Nine years ago, the Manzano Mountains were swept by the worst fires in their history. Three blazes blackened 30,000 acres, almost entirely destroyed the small Manzano Mountain Wilderness (less than 37,000 acres), as well as adjacent areas of the Cibola National Forest and subdivisions with summer homes, camps and year-round houses. U.S. Forest facilities were wiped out, a Univesity of New Mexico observatory threatened and the ranger perched atop the Cibola National Forest fire tower at Capilla Peak nearly killed.
Today, the area has recovered some of its former beauty and serenity, but it looks nothing like it once did, and won’t for decades to come.
In many places (but not all), the old towering forests of spruce, fir and ponderosa pines, interspersed among tall oaks, piñons and junipers are no more. In their place are open meadows covered with scrub oaks, grasses and wildflowers.
Networks of hiking tails still penetrate the mountains, mainly from trailheads in Fourth of July Canyon, in Red Canyon and at Manzano Peak, although some of the trails, such as the Crest Trail heading north from Capilla Peak, are in sorry shape. The trails, ranging form the 0.4-mile Gavilon Trail to the 22-mile Crest Trail, can frequently be combined into still-pleasant circle hikes.
Most of the trails are little used, and it is possible to walk for hours and see nobody, as I found when hiking south on the Crest Trail. The most popular area is Fourth of July Canyon in October, when maple leaves turn vivid red, in contrast to the yellow fall foliage elsewhere in New Mexico.
The views now across these newly opened expanses are magnificent. The nine-mile-long, twisting and torturous road (unpaved and rough in stretches but passable in an ordinary sedan) from the village of Manzano to Capilla Peak has frequent striking views looking east across the Salinas Lakes (usually dry but now with a little water from good spring rains) and the Estancia Valley all the way to the Pedernal Hills some 70 miles away along the far side of the shallow valley. Once you arrive at the narrow ribbon of Manzano Crest, the west side appears with 60-mile views across the Chihuahua Desert to other mountain ranges to the north, west and south.
From here trails head north and south along the crest as well as a half-mile westward to an outcrop used by Hawk Watch to count and band the thousands of migrating raptors, whose regular flyways include the Manzanos.
Manzano Crest includes a small observatory owned by the University of New Mexico, although I was told the university no longer uses it on a regular basis.
The crest also hosts what may be the most beautiful campground in New Mexico. Its sites, each of which includes a roofed shelter, overhang the vertical east slope drop of thousands of feet to the valley floor, with unobstructed views for scores of miles. Strangely, almost no one uses this campground. It was destroyed by the wildfire in 2008 but has been completely reconstructed and is handsomer and better equipped than when I camped there a decade ago.
The crest also hosts a communications tower as well as one of the few remaining fire towers that the U.S. Forest Service mans on a regular basis. The live people in most of these old lookout towers have been replaced by cameras, satellites and GPS gadgets.
But most spring, summer and fall days and nights, the Mountainair District of the Cibola National Forest keeps a ranger, usually Dixie Boyle, in the tower watching for fires in the vast stretch of New Mexico mountains, plains and deserts that she can observe from her aerie.
Boyle, who lives with her husband in Mountainair, was in the tower when the largest of the 2008 fires erupted. It raced toward the tower so quickly and unexpectedly that it nearly killed her.
Boyle uses much of her spare time in the tower to research and write slender books about the people and history of the area she watches over. A review of her latest book will appear in a subsequent column.
When I came to the peak shortly after the 2008 fires, the ground was blackened, the area barren, without plants or wildlife. Now the animals are beginning to return—a small herd of deer, a solitary bear where once there were many, a mother bobcat with two young ones hanging off her. Somewhere out there are mountain lions and coyotes and smaller mammals.
Walking south along the Crest Trail, the path descends steeply for several miles, dropping into a canyon thickly overgrown with brush and tall grasses. It’s lush, jungly in the way New Mexico seldom is. I think I see honeysuckle in bloom, a plant that used to be part of my life growing up in Georgia. Invisible birds are singing.
The new plant life covering the ground, the slowly returning animals, the expansive views out across the mountains, green in the foreground, blue in the distance—these are all signs of hope. No matter how bad the tragedy—and the tragedy of 2008 was about as bad as they come—the Earth will regenerate, if we only give it a chance.