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info@casitasdegila.com

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 Mid-Spring Hike Into the Gila Wilderness

 

A MID-SPRING HIKE UP THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL INTO THE GILA WILDERNESS
— A FASCINATING JOURNEY THROUGH A LANDSCAPE BORN OF
ANCIENT SUPER-VOLCANO ERUPTIONS TO OBSERVE THE FOREST’S
RECOVERY FROM THE GREAT WHITEWATER BALDY COMPLEX FOREST FIRE OF 2012

Gila Wilderness

Looking east on access road to Sheridan Corral Trailhead and Mogollon Mountains


 

THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL DAY HIKE (GILA NATIONAL FOREST TRAIL #181)

The Sheridan Corral Trail (GNFT #181), also known as the Holt Apache Trail, is one of several trails providing easy-to-moderate day hikes of two or three miles length (one way) into the southwestern portions of the Gila Wilderness and the High Country of the lofty Mogollon Mountains. From the trailhead at the end of Catron County Road C054 and an elevation of 6,360 feet, Trail #181 heads northeast, gradually ascending over the next 1.9 miles to an elevation of 6,840 feet on Sheridan Gulch Creek, where it intersects with the North Fork Big Dry Creek Trail, GNFT #225, leading south to Skunk Johnson’s Cabin. At this junction, Trail #181 then turns north, following the creek another 1.4 miles up Sheridan Gulch, before beginning a steep 1,000 foot ascent over 1.1 miles of switchbacks to a junction with the Holt Gulch Trail, GNFT #217 at an elevation of 9,120 feet.
 

A MID-MAY HIKE UP THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL

Sheridan Corral Trail

Trailhead Kiosk for Sheridan Corral Trail

May is normally a bright, dry, warm month with brilliantly clear night skies, one of the best months for visiting astronomy guests at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. This year was an exception, however, with abnormal cloud cover, some rainy days, below average temperatures, and disappointingly cloudy skies at night. By mid-month the May New Moon was fast approaching, one of those special times of the year when the viewing of the dark skies at the Casitas is dependably at its best. Yet for this year it was not to be. With increasing empathy, the hosts at the Casitas watched as their regular astronomy guests were teased daily by forecasts of good weather to come, only to be thwarted by another night of uncooperative, cloudy skies. After several days of this, and an updated forecast that was calling for yet another day and night of cloudy weather, it seemed like a good opportunity for the hosts to suggest a change in plans. Perhaps this was the time to introduce these dedicated observers of the Heavens to a more down-to-Earth daytime experience of another of the Casitas’ special local attractions: a hike into the Gila Wilderness!

Sheridan Corral Trail in Gila Forest

Leaving the Trailhead Kiosk behind, the trail passes through a Pinon-Juniper forest typical of the Gila National Forest below 6,800 feet

Banana Yucca in New Mexico

On May 15, 2015, the first part of the trail was lined with Banana Yucca in bloom


Striking off from the Sheridan Corral trailhead, the trail was followed eastward, gradually climbing up and along a ridge, passing through a landscape of mature high desert Piñon Pine (Pinus edulis) and Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana) forest, with intervening open areas of various grasses, Beargrass (Nolina microcarpa), Desert Scrub Oak (Quercus turbinella), Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata), Parry’s Agave (Agave parryi), Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), and Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia chlorotica). This vegetation is typical of the south-facing and southwest-facing volcanic foothills of the Mogollon Mountains below 6,800 feet.

Parry's Agave in New Mexico

Here, a Parry’s Agave is in the process of putting up its flower stalk; the flower stalk grows at an incredible rate and once it blooms, the plant will die

hiking in southwest new mexico

Hikers passing through a zone of rhyolite dikes; Sheridan Mountain at 8,280 feet looms in the background

hiking the Gila National Forest

Looking southwest down Sheridan Gulch Canyon towards the San Francisco Backcountry

lichens in silver city area

Colorful lichens cover the rhyolitic and andesitic rocks exposed along the trail


After about a half mile, the Sheridan Corral trail passes from the Gila National Forest into the Gila Wilderness. Here and there vast panoramas now opened before us, slowing our progress as we paused to survey the magnificent Mogollon Mountains in the Gila Wilderness looming ever closer in the East, and the wild, rugged San Francisco River Backcountry in the distant West. Beneath our feet, the trail crunched loudly as we passed over exposures of the diverse, colorful volcanic deposits of the ancient Mogollon and Bursum Super-volcano eruptions that had created this rugged Wilderness.

hiking near Silver City New Mexico

Shortly after entering the burned area, the trail begins a descent into Sheridan Gulch Canyon

Fanney Rhyolite in Gila Wilderness

Looking north from trail at a large outcrop of Fanney Rhyolite on the edge of the burned area

hiking in Gila National Forest

View of hillside above trail during descent into Sheridan Gulch; note charred Pinon tree and extensive new growth of ground cover of Desert Scrub Oak and grass


hiking in southwest New Mexico

Approaching the bottom of the canyon there is more moisture in the soil, as evidenced by the greater diversity and size of the resurgent deciduous and coniferous tree growth, such as this clump of 10-foot high Arizona Walnut

At about 0.85 miles into the hike, the character of trail abruptly changes as we entered a zone of burned forest resulting from the Whitewater Baldy Complex Forest Fire of 2012, and began a gradual descent into Sheridan Gulch Canyon. Here, and for the next 0.6 miles, the trail offered an interesting opportunity to observe the forest in its third year of regeneration from that immense fire that raged through the western portion of the Gila Wilderness between May 9 and July 31, 2012, burning over 297,000 acres to become the largest forest fire in New Mexico’s history. Broad vistas to the south across Sheridan Gulch Canyon showed clearly how the fire progressed from south to north across this rugged landscape, leaving behind charred runs of blacked snags with intervening areas of untouched forest. As the trail descended further into the canyon one noticed an accompanying gradual change in vegetation from the drier, grassy south-facing slopes of high desert Piñon-Juniper forest into a cooler, wetter and more complex riparian forest of Ponderosa Pine (Pinus scopulorum), Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and other Conifers, Arizona Sycamore (Platanus wrightii), Arizona Walnut (Juglans major), Emory Oak (Quercus emoryi), and Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii).

hiking in southwest New Mexico

From andesitic lava flows to deep-seated rhyolitic intrusives, welded ash flow tuffs to rocks of unknown genesis, a diversity of volcanic boulders of all colors, composition and texture delight the eye as they are make their slow journey downstream from the high peaks of the Mogollon Mountains

