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
|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
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.