It’s the “Waiting for the Rains Time” in the Southwest. After a mostly-dry and colder-than-usual La Niña Winter, and a cool and even drier Spring, the entire Southwest is exceptionally dry, and every living thing — humans, animals, birds, and plants — is waiting. Waiting for the annual North American Monsoon or Southwest Monsoon rains that traditionally begin in New Mexico and Arizona around the last week in June to the first two weeks of July.
Bear Creek still flowing in late June
Here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses and Nature Preserve it is no different, although you wouldn’t know it standing in front of the Casitas and looking at Bear Creek below, where a lush green oasis of cottonwoods, sycamores, willows, oak, ash, alder, and seep willow beckons our guests for a shady respite from the Summer sun. For even in a very dry year, such as this year, Bear Creek maintains a small, yet persistent, flow below the Casitas, a flow that’s a few inches deep and a few feet wide, fed by numerous stream-bed springs scattered along its sinuous course from the Piños Altos Mountains on the horizon to the North and East.
mesquite beans in New Mexico
At a distance, except for the tell-tale dry brown grass left over from the heavy rains of last Summer and Fall, the hills and mountains bordering Bear Creek look much as they always do, checkered with numerous dark-green juniper and piñon trees and abundant, bright, yellow-green clumps of Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), their abundant golden efflorescent flowerings of last month now replaced by copious quantities of long, slender, immature green bean pods.
Yet upon closer inspection, the signs of the current extended dry are everywhere, and some of the apparent greening and flowering is deceptive. The flowering and fruiting of the Honey Mesquite, for example, cannot be trusted as evidence of recent rainfall as this plant is well adapted to the vagaries of desert precipitation. Mesquite has an extensive shallow root system to capture the briefest shower, plus deeply penetrating roots that tap into residual moisture stored deeper underground from earlier months of abundant precipitation, such as we had during the last half of 2010. A similar deception belies the current profusion of fragrant flowers on the Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis), now blooming in the dry washes, where its deep roots can almost always find moisture no matter how dry the surface conditions.
desert willow blossom
One who is familiar with the life cycle of these high desert plants will quickly notice the absence of certain other things as well, such as how the Scrub Oaks of the upland hills, which, as usual, shed last year’s leaves in late Spring, but have not put out new ones yet – they’re just waiting. Or how many of the plants which are normally flowering at this time of year, such as the Prickly Pear Cactus and the elegant Soaptree Yucca, are conspicuously barren – also waiting. Or that the typical annual flowers of Spring and early Summer, such as Bloodweed, Evening Primrose, Thistle, didn’t germinate at all this year – later maybe, or maybe next year, or even five years from now … most plants of the high desert are very, very patient.
Indigo Bunting, Cowbird, Gambel's Quail, House Finch
Current bird life and activity, both resident and transient, in the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve is normal for this time of year, although the variety and numbers seem increased over last year. In part, this is because of the continuing presence of water in Bear Creek, but also due to the availability of several flowering Spring plants along the creek, and the abundant seeds left from last year’s extreme growth and overproduction, resulting from last year’s prodigious Summer rains. Another probable reason is the fact that we have been feeding the birds here, both at the Casitas as well as at our house and office, every day, for the past 13 years! It seems likely that it is probably now well known by our feathered friends that we feed regularly and generously, offering a smorgasbord of cracked corn, wheat, oats, white millet, whole milo, sunflower seeds, thistle seed, suet (three flavors), and hummingbird nectar (several gallons a week during season)! So whether the increased variety and numbers this year are due to the extended dry and the continuing flow of Bear Creek, or the Casita-free-lunch-entitlement-program is very difficult to judge conclusively! We think we may have created a monster. It’s somewhat scary to think of what might happen if we would quit and subject our avian friends to a sign-of-the-times austerity program. An Alfred Hitchcock movie quickly comes to mind …
By now most of the stock tanks and natural springs in the surrounding hills and mountains have dried up, so Bear Creek is the sole source of dependable water for many of the animals in the area. Accordingly, during the past month the numbers and variety of animals visiting Bear Creek have increased dramatically. In this case it has to be the presence of water in Bear Creek, because we have never fed the wild animals (and never will).
