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Enjoying the Wilderness


At its highest, the wilderness is an area of dense alpine forest -- the Canadian biotic zone with Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce. Some aspen is found at the higher reaches, providing shelter for the young fir and spruce seedlings. This is elk country, where the decaying trees nurture an abundant undergrowth.

Heavy snows provide a constant supply of water for wildlife and trees. The herbs and shrub berries were a source of food for the Apache, and today continue to serve the animals of the region. You'll find wildflowers and ferns in the more open stands of aspen. However, because of firefighting policies which suppressed wildfires over the past century, there are not as many aspens as there might be through natural evolvement alone.

At lower levels is the Uplands or Transition zone, where most of the animals and birds are found, and ponderosa pine predominates. Here the tall pines are in different stages of growth. The portions of the forest which were logged (or burned by wildfires) are densely-packed. The older trees unaffected by earlier logging, are widely-spaced, permitting a healthy undergrowth to thrive. Visitors may walk through these stands, off the trails, to see what a natural forest is really like.

Along the lower slopes and those which face south, is the pinyon-juniper woodland. The short pines and junipers are joined here by Emory and Gambel's oaks, an important source of animal food, as are the pine nuts. Throughout this more arid zone are the plants of the high desert: yucca (primarily Spanish dagger) agave, prickly pear, and manzanita.

The creeks which flow from the sources of the three forks of the Gila River tumble through the Uplands zone. The grasses in this zone provide forage for elk, deer (mule and white-tailed), and antelope. Foxes and prairie dogs are numerous, as are hawks and eagles.

The bottomlands are in the high desert--the Upper Sonoran zone--much higher than the neighboring desert areas of southern New Mexico and the San Pedro Valley across the Arizona boundary. Here, streams flow year-round, creating riparian habitats beside the rocky bottoms of the fast-moving creeks and the river forks. These are trout streams, with fast moving sections and quieter pools which house insects on which the fish feed.

Along with the trout, including the endangered Gila trout, are dace, chubs, suckers, bass and catfish. The streamside habitats are populated by an amazing variety of trees and shrubs: alder, cottonwood, willow, walnut, maple, ash, and boxelder. Vines (Virginia creeper) and fruit-bearing plants spread over the riverbanks, among them grapes, strawberry, raspberry, and wild onion.

On more arid slopes are all the succulents and other plant life of the desert: sagebrush, creosote bush, yucca and scrub brush. You'll see the effects of periodic flooding, massive movements of soil and vegetation brought about by rampaging rivers after heavy rainstorms. The proximity of the rich, dense riparian habitats and the high, arid desert brings constant wonder. In addition, ponderosa pine is also found at the lower levels, keeping to the south (north-facing) slopes, while the pinyon-juniper woodland covers the north slopes.

The weather and climate are important to a visitor to the Gila Wilderness. This is not the low desert zone of Lordsburg and Las Cruces. It is typical of the higher desert uplands, bringing 20 inches of precipitation on the higher mountains, and 10 to 12 inches at the canyon bottoms. Summer daytime temperatures at river level are normally in the 90s, with summer nights in the 60s. Winter nights are generally below freezing, into the 20s, while daytime winter temperatures rise to the mid-sixties. Higher elevations bring cooler temperatures at any time of year.

The mild temperatures cause an early melting of snow at the lower and mid-level elevations, making it possible to begin mountain trail hikes in late March and early April. After heavy snowfall, the topmost trails have been closed until late June or early July. Late March and early April provide the best windows for viewing the full range of wildflowers which grow at river level.

Many people visit the wilderness area in May and June. The temperatures are crisp but easy to take, plants are flowering in the lower and middle levels, and trails are largely deserted. Fall is another period for full enjoyment of the area. Then, the deciduous trees are changing color, including maples, walnuts and aspens. Hunters come to hunt for elk and deer, during the short bow and rifle hunting season. Winter on the canyon floor is mild, offering walks to the steaming hot springs and relaxed soaking in complete solitude.

Fraser Bridges



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