Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Gila Wilderness

Southwest New Mexico
May 15 – 20, 2005
Norm and Jerry

Visitors Travel Guide & Map – Gila Wilderness – Gila National Forest – Prepared by United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southwestern Region – Includes Average Temperatures and Precipitation but by far the most valuable aspect is the excellent map.
The Gila Wilderness a Hiking Guide by John A. Murray, University of New Mexico Press

The The Gila Wilderness a Hiking Guide describes several named trails well, but I found it impossible to put together a loop until I obtained the Visitors Travel Guide & Map. The map makes it easy to see all the potential loops, variations and options. The map includes trail numbers on all trails. The narrative below will note these trail numbers although the trail numbers are not noted on any signage along the trails. Rather the signage refers to land marks. The signage was helpful and very adequate. This trip is a loop that starts and ends near the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. It starts out south of the West Fork of the Gila, and runs west roughly parallel to the river. At about the midpoint, we crossed the West Fork and headed back East staying well north of the river, and finally again crossing the West Fork at the very end of the trip. There are endless options for loops in this region.

May 13, Friday Getting to New Mexico – We had a long delay in the plane. Other planes were taking off and then, when there was only one plane ahead of us in line, a violent storm with plenty of lightning blew in. We had to wait another 25 minutes. We arrived in Denver 5 minutes after our connector to Albuquerque left. All hope was lost. But wait! United had already booked us onto a Frontier flight! Wow. We arrived in Albuquerque at 10:30 (12:30 our time). The packs didn’t make the plane though. The Frontier luggage office was closed but wait, a perky Frontier girl helped us contact United and then she found the printout that indicated United would fly the packs down tomorrow on the first flight. Our reserved motel room was only 30 minutes down the freeway, so we just rented our car and went to the motel. The motel clerk was shaken up due to a fight that just happened in the motel lobby. She put us in a room with a single King bed, but wait, she moved us to a room with two doubles. We crashed.

Saturday Driving to Gila Wilderness – We had breakfast at about 8:00. Barb served us and everyone else and seemed to have a conversation going with each table. We got our LP gas and more trail snacks at Wal-Mart. The packs arrived on the carousel just as we arrived to pick them up. We notified Frontier and drove south. We stopped for lunch at a Mexican restaurant. As soon as we left the freeway, the road began to wind. Jerry drove pretty slowly for Jerry so Norm didn’t get too car sick. We arrived at the visitor center at 4PM. They closed at 4:30. Ranger Dave helped us make our final route selection. He has a huge USGS map on the wall. Dave thought a 50 mile hike was pretty ambitious (for us). Norm called the details home to Bonnie so someone would know where we might be.

We found our trail head and then found a camping site with at table. The noodles turned out to be terrible but al least we didn’t have to carry them. We read and tried to solve 5-6 5 Minute Mysteries. We played a few pages of Trivia. We got all 6 correct once and we stopped. Went to bed about 9:30.

Sunday - Out Little Creek – It was about 40 degrees when we got up at 6:10 AM. We parked the car near the trail head (Trail 160) at Woody’s Corral. We took some trail head pictures and were walking by 7:45. Up. Up. Nice Vistas as we climbed. We took a break in the Ponderosas on top of the mesa. We saw a party of three and changed our route slightly to avoid hiking immediately behind them. This was probably not necessary. We seldom keep pace with another party. We saw another party of three breaking camp. We turned West on Trail 162 and took an unnumbered connector trail South to Trail 161 where we turned West again. When we reached this junction, at Little Creek, the trail forked and there was no sign. Both options seemed equally used. The map didn’t settle the decision either. We went left which was also lower, near the creek. The trail got quite sketchy because the creek had eroded some banks away taking the trail with it. We walked in the creek and bushwhacked through the woods. We found a nice sandy and shady spot for lunch. Norm took a nap and Jerry bushwhacked around until he found the trail again. We did not fill up with water because the map indicated we would soon reach a spring. We never found the spring. The trail got so sketchy, Norm was sure we were not on the trail. He got his Garmin Forerunner runner’s GPS out. The reading indicated we were about where we wanted to be and we soon reached a marked intersection which confirmed our location. Our only concern now was water. We were concerned that the next spring might be impossible to find like the last one, but wait, there is water in the creek again. Even though we expected the creek to keep running all the way to our camp site, we tanked up as soon as we saw water again. We were about where we thought we’d stop for the night at about 3PM, so we kept going, even with more frequent rests. We found an excellent camp site at 4:30. We shaved and had beef stew for dinner. Jerry built a fire. We hung the food. We set up the tent but slept outside under the stars.