Bighorn Sheep on cliffs across from the Casitas, above Bear Creek
Ever since the first two ewes appeared this past May 6, there has been a steady parade of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep visiting the cliffs across from Casitas de Gila, in groups numbering anywhere from 2 to 20 at a time. They stay anywhere from just a night or two to up to a week, enjoying the safety of the cliffs at night, and feeding on the extensive browse available above the cliffs and the fresh green vegetation and water in Bear Creek by day. The groups consist of mostly or entirely ewes with lambs, but occasionally will be accompanied by a young ram or two. Watching this ritualistic procession for the past two months leads one to the hypothesis that in addition to the perks of place mentioned above, a couple other reasons could be in play here. One may be the probable instinctual entrainment of this herd’s geographical range and favorite haunts upon the young lambs, and the other may be that during the early weeks of the life of a newborn lamb the herd is greatly vulnerable to predation, primarily from Cougar and to a lesser extent Coyotes and Wolves, and therefore they have to keep moving. Another possibility might be that the sheep find the guests at Casitas de Gila interesting to observe as well!
Becky and Michael observing wildlife at the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve
For the past three weeks Becky and I have taken to spending a half an hour or so right at dusk sitting out on benches at the Bear Creek Overlook and in front of the office with our binoculars to observe the activity below along Bear Creek. Scarcely an evening goes by that we aren’t rewarded. We have watched Mule Deer feasting and frolicking, Striped Skunks scratching for insects, Jackrabbits and Cottontails nibbling, Collared Peccary (javelina) foraging, Coyotes hunting, and Bobcats stealthily searching. Also, we have observed stoic Great Blue Herons fishing for minnows, Wild Turkeys strutting, and Black Hawks, Cliff Swallows and Mexican bats soaring. During the day, a walk along the trails winding through the floodplain of Bear Creek can be a veritable paradise for observing various types of animal tracks and scat. If one takes the time, and uses the guidebooks in the Casitas, one will discover the tracks of all of the above, and maybe even the unmistakable print of a small Black Bear, as Bower, Chloe and I discovered last week, and as two of our guests saw twice in the flesh just yesterday.
Like all residents of the American Southwest, here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses we look forward to the onset of the Southwest Monsoon season (also called North American Monsoon) which begins in late June or early July and ends about the middle of September. Monsoons, in general, result when in Late Spring or Early Summer the interior landmass of a continent heats up faster than that the adjacent ocean. As the hot air over land rises, this causes moisture laden air from the oceans to move landward where it then precipitate as rain. In the Southwest U.S. this pattern begins in the mountainous interior of Mexico where high level moisture is carried in from the Gulf of Mexico by easterly winds aloft. As the season progresses, low level moisture laden air is also drawn in from the Gulf of California. As the forests in the mountains of interior Mexico green up, evaporation and plant transpiration add to the moisture content of the air. Gradually, the monsoonal storm pattern intensifies, and the monsoonal ridge shifts northward into Arizona and New Mexico to produce the much-welcomed rains of Summer.
This Mule Deer is watching US!
