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Quest for the Most Beautiful Fall Hiking Trail in the World

It took my breath away.

After clambering over a huge fallen log that blocked the forest hiking trail, I stood up, took a few steps forward, and then held my breath. A beautiful clearing, completely different from the winding, narrow steep trail I’d just left, suddenly opened in front of me.

Aspens in Argentina Canyon c. Lanelli 2004 It was a gorgeous October afternoon many years ago in the White Mountain Wilderness of the Lincoln National Forest. Rusty, my hiking buddy, and I had huffed and puffed a couple of hours on a trail new to us and were almost at the end of it, according to our trail map.

The trail widened in ankle-deep fading grass and forbs. All around grew a dozen or more widely spaced aspen trees, their yellow leaves shimmering in late morning sun like gold coins suspended from branches. On my left, a tiny stream gurgled as it sloshed over stones.

Gambel and scrub oaks and scrub maples grew among the tall aspens. Pale brown and orange oak leaves, red maple leaves and golden aspen leaves carpeted the clearing and filled the shallow trail.

Just then a breeze rustled the aspens and they released their golden coins. It was magical.

I shrieked with delight, ran forward and tried to catch the aspens’ spinning leaves. I shouted to Rusty, “It’s a forest fairyland! It’s the most beautiful place in the world! I love it!”

Rusty laughed. “You say that about every trail,” he chided me.

Rusty was the perfect hiking companion - tall and strong enough to hike for miles, cheerful enough to make an all day trek seem short, and possessed of a memory that carried a mental map of every trail we’d ever hiked - names, numbers, length and time to hike each one.

“But this is really unique - look!” I protested and stooped to touch a single bluebell that still bloomed. “I wish I had my camera - this would make the perfect picture.”

“OK, we’ll come back before snow flies and you’ll get your picture,” he promised.

But snows came early that fall to the Lincoln National Forest, and we didn’t return that year. When next hiking season came, pressing matters overwhelmed us.

We never hiked again. I forgot my magic aspen grove.

This October, I found myself leafing through old photo albums and came upon pictures of long ago hiking trips. Suddenly I remembered my fairyland-like aspen grove and Rusty’s promise of pictures never taken.

Could I find it after all this time?

I asked fellow hikers Barbara and George about it. We four had trekked the Wilderness for many years. “I think it was in Argentina Canyon [Trail #39],” I said, referring to one of the many familiar trails off Forest Road 107, west of Bonito Lake.

“Yes,” George replied. “I remember a pretty aspen grove. Let’s hike it tomorrow.”

So the next day we set off. But it wasn’t as I remembered. We hiked for over an hour but no aspens. “They’re up a little higher,” George said.

“No, I remember the clearing being almost at the trail head,” I replied. “We’d’ve come to it by now.”

I continued up the trail by myself and in a few minutes, found George’s aspen grove. It was beautiful, but it was not the aspen grove of my memory.

“Maybe it wasn’t Argentina Canyon,” I said, consulting the White Mountain Wilderness map between sips of water. “Maybe it was Turkey Canyon, the next trail east.” Rusty and I had often looped Argentina and Turkey.

“OK, let’s do it,” replied George and Barbara. So the next day we set off on Turkey Canyon Trail #40.

Large rocks made the going rough at the beginning and I consulted the map again. “Looks like there’s a clearing about a mile up, but that still doesn’t seem right. I remember the clearing being much closer to the trail head.”

Up we climbed, twice crossing a small stream, admiring the wild strawberry plants growing alongside the trail and the occasional purple mountain aster still blooming. A gray squirrel jumped into a pinon pine tree ahead of us and a raven cawed in the distance. Mickey, Barbara’s little Pomeranian, barked in response.

We came to the clearing indicated on the topo map, but it wasn’t the right one. The map indicated no more clearings until the trail ended. We reluctantly admitted defeat and turned back.

At the car, we unfolded the map. “Are you sure it wasn’t in Nogal Canyon?” offered Barbara. “You and Rusty hiked there a lot.”

I’d completely forgotten about those trails north of Turkey Canyon that had been among Rusty’s favorites. “That must be it! When can we go?”

“Not now,” replied George. “Hunting season starts tomorrow and I don’t want to be in the woods at the same time as people with guns. Let’s wait until hunting season is over in November.”

But snow flies early in the Lincoln National Forest. I may not fulfill my quest this year. But I will seek it again, I promise.

You may wonder why I haven’t asked Rusty, my hiking companion with the mental trail map, where my fairyland aspen grove is. I wish I could.

c. “Follow Me!” Alamogordo (NM) Daily News 2004

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