Distance: 35 miles
Season: Spring, Fall
Water: Plenty of water along creeks. No water crossing between West and Middle Forks
Trail Condition: Moderate
As the first Wilderness in the country, the Gila Wilderness is a must visit for any lover of wild places, and as a first hike in this iconic landscape, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than this loop that includes the West and Middle Forks of the Gila River.
From the trailhead at the parking lot for the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, follow the West Fork Trail – Trail #151 upstream. The trail crosses the river a couple times and on the south side, the trail leaves the banks of the river for a 1/4 mile before slowly returning.
Roughly 2 miles into the trail, you’ll come to a junction with the Big Bear Canyon Trail – Trail #28. Go left. In this section the trail remains fairly easy to follow despite the many stream crossings. It never departs from the river banks too far, so if you miss one of the river crossings, stay close to the water and look for a cairn, which frequently mark the crossings.
At about 5 miles, you’ll reach a section where the trail has been covered by a enormous amount of dead fall washed downstream following the Whitewater-Baldy Fire of 2012 – the largest in New Mexico’s history. Make your way through this debris field and have confidence that you’ll be able to find the trail on the other side.
Again, the trail comes in and out, so keep your eye peeled for the cairns that mark the crossing. At these crossings, watch out for the many fish you will send fleeing. Among these are the threatened Gila Trout, a subspecies of rainbows.
At about 8 miles, the trail leaves the river on the south side for about 1 mile. The crossings leading up to this section are well-marked, so there shouldn’t be too much concern about missing this section of trail, which is welcomed respite from the frequent crossings, which make the hiking slow.
You’ll know when you’re getting close to the junction with the Hell’s Hole Trail – Trail #268 when the stream crossings are on bedrock as opposed to sand and loose rock. Be careful. These latter crossings can be slippery.
The canyon opens up significantly as you enter Hell’s Hole. Surprisingly, however, there are not many great camp spots. Plan to make camp near the junction with the cutoff trail.
Continue upstream along the river. The final crossing of the West Fork is at a wide point in the river where the dry Hells Hole Canyon joins the West Fork. Be sure to fill up with water here. It is the last best water source for 10 miles.
The Hell’s Hole Trail – Trail #268 starts to the right of the drainage and switchbacks steeply up the face of the canyon. This section of trail is well marked and will be a nice break from the constant stream crossings of the previous day.
After a 1.5 miles, the trail reaches the top of a plateau and quickly hits the junction with the Lilley Park Trail – Trail #164. There are a couple routes for traversing the mesa to reach the Meadows Trail – Trail #53 and drop into the Middle Fork, but the opportunity to see the historic Prior Cabin, makes this route ideal.
Take a left on the Lilley Park Trail and follow it for a little over a mile. The tread becomes difficult to follow in places here, so pay attention. Close to the junction with Prior Creek Trail – Trail #156, the Lilley Park Trail nears the rim of the canyon before entering a small gully that at the end of May was green and filled with lupine.
There is a sign nailed to a ponerosa pine marking the junction, but it is otherwise difficult to discern. Pay attention to your mileage from the last trail junction and take comfort that the trail lies at the top of this drainage, and that as you continue downstream, it will become more apparent.
Take a right on the Prior Creek Trail and continue downhill. The trail is very gentle for first mile. A spring comes in from the right just before the slope of the ravine steepens and a small trickle picks up. This was an appreciable water source, but do not count on it.
The ravine becomes narrower in the final 1/2 mile before the cabin and widens in the final 100 years before reaching the cabin.
On a hot day, the shade of the cabin’s porch makes a nice spot for a break.
From the cabin, the trail continues uphill and to the right. This is a tricky point in the hike because there is no sign and the trail is not at all initially apparent. We spent approximately an hour following a social path that continues down the gulch and then retracing our steps – wasting both time and dehydrating ourselves in the process.
Once you find the trail midway up the hill to the right, it remains easy to follow all the way to the rim of the canyon at the junction with the Big Bear Canyon Trail, which you passed the previous day.
The route down to the Middle Fork on Trail #28 is steep and well-marked. There were a few downed trees, but passage was easy. Also, be sure to enjoy the views over the river and into the gorge.
Once the trail reaches the river at the Meadows, take a right. Here, the trail becomes non-existent for the next 1/4 mile, but as long as you are following the river downstream, you can’t go wrong.
You will eventually pick up the Middle Fork Trail – Trail #157, which is similar to the previous day’s trail with frequent stream crossings. Also, the walls of the Middle Fork are much higher than those of the West Fork, so enjoy the gravity-defying hoodoos that guide the way downstream.
Similar to the West Fork Trail – Trail #151 crosses the river frequently, but spends long stretches on each side of the river cutting through dense, riparian forest.
There are frequent campsites along this stretch of river downstream from the Meadows. This is a long day, especially given how slow going this segment of the hike is, and since water is plentiful, finding a place to camp is easy.
Jordan Hot Springs is about 6 miles downstream from the Meadows. If you’re able to make it there on Day 2, there are a number of campsites close to the springs. They can also make a nice stop midway on day 3.
Downstream from the hot springs, the canyon quickly starts to open up and the walls begin to recede. The banks become wider and the trail crosses through old growth sycamore forest. This section of trail is uniquely beautiful.
You can continue all the way down the Middle Fork to the visitor’s center, but as you will have likely grown tired of the many stream crossings, the cutoff on the Little Bear Canyon Trail – Trail #729 will be quite enticing.
The narrow slot canyon comes in from the south and is marked by a large wooden sign.
NOTE: The first 1/4 mile of this trail is through an extremely narrow canyon and would present significant danger during a flash flood. Be mindful of the weather before choosing this route.
After the first 1/4 mile, Little Bear Canyon opens up and the trail eventually turns into a sandy wash. As it flattens out, you’ll pass the junction for the Lilley Park Trail.
Trail #729 eventually climbs up and over the plateau separating the West and Middle Forks. This part of the trail offers little shade and can be extremely hot.
The trail ends in the Scorpion Campground. Turn right and complete the 1 mile road walk to return to your car.