A HIGH-DESERT NATURE HIKE TO A MOUNTAINTOP VISTA
OVERLOOKING THE GILA WILDERNESS IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES
View from the top of Paradise Overlook Mountain looking northwest over Turtle Rock to Mogollon Mountains in the Gila Wilderness
A VIEW FROM THE TOP
Hiking in Nature, regardless of where it is undertaken, is a simple pleasure that is always good for the body as well as the soul. However, there’s something uniquely special about completing a hike to the top of a hill or mountain that cannot be sensed when hiking in lowland terrains. It is an elusive something that transcends the descriptive word, a something that can only be perceived and experienced at the personal level. Elements of the reward at the top can be described, of course: the reward of a magnificent view, the psychological and physical satisfaction of having made it all the way to the top, the absolute silence and stillness of vast open spaces on a quiet day, or conversely, the bluster and buffeting of the wind as it rushes past one to the other side. But, yet, there is always something more, an ineffable something that strikes a deeper chord within one’s being, and that, once experienced, keeps drawing one up that beckoning hill or mountain again and again.
At Casitas de Gila Guesthouses there is such a hike, a mile-long trail that winds its way up a small mountain that rises up directly in front of the Casitas on the other side of Bear Creek. We call it “The Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail”.
THE GEOLOGIC SETTING OF THE PARADISE OVERLOOK MOUNTAIN TRAIL
Casitas de Gila is situated at the very edge of a series of cliffs that crop out along the west side of Bear Creek Canyon, a narrow, hundred-foot-deep canyon that has been incised into the 5 to 10 million-year-old Gila Conglomerate Formation. The Gila Conglomerate is a widespread sedimentary formation consisting almost entirely of volcanic rock and pyroclastic fragments that were eroded from uplifted volcanic rock formations formed by large-scale volcanic activity. This volcanic activity consisted of four extremely explosive, large, caldera-type eruptions, commonly known as super-volcanoes. These four super-volcanoes occurred within what is now the Gila Wilderness in two episodes that occurred 34 and 28 million years ago. Ancient rivers and creeks flowing out of these volcanic mountains over subsequent millions of years carried the eroded volcanic material downstream where it was deposited within adjacent down-dropped fault basins caused by tectonic subsidence to form the thick sedimentary layers of rock formations that are now called the Gila Conglomerate.
View of trail up Paradise Overlook Mountain from Casitas de Gila
Geology of Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail
The mountainous terrain directly east of Casitas de Gila constitutes the western end of the Silver City Range, a 20-mile-long, uplifted fault-block range of mountains that extends northwest from Silver City to terminate on the east side of Bear Creek in front of the Casitas, where the mountain range is truncated by a major, north-south trending, high-angle, normal dip-slip fault. Close examination of this fault and the rock formations that lie on either side of the fault yields considerable information regarding the geologic history of rocks found along the Paradise Overlook Trail:
- The volcanic rocks comprising the small mountains and peaks east of the fault (Turtle Rock, Paradise Overlook Mountain, and North and South Peaks—see photo above) were ejected from the Bursum Super-Volcano caldera 28 million years ago, the center of which was located about 25 miles north of the Casitas. These rocks consist of an alternating sequence of primarily three distinct rock types, including, from oldest to youngest: rhyolite welded ash-fall/flow tuff, andesite lava flow, and various types of fine to coarse grained pyroclastic rock. Originally deposited in horizontal layers, these volcanic rocks were subsequently uplifted and tilted approximately 30° to the north during regional mountain building that occurred in Southwest New Mexico around 20 to 15 million years ago, which included the uplift of the Silver City Range.
- Following the uplift of the Silver City Range and other nearby mountains, the Gila Conglomerate was formed between 6 and 10 million years ago by numerous rivers and creeks carrying eroded material out of the mountains. This eroded material was then deposited in adjacent down-dropped fault basins such as the Gila River Valley, lying just to the west of the Casitas.
- Fault movement along the margins of these uplifted fault-block mountains continued for a long time as evidenced by the great thickness of the deposits of the Gila Conglomerate that are found throughout in the area, such as those now exposed along the cliffs of Bear Creek Canyon in front of the Casitas. The vertical cliffs as seen today across from the Casitas were carved and sculpted by the abrasive down-cutting action of sediment being carried downstream by the running waters of Bear Creek operating over many hundreds of thousands of years.
A MORNING’S HIKE UP THE PARADISE OVERLOOK MOUNTAIN TRAIL
Start of the Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail immediately after leaving the Bear Creek floodplain
View from the trail on the level spot just above Bear Creek, looking out to the southwest past the Casitas to the the Burro Mountains on the skyline
Passing under the gnarled white branches of an ancient sycamore and then through a gate, the Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail immediately begins a steep climb to the north as it leaves the Bear Creek floodplain. Within a couple of hundred feet, outcrops of Gila Conglomerate surface here and there, exposed by the runoff from the previous summer’s Monsoon rains. After a short climb, the trail levels off just above the tops of the old cottonwoods lining the creek and the view to the west begins to open up. And what a view it is, as the entire southern front of the majestic Mogollon Range and the northern end of the Burro Mountains emerge from behind the low rolling hills that border Bear Creek to the west.
Gila Conglomerate in Paradise Overlook Canyon, 100 yards south of the Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail. Note the cross bedding and the large, well-rounded boulder, conclusive evidence of the sedimentary fluvial origin of the Gila Conglomerate.
For the next hundred yards, the trail crosses a gently sloping surface of thick, clayey soil washed down from the mountain above. Previous studies in the adjacent Paradise Lookout Canyon 350 feet to the south of the trail have revealed that a few feet below this gently-sloping, soil-covered surface lies a smooth, flat terrace-like surface of Gila Conglomerate bedrock, cut hundreds of thousands of years ago by the running waters of an ancestral Bear Creek. At the eastern, upper end of the soil covered terrace, the trail steepens considerably once more, and begins a steady upward climb which will continue for most of the remaining hike up the mountain.
Elongated and crystal-filled gas bubbles in andesite flow rock
Immediately past the point where the trail begins to steepen, the thick soils covering the terrace disappear and fresh bedrock is exposed at the surface and sides of the trail. This bedrock, however, is not Gila Conglomerate, but rather a dark gray, very fine grained volcanic rock which is classified compositionally as andesite. Looking closely, one observes that much of the rock contains abundant spherical to ellipsoidal holes ranging in size from a millimeter to two or three centimeters or more, many of which are lined with white crystals of quartz and other minerals known as zeolites. These are gas bubbles formed when the rock was still in the molten state, and which offer mute testimony that the rock formed as a lava flow. The ellipsoidal gas bubbles show not only that the flow rock was still moving immediately prior to cooling and solidification, but with further detailed field analysis could indicate the actual direction in which the lava was moving at the time of deposition.
