Endless rolling parklands. Plentiful wildlife. Gorgeous canyons. Gila Wilderness is a feast for the thirsty soul. Gila is not for the faint of heart – unforgiving trail conditions, isolation, and unpredictable water sources require serious forethought. The rewards are marvelous. Trail stats are at bottom of page.
Four Days & 45 Miles in Paradise
By Daniel Anderson Jr.
Tromp. Tromp. Tromp. My dull gaze hawkeyes a narrow line of sight, mechanically watching for loose rocks or crouching Gila monsters. Tromp. Tromp. Tromp. As miles go by under my feet, Lord of the Rings adventure fantasies boomerang into and out of my thoughts, alternating with mind-numbing physical fatigue and deep concentration on placing one foot in front of the other. Tromp. Tromp. Tromp. The metronome tempo of my gangly legs pivoting rhythmically on the dirt path opens the trapdoor to my subconscious. I daydream about becoming president or writing Pulitzer prize-winning books. Every 30 seconds or so I remember my surroundings and am surprised anew by the postcard beauty of tall ponderosa pines hoisted over rolling savannas. Will I see a Mexican Grey wolf crouching behind that tuft of bear grass? Do the trail’s ubiquitous elk tracks portend an encounter over the next hill? What kind of a wildflower is that?
Tromp. Tromp. Tromp.
I shamelessly ululate like a nincompoop within minutes of embarking from the trailhead at TJ Corral. Emergent rhyolite cliffs crown forested hillsides while the wrinkled land seems to extend endlessly in all directions. The burdens of modern American life fly from my shoulders like Han Solo fleeing from an imperial star destroyer. I am in love. This is where I belong. “Wow,” I whisper to myself, trying to look in all directions at once. There is nothing else to say.
Starting up Little Bear Canyon trail at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, I veer left at the second “T” towards a spot on my 2007 National Forestry Service map marked “The Meadows” on the Middle Fork of the Gila River. The first five miles gradually ascend from the trailhead’s elevation at 5,700 feet towards a dividing ridgeline’s crest 1,700 feet above. Alligator and single leaf juniper intermix with pinyon pines while undulating grasslands spread behind me. Yellow-budding cane chollas, soaptree yucca, and prickly pear cacti balloon from the rocky soil as I gain altitude. The footpath is well maintained with few patches of loose rocks and four or five fallen trees to clamber over.
My sense of hearing is unexpectedly assaulted by two hikers bellowing Snuffleupagus’ theme song at the top of their lungs on a different spur somewhere below me. Evidently espying my presence, they mistake me for a dangerous creature to ward off and attempt to do so by thunderously butchering a Sesame Street favorite. It works. I pick up my pace and hurry back into the quietly wind-rustled woodland around the next hillside.
Traversing the ascent’s apex, the path drops 200 feet into Bear Creek’s bone-dry drainage before regaining several hundred feet and winding to the canyon rim above Middle Fork. Pride Rock’s identical twin offers an incredible vista over the river’s meandering course 1,000 feet below me, walled on both sides by dramatic candelabra of stone pillars, spires, and columns formed when molten volcanic ash settled down millennia ago. The gorge extends one mile in front of me, curves beneath my perch, and disappears into the mountains to my right. Three turkey vultures soar on thermals below me as I lunch on instant mashed potatoes. A dearth of water compels me to descend one last switchback mile to the river.
2013’s destructive flash floods have filled the channel with rotting tree trunks and debris, but I easily find a beautiful glen for my REI Half Dome Plus. Grumpy gray nimbus clouds coalesce overhead as rain plumes fall to the east. Even though I don my lime green Patagonia rain jacket and hide my gear under the tent’s rainfly, I am spared a drenching as the sky clears. The wish washing stream lulls me to sleep, and, for the first time in many months, I do not wear ear plugs to bed.