This Southwest Monsoon, or Monsoon Season as it is called locally, is quite different from the South Asian monsoon where the rainy season of the Summer months is one of persistent widespread deluge and extensive flooding, which can result in difficult hardship, but is endured with acceptance as it provides up to 80% of the annual rainfall for the Indian subcontinent. The Southwest Monsoon, while it does provide on the average 50% or more of the annual rainfall in New Mexico and Arizona, is considered more of a summer blessing and anticipated treat by the people who live here. During the Southwest Monsoon season it doesn’t rain constantly for days on end; rather, the rain is much more sporadic, spread out over some eight weeks, and characterized by short, 15-30 minute afternoon thunderstorms. These thunderstorms can be quite intense, and are great fun to watch as they build into towering, colorful thunderheads over the mountains which then slowly advance toward you to drop up to as much as 2 or 3 inches of rain before dissipating once more to sunny, clear blue skies. Almost always these thunderstorms are accompanied by a single, double, or even a triple rainbow, plus a lingering and most refreshing drop in temperature. Runoff from these storms is immediate and can provide quite a spectacle of Nature when observed from in front of the Casita building as the waters surge down Bear Creek 80 feet below. Yet, within a half-hour or so after the sun comes out, the ground and roads are dry again, and except for the odd puddle, evidence of the recent storm is difficult to find.
This year, because we have had very little rain for six months (.04 inches to date here at the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve since January 1), and because there has been such strange weather globally (a severe winter followed by disastrous fires, floods, tornadoes, etc.), there is great concern, anticipation and speculation in the Southwest regarding this year’s Monsoon Season. Will this year be an exceptionally strong Monsoon or a weak one? If one Googles the topic, one quickly finds that the projections by the various experts are not consistent and the various projections bracket the total range of possibilities. Recently, in response to this important question, the University of Arizona’s Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) Program has started a new publication called the Southwest Monsoon Tracker, which is available online and will be updated each month until September. Likewise, the National Weather Service in Tucson has a similar program called Tracking the Monsoon.
For the past 13 years, Becky and I have personally found this whole Monsoon Season phenomena very fascinating. From my past experience in trying to understand the natural world of any new area, I have learned that when one really wants to understand the truth about a local phenomena of Nature, it is always useful to seek out those respected “old timers” who have lived close to Nature and through the various cyclical climate changes that today’s experts can only research from old data. So it was in this context that a couple of weeks ago I was visiting with such a local man and friend, who was born, raised, and has spent a long lifetime in this area working with Nature on ranches and in the mines. His experience, knowledge, and wisdom concerning the natural world of the local area is held in high esteem by his local peers, and it is always enlightening talking to him. Eventually, our discussion finally came around to this year’s Monsoon Season. When I asked what he thought the Monsoons would be like this year, he replied, with a twinkle in his eye: “Well … just the other day I was talking to an ‘old timer’ I know and asked that same question. And he told me, ‘Well … when you have these here strong winds like we’ve been a havin’ this late in the year, you can bet your boots that it’s goin’ to be one humdinger of a rainy season’.” At this point, the conversation with my friend turned, naturally, to discussing just how unusual these exceptionally strong, late-in-the-year winds that we have been experiencing of late truly are. So for what its worth, according to one local “old timer”, we just might have a humdinger of a rainy season here in Southwest New Mexico this year! But then again, maybe we won’t. And no, in case you were wondering, at the time, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to ask my friend what he thought of that “old timer’s” opinion!
Ah, the mysteries of Nature!
So now we all wait. And hopefully it won’t be a long wait. Why just this morning I looked at the 7-day National Weather Service forecast and lo and behold, for the first time this year, there’s a 10% chance of showers each day and night for an entire week! Could it be that,the Monsoon of 2011 is about to begin?
Rainbow over the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve
Posted in Bear Creek, Bighorn Sheep, birdwatching, monsoon rains, native plants, nature preserve, New Mexico trees, wildlife
Tagged Bear Creek, birdwatching, monsoon rains, nature preserve, wildlife
This year it happened that the week surrounding Memorial Day coincided with a New Moon. Consequently, most of the guesthouses at Casitas de Gila were occupied by amateur astronomers, along with their family members, from Arizona, Kentucky, Maryland, and Massachusetts. The astronomers were accompanied by a very impressive array of large telescopes for astrophotography and visual observing. As is typical for this time of year, the skies cooperated fully, with clear, dark skies prevailing throughout the week. According to Chuck B. of Maryland and Paul C. of Massachusetts, two of our regular astro-guests who have been visiting Casitas de Gila three or four times a year for the past several years, the skies were judged to be “excellent” each night of their stay.
