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Southwestern Guesthouses on 265 Acres
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overlooking Bear Creek and the Gila Wilderness

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

The Catwalk and Gold Dust Trails in Southwest New Mexico

A SPECTACULAR JOURNEY INTO THE 34-MILLION-YEAR-OLD
MOGOLLON SUPERVOLCANO OF THE GILA WILDERNESS

With his long-awaited discharge from the U.S. Army at Ft. Bayard in 1875, Sergeant James C. Cooney was at last free to pursue the exploration and development of a mineral vein he had discovered and claimed five years earlier while on patrol up what is now known as Mineral Creek in Catron County, about eight miles northeast of the present community of Glenwood, New Mexico. Within a short time, the claim proved to have valuable tonnage of copper, silver and gold ore. As news of the success of Cooney Mine’s spread, the small mining enclave of Cooney Camp swelled to a population of some 300 to 400 souls as mine workers and prospectors descended on the area. Encouraged by the results of his mine, Sgt. Cooney organized a group of interested partners to prospect the surrounding mountains. The subsequent history of Cooney Camp, and how the veins of that area were traced a couple of miles southward into what was to become the famous Mogollon Mining District, is one of the most fascinating chapters of New Mexico’s early mining history.

One of Sgt. Cooney’s partners was a man by the name of John Lambert1, of whom little is known other than the fact that he apparently was quite successful in locating rich veins of gold and silver in the mountains about a mile east of the soon-to-be boom town of Mogollon. By the 1890s, Mogollon was bursting at the seams with some 3,000 to 6,000 miners and associated supporting humanity, and the rich veins that Lambert found had been developed into the Confidence, Bluebird, Blackbird, and Redbird mines. Of these, the Confidence Mine proved to be especially rich Over the years it was mined to a depth of some 1,030 feet, with production reported to have yielded about $1,200,000, a princely sum in those early days in frontier New Mexico2.

The Original Catwalk

John T. Graham was the Superintendent of the Confidence Mine during its early years and quickly saw that the economics of the mine would be greatly enhanced if a processing mill could be developed nearby. He knew that short transportation distances and an ample supply of year-round water would be the critical factors in establishing such a mill. Since the mines surrounding the Confidence Mine were all within a mile or less of the only route connecting Mogollon with the San Francisco River valley to the west (now called the Bursum Road or State Road 159), Supt. Graham hit upon the idea of building a mill on the northwest slope of Whitewater Creek Canyon, about two miles south of the mines, and just downstream from where Whitewater Creek exits the extremely narrow and steep-walled canyon now known as the Catwalk Recreation Area. This site was ideal, he reasoned, since it was only three or four downhill miles from the mines via the Bursum Road route to the south edge of Whitewater Mesa, where the ore could then be easily delivered to the mill a few hundred feet below through an ore chute. The critical factor of water supply could be satisfied by building a pipe line up the narrow slot canyon of Whitewater Creek.

With the help and partnership of ex-Colorado Governor David Moffat, the envisioned mill was completed in 1893, with an initial water supply provided by a four-inch pipeline which was laid up Whitewater Canyon. In honor of its founder, the new mill was named the Graham Mill, and the small town of some 200 people that grew up around the mill was also named Graham, although some preferred the alternate name of Whitewater. The exact site of the town is now the parking area for the Catwalk Recreation Area. Within a short time the water demands of the mill and the town exceeded what the 4-inch line could provide, and a new 18-inch pipeline was built up the canyon on a wood and steel framework sometimes elevated as much as 20 feet above the creek. In the narrowest part of the canyon, square holes were chiseled in the sheer volcanic rock walls to hold the timbers and wooden walkway supporting the heavy pipe. All in all, the pipeline and supporting framework was an incredible engineering feat. Mill records reveal that because of frequently-occurring floods, this large iron pipeline required constant maintenance. Workmen assigned to keep the pipeline functioning were required to hike up and down the pipeline on a wooden planked platform running beside the pipeline, which they quickly came to call “the catwalk”.

Graham Mill

Graham Mill

The Graham Mill was a substantial structure, and essentially state of the art for the times. The mill was powered by a Pelton water wheel capable of producing 350 HP, backed up by a wood-fired, 300 HP Corliss steam engine during periods of low water, and boasted a purported processing capability of up to 75 tons of ore a day. However, despite several upgrades, the mill never achieved its full potential and eventually ceased operations permanently in 19133. In time, as was the case with so many of these short-lived mining towns in the Southwest, all of the buildings and machinery were dismantled, sold, and moved away. Today, the only remains of the mill and town of Graham are a few decaying timbers and rock-terraced foundations of the mill which can be seen on the side of the canyon on the southwest side of the Catwalk parking area.

Remainder of Graham Mill

Ruins of Graham Mill

From 1913 until 1934 the deep rocky chasm of Whitewater Canyon and the Catwalk was largely forgotten and silent except for the sounds of rushing water and wind. Then, in 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC Boys as they were called in those days, were given the task of rebuilding the Catwalk and the lower portion of Whitewater Canyon as a recreation area as part of the Gila National Forest. The project took two years and served until 1961, when the old wooden Catwalk was replaced by the Forest Service with a new metal catwalk. In 1978, the Catwalk portion of Forest Trail 207, plus an additional 1.15 miles of the trail to the junction of Whitewater Creek and South Fork, were designated a National Recreation Trail. Since then, the Catwalk and the adjoining trail system have been repeatedly upgraded and expanded over time, most recently in 2003, with the $1.5 million installation of a new steel catwalk, plus the construction of a new half-mile wheelchair-friendly trail on the southeast side of the lower portion of the Catwalk. Today, some 325 miles of interlocking trails in the high country of the Mogollon Range can be accessed where Forest Trail 207 and Forest Trail 41, the Gold Dust Trail, split off from the Catwalk Trail at the west end of the suspension bridge near the 1.0 mile marker of the Catwalk.

The Catwalk Trail and Recreation Area is a true national treasure for the outdoor enthusiast. No matter what your passion — seeking out the cultural history of the Old West, pursuing photography or painting, quiet contemplation within the inspiring beauty of pristine Nature, seeing and learning about the unique and spectacular volcanic geology of the Gila Wilderness, enjoying a refreshing soak and swim in the crystal clear waters of Whitewater Creek at the end of a High Country Hike on a hot Summer day — there is great joy to be had at the Catwalk regardless of age or physical abilities. Indeed, it is extremely rare to find as much diverse natural beauty and opportunities for outdoor pursuits packed into such a short section of trail as can be experienced on the 1.25 mile long journey along the Catwalk Trail.

Regardless of one’s skill level, technique, or interest, the Catwalk offers the nature photographer or artist easy and unique access to endlessly-inspiring subject matter throughout the year. At virtually every step along the trail one encounters an ever-changing drama of light and shadow as brilliant rays of sunlight alternately penetrate, illuminate, refract, reflect, and suddenly extinguish amongst the sheer canyon walls, the twisted trunks and branches of the ancient cottonwood and sycamore, and the churning, tumultuous waters of boulder-strewn Whitewater Creek.

