A thousand years ago, the Mogollon people inhabited the remote corners of the Gila National Wilderness. When they moved on, they left homes nestled high in the cliffs that overlook the few permanent water sources in this high desert terrain. Our contemporary definition of wilderness rules out human habitation, so you can't duplicate their lifestyle and come here to live. But you can backpack through America's first officially designated wilderness, which boasts a network of trails that can be linked together to form loops of varying lengths.
Start at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a curving, twisting 44-mile drive from Silver City, New Mexico. You'll want to build a day into your schedule to explore the cliff dwellings before heading upstream along the West Fork of the Gila River, where you'll be surrounded by stark, dramatic canyons that look like something in a movie about the age of dinosaurs. Take your Tevas, unless you don't mind hiking in wet boots; you'll be fording the river (usually no more than knee deep) some 50 times in the next 10 miles.
You'll leave the river to loop back via a series of ridgetop trails that take you into the Gila's conifer-lined highlands where you're likely to see elk and deer and maybe even a black bear or two. If you're game, a side trip up to Mogollon Baldy's 10,770 foot summit is well worth a couple of days' detour. Once you're finished, you can top off your trip with yet another detour: less than 2 miles down the Gila River from your starting point near the cliff dwellings, soak your muscles in a backcountry hotspring and plan another circuit on another of the Gila's trails.
Location: Gila National Wilderness, southwestern New Mexico, 44 miles north of Silver City on NM 15.
Distance: 30 miles; 60 mile option.
Maps: You'll need the Gila Wilderness Map available from Gila National Forest.
The route: The route starts on West Fork Trail #151. Then 155 to 187 to 162 to 160. Total mileage is about 30 miles.
Note: The Gila is worth as much time as you can give it. You can double the length of your loop by taking the middle fork of the Gila upstream and then cutting across on Trail # 30 to rejoin the route described above.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication