Gila Wilderness Girl’s Trip

Zoe loves backpacking. She has goals of doing the whole Appalachian trail sometime soon, and after this weekend I know she could do it. Maybe we’ll do it together.

A couple times a year we plan a special weekend with each of our kids, just one parent and one kid. It’s important. We get time together to bond, yap, and get out of the usual rut within the homeschooling house.

So, Zoe and I drove to the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. It is 3.3 million acres of forests and canyons and arid rangeland. The Gila Cliff Dwellings National monument, managed by the National Park Service, is a small island within the wilderness and was the starting location for our hike.

The drive out took a long time, so we caught up on a lot of back episodes of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me on NPR. I parked the car at our exit trail – a mile down the hill and around the bend from our trailhead and we started along the road after checking our packs to ensure we had all we needed for the next three days. It was late afternoon, so our goal was to merely get started and into the wilderness a mile or so before setting up camp. Luckily, a truck with some trailered horses rolled by and offered us a ride; Zoe was happily jumping into the bed of the truck by the time I explained which trailhead we were using.

So, with that boost we were able to hike in an extra mile or so before the sun began to droop behind the hills and a twilight chill set in. We spotted four deer milling about and decided it was a great place to spend the evening. It was quickly darkening, so Zoe hustled to heat up some dinner while I finished with the tent. Soon we snuggled inside for some Uno and talked about everything from schoolwork to life goals to my first date with her father. I treasure this time.

The central day of our 3 day hike was the longest and most exciting. We woke early, ate some granola and started along the trail which meandered up for a short period before quickly descending into the cool shady wet Little Bear Canyon. For us both, it was fun to imagine and realize that we were had one of the many headwaters of the Gila river; we joked about selling this water to California and being able to jump over the mighty torrent. Really, it was a seep bubbling from the ground where it flowed around a canyon corner and disappeared again. Later, it seeped again from the edge of the gray rock wall on the left side of this twisty hallway. The canyon had gotten deep, quickly.

By the time the river truly flowed as a mini stream we popped around a corner and our canyon walls opened into a new canyon. It felt like we had been driving on a long long entrance ramp and finally made it onto the freeway. This canyon – the Middle Fork of the Gila – is wide with tall red and gray stone walls, but it’s lush; the river flows here. Properly flows. There are fish, and cottonwood trees and grass, lots of grass.

This intersection was flat and beautiful and it was obviously used as a campsite quite often. There were multiple fire rings and cleared land. We took advantage and had lunch. Zoe talked about her love of food and theater and biking. She told me her plans to hike the Appalachian trail, and how she wants to backpack even more. We shared thoughts on her future, her brother, her goals, her love of animals. Then we packed up our pots and walked on and on, sometimes talking sometimes silent.

Often we were wet. There were 30 river crossings over the next two days as we zig-zagged our way downstream and out of the canyon. We purposely hiked in our sandals. Sometimes it was wide and shallow, other times it was rocky and fast. Only a handful of crossings were over our thighs, but once we were attempting to cross off-trail and found the river to be deep, swimmable deep, over my head deep. The only reason we diverted was to escape another unsavory character: the snake.

Luckily, I was the lead hiker when we we came upon the Rattlesnake. It was in a narrow part of the canyon – only a few feet on our right was the canyon rock wall, and to the left was a small rocky flat space where the river runs during high season; beyond that was the river and the far cliff. Our trail ran between two very tall trees whose lower portions were covered in a brushy fence of debris deposited by the last flood; the trail continued through this natural gate of brush piles 6 feet high and entered a darker cool forested space. Just as I passed into the gate I heard the rattler. FFFSshhhhhhh. It was distinct and scary. Both Zoe and I stopped hard and stared; there she was just a few feet in front of me to the right of the trail guarding her forest. We backed up slowly and waited outside the gate in the sun. We calmed down and evaluated. There was no way to go around the immediate area – the brush pile was massive, it had been hacked through at some point to carve out a trail.

After waiting a half hour or so we returned and she had moved onto the trail. She rattled at the first sight of us, coiled and aggressively stared us down. This snake was mad and guarding something. We backed off again and gave her some space, but still she stay coiled and rattling.

Taking a different tack, we attempted to just wade along the river beginning at the last stream crossing only about a hundred feet back the trail. It was working fine until we got to the place where the water was deep – over my head – and dangerous in a backpack. The left edge was the cliff and the right edge was brushy – we bushwacked through and came out realizing we’d wasted a good half hour walking up the stream to come out on the stones beside the rattlesnake’s brush gate. She was still there – rattling at us, now tauntingly to the right of the trail again. I got a long stick. And, I KNOW, no rattlesnake story ends well when someone gets a stick. I toss it along the trail to see what she would do, and sure enough, she struck. She was pissed, and there was no way to pass along or near this trail – crawling over the brush seemed stupid. It was both tall and our imaginations had now assumed it was full of baby snakes.

So, we both got long sticks and walked along the adjacent flat stone space until it ran into the river brush – we bushwhacked along that until the river shallowed to thighs and then used the river as our trail until the next crossing. It was a LONG TIME. That rattler was guarding a nice long stretch of forest. Needless to say, we were creeped out. When we finally found the trail again, I needed a break; we sat in a nice open area, I fired up the stove, and had a strong coffee. Mommy senses were on overdrive. Zoe was over it by now, but I kept the lead from then on.

I was creeped out enough to keep our sticks swinging in the tall grasses for the rest of the hike, and yapping loudly. Zoe even created a “go away snakes” song to give them warning to move on. I’m not sure the angry momma rattler would have. The grass was nearly constant and waste high when we were in one of the small patches of forest. One of these spaces was well timed, though, and turned out to be a wonderful spot for the evening. Again we ate and snuggled in; we talked about boys and girls, and lessons learned, and dumb things I did when I was a kid.

In the morning we continued down stream and the canyon walls began to shrink, we enjoyed more stream crossings, bashing grass, and singing our snake song until we passed the Gila Wilderness sign and knew it was only 2 more miles.

Just past the sign we found the Gila hot springs. It was perfect timing for a foot dip. The boiling water comes out of a few seeps along the edge of river which is wide and flat at this point. People have built stone dikes to collect and blend the cold river water with the hot spring and we spent a long time sampling them all. Zoe told me all about why she loves Iceland and its hot springs, she talked about segment hiking the Continental Divide Trail, and she found a boiled snake and frog perfectly preserved mid-leap into the hot spring.

The last mile of the trail was lost to grasses and reeds; we couldn’t find it and just walked in the river. Every now and then we passed another warm spot where hot water seeped in. And then we were at the car. Mileage: 10.8

We spent a couple hours in the afternoon visiting the actual Gila Cliff Dwellings National Park. The dwellings are really interesting to see, and along an easy-peasy trail that we did in flip flops. The best part was being able to go inside the dwellings!

Our long drive home was filled with more chit chat, some podcasts, a visit to Wendy’s, and a couple geocaches. Zoe is an amazing kiddo to spend time with!

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