For many of us, simply to experience the overpowering natural beauty of the Catwalk is more than enough reward for a day spent in the enchanting world of Whitewater Canyon. However, at some point, some visitors may begin to have questions regarding the underlying causes and processes that have created the unique and special character of the Catwalk Trail that we have come to enjoy. It is in anticipation of those questions that a short discussion of the underlying geology is herein presented; an understanding, which, hopefully, will lead one to an even deeper and richer appreciation of what a truly special place the Catwalk is.

 
THE MOGOLLON SUPERVOLCANO

The Casitas de Gila Nature Blog of March 2011, The Supervolcanoes of the Gila Wilderness, presented a geologic overview concerning two periods of major and highly explosive volcanic activity that occurred within the Mogollon Range in the western half of the Gila Wilderness when the proposed Mogollon, Bursum, and Gila Cliff Dwelling super-volcanoes erupted some 34 and 28 million years ago. Extensive geologic field research conducted over the past 30 years in the Mogollon Range east of Glenwood, New Mexico (specifically within the Mogollon and Holt Mountain4 quadrangles) reveals a complex history of periodic repeated vulcanism. The sequence of events starts with an initial filling and swelling of a deep seated magma chamber, followed by explosive eruption and then subsequent collapse of the overlying caldera. Not much is known about the size and extent of the actual caldera of the 34-million-year-old Mogollon Supervolcano (proposed in 2006 by James Ratté, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey), since all but a small exposure of its presumed location is covered over by younger thick volcanic deposits from the 28 million year old Bursum and Gila Cliff Dwellings supervolcanoes. But even though the caldera of the Mogollon Supervolcano itself is deeply buried, geologists have been able to discover and document much about the nature and volcanic history of this ancient supervolcano by studying the extensive 2,500- to 3,000-foot-thick sequence of volcanic deposits that were ejected from the caldera and are now beautifully exposed along the Catwalk and Gold Dust trails of Whitewater Creek Canyon, and in Mineral Creek Canyon to the north.

The thick layered deposits of volcanic material from the Mogollon Supervolcano now exposed along the Catwalk Trail are collectively called the Cooney Tuff formation, which consists primarily of various types of welded ash fall and ash flow tuffs, or ignimbrites, as they are sometimes called. Welded tuffs are composed of fine to microscopic volcanic mineral matter and rock particles which are explosively ejected into the atmosphere during a volcanic eruption in the form of an incandescent, super-dense gaseous cloud which then settles back to earth still in a near-molten state, where the particles fuse or weld together to form layers of rock. The name Cooney Tuff comes from the extensive exposures of these rocks where they were first described and mapped around the old gold, silver and copper mining district of Cooney Camp, which was discovered in the late 1800s in Mineral Creek Canyon, about four miles north of Whitewater Canyon (see Casitas de Gila Nature Blog on Mineral Creek). Today, as a result of extensive study and mapping done by Ratté and others, the rocks of the Cooney Tuff formation have been divided into three distinctly different rock type units, or Members as they are called in geological terminology, which can be traced throughout the area. From oldest to youngest, these are: 1) the South Fork Member of the Cooney Tuff; 2) the Whitewater Creek Member of the Cooney Tuff; and 3) the Cooney Canyon Member of the Cooney Tuff. Together these three members of the Cooney Tuff formation comprise all of the colorful rocks that make up the canyon walls observed along the Catwalk and Gold Dust trails.

 
A GEOLOGIC TRAIL GUIDE TO THE CATWALK AND GOLD DUST TRAILS

The following brief geologic trail guide is based on the geology observed along the original Catwalk Trail which begins on the west side of Whitewater Creek immediately after leaving the parking area; the Gold Dust Trail (Forest Trail 41) which leaves the Catwalk Trail at the 1.0 mile marker; and an alternate return route from a trip up the Catwalk Trail that takes one over the new wheelchair-friendly trail on the southeast side of Whitewater Canyon. Descriptions for the Catwalk portion of the guide are keyed to the 6-inch diameter iron pipe trail markers which the Forest Service has placed at ¼ mile intervals along the trail.

Cooney Canyon Member Tuff

Cooney Canyon Member Tuff with larger rock fragments blasted from caldera wall

Just past the picnic area, the first rock outcrops encountered are light grey to reddish tan welded tuffs belonging to the Cooney Canyon Member of the Cooney Tuff. Here the rocks are highly fractured, brecciated, and in some places pulverized due to the presence of a major north-south trending fault system which separates the San Francisco River Valley on the west, behind you, from the uplifted front of the Mogollon Mountain Range to the east, which you are now entering. Cooney Canyon Member rocks range in composition from rhyolite to dacite. If you look closely at these rocks, you will see larger chunks of angular rock fragments that are imbedded in the matrix of the finer, welded ash tuffs which were blasted from the volcano in an explosive eruption before falling back to earth. If you look very closely, you will also find numerous joints or fractures in the rock where the rock surfaces on either side of the fracture appear to be polished and may exhibit parallel striations or grooves on the polished surfaces. These features are called slickensides and are evidence of frictional movement or micro-faulting along these breaks in the rock.

Slickensides

Slickensides in Cooney Canyon Member

Continuing on up the trail, a little beyond the ¼ mile marker, you come to a sheer cliff rising before you which is composed of a very different looking rock than the exposures of the Cooney Canyon Member that you have been passing through. This cliff face, along with the abrupt change in rock type, marks the presence of another major northwest trending, almost vertical fault, named the Catwalk Fault. Here the rocks composing the cliff on the east side of the fault in front of you belong to the Whitewater Creek Member of the Cooney Tuff, and have been moved up relative to the rocks of the Cooney Member on the west side of the fault, which have been moved down.

Lithophysae

Lithophysae in White Water Creek Member

Crossing the fault and examining the rocks of the Whitewater Canyon Member, you will immediately notice that this rock is characterized by the presence of abundant, irregularly shaped globular cavities in a massive, strongly fine-grained salmon or pinkish-red color welded tuff. The rocks which comprise the Whitewater Canyon Member are rhyolite in composition, which, by definition means that the rock is very rich in silica. Verification of this classification can be readily ascertained by looking closely at the rock where small phenocrysts of quartz will be seen imbedded in the finer matrix material. Also, if you look closely at the globular cavities, you will see that many of them are lined with very small quartz crystals. These unusual features are called lithophysae, which literally translated from the Latin means “stone bubbles”, which gives a good clue to their origin. Lithophysae are formed by bubbles of gas expanding within incandescent ash fall and ash flow tuff deposits as they accumulate, compact and solidify.

The Narrows of the Catwalk

The Narrows of the Catwalk, cut in massive rhyolite welded tuff of the Whitewater Creek member, showing square holes cut in canyon wall to hold original support timbers for the Catwalk pipeline

The Whitewater Canyon Member comprises the full length of the narrow, slot canyon portion of the Catwalk Trail providing today’s visitor to the canyon with unlimited opportunity for close-up examination of this unusual rock type from the new steel walkway secured to the vertical canyon walls some 20 feet above the creek. At numerous places along the walkway one can also observe the square holes that workmen from the Graham Mill chisled into the canyon walls a hundred years ago to secure the massive timbers required to support the heavy iron water pipe coming down from the upper reaches of White Water creek.

