Friday Apr 9th, 2021, 0715-1000
West Fork Gila cliff dwellings to Doc Campbells and hot springs, end segment 21, mm 400.6
I slept very well in my humble nest under the trees, like a little squirrel cradled in the pine duff. I really am becoming feral I think. We had a short walk to the trailhead and cliff dwelling monuments, but we immediately had to cross the river, over and over again. It’s pleasant in the hot afternoons but the mornings, when it’s in the 40’s, not so much fun. Where I slept seemed to have trapped some of the warm air from the previous day, but as I walked down the valley, it became even colder. We got to the parking lot at 8 am, just in time for some day hikers to remark how cold and scantily clad we looked. Our bare legs and wet feet certainly did look out of place among the fleece jackets and thermoses full of coffee.
The park didn’t open until 9 am, plus I had already seen it, so I was going to try to get a ride to Doc Campbells, the general store. Only there was no traffic that early, so I resigned to just doing some chores at the visitors center. There were toilets and a sink, so I washed some things and hung them to dry on the entrance display…hikertrash style. When the ranger came to open, he said the park was now free but that visitors could no longer go inside the dwellings because of COVID. I decided to go for the walk around the site again, just because the canyon is so scenic.
When we got back to the road, there still weren’t many cars coming or going, so we decided to start walking. It was almost 5 miles to Docs but fortunately a truck came along right away, stopping to let us jump in the back. Sweet! The area sees so many backpackers that it’s really easy to get a ride. At Docs, we of course met 2 CDT section hikers, doing the usual hiker things outside. We got our resupply boxes and joined them in repackaging and fretting about how we were going to fit all our newly acquired weight. One of the guys was from Albuquerque, inviting us to contact him when we got close, so that was a fortuitous meeting. It was so great to be in the midst of other thru-hikers once again.
We spent most of the rest of the day at Docs, eating and chatting with everyone that dropped by. The wonderful family that runs the store is incredibly supportive of hikers. For instance, I asked if they sold headphones, since mine had died. Although they didn’t have any in the store, Kristy simply texted her husband Mike to pick some up, since he was in Silver City for the day. They also allowed hikers to run a tab so we could make multiple trips in and out of the store as our hunger dictated. It’s incredibly convenient and also a great strategy on behalf of the store… easy to rack up a pretty big tab on ice cream alone. Yet their prices were very reasonable for such a remote location. Many things were sold at cost…like my personally delivered headphones. They also offered free wifi, which was really key since there’s no mobile service in the valley. And they had an amazing selection of hiker food. If I had it to do over again, I would just buy my resupply from them (which is what I did a year later while on an extension of the Mogollon Rim Trail). I was happy to see so many people stopping in… business seemed to be good.
One of the guys that came to chat with us in front of Docs offered his support, including a ride back to the trailhead. He told us about his aborted 2020 thru-hike on the AT, a trip he’d been planning for years. After talking to him for awhile, we eventually pieced together that he’s the owner of the very popular and well-known AT guide AWOL and also the man behind the brand Antigravity Gear. Tinman (his trail name) was so humble, I couldn’t believe we’d been casually talking to such a bigwig. He offered us a free AWOL book but we had to decline since we didn’t really have room to carry anything more. The book looked really nice and I planned to get one later, just because of this connection and memory. Tinman was so adamant about helping us in some way that we arranged a set time for a ride the next morning. He also gave us a ride to the hot springs, even though it was less than a mile down the hill. More than anything, I just wanted to be able to talk with him because he was so enthusiastic about hiking and gear. What a great guy.
We were happy the hot springs still had tentsites left when we got there. It had filled up quickly on a Friday afternoon. Carla and Alan run the operation and Alan is the son of the Doc Campbell. Kristy is his niece. There’s also a farm in the valley run by Alan’s sister. In fact, the whole valley pretty much belongs to the extended family. One goes through the farm to get to the hot springs, which really got my goat…as in hundreds of baby goats frolicking in the field. The first thing I did after ditching my stuff at the campsite was go back to pet baby goats. I just couldn’t resist such absolute cuteness.
After my petting and setting up camp, it was finally time for a shower and soak. The facilities are pretty primitive, with long-drop toilets, an old rv for charging devices, and 3 hot springs pools, all set along the river. The sites are a bit dusty and mostly hard dirt. A sprinkler with thermal water serves as a shower. But for only $10, it’s hard to beat. It was only $8 in 2019, last time I camped, but they had since upgraded to wifi…well worth the price increase.
I rinsed some clothes in the river, washed in the shower, then enjoyed the pools. I’d been looking forward to this visit for a long time and it lived up to my expectations. The only downside was that it was going to be a cold night and my hiking clothes (sports bra and skirt) were now wet from being in the pools. I expected to wake up to some frozen clothes.