Packing it in - into the wilderness of New Mexico

by Hidden Trails 03/25/2011

There’s no better way to experience the outdoors than in the backcountry – especially if you have a trusty steed and a pack of mules to carry the load. Head out with some adventurous souls as they saddle up for an Old West-style pack trip in southwestern New Mexico’s 500,000-acre Gila Wilderness.
          -Story by Laura Watilo Blake

Nothing beats dining under the stars on a summer evening, and I’ve been waiting months to eat here in particular – a venue as exclusive as they come.  Chef Lance Huff greets my companions and me warmly, and beckons us to our table under a canopy of trees.  White wine is passed around and I slip into a relaxed state, a great feeling after the exhausting day we’ve had.
Soon, a refreshing bowl of white pazpacho is placed before me, and my taste buds are tantalized by the cool, mingled flavors of yogurt, cucumber, mint, and basil. I devour the main course, prepared tableside: blackened salmon topped with a Hollandaise barbeque sauce and pecans, served over wild rice, and accompanied by sautéed calabacitas (squash, corn, and cheese).
This civilized luxury in the middle of nowhere is pure heaven, or close to it. Everything – from chairs and tables to the food we are eating to the tents pyched 100 feet away – was loaded on the backs of mules and horses and brought to this secluded location deep in the Gila Wilderness, which is part of the 3.3 million acre Gila National Forest, far, far away from the nearest five-star restaurant.
This is not camping as I remember it from my youth, with the notable exceptions of s’mores around a roaring campfire… and the bugs. Some purists might view the idea of such pampering in the wild contempt, but it’s ideal for the backcountry beginners , families, or horse lovers who want to add comfort and convenience to their adventures.
Here Hidden Trails offers guided horseback vacations in the Gila, which includes some of the most stunning and isolated terrain in southwestern New Mexico – if not America or the world.
“These trips are designed for wussies,” he reassures me when I asked him if a couple of city girls would be able to cut it in the untamed wilderness for several days of riding. After all, I’d only been on a horse for a few hours at any time in my life, and my friend’s 18-year-old daughter had only ridden in a ring. 
Mater makes “roughing it” smooth by leading the way, and by supplying pack animals and all the gear needed for a multiday excursion into the great outdoors, as well as a cook to have meals ready at the end of a full day of riding.  Everything at our base camp on Canyon Creek, in a meadow chock full of wildflowers and hummingbirds, is prepared and ready for us by the time we arrive: a latrine, complete with toilet seat; a shower, with solar heated water bag; tents with cots; a crackling fire; and, yes, the meals. The creek itself, lined with willows and fragrant wild mint, serves as the camp fridge. (On the morning walk I was shocked to discover that someone had trashed the creek, but on closer inspection I realized that chilling in the water were full cans of soda – not discarded empties – and a large watermelon.)

Less time spent worrying about setting up camp means more time enjoying this New Mexican version of Shangri-Lam a remote paradise as intensely invigorating as it is intimidating – and sometimes deadly – for those unaccustomed to such primal bonding with Mother Nature.  Here is the place wear, 700 years ago, the cliff dwelling Mogollon people found shelter amid towers of sculpted rock; where Apache warriors – including the legendary Geronimo – fiercely defended their way of life in the 1800s; and where 19th-century pioneers, including the ancestors of chef Lance Huff, came to scratch out a living.
    “My dad’s mother was born out here in Middle Fork, and on my mum’s side, my grandmother’s father settled on East Fork,” says Huff, referring to the areas along the Gila River.  He relishes his trips into the Gila as a way to feel closer to his roots.  “From what my mom tells me, her grandfather and my Dad’s grandfather used to break wild donkeys and mules to sell to the government as pack animals.”