Looking north along, and parallel to, the high-angle normal fault between sedimentary Gila Conglomerate (tan rock on left of fault) and gray volcanic rock on right. Note how beds of Gila Conglomerate turn up as they approach the fault, indicating that the Gila Conglomerate moved down relative to the uplifted volcanic rock.
As often happens in doing geologic field studies, the nature of the contact between the sedimentary Gila Conglomerate underlying the terrace and the volcanic rock is totally obscured by the thick soils covering the bedrock, making it impossible to determine the age and spacial relationships between the two rock types. Fortunately, however, the contact is beautifully exposed 350 feet to the south in the bottom of Paradise Lookout Canyon. Here the contact is revealed to be a north-south trending, high-angle fault contact that dips to the west. Further examination of the rocks on either side of the contact show that as horizontal beds of the Gila Conglomerate are traced towards the contact from the west they gradually turn upward to intersect with the fault, clearly indicating that the block of Gila Conglomerate had moved down relative to the block of volcanic rock which had moved up (see photo).
Pyroclastic rock of angular fragments of andesite set in fine-grained matrix
Resistant pyroclastic rock forming backbone of ridge upslope 200 feet north of trail. Note Sotol agave and Wait-a-Minute Bush in foreground.
Boulder of weathered pyroclastic boulder with angular andesite fragments set in fine-grained matrix that rolled down from ridge in adjacent photo.
Continuing on beyond the soil covered terrace, the trail soon comes to series of switchbacks where a new type of bedrock is encountered. These rocks are highly variable in composition and texture, consisting of a chaotic mix of dark reddish to gray rock fragments of various sizes and compositions welded together in a very fine grained, light gray to tan colored matrix. Closer examination reveals these are pyroclastic rocks that were explosively ejected when the Bursum Cauldera blew its top. While some of the exposures along this segment of the trail might be mistaken for Gila Conglomerate sedimentary rocks, the freshly broken, angular texture of most of the smaller fragments and the fact that these fragments are predominantly composed of the same rock type of fine-grained andesite indicate the volcanic pyroclastic origin.
Andesite flow rock with crystal-filled gas bubbles
Looking east on trail up Paradise Overlook Canyon. Note difference in vegetation on north and south sides of Canyon due to moisture retention of soil relative to exposure to sun.
Exposures of pyroclastic rocks alternate with highly weathered outcrops of the andesite lava flow rocks as the trail switchbacks across the contact between the two rock types. At this point, about halfway up the mountain, the soil cover is thin, generally only a foot or two thick over the bedrock on these mountain slopes. In many places along the trail it is easily seen that the soil has formed in place from the highly weathered and altered underlying bedrock.
Up to this point, the trail has been ascending the mountain along a steep slope on the north side of Paradise Overlook Canyon, a prominent canyon that drains from a topographic saddle between Paradise Overlook Mountain and North Peak, located a third of the mile to the southwest. Vegetation along this section of the trail is sparse due to the dryness of its south facing exposure and consists mostly of various grasses, Honey Mesquite, Wait-a Minute Bush or Catclaw, and Prickly Pear Cactus, with increasing stands of Sotol agave, as the trail climbs higher. Looking across the canyon to the south, however, one notices that the vegetation on the steep, north facing slope is considerably different. It is much denser with a greater diversity of plants, characterized by abundant One-Seed Juniper and Scrub Live Oak scattered over a thick grass-covered slope of various species that flourish there due to the greater retention of soil moisture on the north-facing slopes.
Looking south where trail crosses Paradise Overlook Canyon, person is standing in the Canyon bottom at contact between andesite flow rock on north side of canyon and rhyolite welded tuff on south side. Trail makes sharp turn to east (left) 150 feet past contact to continue up mountain on south side of Canyon.
Looking west from trail on north side of Paradise Overlook Canyon across Sacaton Mesa towards Mogollon Mountains in Gila Wilderness on right and Blue Range Wilderness in center far horizon
Two-thirds of the way up the mountain, the trail finally crosses Paradise Overlook Canyon to begin the steepest ascent of the trail up the north side of the canyon to terminate at Paradise Overlook at the top of the mountain. As the trail climbs ever higher on the mountain, the vista to the west becomes increasingly expansive, carrying the eye first across the Gila River Valley to Sacaton Mesa, then into the Gila Wilderness and the distant Blue Range Wilderness beyond.
Weathered surface of rhyolite welded ash-flow tuff in trail just north of where trail crosses Paradise Overlook Canyon. Note what appears to be cross-bedding structures in welded tuff.
Pyroclastic rock showing well-sorted angular fragments of fine-grained andesite set in fine-grained matrix
Pyroclastic rock showing poorly-sorted fine to very coarse fragments of diverse compositions set in a fine-matrix
Immediately upon crossing the canyon, one finds that the rock type has changed to a dense, hard, light tan to white fine-grained welded ash-fall or ash-flow tuff, the oldest of the three main volcanic rock type deposits found along the trail. Continuing up the final one-tenth of a mile, the welded tuff soon changes back to an alternating sequence of pyroclastic rocks that crop out along the trail, ranging from fine-grained welded tuffs, to medium-coarse pyroclastic rocks with mostly homogeneous angular fragments of fine-grained andesite, to complex pyroclastic aggregates of diverse volcanic rock types ranging from small angular fragments a centimeter or less in size to large, well-rounded boulders up to 30 centimeters or more in diameter of andesite and rhyolite many of which contain crystal-lined gas bubbles.
The much-welcomed flat spot near the end of the trail affords the hiker a good place to relax, quench one’s thirst, and enjoy a marvelous view.