Hiking in Gila Wilderness New Mexico

Along the bottom of Sheridan Gulch Canyon the rebirth of the Gila Wilderness springs forth in tumultuous splendor and diversity as conifers and deciduous trees compete for their place in the sun

Hiking near Silver City New Mexico

A series of small pools and waterfalls step down Sheridan Gulch Creek between a variety of colorful volcanic boulders


Golden Columbine

As if to mimic the shooting stars of the hiking astronomer’s night-time sky, a patch of Golden Columbine in full bloom lights up a dull afternoon’s lunch along the creek in the depths of Sheridan Gulch Canyon

At about 1.2 miles into the hike, the trail intersects the canyon bottom. Here, a small stream gurgled, beckoning us to stop and refresh among a colorful diversity of volcanic boulders in transit downstream from the high country peaks looming high above us. Bordering the stream, a lush, three-year-old bright green resurgent forest of many species and a scattering of incredible wildflowers including the bizarre blossoms of the Golden Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) now surrounded us, rising up in exuberant color and contrast among the somber, ghostly, gray and blackened still-standing snags of the former pristine forest now spiking into the sky high overhead. Ensconced in this surreal setting, large boulders of choice were quickly converted into stoney tables and chairs as lunch was rapidly consumed by the famished, with some of the party chatting quietly, others silently immersed in the palpable energy of a Wilderness in the process of rebirth.

With lunch under our belts, we pressed on. Still passing through the burned area, the trail crossed back and forth across the narrow floodplain over the next quarter of a mile as cliffs of diverse volcanic bedrock bordering the sides of the canyon pressed in closer to the trail. Here and there boulders and charred forest debris choked erosional chasms, produced by catastrophic storm runoff on the fire-denuded steep sides of the canyon, sliced down to the trail from above.

Holt Apache Trail New Mexico

Here, Sheridan Gulch Creek is choked with massive deposits of recently-eroded gravel and sand washed down from the surrounding fire-denuded slopes

Whitewater Baldy Forest Fire

In the first two years following the Whitewater Baldy Forest Fire, severe erosion of the denuded mountain slopes and canyon walls was widespread throughout the Gila Wilderness, as shown in this recently cut rock- and debris-choked arroyo now intersecting Sheridan Gulch Creek from the east side of Sheridan Gulch Canyon

Sheridan Corral Trail New Mexico

Upon reentering the unburned portion of the Sheridan Corral Trail, a towering old-growth Ponderosa Pine presents a magnificent welcome back into the Gila Wilderness primeval


Late in the afternoon, as the trail continued to beckon further into the unburned portions of Sheridan Gulch Canyon, this venerable Douglas Fir made an appropriate turn-around point for the day's hike

Late in the afternoon, as the trail continued to beckon further into the unburned portions of Sheridan Gulch Canyon, this venerable Douglas Fir made an appropriate turn-around point for the day’s hike

And then, at a point just 1.45 miles from the trailhead, and within a matter of just a few feet, the trail emerged from the burned area to pass immediately back into an unburned mixed conifer and deciduous forest. What a surprise and a delight it was to be back into the forest green! Ancient old-growth Ponderosa and Douglas Fir now bordered the trail, as if still standing guard after defending one of Nature’s fire-lines, beyond which the advancing inferno could not pass. Instantly, we were immersed in a whole new world of enduring life and color. Fascinated, we continued on, once more engulfed by the primeval beauty of the Gila Wilderness.

It was now getting late, and although the trail through the Wilderness green beckoned us strongly onward, at the 1.5 mile point into our hike, we reluctantly turned around. It was time to return …

Gila Wilderness New Mexico

A final panorama looking southwest down Sheridan Gulch Canyon. And as this hike began, so did it end, a rare day in May during which the Sun never made an appearance, but as an apparent reward for hiking astronomer guests, that evening the stars eventually come out in all their glory.


 

THE GEOLOGY OF THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL

map of Holt Quadrangle

The Sheridan Corral Trail is located in the southeast corner of the Holt Mountain Quadrangle. This entire area of the Gila Wilderness is composed of volcanic rocks deposited from the Super-volcano eruptions of the Mogollon Caldera, 34 million years ago, and the Bursum Caldera, 28 million years ago. The Holt Mountain area has been the subject of considerable geologic investigation, most notably as reported in the 2006 New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources Open-file Digital Geologic Map and Report, OF-GM 120: A Preliminary Geologic Map of the Holt Mountain Quadrangle, Catron County, New Mexico, by Jim Ratte, Scott Lynch, and Bill McIntosh.

Ratte, et al. consider the Holt Mountain Quadrangle critical to the understanding and interpretation of the volcanic history of the Mogollon Mountains complex, and in the above-cited reference give an excellent summary of the interpreted geologic history of the Gila Wilderness. A pdf file is available on-line, and is highly recommended for those who would like a better understanding of how the Gila Wilderness came into being.

The map shown here (click on map for larger image) is a portion of Ratte et al’s Geologic map of the Holt Mountain Quadrangle with an overlay of the Sheridan Corral Trail. As shown, there are several distinct formations that have been identified and mapped in this portion of the quadrangle, that are well exposed along the portions of the Sheridan Corral as described in this blog. The various formations shown in Figure 1 are identified on the map by colors and symbols that are explained in detail in Ratte et al’s Geologic map of the Holt Mountain Quadrangle, which is available online in pdf format on the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources web site. However, a brief description of the formations and rock types found along or very close to the section of the Sheridan Corral Trail as described in this blog are given below, starting at the Trailhead and progressing to a point 2.0 miles up the trail.
 

A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF FORMATIONS AND ROCK TYPES FOUND ALONG THE FIRST TWO MILES OF THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL

Miles
0.0     Sheridan Corral Trailhead:

Qtg is the symbol for undivided deposits of the Gila Group which range from Miocene to Pleistocene in age. These are sedimentary rocks and loosely consolidated sediments composed of volcanic material carried by streams and rivers as gravel deposits from the ancestral Mogollon Mountains. Throughout the Gila Wilderness area, including the cliffs at Casitas de Gila, these rocks are informally referred to as the Gila Conglomerate.

