SILVER CITY — After a four-month closure due to the Whitewater Baldy Fire this summer, the Forest Service is partially reopening the Catwalk Recreation Area at 8 a.m. Saturday in time for tourists to visit it during the long Columbus Day weekend.
Officials on the Gila National Forest closed the Catwalk in late May as the fire was still growing and uncontained. It remained closed even as the fire was contained and into monsoon season because of concerns about possible flooding. In mid-June, officials began dismantling the metal bridges and walkways at the Catwalk to prevent logjams and damage from debris flows that were anticipated during flooding.
Fortunately, no major flooding occurred and Forest officials are now beginning the task of re-assembling the bridges and re-installing railings.
"We dodged a bullet and so did the town," said Glenwood District Ranger Pat Morrison. "We did a lot of prep work and we had much less rainfall than was anticipated."
Morrison said the danger of flooding isn't completely over, but in the fall and the spring there is less potential for major flash flooding like during monsoon season, and if heavy rain is predicted over a period of days, Forest officials can temporarily close the Catwalk for a few days if necessary, instead of keeping it closed for an extended period of time.
For now, only a part of the Catwalk will open, while crews continue to reinstall bridges and railings in other parts of the recreation area. Starting Saturday, the picnic area on the North side of Whitewater Creek will be open and a little bit under a half mile of the old trail that goes up to the steep canyon will be open. The picnic tables and grills in that area will have been reinstalled and there will be "porta-potties" available for public use, including one accessible toilet.
Crews will continue to work on restoring the remaining trail and will reopen additional areas in phases as they become ready.
"The other picnic ground will be the next area to reopen and then we will work on fixing the two bridges that connect the old trail to the accessible trail," Morrison said. "We will get a few more areas open on a week-by-week basis."
The $3 per-car fee will be waived until the entire recreation area has been reopened completely, which Morrison said will likely be sometime later this fall.
Fees that have been collected in the past are helping to repair the Catwalk now, Morrison said, as all of the money collected at the site goes directly back into supporting the Catwalk.
Morrison said while the bridges and walkways are out, crews are also working on redesigning the Catwalk for future flood events, fixing it to make it less vulnerable to flooding, and flood-preparing it, so that bridges and walkways can be dismantled and removed more quickly in the event of possible future floods.
With the upcoming three-day Columbus Day weekend, and the recent re-opening of Bursum Road (N.M. Highway 159), now is a good time for visitors to once again visit the popular Catwalk on the Gila National Forest, Morrison said. Visitors can enjoy the early autumn colors of the sycamores and willow trees in the Whitewater Picnic Area and Whitewater Creek.
But for public safety, the Forest Service is asking the public to abide by all warning and closure signs and gates as parts of the suspended trail are missing tread and guardrails, and bridges.
For those who visit the Catwalk, other nearby attractions include the ghost town of Mogollon, a number of historical sites, scenic drives, Frisco Hotsprings, and Pueblo Park Campground. For more information, call the Glenwood Ranger District (575) 539-2481 or visit the forest website: http://www.fs.usda.gov/gila/
Christine Steele can be reached at (575) 538-5893 ext. 5802.