Member Trip Report



South Fork of Whitewater Creek, Gila Wilderness, New Mexico

May 22-26, 2008

Author and Trip Leader: Dennis Brandt

Participants:  Bill Priedhorsky, Marilyn Yeamans, Arnold Wise, Tianshu Li, Francesco Grilli, Cathy Grastataro, Jim Kron, Jeri Sullivan, and Dennis Brandt

Photo Galleries: by Dennis Brandt click here, and Francesco Grilli click here

I had some goals in mind for this trip. Avoid the heat over the Memorial Day weekend. Get away from crowds. Go some place new. Heat wasn't a problem - it snowed. There were virtually no other people. We saw places we had never been before and discovered that the Gila wilderness is a delightful & beautiful place.

This trip illustrates that unpleasant weather need not spoil a trip, if you are willing to make a few adjustments.

On Thursday evening, May 22, our group of nine backpackers drove to Socorro and spent the night at the Super 8 Motel to shorten the next day's drive to the Whitewater Canyon trailhead near Glenwood NM. We had another 180 miles to drive on Friday morning. Most of us ate dinner at the Socorro Springs Brew Pub where the beer and food are both quite good. On Friday morning we headed out at 6:30. There was a distinct chill in the air and a threat of rain. Marilyn and Jeri gave Cathy and Jim a bogus restaurant name while the rest of use headed for the 50s style El Camino Restaurant for breakfast. We nearly ditched them, but Cathy and Jim caught on to the ruse and stuck to us like glue from that point on. Tianshu had "pigs in a blanket" for the first time.

Our convoy of three cars headed west across the Plains of San Augustin, encountering sheets of rain and ever-darkening skies. Shortly after the town of Datil, we encountered snow. By the time we reached Horse Springs it was a full-blown snowstorm, 33 degrees, and about 4" of snow on the road. As we descended from the high country around Reserve toward Glenwood the temperature rose into the upper 30s and the snow turned to rain. The ranger at the Glenwood ranger station showed us a weather forecast that called for low temperatures in the mid 20s in the higher elevations of the Mogollon Mountains, where we were headed, and continuing rain and snow for the rest of the Friday. None of us had packed for such cold conditions and decided that it would be prudent to postpone the backpacking for a day, find lodging in Glenwood and go for a day-hike on Friday. The ranger suggested we hike Mineral Creek canyon. Lodging is sparse in Glenwood and for us consisted of a cabin, a travel trailer, and rooms in two pretty run-down motels. The best place was the Double-T Homestead on Whitewater Road where Tianshu, Francesco, Marilyn, and Jeri stayed. The proprietor is a very helpful woman who assisted in finding lodging for the five of us that couldn't be accommodated at her place.

Friday afternoon's hike in Mineral Creek Canyon was a delightful experience. The canyon is a wonderland of water-sculpted, lichen-encrusted volcanic rock. There is plenty of evidence of gold and silver mining activity from the late 19th century. The canyon bottom has beautiful sycamore groves and the stream must be crossed or waded on slippery rocks many times before reaching the upper narrows. We saw a Painted Redstart (bird) that was performing an impressive mating display, plus lots of wild flowers. Everyone felt that this was a truly beautiful hike. Even Jeri, who scraped her knee pretty badly and later poked the same knee full of cactus spines, felt that this was a wonderful hike. Later that afternoon we hiked to the little-known San Francisco River hot springs, just south of Glenwood for a relaxing soak. Unfortunately, we only found some pretty pathetic muddy warm pools on the riverside. Being intrepid mountaineers we made the best of this sorry situation, but I won't elaborate.

Saturday the nine of us met in Marilyn and Jeri's cabin at the Double-T for breakfast before driving to the catwalk trailhead where we started our 7.3 mile hike (starting elevation about 5100', ending elevation at Tennessee Meadow about 7500'). The first mile of Whitewater Creek Canyon is narrow, vertical walled, and choked with giant boulders. It can only be traveled by way of the catwalk that traverses the lower canyon. The lower canyon is very scenic, with clear water cascading from one pool to the next, alternately passing over and under huge boulders. No wonder this is a popular tourist attraction. The catwalk scenery impressed everyone. After the catwalk the serious backpacking began with 1.3 miles of hiking on a well-maintained but hilly trail along the north bank of Whitewater Creek. Where the South Fork of Whitewater Creek joins Whitewater Creek (mile 2.3) we had to remove boots and wade across the icy Whitewater Creek. The trail up the South Fork had not been maintained so we encountered many blown down trees. There were also numerous tricky stream crossings over the beautiful South Fork creek for the next five miles. Trout could be seen darting about in the pools. Old-growth pines of huge size could be seen along the entire length of this canyon and the wild flowers were abundant. It was simply gorgeous. The weather remained cool throughout the day and we only saw two other people. When we finally reached camp at Tennessee Meadow, everyone was ready to drop their pack. This wasn't an easy hike. There were patches of snow from the previous day's storm at camp. Bill caught some trout while the rest of us set up our tents and prepared dinner. Francesco and Tianshu started a campfire that provided welcome warmth before we retired to bed that night in our summer-weight sleeping bags. The overnight temperature was in the upper 30s - cold enough that most people were pretty chilly that night.

On Sunday, Bill and Arnold spent the day fishing while working their way back down the South Fork to a new camp a short distance above Whitewater Creek. The rest of us attempted to climb Grouse Mountain (10,135') from Tennessee Meadow. After a couple of miles of hiking we encountered ever-increasing amounts of snow on the trail and a great deal of deadfall, which slowed us down. We needed to be back at camp by 3:00 p.m. to finish packing and start our move down canyon to join Bill and Arnold, so we turned back about a mile short of Grouse Mountain. Jeri found a nice site with good views for our lunch break. We packed up and hiked about four miles downstream where Bill and Arnold had established our Sunday camp. They had both done well with their trout fishing so everyone had trout with Sunday dinner. It was just delicious. There was a wonderful ice-cold bathing pool just downstream from our Sunday campsite with lots of yellow columbine flowers. With the gradually warming weather and lower elevation, this was a very comfortable night for camping.

On Monday we hiked out to the Whitewater/Catwalk trailhead with temperatures rising to 80 degrees. Everyone found the relatively short walk (about 3 miles) to be surprisingly difficult. After loading cars and stopping for showers at the Double-T, the party split up for the drive home. Cathy and Jim stopped at the Very Large Array on the way home and said it was very interesting. We all met again for a late lunch/early dinner in Socorro before driving back to Los Alamos, arriving around 7:30.

The trip was a great success and it provided a small sample of the many delights that the Gila Wilderness of southern New Mexico has to offer. I intend to visit the Gila again, probably for a longer adventure in the future.

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