Surviving The Gila River Alternate

I’d worn a hole in both pairs of my Darn Tough socks by the time I’d hiked 2,400 miles. One reason I decided not to replace them was the hardened, scaly skin on the soles of my feet. The other reason was that I’d soon reach the southern terminus. Officially, the CDT is more than 3,000 miles, but my choice of alternates knocked off over 300. These were my biggest shortcuts.

  • Anaconda, 88 miles
  • Gila River, 72 miles
  • Mack’s Inn, 42 miles
  • Others, 106 miles

After taking the Gila River alternate, I hiked for a couple of hours and made camp. That night was cold, but not quite freezing. The next day, I packed up as quickly as possible and spent my first hour crossing Collins Park. It was pretty in the early morning sun and looked more like African savanna than western New Mexico.

I spent the morning on well-maintained dirt roads but slowed to a crawl early in the afternoon. The trail left the road, descended a few hundred feet into T Bar Canyon, and pretty much disappeared. It was at least 10℉ warmer down there, and for the next two miles, there was plenty of route-finding and creek-crossing. It was a nice change of pace, and good preparation for the Gila River.

Now, I don’t like to boast, but I am quite good at walking. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember, and I rarely mess it up. So what are the chances that pride goes before a fall? About one in five million, it turns out. That’s my probability of injury from a footstep on the CDT.


The creek in T Bar Canyon was slow-flowing, and sometimes knee-deep. Crossings were so frequent that I kept my boots on from the outset. There were no obvious hazards in the clear, shallow water, and I quickly stopped paying attention to where I put my feet. That was a mistake. I stepped on a slippery rock, almost fell backwards, but somehow managed to remain upright. To keep my balance, I’d automatically flexed the muscle that pulls my right foot towards the shin. (My Tibialis anterior, according to Google.) I knew instantly that I’d strained it, and it was sore for the rest of the day.

I joined a dirt road that ran alongside the creek and picked up my pace. By the time I realized the creek had dried up, it was quicker to keep going than to backtrack. I made a detour to Dipping Vat campground, collected water, then walked back to the junction for the Gila High Route. I camped a few miles later at Aeroplane Mesa campground.

Grassland and juniper, long shadows and rocky trail.

Early morning on Aeroplane Mesa.

Next morning, the swelling around my right calf was immediately obvious. In camp, it didn’t feel too bad, but once I started hiking, I knew I had a problem. Uphill was uncomfortable, level terrain was worse, downhill was often painful. It felt like a lopsided case of the worst shin splints I’ve ever had. Fortunately, after an early crossing of the Middle Fork Gila River, there were no steep descents for the rest of the day.

Unfortunately, almost all of the first five miles the following day were downhill. I took two aspirin as soon as I woke up, and they were more helpful than I expected.

Limping along

At Highway 15, I turned right and took a two-hour detour. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was less than a mile away, and I thought it might be interesting. It really was. I caught up with the first guided tour of the day, which finished about eleven o’clock. Afterwards, I walked to Doc Campbell’s Post as fast as my swollen leg would allow. My two-day resupply was waiting, but since the store was well stocked, I decided to take an extra day to reach Silver City. I bought lunch and a day’s worth of food, then sat at a shaded picnic table to eat and get organized.

It was the hottest part of the afternoon when I returned to the highway, but my time on the blacktop was short. A mile and a half later, I left the road and began a 15-mile section of the Gila River. The trail was smooth and level, the crossings were frequent, and the water was refreshingly cold. Perfect for soothing a sore leg. For about two hours, I proceeded downriver until I reached my destination for the day, Alum Camp.

The next day, about a mile from camp, the trail mostly vanished. So much for an easy life. The river and trail are squeezed together as the canyon narrows, and it looks like flooding occurs regularly. The route shown in FarOut may have corresponded to a trail at one time, but much of that has been washed away. There’s still a handful of short, high-and-dry sections, but I mostly followed the riverbank, or bushwhacked across the inside of each bend. Almost everything I brushed up against shed annoying, spiky little seed pods.

Looking downstream from the middle of a knee-deep section of river.

A warm day on the Gila River.

Mixed emotions

It was one of my slowest days on the CDT. It took me eight hours to cover 13 miles, and I was relieved that my time following the Gila was coming to an end. I thought, “I won’t miss this.”

I camped at Sapillo Creek, and in the morning, I was back on proper trail for the climb out of the canyon. The first seven (ascending) miles were quicker than the next five (undulating) miles because the trail turned into a rocky obstacle course. Route-finding was sometimes necessary, and I didn’t do myself any favors by adding insult to injury.

Taking my second misstep in four days, I stood on a large, round rock that rotated in my direction as soon as my full weight was on it. Luckily, when my foot slipped off, it hit the ground without further damaging my swollen calf. A fraction of a second later, the dislodged boulder rolled into my shin. Blood oozed from the cut, which, to put it politely, stung like the dickens. My words at the time were anything but polite.

A few miles later, the trail turned right onto a dirt road, which then turned into a roller coaster. There’s nothing quite like finishing the day with some pointless ups and downs. At the top of one of the climbs, I could see the cloudburst from a storm several miles to the west. A light breeze carried the unmistakable smell of desert rain, and I was suddenly, acutely aware that my time on the CDT was running out. I thought, “I’ll miss this.”

I hurried onwards, in an effort to find a campsite before the bad weather arrived.

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