Above: The Gila Wilderness. Photograph by Laurence Parent.
A good introduction to the lower part of the Gila Wilderness, this easy 6.2-mile hike requires multiple creek crossings. Bring water shoes, sandals, or an old pair of sneakers. Gila National Forest (575-536-2250, fs.usda.gov/gila).
THE TRAILHEAD: Take NM 15 north from Silver City for about 45 miles. Factor in a two-hour drive on the paved but mountainous road, which ends in a parking lot at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The trailhead, which starts up the north side of the broad river bottom, is one of the most popular entry points into the Gila Wilderness, but most people head to the cliff dwellings and hikers quickly disperse on the multitude of trail options. This trail and others can easily be followed 30 miles or more without hitting another road. Be aware of the weather: The Gila is notorious for severe floods.
WHAT YOU’LL SEE: Cottonwoods, willows, and ash trees cover the floodplain, while ponderosa pines, mixed with piñon and juniper, grow on the hillsides. Reach the first river crossing within 300 yards and the second immediately afterwards. Watch for cairns throughout the hike to help find the trail at crossings. The trail enters the wilderness around 0.6 mile, soon crosses the river again, and climbs onto a low bench on the south bank. At a trail junction near 1.3 miles, turn sharply right, back toward the river. A little short of 2.2 miles, the trail forks again. Bear left and stay with the river trail. (If you lose it, just follow the river and you will be fine.) The canyon begins to really narrow and deepen, with sheer walls. At a sharp bend in the river about 3.1 miles from the trailhead, the canyon becomes a spectacular rocky chasm. High on the walls are arches, caves, and an ancient cliff dwelling. Don’t try to climb up to it. The route is dangerous, and erosion created by visitation is causing its walls to collapse. Return the same way.
Excerpted from Laurence Parent’s Hiking New Mexico (4th edition, Falcon Guides/Rowman & Littlefield)