Located in southern New Mexico, the Gila Wilderness consists of 558,085 acres of truly unique and pristine land. With its near-vertical canyon walls, snaking rivers, and gorgeous alpine forests, this gem boasts some of the best natural beauty in the American Southwest. It also received the world’s first wilderness area designation in 1924–forty years before the U.S. Congress passed the Wilderness Act. Itching to get outside, my partner and I met up with a friend in El Paso, ready to embark on some early-season backpacking.
This loop combines the Grand Enchantment, Hells Hole, Woodland Park, Prior Creek, Continental Divide, and Big Bear Canyon trails for a three-night, four-day adventure. Along the way, you’ll gain 5,146 feet in elevation and cross the West and Middle Forks of the Gila River countless times. This hike isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you’re looking for a true wilderness experience in one of the most remote sections of the wild west, then this trail is for you.
Permits, Safety, and Other Considerations
The good news is that no permits are required for this hike, which I’m calling the Gila Wilderness Loop from here on out. However, still share your itinerary with a trusted friend or family member, with a contingency plan in place should you fail to return on time. Also, if you can, carrying a satellite phone is always a good idea.
A major factor of this hike is its many river crossings. While none of them were exceptionally dangerous, they are never without their risks. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has a comprehensive guide to help you safely cross a river. Learn it and ideally, practice some crossing techniques where you’re comfortable first.
There will be many instances where the trail is hard to find or disappears completely. A downloaded GPX track of the route is a must. Even better is to bring a map and compass (with knowledge of how to use them) just in case your electronics stop working.
While we didn’t stop at any natural hot springs on our trip, there are several in the area that you can visit should you choose. Note: it is possible that deadly amoebic meningitis exists in the springs. It’s strongly recommended that you do not submerge your head to avoid a potential infection.
Bear canisters aren’t required. However, it’s still a good idea to properly store your scented items in an odor-resistant bag, such as a Ursack. And as always, practice Leave No Trace and obey any fire restrictions to help preserve the Gila Wilderness for future visitors.
The Route of the Gila Wilderness Loop
Day 1 – Miles Hiked: 7.5, Elevation Gain: 865 feet, Elevation Loss: 569 feet, Approximate Total Number of River Crossings: 41
We left El Paso in the morning and drove 3.5 hours north, reaching Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and the trailhead around 2 PM. Parking was easy and plentiful, and there was a cute visitor center that provided detailed information about the area. There were also several vault toilets for hikers to use. After completing our last-minute checks, we said goodbye to civilization for the next few days and headed into the wilderness.
Head to the end of the parking lot and look for the West Fork Trailhead to start your hike. I was warned that my shoes would be perpetually wet on this hike — a truth I quickly found out. After only about a quarter of a mile, we encountered our first of many river crossings.
You’ll join the Grand Enchantment Trail after 0.5 miles. The lesser of two notable long-distance trails featured in this loop, the GET spans 770 miles from Phoenix, Arizona to Albuquerque, New Mexico through some of the Southwest’s most remote deserts, mountains, and canyons. Over the course of two days, we hiked 14 miles of this trail.
After about a mile, you’ll leave the river and enter a clearing featuring mostly grassland with some large Trembling aspen and Ponderosa pine trees sporadically disbursed. Sitting at close to 6,000 feet in elevation, this section very much felt like a high desert. However, soon after the trail guides you back to the West Fork of the Gila River and to a lusher environment. At mile 2.2, you’ll reach the start of the loop. While it can be done in either direction, we hiked it clockwise and continued west along the river.
You are now in the heart of the canyon, with sheer, near-vertical walls surrounding you on both sides. Interestingly, the geology of this area is attributed to super-volcano activity as early as 50 million years ago. Several eruptions created layers of igneous rock, petrified ash, and sandstone. Since then, wind and water have been eroding the landscape, creating the caves, alcoves, and columns that you see today along the Gila Wilderness Loop.
