Rough it easy in the Gila Wilderness 

Get a wilderness experience ― without all the work ― on a New Mexico drop-camp adventure
Gretchen Reynolds

Visiting southwestern New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness is an adventure, in the this-place-would-gladly-kill-you-given-half-a-chance sense of adventure.

The first and one of the most remote designated wilderness areas in the country, the Gila is 558,065 acres of unpeopled, untracked, untamed country. But my husband, Russell, our 9-year-old son, Max, and I were doing it with some help.

I called it soft adventure. Russell called it backpacking for wussies. The outfitters called it a drop camp.

In drop camping, you and your gear are, as might be expected, dropped in the wilderness and retrieved after a set period of days.

In the Gila Wilderness, outfitters typically employ pack mules, whose loads must be balanced on each side. This means that―purely for the sake of the mules, you understand ― you get to bring lots of stuff.

For the three of us, this translated into full coolers of fresh food, two tents (one just for Max), inflatable sleeping pads, sleeping-pad inflator pump, stove, plunger-style coffeemaker, field guides to the birds and mammals of the Gila, several hardback novels, three pairs of shoes each, and ― oh, yes ― a battery-operated milk frother.

Soft adventure

On our first day, we walked the 5 miles or so to our campsite, beside a mule that carried nets for Max’s insect catching and puddle straining, old shoes for river wading, and plenty of paper for sketching and playing hangman at night.

By the time we arrived at our high-meadow campsite, the wrangler had already set up our tents and laid out our gear. He shook our hands and left, taking the mules, with a promise to return in two days.

We had a lot of wilderness to explore in those two days. The Gila is big and very rugged. As you hike in, following the course of the Gila River, you feel you are moving ever deeper toward the bones of the earth. Where the land doesn’t sheer away beneath you, it rises in steep needle points. Views open toward vistas of remote, sharply ridged mountains, folding one onto the next, until the whole range fades, blue, into the sky. We saw no other people.

Gila lore

I knew Russell and I would like the Gila, but I was less sure about our son.

He did. Max liked acquiring Gila lore. He liked learning that Geronimo was born at the headwaters of the Gila River, that Billy the Kid grew up in Silver City, and, Max’s favorite fact, that the Apache chief Cochise killed his enemies here by hanging them over a fire.

Max loved the Gila’s waters and mountains even more. He netted water skeeters off the river. He scampered up a mesa in the late afternoon’s treacherously flat light, rocks skittering out from beneath his feet, ignoring my shouts from behind to “Be careful.” He whooped into the sky, listening to his voice bounce back from the cliffs.

That evening, over our campfire, he looked upward, seeing stars pricking the high, dark arch of night. “This is good, Mom,” he said. It was.

Then it was the morning of our last day: The mules and wranglers would be returning for us in a few hours. From within the dense branches of the pines stubbling the hills, a bird called. “That’s a mourning dove,” Russell said, consulting a thick birding guide. I heard my son stirring in his tent. Drop camping had proven to be an ideal approach to Gila trekking for all of us: wilderness living without the worries.

Next: Drop-camp outfitters and how to get to Gila

 

Seeing Gila

A number of outfitters in southwestern New Mexico offer drop-camp trips; you can hike in or ride in on horseback.

Or consider a pack trip, where guides and wranglers stay with you and meals are generally included. (On drop-camp trips, the horses go back with your wrangler, and you’re responsible for your own meals.)

Three established outfitters are Gila Hot Springs Ranch (575/536-9314), Gila Wilderness Ventures (866/677-2008), and U-Trail (800/887-2453).

Prices for drop-camp trips vary, depending on the length of the trip, the number of people (and hence the number of pack mules and wranglers needed), and how far you’re going into the wilderness. Expect to pay $200 to $450 per person to pack your things in and out.

Pack trips are about $200 per person per day. Some outfitters do trips for set lengths of time; others allow you to design your own trip.

Getting there

The Gila Wilderness is remote, which complicates planning. The nearest major airports are in El Paso (two and a half hours east), Albuquerque (about four hours northeast), and Phoenix (about five hours west).

You can catch commuter flights from Albuquerque airport to the regional airport in Silver City, New Mexico. Discuss with your outfitter where you should leave your car during your trek.

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