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Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Many Questions, A Few Clues, Emerging Answers

PART 1 of 2

Cliff Dweller Canyon New Mexico

Looking north down Cliff Dweller Canyon; Gila Cliff Dwellings on left

After Crossing the West Fork of the Gila River the trail starts up Cliff Dweller Canyon, heading to the towering promontory of Gila Conglomerate in which the Dwellings are located

After Crossing the West Fork of the Gila River the trail starts up Cliff Dweller Canyon, heading to towering promontory of Gila Conglomerate in which the Dwellings are located


The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is located in the center of the Gila Wilderness at the end of NM 15, 45 miles north of Silver City. The site is open year-round, and this year is celebrating its 108th year as a U.S. National Monument. Within the 533 acres of the Monument are 45 archeological sites spanning over 2,000 years of Prehistoric American cultural history. Two of these sites—the Gila Cliff Dwellings (open to the public) and the nearby large and mostly un-excavated TJ Ruin (occasionally open to the public)—establish the Monument’s recognition as the premier archaeological site open to the public in Southern New Mexico.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings are hidden within six south-facing shallow alcoves or caves located about 200 feet up on the northwest side of Cliff Dweller Canyon, about a quarter-mile above the canyon’s confluence with the West Fork of the Gila River. The Dwellings, while relatively small in extent and size, are well preserved and similar to the numerous Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings found throughout the Four Corners Area of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. The Dwellings, built and occupied in the late 1200s, consist of some 40 rooms of various sizes and are constructed of small flat stones set in adobe mud mortar. The alcoves or caves in which the Dwellings are constructed were formed several million years ago by stream action within Cliff Dweller Canyon as it cut downward into the Gila Conglomerate Formation.


Over millions of years this year-round spring-fed creek has cut deep into Cliff Dwellers Canyon, carving out the alcoves or caves in which the Cliff Dwellings were built

Over millions of years this year-round spring-fed creek has cut deep into Cliff Dwellers Canyon, carving out the alcoves or caves in which the Cliff Dwellings were built

By 1878, mining was booming throughout the Silver City area, and the local Wild West was now, with much boot dragging, in the process of being tamed. In a strategic move to avoid jury duty, mining entrepreneur Henry Ailman and four other potential jurors left the mining community of Georgetown near Silver City and headed north for the headwaters of the Gila River on what they purported to be a “prospecting trip”. Upon their return, they reported that they had discovered some stone ruins in caves, the first recorded visit to what later was to become known as the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Six years later, in 1884, the site was visited by Adolph Bandelier, one of the earliest anthropologists to work in the Southwest. Bandelier wrote extensively about the Gila Cliff Dwellings, as well as about numerous other cultural sites in the area, including the first description of what is now called the TJ Ruin, a large 200-room village site located at the top of a mesa on the north side of the confluence of the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Gila River near the present-day Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitors Center. Looting of artifacts at the Cliff Dwellings was prevalent even in the early days of the Cliff Dwellings, as reported by Bandelier, who described the damage already done to the site at the time of his visit by relic-hunters and vandals. These vandals, according to U.S. Government literature, had burned the roofs of the buildings, torn down walls, and carried out extensive excavations in their search for pottery, stone tools, and other artifacts.

Gila Cliff Dwellings

About halfway up the half-mile trail to the Cliff Dwellings the first view of the Dwellings comes into view

For the next 23 years various accounts remain of occasional visits to the Cliff Dwellings by professional archaeologists, soldiers on patrol or mapping expeditions, curious prospectors, cowhands, and the general public. As might be expected, and as was certainly the case throughout the cultural sites in the Southwest, most of these non-professionals took the opportunity to do a little digging on their own for pots and other artifacts, thereby doing incalculable damage to the potential archaeological knowledge that could have been obtained from this unique site.

By 1907 widespread concern over the ongoing destruction of cultural sites in the Southwest had reached sufficient levels that on November 16 of that year the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established through Presidential Proclamation by President Theodore Roosevelt and was placed under the administration of the U.S. Forest Service. In 1933, administration of the Cliff Dwellings was transferred to the National Park Service. In 1962, following years of additional archeological research, discoveries, and surveys in the area, 373 acres were added to the Cliff Dwellings National Monument, including 53 acres around the huge TJ Ruin. Eventually, in 1975, a cooperative agreement between the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service was signed, assigning administration management of the Monument to the Gila National Forest. As a result of more recent archaeological surveys and studies in the area, it is now known that the 533 acres of the Gila Cliff Dwellings Monument contain 45 archaeological sites of various types.

Gila Cliff Dwellings

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were constructed in 5 of 7 sequential alcoves cut in horizontal layers of the Gila Conglomerate; here, in Cave 1, were found foundations for three storage areas, a larger living area, and a hearth probably used by a single family

Gila Cliff Dwellings

In Cave 2 a T-shaped door provides a 13th Century clue for all to see. The single wooden viga and the round wood-filled hole to the left are all that is left of a balcony that existed below the doorway. Note the thick layer of soot from fires on the roof of the cave.


Primarily from Anderson, 1986 1 and Bradford, 1992 2

    Gila Cliff Dwellings

    In Cave 3 a stairway leads the visitor into the heart of the Dwellings. Note the vigas in the wall that originally supported a roof and possibly a second floor. Vigas such as these were cored to obtain the tree ring data used in dating the Cliff Dwellings.

  1. Field study of the Gila Cliff Dwellings and analysis of the artifacts found in them show two periods of use: a pre-500 AD Archaic/Cochise Culture use as a cave shelter and a much later habitation in the Tularosa Phase of the Mogollon Pueblo Culture (1125–1300 AD).
  2. Tree ring analysis of logs, specifically the date that they were cut for use in the roofs of the Dwellings, gives dates ranging from 1276 to 1287 AD. The results of this research suggest the Dwellings were constructed in a relatively short time, perhaps in as little as 11 years.
  3. Pottery recovered from the Dwellings is almost all Tularosa Phase, and nearly identical to the Tularosa Phase collections reported from the Reserve, NM, area, which date from 1100–1300 AD. This corroborates the tree ring data and suggests limited contact with other areas. Tularosa and Tularosa/Reserve Phase pottery are by far the dominant pottery types recovered in the various archaeological excavations at the Dwellings, suggesting limited contact with other areas. A small amount of Classic Mimbres Phase pottery was also found within the Dwellings, however.
  4. Of special note in the Bradford report is the statement that surveys of sites other than the Cliff Dwellings within the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument land and adjacent areas of the Gila National Forest showed little or no evidence for Tularosa Phase occupation of the area.
  5. Gila Cliff Dwellings

