Established: June 3, 1924
Size: 559,310 acres
Entrance fee: None
Visitor center: The Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument Visitor Center is located just outside the southern boundary of the Gila Wilderness. It’s open daily except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas and features exhibits depicting the cultures that inhabited this region for centuries, including the Chiricahua Apache, who consider the area their homeland.
The idea for a wilderness area originated soon after the turn of the 20th century when ranger Aldo Leopold surveyed the New Mexican Territory for the U.S. Forest Service. He envisioned a place where the ecosystems were left undisturbed and where humans were only temporary visitors. In 1924, the Gila Wilderness became the nation’s first officially designated wilderness area. A century later, the U.S. has created 803 wilderness areas, spanning 111.7 million acres.
The Gila Wilderness area is a rugged and raw place, where visitors can experience nature on its own terms. There are some well-marked trails but no roads; horses are welcome but mechanized vehicles are not, including bicycles, wagons, and baby strollers. There are also no trash cans, guard rails, portable toilets, and very little cell service.
For those willing to accept those conditions, the reward is a wonderland of mountain ranges and sculpted canyons, meandering rivers and cascading rapids, and isolated pools. There are groves of towering ponderosa pines, thick forests of spruce and fir, glades of quaking aspen, fields of cacti, and meadows undulating with wildflowers. You might startle an elk or a javelina or glimpse a black bear or a spotted owl, or listen to wolves howl. Visit, and you can hear yourself think, go for days without encountering another person, soak in hot springs, and see the Milky Way spilling across the night sky.
The Gila Wilderness is situated within the boundaries of the sprawling Gila National Forest, and just to get to some of its trailheads requires a four-wheel drive. The easiest access is via the southern trailheads, located near the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a complex of some 40 chambers built into the walls of a narrow canyon by the people of the agricultural Mogollon (Southern Ancestral Pueblo) culture. There you can choose among several trails and routes of varying length and difficulty that trace the three main forks of the Gila River.
(National parks overcrowded? Visit a national forest.)
One of the most popular routes is a moderate 15-mile out-and-back hike to Jordan Hot Springs via Little Bear Canyon, which offers numerous scenic canyon views. Be warned, your feet will get wet—there are 15 river crossings. But a long soak in the hot springs is worth the trip.
On the easiest end of the spectrum is a half-mile hike called Gila’s Trail to the Past, which leads to a cliff dwelling and ancient pictographs inscribed on the rock walls. This is great for families with young children, with camping nearby. Dogs are welcome.
Archaeological sites and artifacts are everywhere—cliff dwellings, the remains of pit houses, shards of pottery, and stone tools. Discovering these along the way is one of the unique attractions to hiking in the Gila. But know the rules—do not disturb anything you find and do not remove anything, no matter how small. If you find something that you think might be important, take a photo, record the GPS coordinates, and alert a Park Service ranger at the visitor center.
Activities and excursions
Horse pack trip: One of the best ways to experience the Gila is on horseback, and there are several experienced outfitters who can take you deep into the backcountry. Wolf Horse Outfitters is owned by Joe Saenz, a member of the Chiricahua Apache Nation and a guide with years of experience leading small groups. Zack Crockett runs the outstanding Gila Backcountry Services, and Becky Campbell, owner of Gila Hot Springs Ranch, grew up in the area and has spent decades as one of the most knowledgeable guides in the Gila.
(Find otherworldly “hoodoos” and a wealth of fossils in this New Mexico wilderness reserve.)
Rafting and kayaking: Floating down the Gila River can be a great way to experience the wilderness, but the water levels are extremely fickle. After a winter with a lot of snowfall, the Wilderness Run—a 40-mile stretch starting near the Cliff Dwellings Visitor Center and descending through twisting canyons, boulder gardens, and class II and III rapids—is worth checking out for those with the proper boat skills. Dean Bruemmer at the Wilderness Lodge in Gila Hot Springs is a former river guide and considered one of the local experts. Trips tend to run from late March to early May, depending on the snowmelt.
Where to stay
The Forest Service lists 40 rudimentary campsites located near the wilderness area. Most of these are free and are available on a first-come basis. Some of the campsites closest to the wilderness can be found just outside the Cliff Dwelling National Monument.
(These historic lodges are the perfect way to see North America’s wild parks.)
Accommodations are also available in Gila Hot Springs, a tiny hamlet on Highway 15, about five miles south of the main trailheads. Outfitter Becky Campbell of the Gila Hot Springs Ranch also runs an RV park that includes one building with three furnished apartments for rent. The Bruemeer family runs the Wilderness Lodge but accepts group rentals only. There’s also the Gila Hot Springs Campground, which has thermal soaking pools.
Need to know
The closest urban center is Silver City, New Mexico, which is about a 90-minute to two-hour drive from the main road Highway 15. If you’re planning to camp, stock up on supplies and fuel in Silver City because the only place to buy gas and food is a small general store in Gila Hot Springs.
Wildfire is a very real and persistent threat. Make sure to know the current Forest Service fire danger level for the Gila, which is regularly updated online. Before camping, check with the local ranger district to see if campfires are permitted.
(Here’s how to plan the ultimate camping adventure.)
Bring a GPS with rescue alert capability; there are no signals in backcountry so you cannot rely on your phone as your safety backup. It’s also a good practice to leave a note on the dashboard of your parked car about your intended route, just in case a search party needs to look for you.
The park has a mild climate, with rainy season usually from July through August. The best times to visit are mid spring and late summer. The Gila is arid and its altitude ranges from 5,300 feet to over 10,000 feet, so you can easily become dehydrated. The only available water is found in the creeks and the forks of the Gila River. Bring some kind of filtration system or purification tablets to treat it.