Do it Escape to a hot-spring paradise in this remote, ancient volcanic region. Though a 300,000-acre wildfire raged through the Gila Wilderness in summer 2012, this 13.6-mile, out-and-back overnighter didn’t burn, and it will still take you to one of the area’s best backcountry pools. You might even have it all to yourself if you plan a midweek spring trip.
From the TJ Corral trailhead (1), take the Little Bear Canyon Trail (729), which rolls in and out of several dry washes as it meanders northward. Pass through piñon-juniper grassland and an old burn area, then ascend a steep 500 feet to follow a broad ridge. A saddle (2) at mile 1.2 provides a comfortable, sandy spot to enjoy the view across the 1,200-foot-deep West Fork valley. In .9 mile, stay right past the trail marker for The Meadows (3), then cross a 6,300-foot pass (4), the hike’s high point, in .3 mile. Long views show the serpentine Middle Fork of the Gila carving its way through a sculpture garden of towering columns and cliffs.
Descend to follow a dry wash. If runoff is moving, in about a mile you’ll hear a small waterfall to your right (5), where Little Bear Canyon’s fortress-like walls begin. Following the wash, you’ll soon enter a narrow, rough-walled slot (6) (prone to flash flooding, so turn back if storms threaten). After about .2 mile of tight twists, emerge to meet the wide Middle Fork of the Gila River (7). Be prepared for water that is shin- or knee-deep—and for dark, gooey mud along the riverbanks due to runoff from 2012’s wildfire. Cross the river, turn left on the Middle Fork Gila Trail (157), and continue north for two miles—and 14 more river crossings (bring neoprene socks for warmth). The valley’s multicolored cliffs, spires, columns, and hoodoos will take your breath away, particularly where the valley widens (8) to reveal soaring, almost cathedral-like cliffs.
Reach several clearly established campsites (9) with stone fire pits at mile 6.8. A well-worn use trail climbs roughly 50 feet above the river to Jordan Hot Springs’ three pools (the largest is about 20 feet in diameter and three feet deep), where clear, 94°F water jets from the ground. Consider staying an extra night to explore the upper reaches of the Middle Fork, climb above the springs to take in the views from the canyon rim, or simply enjoy some R&R. Return the way you came.
Bonus: Visit Gila Cliff Dwellings NM, a mile west of the trailhead, to see 13th-century Mogollan abodes.
Get there From Silver City, take NM 15 N 43 miles to the TJ Corral trailhead.
Gear up Gila Hike and Bike, 103 E College Ave., Silver City, NM; (575) 388-3222; gilahikeandbike.com
Season To beat crowds, spring or fall
Water Runoff from the 2012 wildfire can turn the Gila brown; use a coffee filter to strain silt before treating river water, or pull from the small creek just west of camp.
Contact (575) 536-2250; fs.usda.gov/gila
Trip data backpacker.com/hikes/1967416