Eric La Price called Grant Count home for only 120 days this summer. But in the short time he spent as acting forest supervisor for the vast Gila National Forest, La Price came to believe this southwestern chunk of New Mexico is one of the most important places in the nation. And it was hard for him to leave.
“There’s something undefinable and compelling about this area,” La Price says. “The variety of opportunities for exploration is fascinating. New Mexico’s long history of many cultures means that there are sites with cultural and historic resonance, like the Dragonfly Petroglyphs or the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.”
Long before the Wilderness Act of 1964 that set aside 111 million acres across the country, the Gila Wilderness had been designated the world’s first wilderness area in order to preserve its unspoiled beauty for future generations. Joined by the Aldo Leopold and the Blue Range wilderness areas as part of the Gila National Forest, the 3.3 million acres of trails, rivers, and scenic byways are an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise.
The Gila gets the lion’s share of press, but other areas of Grant County are as compelling, if for different reasons. Forest service ranger and famed conservationist Aldo Leopold gets his due at the namesake Aldo Leopold Vista, with panoramic views of the Mogollon Mountains, San Francisco River Valley, and Gila Wilderness.
The Fort Bayard Historic District, outside Santa Clara and east of Silver City, tells the story of an installation established after the Civil War to protect miners and other settlers along the Apache Trail. Known for garrisoning the famous Buffalo Soldiers, the fort later became a major Army tuberculosis hospital, and then a hospital and long-term care facility. Visitors can get a taste of that history at its museum, then take off on hiking and biking trails like the Dragonfly Trail that leads to petroglyphs.
“Some of the other trail systems that locals appreciate and value are the Little Walnut trails, 10 miles outside of Silver City,” La Price says. “It’s got great access to trails. The short trails in the Railroad Canyon are fun, too.”
A must-do day trip for La Price heads north out of Silver City through Pinos Altos along NM 15, to the Gila Hot Springsand the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, where you can clamber up to the site of an ancient Mimbres culture. The return shoots onto NM 35 to Lake Roberts around the Mimbres Valley and onto NM 152 to pass the massive Santa Rita copper mine. Trailheads and historical interpretive signs along each route make it worth the drive for exploration and learning.
One appeal of this corner of the state is what you can’t see: light. Some of the darkest skies around are found here, and stargazers love it. The Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary is the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary located on National Forest Service land. It nestles in the Gila National Forest north of the town of Glenwood. One of only 10 certified IDA Sanctuaries in the world, Cosmic Campground’s 360-degree, unobstructed views and “star parties” bring visitors from around the world to marvel at the universe above.
From La Price’s extensive experience in other forests, other IDA parks still sometimes have a bit of glow on the horizon. But here, he says, you can get out to areas where there simply isn’t any at all. “It’s surprising how bright the night skies can be,” he says. “One of the most distant things you can see with the naked eye is the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s 2.2 million light-years away. I saw it last week. That chance to escape and connect with nature here is priceless.”
Grant County visitors are likely to have camping, fishing, biking, and hiking spots all to themselves. That’s what people like La Price value about the area: the opportunity to unplug and unwind—whether on maintained trails or in the backcountry.
“Even if you don’t want to get out on a hike or backpack, there are some awesome scenic driving loops,” he says. “You can always find solitude and a place to be alone in the forest or in your car camping, and even a special spot that isn’t necessarily on any map.”