Gila Wilderness Guide
Last updated on Thursday, February 20, 2003
One very large value of life here - one I had not fully anticipated - is the overwhelming abundance of opportunities for hiking in the Gila Wilderness. With the good fortune of meeting some avid hikers and their invitation to join them, I now passionately look forward to frequent hikes as my recreation, my spiritual development and my therapy. There are several I would like to recommend to others planning a visit or a relocation here.
I took a trail the other day that wound its way far above the Gila River. After a mile or so, I left the trail and dropped off the ridge into a deep bowl covered with tall, old ponderosa pines. One pine, at the center, towered high above its neighbors like a matriarch.
At Jordan Hot Springs, in the Gila
Wilderness of southwestern New Mexico, I lie full-length in the warm
water. Ringed by ferns and lush vegetation, this deep pool is sheltered against
a massive rock covered with spongy moss. The water temperature is about a
hundred degrees. Tiny yellow wildflowers bloom at the pool's edge. I look up at
a sky patterned in racing clouds and sycamore branches. A swallowtail butterfly
circles the stalk of a purple bull thistle. Somewhere, anxiously, a brown towhee
trills. A blue jay scoffs. I sink and slide and dream deeper.
If I listen closely - in this dreamy state - I can hear the wilderness
whispering around me. Up and down the Gila River comes the murmur of secret
lives: caddisflies, dragonflies, damselflies, trout, suckers, tadpoles,
toads, lizards, snakes, mice, muskrats, foxes, badgers, bobcats, peccaries. The
rare coatimundi drowses in the trees. Further up the canyon, mountain lions and
black bears live discreetly. At twilight, after supper, we will surely see deer
or a herd of elk.
I think Big Rock is on Gilita Creek, though I’ve never really looked at a map, maybe five miles or so downstream from the Gilita campgrounds. The trail always appears to be well beaten, but we’ve never seen anyone else on it. Seasoned hikers would probably consider it an easy stroll, but for city folks unaccustomed to carrying 20 or 30 pounds on our backs, it’s challenging. You wind your way along the stream, frequently wading to follow the trail markers carved into trees along the path. The scenery is beautiful, the mountain air cool and fragrant, and the only sounds are the birds and the rattlings and squeakings of our backpacks. Finally, you wade the stream for about the hundredth time, climb up the bank and find yourself in a clearing circled by great old trees. Then you see the Big Rock, standing almost like one of those giant stone faces on Easter Island.
In 1930, a 17 year-old boy arrived in Southern New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, seeking adventure - and relief from sinus problems. Dawson ("Doc") Campbell would soon become one of the most influential men in Southern New Mexico. He would become a trapper, ranch hand, custodian of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, Forest Service smoke-chaser and ranger, landholder, hunting and fishing outfitter, and general store owner. He would live the rest of his life in the Gila Hot Springs valley, about 40 miles north of Silver City, New Mexico, and pass away on May 11, 1998, at the age of 85.
Double-E Guest Ranch is a 30,000 acre working Cattle/Guest Ranch which adjoins the legendary 3 million acre Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico, in the small community of Gila. This area is considered by many to be one of the most spectacular in the world - generally untouched and pristine. Rising from an elevation of 4,700 feet at Ranch headquarters on Bear Creek to over 7,000 feet in the Pinos Altos Mountains, the setting at the Ranch offers guests a variety of astonishing landscapes - from wind swept mountaintop vistas, to deep incised vertical rock canyons; from open upland plateaus to peaceful cottonwood and sycamore-lined creek bottoms.
The Smallmouth Bass may well be our finest freshwater gamefish; I think he is. Clearly, he is superior to his bass cousins. The White Bass is a small, staid, tasteless fish compared to the Smallmouth, a school fish given to running, en masse, in man-made lakes. The White Bass is a common fish. The Largemouth Bass has too large a following to be as easily dismissed as the White Bass. It is likely that the Largemouth is the single most sought after species in North America. I think this is because the Largemouth is ubiquitous, at least in the nation's lakes and reservoirs, strikes viciously on artificials, and is a great leaper. The Largemouth is a better eating fish than the White Bass and, all said, is a very good fish; but not even the Largemouth tournament winners and aficionados will claim their fish has the speed, élan or strength per pound of the Smallmouth.
The road heads north, from the pass of El Paso to the cross of Las Cruces and farther to the spot where you turn west and leave the Rio Grande's fertile sides. As you travel towards Hillsboro, the road rolls and twists, breaking the straightness and monotony of the Interstate. Now it's time to pay attention; driving becomes work and fun, a test of your attentive ability. It takes effort to escape; the efforts can test your reactions and the fitness of your vehicle. Small trees start to appear. The feeling of going upward gradually becomes obvious.
Gila monsters and their cousins, Mexican beaded lizards, are the only two venomous lizards in the world. These "monstruos" - monsters, in Spanish - rely on a very simple venom-dispensing method. They bite their victim and hold fast; glands under the skin in their lower jaw secrete venom, which drips into the wound. Gila monster venom can kill small animals. In humans, the venom is severely painful, and causes swelling, nausea, and weakness, but it is not fatal.