Unihedron SQM-LU sky quality readings taken June 1, 2011, at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses by Lee B.
While most astro-guests who stay at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are highly impressed with the degree of darkness, seeing, and transparency that we typically experience here, one of the first-time astro-guests was able to objectively quantify the validity of Chuck’s and Paul’s subjective determination. Using a Unihedron SQM-LU sky quality meter, Lee B. of Arizona monitored an entire night’s sky darkness, obtaining values ranging from a high of 21.8 to a low of 21.46 as dawn approached, with an average of 21.68 for the time period from 10 PM until 4 AM on June 1, 2011. These values correspond to what is considered a natural starry sky with no light pollution, and are exceptionally high when compared to other scales used to measure sky darkness.
Chuck B with the AP105 refractor telescope and Paul C. with the 18-inch Starmaster dobsonian reflector telescope
Chuck was able to acquire vast amounts of digital astrophotographic data (enough to keep him very busy processing for the next two or three months) using an AP105 refractor telescope with a PDF Focuser, on a AP1200 mount, and M8300 camera. The first of the photographs he has processed is of Omega Centauri, a dazzling globular star cluster in the constellation of Centaurus, some 15,000 light years distant from us. As our Milky Way Galaxy’s largest and brightest globular star cluster visible with the naked eye, Omega Centauri is a true giant, containing perhaps 10 million stars with a diameter of 150 light years.
Another object which Chuck has processed is the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), a planetary nebula discovered by Charles Messier in 1764, about 1,300 light years away, in the constellation Vulpecula. Messier listed this object as M27 in his catalog of nebulous objects, which are now known as the Messier objects.
Omega Centauri, taken by Chuck B.
Dumbell Nebula, taken by Chuck B.
However, of all the objects observed and photographed during the week’s star party, none could compare in excitement with the “astrophotographic capture” that Chuck made of a new supernova, the rare event of an exploding star. This new supernova was discovered on June 2, 2011, by French astronomers in the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). Chuck was able to photograph it on June 5. Located within the constellation Canes Venatici, the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) is one of the most famous galaxies in our sky. According to ongoing study by astronomers around the world, this new supernova must have taken place on May 31, 2011, as it is not shown in images taken prior to that date. As fortuitous as it may seem, Chuck had photographed the Whirlpool Galaxy on May 30, and, indeed, the supernova was not there!
M51 taken on May 30th before Supernova takes place. Photo by Chuck B.
M51 taken on June 5 after Supernova takes place. Photo by Chuck B.
The fact that Chuck and other astronomers around the world were able to pin the exact day that the star exploded is quite mind-boggling, to say the least! Of course, when one says that the event took place on May 31, it must be remembered that in actuality this event took place many millions of years ago, when humans were still but a twinkle in our Creator’s eye. So to put this event into an Earth geologic-time perspective, the Whirlpool Galaxy is some 23 million light years away from us, so what we are looking at is an event that can be pinpointed as happening on a specific day about 5 million years after the Bursum Caldera Supervolcano eruption in the Gila Wilderness, some 28 million years ago!
Paul, a long-time friend of astroimager Chuck and his partner in astronomical adventures, considers himself a member of the “old school observer astronomers clan”, those intrepid celestial explorers who, like the sea captains of old, prefer to hunt down their astronomical prey the old-fashioned way, relying solely on detailed, age-old star charts, masterful and precise visual celestial navigation, and dogged determination, instead of using any of those new-fangled, computerized, “go to” location devices. Using these tried-and-true methods, Paul was able to seek out, observe and explore numerous celestial specialties of the Spring and Early Summer firmament, such as the Whale and the Hockey Stick galaxies, the Wild Duck Cluster (M11), and the Omega or Swan Nebula (M17), using a 18” Starmaster Dobsonian reflector telescope. Back home in Massachusetts, Paul regularly gives public demonstration programs on astronomy, and so on several nights he graciously shared his extensive celestial knowledge with some of the other guests at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, as well as with local area residents who have not had an opportunity to look through a large telescope.
