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Over 6,000 square miles of
National Forest lie within
hours of El Paso
By Lisa Kay Tate
Nearly 4 million acres of National Forest in the mountains of Southern New Mexico beckon visitors from the Borderland.
The vast Gila National Forest, with 2.7 million acres, takes up much of southwestern New Mexico, while the Lincoln National Forest, with 1.1 million acres, spans the area around Ruidoso, Cloudcoft in south-central New Mexico. El Pasoans only need to drive two hours to reach either National Forest.
These forests are not only popular with visitors for hiking, camping, nature viewing, picnicking and other outdoor activities, each one is home to sites that are attractions in themselves.
Gila visitors can hike the Catwalk, visit historic cliff dwellings and or enjoy a dark sky sanctuary. Guests traveling to the Lincoln can hike on several interpretive trails, see the famous railroad that once defied the steep ascent to Cloudcroft and take side trips to learn about Smokey Bear, Billy the Kid and a solar observatory.
Not to be confused with the area’s National Monuments and Parks, which are part of the United States Department of the Interior, the National Forests are part of the United States Department of Agriculture. The forests are intended for multiple uses, including recreation, and its recent ad campaign invites everyone to “Discover the Forest.”
Gila National Forest
The Gila National Forest, established in 1905, encompasses wilderness areas such as Aldo Leopold wilderness and the Blue Range wilderness, and is the sixth largest National Forest in the continental United States.
The Gila National Forest is home to the world’s very first designated wilderness, Gila Wilderness, established in 1924. It is also home to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, Catwalk National Recreation Area and the Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary (CCIDSS).
“We incorporate many miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) and are visited by many hikers – not just hikers who are going on short hikes, but CDT thru-hikers whose goal is to visit the entire CDT Trail,” said Marta Call, Public Affairs Officer to Gila National Forest.
The 3.5 acre Cosmic Campground was established in 2016 because it not only is location in one of the darkest nighttime locations in the continental United States, but also provides a 360-degree view of the sky.
Call said the temperate southwestern New Mexico climate makes the Gila a good forest for visitors most of the year, although summer heat and thunderstorms keep some people away, and winter cold and snow also deter visitors.
“Spring and fall are always a great time to visit this part of the country,” Call said.
She said the southern end of the forest often gets the most visitors when there are festivities in Silver City or other surrounding communities, such as Tour of the Gila in late April or early May, Continental Divide Trail Days, the Blues Festival Memorial Day weekend and summer’s Clay Festival and Fiesta Latina.
“People come for those activities and then spend time visiting the forest, or vice versa,” she said.
Summertime, however, is the busiest time for the forests’ employees, who Call said spend much of their time either out in the field helping to manage the public lands or taking part in the firefighting contingent.
Hiking and mountain biking are the most popular activities for regular visitors, she said, including area residents.
“Many spend their weekends camping on forest,” Call said. “The Gila National Forest offers 44 developed campgrounds and 3.3 million acres in which to camp, fish, hunt, mountain bike, and hike.”
Day hikes are available from the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument that are easily accessible to all levels of hikers.
The Catwalk Recreation Area is another favorite of Gila visitors, and was first built in the 1890s when gold and silver were discovered in the mountains. The small town of Glenwood developed to accommodate a mill. The mill is long gone, but the catwalk remains. It was rebuilt in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and has since had other renovations and restorations to keep it safe and appealing to visitors.
Call said the Gila is also a great opportunity to visit Silver City, where the forest’s office is located.
“Silver City is a CDT (Continental Divide Trail) gateway community and a charming little community with many art galleries and shops to entice the discerning shopper,” she said.
Call said one of the best things about the Gila is it offers the opportunity to “get away from it all” any time of year.
“Getting back to nature is good for us, physically, emotionally and spiritually. It restores peace to our minds and bodies, (has) 3.3 million acres of some of the most beautiful landscapes in southwestern New Mexico, primitive experiences abound, three wilderness areas, and some of the best elk hunting in NM. The Gila has something for everyone.”
Lincoln National Forest
The Lincoln National Forest was established in 1902 as Lincoln Forest Preserve, covering several environments from desert to mountain forests to grasslands.
Today’s Lincoln Forest evolved from different forest reserves and national forests, all designated in the early 1900s, including the Lincoln Forest Preserve, Guadalupe National Forest and Sacramento National Forest. These forests merged into one National Forest in 1908.
Lisa L. Jones serves as program manager for Lincoln National Forest’s Forest Recreation, Lands and Mineral Programs.
She said the forest offers recreation opportunities year-round from hiking to alpine skiing, but campgrounds operate primarily in the summer season.
