Pie Town, NM to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, NM

Road walking, road walking, road walking. IT band issues. The *spectacular* Middle Fork of the Gila River. Water walking, water walking, water walking. Busted in the buff! Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

Day 92

20 miles

I started the day off with breakfast at one of the pie shops with Joe and Tugboat. It didn’t really have a breakfast menu, the cook just made up whatever you wanted. She made me scrambled eggs with tomato and cheese mixed in with them, with a side of bacon and toast. Tugboat and Joe ordered the same and so she called it the ‘Kate Special’. I made it to the Post Office shortly after they opened at 8 a.m. to get my package, headed back to the Toaster House to get everything packed up and then was on my way by about 9:30 a.m.

Today was 100% road walking. At least it was dirt though, and admittedly the miles do fly by quickly on long straight flat roads. Joe had fixed his tire issue and so was on the road today also. I got an hour’s head start, but he soon passed me. I jumped a ride with a hunter for 8 miles and as we passed him in the car I stuck my head out and gave him a huge smile and thumbs-up. Ha, he got a kick out of that! In case you’re curious, no, I don’t include hitched miles in my daily totals. The hunter dropped me off down the road and I kept on cruising. That was the only car to pass me all day so it was a lucky break, I really do have good hitching luck!

Joe passed me again around lunch and so we stopped at the day’s only water source to eat and fill up on water. The water was reported to be an electric powered piped well on the private property of a hiker friendly farmer. I wasn’t expecting much, and boy oh boy, was I surprised by what I got! I arrived to see the usual, a half-filled slightly murky trough of water with a pipe suspended above it. No water was coming out of the pipe and so I went over to an electric box on a nearby telegraph pole. Inside the electric box was a note: “Hikers: flip the bottom switch to operate pump…”. I flipped the breakers on and turned around to see a massive gush of super clear and cold water spouting from the pipe! Wowweee! It’s like water source Christmas!

Unsure of the reliability of future water sources I headed off with 4 liters (8 lbs) of water. Oh man, heavy pack! This stretch is really long, so in addition to the 8 lbs of water, I’m also carrying 8 days’ worth of food. I hate a heavy pack. Waaaahhhh!

The road in the afternoon transitioned to a rough ATV road and climbed up to Magnus Mountain. I was excited to see the Magnus Fire Lookout Tower after ‘reading’ (listening to) the book ‘Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout’. I talked about that great book a couple of posts back if you’re interested in more commentary on why it is I’m excited to see a fire lookout tower. Unfortunately i’m hiking through here long past fire season and so there was no one to give me a tour of the tower or it’s operations. Still, it was great to climb the tower and see a spectacular sunset.

I feel okay about night hiking on roads, somehow it’s less scary than a trail surrounded tightly by forest, so I hiked down off the summit to drop a few hundred feet in elevation and get out of the cold wind. I was back on a gravel car road and so it was easier walking than the ATV road ascent. I set up camp in the forest just off the side of the road, but out of sight to any cars that may possibly pass by, which they didn’t. I got a good night’s sleep but it was very quiet, no coyotes yipping and carrying on, no elk bugling. The wildlife has really thinned out now that i’m in this dry section of the state. I’ve kind of grown to enjoy these bedtime sounds on the trail, makes me feel like i’m not alone in the big forest. Maybe it’s just the tarantulas and I tonight, I haven’t grown to appreciate their silent company yet.

Day 93

22 miles

The morning was a long series of road walks down to Highway 12, and not a car or animal in sight. Very quiet morning on the trail. Despite my heavy pack, the miles went pretty quickly.

There was a great water source the other side of the highway so I stopped there to tank up and have lunch under a nearby tree. After a couple more miles of road walking I was greeted by the first trail (!!!) since leaving Pie Town 45’ish miles ago. Yay for trail. It was a nice climb to a ridge with expansive views too, a welcome change to the monotony of all the recent road walking.

The only eventful happening today, aside from a gate I couldn’t figure out how to open, was that my IT band, which has been irritated for over a month but not getting any better or worse, took a drastic and painful turn for the worse. Descending off the ridge I suddenly encountered pretty intense pain every time I swung my leg back or forth to take a step. Oh boy. C’mon knee, i’m SO CLOSE to finishing! Just 150 ish miles to get me back to Silver City, where I came off the trail injured last year, and get me finished with New Mexico.

