Exploring New Mexico– Gila Wilderness and the Pecos River

[Note- This post is the last of four describing my 2012 Road Trip]

The road trip east from Kingman was hot and uneventful until I headed south on Hwy 180/191 toward Eagar and Alpine. The area around Alpine—sitting at the eastern end of the White Mountains at 8,000 ft. elevation—is wondrous. It is a popular hunting destination, complete with numerous dude ranches, camping and hiking options.

Suddenly, the skies darkened and one of the Alpine area’s spectacular summertime monsoon thunderstorms was about to erupt off to the east. A bright, white cumulus cloud was rising high above the dark clouds, yet the sun could not penetrate the dark rain clouds below.

Storm Over Gila

Storm Over Gila

As I proceeded parallel with the Mogollon Mountains, fierce lightening erupted between the dark rain clouds and the ground. Then the rain poured down, evident even from my vantage point miles from the storm. Continuing south through the Apache National Forest, the dark and rain-soaked weather followed me into Silver City, my destination for the night.

Finally, the rains stopped by morning. But the fires still bedeviled me- a constant throughout this entire trip. At the U.S. Forest Service Office in Silver City, rangers warned that accumulated ash and sediment from fires in the northern Gila National Forest area had contaminated the West Fork of the Gila River and the lower Gila. I would need to carry potable water for camping and hiking since water filters would be useless due to the heavy runoff sediment. I didn’t want to clog my First Need Water Purification System, so I filled water bottles and bladder before leaving Silver City.

Still, with the Hoover Wilderness/Yosemite trip cut short due to Rick’s altitude sickness, I had the time to explore the Gila Wilderness before heading northeasterly toward Santa Fe and Raton, where I was to meet another friend in 10 days. The ranger gave me recommendations on places to camp, hike, and backpack…including places to avoid crowds before the approaching Labor Day weekend.

Gila Wilderness

Gila Wilderness

Arriving in Gila Wilderness, there was no one else around! The Gila Wilderness is comprised of over 557 thousand acres within the larger Gila National Forest- it is vast! The Aldo Leopold Wilderness is an additional 200 thousand acres adjacent and east of Gila. When hiking in the Gila alone, I carry a side-arm and a snake-bite kit, what with rattle snakes, mountain lions, bears, wolves and the southwest javelina— a wild boar with big teeth, that frequents the area. I set up camp in Lower Scorpion Campground, a past favorite site of mine.

Little Scorpion Camp

Little Scorpion Camp

Next morning, sure-enough, there were a couple dozen javelina in the nearby brush. I hiked the EE Canyon Loop which involved a river crossing. If there was too much fast water, my detour would be a short bush-wack to the historic Cave Dwellings and take the road back to camp. I carried three liters of water for the eight mile hike, crossed the river in less than a foot of water and was back by early afternoon.

Gila Mountains

Gila Mountains

Staying on the move, I departed Gila to drive north to the Mangus Mountains. Heading south back to Silver City, then north on Hwy 180 to Apache Creek, on the fringes of the National Forest, I discovered the Armijo Springs campground. A small camp, with only five tent sites and a warning sign about flooding during high water, the place was empty. I pitched my tent near a dry creek-bed, then hiked up the creek a couple miles to explore the terrain. It was rough country, no question- big mountains when viewed from the dry creek-bed. A long day, many miles, and a dehydrated dinner, I called it a day.

At day’s light, I decided to make a big push north—driving through Magdalena, Socorro and Albuquerque, with a pit stop for lunch. Then, it was back on the road past Santa Fe to a place I’d never been— remote campgrounds along the Pecos River, in the Pecos Wilderness, part of the Santa Fe National Forest. I was probably twenty- five miles NE of Santa Fe as the crow flies, but you’d never know it.

By mid-afternoon, I’d driven through the town of Pecos and continued another 15 miles past Cowles to the last campgrounds in the river valley. Iron Gate was the highest elevation at 9,400 ft. but a turnoff sign recommended four-wheel-drive only. Not having four-wheel, I instead found Jack’s Creek at 8,900 ft. Assuming these campsites would be the last to fill on Labor Day weekend, I once again was the only camper! The place was beautiful, lush forest and mountains as far as you could see in any direction.

