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On Walkabout In: New Mexico’s Gila Mountains

New Mexico has plenty of scenic and beautiful mountain landscapes, but none of them packs as much as a diversity of scenery the Gila Mountains in the state’s southwestern corner.  These mountains are protected as part of the Gila National Forest which encompasses over 3.3 million acres of publicly owned land.  The national forest was established in 1905 and is the 6th largest in the nation.  The diversity of this national forest is incredible since it encompasses everything from dry desert scrubland, to lush forests, rugged canyons, and mountains that rise over 10,000 feet in altitude.  The remoteness of the Gila Mountains has allowed it to become home to a wide variety to wildlife to include deer, elk, bears, and mountains lions.  A number of maps of the Gila Wilderness can be downloaded from the National Forest Service website.

Driving from El Paso my wife and I decided to tour these mountains by car by first driving about an hour north on Interstate-25 where we then exited to travel west on highway 152 towards the Gila Mountains.  The highway is part of a route known locally as the Geronimo Trail Scenic Byway:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

This stretch of road begins in the desert scrublands that surround the Rio Grande Valley that surrounds I-25 between Albuquerque and El Paso:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

After about 30 minutes of driving the road reaches the small historic mining settlement of Hillsboro:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

According to the historic marker in the town, Hillsboro was established in 1877 when gold was discovered in the area. Since the town was established in an area that was home to an Apache tribe conflict was bound to break out and it did.  In 1879, 10 Hillsboro citizens living on the outskirts of the town were killed by the Apaches.  This conflict with the Apaches became known locally as the Victorio War.  Detachments of US soldiers had to be rotated to the area to protect the Hillsboro citizens from the Apaches.  The protection by the soldiers allowed the town to grow and its growth led to Hillsboro becoming the country capitol from 1884 to 1939.

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

With the decline of the mining industry the town’s population began to decline to the point of nearly becoming a ghost town.  In 1986 Hillsboro became a registered national historic district and is today a thriving arts community with many historical buildings and homes:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

Continuing west on Highway 152 from Hillsboro the road begins to enter into the mountains:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

The road switchbacks up the mountains and rises steeply in altitude as it enters the lushly forested slopes of the Gila Mountains:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

Deep into the Gila Mountains the highway reaches the Emory Pass Scenic Viewpoint.  The views from the pass are incredible:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

In the view laid out before us we could follow the switchbacking route we took to climb up these beautiful mountains:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

In the upper reaches of the Gila Mountains the highway is dwarfed by the tall ponderosa pine trees that envelope these mountains:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

From the viewpoint we could also just barely make out the nearby Hillsboro tucked into the desert valley below:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

We could also see the distant Organ Mountains where Las Cruces lies at the base of:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

From Emory Pass we continued to drive further into these incredible mountains where we passed many rugged rock formations and forested campgrounds:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

The road then descends down the mountains and into a central semi-arid valley:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

In this valley the village of San Lorenzo serves a crossroad to reach various areas in the Gila Mountains.  My wife and I planned on visiting the Gila Cliff Dwellings in the very center of this incredible wilderness and thus decided to travel north on highway 35.  Highway 35 traverses this central semi-arid valley that provides some incredible views of striking sandstone rock formations:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

Further down the road the highway passes Lake Roberts, which appeared to offer some good fishing opportunities based on the number of fishermen I seen along the shores of the lake:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

Just passed Lake Roberts was the turn off to Highway 15 to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  This highway gained in altitude and once again provided incredible views of yet another diverse part of this wilderness, rugged canyonlands:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

Within the various canyons the colorful rocks were quite striking:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

These colorful canyons were cut out by the twisting Gila River that flows through the very heart of this wilderness:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

The road than dropped in altitude and entered into yet another land of sandstone slot canyons:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

These slot canyons are where the ancient Mogollon people lived along the banks of the upper Gila River:

Picture from New Mexico's Gila Mountains

It is here in these sandstone slot canyons that was our ultimate destination; because it is here that the Gila Cliff Dwellings were located.  However, the drive just to reach the dwellings were so spectacular that this destination was definitely worth the journey.  In about 4 hours of driving from El Paso we saw desert scrublands, a historic mining village, lushly forested mountains, a semi-arid valley, incredible beehive sandstone rock formations, a beautiful lake, rugged and brightly colored canyons, sandstone slot canyons, and the scenic Gila River.

It will be hard to top such diverse scenery, but the Gila Cliff Dwellings proved to be a great place that added to the diversity of the incredible Gila Mountains.

Next Posting: The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

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