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Southwestern Guesthouses on 265 Acres
near Silver City, New Mexico
overlooking Bear Creek and the Gila Wilderness

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

A Magnificent Southwest Landscape

TURTLE ROCK:
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

Southwest New Mexico scenery

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.

sunset southwest new mexico

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

gila wilderness new mexico

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.

pyroclastic breccias new mexico

Closeup of pyroclastic breccias found on Turtle Rock. Note horizontal bedding and angular fragments in the welded tuff matrix.

Gila Wilderness New Mexico

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

summer rainbow southwest new mexico

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.

snow in southwest new mexico

Turtle Rock as seen from the Corral Road trail following an unusual Winter snowfall.

summer poppies new mexico

Turtle Rock as seen from the Corral Road during Summer with the hills covered with Summer Poppies.


summer sunset glow new mexico

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

snow in southwest new mexico

Looking north from the Casitas at Turtle Rock in early morning light after a rare fresh snowfall.


winter in southwest new mexico

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.

gila wilderness winter

Turtle Rock cloaked in a rare pre-dawn fog in Mid Winter.


TURTLE ROCK IN SPRING

gila wilderness new mexico 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.

gila wilderness spring

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

summer rainbow southwest new mexico

Often during the Summer Monsoon season a break in the clouds following a late afternoon thunderstorm will create a moment of pure magic.

silver city new mexico scenery

With the Summer rain, Turtle Rock turns into a green-backed turtle!


gila wilderness new mexico

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!

monsoon rain scenery new mexico

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

fall in the Gila Wilderness

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.

fall along Bear Creek at Casitas de Gila

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.


cottonwoods in southwest new mexico

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.

Fall in the Gila Wilderness

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.


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A Hike Up Sacaton Creek

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

Mogollon Mountains

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

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.
 

Mogollon Mountains

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

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.

Gila Wilderness New Mexico

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 in Gila Forest

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 and quaking aspen

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.

spruce and fir gila wilderness

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 of Mogollon homelands

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.

mogollon pottery sherds

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)

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 Grant County NM

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

hiking in southwest new mexico

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.

hiking near Silver City New Mexico

Through the ponderosas.

hiking near Silver City New Mexico

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?”.

hiking in the gila national forest

A 100 year-old cabin. Was it a miner’s abode or a ranching line-camp?

hiking the gila wilderness

The numerous pristine pools on Sacaton Creek are a photographer’s delight.


hiking in southwest new mexico

A three-foot Ponderosa soaring into the heavens.

pit house foundation Mogollon Mountains

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.

frog pictograph gila wilderness

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.

hiking near Silver City

Lunch on Upper Sacaton Creek

hiking near silver city

A Gambel Oak leaf floating on a crystal pool.


waterfall in Gila Wilderness

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.

hiking in southwest new mexico

As the Sun sinks lower, the play of light and shadow increases on Sacaton Creek.

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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 …

petroglyphs in Gila Forest

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.
 

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The Desert Dry Wash or Arroyo

THE DESERT DRY WASH (aka Arroyo):
AN ICONIC LANDFORM OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

An Exploration into the Natural History of the Dry Wash Trail
at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses in Southwest New Mexico

Eliot Canyon, New Mexico

Looking south up the rugged, ephemeral dry wash of Eliot Canyon. During Summer Monsoon Season this dry wash becomes a high-energy stream capable of transporting large volumes of course sediment and boulders. Following the Ambush at Soldier Hill, the Apache Chief Ulzana and his warriors quite likely used this canyon as an escape route to elude Lt. Fountain and Troop C of the 34th US Calvary.

THE DESERT DRY WASH OR ARROYO:
ICONIC LANDFORM OF OUR WESTERN CINEMATIC FANTASIES

For most adults looking back on our early cinematic adventures, it’s hard to think of a favorite film set in the American Southwest in which the iconic landform of the dry wash or arroyo does not feature in at least one scene of high drama. Who among us does not remember that thrill of a Saturday afternoon when watching the classic, adrenalin-filled chase scene where the good guys and bad guys are blazing away at each other (and typically missing) while galloping mile after mile after mile up or down a sandy, boulder-strewn dry stream bed between towering canyon walls. Or, equally familiar, how we watched in nail-biting suspense as the obligatory ambush scene unfolded on the canyon rim, high above the dry-wash defile a hundred feet below, where the hapless and unsuspecting soldiers, wagon train, or strongbox-carrying stage coach would soon pass. It was exciting stuff of which that we never tired.

Looking east up the large intermittent stream dry wash of Little Dry Creek Canyon towards Soldier Hill in the distance, site of the ambush of Lt. Samuel Fountain and Troop C of the 34th US Calvary at Soldier Hill by the Apache Chief Ulzana and his warriors on December 19, 1885.

