Bears and Thunder

Backpacking the Gila Wilderness Area, New Mexico - Sept 2009

High Rise
Todd, Steph and I set out on a five-day backpacking trip along the Middle Fork of the Gila River in the heart of the Gila Wilderness north of Silver City. Since the trailhead was near Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, we decided to check it out the day before our hike. The ruins were built into large natural alcoves by the prehistoric Mogollon people in the 1200s.

Home in the Stone
There are some prehistoric ruins that make you think, 'why would anyone want to live here'? Not these. The cave was large and open and kept out the late summer heat while the nearby West Fork of the Gila offered an Eden of plants, flowers and animals. I have lived in apartments that were far less comfortable and only slightly newer.

Big Deep Canyon
The first day of our hike was the hardest... ten miles up hill through the pine forests of the Little Bear and Big Bear Trails to a wide spot in the canyon of the Middle Fork known as 'The Meadows'. The long (but pretty) trudge with full packs was rewarded with this majestic view from the canyon rim. Approaching storm clouds cut short our appreciation as we hurried down the switchbacks to our first night's camp.

The Meadows
The Meadows are named for several large open fields of grass and wildflowers on either side of a mile-long stretch of the river. A very pretty place and we had it all to ourselves... and the bears. I saw one a half-mile below camp while day hiking (he scampered off at my approach). That evening, another bear (or perhaps the same one) started slowly browsing across the meadow by our camp until he came near our food canisters and then we shouted, whistled and clanged trekking poles together until he got the message and wandered off again. Judging by the amount of bear scat in the area, I assume he was after our toilet paper.

Complete with Running Water
This was the view of the river near our camp site. The pile of brush crossing the river in the distance is part of a large beaver dam (complete with pond and beaver lodge). I have stayed in more dramatic backcountry campsites, but this was one of the most serene and peaceful.

A Hip Spot
I came across this partial hip bone of a deer or elk (I think) a mile above camp. The bleached white of the bone stood out against the damp brown log of pine upon which it rested. Oddly enough, we did not actually see any elk or deer on the trail although they are abundant in the area. Aside from the bears, we did see Wild Turkeys, Red-tail Hawks, a Great Blue Heron and about the widest variety of smaller birds that I have ever seen.

Standing Tall
The variety of trees in the canyon was incredible and included ones that I rarely see together. Ponderosa pines, sycamore, cottonwoods, juniper, oak, walnut and tum-tum trees (Ok, maybe not tum-tum trees) all elbowing each other to reach the limited canyon sunlight. The pondersoa pines had them all beat and were some of the tallest that I have seen. This one seemed to be trying to compete with the very canyon walls.

Water and Rock
After a day and two nights at the Meadows, we began the six-mile hike downstream toward our next camp at Jordan Hot Springs. Where ever the canyon took a bend (and there were many) the river would rush up against the cliff walls and often form surprisingly deep pools.

Run Through the Jungle
In other places, the vegetation was so dense that you could barely see the sky, let alone the cliff walls. Hidden among the foliage were occasional large patches of poison ivy. Thus no place for shorts.

Crossing Number 27
They say that the trail crosses the river about six times per mile. Maybe so. I certainly lost track. Apparently the river was at an extremely low level - about half its usual flow for this time of year. Crossings were relatively easy and pleasant (rarely reaching above the knees), but I could see them being difficult during full flow.

Frozen Fury
Forty million years ago, the Gila Wilderness was part of a giant volcanic field formed by a collapsed caldera (similar to Yellowstone). The canyons around the Gila Cliff Dwellings of the West Fork were carved from a vast field of melded ash and cinders known as the 'Gila Conglomerate' while the striated andesite cliffs on this stretch of the Middle Fork were once beds of molten lava.

Peaceful Stream
As a reward for the effort, most stream crossings included striking views along the water toward the towering cliffs that always formed the wall of the next bend. Each view is a little bit different. In some places the water is fast and violent and others as smooth as glass.

The Fabled Jordan Hot Springs
Jordan Hot Springs is considered one of the best backcountry natural hot springs in the west. The spring is tucked among the trees on a cliff above the river and the water is clear and warm as a nice bath. Even the threat of brain-eating amoebas (don't dunk your head!) did not take away from the enjoyment after a long day on the trail.

Flower Power
Where enough sunlight reaches the ground, wildflowers abound. These yellow ones were particularly common, but I have no idea what they are (Butterweed? Viguiera? Sunflower family?). Others include (top to bottom) Sticky Aster, Fendler Globemallow and Common Mullein.

The Madonna of the Gila
After two days near Jordan Hot Springs, we continued downstream where the rock formations became increasingly more jagged and fanciful. This oddly-shaped little spire looked almost like a statue and reminded me of a woman in robes.

River Ramparts
Yet another view looking downstream toward a towering cliff wall. I did not realize just how many of these views there are in the canyon until I got home and started sorting pictures.

Towers, Spikes and Spires
The canyon walls reach the apex of odd formations near the mouth of Little Bear Canyon. Here the solid cliffs give way to a broken barricade of weather-carved spires, towers, hoodoos and balancing rocks.

A Very Little Bear Canyon
Little Bear is a narrow slot canyon about two miles below Jordan Hot Springs and our exit spot from the main canyon to get back to our starting trailhead at the TJ Corral. Although the skies were clear overhead, we could hear distant thunder echoing down the canyon and knew we wanted to be out of the narrows before the rain came.

Racing the Storm
Nearly every day had blessed us with some brief monsoon rains in the afternoons and our last day was no exception. As we reached the top of Little Bear Canyon and began the final four mile trek to the car, a growing thunderhead began to fill in the sky behind us.

A Cold Reception
Within an hour of reaching the car, we were hit with the hardest rain storm of the week. Where the road crosses a high ridge near Pinos Altos, the rain had turned to a heavy hail that was so thick in places that it looked like snow. Boy, were we glad to already be out of the canyons.

A River Runs Through It
We pulled ahead of the storm and reached Silver City with just enough time to run into the our hotel before it caught up with us again. Within minutes, the intersection of Broadway and Bullard was running deeper than much of the Gila River (although the fishing was probably not as good).

Sunny Morning, Hot Coffee
By the next morning, everything was blue skies and sunshine again. Historic downtown Silver City has many historic buildings that are now home to galleries and cafes. Staying in the 1882 Palace Hotel put us within easy walking distance of several great local cafes including Jalisco's Mexican Restaurant, Vicki's Eatery and the Javalina Coffee House. It was a nice peaceful morning to wind up a (mostly) nice and peaceful trip.

Comments: Name or email(optional):