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Silver Trail Mapping Expedition Succeeds!


Locater Map:   Trail_Slice.jpg (175553 bytes)

Now Available:  Lost Silver Trail Guidebook and Waypoint Files!

Photos from the trek are here

Project Diary is Here

Men's Journal article is here


In a project completed in November, 2004, a  group of Mexican and US adventure guides re-discovered and mapped the lost Copper Canyon Silver Trail.  The trail reaches  from the ruins of the Batopilas Mining Company headquarters at the bottom of Copper Canyon to the old stagecoach stop of Carichic, 125 miles south of Chihuahua City..  

Mining in Copper Canyon dates back to the Spanish occupation when silver was discovered in 1632.  The mines were among the richest in the world, and were operated off and on after the Spanish withdrawal and the subsequent takeover by the French leading to their defeat in1867.  At that pivotal time, U.S. investors became actively involved in the mines around Batopilas.  One such investor was John Robinson, who discovered a large silver deposit but lacked a means of transporting the ore out of the canyon.  

 In 1880 Alexander Shepard, the Governor of Washington DC was thrown out of office because of massive overspending on some public projects.  He declared bankruptcy in the US, and moved his family to Batopilas to run a silver mine that he had purchased from Robinson.  Over the next 26 years, Shepard's mine operations netted, refined, and exported 27 million ounces of pure silver. During that period, Shepard installed many unique improvements to the infrastructure of Batopilas.  He constructed a full processing mill for the ore so that pure silver could be hauled out instead of ore.  He built a aqueduct to furnish water and a hydroelectric plant, making Batopilas the second city in Mexico to have electricity.  The trail in was upgraded so mule trains could carry processed silver bars to the outside world.  Huge "conductas", as they were called consisted  of as many as100 mules with armed guards and wranglers.  They  traveled the precipitous140 mile route to the nearest stagecoach stop in Carichic in five grueling days, staying each night in fortified way stations.  The trail was replaced by a shorter route when the railroad reached Creel in the late 1920’s,  Since then, the trail has slipped into a state of disrepair. Still, much of the original trail remains in use as a footpath by the indigenous Tarahuamara who live on small family farms throughout the vast roadless area.   

In April of 2006, a second transit over the trail was accomplished by David Appleton, Quentin Keith, Jerry Brown, Arturo Gutierrez, Ryan Sullivan, and Katherine Verburg.  This trip clarified some previous route discrepancies, studied needed trail repairs, and gathered extensive data for creating a gps enabled guide for the trail.  On this trip, only one section was bicycled.  The rest was backpacked.   The participants were on the trail during Easter week, and hiked with the background sounds of Tarahuamara drums for much of the time. 


Project Diary (2004)

(Note:  Narrative by D. Appleton .  Blue text added by J. Brown)


Saturday, Nov 6- Left Hunt early am and arrived in Chihuahua mid afternoon.  Evening press conference/visit with the Secretary of Tourism and local papers discussing the trip.  Governor Reyes Baeza arrived later and we updated him and did some photos.  He and everyone were quite interested in the trip and indicated the government was ready to sink some real money into a project to develop the trail into a trekking/horse/mt bike long distance trail/ecotourism project envisioning it providing income opps for local Tarahumara's as well as preserving the historic integrity of a very important part of Chihuahua's past.  Ricky Creel was instrumental in putting everything together and treated us to hotel and supper in the city.

We kind of get organized, drink some beer and head to bed.


Sunday, Nov 7- We drove down to the main plaza and the Bank of Mines in the center of the city-- the historic destination of the silver trains.  We were greeted by some 80 local cyclists who joined us for a 60K ride out of town and along the highway/old stage road which served the first part of the historic trail.  Historically, goods and the silver traveled via wagon/coaches from Chihuahua to the  village of  Carichic .  We rode the 60 k and then drove the other 60 to arrive at the trailhead near Carichic late in the afternoon.  A distant relative of Arturo's actually owned some of the land surrounding the Station which has been reduced to a small adobe ruin.  We set up camp, organized gear for the trail, cooked supper and slept under a frosty and star filled sky.  


