Although I slept in until nearly 7, it still didn’t feel like enough sleep somehow. I started packing in spite of the drowsiness and residual soreness. It was a cool morning with the smoke of the Black Fire hanging low over the campground.
I needed some water for my breakfast drink, and the lady who had checked me in was cleaning out the pools when I went over there. I asked how they cooled the spring water for the “cold” spigot and she explained it was a loop of thin pipe that went down into the earth and back up again, dumping excess heat into the ground. I had expected that would dump the heat into the river since it could move a lot more heat away with the flow. I figured the ground would equalize at a much higher temperature. And sure enough, the water marked “cold” was still slightly above lukewarm. But I was feeling very hungry and tolerated a slightly warm breakfast smoothie.
It was easier to pack up with a picnic table to arrange things on, even in spite of the chill air and my awkward stiff sore muscle motion. I had my pack ready to wear by 8:00 and started walking up the drive to the highway. Even with a break to read a historical sign, I made it to the Post before 8:30. When dumping my trash in the trash trailer, I met the lady coming in the back to open the store, and soon she informed me I could come in. She was studying the latest information on the fire, which was now only 7 miles from the area. She was annoyed at the lack of agreement and communication of the ranger district and other officials in charge of deciding how to handle the fire and whether to close the forest or which kinds of restrictions were in effect. She said I shouldn’t stick around too long or they would close the forest on me. But I had no intention of sticking around more than a couple of hours.
I bought a microwaveable breakfast burrito and a sandwich for later, both if which she had condiments for, two sodas, and some small supplies I had forgotten. I ate at the back picnic table and just as I was packing up to go, Lumberjack and Bucket rolled in, a day earlier than they had told the campground they would come and a day later than they told me. Despite getting there so early, they intended to stay the whole day and start hiking the next. But they didn’t want to hold me up and I started walking down the highway a few minutes later.
A few hundred feet later, I thumbed disc the same pickup truck that had taken me to the campground the previous afternoon. I climbed into the cramped bed and rode an uncomfortable 3 miles to the Gila Visitor Center, in which I looked at some small exhibits and watched a 30 minute movie about the archaeology of the cliff dwellings and the culture of the Mogollón people who had built it and briefly occupied it. Thus informed, I started walking the mile to the cliff dwellings themselves.
I paused to stash my pack behind the privy at Tj Corral, where I would be hiking from later and took nothing but my bottle of breakfast mix up to the cliff dwelling trailhead. A ranger there gave me a quick orientation and made me finish drinking my drink and refill my bottle with plain water since flavored things are banned in the archaeological site (to combat a rodent problem among other things).
The trail to the dwellings wound up a narrow canyon where I saw a spiny crevice lizard, then a steep trail up the side of the cliff to the level where erosion had carved out some huge natural caves from the volcanic sediment over hundreds of thousands of years. Human migrants had been using them for shelter for thousands of years, but in 1276 one of those groups decided to settle in for a long haul. Some 40-80 people had built a number of rock and clay rooms with wooden roofs inside the caves to weather an intense drought. And around 25 years later, they abandoned the site. No one has any guesses why.
Walking the road back from the cliff dwellings to the trailhead where my pack was waiting, I kept spotting ancient pictographs drawn on the rock walls beside the road. Although they had no written language, they sure drew some nice sketches, both figurative and abstract. And the hematite they drew with is basically indelible–they are as bright and clear now as they were when first drawn.
I ate my fat turkey sandwich at the trailhead for early lunch. Just the 30 or so minutes I spent sitting there, even in the shade, I was feeling sleepy. The drowsiness was back. But there was no time for naps. In spite of the heat, I set out to climb straight over the top of the mountain and back down into the Middle Fork canyon on the other side. It was brutal. Hardly any shade on the whole climb, especially with the sun directly overhead. At 1, with the sun at its highest, I was also nearing the highest, noisy exposed part of the climb. It wasn’t very steep, though, and I rarely stopped or slowed down. There was often a nice breeze to carry away my sweat, and I still had plenty of water.
