As always, we had thoroughly researched our route for a 3 day backpacking trip in the Gila Wilderness. Our plan involved going two miles up the West Fork of the Gila River and then taking Trail 28 (The Zig Zag Trail) to a high plateau between the West Fork and Middle Fork Rivers. From there we would hike 6 more miles to The Meadows deep in the Gila. The first 0.5 mile went as planned with two river crossings, but then something unexpected happened-the trail disappeared.
No problems, we knew by following the West Fork River upstream we would eventually intersect Trail 28 and continue on our way. That’s what our highly detailed $19 topographic trail map clearly showed, so we couldn’t go wrong.
We continued bushwhacking our way up the West Fork River. Along the way, we found small game trails to move upstream. Eventually, every one of them ended back at the river, forcing us to make another river crossing to find another path of least resistance.
We continually dodged numerous large ant hills, stepped into deep holes in the sand that looked as though they were home to rattlesnakes, and encountered more than one bear track, and one big cat track (mountain lion). We were getting scratched and cut by the foliage. The going was excruciatingly slow and frequently we backtracked to keep going forward. Still, we agreed to continue on, because at 2 miles we would find our Trail 28 as long as we stayed by the river.
Referring to our map frequently to confirm our location, we continued on for another 3 hours. At one point, we looked up a mountainside and saw what looked like a trail zig zagging up at the approximate location of our Trail 28. Still, we saw no way to access the potential trail and the bush was way too thick to possibly reach it. We were not even sure it was a trail, much less the one we needed to find.
At this point, we sat by the river we had now crossed over a dozen times and ate lunch on a rock outcropping. Based on time and our rate of progress, we figured we had gone at least 3 miles into the wilderness and missed our trail. At this point, we wondered how many actual trails are in the Gila, and how many are just suggested routes marked on a trail map.
Tired, slightly beat up, and humbled by our experience thus far, we decided to backtrack down the river and back to our car. 6 hours later, we returned to the trailhead and our vehicle. We were completely exhausted, and our boots were swamped from over 20 river crossings.
Even though our backpacking trip fell apart (for only the 3rd time in almost 40 years backpacking), I am so proud of us both. We never panicked, never lost our cool, and continued to laugh through it all. Most of all, we knew to stay close to the river. As long as we did that, we couldn’t get lost.
Instead of driving 90 minutes to the nearest hotel, we decided to car camp at Lake Roberts in the Gila Wilderness, which was the best decision of our trip. We had expected warm temperatures this time of year deep in the southwest, but it was cold. In fact, we think the temperatures dropped into the low 30’s overnight.
Our campsite was a beautiful location on a high rocky plateau overlooking the undeveloped lake. Prior to sunset, we were mesmerized by over 20 hawks soaring directly over us for almost two hours. As the sun set, we watched the hawks depart across the lake directly into the sun, presumably to their home. It was one of those special moments, and it felt as though the hawks were providing some sort of retribution to Star and me for our earlier misadventures.
Finally, here are some photos from The Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House located in the middle of the woods in Pinos Altos, NM. I even got on stage and entertained Star for a couple of minutes.
The day before our attempt at backpacking the Gila, we day hiked the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The dwellings range from around 550 AD to 1400 AD. The earliest Native Americans to call this place home were the Mogollon later followed by the Pueblos. Unlike many cliff dwellings, you are allowed to enter and walk through the dwellings.