Gila Wilderness spreads over 750,000 roadless acres of southwestern New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Over 400 miles of irregular trails span the area’s distinctive mesa and canyon topography where the headwaters of the Gila River have eroded deep canyons into the interior plateau. Gorges may drop up to one thousand feet from tableland elevations of 7,000 to 8,000 feet. The Mogollon Mountains mark the wilderness’ western boundary while the Diablos and Pinos Altos rise in the south. Aldo Leopold Wilderness’ Black Mountains fringe the eastern horizon where the Continental Divide Trail hugs the spine’s many arcs. Ponderosa pine forests spread from the ranges while juniper and pinyon pines cover drier slopes.
Gila Wilderness is accessible all times of year, and peak backpacking season occurs during the area’s dry months from May to July. New Mexico’s monsoons last from late July until early September when explosive storms and ensuing flash floods should be expected. October through November is the popular hunting season, best to be avoided if you are looking for solitude. Perhaps the best time of year for thrifty backpackers to enjoy the wilderness is April or mid to late September when visitation is low, days are sunny, and nighttime nippiness is not too uncomfortable.
I wake up to Middle Fork’s white noise bustle over the river’s polished stones. My body feels completely relaxed, and bubbling enthusiasm for the new day jumpstarts my morning campsite routine. When backpacking, there is something enjoyably mechanical about the most mundane chores. Wrestling spare clothes into a disinclined stuff sack requires refreshing concentration. I carefully disassemble the tent, reload my backpack, brew cement-like oatmeal, lower myself into my Crazy Creek camp chair, force down a liter of water over breakfast. I go pee. I pump river water through my Black Diamond ceramic filter until both 48 ounce Nalgenes are brimming. I prepare myself mentally for the morning’s 1,000-foot switchback climb. I say a quick prayer. I start walking.
The canyon’s long shadows slowly recede as I plod up the steep hillside. Summiting the rim, I turn right towards Prior Creek three miles west. Longer stretches of loose rock detritus and five or six tree falls remind me that I am leaving more travelled routes and entering the rough trail conditions of the Gila backcountry. Passing through a low-rising juniper and pinyon forest, I finally enter Gila’s rolling parklands.
I am in paradise. Stubby junipers are replaced by open grasslands under a towering canopy of ponderosa pines. Ground-clinging Coulter’s daisies, golden groundsel, and violet phacelia stipple the forest floor. The land rolls softly around me, and I nearly indulge the urge to doff my backpack and twirl around the meadows like a lunatic. Instead, I just look.
Many of the pines’ trunks are blackened with soot. Philip Connors, in his beautifully written Fire Season, explains that, for eons, the natural wildfire cycle within what is now Gila National Forest comprised low temperature blazes which consumed brushwood and fallen boughs while leaving old growth forests largely intact. The effects of fire are everywhere visible and create the area’s alluring parkland biome: singed but living trees, green canopies, clear forest understories, and rolling grasslands.
It has only been within the last 100 years that the forest service, spurred by the belief that fire destroys lucrative natural resources, implemented total fire suppression. The consequent buildup of ground fuels created unnatural conditions that have led to highly destructive conflagrations throughout the southwest. The 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in Gila Wilderness’ Mogollon range, New Mexico’s largest ever wildfire, devastated 297,845 acres of old growth forests – nearly 40% of the entire wilderness. Fortunately, over the past two decades, the National Forest Service has acknowledged the importance of wildfires and is updating its fire mitigation strategies to allow fire to resume its ancient work to keep natural ecosystems healthy.
Reaching Prior Creek, a sickly-looking channel of hoof-trod water, I refill my bottles and immediately lose the trail in the tall grass. Circling the vicinity, my stomach drops when I determine that the path is gone for good. Reading my map, I decide to follow an apparently maintained fork up Chicken Coop Canyon rather than bushwhack towards Lilley Park in a more direct line. Within a half mile, a sign points in my preferred direction but no discernable path can be found. Worry bounces through my mind as I consider the options. With hesitation, I decide to tramp cross-country, find Chicken Coop Canyon, and intersect trail 31 somewhere above Lilley Park.
