Gila Wilderness 2009 "From the Vault"


Forever Wandering
Apr 8, 2015
Another installment of the From The Vault series, my old backpacking trips from years gone by, posted for your entertainment, and to help me pass some time on days off. This one is from a spring break trip in March of 2009 in the Gila Wilderness, It was a ton of driving from Lincoln Nebraska to New Mexico, for a rather short trip mileage-wise, but still 5 days/4 nights of backpacking. I think there were 7 people on this trip, and it was the beginning of my dislike of hiking with groups of too large a size (4 is my preferred max group size, though I still backpack in groups that exceed that sometimes). It was kind of a melding of two different groups of friends into one trip, and there turned out to be guys from a couple different frats in the group (ugh... Just say no to those things. Friends don't let friend join frats/sororities). This caused some unnecessary tensions that didn't ruin the trip, but sure added some complications.

It was a totally new environment for me, having only previously backpacked in the high rocky mountains of WY and MT. We actually ended up changing our route because a couple guys stopped at the visitor's center before we started, and decided to do the route the staff suggested instead of our original route. That ended up being OK, but it was a bit of a point of tension to just have the route changed like that at the trailhead (we were in 2 vehicles, and the other vehicle was pretty late to the trailhead... they had stopped at the visitor center without us).

The biggest challenges otherwise for me were the lack of water and the very cold night temps. I was used to packing only 1 liter of water at a time, and still was rocking a piece of garbage 40deg sleeping bag. Highest day temps were probably around the 80s, and night temps, well, our water bottles iced up every night or close to every night. We had a couple pretty long stretches with no water sources, so I ran out of water on a couple days on long hikes. On a couple of the nights I woke up at 4-5AM and just started a campfire to warm up because I was so cold.

Apart from that the Gila is a really neat place, and I'm glad I got to go there.

We started at what is marked as the TJ Corral trailhead and hiked to the bottom of Little Bear Canyon the first day. It was actually a bit cold and snowy as we started hiking, the only time it would really be like this during the hike.

Little Bear Canyon narrows up pretty quickly, and soon you get to see a lot of the spires that are common in the Gila River canyons. They are very cool.

Little Bear kind of almost slots up toward the bottom, which made for pretty cool hiking. Had never hiked through anything like this before.

We made camp at the confluence of Little Bear and the middle fork of the Gila River for 2 nights. The second day, we did a dayhike up to the Jordan Hot Springs.

The morning (and evening) light on the spires was awesome.

Did a little climbing to get this pic

We would find that hiking along the Gila was constant water crossings, some up to about knee deep. It was of course very cold water, being March. I had some pretty tall, heavy duty hiking boots at the time, and it wasn't very fun hiking with them filled with water. But the canyon is a very neat place to hike. There are meadows along the river and spires along the canyon all the way.

We found the springs fairly easily and hung out for a while. Amusingly, there was candle wax all around the spring from a couple's romantic evening the night before. We had spoken briefly with them early in the morning, and some joked that there would be candle wax or candles left at the spring when we got there. To nobody's surprise, there was in fact wax. Not sure any is visible in this pic, but it was there.

The next day, per the ranger's recommended route, we hiked back up out of Little Bear Canyon, then along the highlands, and descended to the Meadows to camp for night 3.

It was a long, dry hike. Some good views, but it was a long hike, and of course I ran out of my measly 1 liter of water.

It's a pretty significant drop down into the Meadows. At the top we met a group of free-spirited people packing musical instruments and plenty of weed. They offered to share, but nobody in our group partook. We would meet some of these guys along the trail down, and I'm not sure whether the strange smoke helped or hurt their anxiety on some of the steep parts of the trail.

The Meadows campsite was very nice, but I can't say I remember much about it. I was tired and dehydrated, so chugged a lot of water and went to bed early knowing I'd wake up early from the cold. The next day was due to be another long one. We would backtrack up out of the Meadows and cross the highlands to the West Fork of the Gila.

Was actually pretty glad for the cool morning during the climb out of the Meadows.

Aparrently I took next to no photos of the hike that day, or if I did they're out of order or not on my website. I think this is one from the hike from the Middle Fork to the West Fork. Maybe. Anyway, that was a very long, hot day. I ran out of water again, of course, but one of the guys was kind enough to share half a liter with me. We made camp soon as we found a suitable site upon getting to the West Fork. I recall it being a pretty nice site.

I recall that night being brutally cold. Woke up again at something like 5AM and decided to build up a fire. I had gathered extra firewood the previous evening just because of this. Dug through the remains of the previous night's fire and found some embers and used them to light my morning fire, with half numbed hands. I was really ready to be done with the hike at this point. Fortunately that was the last morning of the hike, and we only had a relatively short hike to the trailhead.

We hiked out quickly, disregarding the cold, and hopped in our vehicles for the long drive home.

One of the worst parts of the trip, other than freezing at night and running out of water, was that we drove both there and then back straight through. I recall the drive being like 19 or 20 hours, which was brutal. I got lost on the way back somewhere in Colorado Springs. This was before any of us in the group had smartphones and GPS navigation devices, so we had to drive around, using a paper map I had bought, and try to figure out where we were, at like 1 AM. We did eventually figure it out, but we did lose quite a bit of time.

Overall, the Gila is a cool spot, and maybe someday I'll go back. It's a very long way from me, and not really high on my list. It's definitely worth checking out if it's something you're interested in, though.

I got rid of that terrible sleeping bag after this hike and got a decent quality 20deg bag.


Feb 1, 2014
Glad you pulled this out of the vault. Love the scenery. Makes me nostalgic for New Mexico. Cold nights, warm days and no water. Very familiar. I probably always carry too much water because of where I started out. I never owned a tent until I started hiking in Colorado, but I had a good sleeping bag. Luckily you didn't seem to have had wind. March is about the beginning of the windy season. Terrible wind. Every. Day. As windy as Nebraska is, I don't think it holds a candle to NM in the spring.

Mostly nobody talks about hiking misery on trail reports so I appreciated that on your report.


off my rocker
Jun 14, 2016
Nice to see. From the hefty size of your buddies packs, I bet that you weren't the only one to suffer through some subpar rookie gear.
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