Along For The Ride: Return to Gila (Part 18)
Return to Gila
While I had already ventured into Gila National Forest once, further north, I was once again approaching the sprawling New Mexican wilderness, this time from the south.
During my first visit, I instantly fell in love with Gila. It felt wild, remote, and incomprehensibly vast. The geography of the forest was rich, varied, and kept countless secrets awaiting discovery.
Even though only a little longer than a month had passed since my previous visit, I was eager to return, to see more, and to delve even deeper.
As I traveled north from Las Cruces, New Mexico, I targeted Silver City, a moderately-sized town on the southern outskirts of Gila National Forest, to serve as my base of operations for a week.
There, I could replenish my fridge at the local grocery store, and catch up on some work.
Downtown Silver City was rustic, yet charming, with a number of well-established shops and restaurants. It is a very colorful destination that seemed to appeal to an older generation of dreamers and free-spirited individuals.
During my stay, I frequented a coffee shop called Tranquil Buzz, located in the city’s art district. Tranquil Buzz was very tastefully appointed, and it was owned and operated by an older gentleman named Dale, who greeted all as if the coffee shop was his home.
The Gila Outskirts
The southern edge of Gila National Forest was a few miles to the north of Silver City. A rural paved road abruptly turned to dirt and veered off into the mountains.
A few miles beyond that, primitive forest roads branched off of the main thoroughfare, Bear Mountain Road. For the sake of camping as close to town as possible during the workweek, I explored the very first offshoot that I encountered.
My search for a campsite was immediately fruitful, as the narrow two-track was lined with multiple, small clearings. There was a little trash, which I would often find when camping close to civilization, however the area was mostly unspoiled.
I selected a secluded, somewhat wooded campsite at the end of the spur, which was located on small hill next to Bear Mountain. While I did encounter a few passersby seeking a place to camp, it was a peaceful place to settle in for a few days.
After spending a few days close to town, I was excited to do a little exploring.
I studied my map looking for primitive roads that would take me deeper into the forest, and I found a northward route that looked viable.
Seeking out four-wheel drive routes, regardless of your map, is always a crapshoot. The data can sometimes be decades old. The trail itself can be reclaimed by nature, or even gated, often requiring one to backtrack and change plans. This can be frustrating!
However, this time, I lucked out. The trail was well-used, and reasonably technical, absolutely requiring a four-wheel drive vehicle with decent ground clearance. It was exactly what I had hoped for.
For two miles, I zig-zagged through the forest on this road. It consisted of rocky ascents, descents, twists, turns, and off-camber sections through eroded terrain. Then, at an intersection with a lesser-traveled trail, I encountered an official sign placed by the US Forest Service.
“Width-restriction in effect beyond this point. ATV or UTV only!”
It had been an amazing four-wheel drive route thus far, and now, two miles into the trail, I encounter this sign?!?
The other trail, which converged at the sign, was too overgrown, so I had no choice but to backtrack. After taking a quick break for lunch, I turned around at the sign, and made my way back to a clearing that I had passed earlier, to deploy camp for the night.
Meeting People in the Forest
The clearing along the four-wheel drive route, which I chose to spend the night at, was ideal. It was very remote, along a technical section of road, ensuring privacy. There was also an overgrown fire ring that hadn’t seen a fire in ages.
While I was at camp, sitting in my chair and enjoying a drink, a hiker passed and waved. An hour later, another passed. Upon seeing me, she walked over to greet me, smiling brightly.
Her name was Leslie. She was from Banff in Alberta, and she was thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail, from Mexico, back to her home in Canada.
We briefly exchanged stories, and before leaving, she invited me to join her and her husband at Gila Hot Springs Campground, the following evening, in the heart of Gila National Forest. She was so friendly, and the Gila Hot Springs sounded amazing, so I was in!
I met up with Leslie, and her husband Keith, at their campsite, which they generously offered to share with me.
Keith had been traveling in his camper-equipped Ford Ranger, supporting Leslie during her thru-hike, and seeking out his own mountain-biking adventures along the way.
The campground itself was small, located on a private ranch, and it cost $6.00 per person, per night. This price included unlimited use of three, exquisite, natural hot springs on the bank of the Gila River. Gila Hot Springs Campground is absolutely a best-kept secret and a hidden gem. Please visit the campground and enjoy it, but do your part to keep it unspoiled.
Keith turned out to be a phenomenal cook, as we enjoyed burgers and salad under his camper awning. Laughter and good conversation ensued, as “Facebook-official” friendships were forged.
The next day, we all went our separate ways, but I will go out of my way to cross paths with my new friends again.
Gila National Forest continues to yield amazing experiences, and to this day, it remains one of my favorite overland destinations.