Monday - Granite Peak Side Trip - We slept in and didn’t get started until 9:05, one of our latest starts in 14 years. We walked about a mile to the cutoff toward Granite Peak (Trail 155 Southeast & then Trail 150 up the peak) where we dropped our packs, taking only water, lunch and a few snacks. Ranger Dave said the peak is not actually granite but the view is worth the walk. The spur trail is 100% up. We made good time with 1.5 hours for 3 uphill miles. Some of the trail is sketchy due to erosion. Norm asked if this trip and the California trip were spoiling us with good trails. The worst parts of these trails became irritating but the bad sections are about equal to typical trails in the Grand Canyon. Granite Peak is over 8,700 feet above sea level and Little Creek is about 7,000 feet so the hike gains 1,700 feet. There are some trees at the top so the view is interrupted but nice. We had lunch on top. It seemed like there were billions of lady bugs on top but we didn’t see any others anywhere else on the trip. Interesting. We got back down to the packs in 1:15 hours. Napping was impossible due to the flies. We were walking (West on Trail 155) again by 3:45, intending to stop at about 5PM. At 4:45 the trail got very narrow and hugged the side of the mountain for about an hour and 45 minutes. No place to camp along there. A strap on Norm’s pack let loose but Jerry quickly found a way to just tie one end on so it did not really impact the hike very much. We got up onto a broad saddle which was sheltered by trees. According to the map we were at about 8,000 feet. We couldn’t get the rope over the limb to hang the food. It took about 15 tries. We slept in the tent. Norm wore just about everything he brought to start with. The tent was pretty warm so he stripped off some of the clothes as the night went on.

Tuesday - To White Creek Flat – Woke at 6:15 and were walking by 7:45 – Going downhill first is very nice. We got water from McKenna Spring which was running strong and clear. We followed the creek to where it comes out of the hillside. There is a large, deep hole with a nice gravel bottom. No bubbling though. We also followed it downstream until it disappeared again into a gravel stream bed. This is a beautiful spot. From the spring the trail goes up to McKenna Park then mostly flat for a few miles. It’s about 7,000 feet high with plenty of grass. This could have been a great “high summer pasture” in the old days. The trail got sketchy twice. We really lost it at a turn and once in a wash. We had lunch at another spring near Raw Meat Creek where we left Trail 155 and went West on Trail 153 and then North on Trail 302. On the map this leg looked pretty easy with gradual ups and downs and then camp in another park. It started out easy but then went down into a deep ravine. The trail on the other side seemed to just hang on the side of the mountain. Again the GPS confirmed we were where we intended to be, so we continued. When we reached the area we intended to camp, we found it had been burned by a forest fire, so we had to keep going. Norm fell down today. He just lost his balance and fell on a burned log and cut his knee. Neosporin can help anything heal. We camped just beyond the burn and just before the trail got narrow and headed down into another ravine. Not too cold. Norm slept in the tent. Jerry slept under the stars.

Wednesday - To Lilley Park Spring – Up at 6:30. Part of the stove got caught in the gas bottle when Jerry tried to take it apart and pack it. All the gas had to escape from the bottle before he could get the piece out. The gas bottle got very cold as the gas escaped so quickly. When the gas bottle was empty Jerry managed to wiggle the piece loose. Now we were potentially going to be short on LP Gas. We are pretty dependant on hot water for oat meal and freeze dried food.

We forked off onto Trail 152 and went down to White Creek. It was running quite strongly and there were no rocks on which to step across. We each found a stick to steady ourselves and then we changed from boots into rubber sandals. Being there at the water, we took the opportunity to shave and clean up. Meanwhile two deer came by for a drink of water. After the creek crossing we soon took Trail 151 going East down to the West Fork of the Gila. The trail is wide but hangs on the side of a wash. There is no signage indicating that the trail is crossing the Gila and we had to bushwhack around a little to find Trail 30 North to Lilley Park. We didn’t want to mistakenly end up on the West Fork Trail with all the required river crossings which are a bother or mean wet feet. Crossing the West Fork of the Gila was not much different from crossing White Creek as far as flow at this point. We had lunch at the crossing at about 11:15. We took on some water from the Gila.

Trail 30 gains noticeable altitude quickly as it leaves the West Fork. Norm claimed to be the Energizer Bunny. Jerry said he could do all things through Christ who strengthens him. He agreed he needed some strength on that climb. We stopped in a nice level shady spot near the top at about 7,800 feet where we enjoyed nice views. It was up only a little more and then level for a couple of miles. We found the sign for the trail we would take tomorrow (Trail 164) but we kept going on Trail 30 to Lilley Spring.

