Escudilla Mountain 10,877′
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest
Total Time: 2:40
Roundtrip Mileage: 6.6
Elevation Gain: 1600′
Trailhead: Escudilla Mountain Trail
Escudilla Mountain sits in far eastern Arizona near the New Mexican border. At over 10,000′, it is the third highest major summit in the state behind the Humphreys Peak group near Flagstaff and a collection of summits over 11,000′ around Mount Baldy. Escudilla, Spanish for bowl, has a broad basin across its summit with high alpine meadows and impressive Aspen groves. This remote section of the state has prime wildlife viewing; while the last Grizzly Bear in Arizona was killed on Escudilla in 1936, the mountain still hosts black bear, a large population of elk, and even Mexican Wolves, or ‘Lobos’, which were reintroduced to the area in 1998. The population is estimated to be a bit over 100 almost 19 years later, progress set back by illegal poaching. I camped out off the forest roads below the summit at the edge of the Wallow Fire burn area in 2011, which burned over 500,000 acres crossing state lines into New Mexico. I started up from the trailhead early in the morning, starting out over 9,000′ in a healthy Aspen and pine Forest.
There was evidence of more remote fire along the trail from a blaze over 50 years prior, the aspens having plenty of time to recover. With the thought of running into wolves while hiking, my senses were definitely a bit heightened compared to a typical hike in Arizona. I had seen plenty of black bears while traveling solo and never given it much thought (they’re all so skittish), wolves were a bit of an unknown, something I’ve only had to think about while hiking in Yellowstone when I had bear spray with me. Of course, while I was lost in thought on the various creatures I might see, I was shocked back to reality by three monstrous elk with full racks crashing through the brush and small Aspens. That did a better job of waking me up then my morning coffee.
As I hiked into an open meadow below Profanity Ridge, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Yellowstone- plenty of animals, grassy subalpine meadows, and a steadily recovering burn area (over 1/3 of the park burned in 1988). The trail passed just by the highpoint of Profanity Ridge and I headed briefly off trail through the forest to tag it, really just wanting it based on the name alone. I wandered around where my GPS said the benchmark was, finding nothing on the brushy hill, on worked back to the main trail. Back on the trail, I entered the more recent burn area from the Wallow Fire of 2011, only grasses and small brush having recovered in 6 years. The trail briefly dropped into an upper meadow and I spooked a large group of elk, at least 20 strong.
As I watched them run upslope into the forest, I noticed two other animals moving across the meadow about 100 yards away. I glanced up and at first blew them off as a pair of coyotes. It took a few seconds to remember that I was in prime AZ wolf country, and those might not be coyotes, but two Mexican wolves! They were too far away to tell for sure, and in my research after the fact, I’ve found that wolves were released and are known to live on Escudilla, and that they often travel in pairs or packs (coyotes can too, although they’re more likely to be solitary). They ran off into the trees along with the elk, and I’ll never know for sure if they were the endangered Lobos…. but I’d like to think they were. The rest of the hike I was on high alert looking for another sign of the canine pair, hoping to confirm they were in fact wolves. Leaving the meadow I reentered a burn area as the trail hooked west towards the fire lookout on the summit. The forest in this area was the most devastated along the trail, and although the summit lookout tower had survived, it was fenced off and looked very suspect. There was a small hole in the fence for people determined to climb the tower, but the platform up top was largely deconstructed, and it just didn’t seem worth the risk given the clearing to the immediate south with great views.
I took a short break on the summit eyeing Baldy in the distance and trying to figure out the various summits to the south. I searched for a short while to locate a summit register in vain, then gave up and headed back down the trail. The elk and canines had not returned as I crossed back through the meadow, and after a brief uphill to get back over Profanity Ridge, it was an easy descent all the way back to the trailhead with no additional animal encounters. I passed a handful of other hikers as I neared the trailhead and hopped back in my car, driving the good dirt road back to Route 191, then heading south towards Alpine to tag the Greenlee County HP and nearby Blue Peak in the late morning.