Backpacking the Southwest

July 25, 2020

The American Southwest offers backpackers a unique experience.  Beautiful vistas, wildlife and swift changing weather draw thousands of outdoor adventurers every year. One area that is remote and pristine is the San Juan Wilderness in the Rio Grande National Forest.

Accessible just south of Plataro, Colorado the San Juan Wilderness is home to the Epic Loop. This 18.5 mile trail can be hiked by moderate-to-experienced backpackers in 3 nights and 4 days. It will take you to lakes, streams and above the timberline for some amazing vistas.  You can find a map here: https://www.ouachitamaps.com/picture_library/South San Juan/South San Juan.jpg

As gorgeous as this backpack journey is, you will want to be used to high altitudes.  Over the course of the trek, you will hit altitudes above 10,000 feet and soaring to 13,000 feet.  Hiking at this elevation can cause de-hydration quickly. It’s a good idea to drink water regularly as you hike.

Stay Hydrated-Stay Safe

Experienced adventurers know to double up their fluid intake for two weeks before departing for the high country or desert.  This way your body retains the water you need to sustain high temperatures and altitudes.  Be sure to include some electrolytes too.

The Epic Loop takes you to Blue Lake, the Continental Divide, Lake Ann and the majestic Canejos Falls. It can also provide changing weather, and even snow in early to mid-June; as well as cold nights where the temperature can dip to 30° and sudden rain showers.

For this adventure, we made sure we had the right gear for the climate.  We chose to sleep in hammocks rather than tents as they are lighter to carry and less likely to attract scorpions. I also chose the TETON Sports TrailHead +20 Degree F Ultralight sleeping bag and was comfortable for all 3 nights.

There is abundant wildlife on this trek as well. We saw elk, deer, woodpeckers and caught some beautiful trout. Thankfully we did not see any grizzly bears. Back at base we learned from a park ranger that the last grizzly bear sighting in Colorado was in the South San Juan wilderness in 1979 (killed during a dramatic attack involving self-defense with arrow in hand), and some speculate that grizzlies may still roam the area.

Cooking Trout Over an Open Fire 

I mentioned we caught some awesome trout, and we cooked them over the fire.  It’s one of the treats of camping and pretty easy to do. First of all you have to catch a trout, and then gut it and cut off its head. Lay out two pieces of aluminum foil about 4 inches longer than the trout.

Lay the fish on the foil, season with salt and pepper or whatever you have with you and fold the foil. To do this, make a crease along the long edges of the foil, and then fold it down tight. Do the same to the ends and roll them tight towards the fish. Flip the package over and repeat with the second piece of foil.

Now place the fish over a fire with hot coals and low flame. Flip every four minutes or so for about 12 minutes. When the steam stops coming out of the package, it should be done. Remove from the fire and let it cool for a few minutes. If the fish flakes easily it’s most likely done and ready to eat.

The Gila Wilderness

The Gila Wilderness, (pronounced Hee-Lah) is found in southwest New Mexico, just north of Silver City, with low elevations of 5000 feet that climb to over 11,000 feet in many places.

Located in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, you will find the Mogollon Mountains Loop, a fun, challenging hike for moderate to experienced backpackers. Along this 45 mile trek, you will find excellent vistas, streams with deep pools for refreshing dips, lakes and caves. You will also climb to altitudes over 10,000 feet.

The Mogollon’s tallest peak is the Whitewater-Baldy at 10,895 feet that sits at the western point of the wilderness. At the northeast corner is Black Mountain at 9,287 ft. As I mentioned earlier, altitude climbing has to be taken seriously. Experienced backpackers know to prepare by over hydrating two weeks before their trip. You should also carry electrolyte tablets that dissolve in water.

You can find a topography map of this area here: https://mytopo.com/map.cfm?mapparams=zone=12%26easting=708997%26northing=3688047%26title=Gila.gpx?pid=metalback

It’s very dry, even with the summer rainstorms, in this area, and fires are often the result of lightning.  It was lightning that caused the Whitewater –Baldy fire, New Mexico’s largest and most devastating wildfire.

It’s a good idea to check with the local rangers if campfires are allowed when you are planning your trip.  If they are banned, you can still go, but just plan meals differently. Take along a portable propane stove and foods that can be eaten without too much cooking or heating will get you through. Beef jerky, dried fruit and minute rice will taste like a five star meal after a day of climbing with a pack on your back.

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