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 black bear, mountain lion, elk, deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and wild turkey, inhabit the Forest, while the bald eagle, peregrine falcon and the red-tailed hawk soar in the wind.
The 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 “A 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.
Another unique beauty of the Gila National Forest is its wilderness. The Gila, Aldo Leopold and Blue Range wildernesses offer unparalleled hiking and horseback riding. The magnificence of these mountainous regions imparts an indescribable feeling of awe and wonderment. Former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas may have captured the feeling when he said, “Wilderness helped preserve man’s capacity for wonder ... the power to feel, if not see, the miracles of life, of beauty and of harmony around us.” The Gila Wilderness was established in 1924 as the first designated wilderness in the country.
The San Francisco, Gila and Mimbres rivers; the Catwalk; Pueblo Park Campground; Gila Cliff Dwellings; Mogollon Baldy; Castle Rock; Eagle Peak Mountain; Emory Pass; and the Burro Mountains are among the many islands of beauty on the Gila. Other areas of interest include Cooney’s Tomb, El Caso Lookout Tower, Beaverhead, Reed’s Peak, Frisco Hot Springs and Cherry Creek.
During one of Aldo Leopold’s hunting trips into the Gila National Forest, he eloquently stated, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes ... something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
Such is the legacy of the Gila—a beautiful and unique forest with majestic mountains, a complex interwoven fabric of all living things.