Alum Camp/Alum Canyon

April 15-16, 2022

We eagerly signed on when our dear friend Brenda T suggested a backpack along the Gila River Trail. We've done this trail many times, but always as a day hike. We'd never taken two days and spent the night at Alum Camp.

And while I was excited for the trip, I was also a little nervous. The last time we went backpacking, I had terrible back pain on the hike out. I've been doing exercises to strengthen my back, but opted to play it safe and go ulta lightweight this time: no chair, no journal, no alcohol, dehydrated food only, no change of clothes ... not even a camera! Time would tell which small luxury I missed the most!

crossing the Gila River

With a leisurely start from Silver City, we hit the trail around 10 am. Despite our rather low-snow winter, the river was running strong at about 50 cfs, and it was plenty cold, especially in the morning.

Melanie Hot Springs

We had a chance to warm up in tiny Melanie Hot Springs.

Arizona Sycamore

The Arizona Sycamore, my absolute favorite tree. There are many of them along the Gila, their smooth white bark a startling counterpoint to the deep azure skies and ruddy cliffs.

Overlooking the Gila River

Brenda and me at a high point along the trail, with a fine view upstream.

Alum Camp

We found Alum Camp somewhat hidden on the far side of the river well away from the CDT. Here the Gila River swings west, while Alum Canyon continues south. It's a truly lovely place to camp, in a broad meadow overlooking the river. A stone chimney, the outline of a cabin, and a tumble-down corral are all that remain of what was once a substantial homestead.

Alum Canyon

It was still early, so once we set up camp, we decided to wander up Alum Canyon, attracted by a dreamy almost-trail in the sandy-bottom wash that meanders between orange cliffs through a dense blue oak and Ponderosa pine forest. A short distance up-canyon, we were startled to discover evidence of a significant mining operation, as well as what appeared to be an ancient roadbed. Only later would we learn about the fascinating history of this area.


Alum Canyon was full of lupine, and it was the only place we saw them.

Campsire at Alum Canyon

A small fire allowed us to stay up past "Backpackers' Midnight" (8:00 pm). Then we tucked into our 15-degree down bags for what turned out to be a surprisingly chilly night.

Soaking in Lightfeather Hot Springs

We capped off the next day with a proper soak at Lightfeather Hot Springs — our second natural hot springs in two days!

Interpretative Sign

On the way home, we checked out the interpretative sign — shot up of course — at the Alum Canyon trailhead. There we learned that the canyon was named for the mineral mined in this area in the early 1900s, but the recovery of aluminum metal from alum proved too costly to be profitable.

View from Alum Canyon trailhead

Even more surprising, the original road to the Gila Cliff Dwellings passed through this canyon! In 1938, when the Gila Cliff Dwellings became a national monument, access meant driving 27 miles of dirt road from Piños Altos, only to arrive at a locked gate on Copperas Flat, which barred all motorists from descending to the Gila River without a key and the consent of those who lived on the few sections of private land along the water. From Copperas Flat, an old wagon road that could only be negotiated by horses and trucks with special gearing plunged down a very steep incline into Alum Canyon. It was 14 miles and 19 river crossings to Doc Campbell's ranch on the Gila River.*

Golden Smoke

We didn't see many spring wildflowers on this hike. Mostly purple vetch, fleabane and lots of this lovely golden smoke.

Mule Deer

However, we saw dozens of deer along the road, both going and coming.

PS I'd like to say the thing I missed the most was my journal or my camera, but it was the wine! Such a tradition around the evening campfire! I had no back issues whatsoever on this trip, so I guess I can pack a tiny carton of chef boyardeaux on my next adventure!

*"Gila Cliff Dwellings: An Administrative History".