Soon after passing the ½ mile trail marker and just after crossing the wooden bridge, the narrow slot canyon is abruptly left behind as the trail begins a steady climb up a much wider canyon composed once again of welded tuffs belonging to the Cooney Canyon Member. What has happened here is that another major fault has been crossed, which, with a little observation, can be seen exposed on both sides of the canyon. If one pauses for a moment at this point and reflects on the sequence of rock units that one has passed through in the first half-mile journey up the Catwalk trail, there is an interesting chapter in the geologic history and evolution of the Catwalk Trail that is waiting to be revealed here.

 
A HORST IN THE CATWALK TRAIL

At the beginning of the Catwalk Trail, the rocks were identified as belonging to the Cooney Canyon Member, the youngest and upper-most member of the Cooney Tuff formation. Then, just before the canyon abruptly narrows to a sheer-walled slot canyon, the Catwalk Fault was crossed and immediately the composition of the canyon walls changed into the massive, dense and lithophysae-bearing rhyolite welded tuff of the Whitewater Member, which as the middle member of the three identified members of Cooney Tuff formation, makes it older, and hence deposited before, the rocks of the Cooney Canyon Member. Finally, just beyond the half-mile trail marker, another major fault was crossed just as the canyon abruptly widened significantly and once more the rocks were identified as belonging to the Cooney Canyon Member.

Catwalk geology

Vertical fault on east side of the Whitewater Creek Member Horst Block. Reddish-tan rhyolite welded tuff of Whitewater Creek Member on left side of fault; white welded tuff of Cooney Canyon Member on right side of fault.

Pondering the origin of this sequence of rock relationships, one eventually comes to realize that the only possible explanation for this sequence is that the massive block of the older White Water Creek Member of the Cooney Tuff formation, which is bounded on each side first by faults and then by rocks of the younger Cooney Canyon Member, has to have been moved up or uplifted, relative to the younger Cooney Canyon rocks, which have been moved or dropped down on each side of the White Water Creek Member block. In geological terms, this type of structural feature is called a horst. The significance of this structural feature to our discussion of the Catwalk geology is that an understanding of the sequence of events leading up to and after the uplift of the horst block of the Whitewater Creek Member is key to understanding how the sheer-walled slot canyon portion of the Catwalk came to be formed. The following interpretation for the origin of the slot canyon offers one possibility.

 
THE CREATION OF THE NARROWS OF THE CATWALK TRAIL

Originally, during the period of time when the Mogollon Supervolcano was active, and long before faulting uplifted the horst block of the Whitewater Creek Member, the area where the Catwalk Trail is now located was covered with thick, widespread deposits of what we now call the Whitewater Creek Member rhyolite welded tuffs. As repeated eruptions of the Mogollon Supervolcano continued, these rhyolite tuffs were, in turn, covered over with subsequent deposits of Cooney Canyon Member welded tuffs. With the end of the Mogollon Supervolcano eruptions, around 35 million years ago, this part of the Gila Wilderness remained relatively quiet for some 5-6 million years. After this period of quiescence, volcanic activity once more resumed in the area with an extended period of repeated explosive eruptions of the Bursum Supervolcano, centered a short distance to the east, which deposited thick layers of volcanic material on top of the Cooney Canyon Member welded tuffs. Following the end of the Bursum Supervolcano eruptions, about 28 million years ago, the area was quiet once more and an extended period of erosion commenced over the area. It was during this time that an ancestral Whitewater Creek began to cut down through the thick layers of volcanic tuffs where the Catwalk is today.

Eventually, after several more millions of years of erosion, the ancestral Whitewater Creek had succeeded in cutting a deep canyon through the Bursum Supevolcano deposits and down into the underlying Cooney Canyon Member deposits. It was at this point, perhaps around 17 million years ago, that a period of extensive faulting occurred, which was probably related to the collapse of the Bursum Caldera. With this faulting came the uplifting of the Whitewater Creek Member horst block. And, as this block was moved upwards, the ancestral Whitewater Creek, which by now was confined to a deep canyon cut in the Cooney Canyon Member deposits, accelerated its downcutting through Cooney Canyon deposits and began cutting into the underlying and uplifted Whitewater Creek Member horst block. Because of the greater density and hardness of the Whitewater Creek rhyolite welded tuff deposits, the ancestral Whitewater Creek soon became captive or entrenched in a narrow, sluice-like channel cut into the rock from which it could not escape. The physical process controlling this type of stream erosion is that when the hydraulic energy of a stream is confined to a narrow channel in resistant rock, the result is intensified downward cutting action, as opposed to what happens to a stream cutting into softer materials, where the hydraulic energy of the moving water is dispersed over a broader area as the banks bordering the stream are eroded away through greater lateral cutting action. Thus it was, after millions of years of such continued entrenched downcutting, that the Whitewater Creek Narrows of the Catwalk Trail eventually evolved into the spectacular chasm that one sees today.

 
THE UPPER HALF OF THE CATWALK TRAIL

sandstone breccia beds

Coarse-grained volcaniclastic sandstone breccia beds in Cooney Canyon Member

After crossing the wooden bridge just past the 1/2 mile marker, the Narrows are left behind and the canyon, widens offering impressive views from the trail. From here to the end of the Catwalk Trail at the 1-1/4 mile marker the rocks observed along both sides of the trail and the colorful towering canyon walls above belong to the Cooney Canyon Member. As was described at the beginning of the Catwalk Trail ,this upper member of the Cooney Tuff formation consists primarily of thick sequences of fine-grained, light grey to reddish tan welded ash-fall and ash-flow welded tuffs of rhyolite to dacite composition. At various places along this section of the trail, however, the observant traveller will come across or notice in the canyon walls overhead a number of thin interbedded layers of a dark brown to almost black, fine- to coarsely-grained rock, which are strikingly different in appearance and texture from the dominant fine-grained light-colored welded tuffs of the Cooney Canyon Member. These dark-colored rocks, which have been variously described by Ratté and others as volcaniclastic sandstones or sandstone breccias, remain somewhat of an enigma as to their origin. In some places, these thin beds display fluvial cross-bedding and graded bedding on the outcrop, which would suggest deposition by running water. However, when examined in thin-section under the microscope, some samples are found to contain delicate shards and bubbles of volcanic glass, which would be more indicative of volcanic fallout from the atmosphere. It is clear that more research is required before the true origin of this unusual rock is understood.

Catwalk Nature Trail

Steel steps leading down over Cooney Canyon Member outcrops to the waterfall and swimming hold on Whitewater Creek

Cooney Canyon Member welded tuff

Cliff of Cooney Canyon Member welded tuff with interbedded layers of dark-colored, volcaniclastic sandstone



Cooney Canyon Member welded tuff

Closeup of Cooney Canyon Member welded tuff with abundant rock fragments

Just before reaching the 3/4 mile marker, a good example of the cross-bedding in the volcaniclastic sandstone can be found, with only a little searching, on a rock outcrop right at the side of the trail, immediately opposite where a steep metal stairway departs from the main trail to descend to a scenic waterfall and swimming hole below in Whitewater Creek. Further along, near the 1 mile marker, several more of these dark interbedded volcaniclastic sandstone beds can be observed high up on the north facing canyon walls. Then, soon after crossing a short suspension bridge, the Catwalk Trail ends at the 1.1 mile marker in a recessed rock alcove in the canyon wall. Here, acting over thousands of years, the rushing waters of Whitewater Creek have cut deeply into one of the volcaniclastic sandstone layers, affording ample opportunity for close-up study of this unusual and enigmatic rock type.