Looking east up the large intermittent stream dry wash of Little Dry Creek Canyon towards Soldier Hill in the distance, site of the ambush of Lt. Samuel Fountain and Troop C of the 34th US Calvary at Soldier Hill by the Apache Chief Ulzana and his warriors on December 19, 1885.

Yet the fact is that these scenes were more than just another artifice in fantasy of Hollywood fabrication. For the most part, the human dramas they portrayed were historically accurate, real-life events that played out over and over again during the golden years of America’s pursuit of its Manifest Destiny. A well-documented local example of one such event was the Massacre at Soldier Hill, which took place on December 19, 1885, when the Apache Chief Ulzana and about nine warriors ambushed Lt. Samuel W. Fountain and the 34-man strong C Troop of the 8th US Calvary while on patrol in the Mogollon Mountains. The ambush took place as the soldiers were coming up a steep grade on a small hill located on the north side of a dry wash called Little Dry Creek, located about 20 miles north of the Casitas. Taken completely by surprise, Lt. Fountain’s patrol suffered a loss of five men killed and three wounded before the calvary regrouped and counter attacked. As the soldiers advanced again, Ulzana and his band abandoned the high ground and slipped away to the west, heading down the dry wash of Little Dry Creek canyon about two miles before, quite likely, heading south up the dry wash of Eliot Canyon. From Eliot Canyon, they would have had access and safe passage out of sight into a subsequent maze of rugged dry washes, eventually leading them to the Mule Mountains, and from there, further south to a mining community near Carlisle, NM, where they killed three men and wounded several others on Christmas Eve.

As countless historical and archaeological research studies have documented, the dry washes of the Southwest Desert served as much-used corridors of transit and passage for both humans and wildlife alike throughout both historic and pre-historic time. And despite their dry, dusty, and seemingly insignificant and unimportant appearance, they constitute one of the most critical landform elements in the physical development, evolution, and ecologic sustainability of the arid and semi-arid landscape of the American Southwest.
 

DEFINING THE DRY WASH OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

intermittent stream dry wash

Looking downstream at the intermittent stream dry wash of Little Dry Creek, 2 miles from its confluence with the larger intermittent stream dry wash of Big Dry Creek which flows into the perennial stream of the San Francisco River.

The terms dry wash, wash, gulch, and arroyo are informal terms that tend to be used somewhat interchangeably on a regional basis both in written and spoken word by people living or working in the American Southwest. The simplest definition would be any watercourse or stream bed regardless of size that has flowing water only part of the year. A more definitive definition would take into account the scale of the watercourse both in terms of physical size and volume of water flow, as well as periodicity and duration of flow events1. In this context, a brief definition of the three types of streams found in the American Southwest is useful.

Perennial streams or rivers are those watercourses where water flows continuously all year. As any state map will show, perennial streams are an extremely rare feature in the arid and semi-arid Southwest American landscape. The Gila River, which exits the Mogollon Mountains and the Gila Wilderness five miles northwest of the Casitas, is a perennial stream.

Much more common are those watercourses classified as intermittent streams, where portions of the stream flow continuously only at certain times of the year, such as during seasonal snow melt, or flow from a local ground-water source such as a spring. Intermittent streams can vary in length from short to extremely long, often stretching for many miles across the landscape. Little Dry Creek with its headwaters in the Mogollon Mountains is a classic example of an intermittent stream, having a Spring flow from melting snow high in the Gila Wilderness and sporadic flows during the Summer Monsoon season.

emphereal stream dry wash

Looking southwest upstream at the ephemeral stream dry wash of Eliot Canyon which drains the vast mesa lands of Cactus Flat Country.

On a much smaller scale, and even more numerous, are those watercourses classified as ephemeral streams, where the water flows as runoff for only very brief periods of time in response to local precipitation. A defining technical characteristic of ephemeral streams are those watercourses where the water running in the channel is at all times separated from, and unrelated to, the ground water table.

In the arid and semi-arid American Southwest, both intermittent and ephemeral stream watercourses are referred to as dry washes, washes, gulches, or by the Spanish term arroyos.

In many ways, desert dry washes can be considered as “corridors of life” that form a branching network of sustenance across this arid and semi-arid landscape, providing water, food, and shelter to the indigenous animals, birds, and insects that live in and near them, as well as those that are just migrating or passing through. For humans, from pre-historic times up through the early pioneer days, in addition to serving as the best likely source of water, food, and shelter, they served as reliable primary foot and horse trails and eventually early roads that provided the easiest and most direct routes through this rough and mountainous arid landscape.