0.25     Fault:

At this point the trail crosses a major normal fault that runs northwest along the face of the Mogollon Mountain uplift. Along this fault the Gila Conglomerate has been dropped down relative to the volcanic mountains, which have been lifted up. Although the fault zone itself is covered by loose sediment, its position would be very close to where the first exposure of bedrock is found on the trail after leaving the Trailhead.

0.25-1.20     Formations shown on Figure 1 — Twr (violet color), Tfr (pink), Trd (red) and Ta (green):

Twr is the symbol for the Wilcox Peak Rhyolite Formation of Eocene age, which is a fine-grained intrusive igneous rock of rhyolitic composition that is commonly found chemically altered as soft deposits rich in clay minerals such as dickite and other secondary minerals such as alunite. Analyses of alunite crystals have given an age for the Wilcox Peak Rhyolite of 33 million years, indicating that this formation was deposited during an eruption of the Mogollon Caldera.

Tfr is the symbol for the Fanney Rhyolite Formation of Oligocene age. The Fanney Rhyolite consists of light gray to reddish gray extrusive lava flows and intrusive domes around the ring-fracture zone of the Bursum Caldera which erupted about 28 million years ago.

Trd is the symbol for the Fanney Rhyolite Dikes which are vertical intrusive veins of various thickness that radiate off from intrusive domes of the Fanney Rhyolite.

Ta is the symbol for Andesite Lava Flows and inter-layered volcaniclastic sandstone beds of uncertain age relationships. They could be either Eocene or Oligocene in age, and possibly were erupted from the Mogollon Caldera.

1.20-2.00     Formations shown on Figure 1 — Tcs? (purple), Ql cream), and Qc (yellow):

Tcs Is the symbol for the South Fork Member of the Cooney Tuff Formation a deposit of Uppermost Eocene or Lowermost Oligocene age which was ejected from the Mogollon Caldera. The South Fork Member at its type locality near the mouth of Whitewater Canyon (The Catwalk canyon) consists of deposits of partially to densely welded ash flow tuffs. The question mark behind the symbol as it is mapped along the Sheridan Corral Trail means that these deposits are tentatively correlated with the South Fork Member deposits of Whitewater Canyon.

Ql is the symbol for Landslide Deposits of Pleistocene and possibly Holocene age that form extensive areas of slumped and rotated bedrock that came loose and slid down along the west-facing slopes of the Mogollon Range.

Qc is the symbol for Colluvium of Holocene age consisting of coarse talus and unsorted gravel deposits that mantle bedrock on steep slopes and some valleys of the Mogollon Range.

 

SOME FURTHER NOTES, SUGGESTIONS, AND CAUTIONS REGARDING THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL

This blog discusses conditions experienced on May 15, 2015, of only the first 1.5 miles of the Sheridan Corral Trail. Visual observation of aerial photography of the trail on Google Earth taken 2/22/13, indicates the next 2.5 miles of the trail to be relatively untouched by the 2012 fire, and therefore, should be suitable for an extended day hike. Recent discussions with Gila National Forest personnel at the Glenwood Ranger Station, based on their field examination of the trail following the fire, confirm this observation to be correct, and suggest that the trail should be in fair condition and easily followed, but that further on could become difficult to traverse and follow.

A cautionary suggestion is offered regarding current hiking on any of the Gila National Forest or Gila Wilderness trails that were previously heavily forested and subsequently burned during the Whitewater Baldy fire of 2012. Many of these trails, such as the burned portion of the Sheridan Corral Trail discussed in this blog between the .85 and 1.45 mile points, pass through and beneath large portions of dead standing timber. Now, three years after the fire, many of these dead standing trees have rotted at their core and are extremely susceptible to falling at any time, but especially during strong winds or running water during storms or flash floods. Although this blog discusses enjoying lunch in such a burned area, it is definitely not recommended! On that particular day the wind was calm, but had we known that the unburned portion of the trail would begin such a short distance ahead we would have continued further on before acquiescing to our growling stomachs! Keep safe!
 

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A Profusion of April Flowers in Southwest New Mexico

FOLLOWING AN EXCEPTIONALLY MOIST LATE WINTER AND MARCH,
AN AMAZING EXTRAVAGANCE OF RARELY-SEEN WILD FLOWERS EMERGES
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

wild flowers in April

Nature’s April Flower Garden: Scarlet Globemallow and Desert Dandelion nestled in a field of Five-petaled Blue Mystery Flowers


 

THE EXCEPTIONAL 2015 BLOOMING OF SPRING FLOWERS CONTINUES

The March 2015 Blog focused on the exceptional blooming of the first early Spring flowers to be seen at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses in many years. As discussed in that blog, this uncommon flowering occurred as a result of the 3.99 inches of rain received here between January 1 and the middle of March of this year. While all of the flowers presented in that blog were flowers that had been seen here at the Casitas before, most of them had not been seen this early in the year or in such great abundance. Throughout March, as the days lengthened and the temperatures gradually increased, the profusion of plants steadily increased also, flourishing on the ample moisture retained in the soil from the Winter months. By the end of March, the drab gray and brown Winter landscape of Bear Creek Canyon and the adjoining uplands was rapidly transitioning into the lime greens of Early Spring.

view of Turtle Rock Southwest New Mexico

Looking north on Bear Creek in front of Casitas de Gila on March 31, 2015

Since no rain had been received at the Casitas after the third week of March, it seemed likely that the flowering would soon come to an end as April is traditionally a dry month in Southwest New Mexico. However, this was not the case! The flowering continued, steadily at first, and reaching a crescendo by the third week in April. During these three weeks it seemed that almost every day a bright, new face was discovered flowering in exuberant glory along the trails, challenging one’s attention with a soft whispering of “betcha you don’t know who I am”!

And, for this botany-challenged geologist-cum-naturalist, more often than not they were right! Because, for many of them, one could not remember ever seeing them before, let alone knowing their name. And after 17 years of traipsing the trails over these Casita lands, it was more than a little disconcerting to feel like a stranger in a foreign land.
 