    Homesteading in this region came to an end in the first quarter of the 20th century, when part of the Gila National Forest, and all the creatures in it, became the first nationally designated wilderness area in the United States.  Aldo Leopold, best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac, was a U.S. Forest Service employee who spent most of his life at the forefront of the conservation movement, and was instrumental in safeguarding the Gila.  He argued against the expansion of a road system in the back country of the forest, and proposed instead that a large area be preserved for purely recreational purposes. And on June 3, 1924, 558,014 acres of the National Forest became the first swath of land to be designated a Wilderness Area by the U.S. Forest Service, and the first Congressionally designated wilderness of the National Wilderness Preservation System which established the Wilderness Act in 1964.  The Gila National Forest now encompasses three wilderness areas: the Gila, the Aldo Leopold and the Blue Range.

    “Our remnants of wilderness will yield bigger values to the nation’s character and health than they will to its pocketbook,” Leopold wrote in a 1925 issue of Outdoor Life.  “And to destroy them will be to admit that the latter are the only values that interest us.” Thanks to Leopold, most of the trapping of modern day life have no place in the Gila Wilderness, which is criss-crossed by 1,490 miles of trails.  The only way to travel within the area is on foot or by horse; motorized vehicles are not allowed to mar the pristine environment, and mobile phones have no way of connecting to the outside world.
    From where I sit high atop my trusty steed, aptly named Cowboy, the only sound piercing the air is the rattle of a snake announcing we’ve come too close.  As my grasp on the reins tightens, I realize that the only connection here is that between humans and the earth in its natural, primordial state. And right now, the bond between Cowboy and me is being put to the test.  I mentally prepare for him to rear up or take off at a gallop, but he ignores the threat and just keeps plodding behind Mater, our fearless leader, and his pack of hardworking mules, Jaime, Bella, Esther, and Ginger.  A fifth mule Lucy – more pet than beast of burden – follows untethered. 
      My older sister, Lenore Houston, has never looked happier as she rides along close to me. She’s followed by Sheila Campbell, a landscaper from Michigan who came on the trip to learn the art of mule packing.  Bringing up the rear are Lance Huff and Nora Urbancic, the daughter of a friend, who has graduated from high school and is considering a career working with animals.  Rounding out the entourage are Missy, Louie and Barley, friendly canine companions who bound through the grass, sniffing the air and chasing critters.

We spend our days riding miles and miles, through ever-changing vistas that could have inspired the 19th-century artist Albert Bierstadt, who painted dramatic scenes of the American frontier just as westward expansion was getting underway.  As we ride, high desert grasslands open to sun and sky give way to woodlands of ponderosa pine and alligator-skinned junipers, before descending into a canyon walled by jagged ridges and tall hoodoos and bisected by the Middle Fork, a tributary of the Gila River, which we cross and recross many times.
    Intimately familiar with the hidden treasures of the Gila Wilderness, Mater leads us through his favorite stretch of the Middle Fork, past a giant rock arch perched high above the river, and on to a series of natural pools. Along the way he points out some of the more interesting features of the backcountry, such as petroglyphs on a rock above the river.  While I ponder who might have made this ancient graffiti, Cowboy takes a much needed break, munching on the sweet clover that grows at the water’s edge. 
    On another day’s ride, we tie the horses to trees on the canyon floor and scramble up a steep slope to reach 700-year-old cliff dwellings tucked into the rock face.  “The majority of folks love this spot,” says Mater.  “They will spend a lot of time imagining what it was like to live back then.”
    Indeed, as I struggle to catch my breath while resting in a shallow cave blackened with soot from ancient fires, I can only imagine trying to haul water up here from the canyon floor for each day’s cooking.  But Sheila and I agree that the view of the canyon from this high vantage point must have been well worth the effort. “I wonder if the people who lived here appreciated what they had or took it all for granted,” she says.
    Sitting around the campfire later that night, and despite aching from the long hours of riding, it’s clear that each of us is grateful for the opportunity to be here. Perhaps no one is more grateful than Huff.  “It’s just amazing to get out here and see this and realize that [my ancestors] rode through here, too,” he says. “Nothing beats being right here. And doing this combines all three of my passions: cooking, camping, and riding horses.”

You can reserve this SoutWest wilderness pack trip with Hidden Trails. Call toll free 1888-987-2457 or check out the website at:

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