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Backpacking the Gila Wilderness - a 55 Mile Loop

At around 55 miles in length, the Gila Wilderness Loop provides a remarkable trail through one of the largest wilderness areas in America. The hike traverses both the West Fork of the Gila River as well as the Middle Fork of the Gila River.

It takes to the highlands between the canyons and offers stunning vistas of the roadless and development free backcountry of New Mexico. Animal tracks abound and the land is rich with white tail deer, mule deer, elk, and turkey. The most critically endangered canine in the world, the Mexican Wolf, also lives in the area. Lucky hikers might be able to catch a glimpse of this elusive animal.

Enjoy prime backcountry hiking with little to no development along the trails. Solitude and clean air are in abundant supply, if you are looking to get off the beaten path, this trail is for you.

Gila Cliff Dwellings

There is a $5.00 fee to enter the Gila Cliff Dwellings, as they are a National Monument. A short 1-mile loop connects most of the dwellings and it’s a relatively short hike, well worth both the money and the time. 

No food is allowed in the ruins and this rule is heavily enforced. Pack rats will dig holes beneath the structures which cause faster erosion. Just remember to leave the food in the car before going exploring.

Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico

Maps and Permits

Because it’s a wilderness area, infrastructure doesn’t exist along the trail. There is no visitor center providing maps, the few signs that do exist are not maintained and will not be helpful when in the backcountry.

No permit regulations exist for the hike. You are free to camp where you want. The entire wilderness area is ripe for exploration and you can really have fun deciding which paths to take.

I strongly recommend bringing a map with you. For this trip, I used the app Gaia GPS and it provided excellent coverage for the entire trip. The map of this particular hike is available for purchase here.

Map of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Note: Rangers exist and you are free to tell them about your trajectory before embarking on the hike. There is no sign-in sheet but it’s a good idea to make friends before embarking. This lets a few individuals match your face to the vehicle left in the parking lot. 

Klr650 on a backpacking trip
Walking into the Gila Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico
Gila Cliff Dwellings ruins, New Mexico
Hands on Gila Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico
Inside the Gila Cliff Dwellings

Food and Water for the Hike

Water: The hike follows the Gila River for the majority of the time. The water is cold, clear, and tasty. I carried a Sawyer Squeeze and always had enough to fill my two Nalgene water bottles.

Even when I ventured away from the canyons and went up onto the plateaus, there were enough streams with running water to provide an ample supply. As a precaution, I always kept my water bottles as full as possible but there was no need for rationing.


Food: With plenty of water to cook with, I used a stove to make hot dinners every night. I created the dehydrated meals before the hike and packed them in Ziploc bags. I carried 5 days worth of food, a 2-quart pot, and an iso-butane stove.

West Fork of the Gila River Canyon, New Mexico

Breakfast

  • Instant oatmeal
  • Powdered milk
  • Granola
  • Dried Apples

Ingredients were pre-mixed and packed in Ziploc bags. I would pour the mixture into my Nalgene and shake until the oatmeal re-hydrated.

Total time: 2 minutes 

Snacks

  • Homemade trail mix
    • Peanuts, chex mix, dehydrated pineapples, and dehydrated apples

Lunch

  • Homemade beef jerky
  • Tortillas
  • Cheese

Dinner

  • Dehydrated meals
    • carrots, beets, radishes, mushrooms, kale, rice, potatoes, lentils, dried beef, and pasta-sides

Each night was a different mix of vegetables, starches, and proteins.

Day 1: Gila Cliff Dwellings Parking Area Trailhead -
Total Mileage: 3.92mi

Starting at the Gila Cliff Dwellings

The trailhead for the West Fork of the Gila River shares a parking lot with the legendary Gila Cliff Dwellings. There is a short 1-mile loop that goes up, into the cliffs. I chose this as the starting location because the road deadends at this location and provides the closest entry point to the heart of the wilderness. 

