Photograph by Alan Dyer/Stocktrek Images
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Circumpolar star trails over Mimbres Valley in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico.

Photograph by Alan Dyer/Stocktrek Images

Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway

Loop from Silver City on New Mexico 15, 35, and 152 and US 18.

Distance: 110 miles

Time: 3 to 8 hours

Season: All year. Many curves make driving slow. Some sections are not recommended for RVs and trailers. Trail to cliff dwellings closes at 4 p.m.

Within the high desert forests of Gila National Forest, this southwestern New Mexico route penetrates some of the nation’s largest and most remote tracts of wilderness. It passes a couple of Old West towns, winds to ancient cliff dwellings, and bypasses an immense open-pit copper mine. Make sure to leave time to visit the cliff dwellings.

The route begins at Silver City, a mining town that boomed in the 1870s when silver was discovered behind the present-day Grant County courthouse. The town’s colorful history is told at the Silver City Museum.

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From town, the route climbs north on N. Mex. 15 for 6 miles into the Pinos Altos Range and reaches the town of Pinos Altos, or “tall pines,” which hugs the Continental Divide at 7,840 feet. After a brief gold boom in the late 19th century, the town went bust. The famous bar at the Buckhorn Saloon, along with its fine restaurant, keeps the sleepy town alive.

After Pinos Altos the road loses its center line and narrows considerably as it winds through the Pinos Altos Range, heading up Cherry Creek past a couple of rustic picnic areas shaded by ponderosa pines and cottonwoods. Eighteen miles after Pinos Altos, the route drops steeply to Sapillo Creek. At the creek, N. Mex. 15 intersects with N. Mex. 35, but continues north for 17 miles to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. On its way up to the cliff dwellings, the road climbs steeply through a series of switchbacks, passing the Senator Clinton P. Anderson Scenic Overlook after almost seven miles. The Gila River Canyon lies 2,000 feet below, while spectacular vistas of the Gila Wilderness spread to the horizon. After the overlook, N. Mex. 15 crosses a level ridge with open views and then descends sharply to a bridge across the Gila River and a primitive camping site.

Four miles later, the road reaches Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Drive straight ahead to the visitor center, which offers good displays and information about the peoples who inhabited this remote area for a millennium or more. Be sure to pick up the informative guide. The road to the dwellings passes the Lower Scorpion Campground, which features a 0.25-mile trail leading to a small cave dwelling. (The short paved path to the right ends at a series of ancient red pictographs painted with hematite.) The parking area for the major cliff dwellings lies just beyond the campground. A 1-mile loop climbs 175 feet to the dwellings on the southeast-facing cliff. Five caves contain a remarkable series of 42 rooms connected by passageways. Some 40 to 50 Pueblo Indians lived in these dwellings in the late 13th century.

Retrace the route to Sapillo Creek and take N. Mex. 35 southeast for 4 miles to Lake Roberts, a pretty lake surrounded by pines. As the road winds around the lake, it passes Vista Village, an archaeological site undergoing excavation. It’s believed that prehistoric people occupied an 18- to 25-room pueblo here. The road continues up a wide valley and again crests the Continental Divide before reaching the Mimbres River Valley and coming on the Mimbres Ranger District outside the town of Mimbres.

At the town of San Lorenzo, the route intersects N. Mex. 152, which heads west 8.5 miles to the overlook of the Phelps Dodge Santa Rita Copper Mine, an immense hole in the earth. Continue on to Central, where US 180 takes you back to Silver City.

Map and information originally published in National Geographic's Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways

Side Trip: Walkers, hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders can take in ancient petroglyphs and stunning scenery on the 3.5-mile Dragonfly loop, located three miles east of Silver City.

On the Way: Look out for some of the hundreds of species of birds—including about ten hummingbird species—that can be spotted around Lake Roberts and Cameron Creek, near the Fort Bayard National Historic Landmark.

Don't Miss: Pack a picnic and drive about 40 minutes south of San Lorenzo to City of Rocks State Park, where you'll find an otherworldly "urban" landscape of volcanic rock pinnacles formed more than 34 million years ago.