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Outdoors in the Gila


treehouse image Day Hikes

The following short hikes begin in the area of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument visitor center. They are short, relatively easy routes which lead along the river forks or into nearby canyons. The trails cross the rivers, requiring good footwear and the use of caution. The water level of the forks can change within a short time and common sense is necessary before walking into the streams.

West Fork Trail

The first five-mile portion of the much longer West Fork Trail is probably the most popular hike from the National Monument. With the trailhead at the cliff dwellings parking lot (#151), the trail crosses the river often, making summer and fall the best seasons for the hike. Along the way you'll see the Grudging Cabin on the south bank. Some walkers only go as far as the rock cave, another cliff dwelling, at mile 3.1. White Rocks Canyon, a side canyon, is at mile 3.75. Ring Canyon is 8.5 miles. Hell's Hole Canyon, a very scenic ending point for many, is 12.75 miles from the trailhead.

Middle Fork Trail

This is another short hike along a portion of a longer trail (see below). The trailhead (#157) is near the end of the visitor center parking lot. Go to the end of the parking area and turn right. Like the trail on the West Fork, this trail stays at river level. Two miles along the trail are hot springs, a popular Apache recreation spot in the days of Geronimo and Cochise. It's a fine place to soak in the early morning and evening hours. The hike continues along and across the river, passing several side canyons. This is one of the most scenic walks in the wilderness area, with a mixed forest on the canyon bottom and high rock cliffs ascending from the riverside.

Stock Bypass Loop Trail

From the trailhead at TJ Corral, take Trail # 729. The corral is one mile from the visitor center on the road to the cliff dwellings. Follow Trail #729 and bear left at the junction, onto the bypass trail. Walk down the bypass trail for 2.75 miles until you reach the West Fork Trail (#151). Take the West Fork Trail (east), ending at the cliff dwellings parking lot. The loop is 4.25 miles long.

EE Canyon Loop

This longer hike covers 8 miles with an ascent of 970 feet. The trailhead (#160) is at Woody's Corral, one mile along the road to the cliff dwellings. The trail climbs on the first 3.25 miles, to the top of the ridge which separates the West Fork and Little Creek canyons. There is a junction. Take Trail #162 to the right (west) and follow the ridge for .75 mile until you arrive at the junction with EE Canyon Trail (#151). Take EE Canyon Trail north, descending for 2 miles through EE Canyon, arriving at the West Fork Trail. Turn right and walk downriver for one mile to the cliff dwellings parking lot. Woody's Corral is one mile from the trailhead.

Little Bear Canyon Loop

This 8-mile hike begins at TJ Corral, via Trail #729. Walk for two miles to the top of the ridge between the West Fork and the East Fork. This route crosses the junction with Trail #164, but we keep on a straight course for another 2 miles through Little Bear Canyon, arriving at the Middle Fork. Retrace the route to return to TJ Corral.

Backcountry Hikes

With more than 300 miles of hiking and riding trails in the Gila Wilderness and more trails leading through the surrounding national forest, a hiker has a grand buffet of hiking routes from which to choose. A comprehensive listing of these trails would take a book of its own. Serious backpackers interested in backcountry hiking should pick up a copy of John Murray's excellent book The Gila Wilderness, A Hiking Guide. The following trails are among the most well-traveled and well-marked backcountry routes in the wilderness preserve, some of which lead to other trailheads and to further exploration. All five trails are accessed from roads in or near the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

Meadows Trail

(Cliff Dwellings to the Meadows)

Access: The West Fork trailhead is located at the Gila Cliff Dwellings parking lot. Drive from the national monument visitor center, past the Scorpion Campgrounds, and park at the lot next to the small cliff dwellings info center.

The Hike: This is a popular two-or three-day hike, with a length of 9 miles. This short backcountry hike may be used by too many people during July and August to be very fulfilling. Therefore, a spring or fall visit is suggested in order to see the beautiful Meadows.

The Trail: Begins by taking Trail #151, the West Fork Trail from the trailhead. This popular trail follows the river before reaching the junction with Trail #28. This is the Zig Zag Trail, which leads toward the Meadows. This trail, originally carved out by cattle, climbs to the top of the canyon. After the climb (about three hours), it meets Trail #164, the Woodland Park--Lilley Park Trail. Stay on Trail #28, climbing to the top of a ridge and then descending to cross Trail #156, the Prior Cabin Trail. Stay on Trail #28 to reach the rim of West Fork Canyon. The river is 1,000 feet below the rim. The trail descends into the Meadows, a wonderfully open, grassy area, perfect for an overnight stay, either in the grassy meadow area or amongst the pine trees. This trail can be done as a day hike, but you'll wind up spending no time at all in the Meadows. Camping overnight is the solution. Many people who hike to the Meadows are so enchanted that they stay for two nights.

West Fork Trail

(National Monument to Willow Creek)

Access:If you're riding, the place to saddle-up is TJ Corral, which provides access to the West Fork side trail along the river, leading to the main trailhead at the Gila Cliff Dwellings parking lot. Those without horses should head straight for the cliff dwellings parking lot.

