Road Trips

A spell-binding Scenic Drive in New Mexico


A centennial ride through the country’s first wilderness.

Words By BY ERIN BERGERPHOTOGRAPHY BY STEFAN WACHS

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Highway 15 is 100 years old.

Updated

20 May 2024

Reading Time

4 Minutes

One reason New Mexico State Road 15 is so spectacularly scenic is that Aldo Leopold didn’t want it there at all. In 1921, disputing local ranchers’ desires to pave a route toward the Gila River’s headwaters, the father of modern conservation—then a federal forester—proposed a wilderness area to be kept “devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.” The Forest Service accepted Leopold’s proposal in 1924, designating what’s now 558,065 acres around the Gila River as the first federally recognized wilderness area.

Ambiguities in the law allowed for a 19th-century wagon trail to be improved upon and— eventually, years after Leopold’s death—paved. Today, it meets another state highway south of the wilderness to form a 93-mile lollipop known locally as “the inner loop,” officially designated the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway.

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Allow two hours of travel from Silver City or Mimbres. It's only 40ish miles, but the road is narrow and winding.

Winding north from Silver City through ponderosa pines and junipers, State Road 15 challenges any travelers not on foot with 44 miles of relentless hairpin turns. State Road 35 passes more gently through ranching communities, past campgrounds and cottonwoods, joining 15 at the edge of the wilderness area. The deeper in and higher up you go, the less useful your phone, the more dizzying the views and the smaller you’ll feel alongside millennia of still-present history.

A super-volcano caved in here 40 million years ago, shaping the Gila, and eruptive drama underlies everything that textures this place. Shrub-studded red bluffs foreground distant plateaus and all manner of geological layer cake. Bulging rock walls hide natural caves where people of the Mogollon culture built dwellings in the late 13th century, stacking sloughed-off rocks with mortar that holds to this day. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, at the north end of the byway, tells some of their story, and the Gila remains the ancestral homeland of many Indigenous people living throughout the Southwest, including the Chiricahua Apache.

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Along State Rd 35 you'll encounter New Mexico's rich world of flora and fauna.
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A lake under the sky along State Rd 35.

Mineral deposits from all that volcanism gave rise to late-19th-century mining towns like Pinos Altos, known for its still-kicking Buckhorn Saloon & Opera House, and aptly named Silver City, a motley high-desert hub home to multi-generational New Mexicans, retiree transplants, and artists of all kinds. It’s also a favorite stopover of Americana-chasing nomads, Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers, and spandex-clad cyclists, who descend each spring to bike the byway in the grueling Tour of the Gila. In a sense, they’re all here for the same reason as Leopold, same reason as you: to get to where the road ends.

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The Gila Hot Springs is a natural hot spring pool in southwest New Mexico.

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