Slog in the Sonoran Sierras – A Feast of Thorns

As part of our long term goal of retracing the steps of the early known explorers of the Sierra Madre Occidental, we set off from a ranch near the confluence of the Yaqui and Sahuaripa rivers on an exploratory hike. We hope to hike from Sonora to Chihuahua this year, but we’re still trying to find the trailhead!

Sonoran Sierra Map

To scout the route, we hiked uphill from the ranch house to a panoramic vista that offered a tantalizingly brief glimpse of the river 8 kilometers or so away, and about 1500 feet lower. Our goal was a thin thread of a road cresting a hill and ultimately heading to a river crossing. Unfortunately our vista was on a precipice and offered no descent, so we had to backtrack to a road junction. We started by following a cattle trail from the ranch house to shortcut the sinuous road, and bushwhacked an arroyo to reach the road. It was a short and bloody bushwhack. More about that later. On the road amid bufflegrass heaven we slowly descended into a complicated network of arroyos and hills that had looked flat from the vista high above. Fan palms and yucca punctuated the steep sparse yellow slopes. Rocky volcanic outcroppings exposed multicolored veins, while other extrusions looked like splashes of rock frozen in eternity.

Down in the lowlands, we cut the benches to avoid following the meandering arroyo and save time. That’s exactly what we didn’t do. For instance, on one bench we found a fence. Following the fence line uphill, indistinct traces became a distinct cattle trail. The trail widened. We didn’t have to duck for overhanging branches. The trail looked well traveled, hopefully by vaqueros, and appeared to head up and over the rise to intersect the road we had spied from above. It traversed 2 drainages as it ascended, and then it abruptly disappeared. A kind of trail went straight up the ridge, and that was a grunt, but up we went anyway blindly refusing to give up. In a couple of minutes we got a view of where the route could have gone, but didn’t! And another view of the fact that we were totally cliffed out. Totally. The ridge dropped off on all sides except for directly in front of us which rose to a sheer cliff through a steeply carpeted thicket of thorny plants, and no discernible way through. We had no choice. We had to go all the way back to the river. At least we had water for camp.

Maybe if there were more cows, there might have been more trails. In this situation, I can’t say enough good things about cows. Cows are miraculous creatures. They’re lazy and thirsty and hungry. They like long gentle trails that go from food to water to food, and shallow ponds where they can stand to drink, and shady trees where they can chew their cud. They know all the best shady spots like abandoned Mogollon-era cliff dwellings; and all the best watering holes like pristine springs issuing from the earth. Unfortunately, they’re not good at cleaning up after themselves, so they have a deservedly bad reputation for fowling their own nest. But they are consummate trail builders; and vaqueros chasing cows help keep those trails in a condition favorable to hikers. Yes, where would we be without cows? Goats on the other hand make tiny trails, hardly distinguishable from a rabbit trails. By and by, they make a messy mesh network of overgrazed habitat, and no self respecting hiker would ever knowingly venture onto a goal trail; but that’s another story.

We had learned well our lesson from the day before. We swore to stay on clear trails or in wide arroyos. Following the arroyo to its junction with the road up and over that obnoxious ridge, we spied a snippet of road high above taunting us in the morning light. Too savvy to be swayed, we forged ahead in the arroyo. The road entered the riverbed after an hour or so. We thought we were close to the river, so we stayed in the arroyo. After another hour, the canyon narrowed with sheer cliffs hundreds of feet high flanked on either side by stately palms. This new development promised a welcome shady canyoning experience. Sure enough, the canyon floor dropped abruptly and huge boulders choked the restricted opening. We put away our hiking sticks and scrambled happily along.

The canyon widened briefly and we discovered a cross canyon route. By now we really, really knew we were close to the river; or so we hoped. We dropped packs to finish the last narrows. An easy walk between undulating walls polished smooth by flood waters and on a flat sandy bottom got us to the river in barely 5 minutes, but there was no beach on our side and no easy crossing. Fishes flashed below us in the deep, green pools as we planned the next leg of our recon.


We had just started up the cross canyon route when 2 vaqueros herding a cow appeared on the trail on the opposite bank. We waved, and they waved and yelled something. Moments later they come galloping up driving that poor steer. They dismounted and introduced themselves and we all shook hands. Manolo and Manuel were rounding up cattle for the upcoming inspections and worked at the next ranch over, La Cienega. We talked about the beauty of the region and the tough going.

Mucho terreno“, they said, “muy honda“. Terse words, and to the point. They headed off, and we followed in the same direction, but we never saw sign of them again. We found a good trail in the next arroyo and it led up a rocky slope to a flat, shady spot. We scouted for a route up and out of there for 20 minutes before we found it. We we’re even sure a mounted rider could get through the dense stands of catclaw and vinorama; but once we were on it, we found it easy going. Up and over from one saddle to another. Finally we had found a camino real. In the arroyos we passed a couple of line shacks situated near water where we refilled. Just upstream of one pool we flushed a flock of ravens that had been feasting on the putrid carcass of a cow. We looked to make sure it wasn’t IN the water, and made the sign of the cross.

Shortly, the camino real ended at a trail junction. Checking the map, we determined that we weren’t far from where we had wanted to start the hike- 3 days earlier. What to do?

Stay tuned for part II where we get skunked, walk for days following puma tracks (or visa versa), spend the night at a local rancho, and hitch a ride in the back of a cattle truck.

One Response to “Slog in the Sonoran Sierras – A Feast of Thorns”

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  1. I’m on the edge of my chair here, eagerly awaiting the next installment (or is it “episode”?) of your grand adventure. Can I make a request? How about a map that shows us your proposed route?

    I’ve read that one of the reasons the northern Sierra Madre of Mexico is so unknown is thanks to the Apaches. They were so ferocious in protecting the area from intrusions that for well over a century no one dared entered.

    Tell us more, por favor!