    Once in Cave 3 the visitor is able to follow paths to connected Caves 4 and 5

  6. The duration of occupation of the Cliff Dwellings beyond 1287 is unknown. Evidence of a relatively short duration is suggested by the lack of post-construction modification. There are unfinished floors and no layered, multi-level floors. In addition, there is almost a total lack of room remodeling.
  7. Hearths used for cooking and other purposes found in various rooms of the Dwellings number 8 to 10. Based on an assumed number of 4 to 5 people per household, Anderson suggest a total population at the Gila Cliff Dwellings of between 40 and 60 people who “had abandoned small pueblo settlements to take advantage of the sheltered dry cave near a year-round spring”. On the basis of this and other data, their 1986 report also suggests that “the cliff dwellings housed a relatively isolated settlement, during a time of harsh climatic straits—the well-known ‘Great Drought’ of 1276-1299—when cliff dwellings in other parts of the Southwest, notably the Anasazi area (i.e. Chaco Canyon Culture), offered a haven to refugees in similar circumstances”.
  8. In a related part of their project, Anderson, et. al. conducted a study on the ratio of storage space to living room space within the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The study yielded a ratio of 1:1.9, which was essentially the same as the calculated storage space to living room space ratios from several other known Tularosa Phase pueblo sites existing about 50 miles to the northwest. On the basis of this similarity, Anderson et. al. suggested that the Gila Cliff Dwellings were “a regular village with all rooms and space necessary to sleep in privacy, work comfortably, store food, and hold communal gatherings and rituals.” Further analysis of various room use and the determined sequential occupation of the various rooms led the researchers to further suggest that “the cliff dwellings were taken over by a whole community at once, rather than a move by one family after another”; and further, “supports the inference that the Gila Cliff Dwellings was intended at the outset as a settlement relocation and did not begin as a ceremonial location to which dwellings were appended”.
  9. Gila Cliff Dwellings

    Looking out the opening of Cave 3 towards the cliffs on the other side of Cliff Dweller Canyon

  10. Horticulture and farming of domesticated plants were of great importance to the Cliff Dwellers. This is based on the great diversity and sheer volume of plant remains left behind, which include several varieties of maize (corn), three types of squash, and several types of common beans and tepary beans. The great volume of corn cobs left behind was so impressive that it often received special mention in many of the early studies and reports.
  11. Artifacts other than pottery collected over years from the Gila Cliff Dwellings have yielded data typical of similar collections from other sites within the area of the same time period and portray all aspects of village life in the late 1200s. Notable anomalies in the artifact collections from the Gila Cliff Dwelling are the following:

    Marine shell artifacts: An exceptionally large diversity of marine shell material, used primarily as ornaments, such as beads, pendants, tinklers (bells), and bracelets, was found. These ornaments represented 11 species, 10 genera, and 1 family, almost all of which represent marine species. Taken as a whole, the shell artifacts exhibited a much greater faunal diversity than from similarly aged archaeological sites in the surrounding area.

    Gila Cliff Dwellings

    A group of terraced rooms in Cave 3; note the hearths in the floor

    Marine shell material, used primarily as body ornaments, i.e. jewelry, is found in prehistoric archeological sites throughout the Southwest, indicating long-term and widespread use as a trade item. The three possible original source areas for this marine shell material are the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California, and the Pacific Ocean. Archeological studies of the Casas Grandes (Paquime) Ruins in Chihuahua, Mexico, have shown that this very large prehistoric city (1130-1450 AD) was a major manufacturer and distributor of these types of shell ornaments.

    Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) feathers: A total of 28 Scarlet Macaw feathers are reported from the Gila Cliff Dwellings and have been interpreted primarily as socioreligious objects. In discussing the provenance of the Scarlet Macaw feathers, Anderson state “the obvious source is Casas Grandes (called Paquime in early Spanish reports), by far the largest center of macaw aviculture in the Greater Southwest, located less than 200 miles to the south”. In addition to the feathers, a single Scarlet Macaw cranium and mandible was found in one of the rooms, indicating the presence of at least one live macaw.

Gila Cliff Dwellings

Looking north from Cave 3 into Cave 4 and Cave 5 beyond

Gila Cliff Dwellings

After visiting Caves 4 and 5, a ramp leads visitors out of the Dwellings


The largely un-excavated TJ Ruin is located 1.5 miles east of the Gila Cliff Dwellings at the edge of a 100-foot-high bluff of Gila Conglomerate overlooking the confluence of the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Gila River. A thick stand of saltbush and native grasses covers the mesa top, obscuring the low mounds of the adobe and stone ruins. The limited research that has been done on this large pueblo complex site indicates that there are some 227 rooms in 5 separate apartment-like room blocks, 3 Great Kivas, 4 communal pit structures, and a partially enclosed plaza.

Summary primarily from McKenna and Bradford, 1989 3

  1. Large scale formal archaeological excavations have not been done at the TJ Ruin. All data, synthesis, and conclusions to date are based on surface sampling of ceramic and lithic (stone) materials and mapping of the exposed adobe and masonry structures done during the 1986 field season by archaeologists Peter McKenna and James Bradford of the National Park Service.
  2. Ceramic evidence indicates 900 years of occupation at the TJ Ruin from 500–1400 AD, and that the “majority of the visible site is probably Late Mangus Phase through Classic Mimbres Phase (900-1150 AD).” Towards the end of the Mimbres Phase (1000–1150 AD) there is a suggested increase in Reserve/Tularosa Phases ceramics (1000-1300 AD), followed by a possible minor occupation during the Animas/Salado Phases of the Salado Culture (1150–1450 AD). For reference, in terms of regional archaeology, the type locality for Reserve/Tularosa cultural sites is found in an area lying about 50 miles north of the TJ Ruin and the Gila Cliff Dwellings, while the Animas/Salado Phase type localities lie well to the southwest of the TJ Ruin, suggesting a small in-migration up the Gila River.
  3. In their summary regarding the TJ Ruin, McKenna and Bradford conclude that “the Reserve/Tularosa Phase may have seen an initial period during the late 12th century,(and) perhaps a short, late 13th century occupation like that at the Gila Cliff Dwellings”.
  4. Data from the 1986 mapping and surface collections show that the architectural style and village layout demonstrate features that are more typical of northern Mogollon cultural sites, such as presence of circular-shaped ceremonial Great Kivas and a walled plaza. Of particular archaeological interest is the largest room block, Room Block 1. Room Block 1 measures 60m x 40m, or 2400 sq.m., and is thought to contain 120 rooms. This room block rises 2 meters above the surrounding ground level, leading McKenna and Bradford to suggest that Room Block 1 “may be two stories in places”.
Gila Cliff Dwellings

Looking south from Cave 4 back into Cave 3; note peep holes, door and roof vigas.