I’ve been taping my knee/leg for the IT band issue and wearing a knee sleeve since it flared back up a month ago, so there’s nothing by way of external support I could implement. I’ve been doing targeted IT band stretches pre/post/during each day’s hike, so nothing more there I can really do either. I carry a trigger point ball and so did some rolling with it before I got into bed, the IT band was really hard, just like the massage therapist said a month or so ago in Grand Lake “wow, it’s like a hard piece of plastic”. I could also resort to an emergency dose of Vitamin I (ibuprofen), so instead of my usual 9-12 200mg a day, I increased my dose to 18 a day. Hopefully it helps! I kind of know that my left ankle is jacked up again, which changes my gait, but I tried to get in to see a PT in Grants and they were booked and there’s no other PTs anywhere near this trail until Silver City. Suck it up body, we’re going to finish New Mexico!

Day 94

16 miles

I woke up to my breakfast of Vitamin I and was on my way, hopeful that my IT band will have made a miraculous recovery. It hadn’t, although it wasn’t nearly as bad as last night.

I dropped into Govina Canyon and left the CDT behind for the next 5 miles. There’s no water on the official route for a while and there were recent reports that Govina Canyon had a spring with good water in it, so it was an easy decision. There wasn’t much of a trail for parts of the canyon but it was easy enough to navigate, and there was indeed a good water source down there.

At about mile 14 the trail spat me out onto a road for the start of what was yet another 25+ mile series of road walks. I was happy to see the road was in good condition, the kind of road I may actually encounter a car on! I started down the road, it had a pretty steep grade from the pass I was on and after all of the ups and downs i’d already done today my IT band was giving me grief unless I took small steps. So down I went, one small step at a time. My immediate goal was to get to the next water source a mile down the road. I was mulling over in my head what I’d do if the IT band didn’t get better when I heard a car coming down off the pass. It was 2 work trucks hauling some kind of construction materials, so I stuck out my thumb and in my usual good hitching luck, they stopped and I got myself a ride with the guy in the first truck. Not a minute later the heavens opened up with a pretty violent thunder and rain storm, I was happy to be in the truck!

He said they had been out there working on a roofing project at a ranch another hour the other side of the pass, they were headed back to Truth or Consequences, and where was I going? Hmmm, I replied, “I might be going to truth or consequences too”. He looked at me quizzically, “is that where you want to go?” I laughed but he didn’t, then I realized he wasn’t joking. No kidding, there is actually a town in New Mexico called Truth or Consequences, or T or C as it’s called by its 6000 residents! Classic.

I pulled up the map on my Delorme app to get a big picture view of where exactly I was in the state. Middle of nowhere was the answer, I was really remote. Apparently they hadn’t seen any other traffic on that road the past 2 days that they’d driven out to the ranch and back to do their job. T or C while I may have been headed there philosophically with my IT band issue, I sure didn’t want to be heading to physically, it was hours to the east with nothing in between. I decided that i’d get a hitch with him 8 miles down this road and then get out and continue along my route. My route after that headed along a road that intersected the forest east to west, and if I wanted to bail then the west side of the forest is where I needed to get to. I’d take my chances that the IT issue would improve or that i’d happen upon a car traveling to the west side of the forest if it didn’t.

He let me out at my road but seemed really hesitant to do so given my budding injury and how remote we were. Before parting ways he refilled my water bottles, offered me some bread and wished me well.

I headed down my road, listening to the grumbling of thunder and watching the path each storm was taking. After a couple of miles my knee had had enough and a storm was headed right for me, so I decided to call it a day and wandered into the forest a little ways to find a good place to camp.

