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The Bursum Road

By Drusilla Claridge

Last updated on Thursday, July 17, 2003

The Bursum Road runs throughthe middle of Mogollon. Photo by Carla DeMarco
The Bursum Road runs throughthe middle of Mogollon. Photo by Carla DeMarco 

One of my favorite drives is along the Bursum Road, which turns east from Hwy 180 about 4 miles north of Glenwood and climbs to Mogollon, Willow Creek, and Snow Lake. The Bursum Road takes the traveler from desert heat at the San Francisco River to alpine woods of aspen and fir in the Mogollon Mountains.

It came as a surprise to find out that not everyone finds this enchanting drive the perfect summer outing. What's the problem?

The Bursum Road gains four thousand feet of elevation in about twelve miles.

"Wow" you might well say. The switchbacks loop straight up the mountain, and the only guardrails are on the section below Mogollon. Portions above Mogollon are single-lane width, though frequent pull-outs solve the problem of meeting an oncoming vehicle.

The Bursum Road separates the mountaineers from the flatlanders, and the bold from the timid, not to mention those who know better than to look down from those afraid of heights!

I first drove the Bursum Road when working on Bearwallow fire tower in the summer of 1979. I descended it for my days off, and drove back up the mountain to go back to work. How hot the valley below, and how pleasant my mountaintop at 10,000 feet! Sometimes rather than make the descent I stayed in the mountains, camping and hiking around Willow Creek.

One summer full moon night, I drove slowly along Willow Creek Mesa with my headlights out, the moonlight enough to show the way. Ponderosa pines rose shaggy against the moonbright sky, and a thick stand of aspens seemed to capture the moon itself among the white trunks. No summer since then has been complete without a trip up the Bursum Road.

The Bursum Road was built to serve the Mogollon Mining District. In those days Mogollon miners and businessmen traveled to the county seat in Socorro on a regular basis. The Bursum Road was originally intended to connect Mogollon to Socorro via Magdalena . Work could have begun on the road as early as 1895.

The road was named for a member of the Bursum family, homesteaders in the Socorro area. One of them, a director of the State Penitentiary at Santa Fe around the turn of the century, used convict labor to build those twelve miles of switchbacks up the west face of the Mogollon Mountains. (Convict labor was also used on the Las Vegas highway, and to work on the state capitol, though not the present building.)

A New York City Humane Society caught wind of the labors of the convicts and brought the nation's attention to it in the newspapers. Nobody out west, of course, took such ill-informed complaints seriously, and by 1914 our local promoters were hailing the Bursum Road as a great improvement to the Mogollon Mining District.

Gila National Forest. Photo by Carla DeMarco
Gila National Forest. Photo by Carla DeMarco 

Some maps show the Bursum Road emerging from the Gila National Forest in the neighborhood of Old Horse Springs : I feel sure this is incorrect. The maps showing the Bursum Road heading east from Snow Lake and joining the road to Magdalena outside of Beaverhead would be consistent with the original intent.

The traveler today makes the climb on a good paved road from Highway 180 to Mogollon, observing the warnings not to pull a trailer over 26 feet in length. The switchbacks begin to lift you, like an elevator, and enormous vistas of New Mexico and Arizona unfold below.

The ghost town of Mogollon nestles in a picturesque little valley, and the traveller notes the remnants of the busy mining town that used to line the gulch for a half-mile. A mining district that was started here in 1886 reached its heyday in 1912. Several million dollars in gold and silver came out of the Mogollon Mines and were shipped to the Denver mint between 1912 and 1916. Production began to fall after that, but the real ghost town years didn't set in until 1942, when Congress passed wartime legislation that affected gold production.

In recent years two museums, a small store, and a B & B offer activities to the tourist who stops to enjoy this picturesque canyon. Proceeding up the mountain, the pavement runs out and one is travelling on a graded dirt road.

Forest signs on the road's shoulders indicate trails heading off into the great canyons and peaks of the Mogollon Mountains. The road climbs up the side of Silver Creek, passing through slender aspens. Look for wildlife: the last time I made this trip a young black bear skipped across the road in front of us between switchbacks. "Like a Disney movie!" one of the party exclaimed.

Topping out at Silver Creek Divide, identified by a Forest sign, the traveller has completed the four-thousand-foot climb. The Bursum Road now skirts the shoulders of the peaks, affording vistas of deep canyons, dramatic mountains, the high grasslands of Negrito to the northeast, and Arizona to the west. Aside from the aforementioned pullouts to allow for passing vehicles, there are also rest stops. Bursum Campground has picnic tables and an outhouse; Sandy Point has a large parking area and a corral.

Forest Service packers often start out at Sandy Point to ride horseback to the lookout tower at Mogollon Baldy via the Crest Trail. The trailhead is on the south side of the road at Sandy Point and is heavily used by backpackers, too. It gives access to the Gila Wilderness, and climbs the crest of the Mogollons. I have actually heard - I swear it - peculiar little voices in the alpine woods along the Crest Trail. I have huddled under the tall firs on the crest while a summer thunderstorm crashed around me, and I have ridden the Crest Trail horseback in the last flush of autumn, early snow pillowing on the brown fir needles.

Proceeding down the Bursum Road to Willow Creek Mesa, and to Ben Lilly, Willow Creek, and Gilita Campgrounds, the traveller is in a playground of wildflowers and tall Ponderosa pines. One can also go on to Snow Lake to camp. Or, for that matter, camp in the high green cienegas, or meadows, around Bearwallow Peak. Or at Collins Park by the Continental Divide, or on the road to Beaverhead.

Those old boys who started the Bursum Road, they knew what they were doing. They knew it would open up a wonderland of hunting and fishing. They just couldn't know that one day the county seat would be moved to Silver City, and that a place like Willow Creek would be as precious as, well, water in the desert.

From Willow Creek, the possibilities are vast. One can travel the so-called Outer Loop, returning to Silver City via Wall Lake, the west side of the Black Range, and the Mimbres Valley. One can turn northward and choose from several different roads that give access to the Plains of San Agustin. One can re-enter civilization at Reserve, Apache Creek, Horse Springs, the Very Large Array, Magdalena, or even Truth or Consequences.

And one can go back down the Bursum Road, dropping from 9,000 feet to 5,000 feet between Sandy Point and Alma. The Bursum Road is accessible spring, summer, and fall, but not winter. After the first snow flies, the gates across the road above Mogollon and east of Silver Creek Divide are locked.

Driving the Bursum Road is my favorite thing to do in the summertime, and you know what? I haven't been yet this year. Time I packed up my gear and went!

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