I arrived around 1:00 pm and the sun was hot, although the air was cold. The canyon walls soared above my head and the red rocks reflected the light. 

The Cliff Dwellings are on a short incline and if your knees are bad, you can enter through the “exit” side trail. I was able to walk around the ruins and get hands-on with the old adobe walls. The ceilings are still stained black with soot from the thousands of campfires that were built hundreds of years ago. 

There is a wooden ladder that has been reconstructed to show how the original builders would have entered and exited the living quarters. What really struck me was seeing the original timbers still standing and holding up the mud walls.

West Fork of the Gila River

The trailhead is a hundred feet to the west of the parking area. A small sign marks the wilderness area and there are warning signs about Cougars. Right away, I forded the river, and the water was freezing. This would be only the first portage of hundreds that I would have to conduct over the course of the trail.

The trail follows the river upstream and there is a slight incline. Within the first mile, the water cuts through steep canyon walls and the trail is squeezed onto the riverbed. I made over 10 river crossings in only a few miles.

Upper Gila River Caves

Deep inside the canyon, about 3 miles in, is a cave with some old walls built into it. It was reminiscent of the more impressive cave dwellings near the trailhead and I was able to explore it. 

By this time, the sun was failing to penetrate the canyon walls and small puddles of water were freezing into solid blocks of ice.

Camping on the Gila River

As the sun continued to set, I made camp on the banks of the river, near an old fire ring. Luckily, the forest had plenty of pine needles and dry wood making it was easy to start a fire. The temperatures quickly dropped below freezing and I realized just how cold it was going to be at night.

I dried my socks and shoes with the fire and ate dinner near the warmth of the flames. It was going to be a rough night. I woke up around 3:00 am, shivering. I was using a 20 degree down sleeping bag but the temperatures were plunging below the threshold of comfort. I was forced to wake up numerous times and do bicycle kicks to keep my blood flowing.

Backpacking trail in the Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
jagged cliffs overlooking the Gila River
West fork of the Gila River in the winter

Day 2: Following the West Fork of the Gila River -

Total Mileage: 14.58 miles

A Cold Canyon Morning

Not waking up until 11:00 am, the canyon walls coupled with the Winter sun kept my camping spot from receiving direct sunlight. I was forced to re-start my fire and melt both my shoes and socks as both had become blocks of ice overnight. 

I finally stumbled out of camp after about an hour of fumbling with my gear. The trail continued its serpentine path and my recently thawed shoes were once again inside the river.  

The walls around me jutted upwards and steep rocky spires reached into the sky. The crumbling jagged formations threatened to fall inwards which made the canyon that much more foreboding. 

Little Sun and Icy Water

The air temperature peaked at about 60 degrees, but only for a few minutes, and only when I had climbed into a patch of direct sunlight. The trail quickly dragged me back to the river and into the shade. 

After what seemed like the hundredth river crossing, I decided to amend my original trail plans and to get out of the canyon. It was freezing for much of the day and I didn’t want to spend more nights waking up shivering than I had to. I decided to camp in a large clearing where a small cabin was located, built by the forest service.  From there, I could climb uphill and onto a ridgeline of the Mogollon Mountains.

Camping at the Forest Service Cabin

Just as the sun was setting, I walked into the clearing where the forest service cabin was built. It was locked but a large fire pit with plenty of fuel was a boost for morale. I assembled camp and filtered water from the nearby stream. I had to move fast to keep my filter from freezing as the water quickly froze to the outside of my Nalgene during the filtration process. 

I built up the fire quickly, throwing heavy logs onto it and moving my tent as close as I would dare. It was nice to have the flames and it felt good to not have to produce my own body heat for a change. 

 

Just a Little Midnight Fire 

After sleeping for a few hours, I woke up shivering. The air temperature had dropped and even with all my rain gear on inside the sleeping bag, I was curled up into a ball, desperately trying to stay warm.

