Gila Wilderness Return: Scrabbling Up Moonscape Ridges, Strolling Through Pines

Perhaps our revisit to the nation’s oldest wilderness best sums up the radical changes in western forests and mountains in the wake of large fires-and their impact on the hiking experience.

During college days in the late 1970s, I backpacked 11 days in the Gila Wilderness in southwest New Mexico in early May: strolling mellow trails through big ponderosa pine stands, glimpsing elk on the edges of verdant parks, crossing and re-crossing the Middle Fork of the Gila River, soaking in hot springs and traversing spooky dark spruce-fir forests in the Mogollon Mountains.

After the Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire of 2012 torched more than half of this 558,000-acre wilderness, I had to readjust some of those memories.

Our revisit came in fall 2015. Starting near Gila Hot Springs, we looped through pinyon-juniper (PJ) woodlands and ponderosa parks, up across the 10,000-foot Mogollon Mountains and back. In the PJ we saw a few blackened stumps and some trees that had been cut, possibly by fire crews. Vast stands of ponderosa were mostly intact-only a few black stumps and fire-scarred trees-but in the parks, fire had burned off the duff (needles, bark and stems on forest floor) and stimulated the grasses; instead of golf course greens we waded through waist-high grassy seas. 

The biggest change was in the Mogollon Mountains. The fire cremated most mixed conifer- instead of soft needle trails in dark forest we clambered up a moonscape of dry blackened soil and black poles, brushing through aspen, ferns and raspberries hurrying to revegetate. The trail was mostly gone; we followed GPS and elk routes often straight up-slow going. We dry camped among weird green stalks of post-fire plants on a black dome overlooking the Jerky Mountains, Turkeyfeather and the Middle Fork Gila River drainages below. The next day we crawled over the top, hopped down a ridge and followed GPS on the old trail route through thick brush to the Crest Trail contouring a few hundred feet below. Hobo Spring where we hoped to refill was just a trickle, altered by the burn. I realized I had left my notebook and iPhone back on the brushy ridge! We dropped packs and grudgingly followed GPS tracks back through brush; miraculously I found the ziplock bag containing notebook, pens and phone on the far side of a log where I apparently sat to write.

We were worried about Apache Cabin. This historic structure, built for Forest Service fire crews and perched just below a side ridge west of Center Baldy, has been a favorite spot for years. On the 1970s trip, four of us holed up here, washed up in a big basin and baked bread by full moon. Later 80s-90s trips always included a night at the cabin. Now as we made our way down a postfire-slumped trail on a barren, burned ridge, we wondered if it would still be there.

We slogged through straw bales the Forest Service dropped from a helicopter in a post-fire attempt at wilderness restoration. Elk had wallowed there. We couldn’t see much other effect. Hillside native plants had already come back, needing little stabilization.

Turning the corner, we saw one benefit of the $23 million spent on “fire suppression” for the Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire: crews had saved Apache Cabin and the spruce-fir forest around it. We left the barren ridge for a cool dark forest reminiscent of earlier Mogollon hikes. We refilled water bottles and took a scrub bath at the spring below the cabin with the first running water encountered since we entered the burn!

Cabin journals indicated 30-40 people per year visited Apache prior to the fire. There were fewer entries since: one guy who came up 3 times a year to do trail and cabin maintenance, a self-styled poet from nearby Silver City whose yearly pilgrimage through the Gila included a stop at Apache to leave a rhyming commentary on nature, elk hunters dropped off at the cabin by packers, and a New Mexico Fish and Game team doing a post-fire fish survey. Rats also like Apache Cabin; I swept out their scat and we hung packs from the ceiling to discourage foraging.

The next day we backtracked and followed the Crest Trail up and over Mogollon Baldy lookout-another structure saved by fire crews. We had visited this peak in 2010 and found spruce-fir forest burned off in a previous fire with aspen coming in vigorously. The 2012 Whitewater Baldy fire had reburned most aspen, although a few remnants were eight feet high; lots of conifers surrounded the lookout. The lookout’s red cabin was locked up and neat as a pin.