Trifid and Lagoon Nebulas taken by Lee B.
One of our new astro-guests, Lee B., was also able to obtain large amounts of digital astrophotographic data during the two nights he spent at Casitas de Gila. He will be processing these over the coming weeks. Lee has been been involved in photography for quite some time, and has an extensive collection of his photos available for viewing and purchase on his website. One night while he was at the Casitas, having some “time to kill at the end of an imaging run”, as Lee put it, he was able to take an amazing photo showing both the Trifid Nebula and the Lagoon Nebula, some 7,600 and 4,100 light years away respectively, in the constellation Sagittarius. The resulting photo was a single, 30-minute, sub-frame exposure which shows incredible detail despite the low altitude of the object (28 degrees) when it was imaged. Lee was using an AP130GT scope on a AP900 mount and a STL-11000M camera. This photo can be seen on the astrophotography website cloudynights.com telescope review forum. Following his return home, Lee completed processing his data to produce the photo shown here.
With the good weather and excellent viewing holding through the end of the week, eventually it was time for all of our astro-guests to return to Earth and head for their respective terrestrial abodes. All in all, it was another wonderful week for stargazing, astronomy, and astrophotography at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep and Lambs on the cliffs above Bear Creek
What a treat! Two Rocky Mountain Bighorn lambs, born within the last couple of days, appeared around noon today on the cliffs across from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses on Bear Creek. Becky noticed the babies running along the side of the cliffs (amazing!) and had me get the camera. So exciting and wonderful to be able to watch new-born wild animals right outside our door!
The two ewes we blogged about in early January stayed here on the cliffs up until about three weeks ago, with only a few absences for three or four days at a time. The big ram never returned. It almost seemed as if he told the ewes, “You stay here, where you’ll be safe, and you have good water and food, until the babies are born”. As the weeks went by, Becky and I noticed (or at least convinced ourselves) that the two ewes seemed to be getting more rotund. Then three weeks ago they disappeared. We were worried. Did a mountain lion get them? Did they just decided to move on?
They are so small! And boy, can they get around already!
Three days ago, I noticed that three ewes appeared on the cliffs. The next day two Casita guests who had been hiking along the creek told us they had encountered five sheep below the cliffs eating the new grass along Bear Creek. They thought there were four ewes and maybe one young ram. They related how they had retreated back a safe distance on the opposite side of the creek so that they would not scare the sheep and proceeded to watch and photograph them. They were really quite excited because not only had they seen Bighorn Sheep, but on their way back to their Casita they came upon six young mule deer drinking from the creek and eating the new grass!
There was no way of telling if the two ewes that had been here were part of the new group of five, but the thought that they might have returned to have their babies was exciting. But yesterday, despite repeated inspection of the cliffs, I could find no sheep and concluded that this must be another group of sheep passing through …
Time to eat!
But, no! There they are! We’re sure they are the same ewes that came all winter, and now they have babies, no more than 1 or 2 days old! Already those baby sheep are running along the vertical cliffs! It’s truly something to see and we, and our guests, are very, very blessed.
Ahh! Becky finds just the right pool at the Turkey Creek Hot Springs!
