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Gila Wilderness Area
By Erica Krug
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is a surprising discovery in the remote Gila Wilderness.
© Deborah Sussex
Name: Gila Wilderness
Year Designated as Wilderness: 1964
Size: 558,014 acres
Location: New Mexico
NOLS Classrooms:
Gila Range Backpacking

Semester in the Sonoran
Semester in the Southwest

The Gila Wilderness is full of surprises. Its location in southwest New Mexico might trick you into thinking it’s a vast desert — a land scattered with cactus, roadrunners and the sound of coyotes howling in the night. You’ll find yourself in the desert staring at the wide blue sky from a flat mesa top; but you’ll also stand ankle deep in the snow on a mountain peak with an elevation of over 10,000 feet wondering how you could have ever thought that your experience in the “desert” would be all sand and tank tops. You certainly never thought that you would see your first black bear — outside of the zoo — in the lizard-land that you thought was southwest New Mexico.

When you wake up in the Gila, whether under a ponderosa pine tree on a grassy hillside or on a sandy rock outcropping, to begin a day of hiking, you learn to expect the unexpected. The day could bring mesas or mountains. It could be full of narrow canyons with deep drops and huge boulders or a thick forest with lots of deadfall. In a moment you could enter a lush riparian zone — a region along the river where the water feeds life to the area and makes the plants and flowers, like the bright yellow blossoms of the monkey flower, come alive with color. As you step into these zones from a drier environment, you get the feeling that spring just happened a second before you showed up. Welcome to the Gila.

A refreshing dip in the Gila River’s hidden hot springs.
© Deborah Sussex

The United States’ first designated wilderness area, the Gila has been protected since 1924 — 40 years before Congress passed the Wilderness Act. On June 3, 2004, the Gila Wilderness celebrated its eightieth year as a protected area set aside because of the insistence of naturalist Aldo Leopold. Originally from Iowa, Leopold spent time in New Mexico working for the U.S. Forest Service and at one point was in charge of overseeing all of the forestland of the Southwest. Clear cutting was becoming a problem and Leopold was disturbed by the destruction of the forests. After exploring the Gila region, which was nearly untouched by roads or buildings, he noticed that the land seemed healthier than the other areas he had recently seen. Leopold decided that it would be easier to protect the land than to try to rehabilitate it, and in 1922 he wrote a proposal to permanently protect the entire 750,000 acres of the Gila River Valley.

Today the Gila Wilderness is made up of 558,014 acres located next to the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, which has 202,016 acres. It is a popular destination for backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts because of its wildness and diverse landscape. An extensive trail system could lead you from the high mesas, rolling hills and deep canyons that distinguish the eastern portions of the Gila, to the ponderosa pine forests that are found in the central portion. Here you’ll also find the sheer, sometimes pink-colored cliffs that jut out of the Gila River. The west and southwest areas of the Gila are home to mountains, the best known being the Mogollon Range, with elevations up to 10,895 feet.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is another treasure to discover in the remote desert. Here you can explore a series of homes set in high caves above the middle fork of the Gila River. The Mogollon Indians lived in this area for a short time in the late 1200s to early 1300s and used the cliff dwellings as a base for farming, hunting and fishing.
There are also several hot springs that can be found within the Gila, and when you haven’t submerged your body in water after a couple of weeks of backpacking, it can be one of the most memorable experiences of your trip.

Wild areas are powerful places that have the ability to inspire something basic inside all of us. The rugged beauty of the Gila inspired Aldo Leopold to fight for its designation as wilderness — the first to forever be preserved in its natural state. There are now 662 Wilderness Areas within the United States, and if you make the trek to the Gila you can see a place that made history happen. Thanks to Leopold and the Gila, there are more places in the United States that remain natural and pure — places of immense beauty, solitude and wilderness. As Leopold said in “A Sand County Almanac,” “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

Erica Krug graduated from a Gila Range Backpacking course in 2003.

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