The spring is just two little trickles but they are steady. There are some pools near the actual spring. Norm did laundry and cleaned up again. Jerry filled water bottles. Norm tried to use the map to estimate the GPS locations for the water tanks (ponds) we would depend on for the final days. They are the only water available since the trail stays at this high elevation. Jerry successfully attached the flaky stove to the second (and final) LP gas bottle. He planned to just leave the stove attached to the gas bottle. Jerry made another fire.

Thursday - To Grave Canyon – Woke at 6AM. Stove worked very slowly. We were all packed before the water finally boiled. In about 15 minutes, going south on Trail 30, we reached Trail 164 where we headed East. There was an initial climb but the trail was basically level for several miles. There was intermittent shade in the Ponderosa pines. We saw 6 fellows who had 2 dogs. The dogs had packs too. The fellows all had new, modern space age equipment. We made excellent time through lunch. We thought there would be a great view of Hell’s Hole but it didn’t turn out that way. We saw two other fellows twice. They had a GPS but their map seemed to be lacking. We saw them twice because they had to backtrack.

Our midday water source was the big tank (pond) at Woodland Park. We left our packs and headed up Trail 12. The trail is sketchy but we found the tank. To be sure we would have enough water to get to the car on Friday; we filled every bottle we had which was more water than we had carried to that point on the trip. We backtracked to Trail 164. The sun was directly overhead and we walked into a patch of low scrubby Pinion Pines which gave no shade while we were walking. It was about 95 degrees. We met a man and woman riding horses and pulling a pack horse. We walked until we couldn’t walk, and then rested until we couldn’t rest (due to the flies). Repeat for 2-3 hours. Even though we had enough water, we were looking for the other tank on the map. It seemed to be about half way to the car from Lilley Spring so it was a good objective for the day. We found it approximately where Norm had calculated it would be in GPS terms. It’s off the trail and down a hill to the left. We didn’t bother to top off the bottles.

We walked another 30 minutes and back into the nice shady Ponderosa Pines at Grave Canyon. We couldn’t wait to stop. This day had been like the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon, flat, exposed to the sun and generally debilitating. Norm put the tent up without the fly. An hour with no flies (the 6 legged variety) was priceless. Played Mystery and Trivia after dinner. Never even got 5 out of 6 but went to bed anyway. It was a little warmer than the other nights so we didn’t need to wear gloves. Even Norm slept under the stars.

Friday – Cliff Dwellings and the Car – Awoke at 6AM. Stove was slow again. This is the last trip for this stove no doubt. We were walking by 7:30. We made good time on the level trail. We had moments of doubt at a trial junction. One option seemed to be blocked by a log but not definitely. There was no sign. We took the most traveled trail and it seemed to work out. At the intersection with Trail 28 we took it south towards the National Monument. We stopped to check out the views as the trail went near the edge of the canyon. There were great views of the West Fork of the Gila River. We took several pictures here. About 15 minutes down the trail Norm realized he had left his canteen hanging on a limb at the scenic spot. He dropped his pack and made the round trip in 15 minutes. We went down into the canyon of the West Fork. We met a group of three fellows who were the only people we saw until we got to the National Monument. The trail near the river is rocky and loose, more like a Grand Canyon trail. We finally got to the river, crossed and found a shady place to clean up. We had two crossings. We changed into sandals. The current is quite noticeable. Norm could use up the final battery on the GPS so he had it in the “find home” mode which kept giving distance to the starting point.

The trail ended right at the entrance to the Cliff Dwellings, so we dropped our packs and climbed up the path and stairs to the dwellings. It is very interesting. There are many, many rooms and much of it very well preserved. There was a knowledgeable guide to answer questions and take our picture.

Jerry walked down to Woody’s corral to get the car. We headed for cool refreshment at a colorful gift store just outside the park. They had a little of everything; books, gifts, food, gasoline, pop and ice cream. We drove on to Silver City and had our traditional Steak dinner with fresh salad at the Red Barn. We got a room at the Comfort Inn.

Saturday – Cat Walk and back to Albuquerque – A ranger at the National Monument had recommended that we visit the Cat Walk We enjoyed the side trip on the way back to Albuquerque. There is a stream rushing through a narrow canyon and you basically walk above it.

At http://www.southernnewmexico.com/Articles/Southwest/Catron/TheCatwalk.html you will see that “The Catwalk, a National Recreation trail along the canyon of Whitewater Creek, is a unique feature of southwestern New Mexico. Located five miles east of Glenwood (take Hwy. 180 to 174), it presents an always vibrant journey along a path reflecting the region's mining history. The canyon was used as a hideout by both Geronimo and Butch Cassidy.”.

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