I pondered the IT band issue. I’d noticed that uphill irritates my knee in general, downhill causes me IT band pain on the outside of my knee, but flat terrain seems to be just fine. 120 more miles to Silver City, how many hills could there be? I studied my maps and in fact I was in luck, tomorrow had some gradual ups and downs over 20 miles, but then after that I was in for 60 miles of virtually no elevation change as I travel through the Gila River canyon! Furthermore, i think the heavy pack hasn’t been helping anything and it would be much lighter going forward as there would be a plethora of water and my food bag was getting lighter by the day. Even better news, after 60 miles I’d be crossing a scenic highway and traveling through the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, where there’d definitely be cars and people should I need to bail. Yay! The plan was taking place. I’d leave in the morning with a goal of getting to to Silver City, but bail at the Cliff Dwellings if I had to.

Day 95

22 miles

It stormed most of the night and I woke up to a forest enveloped in mist. My tent was wet, inside from condensation and outside from the rain. I hate packing up a wet tent! Hopefully I get some wind or sunshine later today to dry it out because if there’s one thing I hate more than packing up a wet tent, it’s setting up a wet one at the other end of the day!

Most of the first 15 miles of the day was road walking through a pine forest in the mist and then wide open meadows under a stormy sky. Although there was a not-so-fun bushwack through a narrow weed filled canyon at one point. I arrived at Snow Lake at about 3 p.m. I’d been looking at Snow Lake on my maps ever since leaving Pie Town 90 or so miles ago, I was really excited to get there because it’s where I drop into the Middle Fork of the Gila River, which by all accounts is truly spectacular.

Snow Lake had all the amenities a hiker could dream of! A privy to dry my wet tent and get out of the stormy weather, trash cans to empty my 4 days of trash into and even a water faucet to refill my water bottles. I was expecting to see a car or two of fisherman and perhaps an RV or two of campers, but the massive parking lot was deserted today and the campground already closed for the year.

Dropping into the Middle Fork of the Gila was great! I was filled with excitement as I’ve never hiked a river for 60 miles before and it was going to be an epic finale to my 2016 CDT adventures. My excitement was tempered just a little as I walked past signs warnings of flash floods and Mexican Wolves. I took a longer than usual look at the dark stormy skies and decided to go for it anyway, I’d just be sure to camp up high and keep a close eye on the weather and water level.

I got about 5 miles down into the canyon before night was drawing close. Geez the days are short now! 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. is about all I get now that it’s November, what a contrast to the days of light in northern Montana where i got 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. to get my hiking miles in!

I found an awesome campsite on a somewhat dry looking piece of dirt with a great view, but it was pretty close to the river and I was definitely concerned about the flash flood thing. I walked on a little more and settled for a  wet bed of grass in a forest a good distance above the river. I’m going to be swimming in condensation in the morning! Oh well, at least I won’t be swimming in the river.

The highlight of the day was absolutely pulling off my wet shoes and getting them into my warm dry tent. Unfortunately my little toenail wasn’t looking too good. I’d been watching it closely for the past couple of weeks as I was concerned it was becoming ingrown. For some reason it went from wanting to grow into my toe to wanting to come off my toe completely. Yep that’s right, my little toenail wanted to come off. You’ve seen the scene in Wild, it wasn’t that dramatic, but I did have to pull my toenail off and it wasn’t a pleasant experience!

I got a weather forecast on my Delorme device and it promised an 80% chance of heavy precipitation tomorrow but then beautiful sun balls for many days after that. Given that it had only rained intermittently today, and that I was near the top of this Canyon, I felt pretty okay with that forecast. I’d just need to select my campsite carefully tomorrow night and keep my eye on the water level if it did in fact rain heavily all day.

Day 96

14 miles

Today was fantastic. The Middle Fork of the Gila River really is an incredible place. Put it on your ‘to-visit’ list. It rained on and off most of the morning, but it wasn’t torrential and so I wasn’t worried about flooding. I even got a break at one point to dry my tent out. Yay.

The river wound its way down a narrow canyon with sheer canyon walls of rocky spires and other neat rock formations. The whole day I picked my way down the canyon, one crossing of the river at a time. For the most part I’d cross the river, then head to the canyon wall on the river bank I’d just crossed onto and then there would be a decent trail through the trees until it came to an end at the next river crossing. In the first 20 miles of this river I will have crossed it more than 86 times! In some places the canyon was so narrow that i’d just walk down the river until a bank appeared on one side or the other. There were certainly some frustrating parts of the canyon where the trail completely alluded me, or wasn’t there in the first place, and in those parts I just had to weed whack or walk in the river. There is a lot of flood activity that happens in this canyon and a few years ago it was particularly bad and wiped out a lot of the trails, mostly there are new trails forged around the debris, but not always.