Today, in addition to serving in the above mentioned functions, these networks of dry washes are recognized as a critical and strategic natural resource that must be protected and preserved wherever and whenever possible. Not only are they invaluable, both in maintaining and sustaining a complex wildlife biodiversity increasingly threatened by encroaching ongoing human development, but also they constitute a strategic and critical resource for replenishing, preserving, and sustaining local and regional water supplies through the continual recharging of ground water aquifers throughout the arid and semi-arid Southwest.
 

AN EXPLORATION INTO THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE DRY WASH TRAIL,
A SMALL DRYWASH AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES

As defined above, dry washes develop along both intermittent and ephemeral streams, and can vary in scale from short features less than a mile in length to landforms stretching for many miles across the landscape. Regardless of scale, however, upon close inspection most dry washes within a region will exhibit many similar physical and ecologic features along their course since they result from the same geologic, climatic, and hydrologic processes acting over hundreds to many thousands of years.

Dry washes are a common landform at Casitas de Gila and the surrounding area, where numerous intermittent and ephemeral streams actively dissect a rugged mesa and canyon landscape lying between the Gila River valley lowlands and the surrounding uplifted mountains of the Mogollon and Pinos Altos ranges within the Gila Wilderness to the north, the Burro Mountains to the south, and the western end of the Silver City Range.
 

The Dry Wash Canyon Trail

The Dry Wash Canyon Trail is one of several trails established within the Bear Creek Nature Preserve at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses to provide access and up-close and personal experience of the various diverse physiographic features, geology, biology, and ecology that are found along this portion of Bear Creek. Bear Creek is a major tributary of the Gila River, flowing westward some 25 miles from its headwaters at the old mining town of Pinos Altos, about 6 miles north of Silver City. In its upper reaches, the waters of Bear Creek are perennial, eventually becoming intermittent just downstream from the southern boundary of the Casitas de Gila land as the stream gradient (slope) decreases towards its junction with the Gila River.

dry wash trail at casitas de gila

The Dry Wash Trail at Casitas de Gila follows an ephemeral stream dry wash canyon that drains the west facing slopes of North and South Peaks before emptying into the perennial stream of Bear Creek. A short distance downstream from the Casitas’s southern boundary, Bear Creek becomes intermittent.

geologic features of dry wash trail canyon

Major geologic features and 4 Segments of Dry Wash Trail Canyon


The Dry Wash Canyon Trail is located within the southern portion of Casita de Gila land. As is shown in Figure 1, the trail extends southeast and then east from Bear Creek up a short (0.7 mile) dry wash canyon that has been cut by an ephemeral stream acting over many thousands of years. The headwaters of the canyon’s drainage lies at an elevation of 5,460 feet in a small topographic saddle between North and South Peaks, just east of the Casitas. From there it eventually drops some 770 feet in elevation to its junction with Bear Creek at an elevation of 4,690 feet.

The course of the Dry Wash Trail Canyon can be divided into four segments based on the gradient or slope of the stream bed, the underlying geology, and the dominant and controlling geological processes, biology, and ecology. From top to bottom, they are:

1. Upland Drainage Basin (5,460 feet down to 5,040 feet in elevation)

Casitas de Gila Guesthouses nature trail

Contact between Segment 1 of the Upland Drainage Basin and Segment 2 as defined by a high-angle normal fault. Volcanic rhyolite ash fall welded tuff exposed on right (east) side of the fault and Sedimentary Gila Conglomerate exposed just to the left of the fault. Note thin soil with vegetative cover of native grasses, Pinon Pine, (with Scrub Oak behind it) and Honey Mesquite in upper right. Casitas de Gila Guesthouses can be seen in center distance.

Segment 1 of the canyon is steep, the bed of the watercourse having gradients of up to 26° or more and averaging 22°. In this segment, the main watercourse of the drainage basin has been cut into 28 million-year-old volcanic rhyolite welded ash fall tuff bedrock by on-going active weathering, erosion, and downcutting. Only a thin skim of residual soil remains, held in place by a sparse cover of native grasses, and a scattering of native grasses, Sotol, Scrub Oak, One-seed Juniper, and Pinon Pine.

The lower end of this segment is marked by the presence of a major north-south trending, high angle normal fault. This fault separates the uplifted volcanic rhyolite welded ash fall tuff on the east side of the fault from the down-dropped 5-10 million year old sedimentary fluvial Gila Conglomerate on the west side of the fault. The fault is extensive and can be traced across the western face of South and North peaks east of the Casitas to Turtle Rock on the north by the obvious visual change in slope of the mountainside from the average slope of 22° on the uplifted volcanic welded tuff, to an average 11° slope on the down-dropped sedimentary Gila Conglomerate.