Cross-country backpacking without a GPS device is a bit nerve-wracking in the best of circumstances, but this unplanned solo jaunt through unfamiliar boonies makes me feel downright squeamish. I’m on my own out here. Like really on my own. What if something like the plot of 127 Hours transpires or a Sasquatch tries to eat me? Pangs of worry build somewhere inside my gut.
Conjuring British resolve, I estimate the distance to be three or four miles to my hoped for terminus and set a dogged pace. No mindless forward motion now. I scrutinize every hillock and watercourse, transposing the landscape onto my map’s 200-foot interval contour lines to keep approximate bearings on my advance. After a few good shakes, my rusted compass seems to confirm a westerly route. The unceasing mental acuity is taxing as I navigate around trees, shrubs, and boulders.
The United States Army’s field manual on survival ominously declares “You can remain alive anywhere in the world when you keep your wits.” The maxim is not reassuring, but blazing through the wild like a bandito escaping the law makes me appreciate the advice. I find myself battling panic and manually keeping my thoughts straight. Emotions may lead to irrational choices usually restricted to that time of day when the ice cream truck drives by my San Diego apartment. Only out here, my decisions affect life and death. Nowhere else do I rely more fully on my own mental wherewithal.
I follow a wide effluent which I deduce is Chicken Coop. Peering through the trees, I glimpse two elk loping over a hillside. Adrenaline flowing, I appreciate that I am uninvited guest here, and animals will protect themselves if they perceive a threat. The canyon narrows after a mile and a half, and a discontinuous trickle emerges from the streambed. I expect to find my intersection at any minute. Thirty minutes go by, and I find myself skipping over rocks in a tapering ravine. Forcing myself to take a breather, I recuperate my nerves over a bowl of Easy Mac. Beyond the next bend, damp bear tracks dot a sandbar. Another 30 minutes go by and still no trail 31. It is time to gain higher ground.
I schlep several hundred feet up a calf-pumping hillside until I reach a vantage point high enough to view some recognizable landmarks. The afternoon’s hassled dark clouds fill the air with mist as I identify Lilley Mountain to my northwest. I am further south than I should be, and I realize I have not been treading Chicken Coop at all but a smaller neighboring canyon. No bother – my destination is less than a mile ahead. After contouring around the mountainside for what seems like an eternity, I descend into an alluvial meadow and suddenly crisscross a plain-as-day footpath. “Ha!” I cry out in glee. “Aha!”
I feel like I have survived Frodo’s entire harrowing journey through Middle Earth and cast the ring of power into the fires of Mount Doom to boot. I feel so manly. (Never mind the rollercoaster emotions of the past two hours.) I soon recognize a trail post rising dead center in Lilley Park’s meadow which marks my easternmost waypoint on last April’s trek through Gila. Forgetting about my manliness, I collapse beneath its welcome lettering to relax my threadbare emotions. I can’t stop smiling. I made it. I feel safe. I eat a lemon Starburst.
West Fork Gila River runs three miles further south, and my Nalgenes are running out of water. The easy-to-follow path leads me through wavy mixed conifer woodlands until it reaches the edge of West Fork’s canyon. The Mogollon Mountains, grey and one dimensional against the now blue sky, sprout from forested tablelands where wildfire has left a patchwork of green and black timberland squares. Soaking in the view, I descend 1,000 feet over a slippery talus slope into vibrant canyon meadows. Exhausted from the day’s 11 mile slog, I go to bed early.
Peeking out of my tent’s quietly unzipped vestibule door, I hope to find myself surrounded by a band of grazing mule deer or spot a beaver lumbering along the riverbank. The meadow is empty. Fortifying myself against the sunless canyon’s frigid dawn air, I put on every piece of clothing in my possession and trundle about like a garish astronaut. Finally ready to go, I fling my pack over my shoulders with a hazardous back twist lift motion which narrowly avoids vertebral disaster.