The 60K ride was brutal on the mountain bike.  We all said in the beginning that we were only going to go 20K or so then let the Mexican cyclists (who were mostly on road bikes) go on their way.  As I expected, we were too macho to stop before the end.  I missed a turn and ended up riding alone with a strong headwind.  Made it OK but I was pretty tired.


Monday, Nov 8- We woke early and got busy with final packing and reorginizing the two support vehicles.  We got a late start on the trail, but were underway by 10 am or so.  David Baeza and Ron Duke took off the long way for Creel and we set out meandering around trying to figure out what the trail would look like and where it was exactly.  After some wandering we began following an existing road toward the small village of Baquiriachi.  We quickly came to a smaller village (Las Juntas) and found an older guy who pointed us toward the trail and described some of how it went.  His grandfather had worked with the "conductas" (mule trains) and he had some recollection of old stories.  Jerry Brown had already mapped probable locations and waypoints on his two gps's and we pretty much stayed on track during the day eventually arriving at Baquiriachi where we had some snacks at the local store and garnered more info from a couple of locals.  We were able to ride much of the route throughout the day with a mix of trail and logging road.  About 4 pm we came to a point that we knew was on route-- El Ojito-- which had a ruin (old ranch) and a couple of wells.  It was a great campsite so we opted to stop for the day even though we were only half way to the next station-- Huajochi.  We had hoped to be able to make the 40K trip between stations each day just as the mule teams had done, but it just wasn't going to happen today.  


We packed as lightly as possible.  No tents, though I carried a bivy sack.  Everyone was carrying somewhere around 25 pounds total except Scott, the photographer, who had quite a bit more weight due to his cameras and lenses


The trail to El Ojito was pretty good, and the campsite was first rate.  We only went about 20K though, a matter of some concern.  Everyone was wondering if the trip might take 10 days or longer.  My summer weight bag was a bit cold during the night, with the higher elevations still ahead.  Really heavy dew – much more humidity here than CO.  The water was in a old hand dug well and fairly dirty looking.  We filtered it then added some Aqua pure.   


Tuesday, Nov 9- Probably our hardest day.  The day began with a hard ride/hike to the top of the mesa and we did have some good sections of trail........but it just kept going and going and going.  We had several backtracks, but were able to keep coming back to the obvious main trail with it's grooved solid rock.  Arturo had a bit of face plant crash on one descent.  By mid afternoon we still seemed to be a long way from Huajochi and it was frustrating to feel like we were going nowhere.  Late afternoon found us climbing/hiking one mesa after another.  Just before dark we finally topped out and looked down below and the small remote valley of Huajochi and after some hard down hiking finally got to ride the last 1000 meters down to a small cluster of Tarahumara homes.  We were well greeted and the older of the men offered us his small storage building/cornfield for our night's camp.......and his wife sent us some thick blue corn tortillas.   It was another frosty night, but we slept well although we could have all eaten more......


It was dark when we arrived in Huajochi.  The people there were really surprised to see us, but were as nice as they could be.  They were really friendly and seemed interested in our trip.  We asked them how they felt about lots of people trekking through, and they enthusiastically said that they would make some pesos selling food if that happened.  This was reassuring to me – I had wondered if the Tarahuamara would resent our presence.  The home of the senior family member had a small solar collector with a lead acid battery setup. It ran one florescent light and an old radio.   It had been installed there through a government program.  A set of overhead barbed wires ran to one of the homes occupied by a son, his wife and family.  We never saw any light coming from that home, however.   Someone asked how old the senior member’s wife was, and he replied that she was 55.  I wondered if I look that old. Then he said that maybe she was 60, nobody really knows – I felt a little better then.  I asked the senor where all the silver was, and he joked back that it was in the “Casa Blanca”, or White House.  Heavy frost during the night.


 I really enjoyed this stop.   