Catwalk Trail

The alcove at the end of the Catwlak Trail cut into volcaniclastic sandstone

Catwalk Trail

The alcove at the end of the Catwalk Trail taken from the Gold Dust Trail



volcaniclastic sandstone layers

Closeup of volcaniclastic sandstone layers in the alcove

 
THE HIGH COUNTRY VISTAS OF THE GOLD DUST TRAIL

Suspension Bridge at Catwalk

West end of suspension bridge on the Catwalk Trail showing junction of Gold Dust Trail (Forest Trail 41) and Forest Trail 207

The Catwalk Trail offers an unequaled and probably the most accessible opportunity for a close-up examination of a thick sequence of some of the dominant volcanic rock types that are found throughout the western half of the Gila Wilderness. For those visitors who would like to put this understanding into a somewhat broader perspective by looking at the various rock units from a greater distance, such an opportunity is close at hand. To gain this perspective it is only necessary to retrace one’s steps back from the alcove to the 1 mile marker at the beginning of the suspension bridge where Forest Trail 41, the Gold Dust Trail, begins an easy 1-1/4 mile climb out of Whitewater Canyon to Whitewater Mesa some 500 feet above.

The Gold Dust Trail offers incredible views to the east up Whitewater Canyon to the High Country of the northern Mogollon Range, and down the Canyon to the west past the Catwalk parking area to the San Franciso River Valley and the Blue Range Wilderness beyond. All but the western-most end of the Gold Dust Trail passes up through and over layers of the Cooney Canyon Member of the Cooney Tuff, providing close up examination of the rocks within the upper deposits of the member which could not be observed from the Catwalk Trail. Between 1/2 and 1 mile up the Gold Dust Trail excellent views of the entire southeast side of the Catwalk Canyon are possible that clearly show numerous faults and other structural relationships between the three members of the Cooney Tuff formation.

Whitewater Canyon New Mexico

Looking east up Whitewater Canyon from the Gold Dust Trail

  
Whitewater Canyon New Mexico

Looking west down Whitewater Canyon from the Gold Dust Trail across Whitewater Mesa, the San Francisco River Valley and into the Blue Range Wilderness Area



 
EXPOSURES OF THE LOWER SOUTH FORK MEMBER OF THE COONEY TUFF ALONG THE NEW TRAIL ON THE SOUTHEAST SIDE OF WHITEWATER CREEK

To complete one’s geological investigation of the Cooney Tuff at the Catwalk, an alternative route for one’s return trip down the Catwalk Trail is to take the new trail along the southeast side of the canyon where excellent exposures of the South Fork Member, the lowest member of the Cooney Tuff formation, are exposed.

Leaving the old trail at the western end of the suspended metal catwalk in the Narrows, the new trail crosses Whitewater Creek and almost immediately enters a highly brecciated fault zone. Because of the extreme shattering and overall weakness of the rock encountered within this fault zone during the construction of the new trail, it was necessary to drill and install numerous rock bolts to secure the unstable cliff face. Once past the rock-bolted area, exposures of two different rock types typical of the South Fork Member are well exposed on the cliff face next to the trail. These consist of a thin, dark-colored mafic lava flow, which is overlain by a thicker layer of light-colored welded tuff.

In contrast to the other two members of the Cooney Tuff formation, the South Fork member contains several, dark-colored, mafic or basaltic (iron and magnesium rich, and silica poor) lava flows and related mafic pyroclastic rock units, which are interbedded with light colored, felsic welded tuffs similar to the rock types seen in the Cooney Canyon Member along the Catwalk Trail. These mafic lava flows are unique within the Cooney Tuff formation and represent the only evidence reported to date of molten lava flows emanating from the Mogollon Caldera.

Continuing past these last rock outcrops, the trail soon enters an extensive zone of Quaternary landslide deposits before reaching the Picnic Area and the end of the geologic guide to the Catwalk and Gold Dust Trails.

 
REFERENCES

  1. 2000, The Catwalk of Whitewater Canyon U.S.F.S. Brochure available (.pdf file).
  2. 1927, Henry G. Ferguson, Geology and Ore Deposits of the Mogollon Mining District, New Mexico, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 787 (.pdf file).
  3. 2008, James C. Ratté, Geology Along the Catwalk National Recreation Trail Near Glenwood, New Mexico, in Geology of the Gila Wilderness-Silver City Area, New Mexico Geological Society Guidebook, 59th Field Conference, p. 16-26.
  4. 2006, Ratté, Jim, Lynch, Scott, and McIntosh, Preliminary Geologic Map of the Holt Mountain Quadrangle, Catron County, New Mexico, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, Open-file Digital Geologic Map OF-GM 120

 

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The Subtle Signs of a Southwest New Mexico Spring

While Michael is busily researching his next blog, which will be on the Catwalk Nature Trail, I want to share with you some of the very subtle growth that tells us Spring has arrived. Spring in Southwest New Mexico does not last long. Right now our daytime temperatures are in the 70s and overnight the temps drop to the high 30s and low 40s. When we take ourselves and our dogs out for our 7 AM walk every day, we are still bundled up in winter coats, scarves, hats and gloves! But by mid-day, it’s sandals and lightweight shirts!

We have had a little bit of rain (and snow) over the past three months — less than an inch. But it has been enough for some of the southwestern deserts plants to bloom. We took these photos at 7 AM this morning, when the temperature was 38°F. It’s truly wonderful to find these tiny little flowers growing where you least expect them!

          

     

     

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A Time-Travel Hike Up Mineral Creek to Cooney Camp & Mine

Apache Chief Victorio

Apache Chief Victorio

On September 2, 1877, the Apache Chief Victorio, a major leader of the Chihenne band of the Chiricahua Apache, and four other Chihenne chiefs — Loco, Nana, Mangas, and Tomaso Coloradas — fled the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, along with some 300 Chihenne and a small band of Bedonkohe Chiricahua Apache1. They left the Reservation in an attempt to return to their ancestral homelands in New Mexico because of the unbearable conditions of disease (malaria), hunger, and mistreatment they had endured after being forced to relocate to San Carlos. Eventually, under Federal orders and escort, two thirds of these Chiricahuas, led by Chief Loco, did return peacefully to San Carlos in late 1878, but without Chief Victorio, who declared he would die fighting rather than return to San Carlos. Victorio hated San Carlos and considered the area known as Ojo Caliente his native land (close to what is now Aragon in Catron County, NM) and was determined to stay there. So strong was his love for this land that he was willing to pledge that “he would fight no more forever” if the government would allow him and his family and relatives to live there.

