Fires and flooding in the Gila National Forest in recent years have left the future of the popular Catwalk trail near Glenwood in a precarious position. The recent flooding, in fact, has closed the trail indefinitely.
“The September 13 storm was localized, and Whitewater Canyon received seven inches of rain in a five- to eight-hour period of time,” said Pat Morrison, the Glenwood District ranger for the National Forest Service.
“Two and a half times more water came down the canyon than usual,” she said of the September storms. “This happened because of erosion caused by the Whitewater Baldy Fire in 2012.”
After the Whitewater Baldy fire, the upper portion of the Catwalk was closed due to flooding concerns. Four bridges along the trail were removed because they had the potential to become dams for debris. Last summer, the popular trail was only open in the morning in case it rained in the afternoon.
The Catwalk, originally built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is made up of sections of hanging metal walkways that follow an old pipeline.
The trail was re-built by the U.S. Forest Service in 1961, and has become the second most visited location in the Gila National Forest, according to Morrison. Some 30,000 people from around the world visit the Catwalk annually.
But the trail has a history that goes beyond that.
In the 1890s, the town of Graham was located at the mouth of Whitewater Canyon in what is now the Glenwood Ranger District of the Gila National Forest. The town was home to silver and gold miners who worked in a mine further up the canyon. A water pipeline was installed along Whitewater Canyon in 1893 to provide water for the mill and town. Sometimes suspended as high as 20 feet above the canyon floor, the pipeline, which was in constant need of repair, was dubbed the “Catwalk” by the workmen assigned to fix it.
While the area has been used as a scenic trail for some time, flooding has plagued the area from time to time.
Morrison cites flood damage to the area during multiple years in the 1970s and 1980s. Portions of the Catwalk’s metal walkway have been blown over the side of the cliff on more than one occasion. One of the bridges in the canyon was damaged by flooding in 2008.
When the Catwalk was rebuilt in 2005, it was done to upgrade the infrastructure.
“We totally redesigned it,” said Morrison. “We put in heavier beams and a universal (paved) trail to make it safer.”
Unfortunately, many of the 2005 improvements were obliterated by September’s flood.
Morrison said she doesn’t know when visitors will be allowed to walk the Catwalk again. Several rock slides and landslides have since occurred on the trail. Parts of the suspended metal walkway have been damaged. Some metal was washed downstream and is in the creek. Up to three feet of wood and debris sit on other sections of the walkway.
“For the past four weeks we’ve been cleaning up the road and the picnic area,” Morrison said. Officials hope to open the picnic area soon. Opening day will be posted on the website fs.usda.gov/alerts/gila/alerts-notices.
Its future will be the topic of a community conversation. “We’ll talk about how much infrastructure we should put back in the canyon,” Morrison said. “There’s a lot to consider and think about.”