A Hidden Gem in the Land of Enchantment
In search of a natural hot spring in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness.
Gila Wilderness Backpacking, New Mexico
Tip-toeing barefoot over the dirt-strewn ice, we look for a place where we could stash our clothes. It’s COLD out – mid-teens probably, which might as well have been the North Pole in my board shorts. My wife isn’t doing any better, weaving through the crowd in her bikini, teetering once or twice until she finally finds a good spot for our gear. Our feet are screaming by now but all of that is quickly washed away as we slip into the pool. Relief comes quickly as the 100 degree water envelops us. The fatigue of several long days on the slopes are soon washed away. We play a while, trying the cold water plunge but always returning quickly to the amniotic comfort of the main pool. The place is beautiful no doubt, timber-framed architecture, finely-placed boulders separating the different pools, icicles reaching down through the steam, melting and growing at the same time. The only problem? The three hundred other tourists sharing this much-less-than-Olympic-sized pool. I started thinking – there must be a better way…
So when, a few months later, a buddy from Austin reached out about a camping trip, I started scheming. What if we could find a natural hot spring in a true wilderness setting? I mean, these things are all over the place in the American west, there must be at least a few that we could get to on public lands. My friend was set to head west from Austin to Albuquerque to see a show and we made a plan to meet there with another old friend. I’ve done a lot of exploring around the Southwest – that mind-boggling triangle of vast open country between Moab, Big Bend and Joshua Tree – but New Mexico still has many unturned stones for me. I’d taken the family up to the Pecos Wilderness north of Santa Fe, that southernmost extension of the fabled Rocky Mountains, but I’d also heard that there were big mountains and lush canyons in the southwest corner of that state. We set our sights on the little-known Gila Wilderness and its pristine natural hot springs.
Difficulty – Easy
Distance – ~18 miles
Duration – 3 days, 2 nights
Type – Loop hike plus base camp
Highlights – Jordan Hot Springs, night skies, rock spires and hoodoos, trout fishing, easy hiking
Start – TJ Corral Trailhead on Rte 15 near the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Finish – Middle Fork Trailhead (at the Gila Visitor Center), a short road hike back to TJ Corral
The Gila Wilderness (pronounced ‘hee-la’ by locals) is the oldest designated wilderness area on planet Earth, covering 872 square miles (!) of pristine high elevation forests overlooking the Chihuahuan desert to the south. Making up one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48, the Gila offers endless opportunities for remote travel on foot. Elevations range from close to 11,000 feet on the heights of massive Whitewater Baldy to just under 5,000 feet in the canyon bottoms we intended to explore.
Beware this trip requires many crossings of the Middle Fork Gila River so plan your footwear accordingly. Other potential hazards include dehydration, exposure, rattlesnakes, coral snakes, scorpions and bears, though an encounter with any of these is very unlikely if you stay on the trail. If you’re really lucky you might even see a Gila Monster (yes, they do exist)!
The drive to the TJ Corral trailhead is long from pretty much anywhere. You’ll find it near the end of NM state road 15 which heads north from Silver City, just before you reach the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Stay on Rte 15 past the turn for the Visitor Center and keep an eye out on the right hand side of the road. Though there is one small store with a gas pump nearby, they keep pretty short hours and I highly recommend stocking up on gas and drinking water before leaving civilization. Parking is plentiful at the trailhead and there are even some picnic tables to help with your final packing.
This trip sets an easy pace, with only ~5 miles on Day 1 to the intersection of Little Bear Canyon and the Middle Fork Gila River. Take the Little Bear Canyon trail north out of the parking lot at TJ Corral. This trail tackles the only real climbing of the whole trip right out of the gate with a gentle 700 foot climb through scattered pinyon-juniper scrubland. Take in the expansive views to the south and east as you stop to catch your breath as you’ll spend the next couple of days down in the canyons ahead. The Lilley Park Trail #164 will intersect from the west on this section but just stay on the Little Bear Canyon trail as it’s crests the gentle rise.
The vegetation grows denser as the Little Bear Canyon Trail drops into its eponymous watercourse, growing tighter and tighter for the next couple miles until it becomes a veritable slot canyon nears the bottom. This section is spectacular hiking as you stop to stare up at the hundred foot cliffs looming directly overhead. While it was mostly dry in late April, you’ll soon start to hear the sounds of the river – and your destination – up ahead. Head right when the slot abrubtly ends at the river (don’t cross it) and you will find numerous good campsites along the line of cliffs on the south side of the river. Take a few minutes to pick a place that you’ll be comfortable in as this will be your base camp for tomorrow’s explorations but beware of camping too close to the cliffs as there is some danger of rockfall directly at the base of the cliffs.
Take it easy this morning as there’s no need to move your camp. All you have to accomplish today is a leisurely out-and-back hike to Jordan Hot Springs. Stare at the cool rock formations as you sip your morning coffee or soak your feet in the cool water of the shallow river. There are fish here too if you brought your rig – we saw several pools with gorgeous trout big enough to eat. You may even spot the threatened copper-colored Gila trout but please inform yourself of local fishing regulations before casting your line.
When you’re ready to move, head back to the terminus of Little Bear Canyon where you came into the camping area and cross the river at the obvious crossing. You are now on the Middle Fork Trail heading north (up-river) and it will wind in and out of the riverbed for the next several miles. At mile 2.5 start watching for a well-used side trail with a large rock cairn heading right off the trail and up a steep hill. This is the side trail to the spring, about .3 miles past the mouth of Jordan Canyon, which you can find on your map, on the right (east) side of the cliffs.
New Mexico lives up to its name as the ‘land of enchantment’ in this spot. Three incredible natural pools catch the output of a tiny hot waterfall, deep enough to float on your back in the warm water (approx. 95 degrees) or to just lounge on the surrounding rocks. You may find the pools occupied when you arrive so please be kind to your neighbours and give them their moment of peace. Also, avoid dunking your head as some remote hot springs can contain a rare ameoba that can enter through your nose and possibly cause menengitis. On the bright side, my friends and I were there at mid-day on a perfect Friday (Earth Day 2022!) and had the pool to ourselves for over an hour. It was truly magical, a true antidote to my last hot springs experience!
Hike back to your base camp and enjoy a quiet evening under the stars.
It’s time to pack out and today’s hike is only slightly more challenging than Day 1 and Day 2. You’ve got about 7.5 miles to go but the trail is good and it’s all down from here, dropping gently with the river as you hike. Head east to the end of the camping area to where the cliffs come to meet the river. The river crossing is at the opposite end of the camping area to the one you used yesterday and will put you on the Middle Fork Trail heading south (downriver) this time. Your destination is the Gila Visitors Center, from which you’ll walk the last mile back to TJ Corral on the park road.
For the first few miles, the canyon is banked by gorgeous rock spires and hoodoos while the canyon bottom is dotted with huge old growth sycamores, their pale white bark marking bright contrast to the browns, reds and greens of the vertical canyon walls. These canyon walls get slowly lower as the river flows downstream and the flora shifts slowly back to the pinyon-juniper forest you saw on Day 1. Keep an eye out for several more trailside hot springs as you get close to the Visitor Center. These pools don’t offer the kind of seclusion as what you saw at Jordan but they make a very nice place to sink your feet as you come to the end of your journey.
After reaching the Middle Fork trailhead, continue on through the Visitor Center parking lot and down to Rte 15. Take a right and talk about the favorite things that you saw as you mark the last few hundred yards to the TJ Corral trailhead and your vehicle.