Not long ago we hiked out on Dragonfly Trail near Silver City. We had driven by the sign for the trailhead repeatedly on our way to Silver City, and wanted to check it out. It turned out to be a pleasant “foothills” type of trail to a petroglyph area, with prominent Dragonfly motifs:
Dragonfly Petroglyph on the Dragonfly Trail
The Twin Sisters Creek flows through the area, and it was flowing well when we were there, with pools of water among the rocks… It was easy to see why this important location would have been well marked. It would have been an important resource.
Twin Sisters Creek
Twin Sisters Creek Pool
While in the vicinity we headed over to the local National Forest Service Office and picked up additional maps and literature about hiking in this area. We found out that there was another trail system contiguous with the Dragonfly Trail System, the Fort Bayard Trail System. That trail system links with the Continental Divide Trail northeast of Silver City, so if you want to you can hike a long, long way.
Fort Bayard Trail System Map
Given a three-day gap in reservations at City of Rocks and Rock Hound, we elected to fill it with a three-day backpacking camping and hiking adventure in this area of the Gila National Forest. We figured we would hike about 20 miles round trip over the three days.
The weather looked good and we had been wanting to do a “shake out the mothballs” kind of trek with all the camping gear for quite awhile, and since it was possible to park the RV at the Dragonfly Trail Head (for up to 14 days – we only wanted 3), it shaped up as a very convenient way to do an extended hike. So we spent our last few days at City of Rocks going through our gear and packing our backpacks, and then hiking the park’s Hydra Trail “fully loaded” to see what a mere 3.8 miles under those conditions would feel like. It felt heavier than we remembered.
Ric on the Hydra Trail at City of Rocks – Testing the Pack
Lin with Her Pack on the Hydra Trail Pack Testing Hike at City of Rocks
We are not novice hikers. We day-hike all the time wherever we go… often eight to ten miles or more in a day, or we sometimes throw all the gear in the canoe and float it for multi-day camping and capsizing adventures. But our last serious backpack hike was the Long Trail “through-hike” in 1999… a 280-mile month-long continuous hike in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Long Trail ’99
1999. We are a tad older now.
This whole situation is an offshoot of our last trip to Alaska. As we were winding up our trip and heading out of Alaska we went through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
The Wrangell Mountains (well, some of them at least). View from the Wrangell-St.Elias National Park Visitors Center.
We had run out of summer on that particular visit, but we vowed that if we could return to Alaska we would venture beyond the Visitors Center of Wrangell-St. Elias. As we reminisce on this 2011 Alaska trip, the highlight by far was our canoe trip down the Forty-Mile and Yukon Rivers to Eagle. This further re-enforced our belief that interfacing with Alaska with “boots on the ground” approach is what we want.
Hiking here in the desert has a different set of challenges. Not much rain and only occasional black bears, but there is the ever-present challenge of water. Drinking water and finding water. Hiking in the dry desert air sure does make you thirsty. Mother Nature’s little joke is that you are very thirsty and there is practically no water to be found…you have to carry it. Water is heavy which makes you work harder and makes you get thirsty faster. Ha Ha. Jokes on you. We were able to pump sufficient water, plus locate a park crew work center – so we managed – but this certainly didn’t qualify as the wildest part of the high desert!
Desert “bear bag”
Hiking in Alaska – there is plenty of water, mostly falling down from the sky- so you’d best be prepared with full rain gear and a good tent fly. Can’t forget the Bear Resistant Food Cannister and the bear spray and the bug nets. Also crampons if you are going onto the glaciers. We figure there is a trade-off in the weight of water vs. rain, bug, glacier, and bear safety items.
Hiking in Alaska presents a Different Set of Challenges
So back to now. We have to get ourselves and our gear tuned up for the challenges of the numerous multi-day hikes and canoe trips that we have planned. There is no better way than to get out there and do it. So we did.
Setting Off on a 3-Day Gila Backpacking Hike – Heading for the Mountains Yonder
We got on the trails about 11:30 am – after having left City of Rocks and parking the RV at the Dragonfly trailhead. Ric had a 37 lb. pack and Lin had a 25 lb.pack. Each of us us carried about 6 lbs. of weight in water…enough to get us through a day comfortably. We knew that Twin Sisters Creek and Cameron Creek had water, but were unsure if any of the other streams on the map would have water. (Maps don’t help here as much as a firm local knowledge of the seasonal nature of the water sources. The maps may show many streams – but most are dry, and even marked springs are mostly underground.)
By lunch time we were becoming well aware of some serious limitations of our maps. First off – the maps were black and white and the trails crossed one another in places. It was hard to tell how each of the trails continued in some cases. Also – many trail crossings lacked markers or the markers were vandalized to the point where they were useless. We ended up having to hike an extra mile on our first day due to “missing” a trail that lacked a marker.
We logged close to 6 miles and decided to end the day early, mostly due to the fact that we knew we were rusty setting up a campsite and wanted to allow extra time. We found a great site well off the trail and under the shelter of an old juniper, and on a ridge that overlooked the Santa Rita Mine from across a wide valley. There were abundant (mostly dried) cowpies and anthills nearby, but the only problem at our immediate campsite were a few pesky wasps. We pitched camp, enjoyed the quiet surroundings, made supper, and then hit the sleeping bags about dusk.