A visit to the 700-year-old time capsule of the Gila Cliff Dwellings can be an incredible experience for anyone having an interest in America’s Prehistoric past. Today, unlike many of the larger cliff dwelling cultural sites in the four corners area, where the structures can only be viewed at a distance, the Gila Cliff Dwellings still permit an up-close and personal experience, where the visitor is allowed to walk through the different caves at one’s own pace and peer into the various rooms, nooks and crannies or take guided tours at various times during the day. In addition to the guided tours, Park Rangers are generally present within the Dwellings to point out various aspects of the structures and to answer questions.

Gila Cliff Dwellings pictograph

Here and there pictographs are found, painted within the ruins with hematite (iron oxide pigment). These pictographs are considered to be from the Archaic/Cochise occupation of the caves.

Gila Cliff Dwellings

Within the Dwellings maize (corn) cobs, as shown here gathered into baskets, were reported everywhere by archaeologists excavating the Dwellings down through the years

While much is known about the physical structures and age of the Cliff Dwellings, many questions still remain about the Cliff Dwellers themselves. Much potential information about the Cliff Dwellers was irreplaceably lost by vandalism and looting of artifacts before 1907, when the Cliff Dwellings were at last set aside and protected as a National Monument. Also, many of the early archaeological investigations did not utilize today’s standards for formal excavation and artifact collection, and thus much potential information was either never recognized or was subsequently lost. At this point in time, however, very little of the Gila Cliff Dwellings remains un-excavated, so not much additional information is likely to be forthcoming from the site itself. Thus, numerous intriguing questions remain, questions which perhaps can only be answered from research dealing with the broader regional context of events that were taking place at the time of the occupation of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Fortunately, the large 200-room TJ Ruin, located only 1.5 miles from the Gila Cliff Dwellings, remains essentially untouched and un-excavated, except for minor digging by early pot hunters in just a couple of the rooms. Undoubtedly the TJ Ruin will contain much important information that would be useful in the interpretation of the Gila Cliff Dwellings when it is finally excavated.

Most archaeologists who have seen the site have extolled the great value of the TJ Ruin, but not simply because of its possible connection to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Rather, the greater perceived value of the TJ Ruin is that 1) it is the last large un-excavated and un-bulldozed Mogollon Culture, Mimbres Pueblo site that remains in an essentially pristine state, and 2) perhaps even more importantly, because of the indicated 900 years of continuous occupation from 500-1400 AD.


Gila Cliff Dwellings

In front of this probable storage room note the mortar holes used for grinding maize and other seeds

The last part of the 150 year time period, between 1150 and 1300, has long been considered a time period critical to the understanding of two of the greatest mysteries in the archaeology of the Southwest. These mysteries, sometimes referred to as The Great Collapse or The Great Abandonment, concern the time period when two of the three largest and most evolved Southwestern Native American Cultures, the Mogollon and the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi), experienced major change and societal upheaval. This upheaval was both widespread, long-term, and chronic throughout their domains, ultimately resulting in the eventual collapse of these two advanced cultures’ social structure, and the subsequent abandonment of their large villages and cities. The cause or causes of this collapse and abandonment has been the subject of strong and often vitriolic ongoing debate for decades. It is in this context that the TJ Ruin is thought to offer critical data new information useful in solving this debate.


During and following a visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, most visitors are likely to be left with a lot of Who, Why, and Where questions. The Cliff Dwellings most certainly are impressive and obviously were not a simple undertaking to construct. Below is a short list of what could be considered key questions, with a brief summary of answers based on existing data, some clues that might lead to answers from further research, and some speculation about what further research might show.

Who were these Cliff Dwellers anyway and what were they like?

Gila Cliff Dwellings

Looking south up Cliff Dweller Canyon from Room 4

Archaeological data suggests that the Cliff Dwellings were constructed for 8 to 10 families that moved in as a group, probably at the same time, and built the Dwellings within an 11 year time frame, between 1276 and 1287, based on tree ring data. The Dwellings were well built and designed for all aspects of comfortable, year-round residential village living. The Dwellers seem to have eaten well on a diverse diet of local game and wild plants, but also enjoyed a locally grown abundance of domesticated vegetables, such as maize, beans, and squash. They had children while they were there, as evidenced by several burials of infants that died; but only one adult burial, a young woman, has been found. An interesting clue to this question is that they possessed status objects of imported wealth for that time period, as indicated by the recovered artifacts of abundant and diverse types of shell jewelry, macaw feathers, and the skull of at least one live macaw.

Where did they come from?

Based on the abundance and dominance of ceramic artifacts of Tularosa Phase pottery, it is highly likely that they came most recently from an area 50 miles to the north, perhaps somewhere in the area of today’s communities of Aragon and Reserve, which is the type locality for Tularosa Pottery. One clue that their heritage might have connections somewhere in the past from areas further to the north lies in the architectural feature of at least one, and possibly more, T-shaped entrance doors in the exterior walls of the Dwellings. Archaeological research suggests that the T-shaped door is an architectural indicator of an Ancestral Pueblo Chaco Culture connection or affiliation. (This possibility will be discussed further in Part 2 of this blog, in September.)

Why did they come, and why did they choose to stay in dark, cold caves as opposed to the large TJ Ruin?

Gila Cliff Dwellings

This two story structure in Cave 4 is thought to be a storage room in the lower part with no soot on the interior. The upper floor, however, has soot on the walls with a vent above the door. If wood was kept in the lower room, the upper room would have made a dandy all-in-one smokehouse for making Mule Deer jerky!

It is quite possible that definitive answers to this question may emerge with the eventual excavation of the TJ Ruin, which lies only 1.5 miles to the northeast from the Cliff Dwellings. Until that time a possible clue lies in the fact that only minor amounts of Late Tularosa Phase pottery have thus far been recovered from the TJ Ruin, suggesting that the site was not heavily occupied during the late 13th Century. Present data suggests that the TJ Ruin reached its peak in Late Mangas to Classic Mimbres time (900-1150 AD). If excavations prove this initial data correct, then the question becomes even more interesting, in that why had the large and previously long-term prosperous TJ site apparently been abandoned during the Tularosa Phase (1100-1300 AD)? One speculative answer to the question is that it may be related to the regional issues of collapse and abandonment that both the Mogollon and Ancestral Pueblo were facing at the time.

One of the reasons that has been given for the Great Abandonment is a changing climate in the form of persistent drought. One clue that drought might not have been a major factor at the TJ Ruin is the fact that during their stay at the Cliff Dwellings the Dwellers ate well on an apparent abundance of domestic crops as stated above. Those crops were certainly not grown in narrow Cliff Dweller Canyon but rather along the Gila River, possibly in the vicinity of the agricultural fields of the TJ Ruin, near the confluence of the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Gila.

Also, if the TJ Ruin was largely abandoned when the Cliff Dwellers arrived, why didn’t the Cliff Dwellers stay there, where abandoned dwellings might have been available and where they would be close to fields for growing crops. So, if the answer was not to shelter from a deteriorating climate, and there was not a problem of living space at the TJ Ruin, why did they choose to live in the dark, cold caves?

