The Gila Wilderness, located in Eastern New Mexico, is well over a half-million acres of protected land. In 1924, thanks to the leadership of Forest Service Ranger/writer/philosopher Aldo Leopold, an area around the headwaters of the Gila River were designated as a wilderness area; the first in the world! (Gila, pronounced “HEE-lah”, means “sandy”). With over 500 miles of trail, opportunities to explore this vast and dynamic landscape seem endless. Sean and I chose a 4-day loop that sampled some of the most jaw-dropping terrain along two forks of the Gila River (West Fork and Middle Fork), along with an overland traverse. I’ll do my best to share the experience with you, but first, allow me to give a quick update.
What’s going on?
It was with very heavy hearts that Sean and I departed Reverse Pioneers homestead in Blanco, TX. We spent a glorious 7 months on their land, so needless to say it truly felt like home. Sean and I feel more prepared than ever to start up our own homestead down the line thanks to the teachings and demonstrations from Kasey and Michael. However, we’re not quite ready to settle down yet. We’ve embarked on a 3-month long “out-west” summer road trip, WWOOFing in Utah, Oregon, and Washington. There will be plenty of adventure time at each gig, but we also have a few weeks of pure “vacation” time in between for backpacking and camping.
After leaving Blanco, we spent our first night at the quaint and peaceful Monahan’s Sandhill State Park in western TX. Paisley hasn’t been on sand since the beaches of Daufuskie, so she was absolutely stoked to sprint up and down the dunes while Sean and I enjoyed the setting sun.
|Monahan's Sandhill State Park|
Our next stop was Las Cruces NM, where we stayed with our lovely friends Rachel and Rich, who had just recently moved in. Las Cruces is nestled just east of the breathtaking Organ Mountains, but we decided to head north and explore the White Sands National Monument instead. This strenuous 5-mile loop up and down sand dunes left all of our calves aching the next day.
Back to the Gila Hike…
This was my first ever multi-night wilderness hike, and I would have been much more anxious about the whole ordeal if it wasn’t for my hiking partner. Sean, who took a semester-long wilderness immersion course with NOLS, was well prepared and had a solid understanding of our route. We knew that the days would get up into the 90s and nights down in the 30’s, so proper clothing and gear were a must.
|Driving into the Gila|
Day 1 : West Fork trailhead to Big Bear __ 4.5 miles
We got started at around 1:30pm on Saturday, which wasn’t an ideal start-time considering the heat, but it was unavoidable due to travel time. Looking back, it’s actually quite funny how wrong things went the first day. I’ll be honest; when I first put on my backpack at the West Fork trailhead, I almost had myself convinced that I couldn’t go through with the plan. The initial shock of the pack’s weight, the dry dry heat, and the hot hot sand got to me. It didn’t help that literally 50 yards into the trail we ran into two Javelina (wild hogs), which a ranger had just warned were territorial and could be aggressive toward dogs. Thankfully these two ran the opposite direction, and I felt at ease and optimistic about the wildlife opportunities ahead. That is, until we lost the trail about a mile later. We stopped to get our bearings, and I heard a strange rushing noise coming up behind me. I turned around to see a dust devil (aka dirt tornado) sweeping toward us just a few yards away. I had just enough time to shout a warning to Sean, shield Paisley, and close my eyes before it hit and then disappeared. I think it was at this point that a very clear voice in my head said, “What the hell are you doing here?”
It’s really no surprise that the trail was washed out at this point; we were in the wide open floodplain of the West Fork which experiences much disturbance. Thankfully Sean was armed and ready with his topographical map, so we just followed the river and checked landmarks along the way. This was very slow going. The river was about shin-deep. Pollywogs kept our feet company along the slippery rocks in the riverbed while we did our best to not fall over. It’s amazing how off-balance you can feel with a heavy pack on your back and a dog pulling the leash in front of you. It probably took us over an hour to hike a mile.
