“Urban hikers like a destination,” the ranger old me rather contemptuously when I called the Gila National Forest for information before setting out on a three-day camping and hiking trip.
She was responding to my question, “How is the hike to the Jordan Hot Springs?”
“The trail’s OK but it’s long and a lot of people use it. It’s very popular,” she told me. “You’re unlikely to be alone at the hot springs. To get there, you have to cross the river 15 times.”
“How deep is the river?”
“Anywhere from 10 inches to several feet.”
“Several feet?” I exclaimed in dismay. “We’ll have to swim?”
“The problem is less the depth than the speed of the water,” she added. “It can be very swift and knock you off your feet.”
“How about the weather?”
“There’s a chance of thunderstorms every day.”
So the trail is long, the hot springs crowded, the river dangerous and the weather lousy. With encouragement like that, who needs discouragement?
We’d been planning to hike in the Gila ever since last spring, when we’d had to cancel a trip. Last week we decided that we’d go, come hell or high water (literally). In the event, we found neither high water nor thunderstorms nor mobs of “urban hikers.” What we did find was something closer to heaven than hell.
The wildflowers blazed the mountainsides and meadows in palettes of colors that were stunning. The first night we had a large camping area right on the river bank all to ourselves; the second night only a couple of campers showed up.
We saw only one group on the way to the springs. When we got to the hot springs, we had them all to ourselves.
After a cloudy early morning, the weather was sparkling. The nights were cool and the afternoons warm. There were no storms although we saw heavy clouds massing as we were leaving on our third day. Curiously, a ranger told us that he found cloudy mornings ushered in sunny days, while bright sunny mornings were the prelude to hotter and therefore stormier afternoons—exactly the opposite of the weather at our home in the Manzanitas.
The agenda of our trip was simple. We spent the first day on a long leisurely drive the length of Gila country, entering on a back road from the north, west of Magdalena and winding our way for a couple of hundred miles over mountains, through canyons and across vast meadows that sometimes stretched from horizon to horizon.
It takes such a trip to drive home an understanding of how vast the Gila country is. The Gila is a national forest, a national monument, a river (with three major branches), a hot spring, a ranch and a lot of other things, including the gila monster.
But the whole is more, a lot more, than the sum of its parts. It is not inaccurate to call it a country, in some ways a foreign country. The mountains on all sides isolate the region. Enhancing the isolation is the great distance from any population larger than Silver City’s 10,000 people—and even that town is 43 miles from the headquarters of the national forest and the national monument.
Geologically, a ranger explained, the region is between, and isolated from, the Rocky Mountains to the north and Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental to the south. We saw a peccary, a diminutive wild pig that we’ve never seen further north. Alligator junipers with their unique speckled bark are common, whereas we treasure the two small ones growing on our own land. Unfamiliar birds and wildflowers—as well as many we see at home—were everywhere.
During our first long hike in Gila country decades ago, we were trying to follow a circular route through the Aldo Leopold Wilderness—one of two wilderness areas surrounded by the national forest—but the unmaintained trails were repeatedly blocked by brush and downed trees. We kept detouring off the trail, then detouring off the detour, then detouring off that, until we were thoroughly disoriented and completely lost. We eventually found our way out, but the experience was a sobering one: This is a vast area in which the unwary can get into serious trouble.
The Gila National Forest at 3.3 million acres is larger than the Carson National Forest and the two wings (covering the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains) of the Santa Fe National Forest combined. The Gila Wilderness, where we hiked last week, is the nation’s oldest designated wilderness.
After our daylong drive across Gila country, we camped at an area called Grapevine, about 5 miles south of the ranger station. We parked our car beneath a giant cottonwood some 10 feet from the Gila River and went to sleep to the sound of the stream rushing and gurgling over stones. We had the entire large camping area to ourselves.
After debating between backpacking and day hiking, we decided to do the 14-mile-roundtrip hike to the Jordan Hot Springs in one day. It meant spending less time at the springs and having a long, tiring day, but as we have aged, my wife and I have become allergic to carrying a full pack on our shoulders for miles and miles, and repeated crossings of a fast-moving river of uncertain depth added another troubling dimension. Afterward we felt we had made the right decision.
By the time we had breakfasted, chatted with rangers, refilled out water bottles and located the trailhead it was nearly 10 a.m., a couple of hours later than we had wanted to set out. But, well, this was supposed to be a vacation. The downside, however, was we had little more than eight hours of daylight to hike the 14 miles and enjoy the springs.
The hike began at T.J. Corral, just north of the ranger station. The first couple of miles the trail swept gently upward across vast meadows sparkling with wildflowers. After crossing a low pass, we descended into Little Bear Canyon. The further we walked, the narrower the canyon became. Eventually it tightens to only a slender strip of bottomland with a tiny stream between high vertical rock walls.
The canyon empties into the river, wide and fast here, which became the first, the wildest and the most difficult of our 15 crossings. None, however, was more than waist deep and most were only knee deep.
For the next 2 1/2 miles we followed the Middle Fork of the Gila. Orange cliffs and hoodoos soared far above the canyon and lush vegetation covered the stream banks.
Eventually we saw a tiny waterfall emptying off the right bank into the stream. This was Jordan Canyon. A few yards up the canyon, a large pool with lime green water and a gravel bottom extended beneath cottonwoods and along a rock embankment. The water temperature in the mid-90s was perfect to soothe fatigue and sore muscles. No one was within sight.
The next day we took it easy doing “urban hiker” things. We toured the cliff dwellings a couple miles north of the ranger station. Six of the caves that have been excavated are open to the public on a 1-mile circle trail. The Mogollón people who lived here in the late 13th and early 14th centuries left pictographs, including a dramatic one of a man with his arms outstretched. The scenery is stunning.
Just south of the monument, at Lower Scorpion campground, there is a two-room cliff dwelling and a wall filled with even more dramatic and better preserved pictographs. Mostly red, from a local metal, they show men running, a tic-tac-toe type board and various abstract shapes.
Archeologists have suggested that some of the pictographs are prayers for rain to break the prolonged drought of that era. The surrounding area also harbors numerous pictographs as well as other reminders of the Mogollón civilization and of the earlier Mimbres and the later Apaches.
Although there are undoubtedly many pleasant times to visit the Gila, to my mind the September-October period is the best. Crowds are less. Schools are in session. Hunting is limited. Wildflowers are at their most colorful (to be followed soon by the cottonwood and willow leaves turning golden). The river is still warm enough for comfortable wading or even bathing. Most of the seasonal rains are past.
This is a country so big that horsemen outnumber hikers and cattle are more numerous than people. It is a good land to get lost in, to explore on your own, to be by yourself amid nature’s grandeur, to remember those who once made it their home. This was our adventure last week, but there are lots of others awaiting.
The 12th annual Gila River Festival will take place this weekend, based at the national forest headquarters in Silver City with a variety of tours, special events and guest speakers. For details go go to gilaconservation.com.