There is something deeply primal about the allure that hot springs have over people. Just where within our psyche or corporeal being this attraction lies we may never know. Yet for most of us, it is there. Latent, perhaps, until one comes upon that first warm seep or gush of hot water bubbling up mysteriously from somewhere deep below. Cool springs encountered in the wild don’t appear to have the same effect. While interesting and refreshing, and certainly much appreciated on a long dusty trail on a hot summer day, cool springs do not seem to trigger the deeper emotional response as geothermal hot springs. As humans, we are drawn to warmth. We prefer sitting by the fire instead of in a cold corner; we enjoy hot showers, but endure cold ones. Our bare skin relishes the warmth of the summer breeze, but shrinks from the cold wind on a raw winter’s day. Could it be just a comfort thing, this attraction that drives us to struggle for miles over rough terrain in the pursuit of that one more distant hot spring? For some, perhaps, that is all it is, just another pursuit of pleasure. But for many it seems to be something far more, something that resonates at a much deeper level, the ineffable feeling that overcomes one while soaking in a hot pool in the middle of Wilderness …
The pools at Turkey Creek Hot Springs
The Gila Wilderness and surrounding Gila National Forest are blessed with numerous hot springs, most in untrammeled, pristine Wilderness. Some are well known and can be accessed easily, such as the Gila Hot Springs located just off State Highway 15 on the way to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, or Lightfeather Hot Springs (aka Middle Fork Hot Springs) a half-mile hike from the visitor center at the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Others are less well known, requiring moderate to difficult hikes in rugged country, such as Jordan Hot Springs, about 8 miles up the Middle Fork of the Gila River, or Turkey Creek Hot Springs, on the south side of the Gila Wilderness.
Yet as special as these and other known hot springs are, for many it is the mystique surrounding the unknown hot springs of the Gila that brings them back to this rugged landscape again and again, each time being drawn ever further into this very special Wilderness in search of what they know must be there. As one slowly begins to unravel and understand the ancient volcanic history of this little-known Gila backcountry, the realization soon comes that there must be countless other geothermal seeps, hot springs, and pools out there, their location long forgotten, places now visited only by the birds and animals. That is unless you are willing to consider the spirits of a hundred generations of Native Americans, and more recently, perhaps, the spirits of a few frontier prospectors or hermits who once called the Gila home.
Sunset over the Gila Wilderness from the Mile Long Ridge on FR155
Turkey Creek Hot Springs are not far from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, only about 11 miles as the crow flies. However for us less-feathered-endowed mortals to get there and back, it will require a difficult physical journey, plus a good 10 hours of time. Though not for the faint of heart or the out of shape, a visit to the Turkey Creek Hot Springs promises the intrepid hiker or naturalist an intimate and inspirational sojourn into the very essence of the incredible Gila Wilderness. As special as this hike is, though, it is critical to know that access to the Turkey Creek Hot Springs is NOT always possible. High water and length of daylight hours are the two limiting factors, the most favorable times of the year being April through late June, and late September through early November. During these times the Spring runoff and the Summer rains and flash floods are generally not a problem; plus, there are enough daylight hours for a one-day visit. This is remote, rugged Wilderness and visitors who are not from the area are strongly advised to check with local authorities (such as the Gila National Forest District Ranger Station in Glenwood) before attempting a trip to the Turkey Creek Hot Springs.
I had been hearing about the wonders of Turkey Creek Hot Springs ever since we came to live here 12 years ago, but not until last week did I finally have the opportunity to visit them with my good friend and neighbor Bill Marcy and a couple of his visiting family members, John and Becky. Bill is a local hiking guide in our area, and enjoys taking tourists and visitors to special, out-of-the-way places, such as the Turkey Creek Hot Springs.
John and Becky fording the Gila River
The drive to the trail head from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses takes close to an hour. The first five miles pass quickly, driving through hilly ranch land covered with juniper, piñon and mesquite, along the less-travelled portion of Hooker Loop before returning to State Road 153 (aka Turkey Creek Road). Turning north towards the mountains, SR 153 soon becomes Forest Road 155 (still aka Turkey Creek Road). For the next nine miles one travels a rough, winding, gravel road that leads deep into the Gila National Forest. While a 4-wheel drive vehicle is not necessary, high clearance, good tires, and good brakes are strongly advised. Leaving the Gila Valley, FR 155 climbs abruptly and steeply into the lower hills and mountains of the Piños Altos Range to top out along a mile-long grassy ridge at 5,800 feet, sparsely vegetated with piñon, juniper, prickly pear cactus, and sotol agave. Upon ascending this ridge, one immediately encounters a most spectacular panoramic view extending every direction. So incredible is this view that it is impossible not to stop and get out to experience fully the vast natural grandeur of the Gila.
