Gila We Go!

After the vast, barren lands of the New Mexico Bootheel, the CDT begins to climb in elevation. We notice more variety in the flora- trees are becoming more and more common. At first, we stop at each shady patch, eager for the rare opportunity to hide from the sun. But soon we realize that tree shade is no longer a unique offering. As we ascend into the Burros, we are surrounded by vast pine forests. The sweet smell of ponderosa and juniper fills the air.

Our hike through the forest is cut short by a prescribed burn area, and we are left to hike 19 miles into Silver City on roads. It is a long and painful day, but the zero we spend at Triple Crown Hostel in town is well worth it. Silver City is a unique place, with old architecture and prominent Mexican influence. The walls and sidewalks are covered in colorful murals and mosaics and I am in awe at how picturesque each corner of town is. The food is pretty phenomenal as well.

After Silver City, the CDT branches Northeast, through the remote and dry Black Mountains. Since this involves self-water caching and a tremendously long food carry before the opportunity to resupply, most hikers opt to take the Gila River Alternate. We are no exception. It helps that the Gila is a desert oasis, bursting with life, plentiful water, and tree cover. (I feel the need to explain that “Gila” is pronounced “He-la”- so you can better appreciate the title of this article). We’ve been looking forward to this section for some time.

To start, we are greeted with steep climbs and descents, among dense brush and forest along a trail that is easy to stray from. We are rewarded with vast views and rust orange hoodoos adorning the rugged landscape. We also stumble upon our first natural water sources of the trail- up until this point we have been drinking from cow troughs or water caches exclusively. After much anticipation, we finally reach the Gila River. It gushes through the valley of a vast canyon, with walls towering as high as 1,000 feet above. Ancient western sycamores and cottonwoods join the growing biodiversity.

This section of trail is known for the many, many river crossings. Essentially, we just need to follow the river upstream. Since we have heard rumors of how hard the trail is to follow, we just put away our navigation apps and begin trudging. We bushwhack through rabbitbrush, stumble across rocky river beds, and slosh through the knee-high water, fighting the current. It is beautiful. The cold water is refreshing and this new form of navigating involves creativity and a little more thought than just following a trail. But after two hours we are disheartened to realize we have made it less than three miles. We need to be averaging 20 mile days, so we are forced to reassess. After a little bit of digging on the Guthook app, we realize there is an actual trail through the area- it’s just easy to lose track of. From there, we take turns checking Guthook to make sure we are close to the Pink Line that guides our way. While it is still a rough trail and our feet are never dry, we are able to make much more progress.

On our third day of this route, we arrive at a much anticipated natural hot spring. The hot spring experience is new to me, but it lives up to my expectations. A small pool being fed by a trickle of warm water is tucked into the shade of a cottonwood. It is just large enough for our group of four, and we have the place to ourselves. We take a long lunch while emphasizing to each other just how freakin’ cool this is.

Eventually, we make it to Doc Campbell’s Post, an RV park that caters to hikers. The family that runs the place has done a great job at providing everything that hikers would need, including full resupply, showers, laundry, and tent space. Without this post, we would have an unimaginably long food carry through the Gila. We are glad to support this small business, as well as enjoy their attention to detail when it comes to hiker hospitality.

After about 24 hours of relaxing at Doc’s, we move forward with the rest of the Gila route. There are actually two options through this area- the High Route and the Low Route, and there are a few opportunities to jump back and forth between the two. We are so amazed at the scenery along the Low Route, at the bottom of the towering canyon walls, we unanimously decide to continue this way. We aren’t disappointed. There are jaw-dropping views around every corner. We stop at a campsite in the late afternoon. It is too early to stop for the night, but we take a moment to appreciate the scenery from the flat tent spots. As we are chatting, I see movement on the other side of the canyon. A bear! He is about 2 or 3 years old, and Mom isn’t in sight. We startled him, and he clambers across the canyon wall to put distance between us. We are able to watch his progress for about 30 jaw-dropping seconds.

Everything about the Gila is beautiful, but every rose has its thorn. Or, in this case, shiny leaves coated in toxic oils. Poison ivy and poison oak line the sides of the trail in abundance. When we lose the trail and have to bushwhack back to it, we are constantly dodging these plants. I take care to not let it touch my legs or any of my gear- I am highly allergic. It seems to be more and more prominent as we make our way north, and by the end of our last full day along the river, I am beginning to panic. There had been several encounters along the way. With each river crossing, I take my time, hoping the cold water will wash away the toxins but I am unsure of how effective that might be. When we get to camp my legs are stinging. Not itchy, but burning.

I take a moment to soak in the river and scrub at my legs with sand. Afterward, I wipe down with sanitizing wipes. When the red, angry skin is clean I notice only some spots look like they might have been affected by the plant. The main source of pain is from what appears to be hundreds of tiny, tiny cuts. I recall a wrestling match or two with a plant that had many small thorns. The abrasions are irritating, but I am relieved to realize it won’t be a full-on poison ivy outbreak as I had thought.

The Gila river ends at Snow Lake and the Snow Lake Dam. We cross the dam and immediately cross into an entirely different environment. We leave behind the lush green forest and wildflowers. I look north to alpine forests- nothing but rolling hills of yellow grass and a scattering of pine trees as far as I can see. I hike forward, wondering what this next stretch will bring.

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