50-Mile Thru-Hikes: Middle Fork Trail, NM

Trek along–and in–the Gila River.

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(40 miles, 3-5 days)

It’s not quite canyoneering, not quite hiking. Amphibipacking, anyone? This trail fords the Middle Fork of the Gila River no fewer than 100 times as it pings between steep, ochre-colored walls on the way to the Gila’s headwaters in the Mogollon Mountains.

The hike up the Middle Fork is never strenuous but slow nonetheless, due to slick pebbles and bedrock at river crossings, plus the occasional patch of quicksand. The first few miles of walking, beyond the trailhead in Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, can be busy with dayhikers, but crowds soon fade: Beyond Jordan Hot Spring, a 97°F soaker at the eight-mile mark, you’ll be alone in the canyon.

Every twist and bend in the river alters the play of light. At midday, silvery green leaves of sycamore and cottonwood stand out in sharp relief against muted rock walls. At sunset, the odd spires, flutings, and buttresses of the cliff walls come alive in glowing reds and oranges. Dry your soggy toes by an evening fire and cock an ear for the echoing howls of Mexican gray wolves. (575) 388-8201; fs.usda.gov/gila

The way South trailhead: 44 miles north of Silver City on NM 15. North trailhead: Snow Lake Campground on NM 159.

Gila Backcountry Services ($175/pair, gilabackcountryservices.com)

Early summer (after runoff) and autumn (after monsoons)

Silver City Ranger District Gila Wilderness Map ($9, 575-388-8201)