This was my 7 years in planning trip into the vast Gila Wilderness to explore some relatively unmanaged forest lands. Of all the places I have been, it is definitely the least disturbed. The unlogged ponderosa pines and the flowing creeks were the most impressive thing, that and seeing next to no one for the entire trip. I saw 2 men leaving from a day hike as I was a mile or so up the trail the first day, a woman on a mule at the end of day two, and then I would not encounter a human being for nearly three days until I came across two FS employees out cutting trees off the trail, but by that point I was around 1.5 miles from the trailhead. When I walked out of the wilderness and came to the Cliff Dwellings NM I was hit with an over whelming number of people at the Monument for the holiday weekend. It was bizarre.
I drove out from Flagstaff and started hiking at 430 PM from Woody's Corral near the Gila Cliff Dwellings as the Bridge over the West Fork is closed to cars after a wash out of part of the road following the heavy winter melt. I hiked to TJ Corral some 500 feet up the road and then started up the trail. The first part is what is mentioned in the Jordan Hot Springs description. Basically it is a gentle grade up through pinyon and juniper and some pretty lush gramma grass. After 2 3/4 miles I interested the trail that leads to Little Bear Canyon. I hiked that trail as it wound its ways through forest which began to include ponderosa pine and scattered douglas fir. Eventually it climbs up onto a ridge and you intersect a trail that will take you down to the West Fork. By this time the full moon had risen and I wanted to continue on, so the next hour and half of hiking was basically done by moonlight as the sun set and the sky got dark.
Shortly after the last intersection there is another intersections that splits the trail to either "The Meadows" or Woodland Park, I went towards Woodland Park. Up until this time the trail was good, but as time progressed I entered burned areas that had down trees across the trail. This complicated things. I expected to find a tank to camp near in section 6, but I never did and someone later told me that tank was dry. I did pass by an area about half an hour before I camped where the air was cold and I was on a ridge that dropped off sharply on one side. I think that was where the dry or old tank in section 6 was. Either way, it was dark, that area had lots of down trees, and I pushed on to get as close to what ever water source I could for the next day. At 9PM AZ time, I stopped and set up my camp on a ridge with great views of the moonlit wilderness and the West Fork below me. I thought I spotted a camp fire in the distance, but it turned out to be a car on the road in, probably near the Clinton Anderson Overlook. Not wanting to set up my stove, I ate my freeze dry chicken and potatoes with some water and went to sleep.
The next day I got up to a hot sun and hazy smoke from a burn in the Black Range to the east. I made good time in my camp and by 820 I was hiking towards Woodland Park and the Tank of the same name. After an hour I arrived and was able to filter water and then pushed on to Prior Cabin and Spring. That area is really nice, and it could be a destination in itself, especially if you don't start at 430 PM like I did the previous day. I had lunch, cleaned up a little, filtered more water and hiked the trail up Prior Creek to near Hell's Hole. Some storms had brewed up to the south and there was a little drizzle on me and distant lighting while I was in Prior Creek. These moved away, and after resting a while near Hell's Hole I took the trail up a ridge to Lilley Park. This section is really barren, and it seems that the ponderosa pines grow right out of the rock. It wasn't very nice, but it had some good views.
Eventually, I dropped off the ridge to Lilley Canyon and Lilley Park. Both are pretty nice. This is where I saw the only other person I would see, deep in the wilderness. It was a lady who must have been local as she told me she had been out in the are a month before and she knew the trails. Unfortunately, she was on a mule and was not to be trusted with her assessments of trail conditions as those people have a different perspective of things. She told me the trail from Lilley Park down to the West Fork was rough and sketchy in spots. I was tired and didn't want to deal with a section of rough trail with my heavy pack, so I opted to overnight in the area. I hiked a low divide and dropped down just past Lilley Park Spring before back tracking and camping at the spring. The spring is small and the sign was gone, so I missed it. I realized I had, and turned around to find it. Over-nighting at the spring I heard some whip-poor-whils in the canyon, which was nice.
The next day, I hiked back into Lilley park and up a low hill before heading down to the West Fork. This trail was not bad on foot and while a little loose, it was really nothing. Crossing the West Fork was a little tough, but in the warm sun it was nothing. I would have liked to have camped at the West Fork, but it was only just then noon so I ate lunch there instead.
