Distance: 39 miles
Season: Spring, Summer, Fall
Water: Middle and West Forks of the Gila River, others available seasonally
Trail Conditions: Good
Starting atop Aeroplane Mesa, which offers immaculate views over the northern Gila, this loop follows upper sections of the Middle and West Forks of the Gila far from the cliff dwellings and many other people through remote, wild sections of the Gila Wilderness. It crosses below Lilley Moutain and past Prior Cabin and provides opportunities for wildlife viewing, fishing and getting away from it all.
From Reserve, head south following NM-435. After a few miles the road will turn east, crossing the San Francisco River and starting climbing steeply uphill. After 34 miles, you will reach a prominent junction. Turn right on to FR 28 and follow signs to Snow Lake. After a few miles you will reach a junction. The right fork leads to Willow Creek. Take the left fork to go toward Snow Lake. After a few more miles, Snow Lake will appear, but before reaching the lake, go left on a rougher road that leads to Beaverhead.
You will be on this road, also known as the Loco Mountain Road, for 4 miles. The Aeroplane Mesa Campground will appear on your right. There should be ample parking.
From the trailhead, hike uphill along the Aeroplane Mesa Trail – Trail #705 to the small ridge above the trailhead/campground. There’s a fence, but no sign at the top of this ridge to mark the boundary of the Gila Wilderness. Amazingly, this will be one of the best views on the entire trip. In addition to the sprawling mesa below you, you can also see the Middle Fork canyon and Lilley Mountain, which the trail will loop around later in the afternoon.
Enjoy the first 4 miles down to the Middle Fork. They will be some of the easiest miles the entire trip as well as the prettiest. In May, new grass was starting to green up, but the silver blades from the previous season still dominated the vista. Also, be sure to look for wildlife, especially elk or maybe even a wolf. This upland mesa habitat is prime wolf country.
Just before dropping down to the Middle Fork, the trail reaches a small overlook slightly shy of 4 miles. This offers a splendid little view of Trotter Meadow below. The stream is lined with cottonwoods and willows and looks positively charming. The switchbacks here are steep, but this section of trail is short and before you know, you will be along the banks of the Middle Fork.
There is no marked junction, but this is where the loop will end on your return trip. Turn right to head upstream and after about 100 yards, the trail will cross the river into Trotter Meadows, proper. Although there is no official junction, follow the Trotter Trail – Trail #30, which is well-defined, into Swinging Cross Canyon.
The trail leads into the canyon for a short while before beginning to climb up its eastern flanks. This climb can be steep at points, but is relatively short and you should reach the top of the mesa in under 30 minutes. The next 1.5 miles are fairly easy walking, cruising atop the mesa. Enjoy the views over swinging cross canyon and of Lilley Mountain.
After about 1 mile, the trail turns back towards the canyon and then follows a small ridge downhill, cropping into Clear Creek. Considering the record winter, there was ample water in the stream, but even the previous fall, following an abysmal year for precipitation, the creek was flowing, so this should be a dependable water source.
The trail crosses Clear Creek and leads into a narrow draw that has occasional water. It climbs modestly to a junction with the Chicken Coop Trail – Trail #29. Stay straight to remain on the Trotter Trail, heading downhill into another small drainage. Also, be sure to lookout for wildlife. Here, we were lucky enough to spot a decent sized cinnamon black bear ascending the adjacent hillside.
Upon reaching the bottom of this small draw, the trail turns right and follows it upstream to a small divide. The trail once again drops down into another small valley, also with fairly reliable water fed by the Lilley Park Stream. The trail once again follows the small creek upstream through a pretty meadow with large, old-growth oak trees. Before leaving this small valley, you may spot a sign post without the sign that once marked the spring.
Shortly after leaving the spring, you will arrive at Lilley Park proper, a good-sized meadow that should make an ideal spot to take a final rest before the final push. There is also a junction with the Lilley Park Trail – Trail #164. Headed east toward Prior Creek, you can make out a faint trail, but the trail to the west was practically non-existent. You will head straight, continuing to follow the Trotter Trail to its terminus at the West Fork of the Gila River.
The trail meanders for the next 1.5 miles over a relatively flat mesa and leads to a small peninsula looking over the West Fork. Before dropping in and making the final switchbacked decent, you should be able to see the roof of the White Creek Cabin.
To the river, the trail makes long, slow switchbacks across loose stone. Although you might be anxious to reach the river, you will also be thankful the trail isn’t much steeper as the poor footing would be made next to impossible. Continue to follow the trail until it crosses the river and winds through some willows before popping out at the cabin and some corrals.
There are a number of good camping spots within a stones throw of the Cabin. You can also follow the West Fork Trail – Trail #151 trail downstream and before crossing the river, you will find another series of camping areas within the tall ponderosa pines.
This is a long first day, but a satisfying one, especially considering the beauty of the White Creek area and the slim chance that you’ll have to share it with anyone else.
