Overview:

2013-05-04 21 chalkwhite boulder and cliff (better)

Cliffs and boulders above the Gila River

I hiked this trail only after being shut out of the northern part of the Crest Trail in the Gila Wilderness (see “Recommendations” below). For a “fall-back” plan, this hike was  amazing. You begin following a road that criss-crosses the river. If you are as new to the New Mexico wilderness as I am then watch in amazement as people place vans, trucks and SUVs into two foot deep running water without any appearance of concern. Near the confluence of Turkey Creek and the Gila River the cars can make one last crossing (and not many bother with that). You can choose to go left (north) to follow Turkey Creek and seek out it’s famed hot spring. Or you can abide along the east trending Gila, walking in the the river, passing grottos used by ancient hunters and camping beneath tall cliffs and soaring birds of prey. This trip report describes a little of both waterways.

There are supposed to be several hotsprings in this region. The guidebooks and the Forest Service all labor to warn visitors that these springs can contain a protist called Naegleria fowler, the causative agent for amoeboid meningitis. The usual advice is to keep your head above water when using the springs.

Driving Directions:

Since I was headed for a different trailhead, these numbers are mostly taken from Google. Sorry about that!

  • From Las Cruces, take Rt 70 to the intersection with I10 and enter the highway going west toward Deming.
  • After 51.9 miles, take exit 82B onto I10-Frontage-Road in Deming. You could take 82A, but that leaves you less time to move over to the right for the next turn.
  • After 0.2 miles, go right (north) onto North Gold Ave/US Rt 180
  • After 80.7 (more) miles, turn right onto Rt 211 (signed for Gila). This is the second junction between US Highway 180 and Rt 211.
  • After 2.3 miles, turn left onto Rt 153
  • After 3.6 miles the pavement ends and I think Rt 153 becomes Rt 155/Turkey Creek Road.
  • After 4.4 (somewhat difficult) miles descend to a floodplain surrounding the Gila River  and come to a camp site on your left – just above a gully. This will be the highest available parking spot if you think that flooding is a possibility. Otherwise you can go as far as 5.5 miles before the road makes its first river crossing.

It looks to me as if Rt 155 has been recently graded.  That does not mean that it treats the family sedan kindly. In many places the roadbed is steeply inclined bedrock. Rocks of various sizes tend to accumulate in any depression. If you allow your drive tires spin, then they can kick these stones into the undercarriage with remarkable force. To get by these spots you need momentum. On the other hand, if you go fast over a bedrock ledge and crash the undercarriage against that lump of rock then you may have some explaining to do to your oil pan. Take a high clearance vehicle if you can.

Trailhead:

2013-05-03 04 camp at trailhead

Tent and car at uppermost campsite above the flood plain

This trailhead is vast. It begins above a gully – about 50 feet above the flood plain, but continues along the river for two more miles. Constant vehicular use has ground the flood plain to dust, although trees do provide shade immediately alongside the river. If you are skilled at predicting flooding then you can easily drive the next mile and save on the sub-stellar hiking. There are no amenities.

If you are confident in your ability to cross waterways in your vehicle, then driving to the confluence of Turkey Creek and the Lower Gila will save you about another mile of road hiking.

Due to the limited number of open trailheads this one is attracting a crowd.  (See “recommendations”, below).

Data:

  • Trailhead: 4800 feet.
  • Turkey Creek Turnaround: guestimated to be 5300 (500 feet of elevation gain).
  • Gila River Turnaround: guestimated to be 5500 feet (an additional 700 feet of gain).
  • Mileage for round trip: guestimated at about 16 miles
  • USGS Map: Canyon Hill, Diablo Range

There is ample hiking beyond my turn-around points. Your milage may vary.