 

2. Upper Canyon Dry Wash Erosion Within Gila Conglomerate (5,040 feet down to 4,840 feet)

Segment 2 of the Dry Wash Canyon is cut down into the near-horizontal layers of the Gila Conglomerate, with the bed of the watercourse having an average gradient of about 11°. Along this segment, the floor of the canyon is characterized by extensive exposures of Gila Conglomerate as a result of on-going active weathering, erosion, and downcutting. Throughout this segment, all eroded sediment is transported downstream, except for the largest boulders (up to 6 feet in diameter) that have come to a final resting place in the lower part of this segment of the canyon. These large boulders are not being carried further downstream due to the reduction in velocity and energy of the flash-flood waters caused by the reduction in gradient of the watercourse bed.

gila conglomerate bedrock

Gila Conglomerate bedrock exposed Segment 2 in stream bed of canyon, scoured clean of sediment except for loose course gravel left on surface by earlier flash flood.

dry wash stream bead

Large lichen-covered pyroclastic boulder left on Gila Conglomerate bedrock exposed in stream bed of canyon in Segment 2. Extensive covering of lichens shows boulder has not moved in several hundred years. Origin of pyroclastic boulder is problematic in that there are no known exposures of this pyroclastic rock type currently exposed in the upstream drainage of this drywash.


Examination of the largest boulders in this segment reveal interesting facts:

  1. The presence of extensive growth of large lichens on the rocks, with diameters of individual lichens up to 4 inches in diameter, suggests that these boulders have not moved for several hundred years or more, indicating a time in the past when the velocity and volume of flash-flood waters in the canyon were significantly higher; a velocity and volume which haven’t reoccurred since.
  2. The composition of some of these boulders is neither rhyolite welded tuff nor Gila Conglomerate, but is that of a volcanic pyroclastic rock, a rock type which is not known to occur anywhere upstream in the bedrock exposed in the present canyon’s drainage basin below North and South Peaks. While there are such pyroclastic rocks a mile or so to the east and to the north in different drainage basins, these boulders present a dandy little geologic mystery just waiting to be solved!

Sides of the canyon in Segment 2 have a thicker cover of soil than Segment 1, in which the soil is derived from the weathering of the softer Gila Conglomerate as opposed to the harder rhyolite welded tuff. On the dry, south-facing slopes of the canyon, this soil supports a vegetative cover dominated by native grasses such as Side-oats Gramma, Honey Mesquite, Western White-thorn Acacia, and Oreganillo. On the wetter north facing slopes, Side Oats and other native grasses, Scrub Oak, One-seed Juniper, and Pinon dominate.
 

3. Middle Canyon Dry Wash Erosion Within Gila Conglomerate (4,840 feet down to 4,800 feet)

dry wash waterfall

Looking upstream at a 6-ft. dry wash waterfall or pourover in Gila Conglomerate bedrock in Segment 3. This feature is formed when the downcutting of the dry wash stream bed encounters a layer of rock that is much more resistant to erosion than the rest of the bedrock. In this case, it is due to a better-cemented layer of much larger cobbles and boulders of volcanic rock.

southwest new mexico dry wash

Looking downstream standing on top of and at the edge of 6-ft. waterfall or pourover shown in adjacent photo on left. All of these large cobbles and boulders are strongly cemented in the Gila Conglomerate presenting a highly resistant layer to erosion.


Segment 3 of the Dry Wash Canyon is cut deeper into the near-horizontal middle layers of the Gila Conglomerate, with the bed of the watercourse having an average gradient of about 7°. In this segment of the canyon, weathering, erosion, downcutting, and non-deposition still prevail, with all eroded sediment still removed from the stream bed by active downstream transport. Active erosion of the canyon floor dominates throughout this segment with little or no sediment remaining over the Gila Conglomerate bedrock.

Vegetation on the dry south-facing and wetter north-facing slopes of the Canyon is similar to that of Segment 2.

dry wash southwest new mexico

Looking downstream in the lower part of Segment 3. Here the Gila Conglomerate bedrock as exposed on both sides of the canyon is quite soft and easily eroded, leading to rapid down downcutting of the dry wash stream channel.


4. Lower Canyon Dry Wash Deposition Within Gila Conglomerate and Across the Bear Creek Floodplain (4,800 feet down to 4,690 feet at Bear Creek)

dry wash canyon

Rapid lateral erosion of the sides of the dry wash canyon takes place in the lower part of the canyon in Segment 4 where the Gila Conglomerate is overlain by deposits of loose, unconsolidated sediment. Here, this One-seed Juniper illustrates this lateral erosion by the exposure of approximately 3 vertical feet of the tree’s root system.

