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Packrafting the Gila River: A 65-Mile Loop in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness


Why Packraft the Gila?: Designated as the world's first Wilderness area in 1924, the Gila occupies a remote area of western New Mexico that offers a unique blend of desert and mountain ecology. From its headwaters tributaries at over 10,000 feet in the Mogollon Mountains, the Gila has boatable flows most springs and offers an accessible packrafting adventure set amongst sycamore-lined banks and craggy canyon scenery. With road access at the put-in and takeout, the Gila can be done as a car-to-car trip however, this wilderness stretch runs through a pristine roadless area with numerous trails offering a variety of ways to complete the trip as a shuttle-less loop.


The Route: Starting near the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument, the first 5.5 miles of the trip begin on the West Fork of the Gila before the East Fork joins and pumps up the flow. From Grapevine campground, the Gila enters the wilderness stretch and the next 35 miles run through an entirely roadless area. At Turkey Creek, packrafters can transition to hike mode and walk 27 miles across mesa tops to complete the loop.


The River: We were delighted to find that the Gila offered swift current through the entire wilderness stretch. Typically considered a class III run, there are few if any rapids that reach class III but given the very continuous class II-II+ character and high potential for wood throughout, the rating seems appropriate. As levels go up, many small rapids wash out but strainers and sweepers would become the primary hazard and require solid avoidance skills. This seems like an excellent run for newer paddlers with competent leadership so long as the levels are medium-low. In 2024, it was evident that paddlers had recently cut passages through some wood hazards which greatly reduced the number of portages. While the Wilderness stretch typically begins at Grapevine Campground, packrafters doing this as a loop should start on the West Fork near Woody's Corral Trailhead so they can finish the hike at their vehicle. When flows are low, the first 5.5 miles on the West Fork might be a bit scrapy, but after the confluence of the East Fork, the river will be comfortably floatable and channelize nicely.


Flows: February through May is typically the Gila season when the river has boatable flows over 150 cfs. In February the hiking portion of this loop would likely have some snow cover, while in May the hiking portion would likely be incredibly hot. The flow at peak can vary dramatically, best observed by comparing the relative difference between 2023 and 2024. In 2023, the Gila peaked at around 1400 cfs on March 16th while in 2024 the Gila peaked on March 30th at 360 cfs. While March and April are a good time to target the Gila, the flow range will be highly dependent on the year's snowpack. With that being said, the Gila doesn't take much to be paddleable as it channelizes well and flows through a pretty constricted river bed. We found our low flow of 170-200 cfs still provided swift current and deep enough channels from a packrafter's perspective. Occasionally, the river reaches levels that make it possible for larger craft, and the photos from this write-up better illustrate what the river looks like with more water from a rafter's perspective.

For those interested in variations, such as the suggested West Fork loop option depicted in the embedded map, you will want to wait for a big snow year. The West Fork needs upwards of 400 cfs in the main stem of the Gila to make it packraftable. The gauge at Gila Hot Springs is just below the Middle Fork and East Fork confluence which means the West Fork will have at least half the flow shown. Below are the gauge readings from March and April of the last two years to highlight the large variation in peak melt pattern. While our March 2024 flow near 200 cfs was quite low compared to that same time during 2023, it was actually not far from the spring peak.



The Hike:

The return to the put-in starts with a hike up Turkey Creek which begins on an ATV trail before narrowing into a single track. Frequent creek crossing eventually yield to a climb up a ridge that offers excellent views. There is also a detour to a set of hot springs for those who are inclined. Unlike on some desert packraft routes, water is prevalent throughout the hike, at least in the early spring. The trail is quite old and in many places the tread is faint but it still was reasonable to follow thanks to frequent blazes on trees and some impressively large cairns that conveniently appeared when needed. Be mindful of the elevation along this route. While a forecast in Silver City might suggest mild spring conditions, much of the hike on the mesa top is over 7,000 ft. This creates the potential for snowy weather during the season when the Gila is flowing (can confirm...). We found Miller Spring to be a nice spot to camp along the return hike.


Logistics:

Due to the ephemeral nature of the Gila paddling season, the river is largely unregulated and receives relatively little paddling traffic. While there are a couple of commercial operators who occasionally run guided trips when water levels permit, the river does not have a guidebook, named rapids, or defined campsites. The river travels through a wilderness area so no motorized or mechanized equipment is allowed. Make sure to practice Leave No Trace principles. Look for durable surfaces to establish camps, avoid fires (or mitigate their impact with a fire pan), and cat-hole human waste far from water sources. River permits are currently not required, but being a good steward will help protect this wild place and preserve access for other users.


Sample Itinerary: 3-night/4-day* loop route starting and ending at Woody's Corral

Day 1: Woody's Corral > Near Sycamore Canyon (16 mile paddle)

Day 2: Near Sycamore Canyon >Turkey Creek (24 mile paddle)

Day 3: Turkey Creek > Miller Spring (14 mile hike)

Day 4: Miller Spring > Woody's Corral (13 mile hike)

*Unless flows are high, I would recommend one extra day for this route for a more relaxed pace. Here is a write-up from a 6-day trip.

Nearby:

  • Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument: Make sure to stop by this site on one end of your trip. The Gila basin is chock-full of human history. These well-preserved dwellings are just one of the area's archeological sites attributed to the Mogollon people.

  • Gila Hot Springs: Located at a private campground, you don't have to stay the night to enjoy a soak. They were a relaxing end to our Gila Loop.


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