Gila National Forest, which sits on the border between Arizona and New Mexico, is a 3.3 million-acre national forest established in 1905 that contains a number of unique historical elements. In November of 1907, the Gila Cliff Dwellings were declared a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt, becoming the fifth landmark to receive the title. Archaeologists have discovered over 40 rooms developed hundreds of years ago by the Mimbres and Mogollon cultures, as well as many artifacts and a burial ground. The Gila Wilderness area was established in June of 1924, becoming the first national wilderness area in the United States.
Gila National Forest is home to a great variety of animals, including threatened and endangered species such as the Mexican wolf, the Chiricahua leopard frog, and the Spotted owl. You might also spot some namesake animals such as the Gila woodpecker, the Gila spotted whiptail, and the Gila monster. There are more opportunities for fishing in this area, including the rare opportunity to cast your line for a Gila trout, a highly managed fish that is one of the rarest trout species in the world. There are 14 campgrounds designated for RV camping within the forest. Read on below for detail on three of our top choices.
Gila National Forest is an unspoiled desert forest located in mountainous and rocky terrain. Most of the roads leading to and inside the forest are paved, two-lane highways that tend to be both narrow and convoluted as they travel through the mountains. The shoulders of these roads tend to be narrow and many of them have steep dropoffs, so RV drivers will need to stay aware of their surroundings to ensure safe travel. It may be best to map out your path ahead of time and consult reviews and local information about the best way to reach your campground. Highway 180, which travels east to west across the forest, and Highway 15 in the southern portion of the forest, are particularly difficult to travel when driving a larger RV or towing a trailer due to a high number of hairpin turns, ruts, and steep grades. Many of the smaller roads in the forest are dirt or gravel roads, but they still tend to be narrow, winding roads with steep changes in altitude.
Dipping Vat Campground is located in the heart of Gila National Forest near Snow Lake, a little over 40 miles southeast of the tiny town of Reserve, NM. Snow Lake, a small reservoir, is popular with anglers as it is stocked with trout three times a year. Open year-round, the campground itself is made up of 40 rustic campsites suitable for RVs, campervans, and trailers up to 19 feet in length. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The campsites don't have hookups, but they are spacious, well-maintained, and come equipped with fire rings, hibachi style grills, and picnic tables. Potable water is available on the grounds via a well with a hand pump, and the on-site vault toilets are exceptionally clean and tidy. The use of generators is allowed in this national forest, although they should be silenced during quiet hours, between 10 PM and 6 AM.
Situated in the northern portion of Gila National Forest, near Quemado Lake, is a small but popular campground named Juniper Campground. Juniper Campground boasts 17 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis, appropriate for RVs and trailers up to 35 feet in length. Each is equipped with electric, water, and sewer hookups. There is also a sanitary dump station at the nearby Pinion Campground which can be utilized for a small fee.
Fire rings with grills and picnic tables are also provided at each site. The campground has well-maintained vault toilets, as well as water faucets with drinkable water scattered throughout. Not all of the gravel pads at this campground are particularly level, so you may want to bring blocks with you in order to level out your vehicle. Pets are allowed, but must be restrained by a leash and attended to at all times. While pets are allowed in campgrounds and on most trails, they are prohibited from using the designated swimming beaches and waters.
Mesa Campground, in the southern portion of Gila National Forest, is comprised of 24 campsites that are suitable for tents or RVs and available on a first-come, first-served basis. The nearest town, Mimbres, NM, is just a little under 20 miles southeast of the campground. Twelve of these sites are equipped with water and electrical hookups, but there are no sewer hookups at the sites nor any sanitary dumpsites on the campgrounds.
Each campsite comes equipped with a fire ring and picnic table and most have a raised grill. Several of the sites near the bluff have a spectacular view of the nearby Lake Roberts. While Mesa Campground is not equipped with showers, it does have modern flush toilets as well potable water scattered throughout the grounds. The size of the sites vary greatly. Some of the sites are only appropriate for somewhat smaller vehicles under 35 feet in length, while others may accommodate rigs up to 45 feet. The slope of the sites is also fairly variable, so it would be wise to bring along blocks so you can stabilize your rig if you need to. Pets are welcome, but mush be leashed outside of your camper.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is located near the west fork of the Gila River, a little over 20 miles from the Mesa Campgrounds. These natural caves along the Gila River were first developed into homes by the people of the Mogollon culture in the 1200s, and it is one of the few remaining areas that allow visitors to enter the ancient caves and dwelling rooms. While the dwellings, visitor center, and the Gila Cliff Dwellings Trailhead Museums are open nearly every day of the year, guided tours are only available during the summer months. Due to the sensitive archeological history at this site, pets are not allowed on these trails.
Fishing enthusiasts will want to be sure that their rod and reel are packed in their trailer when visiting Gila National Forest. At first glance, the arid landscape of the Gila National Forest may not inspire most fishermen. However, the many miles of creeks and rivers that meander through this forest, as well as a number of man-made lakes and reservoirs, provide habitats for common fish, including large and smallmouth bass, channel catfish, and flathead catfish. As well as having healthy natural populations in this forest, both rainbow and brown trout are stocked in many of the lakes and streams that dot the wilderness. The waters in Gila National Forest also provide a home for Gila trout, one of the rarest of trout species in the United States. Although this species is on the threatened list, limited sportfishing of Gila trout is allowed in specific waters in both New Mexico and Arizona.
Visitors to Gila National Forest will want to be sure that their hiking boots are in their campervans. There are a large number of hiking trails that wind their way through the rugged mountains, deep canyons, and hot springs that make up this 3.3 million-acre national forest. Those looking for an easy but interesting walk through the wilderness will enjoy the 1.1-mile Gila Cliff Dwellings Trail, the two-mile Catwalk National Recreation Trail, or the 3.4-mile Dragonfly Trail. Hikers who relish a challenge when they are hiking may prefer the challenging 18-mile long Mogollon Creek Trail or the 24-mile Meadows Hells Hole Loop Trail, which includes several river crossings as it jumps back and forth over the Gila River.
Geocaching is an international scavenger hunt made possible by advances in GPS and cellular technologies. Participants utilize these technologies to search for caches, small containers that include logbooks or log sheets to record your find. Some caches even include small trinkets that participants replace with different items of similar value or trackable tokens that can travel by being moved from one cache to another. Those who travel frequently by RV may be particularly well-suited to furthering the journey of these specialized trackable tokens. Geocaches can be hidden anywhere on National Forest land except for designated wilderness areas, national historic sites and landmarks, and pre-historic sites, as long as the ecology of the area is not disturbed by the placement of the cache.
Cosmic Campground is a small, unmanned campground with minimal amenities located between the Blue Range Primitive Area and the Gila Wilderness. This area is one of only four certified International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world, making it an ideal spot for stargazing. The nearest area of man-made light to the sanctuary is from a town 40 miles away in Arizona, and the trees in the area grow low to the ground, so they do not interfere with your view of the heavens. Star parties are sometimes held at this location in cooperation with a group known as the Friends of the Cosmic Campground.
Gila National Forest encompasses the Gila Wilderness area, where you'll find a number of interesting animals. Along with more common animals such as mule deer, pronghorns, songbirds, black bears, rattlesnakes, and bobcats, you may also find animals that are unique to the area or critically endangered as well. The range of the collared peccary, more common in South and Central America, extends into the Gila National Forest, Mexican wolves were reintroduced to the area in 1988, and this wilderness is also home to the largest population of spotted owls in the United States.