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.

Gila-Las Cruces Zone 2013 Fire Summary

By Kathleen Kemsley, published by Gila National Forest, December 2013

The 2013 fire season in the Gila Las Cruces Zone started out with a lot of potential.  Snowpack was minimal and melted early in the third straight year of severe drought.  Lack of fine fuels keptSilver_0627 wind-driven starts from spreading rapidly.  Early season fires were suppressed quickly.  A handful of lightning-caused starts on the Gila National Forest on May 10 and 11 were all kept to less than five acres.  The largest early season fire was McKinney, on State and private lands, which burned 153 acres of grass and shrubs near Tyrone on May 21.  With assistance from the Gila contingent of smokejumpers and several loads of retardant, firefighters saved 10 nearby residences.

By June 1, indices across the zone exceeded the 97th percentile.  The next round of lightning began June 4, producing three fires, including the Sawmill Canyon fire on Quemado District.  This Type 3 fire burned 42 acres and utilized several local engines and crews.

Gila1On June 7, five more lightning fires ignited across the forest.  Papoose and Indian, close to each other on Wilderness District, both grew to about 80 acres before efforts of several crews, smokejumpers, engines, retardant and helicopter support succeeded in containing them.

Meanwhile, the Silver fire was initial attacked the same day with two engines from Silver City District. The crews got a scratch line around the five acre fire by midnight on a moonless night.  Soon after that, some logs rolled out and ignited super-dry fuels on the steep slopes below.  The engine crews were forced to retreat for safety reasons.  The next day, 80,000 gallons of retardant were dropped on the growing fire.  The steep, rugged terrain prevented any crews from approaching the fire on the ground.  By the morning of June 9, the fire established itself in a bugkill-choked area of the forest that had not burned in more than 100 years.  Pushed by red flag level southwest winds, the fire took off and a Type 2 team was ordered.

The Silver fire was managed first by the Flagstaff Type 2 Team, then by the New Mexico Type 2Gila2 Team.  It burned over Emory Pass and threatened the community of Kingston.  The town was evacuated for ten days, but efforts by hotshot crews, engines, and retardant kept the fire out of the town.  During the next month, the Silver fire jumped Highway 152, burned past the Hillsboro Lookout, and moved into the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. No structures were destroyed.

The summer monsoon arrived in early July to moderate the fire’s spread.  By the time it was Gila3called contained on July 18, it had burned a total of 138,546 acres on the Silver City, Black Range, and Wilderness districts.  Besides the two Incident Management Teams and miscellaneous overhead from 19 states, the fire suppression operations utilized 15 Type 1 crews, 18 Type 2 and T2IA crews, 27 engines, 2 dozers, and 7 helicopters.  Expanded Dispatch and a Buying Team set up in the Silver City Supervisor’s Office conference room and were operational for 5 weeks.  Silver City Dispatch was staffed 24/7 with aircraft and initial attack dispatchers detailed from California, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, and Montana.

As the monsoon season wore on, lightning strikes ignited some 80 new fires on the forest, BLM, and State lands in July and August.  Initial attack was successful on all these fires.  A large Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation project was initiated to stabilize the slopes impacted by intense burning during the Silver fire.

Summer rains turned into a deluge in September, causing fire-scorched drainages in both theGila4 Silver fire scar and the Whitewater-Baldy fire scar of 2012 to flood.  On September 15, Mogollon RAWS recorded 9.1 inches of rainfall.  Forest roads were damaged, creeks went over their banks, and state highways became clogged with debris.  Affected areas included the Emory Pass road, the Gila Cliff Dwellings, the village of Mogollon, the Catwalk, and the area around Snow Lake.  Several stranded hikers and hunters were rescued and one man was swept to his death in a flash flood.  Rehabilitation of forest roads will be an ongoing project over the winter.

In summary, the total number of fires in the Gila-Las Cruces zone in 2013 was 160, less than the five-year average of 276.  This was due to the small number of BLM and State fires this year (only 40 between them), compared to their usual 123 or so, as well as a smaller than average number of starts on the Forest.  Acres burned this year totaled 140K, very close to the average of 150K over the past five years.  Of the 140,101 acres burned in the zone in 2013, 138,546 belonged to the Silver fire.  Initial attack was 98% successful in the zone.