BOTANICAL NOMENCLATURE – A TAXING EXPERIENCE

For the dilettante, botanical taxonomy can be a rather taxing experience … and so it was for the identification of all of these new flowers. Consulting the several books and general field guides on hand regarding common wild flowers of the Southwest (guides that had proved so helpful in the past) proved to be essentially futile, and did nothing more than confirm that, yes, these new flowers were, evidently, not so common! Fortunately, however, and as referenced in previous writings on this blog, there is an excellent guide available to help aspiring botanists who are interested in the plants of Southwest New Mexico. This guide is the comprehensive on-line guide: Vascular Plants of the Gila Wilderness by Dr. Russ Kleinman, Associate Botanist, Zimmerman Herbarium at Western New Mexico University, Department of Natural Sciences. This invaluable guide provides access by means of photos and descriptions to over 1,100 of the approximately 1,500 species of vascular plants found in the Gila Wilderness and vicinity. The guide consists of an extensive website that includes a presentation and listing of these 1,100+ species of plants by major plant categories, scientific names, common names, and a printable checklist, as well as links to other useful guides, collections, and information.

So, after several days of clicking and comparing, one by one, the photos and descriptions of the 1,100+ species covered in this guide with the personal photos and observed characteristics made of the April flowers proliferating at the Casitas, most, but not all, were successfully identified. Probably most of the remaining unidentified flowers are in the guide. The problem was that as the study progressed, new plants kept coming into flower after the initial search of the data base had been completed! So the research continues …

In the following section of identified plants, all references regarding the use of these plants by Native Americans is derived from citations given in the University of Michigan-Dearborn Native American Ethnobotany Database, another invaluable reference to the natural and cultural history of the American Southwest.
 

A PHOTO COLLECTION OF IDENTIFIED FLOWERS OBSERVED BLOOMING
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES IN APRIL 2015

 

ABERT’S WILD BUCKWHEAT (Eriogonum abertianum)

Abert's Wild Buckwheat

Close-up of flower inflorescence of Abert’s Wild Buckwheat

Abert's Wild Buckwheat

Growth form of Abert’s Wild Buckwheat

This tiny little herb is found growing close to the ground along the upland trails and on the flats around the Casitas, especially near the hot tub. A decoction of the the plant was used by the Native Americans to treat skin cuts on humans and horses.
 

APACHE PLUME (Fallugia paradoxa)

Apache Plume

Close-up of Apache Plume flower

This small perennial shrub is found within the dry washes and adjacent to the Bear Creek floodplain. It was use by Native Americans for a variety of uses including:

• Used in witchcraft to cause insanity
• Used as a cold infusion of leaves as an emetic in ceremonies
• Used as infusion of leaves as shampoo to promote growth of hair
• Brush used in making rough brooms
• Used in basket making
• Used as ladderback rungs in the making of cradleboards
• Straight stems and branches used to make arrow shafts


 

ARIZONA SCORPIONWEED (Phacelia arizonica)

Arizona Scorpion Weed

Close-up of flower of Arizona Scorpion Weed

Arizona Scorpion Weed

Growth form of Arizona Scorpion Weed

This strange looking, little, ground-hugging perennial herb is found growing on the flats behind and around the Casitas.
 

BLACKFOOT OR PLAINS BLACKFOOT-DAISY (Melampodium leucanthum)

Blackfoot Daisy

Close-up of Blackfoot Daisy flowers

Blackfoot Daisy

Growth form of Blackfoot Daisy

This attractive little perennial herb grows in clumps on the sandy flats and the rocky slopes of Bear Creek Canyon.
 

BLUE SCORPIONWEED (Phacelia coerulea)

Blue Scorpion Weed

Close-up of Blue Scorpion Weed

Blue Scorpion Weed

Growth form of Blue Scorpion Weed

This attractive annual herb is found growing all over the Casita uplands.
 

CORKWING-WAFER-PARSNIP (Cymopterus multinervatus)

Corkwing Wafer-Parsnip

Close-up of flower of Corkwing Wafer-Parsnip

Corkwing Wafer-Parsnip

Growth form of Corkwing Wafer-Parsnip

This rather odd-looking small perennial herb is found growing sparsely around the sandy flat around the Casitas. It is reported that the roots of this plant were eaten in the Spring by some Native Americans.
 
 

DESERT DANDELION or FENDLER’S DESERT DANDELION (Malacothrix fendleri)

Desert Dandelion

Close-up of Desert Dandelion flower

Desert Dandelion

Growth form of Desert Dandelion

This annual herb is the desert equivalent of the ubiquitous lawn dandelion. It is found on the sandy flats around the Casitas.
 

DESERT MARIGOLD (Baileya multiradiata)

Desert Marigold

Close-up of Desert Marigold flower

Desert Marigold

Growth form of Desert Marigold

This beautiful annual, biennial and perennial herb is found all over the Casita lands. Normally it does not appear here until later in the Summer. It was reportedly used by Native Americans as an underarm deodorant, as well a binder for making adobe bricks and wall plaster. It was also used as poultice of leaves on sores and as a cold infusion for an eyewash for sore eyes.
 

FENDLER PENSTEMON or FENDLER’S BEARDTONGUE (Penstemon fendleri)

Fendler Penstemon

Close-up of Fendler Penstemon flower

Fendler Penstemon

Growth form of Fendler Penstemon

This splendent perennial herb is found sparsely over all the Casita uplands following a wet Winter. It was used by Native Americans in making a poultice for arrow and gunshot wounds.
 

SOUTHWESTERN INDIAN PAINTBRUSH or FOOTHILLS PAINTBRUSH (Castilleja integra)

Indian Paintbrush

Growth form and flower of Southwestern Indian Paintbrush

This brilliant flowering perennial herb is typically found slightly hidden in the shade under a Juniper tree on a north facing slope at the Casitas.
 

GORDON’S BLADDERPOD (Physaria gordonii)

Gordon's Bladderpod

Growth form and flower of Gordon’s Bladderpod

This annual herb is characterized by its bright yellow flowers and globose fruits. It is widespread over the Casita lands, especially along the entrance road.
 

GRAY FIVE EYES (Chamaesaracha coniodes)

Gray Five Eyes

Close-up of flower of Gray Five Eyes

Gray Five Eyes

Growth form of Gray Five Eyes

This perennial herb with many branches often appears to be a clump of plants rather than a single one. It occurs sparsely scattered over the Casita lands both on the flats and along the dry wash canyons.
 

FENDLER HEDGEHOG CACTUS (Echinocereus fendleri)

Hedgehog Cactus

GFrowth form and flower of Fendler Hedgehog Cactus

Typically partially hidden and unnoticed under a mesquite, this lovely perennial cactus suddenly becomes the center of attention around the Casitas when the huge magenta flowers unfurl in the Spring.
 

