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Hilltop Mine, Chiricahua Mountains Arizona

Last Updated: 27th Jun 2016

By Rolf Luetcke

Hilltop Mine, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona
By Rolf Luetcke

When I worked for the Southwestern Research Station in 1970, a field station of the American Museum of Natural History in New York I took my days off to explore the Chiricahua Mountains. The mountains were what the locals called Sky Islands with plants and wildlife that was stranded in the mountain ranges of Arizona by low lying, dry and hot desert between the mountain ranges. The animals stayed in the habitat they were used to and only a few species ventured out into the valleys. Plants had been isolated and adapted to the mountain environments and had no way to get to other areas because of the hot country in-between. Parts of the mountains were as rugged as any area I had explored and had no people for miles. The mountains were a hundred miles from any larger city which made for fewer people. There was only one road that crossed the mountains, a very scenic but windy dirt road closed in winter because of slides and often deep snow.
I loved exploring and collecting the insects and reptiles I was working with at the time. This was before my interest in minerals had been sparked. In time the Chiricahua Mountains became my favorite range in all of Arizona.
I also love caving and spent many hours exploring the Crystal Cave in Cave Creek. The cave was wide open in the 1970’s and people went in on a trust basis. Several friends and I spent many hours crawling on our bellies through passages called “fat man’s misery” and the music room. I found several things in the cave that were unusual to me. In several passages was exposed limestone with fossils sticking out of the eroded limestone. There were crinoids and various shell fossils. The moist air and dissolving agents had etched away the softer limestone and left the agatized fossils protruding from the walls. It was great to be deep underground and see fossils in the walls.
An unusual thing in the cave was an area that was not calcite or aragonite but instead the ceiling, floors, walls and everything was coated in sharp quartz crystals. It was a bit like being inside of a geode. The quartz was sharp and you had to move carefully through the rooms with quartz. Fortunately the quartz is hard and didn’t damage easily with crawling across it. In some places the quartz was fairly clear, others it was yellow from included iron. The quartz crystal surfaces sparkled like mirrors with the flashlight beam. One trip into Crystal Cave a friend and I spent 8 hours crawling down one passage after another and never found where the bottom of the cave was. Going into Crystal Cave one always took spools of twine since passages went in many directions. It was a rule to wind up the old twine you used so as not to confuse other cavers. One thing about going into Crystal Cave was to take clothes you could throw away after your trip. The entrance area of the cave was quite muddy from soil that had washed in from the entrances above and the sharp quartz and many tight squeezes tore clothes to pieces. The fat man’s misery was a horizontal tube that went about fifty feet. You could crawl two ways, on your back or on your belly. There was no way to change position once inside so you were committed to one or the other. The tunnel was so narrow that in two spots you had to turn your head to the side or your nose would rub on the ceiling and one spot you had to exhale or your chest would get stuck on one rock that jutted down. We joked about female cavers being at a bit of a disadvantage in this area. You could use only your fingers and toes to move you along. When you got to the end of the tunnel it dropped down at a vertical crack and a few yards below the one you had just crawled down was one going in the opposite direction. Fortunately the second tunnel was a bit higher but crawling was still necessary. The cave was later gated because of formation robbers and now the only way to enter is to get a key from the Forest Service, which you have to return after your trip and they know who went in if any damage is done. There was a map done on Crystal Cave but I had trouble making any sense out of a one dimensional map. Because there were so many diverging tunnels, it was not a surprise to me that nobody had ever found a bottom to the cave. I am not sure if the cave has ever been fully explored since I have not kept up on it for many years.
One trip I went up a canyon in the Northern Chiricahuas called Whitetail Canyon. There were farms and ranches in this canyon and people had private signs on their land. One place had a nice apple orchard where local apples were grown. The road went through the canyons private land and back into National Forest and up some real four wheel drive country. This area was once the home of the Apache Indians and early prospectors were greatly hampered by Indian raids on camps. Galeyville was a small mining town that started in the 1870’s and from some of the history I have read it was as rough as Tombstone in many ways. I was reading a history book called A Portal to Paradise about the area and a number of the prospectors were killed by the Indians. This book is the best book I have read on the history of the Chiricahua Mountains. Not something today’s rock hounds have to contend with. Above some of the homes in the canyon were old mine tailings and some old buildings I later learned were the town of Hilltop and some of its mines. The side from Whitetail Canyon was restricted to access to the mines because it was now private land and I never did explore on that side. I have not gone over that road in a long time and don’t know what the access is like today.
As I drove the rough road all the way up Whitetail it ended at a pass. One small road went to the East, up and up and ended at a small mine. The road at that time was drivable with my two wheel drive VW bus. The top mine on the mountain had the Lead Lily Shaft and at the time, in 1970, there was a wooden entrance with a big door and a tunnel leading into the mine. In the beginning of the mine were shelves on both sides with mining equipment and there were maps of the mine on the walls. I didn’t have a flashlight along so didn’t go into the mine. I left the Lead Lily as I had found it since I had no idea if it was still being mined by someone.
The mine tailings of the Lead Lily dropped into the valley below at an extremely steep angle so looking around for any minerals was not easy. The old platform to take out the overburden was a well built structure with the old rail coming out of the mine and going to the end of the platform. It was the perfect place to sit and enjoy the view while eating lunch. The views from here were some of the most spectacular I had ever seen from a mine. You could see for miles into New Mexico to the East and to the North was the formation of Cochise Head in the Chiricahua National Monument. Below was Whitetail canyon with its trees and homes.
Over the years this road deteriorated and we rode it last year by ATV. Much has changed at the Lead Lily, no more structures at all. I had read that at one time the Lead Lily had underground connections to the Hilltop beneath it. The mine has been blocked off with dirt and all the wooden platforms at the tailings are long gone. The view is still as spectacular but not much to find. It was not helped by a huge wild fire a few years ago which seems to have altered many of the minerals on the mine dumps. I brought some home last trip and it did seem some new things were formed by the heat from the fire. Most of the rocks had changed color with the heat.