The Hike:
Almost 35 miles long, this trail (#151) is best done in the summer months when the river is low and the frequent river crossings are relatively easy. For experienced backcountry people, this is a three-day hike. Many do it in four.

The Trail:
The first part of the hike is along the West Fork Trail described above. There will be other people on the first five miles or so, the popular day hike route. White Creek Canyon is at 15.5 miles. After passing the mouth of White Creek, the trail leads along the West Fork for half a mile, and then leaves the West Fork, climbing to Cub Mesa, ascending 940 feet. The route traverses Cub Mesa and crosses Packsaddle Canyon, into Jackass Park before dropping down into West Fork Canyon, at the mouth of Cub Creek. It leads for 1.25 miles up the West Fork before reaching the beginning of the fork, where Turkeyfeather Creek and Cub Creek meet to form the Gila. The route (still Trail #151) leads up Turkeyfeather Creek to higher country at Turkeyfeather Pass, then descends to Iron Creek. The trail climbs to Iron Creek Lake, and crosses Iron Creek Mesa before descending to Willow Creek, the Willow Creek Campground, and Forest Road 507 which meets Bursum Road (Route 159).

Middle Fork Trail

(Visitor Center to Gilita Campground)

Access: This trail (#157) is the longest single trail in the Gila Wilderness system. It is 36 miles from the trailhead at the visitor center parking lot, to the campground at Snow Lake. It is another 5.1 miles if you want the hike to end at Gilita Campground which has quick access to Bursum Road. Forest Road 142 leads from Snow Lake to Bursum Road. The advantage of ending the hike at Snow Lake is a possible night beside the lake before pickup. At least six days should be reserved for this trip, staring with a soak in the hot springs at the 2-mile point. The Trail:
This moderately difficult trail should be taken in the summer and early fall, when the river is low enough to permit crossing. The trail follows the Middle Fork for almost all of the route, passing through deep canyons, across lava flows, past cliff dwellings, and through wonderful streamside woodlands. There are many river crossings, about a hundred, over sand or cobble. As with the West Fork Trail, this route intersects with many other wilderness trails, including the Meadows Trail. A side-trip to the Meadows could add an extra day.
A warning about quicksand: there are patches of quicksand along the Middle Fork and hikers should be cautious before setting out to cross the river at one of the many crossings. It helps to stay out of wet areas and cross where there is a definite dry crossing.

Gila River Trail

(Grapevine Campground to Turkey Creek)

Access: This trail (#724) does not begin at the national monument but is across the road from Grapevine Campground, at the Upper Gila River Bridge, south of the village of Gila Hot Springs. This is another long streamside walk, on the main river below the confluences with the tributaries.

The Hike: This part of the Gila is also a prime rafting stream, and you may see rafters on the river. The hike is 32.5 miles long&emdash;from the bridge to a backroad near Turkey Creek.

The Trail: Starting in the Gila Wilderness, the trail follows the river out of the wilderness boundary, and then proceeds through the national forest for another 25 miles. There are hot springs along the way, including an early possible soak less than 2 miles from the bridge trailhead. Another hot spring pool is at Turkey Creek. The trail passes several cliff dwellings. There is good fishing for a variety of fish, including trout and catfish.

Granny Mountain Loop

(Woody's Corral to/from Gila River)

Access: The trailhead is at Woody's Corral, on the road to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, in the national monument. Woody's Corral is half- way down this road, between the area of the visitor center and the cliff dwellings trailhead.

The Hike: A 35-mile route (trails 160, 159, 155, 161), this is just one of the many possible loop hikes through the Gila Wilderness, by using several trails for a circle trip. Only the limits of your imagination will limit the choices.

The Trails: Granny Mtn. Trail (#160) runs down the West Fork, in a southerly direction, until it meets the Gila River. However, we will leave this trail before reaching the river. At Miller Spring, where there is good drinking water, take the Miller Spring Tail (#159) to the junction with the Turkey Creek Trail (#155), and take Turkey Creek Trail to Little Creek Spring. You'll find the Little Creek Trail (#161) which leads back to the Granny Mtn. Trail and Woody's Corral. This is a long trip with ups and downs, along the side of several mountains, and requires a minimum of three days.

House Log Canyon
& Meadows Hot Springs Trai

Access: Via the Middle Fork Trail. Drive into the national monument visitor center parking lot, go to the end and find the trailhead to the right of the parking lot. The Hike:
This 9.5-mile hike along the Middle Fork can be arduous for novice hikers, with more than 40 river crossings. It does result in finding a very satisfying primitive hot spring pool (unmarked on any map) where water flows out of the ground, at a temperature of 92° F., and directly into a small, natural pool. Hike a mile farther up the Middle Fork and you''ll find another hot spring pool (Meadows), where Indian Creek Canyon meets the Middle Fork.
The Trail:
The Middle Fork Trail is best-hiked during low water periods, in the summer and fall months. It is not a strenuous hike, as the route follows the canyon bottom for the entire route. Because there are so many crossings in the 10.5-mile walk to the two hot springs, this adventure should not be considered earlier in the year. The Gila Wilderness Visitor's Travel Guide and Map is a good guide to the canyon locations along the Middle Fork.

Fraser Bridges


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