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This hike begins at the confluence of the west and middle forks of the Gila River and makes a clockwise loop into the 558,014-acre Gila Wilderness. The easy overnight begins at the visitor center parking lot and includes a 1.2-mile stretch of road walking to the TJ Corral. From there, follow trail #729 up the hike’s only climb which tops out above Little Bear Canyon at mile 3.7. You’ll drop quickly to a trailside meadow that is a good resting point before the canyon narrows to nearly a slot and drops to the Middle Fork Gila River canyon where this route turns east on trail #157. The next mile of the canyon is steep and dramatic. (The west-bound trail leads upstream into the canyon and to a nearby warm-spring.)
Look for established campsites where the canyon opens, after passing through a narrow section of high cliffs. This is a popular and easy loop, so try to land a campsite early and expect company nearby. Also, minimize impact by using established sites away from the river. The second half of the loop sticks to the base of the canyon and criss-crosses over the river several times before reaching the natural pools known as Lightfeather Hot Springs less than a mile from the visitors center and trailhead parking lot.
Part of the Gila’s allure is the diversity of ecosystems. You’ll notice sharp contrasts on this route winding below mossy mesa-cut canyons into Little Bear Canyon and as the trailside vegetation transitions from pinon and juniper to cottonwood and dense brush along the river.
-Mapped by Bill Velasquez
- Distance: 18.5
Location: 33.225706, -108.241458
There is a small parking lot near the Gila Visitor Center where this loop begins and ends. Though no permits or registration are required to enjoy the Gila Wilderness, stop in to ask rangers about trail and crossing conditions before hiking south on the road.
Location: 33.220021, -108.243656
Turn right at mile 0.6 and follow the Cliff Dwelling road for another 0.7 miles to the TJ Corral where you’ll turn onto the trail.
Location: 33.227272, -108.251853
Turn right at the TJ Corral and look for the marked trailhead on the opposite side of the parking lot. The trail begins a gradual climb at this point.
Location: 33.239118, -108.249321
With the exception of a dip near mile 1.8, the climbing continues along a dry ridge. Stay straight at this 3-way junction near mile 3.5 to follow this route on trail #729. Pinon, juniper, and the desert landscape hint at the scorching summer temperatures. Peak hiking season here is March through June when temperatures are more mild.
Location: 33.257279, -108.25078
The trail winds mostly above dry, sandy drainages before hitting its 6,300-foot high point at mile 3.7 and beginning to drop into Little Bear Canyon.
Location: 33.259719, -108.253527
A picnic-perfect meadow flanks the trail on the downhill near mile 4.4. Below this point the trail alternates between sandy arroyo bottoms and a hard pack trail. You’ll also notice more moisture as you descend.
Location: 33.268887, -108.259407
As the canyon walls rise on both sides of the trail, the dry canyon yields to moister moss covered walls and hints of trickling water. The trail enters a narrow slot with steep canyon walls on both sides.
Location: 33.271919, -108.259642
This route turns right at the trail junction in the Middle Fork Gila River canyon. You’ll cross the river several times as you descend the eastern section of canyon’s most dramatic stretch–also prone to flash floods. Check with rangers about area forecasts before completing this route. The left-leading trail heads toward the Jordan Hot Springs which stay at a balmy 94 degrees.
Location: 33.273813, -108.25222
Near mile 6.4 the trail squeezes between towering walls and exits the narrow slot canyon. Though the dangers of flash floods are reduced, high water can still make it dangerous to cross the river–which you’ll do several times per mile.
Location: 33.274504, -108.246871
Outside of the slot canyon, look for established campsites, far from the water, for your overnight. During high season, privacy can be hard to find. Follow LNT principles to lessen the high-traffic impact.
Location: 33.258535, -108.233294
The river continues to wear away at the soft, volcanic sediment and you’ll cross the water several times as you descend the widening canyon. Follow trail 157 toward the visitor center, but look up for views of carved cliffs and jagged rock formations that are common in this area of the Gila Cliff Dwellings caldera.
Location: 33.233447, -108.235416
Before emerging from the canyon, and less than 1 mile from the visitor center, the trail skirts the Lightfeather hot springs. The 130-degree water pulses from the hillside and drains toward a riverside pool. Consider stopping for a dip before the final 20 minute walk that exits the canyon and leads to the trailhead at loop-end.
Location: 33.225684, -108.241339
Read warnings and condition updates at the trailhead before starting your hike, and stop in the visitors center to ask rangers about current conditions.
Location: 33.225792, -108.251333
Approaching the corral near the road crossing over the West Fork.
Location: 33.226967, -108.251703
The trailhead itself is equipped with a pit toilet and parking for both day and overnight hikers.
Location: 33.23009, -108.252003
You’ll cross into the wilderness area near mile 1.5.
Location: 33.237665, -108.248602
Though the ridge tends to be dry, thunderstorms can occur. These clouds are rolling toward the Gila.
Little Bear Canyon
Location: 33.255466, -108.252325
Looking toward Little Bear Canyon from it’s terminus, near this route’s high point.
Location: 33.255269, -108.252733
A dry, dusty path leads into Little Bear Canyon.
Location: 33.259665, -108.253248
This open flat is a good spot for a break before heading into the canyon.
Location: 33.26939, -108.259428
Just before landing in the base of the Middle Fork canyon, Little Bear Canyon narrows and offers dramatic big-wall views.
Location: 33.270897, -108.259234
The narrowest segment of the trail, just before Little BEar empties into the larger Middle Gila.
Location: 33.271901, -108.259492
This sign announces your arrival at the Middle Fork Gila River.
Location: 33.273435, -108.252722
There are several very narrow and dramatic steeps alongside the trail.
Location: 33.264276, -108.234386
The changing vegetation is one of the highlights of this trip. Look for these ghostly white trees as you descend the Middle Fork.
Location: 33.24041, -108.231339
Follow this sign toward the Gila Visitor Center.
Location: 33.2398, -108.231168
This evidence of beaver activity is visible near the river, but 43 other mammalian species–coyotes, bears, deer and others–also make homes in the Gila.
Location: 33.233411, -108.235373
Lightfeather hot springs is less than a mile from the trailhead and it’s 130-degree water pulses from the ground once a minute. Watch for hot rocks, heated by geothermal activity, in the riverbed.
Location: 33.233555, -108.235588
The hot water flows into the river and hikers have created a network of inviting pools.
Location: 33.225684, -108.241414
Signs warn of a meningitis-causing amoeba found worldwide in hot springs. Heed it’s warnings and keep your head above water while enjoying the thermal pools.