Best Hikes in Gila National Forest (NM)

Gila National Forest Overview

Gila National Forest is located in southwestern New Mexico on the Arizona line. It shares its western border with Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. There are nearly 2000 miles of trails and the best hikes in Gila National Forest are described below.

The forest is probably best known for its wilderness areas, in particular the Gila Wilderness – the first congressionally designated wilderness in the United States. The magnificent mountain scenery, cool summer temperatures and relatively warm winters permit a wide range of recreational opportunities during all seasons. The 558,065-acre Gila Wilderness, created in June 1924 at the urging of the great conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold, was the world’s first designated wilderness. It is also New Mexico’s largest wilderness. In addition to the wilderness areas, the NPS-managed Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument also lies within the boundaries of the forest. 

StateNew Mexico
Nearest Metro AreaLas Cruces, NM
Area Size2,710,659 acres
EstablishedJuly 21, 1905
Hiking Trails1,927 miles

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Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Best Hikes in Gila National Forest

(*** = Best hikes in Gila National Forest)

Black Range Crest Trail #79 to Hillsboro Peak*** – 10.4 miles out and back
Looking southeast from Hillsboro Peak
Looking Southeast from Hillsboro Peak, Photo by Samat Jain

The trail follows the crest of the Black Range offering spectacular views of rugged canyons, the Rio Grande River valley to the east, and the Gila Wilderness and Mogollon Mountains to the west. Following the 36-mile length of the Black Range is an exceptionally rewarding experience. This trail is broken into two segments, each beginning at Emory Pass on NM 152. Trail 79 going north toward Hillsboro Peak is almost all wilderness and suitable only for hiking and horseback. It traverses the highest peaks in the range as it follows along the crest through ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, and aspen forests. It’s about 27.7 miles from the trailhead to Reeds Peak where it connects with Continental Divide Trail #74.

Catwalk National Recreation Trail #207*** – 3.0 miles out and back
Catwalk National Recreation Trail
Catwalk National Recreation Trail, Photo by Gila National Forest – New Mexico

The Catwalk’s history began with the discovery of gold and silver in the rugged Mogollon Mountains above Whitewater Canyon. In 1893, the small town of Graham grew around a mill. The mill only lasted about 10 years. In the mid-1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt the Catwalk. The Catwalk bridge system washed away during a huge flooding event after the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Fire. The bridge system was rebuilt and is now open for approximately .5 miles from the parking lot. This is a very accessible area and easily hiked by all ages. After the bridge system, the trail system has been cleared for another .5 – .75 miles. It goes across a low-water crossing, across the fiberglass bridge and through the arch. Once you go up the stairs to a small viewing area the trail can become steep. Past the “swimming hole” the trail becomes unnavigable.

Dragonfly Loop Trail #720 – 3.6 mile loop
Dragonfly Rock Art, Photo by Gila National Forest – New Mexico

Dragonfly Trail is most known for the petroglyphs located approximately 2 miles from the trailhead. Here visitors can see petroglyphs, enjoy the many live dragonflies during the right months and take in the breathtaking scenery.

Little Bear Canyon Trail*** – 14.8 miles out and back
2019--20 December--Hike in Little Bear Canyon, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Hike in Little Bear Canyon, Photo by Phil Venditti

From the TJ Corral Trailhead, walk about two miles to the top of the ridge between the West Fork and Middle Fork of the Gila River. At the junction with trail #164 (to the Meadows) continue straight ahead on trail #729 (to the Middle Fork) another two miles down Little Bear Canyon to the Middle Fork. From here there are multiple river crossings that will get your feet wet and can get up to your knees. Around 7-7.5 miles in you will reach the Jordan Hot Springs; although they are more warm than hot. To make a loop consider leaving from or returning to the Middle Fork Trailhead near the Visitor Center which is 1 mile down the road from the TJ Corral Trailhead.

Mineral Creek Trail #201*** – 6.0 miles out and back
Mineral Creek, Photo by Gila National Forest – New Mexico

This is one of the best hikes in Gila National Forest and in the Gila Wilderness. As soon as it begins, hikers will pass through some beautiful canyon narrows requiring sure footing as you traverse over slickrock. Further along the trail you will arrive upon some historic mining ruins including the Cooney mining camp. The trail continues on farther past the mines and along the creek but it is much less maintained and harder to follow.

West Fork Trail #151 – 33 miles one-way
West Fork Gila River Rock Formations, Photo by Gila National Forest – New Mexico

Trail 151 is one of the hallmark trails of the Gila Wilderness. It follows the West Fork of the Gila River through a beautiful, deep, winding canyon with spectacular volcanic cliff formations. There are many river crossings per mile and boots that can be worn for wading are recommended.  Many trails can be connected to cross the Gila Wilderness but #151 is one of only two trails that completely traverses the wilderness. The southern trail head is at the Gila Cliff Dwellings and the northern trail head is at Willow Creek. The trails that connect with #151 can be linked to make several very interesting loops through the interior of the wilderness. These loops provide opportunities for extended pack trips in quiet solitude and a wonderful variety of scenic canyon, mesa, and mountain terrain.

Featured Image: Gila National Forest, Photo by Zereshk

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