7 Days in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico

Lupine field encased in smoke in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness
Lupine field encased in smoke in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness Polly Scotland
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Warning signs alerting us to a dust storm flashed along Interstate 10 east of Tucson, Arizona, as we headed to the Gila Wilderness of southwestern New Mexico. We saw a thick haze morph into a brown wall of swirling haboobs that danced across the horizon like whirling dervishes.

The detour led my brothers, husband, and me into Silver City, New Mexico, then north to the Gila National Monument to begin a seven-day backpack trip.

In 1924, thanks to naturalist Aldo Leopold, the Gila (pronounced Heela—a word meaning “salty water”) became our country’s first established wilderness. Preservation has kept this land like it was in the late 1200’s when the Mogollon Cliff Dwellers occupied this terrain.

Day One

Middle Fork of the Gila River
Middle Fork of the Gila River Polly Scotland

Our hike traversed a 50-mile section of the 649 free-flowing miles of the Gila River, which is a tributary of the Colorado. Backcountry permits aren’t required, so we bypassed the Visitor’s Center (a choice we would later regret) and drove to the trailhead at TJ’s Corral.

At Little Bear Canyon, the dusty trail meandered past scrub brush and piñon pine as it ascended 700 feet to a 6,400-foot ridge overlooking topography with a complex geologic story. When I paused in the arid desert to sip water, four boys marched by. They were “thru-hikers” on the estimated 2,800-mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT). They started in late April near the Mexican border and hoped to reach Canada by September. They claimed that this alternate through the Gila was a more scenic route for the CDT.

At the Middle Fork of the Gila River, we changed from hiking boots to water shoes and waded into the chilly river. We ambled upstream in cocoa-colored water as it riffled over bedrock. Cottonwood trees and lush green bushes clung to the sides of the riverbeds, obstructing the vista of the magnificent, chiseled red and gray sandstone cliffs. Midstream views revealed columns of hoodoos, towers, and weathered rocks that looked like mushrooms, pipe organs, and gargoyles.

We spent the night near Jordan Hot Springs and enjoyed the popular geothermal pool whose sulfur smell evoked the area’s volcanic history.

Another hiker arrived, slipped into the springs, and unwittingly splashed water onto his face. I quickly warned him not to submerge his head underwater due to a meningitis risk. He was a solo thru-hiker called “Freebird” doing the CDT.

Day Two

Author Polly Scotland crossing the first of 125 water-crossings along this 50-mile route
Author Polly Scotland crossing the first of 125 water-crossings along this 50-mile route Polly Scotland

In the morning, I squeezed into my damp water shoes, shrieking as I waded into the glacial-like stream. The nut-brown water had sporadic pockets of deep green pools teaming with six-inch fish that darted between my legs.

After a pervasive smoky haze lifted, the canyon became more vibrant, changing scenery every 100 yards like a slideshow.

At the end of an eight-mile, 47 water-crossing day, we tented in an expansive space with huge piles of deadfall and debris called the Meadows, where overnight temperatures plummeted to 22 degrees.

Day Three

The next day began with a 1,000-foot switchback ascent to Prior Creek Cabin.

A savannah-like landscape with tall, coarse beargrass lashed the back of my legs. Bluebirds flitted past the alligator-barked juniper pines dotting the gentle slope to the cabin where a scuzzy-looking water source flowed.

The trail out from Prior Creek Cabin was difficult to find. We followed the drainage up to a burn area whose trees looked like charred toothpicks in a field overflowing with knee-high lavender lupines mixed with an occasional scent of skunk.

After the day’s long 12-mile slog, we hunted over an hour for water at Lilley Park before staying overnight.

Day Four

Studying the map after we encounter the wall of fire.
Studying the map after we encounter the wall of fire. Polly Scotland

The following day was another freezing morning with a smoky smell. We backtracked out of Lilley Park and aimed for White Creek.

Atop an 8,000-foot ridge, I looked at the panoramic view of the 10,000-foot Mogollon mountain range in the west. Thirty million years ago, this area had two gigantic super-volcanic eruptions. When the mouths of the calderas buckled, the walls of the Gila’s West Fork were carved.

Continuing the trek, I rounded a bend and stopped in my tracks. Across the valley was a thick wall of billowing smoke. It was a massive fire spread over hundreds of acres.

We quickly pulled out maps to determine if the fire was in our chosen trail of McKenna Park Valley. I regretted not registering at the Visitor’s Center and worried no one would look for us in an emergency.

We descended a 1,000-foot switchback of loose scree and brittle rubble that led to a brown cabin and several horse corrals on the White River. After we set up our tent and had lunch, my husband and I explored the old abandoned trail that used to go to Hell’s Hole.

We carefully trod along an embankment when a man seemingly appeared from nowhere. He was a 62-year-old electrician from California. CA Guy (as we called him) had been exploring the Gila for 50 years and had done nearly all 300-wilderness miles. With only a camera in hand, CA Guy was scrambling up a formidable section of the West Fork.

We told him of our concern about the fire. He thought it was a prescribed burn and wasn't troubled. With that reassurance, we made our way past several small waterfalls to a pea-green swimming hole.

At suppertime, the cavalry arrived. Six men from the US Forest Service clopped across the river, each riding a horse and leading another mount carrying saddlebags stuffed with gear to spend a few days at the USFS cabin and monitor the fire.

Day Five

The cavalry arrives at White River.
The cavalry arrives at White River. Polly Scotland

By morning, we were encased in a thick blanket of smoke. As I hiked the newly reconstructed trail to Hell’s Hole, the hazy pall made me cough. By noon, the wind shifted and a clear sunny afternoon unveiled spectacular spires, ramparts, and pinnacles.

Because campsites along the West Fork were sparse, we took the first one available for our fifth evening.

Day Six

The following day, I snaked my way down the river’s most popular trail, past striated cliffs that were once beds of molten lava, and tracked a bear’s paw prints embedded in a sandy path leading to a broad poison ivy patch.

That night, we camped by a single cliff dwelling. After exploring the small habitation, I imagined that seven centuries ago the search for water and fertile ground must have made life for the indigenous people extremely arduous.

Day Seven

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. NPS National Resources

On our final day, I tried to ignore the sunburn-like rash that looked like measles on the back of my calves as I waded down the river.

Suddenly, a wild javelina darted across our path, spraying a skunk-like odor as it tried to hide in the overgrowth of the desert wash. Later I learned that the javelina is called the “skunk pig.”

We ended our journey at the wilderness’s most famous landmark, the Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Nine rooms in this large cave housed 10-15 families for about 30 years in the late 1200’s. It’s a mystery why these people left after just one generation.

In a week, we'd hiked over 50 miles and made 125 water crossings along the Middle and West Fork of the Gila River just like the Mogollon people before us.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Aldo Leopold for having the foresight to preserve our nation’s first wilderness for future generations to experience. Because of him, this beautiful but harsh desert environment speaks to those who listen.

At the Visitor’s Center, we learned that the McKenna Fire started from two lightning strikes (not a prescribed burn) on May 6, 2016—the day we arrived in Silver Springs. Because it occurred in a wilderness area, it subsequently was allowed to spread from 400 acres to 9,050 acres before rain extinguished it on May 18, 2016.

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