Horseback through the Gila Wilderness – 90% magic, 20% terrifying

30 miles in 3 days – Day 1

Map of Day 1 – Woody’s Corral to Prior Creek Drainage

I’ve never backpacked. I am not a horsewoman. So I’ve never been able to experience true Wilderness. Last year I decided that I wanted to take a pack trip into the Gila Wilderness on horseback for my 70th birthday. 

We didn’t get out on the trip until the last weekend of September this year, thanks to a full schedule last year and two forest fires this summer that forced postponements. 

We gathered at Woody’s Corral at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. We started with lessons on currying our horses, slipping the bit between unwilling teeth and getting the saddlebags on either side of the horse as close to equally weighted as possible.  Everything we would have at our disposal for three days and two nights was loaded into those saddlebags.  In addition to our clothing and personal items, that included one bowl, one cup and one spoon, one roll of TP, one small knife, one flashlight, one bandana and one pair of work gloves, all provided by the outfitter. Be sure to put the bowl, cup and spoon in spots where they wouldn’t rattle and clack against each other. 

My ride, Smoke with full pack

Joe, our outfitter, is Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache and is a practicing advocate of the historic and cultural ways.  Once everyone was packed, balanced, bitted and bridled, Joe came to each of us and our horse.  Stand, hold hands out in front and receive the blessing, with pollen touched on forehead, chest, each hand and each foot, while Joe whispered the prayer.  Each horse was just as solemnly blessed with pollen on the forehead.  I and my horse wore our pollen for the rest of the day; the spirit of the blessing surrounded us through the entire trip. 

We mounted up, all except me.  Joe and I led my horse to a large rock, from which I was boosted into the saddle, stretching to get my leg up and over, not just the saddle, but the pack behind the saddle that held my sleeping bag.  This would become the ritual for the remainder of the trip: find a rock or log, be boosted into the saddle and likewise assisted down.  For Joe and his wrangler,Corbin, this was a lot of boosting and assisting, since we stopped for breaks morning and afternoon as well as lunch and for the night.

We headed out of the corral and along the trail that passed by the foot of the trail up to the Cliff Dwellings. Cars, picnickers, dogs all making noise I would be happy to leave behind.  And we did – we left all behind within a mile.  We plunged into verdant growth of narrow leaf cottonwood, willow and undergrowth.  The Virginia Creeper made scarlet notes on the trunks of trees showing gold and yellow.  Another half-mile and we were in the flood plain of the river and a meadow of Chamisa, colloquially called rabbit bush. Chamisa is a sage-green bush with bright yellow flower heads which usually attract every species of butterfly in the county.  Evidence of the severe drought and uneven weather, we did not see a single butterfly as we rode through.

Chamisa and Narrow-Leave Cottonwood in the Gila River watershed

We reached the boundary between the National Monument and the Gila Wilderness and took the trail to the right, starting up Big Bear Trail.  Boy, do I mean UP. Joe stopped us briefly to tell us just how to “help” our horses climb 540 feet in less than ½ mile. “Stand in your stirrups. Lean forward. Grab the mane. The horse must run up the hill; she’ll never make it if she tries to walk.  Keep her moving.  Oh, by the way, there are steps she has to scramble up.”  We stopped on two sort-of flat stretches between switchbacks and steps to let the horses catch their breath.  Smoke was sweating and breathing heavy, sides heaving between my knees.  At the top, we rested again until all horses were cooling and breathing normally.

We were now on top of the plateau in a dry-grass landscape.  There was no water here.  We had enough for ourselves, but none for the horses.  It’s 5+ miles on Big Bear trail to the next trail juncture.  At about 2+/- miles per hour, that’s a little over two hours. But I wasn’t in a hurry; I was too busy looking around.  Plus we had a lunch stop to look forward to and a chance to go two-legged for a little while.

At the top of the scramble up to Big Bear trail.
View of the Gila Wilderness from Big Bear trail

We stopped at Eagle Point.  From this vantage point, we could see down into the Middle Fork of the Gila River. Views were stunning. Although I couldn’t see the River itself, I could follow the lushness of the Cottonwood trees until both river and tree fringe turned into the heart of the gorge.

We didn’t have a lot further to go before we stopped for the night.  There were about two hours before sunset to unpack and unsaddle the horses, get the saddle pads and blankets on the line to dry, drag over firewood to get a dinner fire started, and choose our “sleeping quarters.”  Joe and Corbin got the fire going and started dinner. The saddle pads served as our mattresses, with a saddle blanket as “pillow top.”  Throw down a sleeping bag, put clothes into a little pile for a pillow, and go eat dinner.  Joe traveled lean but he fed us well: beef stew with corn bread for dinner, plus fresh fruit.  A little time by the fire, a cup of tea and into the sleeping bag under a half-moon.

Saddle pads and saddle blankets on the line to dry before bedtime.
From left: Corbin, Carol and Joe.

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