Over the next two years, acting through intermediaries, Victorio made numerous attempts to negotiate with the U.S. Government for the release of women and children family members and relatives who had been returned with Chief Loco to the San Carlos Reservation. Victorio’s proposal was that if his dependent family and relatives were released from San Carlos and brought to Ojo Caliente, he would agree to return to reservation life there and end the hostilities which he and his followers had engaged in since they fled the reservation. But these proposals fell on deaf ears within the Department of the Interior in Washington. After two years of endless conflict with Victorio and his band, the U.S. Government would simply have no part of it. There would be no reservation at Ojo Caliente, and Victorio would have to return to San Carlos. Finally, in late April 1880, his frustration and desperation having reached the breaking point, Victorio made his fateful decision: he and his warriors would go to San Carlos via the Mogollon Mountains and liberate his family and relatives. Victorio’s War was about to take a serious turn for the worse.

A decade earlier, in 1870, Sergeant James C. Cooney was on patrol as a scout for the 8th Calvary U.S. in the Mogollon Mountains when he discovered a mineral vein about 8 miles up a small creek (now Mineral Creek) in the mountains east of the Frisco Valley (now Alma), a few miles north of present-day Glenwood, NM. In 1875, Cooney mustered out of the Army and with a couple of partners, in 1876, started developing the claim that he had taken out on the vein he had found. By 1880, with the help of his brother, Captain Michael Cooney, and hired miners, their efforts had paid off, with the claim developing into a valuable silver mine, which, in turn, had attracted a number of settlers and other miners to the area.

It was late in the afternoon on April 28, 1880, just as the miners were quitting for the day, when Chief Victorio’s band commenced their attack on the Cooney Mine on what is now known as Mineral Creek. Three men were killed outright, and a fourth man, Mr. Taylor, his leg broken by an Apache bullet, was able to escape by hiding in a cave. The rest of the miners fled into the mountains where they hid until dark. Sensing the danger that the Apaches presented to the unsuspecting settlers down in the valley, Sergeant Cooney and a man by the name of Jack Chick courageously made their way down the Creek to the Frisco Valley, where they were able to warn the settlers. Heeding the impending danger, the settlers then gathered together at the Roberts ranch, where they set about converting one of the ranch buildings into a makeshift “fort”.

The next morning Sergeant Cooney, at the insistence of Mr. Chick, borrowed horses from the Roberts Ranch and headed back to the mine. A short time later the horses returned to the Roberts Ranch covered in blood, an eerie harbinger of what was soon to unfold …

A first-hand account of the details of what took place next on those fateful days at the Cooney Mine and the Roberts Ranch was recorded in 1937, as part of the WPA Federal Writers’ Project, in an interview with Mrs. Agnes Meader Snyder. Agnes Meader was in her early teens and had just recently arrived from Texas with her family to settle in the Frisco Valley when the attack occurred. At the time of the interview, she was considered to be the sole remaining witness to what is now known as the Alma Massacre (listed as Documents 10 and 11 of the 218 New Mexico WPA Life Histories). This interview, written down by Frances E. Totty, was part of the Folklore Project of the WPA Federal Writer’ Project, which was undertaken between 1936-1940. Her account is nothing short of riveting!

On the Trail near Cooney Camp

On the Trail near Cooney Camp

While it would be six long years after the Alma Massacre before the Apache Wars ended with the surrender of Geronimo, mining operations along Mineral Creek continued to develop without further incident. With the continued expansion of the Cooney Mine, plus the discovery of additional rich veins of ore nearby, the small conclave at Cooney Camp gradually evolved into a prosperous silver, gold, and copper mining camp. Eventually, at its peak around the turn of the century, Cooney Camp could boast to having a population of some 300 to 400 souls, numerous buildings, and various commercial enterprises supporting the mines. Unlike the feeling of isolation that one experiences when hiking up Mineral Creek canyon today, Cooney Camp was well connected to the outside world through regular service provided by wagons and other conveyances over a road that had been constructed along the Creek, up the narrow canyon from Alma. Additional veins of valuable ore continued to be found, with the result that by 1900 a significant portion of Mineral Creek was under claim and being prospected and mined. Three separate ore processing mills were in operation along the Creek, the largest being a 100-ton-a-day mill owned by the Mogollon Gold and Copper Company. But major change was soon to come2.

mogollon, new mexico

Mogollon, New Mexico

In time, the continued prospecting and mining of the ore veins along Mineral Creek revealed that the ore bodies continued to the south, out of Mineral Creek canyon, over the mountain and down into the adjacent Silver Creek drainage. Excitement grew when it was discovered that the veins there were more extensive and most likely richer than those along Mineral Creek. With this discovery, within a few years a new mining camp had sprung up, one that grew rapidly into the much larger town of Mogollon. By 1910, and the full potential of the Mogollon mining district understood, Cooney Camp was largely abandoned. Most of its buildings and mining equipment were dismantled and transported to bustling Mogollon, which was now growing by leaps and bounds. Within a few years, Mogollon had become a “real” town, sporting a theater, hotels, stores, numerous saloons and a school, all served by regular stage and freight lines out of Silver City. Soon, even the telephone and the new-fangled automobile made their appearance! At its heyday in the early 1900s, Mogollon was reportedly home to some 6,000 to 8,000 miners and their families, all seeking their fortunes from the numerous mining claims throughout the Whitewater Creek drainage.

But, as with Cooney, Mogollon’s heyday was short lived. Following the boom times during the 1920s and 30s, Mogollon, like Cooney Camp, simply faded away when the mines closed in the 1940s as a result of world war, the low price of gold and silver, and need for other, more strategic minerals. Today, Mogollon is essentially a ghost town, with only a handful of year-round residents. But, perhaps, when considering the current price of gold and silver, it is just quite possible that a new chapter in the history of Mogollon will be written and the old mines will once more yield their riches.

steam boiler at Cooney Mine

Steam Boiler at Cooney Mine

part of the mill building at Cooney Mine

Part of the Mill Building at Cooney Mine


The histories of Cooney Camp and Mogollon overlap and are inseparably linked, an all-too-familiar story of many an evolving mining district in the Old West. Both have fascinating stories to share with the visitor to the area. In Mogollon the presentation is a more recent one, well preserved and accessible to all. Mogollon’s old mines, most of the original buildings, and the old graveyard are easily accessible by automobile or short hikes in magnificent mountainous terrain, and are just waiting to be explored. On weekends during the Summer and early Fall, visitors to Mogollon can enjoy a relaxing respite from their outdoor explorations and hiking with a nostalgic sojorn in a great little mining museum, a down-home gastronomic treat of excellent burgers, pie, and milkshakes at the Purple Onion Cafe and Heritage Center, a quiet interlude savoring the unique local arts and crafts at the Galloping Gourd Gallery, or an extended perusal of the eclectic offerings in the Antique Store.

The Narrows in Lower Part of Canyon

The Narrows in Lower Part of Canyon

Unlike Mogollon, however, the story of Cooney Camp is much more of a mystery. Who were these miners? Did they have families with them? Where did they come from? How and where did they live? In terms of actual years, Cooney Camp only preceded Mogollon by 20 years or so; yet when one visits the site it seems much, much farther back in time, as Nature has all but wiped away most signs of what was once a small but substantial and vibrant community. Starting with the systematic dismantling of almost all buildings and mining equipment down to their foundations and their subsequent removal to Mogollon, followed by numerous floods and forest fires through the years, not much stands out for today’s casual visitor to the area that would indicate the magnitude and intensity of the activity that took place there.