Looking northwest from the top of the Paradise Overlook Mountain
Trail across Turtle Rock to the entire southern flank of the majestic Mogollon Range
Near the top of the trail, a final short, but steep … yes, we can do it … switchback brings the intrepid hiker to a much-welcomed wide, flat spot in the trail where thoughtfully placed large boulders make for a nice resting and watering spot with a marvelous view. But, nice as this spot is, the best part of the trail is yet to come! On the north side of the flat spot a small rock cairn marks the beginning of a final 250 foot scramble to the very top of Paradise overlook Mountain. Here, at an elevation of 5,540 feet, some 800 feet above Bear Creek below, is the perfect lunch spot you’ve been waiting for, a spot where an incredible 360° view awaits. To relax here, looking out over the Gila Wilderness and the surrounding panorama in all directions, you most likely will agree that indeed it is a Paradise Overlook …
Looking east across a pristine mountainous landscape from the top of the Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail towards the commanding 8,000 foot peak of Bear Mountain near Silver City on the far distant horizon on right
AN EXCEPTIONAL SNOWFALL
THAT TRANSFORMED CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES
INTO A WINTER WONDERLAND
Turtle Rock rises above Bear Creek with the Gila Wilderness in the background after the Great Snow of January 2, 2015
WINTER CLIMATE IN THE SOUTHWEST:
CONTROLLING FACTORS, AVERAGES, AND EXCEPTIONS
The average Winter snowfall received at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses and Southwest New Mexico is a function of several factors, including:
- the large scale alternating weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which results in the periodic warming and cooling of sea surface temperatures across the Pacific within the tropics and subtropics, and the creation of the important climatic patterns commonly referred to as El Niño (warm) and La Niña (cool) episodes
- large-scale Jet Stream patterns over western North America
- prevailing local atmospheric pressure and temperature
- local elevation
Climatic Affects of El Niño and La Niña Winters on New Mexico
Historical records show that El Niño winters in the Southwest are marked by increased precipitation and warmer temperatures, and La Niña winters by decreased precipitation and colder temperatures. During El Niño years, moisture-laden Low Pressure systems coming in off the Pacific Ocean tend to follow a southern route, carried along by the west-to-east flow of a persistent Pacific Jet Stream across the Southwest and into southern New Mexico (see figure below.) During La Niña years, however, eastward-moving, moisture-laden Low Pressure systems coming in off the Pacific Ocean tend to take more northerly routes across the western U.S., carried along by the west-to-east variable flows of the Pacific and Polar Jet Streams, bringing dry, sunny High Pressure conditions to prevail over the Southwest and New Mexico.
Schematic drawing showing climatic weather patterns of El Niño and La Niña for North America. Prepared by NOAA/ National Weather Service/ National Centers for Environmental Prediction.
Monitoring Oscillations of El Niño and La Niña by the Oceanic Niño Index
Sea surface temperatures fluctuate constantly in the Central Pacific along the equator, and when monitored and averaged over time demonstrate repeated oscillations between El Niño (warm) and La Niña (cold) episodes. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitors these oscillations by averaging monthly measurements of surface sea water temperatures collected over an area that covers the central portion of the Pacific Ocean between 5°N and 5°S latitude and 120° to170° W longitude. These temperature fluctuations, when averaged over successive three-month intervals during the year (which NOAA refers to as “seasons”), yield temperature anomalies that NOAA calls the Oceanic Niño Index (ONI). ONI values generally lie within 3°C of the average temperature for any given area at any specific time of the year. Anomalies that deviate from the average temperature in excess of +0.5°C mark a shift towards a warm El Niño episode, whereas anomalies in excess of -0.5°C mark a shift towards a cold La Niña episode. Anomalies that are between ±0.5°C are called a Neutral Episode, or, as they are sometimes humorously referred to, a La Nada episode. By NOAA’s definition, an El Niño or La Niña Episode can only be so named when the average of three consecutive ONI three-month seasonal values exceed the ±0.5°C threshold.
The Oceanic Niño Index has been in a Neutral or La Nada episode since the March-April-May seasonal ONI of 2012, and current projections (.pdf file) as of January 19, 2015 are that of a 50-60% chance of weak El Niño conditions during February and March, with a ENSO Neutral episode thereafter.
PREVAILING CLIMATIC CONDITIONS THAT SET UP
THE GREAT SNOW OF JANUARY 2, 2015
Typically, winter snowfall at the Casitas for the past 16 years has consisted of two or three light snowfalls each year, with each amounting to two or three inches or less. Generally, these snowfalls occur in the following predicable pattern: As low pressure systems come in from the west, winds are out of the southeast bringing warm air up from Mexico, which causes the precipitation to start as rain. Then, as the low pressure system passes by heading east, the precipitation may turn to snow overnight as the winds shift to the north. Once the storm has passed by, the skies clear, and the brilliant New Mexico Sun returns, the snow melts off quickly, typically during the following day.
Casitas de Gila is situated at an elevation of 4,800 feet. Small differences of elevation on the order of just a few hundred feet can result in a change in precipitation falling as rain or snow. For example, it is not uncommon during a Winter precipitation event at the Casitas for the 5,500 foot summits of North and South peaks (they rise up directly east of the Casitas on the other side of Bear Creek) to be coated with snow, while the Casitas receive nothing but rain. As another example, Silver City, which lies at an elevation of 6,000 feet, gets at least twice as much snow as the Casitas during the Winter.
The Great Snow of January 2, 2015, however, did not follow this usual pattern at all, but instead resulted from an unusual set of climatic factors: 1) A La Nada to very weak El Niño pattern had prevailed during the last weeks of 2014, and 2) Jet Stream patterns in the western U.S. were complex, not resembling either of the simple patterns shown in Figure 1. Instead, the Jet Stream patterns were repeatedly developing into very unusual, complex loops that came south down along the west coast of the U.S. from Canada, bringing masses of cold arctic air to the Southwest before angling northeast to bring rain to East Coast. By January 1, the Jet Stream had split, developing a pattern more like the El Niño pattern shown in Figure 1, with a Northern Polar Jet Stream and a southern Pacific Jet Stream which was now bringing up warm, moist air from Baja California. With cold air still lingering in the upper atmosphere from the previous loop pattern and the subsequent influx of moist air from the south, the stage was now set for the Great Snow of January 2, 2015. On that day it snowed all day, dropping a total of between 7 and 8 inches and turning Casitas de Gila into a Winter Wonderland. While old timers of the Gila area said they could remember greater snowfalls in the past, younger locals could not, and for certain it was the greatest snowfall the Casitas had experienced in 16 years of operation. Even so, by noon the following day with the combined efforts of El Sol and the trusty Casita tractor, all roads were passable, permitting both departing guests to leave and arriving guests to arrive.
A WINTER WONDERLAND AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES
The snowfall began in the early morning hours of January 2 with a couple inches of light dry snow on the ground by 8 AM. Despite a few brief periods when it appeared that the snow would soon stop, in never did until late in the afternoon when, as darkness approached, the skies finally began to clear.
Chloe wondering what has happened to her world, while Bower wonders what has happened to Turtle Rock.
Snow covered young Soaptree Yucca recently visited by a Desert Cottontail Rabbit looking for breakfast of grass, not yucca.
Bobcat looking for breakfast of Cottontail Rabbit.