I love the morning’s switchback ascent to McKenna Park 800 feet above. Although the path is in disrepair, my trekking poles keep me balanced with staccato clacks against the trailside rocks. Forking east onto trail 187, tree trunks are charred as I hike through rolling parkland to an unnamed stream bubbling under embankments tilled by countless elk hoofs. Traversing another convex mesa, I descend into Horse Creek’s ravine where the path parallels a slithering thread of water for a half mile. All at once, three elk stand erect about 40 yards away. The elk and I share a Wild Kingdom moment as we silently contemplate each other. I wonder what they are thinking about. Instinctive fear? Brainless indolence? I bet they just want to eat more grama grass.
The path slowly gains elevation as I approach the Diablo Range foothills, and I enter a magnificent half mile meadow offering views over broken tableland forests behind me which are framed by the clearing’s twin walls of ponderosa pines. Mogollon Baldy’s dun-colored dome rises seven or eight miles away. Trudging over marshy patches of grass, I pass an enormous coil of barbed wire – an oxidized relic of bygone cattle days. The path weaves into the trees and then drops precipitously down a wildfire-gutted crotch between the mountains. With no upcoming intersections to watch for, I shift my legs into fifth gear and pick up the pace.
Something is wrong. My map clearly shows the trail contouring around east-facing slopes, but I am careening pell-mell downhill. Maybe my internal gauges are off, and I am not descending as quickly as I think. No other red dotted lines denoting trails appear on the map in this vicinity. Suspending disbelief, I turn right at a juncture two miles later. My map seems to imply Little Creek is an easy one mile descent ahead.
The trail immediately charges up an exhausting beeline trace to the hill’s ridge, winds through a shallow depression, and then ascends another sharp slope. With emotions still raw from yesterday’s off-trail escapades, my heartbeat accelerates. After several more strenuous ups and downs, I finally take a break on a knoll where I eat lunch and unfurl my map. Using Granite Mountain to my south as a landmark, I decide to follow my current path so long as it continues southeast. Within 15 minutes, an unexpected intersection’s weathered sign confirms I have been hiking on an unmarked trail network. Luckily, the sign also points me down the correct one mile descent to Little Creek which I finally reach in no time.
I am tired. The previous two hours’ uneasiness leaves me emotionally spent, and I decide to make camp at the next water source. Unfortunately, Little Creek is so little that no water can be detected on the sandy bed. Shlumping forward, I see two heads poking up through the grass ahead. Hikers. The first humans I’ve seen in three days. As I approach, one stands up with snow white buttocks flapping in the wind. The other squats nearby. Oh no. I’ve interrupted a potty break, and it’s way too late to hid or pretend that I didn’t see them doin’ their business. “Hello there,” I halloo, staring straight at the ground.
“Oh . . . hello,” honks the woman in astonishment, sounding like a Canada goose is trapped inside her throat. “You don’t expect to see anyone out here.” “I didn’t see anything,” I offer, trying to sound nonchalant. Continuing a rapid stride, I emit a chuckle that I mean to be disarming, but it comes out sounding like a creepy impression of Lord Voldemort’s cackle. I hurry past them red as a fire engine, but my need for water prompts me to turn back around. “Is there water ahead?” I ask timidly. “Yes,” the man drawls. “Continue about two miles ahead. Take the left hand trial ahead, and it’ll be there.”
Just as the man promised, I find an oozing pool of green larvae-filled water and top off both Nalgenes after drinking my fill. Finding a stone fire ring a quarter mile further downstream, I collapse after a draining day of 14 miles. I feel haggard and probably look like hell. To clear out some jungly odors, I indulge in a woefully inadequate sponge bath.
Backpacking Tip: Use a Jetboil Sol
Every meal I eat in the wilderness utilizes my handy Jetboil Sol camp stove. Jetboil stoves are a revolution. A lightweight cup twists securely onto an adjustable stainless steel burner, itself screwed to the mouth of a canister of Isobutane/Propane fuel standing on a folding tripod base. With a click of the push-button igniter, up to two and a half cups of water are boiling in less than 90 seconds. The entire apparatus ingeniously disassembles into components which store inside the titanium tumbler, maximizing out-of-use compactness. The Sol weights a mouth-watering 10.5 ounces.