Eventually we caught back up with the West Fork trail and successfully met the intersection with Big Bear trail, which turned up into the canyon. We ascended around 1000 feet, surrounded by rounded rocks towering above. A break was needed about halfway up, at which point we agreed that we were likely in mountain lion territory, so perhaps should bring out our weapons (bear spray and machete).
|up the Big Bear Trail|
|Ain't no lion gonna mess with this|
|ascending higher on the canyon wall of West Fork|
About ten minutes later, I glanced across the canyon to the opposite wall and something caught my eye; a whitish tan figure perched upon a small cliff. We stopped and stared in awe at our first (but not last) viewing of a mountain lion.
|Mountain lion (too far away for a good photo)|
A ranger warned us to be inside our tents by dusk, as mountain lions begin hunting around that time. Normally the lions are shy of humans, but fatal attacks have occurred. There were a few incidences last year of mountain lions going after hikers’ dogs in Gila., so Paisley being with us was an added danger. Yet, we pushed our mileage as long as we could to make up lost ground from the earlier setbacks. Eventually the terrain leveled out and offered some prime camping spots. We had only hiked about 4.5 miles, which was around 2 miles short of our goal, but it was definitely time to stop.
|near our first camp|
Sean set up the bear-hang (food bag hoisted away from the ground to prevent wildlife break-ins) as I cooked us some dinner. Keeping with the theme of the day, this didn’t go to plan. The rope he had bought for the bear-hang was way stretchier than he intended, and we couldn’t find any large trees (being at such a high elevation), so the bag drooped almost to the ground. Not exactly bear-proof. We were fighting against the clock as we frantically looked for some way to make the bear-hang work. Crickets began chirping and I began panicking, machete and bear-grade mace in hand. Eventually we settled for a very sub-par bear-hang, which could have been easily broken into, but we had to weigh the options of losing our food or getting mauled by a 8 foot long cat. Once in the tent, our tensions eased and we were able to better enjoy the serene beauty of the canyon. The crickets eventually stopped chirping and I was amazed by the silence surrounding us; I’ve never been anywhere so quiet. The moon rose and was almost blinding in brightness, illuminating everything around us as if it was daytime. A couple hours later, the silence got taken over by wind. It came in rushes, and I could hear the gusts coming from miles down the canyon before it hit. It was a pretty unique experience to feel so isolated and exposed.
Day 2 : Big Bear Trail to Middle Fork ___ 8.5 miles
We awoke to the relief of an intact bear-hang and began our day continuing the ascent up the Big Bear Trail, eventually topping out on the brim and then descending into Big Bear Canyon. Big Bear Creek was dry, which wasn’t much of a surprise. This area of New Mexico is in a major drought, so most of the seasonal creeks don’t have running water at this point. We followed along creek bed in wide-open terrain, through junipers and the sweet vanilla fragrance of ponderosa pines. A mile or so later we crossed the creek bed and climbed up the opposite canyon wall, the final push upwards.
|in the creekbed of Big Bear canyon|
Topping out on the northern side of Big Bear Canyon gave us some epic views of the Gila River’s Middle Fork.
The next two miles descended 1000 feet through switchbacks and rocky perches. We ran out of water in these last couple of miles, so arriving at the Middle Fork River was a relief. We had a relaxing riverside lunch while Paisley splashed around in the water.
|on our way down the side of Big Bear Canyon|
Across the Middle Fork River was “The Meadows”, a lush and grassy area known for ideal camping, but it was time for us to continue onward. We followed the Middle Fork Trail, which zig-zagged across the river countless times (maybe 30?). The trail started to close in slightly as the canyon continued to grow larger. The Middle Fork’s gigantic jagged walls were gloriously framed with sycamores and cottonwoods. Freestanding clusters of rock columns towered above, and deep pools on the river’s edge below were home to darting carp and wiggling tadpoles.
|crossing through the Meadows|
We stopped hiking around 3:00 to ensure we had plenty of time to set up camp before dusk. This proved a good idea when it took over an hour to create a successful bear hang (we eventually nixed the stretchy rope and used a smaller static rope). Sean found a lovely open area on the river, giving us plenty of space to pitch the tent. A pebble beach on the waterside was a perfect dinnertime venue. Once in the tent, we fully appreciated the contrast of this site to the night prior; forested and lush compared to bare and harsh, full of wildlife activity compared to utter silence. We were silly with exhaustion as we listened to squirrels chasing each other and woodpeckers drumming on the trees. The familiar song of a wood thrush was nostalgic music to our ears; it had been a long time since we’d been in a forest.
Day 3: Middle Fork to Little Bear Canyon ___ 8 miles
We both remember this as the best day of the trip; we really hit our stride. We woke up feeling surprisingly fresh and ready. Our day started with yet another stream crossing, and a dozen more followed. More sheer walls hundreds of feet high, rocky columns in every shape imaginable, and caves surrounded us as we followed the Middle Fork of the Gila River curving east. It seemed as though every bend of the river offered even larger walls and grander geological wonder. A mixture of conifers and deciduous trees lined the riverside.