Wednesday, Nov 10- Another early morning and we were greeted into our host's house for some talk and questions and he had a lot to offer about the history of the conductas and the route-- crucial info for us.  His wife also made us some more tortillas and his daughter in law sold us some pinole-- a good thing since we were pretty much out of food.  We vistited the station which turned out to be the best preserved of all.  There was an etched rock on one corner that proclaimed it Casa 1, BMC 1 (Batopilas Mining Company).  It had 3 rooms one of which was the kitchen, another accommodation probably and the third likely a storage area for the silver bars. There was a rock corral and at one time it obviously had a big porch.  The climb out of the canyon was steep, but the remnants of the trail remarkable.  Obviously at one time the trail had been 5-10 feet wide and virtually cobblestoned through the roughest areas.  It was now quite rough but very obvious.  Eventually we descended back into another drainage right at the home of Nacho Kino who greeted us with a big smile and greetings for everyone we were to see along the way.  He directed us to two options saying that the route varied depending on water, etc.  We also came to learn the route varied some to keep the banditos guessing.  Most of the rest of the day took us along two different streams-- first through the Valley of the Churches with an array of spectacular pinnacles.  In all we did 63 stream crossings during the day and saw a lot of Tarahumaras-- the valleys are well occupied and provide good farming.  Most of the local kids ran from us, some of the ladies wouldn't look at or acknowledge us, and occasionally we found someone who could verify that we were on the right track.  We found that the younger Tarahumaras have pretty much lost the oral history of the conductas, but that it's still fresh in the minds of the older folks.  The flatness of the trail finally ended as the day began to end and right when we thought we were getting tired we missed a crucial turnoff and ended up doing an horrific bushwack up a steep canyon side.........but eventually we rejoined the trail and soon came to a road which would take us down to the next station at Pilares.  We made contact with David/Ron and rode into camp at the station in full dark with headlamps and were greeted by a campfire, beer and burritos.  Sleep came easy.



I tried pinole for the first time and I must say it works great as a energy food.  I just poured some of the powder into my water bottles and drank it.  I wasn’t wild about the taste but I think I could get used to it.  The Tarahuamara’s are said to live on it while traveling. 


David doesn’t mention that we ran into a mule train loaded with bales of marijuana. The three young men accompanying the train were obviously unnerved by running into us in the middle of nowhere.  They abruptly left the trail and headed away. I had a bad chain suck and had to cut my chain to fix it.  Didn’t get it together again perfectly, but it made it ok. We went by a really nice hot springs and filled our water bottles from the Ojo without having to filter.  The water tasted great.  This place would make a perfect campsite to break up the long day to Pilares.  The bushwhack at the end was a total ass whipper. I can’t hoist my bike overhead like the rest because it messes up the GPS reception so I had to settle for pushing and dragging it up the ridge.  Finally made it, and the rest was easy to Pilares, except that it was dark and we came in with headlamps.  I pitched my Hillberg tent and slept really well. For me, this was physically the hardest day of the trip.  (All but forgotten after beer and burritos by a blazing fire.)  I was starving – our miscalculations for the first two days had made the food a bit scarce, but we had lots of pinole and that stuff works wonders. Local folks brought us some cheese and blue corn tortillas.  Seems like every place we go, folks show up with food.   




Thursday, Nov 11- A leisurely morning to repair bikes.  I had lost my rear brakes during the day, Scott had a bolt missing out of one of his pivots, etc.  The station was right near our campsite and was serving as a barn for the local Tarahumara family.  A local told us the roof had burned off when the building was struck by lightning years ago.  It was the same design as the station at Huajochi.  We were joined today for the rest of the route by Joelle Cordero from Creel-- a hard riding local and current state champion.  We left late morning not planning to make it to the next station at La Laja.  The riding was pleasant first along a road, then along an old logging road and finally the old trail itself which took us to an overlook of the village of Siquerichi.  We rode down to the village which rests on the Urique River and crossed the swinging bridge to what appeared to be the main part of town.  There was a small store and 3 different schools which were all boarding schools for the locals.  We missed the older man of the town who we were told would know about the route and have recollections since he was out gathering corn. We found a teacher at one of the schools who was from the area further along the route and he took us to another older guy at his farm and eventually he opened up to Arturo and gave us more details about the route.  The teacher took us along the trail a ways more and left us at the edge of a canyon where the trails was 10 feet wide and very rough but led to a fantastic campsite between a stream and a hot spring.  We washed off a bit in the stream and settled in for a good supper and the requisite nightly conversation-- precipitated by the fact that we were typically through eating and it was dark by 7 pm .


We went to a school in Siquerichi and one of the instructors just dropped everything and guided us to where the trail took off – 2-3 K’s of walking away.  When Arturo gave the old man at the farm some pesos for helping us, he ran into his house and brought us out another bag of pinole.  Campsite really nice, but more dew then frost.  Bivy was covered when I woke up. 


