Gila River Pack Trip

Arizona's Gila River trail offers horse riders one of the most challenging and unique trail riding adventures around. This story chronicles water crossings, floods, extreme heat and traversing over rocky trails all in exchange for wonderful scenery, a sense of accomplishment and lifelong frienships and adventure.

Six of us had been planning a pack trip down Arizona’s Gila River since October 2004. Now, we were down to myself and two women from San Angelo, Texas (Semore and Ruth). Also along was my dog, Mattie. We’d agreed to meet at the White Mountain Wilderness, north of Ruidoso. Snow Lake is the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Gila River. We planned to go down the river to the town of Gila. Here’s my account of our journey.

August 6.
We headed for the town of Reserve, New Mexico, and on south to Snow Lake. The road to Snow Lake was 47 miles long and felt like a washboard. We arrived too late to get all the equipment together, so we had to wait till the next day.

August 7.A horrible storm hit the valley, so we waited another day.

August 8.Finally, we were off! A few hours into the trip, the sky opened up and poured rain and hail. We were in a large valley, and several caves lined the walls. One looked big enough for all of us to get into with the saddles and packs. We waited out the storm. We already had 15 river crossings under our belt and had just gotten started.

The trail was indescribable: We’d go from high rolling meadows down to river crossings. On the next turn, the river would appear to end in a box canyon – only to snake out around the next bend. The rocks varied from pitted sandstone with hundreds of caves to sheer granite walls reaching all the way down to the water’s edge. Ancient Ones looked down on us as we passed through their homes. We camped in a good place with lots of grass. Ti, who was serving as our packhorse, didn’t take to the job and ate very little.

August 9.We waited till the sun broke into the canyons, then dried our wet belongs. On the trail, we’d round one bend to find a huge cave cut into the rock at water’s edge; another bend, and the quartz in the mountainside would glitter in the sun.

We stopped for lunch in a high meadow filled with fir trees. Then we donned our slickers in time for the afternoon rain and took a nap. We repacked and were on our way with only a slight drizzle.

We started down a rock trail when suddenly we heard the deadly sound of a rattlesnake! Semore had already passed it, and Mattie the dog was headed straight for it. I called her back and backed the horses down the trail. Semore convinced the snake he should leave the trail; then, about 15 minutes later, the same thing happened!

Then we came to a steep climb out of the river bed; it rose about 45 degrees up solid rock. The old packhorse refused to go up. Ruth was riding point, and I was committed to the narrow rock trail with no way of turning around. All I could do was drop the rope and leave Semore with the packhorse. I crossed the rocks, found a place big enough for me to dismount, tied my horse, then went back to help Semore get the packhorse up the trail. With strong encouragement from me and a willow branch, the packhorse decided he’d go up the rock trail. Enough excitement for one day – we made camp in the next meadow.

August 10.The day started out beautiful. Camp was in a small canyon; as the sun rose, the cliff tops turned a brilliant gold. We dried our belongings and headed out. We soon came to a trail that led around a large rock outcropping in the river. It was 45 degrees straight up, with huge, sharp rocks and nothing but 12 inches of rock trail to separate us from the canyon wall and the river. The water crossings were flat slate, with huge crevices lurking between the layers. Mattie fell into several of the crevices, and my horse, Kissie Face, almost went down.

We finally got to what’s known as the Meadows, Ruth’s favorite camping place. We took a lunch break and rested the packhorse. We reloaded and started to Jordan Hot Springs. But we soon realized a flash flood had rushed down a side canyon, turning the crystal-clear Gila River the color of chocolate syrup. The river bottom was muddy, and the water was so brown, our horses couldn’t see the rocks. Crossings were nightmares. And there was no way to filter our drinking water. We never found the hot springs and were forced to make camp with not much grass. Our moods weren’t the best. We decided to formulate a better plan.

August 11.We were about to leave camp when we ran into a group of hikers from Baytown, Texas, who’d come up from the Meadows. They verified that the hot springs were only a few miles away, so we decided to try to make it there, and rest our bodies and our horses.

The canyon wall was almost tropical looking; we were belly deep in grass, and hot and cold springs came down from every direction. However, looks were deceiving. The grass smelled like sulfur from the hot springs, and the horses wouldn’t eat it or even walk in it. I, on the other hand, fell on my knees and drank deeply from the cold springs. I hadn’t had drinking water in more than a day.

Legend has it that Geronimo built the large pool, which is fed by a hot stream on both sides. The pool was crystal clear with aqua-colored water. The water felt about 102 degrees and was divine! I had a hard time enjoying the springs knowing that the horses still weren’t getting their fill of grass – but they finally did eat some.

We soaked for about an hour, then made camp. We refilled our drinking water from the cold springs; the Gila was still muddy. We ate our first hot meal in a couple of days and went back for a night soak in the springs.

August 12.We left camp fairly early. Semore decided to wear river shoes, put the top pack on her horse, and walk! All the horses’ feet were sore; Ti was barely making it, even with less weight. They hadn’t had good grass with good ground in several nights. We had 15 water crossings before we got to Little Bear Canyon. Some of the crossings were belly deep, and Mattie did a lot of swimming.

We finally got to Little Bear and started up. We crossed over to the West Fork to cut some miles off before Gila Hot Springs and Campbell Store. It was raining hard. Traveling up Little Bear, we saw golden eagles. In some areas, we had to get around huge boulders by scrambling up sheer rock sides.

Then we came to a three-inch rock ledge with no way around; the horses just had to jump it. Kissie refused. I slid off, threw the packhorse’s lead rope around the saddle horn, let go, and gave a loud smooch. Kissie jumped the ledge, jerking the packhorse with him. Whew!

We finally started up the switchback that leads out and over the top to the West Fork. The rain stopped, and we let our horses graze in the good strong grass that covered the top of the mesa. Then we started our descent down into the West Fork and the campgrounds. But there, we found no good grass for the horses.

August 13.Ruth and Semore decided to ride back to the truck, over the high country. That route will take them 15 to 16 hours, if they left all the gear with me. I spend the day trying to find grass for the horses and drying out our belongings.

August 14. Life is good! Some people from Silver City, New Mexico, have arrived to inspect elk-hunting spots. They gave me a bale of hay for the horses and asked me to supper. Steak, potatoes, and a cold beer! I slept better than I have in a week.

August15. Ruth and Semore showed up with the truck and trailer. We loaded everything and headed back to White Mountains.

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