The West Fork Trail is one of the defining trails of the Gila Wilderness. It runs for more than 30 miles from the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument to the Willow Creek Trailhead.
Trail Condition: Moderate
From the Gila Cliff Dwellings to Hell’s Hole, the trail is in better condition than it was in 2020. There are roughly 54 stream crossings interspersed by several long stretches remaining on one side.
In sections, especially as the trail nears Hell’s Hole, the trail near stream crossings can be difficult to find so be sure to pay close attention at this points and along rocky flood plains.
From the trailhead at the parking lot for the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, the West Fork Trail follows the river 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 Trail – Trail #28. Go left to remain on the West Fork Trail. 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.
The canyon opens up significantly as you enter Hell’s Hole. 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.
To read more about the West Fork Trail, see my trip report from West Fork-Middle Fork Gila River.