Gila Cliff Dwellings

After completing a visit to Caves 4 and 5, one can exit the dwellings by retracing the path back through Cave 3 or by climbing down a traditional pueblo ladder

In the past 15 years there has been a persistent highly, and often times hotly, debated line of research that indicates that the time period of 1150 to 1300 was marked with significant societal collapse and warfare in the Ancestral Pueblo/Mogollon world. The evidence is in the form of retreat of villages to more defendable sites such as cliff dwellings and craggy mesa tops, plus the discovery of large scale massacres, mutilation of bodies, and even cannibalism at various sites throughout the Southwest. This evidence will be presented in greater detail in Part 2. Review of this evidence, however, can certainly lead one to the plausible speculation that the Cliff Dwellers lived in their caves for reasons of safety. Apparently bad things were happening in the Ancestral Pueblo/Mogollon world, and as a result large groups of people were migrating away from the troubles to safer places. Were the Gila Cliff Dwellings such a place, if only a temporary one, in their migration away from these 13th Century “Troubles Up North”?

Were there people living in at the TJ Ruin site at the time, and if so what was their relationship with the Cliff Dwellers?

Definitive answers to this question, of course, only become possible with the complete excavation of the TJ Ruin. Even then, it may well be that the necessary data is not there. In the meantime, such questions do make for interesting speculation. Here are a few. Take your pick, or develop your own!

  • It could well turn out that with future excavation of the TJ Ruin, evidence would show that there were lots of people still living there at the time of the occupation of the Cliff Dwellings and that the Cliff Dweller immigrants were either turned away for some reason (the “no room at the inn scenario”) or that the Cliff Dwellers didn’t choose to live with the TJ people (the “didn’t like the neighborhood scenario”).
  • Much archaeological evidence is now emerging concerning the magnitude, timing, and routes of the extensive human migrations taking place between 1150 and 1300. Could it be that the Cliff Dwellings, built for 8 to 10 families, were simply constructed by the residents of TJ Ruin as essentially a prehistoric guesthouse or Inn to accommodate the waves of traveling migrants that were passing through?
  • Or, looking again at the social collapse that was taking place up north, could it be that the Cliff Dwellers were actually living at the TJ Ruins on a part-time or full-time basis while at the same time building the Cliff Dwellings as a possible defensible retreat out of fear that the Troubles Up North might follow them south to the Gila.
  • And the speculations go on and on …
Gila Cliff Dwellings

After exiting the Dwellings, a half-mile hike down a loop trail to the west brings the visitor back to the parking area

Why did they stay such a short time (as suggested by lack of adult burials, lack of trash, lack of building modifications and additions), and why did they leave?

As stated earlier, there is no evidence of occupation of the Cliff Dwellings beyond 1287, and the possibility of further evidence being found at the Cliff Dwellings is not likely. Again, what is known is that during this time period large scale migration of Ancestral Pueble and Mogollon Culture people was taking place, whether because of chronic climatic adversity or because of social upheaval or some combination. In Part 2 these factors will be considered further. Suffice it to speculate here that whatever caused the Cliff Dwellers to migrate south from the Aragon/Reserve area in the first place might have still been in existance, forcing them onward in their journey of migration.

Where did they go?

In the early days of Southwestern archaeology, the question of where the Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) Culture of the Chaco Canyon area and later the local Mimbres Phase of the Mogollon Culture went when they abandoned their homeland was typically considered an unsolvable mystery, where the standard answer given was basically “they just disappeared”. Recent research in the past two decades, however, has yielded important and far reaching answers to this question, some of which will be discussed in Part 2. Basically, the broad answer that seems to be emerging is that all of these people didn’t leave their homeland, only some of them did, migrating in various directions, while others stayed behind and evolved into new cultures.

—To Be Continued in the September Blog—

Gila Cliff Dwellings

Looking west up stream from the Cliff Dweller Trail bridge over the West Fork of the Gila River


  1. The Archeology of Gila Cliff Dwellings, Keith Anderson, Gloria J. Fenner, Don P. Morris, George A. Teague, Charmion MccKusick, 1986, Western Archeological and Conservation Center Nation Park Service U.S dept of Interior Publication in Anthropology No. 36
  2. Archeological Survey Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, James Bradford, 1992, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, Professional Papers No. 47
  3. The TJ Ruin Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monumnent, Peter J. McKenna and James E. Bradford, 1989, Southwest Cultural Resources Center Professional Papers No. 21


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A Hike Into the Rugged Gila Wilderness


The Gila Is Calling and Again I Must Go …
– For All Who Have Been There –

rain creek trail new mexico

Rain Creek Canyon as viewed from Sacaton Road


The Gila Wilderness was designated and set aside as the first Wilderness Area in the U.S. Forest Service system on June 3, 1924. This important achievement in conservation policy was largely the result of the continuing efforts of Aldo Leopold, one of America’s great naturalists and conservationists, who at the time worked with the National Forest Service in New Mexico and Arizona. Situated in Southwest New Mexico, this wild, extremely rugged landscape retains an amazing natural and cultural history – from its fiery creation from super-volcanoes 34 and 28 million years ago, to its initial use for hunting and foraging by the Southwest Archaic Culture, to later habitation by the ancient Mogollon Culture and the more recent Apache Culture, to pioneer settlers and miners in the late 1800s.


rain creek trailhead

Turn-off from Sacaton Road for Rain Creek, Trailhead ¼ mile ahead

Many people upon hearing of the legendary rugged, pristine beauty and history of the Gila Wilderness in Southwest New Mexico are intrigued, but typically put off visiting because they think that it would require several days of strenuous hiking, camping, or extended pack trips by horse to do so. Actually, this is not the case as there are numerous short, day-hike trails of easy to moderate difficulty, especially on the southwest side of the Wilderness, which will allow the time-challenged or physically-challenged visitor to experience the unique essence of the Gila while providing enticing magnificent vistas of some of the highest and most rugged interior portions of this incredible landscape.

One of the best of these trails is the Rain Creek Trail, Gila National Forest Trail 189, which has an easily accessed trailhead located just 22 miles from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. Depending upon one’s ambition and physical condition, two easy to moderate day-trip destinations and a third more strenuous option are possible day hikes on the Rain Creek Trail.

Rain Creek Trail Kiosk

Rain Creek Trailhead kiosk

The first hike is a two-mile round trip from the trailhead. This hike slowly descends 400 feet along an easily-followed trail into Rain Creek Canyon to terminate at a lovely lunch and turn-around spot where the trail crosses Rain Creek. Numerous gorgeous vistas of the upper reaches of Rain Creek Canyon and the lofty Mogollon mountain peaks beyond are presented at intervals along the way.

