A few good Gila Wilderness hikes

McKnight Canyon in the Gila Wilderness. Photo by Bill Winkley.
McKnight Canyon in the Gila Wilderness. Photo by Bill Winkley.

When I made the decision to move to Silver City in early 1994, I had many good reasons. I had returned from almost eight years of living in the cultural fascination and beauty of Papua, New Guinea and Fiji and wanted to settle back in my home country in a location that offered both cultural interest and geographical beauty. After looking at several parts of the Western United States, including several small towns in New Mexico, I settled on Silver City.

The wisdom of that decision has been fully validated as I have come to know the area better over the past five years. Truly I have found more and more reasons to live in this magic spot on earth.

The espresso bars, the university and its library, the movie houses and the cultural opportunities are all important to me. The mountains are as stunning and the forest as inviting and magnificent as they were when I brought my toddler children here thirty years ago.

One very large value of life here - one I had not fully anticipated - is the overwhelming abundance of opportunities for hiking in the Gila Wilderness. With the good fortune of meeting some avid hikers and their invitation to join them, I now passionately look forward to frequent hikes as my recreation, my spiritual development and my therapy. There are several I would like to recommend to others planning a visit or a relocation here.

Mineral Creek. Photo by Bill Winkley.
Mineral Creek.  Photo by Bill Winkley.

Probably my favorite is the Mineral Creek Hike. This takes the moderate hiker up a series of magnificent canyons, along a usually-running creek that is spotted with excellent swimming holes, and on to the residuals of a town and large mine. During July the wildflowers are profuse and varied. Bird species are abundant, and one should be on the lookout for the occasional snake. Twice we have had encounters with rattlers. However a good pair of boots and long pants have dispelled my fear of snakes, allowing me to focus on the sculptured walls of the canyons, with hues of gold, brown and mauve upon their faces, and the fascinating interplay of rocks and plants.

To get there, one drives west of Silver City on Highway 180 past Glenwood to the small community of Alma. About one block’s distance south of the small store and cafe, there is a dirt road to the east, easily spotted, that leads up a winding road to a corral and parking spot. On the way up that road is Coony’s Tomb, Coony being the founder of the ghost town. The hapless soul was slaughtered by the Apaches and later buried in a large rock tomb on the right side of the road. Watch for his grave, take time to read the marker, and notice the headstones behind it.

Once you have parked, the trail is directly ahead, to the right of the corral. Take shoes that will get you through water as well as over a sometimes steep trail. Pack a lunch and take plenty of water, especially if you are hiking in summer. Mineral Creek is a good day hike, taking anywhere from six to eight hours, allowing time to explore the ghost town site, some of the caves and cellars nearby and the actual mine site about a mile further up the trail. Too, you might want to swim.

Coonyville Munitions Cellar
Coonyville Munitions Cellar

Another favorite is Gomez Peak, about five minutes from Silver City. Go out Little Walnut Drive to the Gomez Peak Picnic Grounds on the left, just inside the forest. Park your car in the lot at the entrance and the trail leads off right ahead of your car. This hike is a demanding one in that you are vertically challenged a large part of way. Whenever you come to another trail leading upwards, either on your left or right, take it and your reward will be a 360 degree view of the Gila Wilderness, the desert and mountain ranges clear to the Mexican border and virtually the entire town of Silver City, along with the Kneeling Nun and a good view of the Black Range to the East. Depending on your sightseeing needs, this can be a two to four hour hike. Remember to take water and watch for snakes sunning in the trail.

Want another hike, equally beautiful but a good bit more challenging vertically and therefore aerobically? Try Signal Peak, which to my knowledge and experience is snake-free! To reach the trailhead, head out Highway 15 through Pinos Altos about 12 miles to a trail marker sign on the right with the number 742. Park on the left just before the cattleguard and cross the road to begin the hike. The challenge starts immediately, but the rewarding views on your way up and at the top shorten the memory of the ascent. Although the hike up is two and one-half miles to the top, a decision to hike back down on the road from the forestry station on top will find you hiking close to ten miles. On the road you will find Highway 15 about one-half block beyond the cattleguard and your vehicle. We usually retrace our steps. Coming down the way you headed up makes this a good six hour hike, again depending on how much time you take in stopping, looking and having a bite to eat.

For most new to the area, the Black Range looks inviting. There are several excellent day hikes, including the Rabb Park (Trail 747) and the Railroad Canyon (Trail 128)Trails. The view at Emory Pass is stunning and from there, you can hike north or south on Trail No. 79. North is good for cold weather in that there is lots of sun to warm you, while South offers an almost totally shaded summer hike.

The Burros Mountains to the southwest of Silver City paralleling Highway 90 to Lordsburg is criss-crossed with some fine fall and spring hikes. Mountain lions are well-known in these mountains, so avoid taking your small animals, and keep the children close by. Jack’s Peak is a really challenging hike, either from the Continental Divide Trail (Trail 91) on the east of the mountains or from Trail 836 from the West. The views there make the struggle to the top most worthwhile.

Someone said that one could spend a lifetime hiking in the Gila Wilderness. These are a few introductory hikes that will whet your appetite. Serious hikers, either current or intended, should invest in a U.S. Forest Service map and have it laminated. A small backpack, a good water bottle, boots and amphibious shoes or sandals, and a small first-aid kit will round out your needs.

Regardless of your fitness and motivation, there are many hikes that will suit your abilities and interests. Certainly the many Native-American ruins are fascinating, giving one an incredible sense of our connection to the past. The numerous Forest Ranger Stations around the wilderness are staffed with men and women eager to assist you and ensure you have a safe and enjoyable hike. Your good friend, the mighty Gila Wilderness, awaits!