Photo: Gila Wilderness horse riding

Horsepacking the Gila Wilderness, the first destination in the U.S. to get wilderness protection from the Forest Service in 1924

Photograph by David Fenton

By Doug Schnitzspahn

A founder of the Wilderness Society and granddaddy of American conservation, Aldo Leopold once worked for the U.S. Forest Service in the high, wild Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico. It was here that he dreamed up the idea of legal “wilderness.” In a 1921 article for the Journal of Forestry, Leopold declared that wilderness should be "a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man."

Three years later, the Gila Wilderness became the first spot the Forest Service would protect according to Leopold’s vision. (Lasting federal protection came in 1964, when Congress passed the actual Wilderness Act.) So what better way to explore the spot than as Leopold wanted it explored—on a two weeks’ horsepacking trip.

While there’s a certain luxury to horsepacking in the wild—travelers can carry in far more than they can on their backs—it’s also an art in its own right, since learning how to work with the animals and tackle is a must. But riding high in the saddle makes it possible to really enjoy the trip though the Gila’s forests and meadows, instead of hiking head-down. The Gila is also home to wildlife you won’t find in other parts of the Rockies, including peccaries (wild pigs!), coatimundi, Gila monsters (surprise), and recently reintroduced Mexican wolves—and don’t forget to pack the fly rods for a chance to catch rare Gila trout.

Need to Know: Gila Wilderness Ventures (www.gilawildernessventures.com) runs six-day horsepacking trips, starting at $1,460 per person.


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