Grass! Nothing but miles and miles of rolling hills covered with grass. We were in the midst of a monstrously large national forest and yet we were adrift in an almost endless ocean of grass. It was one more of the many surprises that awaited us in the Gila of southwestern New Mexico.
What is "the Gila?" The Gila National Forest is vast. At more than 3.3 million acres, it is one of the largest national forests in the lower forty-eight states. Is it a river? The Gila River has its headwaters in the Black Range of southwestern New Mexico. Its drainage covers an immense area blessed with varied and endlessly interesting topography.
Or is "the Gila" a state of mind? Friends have been escaping to the Gila to hunt, fish, hike, four-wheel, or ride for as long as we can remember. We strongly suspect that the Gila is actually all of these things. In retrospect, it is surprising that we haven't visited this remarkable corner of New Mexico far more often than we have.
It had been many years since we wandered the back roads of the Gila. My close friends Pat and Sue Brady have spent years roaming the area while scouting for elk and deer. They have been constantly urging me to accompany them on their trips. Now was the time. I accepted their gracious invitation to join them for several days of backcountry wanderings. Most of the routes would be easy dirt roads but they warned me the days would be long. Our loops would often cover upwards of 150 miles in a day.
We based our three days of touring out of the Apache Creek campground. This quiet and under-utilized national forest campground is nestled amongst giant Ponderosa pines just off the highway at the little town of the same name. On this late-September date, we had the site almost to ourselves. Pat had been poring over the maps, trying to choose appropriate 'sampler' loops from the smorgasbord of routes available to us. He was smiling so I knew we would be in for some great trips.
Our first day's exploration took us north on Highway 32 about a dozen miles before we turned west onto the dirt. Almost immediately we noticed that the local terrain was flatter, more park-like, and lacked the dense growth common in our more familiar northern New Mexico. The road wound through an endless series of large meadows, often covering hundreds of acres. Even when deep among the trees, the forest felt much more open with grass and space very evident between the trunks. A rancher would be as much at home as a logger in this forest. Technically, we were in the Apache National Forest. As the Apache is contiguous with the larger Gila National Forest and administered out of the Gila office, it all feels like one big entity.
We soon left the county-maintained road in search of a route less traveled. Once away from the graded dirt, the trees crowded in closer to the road. Our pace slowed. There were ravines to ease through and rock fields through which to crawl. The slower pace allowed more time to enjoy the flora and fauna. The Gila is chock full of both! We saw an abundance of wildlife, enjoying numerous sightings of deer and elk. This surprised us as we were already several weeks into the hunting season. Our route took us past the Brady's favorite hunting area. It was easy to see why they favor the locale. Immense, rugged, and filled with game, its draw on them is no surprise.
We eventually hit pavement again at the small town of Luna. A quick shot down the highway and we were back in camp in time to enjoy some beverages before dinner. We enjoyed listening to the elk bugle back and forth across camp during our evening meal. They were still going at it as we fell asleep.
Our second morning found us heading west on Highway 12 to Reserve. Reserve is the seat of Catron County, the largest in New Mexico. The large size and relative scarcity of people also make Catron County the least densely populated county in the state. The paucity of people is just fine by us. We like areas with small towns and a large countryside!
Passing through town, we headed east on the Reserve-Beaverhead road. Climbing into the Mogollon Mountains, the paved road winds southeast and deeper into the heart of the Gila. The pavement turned to dirt and we turned south on Forest Road 153. Our speed again dropped to our backcountry pace. The road climbed slowly through the remains of the 2006 Bear Fire. The 50,000-acre area is slowly getting its green back. Shrubbery is gaining a foothold among the sun-bleached dead Ponderosa trunks that mark the landscape. Numerous raptors soared overhead, seeking an unwary rodent to snatch.
Our lunch destination was Bear Wallow Lookout. This prominent landmark features a Works Progress Administration (WPA) era work cabin and fire tower. The observation deck of the tower was closed for the season but we climbed up as far as we could to enjoy the 360-degree view of the heart of the Gila. Even high on the fire tower, we were seeing only a small portion of this immense tract. We reluctantly left our lofty perch as we still had a long route to cover over the remainder of the day.
We dropped back toward Highway 180 on the Bear Wallow Road. This historic road has been jointly adopted by local 4WD and ATV clubs. Regardless, the route has been slated for potential closure by the Forest Service in its Travel Management plan. The road is an attractive target for the greens as it is the only remaining route in the middle of an extensive "roadless" area. The road winds down the Copper Creek drainage, providing a green and picturesque course through this otherwise inaccessible area.
