When people speak of canyon hiking in tones of hushed reverence, this must be the sort of place they have in mind. Here there are swift flowing waters, towering rock walls, Mogollon ruins, tall pines, scrub oak, hot springs, vultures, trout, humming birds, deer and on rare occasions there are even other campers. The hike described here ascends a few miles along the West Fork of the Gila River, then goes over a height of land on trail signed for “Meadows” (but mapped as T28) and returns down the impressive Middle Fork.
There are two non-obvious concerns for us newcomers to the New Mexican heights. The first is the potential for flooding, especially flash flooding, in the canyons. A big rainstorm could make either Gila fork excessively exciting. In years where the Forest receives large amounts of snow the springtime runoff can make the canyons impassible. The second concern is with a hotspring-loving protist called Naegleria fowleri. This beast produces a form of meningitis. The good news is that this form of meningitis is rare. The bad news is that when the disease occurs is usually fatal. Since the protist attacks via nerves exposed in the human nasal cavity, the advice is for hot spring users to always keep their heads above water.
- Leave Las Cruces (I used the Motel Blvd ramp) heading west on I10 towards Deming.
- After roughly 52 miles, take exit 82A
- At end of ramp, merge onto I10 Frontage Rd.
- After 0.1 miles, turn left onto US 180 W (a.k.a N. Gold Blvd).
- After 49.3 (more) miles, turn right onto 32nd Street Bypass in Silver City.
- After 1.4 miles, turn right onto NM Rt 15.
- After 45.7 (more) miles NM 15 makes a 90° left-hand turn to reach the Gila Cliff Dwelling trailhead. Instead of turning go straight ahead on the access road for the Visitors Center (the Center is visible from the turn).
- After 0.5 (more) miles (passing the Visitor’s center) turn left onto the gravel parking lot for the Middle Fork Gila River trailhead.
The last 47 miles are extraordinarily “twisty”. Budget some extra time. The trip took more than four hours for me, although that includes stopping in Silver City for dinner and to get maps at the ranger station.
The trailhead is just past the Gila Visitor’s Center parking lot, perhaps by two-tenths of a mile.
The Middle Fork trailhead described here is just a gravel parking lot. It is very close to the visitor’s center, which has bathrooms and running water. The visitor center does not have trash removal. We not only “pack it out” but we also “drive it out”. The West Fork trailhead, which is adjacent to the Cliff Dwellings, seemed pretty well developed (there are buildings at the trailhead). I was running late and didn’t notice what facilities they have there.
You may have noted that the plans called for pushing up past the West Fork trailhead, but that the car was parked at the Middle Fork trailhead. The two trailheads are joined by a relatively dreary 2.1 miles of paved roads. I chose to get that part of the hike over right at the beginning and spare feet destined to be wet and weary by trail’s end.
USGS 7.5 Minute Maps:
- Gila Hotsprings
- Little Turkey Park
- Woodland Park
- Burnt Corral Canyon
The trip described here is a loop. It began on a Friday evening for 3.5 miles, continued Saturday for 10 miles, and finished Sunday for another 12.5 miles. All together, about 26 miles for the loop. The USGS maps refer to the trails as T151 along the West Fork of the Gila, T28 going across the height of land between the forks, and T157 descending the Middle Fork. However, these numbers are not used on Park signs. The low point was 5600 feet and the high point was 7200, so the net gain was only 1600 feet. In this low-snowpack year the water rose to just above my knee (I’m six feet tall). In the warm part of the day the water temperatures were very enjoyable. The air temperature got quite low at night (I didn’t check the thermometer on my pack at 3:00 am, but it must have been into the low 20s), and became pleasantly warm in the afternoons. It reached 74°F in upper Bear Canyon on Saturday.
Leave the Middle Fork trailhead walking away from the trail and follow the paved road past the Visitor’s Center, over the West Fork bridge, then turn right onto the tail-end of NM 15 and follow it to where it ends at the Cliff Dwellings trailhead on the West Fork. There! Done with the paved roads.
If you have time you can cross the river on an actual bridge and explore Mogollon cliff dwellings. I’m still looking forward to that experience, since my schedule was pretty well exploded by the time the West Fork trailhead came into sight. Trail T151 starts on the north bank but quickly begins to career across the water with each river bend. Gravel shingles tend to form on the inside of each bend and the trail typically leaps from shingle to shingle. The tread is sometimes washed away from the gravel, but you can usually see where the trail enters grassy terrain away from the water. Canyoneering involves wet feet.
My USGS map had last been updated in 1999 (USGS Little Turkey Park). That map shows the trail arriving at a wide meadow, hugging the north canyon wall, and then making a sharp left to cross the meadow back to the river and following the banks closely thereafter. In the Google map (above, click to change the scale and move it about) you’ll see that I took that advice and soon lost the tread near the water. It turns out that a very clear trail does exist on the south side of the river, but not immediately beside the water (where floods would routinely erase it). Perhaps the Park Service moved the trail onto a slightly higher shelf where it would resist being washed away. The “new” tread is visible on Google satellite imagery, so it is something of a wonder to me that it should have been so elusive on the ground. In any event, it was easy to push up stream, but a little uneasy since the junction with trail T28 was something I wanted to find. The mouth to EE Canyon provided flat terrain for setting up camp. The trees there are fire blackened and presumed to be weakened – uneasy camping if the wind comes up. There are better camping spots on a higher shelf about 200 feet upstream.