Nor is the written record much help. If one is willing to spend some time researching the history of Cooney, some documents, personal written accounts, and photos can be found3. But it takes some serious digging, and even then, after looking at the accounts, one is left with more questions than when they started. No, for the arm-chair historian, the story of Cooney is not to be found neatly and completely chronicled in some dusty old tome, but can only be gathered slowly in small yet tantalizing bits and pieces over a period of time.

For the seasoned and curious hiker, however, and a person who relishes the thrill of the hunt and the teasing out of well-hidden clues of times gone by in a spectacular, wild, and pristine setting, a hike up Mineral Creek to explore the overgrown remnants of the all-but-forgotten Cooney Camp offers a time-travel hike of intriguing and exceptional insight into the early pioneer history of the Mogollon Mining District.

 

ALMA AND THE MINERAL CREEK TRAIL

family hiking up Mineral Creek

Family Hiking Up Mineral Creek

The small community of Alma, New Mexico, site of the Alma Massacre of 1880, is located about nine scenic miles north of the larger community of Glenwood on U.S. Highway 180. Upon reaching Alma (or the Frisco Valley, as it was called in 1880), not much has changed. The creek still flows amongst the ancient cottonwoods, and a few more modern structures can be seen. But that’s about all. Having read the Agnes Meader interview on the incident, it’s not hard for one to envision and relive the scene of the Massacre from the side of the highway before heading east up Mineral Creek for a hike to Cooney Camp …

Just as Alma’s only store comes into view, a signpost for Mineral Creek Road will be found on the right as one heads north from Glenwood, on U.S 180. Mineral Creek Road, which becomes Forest Road 701 upon entering the Gila National Forest, is a six-mile-long, county maintained, all-weather gravel road, suitable for all types of vehicles, that dead ends at the trailhead. About halfway to the trailhead, the road enters the Gila National Forest, and then passes through several privately-owned inholdings which are surrounded by National Forest. The no-trespassing signs that one encounters when passing through these private parcels are for the land on either side of the road. The road to the trailhead is a public right-of-way.

Cooney's Tomb

Cooney's Tomb

About 0.6 miles before the road dead ends at the Mineral Creek Trailhead, the road passes close by a huge boulder about 12 feet high on the right side of the road. This is Cooney’s Tomb. It was near here that Sergeant James C. Cooney and Jack Chick were ambushed by Chief Victorio and his warriors on April 29, 1880. It is here that Sergeant Cooney’s brother Michael and some miners blasted out a hole in the boulder for his coffin, sealing the opening with cement and ore from the Cooney Mine. A small pioneer cemetery is located behind the boulder, now known as Cooney’s Tomb. Be sure to visit the cemetery behind the tomb, too. Continuing on, the road ends at the trailhead. Here, a corral for pack horses using the trail, a small parking area, and a Forest Service kiosk marking the beginning of FT 701, the Mineral Creek Trail, will be found.

Forest Trail 701 up Mineral Creek to the old site of Cooney Camp follows the Creek closely, switching back and forth on both sides of the Creek, but never diverging more than a few hundred feet from the Creek itself. Most of the time water depth within the Creek is generally less than a foot and does not present a problem for the numerous 5 to 20 foot wide creek crossings that will be required. Higher water exceptions to this can sometimes be encountered during Spring runoff (with melting snow in high country during February or March) or during the brief flash floods that can occur during Monsoon Season (July through early September). Abundant boulders and downed trees in the Creek make dry crossings possible, and if you haven’t brought a walking stick with you, Mother Nature provides an ample supply of dead branches for such use whenever needed.

Lichen-Covered Pillars of Cooney Tuff

Lichen-Covered Pillars of Cooney Tuff

Layered Volcanics

Layered Volcanics
welded tuffs and flows in lower part of canyon


Within a quarter of a mile after leaving the Forest Service kiosk at the trailhead, the Time Travel hiker enters a spectacular, narrow slot canyon bordered by very steep to vertical canyon walls composed of horizontal layers of extremely colorful volcanic rocks, consisting of welded ash-flow tuffs, and rhyolite and andesite flow rocks. At the beginning of the canyon, the rocks exposed in the lower part of the canyon walls and the canyon floor consist of the Cooney Tuff formation, some of the oldest rocks in the Mogollon Range4. The Cooney Tuff is considered to be the oldest of the major caldera-forming ash-flow tuffs (ignimbrites) of the Mogollon Range5, which were deposited when the Mogollon Caldera6 erupted explosively some 34 million years ago during the Late Eocene or Early Oligocene Epochs of the Tertiary Period7. As one proceeds further up the canyon, successively younger rocks make up the canyon walls and the canyon floor such as the Fanney Rhyolite and Last Chance Andesite formations which were deposited during eruptions of the Bursum Caldera some 28 million years ago during the Oligocene Epoch.

Potholes in bedrock

Potholes in Bedrock Cut by Mineral Creek

Within a narrow stretch of the canyon an old mine entrance on the south side of the creek is soon encountered (now sealed with concrete because of safety concerns), the first of the many signs and remains of the numerous mines, prospects, and three ore processing mills that will constantly peak ones curiosity over the next two miles of trail up Mineral Creek. About a third of a mile in, the trail, which has been winding its way across a mostly sand and gravel creek bottom, gives way to solid bedrock filled with interesting stream-filled, circular potholes in the stream bottom. These holes are the result of the repeated cutting action that takes place over thousands of years when the colored, rounded pebbles and cobbles of rock one observes in the bottom of the holes get caught up in the churning whirlpool action of the rushing creek waters during flood stages.

Old Mine entrance

Old Mine Entrance in lower part of Canyon
(now sealed off)

Waterfall

Waterfall in Lower Part of Canyon


A little further on, a small waterfall is encountered, below which are shallow pools of deeper crystal clear water. What a refreshing respite they offer on a hot day! Here and there, as one negotiates one’s way past the waterfall, the sharp eye will observe solid bars of iron sticking out of the rocks on the side of the canyon and the bottom of some of the pools. When and why were they placed here, one wonders? These bars, and many more like them that will be found along the bedrock portions of stream bottom upstream, are all that remain of a road that was constructed up the canyon from Alma to Cooney Camp, probably sometime during the 1880s. Proceeding upstream, one can only marvel at the pioneer engineering ingenuity, effort, and perseverance that was needed to construct this road; a road that saw the passage of hundreds of miners and their families on foot, on horseback, or by wagon or stage coach, plus huge lumbering, multi-mule team freight wagons loaded with massive, heavy equipment for the mines and processing mills. Today, little remains of this two-mile long, deep slot canyon road constructed my mule and hand labor. To build the road, the construction process began by first drilling holes into the solid bedrock on the side of the creek to hold numerous mining drill stem rods. Once securely anchored in the bedrock, these rods would serve to hold in place a massive platform of large logs which, in turn, would serve as a base for the thick layers of coarse rock, followed by finer gravel and crushed rock (tailings) from the mines used to finish the roadbed.

safe on Mineral Creek

Safe with Door Blown Off
Thanks to M & H Castillas, guests from Texas,
for this photo!