Going down the Canyon from the pass to the SW the road wound steeply along one hillside. In the distance the side canyon with the Hilltop mine ended up in Pinery Canyon, several miles below. On the way down there was a big mine dump on the hill to the East and I took my old VW up the road. There was a large mine dump and one tunnel going into the mountain.
I explored the area a bit and found a few remnants of old structures and foundations. I later learned that there had been a small town here also. There were many level places where small cabins had stood at one time. A few old pieces of rusted metal could be seen here and there but mostly the area was not covered in old mine materials like some of the places I had visited. In the early mining days when a mine played out the buildings were taken down and the lumber hauled off and used on the next hopeful site. The mine tunnel went deep into the mountain and I decided to come back with lights.
When I came back a few weeks later I went into the mine and there was good air circulating through the mine so I figured there must be other entrances. As I explored the tunnels there were places that dropped off deep into the ground. I found one area that had at one time been timbered and had burned. I don’t know if it was accidental or if vandals had set the timbers on fire. I had heard rumors of people having set fire to the mine timbers in other mines and wondered if the same had happened here. The area was so isolated the fear of being caught was probably not a deterrent. Inside the mine was a full size railroad car that had one time been used for water. Access to the lower levels at the time I went in was not possible without ropes. There were many diverging tunnels and I stayed mostly in the one that had good airflow. I continued along the main tunnel. I walked and walked and in one area I found a pile of small debris that had filtered from a small crack in the ceiling and had blocked the bottom half of the tunnel. It didn’t look dangerous at all and I easily climbed over the debris in the tunnel. I walked on and eventually I could see light in the distance. I had walked all the way under the mountain in the mine tunnel and was standing on the dump overlooking Whitetail Canyon.
I ended up walking through the tunnel one other time a few years later and the debris pile in the center was even taller. In later times the mine no longer had airflow and the air in the mine was quite stale. I didn’t try to go through any more in later years and had heard that the mine no longer went through to the other side. With good airflow one felt safe from bad air and gasses that could build up.
At the time the mine was being operated at its peak between 1924 and 1927 the main town site was on the Whitetail Canyon side and since so many people worked on the other side of the mountain, they dug a tunnel through the mountain and built a small town site on the West side as well. I have read that the families that lived on that side sent their kids through the mountain on an ore car to go to school on the Whitetail side. It saved over an hour from the long way around over the pass and down Whitetail Canyon.
There is not a whole lot I have found written about the mining at the Hilltop. In its early days of mining they found some spectacular Wulfenite, one of the premier Wulfenite localities in Arizona. Many fine specimens were removed from the mine in the early 1900’s by a collector and mineral dealer that visited the mine but no access to any of the Wulfenite areas seems to be there now.
The mine dumps do not have much Wulfenite, at least nothing like what has been written about what came out of the mine. One find was made by a friend, Richard Gillespie a number of years ago. He was exploring the old mine dump outside the tunnel and found what had been an old outhouse built into the side of the dump. He worked his way into the old hole that was mostly filled in by dump material but noticed that the retaining upper walls had been made from large chunks of rock which on several surfaces had a nice coverage of Wulfenite. Unfortunately the many years exposed in the dumps had not been kind to the crystals.
The large mine dump has a great view of the valley below and I have camped on that mine dump several times over the years. On one overnight camping trip to the mine I had been here since early morning. I was having lunch and looked up at the hills above the mine and saw movement. I got out my binoculars and there were two black bears feeding on the fruit of the prickly pear cactus which was ripe at the time. I watched the bears for some time before they caught a smell of humans and took off over the mountain. I could drive my vehicle out onto the dump and have that spectacular view into the canyons below. The area is one of the quietest I have camped in. There are no lights at all at night, no dwellings in the canyon or surrounding mountains. In the 1970’s the only living soul was the forest service employee that manned the fire tower on the mountain to the northwest, above the mine. The only thing about camping on the mine dump was if you did any sleep walking at night, the drop off the sides of the dump were steep and a hundred feet down or more to the rocks below and the fall could be deadly.
One visit to the Hilltop gave me my only UFO experience. Not that I am saying I saw “aliens” but it was something very bright hanging in the sky near the one ridge. I looked at it for some time and it didn’t seem to move. It was a bright light, not an airplane since it didn’t move and when I looked down to get better footing to move to a different location to observe the object and looked up again it was gone. I never had any idea what it was but it hung in the sky for a couple of minutes and then just as suddenly disappeared. Many ideas went through my mind and I finally settled on a weather balloon but the object was certainly an unidentified object. It was not actually flying but it was hovering in the sky.
I have collected in the dumps of the Hilltop mine on the SW side of the mountain often and found some wonderful micro minerals. My favorites were the clear Anglesite crystals in massive silvery Galena. I have found some very well formed Willemite crystals as well. In all I have found more than 27 mineral species in the dumps but as I said, most are in micro but well formed crystals.
There was a group that tried to reopen the mine a few years ago but they ran into many snags and the project never got off the ground.
The last time I was at the mine I did walk into the mine about 1500 feet and the air was good. It was quite wet in the mine and the old timbers had a thick growth of white fungus.
The road leading to the Hilltop has not been maintained and the last time we were there the road was barely accessible by ATV. There were some major floods that came down the canyon since we were there last and the road may now be impassable. The flooding was more severe because of the massive fire a year or so ago that burned all the vegetation that held back flooding before. Just have to make another trip up to see how the access is now.

