The Gila River can be a treacherous section of any hike of the Continental Divide Trail. If the snow melt in the mountains is high or the mid season monsoons heavy, it can be impassible, and many end up road walking this section. After all, it isn’t even the “official CDT” which follows a route through the Black Range, reportedly gorgeous, but slim on water. If the conditions are right, however, for many the Gila is the highlight of the trail through New Mexico and so far it has been for us.
Nancy and I have been incredibly lucky with the weather on our attempt to “thru hike” from Mexico to Canada. We’ve had cool weather near the southern border for the days of desert hiking and moderate weather in the mountains north of Silver City. With the extremely low snow levels this year in the Southwest, the water in the Gila has been low enough to make fording possible and high enough to make the crossings fun, affording us an absolutely stunning passage.
In our last Walk About article, we had hiked two days on the lower section of the Gila’s Middle Fork. We got off trail for a week to attend the ADZPCTKO (Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off) at Lake Morena near San Diego, as we’re both PCT thru hike alumni, and it’s the one event of the year at which we get to reconnect with many old hiking partners. It was worth the drive. The camaraderie around this crazy, long distance hiking passion is simply not to be missed.
After a long weekend at the “ADZ” we made it back to Silver City and our friend Wendy volunteered to store my old truck for the rest of the summer, (that’s a trail angel in action) and wouldn’t take a dime for it. Then she gave us a lift quite a way out of town to the Santa Rita Copper Mine, a huge open pit mine. This is on the road to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument where our hike left off. Well, hitching into a sparsely populated area proved to be tough, and after two rides, which were slow in coming, we had only made it to Mimbres, a very small town, still a two hour ride from the Cliff Dwellings.
We were outside the little Mimbres store, a one room business stocked mostly with snacks and goodies, when I asked the proprietress, with just a touch of desperation, if she knew anyone who would like a make $50 giving us a lift to the Monument. Without hesitation, she and the friend she had been talking with set to work brainstorming on getting us a lift. She called one person who happened to be busy, and then her friend told her to call the Senior Center. I interrupted, but her friend broke in, “don’t worry, we’ll get you a ride!”
Sure enough, she got through to Ken, a retired tour bus driver who finished his pool game at the center and showed up with his wife ready and happy to be of service. We couldn’t have asked for two lovelier people to spend the next two hours with on a windy mountain road. They were excited to hear about our endeavor, and shared their own life of travel with us. He drove his old boat of a car on that road with the gentleness born of a lifetime of steering a bus for folks who didn’t want to be jostled, no matter what the conditions. By the time they dropped us off at the trailhead on the Gila, it seemed we were leaving old friends.
After a week off trail for travel and the “ADZ,” both of us felt a tremendous relief at walking away from the road and back into the wilderness. We were starting midday, and only hoped to make it ten miles, as far as the Jordan Hot Spring.
Early on we passed a small hot spring on the side of the river but didn’t stop as the reputation of the Jordan drew us on, and the surrounding cliffs just seemed to get better as we hiked. Before long the wide expanse of the river canyon began to close in on us and the cliffs got higher and more sheer. Rounded rocks became spires and the narrow canyon walls towered with such immensity that my camera couldn’t shoot the whole, top to bottom, in one shot. Pinnacles and minarets broke off from the faces and caves and windows in stone graced the great upright immensity of rock that had been cut straight down by the millennial force of the river.
The molecular property of water that causes a small trickle across the bottom of my kitchen sink to twist itself into a snake before finding the drain, works on a gigantic scale in a river. The repeated S curves, meandering, winding ever back on themselves, create a maze like pathway for the carving force of water. At every switchback of the river, our view opened up on more wondrous walls of stone, weathered into textured patterns, now smooth, now like the scales of reptiles, or great checker boarded bands, browns and buffs to gold and black, coloring the walls.
At every twist the flood plain shifted from one side of the canyon to the other and we forded the river again and again. We would be walking in wet shoes for the better part of three days, but it was small price to pay for one of the most beautiful river walks of our lives.