The second hiking option is a three-mile round trip that continues a little further up the canyon after crossing Rain Creek to a second great lunch spot at a small, level camping site on an old Creek terrace on the east edge of Rain Creek. Here, one is offered a marvelous upstream view into the Gila Wilderness interior. If it is a hot day, and one feels the need to cool off, a short off-trail jaunt down the Creek will lead to a natural, smooth rock water slide emptying into a crystal clear pool!

The third option is available for experienced hikers in good shape who aspire to high places and have lots of energy to spare after taking lunch at the second lunch spot on Rain Creek. After continuing a short distance upstream from the second lunch spot, Rain Creek Trail begins an arduous, steep and rocky 850-foot ascent from Rain Creek to the east rim of the Canyon. This part of the trail is extremely rough, involves numerous switchbacks and covers a distance of approximately one mile. Some day hikers may not want to cover the full mile up to the rim of Rain Creek Canyon, especially when considering that the return hike out will require a one-mile ascent of 400 feet from the first lunch spot on Rain Creek to the trailhead. However, a short half-mile, 400-500 foot ascent hike towards the east rim of the Canyon will provide a marvelous view to the north of the cliff-lined upper reaches of Rain Creek Canyon and the soaring 10,000 foot peaks of the Mogollons beyond.

After reaching the east rim of Rain Creek Canyon, the Rain Creek trail continues on for approximately another three miles to a junction with the West Fork Mogollon Creek Trail, GNFT 224, on the West Fork of Mogollon Creek, before continuing another three miles east to its terminus and junction with the Mogollon Creek Trail, GNFT 153. But, of course, those are hikes for extended day and overnight excursions.


hiking in southwest new mexico

Traveling north on southern end of Sacaton Road traversing Low Mesa portion of Sacaton Mesa with Mogollon Mountain Range on right

The drive northwest on U.S. 180 from the Gila River Bridge between the communities of Cliff and Gila to the Leopold Vista Overlook rest stop at theGrant County/Catron County border offers a spectacular view of the southwestern end of the Gila Wilderness within the Mogollon Mountain Range that parallels the highway some five to eight miles miles to the east. Lying between U.S. 180 and the fault-uplifted front of the mountains is the dominating landform known as Sacaton Mesa. Technically speaking, this landform is not a mesa, but is a classic example of a very large, cone shaped alluvial fan, composed of thick sequences of silt, sand, and gravel sediment that have been carried out of the mountains by the numerous streams that have drained this part of the Mogollon Range over the last several million years.

The old Sacaton Road is a county-maintained gravel road which provides good year-around access to some of the best hiking trails in the southwest portion of the Gila Wilderness, such as Upper Little Dry Creek Trail, GNFT 180, Sacaton Creek Trail, and the Rain Creek Trail, except during rare periods of extended or extreme precipitation, when portions of the road can become quite muddy. Sacaton Road dates from pioneer days and runs close to the mountain front, parallel to and about seven miles east of U.S. 180 between the Gila River and communities of Cliff and Gila on its southern terminus and the Leopold Vista Overlook rest stop on U.S. 180 on the Grant County/Catron County border.

In all probability, Sacaton Road had its beginnings as an important foot trail created and used by the Mogollon Culture people over a thousand years ago to connect numerous small villages that were situated at intervals along the front of the Mogollons where major creeks flowed out onto Sacaton Mesa. Much later the Apache would have used these same trails in their seasonal comings and goings to and from the Gila Wilderness in their perennial pursuit of game, fish, and useful plants. With the coming of Anglo settlers and miners to Pinos Altos and the greater Grant County area in the1860s, Federal troops also used this route in pursuing the Apache, who, following raids on the settlers and miners, would use this ancient trail to escape to their lofty safe havens within the Gila Wilderness and the Mogollon Mountains.

By the 1880s, large cattle ranches were being established throughout the Sacaton Mesa area by hardy pioneer families such as the Shelleys and the Rices. Stage coach routes soon operated regularly along what was now being called the Sacaton Road, connecting the mining towns of Cooney and Mogollon north of Glenwood with the prosperous and booming mining town of Silver City to the south. And, inevitably, in time, automobiles began to lurch and rattle over this venerable yet still rough-as-a-cob Sacaton Road.

sacaton mesa new mexico

Traveling north on Sacaton Road one mile south of steep half-mile grade on road connecting the Low Mesa portion of Sacaton Mesa to the High Mesa portion of Sacaton Mesa. Site of the infamous Sacaton Mesa Run.

Sacaton Mesa New Mexico

Traveling north on Sacaton Road along High Mesa portion of Sacaton Mesa. Apex of Sacaton Mesa alluvial fan in center of photo at top of light green triangle against mountains.

Sacaton Mesa consists of two parts: the High Mesa to the north and the Low Mesa to the south. Joining the two is a half-mile section of winding road which drops abruptly from the level surface of the High Mesa a vertical distance of some 200 feet down the steep side of a ridge to the near level surface of the Low Mesa below. It was here that a hair-raising and poorly-kept-secret sport soon developed, that while little known today, was, apparently, one the biggest local fun, yet highly competitive, things going at the time: The Sacaton Mesa Run!


hiking in gila wilderness

Cautionary signs at the start of the Rain Creek Trail were found not to apply for the 1.5 miles of the trail covered on this day hike

It was a brilliant July 20, 2015 morning as the two intrepid hikers set out from the trailhead kiosk marking the beginning of the Rain Creek Trail. Although caution signs warned of damage to the area by the Mogollon-Baldy Complex Fire of 2012, and stated that the trail was not maintained and difficult to find, such was not the case for the portion of the trail covered on this day. To the contrary, only minimal signs of fire were to be seen, and then only visible to a visitor familiar with the area. Likewise, the trail itself was in good shape, easy to follow with no difficult spots encountered.

vegetation in the gila national forest

Typical vegetation of the Juniper and Pinon Pine Zone at the beginning of trail. Cane Cholla, Desert Scrub Oak, and Beargrass in bloom in foreground, with Piñon and Juniper on the distant slope

The Rain Creek Trailhead is situated at the very edge of the east side of the apex of the Sacaton Mesa alluvial fan at an elevation of 6,240 feet. Immediately after leaving the kiosk the trail heads east along a south-facing slope to soon cross a major fault zone, leaving behind the sedimentary alluvial silt, sand, and gravels of Sacaton Mesa with its characteristic vegetative abundance of Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), to pass onto the layered volcanic bedrock deposits of rhyolite and andesite lava flows and pyroclastics, and the thick deposits of rhyolite welded tuffs that comprise the Mogollon Mountains.

