An RVer's Guide to

Gila National Forest

Karen Blue

THOR Ambassador

Celebrating the National Forest System

In seeking dark skies and vast open landscapes, my family and I recently set off to southwest New Mexico in our Airstream Flying Cloud. Our destination? Gila National Forest, the very birthplace of Wilderness. This exciting journey was made possible through a partnership with THOR Industries and the National Forest Foundation.

Where "Wilderness" Began

The Gila National Forest was established in 1905, and later, Aldo Leopold, a young US Forest Service Supervisor, championed the idea of preserving a section of the Gila National Forest as a Wilderness Area. He proposed that a piece of land surrounding the headwaters of the Gila River be left in its natural state with no roads or buildings, free from modern civilization. On June 3rd, 1924, the first designated Wilderness in the world was established within the Gila National Forest, and we were fortunate to celebrate the centennial of this historic vision. 

The Gila National Forest sign and Karen Blue's Airstream Flying Cloud travel trailer.

A visit to the Gila National Forest provides endless opportunities to disconnect, reflect, and learn about the cultures of the various people who have called this land home. The forest spans over three million acres, encompassing mountains, hills, ranges, rivers, and hot springs. It could take a lifetime to explore its rich history fully. Therefore, we have created a guide to help you get started. 

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Gila National Forest

Where to Start

Considering the Gila's enormous scale, the first step is to decide which areas you want to visit. The Gila National Forest is divided into six Ranger Districts. We have traveled through each of them but spent most of our time in the Glenwood and Wilderness Districts during our stay. Once you decide which area you would like to explore, I highly recommend contacting the corresponding district office in advance for recommendations on suitable campgrounds, activities, history, other current conditions, or alerts. 

Activities in the Gila

The Gila National Forest offers an endless variety of outdoor activities, from hiking and wildlife watching to fishing and horseback riding. You can also explore the forest's rich history through guided tours and cultural events. Below are the top four activities we recommend. 

Hiking

More than 3,000 miles of trails exist, including the Continental Divide Trail, through the Gila. Be sure to check with the local Ranger District to find a hike suitable to your level, as many of the hikes can require several river crossings and excellent trail-finding skills. It's also important to note that the weather in the Gila can be unpredictable, so always be prepared with appropriate gear and clothing. A few of our favorite hikes include the following. 

  • West Fork Gila River Trail - Located in the Wilderness District, this trail traverses the entire length of the Wilderness for 33 miles. We hiked out and back from the end of the parking lot at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument to an area called Three Mile Ruin for a total of six miles. The terrain is primarily flat with a few areas of elevation, but there are several river crossings, making this a moderate hike. 
  • Dragonfly Loop Trail—Located in the Silver City District, this trail is an easy loop just over three miles long. To view the petroglyphs on the trail, some climbing around boulders is required. 
  • Catwalk Trail - Located in the Glenwood District, this easy two-mile out-and-back trail winds above the creek on bridges and catwalks. Depending on the time of year, parts of the trail may have shallow water crossings. 

Karen Blue standing in a river in Gila National Forest.

History and Cultural Learning Opportunities 

The Gila National Forest is a treasure trove of history and culture, waiting to be discovered. Before it became the nation's first Wilderness, the Gila was a homeland for the Mimbres, Mogollon, Puebloan, Apache, Chiricahua, Chihene, and N'de Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Ranchers, prospectors, and miners have also left their mark on this rugged terrain. Within the national forest, there are numerous opportunities to delve into the stories of these groups and how their histories have intertwined. 

  • Petroglyphs—Several petroglyphs and pictographs can be found throughout the area. These ancient rock carvings and paintings offer a glimpse into the lives of the indigenous peoples who once inhabited this land. While some are in marked areas, be sure to keep your eyes on the rocks as you explore to find others. 
  • Apache People - I attended and highly recommend a guided tour with WolfHorse Outfitters to learn the historical and Indigenous perspective of the generations of Apache people who lived here and their connection to the land. 
  • Mining and the Civilian Conservation Corp—Explore the Catwalk Recreation Area, where the miners' mark remains, and learn about the CCC's follow-up work to resurrect the area as a recreation area. 

Hot Springs 

One of the most tranquil experiences in the Gila National Forest is a visit to its hot springs. Gila's volcanic history has left several hot springs in the area, each offering a unique and soothing experience. Many people hike to Jordan Hot Springs, but we were advised that the water was warmer than hot, so we chose the shorter hike to Lightfeather Hot Springs. The water at the source is about 130 degrees, but as you make your way down the pool, the water from the river allows you to choose a comfortable temperature to soak, providing a perfect opportunity for relaxation and rejuvenation. 

