wilderness – Lincoln National Forest

When we arrived at the Little Bonito Trail (No. 37) Junction. We were running low on water. Our campsite the night before had been near the Turkey Spring where we planned to resupply on water. Due to extreme drought conditions the proceeding year, the Spring was dry. We knew if we didn’t find water soon we would need to head back to the car with or without rain.

Hiking on the Crest Trail – Lincoln National Forest
Argentina and Crest Trail Junction

Nogal Peak in the distance

Getting further away from Nogal Peak
Hiking on the Crest Trail – Lincoln National Forest

Horse Pen near the Argentina Trail Junction

The Spring Cabin Spring was less than a half mile from the trail junction. We headed over there hoping the spring would be flowing. Right where the spring was supposed to be we found a mostly buried trashcan. We assumed this was the spring, even-though no water was coming out. We opened up the trashcan to find a small puddle of rusty water. I wasn’t real enthusiastic about drinking this water, even with a good filter. The Spring Cabin was nearby so we headed over there to see if it was open to the public and if any water might be found.

The Spring Cabin and Spring Cabin Springs are along the Phantom Trail No. 29
Spring Cabin Spring – Lincoln National Forest

Spring Cabin Spring – Lincoln National Forest

When we arrived at the Spring Cabin we found it locked up tight with no water in sight. It was nearing lunch time and we were getting hungry. So we dropped the packs and pulled out our lunch. Setting there near the crest of the Sacramento Mountains we were able to get a good cell signal, probably from a tower near Ski Apache to our south. We decided to check the weather forecast. More rain was coming within the hour. Most of our gear was still soaked, but the sun was still shining. We pulled out the tents, and set them up to dry in the warm sun. We still had to decide if we were going to wait out another rain storm or head back to the car. We had been having such a great day, we really didn’t want to head home. Instead we gathered as much fire wood as we could before the rain came in.

Spring Cabin – Lincoln National Forest

The Spring Cabin has a small porch overhanging the entrance. We pilled the wood up under the porch to try to keep it dry. We still needed water, but with the rain coming we should have plenty before it was over. We staked down the tents and bunkered down ready for rain, but it never came. We still needed water, there was a small amount of lingering snow in the shadow of a fallen tree. We gathered up as much as we could and set it out in the sun to melt. It was hardly a liter. We knew we would need more, before the night was over. Spring Cabin Spring has another release point just a half mile from the Spring Cabin. We decided to head over there in the off chance it was flowing.

We pilled up wood and hung our packs under the Spring Cabin’s very small porch
We decided to camp next to the Spring Cabin
We melted snow for water

As we hiked we could see storm clouds forming in the distance, but were distracted by the amazing view from the Crest of the Sacramento Mountains. We stopped to take in the views. When we finally made it to the other spring we weren’t surprised to find it dry as well. The drought had really done a number on the Lincoln’s springs. We decided to hike down the small ravine and found a few puddles of water in the rocks. Normally I would avoid stagnant water, but I was confident these puddles were from last nights rain, and I trusted my filter. The few small puddles proved to be more than enough water. We filtered up all the water we could carry and headed back to camp.

Standing on the Crest of the Sacramento Mountains
View from the Sacramento Mountain Crest

Standing on the Crest of the Sacramento Mountains

View from the Sacramento Mountain Crest 
Standing on the Crest of the Sacramento Mountains
Finding water in the high altitudes and after such a prolonged drought was a challenge 
We filtered what little water we could find

When we got back to camp we could see the storm clouds coming in right on top of us. I had a small tarp that I strung between a couple of trees. This would be our dinner spot tonight. We brought all the dry wood under the tarp with us and started a small fire that we would try to keep going in the rain. Once the fire was going strong we started on dinner, waiting for the rain the whole time. It never rained a drop. We pulled out the cell phone and checked the radar. There were two big storms on either side of us. Somehow we had escaped the rain all the way till nightfall. We hung the bear bag again and climbed into our tents for the night.

Camp Fire under a small tarp, waiting for the rain

We strung a small tarp between two trees to try and keep us out of the rain – but the rain never came.

I woke up early and checked the forecast once more. More rain was in the forecast for the rest of the morning. We quickly packed up the tents while they were still dry. We were on the trail by seven AM. We would head back to the car on the Little Bonito Trail (No. 37). Our original plan was to continue along the Crest Trail to its junction with the Aspen Canyon trail (No. 35) and camp somewhere there along the trail. But the abundance and then lack of water changed our plans.

Little Bonito Trail No. 37
Little Bonito Trail

Little Bonito Trail

In the end we had a great time on our short hike along the Turkey Canyon Trail, Crest Trail, and then the Little Bonito Trail. We made it all the way back to the car with out a single drop of rain. Had we found more flowing water sources we could have followed our original plan without fear of rain.

The Hike:
Distance: 9-10 Miles Round Trip
Starting Elevation: 7,668 Feet
Highest Elevation: 9,120 Feet
Elevation Change: 1452 Feet

Map of our two night backpack in Lincoln National Forest

To reach the Argentina/Big Bonito Trailhead and The Turkey Canyon Trailhead from Ruidoso, take US Hwy 48 north approximately 5 miles past the Ruidoso Village limits, to the junction with Highway 37. Turn left onto Highway 37 and go approximately 1 mile to the intersection with Bonito Lake Road (Forest Road 107). Turn left onto Forest Road 107 and follow it approximately 9 miles to the Trailhead located at the end of the road. The road is narrow, but paved until the final 4 miles. The last 4 miles of road consists of improved dirt but is passable by car. About a mile before the Trailhead, the deteriorating road will lead you through the middle of a bunch of dilapidated buildings and pens. Do not let this frightful sight alarm you. Forge straight through the middle of it all and the Argentina/Big Bonito Trailhead is a mile down the road.
I highly recommend the Map and Guide book featured below. The map is published by the Lincoln National Forest Service for the White Mountain Wilderness. I use it extensively when hiking in the Lincoln National Forest. Purchase it through this link and help support MyLifeOutdoors.

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  • Linda Williams

    May 22, 2012

    Looks like a beautiful place. Too bad about the sparse water sources. Wish I could send you some of our PNW rain!

  • Norman Rick

    May 22, 2012

    I have backpacked in this area several times and recognized many of your photo locations; Heaven on Earth, in my opinion and it was never too difficult; just enough to help you appreciate getting there. It is a great loop trail with abundant scenery and wildlife. Thanks for your blogging about this excellent area.

  • Paul Osborn

    May 23, 2012

    Looks like a beautiful area. I'll have to remember it for next time I'm in your neck of the woods!

  • Rita Wechter

    May 23, 2012

    I drove through the Lincoln National Forest when I visited New Mexico in March. Your pictures do justice to this beautiful area. It's too bad about the water supply; the drought this winter is affecting most of the intermountain west this year.
    Thanks for sharing this backpacking adventure!

  • Daniel Beach

    May 23, 2012

    awesome! looks like you had a great time, nothing better then being that far away from civilization for a few days. curious, what kind of water filtering system are you using in that picture??

  • Alina S.

    August 3, 2014

    Unfortunately, most of this area was destroyed by a fire shortly after your trip there! I was just in Ruidoso recently and hope to hike the Argentine Canyon trail. I was not prepared for the devastation I saw when I arrived. I live in Santa Fe so I should have known, but I didn't. So sad! I love to day hike and have had the privilege of enjoying a great many trails around this beautiful state. Just gorgeous. I feel blessed!

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