In Segment 4 of the Dry Wash Canyon, the slope of the bed of the watercourse decreases rather abruptly to a slope of about 4° as it approaches its junction with Bear Creek. This reduction in slope is a critical one in that it exceeds a threshold value where the dominant and controlling geologic processes operating within the canyon undergo a fundamental change. The change, in this case, is from an ephemeral stream of erosion that is actively eroding, downcutting, or in geological terminology, degrading its stream bed as described in Segments 1, 2 and 3; to an ephemeral stream of deposition that is actively building up, raising, or in geological terminology, aggrading its bed through the deposition of transported sediment as discussed below.

gila conglomerate

Layers of Gila Conglomerate exposed on the arid north side of dry wash canyon in Segment 4.

Western White-thorn Acacia

Western White-thorn Acacia (Vachellia constricta) growing along edge of dry wash stream bed in Segment 4.


dry wash trail

Looking east and upstream in upper part of Segment 4. South Peak can be seen in the distance.

Plants and wildlifes are much more diverse and abundant within Segment 4 than in Segments 1-3. This is because of the presence of water that is retained for varying lengths of time within the sediments covering the stream bottom following the periodic flash-floods that occur during the year. The distribution of the various plant species within Segment 4 is highly variable, depending upon the amount and time duration of the retained water, which in turn are a function of the thickness, size distribution, and location of these unconsolidated deposits of sand and gravel that cover the Gila Conglomerate bedrock. Characteristic plants of Segment 4 include Desert Buckthorn, Desert Willow, Squawbush or Skunkbush, Prickly Pear Cactus, Cane Cholla Cactus, Wait-a-minute Bush or Catclaw, Honey Mesquite, and Thread-leaf Snakeweed.


gila conglomerate

Looking downstream in Segment 4. In Segment 4, the Gila Conglomerate is buried under thick deposits of sand to gravel sediment carried downstream from Segments 1, 2, and 3.

dry wash channel

In the lower parts of Segment 4, the dry wash channel widens considerably. With each successive flash-flood the stream channel shifts back and forth over this low slope surface as rapidly deposited sediment blocks old channels and new ones are formed.


casitas de gila guesthouses

Here Segment 4 of the Dry Wash Trail Canyon approaches Bear Creek, flowing from right to left and out of sight just beyond the row of young, white-barked cottonwoods in the middle distance. Here it flows out across the Bear Creek floodplain depositing sediments carried downstream from Segments 1-4, which are carried away when Bear Creek floods.


GEOLOGIC PROCESSES AND FACTORS CONTROLLING THE FORMATION OF
THE CLASSIC LANDFORM OF THE DESERT DRY WASH

The development of the desert landform known as the dry wash as found in Segment 4 of the Dry Wash Canyon Trail at Casitas de Gila can be summarized by the following interacting geologic principles, processes, and sequence of events.

  • It is a fundamental principle that as the gradient of a stream bed decreases going downstream, it results in a corresponding reduction in the velocity and energy of the water flowing down the stream.
  • As the velocity and energy of the flowing water in a stream is reduced, this in turn results in a corresponding decrease in both the volume as well as grain size of sediment that can be transported by the stream.
  • Dry wash canyons are formed by ephemeral streams resulting from short-term precipitation events that produce short-lived, but high-energy, flash-floods within the canyon. In the Dry Wash Trail Canyon, the steep slopes of Segments 1-3 (22° to 7°) are characterized by having extremely high velocity and energy downstream runoff during precipitation events that cause erosion and downcutting of the stream bed, with all eroded material being carried downstream. When this transported eroded sediment reaches Segment 4, where the gradient of the canyon floor is much less (4°), the velocity and energy of the water is reduced to the point were the runoff water can no longer transport the sediment, causing it to be the deposited over the stream bed, burying any Gila Conglomerate bedrock exposed in the stream bed in the process.
  • In a dry wash stream system, however, it is important to note that the sediment deposition as observed in Segment 4 is typically only temporary, since these sediments may only remain in a particular place until the next flash-flood occurs. When the next flash flood does occur, depending on the magnitude and duration of the flood, the previously deposited sediments may be washed away, often right down to the bedrock itself, only to be subsequently replaced by new sediments in transport downstream that are deposited when the flood waters subside. Over long periods of time, the repeated bedload transport of this sediment downstream across the bedrock surfaces exposed during the periodic flash floods will slowly grind down the surface of the bedrock, resulting in a gradual lowering of the canyon bottom.