Hike:

2013-05-04 08 volcanic neck above Turkey CreekFrom the first parking spot follow the road across the flood plain to where the canyon narrows and the road is forced to the river – about 1.1 miles. The water depth at this first crossing was about 2 feet deep. It is the deepest crossing that I made on this trip. The road continues on the far shore and quickly makes another crossing. From that point you can follow either road or river up to the confluence of Turkey Creek and the lower Gila River. That represents another mile. Both streams had handsome water flows. At the confluence there is a deep spot that was being worked by fishermen on Saturday morning. One guy pulled in a 20 inch catfish as I walked by. On Sunday it was the property of several deeply tanned and cheerfully foul-mouthed preteens. The road crosses the river one last time, but this crossing is not popular with the motorized set. There was just a one SUV parked on the far side. Here you need to make a decision. Do you want to go to the left (northerly) and follow Turkey Creek or to the right (easterly) and follow the Gila? My choice was to do both, but to do Turkey Creek first.

"Trifecta", the highland separating Turkey Creek and Gila River

“Trifecta”, the highland separating Turkey Creek and Gila River

Between Turkey Creek and the Gila River there is a striking peak with a tall summit in the center and high shoulders on either side. Lacking any map I started calling it Trifecta. (It isn’t named on either Google Maps or the USGS map. However, behind the summit is a striking bit of flatland that the USGS map labels as Hidden Pastures). I had no map for my fallback hike, so what follows is necessarily speculative. Keeping “Trifecta” on my right I followed a small watercourse past the base of the mountain (wondering what happened to the “handsome water flow” that I saw earlier at the confluence). My recollection of the hike description in the Cunningham and Burke guide was that there should be a hot spring along the stream, with a waterfall and a water-slide above it. As the guidebook notes, there is no shortage of poison ivy in this region of the world. The ivy seems to love the loose soil immediately adjacent to the hard-packed trail. It can be hard to pull your eyes down from the canyon walls and the sight of caves and crevices in the rock. Generally, however, it is worth working to avoid urishiol induced contact dermatitis.

2013-05-04 07 sign at turn-aroundI headed upstream for about 2 miles, until I found a trail that branched left, away from Turkey Creek. You will find a very large cairn at the trail branch. It is based on three very large boulders onto which someone with a great deal of energy has placed numerous boulders in the 50-lb league. It rises to about four feet in height. If you step back a few paces and look up-Creek to your right, then you will see a sign saying that the barely visible easterly trail is not maintained, is dangerous and is not recommended for livestock. It seemed like a reasonable turn-around spot. From the Cunningham and Burke guide, it would seem that the hot spring is about a mile further up Turkey Creek.

Waterfall and slide, but no warm water

Waterfall and slide, but no warm water

On the return to Gila River I met a group of about four or five younger guys who were also new to this part of the world and looking for the hot springs. There would only be about three other hiking groups that I encountered on this hike. That seems to be remarkably few, given that this is supposed to be one of the more popular hikes in the Gila Wilderness.

Back at the Gila River, follow the main stream as it swings to the east (south of “Trifecta Mountain”). Initially the way must be found in a cobweb of ATV tracks, but just stay close to the river and soon you will see a gate composed of a couple metal poles protected by large boulders. The way narrows immediately to a trail and follows the river bank closely. This is a much broader stream than Turkey Creek and the numerous crossing make for wet feet. It feels wonderful on a hot day and the stream crossings can not come fast enough. About four miles up the river cross to the north bank (left side headed upstream) and find a well used trail coming at you from the downstream direction.  Follow this trail for less than 100 feet and come to a grotto, complete with faint petroglyphs that look like the real thing (along, inevitably, with the magic marker etchings of certain feeble minded moderns). Note, too, the unbelievable abundance of poison ivy.

Caves above Gila

Caves above Gila

A mile or so upstream there is an aging corral. I suppose it is a spot for the horsemen among us to keep their charges under close control. A few hundred feet past that point there is another river crossing. I could see no especially attractive camping opportunities and so headed back downstream for a spot on a sandy shelf covered with evergreens for the night. There were no loud distractions here, other than the lull of river noises and the susurration of the pines. On awakening the first thing I saw was the silhouette of pine branches against a robins-egg blue sky.  The first thing I thought was, “how impossibly beautiful”.  A good way to begin your day.