I was stupid and forgot to bring an emergency blanket, come unprepared and pay the price. I re-built the fire and stayed near the warmth until I was comfortable enough to go back to sleep. This cycle repeated two more times throughout the night.

Rock formation in the Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
Rock towers in the Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
West fork of the Gila River Canyon
boulder covered hill in the Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
Teeth like rock spires on the West fork of the Gila River, New Mexico

Day 3: Out of the Canyon and Into the Mountains -
Total Mileage: 13.77mi

Out of the Canyon

Waking up after 10:00 am, I was eager to leave the canyon. The path quickly switchbacked its way up in elevation and I was exposed to direct sunlight for hours. I relished the opportunity to strip down to my t-shirt and absorb the sun’s rays.

There was a spectacular view that overlooked the canyon I had passed through the day before. Shadowy, dark, and foreboding, I was glad to be high above it. For the entire day, I stayed on plateaus and ridgelines.

Stumbling Upon a Herd of Elk

One of the meadows I walked through was named Lilley Park, and it was here that a herd of elk was grazing. I had spotted a flock of Turkeys and had just maneuvered my telescopic lens onto my camera when I spotted the elk, further in the meadow.

Deciding to get as close as possible, I crouched along the path. Half crawling, half sprinting, I ducked behind bushes and trees as I made my way closer to the animals. After about 15 minutes of careful stalking, I was within 20 yards of the herd. I set up my tripod and began filming them.

One of the cows spotted me and she let out a bark to alert the rest of my presence. I stayed motionless and all of the animals slowly walked by, clearly confused as to what I was doing there.

Rainbow Trout for Dinner

As the day dragged onwards, the trail began to drop in elevation, this time to the banks of the Middle Fork. I was wary about camping inside a canyon but the walls were not as narrow as the West Fork and more sunlight was able to penetrate.

Another benefit of being back on the river was the ability to fish. I found a deep pool, pseudo-dammed by two large boulders slowing down the flow of the water.  After climbing up the rocks and seeing a trout below, I decided a trout dinner was in the cards.

I tied on a small, inline spinner, and cast it just upstream of the fish. Immediately, the fish bit and I pulled it in. It was a gorgeous rainbow trout, and the cold, oxygenated water made its skin glow with a pink shine. I quickly gutted it and packed it inside my cooking pot to heat up at camp.

Building a Winter Shelter to Sleep in

I set up camp on the banks of the river in the soft, sandy soil. I decided to dig a hole, about 3 feet deep and camp below ground. The walls would insulate me and keep in some of the heat produced by my body. I also lined the grave-like ditch with fresh pine needles. The idea behind the design was to create a layer of insulation beneath my sleeping pad, further protecting me from the cold ground.

I boiled up the trout and the meat fell off the bones. It was flaky and sweet, the perfect ending to a perfect day of hiking. My fire was built up and I successfully dried out my socks and shoes before going to sleep. I only woke up a couple times through the night but I never had to sit by the fire to get warm, my makeshift winter shelter had produced the best night’s sleep on the trail.

winter in the Mogollon Mountains Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
Bull Elk Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
Cow Elk in the Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
View of the Mogollon Mountains, New Mexico
Old pine tree in the Gila Wilderness, New Mexico

Day 4: A Surprise Snowstorm -
Total Mileage: 15.28mi

Snow Flurries Along the River

With a good night’s sleep in me and a belly full of trout, I was able to wake up around 8:00 am. I shook the cold from my body and tore down camp. The sky was no longer blue and gray clouds hung in the air. A slight precipitation began to fall, small pellet-shaped snow. I assumed it would pass since the weather forecast I checked before leaving showed no cold-fronts for the week of the hike.

I followed the meandering river and was impressed by large caves and rock piles. The river was deep but I was forced to cross it only a handful of times. The wide canyon walls left ample space for hiking on dry land.