It is through these processes, then, that the classic and unique landform of the Dry Wash of the desert Southwest is formed and evolves. For many people, especially those new to the Southwest, the Dry Wash may go completely unnoticed or merely thought of as an unimportant, static landform where nothing ever changes. The true reality, however, is that the Desert Dry Wash is a highly dynamic and ever-changing landform that is critical to the long-term stability and sustainability of the life forms that make their home there.

Bear Creek Silver City New Mexico

Looking upstream from the Bear Creek floodplain at the lower end of Segment 4 of Dry Wash Trail Canyon. Note trail marker arrow in lower left.


REFERENCES:

1. Ephemeral Streams Report (.pdf file)

 

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A Southwest New Mexico Flash Flood

THE GREAT BEAR CREEK FLASH FLOOD OF SEPTEMBER 22, 2014
 
Documenting a Major Flash Flood on Bear Creek at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses
caused by Remnants of Hurricane Odile in Southwest New Mexico

2005 flood on Bear Creek

View of February 12, 2005 Flood at near peak flow, looking north from Casitas towards Turtle Rock. Photo illustrates how major floods will inundate the entire Bear Creek floodplain and lower stream bank terraces. Because the September 22, 2014 Flood peaked and receded before dawn there are no comparable photos.

2005 Flood

Hammock below Casitas at peak flow of February 12, 2005 flood. Water level at this time approximately 8 feet above normal water level of Bear Creek. Debris left behind in trees near the hammock by the September 22, 2014 flood showed that this same hammock was two feet under water in the 2014 Flood, or between 10 and 12 feet above normal water level!


 

THE SETUP: HURRICANE ODILE MAKES LANDFALL
ON MEXICO’S BAJA CALIFORNIA PENINSULA

On Sunday night, September 14, 2014, Hurricane Odile came ashore on Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, making a direct hit on the resort tourist destination of Cabo San Lucas as a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 125 mph. It was the strongest hurricane to hit the Peninsula in recorded history. After inflicting devastating damage and chaos in Cabo, the hurricane took an unusual northward path along the Baja Peninsula towards Arizona, reaching the U.S. border on Friday, September 19. Passing into Arizona, the storm then took a turn to the east towards Southern New Mexico and West Texas. Although the winds rapidly decreased upon entering the U.S., the degraded storm succeeded in dragging a huge plume of moisture into the Southwest, triggering several days of rain and thunderstorms as it travelled eastward, and resulting in extreme flooding and flash floods in SE Arizona and SW New Mexico.
 

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

The National Weather Service (NWS) had predicted that over the weekend and early into the coming week of September 22 there would be a high probability of showers and thunderstorms, with some local flooding and flash floods as the remnants of Storm Odile made its way from Arizona east towards Texas. Indeed, on September 20 and 21, patchy showers, thunderstorms and localized flooding occurred throughout Southwest New Mexico, although only small amounts of rain and only a brief, small rise in Bear Creek were recorded at the Casitas. By Sunday evening, September 21, NWS radar was showing that the most intense thunderstorm activity stemming from the rapidly-dissipating Odiel had now moved east of the Casitas and the surrounding Gila area towards Truth or Consequences, NM, suggesting that the potential for significant flooding was over. Such was not the case.

At about 2 AM on Monday morning, September 22, the first of several large thunderstorms made a direct hit on the Casitas. With the pounding of the first blast of rain on the roof, a check with the NWS radar showed that the thunderstorm cell had come out of the Northeast. With increasing consternation, it was quickly determined that not only was it a large cell, but there were several large cells lined up behind it, all of which were tracking straight towards the Casitas. Taken together, the numerous cells covered a wide swath that essentially covered the entire drainage basin of Bear Creek, extending all the way upstream from the Casitas to Pinos Altos, 25 miles to the northeast. If these cells remained active for any length of time, it was pretty certain that Bear Creek was going to flood. Judging by the persisting deep red to purple colors of the cells on the radar as they slowly moved down Bear Creek, it was going to be a major flood.

All of the thunderstorm cells remained intensely active until 4 AM, when the last of them finally passed over the Casitas. By this time Bear Creek was already roaring unseen in the darkness 100 feet below in the canyon below the Casitas. By the sound of it, a significant flash flood was underway, but it would be another two and a half hours before the first light of day would illuminate the magnitude of what was actually taking place.
 

A FLOODPLAIN OF CHANGE

Peering down into the canyon in the early morning light, one could see that the peak of the resulting flash flood had already passed by and that Bear Creek was still swollen out of its banks and running strong.

Here and there chaotic masses of vegetative debris could be seen hanging high in the branches of the cottonwoods and willows several feet above the floodwaters that still ran across the entire floodplain and onto the adjacent stream terraces below. Over the main channel an endless parade of logs, branches, and mats of other floating debris shot by in the churning waters.

