The Upper NM 4 Region consists of Upper Water Canyon, Forest Road 181, the Apache Spring Trail, Sawyer Hill, Cerro Grande, and the Upper Frijoles Canyon Overlook Trail. The fact that Highway 4 is generally plowed after snow makes this an excellent way to get to reasonably high elevations in the count circle without much effort. On the other hand, the trailheads are generally not plowed so if there is snow you’ll want to bring a 4WD vehicle. Similarly, the trails aren’t plowed so you may want snowshoes or cross-country skies for some of the higher trails in this region. Explore the interactive map below to see the region boundary (red), the major roads (green), trails (blue), and the recommended trailheads (hiker icons).
The Upper Water Canyon Trailhead is on the west side of NM 501 just south of the road’s lowest point in the canyon. The trail leading west into the canyon from here is one of the better birding spots in the circle as it has year-round running water. This is the only running water in this region. The best birding in this area is in the first 0.75 miles of trail leading up to the Upper Water Canyon North Fork Trail, and the 0.2 miles of the north fork trail itself. The quality of birding along the Upper Water Canyon Trail west of the north fork is significantly worse. A 6 mile loop can be made by continuing upstream to the top of Upper Water Canyon where it intersects Forest Road 181, then turning right and following the main forest road all the way down to NM 501, then finding the Perimeter Trail and following it just west of the highway back to the trailhead. However, unless you’re desperate for more hiking to do, there are less effort-intensive ways to encounter the same habitats. Our recommendation is that you do the Upper Water Canyon Trail up to the North Fork, then do the Upper Water Canyon North Fork Trail, then return to the car and move on.
The American Springs Trailhead is a large pull-out on the north side of NM 4 from which two dirt roads depart–one to the northwest and one to the northeast. The road to the northwest is Forest Road 181, and it will take you to American Spring and Armstead Spring (neither of which have surface water anymore) and eventually all the way back down to NM 501. The habitat along FR 181 is largely burn scar, but the far end does get into healthy ponderosa woodland. There is also healthy woodland right at the American Springs Trailhead and along the other dirt road that departs from here, heading northeast along the mesa top that is just south of Water Canyon. This road is flat, about 0.75 miles long, and makes for an excellent way to pick up ponderosa habitat species in this region.
Across the street and slightly west of the American Springs Trailhead is the Apache Springs Trailhead. This trailhead is very small and can only accommodate a few cars. It may be simplest to park at the American Springs Trailhead and just walk across NM 4 to the American Springs Trail. This trail heads south through ponderosas into a small, open valley with oak and a bit of willow. The trail then works up the other side of the valley and makes a sharp right turn to follow the ridge through ghost forest with occasional stands of living ponderosa. Once on this ridge, the habitat doesn’t change considerably so don’t follow this trail more than a half mile or so.
The Sawyer Hill Trailhead is on the north side of NM 4 about 0.5 miles west of the American Springs Trailhead. This is sometimes a popular spot for sledding if there is a lot of snow, which may make the birding less appealing. There is a dirt road that heads through a mixed conifer, ponderosa, and aspen past an old ski lodge and up the side of the mountain. Once you get up above the trees the habitat doesn’t change so don’t bother travelling too far.
Continuing up NM 4, look for pull-outs along the highway that are worth stopping for a point count.
The Cerro Grande Trailhead is a large parking area on the north side of NM 4 just before the edge of the count circle. From here the Cerro Grande Trail heads all the way to the summit of Cerro Grande, but it is likely to be snowed-over to the point of being unfollowable. The low alpine meadows and mixed conifer forest at the bottom of this trail make for excellent birding, however and if the snow is tolerable (or if you have snowshoes), the area on the north side of the road is worth wandering through. Across the street from the Cerro Grande Trailhead is a small trailhead for the Upper Frijoles Canyon Overlook Trail. This trail is one mile each way through alternating mixed conifer and ghost forest, ending at an excellent view into the very top of Frijoles Canyon. This trail is popular with cross-country skiers, so if you aren’t on skis yourself, stay to the side of the ski trails.
On the way back down NM 4, there is a good pull-out on the west side of the highway near the highest point of the road which is worth stopping for a point count in healthy, un-burned mixed conifer forest.