I recently went on a week-long camping trip in Gila National Wilderness so I figured I'd write a description of my travels. Located across the Arizona border in northwestern New Mexico, Gila’s one of the larger wild areas in the southwest and is contiguous with Aldo Leopold Park. The two-park system would be one of the wildest areas in the lower 48 were it not for a road that runs up into the heart of Gila National Park, terminating around Gila Hot Springs and some famous native-American cliff dwellings. (As I've mentioned in other posts, the best way to ruin a wild area is to increase accessibility--in other words, people's ability to bring in trash.)
I went with a close friend. We began at Rain Creek Trail (accessible from 147—a dirt road at the southwestern end of the park). Except for a friendly old rancher on a horse at the Rain Creek Trailhead, we didn’t see anyone else the entire week we were hiking! The rocky Rain Creek Trail rises and falls several times before hitting West Mogollon Creek. At this point, we turned north up the West Fork Mogollon Trail, which follows a crystal clear stream for 4 or 5 hours before veering off to the right. The stream’s home to numerous native Gila trout—a beautiful fish with a yellow-green underbelly. These trout are evidently accustomed to bears. Each time we approached a deep pool, the dozen trout living there would dart under a rock, competing for the most secure spot. As the trail veers away, there are a couple of deep pools below the trail that would be nice spots for a swim in the summer.
We’d planned to take the Snow Park Trail to Mogollon Baldy (10,770 feet) but ended up missing the trail fork (a consequence of hiking into the night). So after camping in a thicket of thorny bushes, we went up to the Crest Trail which we took back down to the peak. At Mogollon Baldy, there’s a park service cabin and a fire look-out (both closed to the public). From the peak, we walked down to Snow Park, which offers excellent views of the area’s rock formations and the flat mesas on the horizon. On the back side of Snow Park, there’s a small spring that was unfortunately frozen when we went. We were out of water at this point, so we melted ice and had a single cup of hot cocoa (which tasted a bit too much like frozen leaves).
From Snow Park, we took the Trail Canyon Trail down to White Creek and the Gila River. The initial portion of this trail is flat and very pleasant. At several points, we came across deer and we also noted numerous signs of bear and other critters. Where the trails all meet up before the Gila River, there’s a Park Service cabin and horse corral. The Gila River, while picturesque, was completely dead. (Was it poisoned in order to reintroduce the native Gila trout?)
Backtracking to the cabin, we took the trail towards McKenna Park and Hell’s Hole. We eventually made it to the Mogollon Creek Trail. This was the most picturesque section of our trip. Here, the trail follows Mogollon Creek as it winds down a deep canyon full of impressive rock formations and clear pools. During our last two days, we did some very rough up and down climbs past Bud’s Hole and then back out the Rain Creek trail.
For the hike, I bought Hiking New Mexico Gila Wilderness by Bill Cunningham. The book's good, but it was a bit misleading in some respects. Cunningham, who evidently hiked the area during a year with significant snowfall, describes seeing snow-drifts in June. We traveled in December and only ran across ice and a thin layer of frozen snow in a few locations. For the most part, the temperatures were perfect for hiking, reaching the mid-50s during the day. Due to the odd micro-climates of the area, the higher elevations felt much warmer, with our coldest nights spent at the bottom of valleys where the cool air came down at night. The high areas were extremely windy but weren’t especially cold.
All told, the area's very beautiful and definitely worth a long hike. The trails can be rough, strewn with loose fist-sized stones, so bring a good pair of high boots. In the higher elevations, you should have enough water to last a day. There's plenty of wood for campfires but the dry grass, high wind, and deep forest floor at higher elevations makes a good fire pit essential. We didn't run across any ticks or poison ivy---perhaps because it was winter.