Ríos del Gila – West and & Middle Fork Backpacking

Ríos del Gila – West and & Middle Fork Backpacking

The Gila Wilderness. It has been well over a decade since I first learned of this area of the Southwest and it immediately occupied a place in my mind as dangerously remote, filled with mountains and untold vistas. Finally, we made it in.

Back in college I was introduced to Aldo Leopold, the forefather of the wilderness designation that has become ubiquitous in the United States. He was working down in the Gila Mountains of Southwest New Mexico with the newly minted Forest Service, exploring on horseback, meeting with ranchers, and spending weeks at a time in the backcountry.

Then one day he traveled to Mexico into a similarly remote mountain range called the Sierra Madre, wherein he witnessed an ecosystem otherwise undisturbed by industrial man. It was a revelation. Roaring rivers, deafening calls of birds, predators that seemed unafraid–here was an elusive Eden.

Ruins in West Fork.

For those who want to ignore my writing, here is a gallery and video for your viewing pleasure. Note: the video does contain a few graphic moments wherein we lance a blister or two. Skip ahead and enjoy the scenery.

Join us on our hike through the Gila Wilderness.

Our Plan: West to Middle Fork

Kim and I elected to take some time off for the first time in months. This Covid-19 pandemic has thrown everything into a mess, including our personal travel plans and our work lives. It seemed like things calmed down enough to consider a backpacking trip.

Five days. We needed five days to complete our loop. Including our side trips and some inaccurate trail maps, we would discover our route would cover near 50 miles. Our plan included leaving our car at the Middle Fork trailhead and hiking to the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument to join the West Fork trail (yes, there is a connector trail). From there, it was into the back of beyond.

Entering the Middle Fork it became quickly apparent this was going to be a true wilderness experience. There were no fresh tracks from other hikers and the trail was peppered with elk, deer, and coyote prints. A forest fire was also burning 3 miles due south.

This was is where we found our only major Mogollon ruin, which was tucked high above the river where the canyon began to narrow. The river was fairly low, providing just enough cooling to keep ourselves from overheating.

Middle Fork Canyon…pure magic.

Our first night was full of life: birds of many feathers sang well into the twilight and bats began targeting their insect prey. The river gurgled and churned off into the darkness and the breezes settled into a dead silence.

Up and Over: Hell’s Hole Canyon and Prior Creek

We didn’t make it quite as far as we had hoped. Despite our hustle into the evening, our camp was a few miles short of our target camp. No matter. We awoke, packed, and began another series of river crossings in the fresh morning light. By 11AM we reached the bottom of Hell’s Hole Canyon, a series of switchbacks that would lead to the top of the mesa.

Morning light on the Middle Fork of the Gila.

Our ascent, albeit quick, was on white, broken stone carved out of the side of the canyon. The sun was relentless and our packs seemed heavier the higher we got. Today was going to be a long day. After a brief rest where we debated the shorter, but less shaded Woodland Park route vs the Prior Creek Canyon trail, we opted for the shaded route and began our descent to the Middle Fork. It took 6.5hrs to cross the various ridges and mesa tops without shade and certainly without water sources. The cloudless skies provided no relief and until we saw our canyon’s edge, we started to doubt our physical ability to complete the route.

Finally, we hit rock bottom. Literally. We descended the last 400′ down the cliffside to a nice camp at the bottom of a sheer cliff wall with the gentle Middle Fork river flowing. This would have to do.

View from Middle Fork camp.

Our bodies were toast. Only after a 800mg ibuprofen did we have the physical ability to setup camp, gather water, and address our wounds. My hips had blistered and both our feet were torn up. So be it, we have another 3 days and 20+ miles to go.

Into the Narrows of Middle Fork

Middle Fork goes from a meandering canyon to a series of sheer cliff walls abruptly. The serpentine river with its gentle banks and pods of fish narrows into a series of fast-moving whitewater and spires of golden stone. The area is sublime and somewhere you would expect a National Park bustling with foreign tourists. Rather, by now, we had nary seen another human. Only deer, fish, birds, frogs, and sign of larger predators.