vegetation in the gila wilderness

Once the trail begins to head north up Rain Creek Canyon, magnificent panoramas of the interior of the Wilderness greet one at every turn. Pinon Pine, Banana Yucca, Turpentine Bush, Beargrass, and Desert Scrub Oak line the trail.

gila national forest

Rain Creek Trail sign marking entrance into theGila Wilderness about 1/3 of a mile from the trailhead

After initially heading east for about a third of a mile, the trail abruptly rounds the nose of a ridge to head northeast. Here, a strategically placed wooden signpost announces the entrance into the Gila Wilderness, which is now spread out in a vast, magnificent panorama behind the sign. From this point on, the trail continues to head in a north-northeast direction, gradually descending 400 feet along the steep western side of Rain Creek Canyon to eventually intersect Rain Creek, one mile from the trailhead. During this descent the trail passes through a typical Upper Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem dominated by scattered Piñon Pine (Pinus edulis), Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana), and Desert Scrub Oak (Quercus turbinella), with intervening areas of scattered grasses, Turpentine Bush (Ericameria laricifolia), Cane Cholla Cactus (Cylindropuntia spinosior), Beargrass (Nolina microcarpa), Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia chlorotica), Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata), Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), and Parry’s Agave (Agave parryi).



Parry's Agave

Two Parry’s Agave plants: one on left is now completely dead following its blooming in recent past; one on right is now in unripened fruit stage and will soon die

Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus

Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus with unripened tuna (fruit) crowning upper pads

Hiking down towards the creek, many of the above plants were observed in various stages of flowering and putting out fruit. The Banana Yucca, which was noted as being in the flowering stage in the May 2015 Blog on the Sheridan Corral Trail, was now well past the time of flowering and fruiting, and the succulent fruits, if they had formed, had already been devoured by the animals and birds. Other plants, such as the Cane Cholla, Pancake Prickly Pear, and Parry’s Agave, had also already flowered and had recently developed fruit that had not yet begun to ripen. The Beargrass was mostly past flowering and many had fruit in the last stages of ripening. Some of the Sotol were still flowering.

beargrass berries

Beargrass berries were considered an important food source by Native Americans

beargrass in gila forest

Beargrass in fruiting stage with four-foot racemes heavy with fruit drooping over the trail offering healthy snacks to passing animals, birds, and hikers

Beargrass berries are small, ranging from 1/8th to 3/16th of an inch in diameter, but they are extremely abundant, and easily stripped from the numerous three to four foot racemes growing from the crowns of the plants. On this day, fruiting Beargrass plants were numerous along the the trail. A sampling of these berries confirmed what Native Americans have known for centuries: they are quite edible raw, and perhaps, over time, might even be considered tasty!

Ethnobotanical studies have shown that, with the exception of the Turpentine Bush (which was probably used for medicinal purposes), all of the above plants, including the Pinon Pine, Alligator Juniper, and Desert Scrub Oak, were used extensively as food by the Native American Indians in Southwest New Mexico, either in the form of flowers, fruits, seeds, roots, or stalks. In addition to food, many of these same plants were used for a variety of utilitarian purposes including basketry, clothing, medicine, cordage, dwelling construction materials, hunting and fishing equipment, weaponry, and sometimes ceremonial items.

As is true for most plants in mountainous areas, each of the above plants have both a certain range in elevation in which they can grow and a variable timing of seasonal flowering, fruiting, and seed setting that is dependent upon temperature and moisture, which in turn is a function of both elevation and ground slope direction and exposure to the Sun.

pancake prickly pear cactus

Bugs Bunny masquerading as a Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus, surrounded by Beargrass, Banana Yucca, and Desert Scrub Oak

With a range in elevation of over 6,000 feet, the Gila Wilderness and the surrounding Gila National Forest is home to over 1,500 different species of plants, over 300 species of birds, over 80 species of mammals, over 40 species of reptiles, some 30 species of fish, and about 10 species of amphibians. Like the plants, many of these species are found only within specific elevation ranges, which have been used to define several distinct ecosystems including the High Chihuahuan Desert Zone (4,500-5,000 feet), the Juniper and Pinon Pine Zone (5,000-6,500 feet), the Pine and Oak Zone (6,500-8,000 feet), the Fir and Aspen Zone (8,000-9,500 feet), and the Spruce and Fir Zone (9,500-11,000 feet).

Archaeological evidence has shown that beginning with the earliest periods of habitation by the Southwest Archaic Culture, the southwest portion of the Gila Wilderness essentially functioned as Nature’s multi-level General Store for countless generations of New Mexican Native Americans right on up to the time of the final capture of the Apache Chief Geronimo in 1886.

edible plants in the gila wilderness

Edible plants abound at all levels within the Gila Wilderness, such as here on the upper west side rim of Rain Creek Canyon where they flourish between the smooth pinnacles of light-tan welded volcanic tuff in the background and the jagged wall of an andesite dike in the foreground

It is known that seasonal camps, as well as more permanent villages, existed along the southern front of the Mogollon Mountains on Sacaton Mesa wherever perennial streams flowed south from the high interior mountains to empty onto Sacaton Mesa. The canyons cut by these streams would have afforded the easiest and best trail routes and camping spots for foraging, hunting, and fishing at various levels within the Wilderness for at least eight months of the year, beginning in early Spring at the lowest elevations and gradually progressing to the highest elevations by late Fall. Without question, for the Native American people of Southern New Mexico, the Gila Wilderness General Store was the consummate food source, a multi-level store of unlimited variety, and one whose shelves were never empty.



gila wilderness new mexico

The Gila is Calling and Again I Must Go …

rain creek trail gila national forest

The riparian forest at the point where the the trail crosses Rain Creek

After descending about 400 feet in elevation from the trailhead down the west side of Rain Creek Canyon, the trail abruptly leaves the Alligator Juniper and Desert Scrub Oak zone and enters a narrow, 100-400 foot wide riparian forest that borders both sides of Rain Creek. This riparian forest consists of a diverse mix of deciduous and conifer trees, including Velvet Ash (Fraxinus velutina), Arizona Walnut (Juglans major), Rocky Mountain Maple (Acer glabrum), Blue Stem Willow (Salix irrorata), Emory Oak (Quercus emoryi), Netleaf Oak (Quercus rugosa), Arizona White Oak (Quercus arizonica), Alligator Juniper, Ponderosa Pine (Pinus scopulorum) and Douglas Fir (Pseudosuga menziesii), with a dense understory of numerous additional species of shrubs, grasses, and perennial and annual flowering plants.