INDIGOBUSH or FEATHER PLUME (Dalea formosa)

Feather Plume

Close-up of Feather Plume flower

Feather Plume

Growth form of Feather Plume

This plant is a small, woody, perennial shrub that is covered with a profusion of purple and yellow flowers in the Spring. At the Casitas it is found generally on north-facing slopes of dry washes. Native Americans used an infusion of the leaves as an emetic and a decoction of leaves were taken as a cathartic. Runners used an infusion of the leaves to increase endurance and increased lung function.
 

SCARLET GLOBE MALLOW (Sphaeralcea coccinea)

Scarlet Globemallow

Close-up of Scarlet Globemallow flower

Scarlet Globemallow

Growth form of Scarlet Globemallow

This common bright little perennial herb has grown in exceptional profusion this Spring over all of the Casita lands. It was extensively used by Native Americans in a variety of ways:

• Ceremonial medicine drug and fumigant
• Poultice of roots applied to sores
• Chewed plant used on sores and wounds
• Dried plant used as a dusting powder for sores
• Used to make a lotion for skin diseases
• Used as a medicine to give strength for singing
• Used to make a beverage
• Used as a tonic to improve appetite
• Infusion of plant used for swellings and to stop bleeding
• Infusion of plant taken for diseases caused by witchcraft
• Roots chewed during food shortages


 

SHORT-STEMMED LUPINE (Lupinus brevicaulis)

Short-stemmed Lupine

Close-up of Short-stemmed Lupine

Short-stemmed Lupine

Growth form of Short-stemmed Lupine

This distinctive little annual herb is found amongst the rocky flats and hillsides at the Casitas. It was used by Native Americans as a liniment for boils and as a treatment for sterility.
 

SILVERY MORNING GLORY or SILKY EVOLVULUS (Evolvulus sericeus)

Silvery Morning Glory

Growth form and flower of Silvery Morning Glory

This eye catching little perennial herb is found amongst the rocky canyon sides of Bear Creek at the Casitas.
 

SPREADING FLEABANE or FLEABANE DAISY (Erigeron divergens)

Spreading Fleabane

Close-up of Spreading Fleabane Flower

Spreading Fleabane

Growth form of Spreading Fleabane

This common biennial herb is found growing in profusion everywhere on the Casita lands. This plant was another important plant in the Native American pharmacopoeia, where it was used in a variety of ways:

• Infusion of plant taken as an aid in childbirth
• Used as a snuff for headaches
• Cold infusion of plant taken and used as a lotion for “lightning infection”
• Cold, compound infusion used as an eyewash
• Compound used for snake bites
• Root used as a “life medicine”
• Used ceremonially in a variety of ways
• Considered an omen of good fortune and kept in the home


 

WHITE STEM EVENING PRIMROSE (Oenothera albicaulis)

White Stem Evening Primrose

Close-up of White Stem Evening Primrose flower

White Stem Evening Primrose

Growth form of White Stem Evening Primrose

In years of ample Spring rain, as occurred this year, this striking annual herb can form an extensive, almost solid ground cover of large white flowers in the Gila Valley. Here at the Casitas their blooming was less extensive, more like a light sprinkling of giant white snowflakes everywhere you looked glistening in the morning Sun. Native Americans made extensive medicinal use as well as other applications of this plant:

• Poultice used for swellings
• Dried flowers used as ceremonial medicine used to ward out a cold through prayer
• Decoction of root taken and used as lotion for sore and strained muscles, a life medicine
• Compound poultice used for throat trouble
• Fruits eaten as food
• Seeds ground and made into gravy
• Seeds boiled in soups
• Flowers worn by unmarried maidens in hair on holidays
• Chewed blossoms rubbed on the bodies of young girls so they would dance well and insure rain!
• Dried plant used for tobacco


 

TEXAS TOADFLAX (Nuttallanthus texanus)

Texas Toad Flax

Close-up of Texas Toad Flax flower

Texas Toad Flax

Growth form of Texas Toad Flax

This tall, delicate, thin-stemmed annual and biennial herb could be easily missed were it not for the striking racemes of lavender colored flowers which form at the top of the tall stems.
 

TIDYTIPS (Layia glandulosa)

Tidytips

Growth form and flower of Tidytips

This small annual herb is indeed a tidy little plant, and is found on the rocky slopes of Bear Creek Canyon at the Casitas. Native Americans collected the seeds from this plant which they ground into flour to make porridge.
 

TRAILING WINDMILLS (Allionia incarnata)

Trailing Windmill flower

Close-up of Trailing Windmill “flower”, which is actually a composite of 3 separate flowers that bloom simultaneously!

Trailing Windmills

Growth form of Trailing Windmills

This ground-hugging annual and perennial herb is easily identified by its pink windmill-shaped flowers which form on long stems. It is found all over the Casita lands. It, like many other plants in this blog, was used by Native Americans to make a cold infusion for treating swellings.
 

WHITESTEM STICKLEAF or WHITESTEM BLAZINGSTAR (Mentzelia albicaulis)

White Stem Stickleaf flower

Close-up of White Stem Stickleaf flower

White Stem Stickleaf

Growth form of White Stem Stickleaf

This prolific little annual herb is found all over the flats and hillsides around the Casitas. This is another of the plants which served as a general store for the Native Americans, providing food and medicine in a variety of ways:

• Ground seeds used as dressing for burns
• Compound containing leaves used for snakebite
• Parched seeds ground into flour and made into porridge, soups or snacks
• Parched seeds ground and made into seed butter and eaten on bread or with drinks
• Fried seeds and water used for gravy
• Seeds dried and stored for future use
• Dried plant used as tobacco


 

A PARTING LOOK AT AN INCREDIBLY BEAUTIFUL PLANT

A few days after completing the research on the plants identified and described above, an incredibly beautiful flower was observed along the entrance road coming into the Casitas. Once again the standard guidebooks on hand didn’t contain this plant, and time constraints for finishing this blog for April did not permit one to once again wade through the extensive Vascular Plants of the Gila Wilderness database. The two photos below show both the growth form and a closeup of flower. So, dear reader, if you know this plant, your input would be greatly appreciated!