“There are multiple opportunities for scenic drives as well as hikes within the forest,” she said. “Anytime is a great time to visit the forest.”
She said area residents in particular take advantage of the trail systems for hiking and mountain biking. She encourages people to come out as a “cool, refreshing retreat” from the hot, dry desert.
“You can expect to see wildlife, flowers, starry skies, and a number of scenic trails that traverse our beautiful mountains,” Jones said, adding that the Lincoln National Forest has sites and recreation opportunities for everyone.
“For history lovers, we are home to Smokey Bear in Capitan, Mexican Canyon Railroad Trestle, Sunspot Observatory and Visitor Center, as well as being near Fort Stanton and Lincoln (for those interested in Billy the Kid),” Jones said. “The Guadalupe Ranger District in Carlsbad offers Sitting Bull Falls Day Use Area as well as the recently designated National Recreation Trail of Guadalupe Ridge Trail.”
Some of the recreation areas do have use fees, so Jones encourages guests to call ahead and prepare for related costs.
Even for people who aren’t into hiking or camping, the forest offers plenty to see from the comfort of a car.
“There are several scenic loop drives within the forest taking you from the desert to high alpine forests,” Jones said.
The Lincoln National Forest maintains three ranger districts: Ruidoso for the Smokey Bear District, Cloudcroft with the Sacramento District and Carlsbad, with the Guadalupe District. Each one has its on unique appeal for visitors.
The Sacramento District is home to many of the scenic trails built and maintained by the non-profit New Mexico Rails to Trails, formed in 1994 to convert abandoned railroad lines for recreational use.
Popular trails include the historic Trestle Trail that takes visitors to a scenic overlook of Cloudcroft’s famous “S” trestle ruins of the “Cloud Climbing” railroad that once ran from Alamogordo to Cloudcroft. Other trails take visitors to Salado Canyon, and the 45-foot Bridal Falls.
The Sacramento District also includes Sunspot Observatory on Sacramento Peak, home of the National Solar Observatory’s Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope.
The rugged Guadalupe District is also a popular site for hikers, and starts near the Texas/New Mexico border. The one developed site in the district is Sitting Bull Falls picnic area, 20 miles west of Carlsbad.
The Smokey Bear District, closer to Ruidoso features both wilderness and ski areas, and also draws many visitors of Lincoln County interested in Old West history such as the Lincoln County War, in which gun fighter William Bonney (Billy The Kid) took part.
The district’s most famous resident, however, was Smokey Bear. Found as an orphaned cub after the Capitan Gap fire of 1950, Smokey was rescued from a burnt tree, and soon became the symbol of fire safety on public lands. His final resting place is on the grounds on Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan.
Gila Cliff Dwellings
Within the vast expanse of the Gila National Forest lies the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. While the forest is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the monument is run by the National Park Service as part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Cliff Dwellings preserve the 13th century homes built in cliff-side caves by the Mogollon people, who mysteriously left after only living there for two decades.
Gila Cliff Dwellings’ Chief of Interpretation Rita Garcia said even those who have visited the Cliff Dwellings haven’t seen it all, and their own understanding and the history rangers share is changing.
“What you heard in the past may have been very entertaining, but it may be very dated and inaccurate compared to today’s understanding,” she said. “It’s like seeing a beautiful sunset. Just because you’ve seen one, doesn’t mean you won’t ever enjoy another sunset again.”
Among the popular events offered during summer and fall are full moon hikes. Rim hikes are also back, and night sky astronomy programs will start in the fall. Space is limited for these special programs, so advance registration is requested.
Other offerings that begin this summer include 45-minute guided tours of the dwellings at 1 p.m. every Friday through Sunday.
Garcia said visitors to the dwellings should remember to allow plenty of time. The mountainous, winding drive from Silver City can take up to 90 minutes each way.
“Relax and enjoy the drive,” she said. “Getting here is half the fun. Wear sturdy shoes or boots, eat something before you head up the trail, and always drink lots of water no matter what time of the year.”
She said the Gila Cliff Dwellings is one of the few remaining cliff dwelling parks that still let visitors go inside the caves, and guests should take advantage of the opportunity.
“Give yourself time to walk up to the dwellings; but also give yourself time to go inside, explore, and discover this wonderful place,” she said. “Slow down and enjoy the peace and quiet of the canyon.”
The trail to the cliff dwellings is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. year round. Everyone must be off the trail by 5 p.m. Visitor center is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Information: (575) 536-9461 or nps.gov/gicl
Smokey Bear Park
A short side trip from the Lincoln National Forest is the mountain town of Capitan, which is home to the Smokey Bear Historical Park, home of the Smokey Bear’s final resting place and other exhibits honoring the icon of the U.S. Forest Service.
