2019 Return: The Trip We Didn’t Do
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 the Gila River West and Middle Forks, soaking in hot springs and traversing spooky dark spruce–fir forests in the Mogollon Mountains. Trails and signs were so good we used a national forest map; no contours, half-inch to a mile scale.
The Gila was a favorite hiking spot for backpacking trips from Tucson, where we were students; with at least five longer hikes in the 1970s including the 11-day trip. After we left the area:
- We first returned in May 1982, starting in Aldo Leopold Wilderness on fair trails but in the lower country, found hot barrens, little water and many cattle—a permitted use in wilderness.
- Second return in 2007, we first encountered fire results. Down logs and brush changed anticipated romp through favorite Jerky Mountains into trail-finding crawl. We got lost on Turkey-feather Pass because of burned up junction sign and missing trail tread—and were not yet equipped with GPS, essential for post fire trips.
- In 2011, we changed route to avoid trailheads near Gila Hot Springs closed by Miller Fire to westside loop from the Catwalk (a famous structure built by miners up Whitewater Creek narrows). Burned saddles from spot fires, eroded streams and fish congregating in perennial stream pools indicated climate change impacts. Aspen were sprouting on recently burned Mogollon Baldy Peak.
In 2012, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire torched almost 300,000 acres, most in wilderness, altering high-country forests and west side creeks, at least for our lifetime. Fire was especially severe in high country mixed-conifer forest leaving only leafless trees (now gray snags), down logs and bare soil—lower elevation ponderosa pine and woodland fared better.
Gila Wilderness revisited in November 2019 after very dry summer/fall “monsoon” which usually provides 50% annual precipitation. This was 10th visit since first trips in 1970s.
Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire of 2012 burned almost 300,000 acres, decimated most mixed-conifer forests of the high Mogollon Mountains, and greatly altered watersheds, forests and trails in this large wilderness. It greatly impacted our 2015 return visit—also mapped and covered in this post.
Our 2019 “work around” return defaulted to shorter trip on mostly familiar trails in the recovering pinyon-juniper and pine country. The trip we didn’t do—a west to east trans-Gila hike into adjacent Aldo Leopold, covering many past visits—required using impassable westside/high mountain trails lost to washouts, log jams, thorny growth and obliterated trail tread.
Minor trail and livestock overuse issues were only barriers on the 2019 venture.
2019 visit statistics: 6 days, 76 miles at an average of 2.2 miles per hour, and 375 feet per mile average elevation change.
2015 visit statistics: 9 days, 90 miles, and 425 feet per mile average elevation change—very slow going in higher elevations due to highly damaged trails.
Previous routes not mapped because of fire altered trails, but photos from a 2011 loop from Catwalk trailhead posted on map.
See map below for detailed daily routes, mileages, elevation changes, and photos.
In September 2015, we naively returned to the Gila—a trip that permanently changed all assumptions about hiking western wilderness after large fires.
First part of the hike was through lightly burned pinyon–juniper woodlands and ponderosa parks; only a few black stumps and knee-high grasses in parks indicated recent fire.
That changed near the 10,000-foot Mogollons where fire had obliterated dark mixed-conifer old growth forest. Soft needle trails were lost on dry rocky soil lined by dead trees, brushy aspen, New Mexican locust, raspberries and ferns hurrying to revegetate. We followed GPS and elk routes straight up. After thrashing our way up and over the ridge, we found passable Crest Trail; down a side ridge below Center Baldy, fire crews had saved historic Apache Cabin and the forest around it—one tangible benefit of the $23 million suppression effort. Mogollon Baldy aspen had re-burned but lookout and cabin had also been saved by fire crews.
Only after we dropped down to White Creek Cabin at head of West Fork Gila, the former McKenna Ranger District office now used only for projects, did we find decent trails again. Our last few days, through vast McKenna Park, down Little Creek and out to our trailhead were long but pleasant, reminding us of past hikes and about doubling our pace from the Mogollon slog.
In 2019 after revisits to other burned western wilderness, we no longer relied on trails shown on a map—whether Forest Service, commercial or old USGS topographic maps (which have not been field updated since the 1990s). Instead we checked in with Heart of the Gila—a local non-profit that has added trail maintenance to other conservation efforts for Gila Wilderness. Even with this help, we kept changing itineraries to avoid unrepaired trails (such as impassable westside trails from Catwalk) or avoid long sections without water (summer and fall in 2019 had been extremely dry). We ended up doing part of same loop from trailhead above Gila Hot Springs we did in 2015—adding a new loop around Yellow Mountain north of the Gila Middle Fork and dropping the Mogollons. We also included frequent crossings of Middle Fork and West Fork of Gila River to ensure water.
It was a nice trip. First rain in months the day before had broken the drought cycle, with cool foggy mornings and pools in some drainages. Fire recovery was evident in the ponderosa forest. Grass was ankle, not knee high in Lilley Park. Duff (needles, bark and stems on forest floor), burned off in 2015, was returning to ponderosa stands ringing the park. Some trails descending to rivers needed serious tread work or signing; on the mesa near Yellow Mountain, permitted cattle contributed trail mazes, poop and barren plains; and some heavily burned trail sections were hard to find. But the pace and joy picked up on good legacy trails in the ponderosa parks.
Most trail restoration in wilderness is volunteer work led by Heart of the Gila, whose trail coordinator is featured in our latest Heroes article. Our 2019 trip success was greatly due to “Heart” information and work; we hiked several trails recently cut out and marked by their volunteers. Heart also posts a list of trails not recommended. So does a post-fire Gila hiking guide, with multi-day trips to “work around” trail damage. See links below.
Unfortunately, many westside and high mountain trails in the Gila’s trail network are irreparable without costly restoration work that may be beyond the reach of volunteer groups.
A related blog on the Gila, Gila at 95, loss of a legacy? explores the perfect storm of climate change related trail damage and loss coupled with administrative agency trends towards less field work and presence in the backcountry.
The 2019 Gila revisit was a success, but couldn’t match the trans-Gila trip we planned but may never be able to do.
(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVAGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)