Cane Cholla Cactus decked out with snow.
With dawn, the habitual early morning walk past the Casitas and down along Bear Creek to the horse corral revealed a true Winter Wonderland. On the flat to the west of the Casitas, Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and Desert Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus auduboni) tracks criss-crossed the snow-covered road. Here and there Bobcat tracks followed the rabbit tracks, although evidence of an actual encounter was not found. Our two English Springer Spaniels were very excited by it all, sniffing, frolicking, rolling, and chasing one another all the way to the corral and back. The One-seed Juniper (Juniperus monosperma), Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata), and Cane Cholla Cactus (Cylindropuntia spinosior) were all resplendent in their new, thick blanket of white, the juniper branches sagging under the unaccustomed weight. For most of the guests, it was a great day for hunkering down inside their Casita, enjoying the cheer of hot chocolate and a good book by their kiva fireplace; but by the afternoon the incredible natural beauty steadily enveloping the Casitas was too much to ignore, prompting several photographic pilgrimages down to the Creek.
As the Great Snow day continued, not a creature was stirring, not even a guest (except those inside by their kiva fireplace).
Full moon rising over North Peak across from the Casitas
With the low pressure system now past and heading east, the night of January 2 came on cold and clear. Slowly, the near-full moon rose above North and South peaks, casting the snowscape in the mystic bluish light and dark shadow that can only be experienced following a fresh heavy snowfall. Magical!
Heading down to Bear Creek on the Corral Road before dawn the day after the Great Snow.
The Casitas, Turtle Rock and the distant Gila Wilderness the morning after the Great Snow.
On the trail down to Bear Creek, with Turtle Rock and the Gila Wilderness in the Distance.
A young sycamore steps from the forest shadows, its rusty-red leaves ablaze in the morning Sun.
Cottonwoods and Willows frosted with snow.
With the next morning’s light, the dogs found the trip to the Creek even more exciting, the deeper snow coming up to their bellies. It seemed, however, that most of Nature’s furry friends were still sleeping in, as only a few deer and rabbit tracks were found crossing the road by the Creek. As expected, when dawn broke and the first rays of El Sol emerged from behind North and South peaks, the landscape surrounding the Casitas was immersed in endless waves of brilliant light. A trip along the Creek was a must to document this rare natural spectacle before it melted away.
Traveling upstream from the Casitas’s southern boundary, it was hard to progress more than a few yards before yet another photo opportunity would present itself. Bear Creek gurgled sharply in the morning silence. The maze of cottonwoods and willows lining the creek glistened yellow-white in the morning light, with every snow-frosted branch and twig etched in sharp contrast against the cerulean sky, while deep shadows of cobalt blue criss-crossed at their feet. Here and there the maze of yellow-white and blue would suddenly be broken, as a lone sycamore would burst into view, its rusty-red leaves ablaze in the light.
The waters and even the margins of Bear Creek rarely freeze because of constant vertical circulation and mixing of warmer waters rising, and colder waters sinking, within the thick layers of loose sand and gravel sediment of Bear Creek.
Cycles of Nature abound in the quiet, shallow margins of Bear Creek. Here, Duckweed and Watercress encroach on a fallen sycamore leaf and willow leaves.
Along the margins of the Creek, narrow bands of wet, reddish-brown sand and gravel marked the edge of the warm, upwelling spring-fed waters. For most of its course past the Casitas, the waters of Bear Creek rarely freeze in the Winter because of the vertical circulation and mixing of warmer waters rising and colder waters sinking within the thick deposits of loose sand and gravel sediment that make up the stream bed of Bear Creek. Through this upwelling circulation the waters are warm enough in places that occasional patches of bright Springtime-green Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) and Pale Duckweed were encountered, flourishing in defiant counterpoint to the surrounding Mid-Winter snowscape.
Continuing further up the creek, immersed in the cold shadows of the towering cliffs above, one soon came to a higher-energy, rocky portion of the creek where, during the Great Bear Creek Flash Flood of last Fall, concentrations of large pebbles, cobbles, and boulders were deposited in thick gravel bar deposits along the margins of the Creek, while the finer sediments were swept away. Here in this cliff-shadowed segment of the Creek, there were no signs of the warm, upwelling spring-fed waters just observed a short distance downstream. Instead, the stream bank remained frozen solid to the water’s edge, and where former gravel bars were once observed, the Creek margin was now transformed into a lumpy expanse of stoney-cored, oversized marshmallows glistening in the morning Sun.
Stoney-cored marshmallows emerge from the deep shadow of the cliffs to glisten in the morning Sun.
The telltale track of the White-nosed Coatimundi (Nasua narica).
Tracks of animals, some fresh, some old, were abundant in most places along the Creek – Mule Deer coming to drink and feed on the Watercress and Duckweed, Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep coming down off the cliffs to the water, the five-toed, telltale track of the elusive White-nosed Coatimundi (Nasua narica), small tracks of Mice (Family: Cricetidae) and larger tracks of the Gray Fox (Urocyon cineroargenteus) hunting the mice; but on this day, no sign of Mr. or Mrs. Mountain Lion (Puma concolor).
Female Ruby-Crowned Kinglet hunting for insects on the Watercress and Duckweed-lined pool.
Black Phoebe hunting for insects at the pool.
As the morning wore on and the snow began to fall from the trees, creating a little plop here and a little kerplop there, a variety of birds including the Wood Thrush, the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, and the Black Phoebe were found feeding on insects near a large pool of water situated in the middle of the floodplain, a short distance east of the main Creek Channel. The pool, which has persisted at this particular location for several years now, is elongated in shape, measuring up to several feet across and a couple of hundred feet long, with water depths ranging from a few inches to up to a foot. Interestingly, the water level in the pool is elevated a foot or two above the level of the main channel of the Creek into which it drains.
Red-naped Sapsucker hunting for insects on an old juniper.
Observations made over the years reveal that this pool is formed by confined subsurface creek waters that rise to the surface of the floodplain at this spot from an abandoned main creek channel that was buried with fine silt and mud when the creek changed its course during the Great Flood of 2005. Because the pool is fed by warm water rising to the surface of the floodplain, Watercress and Duckweed flourish on the pool’s surface year around, which seems to be a delicacy for the Mule Deer in the winter, judging by the abundance of tracks at the water’s edge. Peering into the water, small minnows could be seen cruising up and down the length of the pool continuously, only to instantly disappear and hide beneath the floating Watercress and Duckweed whenever danger was sensed in the shadows cast from above. A variety of small insects also abound here year around, in the water, along the margins of the pool, and incredibly and to the obvious delight of the Black Phoebe on this sunny warming day, even flying just above the surface of the water. Observing this smorgasbord of Nature’s bounty it was as if one had suddenly time-travelled from a Mid-winter Snowscape into Early Spring.