The Snow Begins to Pile-Up

The deeper into the canyon I walked, the colder it got. The temperature was plunging and I watched first hand as the entire river began to freeze over. When I had to cross, I used my walking stick to search for weak spots in the ice. Breaking through was an unpleasant and common experience, soon my feet were soaked once more.

As the river crossings increased in frequency, so did the amount of snow falling. Large, wet flakes were falling at an incredible rate and there were times where I was unable to see more than 100 feet in front of me. Bald Eagles lept from tree to tree over my head, avoiding me while at the same time staying as low as possible to dodge the incoming snow.

My trail runners were soaked and my feet were freezing. I took out a couple Ziploc bags and pushed them over my socks. This created a warm and waterproof layer around my toes which helped the blood flow back to them. I continued walking until I finally found a trail that led me out of the canyon.

Snow Covered Trails

Near the highest point of the canyon walls, I broke into a sweat. The trail I had been following disappeared beneath the snowpack and I was lost. Luckily, the GPS app on my cell phone was working and I was able to trace the trail on a downloaded USGS map.

The sun shone through the snow clouds and the steep canyon walls were illuminated. Dark reds, mottled with fresh snow, created a stunning sight of the Gila Wilderness in the wintertime. The absolute serenity of the scene overwhelmed my senses and I forgot about the cold melting snow, permeating my clothes.

Leaving the canyon behind me, the snowstorm intensified as the day grew short. I passed one other hiker, going the opposite way and we were both woefully unprepared for the snow. Our faces red and feet wet, we each tramped through the muddy mush, not saying much in passing.

A Wet and Snowy Evening in New Mexico

Not needing running water for camp, I decided to boil snow and use it for drinking purposes. This allowed me to set up camp in a dry spot beneath a couple of pine trees. The snow had thoroughly soaked the ground and finding dry fuel proved difficult.

I realized that if I turned over old logs, I could find handfuls of pine needles that were still bone dry. I also collected the tips of dead branches that had not been soaking in a pile of snow all day. After using most of my waterproof matches, I was able to get a respectable flame going.

Throwing larger, wetter logs onto the fire, the wood quickly started to dry out. I burned nearly an entire pine tree that had fallen over earlier in the year. The large stumps let me thoroughly dry out all my clothes, which allowed me to sleep without the threat of hypothermia.

Gila river freezing over
The West Fork of the Gila River in the winter
Icy bend in the main fork of the Gila River
Main branch of the Gila River, New Mexico
Gila River Canyon in the Winter

Day 5: The Terminus of a Terrific Wilderness Hike -
Total Mileage: 7.83mi

A Morning Hike Through the Snow

Waking up with dry clothes and gazing out on a landscape covered in snow, I was almost sad it was my last day hiking. However, the cold nights and the unforeseen snowfall had dampened my spirits to the point that I was still excited to be leaving.

The trail was flat and slightly downhill for the entirety of the hike. I looked over the mountains around me, their rounded peaks were covered with a fresh layer of snow. The sun peaked through the clouds and at times, the scene that spread before me was otherworldly. Red rocks, green Juniper trees, and fresh snow created a dazzling array of colors that played upon my senses and made hiking that much more enjoyable.

Ending Where I Began

As the trail neared the road, the elevation dropped quickly. I walked across open pasture and through barbed wire fences. I even witnessed a herd of mule deer stare at me from across the field.

The trail ended in the same parking lot it began. A 55-mile loop through the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. Although it was colder and snowier than I had planned for, I was taken aback by the ruggedness and beauty of the mountains. The amount of game living in the hills was monumental and at times, the trail was littered with animal poop and tracks.

A great hike through wild and unique landscapes, the Gila Wilderness offers an experience few other places in the world can match.

Gila Wilderness – 55 Mile Loop Trail Stats

  • Total Mileage: 55 miles

  • Cumulative Elevation Gain: 6,194 feet

  • Total Days: 5

  • Fish caught: 1 rainbow trout

Compatible with all GPS hardware and apps