Jordon Hot Springs was our lunch spot. It’s the most popular of all of Gila’s thermal pools, and was only a quarter mile off-route, so we figured it was worth checking out. We followed the sulfurous smell until we arrived at the pleasantly warm pool, being mindful to not let Paisley drink any of the water (a bacteria lives in these waters which causes meningitis).
|waterfall on the way up to Hot Springs|
|Jordon Hot Springs|
Our water packs were empty after lunch, but we wanted to be sure to hike far enough away from the hot springs before refilling to avoid contamination. We stopped a half-mile or so down river. There was a nice pool on one side that Paisley went swimming in while we filtered our water. I was so thirsty by this time that I downed half a liter of water in a few minutes, only noticing afterwards that it had a funny taste. Within ten minutes, I was overcome with nausea and stomach cramps. We were only about a mile away from our end-point (the mouth of Little Bear Canyon), so I did my best to trek on. Then we realized that we took a wrong turn, walking an extra ¾ mile off track; probably the lowest point of my experience. Still, we eventually made it to Little Bear and my symptoms miraculously passed.
|recovering at the campsite|
We camped in a well-established area right off the river. A sheer rock face stood above the river on one side, and toothy spires thrust into the sky on the other. We set up camp with plenty of time to spare, and enjoyed a chilly bath in the river.
|Thanks for the dinner, Brian!|
During dinner, our world got turned upside-down. I heard some gentle movement in the tall grasses as I was cooking. I glanced up, didn’t see anything, and the sound stopped, so I went back to the stove. A couple minutes later, more movement in the grasses, this time closer and louder. I alerted Sean as I turned away quickly to locate Paisley and the bear spray. In that short moment while I was facing away, Sean saw it; a mountain lion walked in between us and the tent. It was about 20 paces away. It didn’t even look at us, but it had to have known we were there. It just walked casually by, up a game trail into the rocks above. Needless to say, we didn’t linger over dinner.
While Gila has a very healthy mountain lion population, it’s considered special if you happen to see one in the wilderness. Somehow, Sean and I got lucky enough to come across two in our 4-day trip. Considering nobody got hurt, we are so grateful to have come across these majestic beasts.
Day 4: Little Bear Canyon to Gila Cliff Dwellings ___ 5.5 miles
|The last breakfast|
Even though this was the third morning of the trip, I was still shocked at how cold it was. We warmed up over espresso and headed out one last time. We turned into Little Bear Canyon and followed a trail gently sloping upwards about 200 feet over the course of two miles. This was a much smaller, closed-in canyon, filled with lush greenery, waterfalls, and caves.
At the top we had a great view of both forks of the Gila; a nice overview of our last few days. The last two miles of trail sloped back down through wide grassy terrain, eventually dumping us out on the road.
Our last mile of the hike was up the roadway. About halfway up, a young boy sprinted past me, up to Sean and Paisley and asked, “Does your dog want bacon? We have a bunch of extra bacon.” Is that even a question? This little boy and his mother were like angels; after a few days of no fresh food, they offered us greasy bacon and crisp apples (and yes, we shared with Paisley).
We arrived back to the car to drop our stuff, and did one last mile-long loop up to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Teddy Roosevelt established the Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907, and it is now recognized as one of the most spectacular archeological sites in the nation. Most of the rooms of these dwellings were built in the 1280s, but humans had been using the caves as shelter much earlier. Cliff dwellings in general are known as “architecture of upheaval”, and the Gila dwellings are no different. Their appearance across the southwest coincides with periods of warfare, so people likely settled into these caves as a means of protection against elements and strife.
|700-year old corn cobs on the ground!|
Looking back on the hike, I can’t imagine a better experience for my first “real” backpacking trip. I definitely felt a full spectrum of emotions and physical states in that short period of time; I now understand why people say backpacking can be a rollercoaster ride. Not to get too fluffy, but there’s certainly a mental shift that occurs when you’re out in the thick of it for a couple days. The first time I put my pack on, I felt (literally and figuratively) a huge weight on my shoulders. By the end of the hike I felt nourished in a way that I can’t really describe; it was as though a thirst I didn’t know I had got quenched. There was some newfound peace and calm where preoccupations and unease used to reside. This may only last so long, but next time I’m feeling anxious, I’ll think back to the wood thrush’s melody, carrying over the forested canyonland….