When I finally reached the highest point, it was nearly 3 miles in and it was time for a rapid descent directly into Little Bear Canyon. It was just a hill at first, but when I got to where the water started flowing, it became something amazing. A slot canyon, at times barely 10 feet wide, walled by sandstone cliffs at least 60 feet high. The trail often when right through or beside the little stream that ran down it. It was lush, full of flowers and butterflies and bright green trees. It was not a straight shot either. It wound back and forth, serpentine, the whole way into the Gila canyon. But most importantly, it was cool and shady, a refreshing contrast to desert-like exposed mountain I’d just come over.
By 2pm, I had reached the campsite at the bottom, and I wasn’t alone. Another hiker had taken a leisurely walk downstream from Jordan Hot Springs that morning, and she had already set up camp here. After a brief chat, I left her to her own preparations and found a shady rock to sit and have late lunch, this time with limes. I had used up all the energy from first lunch getting over that mountain, and I still had many miles to go.
In contrast to the full combined Gila River Canyon I had been in the day before, the Middle Fork Canyon was both much deeper (the walls were higher) and much narrower. Crossings were more frequent and brush was denser. Which meant it was usually shadier too. However, the trail was very clear and well-maintained, with only a handful of deadfall blockages. I made it to Jordan Hot Springs in around an hour.
Of course I had to take a little dip in that beautiful little pool in the shade. In fact, I stayed in the water for an hour. It was the perfect temperature for human enjoyment. Not so cold you feel pain getting in, not so hot you want to get out to cool off every 15 minutes. But you really needed to keep your skin underwater and wear a big hat, because the horseflies were all dead set on ruining the experience. I couldn’t go five minutes without having to swat at them or splash them.
When I got dressed to hike again, I still had 7 miles to go to reach my destination, and only 4 hours of daylight left. And supper would have to be fit in there somewhere. But I figured I could get it done. I wasn’t allergic to continuing after dark.
There were many more river crossings as the hike continued, and every one was infested with nearly finished frogs. They had the right body shape, but they were still dependent on the tail to swim. And recently finished ones were still squirming under rocks in the middle of the stream when they saw me coming.
There was other wildlife around too. The ubiquitous flies, of course, but I also saw a very pretty snake in the trail, banded red, black, white, black. It was a baby, and scurried into the bushes before I could get my camera going.
I came on a cleared campsite with a sitting log about 6:30. With 4 miles left to hike, I made a quick dinner. I got done and packed up by a little after 7. It was already dim enough in the canyon I walked out again with my hat and sunglasses packed and my headlamp on.
I didn’t need to turn it on for more than an hour, but as soon as it got dark enough to require it, there was a stark transition in frog behavior as well. Now every crossing featured at least one, if not three largish frogs in the trail both going in and out. I imagine the whole bank of the river, all the way down, was absolutely solid frogs. I would pause to push the larger ones aside with my trekking pole so I didn’t accidentally step on them.
Hiking the trail at night was much trippier. As in, there started to be more rocks lodged in the trail and I couldn’t look away or stop focusing for a second or I would hang a foot on one and stumble. It was harder to find flat places to step underwater when crossing the river too, so crossings became awkward and bumbly. I was ready to be done, but I wasn’t far from The Meadows. I pushed on and reached it a bit after 9.
Somehow, I wasn’t completely wiped. I stopped dropped my pack and took my water bag down into the woods to find the river. Yes, the canyon was suddenly wide enough that finding the river was a chore. It was a hundred yards into the forest, right up against the canyon wall. It was tricky to find my way back with the water as well. But it was worth it. My mouth was dry and a few gulps made it easier to sleep once I got to bed.
For once, I didn’t end the day completely stove up, feeling like my legs were going to fall off. Maybe I’m finally getting my trail legs again? In any case, it felt like a very late night, even though I was getting to sleep a solid hour before I had the previous night. I decided to put off the writing until the morning. As long as the trail didn’t suddenly escalate in difficulty, I had a little time to play with the next day.
Trail miles: 18.2 (though I didn’t walk that far–probably only 14 not counting the side trip to cliff dwellings)
Distance to Highway 12: 68.5 miles