casitas de gila guesthouses bed and breakfast new mexico 575-535-4455

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

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!




Posted in spring, wildflowers | Tagged | 1 Comment

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.



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 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.


  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 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

The Colorful World of the Lichens of the Gila

foliose lichens

Yellow crustose and greenish-gray foliose lichens on boulder of vesicular andesite on north-facing slope

Sitting in front of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, one is presented with an overwhelming panorama of pristine natural beauty stretching from the distant mountainous ramparts of the Gila Wilderness to the close-up verdant oasis of the Bear Creek drainage in the canyon below. The scene is ever changing with the seasons, offering unlimited photographic opportunities for both novice and professional alike. Hiking the numerous trails at the Casitas offers a closer and more intimate photographic exploration into Nature, from shear, vertical cliffs of Gila Conglomerate towering over gnarled, ancient, and massive sycamores and cottonwoods to the challenging pursuit of the diverse birds and animals that inhabit the Casita Nature Preserve. Yet, while these photo opportunities are exceptional and can provide hours of enjoyment at the Casitas, there is another natural world awaiting, hardly noticed and even more rarely travelled: The Colorful World of the Lichens of the Gila.

crustose lichens

Orange, yellow, gray, and dark brown species of crustose lichens on boulder of welded tuff on south-facing slope

crustose lichen

Gray crustose lichen on east-facing cliff outcrop of Gila Conglomerate

Lichens are some of most bizarre and interesting organisms found on our planet. They thrive in all climates and geographic zones of the Earth, from barren frozen polar regions, to the lowest, hottest deserts, to the highest rocky mountain peaks, to the edge of the ocean, to temperate and tropical forests. However, for the greater part of humanity, they are little understood. So to begin, exactly what are Lichens?

First of all, lichens are not individual species of organisms at all. Rather, they are a composite life form consisting of two, and sometimes even three, completely different species which live in a symbiotic, mutually-beneficial relationship. The greatest number of lichens species consist of a species of fungus, which is used for the scientific name of the lichen, and a species of plant called green algae. In some lichens, a species of photosynthesizing bacterium, called a cyanobacterium, takes the place of the green algal species. And in some lichens, all three species of organisms are present. The fungal component is dominant and makes up the main body of a lichen. It consists of a dense matrix of filaments completely enclosing, and thus benefitting, the photosyntheisizing algal or cyanobacterium components by shading them from intense sunlight and preventing them from drying out. In turn, the chlorophyll bearing algal and cyanobacterial components are able to use the sunlight’s energy to produce and provide food and nutrients for the fungal component through the photosynthetic conversion of water and carbon dioxide.

foliose lichen

Greenish-gray foliose lichen with cup-shaped spore producing apothecia on small boulder on north-facing slope

crustose lichen

Yellow crustose lichen on boulder of pink rhyolite on southeast-facing slope

The main body of the lichen, called the thallus, can be classified on the basis of growth form into several categories: crustose (flat, paint-like coatings), foliose (leaf-like), fruticose (branched, miniature shrub-like), leprose (powdery), filamentous (hair-like), or gelatinous. Of these, it is the crustose and foliose lichens found on the various loose surface rocks and exposed bedrock that are most likely to catch the eye of the visitor to the high desert Gila area of the American Southwest here at the Casitas.

Lichens are very slow growing, spreading laterally outward from their point of inception in most species at rates typically ranging from 0.1 to 1.5 mm per year. Growth rates within certain species, particularly the crustose species, tends to be very constant through time. Consequently, the scientific discipline of lichenometry (age determination of exposed rock surfaces by lichen measurement) has become an important tool in archeology and geology and related disciplines. By measuring the diameter of the largest lichens, scientists can determine dates of specific events, such as at sites of human habitation, or in determining cycles of climate change by examining moraine deposits (rock debris) left by the retreat of melting alpine glaciers. Growth rates for various species can be easily determined by measuring lichens on dated tombstones or old buildings. In more recent years, C14 dating using AMS (accelerator mass spectroscopy) has proven very successful in lichen dating, providing corroborating data for rates of growth determined by direct measurement methods. Lichenometry is most accurate on surfaces exposed for less than a 1,000 years; however, it can be used on ancient rock surfaces up to about 10,000 years. Here at the Casitas, one can observe crustose lichens on boulders and bedrock surfaces that are hundreds of years old.

crustose lichens

Five crustose lichen species on east-facing cliff outcrop of Gila Conglomerate

crustose lichens

Bluish-black crustose lichen growing on top of gray crustose lichen on boulder of welded tuff on north-facing slope

Lichens have been utilized by humans for thousands of years in diverse ways, including:

  • Food – For most human cultures lichens have served primarily as a famine food, particularly for peoples living in the northern latitudes. However, in some cultures lichens are considered a staple, even a delicacy. Very few lichens are poisonous, but most contain poorly digested compounds which can be removed by simple processes, such as boiling. Human use as a food in North America’s Southwest was apparently never significant.
    For wild and domesticated animals a few lichens serve as both forage and fodder, primarily in extreme environments of the far north and in lower latitude desert areas. In New Mexico lichen has been reported as a forage for antelope.
  • Natural Dye – Lichens have long been used as a natural dye for yarn, textiles and basketry. The dye is extracted by boiling or steeping in ammonia or urine. Common colors are shades of yellow and tan, however, a few species produce reds and purples. Here in New Mexico lichens have a strong tradition of use in woolen rugs and blankets woven by the Navajo, and in basketry by other tribes in the Southwest.
  • Medicine – Lichens have been and are still used medicinally by numerous cultures around the globe. Their primary use stems from a variety of secondary compounds found in the fungal component of the thallus which can be used as an antibiotic for a wide variety of ailments, both internal and external. Here in New Mexico lichens have a long history of medicinal use by both Native American and Hispanic cultures.
  • Other Uses – Lichens have a long history of use in numerous and highly diverse ways around the globe, including cosmetics, perfumes, fibers, poisons, hallucinogens, preservatives and hide tanning!


