Wednesday 4 December 2013

Blast From the Past: Gila Wilderness

This blast from the past takes us back to May of 2012 when I decided to travel to New Mexico's Gila Wilderness (pronounced hee-laaah) with my 3 travel buddies: Kyle Ross, Alex Jensen (hereafter referred to as Jensen) and Mike Brunet.  Prior to this we had traveled quite a bit together already including numerous hockey games in Ottawa and Buffalo, a weekend in Algonquin Park, a week in Cuba and Mike and I traveled to 36 states as part of my Masters thesis research back in 2010.  But we had yet to do a wilderness backpacking trip together and this one promised to be a doozy! 

The selection of a site for our May backpacking trip took several months and required extensive planning.  It had to meet all of our rigid criteria which at that time included: 1) No snow or sub-zero temperatures, reliable water supply, a loop trail to avoid backtracking, an exotic or unique landscape and a large area devoid of people.  For me, there is nothing worse than going on a supposed wilderness trip and feeling crowded or seeing lots of people.  It ruins it for me.  After searching through numerous sites I eventually settled on New Mexico's massive Gila Wilderness that had great hiking trails adjacent to the Gila River.  This wilderness area is just a few hundred kilometres from the Mexican border and sits right near the border to Arizona as well.  Convincing my friends didn't take much effort.

So, the plan was for Jensen and myself to drive down from Ontario while Mike would fly out to Calgary and make the trip down with Kyle since he worked for Porter airlines at the time and could get amazing deals on flights.  

In order to maximize our time in the wilderness area, me and Jensen elected to drive non-stop from Ontario to our jump off point in Silver City, NM.  A one way travel distance of 3300km and almost 40 hours after factoring in washroom/gas breaks.  Long story short, I wouldn't recommend it.  Neither of us could sleep very well since we were paranoid the other driver was going to fall asleep at the wheel and kill us both.  I was able to sleep some, but Alex was delirious with sleep deprivation after being up for over 50 hours since his head last hit the pillow.  Eventually we made it to Silver City after an exhausting trip which included getting pulled over by some local cops in Oklahoma and being told I had a DUI on my record (which I eventually convinced him was a case of mistaken identity).  We then met up with Kyle and Mike in Silver City at the shadiest Motel 6 I've ever seen and went to bed.  
*On a side note I saw a news story about a Silver City man who was pulled over by the cops and forced to undergo repeated enemas and cavity searches by doctors before it was determined he was in fact not smuggling drugs inside his anus (glad I didn't "act nervous" when I was pulled over).

The next morning we woke up and headed into Gila Wilderness (not before we were sidelined by a bike racing event that was taking place on the roads surrounding the wilderness area).

We arrived at the trailhead at Little Bear Canyon and geared up (Mike is taking the photo here).  

Our packs we found out quickly were pretty darn heavy.  A result of packing way more rice and quinoa than we needed.  This ultimately resulted in mass purgings of food (except for Mike who remained steadfast).

The scenery was incredible, with deep slot canyons bordered by towering cliffs and strange and fascinating rock formations that I have never encountered before.

View north from our campsite on day 1

View southwest from our campsite on day 1

Our first campsite was idyllic in scenery and location besides the occasional horse droppings (pack horses are allowed in most wilderness areas in the U.S).

Riparian vegetation along the edge of the canyons was lush with vegetation and wildlife.

Our first campsite of the trip (mike organizing the camp)

Despite being nearly 30 degrees Celsius during the day, the nightime temperatures dipped to 5 degrees.  Kyle and Jensen in the other tent (B-Team) were freezing cold all night while Mike and I (A-Team) were warm in our sleeping bags.

One of the first reptiles that we saw was this beautiful Arizona mountain kingsnake.  The old saying "Red touch black friend of jack, red touch yellow kill a fellow" holds true here as this is a non-venomous species.

Some of the birds I had at camp that night and first morning included bridled titmouse, painted redstart, canyon wren, white-throated swift, chihuahuan raven, steller's jay and spotted towhee.  Most of which were very hard to photograph.  The canyon wren was hard to see but easy to hear with its loud call that sounded to me and the rest of the group like mocking laughter...maybe it was. 

Crappy record shot of a beautiful painted redstart.