By noon the melting of the snow was in full display, with snow dropping noisily from the branches of the large oaks and junipers bordering the floodplain. Having just started the short hike back to the Casitas, a bird flew close overhead to land on the trunk of a tall juniper about 60 feet distant and instantly began pecking away. At that distance, it appeared to be a Ladder-Back Woodpecker and remained there fully engaged in its foraging for about a minute, quite long enough to permit several telephoto pictures. Looking at the photos back in the studio, it was quickly obvious that the bird was not a Ladder-back, but rather a new bird that had never been reported at the Casitas. It was a Red-naped Sapsucker! What a colorful and handsome bird they are. And, what a marvelous hike it had been!
Leaving Bear Creek at noon, the snow was melting fast, and within a short time the Great Snow of January 2015 would be but a memory.
CENTERPIECE OF A MAGNIFICENT LANDSCAPE
IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
Sacred Site of the Mogollon People, Craggy Stronghold for the Apache, Landmark for the Pioneers, Gateway to Bear Creek, and Nature’s Monument to Beauty
Rising majestically above Bear Creek, Turtle Rock is the centerpiece of this Mid-Winter scene.
TURTLE ROCK: NATURE’S GIFT DOWN THROUGH THE AGES
We do not know what the Mogollon People called the towering mass of cliffs rising majestically from the creek across from their village. Yet, most likely, they were spiritually moved by it as they emerged from their cluster of pit-houses in the predawn hours, watching as the first rays of the Sun burst once more over its summit to start the new day, or stood waiting for the luminous orb of the full moon to slowly rise over the shadowed mass of rock to illuminate their sacred evening dance. The Apaches treasured this special place along the creek as well, both as a reliable hunting ground for game, especially the Bighorn Sheep that favored its craggy cliffs, and, because of the gently sloping flat top of the fortress-like cliffs, as a safe haven for their old, young, and infirm, as well as their appropriated horses and cattle, while the warriors were off on another of their recurring raids.
Glistening in the last rays of a Late Summer Sun, Turtle Rock has served as a visual magnet of inspiration since the days of the Mogollon People.
By the late 1800s, pioneer ranchers and settlers moving into the lush Gila Valley had various names for this prominent rocky landmark that was visible for miles around and which served as a guidepost for the entrance to Bear Creek, the shortest and best route of travel to the growing towns of Pinos Altos and Silver City. For some it was known as the Apache Corral; for others it was Bill Hooker’s Hill, marking the location of the headquarters for the expansive pioneer Hooker Ranch now nestled in the shadow of its cliffs. By the early 1950s, however, the lyrics of a new song inspired a more poetic name, that of Mockingbird Hill, which had become a hit tune throughout the U.S., made famous by Patti Page and several others.
Today, another name has been added to the lexicon with the imposing craggy butte now commonly referred to as Turtle Rock because of its turtleback-shaped profile.
Situated on the edge of Bear Creek and overlooking the incomparable Gila Wilderness a few miles distant to the north, Turtle Rock continues its long history of human attention as a much admired and photographed centerpiece of the marvelous landscape viewed from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.
BORN OF FIRE, AND SHAPED BY THE AGES
Looking north at Turtle Rock from the Paradise Overlook Trail at Casitas de Gila towards the Gila Wilderness in the Pinos Altos Range (on right) and the Mogollon Mountains (on left), with Mogollon Baldy Peak (10,770 feet) on far left skyline. Note the horizontal bedding in the layers of welded tuff and pyroclastic breccias on the vertical cliffs.
The origins of Turtle Rock can be traced back some 28 million years ago to the Oligocene Epoch (note: link is a .pdf file), when the Bursum Caldera was erupting violently some 20 miles to the northwest, in the center of what is now the Gila Wilderness. Numerous eruptions within the caldera resulted in the deposition of thick sequences of pyroclastic volcanic material over the surrounding area, ranging from fine-grained welded tuffs to coarse-grained pyroclastic breccias.
Turtle Rock consists of layers of both welded tuff and pyroclastic breccias, which are composed of angular fragments of rhyolite and andesite set in a fine-grained matrix of welded tuff. Millions of years after the deposition of these volcanic rocks, tectonic faulting and uplift took place over the area during the Miocene Epoch (note: link is a .pdf file). This tectonic uplift resulted in the formation of the Silver City Range, a 19-mile-long mountain range extending northwest from Silver City to terminate at Turtle Rock on the east side of Bear Creek. Here, vertical movement along a major north-south trending high angle normal fault during this time period resulted in the uplift of the west facing craggy cliffs of Turtle Rock and the adjacent steep slopes of North and South Peak to the south. Following the uplift of Turtle Rock and North and South Peaks, millions of years of weathering and erosion then took place, ultimately resulting in the magnificent landscape as seen today across from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.
Closeup of pyroclastic breccias found on Turtle Rock. Note horizontal bedding and angular fragments in the welded tuff matrix.
Looking north at eastern side of Turtle Rock with Gila Wilderness in the Pinos Altos Range (to right) and the Mogollon Mountain Range (to left) in background.
THE MANY MOODS OF TURTLE ROCK
During the Summer Monsoon season, guests at Casitas de Gila are frequently treated to the spectacular sight of rainbows over Turtle Rock.
The craggy cliffs of Turtle Rock rise up as the dominant focal point within the vast mountainous landscape bordering Bear Creek, but nowhere as much so as when viewed from the edge of Bear Creek Canyon in front of Casitas de Gila. Looking north from anywhere on Casita lands, the commanding presence of Turtle Rock sets the mood and tone of the day, regardless of the time of year or weather. Indeed, after 16 years of living here, it is a rare day that one does not spend at least a few minutes marveling at this enduring gift of Nature’s beauty, exquisitely situated against the soaring mountainous peaks of the Gila Wilderness rising up a few miles to the north in the distance. Without question Turtle Rock is a southwestern landmark that will delight any Nature lover, photographer, or artist that has the opportunity to visit.
Turtle Rock as seen from the Corral Road trail following an unusual Winter snowfall.
Turtle Rock as seen from the Corral Road during Summer with the hills covered with Summer Poppies.
Clouds rising behind Turtle Rock in the late afternoon create ever-changing, majestic landscapes in front of the Casitas.
While it is very true that a picture is worth a thousand words, in the case of Turtle Rock it is also true that a photograph rarely captures that innermost deep feeling that moves one to pick up the camera in the first place. Nevertheless one keeps trying.