Late in the day on Monday, when the Creek had dropped substantially from its highest stand, some guests staying at the Casitas ventured down to take a closer look at the still roaring Bear Creek, following a trail that leads down to a hammock that is situated on a creek bank terrace about 6 feet above the main channel, on the Casita side of the Creek. Upon their return they estimated that the hammock (still intact and hanging on its chains) had been submerged about 2 feet underwater at the peak of the flood on the basis of debris caught in adjacent trees, which would put the maximum depth of the Creek over the channel at about 10 feet. If verified, this figure would mean that the September 22 floodwaters had attained the greatest depth of any flood experienced in the 16-year history of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, the previous record being an 8-foot depth from the February 12, 2005 flood. That flood had resulted when a warm front coming up from Mexico brought 2.5 inches of slow rain to the area over a 52-hour period, which succeeded in melting all of the snow pack in the high mountains of the Gila Wilderness lying a few miles north and northeast from the Casitas.

It would be three days before the floodwaters receded to the main channel and the velocity dropped enough that one could cross the creek safely to survey and record what had taken place. Starting at the downstream boundary of the Casita land and following the course of the Creek two-thirds of a mile to the upstream Casita boundary, a close inspection revealed that the guest’s estimate was actually conservative in that the floodwaters had in places reached depths of 11 to 12 feet, based on debris lodged in the trees bordering the main channel.
 

SOME BASIC PROCESSES OF STREAM CHANGE IN BEAR CREEK

Before illustrating and discussing the changes that took place on Bear Creek over the three-day period of September 22-25, 2014, it is useful to review some of the basic processes that affect how a stream evolves and changes over time.

The width of the active Bear Creek floodplain over the Casita lands, including the first stream bank terraces, varies from 120 feet at the most narrow point to 250 feet at the widest. Although rather confined, over time the Creek still manages to display some of the features of a meandering stream. In the 16 years of observation at the Casitas the stream has undergone significant change, including:

  • Channel migration or meander from one side of the canyon to the other, producing slip-off slopes, point bars, stream cut cliffs, and cut-off channels or chutes
  • Deposition and build up of sediments up to 6 or 7 feet thick across the floodplain, ranging from fine sand to boulders 3 feet in diameter
  • Erosion and scouring of cut-off channels up to 6 or 7 feet deep
  • Exposure or burying of the Gila Conglomerate bedrock underlying Bear Creek by unconsolidated modern sediments in transport down the Creek

Flash Flood on Bear Creek

Looking upstream, photo illustrates formation of slip-off slope and point bar on east side of main channel and cut-bank on west side of channel, following drop of flood waters to normal flow.

flash flood on Bear Creek

Photo illustrating cut-off channel scoured by flood waters abandoning curve in main channel (flowing from upper left of photo out of sight behind trees to right side of photo and then to lower left of photo) to flow directly across floodplain.


All creeks and rivers carry various amounts of solid sediment and dissolved matter downstream. This material is referred to as stream load, which is classified into three types:

  • Bed load – Coarse and heavy sediment, ranging in grain size from silt and sand to pebbles, cobbles, and boulders, that travel downstream along the bottom of the stream either in constant contact, such as rolling or sliding (traction load), or by hopping and skipping and bouncing (saltation load)
  • Suspended load – Fine sediment, such as clay, silt, and sand, that is transported downstream suspended in the water column by turbulence and currents
  • Dissolved load – Invisible to the eye, this type of stream load consists of chemical ions of various elements that are dissolved in the water

All streams, from small creeks to large rivers, are typically in a state of dynamic flux, attempting to achieve a state of equilibrium where there is neither erosion nor deposition of stream load along the stream channel. Such equilibrium is only rarely and briefly achieved as fluctuation in the volume and velocity of water, plus the gradient or slope of the channels, vary constantly. During floods and flash floods such fluctuations increase exponentially, both in magnitude as well as spatially, as flood waters leave their channels and flow out across the floodplain, and, in the case of large floods, ultimately submerge the adjacent river bank terraces. When the floodplain is covered with riverine forest, as is the case of Bear Creek in front of the Casitas, the resulting fluctuations are extremely chaotic as trees are undercut and topple or masses of floating debris of logs and vegetative matter lodge against standing trees forming localized dams to the churning waters.
 