Using one of Jetboil’s several stove models does, however, assume that all of your meals are either noodle-based or dehydrated, a reasonable notion since these are backpackers’ most lightweight and condensed food options. For breakfasts, I eat exclusively unadorned oatmeal. Lunches and dinners are a medley of instant mashed potatoes, Easy Mac, freeze dried chili, and dubious concoctions of minute rice, couscous, or Top Ramen. Jetboils incorporate other thoughtful features like an insulating cozy and lid strainer, but disadvantages may include the price tag (up to $119) and the fact that the plastic lid and measuring cup add-ons both needed replacing after two years’ use. I’m still sold. Filled with a burst of consumeristic fervor, I take a picture of my Jetboil and hit the hay at sundown.
I trot through Little Creek’s level valley and soon find myself hugging the steep slope of a grassy canyon. Crossing the stream at an intersection four miles ahead, I turn up a washout drainage and enter a length of burnt woods. Patches of squat junipers hovel in the midst of blackened tree husks. A grey film of mountains separates the incongruous forests from deep blue skies along every horizon. Lazy cumulus clouds hang in the air like floating afros.
Taking my time on the final stretch to TJ Corral, I spot a breathtaking claret cup cactus decked in neon red blooms. Immediately discarding my gear, I unsheathe my Canon S95 and lie spread eagle on the ground for an up-close photo shoot. I am so absorbed that the crunching sound of boots startles me as two hikers approach.
“Hello,” the man calls. As they draw nearer, he asks “Are you the guy we saw yesterday?” A bit awkwardly, I admit that I am. “I believe that is a claret cup cactus,” the woman says, pointing at the ground. Both turn out to be gregarious, and as soon as they figure out I’m a dedicated backpacker, they offload an enormous amount of information about hiking in the area. Arvin and Lissa “were lucky to find each other late in life” and retired early to spend the rest of their days hiking around Gila Wilderness. Each in their early sixties, they’ve been living in nearby Silver City for 13 years so far. Arvin pulls out a map coated with highlighter smears and propounds their current route, favorite past routes, routes I absolutely must do next time, routes to avoid, and commentary on the route I am currently trekking. “Further up Little Creek is a great area.” “Granite Mountain is a waste of time.”
“It’s great to see someone young like yourself who enjoys the outdoors,” Lissa says with motherly affection. “We don’t often meet someone we connect with. Maybe once every few years.” “You seem like you have a good head on your shoulders,” affirms Arvin. I love every minute of our conversation and soak up every shred of local knowhow they utter.
Perhaps I have not exchanged words with a human in too many days or need an outlet for unacknowledged backcountry loneliness, but I share a unique trailside bond with Arvin and Lissa. We are drifting spirits drawn to similar explanations about life. Something about the outdoors gives us meaning, and we enjoy sharing whatever it is with each other. Smiling and waving goodbye, Arvin and Lissa resume their downhill canter to the parking lot. I feel an emptiness at their departure as if I am losing good friends.
Lying back on the ground, I admire the cactus’ prickly beauty. God I love it out here. After a few more pics of the florescent blossoms, I strap on my backpack and slowly follow the path toward the trailhead two miles away.
I’ll be back.
April 18-21, 2015
Dan Points: “10” for rolling parkland forests and endless wildness
Distance: 45 mile loop
Time: Four days
Trails: Oftentimes followable, but be prepared to lose discernable paths on trips into the backcountry.
Elevation: Entirely rolling hills with three 1,000-foot climbs
Directions: From San Diego, go east on I-8 through California and Arizona. From Lordsburg, New Mexico, take the NM-90 north to Silver City. Turn onto the exceedingly windy NW-15 (“Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway”) and go 45 miles north to Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument. Ten hours of speedy driving should be expected.
More information can be found at Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument’s website or at Wilderness.net’s page about the Gila. Up-to-date(ish) trail conditions can be found at the National Forest Service’s website. If you are planning an extended trek, best to call one of Gila National Forest’s several ranger stations for conditions and what to expect. I called Glenwood at (575) 539-2481.