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The Catwalk

By Fred Cleaver

Last updated on Friday, July 18, 2003

Visitors to the Catwalk walk along a narrow suspension bridge attached to the side of Whitewater Canyon. Photo by Carla DeMarco
Visitors to the Catwalk walk along a narrow suspension bridge attached to the side of Whitewater Canyon. 


Photo by Carla DeMarco 
The Catwalk, a National Recreation trail along the canyon of Whitewater Creek, is a unique feature of southwestern New Mexico. Located five miles east of Glenwood (take Hwy. 180 to 174), it presents an always vibrant journey along a path reflecting the region's mining history. The canyon was used as a hideout by both Geronimo and Butch Cassidy.

The Catwalk follows the path of the pipeline built in the 1890s to deliver water to the mining town of Graham. Workmen who had to enter the canyon by crawling atop the narrow pipeline named the route the "Catwalk."

In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt the Catwalk as a recreation area for the Gila National Forest. The Forest Service built the metal walkway in the 1960s. Parts of the trail have been rebuilt several times since then due to the flooding of Whitewater Creek.

At the parking lot at the beginning of the trail, ruins of the old mill can be seen high on the north side of the canyon. Here there is a large picnic area set among a grove of sycamore trees. Signs warn of rattlesnakes, scorpions and poison ivy, but this merely reflects the standard precautions which should be observed in any wilderness setting.

The first part of the trail is a dirt path surrounded by locust trees and prickly pear cactus. High up on the left is a rock formation which looks like an Indian in profile from this distance. The murmuring creek can be heard in the background.

This path leads to the unique feature of Catwalk. Metal walkways are bolted to the narrow canyon walls where there was no room to cut a trail. One expanse of the walkway is on girders stretched across the canyon. Between the creaking metal grates of the Catwalk you can see the swiftly running water below. In other parts the walkway hugs the canyon wall. The rock, worn smooth by years of erosion, arches over the pathway.

Waist high railings deprive us from reliving the experience of walking the 18 inch waterline but add to the pleasure of feeling a bit nervous about hanging off the middle of a steep canyon wall. It is enough to be sometimes off balance as we stoop to pass under the overhanging rocks, or apprehensive as we hear supports that seem to be straining.

The upper course of the trail has changed several times. You can see where the older trail followed closer to the creek and where it was wiped out in one of the periodic floods. The ruins of an old bridge and the still visible high water marks testify to the power of the canyon.

The Catwalk ends with a swaying suspension bridge leading to a cavern ledge overlooking a thundering waterfall. If you're not satisfied with turning around after vigorously jumping up and down on the bridge a few times to start it swaying, there is a narrow path to the left of the bridge where the Whitewater trail continues to the old pumping house. At the beginning of this trail is another viewpoint for the waterfall and a sign explaining how the sandstone of the canyon is layered with volcanic rock.

Beyond the pumping house the trail continues another fourteen miles up to a 10,000 foot ridge in the Mogollon Mountains. This portion is rated a difficult trail where adequate preparation is essential.

The Catwalk, seen from above. Photo by Carla DeMarco
The Catwalk, seen from above.  Photo by Carla DeMarco 

The first time I came to Catwalk I never got to see it. It was an abnormally rainy May, we were driving from Colorado to Arizona and my wife insisted I see this spectacle, one of her favorite places in the world. On the five mile road from Glenwood to the picnic area at the beginning of the Catwalk there are several low spots that forced us to drive through water running over the highway.

It was starting to rain again when we reached the picnic area at the mouth of the canyon. The only thing I noticed was the distinctive white bark of the sycamore trees along the creek before we decided the wisest thing would be to turn around and leave before we were stranded.

Since we moved to New Mexico, we have visited the Catwalk several times in a more leisurely fashion. None of the visits are long enough, but they are all interesting.

On a brisk December day the trees in the lower canyon are stark. The air is sharp and clear with a wonderful freshness for people used to city living. It is colder and darker inside the narrow canyon, but the only complaint is the shortness of the winter days. It had been a dry winter and there wasn't very much water in the creek.

In the spring the place is bursting with greenery. On the lower trail wildflowers are growing. Ice cold water is rushing through the canyon, growing to a roar in the narrowest spots.

In the summer it is an escape from the desert heat. Some people venture into the still cold water. You can hear birds and buzzing insects in a world bursting with life

On an early fall day the leaves are just beginning to turn. The bright purple fruit of the cactus looks tempting despite the protective wall of thorns. On the lower trail the noise of the cicadas is deafening.

The Catwalk is a splendid day trip in all seasons. It's an easy hike on the sides of a canyon which can be seen in no other way.

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