Backpacking in Gila results in perpetually wet feet.  The trail in most areas criss-crosses the Gila River.  Speaking of water, this was the first trip that I used the "Steripen" instead of purification tablets.  It uses UV light to kill bacteria, viruses and parasites and worked quite well.  Initially we thought it had failed when we returned home and Jensen was violently ill, but then we found out shortly after that mike was also violently ill and traced it back to a Wendy's in St. Louis.  Celiac disease paid off for me this time and I got the last laugh after watching them scarf down their bacteria ridden junior bacon cheeseburgers while I ate fruit and trail mix!

Apparently the rocky river beds and water are hard on boots because on day 2 mine split wide open in the sole, requiring duct-tape surgery.
Photo credit for these ones to Kyle.

This day was also the hardest day length wise and my friends were cursing my route planning long before we arrived at "the meadows" which is a flat floodplain area surrounded by a fortress of towering cliffs.

I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a mountain lion here (a person on the trail saw one here the previous day), but did not have any luck.  I did however see this beautiful black-headed grosbeak along with cassin's and western kingbirds and violet green swallows.

The following day we left the lush meadows and headed up several thousand feet in elevation (topping out over 7000ft) to our next destination.  This involved tracing countless switch backs up the steep incline.  Grueling work with a heavy pack.  I had planned for us to camp at big bear canyon which I thought would have water.  More on that later.

As we neared thepeak the first storm clouds of the trip rolled in and we found ourselves caught in a fairly violent lightning storm with hail on a ridge with ample evidence of past lightning strikes from the charred pine trees surrounding us.  My vote was to leave our packs and descend to a safer level, the rest of the group thought I was overreacting (and claim I was yelling frantically "pack your shit! pack your shit!").  We eventually headed down a few hundred feet and then decided to wait it out.  Once the storm had passed we headed back up and took a break on the summit shown here.

We took some photos and had lunch.  It is definitely one of the more scenic spots Ive ever been.  The rugged nature of this area is indescribable. 

On the summit I found a pygmy nuthatch and this horned lizard!

From here we continued towards big bear canyon where we planned to camp for the night and replenish our water supplies which all but ran out before we reached the summit.  After several hours of hiking we arrived at our spot only to find a dry creek bed...needless to say, the crew wasnt happy.

Photo credit to Kyle

After looking at the map, I found that the next closest water source was nearly 8km further down the trail...which may not sound like much, but when you are carrying heavy packs over tough terrain and are out of water, its pretty far.

We eventually made it to a great camp along another fork of the Gila River and found plenty of water.  We set up camp.  I found what I believed to be scorpion tunnels in the soft sand and set up a pitfall trap with our pot but caught nothing. I think it was too cold that night for foraging.

The next day we decided to stay put and go exploring since we had made so much ground the day before.  We headed down a narrow canyon to see what we could find.  I knew from research I did before the trip that this area had a rich archaeological past of Mogollon and Apache Native Americans.  I think it was the Mogollons who built caves out of the cliff walls.  We eventually found one a colony of several of these.

We scrambled up the cliff to check out some of the caves inside.  I remember being fascinated that they would have had to climb so high up into the cliffs to get into the caves.  Some of them were several hundred feet above the canyon floor!

After checking these out we went back down to the river, and I spotted a rattlesnake that we would have just about stepped on.  I later identified this guy as a rock rattlesnake.  Beautiful snake!

After this, we treaded more lightly!

We also saw many lizard species here, perhaps what this guy was after, including this species of whiptail.  Anyone know what kind?

Bird highlights for this day included red-faced warbler and black phoebe! I snapped a shot of the black phoebe.

This photo shows the typical scene when you are down in the riparian sections of Gila. Rich vegetation bordered by sky scraping jagged cliffs and rock formations.

On our last day out I saw several other great birds including say's phoebe, black-tailed gnatcatcher and this ash-throated flycatcher!

If you have to choose one spot to go backpacking in the southwest I would highly recommend Gila.
The geography is amazing and it boasts a huge diversity of wildlife species.

Definitely a special trip and one that we won't soon forget!


  1. What an amazing trip! :-) Love you!

  2. These photos are so stunning, and you tell a good story!! I hope you 4 never stop doing this :)