The Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway in southwestern New Mexico is home to the world’s first wilderness area. Come see what led conservationist Aldo Leopold to advocate the area’s preservation as you travel the byway through the convergence of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Sonoran Desert, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, the Mexican Plateau, the Great Basin, and Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains. Enjoy enticing views and natural wonders on your byway journey among harsh mountains, gently windswept grasslands, scattered volcanic rocks, and cactus-speckled deserts.
Begin your byway trip in Gila Hot Springs, located towards the center of the Gila Wilderness in the Gila National Forest. As you follow the byway south on NM-15, watch for the “wild” Gila River, one of the last undammed rivers in the western United States. About five miles outside of Gila Hot Springs, pull off of the byway at the Clinton P. Anderson Overlook, and study the unusual panorama surrounding you. The mountain peaks, cliffs, plateaus, and valleys you see were formed by volcanoes and tell of the area’s volcanic history. About 30 million years ago, two active volcanoes transformed the landscape with lava and ashclouds surging from deep within the earth. Notice the colorful rocks around you, which are the result of mineral-rich waters heated deep within the earth’s crust. Also look for glassy dacite lava sculpted by folds and flows in the liquid rock rushing from the earth’s surface. (Dacite lava is generally light in color and contains about 65% silica.)
Continue following NM-15 south, and watch for the sign marking the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail just before Pinos Altos. Park at the junction of NM-15 and Forest Road 154, then walk south about 200 yards to the trailhead. The trail offers a personal entourage of colorful wildflowers, butterflies, birds, and other plant and animal life. If your eyes are quick enough, you’ll see at least a few of the 453 species of vertebrates living in the area, including deer, black bears, antelope, turkeys, elk, porcupines, mountain lions, ringtails, and coatis. Perhaps you’ll spot a Golden Eagle soaring high overhead, hear a woodpecker rhythmically beating its beak on a tree, or discover one of over 300 species of birds in the area. Seek shelter from the sun in the shade of a cottonwood grove as you look for the broad-leaved cattail, fairybell, white fir, pine, and juniper trees. Hike the trail in the fall, when foliage ignites into deep golds and yellows, contrasting with the textures and various shades of green coniferous trees. To see more of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, be sure to stop by the trail's other access point along the byway, which is about midway between Mimbres and Lake Roberts on NM-35.
Aldo Leopold once observed, “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.” You'll understand exactly what he meant as you travel through pristine New Mexico wilderness, gaining a newfound respect for the beautifully fragile, diverse ecosystems that abound with life on the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway.
- Public domain. Photo by Bill Allen
- Public domain. Photo by Joe Burgess
- Public domain.
- Copyright © August 2001 Tony Dutson Photo Gallery.