Discover the Largest Forest in New Mexico (And What Lives Within It)

Written by Nixza Gonzalez
Updated: September 15, 2023
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Key Points:
  • The largest forest in New Mexico is Gila National Forest, covering 2,710,659 acres.
  • It contains the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, which has two ruin sites and protects the Mogollon cliff dwellings in the southern portion of Catron County.
  • Established on March 4, 1907, the forest is home to many animal species including Gila monsters, Gila woodpeckers, desert bighorn sheep, and Mexican spotted owls.

New Mexico is a very beautiful state with a unique geography. The state is warm, dry, mountainous, and filled with deserts. New Mexico also has many forests. The state is home to five national forests. Today, we are going to discover the largest forest in New Mexico and fun facts about its environment. Follow along to learn more!

Infographic of the Largest Forest in New Mexico
The Gila National Forest contains the Gila Wilderness, which was the first designated wilderness in the U.S.

What Is the Largest Forest in New Mexico?

The largest forest in New Mexico is the Gila National Forest. The nearest city to this national forest is Silver City. The surface area of the national forest is 2,710,659 acres. Gila National Forest was established on March 4, 1907. Before it became a national forest, it was a forest reserve under two names, the Gila River Forest Reserve and the Gila Forest Reserve.

About the Gila National Forest

This national forest isn’t just impressive because of its size. It isn’t just filled with heavy woods but also has deep canyons and semi-dessert. While visiting this beautiful national park, you can also see undisturbed hot springs including Turkey Creek Hot Springs and Middle Fork Hot Springs.

There is a lot to see while visiting, such as the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. This monument has two ruin sites and protects the Mogollon cliff dwellings in the southern portion of Catron County.

You can bird watch, walk hiking trails, and camp in the Gila National Forest. You can also check out unique spots in the forest like the trails at Catwalk Recreation Area and the Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary (CCIDSS). This dark sky sanctuary is the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary located in North America, offering starry nights of exceptional quality.

Gila Wilderness Sign
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is situated within Gila National Forest.

©William Silver/

Where Is the Gila National Forest Located on a Map?

The Gila National Forest is within four counties in New Mexico: Catron, Grant, Hidalgo, and Sierra. The forest’s headquarters are located in Silver City, NM, which is the nearest city.

The Gila National Forest also includes the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, Blue Range Wilderness, and the Gila Wilderness. The Gila Wilderness was established in 1924 as the first designated wilderness in the United States. A renowned naturalist named Aldo Leopold came up with the idea of preserving vast wild areas, keeping them free from human impacts, and designating them as wilderness.

Here is the Gila National Forest on a map:

Wildlife in Gila National Forest

With just how large this national forest is, it’s not surprising that many animals call the area home. While visiting, you can spot many birds, mammals, reptiles, and more! Listed below are some animals you may see in the Gila National Forest.

Gila Monster

Starting our list of animals found in the largest national forest in New Mexico is the Gila monster. This unique venomous lizard almost looks and sounds like something from a movie. They are found throughout the Southwestern United States and the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora. Fun fact: this is the only native venomous reptile in the United States. Although this colorful reptile is dangerous, it rarely attacks humans. Instead, it’s slow and sluggish.

Gila monsters spend most of their lives underground. They also thrive in rocky conditions, which is much of New Mexico. Gila monsters are great hunters and mainly consume small mammals like rabbits, squirrels, and mice. Some of their more common predators include large snakes, badgers, and coyotes.

Lizard Gila Monster( Heloderma suspectum)
Gila monsters are venomous reptiles but rarely attack humans.

©Vaclav Sebek/

Gila Woodpecker

Another animal found throughout New Mexico is the Gila woodpecker. They are beautiful medium-sized birds that thrive in desert conditions. This lovely woodpecker species is native to the southwestern United States and western Mexico. These gorgeous birds have a unique black and white spotted or zebra-like pattern on their back wings. Female and male Gila woodpeckers look similar, however, mature males have a bright red cap on their head.

