Tucked into the southwest corner of the state, the Gila National Forest is home to a marvelous little auto trek that is well worth the time and effort to get there.
The Trail of the Mountain Spirits National Scenic Byway is a 93-mile excursion deep into the back country canopy of the Gila, transporting visitors centuries back into history.
The triangular loop can be picked up at the crossroads burg of San Lorenzo, where N.M. 152 and 35 meet.
Before starting the route, the San Lorenzo Catholic Church is a must stop. Built in the late 1800s, the mission-style structure features a hammered copper ceiling and the stations of the cross along its walls. An old santuario near the church, bedecked with relics and santitos, is a prayer room where the devout have sought miracles.
Head north on N.M. 35 until reaching the village of Mimbres, home to the Mimbres Heritage Cultural Site, where an interpretive trail wanders through the Mattocks Ruin site, and another reaches the riverside of the Mimbres River. An ongoing excavation and archaeological investigation site examines the large Classic Mimbres pueblo.
Less than three miles later, keep a watch for the Bear Canyon Reservoir turnoff. This small reservoir is a designated wildlife area encompassing about 75 acres. Although deer and elk may be found in abundance, and occasionally visitors can catch a glimpse of other wildlife, the area is great for solitude. The sparkling reservoir also is home to year-round fishing and is stocked with rainbow trout. An occasional waterfall can be found near the dam site.
Continue to trickle north on N.M. 35, meandering through the gradually densening forest. Shortly before reachig N.M. 15, Lake Roberts makes for another fine rest stop, especially for the birders. The pine-shrouded, 73-acre lake is home to hummingbirds by the score. At least 10 different species of the frenetic flitters can be found.
The route, which twice crosses the Continental Divide, is a birder haven as 337 species have been noted along the eight marked spots along the way.
At the crossroads with N.M. 15, head north 17 miles through a tight, climbing switch-backing path to the well-known Gila Cliff Dwellings, where seven caves are filled with architecture built by the Mogollon peoples more than 700 years ago.
About seven miles along the way, watch for the Senator Clinton P. Anderson Overlook. At this grandiose site, the Gila River Canyon falls 2,000 feet, while the vast Gila wilderness is spread out in an unending vista.
Heading back south on N.M. 15, the trail straggles through Pinos Altos, a former 1860s gold-boom town grimly clinging to life in its pastoral setting.
Be sure to check out the Buckhorn Saloon & Opera House. Sure it is rustic – that’s the whole point – but the food is hot and good, the drinks cold and refreshing, and most nights live music keeps the long-ago ghosts dancing.
The path continues down to Silver City, where it catches U.S. Route 180 heading back east. When it hits N.M. 152, look for Fort Bayard, established in 1866 as fort to protect settlers from the Apaches. It was home to Buffalo Soldiers and also used as a military hospital, World War II prisoner of war camp and remains a national cemetery.
And finally, continuing east, check out the huge Santa Rita Mine, the country’s oldest, continually-operating copper mine.