CDT 2021: Day 13, Doc Campbell’s Post to The Meadows

Below was a bottomless canyon

Looking into the Middle Fork Gila River canyon

The alternate Zigzag and I settled upon for the next few days is called the Gila River High Route. In a 2020 survey of CDT thru-hikers, this route was the third most popular of the alternates in New Mexico.

The Gila Alternate was the most popular. I wasn't surprised to see that 96 percent of the thru-hikers in the survey reported taking the river route.

The survey also said 69 percent of those responding took the high route. This surprised me. If it's correct, it means a majority of the hikers who followed an alternate last year split their hike to include both the Gila River and the Gila High Route.

That's what Zigzag and I are doing, but it didn't seem as though a majority of hikers were also doing that. Then again, except for those we saw at Doc Campbell's, we haven't been around many hikers lately.

DateSunday, April 25, 2021
WeatherClear to mostly clear sky; temperatures from the low-30s to mid-70s
Trail ConditionsRoad walking, then up-and-down trail, ending in a steep descent to the river
Today's Miles14.3
Trip Miles196.8

What's clear is that almost no one follows the official CDT route through this part of New Mexico, and that isn't surprising. The red route is roughly 70 miles longer than the alternates and is extremely dry, requiring long water carries.

The Gila River High Route also doesn't have much water, but there are two places to drop down to the river. As luck would have it, we will be able to finish today and tomorrow at the river.

Walking on State Road 15

We didn't start walking right away today. Though I woke up at 6 a.m., Zigzag and I decided to stay at Doc Campbell's Post until it opened at 8:00. This wasn't the store's normal opening time, but the owners said they would open early for us.

Once again, they were being very accommodating to us, and I bought some snacks and coffee.

Zigzag and I finally began walking around 9 a.m. The first 3.75 miles followed State Route 15 to where it picks up the trail at the TJ Corral Trailhead.

Zigzag talks to Sunshine

This was a spot used by horse riders for accessing the trail, and there were some horse trailers parked nearby. It was a short distance from the confluence of the Middle Fork and the West Fork of the Gila River.

Sunshine arrived at the trailhead about the same time we did. We chatted with him a short time before he hiked ahead of us.

A dry, open trail

As soon as we left the trailhead, we began to see a small number of day hikers, plus some backpackers who were finishing a weekend trip to the river.

At first, the trail was in a wide-open range without much vegetation except for grass. The footpath was mostly smooth and started a moderate climb.

A hot trail under a clear sky

Where some trees began to appear later, they were too short and scrabbly to provide much shade.

I was quickly getting warm, though I couldn't completely put the blame for that on the clear sky or the climb. I was exerting more effort than normal because I was carrying eight days of food. I think that may be the most food I've ever carried at once.

A screen capture from the Guthook app

The track for the Gila High Route in the Guthook app was incorrectly marked, even more so than the track we followed yesterday. At times, it was inaccurate by a laughable distance.

The base layer map in the app showed a dotted line for a trail, and I soon noticed this was a better match to where I was walking. I stopped checking where Guthook said I was and just trusted I was following the trail.

The trail makes a rugged climb

After a minimal elevation change on the road walk, the trail climbed about 700 feet in the first 2.25 miles after the trailhead. There were a couple of steep climbs along the way and a few rocky sections.

The trail then went about a mile of mostly flat terrain before making another 700-foot climb.

The climbs and the rising temperature were more bothersome than when I was stung in the forehead. I never saw the bee or wasp that stung me. It got me with a glancing shot, and I only felt the sting for a minute or two. There wasn't any swelling.

tall ponderosa pine trees

I stopped at 2:45 p.m. on the second climb to take a break and work on a developing blister. My feet were suffering a little after walking in wet shoes for two days.

Breakpoint came by while I was stopped, and we chatted briefly. When I met him the first time, I assumed he was going much faster than me and I wouldn't see him again. By then, he had walked in three days what I had walked in four.

I had more energy after taking the break. It helped that the climb soon ended and the trail became flatter. It was also sometimes shaded by tall ponderosa pine trees.

Zigzag relaxes and waits

Zigzag was waiting for me when I reached a side trail called the Big Bear Canyon Trail. The Guthook app called this the Big Bear Connector, and it was the route that would take us down to the river.

Just as we were about to follow that trail, we met a young woman who told us this was her first solo backpacking trip. We offered her some encouragement without trying to heap on too much advice. She seemed to be proud of what she was doing.

A view of the Middle Fork of the Gila River canyon

On the way into the canyon, the trail went first to a ledge overlooking the canyon. This was a perspective of the Gila River we missed yesterday and the day before when we were walking along the river. For the first time, we peered into the canyon from above. The view was spectacular.

Zigzag hikes ahead

The trail descended for more than a mile on a narrow track with many switchbacks. Loose gravel sometimes made the footing a little slippery. My feet slid from under me a couple of times, though I never fell.

Descending into the canyon

More impressive canyon views appeared from time to time during the initial quarter mile or so of the descent. I couldn't hear the river from the trail and didn't see it often, almost as if the canyon had no bottom.

The Meadows

There was a bottom, of course, and the terrain flattened out as we got near it. I soon understood why this area was called The Meadows in the plural form. The trail passed through tiers of wide, flat areas. Most were filled more with tall ponderosa pines than grassy spaces, but the name still made sense.

Tarptent Aeon Li

Several campers were set up in various pockets between trees and rocks near the river. This part of the riverbank was large, and the campers were dispersed enough that we didn't feel crowded. There was only one camper who was near enough for us to see and talk to.

Our campsite was at least a tenth of a mile away from the river. We had to walk over and around rocks and tall weeds to find a spot for collecting water. There were several paths to the river, and finding my way back to camp was confusing.

This had been a tiring but rewarding day. I'm unsure it was less tiring than if we had taken the other alternate with its dozens of river crossings. At least the route we took allowed our feet to remain dry all day.

I didn't need much time to settle down after I crawled into my tent. I was soon lulled to sleep by a chorus of frogs.

Above the hills
Higher than eagles were gliding
Suspended in the sky
Over the hill
Straight for the sun we were riding
My eyes were filled with light
Behind those black walls
Below was a bottomless canyon
Floating with no sound
Ghosts far below
Seemed to be suddenly rising
Exploding all around


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.