Willow Creek Loop: Trail mileage table in pdf format.
Willow Creek Loop: The hike starts near the remnants of Willow Creek Campground which was destroyed by fire and then by flood in 2006. The trail was unaffected but it is a little tricky to find. Right after turning off NM159 for Ben Lilley Campground follow the dirt track to the south towards the valley where Turkey Creek enters the Willow Creek Valley. The hike starts with a 350 foot climb up McKenzie Trail (#151) to Iron Creek Lake. Turn east at the junction of the Iron Creek Mesa Trail (#171, 1.3 miles) and head across Iron Creek Mesa. The mesa is underlain by mid-Tertiary Datil-Mogollon volcanics ranging from rhyolites to andesites.. At 6.8 miles begin your 600 foot decent down to the meadow next to the Middle Fork of the Gila River (7.4 miles).
There is a great campsite in the meadow near the river. While we were there, a pack of coyotes were hanging out by the old ruins marked on the map. (Don’t get too excited about the ruins. It appears to be the remnant of an old cabin and there is very little left).
When you leave this area, be sure to top off your water bottle at the river because there won’t be any water for a while. Head south a few tenths of a mile on the Middle Fork Trail (#157, which goes all the way to the Gila National Monument Visitor Center on the south side of the wilderness). Turn right (east) and begin a steep 750 foot ascent up to Clayton Mesa on Trail #175. Since the Forest Service has always had a let-it-burn policy, the area has an open understory with grasses and pine needles covering the forest floor. At about 10.7 miles the trail funnels into Clayton Creek and ascends towards the junction of the McKenzie Trail (#151). Turn right (west) and go 0.4 miles to Turkeyfeather Pass (12.8 miles). Stay on Trail #151 and soon you will be heading downhill into Cooper Canyon. If your water bottle is dry, you should start to see water.
At 14.7 miles the trail bottoms out and crosses Iron Creek, one of the perennial streams where the Forest Service maintains their Gila trout population (special fishing license required). Due to its bouldery nature, the stream bed may appear dry in some places, but a little scouting up or down stream will reveal clear ponds and water moving under the rocks. The trail follows the creek for 1.5 miles, the turns north at 16.2 miles and ascends 500 up a small canyon back to the junction at Iron Creek Lake to close the loop (17.0 miles). The trailhead is 1.3 miles north on Trail #151 (18.3 miles).
Info: USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle topographic maps: Negrito Mountain, Loco Mountain, Mogollon Baldy Peak. This map uses the trail marked on the USGS topos and was field checked in May 11-13, 2002. Contact the Gila National Forest, Silver City, NM (505) 388-8201
Directions: Take US Hwy 180 north from Silver City NM to NM159. Take NM159 17 miles past Mogollon, turn right at road to Ben Lilly Campground.