The following photos have been selected from literally several thousand taken over the past 16 years in an ongoing attempt to record the incredible beauty and changes of mood of the unique and very special landscape of Turtle Rock and its surroundings that continue to greet one’s eye and inspire one’s Spirit day after day, month after month, year after year.
TURTLE ROCK IN WINTER
Looking north from the Casitas at Turtle Rock in early morning light after a rare fresh snowfall.
A typical Winter scene from the Casitas of a half-shadowed Turtle Rock overlooking a forest of brilliant white-barked cottonwoods and occasional red-leafed sycamores lining Bear Creek with the cloud-shrouded peaks of the Pinos Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness in the distance.
Turtle Rock cloaked in a rare pre-dawn fog in Mid Winter.
TURTLE ROCK IN SPRING
In Early Spring the cliffs of Turtle Rock take on a warmer shade of tan as the buds in the cottonwoods lining Bear Creek take on a hint of yellow-green, while a rainbow forms over the Gila Wilderness.
By Late Spring, Turtle Rocks takes on an even warmer tone as the Sun soars ever higher in the sky and the Bear Creek riverine forest puts on its brightest show of yellow-green.
TURTLE ROCK IN SUMMER
Often during the Summer Monsoon season a break in the clouds following a late afternoon thunderstorm will create a moment of pure magic.
With the Summer rain, Turtle Rock turns into a green-backed turtle!
As the Summer afternoon Sun slowly sets in the West, Turtle Rock will change from yellow, to orange, and then to red just for an instant before … lights out!
And then, just when one thinks one has seen it all … the Magic of Turtle Rock will put on a display that simply leaves one breathless.
TURTLE ROCK IN FALL
As Fall comes on, the Sun arcs lower in the sky and the days and nights begin to cool and Turtle Rock takes on a more somber tone, reflecting the deeper shade of blue in the skies above and the turning of the cottonwood leaves along Bear Creek.
As the days shorten, shadows lengthen and the colors of the turning leaves are set in exquisite tonal harmony against the soaring cliffs of Turtle Rock.
In the morning light, Turtle Rock is in shadow, providing the perfect counterpoint of contrast to the peaking of the cottonwood leaves ablaze along Bear Creek.
Once the leaves peak along the Creek and start to fade and fall, the towering shadowed cliffs of Turtle Rock will remain as an essential focal point of contrast in this gorgeous scene until the last of the color is gone and the more somber tones of Winter once more return.
HIKING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE ANCIENT ONES
IN THE MOGOLLON MOUNTAINS OF THE GILA WILDERNESS
A Thanksgiving Holiday Hike Up Sacaton Creek
in the Mogollon Mountains of Southwest New Mexico
Looking north at the western escarpment of the Mogollon Mountains
THE MOGOLLON MOUNTAINS: ANCIENT LAND BORN OF FIRE
Just a few miles north of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, the majestic Mogollon Mountains rise over 6,000 feet in elevation from the Gila River Valley to form an imposing 30-mile-long escarpment between the communities of Gila and Glenwood. The Mogollons are the highest mountains in Southwestern New Mexico with several peaks just under 11,000 feet: Whitewater Baldy at 10,895 feet and Mogollon Baldy at 10,770 feet. Most of the Mogollon Mountains lie within the vast 557,873 acres of the Gila Wilderness that cover some 872 square miles and offer hundreds of miles of hiking trails (US Forest Service map; .pdf file).
Sacaton Mountain center horizon. Elevation 10,600 feet. Headwaters of Sacaton Creek. Like most of the Gila Wilderness, Sacaton Mountain and Sacaton Creek are composed of volcanic rocks deposited during the eruption of the Bursum Caldera 28 million years ago.
Geologically, the Mogollon Mountains lie in the southern part of what is known as the Datil-Mogollon Volcanic Field, a huge 10,000 square mile area at the southeastern corner of the Colorado Plateau Province consisting of numerous volcanic calderas that erupted during the development of the Basin and Range Province during the Late Tertiary Period (Paleogene and Neogene Periods). Almost all of the volcanic rocks comprising the Mogollon Mountains were formed during the Oligocene and Miocene Epochs, the largest volume resulting from the eruption of the Bursum Caldera, 28 million years ago. Following the eruption of the Bursum Caldera, extensive faulting and uplift occurred within the Mogollons between 20 and 15 million years ago resulting in the mountainous terrain that is seen today. It was also during this time period that the collapse of the Bursum Caldera took place, with the development of ring faults around the subsiding caldera periphery within which subsequent emplacement of veins of metallic minerals took place. It is these veins that would eventually yield the greatly-sought-after mineral deposits of gold, silver, copper, and fluorite that were actively mined in the Mogollons beginning around 1870.
The Mogollon Mountains, ancestral homeland of the Mogollon Culture. Gila River Valley in foreground at 4500 feet rising to 10,895 feet at the summit of Whitewater Baldy on the far distant skyline.
THE MOGOLLON MOUNTAINS: ANCESTRAL HOME OF THE MOGOLLON CULTURE
The Mogollon Mountains have been a magnet for Native Americans for several thousand years, beginning with the nomadic gatherer, hunter, and eventually incipient agrarian Archaic Cochise Culture. The primary reason for this draw is because of the extreme diversity of landscape, wildlife, and plant life that is found there. Starting at the Gila River Bridge, at an elevation of 4,500 feet, it is only 25 miles north to the crest of the Mogollons at Mogollon Baldy at 10,895 feet. In that short distance the landscape passes through five ecologic zones:
Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) and Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) are characteristic plants of the Chihuahuan High Desert Zone. This photo is at Casitas de Gila, at an elevation of 4,800 feet.
High Chichuahan Desert Zone: 4,500-5,000 feet. Characterized by Honey Mesquite, Wait-A-Minute Bush, Soaptree Yucca, and Cacti. Average precipitation between 10 and 15 inches.
Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana), Pinyon (Pinus edulis) and Gray Oak (Quercus grisea) are characteristic trees of the Juniper and Pinyon Zone. This photo is on Sacaton Mesa at an elevation of 6,100 feet. The building is the ruins of a 100 year-old adobe that may have served as a stage stop on the Old Sacaton Road. Sacaton Mountain (10,600 feet) center skyline.
Juniper and Pinyon Zone: 5,000-6,500 feet. Characterized by a slow-growing and drought-resistant “dwarf forest” of One-seed Juniper, Alligator Juniper, Pinyon, Gray Oak, and Desert Scrub Oak, plus Sotol, Prickly Pear Cactus, and Agaves. Average precipitation between 15 and 20 inches.
