Cliff dwellings in Gila Wilderness
Flickr, Tom Blackwell
This wilderness area was not only America's first wilderness, it was the world's.
One more hint: The wilderness is strongly associated with Aldo Leopold, one of the 20th Century's foremost conservationists.
If you guessed Gila Wilderness, you're correct!
Aldo Leopold, a United States Forest Service supervisor, had proposed that the headwaters of the Gila River should be preserved by restricting the building of roads and denying any permits for uses like logging. On June 3, 1924, Aldo Leopold's efforts were successful when the lands now known as Gila became the first fully protected lands in the National Forest System. Leopold later became one of the founders of the Wilderness Society.
Thirty years later, Gila was also the first congressionally designated wilderness of the National Wilderness Preservation System under the 1964 Wilderness Act, which passed fifty years ago this month.
Gila remains the largest designated wilderness area in New Mexico. It lies in the Gila National Forest, along with Aldo Leopold Wilderness and Blue Range Wilderness.
The eastern portion of the Wilderness boasts high mesas, deep canyons and dramatic cliffs towering over the Gila River. The western portion includes high peaks in the Mogollon mountain range and more creek-carved canyons.
Photo: 1914 view of Gila Cliff Dwellings. Credit: NPS.
Gila's hundreds of miles of easily-accessible trails make it a popular place for hiking, backpacking, fishing, horseback riding and camping. One of the best-known trails is the so-called "Catwalk" - a one-mile trail suspended above a stream in a gorge. The river is great for rafting during the spring snowmelt. Natural hot springs are an additional treat for visitors.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is also located inside the Wilderness. An ancient village built over 700 years ago within natural caves inside canyons offers spectacular architecture as well as views.
Gila is home to bobcats, cougars, deer, black bears, turkeys, hawks, ospreys, bald eagles and rattlesnakes. The wilderness is home to the largest population of near-threatened Mexican Spotted Owls and to threatened Gila trout. The critically endangered Mexican Wolf was reintroduced to the wilderness in 1988 and four packs had established themselves by 2006. Elk had been reintroduced in 1954, as well as Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in 1958.