Water was a concern. Before the peak we had searched in vain for Blacktail Spring, altered by the fire. After long lazy switchbacks off Mogollon and a slog through waist-high, red-brown, dead reeds of Snowshed Park, we discovered a fallen “spring” sign. David thrashed down through downed aspen and thick brush and miraculously found Snowshed Spring tumbling into a pool. We descended through golden aspen and camped in a remnant pine grove in a moderately burned area; next morning, slow hiking through invasives, grasses, fireweed and downed logs.

Descending towards White Creek, we heard, then saw, a helicopter circling the area, trailing something from a rope; later it returned trailing only the rope. Why a helicopter in wilderness? Many fresh horse tracks appeared at the next trail junction. Then hoofbeats sounded behind me: a cowboy, two women, and four horses. Forest Service and state and federal fish and game employees were there to restock Gila chub. Because horse packing of fish was too slow, and the fish could die, the helicopter had dropped off a tank of fish; they rode to the drop-off site and scooped fish into the creek. The same group did the fish survey from Apache Cabin last fall; I had read their entry in the cabin journal.

The fish team rode on to their base at White Creek Cabin on the Gila West Fork. We descended more slowly and crossed the West Fork (easier than I had feared), cleaned up and had lunch before visiting the cabin and climbing up to McKenna Park for camp. In the 1970s some of my group stayed here while four of us went on to the Mogollons. I had never seen the cabin. 

A big clearing revealed a rustic wood cabin, corrals filled with horses below it. The cowboy I had met and an older fellow offered me a tour. Inside the wood-grained, two-story cabin were remnants of dinner on the stove, a large collection of crushed Tecate beer cans, and two rooms with unmade beds, boots, chaps, clothes and gear. Out back I saw a tent-the female fish biologists far from the bachelor pad.

A good trail crisscrossed up the canyon side; far below several people-the first recreationists we had seen-hiked towards the cabin, their horses tied a quarter mile down river. A dog left them, raced uphill to greet David, and returned. Beautiful green meadows, aspen and Douglas-fir lined the river. Soon we cleared the rim into vast McKenna Park.  The trail was cut out-a good sign. We camped in a stand of remnant pine and oak: many downed logs, much grass, little duff.

Our last two days were long but pleasant, reminding us of former Gila hikes. The trail crew had worked ahead of us; it was nicer walking with logs cut out and brush clipped. After some up and down through drainages and ridges and a steep descent to Little Creek, we enjoyed piney shade, red rock and beautiful pools along a good trail. We did 15 miles at a 2-3 mile per hour pace. 

At camp on the creek, David observed that a well-maintained trail completely changes the hiking experience. In the Southwest, the Forest Service indirectly benefited for 40-50 years from well-designed old trails built by prospectors or the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Gila and other wilderness areas. The mixed conifer in higher elevations and ponderosa in mid-range kept a nice needle path and trails pretty much intact with little maintenance needed. Unfortunately, the last 10-15 years of big fires have accelerated the trail maintenance need, and most of the Forest Service budget has gone to fire suppression rather than postfire maintenance. Credit is due to the Gila National Forest Wilderness District, however; wherever their crew went, trails were in good shape. At the visitor center, the district trail coordinator mentioned they were hoping to get some grants to repair trails. We hope they can fix the Mogollon trails!  

Later that night, the creek and hillside glowed white in the moonlight as the water rushed on. The next morning we took a trail ascending a ridge; another continued down the canyon. We climbed through ponderosa, then followed a ridge backbone several miles. We could see remnant PJ and burned areas on fingers of red ridges, while below us wound red and white rock walls of the West Fork of the Gila River. Gentle switchbacks descended to Woody’s Corral just across the bridge from TJ Corral where our vehicle was parked. Hoof prints indicated the federal/state fish group (which got ahead of us on a shorter route) cut the switchbacks twice: poor land ethic.

We saw our first backpackers-crossing the river bridge, apparently heading out of the West Fork. A large bus was parked near the trailhead and about 50 kids were walking down the road towards it; we were surprised, and glad we didn’t see them when we crossed the West Fork at White Creek Cabin.

