Exploring the Gila in Southwestern New Mexico
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.