Friday, Nov 12- We awoke to some clouds and wind-- a definite shift in the weather.  We pack and are out early to La Laja where we will meet up with our support again.  We are unsure of the route, but just keep following the trail which is starting to make some sense to us.  Quentin's seatpost rack snaps in half.  Each station is almost exactly 40 k apart and they opted typically for the most direct route without doing any unnecessary climbing.  The route is virtually all rideable  and eventually takes us through a small village and an amazing narrow canyon with old growth oak and pine.  We have a final climb and then a little single track that leads us to the highway (not far from the cut-off to Batopilas) and the small cluster of houses at La Laja (which means flat rock).  David and Ron have already gotten to know the local families (and have been drinking coffee and eating fresh bread) and we are well received.  We set up camp near one of the houses and are offered supper in one of the houses-- a mighty tasty mix of tortillas, beans and potato beef soup.  The temp is chilly and the winds are howling, but we have a reasonable night's sleep.


This day had some really great riding, and seemed easy compared to some earlier days.  Spirits were high.  I asked our host at La Laja how his parents and grandparents had felt about Pancho Villa.  He said they didn’t care for him much – he had taxed people in the area and forced young men to join his company.  I slept in my tent again – nice having the truck again. No more support until we get to the end now.  I ate seconds and thirds of the hot stew they served us.  Scott is normally a vegetarian and it eventually made him sick, but no problems for anyone else.


Saturday, Nov 13- Breakfast in our host's house and some good stories about the conductas and were are on our way.  Joelle has had to replace a rear wheel, Q has a bad front hub and I have a loose bottom bracket-- but we're confident it will all hold till Batopilas.  The route is uncertain and the location of the station something of a mystery.  We pick right up on the obvious route and Arturo/jerry spot the station off to one side of the trail.  It's in pretty good shape-- same design and extensive corral area-- but no roof.  The trail mixes in with the highway in areas and eventually takes off heading south.  We have little sure information about the route, but there are 3 distinct possibilities.  We follow one and it leads to a rough narrow canyon which is somewhat rideable, but likely not the main trail based on appearances.  We continue on first along a good road and then a less and less maintained old logging road into ever deepening canyon country.  The temps are falling and the wind continues to howl.  Eventually the road ends and the trail resumes and we are without a doubt on the right trail eventually arriving at the station of Teboreachi just before sundown.  The station sits off to one side of the valley and is inhabited by a Tarahumara family.  The father is drying beans on the barn and is friendly, but not too conversive.  His wife is terrified and locks herself in the station with the kids.  We look around a bit and then leave em to a bit of peace setting up camp across the valley.  We figure this is our last night on the trails.  A final supper, another campfire, Scott begins feeling sick and we are asleep by 8:30.  By 1 am it is beginning to rain a bit and we scramble to set up our megamids on sloping terrain.  Luckily the rain doesn't amount to much.


We ended up traveling about 8K on what was probably not the main trail.  I think I now have the correct route figured out exactly.  Joel raced ahead of the group and missed a critical turn.  We waited quite a while then went on without him, drawing arrows in the trail whenever it made a turn.  We figured that if worse became worst he would make his way back to La Laja.  Happily for all of us, he reappeared late in the day. Quentin had a strange accident and apparently momentarily dislocated one of his thumbs.  He was in a lot of pain. And I gave him a Lodine that I was carrying in case my old knees got grouchy.(they never did)  He took it and some Ibupropen and was feeling somewhat better in the evening.  He needs the thumb in order to use the brakes as we head into the gorge ahead. 


 I found the top half of a old Justrite carbide miners lamp in a fence row by the station.  I carried it out to be given to the government.  I think the family living at the station had plowed it up and thrown it there – their cornfield was the old corral.  I suspect that an archeologist could have a great time in the vicinity of the stations.   




