When Spring arrives here in New Mexico places like the Gila Wilderness in the Southwestern part of the state come alive. I try to come back every year to witness this great spectacle.
Last April Rowan (boxer mutt) and I hit the road and headed South to one of the countries largest wilderness areas. The drive alone from Santa Fe is rewarding, particularly once you get off the interstate and start making your way up and over the black range. Elk appeared as we passed the ghost town of Kingston, followed by dropping temps as we climbed up to Emory Pass. Travelling the winding roads at dark will challenge anyone passing through. The roads into the Gila are actually the most exciting part for the majority of the visitors. Into what seems like the middle of nowhere we went, finally reaching a car camp spot just shy of the Cliff Dwellings Nat’l Monument. Rowan literally just spent the last two hours with her head out the window. She remembers this place as well as I.
We found our way up the brushy first few miles of the West Fork of the Gila River. Awaiting us around a bend was our first wildlife encounter; a rattlesnake warned us of it’s presence. Whew! Those are always scary encounters as nearly every time I’ve come across these special life threatening creatures it’s almost too late! It hit me! With it being such a dry Winter we would probably encounter plenty of wildlife as our 40+ mile loop would almost be entirely near water. As we made our way deeper into the wilderness our senses heightened as they always do in places such as these. The continuous unbridged crossings of the river were pleasant and offered a reprieve from the dry upper banks. Down low was like a jungle though. After a few nice rests in Gods country we arrived at our first camp near the “Hells Hole” junction. I dropped my pack and spent a very tiring hour or so bushwacking trying to find our overland trail. Finally a trail junction presented itself, and I realized the map I had was poorly marked.
In order to beat the heat we broke camp early and made our dry, 8 mile trek over the mesa to the incredible Middle Fork. All but two junctions were marked on our way over. The highlight was passing “Prior Cabin” and reading engraved markings from hot shots and wilderness patrol. Some dated back even 40 years. Views into the deep Middle Fork were a nice sight, but also a difficult reality to face, as I knew we still had several miles before we’d reach the canyon bottom. Finally we did, and just about collapsed on a beach along the quiet stream. Poor Rowan was beat. You could see it in her eyes. On we kept to the Meadows, passing some of the most wildly beautiful country I’ve seen in the Southwest. The bends in the canyon were lined with towering craggy rock spires shooting upwards of 500 feet in places. And the river itself wide and so undisturbed. Shallow but inviting. A Red Fox spotted us from a thicket on the other side. It wasn’t bothered by us one bit. Rowan didn’t spot her. We made camp in the forest by the popular “meadows”.
CDT hikers were everywhere the next morning. So much for the solitude I thought. I guess the path was re-routed this year due to the very dry black range. Despite the seemingly crowded feeling, especially after the last two days, it was very cool to meet and exchange stories with some of these incredibly determined individuals. I was sure to make time for a dip in Jordan Hot Springs. Revitalizing to say the least. The beauty of the canyon persisted the whole way to our junction with Bear Canyon, but just prior another rattler waited for us. This time it was a Diamondback and very large and in charge. Whew again! We made it passed unscathed. We took a very long relaxing break at the mouth of Bear Canyon, taking in this spectacle and trying to grasp the grandeur of this incredibly wild and scenic place. How grateful I am to be a part of this I felt. To be connected and to be one with my surroundings on such a profound level. This feeling was carried deep within me as we hiked up and over returning to the West Fork Drainage. The sun was nearing the horizon casting shadows in all the right places and the quietness felt like a dream come true. Thank you for this experience, for this land, for this time, and for this desire to be here challenging myself, and in turn becoming one with one of the most beautiful places in the World.