Mystery Flower

Close-up of the Most Beautiful Mystery Flower

Mystery Flower

Growth form of the Most Beautiful Mystery Flower


 

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Early Flowers in Southwest New Mexico

WITH THE ARRIVAL OF MARCH
AN ABUNDANCE OF EARLY SPRING FLOWERING PLANTS
SIGNALS THE CYCLICAL CHANGE OF SEASONS
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

sand dock

A lush growth of flowering Sand Dock carpets the sandy riverine terrace bordering the floodplain of Bear Creek Canyon
at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses


THE FIRST WET SPRING IN SEVERAL YEARS BRINGS ON THE FLOWERS

The landscape surrounding Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is classified as High Chihuahuan Desert (4,200 to 6,500 feet), an ecologic zone in which Juniper and Pinon conifers are the dominant trees. Temperature and precipitation are highly variable in the High Chihuahuan Desert, typically ranging between –5° and 105° Fahrenheit with between 6 and 30 inches of precipitation annually.

As discussed in the January 2015 Blog, both temperature and precipitation during the winter months in the Southwest are strongly influenced by the cyclical pattern of the warm versus cool phases of equatorial surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, known as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), where the warm phase, El Niño, results in warmer temperatures and more precipitation, and the cool phase, La Niña, results in cooler temperatures and less precipitation. Since 1950, the U.S. National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center monitors have been monitoring these oscillations between El Niño and La Niña events on a monthly basis to produce the Oceanic Niño Index (ONI). Examination of this Index prior to 2015 reveals that for the previous four Winter and Spring seasons, the El Niño Southern Oscillation has been either in a La Niña or the transitional Neutral (La Nada) phase, resulting in cold and dry conditions throughout the Southwest. Consequently, during these years there has been a general paucity of Spring flowers here at the Casitas. Then, beginning in November and December of 2014, and continuing through March 2015, the Index passed into a weak El Niño situation with accompanying warmer temperatures and a significant increase in precipitation, producing a total of 3.99 inches of rain since January 1. As a result, for the first time in several years there is an abundance of early Spring Flowers at the Casitas!
 

TO BLOOM OR NOT TO BLOOM: FOR SPRING FLOWERS
OF THE GILA HIGH-DESERT COUNTRY, WINTER MOISTURE IS THE KEY

For many perennial native plants of the Gila High-Desert Country there is a critical threshold of moisture received over the Winter months that determines whether or not a particular species will put out flowers in the Spring. If that threshold is not reached, some of these plants will not appear until later in the year, such as during the Summer Monsoon season, when the right amount of moisture is received and they start growing, putting out leaves, and if time before first frost permits, perhaps flower. Also, for some annual species, if a certain Winter moisture threshold is not attained, the seeds of the plant will not even germinate, let alone bloom. Instead, the seeds will remain dormant, waiting for the day, month, year, or in some cases even several years until that critical moisture threshold is reached.

Temperature is much less a factor in determining plant germination, growth, and flowering in the high desert, since 30° to 50° daily temperature swings are common throughout the year. As a result, all plants are well adapted to a wide range of and sudden change in temperature.
 

SOME OF THE EARLIEST SPRING FLOWERS TO APPEAR AND BLOOM AT THE CASITAS
 

CANAIGRE OR SAND DOCK (Rumex hymenosepalus)

sand dock

Close-up of Sand Dock flower inflorescence

Sand Dock

Sand Dock in bloom

The earliest plant to appear in the Spring at Casitas de Gila is the perennial commonly known as Canaigre or Sand Dock, which is found throughout most of the Western States. Canaigre is found at the Casitas on the sandy first and second creek terraces immediately adjacent to the Bear Creek floodplain. Regardless of the amount of moisture received over the winter, this plant will always put up at least a few thick, long, elliptical-shaped leaves with tall, reddish colored stems, even during the dry La Niña Winters in late February or early March, and even when the nighttime temperatures are still below freezing. If sufficient rain is received over the Winter, the plant will flower in the form of a tightly packed panicle-type inflorescence of tiny, reddish flowers on a tall red stem.

USES

(Note: Most of the uses mentioned in this blog have been derived from the University of Michigan Native American Ethnobotany Data Base, an exceptional collection of numerous ethnobotanical reports and studies dating from the late 1800s to modern times that documents plants used by Native Americans.)

Canaigre has been used by many different cultures in many different ways for thousands of years, including: a good source of tannin for leather tanning (roots); a brown, yellow, or green dye for textiles (roots); medicinal purposes (roots, leaves and stems); and as an edible vegetable (roots, leaves and stems). The plant was used extensively by Native Americans in a variety of ways including:

Medicine
• Dermatological aid: stems and leaves used as a wash for sores, ant bites, and infected cuts; dried powdered root used on sores
• Burns: dried, powdered root
• Cold remedy: root chewed
• Sore throat or cough: infusion of roots used as a gargle; powdered or whole piece of root held in mouth
• Sore gums: root held in mouth
• Stimulating flow of milk: Cold infusion of root
• Diarrhea: Root

Ceremonial medicine
• Pollen sprinkled on ceremonial items

Food
• Juicy stalks eaten as greens
• Stems boiled to make a drink before flowers bloom
• Seeds parched with hot coals, pounded and cooked to make thick gravy; mush or dough made into flat cakes and baked
• Stems boiled with sugar or roasted to be eaten hot or cold
• Leaves roasted in ashes or boiled and served with butter, or chopped and fried with mutton grease
• Stems baked and eaten
• Roots used as chewing gum
• Stems boiled, strained, flour and sugar added, and used as filling for baked pies

Dye for textiles and basket making
• Roots boiled or dried and ground to make dyes – brown, orange, green, red, and yellow, and gold

Tanning Hides
• Roots boiled for tanning hides

 

GOLDEN SMOKE (Corydalis aurea)

golden smoke flower

Close-up of Golden Smoke flower

golden smoke flower

Golden Smoke in bloom

Golden Smoke is a beautiful early-Spring annual plant having highly dissected leaves with round-lobed segments and bright yellow flowers that occur singly, in pairs, or in loose racemes, with as many as 30 separate flowers on a short stem. At the Casitas this plant can be found just about anywhere, whether growing on the hillsides behind the buildings, the rocky sides of Bear Creek Canyon, or across the flats above the Canyon.