For the foreseeable future, you’ll zigzag many times across the river, quickly learning to embrace wet shoes and socks. It wasn’t all bad though – elevation gain is minimal and the cool water was refreshing in the hot afternoon sun. It’s also inevitable that you’ll lose the trail, as much of it is washed out close to the river banks. While some sections have cairns to help you find your way, most of your navigation will be via GPS or map. Don’t fret, however, if you aren’t exactly on the trail. As long as you’re following the river upstream, you’re headed in the right direction.
At around the three-mile mark, you’ll see a cave about halfway up one of the canyon walls. Though it looked ripe for exploration, we decided to keep moving to cover as many miles as we could before nightfall.
As we were hiking, I was pleasantly surprised at how calm and serene the afternoon felt. We had yet to run into another soul, and the bubbling sound of rushing water was relaxing. Around us, many wildflowers were in full bloom. We spotted the humble Spreading fleabane as well as the photogenic Silvery lupine. We also passed through several burned sections – a reminder of the interplay between beauty and destruction in the wilderness. Finally, after hiking for 7.5 miles, we set up camp. It was a clear, beautiful, and star-filled night–a great way to end our first day on the Gila Wilderness Loop.
Day 2 – Miles Hiked: 14.2, Elevation Gain: 2,029 feet, Elevation Loss: 1,133 feet, Approximate Total Number of River Crossings: 79
We awoke to the sun’s rays spilling into our campsite. It was spectacular to see the canyon walls lit up by the morning light. We ate a light breakfast and packed our things, ready for the longest day of our time on the Gila Wilderness Loop.
At mile 8.5, the trail takes you away from the river bank and along its southern canyon wall. In fact, it’s here where you’ll reach your first switchback of the trip! Soon you’ll be traversing high above the river, surrounded mostly by small grasses and large Ponderosa pines. It also was captivating to see the Gila from this new vantage point. Note that while the trail was mostly clear, there were several sketchy washed out sections. After a little over a mile, we rejoined the river.
You’ll notice a clear change in the ecosystem as you get close to the water, with thirstier plants such as reeds and cottonwood trees becoming more prominent. Again, the trail is washed out and spotty near the riverbank.
At mile 11, you’ll notice the canyon walls gradually shrinking. Then at around mile 13.5 they disappear altogether and are replaced with less dramatic hills. Finally, one mile later you’ll reach the junction for the Hells Hole Trail, marking the end of your jaunt along the GET. Be sure to fill up on water here, as the next five miles are dry. We took a lunch break to rest our feet, dry out our socks, rehydrate ourselves, and mentally prepare for a large slog ahead.
For the next two miles, you’ll climb 1,000 feet along switchbacks to the top of the mesa – a stark contrast from the previous 14.5 miles. With heavy packs, this section is definitely a leg buster but does come with a few consolations. The trail is easy to follow, and the views become more spectacular and expansive the higher you ascend. We took a well-deserved sit break once we reached the top.
Now on top of the mesa, the trail significantly flattens out and becomes much more wooded. Sitting at around 7,000 feet in elevation, you’ll hike mostly through forests of drought-tolerant Ponderosa pine trees. Also, much like below, we were lucky enough to pass through fields of silverly lupine, giving the otherwise muted scenery a fun pop of color. At mile 16.7, you’ll turn left to connect with the Woodland Park Trail, marking your long and slow descent to the Middle Fork of the Gila River.
While the trail is decently marked, there are a few sections where it seems to disappear without warning. The most egregious instance was at mile 18.5. We were supposed to turn right onto the Prior Creek Trail, but it was nowhere to be found. We hiked cross-country for about half a mile, following our GPS track before finding the trail again.
At mile 19, you’ll meet up with Prior Creek, where you can finally fill up on water again. Continuing for another 1.75 miles will bring you to Prior Cabin, built by the state of New Mexico in 1955. Though this structure is usually locked, the area around it makes for a fun and convenient campsite. Unfortunately, other backpackers (and the first people we saw since we started hiking) snagged this spot before we arrived. However, about a quarter mile further we found an equally prime campsite. After our longest and most elevation-heavy day, this find was the morale booster we needed. We took off our packs and set up camp. Because of the elevation, the temperature dropped significantly as the light started to fade. With the stars twinkling above us, we huddled around the fire for warmth and shared stories and dreams. After a few hours, the flames began to dwindle, signaling our migration back to our shelters for the night.