Ponderosa Pine (Pinus scopulorum) and Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii) are characteristic of the Pine and Oak Zone. In this photo hikers pass beneath a forest of towering Ponderosas on Lower Sacaton Creek at an elevation of 6,700 feet.
Pine and Oak Zone: 6,500 to 8,000 feet. Characterized as the lowest biome of true forest consisting of Ponderosa Pine and Gambel’s Oak, plus numerous shrubs and weeds from lower and higher elevations. Average precipitation between 20 and 25 inches.
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) are characteristic of the Fir and Aspen Zone. Photo is looking east along Bursum Road at an elevation of 9,100 feet.
Fir and Aspen Zone: 8,000 to 9,500 feet. Characterized by extensive growth of dark-green Douglas Fir and white-barked Quaking Aspen, plus numerous shrubs and weeds from lower and higher elevations. Average precipitation 25 to 30 inches.
Englemann Spruce (Picea engelmannii) and Firs such as the White Fir (Abies concolor) are characteristic of the Spruce and Fir Zone. Photo of top of Mogollon Mountain at 10,600 feet.
Spruce and Fir Zone: 9,500 feet – 11,000 feet. Various species of spruce and fir trees are the dominant trees with dense stands growing up to tree line and commonly interspersed with alpine meadows. Numerous other high-altitude shrubs, grasses, and weeds not found at lower elevations occur here. Average precipitation ranges from 30 to as much as 90 inches, with north-slope snow drifts lasting into June.
Thus, within this relatively small geographic area Native American cultures had access to an extremely diverse variety of food sources including an incredible number of edible plants and fruits, small and large game animals, birds, fish, and eventually, as the indigenous cultures evolved, bottom land suitable for agriculture along the Gila River and its tributaries, such as Bear Creek. In short, for pre-Columbian Native Americans, the Mogollon Mountains and the adjacent lowlands were truly a Garden of Eden. And they remain so today.
THE PRE-COLUMBIAN NATIVE AMERICAN MOGOLLON CULTURE
Map showing extent of Anazasi, Hohokam and Mogollon homelands (source: wikimedia.org)
The Mogollon Culture was one of four essentially contemporaneous prehistoric Native American cultures that included the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo People, the Hohokam, and the Patayan cultures. These cultures thrived a huge area in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico that is sometimes referred to as Oasisamerica during the time period of roughly 1200-100 BC until 1300-1450 AD, a time span that has been subdivided into various eras under the Pecos Classification in the Four Corners area.
The large area in which the Mogollon Culture lived included Southern New Mexico and Southeastern Arizona in the U.S., plus Eastern Sonora and most of the Chihuahua states in Northern Mexico. Their cultural boundaries joined with the Hohokam Culture of Southeastern Arizona on the west and the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo Peoples Culture of the Four Corners area of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico on the north.
Pottery sherds representing several Mogollon phases. Photo taken during archaeological excavation of a long-term habitation site on the Gila River.
Mogollon Culture Mimbres Phase bowl showing wild turkeys feeding on a large centipede. (Source: wikimedia.org)
The Mogollon Culture is thought to have developed from an earlier nomadic Archaic Culture called the Cochise around 150 AD, at which time pottery was introduced, probably from the south in Mexico. Over the years, archeological investigations of the Mogollon Culture have led to the recognition of several chronological phases in the development of the culture1, including:
- the Georgetown Phase, 550 to 650 AD, characterized by deep, round pit houses for living quarters, development of San Francisco Red, Alma series plainwares and San Lorenzo red-on-brown pottery
- the San Francisco Phase, 650 to 750 AD, characterized by shallow rectangular pit houses with rounded corners, continued production of San Francisco Red and Alma Series plainwares, plus the development of Mogollon red-on-brown and Three Circle red-on-white pottery
- the Three Circle Phase, 750 to 1000 AD, continued use of shallow rectangular pit houses with rounded corners, gradual replacement of San Francisco Red and Alma Series plainwares by Reserve Plain and Corrugated wares, plus development of the Puerco and Mimbres black-on-white pottery
- the Reserve Phase, 1000 to 1125 AD, pit houses giving way to surface pueblos of rock and adobe, development of the Reserve black-on-white pottery
- the Tularosa Phase, 1125 to 1300 AD, rectangular surface pueblos now the preferred building mode plus development of cliff dwellings, introduction of Tularosa black-on-white and some polychrome pottery
- the Mimbres Phase, 1025-1300, rectangular surface pueblos, some attaining large compounds of adjoining room blocks up to 150 or more rooms, development of the classic black-on-white Mimbres pottery which featured intricate geometric designs as well as figures of animals, birds, insects and humans
Starting in 1250 to 1300 and continuing until 1400 to 1450, the Mogollon people began to abandon the large pueblo complexes and disperse. Traditional explanations for this depopulation have centered on climate change, as evidenced by a 50-year period of extended and persistent drought that began in 1250. More recent investigations have considered outside pressures brought on by an influx of other Native American cultures with resulting conflict and warfare.
A HIKE IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE ANCIENT ONES
One of the most visually rewarding automobile excursions that can be taken in the vicinity of Casitas de Gila is Sacaton Road. This easily-traveled road (except during wet weather! Inquire first!) is a 25-mile county-maintained, public gravel road that runs west from the Gila River at the small community of Cliff along the south-facing escarpment of the Mogollon Mountains to intersect U.S. Highway 180 just south of the community of Pleasanton. To drive this road is to take a trip back in time to an earlier New Mexico essentially unchanged since pioneer days. For most of the journey the road crosses the southward sloping surface of Sacaton Mesa, a vast flat to slightly undulating expanse of grass-covered ranch lands dotted with juniper and pinyon. Beneath these grasslands lie thick deposits of alluvial sediment that were washed out of the Mogollon Mountains that rise up just a mile or so to the north of the road, over the last several hundred thousands of years.
Sacaton Road looking west along Mogollon Range. Sacaton Mountain (10,600 feet) on far right skyline.
To travel Sacaton Road is to travel a route in continual use for thousands of years. For the early Native Americans it was the obvious best north-south trail because of the gentle terrain, the abundance of game, and, of course, dependable water supply from the numerous creeks that flowed south out of the mountains. We now know that Coronado passed this way too, in 1540, led by Native American guides following in the footsteps of their ancestors. Over the next 300 years Sacaton Road became a primary route for the nomadic Apache, who were none too pleased when the Anglo miners and settlers began to use their trail at first by foot and horseback and later as an established stage coach and freighting route. In those years, to travel what was to become known as Sacaton Road was often a gamble of life or death.