 

Dark Sky Viewing 

We found that most of the areas with the Gila had dark skies, but the further north we went, the farther we were from the city lights of Silver City. Cosmic Campground is an International Dark Sky Sanctuary offering 360-degree unobstructed views and four concrete telescope observation pads.

 RV Friendly Campgrounds

There are several reservation first-come, first-serve campgrounds, and dispersed camping areas throughout the Gila National Forest. We stayed at the Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary on the west side and Mesa Campground near Lake Roberts on the eastern side, which had several sites with partial hookups. 

A few of the larger RV-friendly National Forest campgrounds include Apache Creek Campground and Pueblo Park in the northwest, Upper End Campground near Lake Roberts on the east, and Juniper Campground and Piñon Campground in the north. Some of these campgrounds are dry camping only, while others offer water and electricity. Juniper is the only campground with full hookups and a dump station. If you are camping on a budget, don't discount the campgrounds for dispersed camping, as many are free! Also, be sure to check each site for open dates and RV length restrictions. 

Karen Blue stepping out the door of her Airstream Flying Cloud travel trailer.

Additional RV Tips

  1. If you drive an RV north from Silver City toward the Gila National Monument, it is best to avoid Highway 15 as it is very windy and narrow. It is best to take Highway 35 from the east. 

  2. Each Ranger District Office has a potable water spigot that can be used for freshwater. 

  3. There is a dump station located at Juniper Campground. 

  4. Come prepared. Places to restock groceries and fill propane and fuel are limited. Silver City was the closest location to the areas we visited, besides a small convenience store and fuel station in Alma, NM. 

    Lenny Blue filling up a water jug at the Gila National Forest welcome center.

Our Experience and Our Responsibility 

With such a vast landscape, the convenience of bringing our Airstream and having all the amenities of home allowed us to stay longer, visit areas without local lodging, and immerse ourselves in the beauty of the Gila National Forest. I hope this guide has inspired your next RV adventure to the world's first Wilderness so you can experience this stunning landscape. As you explore, please remember the importance of respecting and protecting our natural spaces for future generations by practicing Leave No Trace and Dark Sky principles. Additionally, when visiting any area, always support the local communities, acknowledge and honor the indigenous people, and respect cultural sites.

Gila National Forest

Top Attractions

POINT OF INTEREST
1
West Fork Gila River Trail
Located in the Wilderness District, this trail traverses the entire length of the Wilderness for 33 miles. We hiked out and back from the end of the parking lot at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument to an area called Three Mile Ruin for a total of six miles. The terrain is primarily flat with a few areas of elevation, but there are several river crossings, making this a moderate hike.
2
Dragonfly Loop Trail
Located in the Silver City District, this trail is an easy loop just over three miles long. To view the petroglyphs on the trail, some climbing around boulders is required.
3
Catwalk Trail
Located in the Glenwood District, this easy two-mile out-and-back trail winds above the creek on bridges and catwalks. Depending on the time of year, parts of the trail may have shallow water crossings.
4
WolfHorse Outfitters
I recommend a guided tour with WolfHorse Outfitters to learn the historical and indigenous perspective of the generations of Apache people who lived here and their connection to the land.
5
Jordan Hot Springs
Located in the southwestern part of New Mexico, Jordan Hot Springs is about a mile from Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. It's a hike to get to the springs, with a few route options for getting there. So be sure pack appropriate gear and expect beautiful scenery along your venture!
6
Cosmic Campground
Cosmic Campground is an International Dark Sky Sanctuary offering 360-degree unobstructed views and four concrete telescope observation pads.
7
Aldo Leopold Vista and CP Anderson Overlook
These viewpoints look directly across the National Forest at each other. Be sure to look for the mosaic work of the local Youth Mural Camp on the picnic tables at the Aldo Leopold Vista and the mosaic wall at the CP Anderson Overlook.
8
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Although managed by the National Park Service, the dwellings are located within the National Forest and provide a view into the history of the Mogollon people.
9
Emory Pass Scenic Vista
A breathtaking mountain pass known for its panoramic views.

Travel Trailers

Travel trailers are the most popular type of non-motorized RV. No doubt you’ve seen one pulled down the highway hitched to a car or pickup. Travel trailers come in all sizes including tiny jellybean-shaped models with a chuckwagon kitchen in the rear to the massive house-on-wheels with picture windows and a sliding glass patio door.

The National Forest Foundation x THOR Industries

In 2020, THOR and the National Forest Foundation entered a partnership that will plant at least 500,000 trees on National Forest lands. Join us by supporting our National Forests and help improve the health of important public lands for future generations.

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