Update from June 2016,
A friend was up in the mountains and tried to go up to the Hilltop Mine. The road had already been washed out so badly that even with his ATV he was not able to drive to the mine itself. This time he was riding his ATV up the road and there was a fence and locked gate. No signs to keep out but the locked gate and fence made access impossible. He contacted the forest service because the mine and area is in the National Forest and he was surprised at the locked gate. This is what he was told.
There is apparently a small parcel of private land within the National Forest and it happens to be where the access to the Hilltop Mine and other forest areas is. The people who own the land fenced it to "have a private hunting property" according to the representative of the forest service. The forest service agent said they were trying to work with the land owners to allow the road to remain open. At this point the owners were not willing to do that. The forest service said they definitely wanted to reopen the access to the area but the process is not a quick one and they were still in negotiation with the property owners. The agent said that if the people do not plan to go along with reopening they plan to bulldoze a new road around the small private land to allow access again. The friend who went up said he had planned to climb the fence and go up to the mine anyway. My wife pointed out that the land owners were hunters so probably well armed. She didn't think it a good idea to push the access seeing that the people responsible are armed. At this point there is no access to the old Hilltop mine on the West side from Pinery Canyon but the forest service said they plan to open up access. I know how slow those wheels turn but eventually the access to the Hilltop mine should be reopened.
The friend knew there is also an old dirt road, if you can call it a road, that accesses the Hilltop from the East side of the mountains via Whitetail Canyon. I had driven that old road in 1970 and it was barely drivable at that time. The forest service representative said that road is impassible, he had attempted it with an ATV and said he couldn't make it. So, it seems that the Hilltop mine is only accessible by foot at the moment and with a fenced portion that may not be the best idea at the moment either.

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