Immediately upstream from where the trail crosses the creek, a large Velvet Ash provides an idyllic, well-shaded spot for an early lunch or possibly just a short respite to refresh on the east bank of the Creek. To pause here for even a short time, especially around noon on a cloudless day, is to experience one of Nature’s Magical Places. For here, relaxing in the shade beneath the old tree, one soon notices an amazing rock formation on the opposite side of the Creek now resplendently lit by the high contrast light and deep shadow of the noon day Sun. Geologically, one quickly recognizes the formation as an exceptional example of a highly-shattered, vertical wall of andesite that exhibits numerous, multi-directional, sharp angular joint planes before plunging into the creek. But on this day, there is much more present than that … here, in a magical moment, one realizes that they have entered one of Nature’s rare impromptu outdoor art galleries, and are now witnessing a most masterful exhibit of Nature’s stone sculpture, in this case, exquisitely executed in the style of the once avant-garde art movement known as Cubism.


Nature’s sculpture exhibit of Andesite Cubism

"Girl with a Mandolin" Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso’s 1910 Cubism oil on canvas painting “Girl with a Mandolin”

From the crossing spot, the Rain Creek Trail now leads upstream on the east side of the Creek. Numerous wildflowers abound along this section of the trail, their blossoms dancing in the shafts of bright sunlight filtering down through the dense canopy of dark green foliage overhead. At about 0.3 of a mile from the crossing a sudden view of the creek at a bend in the trail reveals the presence of an inviting smooth bedrock water slide emptying into a deep pool of crystal clear water. A short investigation shows that here there is no easy access down to the pool, but, fortunately, good access exists just a short distance up the trail.

gila national forest hiking

The view upstream from the second lunch spot

From the pool overlook, the trail continues for another 0.1 of a mile along a relatively level ancient creek terrace about 40 feet above the creek before veering away to the east to begin the steep 850 foot climb up the east side of Rain Creek Canyon. Just to the west of where the trail veers to the east is a flat area that juts into the creek, which shows repeated use over the years as a favorite overnight camping spot for hikers making extended backpacking trips into the interior of the Wilderness. Large trees shade the central portion of the camping area making it a second lovey spot to rest and have lunch with easy access to the Creek about 20 feet below, and a short hike downstream along the creek to the rock water slide emptying into the deep pool seen earlier from the trail. Immediately to the north of the tree-sheltered lunch spot the tree and ground vegetation thins to reveal a magnificent view of the upper reaches of Rain Creek Canyon and the high mountains of the Mogollons beyond.

On this day no attempt was made to begin the steep ascent of the east side of the Canyon, but instead terminated right where several old trail signs on trees mark the beginning of the ascent. It was time to return. Although the trip in had only covered 1.5 miles, it had taken about 2 hours including stops. While there would be fewer stops going back, the trip out still took another 2 hours, in part because of dawdling along the way taking photos, but also because of the required 400 foot ascent in elevation in the last mile before reaching the trailhead.

As always, it had been a wonderful day in the Gila!

vistas in southwest new mexico

Panorama from Rain Creek Trailhead looking southeast across Sacaton Mesa to the Silver City Range (center distance) and Burro Mountains (far right distance)



Unlike most day hikes into the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness which start at low elevations and end at higher elevations, this hike starts at an elevation of 6,200 feet and then immediately descends 400 feet in elevation to Rain Creek before beginning a slow climb upstream to the second lunch or rest stop at an elevation of 5,900 feet. Thus, the Rain Creek Trail is an easy to moderate hike in, which makes it tempting to go further and attempt the strenuous ascent of the steep switchbacks going up the east side of the Canyon. While the distance for ascending the east side of the Canyon is not prohibitive for a day hike, the physical and energy requirements are challenging. Thus, one might keep in mind how, at the end of a long day, the return climb out of the canyon has a way of somehow becoming twice as long and as steep as it did on the way in that morning!

Normally, access to the Rain Creek Trailhead is excellent, lying only ¼ mile off Sacaton Road. Sacaton Road is, under normal conditions, a well maintained County Road. However, at certain times of the year, when there is significant and prolonged precipitation, portions of the road can become extremely muddy to becoming virtually impassable. Hence, visitors to the area are strongly advised to inquire locally before setting out on this hike.

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Summer Solstice in Southwest New Mexico


sunrise on summer solstice

From the windmill at Casitas de Gila, the Summer Solstice Sun rises over the highest point of Turtle Rock.


Guests that return to Casitas de Gila Guesthouses at different times of the year will observe, while sitting in front of their Casita watching the Sunrise, that the Sun comes up at different places along the mountainous skyline to the East above Bear Creek. In mid to late June the sun will appear to pause, popping up repeatedly and predictably for a few days from the same place behind Turtle Rock at the north end of the skyline. Then, as Summer fades and transitions into Early Fall, this anticipated shaft of Dawn’s first light begins its annual, daily southward migration, arriving at the middle of the skyline in late September. Without pausing, the southward journey of Sunrise continues for another three months until late December, when it finally comes to its southern-most point of emergence near the top of South Peak. Then, after another few day’s pause where it will be seen to rise in the same place, this first light of Sunrise will begin once more to trace its six-month-long journey northward along the skyline to finally again emerge from behind Turtle Rock.

This observed seasonal progression of Sunrise is, of course, as most of us were taught so long ago, due to the annual, year-long cyclical progression of the Solstices, from Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice and then return. The Solstices, along with the intervening half-way points the Equinoxes, mark the passage of the Seasons and the progression of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. Because the Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted at an angle of about 23.43° relative to its orbital plane about the Sun, the angle at which the Sun’s rays strike the earth varies as the Earth proceeds in its orbit. Hence, for a person who enjoys a cup of coffee or tea while waiting for Sunrise at the Casitas, over a year’s time, she or he will observe that the exact position of Sunrise will shift back and forth with the Seasons along the mountainous horizon to the East, covering a horizontal distance of about 0.8 of a mile, between Turtle Rock and South Peak, at a rate, excluding the pauses around the Solstices, of roughly 26 feet a day.

summer to winter solstice sun rise

Yearly progression of Sunrise from Summer Solstice at Turtle Rock to Winter Solstice at South Peak, as seen from the Casitas.


For over 2,000 years, the three main Prehistoric Native American Cultures of the American Southwest — the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi), Mogollon, and Hohokam — farmed the river and creek valleys and upland areas of this arid landscape, with increasing dependance on the three main crops of corn, squash, and beans as their main source of sustenance. As these cultures moved away from small groups of hunter and gatherer populations living in individual pit house structures to larger and larger communities living in above-ground complexes of adobe and stone, their dependance on reliable and successful harvests of crops became increasingly critical.

To insure successful crops and harvests, each of these cultures employed their own intertwined, two-fold agrarian strategy, the first involving complex nature-oriented religious beliefs, customs, and ceremonies, and the second, in what might be considered a more scientific and practical approach, the study of the change in the seasons as related to movements of the sun, moon, planets, and stars in the heavens. Today, this prehistoric connection of cultures to celestial phenomena is the subject of the emerging multidisciplinary field known as archaeoastronomy.