USES

Golden Smoke has been used by Native Americans and modern cultures for medicinal purposes for both humans and livestock, including:

• Diarrhea
• Sores on hands
• Infections during childbirth
• Bronchitis
• Sore throat
• Stomach aches
• Rheumatism
• Heart disease
• Snakebite in livestock

 

BLOODWEED (Plagiobothrys arizonicus)

Bloodweed

Close-up of Bloodweed flower

bloodweed

Bloodweed in bloom

Bloodweed is a small annual herb having tiny 3mm white flowers and slender, elongated leaves with hairs that emerge along the margins. The leaves are red veined on the bottom side and exude a strong, persistent reddish-purple dye when crushed. Our horses will eat quantities of this little herb in the Spring, after which they look like they have put on lipstick! In times past, Native Americans used this plant to paint their body and face. Bloodweed can be very prolific in years when there is sufficient moisture. It is quite common on the flats around the Casitas.
 

RED-STEMMED FILAREE (Erodium cicutarium)

Red-stemmed Filaree

Close-up of Red-stemmed Filaree flowers

Red-stemmed Filaree

Red-stemmed Filaree in bloom

Red-stemmed Filaree is a small, ground hugging, herbaceous annual, a member of the Geranium family that is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe. It was introduced to the United States in California during the 1700s by the Spanish. Since then it has spread throughout the West. It is commonly found growing along with Bloodweed at the Casitas. Leaves are compound pinnate and are coated with small hairs. The small flowers are pink with five petals and a dark red center.
 

BLUE DICKS OR WILD HYACINTH (Dichelostemma capitatum)

Blue Docks or Wild Hyacinth

Close-up of Blue Dicks or Wild Hyacinth flowers

Blue Dicks or Wild Hyacinth

Blue Dicks or Wild Hyacinth in bloom

Blue Dicks is a herbaceous perennial that grows from an underground bulb-like swelling on the stem known as a corm. Corms function as storage organs for water and nutrients to allow a plant to survive during adverse climatic conditions in the Winter, or, as is the case of the Blue Dicks, Summer droughts and heat. This flower is quite conspicuous against the dead, dry brown grass of the previous summer, perched at the top of a thin, delicate, vertical stem that rises up to a foot or more in height from the ground where several thin elongated linear leaves form the basal foliage of the plant. The plant reproduces by seeds and by small cormlets, which are small reproductive growths that are attached to the parent corm by stolens at old leaf bases. Following a wet Winter, Blue Dicks are found in abundance over the hills and flats surrounding the Casitas.

USES

Blue Dicks were a major Spring food source for Native Americans throughout the West, particularly in the Spring before other plant foods were available. Flowers were eaten raw. The corms were eaten raw, steamed, boiled, baked, roasted, or dried for future use by grinding into flour. In some tribes, they were prepared as baby food or as snack food for children. It is reported that Native Americans practiced sustainability for this food source by breaking off the cromlets from the harvested corm and replanting them, as well as harvesting the corms after the plants went to seed and replanting the seeds in the hole where the corm was removed.

 

RATTLESNAKE WEED (Chamaesyce albomarginata)

Rattlesnakeweed

Close-up of Rattlesnakeweed Flowers

Rattlesnakeweed

Rattlesnakeweed in bloom

Rattlesnake Weed is an inconspicuous, very small, annual herb that grows in a flattened form over the ground. It has small, round, dusty looking, dark green leaves with a very thin lighter green border. The small flowers have burgundy centers with white ringed margins that form a cup shape. It is found in abundance over the flats, hills, and trails at the Casitas.

USES

This little plant is another of the many medicinal plants treasured by Native Americans and was used for quite a variety of ailments, including:

• A poultice of ground leaves and flowers, or a decoction of leaves, for snake bites, for use on both humans and livestock
• Crushed whole plant rubbed on sore eyes
• Decoction of plant used on sores
• Cold infusion for treating stomachache
• Poultice used as a hemostatic agent
• Leaves and roots eaten to promote lactation
• Decoction of plant used as a tonic for general debility

 

STEMLESS EVENING PRIMROSE (Oenothera caespitosa)

Stemless Evening Primrose

Close-up of Stemless Evening Primrose flowers; note old blossom (pink)

Stemless Evening Primrose

Stemless Evening Primrose in bloom

Stemless Evening Primrose is a very common and photogenic perennial that has elongate grayish-green leaves with crenated margins. The flower consists of four heart-shaped white petals that turn pink with age. The Stemless Evening Primrose seems to have a definite Winter moisture received threshold that must be attained if the plant is to bloom in the Early Spring. If that threshold is not attained, it will not bloom that spring, although it might flower with the coming of the Monsoon Rains in the Summer. With the abundant rain received over the Winter this year, it was one of the first flowers to appear.

USES

Like many of the Early Spring flowers, the Stemless Evening Primrose has been an important medicinal plant of the Native American pharmacopoeia, including:

• Wet poultice of crushed roots for used on sores and swelling
• Poultice of dried ground leaves used on sores for rapid healing
• Dried plant used as dusting powder for chafing
• Poultice of ground plant for prolapses of internal organs
• Medicine for sore eyes
• Medicine for toothache

 

BANANA YUCCA (Yucca baccata)

Banana Yucca

Close-up of emerging Banana Yucca flower stalk, buds, and flowers

Banana Yucca

Clump of several Banana Yucca in bloom

The Banana Yucca is easily distinguished from the Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) by its absence of a stem and low profile, where both leaves and flower stalks are found growing near the ground. Also, the bluish-green leaves are considerably wider, thicker, and have twisted fibers on the margins. The Banana Yucca requires much more Winter precipitation than the Soaptree Yucca if it is to flower in the Early Spring. The white to cream-colored flowers are considerably larger than those of the Soaptree Yucca and occur in dense, compact clusters on short two- to three-foot stalks, unlike the more spatially separated flowers found on the eight- to twelve-foot stalks of the Soaptree Yucca. After flowering, large, cylindrical, fleshy, green-colored fruits appear, that are 3 to 7 inches long and 2-1/2 inches thick. These fruits, sweet when ripe, are a much-sought-after delicacy by animals (especially deer) and insects, as well as by Native Americans in times past. As such, it is rare that they survive long enough to ripen on the plant! The range of the Banana Yucca is widespread, being found at all elevations from 4,000 in the lowland deserts to 7,000+ feet in the mountains. Here at Casitas de Gila there is large, tight cluster of 12 plants right next to Gallery. This March all 12 of the plants have put up stalks of flowers. It will be interesting to watch what happens when the fruits appear!