“We have a 10-minute video on the history of Smokey Bear, we have fire prevention and fire safety exhibits and nostalgic exhibits,” said Bennie Long, manager of Smokey Bear Historical Park. She added that the park’s grounds also have six of seven examples of New Mexico’s “life zones,” areas that contain common characteristics like plants or animals.
“We’re located pretty much in the heart of the Lincoln National Forest, so there are plenty of things to do and sites to see all around us,” she said. The park itself is run by the New Mexico State Forestry Division.
Visitors from all overcome to the area during special events, including the annual Smokey Bear Stampede, held the first week in July. This year’s 62nd annual stampede is planned for July 4-8.
“It’s one of the larger rodeo events in New Mexico, and features many professional riders,” Long said. “It’s always a big event with fireworks and a parade.”
Another of the area’s favorite events, Smokey Bear Days in early May, was cancelled for 2018, but Long said it will return next year for a special occasion.
“We’re gearing up for Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday, so we decided to cancel this year and pour our energy into making next year’s celebration extra special,” Long said. “It’s going to be a big event.”
Long said the park is open daily, excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Apart from inclement weather it is a wonderful visit year round, but is especially appealing in the summer.
“Summer is a great time to visit, as all the wildflowers are in bloom and the vegetation is beautiful,” she said.
Long said one of things she notices is how many people discover the history of Smokey Bear when visiting the park and the forest.
“It’s a great part of history,” she said, noting that many children come in not knowing anything about Smokey Bear but become fascinated when they learn his story. “We also have met many adults who hadn’t realized Smokey Bear was a real bear. It’s always a very good experience for our guests.”
The park is at 118 Smokey Bear Blvd. (U.S. 380) in Capitan. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day). Entrance fees are $2 for adults and $1 for children age 7-12. Children 6 and under are free. Information: (575) 354-2748.
‘Know Before You Go’
Whether visiting the Gila or the Lincoln, safety and preparation is key to making a trip as enjoyable as possible. Marta Call of the Gila National Forest urges people to plan ahead and do their research.
“We have maps that can be purchased from any one of our ranger districts, or by calling ahead at (575) 388-8201 and buying one over the phone,” Call said for guests wanting to visit the Gila National Forests.
Lincoln National Forest visitors can call any district office, as well as the main office in Alamogordo at (575) 434-7200.
Some of the safety and outdoor ethics the Forest Service emphasizes on their site include:
• “Pack Out What you Pack In.” In other words, do not leave litter behind, and please put out all fires before you depart.
• Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
• Read and obey all trailhead signs, hike in groups and stay on the trails.
• Be responsible with pets and children
• Stay on trails and avoid hazardous areas like abandoned mines
• Dress accordingly for the weather and activities
• Keep items like flashlights handy for night, and bear pepper spray readily available.
• Practice fire safety.
Rangers are also happy to answer any specific questions from those who call their information numbers.
Visit fs.usda.gov/recmain to learn about safety, fire alerts, closings, weather, hours, maps and other information. Updates are available on forests’ official sites on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter.
Future guests can utilize the Forest Service sites at fs.usda.gov and look up the corresponding forest area, such as the Gila or Lincoln.
“We use some catch phrases like ‘Know Before You Go’ to help remind people that they need to be safe,” Call said. “We have tips about traveling on forest, being around wildlife and staying safe.”
Who to call
One of the keys to getting the most out of one’s trip to Southern National Forests is to stay informed on everything from the weather, closures, fire hazards and even potential area events before heading out. Both Gila and Lincoln National Forests have several numbers and sites readily available for potential guests, as well as sites located within and around their borders. Here’s a quick list:
Gila National Forest:
Supervisor’s Office: (575) 388-8201
Facebook and Twitter @GilaNForest
Lincoln National Forest: fs.usda.gov/Lincoln
Supervisor’s Office: (575) 434-7200
Smokey Bear District: (575) 257-4095
Sacramento District: (575) 682-2551
Guadalupe District (575) 885-4181
New Mexico Rails-to-Trails:
Nmrailstotrails.org for workdays, and downloadable maps
Smokey Bear Historical Park
(575) 354-2748. Emnrd.state.nm.us (Hours, frequently asked questions, history, fun pages, etc). Facebook at SmokeyBearHistoricalPark
National Solar Observatory at Sunspot
nsosp.nso.edu. The visitor center has been closed since January 2018, but updates are available at (575) 434-7190.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
(575) 536-9461. Website (through the National Park Service): nps.gov/gicl/
Facebook: Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Catwalk Recreation Area and Cosmic Campground
Glenwood Ranger District: (575) 539-2481.
Copyright 2018 by Cristo Rey Communications