MAP A RIVER AND ALL its tributaries, and the web will swallow entire Western states. There’s not a single source, but a network of them. “All the major rivers of the country start as these little, tiny trickles that you could step across, and when you gather up all those little, tiny trickles, they become something more,” says Maribeth Pecotte, public affairs officer for the Gila National Forest. “They add together and they become grand.”


Visit a single contributor by camping at the Dipping Vat Campground near Snow Lake, a small reservoir regularly stocked for fishing. Then head into pine forest on the Middle Fork Trail, near where the Middle Fork of the Gila River gets its start. Several loops or out-and-back hikes are possible. You can also thru-hike the more than 20 miles into iconic river canyons and to where the east, middle, and west forks of the Gila River braid together near the Gila Visitor Center.

To celebrate the Gila Wilderness’s 100th anniversary, the Forest Service officially designated the Gila Centennial Trail, which patches together existing trails into a 100-mile loop that traverses the area from the headwaters to that grand convergence.

Embark on the Middle Fork Lake Trail to explore the origins of the Red River. Photograph courtesy of Visit Red River.


Climb into the Red River’s starting ground on the 4.7-mile Middle Fork Lake Trail, just south of its namesake town. The out-and-back trail quickly meets and crosses the Middle Fork on a wooden bridge, then switchbacks steeply uphill. A massive wind event in December 2021 toppled sections of forest here, so expect sunshine and look for wildflowers and a tributary stream tumbling its way through a latticework of flattened pines and aspens. After 1.5 miles, follow a sign for a right split toward Middle Fork Lake, passing a waterfall as you climb uphill into Douglas fir to the alpine lake another half mile away. The river starts from snowmelt in this high mountain basin before dropping into the Red River Valley and running west to join the Río Grande.

Santa Fe River Trail near Frenchy's Park bridge. Photograph courtesy of the Santa Fe Watershed Association.


For centuries, the Santa Fe River has provided most of the drinking water supply for Santa Fe and Indigenous settlements predating the city, many of which were named for their position next to a vital water source. But rampant cattle grazing and timber cutting stripped much of the pine forest in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where the river starts, causing muddy water instead of a clear, clean supply to flow downstream. In 1932, to better protect the water source, city managers closed the watershed to public access. These days, the threat of a wildfire continues to keep the area closed to people.

Visitors are allowed into the river’s watershed only when the Santa Fe Watershed Association leads groups on a five-mile hike a few times a year. The hike climbs from pinyon-juniper woodlands near the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary and passes through the locked gates to two reservoirs now deep in ponderosa pine forest that still supply about half of the city’s drinking water.

“This watershed is unique in its layers of cultural history and ecological history, but also in the unique service that it provides to the city,” says Mori Hensley, executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association. “There aren’t many cities that are so intimately connected to a headwaters watershed.”