As vibrant and colorful as downtown Silver City is, it's also a jumping-off point for some of the finest outdoor recreation in the country. In fact, six parks lie within a couple hours' drive of the southwestern New Mexico town! For starters, it's a gateway to the massive Gila National Forest, which draws outdoors enthusiasts from across the country for backcountry pack trips, wilderness hikes, and fishing along the Gila River. Five more state parks are also worthy of day trips for hiking, birdwatching, and water sports. Here are a few tips on how to make the most of your visit to the parks near Silver City.

1. The Gila National Forest

Gila National Forest is home to the first officially designated wilderness area in the United States. Silver City Arts & Cultural District

Encompassing 3.3 million acres, the Gila National Forest unfolds over much of southwestern New Mexico. With forested peaks towering 10,000 feet above steep-sided canyons carved by forks of the Gila River, it's easy to see why the first designated wilderness area in the country is within the forest. The sheer size of the national forest means the best way to explore it is on multi-day backpacking trips, but there are plenty of day hikes, too. Several area outfitters offer horse packing trips that get you into the backcountry quickly.

Beyond hundreds of miles of hiking, there are several unique places worth exploring. The Catwalk Recreation Area near Glenwood features a bridge system that traverses a half-mile section of the canyon. Originally built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the catwalk was rebuilt in recent years after a wildfire destroyed it. It's an easy, family-friendly hike.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, accessible via a 45-minute drive from Silver City, protects five caves once inhabited in the 1200s by the Mogollon Culture. You can hike to several of the caves and wander amongst the stacked adobe-brick rooms they constructed there. There are also some natural hot springs near the monument.

See where the Ancient Pueblo people once lived when you explore the cliff dwellings. Silver City Arts & Cultural District

Lastly, the Cosmic Campground is the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in any national forest and in North America. The International Dark-Sky Association gave this campground its official status thanks to its clear night skies and lack of light pollution. Each of the campsites here offers a concrete pad for star-gazers to set up telescopes to view the cosmos.

2. City of Rocks State Park

About 30 miles southeast of Silver City, the City of Rocks State Park is a worthy day trip for hiking or mountain biking. The park borrows its name from the volcanic rock formations that have cropped up here, forming a city-like landscape where columns take the place of buildings. It's a relatively small patch—just one square mile of Chihuahuan desert, but hikers and mountain bikers can follow 5.5 miles of trails among the 40-foot-tall pinnacles. The boulders began forming more than 30 million years ago when erosion started to sculpt volcanic ash. The otherworldly landscape also features a new visitor center with a desert botanical garden.

3. Rockhound State Park

Situated 65 miles southeast of Silver City, Rockhound State Park lives up to its name, drawing geological enthusiasts who are welcome to collect any of the rocks they find while exploring the rugged slopes of the Little Florida Mountains. Spring Canyon is a popular spot for hiking and picnicking—particularly in late spring when orange poppies and other wildflowers are in full bloom.

4. Elephant Butte Lake State Park

Elephant Butte Lake is the largest in New Mexico. Silver City Arts & Cultural District

New Mexico's largest lake and most popular place for water play lies 95 miles east of Silver City. At 40 miles long, Elephant Butte Lake allows boaters to hit the throttle, and plenty of space for sailors and paddlers to make waves, too. Memorial Day to Labor Day, the shores are full of campers and water sports enthusiasts camping and launching boats from the put-ins and three marinas. Swimming is popular on the sandy beaches, which are also frequented by seagulls—a rare sight in the landlocked Southwest. There are also 15 miles of hiking trails around the lake for landlubbers.

5. Caballo Lake State Park

Caballo Lake is a popular spot for fly fishing. Silver City Arts & Cultural District

Although not as large as its neighbor, Elephant Butte Lake State Park, Caballo Lake boasts plenty of water activities, too. Set 80 miles east of Silver City, this lake sits in the shadow of the Caballo Mountains, providing a scenic backdrop for boating, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, and fishing. There are 170 campsites dotted along the lakeshores, all of which link to nature trails for birding. Fall along the lake attracts birds like grebes, raptors, wrens, and thrushes, as well as geese and other waterfowl migrating along the Rio Grande flyway.

6. Percha Dam State Park

This off-the-radar park near Caballo Lake is a relaxing destination for fishing, camping, and picnicking. Its willow and cottonwood shores offer excellent birdwatching, particularly for warblers. A half-mile river trail along the Rio Grande is easy walking for families and often means spotting area wildlife along the path.

When you decide to use Silver City as a home base for exploration, there are plenty of options for where to lay your head at night. With everything from chain hotels to rustic cabins to cozy bed and breakfasts, there is something for everyone. See the complete list of accommodations and other tips for planning your trip here.

Originally written by RootsRated for New Mexico.