Early morning at Woody’s Corral, a National Forest Campsite. Time to hike. We are camped just across the park road from the TJ Corral trailhead.
The trail description in the National Forest handout reads this way:
Little Bear Canyon / Middle Fork loop.
Distance: 11 miles. Elevation gain: 630 feet
This is an excellent hike to get a feel for both the open mesa tops and the tight canyon bottoms in the Gila River valley. At the first junction, 0.25 miles from the TJ Corral trailhead, turn right. At the second junction, approximately 2.5 miles later, continue straight ahead. The trail drops down into a increasingly narrow drainage (Little Bear Canyon), 2 miles. When the trail meets the Middle Fork of the Gila River, turn right for 6 miles and dozens of river crossings to the trailhead near the Visitor Center. Finish the loop with a 1 mile hike back to the TJ Corral.
That is a totally non-descript description for one of the most beautiful trails we have ever found.
Up to the Mesa:
The well worn trail winds through open meadows with Pinon Pines and various scrub and this is where the hike gets all of it’s modest elevation gain. The meadows are beautiful and the views, mostly to the west and south are of low cliffs and nearby mountains. Take note of Cheryl’s footwear. We wear hiking boots and low gaiters. The gaiters keep the dust and small pebbles out of your socks and shoes.
As we ascended to the mesa top the trail started to switch back to gain the final altitude and as you can see our diligent hiker is taking frequent sips of water from her camelback pack to stay well hydrated in this dry, high desert climate. The hike started at 5,400 feet.
Near the mesa top we are starting to see larger trees and outcroppings of the Volcanic Tuff that makes up most of this area. There is no Granite, Sandstone, or Limestone in this part of the Gila Wilderness. It’s all volcanic, remnants of a gigantic caldera that erupted, and dramatically change this landscape, 30 million years ago.
Down into Little Bear Canyon:
As soon as we crested the mesa top and headed down into Little Bear Canyon the whole environment changed. We were now surrounded by Ponderosa Pines, Oak trees, and lush grasses, even a few Douglas Fir trees.
The trail wound down into the canyon and as we descended the high canyon walls started to close in on either side.
As we dropped farther into the canyon we saw some wildlife, no elk, no deer, but a couple of interesting critters
A little information about the Tarantula Hawk This 5 centimeter spider wasp has a 7 millimeter stinger that is reputed to deliver one of the most painful stings in the world. The Tarantula Hawk preys on tarantulas by stinging and paralyzing them, then secreting the helpless victim in her den and laying a single egg on the tarantula’s abdomen. When the egg hatches the larva burrows into the tarantula’s abdomen and, avoiding essential organs, consumes it until the larva pupates into an adult wasp. And you thought “Alien” was gross. the Tarantula Wasp is also a nectarivour, sometimes consuming enough fermented fruit that flight becomes difficult.
The Ponderosa Pine can be identified by, along with it’s distinctive reddish bark, the smell of vanilla when the sun hits the pitchy bark. Today, with the bright New Mexican sun and the many large Ponderosas the whole canyon smells deliciously vanilla.
As we went deeper into the canyon the walls got higher, and closer, becoming at times less than 8 feet apart. To be alone, deep in the rock like this is one of life’s fine pleasures. Everything is affected by the rock. The temperature drops to the temperature of the rock, still cold due to the desert night air, the sound of the outside world leaves and you only hear the quiet echos of the canyon; birds, drops of water, soft breezes, and your own footsteps. It is cathedral-like and spiritual to walk in a narrow canyon like this.
Faces in the rock.
Hiking along the Middle Fork of the Gila River:
As the canyon widened near the bottom, the sound of the wind, and soon the river intruded upon the quiet of the canyon.
The river trail, which leads back to the park visitor center and closes the loop, wound back and forth along the river’s edge and once again we were in a different environment. Each crossing of the river was a different adventure; sometimes wide and slow, sometimes narrow and swift, occasionally deep. The Pinons and the Ponderosa were mostly gone, replaced by Arizona Sycamore, and Cottonwoods.
Crossing # 18
Canyon walls along the river.
A riverside meadow with volcanic hoodoo.
Interesting place, eh?
The deepest Crossing (of 29)…Almost home.
We almost left this area after the Cliff Dwelling hike, but instead stayed and found a hiker’s paradise. One more reason to return to New Mexico. We will now head south out of the Cliff Dwelling and Gila Wilderness area, through Silver City and back up the west side of the Gila Wilderness for some more interesting hiking, including the Catwalk.