The scene was worthy of a classic western in which the hero and his companions look out to the horizon, showing the rough road ahead and the rugged beauty of the landscape. Appropriately, I had the reverbed-out theme from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" running through my head. My wife, Suzanne, and I were looking over Urique Canyon, with striated red cliffs rising above the rim to the north, and to the west a darker, greener landscape that resembled a crumpled piece of paper, half-smoothed-out again. Through a light fog, we saw the silvery Urique River snaking in the distance. A stray donkey eyed us, apparently more spooked by strangers than the 800-foot drop.
We were in the midst of a four-day hike in Copper Canyon, also known as Barrancas del Cobre, a sprawling series of canyons within the Sierra Madre in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. The vistas there rival those of the Grand Canyon in rough-hewn splendor, but the fuzzy geographic definition of what actually constitutes the canyon makes it difficult to evaluate locals' claim that it is deeper and larger than that northern wonder. That ambiguity aside, the area offers spectacular views -- whether from the popular Copper Canyon Railway, which runs from the city of Chihuahua to the town of Los Mochis on the Sea of Cortez, or from the dusty trail.
We had chosen Copper Canyon as the first destination in a February honeymoon that eventually took us to the Sea of Cortez and then across to the Baja Peninsula. For a sometimes indecisive type like me, the combination was perfect: a few days of vigorous hiking followed by a seaside rest; a camping trip, but one made cushy by guides who cooked for us and a pack mule that hauled our gear.
Before we hit the trail, our travel plan was more "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" than "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." In quick succession we flew to the city of Chihuahua, rode the Copper Canyon Railway to the frontier town of Creel, and then hung onto our hats as our outfitter drove us 80 switch-backed miles down into the canyons, to the small town of Batopilas.
A glittering past
Once a silver boomtown, Batopilas retains an Old West feel, with cobblestone streets, turn-of-the-century buildings, mining-era aque-ducts and a population of 1,300, about a quarter of its peak in the late 19th century.
In the last silver era, long before the railway to the coast was finished, mule trains carried people into and silver bullion out of the canyon's remote reaches. These were elaborate logistical affairs requiring stocked way stations, and the route was often chosen at the last minute to confuse banditos. Our four-day trek took us up and out of the Batopilas canyon, across a plateau -- tracing one part of the old silver mule train route -- and then down into Urique Canyon, a distance of 35 miles and a total ascent (and then descent) of 5,000 feet.
Along the way we passed the ranches of the canyons' indigenous people, who once populated much of the adjoining Chihuahua plateau but have now largely retreated into the canyon complex to avoid Western influences and exploitation. Long stretches between the canyons' pueblos has helped foster a unique local culture of long-distance running. In fact, outsiders refer to the locals as the Tarahumara, after the mountains that surround them, but the valley's original people know themselves in their own language as the Raramuri, the fast runners. Those who still run often do so wearing traditional breech cloths and blouses, and sandals or nothing at all on their feet. (Writer Christopher McDougall's recent memoir of running an ultramarathon in Copper Canyon called "Born to Run" has helped make running barefoot or in simple flat shoes a trend in the United States.)
The prospect of running or hiking through rocky canyon trails without foot support made me reevaluate Hollywood's ideas of toughness in westerns. Compared with a young woman from Oregon we met, who elected to hike with a full backpack in a pair of Tarahumara huaraches -- tire treads with leather footpads, each bound to the foot by a thin strap of leather -- a horseback guy like Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" seemed like a tenderfoot.
Suzanne and I were content to walk rather than run and to stick with sturdy boots, trailing our guides, Hugo Rhodes and Norberto Rios, who rode ahead on horseback with our pack mule, Carlita.
Ups and downs of the hike
On our first trail day, we hiked for several hours along the Batopilas River before starting to ascend. Leaving the tropical river bottom zone, we soon reached the deciduous thorn forest (an ecological zone that could use some re-branding), dominated by giant candelabra-shaped cardòn cactuses with delicate and wispy pink epiphytes growing on them.
At our destination, a small adobe ranch called Los Terreros that was accented with begonias and pomegranate trees, the weather was warm enough to sleep on the ground, under the stars.
We ascended nearly 4,000 feet over 11 miles on our second day. By noon, we were well into the cooler piñon-oak woodlands, with a satisfying, spaghetti-western-worthy crunch under our boots provided by giant leaves of the tarahumara oak. At the Batopilas Canyon rim, the treeline was mostly pines, including juniper, fir, vanilla-scented ponderosas and a few reddish, smooth-barked Arizona Madrone trees standing knotted and twisted against the wind.
The trees gave way to several miles of scrubby plateau of rock and ranchland. When we arrived at the El Trigo ranch, we were greeted by some highly protective dogs herding sheep and a host who was three sheets to the stiff canyon wind, giving a whiskey-fueled soliloquy. Waved away from the house by Hugo, we walked a few hundred yards to the west, where we found ourselves and the suspicious donkey overlooking the majestic Urique Canyon.
After a cold, wind-whipped night on the canyon rim, and a short period of getting lost and seriously separated from our horseback guides (we decided to take a cowboy-style nap near a stream with our hats over our faces until we were found), we lunched looking out over Urique Canyon. We then began a steep and loose-rocked descent, 3,000 feet in just two hours. Our destination was Los Alisos, a ghost town on the old silver trail that is now a campground and grapefruit orchard. It was an auspicious location; the fruit made for great margaritas served in tin cups, and the altitude was amenable to sleeping tentless again.
The fourth day brought us to the old gold-mining town of Urique, the end of our hike. I gave into my cowboy impulses and rode one of our guides' extra horses for the last few miles into town. That gave me a chance to see just how hard Carlita the mule had been working. She would approach each uphill section with a running start, then let the weight on her back help to rocket her down the other side, overrunning the next flat section of road.
In Urique, we unsaddled, unpacked and celebrated at a local restaurant with tortillas, frijoles and eggs spiced liberally with chiltepines, a potent red peppercorn, and washed down with cold cerveza.
After a night in a local hotel, we took a bus to our outfitter's lodge, Paraiso del Oso, named for a nearby Yogi Bear-shaped rock formation. We spent a day touring the mesa town of Cerocahui and some local trails and then reboarded the Copper Canyon railway 10 miles away at Bahuichivo.
The train sped us through 160 miles of canyon scenery and astonishing railway engineering -- over vast bridges and through tunnels -- westward toward the Sea of Cortez.
We felt we had earned this round of seated sightseeing, but we could not help but miss the rugged trail, the ghosts of silver mining in the canyon and even our pack mule -- the ingredients of our own personal western in Copper Canyon.
Dan Gilchrist lives and works in Minneapolis.