The Narrows of the Middle Fork.

Our day was uneventful in the most wonderful ways. Our feet and shoulders relaxed despite the trail becoming challenging as the overwhelming beauty of the canyons overtook us. Mile after mile revealed new secrets, areas to explore, and scenes of a river run wild. We were in Shangri La!

We made camp just below Indian Creek, another side canyon that beckoned exploration. It will have to wait another day.

Jordan Hot Springs and Lower Middle Fork

By now we were physically sore, but jubilant in our newfound love. Day four of waking up before sunrise hits the tips of the canyon walls and making a meager cup of coffee really heightens the spirit. Despite using my phone for navigation, the stresses of constant messaging, work, and other responsibilities melted away. Ah wilderness, it’s so nice to meet you again.

Jordan Hot Springs.

A few miles past what could be argued the most stunning scenery of the trip we found ourselves at Jordan Hot Springs, a location that is pretty popular with local overnighters. Sure enough, a family had backpacked in and had camp set up. Fortunately, they had finished soaking and Kim and I somehow found the springs to ourselves! The water is not particularly hot, which was welcome given the heat of the day, but also ideal to soothe our ailing muscles.

After an hour in turquoise waters we cleaned ourselves up and headed downstream in pursuit of our final night in the back of beyond.

This evening would be full of wonder: a few clouds finally appeared between the narrow ribbon of blue above us, a light breeze kept us cool, and the river started to gently widen with large stands of ponderosa pines and a handful of historic cottonwoods and sycamores mixed in.

We built camp, addressed our wounds, and settled in for a night of bird songs, bats, glowing eyes in the rivergrass, and a full milky way overhead. Did this have to end?

Homeward Bound

Our last morning I fished for a Gila trout to no avail. The waters were too warm and shallow and the fish must have moved downstream or hidden very carefully among the cutbanks. I caught a desert sucker fish, which despite its size, was a quick fight to the bank.

A few drifts of smoke started to seep into the canyons providing a soft blue light for our morning chores. The tent was packed down, coffee mugs cleaned, and our packs loaded. There was a distinct sense of sadness knowing our trip had come to an end and we’d soon be back in the automobile hurrying on back to ‘civilization’. We made the best of it by fishing any hole that might contain the elusive trout and stopping to admire the variety of old growth trees that dotted the riverbanks.

Final camp below the mighty ponderosa pine.

The heat steadily rose, our feet started to fatigue and shade was nowhere to be found. The canyon widened, trees retreated, and the familiar sounds of motor vehicles instead of morning bird songs entered our ears. All good things must come to an end, so they say.


Honestly, it has been a long time since a landscape and environment has left such an impression on Kim and I. Some of it, no doubt, is due to the current crisis plaguing the nation and world which makes the solace and independence of wilderness travel so much more rewarding. The Gila Wilderness, though, contains a special something that is hard to articulate into words. Is it the remoteness? The wildness? The helplessness you feel at the hands of nature there? Or is it the intoxicating beauty?

I don’t have the answer. What I do know, however, is that Aldo Leopold saw the redeeming character of man in nature that we have all but lost in modern culture, which is hellbent on pursuing comfort at all cost. He was absolutely right; wilderness is necessary for the survival of humanity. Despite bloodied bodies and sunburns, bug bites and blisters, and aching muscles, our minds and bodies were renewed.

Ultimately, that still is a highly anthropocentric view of wilderness. The beauty of places like the Gila is not that it exist for us to enjoy and explore:

It is because it doesn’t need us at all and that is beautiful.

2 Replies to “Ríos del Gila – West and & Middle Fork Backpacking”

  1. What an adventure!!! The pictures are so amazing, so unreal!! I guess we will all live vicariously through you both! Keep the adventures coming, I love it!

  2. This was fun to read and listen and see. While I am not up for a 50 mile hike, this makes me want to pack up for a few days in the Gila! Thanks for sharing your adventures with us.