My plan was to visit the Gila after 5 years (last year a fire shut it completely down) and guide another backpacker in his first trip in often submerged Middle Fork trail. Traditional hiking boots will fill with water but river sandals will get small stones lodged under the foot due to current. The best compromise is actually mostly fabric light hiking boots. The basic plan was hike the Middle Fork and then get out on an adjacent mesa to dry out the feet while looking down on the route we just hiked from 1000ft or so up. Highs were forecast in the low 70's with lows around freezing and maybe 10% chance of precipitation. While the rest of the group had traditional to lightweight gear, I had UL gear except for some Chacos in case my main footwear (Merrill Mesas) gave out.
After car-camp at the confluence of the Gila River forks, we hiked up the brutally hot and arid landscape from TJ Corral, then down into the Middle Fork. The river has worked its way down as a canyon system forms walls around it:
The Middle Fork has dozens of stream crossings per day but these were more like river crossings due to the snow meltoff, hastened by fire damage in the Whitewater drainage. Here a buddy of mine makes his way over a fairly tame crossing with a very full Golite Jam 70.
The water was fast and cold, laden with silt from last year’s fire, the water is very murky. Each step was cautious looking for a trapping rock or hole hidden in the riverbed. Where rapids were unavoidable, the hiking poles would vibrate and one fellow hiker even had his long pants flay off the skin of his knees. Still the beauty of the surrounding cliffs made up for the discomfort ..
Me crossing a crossing:
Here I overexpose the picture to show the scale of some of these cliffs
This shows trees growing in the cliff face on every little horizontal ledge they can find
While fascinating, each turn looks like the other on a map. Being UL I didn't bring a GPS (not that there's a way to get lost) but my traditional oriented buddies are a little freaked. My view is we either make the Meadows (i.e. make the miles) or we don't, ... there's only one trail down here. After this, at mile 8, a hiker starts feeling chilled and fearing hypothermia/exhaustion in the cold water, we set up camp and a warming fire (dead wood is all over the place). My campmates fall asleep but, with lighter gear, I am kind of revved up wanting to have kept going. This is not one of those trips you do solo however. After waking up, a warming fire (for those who need it), and about 5 crossing we are at "the Meadows" (filled with campsites and still hibernating trees, so no real good pictures) we filled up with water from a side creek, and then hiked the 1000 ft or so up to Big Bear Canyon and the Woodland Park area. The views are great at 700 and 1000 ft (or so):
Woodland Park is dry and arid this March, in contrast to other years where it was still green in April. Good thing is there's not much but fire resistant Ponderosa pine to burn in what looks to be a bad fire season. We go from chilling temps to broiling temps:
No pictures as I concentrate on getting down the increasing desert like south face going into the West Fork. It's a little over 3 miles to the vehicles but my fellow campers are exhausted after 7 1/2 miles + 1000 ft switchbacks, so though elated, so we set up camp in a sandy exposed area right off this junction:
In the morning we pack out but I am reminded how the Gila can change when looking at the same area. This is looking back at our sandy camp.
This was my one last look at the West Fork before leaving. When I visit the Gila again, a longer drive means concentrating on meetups going to the Middle Fork and Woodland Park. Recovery was at a commercial hot spring a little north of Forks Campsite but everyone slept on the drive back so we didn't hit the new microbrewery at NM 15 and 35. PSA: Skipping a new microbrewery is what happens when you let friends hike with traditional sized loads ..
Complications: Flayed skin due to water hitting pants, scraps from thorns when switching into shorts, and mud laden ash getting into every hand wound exposed. On a positive note, I think every participant got their feet scraped clean as sand was forced between feet and sock (isn't that a pedicure?).