Following that, I hiked up into and through McKenna Park. This area must have been incredible 150 years ago, and really nice 10 years ago. Today, it is still impressive and it is impressive to see the never logged old growth ponderosa pines, but fire exclusion and then re-introduction followed by a series of windy springs have taken their toll on this one grand area.
Basically, McKenna Park history is as follows. Texas Ranchers came into the area in the 1880s and began grazing the grass of the ponderosa pines and surrounding mixed confers of the Diablo Range. They must not have logged the region since there are so many huge trees (wide boles, but not much over 90 feet tall), no stumps to be seen, and it is hard to access for lumbering. Following the creation of the Gila Forest Reserve which became the Nation Forest, the Gila Wilderness was established in 1924 and grazing was excluded shortly there after. At this time, official fire suppression policies were established. There were fires in McKenna Park, but I don't know how wide spread they were. During the next 83 years a fairly thick duff layer built up around the old trees. This layer was well over 6 inches deep judging by the burned and eroded bark layer at the base of many of the standing trees. In 2003 the Dry Lake Complex Wildland Use Fire burned through McKenna Park and many surrounding acres, including the Diablo Range Mixed Conifer. The fire must have been the first fire to burn over the entire area in a very long time, perhaps since before the Texans came in after Reconstruction and began grazing. It did freshen the range and improve conditions on the ground, but it also girdled numerous trees, opened up the based of the trees to root decay, and created thousands of standing snags.
Today, nearly 7 years post Dry Lake Complex, wind storms and death have produced a hazardous area to travel through. It is especially bad above the turn off for Raw Meat Creek. Basically, expect to double or triple your travel time in the northern 2/3s of McKenna as you climb over and hike around down tree after down tree. Sadly, many of these are the old yellow bellies of yesteryear that made McKenna a rare area of old growth which was ungrazed in recent history and incredibly impressive. Many have blown over with green tops because their roots have rotted out after they were exposed to the soil following the girdling fire of 2003. Quite a few are a cohort that came in after grazing ended and fire ceased, filling in the spaces between the older trees before the grass came back thick and prevented reproduction. These trees have a different appearance from the older ones as they lack the large dead old branches lower down on the stem, a sign they grew in relatively shady conditions unlike the oldest ones which grew in more open, sunny conditions which allowed them to retain their large lower branches until they were shaded out by the younger cohort. Anyway, things change, arrogant management policies of the early and middle 20th century gave way to a more liberal fire inclusive policy of today, and the big old trees are dying and falling over in the trail impeding travel. It's still an impressive area today, and it isn't all bad. The initial hope of walking into a majestic forest of old growth became a reality of swimming through a sea of down 3 and 4 foot wide, but now high, old ponderosa pines. If fire can move through the area in the next 100 years, perhaps our great grand children can see conditions that existed 150 years ago. However, as I write this I see that a 987 acre lightning fire was contained and suppressed in the Gila Wilderness, so perhaps the Forest Service is still trapped back in 1940 after all.
So I camped in and then made it through McKenna and crossed the Diablo Range. The Diablo Range fared far worse than McKenna and there the burn was more severe. Big old ponderosa pines and douglas and white fir are dead and lay across the trail. Aspens and other copice species are coming up underneath. The trail down to Little Creek was rough in spots, but mostly because of the New Mexican Locust and it's thorns. Once down at Little Creek is was smooth hiking along a flowing creek and a sometimes dry creek bed. Little Creek was great, especially after carrying my load over all the down material the previous day. Flowing cool water, chirping birds in the deciduous trees along the riparian area, and a generally nice trail were really great.
I spent the night close to the end of the Little Creek Trail and hiked out the next day via EE Canyon. I wanted to go past the Cliff Dwelling, and cross the West Fork. It was not a fun experience and I probably should have just exited the trail out and down to Woody's Corral. Also, for the future I need to bring something to wear when crossing the creek, probably a sandal. When leaving I encountered an onslaught of what seemed like hundreds of tourist from Texas. It was really bizarre. I had run into two Forest Service trail workers before I exited the trail, and they told me I was about to run into a lot of people. It's funny how smelly people are after you haven't been around them. Not their bodies, but the perfumes from the soaps and detergents they use. Always go hypoallergenic or scent free, that way you won't stink up the place. As for me, I smelled great, I am sure.
||Wildflowers Observation Moderate