Jack's Creek Campground

Jack’s Creek Campground, Pecos River

These were state campgrounds, which offered a 50 percent discount on daily rates if you had a Senior Pass for the National Parks. As a holder of a Senior Pass, I got five nights in the best campsite at a total cost of $25. I was definitely a “Happy Camper!”

What's for Dinner?

What’s for Dinner?

After setting up my tent and unloading my gear, I kicked back with a cold brew, a treat from Albuquerque, and a Cohiba. The luxury of car-camping; another being able to stretch out in my two-person tent! Life was on the upswing after the unexpected early departure from Hoover/Yosemite and the fire-related water problems in Gila. Dinner was a “tasty” dehydrated food pack, and my after-dinner treat: Charlie Russell, The Cowboy Years, the book I purchased in Missoula a month earlier. I finished Charlie Russell in the wilds of the Pecos, a wonderful setting for a great read!

Walking down the road next morning, I came upon several trail-heads and a staging area for locals with horses and trailers. A shelter featured maps of nearby trail-heads. I took the opportunity to talk with the locals about the trail-heads, decided on a trail and high-tailed it back to camp to grab my gear.

Trail to Iron Gate

Trail to Iron Gate

My first day’s hike was up to Iron Gate campground on an adjacent mountain. The distance was uncertain so I planned a maximum four hour hike before turning back, if I hadn’t reached my destination. What do you know—I reached Iron Gate campground in three and a half hours! But I was to face another unexpected “turn” in the trail adventure.

This area of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is home to bear, mountain lions, wolves and more, so I was again carrying my side-arm. New Mexico requires “open carry” rather than “conceal carry” (which I prefer). I came upon two men with a horse trailer and a couple of horses. I assumed they were hunters. They had built a fire and asked me if I wanted a cold cerveza, to which I replied, “Gracias, but no.” In the course of our short conversation, one of the men kept staring at my side-arm, then at me, then back to the side-arm. It made me uneasy and with their talk about hunting- elk season opened the next day, I knew they were also armed. After repeated invitations to join them for a beer, I cut the conversation short and told them that I had to get back to meet friends at the trailhead. “Adios,” I said, as I headed back down the trail.

Heading back down the switch-backed trail, I hiked at a brisk pace. Given their interest in my sidearm—a shiny stainless .357 Magnum valued at about $800—and knowing they had long guns, made me a bit uneasy. I knew that with a scoped rifle, I would be an easy target out to at least 200 yards, if that was their intention. I was constantly looking over my shoulder to be sure I wasn’t being followed. As the trail continued downward, then leveled and began to climb again, I began to breathe a bit easier. Still having a couple miles to go before reaching the trail-head, I got off the trail and waited five minutes to be sure I wasn’t being followed. Then I continued on back to the campground.

That was a first-time experience for me and one I will forever remember. Especially when hiking solo, you must always be aware in the wilderness of potentially dangerous situations and encounters with both four-legged and two-legged creatures, and those that slither in the brush. Returning to the campground, I found the camping crowd growing. As a car-camper however, I relaxed with a second (and last) beer and another Cohiba while preparing dinner.

With the start of hunting season the next day, my hiking was finished, at least in this neck of the woods. As I cooked breakfast, I encountered a problem with my stove. My MSR Dragonfly liquid-fuel stove had been operating successfully for over a decade so I figured it was probably time for a rebuild. This would probably entail new ‘O’- rings, fuel line filter, pump seal and a good cleaning. I decided to drive into Santa Fe and visit REI and get a repair kit. While there, I also purchased a newer style stove—a JetBoil that uses pressurized propane canisters—a model which several friends had been happy using in recent years.

The JetBoil is a small, compact burner and included a light-weight 1.5 liter cooking pot. I thought I’d fix the old Dragonfly and use it as a back-up, and rely on the new stove for the balance of the trip. I repackaged the JetBoil burner inside a much smaller  3/4 liter titanium pot and cup that fit together with the burner inside. I haven’t used the larger JetBoil pot in the three years I’ve owned it. The small compact system meets my needs and works well, but I like using the liquid fuels better- it’s easier determining exactly how much fuel I have, and cold temps reduce gas pressure in the canisters. With liquid fuels you can adjust pressure regardless of temp. But, it’s nice to have a couple of options.

