South Fork Rio Bonito Trailhead

By Johnny Hughes - Elite Outfitters

The South Fork Rio Bonito Trailhead access the south-central portion of the White Mountain Wilderness. This area may very well be some of the most scenic in the Wilderness. The Trailhead is located just above Bonito Lake and as a result, the lower parts of the trails experience heavy use during the summer season. However, most hikers never make it more than a mile from the Trailhead. This Trailhead offers excellent backcountry hiking opportunities for the seasoned hiker.

Novices to advanced hikers will all find what they are looking for in a hiking experience from the South Fork Trailhead. The South Fork Rio Bonito is the largest stream in the Wilderness. It provides the only fishing opportunities in the Wilderness as well. Small brook trout and a few rainbows in the lower reaches are present in small pools.

The area is heavily forested and rocky. Trees in the lower reaches of the trail are dominated by Douglas firs, Ponderosa pines and White firs. The upper elevations are dominated by aspens and firs. The largest aspen grove in the Wilderness can be found in the upper South Fork canyon.

To reach the trailhead, take US Hwy 48 north out of Ruidoso approximately 10 miles to the junction with Highway 37. Turn left onto Highway 37 and go approximately 2 miles to the intersection with Forest Road 107. Look for the sign pointing the way to Bonito Lake. Turn left onto Forest Road 107 and go approximately 5 miles to the intersection with Forest Road 107C (South Fork Campground turnoff) located about 1/2 mile past Bonito Lake. Turn left onto Road 107C and go past the entrance to the Westlake and South Fork Campgrounds to the end of the road. You DO NOT need to stop at the huge Stop sign manned by the campground host unless you are truly planning on camping in the campground. Free parking is available in the center of the turnaround loop at the end of the road. Most any other parking places require a fee as they are associated with the campgrounds. Forest Road 107 is narrow but paved and is easily traversed by car.

The elevation of the Trailhead is 7,500 feet

South Fork Trail (#19)
Bluefront Trail (#33)

Suggested Loop Hike

South Fork Trail (#19)

Trail Distance - 6 miles

Net Elevation Change - 2,950 feet

Highest Elevation - 10,450 feet

South Fork Trail (#19) generally follows the South Fork Rio Bonito. The trail crosses the stream numerous times but split logs, strategically placed rocks and low-water levels combine to make the crossings easy.

Just past the first crossing. the trail passes the ruins of some old buildings. This site was homesteaded originally back in the late 1800s. Notice the remains of an old steel-wrapped wooden pipeline along the trail in this area. The pipeline transferred high-quality water to Carrizozo to be used in steam locomotives. The line was taken out of service upon completion of Bonito Dam.

Just past the second stream crossing, the remains of a diversion structure, which funneled water into the pipeline, can be seen beneath a bluff on the opposite bank.

A mile from the Trailhead, the South Fork Trail intersects with Bluefront Trail (#33).

The South Fork Trail climbs gently up the canyon for another three miles and then becomes progressively steeper over the last two miles. The last mile is particularly brutal as the trail emerges at the base of a large meadow and then begins switchbacking up the slope to the second intersection with Bluefront Trail (#33). This intersection is marked with a sign.

Camping locations are periodically available along the lower 4 miles of the South Fork Trail. The higher you hike, the less level ground you will find.

Water is plentiful in the stream except for the uppermost mile of the trail. The only water source on top is at the upper end of the trail where it intersects with Bluefront and Crest Trails. Follow Crest Trail (#25) 200 yards to the northwest toward Elk Point, and you will find a poly tube with good water flowing slowly out of it.

Bluefront Trail (#33)

Trail Distance - 6 miles

Net Elevation Change - 3,450 feet

Highest Elevation - 10,520 feet

Bluefront Trail (#33) intersects South Fork Trail (#19) 1 mile from the South Fork Trailhead. The trail climbs up Bluefront Canyon in it’s lower reaches.

About a mile up the Bluefront Trail, it passes the remnants of the Bluefront Pond. The dam of the pond has been washed out. The pond was originally constructed to catch water that was then pumped over the ridge to the Great Western Mine to be used in their operations. The remains of a recent PVC line are still visible. During the late 1960s, Bluefront Pond contained a large population of stunted Brook Trout.

The Great Western Mine is one of the more famous mines in the area. The mine area was first staked in 1887 by J.C. Coggins and L.H. Bourne. The mine acquired the name 'Great Western' in 1908 from T.J. Grafton and the name endured. Recent published analyses of rock samples from the mine revealed trace amounts of gold but some silver assays were in excess of 5 ounces per ton of rock. Mining activity has continued sporadically into the present day.

A portion of the trail in the vicinity of the Great Western Mine has been rerouted since the printing of the Wilderness topo map. Once you leave Bluefront Pond, the Bluefront Trail follows a road briefly for about 1/3 mile. The road extends from the Great Western Mine to the Pond, just on the outside edge of the Wilderness Area. The trail then heads uphill toward the ridge between South Fork Rio Bonito and Big Bear Canyons.

Once on the ridge, follow Bluefront Trail in a southwesterly direction along the ridge. Many panoramic views are available for the hearty hiker along this ridge. Aspens are extremely abundant in the upper South Fork Canyon and during late September to early October, the canyon is literally a sea of gold. The trail has some small ups and downs in this area as it follows the topography of the ridge.

The uppermost mile of Bluefront Trail emerges into a huge, open, meadow along the ridge. Here you will find the best views from the trail by far.

The Bluefront Trail terminates at the intersection with South Fork Trail (#19) and Crest Trail (#25).

Camping locations are limited along the Bluefront Trail. The lower mile of the trail has a few small camping spots as does the uppermost 3 miles of trail along the ridge.

Water can be found in Bluefront Canyon below Bluefront Pond. The only water source on top is at the upper end of the trail where it intersects with South Fork and Crest Trails. Follow Crest Trail (#25) 200 yards to the northwest toward Elk Point, and you will find a poly tube with good water flowing slowly out of it.

Suggested Loop Hike

Only one good loop option is possible from the South Fork Trailhead. The good news is the loop hike is one of the best in the Wilderness Area. However, it is a very difficult hike due to distance and lots of vertical feet. Don’t take this hike unless you are in very good physical condition.

Very Difficult - South Fork Trail (#19) to Bluefront Trail (#33) to South Fork Trail (#19)

Trail Distance - 12 miles

Net Elevation Change - 6,400 feet. (3,200 feet up, 3,200 feet down)

Highest Elevation - 10,520 feet