A PHOTO DISCUSSION OF THE EFFECTS OF THE GREAT BEAR CREEK FLASH FLOOD OF SEPTEMBER 22, 2014

A Comparison of the Magnitude, Duration, and Effects of the 2005 and 2014 Floods

The February 2005 flood was quite different from the September 22, 2014 flood in terms of duration, magnitude, and resulting effects. While the maximum height of the water reached during 2005 flood was around 8 feet above normal channel flow level in the Creek, the height of the 2014 flood was between 10 and 12 feet as measured by debris left in trees across the floodplain.

southwest flash flood

Vegetative debris caught on willow tree at edge of main channel. Scarred bark just above debris (probably result of hit by floating log) is about 12 feet above main channel normal water level.

flash flood in New Mexico

Debris caught on 4-1/2 foot Casita horse corral fence. Flood-scoured corral is located on top of first stream bank terrace approximately 7 feet above normal water level in main channel.


In terms of duration, the 2005 flood went on relatively unabated for nearly two weeks because of a warm front that came up from Mexico dropping 2.5 inches of widespread rain over a period of 52 hours that covered not only the entire Bear Creek drainage system, but also melted all of the snowpack in the adjacent mountains. In contrast, the 2014 flood was essentially a flash flood resulting from only a few hours of intense thunderstorms having extreme precipitation rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour that were confined to the center of the Bear Creek drainage basin. So while the 2014 flood reached greater depths, much greater volumes per second, and higher velocities, this greater intensity only lasted a few hours in comparison to the less intense, but much longer lasting 2005 flood.

flash flood Southwest New Mexico

Surface of stream bank terrace 6 feet above main channel cut away by erosion and scoured to depths of three feet or more by flood waters.

bear creek flash flood

Looking upstream on floodplain at thick deposits of sand deposited downstream from the dense stand of cottonwood and willow in background which slowed water flowing across floodplain sufficiently so that suspended load of sand sediment would be deposited.

Bear Creek flash flood

Looking upstream on floodplain where debris dams on right side of photo have concentrated waters flood waters on floodplain to selectively scoured away all fine silt and sand to leave a cut-off channel paved with course cobbles and boulders.


Consequently, the change affected by these two floods upon Bear Creek Canyon was quite different. These changes can be summed up as large scale but gradual changes affected by the 2005 flood as opposed to small scale but catastrophic changes for the 2014 flood. For example: in the 2005 flood the main channel of Bear Creek was shifted from the eastern edge of the canyon some 200 feet to the west to where it is now located directly below the Casitas on the western edge of the canyon. By contrast, the 2014 flood produced numerous, but localized, deeply scoured channels and thick, irregular mound-shaped deposits of sand to coarse gravel and boulders across the floodplain, as well as uprooting trees and stripping vegetation from bedrock surfaces.

Silver City flash flood

Clump of several 20-foot willow trees that were growing on stream bank on west side of main channel that were undercut and toppled by flood. Mass of upstream-facing roots will act as a dam-like barrier to prevent further erosion of the Creek bank at this spot and cause migration of the main channel to the east (toward the camera).

flash flood southwest New Mexico

Gila Conglomerate bedrock exposed on south side of main channel when flood waters stripped away the cover of creek bank vegetation shown on left side of photo. Thus exposed, bed-load sand and gravel carried by future floods will now resume the wearing down of the bedrock surface continuing the eternal downcutting of Bear Creek Canyon.


Another critical factor responsible for the vast difference in affects resulting from the 2005 and 2014 flood is the dramatic increase in floodplain vegetation between June 2005 and September 20, 2014 (just two days before the flood) as illustrated in the these photos.

2005 Flood

View of Bear Creek floodplain looking north upstream towards Turtle Rock on June 18, 2005. Note width of channel and and paucity of floodplain vegetation when compared to 2014 photo on right.

2014 Pre-Flood

View of Bear Creek floodplain looking upstream towards Turtle Rock on September 20, 2014, two days before the Great Flash Flood. Note narrow width of main channel and extensive development of riverine forest across the floodplain on east side of Creek (right side of photo) in comparison to 2005 photo on left.


In addition to the increase in density of the maturing riparian forest over the floodplain, note how the main channel in 2014 has become constricted in width, resulting in both active down cutting of the main channel itself while simultaneously forcing a high volume of rapidly-moving water out across the floodplain. The result of these high-energy flood waters surging across the densely-forested floodplain produced massive change across the floodplain in terms of the erosion and scouring of new cut-off channels, plus large-scale build-up of adjacent stream bank terraces of both fine and course suspended and bed load material in response to localized damming effects of flood-transported debris being caught against trees on the floodplain which resulted a reduction in the velocity of the water resulting in deposition of stream load.

Aftermath of flash flood

Localized debris dams slow water movement over floodplain causing deposition and buildup of fine suspended load sediment.

aftermath of flash flood

Localized debris dam on floodplain causing deposition and buildup of coarse gravel and boulders.



 

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