For a special, inexpensive riding vacation, consider Gila National Forest (www.fs.usda.gov/gila). Here, you can touch the past, soak in natural hot springs, and feast your senses on a wide variety of loop trails. It seems fitting that the Gila National Forest is in New Mexico, The Land of Enchantment.
Gila National Forest is located near Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument (www.nps.gov/gicl), 44 miles north of Silver City, on Highway 15. It’s about a two-hour drive from Silver City. The roads are very windy, and the last five miles are extremely steep.
This national forest encompasses three wilderness areas: the Gila; the Aldo Leopold; and the Blue Range. There are about 1,490 miles of trails crisscrossing the Gila Wilderness.
Near the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument there are two primitive campgrounds with corrals for horses: TJ’s Camp and Woody’s Corral. We stayed at Woody’s Corral, which consists of four large corrals and a good-sized water tank with a working water tap.
Camping spots are nondesignated, so it was up to us to select which shady tree we wanted to camp under. This is a scenic, spacious camp, and best of all, free! The visitor center, about a mile from Woody’s Corral, is a rich source of information. Here, you can learn about trails, animals, the area’s history, and unique geology.
From Woody’s Corral, we went on gorgeous rides that offered diverse terrain, including ridge tops, deep canyons, old-growth forests, lush meadows, hot springs, rivers, and pictographs.
The EE Canyon Loop
The EE Canyon Loop, with an extension, was our first ride. This was an easy 10-mile ride on a well-maintained trail with an abundance of panoramic scenery. On the south side of the parking lot of Woody’s Corral, across a wash, lies the trailhead to this loop. The trail gently curves up and follows the ridge. This ridge separates the West Fork of the Gila River from Little Creek.
At about 3.5 miles, there’s a stately, old-growth forest and a trail junction. If you turn right, you do an eight-mile loop. We opted for an additional two miles, so we continued straight down to Little Creek.
After crossing Little Creek, we turned right and followed the trail as it went along the creek. Huge ponderosa pines reached for the sky and provided a green canopy for us to ride under.
When the trail crossed Little Creek again, instead of turning right to complete the loop, we decided to go straight and do a bit of exploring. In less than a mile, we came to a park-like area where ponderosa pines, like drunken giants, leaned over in the same direction; others had fallen down.
From the looks of these large conifers, one could only assume that this area gets beaten with strong winds. Not a place to be in a windstorm, but a great place for lunch! After lunch, we headed back to the junction, turned left, and began heading up the ridge. At the top of the ridge, we went right, rode a short distance, and turned left to begin our descent into the canyon.
EE Canyon was a visual delight! Gray rock walls were festooned with green-velvet finery and splashes of white flowers. As we rode deeper into the canyon, sunlight became fragmented, and shards of light danced on the trail in front of us.
At the West Fork trail junction, we turned right and followed it back to Woody’s Corral. When going by the Gila Dwellings parking lot, there’s a pedestrian bridge that goes over the trail and the West Fork River.
The West Fork
Our next ride was up the West Fork of the Gila River. On this one, we didn’t do a loop, although it could be a long loop ride.
At the south end of Woody’s parking lot, we got on the trail and followed it along the West Fork River, past the Cliff Dwellings and under the pedestrian bridge. We headed straight until we reached the Gila Wilderness Area sign. At this point, there’s a trail that branches to the right. This way around Cliff Dwellings Monument takes you into TJ’s Corral. For variety, upon return, you could take this bypass.
We rode up the river for about four miles from the start. You’ll pass a junction with Trail #28 on the way. We veered left on Trail #151. Within a mile, we crossed the river a couple of times and arrived at a large flat, with trees and a narrow sandy beach.
Across the river, high on the rock wall are two caves. A single cliff dwelling is nestled in one of the caves. Archeologists refer to the people who lived in these dwellings more than 800 years ago as the Mogollon.
From here, you could continue up river for more exploring. If you want to make a large loop, then take Trail #28, which exited to the right about a mile before the little cliff dwelling. Trail #28 travels uphill to Trail #164 and then back to TJ’s Corral.
The Middle Fork
Our third journey, the Middle Fork Gila ride, without a doubt, our favorite ride! Steve Riley, the superintendent, called it the area’s premier ride. This 11-mile loop is punctuated with deep, narrow canyons, magnificent scenery, 30 river crossings, peccary, pictographs, and a primitive hot spring.
We began by taking Trail #729 from TJ’s Corral. Within a short while, we came to a junction where we stayed to the right. What a fun trail to ride! Everywhere we looked, there was something special to appreciate — birds, butterflies, flowers, rock formations, mountains, and animal tracks.
After a couple of miles, we came to another junction. We stayed to the right and the trail led down into Little Bear Canyon. This was our favorite part of the ride. It was the deepest, and in places, the narrowest canyon we’d ever ridden in. Sheer cliffs rise dramatically on either side. At times, we could stretch out our arms and touch the walls.
After about four miles, we came to the junction of Little Bear Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Gila River. This is a good stopping spot. There are huge shade trees, grandiose photo opportunities, a wonderful place to eat lunch, and snooze spots for the horses.
To continue our loop, we took a right on Trail #157 and stayed on this trail for the next six miles. There’s a great deal of foliage and some Arizona sycamore trees along this trail. The sycamores are large, uniquely beautiful trees; in the fall, their leaves turn copper. Keep an eye on the white cliffs to your left to spot bright-red pictographs.
As we neared the end of the ride, we could smell hot, moist air from the hot springs in the river. Here’s a primitive hot pool you can use to soak away saddle sores or aching feet.
After passing the hot springs, we were less than a mile from the back side of the visitor center, which is roughly one mile from Woody’s Corral. Just follow the faint trail that cuts to the right along the river and back to your starting point.
Gila Hot Springs Ranch
Gila Hot Springs Ranch (www.gilahotspringsranch.com) is located in Silver City, 3.5 miles south of the visitor center on Highway 15. Here, you’ll find a secluded river campground with natural, hot-water pools for soaking saddle-weary bones.
If you’re traveling with a living-quarters trailer or camper, head to the RV park, which has horse corrals. We stayed here one night and enjoyed it. The scenery was beautiful and the people were very friendly.
Ask the owners for directions to access the trail across the road that will take you downstream along the main Gila River. You can ride as far as you’d like in a deep, forested canyon.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “Kent and Charlene Krone” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.