The weather forecast rang true later in the afternoon when I found myself in a tight canyon in the middle of an almighty rain and lightning storm. I had the choice of walking or standing on wet rock slabs at the bottom of some sheer rocky cliffs, or walking or standing in the river. If you know anything about how lightning conducts through various surfaces, both of these options are about as bad as each other. Argh. I’ve come so far with my fear management related to thunderstorms; while I appreciated that my predicament wasn’t great I also appreciated there wasn’t any point freaking out either, so I just kept working my way down the rock and river until I got to a river bank with dirt and trees etc to seek better shelter under. As it happens there was a fabulous camp site high up on the bank safe from flash flooding so I called it a day and setup my tent.

It was a slow going day, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Day 97

16 miles

I woke up to a beautiful sunny morning. Yay! Like yesterday, I made my way down the river one bend at a time. Traveling through terrain like this is slow-going enough as it is, but I took so many photos that it was even slower. Ha. I’d only planned to make 15 miles a day through the Gila given the river crossings, flood debris and lack of trails and so I had plenty of food and wasn’t feeling any kind of pressure to make big miles. Could things be better? Yep! My IT band hasn’t bugged me since I dropped into the canyon a couple of days ago. Happy days. What a fabulous home-stretch for me to be finishing out my 2016 CDT hike with.

I made it to Jordon Hot Springs by 4 p.m. and decided to set up camp there and go get myself a soak before bed! After setting up camp I headed across the stream and up the hill to the where my map showed the springs to be, although the stream of steaming water flowing down the bank was a dead giveaway. I climbed the bank a little and was greeted by the most beautiful hot spring pool! Clear steaming waters being fed by a little waterfall and surrounded by a lush forest. Wow! Lucky me!!!

I hadn’t seen a person since my hitch 4 days earlier and so I assumed it would be my own private hot spring. So great! I don’t carry a swim suit or a change of underwear so I stripped off and jumped in.

Then the afternoon got comical. I guess the hot spring is actually a pretty popular overnight backpacking destination to hike in to from the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument area and because it takes most people all day to make it those 7 miles they don’t start arriving until the late afternoon. Well, arrive they did, after all it was Saturday afternoon. First a group of 3 young college guys, then a couple, then a big group of Germans. In they jumped, swimsuits on, one after the other. I stayed in there longer than i’d intended hoping for a break in the traffic to get my naked ass out of the pool. No break came and i was getting hungry for dinner so I piped up to everyone: “I hope no one is opposed to some nudity because I gotta get out!” And with that I crossed the pool, clambered up the rocks (yes, not a graceful exit route because you gotta stick your ass out pretty good to get up them) and commenced to dry myself off with my tiny 6 inch by 8 inch camp towl. The Germans loved it, the couple couldn’t stop laughing but the college guys seemed embarrassed and tried to look anywhere but at me. Funny, funny, funny.

Day 98

16 miles

I woke up feeling very confused. Normally it’s dark when I wake up and first light only breaks when i’m walking out of camp, which lately is around 7 a.m. I’d set my alarm for 5:45, and it was 5:45, but light was breaking already. What’s going on? I thought maybe my phone was picking up a time from a different time zone, I thought I remembered that happening to me when I hiked the Under the Rim Trail in Bryce National Park in the spring, something like that Utah and Arizona were on different time zones and my phone picked up the time for the neighboring state. But I wasn’t sure if that had actually happened or if I had been suffering the post backpacking out-of-it’ness that tends to plague me after being in the woods for a few days.

Anyway, it wasn’t all bad that the sun was shining an hour earlier because it was a chilly morning and the air temp was well below the water temp and everytime I got done with a water crossing my legs and feet would get uncomfortably cold. Without the sun I don’t think it would have been very pleasant!