The waters looked pretty dark this year. According to the rangers at Silver City, this is mostly due to last year’s fires. Soot is not only darkening the water it is also clogging water filters. They recommend that you allow river water to settle in a spare jug before using filters. It seemed like good advice, although that meant having a gallon of river water, the butane container from my stove and two soaked hiking boots under the sleeping bag with me to avoid freezing during the night. Lumpy. But my wet socks (which I had wrung and left to dry outside on a tripod of sticks) were rock solid the next morning. A small container of Nutella hung in the food bag that night and was still frozen when hauled out at noon. It would have been an uncomfortable night, save for a pair of heavy fleece pants and a fleece jacket.
There is an unmistakable trail just 100 feet or so up EE Canyon. It rapidly rises and pulls away from the river. Rather than risk missing the intersection with T28 I tried to push up along the riverbank. It proved to be an exceptionally wet and slow way to hike, and eventually it seemed worth turning back and “risking” the obvious trail. That worked just fine, and in a little more than a mile I made the last crossing of the West Fork to find the intersection of T151 and T28 (the wooden sign actually says “Meadows 6 1/4 mile”).
The trail to the Meadows on the Middle Fork ascends gently along a side-canyon and then follows a rib extending from a prominent spine that runs east-to-west. Past that spine the trail descends slightly into Big Bear Canyon. The trail is obvious for most of it’s length, save where large pines in the upper reachers of Big Bear Canyon obscure it with needles. Clearly, not many people hike into this country. Thats a shame, because it isn’t often that you see big timber in New Mexico. There are three trail junctions. The first is with T164 coming in from the east. The sign at the junction keeps you on track by pointing to “The Meadows”. The second is when T164 leaves to the west, again follow arrows to “The Meadows”. The third is with T156 right on the rim of the Middle Fork. Since you want to get to the river, follow T28 as it descends from the rim. The miles along T28 were completely dry this year, Big Bear Canyon had no running water. It would be a magical place with just a small stream. Any small disappointment can be obviated with a bagel lightly seasoned with spork-scraped frozen Nutella chips and a mug of water. Along with a brief nap, that’s great dining.
The trail down to the Middle Fork is on steep terrain. The Google map, above, only gives a mild impression of how severely switchbacked it becomes. The park has done a great job of trail engineering, so that what could have been a hugely jarring experience was merely protracted. (Going the other direction is probably something of a thigh burning experience). No complaining! The views to the adjacent canyonland, bird life, forest and hoodoos are inspiring.
The meadow is an exceptionally beautiful spot and I was tempted to stop there. There was flowing water in Indian Creek, almost the only side canyon with water that I recall seeing. It looks as though the beaver population has been living up to its reputation for busyness. But, the day was not so terribly elderly and the canyon narrows were beckoning. Movement downstream was initially slow, there are shrub thickets on the banks near the Meadows. Eventually the trail picked up the old shingle-hopping tactics and I moved along. Night comes early in the canyons. I picked an extra-wide shingle with a reasonable escape route in case the waters should come up (this year, we should be so lucky). It was a pleasant site, although the walls reflect the sound of rushing water enough so that this could be called Loud Canyon. It is hard to believe that anyone could be so avid for chicken flavored ramen noodles or even a mug full of hot chocolate.
The next morning I ran out of fuel for the Jetboil. It is only barely possible to regard tepid tea and a granola bar as replacement for a repast of double-strength instant oatmeal with raisins and dates. Epic tragedy. I may even have grumbled as my boots entered that chilly first river crossing. But sunshine comes even to the canyon beds. Hoodoos abound, spires leap to the sky and at one point a hawk grabbed a fishy meal out of the river right beside me.
It is almost impossible to get lost when you only need to follow a canyon downstream, but my training is such that knowing where I am seems needful. That can be hard in often-anonymous canyon bottoms. One trick that became evident was too look for places where the river flowed in unusual directions. For example, the Middle Fork only has a few places where it flows to the southwest or flows directly north. By comparing the maps against these flow patterns it isn’t hard to monitor location.
It is a long drive from the Middle Fork trailhead back to Las Cruces. It is weary work to clean up a tent and get the ground cloth hung to dry after arriving back home. But, the one real complaint about this hike isn’t the end, but that it had to end.
Floods and protists are unlikely but real threats, just keep ’em in mind while enjoying the Gila.
A weekend is a miserly thing to expend for a trip like this. It is easily worth setting up for a four day venture.
One complaint that I can sympathize with came from a guy who had traveled a long way to sample the fishing in the Gila Wilderness. It may be that the low and warm water conditions, coupled with the soot in the streams, have wrecked the fishing for a little while. There were some small fish in the waters near the meadows, but this might not be the best year for your fishing friends.
Next time I will have a backup fuel canister.