Hot springs in the Gila vary in their accessibility. A trip to the Middle Fork hot springs, for example, only requires a half hour walk and a couple of river crossings, while others are a full day's hike and an overnight stay away. But whether you're feeling adventurous or mellow, you can always find a chance for a relaxing soak in a beautiful outdoor setting. With a little exploration, visitors can discover quiet, remote springs.
It is autumn 1919, in a wild and scenic area of New Mexico's Gila Forest. A young assistant district forester named Aldo Leopold is on horseback, trying to imagine what his surroundings will be like if a proposed road system goes through, a "civilizing" influence becoming all too familiar in other forests of the Southwest.
Not here, he resolves. Something must be done to save it so future generations will be able to enjoy the purity and beauty of this back country.
The Gila National Forest of Southwest New Mexico encompasses more than three million acres in a contiguous block of largely untrammeled terrain, an area larger than some Eastern states. Near the center of this last great wilderness in the Southwest, in a cave a few miles downstream from where Sapillo Creek meets the main branch of the Gila River in northern Grant County, Martin Price made his new home in June of 1983. He brought with him a subsistence lifestyle and the myth of the mountain man.
One of the great outdoor joys of my life is to simply meander through the countryside. That means to hike along with no particular place in mind as my destination, and to do it in a very slow manner. I do my best meandering while hunting. A good example of what I'm talking about happened during my last elk hunt.
Hidden away in Southwest New Mexico lies the Trail of the Mountain Spirits, a loop drive through the historically rich and beautiful Mimbres Valley, Lake Roberts, and Gila Hot Springs area, still called the Inner Loop by most locals. Intriguing stories about this area abound, beginning with the ancient Mogollon, Mimbreno and Apache Indians and continuing to the 1500s and beyond when Spanish settlers, mountain men, soldiers, miners and cattlemen arrived.
"Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue." John Muir wrote this in another time, another place, but his words beautifully describe New Mexico's Gila Forest country in September.
When you visit Southern New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, you'll discover stunning vistas,
deep canyons, and high peaks. Stop at a scenic overlook and you're sure to feel
the urge to pull out your camera and snap a few shots so you can show friends
and family the impressive terrain. But all too often, when you get the film back
from the developers, those exciting photos seem flat and uninteresting. They
just don't capture the depth and beauty of the scene before you.
More than eight centuries ago, long before this country
was discovered by the white man, a Native American people known as the Mogollon
lived in southwestern New Mexico. They hunted, gathered and prospered. Around
1300 AD, they disappeared.
Their land became inhabited by the Apache. They, too,
hunted, gathered, and prospered, led by chiefs whose names have become
synonymous with the area: Victorio, Nana, Geronimo. Then in 1875, a U.S. Calvary
sergeant by the name of James Cooney discovered yet another reason for gathering
and prospering in this area: Some of the richest gold and silver veins in the
world were here.
It's no secret why we call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment. Our state
possesses some of the nation's most beautiful natural wonders, including
Carlsbad Caverns, Taos' Moreno Valley and
White Sands National Monument.
Having grown up in Silver City at the doorstep of the
Gila National Forest, I have always felt very lucky to have
come from such a special place. During my time as a Senator, I've worked to help
promote New Mexico and its splendor as a tourist destination - because it's
important to our people, our economy and also our sense of pride in our home
The North Star Road (Forest Route
150 on the Gila National Forest map), an unpaved road
connecting New Mexico's Mimbres Valley with Wall
Lake, has an undeserved bad reputation. On checking with the
Mimbres Ranger Station, I was cautioned to use a high clearance
vehicle. I have driven the entire route several times, only once with a high
clearance vehicle. I cross-examined the Forest Service person about creek
crossings and they all seemed to be fine, so I gassed up my Subaru wagon. We
loaded it with a picnic supper and took off
For attractive, comfortable, and convenient lodgings in Silver City, no place surpasses the Palace Hotel. The hotel's charm combines old world elegance with down home Western comfort. Situated on the corner of Broadway and Bullard Streets, the heart of downtown Silver City's historic district, the Palace Hotel is within walking distance to shops, galleries, and restaurants.
The West Street Inn is Silver City's newest and most elegant private guesthouse. The inn is available as a short term rental and features executive accomodations. It is designed in a contemporary southwestern style with warm glazed walls, tile floors, comfortable furnishings, and quality bedding. Whether you are vacationing in the area, traveling on business, or considering a relocation, the West Street Inn is your ideal choice in fine affordable lodging.
From the tower we could see much of the Gila's three million acres. Visible over the treetops were wooded hills, bare mesas, canyons and ridges, and Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. To the west, the Mogollon Mountains glowed in the sunset at 11,000 feet. To the north were the bare and lonesome Plains of San Agustín, cut by curiously shaped hills.