I left the Middle Fork and headed up a little slot canyon into Little Bear Canyon. I wanted to take a detour to the Gila Cliff Dwellings while I was passing through, and this trail took me to within a mile of them. I walked by more signs about flash flooding and headed up into the tight little winding canyon. It was so neat! After a couple of miles the trail climbed out of the slot canyon and all of a sudden I was back in the hot dry desert with the cactus and tarantulas again.

Wet feet and stones in my shoes hadn’t bothered me the past few days, but now that I was out of the water all I could think of as I walked along was how much i wanted to be out of my shoes! As soon as I hit the highway near the Gila Cliff Dwellings I shredded them and walked the next mile on the highway in my chacos, my toes rejoicing in their new dry and sunny surrounds.

I paid my $5 to the National Parks Service and headed up to the cliff dwellings. These caves were inhabited for about 30 years in the early 1200’s by a group of families of the Mogollon culture, perhaps as many as 60 people! The cliffs of the Gila Wilderness provided shelter for many native peoples over the centuries, but this particular dwelling is a great one to visit as it’s very accessible and so well preserved. The highlight for me was a pictograph of a little red man above what was probably a ceremonial room.

Cliff dwellings out of the way I was now headed to the local trading post to resupply before getting back on trail. A nice retired couple gave me a ride the few miles from the cliff dwellings to the store, which was very awesome because otherwise i’d probably have arrived after the store had shut for the day.

The trading post is called ‘Doc Campbells’ and it’s about the least customer oriented store I’ve visiting in all of my trail travels. The product mix is odd, like they have 2 shampoo options but no conditioner, which really bugged me because the shower I was about to take out the back of the trading post would be my first in over a week and my hair was not far from turning into dreadlocks. Any time I enquired about a service, a paid service at that, like to use the laundy or shower, the proprietor looked at his watch, grumbled about how it’s some kind of inconvenience and that I need to remember they shut at 4 (it was only 1:30). Then there’s the exporbitant pricing on all of the food that I had to buy to get me through the next 50 miles of trail. And if that’s not enough, the proprietor refused to provide trash services to his customers, even if you’ve just spent $60 on a very overpriced food resupply. I did find a trash can tucked away in a corner inside the store and threw my trash in there, to which he grumbled and walked around shaking his head. In one small victory I did make off with a free plastic spoon to replace the now tattered plastic fork and spoon i’d been using since Pie Town.


Thanks for reading!


12 thoughts on “Pie Town, NM to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, NM”

  1. Thought of 2 books I read: one a long time ago about a fire lookout in California- “The Dharma Bums” Kerouac ?, the other about 2 neighbouring towns in the mid-west called Hope and Despair in a Jack Reacher book.
    Your blog makes great reading too.

  2. Awesome trip report! I love in NM and just spent 10 days down in the Gila…great description of the places you hiked thru…yeah the owner of Doc Campbells is cantankerous for sure. Gila river is awesome….come back in early Oct…nobody is there.

  3. Hi great story I was in the area in the early 80s we were camped up in the hilas outside reserve hiked over from Turkey park to the middle Fork spent a couple days in the canyon crossing back-and-forth good size Cliff overhang with Indian pottery there shards scattered around then to find some pretty nice hot springs at the end of the hike just before the highway mid April lime green leaves beautiful weather and surroundings water was about from ankle to just over the thgh high great experience would love to go back there thanks for sharing yours. ; )

  4. I seriously need to get off my fat butt and learn to backpack through the forest like this. Your story is inspirational. I haven’t hiked into the Gila Wilderness behind Snow Lake since my father took me back there when I was a kid. So many beautiful images and wonderful story!

    1. Aww, thanks for the kind words, Lori, and yes, get out there! The Gila was spectacular! I want to hike it again some day.

  5. It was a pleasure reading your story , I’m sure that’s memories you could never remake. I’m glad you made it safely through all the areas and weather with injuries and of course a toe nail off , yiir a troooer for sure . Congrats on finishing . Awesome . My fiancé is from Show-Low , th white mountains in AZ , he has promised to take me to all his places , his old stomping grounds lol .

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