Before I started planning to hike the Continental Divide Trail, I knew little about the Gila River Wilderness. My research told me a must-do alternate trail went this way, but I didn't have a full appreciation for the area.
I assumed the route was popular because plenty of clear water was available. It was easy to see that when comparing it to the desert in much of the rest of New Mexico.
|Date||Friday, April 23, 2021|
|Weather||Partly cloudy, becoming mostly cloudy; temperatures from near freezing to low-60s|
|Trail Conditions||Ranged from no trail at all to well-maintained footpath; many river crossings|
What I knew about the Gila was mostly that your feet are constantly wet as you walk through this section. The trail crosses the shallow river dozens of times.
Finally today, I saw there were many, more noteworthy reasons why thru-hikers go this way.
The day didn't start well for me. I awoke on this chilly morning to discover my sleep pad was partially deflated. It wasn't completely flat, however, like what happened to me on the PCT and during a training hike on the AT.
Still, this was a disappointment. I hoped it was just a fluke, though. Maybe I failed to tighten the valve completely when I inflated it last night.
Zigzag and I left camp at 7:20 a.m., a few minutes after Tom. Joe was still in his tent when we left.
Knowing how fast Joe was compared to our hiking speed, we jokingly guessed how long it would take him to pass us on the trail. Zigzag said 10 a.m. I guessed noon, only because I figured he would sleep in.
The trail was easy to follow at first, but it soon disappeared as we descended toward a stream flowing from a spring. We got off course and had to spend extra time to find the trail.
The trail became more obvious once it began a steep climb, but this was because most of the vegetation had been burnt away. We were now entering the area that the large sign we saw yesterday had warned about.
More than 11,000 acres were burned in the Tadpole fire, which was started by lightning on June 6, 2020.
This section of the Gila River Alternate followed the Sycamore Canyon Trail, which was on the west side of the fire zone. It was closed last year. Some volunteers had already begun clearing the trail, but more work was needed.
As the trail climbed to Tadpole Ridge, it went in and out of burnt areas. In the few places not touched by fire, I saw a shrub I didn't expect to see. It was the pointleaf manzanita. I recognized it immediately because I saw a lot of manzanita on the PCT.
The climb was long and sometimes a little steep. The Guthook app doesn't show an elevation profile for alternate trails. We only had a contour map to judge how much climbing we had to do.
The closer we got to the top, the fire damage became much worse. The burnt vegetation and scorched ground left the area more exposed to the sun. By now the temperature had risen from near freezing to the low-60s and felt warmer than that.
The top of the ridge offered a clear view to the southwest. The Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona were again on the far edge of the horizon, as they had been in views I saw near Gold Hill four days ago. Now those mountains were nearly 100 miles away, so it was surprising they were still viewable.
Though a little rugged, the descent from the top of the ridge was easy. Zigzag and I arrived at the Sheep Corral Trailhead at 12:30 p.m. and decided this was a good place to stop for lunch.
Ohm arrived about 15 minutes later. I had not seen him since I first met him on Day 5 when we were walking into Lordsburg.
Dark clouds and colder air moved in while we ate our lunch.
When Zigzag and I were ready to begin walking again, Ohm decided to stay at the trailhead and relax. We knew he was much speedier than us and figured he would soon pass us.
Thinking about this, we realized we still hadn't seen Joe. Most likely, we thought, he passed us back where we had trouble locating the trail.
The Gila River Alternate was now following the Sheep Corral Trail. I noticed a wildflower here that had not caught my eye before. It was a cluster of dainty purple-white flowers called Nevada biscuitroot. This plant is a member of the carrot family.
About 30 minutes after our lunch break, the clouds grew darker still and we heard some thunder rumbling in the distance. We thought a storm was coming.
Zigzag didn't want to risk getting wet and began to put on his rain gear, but while doing that, the clouds pushed away and the sun reappeared.
When we got a better look at the sky through the trees, we could see a thunderstorm in the distance. From that vantage point, it appeared the storm was heading away from us.
When Ohm finally passed us, he was much later than we expected. He explained that he fell asleep where we had stopped for lunch.
The trail joined a road and flattened, making this section easy to walk. This area was more exposed, however, and again the temperature was warmer.
The trail soon left the road and began a descent toward the Gila River. The time was now near 4 p.m. With the temperature heating up again, I got a little tired during the final two miles into the canyon formed by the Gila River.
My weariness ended when we reached the bottom of the descent. I was now refreshed, thanks to a cool canopy of trees and Sapillo Creek.
We had to cross the creek three times. Each crossing was a simple rock-hop and we didn't have to get our feet wet.
This was the last time we had dry feet today. Moments later we arrived at the Gila River.
It didn't take long for me to get an idea of how beautiful the landscape was in the river canyon. We were surrounded by steep rock walls. The riverbank was lined with cottonwood, willow, and sycamore trees, as well as sagebrush and rubber rabbitbrush.
The remainder of our time on the trail today was spent walking across the river or along its banks. Depending on where we crossed, the water was usually above our ankles. Sometimes it reached above our knees.
Other than small fish, we didn't see a lot of wildlife, though there was evidence of animals living on the river banks. Unsurprisingly, we saw the handiwork of beavers.
When we walked on dry land, it was flat and sandy. Sometimes there was a trail to follow and sometimes we had to guess where we needed to go to reach the next crossing. Usually, we didn't get to walk more than a tenth of a mile or two before the trail crossed the river again.
We never saw another hiker today after we reached the river, but fresh footprints sometimes appeared on the trail.
When we were ready to stop for the night, we couldn't find a good camp spot right away. Though the ground was flat, finding a clear space for our tents was difficult. We also hoped to find a site that had a little tree cover, which would help to minimize condensation overnight in our tents.
Then at 7 p.m., we noticed a spot with some trees on a flat shelf across the river. The trail didn't go that way, but it was as ideal as we were going to find for today.
Our campsite was on a bend in the river and gave us a wide view of the canyon. The last of the sun's rays caught the top of the wall of igneous rocks on the opposite side.
Sitting here, I began to see what made Gila River Wilderness special and why it was the first designated wilderness in the world.
In the water, the rocks, the trees, and other plants, I saw rugged purity and sublime beauty. They were unspoiled and protected forever.
At last, I understood why I needed to come this way.
I don't know
Won't you tell me
Why I don't understand
Take me to the river
Won't you wash me down
Won't you cleanse my soul
Put my feet on the ground