Sycamore Guardians of Turkey Creek
Looking north, the interior mountain peaks of the Gila Wilderness soar majestically upward from the deep canyon tracing the course of the Gila River hidden far below. To the east rocky cliffs of Gila Conglomerate outline the course of the Bear Creek drainage basin stretching upstream some 20 miles to Piños Altos, a few miles north of the volcanic peak of Bear Mountain looming on the far horizon. Five miles to the south, Turtle Rock and Telephone Mountain mark the location of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses in Bear Creek Canyon below, and further on the undulating range of the Burro Mountains makes up the southern skyline. Now turning to the west, the eye is treated to the verdant course of the Gila Valley that can be traced for miles, the Gila River itself hidden deep amongst the ancient cottonwoods lining its banks. Standing there, an awareness soon creeps into one’s consciousness that here, spread out in every direction, is the essence of Southwest New Mexico, and it is indeed a Land of Enchantment!
Continuing on, the road now drops off the ridge and begins a long and winding descent into Brushy Canyon, to eventually bottom out on the Gila River Floodplain where the trailhead to Turkey Creek Hot Springs is waiting. In years past it was possible to drive another half mile before coming to the first fording of the Gila River. But now, due to a portion of the road being washed out during a flood, a barricade of large boulders announces that it’s time to park Bill’s Bronco and start hiking.
Bill demonstrating good balance
The first half mile of the trail takes us along the remainder of the washed-out road, passing beneath the arching branches of a grove of ancient cottonwood and white-trunked sycamore, the cottonwoods resplendent in their new yellow-green leaves. Soon we encounter a calf-deep ford crossing the Gila River, the first of three that must be crossed before reaching the mouth of Turkey Creek Canyon. A couple of our party pause to change into canvas footwear which they will wear until the final crossing is left behind. The clear water is rather cold, but unnoticed in the warm, late morning sun, the eastern peaks before us gleaming and beckoning us onward.
The last crossing is soon reached, the deepest of the three, but still only up to one’s knees. At this point the trail leaves the River and enters Turkey Creek Canyon. Almost immediately we come to the remains of an old wooden corral and loading chute, an ancient windmill, and a couple of collapsing buildings, remnants of ranching days gone by, now all but reclaimed by the encroaching Wilderness.
Slow going, but gorgeous
The trail up Turkey Creek is a journey of indescribable beauty. Mostly sticking to the west bank of the creek, it leads us on a marvelous Spring adventure into an ever-deepening canyon of vertical, multicolored volcanic walls that soar into the cobalt sky beneath the eccentric tangle of bone- white branches of mature sycamore reaching for the sky, their Spring buds just starting to swell. At first only a trickle, the flow of Turkey Creek slowly increases as we make our way northward. The canyon gradually narrows as the boulders of volcanic welded tuff scattered within and along the creek increase in size and number.
Two miles up Turkey Creek we come to a lovely, spacious, and inviting camping area on the west side of the Creek within a delightful grove of mixed pine and hardwood. The canopy of piñon, gray oak, walnut, ponderosa, sycamore, and ash provide a cool, shady respite from the warming sun. It is obvious from the old rock-lined fire pits that this has been a favorite camping site for many, many years. Yet it has been well cared for by those who stopped here, with no trash in sight anywhere.
Bill in The Keyhole
A couple of hundred yards past the camping spot we come to the only critical fork in the trail for those seeking the Turkey Creek Hot Springs. Very easily missed, and only marked with a couple of small cairns of stacked rocks, the little-used trail to the hot springs forks off to the right while the more heavily-used Skeleton Canyon Trail bears to the left before crossing the dry wash at the mouth of Skeleton Canyon, and then begins a steep climb up a series of switchbacks to continue north along a high ridge between Turkey Creek Canyon and Skeleton Canyon. We take the right fork and continue up Turkey Creek Canyon, which immediately becomes narrower and more difficult to traverse.