While we cleaned up and changed clothes at TJ trailhead, a vehicle pulled up. David talked to two young guys with brand new backpacks who planned to hike West Fork “to the hot springs” (four miles). We drove off as they packed up for a short visit to the Gila Wilderness.


Click Images to Enlarge
Tall_Grass
Full_Moon_Burn
McKenna_Park
Dry_Camp
Apache_Cabin
Kicking_Butt
Cindy hikes through tall grass in Lily Park in the Gila Wilderness. The Mogollon Baldy Fire burned some of the ponderosa pine and much of the forest duff (leaves, branches, bark and stems on a forest floor) allowing grasses to grow waist high.
The full moon looks eerie in a burned forest camp on a high ridge above Turkeyfeather Mountain in the Gila Wilderness.
It took all day to hike rough ridges and brush towards the Mogollon Mountains; we made dry camp among weird postfire vegetation, still miles short of the crest.
Camp in McKenna Park, a large ponderosa park on a plateau above White Creek and West Fork of Gila River.
Apache Cabin, west of Center Baldy and spared by fire crews, was a welcome sight, along with its remnant spruce-fir forest and Apache Spring.
An excellent, cleared trail through ponderosa pine along Little Creek made for much faster hiking on the last two days of a loop trip in the Gila Wilderness.
TRIP DETAILS
Trailheads:
There are multiple routes of entry into the Gila Wilderness. Here are three.

Gila Cliff Dwellings Several trailheads are located near Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, managed by the National Park Service, accessed via Highway 15 north from Silver City, NM. Gila Hot Springs Visitor Center, co-managed by the Park Service and Gila National Forest, has some information on trail conditions. Ask for Forest Service contact. For directions to nearby hot springs check out https://www.nps.gov/gicl/learn/nature/hotsprings.htm

The Catwalk Recreation Area: Catwalk, on Whitewater Creek east of Glenwood, NM (from US-180, turn right on Forest Road 95) on the west side of Gila Wilderness, was a series of bridges up the narrow canyon built by miners in the 1890s. The Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt the catwalk in 1930s but the system was washed away after the Whitewater Baldy fire. The Forest Service has reconstructed the catwalk 0.5 miles from the parking lot. Beyond the catwalk, hikers can loop up Whitewater Creek into the interesting but intensely burned Mogollon Mountains and return via South Fork Whitewater Creek.

Sandy Point Trailhead: Shortest and best access to the 10,000-foot Mogollon Mountains is from this trailhead, along the Bursum Road (State Road 159) which heads east from US-180 just before Alma, NM and is located about seven miles west of Mogollon. The Crest Trail (#182) contours around Whitewater Baldy and Center Baldy and ends at Mogollon Baldy lookout. Although much of the conifer is burnt on this ridge, the trail is kept in fair shape.

Contact Information:
Gila Wilderness Ranger District (575) 536-2250
Gila National Forest Supervisor’s office (575) 388-8201

Maps:
For trip planning, the 2002 Gila Wilderness map published by the Forest Service costs $18-$20 and is available from the Forest Supervisor’s Office (SO) or Wilderness District. Map will be updated when forest completes travel planning which will affect road/trail status. A 2012 map of adjacent Aldo Leopold Wilderness is also available. Call offices for directions or can usually order over phone with a credit card. Some topographic maps are available at the SO.

Trail conditions: A 2016 map of trails cleared is available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd516031.pdf and can be downloaded onto a smart phone. Click on + to enlarge the map; purple lines depict trails that have been cleared/maintained over past three years. A document showing trails cleared and trails not recommended is available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/gila/recreation/hiking .
The Gila National Forest website includes a list of many backpacking trails with some brief description at https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/gila/recreation/hiking/?recid=1958&actid=51
As of this posting, the forest website was experiencing some difficulty so trails on this link did not load.

History:
Background on the nation’s oldest wilderness is available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/gila/learning/history-culture/?cid=stelprdb5038907

Water Availability:
Due to recent fire, some springs are no longer reliable, particularly in the Mogollon Mountains. Ask the Gila Wilderness District for update on current water availability.

Trail Conditions 1
Trail Conditions 2
History
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