Today, numerous trailheads leading into the Gila National Forest and the Gila Wilderness beyond are accessed along Sacaton Road, each offering unique and spectacular day hikes for those who seek the trail less-traveled in pristine nature.
A HIKE UP SACATON CREEK
On the Sacaton Trail, crossing Sacaton Creek.
Such a trail is the trail up Sacaton Creek, and the one our small band of overstuffed Turkey Day gluttons headed for following the annual day of decadent feasting.
There is a familiar sentiment or feeling that prevails no matter which one of the numerous trails one hikes in the Gila National Forest and Wilderness. Simultaneously, one may experience a mixture of solitude yet peacefulness, wildness with an overarching sense of the primeval, but yet, at the same time, an unexpected feeling of welcoming. For unlike many areas of the Rocky Mountain West, such as the high country of Colorado or Montana or Alaska where one can feel the unease of being the lonely pilgrim in an inhospitable foreign land, for most visitors, the Gila is a welcoming wilderness, a place to feel close to Nature, possibly as never before. Perhaps it is because of the lingering presence of those countless numbers of Native Americans, early explorers, prospectors, miners, pioneers, and ranchers who have all travelled the same trails up the same creek valleys and ridges in days gone by, each engaged in their own optimistic search for sustenance or riches or just the unequaled joy that accompanies any exploration of the unknown.
Through the ponderosas.
Getting higher now.
Thus, regardless of where you hike in the Gila, you are very likely not the first to have travelled there. For the Gila is a young and rugged terrain, an up and down volcanic maze of steep slopes and vertical volcanic precipices, where only the creek valleys and the intervening ridges can be travelled with relative ease. Traveling these trails, the signs of those who have passed before you are everywhere if you are observant and look for them. Or, as more often is the case, they will suddenly pop into your awareness when you least expect it, be it a line of thoughtfully-placed lichen-covered rocks, a bit of old mining equipment, an ancient campsite, a curious slab of petroglyphs placed for all to see, or a well-hidden, mysterious, and haunting pictograph.
Most of the canyon bottom trails into the Gila follow small creeks that are perennial in their lower reaches. Except for the possibility of flash floods during the Monsoon Season or the brief time of high water during Spring runoff, these trails are a delight at all times of the year. Cool and shaded in the Summer and warm and protected in the Winter, these trails can be counted on for a great day’s hike.
This year’s Day after Thanksgiving excursion was such a hike. Our group of 10 moved slowly up the creek, like so many cats, each being attracted to different things – a great photo here, a curious plant there, an unusual rock outcrop. And, of course, the progression slowed to a crawl whenever one of the trail’s unique features came into view — the hundred-year-old cabin with its hand-split cedar shake siding, the colorful waterfall, the gigantic, three-to-four-foot diameter ponderosas, the bedrock-lined pools of aquamarine and topaz waters, the almost hidden foundation of a Mogollon Culture Pit House. And so it went, until stomachs and hikers alike began to growl the familiar refrain – “I’m hungry… is it time to eat yet?”.
A 100 year-old cabin. Was it a miner’s abode or a ranching line-camp?
The numerous pristine pools on Sacaton Creek are a photographer’s delight.
A three-foot Ponderosa soaring into the heavens.
Lichen covered rocks outline the foundation of a Mogollon Culture Pit House.
It’s funny, but great lunch spots always seem to materialize just at the right moment. No sooner did the growling begin then there it was … the perfect spot along the creek, with crystal clear pools lined with numerous slabs and boulders of white volcanic ash-fall welded tuff to sit on, all bathed in glorious warm shafts of light filtering down through the towering ponderosas overhead. Lunchtime!
But, then, just as some had started searching for that perfect personal lunching rock, came the words: “It’s up there, on that cliff! Do you see it?” “No!” “There, beneath that overhang … see it?” And then some of the group that had been here before began to climb up the steep, oak leaf and pine needle covered slope. Hmmm … lunch would have to wait.
The marvellous Frog People pictograph.
The pictographs were spectacular, painted in bright, vermillion red on a smooth joint surface of tan volcanic welded tuff in a sheltered nook in the cliff wall, illuminated perfectly by soft reflected light from the afternoon sun. There were two of them. One big and one small, both carefully drawn. “Why, they are frog people!”, someone said. Anthropomorphic frog people? Or just frogs? “But look at those feet, those huge five-toed hind feet and the small three-toed front feet … or hands?” Hmm… aliens maybe (hey! it’s New Mexico!)? How wonderful! How hauntingly mysterious! Then, of course, came the queries … “Why are they here?” “What could they mean?” “Who painted them and when?” And so the questions and comments went, until all the photographs were taken, and, unable to be put off any longer, the growling stomachs once more made their presence known, calling us down to lunch.
Lunch on Upper Sacaton Creek
A Gambel Oak leaf floating on a crystal pool.
A small waterfall catching the light of the late afternoon Sun.
Now in late afternoon, the hike back down the canyon was a kaleidoscope of intense light and dark shadow as the Late Fall Sun arched ever closer to the west canyon rim. Silence reigned except for the steady murmur of the creek and the occasional jarring call of the raven. With the light now streaming in low from the west, every segment of the trail looked different, triggering the occasional fleeting uncertainty that every hiker has at sometime felt – “Is this the way we came this morning?” Rocks and trees passed by unnoticed, fully shadowed in the morning light, now glowed incandescently in the brilliance of the hard afternoon light, demanding one’s full attention. It was quite warm in the sun, but the shadows already held the chill that would soon fill the canyon. Very soon now the cold air would start flowing down the canyon from the headwaters of the creek on Sacaton Mountain 4,000 feet above.
As the Sun sinks lower, the play of light and shadow increases on Sacaton Creek.
Under the Ponderosas Nature is illuminated …
Arriving back at the trailhead, we lingered a long while, gazing at the surface of a massive rock outcrop we had discovered. The jumble of pictographs pecked into the desert varnish surface of the rock looked back at us in silence, their meanings cloaked in antiquity. Again, the lunchtime queries surfaced in the mind, only to fade away, unanswered as before. But unlike the pictograph frog people, purposefully hidden in that sheltered nook, these pictographs were there for all to see. Yet what once was clear to all that saw them, on this day their meanings were lost and attempts at deciphering them seemed futile. It was like being a visitor in a foreign land looking at faded posted announcements on an old building wall, all written in a language that one cannot read. More Gila mysteries. But with more study, maybe, just maybe next time …
The petroglyphs at Sacaton Creek … what stories could they tell!
It was time to go, the Sun was setting. But the memories of that day would live on and on.