The trail soon achieves faint to non-existent status, requiring increasing amounts of scrambling over large boulders and precipices and back and forth rock hopping across shallow, crystal clear pools in the Creek. But as the pace slows and the difficulty of forward progress increases, the physical beauty of the journey increases proportionately. Large, recessed alcoves of overhanging rock and layered ledges of black, shattered, glassy volcanic rock called vitrophyre, with enclosed splatter-shaped inclusions of deep red jasper-like material and crystal-lined geodes, repeatedly slow this geologist’s progress to a standstill. Entering the Narrows, we slowly pick our way along the rocky cliffs now extending to the water’s edge. And then, there it is: The Keyhole, through which all seekers of the Springs must pass, crawling and wiggling on one’s belly like a snake, praying with each wiggle and grunt that the real ones are not around and that we are indeed as slim as we think we are! Once safely through the keyhole, one is immediately confronted with another challenge: The Squeeze, a 100-foot-long narrow cleft of delightful scrambling consternation.
The big pool at Turkey Creek Hot Springs
Once past the squeeze, the way becomes easier. After a final tenth of a mile and negotiating one last rocky ledge, a deep, elongated pool, complete with a rock slide and waterfall at its upper end, announces that we are there: Turkey Creek Hot Springs!
What a marvelous and fascinating place! A series of pools, some completely natural, some enhanced with hand-laid rock dams, stretch upstream from the elongated pool. The various sized pools offer enough variation in temperature to satisfy even a hiking Goldilocks, ranging from too hot to too cold to just right. The control for the variation is, of course, Mother Nature herself, as the cold waters of Turkey Creek mix with the 150–165 degree geothermal waters that seep, flow, and bubble from innumerable cracks and crevices both within the smooth rock and sandy bottoms of the pools and from the adjoining rock ledges.
So many pools, so little time!
As with all warm and hot springs, wherever they are found around the globe, the hot springs of the Gila do have the amoeba Naegleria fowleri, which are extremely dangerous to humans if allowed into the nasal passages, causing primary amoebic meningoencephalitis or PAM. While infection is extremely rare, it is usually deadly. According to the medical experts, the amoeba can only enter through the nose, so keeping one’s head out of the water or wearing a nose clip is considered sufficient protection (more detailed info in references below).
What is the source of these hot waters, one might wonder? Well, far beneath Turkey Creek Hot Springs, as well as beneath most of the Gila Wilderness, lies the now solidified, but still slowly cooling, magma chamber that once fed the repeatedly explosive volcanic Bursum Caldera and its northern neighbor the Gila Cliff Dwellings Caldera some 28 million years ago. The evidence for these massive eruptions is the thick deposits of volcanic pyroclastic flows and welded tuffs that are found throughout the Gila Wilderness and through which we have travelled this entire day. But here, deep within Turkey Creek Canyon, even more tangible are the hot springs themselves, a sensuous, primal reminder of just how wild this part of the West once was.
Gila Moon Rising!
A well-earned leisurely lunch is followed by a closer land inspection of the various pools by Bill, John, and myself, leaving Becky to conduct a systematic aquatic survey of the thermal variation of several of the more inviting pools and natural water slides. Great fun!
The trip back goes quickly, more direct since we know the way; 4.5 miles as opposed to the 5 mile hike in according to the GPS. In two hours of fast hiking, we arrive at the Gila River, where, just as we begin our first ford, we come across some large, fresh mountain lion tracks right where we had passed that morning. What a great reminder they are of the Wilderness that we have travelled today, that there are places where the imprint of Nature still reigns supreme. Just as we arrive back at Bill’s Bronco, a near-full moon rises over the volcanic rock cliffs, now golden in the setting sun. Wow! How perfect is that!
The Old Windmill
Traversing The Squeeze
More hot pools