The Gila isn't a summertime forest.Through the 20 or so years I've been visiting it, I've come back to this idea quite a few times. I've certainly written about it before in this blog. My wife reminds that she's been pointing out the shortcomings of hiking the Gila in the summer for years. So while it's fresh in my mind, let's talk about it again. If it happens to be a year when large parts of the forest aren't already burning by mid-June, which puts most people off, there is much else to contend with.
First of all, it's hot. Unless, you're up around 10,000 feet , which means you're backpacking and camping on top of a mountain, you won't be that comfortable. It's humid. This is our "monsoon" season, so even when it's not pouring, there's bound to be a lot of moisture in the air. It's not the Gulf Coast, but to us locals used to humidity levels that barely make it into double digits most the year, it feels downright tropical. It rains. Sometimes it rains at least part of everyday in the mountains during July and August. Flash flooding is common even in creeks where you don't see a trickle 10 months out of the year. Of course with the rain comes lightning and the very real anxiety of getting struck. Cloudy skies and warm temps mean the rattlers stay active throughout the day. Step lightly and listen closely if you're hiking below 8,000 feet, which, of course, is most of the time. The bugs surround your head and relentlessly dive at your eyes and mouth. Plan for some unplanned snacks if you're hiking along a water course,which, of course,is most of the time. Most of the fishing streams are below 8,000 feet and warm up to dangerous levels for trout. With the exception a few streams in the narrowest of narrow canyons where the water stays cold, it's probably not a good idea to fish for trout from late June to late September. The poison ivy, which has an affinity for growing trailside , grows lush and thick. Good luck if you choose to wear shorts.Truth be told, looking back, the summer visits have dwindled to almost nothing, especially with the drought and fires of recent years.Spring and Fall are wonderful. Winter can even have it's charms. Past mid-June or so and lasting till the end of the rains, anywhere from mid-August to mid- September, the Gila can wait.
All that being said I passed a relatively pleasant Monday( 7/13/15) driving up to Emory Pass and down the other side bit, doing a couple of short hikes with Seamus.We first hiked up a headwater branch of Southwest Canyon. This is the first canyon that NM 152 runs along side of, west of Kingston, before it passes over a saddle and into the much larger and heavily burnt South Percha. Southwest Canyon, which is forested more with pinon and juniper rather than fir and ponderosa pine, is mostly unscathed by the Silver Fire. We parked at one of the hairpin turns where there is a pullout. We walked down the short road and continued up the stream channel, where shortly there was a flow of water over the thick deposits of gravel. We came upon a green cattle trough, and a spring that was trickling from the ground and out of rubber pipe as well. We continued on over some dry waterfalls and massive boulders of limestone that had a heavily mineralized look with geodes,crystals and a silver- gray matrix that looked very similar to rock I've seen over at Tierra Blanca Creek. We turned around where the stream forked for second time. The hillsides above us had green grasses,weeds, wildflowers and burned trees,but the stream bottom was mostly untouched. I'd like to come back and hike downstream from where we parked,but probably not until fall.
Up over the pass, I decided to go through with a vague plan to check out the section of Gallinas Creek that the trail passes by for about 1/2 mile or so to see if there were any hidden waterfalls. Even though I was still recovering from a cough that had lasted almost 2 weeks, I thought the 4 mile or so round trip hike wouldn't be too taxing. Off we went. Gallinas Creek had good flow to it, as we rock hopped the first the crossing. It was brown but not completely opaque. The one good thing the Gila does have in summer, that is in short supply over in the Lincoln National Forest is running water. I made the mistake last year of taking Seamus on a couple of waterless hikes over in the Lincoln, which I won't repeat. Early in the walk , the place looked unchanged, with leafy alders growing streamside and green needled firs and pines on the hillside. Soon, though, the effects of the fire began to be felt. I've hiked in this corridor, all or part of one of the three trails( FT 128,FT 129, FT 130, Gallinas, Railroad, and East Railroad respectively) at least 10 times. Before I even began to realize the visual changes, the sun's heat on my neck and face told me that this hike was much more open than it has ever been. Then I saw the trees. The upper parts of the shade giving oaks and walnuts were gone, although happily they were growing back thickly from the bottoms. Smaller diameter pines, firs and junipers were toast. Many larger trees had survived in the stream's tiny valley. The real problem was on the hillsides, and hilltops which were now green with and grasses and flowers, but where in many areas the loss of trees was extensive.
Along the way we encountered the namesake of the creek- a wild turkey hen, a few squirrels, and a few chipmunks that need to work on their scrambling and hiding skills. I noticed a multi- tiered cascade over bed rock, which I had never noticed before- which puzzled me- given the number of times I've been here. All could think is that perhaps the area was heavily grown in, or had gravel and boulders filling it and concealing it's true nature before the massive floods of the last two summers. It's lovely little spot now.
At the trail juncture(FT 128, FT 129) I opted to go west( left) off-trail along the creek which had a much smaller and clearer flow than the main stem, almost immediately noticing a series of falls coming down from a small side canyon.The creek bottom had a lush green growth,but that was mainly because it was now open to the sun. The former canopy was gone. The scrambling and rock hopping were not too difficult and we came upon several small falls.
Eventually we reached the point where the trail, comes down to the creek again after it's journey on the hillside 100 feet above us.We took the barely visible track back. Blazes were difficult to see in blackened trunks. Much of the forest was heavily burnt right down to the creek here as well. Through a fence and up on the ridge, it was little better as we followed the same little side canyon we saw coming in. I tried to get some shots of the waterfalls, but it was impossible to really see them without getting down in the ravine right on top of them. A few switchbacks on the gravelly hillside took us back down again to the trail junction. I thought a bit about continuing up to the small waterfall on East Railroad Canyon,but that would add another 2 to 3 miles to the hike. I'll save it for another day,maybe this summer, but probably not.
Note: All joking aside, the dangers along this trail are very real this summer. Thunderstorms can bring high winds, and if you hear trees cracking, keep your glance upward and your feet moving back to your car. Heavy rains will bring flash flooding on much more quickly than before the fire as well.