Gila woodpeckers have specific calls. One of their calls resembles a churring sound. They are best known for their woodpecker drumming sound though which is steady and long. You can find these lovely woodpeckers nesting in saguaro cacti or mesquite trees.

gila woodpecker
Gila woodpeckers are found throughout the Gila National Forest.

© Parekh

Desert Bighorn Sheep

The desert bighorn sheep is a subspecies of the bighorn sheep found in desert regions. It’s native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. Although their status is secure, they are at risk of extinction. Not only do desert bighorn sheep live in the Gila National Forest but also in the Chihuahuan Desert, Great Basin Desert, and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

Desert bighorn sheep aren’t very tall but have stocky bodies. They can weigh up to 280 pounds. These sheep also have unique concave elastic hooves, which they use to quickly and efficiently climb mountainous terrain. Desert bighorn sheep have many predators but use their fantastic sight and climbing abilities to flee. Mountain lions are their most common predator.

bighorn sheep shedding its fur
Desert bighorn sheep are found all over New Mexico. They live in desert regions and tolerate heat well.


Gray Fox

Another predator in the Gila National Forest is the gray fox. This beautiful fox is found throughout North and Central America. Gray foxes were previously the most abundant fox species in North America, however, now it’s red foxes. Still, gray foxes are found in urban and suburban areas. In southern Florida, you can find gray foxes in large cities and neighborhoods. These foxes have gray coats and a thick black stripe down their tail and neck. Females are slightly smaller than males, but the difference is typically hard to see. Gray foxes can grow up to 44.3 inches long and weigh as much as 20 pounds.

Gray foxes are also very old. From what we know, they first appeared in North America about 3.6 million years ago. Although it’s more common to spot these foxes on the ground, they have amazing climbing abilities because of their strong, hooked claws.

Gray fox
Gray foxes can adapt to many environments and habitats.


American Antelope/Pronghorn

Have you ever heard of an American antelope? Another name for this species is pronghorn. They are native to western and central North America. Interestingly, despite its name, the American antelope isn’t an antelope at all. Instead, it’s an even-toed ungulate and the only surviving member of the family Antilocapridae. Although its conservation status is “Least Concern”, this species was more abundant when European settlers first arrived in North America. This animal species is prominent in many Native American folktales and mythology.

Pronghorns have unique markings on their bodies. They have white fur on their bellies, rump, breasts, sides, and faces. From nose to tail, this animal is also very long and can measure up to 4 feet and 11 inches. Interestingly, females are typically the same length and height but weigh less. These animals live in many states across the country, including New Mexico. Sadly though, they faced a local extinction in Iowa and Minnesota.

animals unique to North America:pronghorn
American antelope aren’t antelopes at all. They are even-toed ungulates.


Spotted Owl

The last animal on our list that you can find in the largest national forest in New Mexico is the spotted owl. This species is found throughout the United States. It nests in trees and old nests. Spotted owls are currently classified as “Nearly Threatened” because of habitat destruction since they thrive in old-growth forests.

Currently, there are about three recognized subspecies. The most common subspecies in the Gila National Forest is the Mexican subspecies, the Mexican spotted owl. The highest concentration of Mexican spotted owls lives within the Gila Wilderness.

Spotted owls have a wingspan of about 45 inches. These majestic owls though are lightweight and only weigh about 1.3 pounds. These owls are sometimes confused for barred owls, however, barred owls are larger. Spotted owls also have unique cross-shaped markings on their bodies. Although spotted owls mainly find shelter in trees, the Mexican subspecies commonly use deep, steep-walled canyons as shelter. Spotted owls are also great predators. They are nocturnal hunters with a lot of patience. They sit and wait for prey before swooping down and consuming them.

The Gila Wilderness has the largest population of the Mexican spotted owl.


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About the Author

I have been a professional content writer for 6 years now, with a large focus on nature, gardening, food, and animals. I graduated from college with an A.A, but I am still pursuing a Bachelors of Marketing degree. When I am not writing, you can find me in front of my TV with a blanket, snacks, and my fur babies.

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