Several miles before reaching the Jordan Hot Springs, we caught up with Seth (AKA: Blue Eyes, a prior thru hiker of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail) and his fiancé, Angie. He works for the Forest Service in Colorado and she’s a physical therapist, but has also worked as a back country ranger. They were both very interesting people, but the great news they had for us was that the snow pack in the mountains near their home in Colorado, was at thirty-seven percent of normal. As we’ll be entering the San Juan Mountains in a few weeks, that was great news.
We shared the rest of the day’s hike with the two and I could feel Seth’s longing to just continue hiking. These long trails do that to people. The experience of freedom when on trail for months at a time is hard to forget, maybe impossible to forget.
Toward evening we reached a small campground with two others camped already, and learned we were at the Jordan Hot Spring. There was no hot spring in sight, but with a bit of exploring we came upon two pools part way up the side of the canyon wall. In dense forest, and surrounded by huge roots and boulders, the upper pool was large, crystal clear and deep. It was fed by a warm waterfall on the right and a hot underground waterfall on the left. It was too idyllic to miss and I stripped and was in it in a flash. I waded the length and filled my water bottles from the warm waterfall, thinking that I’d be able to soak my dinner in warm water for once, as we are not using stoves on this hike, but I couldn’t leave the place. It was only the temperature of bath water, but the setting made up for the lack of scalding heat.
I had the pool to myself for a bit until Ben, a young Texan, joined me. Not long out of the Marines, he had become disillusioned by his tour of duty in Iraq and felt we were wasting our resources. After returning home, he found his own families’ disfunction too much to bear, and himself falling into old patterns. He left it all for a new life, he knew not where. He and a big black puppy had taken up residence for a time in the canyon of the Gila and were living on the plentiful fish and small game in the area. We talked edible plants while we soaked and were joined by Nancy as night came on.
The next day’s hike led us further into the Heart of the Gila, as Nancy named this section. The cliffs rose in height with hoodoos perched along their rims and pines clung in places like men hanging for their lives from the sheer walls. We hiked 19.2 miles crossing the river 110 times over the day, making a game of counting them as we couldn’t believe there were so many. We’d heard estimates of 100 crossings for the length of the Gila we were hiking, before the Cliff Dwellings and after, but our count by the end of this river journey came to 219 wet wades. Sometimes warmed by the inflow of hot springs, the water was icy cold in the mornings until the sun warmed it. But for most of the day the fords were simply refreshing.
All day we came upon beaver activity. An old dam had stopped up a pool of murky water on a small warm spring off of the main river. It was filled with hoards of large, land locked cat fish. I could have scooped up dinner with a dip net, but just took pictures of them. At other places new dams were being constructed on the river itself, clearly a yearly endeavor as the floods of spring and later the monsoons of summer, must just wash them away. But as beavers will, they keep working to dam up water wherever they find it. Whole sections of the canyon forest had been recently felled, teeth marks, evidence of the culprit.
Our last day on the Gila brought us out of the steep canyons at its heart and back to a broad river valley with sloping walls and a last bath in running water. We wouldn’t be on a deep stream over the next five days and we would again need to carry many pounds of water weight as we entered the mountain ranges west of the Plains of St. Augustine.
Beginning the day to the sound of water, we spent most of the afternoon walking over grasslands that seemed to go on forever. For camp that night, we set our sights on the relative protection of a line of trees far in the distance. It was the edge of a great forest and took us hours to reach, but as we set up camp a moon rose, one day before the largest full moon of the year. It sat on the horizon opposite the setting sun as the sky turned pink at dusk, and everything was right with the world.
“Everything is flowing -- going somewhere, animals and so- called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks... While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood...in Nature's warm heart.” John Muir
Due to glitches beyond my control, most of the pictures accompanying this article could not be downloaded. I'll get them to Patch as soon as I get enough service to get them to you.
If you would like to follow our daily journals, Google: Postholer.com/Shroomer or Postholer.com/Nancy. An interactive map of the CDT on the bottom right of our journal pages will show you our current GPS Spot location. View it through Google earth and you can see where we’re camped for that night.