Snow Lake, An Isolated Gem Deep in the Gila Forest

A quiet lake, starry skies at night, good hiking and miles upon miles of forest make Snow Lake a perfect getaway. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

You don’t need a monster truck to drive the gravel roads of the Gila. However, here are three tips to make your journey more enjoyable. Take plenty of gas, food and water. Buy a map. Finally, if you don’t like the looks of the road in front of you, turn around.

That said, there is nothing like the thrill of heading into the wilds of the Gila National Forest. It encompasses 3.3 million acres — that’s about 5,200 square miles, more than the area of Connecticut.

If you are looking for a camping site, you will never run out of places to put up a tent. However, if you want picnic tables, toilets and potable water, the Gila is home to what I consider the premier forest camp in New Mexico: Snow Lake. Officially called Dipping Vat because ranchers used to run cattle through a nearby cement trough, it has about 40 camp sites with some sites shaded and others more open on a prominence overlooking the lake. The lake is stocked with trout. Expect cool nights, as the campground is at 7,500 feet.

Snow Lake is formed by an earthen dam at the south end of the campground. The stream is actually the Middle Fork of the Gila River. Over the dam and down the trail on the other side is the Gila Wilderness. It is a gorgeous area with the Middle Fork, a small stream at this point, flowing beside the trail. Barrancas, or benches, form flat grassy areas near the water. The trail crosses the stream several times. My wife and I once backpacked to where the Middle Fork joins Iron Creek — a trip most memorable for me forgetting to pack the coffee.

A backpacker — after maybe 40 miles and literally a hundred wet crossings, many soaring slot-like canyons, palisades, hot springs, sandbars, ankle-deep ponds and rushing knee-high water — would find himself in the parking lot just south of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Snow Lake has a 19-foot size limit for RVs and no hook-ups. It’s first-come, first-served with a small nightly fee, so bring your checkbook.

Snow Lake can be reached from either the west through the ghost town of Mogollon, or Forest Road 94 coming south out of the campground at Apache Creek. You’ll need a map. Buy one before you go or at the Magdalena ranger station.

Jon Knudsen is a freelance writer and retired educator. Email him at

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