Around the half-mile point, while passing through a somewhat wider, flatter and nicely wooded section of the trail, a mystery is encountered. Here, right next to the trail, a large brick-lined steel box is encountered, lying on its back with its open front gaping skyward through the trees. It takes a few minutes before one realizes that this is an old iron safe! Not only that, but with further examination it looks like, yes, the hinges and door have been blown off, definitely a long, long time ago! “What happened here?” one muses. Looking for other clues, one notices a little farther upstream on the other side of the creek the telltale regularity of an extensive retaining wall built of heavy stone. Could this be the site of one of the three ore processing mills that were reported to have existed along Cooney Creek? One crosses the creek to investigate further. Returning to the trail again one’s thoughts return to the mystery of the safe. Was this safe once housed in the mill office, perhaps to hold payroll or maybe gold concentrate? Why was the door blown off? Was the safe robbed, was the combination lost, or might it have just failed to open? Hiking onward, the immediacy of the trail fades, as these and other possible scenarios play out in one’s mind.

After another quarter or half-mile, one next comes to an another inviting rest stop – a broad, flat, grass-covered area with an absolutely huge apple tree rising in the middle. More signs of habitation are found close by: rusting pieces of discarded metal, a few rotting boards, a sagging wooden shed built into the side of the canyon, some stone foundations, the remains of an old outhouse, now all but fallen over.

A little further on the trail comes to an area on the south side of creek with more extensive foundations and more retaining walls. Climbing up on the flat terrace behind the retaining wall one comes to an arched brick and stone structure built into the hillside. Broken pieces of what appears to be an old cast iron stove lie outside the arched structure. What went on here, one wonders. Did it have something to do with ore processing or possibly a strong, dry structure for the storage of dynamite? storage area? And, if so, where was the source of the ore? Where were the mines? More mysteries.

Waste Rock from mining

Waste Rock coming down from upper shaft at Cooney Mine with part of mill wall on left

   
Stone arched structure near Cooney Mine

Stone Arched Structure Near Cooney Mine


It’s well past lunchtime now, but one decides to press on. Sergeant Cooney’s old mine can’t be much farther. And it isn’t. At about the two mile mark, one comes to it. Ahead, on the south side of the creek, one observes the discarded, broken rock of a mine dump cascading down from the upper vertical shaft high above on the canyon wall. Approaching closer, the looming, rusting hulk of the old boiler that provided the steam for the mining equipment, plus more retaining walls and part of a remaining stone wall of a mine building, come into view. Well aware of the extreme dangers of old mines, the gaping blackness of the creekside adit (horizontal mine tunnel) is observed temptingly, but not entered, for our hiker has heard far too many stories of the unfortunate tragedies of those who have ignored the warnings and met their demise in such situations. No, it’s much better to sit at the bottom of the mine dump, eating lunch, while picking through the broken rock in hopes of finding some azurite, chalcopyrite, or small pieces of discarded ore material. Did Sergeant Cooney’s pick dislodge this piece of ore, one muses before gazing up on the mountainside at what looks to be a small opening in the canyon wall. Focusing on the cave with binoculars, one wonders if perhaps that small opening could be the cave where Mr. Taylor, his leg broken by an Apache bullet, safely hid out when Chief Victorio and his warriors attacked that fateful afternoon on April 28, 1880 …

spires of Cooney Tuff

Time to leave ... hiking out past spires of Cooney Tuff along lower part of Mineral Creek Canyon

With the sun now beginning its downward slide in the West, one begins the two-mile return trek downstream. Still musing over the many mysteries and questions one has encountered this day, of one thing this hiker is certain … the Mineral Creek Trail is indeed a journey back through time.

 
REFERENCES

  1. Sweeney, Edwin R., 1919, From Cochise to Geronimo, The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874–1886, University of Oklahoma Press, 706 p. A very comprehensive, definitive, and thoroughly-researched book on the latter part of the Apache Wars. His earlier book, Cochise, Chiricahua Apache Chief, published in 1991, also by University of Oklahoma Press, tells the earlier half of the American Apache history.
  2. Rakocy, Bill, 1988, Mogollon Diary No. 2, Bravo Press. A very interesting history book concerning the early days of the whole Mogollon region, filled with old photographs, mining records, and personal accounts of people who lived and worked in Cooney Camp and Mogollon.
  3. Hoover, H. A., 1958, Early Days in the Mogollons: Tales from the Bloated Goat, Texas Western Press, 63 p. (out of print).
  4. An interesting early United States Geologic Survey Bulletin (787) written by Henry Gardiner Ferguson in 1927, which details the geology and ore deposits of the Mogollon Mining District.
  5. A downloadable report and geologic map done by the United State Geological Survey and the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, written by Jim Ratte, Scott Lynch, and Bill McIntosh, 2006, which summarizes the most recent research on the volcanic history of the Mogollon Range and Gila Wilderness.
  6. Mogollon Caldera and Bursum Caldera: Gila Nature Blog entry for March 2011, which gives an overview of the geologic history and evolution of the Super Volcanoes of the Gila Wilderness.
  7. Late Eocene or Early Oligocene Epochs of the Tertiary Period: This link will enable the reader to download the latest Geologic Time Scale produced by the Geological Society of America. This chart synthesizes and correlates the latest in absolute geologic dating (by radioactive decay methods) with the various Periods and Epochs of the geologic stratigraphic record.

 
 

Posted in Apaches, geology, hiking, history, Mineral Creek | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Night Life at Casitas de Gila

gray fox

Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
Greatly decimated by a rabies outbreak in southern New Mexico several years ago, the gray fox population has rebounded well in our area, as this fine, fit and healthy specimen shows!

Sitting quietly in front of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses late at night, one cannot help but wonder about what might be going on down along Bear Creek, a hundred feet below. What wildlife might be there in the darkness, and what might it be doing? On most nights, even a short time spent listening intently on one’s cliffside perch offers a fascinating auditory experience of Nature as numerous curious and unfamiliar sounds punctuate the soft background murmur of Bear Creek wending its way downstream. Some sounds are readily identified, such as the distant yapping of the coyote in Winter, the deep hoot of the owl in Spring, or the ceaseless throb of the crickets in Summer. But others are new and strange to the ear, their source and cause unknown and possibly disconcerting as one perceives strange snorts and grunts, the thrashing in the underbrush, something splashing the creek, the various yips, snarls, or growls, the sudden clatter of a dislodged rock falling down cliffs, mysterious shrill bird-like whistles, isolated chirps or endless repetitive trills, or, upon rare occasion, the unmistakeable primal call of an animal in terminal distress. Eventually, the call of sleep is overwhelming and one retires for the night, drifting off to sleep contemplating the source and reason for those intriguing sounds.

gray foxes

Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
"Come on, let's GO .. quit your sniffin' around ... you're burning darkness; there's nothing here!"
(Mr. & Mrs. Gray Fox, looking to dine out)

      
gray fox

Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
"Now WHERE did that foxy lady go???"


