Favorite Ride: The Gila Loop

© 2006 by Kathleen Kemsley, first published in Rider Magazine, Jan. 2006

Take a road that loops around 80 miles of asphalt twisties in the Gila National Forest near Silver City.  Blend it with some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the southwest.  Throw in a few Indian ruins, ghost towns, art galleries and outstanding home-cooked New Mexican food.  The result?  One serving of the best motorcycle ride in southwest New Mexico: the Gila Loop.

Gila_loop_0001Just getting to the loop is half the fun.  From Caballo Lake, Highway 152 – the only paved route through the east side of the Gila Mountains – snakes past Hillsboro and Winston and up over Emory Pass.  A scenic overlook near the top of the pass allows a non-vertigo-prone rider a panoramic view of the Rio Grande Valley, 4000 feet below.  Beyond the pass, the road winds around hairpin curves and alongside cheerful little spring-fed creeks through the Gila National Forest.  A word to the wise: beware of loose gravel strewn on the turns near Emory Pass.

Once you reach the junction of highways 152 and 35, a decision looms.  Counterclockwise leads directly up to the Gila Cliff Dwellings with only a few eateries along the way, while a clockwise move takes you to civilization first.  I chose counterclockwise because out of the few places to eat on this route, Sister’s Restaurant in San Lorenzo has the best meals.  However, your timing has to be just right, as it’s only open Wednesday through Sunday between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.  If your timing is off, there is always a good burrito to be had at the Mimbres Valley café.  Order it banarse, bathed in red or green chile sauce, for a special New Mexican treat.

The ride to the cliff dwellings passes scenic Lake Roberts, a summer magnet for boaters,Gila_loop_0002 fishermen, campers, and other hot-weather refugees.  Just beyond the lake, turn right onto the Highway 15 spur road.  Another 17 miles of colorful rock formations, voluptuous curves and spectacular vistas will bring you to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

Stopping by the visitor center, you will learn that the Mogollon Indian cliff dwellings preserved within the monument are just one set among dozens of 13th-century structures located near this portion of the Gila River.  A pleasant 30 minute walk up to the dwelling site follows a streambed lined with cottonwood and ponderosa Gila_loop_0004pine trees.  The $3 entry fee will buy you a comprehensive trail guide covering the history, culture, architecture and mysterious disappearance of the Mogollon people who once lived here.

Backtracking to the junction of Highways 15 and 35, veer right to follow the Gila Loop toward Silver City.  Along a 19-mile stretch from the junction to Pinos Altos, the road becomes almost impossibly narrow with no center stripe.  The biggest hazard to be encountered will likely be an errant motor home in the wrong lane.

Once a gold rush destination, Pinos Altos (“tall pines”) today consists of just a handful of art galleries as well as entertainment and food at the well-known Buckhorn Saloon.  History buffs can take a short walking tour of such sites as an old cabin, a cemetery, and a 1971-vintage courthouse.

From Pinos Altos the road emerges unceremoniously into Silver City, a bustling town that boasts “four gentle seasons.”  Main Street, lined with an interesting collection of gift shops, restaurants, galleries and second-hand stores, backs up to the “Big Ditch.”  Formerly the main street until it was washed out in 1905 by a flash flood, the chasm today is a city park complete with walking paths, picnic areas and two foot bridges, 55 feet below street level.

A favorite place to eat in Silver City is the Adobe Springs Café on Silver Heights Boulevard, named for a natural spring still active beneath the 1937 building.  The Southwest Breakfast, a pile of hash browns liberally laced with green chile and served with tortillas, is a treat at any time of day.

Whether you consider it an ode to modern industriousness or an offensive blight onGila_loop the landscape, the great hole in the earth left by the Santa Rita Mine is impossible to miss on the south side of the road heading east from Silver City toward the ride’s starting point.  This copper mine, the oldest active mine in the Southwest, has been worked for more than 200 years.

Radiating like warped spokes from the Gila Loop, intriguing twisty roads lead to local attractions such as the forlorn ghost town of Lake Valley (which features neither a lake nor a valley), the famous chiles of Hatch, the refreshing waters of Elephant Butte Reservoir, the quirky charms of Truth or Consequences, the haunting beauty of the City of Rocks and the engineering marvel of the Catwalk.  Yield to the temptation to linger; the winding roads of the Gila Loop region provide all the ingredients for a large helping of motorcycling satisfaction.

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