A Hail of a Time in the Gila Wilderness

August 24, 2007

To celebrate our first anniversary, we organized an adventure in the Gila National Forest. I have fond memories of this area from one of my very first trips to the Southwest in April, 1998.

That trip was supposed to include a hike into Jordan Hot Springs, but with a late start and no camping gear, we had to turn back part way.

In the intervening nine years, I turned 50 and took up backpacking (yes, in that order), so I was keen on finally completing the hike. But, as always, Fate had other plans for us, beginning with two major accidents — one involving a truckload of grilled celery — that collectively closed I-10 for several hours.

We decided to make the best of the situation by stopping for dinner at the Buckhorn Saloon in Piños Altos. The minute we stepped inside, the presence of my sister Sue was so profound that I couldn't believe she wasn't sitting at the bar, drinking margaritas and singing old country and western songs with the regulars.

Our base camp for the next three days would be the Wilderness Lodge, a +100-year-old schoolhouse in a lush valley watered by numerous hot springs. The lodge is vintage 1970 and meets all our requirements for a perfect place to spend the night, including a friendly kitty cat, on-site hot springs and wireless internet!

There are two tubs at the Wilderness Lodge — one hot, one warm — and both are surrounded by fragrant mint and bobbing sunflowers.

Our warm-up hike was a short jaunt to the Lightfeather Hot Springs near the Visitor Center. Although this is one of the more popular hikes in the area, the trail was overgrown with neck-high sunflowers, and the hot pools had been washed away by heavy rains. The consolation prize was a guided tour of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

A side trip to Lake Roberts was rewarded by an opportunity to photograph a colorful sphinx moth.

Back at the Visitor Center, we were mesmerized by clouds of hummingbirds swirling around a series of feeders. Like a lot of the wildlife we saw on this trip, the hummers were unconcerned by our presence.

The morning of our anniversary dawned cool and clear, and conditions seemed right for a second run at Jordan Hot Springs. I remembered the first two miles as a hot uphill slog from TJ's Corral to the top of a sun-baked ridge of basalt. Instead, the trail meandered pleasantly through mixed high desert and pine forest. Amazing how a few years of backpacking in Arizona changes your perception of "hot", "dry" and "steep".

There were, however, some billowing dark clouds on the horizon. Our pilot assured me they would pass us by.

Just after we rounded the ridge and began the descent into Bear Canyon, the clouds caught up with us and began spitting rain. We pulled out our ponchos and kept going, but took refuge in a copse of piñon when the lightning moved in.

The rain congealed into pea-sized ice. While we watched in disbelief, marble-sized hail began slapping us on the head, knees and arms. We huddled together, nervously counting the seconds between lightning and thunder. "Oops, that one's gonna be ZOT!!! ... close!" By the time the lightning relented, there was at least three inches of ice on the ground, and the trail was a waterfall.

We decided our descent into a slot canyon should wait for another day, and made our way back down the trail as fast as our mud-caked shoes would carry us. Torrential rains and strobe-like lightning accompanied us every step of the way.

We arrived back at the lodge soaked, muddy and chilled to the bone. Fortunately, there was a hot tub, a warm cat and a cold bottle of Reisling waiting for us. Not a bad way to celebrate an anniversary after all.