In the morning, one rises early and walks quietly along the creekside trails hoping for a glimpse of the various animals and birds that make their home here. But even if the wildlife doesn’t show, one finds tracks of all kinds along the trails and the edge of Bear Creek, visual remnants of their maker’s activities from the night before. It’s an enjoyable and interesting challenge to try to match up the tracks of the morning with the sounds of the previous night. Sometimes it can be done. You watch as a band of Bighorn Sheep scamper along the ledges of the vertical cliff on the east side of Bear Creek, heading out for a morning’s grazing on the mountainside, one of them dislodging a rock that crashes down into the sycamore below. And you remember that sound from last night. But what, you wonder, was that sheep doing moving around on the cliff in the dark? A little further on you find a few clumps of soft fur near some grass at the edge of Bear Creek. The ground is disturbed, as if a struggle took place. Could this be the source of that disturbing plaintive cry in the dark? On certain trails and places you come across a confusion of tracks of all shapes and sizes. Some are easily identified; others, one is not so sure about. But one thing is for certain: there sure was a lot of activity down in the Creek last night!

jack rabbit

Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus)
"Me thinks there's foxes about."

      
Striped Skunk

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)
"Foxes, you say ... What? ... Me Worry?"


Over the past 13 years that Becky and I have been welcoming guests to Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, we have come to identify many of the nocturnal sounds that we hear at night and associate them with visual daylight observation of most of the wildlife that calls the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve their home. Many, but not all by any means!

And so it was with great anticipation when our good friend and neighbor, Bill Marcy, announced in early January last year that his wife Dale had gifted him with a camera that could be set out in the field and left for days at a time, whereupon sensing movement of any sort, the camera would activate automatically and photograph wildlife going about their activities, day or night. At the time, I was only vaguely aware of these trail cameras, or game cameras as they are sometimes called, and knew little about them. As Bill explained his camera’s capabilities, it seemed to me that this just might be the thing for learning more about the habits of some of the unidentified nocturnal wildlife on the Nature Preserve and, perhaps, the source of some of the remaining unidentified nighttime sounds that we often hear. Together, we began to think about which trails and locations down along the Creek might offer the best results.

desert cottontail

Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii)
"Well, I do ... so I'M leaving."

Once the domain of only the most serious nature photographer, digital photography has now made the field of automatic sensing and self-activating cameras affordable for anyone interested in learning more about the life of resident wildlife. Ranging in cost from under $100 to $400-$500, a wide range of trail cameras are now available to provide the nature enthusiast or families with countless hours of enjoyment in the field and at home. Choosing a camera is fairly easy, depending on one’s interest, and there are numerous sites on the internet (1) which will aid in the selection. Whether you and your family simply want to discover what creature is stealing the bird seed from your backyard feeder at night, or you have a deep passion for nature study and want to make an intensive study and photographic journal of the various wildlife that would frequent a particular water hole or well-travelled animal trail over a week’s time, you can find a trail camera to suit your budget and needs.

Desert Cottontail

Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii)
"Me, too ... um, can you see me now?"

      
collard peccary or javelina

Collared Peccary or Javelina (Tayassu tajacu)
"Forget about the foxes ... there's something else on the wind ..."


Like all digital cameras, trail cameras have advanced greatly in the past few years. As in any type of photography there are several features on which a camera choice will be made:

  • Type of Flash – Trail cameras have either an incandescent or infrared flash. Each has its pros and cons. Cameras equipped with an incandescent flash are capable of rendering high resolution, quality full-color photos both at night as well as during the day, but the bright flash tends to frighten some wildlife away and will also attract the attention of other humans when left unattended in the field. Cameras equipped with an infrared flash will take full-color or black and white photos during the day, but all of them will take only black and white photos at night, which tend to be of lower resolution and quality than incandescent cameras of comparable cost. On the positive side, infrared cameras do not frighten wildlife as they only emit a faint red glow when triggered, which is difficult to see unless the photographed subject is looking straight at it. A recent higher-cost feature for infrared flash is that of using an infrared spectrum wave length that is undetectable to the human eye, one that emits no glow and cannot be seen even when looking straight at it.
  • Flash Range – This is the distance at which a subject can be photographed at night, and can vary from less than 20 feet to 80 feet or more in high-end cameras.
  • Trigger Time – This is the amount of time a camera takes to detect the subject, snap the photo and record it on the memory card. Here, faster is better and more desirable.
  • Detection Zone Width and Range – This is the area that is covered in front of the camera that is being monitored by the camera’s motion sensor. The detection zone in cameras is defined by width (narrow to wide angle) and range (distance from 30 feet to 100 feet) and will vary on different cameras depending on their intended use.
  • Recovery Time – This is the amount of time it takes the camera to take a photo, record that photo on a memory card, and then reset, ready to take the next photo. Recovery times vary greatly, from as little as one-half second to as much as 60 seconds.
  • Type of batteries – Batteries on most cameras are either rechargeable or regular small ones such as AA. Battery life can range from several weeks to several months and can take hundreds to several thousands of pictures per set of batteries depending on the camera and type of memory card.

Desert Mule Deer

Desert Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus crooki) "Foxes? Nothing to worry about."

Today, trail cameras are increasingly being used in all sorts of outdoor activities, from weekend camping trips and family vacations, to amateur birding or naturalist expeditions, to professional wildlife research applications around the world, facilitating general reconnaissance studies, to population management and environmental data collection.

desert mule deer

Desert Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus crooki)
"Whoops! That's not a fox! See ya."

Like everything else in the digital world, trail cameras are rapidly evolving. Some of the new features which are available include video capability in addition to still photographs, simultaneous sound recording, time lapse capability, and, would you believe, even transmission of photos automatically to you via your cellular network in under 60 seconds from the time the photo is taken! Hmmm… enter the era of the Virtual Naturalist! Just think, pretty soon it won’t be necessary to even go outside and leave the living room couch at all! Amazing …

mystery pix

Guess Who? (answer below)
"HEY! Where'd everybody go? ... Wait for me!"

During the past year, Bill has enjoyed setting out his camera in various places around the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve and has gotten some great photos, some of which are shown in this blog. So far, all of the nighttime photos have been of animals that are commonly seen here during daylight hours. Some of the small and more nocturnal animals that are known to live here, such as the Raccoon and the shy Coatimundi have thus far been successful in avoiding the camera. Likewise missing in action is the Ringtail, which is also thought to live here. In terms of larger animals, neither Black Bear or Mountain Lion have turned up yet for their private photo shoot, even though visual sightings of both were made on the preserve last year. Bill is not discouraged though, and for each of us here at the Casitas the thrill of the hunt continues as this blog is written. Maybe tonight will be the night!

striped skunk

"Make My Night!"

REFERENCES

www.trailcampro.com is a great site if your are thinking about purchasing a trail camera. They have detailed reviews on many models with lots of actual photos, and state that they personally test all the cameras they sell.

Answer: bobcat (Felis rufus)

Posted in Bear Creek, nature, nature preserve, wildlife | Tagged | 1 Comment

Becky & Michael O'Connor, Owners
CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES & ART GALLERY
50 Casita Flats Rd • PO Box 325 • Gila, New Mexico 88038
575-535-4455

info@casitasdegila.com

 

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