How does one begin exploring the country’s first designated wilderness area, a 750,000 acre preserve, veering from rugged mountains and deep canyons to grassy meadows and semi-desert countryside? Well, if you live just a few miles from the Gila National Forest, the sky is the limit. A simple day trip will take you from Las Cruces to Silver City and from there up into some of the most spectacular wilderness this country has to offer.
History lives in these mountains, too. Apache Indian chiefs Mangas Coloradas, Geronimo and Victorio made the Black Range their home. Conservationist and ecologist Aldo Leopold changed the way people look at predators from this huge patch of land. It was here, too, that the last of the great mountain men and folklore legend, Ben Lilly, made his final home. The monument that marks his presence in the history of the area lies in those mountains and it is here that weekend adventurists can truly get a taste of the magnitude that is the Gila National Forest.
The drive itself is an easy one. From Silver City, Highway 15 will take you seven miles to the picturesque “ghost town” of Pinos Altos, where a drink can be had at the historic Buckhorn before continuing on the journey. A little more time to kill? Take a tour of the Opera House, built in 1860 and still featuring local entertainment on select evenings. Wander the street and visit the Pinos Altos Historical Museum or the Merchantile established by Judge Roy Bean. Back on the road, it’s just a quick three miles of twisting highway to the Ben Lilly Monument. Keep your eyes peeled for a small sign on the right side of the road, at the high point of a hairpin curve that leads down toward Wild Horse Mesa.
The parking area is small and, for the most part, unmarked. Just find a shady place to leave the car and cross the highway to the footpath. An easy 900-foot walk will bring you to the bronze plaque, erected in 1947 on the side of a large rock outcropping. Pay your respects to one of New Mexico’s most legendary characters, then continue on around the outcropping to the rocky shelf beyond. It his here that you will get the full impact of what the Gila National Forest has to offer. Bear Creek Canyon stretches out for miles into the hazy distance. The trees below are like toys from a model train set and, if you’re lucky, you may even spot a peregrine falcon, a red-tailed hawk or even the majestic bald eagle floating effortlessly among the clouds.
Hours of contemplation and communing with nature can be found here and no matter what your skill with a camera, the opportunities for stunning backdrops is endless. Just be aware that the wildlife here is not to be trifled with. You’re likely to catch a glimpse of elk, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep and even wild turkey, but the wise adventurer keeps his eyes peeled for the other “critters,” such as black bear and mountain lions. Oh, don’t worry, they want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them, but respect their home while you’re visiting. There’s plenty of space for everyone.
Where will you go from here? Within easy driving distance are the Gila Cliff Dwellings, Castle Rock, the Mogollon Catwalk, Frisco Hot Springs and Cooney’s Tomb, to name just a few. All you need is a map and the willingness to open yourself up to the awe and wonderment that can only be found here on the edge of civilization, where nature is truly king.