USES

In doing the research on usage for the various plants considered in this blog, it quickly became obvious that for the Native Americans of the Southwest, the Banana Yucca was the General Store or Wal-mart of its day. The University of Michigan Ethnobotanical Data Base lists 222 separate citations from the literature regarding use of Yucca baccata by Native Americans. Examination of these citations show that such use was widespread amongst most, if not all, of the various indigenous tribes living where the plant was found. Major uses included the following:

Medicinal
• Dermatological aid for washing hair
• Infusion of pulverized leaves taken as an emetic to induce vomiting
• Fruits eaten raw as a laxative or purgative
• Treating heartburn
• Juice from root used to lubricate midwife’s hands

Food
• Dried fruits dissolved in water to make a beverage or a paste
• Fruit soaked, cooked, and made into a syrup
• Fruits eaten raw, baked, or boiled
• Fruits roasted or dried and rolled into loaves or cakes for winter use
• Fruits baked and pounded into a pulp and strained to make a beverage
• Leaves cooked and used in soup
• Flowers eaten as vegetable before Summer rains, after which they become bitter
• Fruits dried and used as trail staple when on warpath
• Fruits dried and ground to make a porridge
• Fruits used to make jelly and preserves
• Seeds of fruit dried and used for food

Utilitarian
• Leaf juice used as a medium for pigments of pottery paints and slips
• Leaf fibers used to make cordage, such as ropes, string, and twines
• Leaves used for making baskets
• Small roots used for making baskets
• Leaf fibers used to weave into mats
• Leaf fiber used to make fishing nets
• Leaves reduced to fiber and made into cloth
• Leaf fibers used to make small brushes for pottery decoration
• Leaf slivers used to make paint brushes and hair brushes
• Leaf fibers used to make snowshoes
• Leaves crushed and mixed with water to make soap
• Roots pounded and mixed with water to make soap
• Terminal spines on leaves used as needles

Ceremonial
• Suds of root used for ceremonial purification baths
• Infusion of root used as a wash in adoption and name-giving ceremonies
• Leaves used as whips during initiations
• Leaves used to make ceremonial drumstick

 

SILVERLINE LOCOWEED (Astragulus tephrodes)

Silverline Locoweed

Close-up of Silverline Locoweed in bloom

Silverline Locoweed

Silverline Locoweed in bloom

Silverline Locoweed is one of the earliest flowering plants to emerge in the Spring around the Casitas. It has compound leaves with a large number of small, folded, whitish-rimmed, elliptical-shaped leaflets. Its tubular purple and pink flowers are clustered tightly on long stems. Once the flowers bloom they are replaced by distinctive, large, bladder-like seed pods. While the plant is beautiful to look at, it is one of the 270 range plants of New Mexico that are know to be poisonous and toxic to livestock. The toxin in Silverline Locoweed is the alkaloid phytotoxin called swainsonine which causes a variety of neurological disorders in livestock, including cattle, sheep, and horses.There are three primary genera and several species of plants in the plant family Fabaceae which contain swainsonine, and in North America several of them are called locoweed or crazyweed. The main problem with locoweed is that the plant emerges well before range grasses and other forage plants in the Spring. Thus, hungry animals that are loose on the range are likely to eat it because it is the only thing available. In small amounts the plant is not that problematic. However, the plant tends to be somewhat intoxicating, and as a result some animals will become addicted to it, leading to severe neurological damage, and causing them to act unpredictably, erratically, or just plain crazy. Hence, the term locoweed.
 

DESERT BUCKTHORN OR DESERT BUCKBRUSH (Ceanothus pauciflorus; Syn. Ceanothus greggii)

Desert Buckthorn

Desert Buckthorn in bloom

The Desert Buckthorn is a small shrub generally consisting of a dense thicket of several small trunks, branches, and numerous twigs, bearing small, elliptical-shaped, and leathery leaves. With sufficient Winter moisture, as was the case this year, Desert Buckthorn blooms in early Spring, producing thick, dense clusters of tiny, white flowers with five triangular-shaped petals that emit a rather overpowering fragrance that permeates the air of the surrounding area. For many people the smell is considered nauseating (although, over the last 17 years one does seem to get used to it!).

Around the Casitas, Desert Buckthorn is found along the dry washes and on north-facing hillsides which retain moisture longer, where it is browsed by Mule Deer, and when flowering, provides a popular nectar gathering spot for bees and butterflies. It is also abundant on higher elevations above the cliffs of Gila Conglomerate across from the Casitas on the east side of Bear Creek, where it is heavily browsed by the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep that visit the cliffs periodically.
 

Desert Buckthorn and Juniper Hairstreak Butterfly

Close-up of Desert Buckthorn flowers hosting Juniper Hairstreak butterfly (Callophrys gryneus)

EARLY SPRING 2015: A GREAT YEAR FOR WILDFLOWERS

All of the photographs used in this blog were taken during March 2015. Indeed, it has been a great year for early Spring wildflowers … the best in several years. The plants and flowers discussed in this blog were the earliest bloomers and represent only about half of the species that were observed during the month. As the month progressed, just about every morning while hiking the various Casita trails it seemed that a new species would pop its head up, radiating a flowery “Hello, look at me”! And, what a joy it was to observe, photograph, and then identify and perhaps discover the ancient uses and connections that the Native Americans had with each of these plants. Oh, that we could know today all the Ancient Ones knew so long ago!
 

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The Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail

A HIGH-DESERT NATURE HIKE TO A MOUNTAINTOP VISTA
OVERLOOKING THE GILA WILDERNESS IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES

view of trail

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.

hiking in southwest new mexico

View of trail up Paradise Overlook Mountain from Casitas de Gila


geology in southwest new mexico

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:

  1. 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.
     
  2. 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.
     
  3. 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

hiking at casitas de gila

Start of the Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail immediately after leaving the Bear Creek floodplain

hiking in silver city new mexico

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

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.

andesite flow rock

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.

hiking in new mexico

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

Pyroclastic rock of angular fragments of andesite set in fine-grained matrix

pyrochastic rock

Resistant pyroclastic rock forming backbone of ridge upslope 200 feet north of trail. Note Sotol agave and Wait-a-Minute Bush in foreground.


pyroclastic boulder

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

Andesite flow rock with crystal-filled gas bubbles

hiking in new mexico

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.

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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.

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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.

rhyolite welded ash-flow tuff

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

Pyroclastic rock showing well-sorted angular fragments of fine-grained andesite set in fine-grained matrix


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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.

lunch spot hiking

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.

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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 …

Gila Wilderness

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


 

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