Cliffs opposite camp site

Cliffs opposite camp site

Other trip reports suggest that there are miles of beautiful canyoneering to be had as you ascend the Gila. My hourglass was starting to run down, however. After a breakfast of dates-and-nuts oatmeal and “Via” coffee laced with Mini-Moo (insane luxury), my wet boots and I turned back downstream for a leisurely three hour trip back to the car.

Recommendations:

This trip report describes hiking along the Gila River in a region well below the confluence of the West, Middle and East Forks (see the description of the West  Fork to Middle Fork traverse  for some details) and numerous other tributaries. It has become a larger river. In this nearly snowless and warm year it was comfortable to hike in early May. High water could make the trip much more challenging.

Burn damage from Bursum Road

Burn damage from Bursum Road

I started this weekend with no intention of going to the Gila River. Instead, I had printed out USGS topo maps for the Crest Trail. The mighty Camry was easing up the Bursum Road (NM 159), past Mogollon, when the fist-size rocks clustered on the roadbed and the obvious tracks from recent heavy-equipment usage made me think that Something Might Be Wrong. That thought was confirmed by several new, large, bright yellow signs emphatically stating that high-clearance vehicles were recommended for the road. Fortunately, a Forest Service truck came down the road towards me. I backed up into a near wide-spot and talked to the guys in the truck when they edged past. They said that the stark effects of the 2012 burn would become evident within a quarter mile, and that the burn goes on and on for many miles past that point.

Those guys saved me miles of harsh and unrewarding driving, for which I want to say thanks. Perhaps they didn’t notice my pack or perhaps they were too polite to assume my ignorance, but they didn’t tell me that the Forest Service has closed the trails that go through the burn,including the northern portion of the Crest Trail. I learned this back at the Glenwood Ranger Station bulletin board. The Service has a very useful map that shows all the trail closures . Part of the reason for the state of the roadbed is that Bursum Road was subjected to heavy flooding this past autumn. The tiny stretch of road that I saw was only marginally passable to the Camry and there may be much rougher stretches.

In the spirit of “do as I say, not as I do”, for 2013 and 2014 it would be useful to check the status of the trails before heading off to Gila Wilderness Area. There is a ton of damage up there. You’ll avoid the “grumpiness tax” that falls onto those of us who ignore Mother Nature’s little strictures. There was some evidence of fire damage along the Lower Gila, but just a little. There are many safe camping places. It was a good idea to change plans.

The water in the Gila was dense with soot. Bring along an empty jug to allow the water to settle overnight before filtering or you may clog your water filter. Empty ,one-gallon plastic water-jugs are very light. I had one, but at both breakfasts I was wishing that I had brought along a second.

Summit pose in a grotto!

Summit pose in a grotto!

On Friday evening I camped at the Lower Gila trailhead.  That was a mistake.  There are not many open trailheads on the west side of the Gila Wilderness, so people gather at those places that are open. Traffic started piling down the road just as the stars came out. Trucks and SUVs filled the riverside sites. Boom boxes did what boom boxes do. It was not conducive to getting a good night’s rest. It would be a good idea to camp at least two miles upstream. You are not made safe by the river. People routinely drive back and forth across the Gila. (I’m guessing that the river road is needed to service private property that exists upstream.)

On the trip out from Las Cruces I stopped in Deming for a burger at the Membres Valley Brewing Company (200 South Gold, not annotated in the driving directions – go left rather than right onto Gold/US180). I had an assembly called “The Works” that is a cheeseburger and egg arranged with chilies and bacon. It was excellent – surprising since these assemblies are usually more bloat-producing than satisfying. The french fries were  standard pub fair – OK but not up to the high standard of the burger. The Brown Porter was good but not over the top. Service was prompt and courteous. Street parking was easy. MVB was a little pricey, but it sets “the bar” very high for road food.

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