On reaching Highway 180, we drove south past the small settlement of Alma and turned up Route 159 toward Mogollon. Mogollon is one of the largest of New Mexico's gold mining boomtowns. Founded in the 1880s, it grew to around 2,000 residents in its heyday. Blessed with gold and varied minerals, the mines around Mogollon stayed financially viable when the crashing silver price crushed many other boomtowns of the era. The town's mines accounted for up to 40-percent of New Mexico's annual precious metals production well into the early 1900s. Mogollon couldn't survive the drop in gold prices during the two World Wars. The last major operation, the Little Fannie mine, closed in 1952 and Mogollon drifted toward ghost status. Summer residents and a few businesses catering to the tourist traffic make up the town's current population.
Route 159, also known as the Bursum Road, is paved but still exciting. It climbs over 2,000 feet in just over seven miles of curves carved into the mountainside. There is an excellent view of the abandoned Little Fannie mine just before the road plummets toward Mogollon in the narrow Silver Creek canyon. There is room for a narrow main street, two rows of buildings, the creek, and not much else in the canyon. Some of the original buildings still line the main street and it is easy to visualize this place as a beehive of extraction activity.
The Bursum Road climbs through town and gains another 2,000 feet before topping out. The route runs along the northern edge of the huge Gila Wilderness and serves as the access to many of the trailheads headed south into the wild country. The Gila Wilderness is over a half million acres and sits adjacent to the 200,000 acre Aldo Leopold Wilderness. These two wilderness areas, established in 1924, are the oldest in the United States.
Late in the day, we headed back to camp but Pat had one last treat planned for us. We pulled off the road and gazed eastward. Grass! A huge prairie of grass stretched eastward with its far edge almost to the horizon. "We'll be crossing that on our trip tomorrow," Pat said. An examination of the maps told us that this unique area is called the T Bar Grasslands. Why there are no trees in this huge expanse of rolling hills is a mystery as woodland rings the entire grassland. Ten miles wide east to west and almost as deep north to south, these grasslands are an inexplicable anomaly on the forested area. We shrugged and focused our attention on the many hawks circling high overhead. Passing the Negrito airstrip and work camp, a left put us back on the Reserve-Beaverhead road and back toward Reserve. We kicked back and watched the setting sun light up the hills behind camp. Soon the local elk duet was tuning up and entertaining us once again.
Day Three started with an eastward blast up Highway 12. We turned down the other end of the Bursum Road and the immensity of the Gila quickly became apparent. The road initially crosses a small corner of the Plains of San Augustine. This huge, table-top flatlands is best known as the home of the Very Large Array (VLA) some 40 miles to the northeast. We skirted the rising hills of the Tularosa Mountains for nearly thirty miles until we finally left the Bursum Road in Collins Park.
Pat had another ‘road less traveled' in mind and we were moving slower and slower as we burrowed our way down North Negrito Canyon on a wispy two-track that doesn't see much traffic. It is easy to see why! Four-wheel drive low was engaged and we worked our way back and forth across the rocky streambed and through narrow openings between the trees. After stopping for lunch in an idyllic sunny meadow, we caught the Eckleburger Canyon road up and out of Negrito Creek. It was still a long, slow crawl back to the Bursum Road. Our little 15-mile-foray off the main road had taken the better part of four hours but our transfer cases were warm and we were smiling!
We headed back south on the Bursum Road, turned off on Forest Road 142 and soon found ourselves at Snow Lake. The lake is a key Gila landmark and the campground serves as a major entry point to the wilderness areas stretching southward. We de-trucked to watch the waterfowl playing on the lake until approaching storm clouds and lightning chased us back to our vehicles.
We headed east from the lake and were soon skirting the southern edge of the intriguing T-Bar Grasslands. Veering left, we quickly left the trees behind us and entered the vast savanna. Once out in the grass, the terrain had a surprising amount of topography. From a distance, the grasslands looked like on ocean of grass. In fact, they are dominated by hills and ridges and bisected by deep canyons. Not much conversation passed between us as we drove slowly along or even when we stopped to dismount. Towering thunderheads from an approaching storm front provided a dramatic backdrop for our path through the grass. We felt very small.
We rejoined the Barsum Road on the north side of the grasslands. We followed it and then Forest Road 94 all the way back to Apache Creek to complete the loop. In three days we had covered upwards of 450 miles. While we traversed a few sections of road more than once, that is a lot of ground passing under our wheels. The surprising thing was that we had really only covered the northeast quadrant of the Gila. We absolutely will be back for more. We know the Gila has many more surprises for us in its millions of acres and thousands of miles of roads.