From White Creek Cabin, follow the West Fork Trail downstream, crossing the river after about 100 yards. Here you will reach a junction. The West Fork Trail heads uphill to the left. A second trail follows the river downstream and ends at a series of cascades after a 1/4 mile.
The West Fork Trail takes a steep jog to reach a bench a couple hundred feet above the river before turning back downstream, remaining at grade for a little more than a mile. There are a couple ups and downs in this section, but the walking is relatively easy. Just before reaching Lilley Canyon, the trail returns to the river and crosses back to the south side. The trail remains much closer to the water with little to no undulations for the next mile.
In the final 1.5 miles to Hell’s Hole and the junction with the Hell’s Hole Trail – Trail #268, the number of crossings increases significantly and resembles those further downstream on the West and Middle Fork Trails. At one point, the trail climbs a small bench on the north side of the river in a burn area. For about 50 yards, the trail disappears, but it is easy to pick up again as long as stay the course. It crosses a couple more times before crossing one final time at a location marked by a large cairn. After the crossing the river, the trail leads to the base of the hill and turns downstream, climbing slightly. After about 1/4 mile, you will reach an oddly placed trail sign marking the junction with the Hell’s Hole Trail, which, at this point, you are already following.
The trail climbs steeply for the first .5 miles before reaching a relatively flat stretch through a pretty ponderosa forest. In spots, it can be slightly overgrown, but easy to follow nevertheless. Enjoy the large clusters of bunch grass that surround the trail. The final 2/3 miles of the trail climbs steeply, switchbacking through scrub brush before reaching the top of the plateau where the ponderosa forest resumes.
Take a left onto the Lilley Park Trail at the signed junction 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 blooming lupine.
There is a sign nailed to a ponderosa 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 Prior Cabin, follow the Chicken Coop Trail – Trail #29 downstream, crossing just past the old water tank. Here, the trail climbs up on a bench and wraps around the hill, eventually leading into a small draw. As the trail curls into the shaded valle, there will be an unmarked fork. Follow the trail to the right to pick up the Garcia Spring Trail – Trail #730.
For about 1/4 mile, the Garcia Spring Trail follows this canyon downstream before climbing onto a bench above the descending wash. For a short while, the trail parallels the wash downstream, but eventually takes a sharp turn, climbing steeply along an open ridge.
Be careful here, however, because there is also a faint trail that continues straight along the wash. The trail headed uphill is also faint at first, but gets easier and easier to follow as it continues.
As the trail approaches the treeline, it turns back to the right and begins to descend slightly. In this section, it weaves in and out of small side canyons, gradually trending downhill. This entire section of trail is in good condition. Also, be sure to enjoy the views of the Middle Fork Canyon that slowly emerge as you get closer to dropping in.
When you’re about 3/4 mile from the Middle Fork, the trail passes close to the rim of the canyon. This is worth a quick side trip to the canyon’s edge where you’ll look down on a large horseshoe bend in the river.
Shortly after this overlook, the trail climbs slightly up a narrow ridge before making its final decent to the Middle Fork. Compared to your decent into the West Fork the previous day, this final drop will be much short and much easier. Depending on how you are feeling, take advantage of the nice campsite at the base of the Garcia Spring Trail where it meets the Middle Fork Trail – Trail #157 at a junction whose only indication is a small rock cairn.
Whereas the camp on the West Fork enjoyed lots of good morning sun, due to the enormous monolith opposite this camp, do not expect any early sun along this section of the Middle Fork. It’s a great camp nonetheless, and for some will be a good motivation to get an early start the next day.
Like other sections of the West and Middle Fork Trails, the term “trail is somewhat loose. In places, there is a well-defined path, but at other points you are merely crossing the river at a sensible place and following the rocky shores upstream. Still the walking is flat and relatively easy and the water is typically refreshing.
Just past the camp, you will pass the confluence with Clear Creek, which is typically dry by the time it reaches the Middle Fork. There aren’t many other geographical markers along this stretch, so it’s best to put your head down, enjoy the beautiful canyon and slowly plod the 7 miles to the junction with the Aeroplane Mesa Trail.
About half-way there, you will pass Canyon Creek on your right. If you are paying close attention here, you will notice the walls of the Middle Fork canyon drop as you approach the confluence and will see the taller walls of Canyon Creek behind.
At various points, the canyon widens and it generally lacks the taller, more impressive walls of the downstream sections, but this section of river has its own beauty marked by large pools and clear blue water.
In the final miles to your junction, the canyon widens and the trail improves, crossing the river less and less. Ponderosa forests return and the walking gets easier. In the final mile, as Flying Canyon comes in from the north, Trail 706 leads steeply uphill to the south. It can be easy to mistake this for the Middle Fork Trail, but at this point, you should not be doing any excessive climbing, so remain along the river corridor.
As you near Trotter Meadow, the canyon walls should begin to look familiar. Remember, the junction with Trail #705 is not marked, so pay attention for the switchbacks leading out of the Middle Fork.
Upon reaching the junction, take one last break and enjoy the solitude of the upper Middle Fork. Return along the Aeroplane Mesa Trail to your trailhead.