Day 3 – Miles Hiked: 11.5, Elevation Gain: 784 feet, Elevation Loss: 1,430 feet, Approximate Total Number of River Crossings: 126
We slowly crawled out of our sleeping bags after a frigid night, eager to continue hiking. After a slow breakfast, we broke camp and headed out to continue our trek on the Gila Wilderness Loop.
From Prior Cabin, the trail takes you through a four-mile dry stretch and through some small ups and downs before your final descent down to Middle Fork. To get there, you’ll first travel 0.8 miles northwest before turning left on Trail #730, which will take you to the river. Aside from a few (now expected) route-finding excursions, the trek was pleasant and smooth. And as you slowly meander your way down, you’ll get your first glimpse of the river and its canyon walls.
At mile 25, you’ll complete your descent. Turn left and begin hiking along the Continental Divide Trail. The longest of the three National Scenic Trails that make up the Triple Crown of Hiking, the CDT spans 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada and traverses through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. While we only hiked along a tiny 7-mile section of this massive trail, we encountered several thru-hikers just starting their months-long journey toward the northern terminus in Glacier National Park.
Hiking along Middle Fork is similar to West Fork, albeit more treacherous. You’ll once again have to get used to wet socks and shoes. In fact, we had several river crossings that took us across rapids and that went above our knees. Also, expect several washed out and poorly maintained sections. We had several intense moments of bushwalking and cross-country travel – the most harrowing of which involved class two scrambling over wet rocks. luckily everyone made it through safely.
However, with the landscape’s increased ferocity came greater grandeur. Carved by the roaring Middle Fork, the canyon walls were more striking and dramatic compared to earlier in the Gila Wilderness Loop. Even the foliage seemed to exist on a larger scale. It truly felt like a level up from the West Fork in every way.
After hiking for 11.5 miles and through afternoon thunderstorms, we set up camp by the CDT-Big Bear Canyon Trail junction. We had a few hours of clear weather, but just as we were finishing up dinner the rain returned with a vengeance. We scrambled to properly stow our scented items before jumping into our shelters for the night.
Day 4 – Miles Hiked: 9.5, Elevation Gain: 1,468 feet, Elevation Loss: 2,014 feet, Approximate Total Number of River Crossings: 136
Wet, sick, and cold from the night before, we were all eager to return to the car. After a slow morning, we packed up our backpacks for the last time and began hiking along the Big Bear Canyon Trail, which would take us up and over the mesa and back to West Fork. Starting this 7-mile dry stretch, we made sure to fill up our water bottles at the last river-crossing
The Big Bear Canyon Trail begins with a climb of about 1,000 feet over 1.7 miles. Just like Hells Hole, It’s a long and grueling ascent. However, the trail was well-kept, making the hiking a little easier. We also made sure to take plenty of breaks, noticing Middle Fork becoming smaller each time we looked down into the canyon.
At mile 34, you’ll reach a trail junction, marking the end of your climb. Follow the signs toward West Fork. Once again, you’ll be amongst the Ponderosa pines and blooming wildflowers.
For the next 1.8 miles, you’ll trek downhill along a well-graded trail – it was one of the few moments of truly easy hiking on this trip. After, you’ll have a brief 0.8-mile ascent before descending 1,300 feet over 3 miles to West Fork. Along the way, you’re offered sweeping views of the forests and mesas that make up the Gila Wilderness. You’ll also notice more classic desert flora along the trail, including Prickly Pear Cacti, Cane Cholla, and Yucca.
Reaching West Fork, it’s a short two miles back the way you came to complete the loop. After four days in the backcountry consisting of countless river crossings, route-finding, rainstorms, the freezing cold, and two grueling uphill sections, the drinks and snacks we saved in our car were like a gift from heaven. We rested for a bit and then made the 3.5-hour drive back to El Paso, fueled by dreams of hot showers and cold beverages.