Sunday, Nov 14- We are up early with cloudy damp skies and for whatever reason probably underestimate the time/distance to our destination at Batopilas.  After some poking around we find the trail out of the canyon and carry our bikes to the top.  The trail quickly becomes rideable and we're treated to a mile or two of some of the nicest trail any of us have ridden-- anytime/anywhere.  We get more confident and start thinking about how it will be a perfect ending to ride on world class single track all the final day.  Ultimately we find ourselves hiking more and riding less as the canyons deepend and the terrain becomes more extreme.  By noon we can see out into the depths of Batopilas Canyon and begin to recognize landmarks in the distance.  By mid afternoon we are pretty well out of food and continuing to climb and descend mesa after mesa.  By 4 pm we top out and are overlooking the mountainside village of Coyachique which is connected by a kind of road to the "main" road to Batopilas.  Our last ugly hiking descent eventually gets us to the road and we begin a 3000-4000 foot descent to the canyon below.  The chilly air eventually turns tropical and by 5 we are at the swinging bridge which crosses the Batopilas River and takes us to the awaiting support crew now joined by Arturo's dad and uncle.  We shovel down some food and in spite of Scott's sickness, and all of our fatigue we load back on the bikes and pedal hard all the way to the bridge in Batopilas arriving right at dark.  Our final ride takes us through town and we arrive at our friend, Martin's hotel where we are treated to rooms and hot showers followed by supper, beer, etc.  The day's route included 2900 feet of climbing and 7100 feet of descending. 


Quentin took another Lodine and his thumb seems better.  He managed fine all day on it.  Scott still seemed a bit sick, but kept at it.  We had several flats on the wild descent to the canyon, but everyone made it without mishap.  My tubeless setup has worked perfectly – no tire problems whatsoever.  It felt good to get to Batopilas, but I was a bit sorry that the trip had come to an end. Another 100 miles or so would have been ok by me.


Monday, Nov 15- It has rained all night and the Batopilas River is raging.  The drive out will be slow and spooky along the one lane road.  We visit the ruins of the Hacienda San Miguel for some photos.  This was the center of activity and life for the Batopilas Mining Company which ultimately shipped over half a billion ounces of silver over the Silver Trail to Chihuahua during it's 30 year heyday between 1880 and 1910.  The drive out to Creel and then Chihuahua is mostly in the rain which ultimately would follow us all the way to Hunt.


We also visited a beautiful home in Batopilas that Martin is nearly finished restoring to 1800’s period splendor.  It had been owned by one of the wealthy Mexican families.  In one room he has an extensive collection of old records from the Batopilas Mining Company.  This would be a treasure trove for a historian.  Martin owns most of the hotels in town, and let us stay in one of them for free.  It rained during the night and all through the day.  We lucked out on the timing of the ride – one more day and it would have been tough at the end. Batopilas is a really nice little village in the old Mexican tradition.  It is also the third city in the hemisphere to get electricity, after New York and Mexico City . This was done by Alexander Shepard.


We went to Creel and were given another free room by the owner of the campground / lodge. I snagged a copy of “The Silver Magnet”.  Should be a great read now that I’ve been there. Arturo took us on to Chihuahua City the next day and Kevin and I returned to El Paso in my truck.


So..... In all we travelled 125 miles plus another 35 on the first day's ride.  Probably 100 miles of the trail are rideable.  We had between 2400- 2900 feet of climbing each day.  We likely did about 85-90 stream crossings.  Everyone we met was friendly although we likely have left some strange thoughts in the heads of more than a few since the last visitors to the area passed through a few generations ago.  Scott Markewitz took about 50 or so rolls of pictures and Kevin Fedarko was relentless in his documentation and he'll be putting together the story for Mens Journal later on.  Jerry Brown got a lot of data and will be putting together a concise route map that can be followed especially if you have a gps.  He was very close to establishing the route before we ever left just from looking at the maps.  We only had 5 flats and no serious injuries.  No one cracked or even bitched.  Quentin did all our cooking and figured out how to carry his bike on his backpack with no hands.  Having a good support crew was invaluable.  Arturo was our leader without a doubt-- both because of his knowledge of the area and riding skills and because it was probably just one thing too many to expect the locals to interact quickly with gringos all dressed up in bike clothes carrying backpacks and bicycles in some of the most remote country in Mexico.  We're already talking about going back to fine tune a couple of spots and physically begin marking the route.  We're not sure where this will all lead, but it is a long distance trip worth experiencing whether on foot or bike and may some day rival all the world's great long distance routes.


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