While in Santa Fe, I called my buddy, who was visiting his son in Colorado, and found he would be in Santa Fe the next day. I headed back to camp, stopping at Glorieta, a small town just off I-25. Glorieta Pass was the site of a famous Civil War battle, and I drove up to Glorieta Baldy (10,125’) to hike around a bit. I returned to the crowded campground and began repairing the old stove.

Glorieta Pass

Glorieta Pass Battlefield

The place was filling up rapidly, getting noisier by the hour. There were now six guys, several tents and vehicles in the campsite next to me. Late in the afternoon, they pulled out a chain saw to cut firewood. Not only was it noisy as hell, it was clearly against posted campground rules. The site across the road was now also filled with people and vehicles. I crawled into my tent when it got dark and tried to get some sleep with little success… more people arriving, car doors slamming, horns honking. I guess this is why I enjoy backpacking— getting away from the hustle and bustle of city life; communing with nature in its raw state! Somehow, at least for this Labor Day weekend, the hustle and bustle had come to the mountain top!

At daybreak, I found the campground filled to probably four times its capacity. I packed up two days early and headed for Raton. I called my buddy telling him I was going to try and move up our reservation at Whittington Center, and we agreed to meet the next day in Raton. I succeeded in getting our reservation changed, and we looked forward to an exciting few days.

Whitington

NRA Whitington Center

Whittington is a shooter’s mecca, a hunter’s paradise, a camper’s utopia, a sports shopper’s dream and an old-west history buff’s classroom. It is a world-class facility with 18 shooting ranges, campgrounds, an array of lodging options, a historic firearms museum and a firearms training facility. We were not disappointed, Whittington was an exceptional experience.

Whittington 1,000 Yd. Range

Whittington 1,000 Yd. Range

 

Pronghorn Antelope

Pronghorn Antelope

After the three days, I drove south to Truth or Consequences to pick up another old friend who would return to Minneapolis with me. My 2012 Road Trip was coming to an end. What an experience: forest fires start-to-end, heavy rains, sickness on the trail, a potable water shortage, a scare at Iron Gate, a noisy campground, a broken stove, and fun at Whittington. A memorable six-week adventure shared with many friends, a trip I’ll always treasure.

[Note- Be sure to read all four consecutive posts on the 2012 Road Trip–  covering adventures  in ND, MT, ID, OR, CA, AZ and NM]

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About Mike Hohmann

I did lots of camping/hiking as a kid in the Scouts, and I still strive to 'be prepared.' After high school, I got bored with more school and enlisted in the Army Corps. of Engineers, doing two tours in Vietnam. Post military, I completed BS and MBA degrees and spent several decades with Corporate America, working mostly in the areas of conventional and renewable energy. I also spent over a decade as a self-employed small business consultant in marketing and finance. As a young family man with a wife and two kids, we spent many vacations camping and hiking in northern Minnesota. I spent additional long weekends fishing the rivers and camping/hiking along the North Shore of Lake Superior. I retired early and hit the trails hard-- in the lower-48, Alaska, and western Canada. These days I backpack, car-camp and day-hike, go snowshoeing, and try to get the grand-kids out to teach them the ways of the trail. Other interests include American Revolutionary War and Civil War history, 19th and 20th century firearms, Native American history; business and macroeconomics. I'm a recently-licensed amateur (Ham) radio operator, and I look forward to many radio-related adventures in coming months. Life is good! Member, Superior Hiking Trail Association; Member, Appalachian Mountain Club; Member, REI; Member, ARRL- Amateur Radio Relay League, the National Assoc. for Amateur Radio; Twin Cities Metro Skywarn Spotter; Twin City FM Club; Richfield Amateur Radio Club; QRP ARCI, Low-Power Amateur Radio Club International; Honorary Member, Toronto QRP Society; Life Member, National Rifle Association
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