The first wilderness set aside by Congress was within the vast 3.3 million acre Gila National Forest. The Gila Wilderness is the largest with 559,324-acres and is one of four designated wilderness areas within Old West Country …three within the Gila (Gila, Aldo Leopold and Blue Range Wilderness) and one within the Cibola National Forest (Apache Kid Wilderness).
Popular theory says that the word Gila was derived from a Spanish contraction of Hah-quah-sa-eel, a Yuma Indian word meaning “running water which is salty”. The naming of the Gila National Forest is indicative of its interesting history and beauty. The Forest, tucked away in southwestern New Mexico, is a paradise for those seeking solitude and escape from modern society’s busy lifestyle.
Every National Forest offers its own unique beauty. The Gila’s beauty is in its diversity of rugged mountains, deep canyons, meadows, and semi-desert country. Elevations range from 4,200 to 10,900 feet and cover four of the six life zones. Flora and fauna are diverse. Ocotillo and cactus are found in the lower elevations, and juniper, pine, aspen, and spruce-fir forests are plentiful in the high mountains. Wildlife such as the black bear, mountain lion, elk, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, and wild turkey inhabit the Forest while the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and the red-tailed hawk soar in the wind.
Gila National Forest boasts a rich history of the Mogollon and Apache Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans, ranchers, prospectors and miners. Apache Chiefs Mangas Coloradas, Geronimo, and Victorio, Aldo Leopold: conservationist, ecologist and author of the Sand County Almanac, and renowned lion hunter Ben Lilly are but a few of the personalities from the past that have left their mark in the Gila. Place names like Raw Meat Canyon, Tepee Canyon and Grave Canyon tell the tales of the past.
The Gila National Forest is big: It includes more than 500,000 acres of rugged land, dominates the landscape of our county and extends west all the way to the border with Arizona. Hundreds of recreational activities and popular spots exist within the forest.
To get your bearings, spend a few minutes with the rangers in each of the ranger districts.