The next morning we were up early to eat and pack up the car so we could do a long day hike in the Gila Wilderness. Part of Gila National Forest, the Gila Wilderness was the first wilderness area designated in the United States in 1924. Its designation was spearheaded by Aldo Leopold, as US Forest Service employee in New Mexico. His leadership along with the community’s support eventually succeeded in setting aside 755,000 acres for the Gila Wilderness. Leopold was an early leader of the wilderness movement and is considered by some as the father of wildlife management. His idea of “land ethic,” the notion that land was part of the community in which we live, was innovative at a time when land was still viewed as man’s property. Over time the area was divided into two wilderness areas and exists today as the Gila Wilderness and Aldo Leopold Wilderness comprising an area of 760,081 acres.
Wilderness designation is the highest level of federal land protection. The intent is for an area to remain much as it would without human interference. There can be no roads; the only traffic can be on foot or horseback. Although hunting and fishing are allowed, any commercial use of the land (other than grazing) is prohibited.
We chose an 11 mile day hike which took us up on the ridges between the Middle and West Forks of the Gila River where we had spectacular views of the wilderness area. From there we hiked down to the West Fork of the river and followed it toward the Gila Cliff Dwellings where we ended in the visitor’s parking lot. We did have a mile hike on the road back to our car which was less than exciting, but otherwise, the trail was a spectacular introduction to the Gila Wilderness.
For the first two miles of the loop we hiked in an open grassland where most of the forest was still recovering from a wildfire. We had a decent rise in elevation as we hiked up to the ridge line for magnificent views of the West Fork and Middle Fork valleys on either side. For a while we could also glimpse cliff dweller canyon and the cliff which houses the caves. As we gained elevation the grassland gave way to more tree cover.
We turned at our first junction toward The Meadows, though our section was only 4 miles. This leg had the most scenic views of the valleys and mesas on either side of us and brought us into dense sections of Ponderosa pine. We also ascended to our highest elevation of the hike – 7000 ft. (a 1300 ft. gain) – before our descent into the West Fork valley.
We stopped to have a snack and rest before beginning our 3 mile descent into the valley. Although originally we had intended to hike out to The Meadows and camp Friday evening, the poor weather caused us to change our plans. So, The Meadows will have to wait for another trip.
At the end of our descent we had to cross the West Fork in order to continue the final 1.75 miles. There were two more river crossings before we reached the end. I changed into my Chacos and finished the hike in them, but Zach forded in his hiking shoes. The final stretch felt much longer than a 1.75 miles, a never-ending trek to the finish. Finally, we crossed back in the National Forest and soon thereafter, into the parking lot of the cliff dwellings.
After our hike, I felt we deserved a cold beer and a heavy meal. We decided to pitch our tent for the night in a campground nearer to town (still 14 miles away) and reward ourselves with dinner at the Little Toad Creek Brewery. We drove back to our campsite following dinner and were soon asleep.