crustose lichens

Yellow, brown, and orange crustose lichens on boulder of welded tuff on southeast-facing slope

foliose lichen closeup

Close-up of greenish-gray foliose lichen showing detail of fractal growth pattern on boulder on north-facing slope


As one explores the various hiking trails at Casitas de Gila, it will be noticed that the type and abundance of lichens found growing on the rocks observed along the way vary considerably, both in species type, form, size and color. Major controls for this variation include:

  • Rock Composition – Even a cursory study of the type of lichens covering the various rock surfaces at the Casitas will show that specific types of lichens seem to show a preference for specific types of rocks. This is due not only to the composition of the rock but also to the degree and ease to which a specific rock type is broken down by mechanical and chemical weathering to provide nutrients to the algal component of the lichen.
    Almost all of the rocks found around the Casitas are volcanic in origin. Compositionally, they consist primarily of light-colored rhyolite and andesite, plus a much smaller amount of dark-colored basalt, which formed as lava and pyroclastic flows and welded tuffs. Across Bear Creek from the Casitas these volcanic rocks are well exposed in outcrops found on the mountain side along the Paradise Overlook Trail. Closer to the Casitas, the cliffs on both sides of Bear Creek consist primarily of rounded pebble-size to boulder-size pieces of similar volcanic material that was carried down from the surrounding volcanic mountains by rivers and streams to be subsequently deposited as the Gila Conglomerate some 6 to 10 million years ago. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the upper surfaces of the weakly consolidated and cemented Gila Conglomerate were broken down through mechanical and chemical weathering to release the abundant small pebbles to large boulders found on the flats around the Casitas on which lichens subsequently became established.
  • Surface Reflectivity of the Rock Substrate – The surface reflectivity of rocks is a function of both rock composition and surface texture. Light-colored rocks and a smooth surface texture will reflect the Sun’s rays and heat, while dark-colored rocks and a rough surface will absorb the Sun’s rays and heat up. The degree of surface reflectivity also has an effect on the length of time moisture is retained on or within the rock surface, which of course is an important factor for lichen growth.
  • Directional Orientation of the Rock Surface – The orientation of a rock’s surface relative to compass directions and inclination from the horizontal greatly influences lichen growth by determining the amount and angle at which the Sun’s rays strike the rock surface. These factors in turn influence the temperature and moisture retention of the rock substrate.
  • Amount of Daily and Seasonal Sunlight vs. Shade over the Rock Surface – Location of a rock surface relative to shade-producing features such as trees, and adjacent topographic features such a canyon walls or cliffs, can greatly affect and control lichen development and growth rates by regulating the amount of sunlight received and the time of year that it is received.
  • Amount of Rainfall Received and moisture retention potential of the rock surface and surrounding ground surface – Water is essential for lichen growth and survival and the amount of rainfall received on the rock surface annually and seasonally can be further affected by the orientation of the surface and how rapidly rainwater drains from the surface. Moisture retention at and within the rock surface is also a factor since some rocks are somewhat permeable and can soak up and retain water like a sponge or have thin accumulations of soil which will retain water.
  • Stability of the Rock Surface Itself – The old adage “a rolling stone gathers no moss” applies to lichens as well. While some outcrops of bedrock can be stable for thousands of years, favoring the growth of ancient lichens, other outcrops can erode so quickly through mechanical and chemical weathering that lichens cannot establish on them. For loose rocks and boulders, the degree of slope of the surface on which they rest is critical since gravity, animal activity, and soil erosion and deposition can move or cover up loose rocks prohibiting lichen growth. Indeed, by walking the trails around the Casitas one can observe and determine soil surfaces of all degrees of stability simply by noting the presence and size of the lichens.


foliose lichen

Complex patterns of greenish-gray foliose lichen on boulder of black basalt on north-facing slope

foliose lichen

Complex patterns of greenish-gray foliose lichen on red rhyolitic boulder on north-facing slope

All of the photographs presented in this blog were taken within a few hundred feet of the Casitas’ guesthouses. A wide variety of species can be found which exhibit a gamut of colors from brilliant yellows and reds to steel-blue grays and drab browns. Their textures range from simple pain-like encrustations to bizarre leafy forms displaying incredibly detailed fractal patterns. If you have a camera with even minimal macro-photographic capability, you will find that a whole new world of Nature’s color, texture, and design awaits you at Casitas de Gila!


Boulder displaying influence of directional orientation of rock substrate (and resulting temperature and moisture retention differences) upon growth of specific lichen species — yellow crustose lichen on southeast-facing side of boulder; greenish-gray foliose lichen on northeast-facing side of boulder

Posted in lichens, nature, nature preserve, photography | Tagged | 1 Comment

Becky & Michael O'Connor, Owners
50 Casita Flats Rd • PO Box 325 • Gila, New Mexico 88038



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