Thursday Apr 8th, 2021, 0715-1900
Mogollon Baldy to West Fork Gila cliff dwellings, segment 21, mm 397.5
The wind howled all night, sometimes even shaking the metal container. It was a bit drafty, doing little to trap our body heat. But far better than our tents would have been at keeping out the cold! And we were well protected from flying objects, bears, and vampires.
The sunrise on top the mountain was beautiful, if a bit frigid and blustery. I was glad we spent the night up there but also ready to get down to lower and less burned climates. The notes indicated that the trail ahead was even less maintained, so we were prepared for an additional 4 mile battle. Fortunately this was not the case. We went down easy switchbacks through meadows and then directly along the ridgeline through intact forest. It was everything we had hoped yesterday would be. Even the small snow patches were easy. We did get back into a few burn areas with blow downs but nothing like the day before. One area was very recently burned, with everything charred right to the ground. The soil was very weak and actually collapsed under our feet a few times.
Pretty quickly we made it to a broad ridge of ponderosa that was wonderful to behold. Here it looked like the fires had helped things, as the trees were still alive and the understory was clear. It had the feel of a park, where I could just envision large herds of elk grazing peacefully. We walked through several miles of this open and easy environment. It was such a 180 from the burned mountain ridges.
We crossed White Creek, where I took a break to collect water and snack. Stellar was going to try to wash the grime off from our log crawling but I reminded him that we had upwards of 60 fords of the Gila River in our near future. We continued another few miles to the start of the canyon and our reunion with the Gila.
She was not the same sad river we saw in AZ. Here she is little more than a creek but ohh so cold and clear. We proceeded down the lovely and well established trail that runs alongside in the stunning canyon. The whole area is a remnant of 2 gigantic super volcanoes, so the spires and towers that form the canyon walls are called volcanic tuff. There are also some cool columnar formations, similar to the Devil’s Postpile in the Sierras. Within a mile, I startled a lone elk getting a drink then a black snake that was in the middle of the trail. We also passed 5 other backpackers, the first hikers we’d seen in over a week.
I started seeing fresh horse prints and poop after awhile. We caught up to this pack train at the end of the day and had a nice chat with the 2 guys. They had 4 horses and were from Oklahoma. They were offloading all their stuff for camp and man did it look like a lot of work. It gave me the idea of making my camp even less work than it already is. I decided that the conditions might be favorable for cowboy camping, whereby one simply sleeps on their tarp and sleeping pad, no tent. I never do this because I don’t like getting my stuff dirty, plus there are usually bugs. But the grass and pine needles along the river provided a perfect carpet. The bugs I wasn’t sure about but was willing to risk it.
We walked until late, more than making up for some lost miles the day before. We finally stopped at a location where there were cliff dwellings. I cleaned up in the river while Stellar went to explore the caves. I found the perfect spot under some ponderosa, laying out my ground tarp and pad. I quickly settled in for the night, enjoying some natural camp furniture in the form of a perfectly slanted boulder. A lone mosquito came calling and I dispatched it. I was worried there would be more but miraculously it was the last one. I went to sleep looking up at the stars through the ponderosa. I heard the call of a Mexican Spotted Owl just as I drifted off… thanks to Dan for teaching me its call! From a metal box on top a mountain to sleeping in the open next to a river, what a difference a day makes.