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. A paradise tucked away in southwestern New Mexico, the forest is an escape from modern society’s busy lifestyle for those seeking solitude.
Gila’s beauty is just as unique as every national forest, offering diversity in mountains, deep canyons, meadows and semi-desert country. Elevations range from 4,200 to 10,900 feet and cover four out of six life zones. Flora and fauna are diverse, while 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 bald eagles, peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks soar in the wind.
A rich history of the Mogollon and Apache Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans, ranchers, prospectors and miners boast in the Gila National Forest. Apache Chiefs Mangas Coloradas, Geronimo and Victorio; Aldo Leopold, conservationist, ecologist and author of “A Sand County Almanac” and renowned lion hunter Ben Lilley 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 wilderness offer unparalleled hiking and horseback riding. These magnificent mountainous regions impart 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 of wonder…the power to feel, if not see, the miracles of life, of beauty and harmony around us.” Established in 1924 the Gila Wilderness was the first designated wilderness in the county.
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.
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known every 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,” Aldo Leopold eloquently stated this during one of his hunting trips into the Gila National Forest.
Such is the legacy of the Gila – a beautiful and unique forest with majestic mountains, a complex interwoven fabric of all living things.