In the abundance of the Gila National Forest, in southwest New Mexico, nature provided a rich diversity of life. From the high spruce-fir reaches of an eleven thousand foot peak in the Mogollon Mountains where golden eagles play with the wind, down to the semi-arid four-thousand-two-hundred-foot elevation, vibrant with antelope and Chihuahuan and Upper Sonoran desert cacti, there are six distinct "plant communities."
With three million three hundred thousand acres, the Gila contains more publicly owned land than any other national forest outside of Alaska. Within the Gila Forest is the largest wilderness in the southwest, the Gila Wilderness. This superb example of pristine mountains, forests, range land and protected desert is the first-ever designated wilderness area in the world.
In 1924, Congress authorized the U.S. Forest Service to establish the wilderness, largely due to the persistent lobbying efforts of Aldo Leopold, a former Forest Service employee who devoted most of his adult life to preserving our nation's wild places for future generations to enjoy.
In his famous book of "land ethic" environmental essays, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold once observed, "Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them."
An ancient culture, the Mogollon, once flourished in the Gila region. The people left their imprint, then passed on, probably around 1300 A.D. Where they went, or why, no one knows. They were, however, impressive builders. In the heart of the Gila Forest, a one-mile loop up a shady canyon leads the modern-day visitor to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a forty two-room collection of homes which the Mogollon people constructed in five spacious sandstone caves.
The Mogollons were also talented pottery makers, and before vanishing into history, they apparently shared this art with the Mimbres people, who lived in the fertile river valleys below their cliff dwelling neighbors. The Mimbreno (meaning "willow people") legacy, so much in harmony with the peaceful beauty around them, can still be seen in the remarkable black-on-white ceramic pottery recovered from Mimbres ruins.
By the time the first Spaniard set foot in southwest New Mexico, the Mogollons and Mimbrenos had both disappeared, and Apaches, mostly Chiricahua, inhabited the area. Led by famous chiefs such as Cochise and Geronimo, the Apaches retreated to a remote stronghold, into the rugged forests and mountains of the wilderness. The U.S. Army chased them for years up into the wild country of the Gila, and according to legend, never even caught sight of them. They were eventually squeezed out by Mexican and white settlers, ranchers, miners and prospectors.
Rates & Fees
The fee for Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and Catwalk National Recreation Trail is s $3 a car, and the first day of every month is a no-charge day. Students and other educational groups will not be charged..
Fees are charged for overnight camping at Juniper, Pinon, Dipping Vat, Mesa, Upper End Campgrounds and Little Walnut Group Area. Prices vary according to location and amenities available, and they are subject to periodic change. Current site fees may be obtained at all U. S. Forest Service district offices.
Only two sites can be reserved, the Pinon Campground with twenty two camp spaces, May through October, and the Little Walnut Group Area with three large picnic units, January through December. All other sites are "First come, first served!"
The Gila National Forest/Wilderness is open year-round. The Gila Visitor Center/Wilderness District Office, located at the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and the Cliff Dwellings National Monument itself are open seven days a week, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the winter and 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the summer.
Daylight hours only are recommended for visiting Catwalk National Recreational Trail located in Whitewater Canyon. It is open seven days a week, with office hours 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the winter and 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the summer.
All Gila Forest/Wilderness district offices and attractions with admission fees are closed on Christmas and New Year's Day.
The Gila Visitor Center/Wilderness District Office, at the Gila Cliff Dwellings, has a "host;" a small museum; a selection of books and other items; and restrooms. It is the last public facility available before entering the wilderness.
There are new public restrooms at all thirty picnic/rest area/campground sites, and drinking water is available at seven sites.
Gila National Forest Ranger district offices are located at Silver City, Truth or Consequences, Glenwood, Mimbres, Reserve and Quemado, where maps and all current information are available.
Except for the small museum at the Gila Visitor Center/Wilderness District Office, there are no museums, stores, food, lodging, gasoline or other services available at other locations.
Programs & Events
Gila Bird and Nature Festival, May 19 through 21.
Apache Creek and Lake Roberts Mimbres Ruins Interpretive Site lectures. (Scheduled according to availability of staff archaeologists.)
A handicap access guide is available at the Visitor Center and all Gila district offices. Several sites are wheelchair "friendly."
Rules, Regulations, Precautions
Dogs and cats must be on leash and have proof of rabies immunizations if they are in the campgrounds or other public sites.
Neither hunting nor fishing is permitted without a New Mexico Game & Fish license.
Vandalizing, defacing or unauthorized removal of antiquities, plants, minerals or wildlife is subject to severe federal penalties.
Motorized vehicles and mechanized items (such as chain saws, etc.) are prohibited in all Gila Wilderness areas.
Other rules and regulations may be obtained from the Visitor Center and all Gila Forest RD offices.
Use normal precautions while driving forest roads during heavy rains since dips and low spots often flood. Do not hike close to streams or river banks during or after heavy rains.
Check for winter road conditions/closures due to snow before traveling to higher elevations.