1st Camp – Off Sawmill Wagon Road
We were up next morning before 7 am and on the trail again by 9 am. The immediate goal was to locate and pump water, which we were able to do near “The Big Tree”
Linda at Big Tree in Gila
The Crown of the “Big Tree”
The Big Tree is an ancient juniper that was impossible to frame in its entirety in one shot. A beautiful and sacred tree. It is also a popular hiking destination – an easy 2 miles from the trail head – so there is heavy use. Some degree of long term vandalism of the nearby signs and jelly beans littering the ground attested to that fact. Cameron Creek ran alongside and that is where we pumped water. Not too much flow – but we found a sandy bottomed pool that worked fine.
Vandalism to Sign Along the Sawmill Wagon Road and Big Tree Trail Crossing
From there we continued on the Big Tree Trail which was very pleasant with lots of shade. Our next trail, Wood Haul Wagon Road, was less shaded, and with the sun beating down we felt the distance, especially after lunch break, when we started to ascend the ridges leading to Signal Peak. The footing was rocky and tiring.
Uphill Ascent on Signal Mountain
Gila Hike Wildlife – glad he’s little!
Alaska might have some pretty scary wildlife, but there be Dragons in the Gila forest!
When we had ascended to a plateau that promised good level tent site options we called it a day and pitched camp. We were also concerned that the forecast had a 20-percent chance for thunderstorms – so we made camp mid afternoon again. We had logged 5.2 miles, and certainly could have hiked farther – but just did not want to pass up a good campsite.
View from the 2nd Camp- Silver City in the Distance
The site was less sheltered than the first night, but on the other hand it offered a sweeping view from Santa Rita Mine, clear across to Silver City and the Burro Mountains and to Tyrone Mine in the southwest. Above us were steep rocky outcrops, but the immediate area was level and grassy, dotted with stunted junipers. There were rain showers or perhaps “Verga” in the distance – but it never did rain. There were some pesky flies (ticklers, not biters like their Maine cousins) but no other insect problems.
Ric Resting on Pack at Camp No. 2 on Signal Mtn.
Once we got our camp set up we lazed around using our packs as backrests and spent some time later just admiring the view from a good “sitting log” that Ric found. Again, we hit the sleeping bags about dusk. Neither of us carried a book – mostly because we didn’t want to carry the extra weight. Besides we were tired and looking forward to sleep.
Day three started around 7 am, we broke camp and were on the trail by 10 am, and heading back the way we came – down Woodhaul Wagon Road Trail. One of the features of this trail is the “Wagon Wheel Ruts” which are near to the trail crossings of Woodhaul Wagon Road and Stevens Ranch Trail…
“Wagon Wheel Ruts” in rock on Wood Haul Wagon road
From there we took the Stevens Ranch Trail to the Forest Service Administration Site and the Big Tree Trailhead. Again – our immediate goal was to find a source of water, and Ric asked the workers at the site if there was water available. Not only did we get “re-filled” but they gave us 2 Gatorades to help us on our way. We do not usually drink Gataorade, but our bodies were thirsty and probably low on electrolytes – so it tasted pretty damn good!
We continued on Forest Service Nursery Road Trail with the intent of getting back to the Twin Sisters Creek area for our last overnight, but we went awry at the Servis Corral, staying straight went we should have gone right. That was problem number one. Problem number two was the weather. There was nothing in the forecast about thunderstorms, but we began seeing sure signs of thunderstorm development. We even stopped and re-checked weather via the phone. No mention of T-storms. Hmmmm. Within an hour there were lightning strikes and dark-bottomed clouds.
Darkening Skies Over the Santa Rita Mine
By this time we were within two miles of our RV so we decided that we would just hike fast and try to make it before the storms. With the promise of a cold beer in front of us, and a thunderstorm on our butts we hiked fast and made it without any issues.
This third day logged in at 11 miles. We were weary to be sure, but its good to know that we can do the distance (even fully loaded with gear) when we have to.
Safe at Home at the Dragonfly Trailhead – Looking Out Our Window
As a hiker that is the most important thing…having the ability to get yourself out of trouble. You can make the best of plans and have the best of gear, but trouble with occasionally hunt you down and find you.
The RV bed felt so good that night! We feel that one good reason to do a backpack hike on a routine basis is just so that we appreciate the comforts that we have… so we don’t take them for granted. The other good reason is to keep our outdoor skills as sharp as they can be, and to refine and improve our gear.
Gila hike technology – charging the cell phone.
One of the ways we could keep good track of our distance was a GPS app on Ric’s phone and a new addition to keep it charged through the trip was the Opteka BP-SC6000 Ultra High Capacity (6000mAh) Backup Battery Solar Charger with Faster Charging EcoPanel We have used this on multiple trips all year and it has performed admirably to keep our cell phones charged while hiking.
More on the gear upgrades in a future post. Suffice it to say we will be improving some of our gear to reduce pack weight in the very near future.