As anyone knows who has ever planted a garden, the time of planting is critical. Put the seeds in the ground too soon in the Spring and a late frost will send you back to the seed store. Put them in too late and your harvest may be cut short or ruined by the onset of an early Fall or Winter. Even with today’s calendars, long range weather forecasts, endless internet resources, etc., the natural and cyclical uncertainties of weather from year to year ensure that there are no guarantees that a particular crop is going to be successful. Fortunately for today’s back-to-the-land horticultural enthusiast, there is always the backup of the local plant nursery or grocery store.

For Prehistoric agrarian cultures the world over, including the Mogollon, Ancestral Pueblo, and Hohokam cultures here in the Southwest, knowing the right time for planting was quite literally a matter of life and death. There were no backups or plan B should crops fail. And, while the prudent Mogollon agronomist would undoubtedly have held back seeds to be used in a second or possibly a third planting, several crop failures in a row could easily mean starvation. The need for a reliable indicator for the time of planting was essential. Throughout human history it has been proven time and time again that, indeed, necessity is the mother of invention. Thus it was, over a time span of several millennia, that many of these early agrarian cultures, quite independently of one another both in time and space, turned to the heavens for the solution to their problem of determining the time of planting. Through repeated observations gathered over generations of the recurring movements of the celestial bodies, they were able to devise and construct permanent and reliable indicators of stone, adobe mud, and wood that would indicate not only the time of planting, but also the summer and winter solstices, the equinoxes, and a variety of lunar events.

Examples of these early almanacs or calendars of stone, mud, and wood can be found the world over, from the Neolithic megalith monuments of Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in England, to astronomical alignments of structures built by the Mayans and Incas in Mesoamerica, to the pictographic indicators and astronomical alignments of buildings at the Ancestral Pueblo People (Anasazi) Complex of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in Northwest New Mexico, and Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona.

It is clear from comparative research in archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy (the study of the heavens by historic and present-day indigenous cultures and societies) that down through the ages different cultures ascribed different meanings and interpretations to their observations of the heavens. Attempts at determining the deeper cultural context, significance, or purpose of the various archaeoastronomical alignments and indicators of prehistoric cultures that have been found and described is very difficult, resulting in conclusions that are generally considered speculative and subject to different interpretations. However, with respect to the use of these alignments and indicators by prehistoric peoples as a type of agricultural calendar to ensure successful planting and harvests, there is much greater consensus that such use was both essential and widespread in practice.


Sun Dagger petroglyph

Sun Dagger petroglyph

The Ancestral Pueblo People Culture (Anasazi) Complex at Chaco Canyon in Northwest New Mexico is the site of numerous examples of what many, but not all, scientists and archaeologists now consider to be archaeoastronomical constructed alignments and indicators. It all began in 1977, when an artist by the name of Anna Sofaer visited Chaco Canyon as a volunteer to record Chacoan rock art in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs. During this work she discovered the now famous Sun Dagger Site on Fajada Butte, a prominent landform rising some 400 feet from the canyon floor at the south entrance of Chaco Canyon.

The Sun Dagger Site consists of three large stone slabs leaning against the cliff which focus sunlight in various patterns across two spiral petroglyphs pecked into the cliff wall. At about 11:30 AM on Summer Solstice a dagger of light pierces the center of the larger spiral which lies in shadow beneath the stones. At other times of the year different shafts of light mark the winter solstice and the equinoxes, as well as lunar events. Following this initial work, Sofaer went on to found the Solstice Project which resulted in a tremendous amount of research regarding numerous archaeoastronomical alignments of the many of the buildings in the Chaco Canyon Complex.

The image at right is a diagram of the Sun Dagger petroglyph at the Sun Dagger Site, showing Sunlight Daggers for Summer and Winter Solstices and Vernal or Autumnal Equinox.



There are several climatic, atmospheric, and terrestrial factors that combine to produce the unique light found in New Mexico. Primary and most important is the ubiquitous high-desert climate itself, characterized by predominately high barometric pressure, low humidity, and scant precipitation. Couple these factors with the extreme atmospheric clarity that results from the State’s small population and low levels of pollution, and the relatively thinner atmosphere due to the general high elevation of the landscape, and the result is the distinctive turquoise blue New Mexican Summer sky that gradually takes on the deeper shades of cobalt blue seen in Winter. And it is because of this atmospheric clarity that the full spectrum of undiluted, non-refracted or non-degraded frequencies of sunlight are allowed to penetrate and illuminate the iconic New Mexican landscape with such intensity and brilliance.


As discussed in an earlier blog on Winter Solstice, there is a vast difference between the light and shadow illuminating the landscape of New Mexico during Summer Solstice as compared to that of Winter Solstice. The perceived intensity and brilliance of the New Mexico Sun varies along with the seasons in response to the angle at which the Sun’s rays strike the earth due to the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis. In the Summer, when the Sun traces its daily passage high overhead, the sunlight in New Mexico is virtually omnipresent – penetrating, bouncing, and reflecting soft, warm, glowing light into the shadows of even the deepest canyons and thickest mountain forests. With the coming of Fall, however, as the daily arc of the Sun’s passage traces ever lower towards the southern horizon, the intensity of the direct sunlight gradually decreases. And with this decrease, one notices that the soft warm glow once reflecting within the shadows of the canyons and forests takes on a harder, cooler, dimmer, bluish tone, and that the contrast between light and shadow has increased markedly.



This year, Summer Solstice 2015 occurred on June 20 at 16:38 UT or 10:38 AM MDT, and on this date Sunrise for Gila, NM, calculated on the basis of longitude was forecast to occur at 6:05 AM MDT. However, here at Casitas de Gila, because of the proximity of a mountainous skyline comprising Turtle Rock, North Peak, and South Peak on the other side of Bear Creek due east of the Casitas, on this morning from a viewing point beside the windmill, the Sun would not emerge from behind the highest point of Turtle Rock until 6:54 AM MDT. The day dawned clear and bright after an overnight low of 58° F. It was a beautiful First Day of Summer morning and a perfect time for a hike along Bear Creek to observe the light and shadow of Summer Solstice.

Casitas de Gila Silver City

Hiking north out the entrance road to the Casitas around 7 AM, the One Seeded Junipers (Juniperus monosperma) were still casting long shadows across the road. Looking back to the south, the long ridge extending west from South Peak still remained in deep shadow behind the Casita buildings now bathed in brilliant sunlight streaming in from the east over Turtle Rock. Here and there the last of the Spring Flowers raised their heads to greet the morning rays: beside the road the bizarre, gaudy little blossoms of the Silverleaf Nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium) and to the west, up on the hillside, clusters of sun-glazed white spires of Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) flowers soaring high into the sky.

Silverleaf NightshadeSoaptree Yucca

Desert Willows

Heading down a dry wash towards the Creek, the Desert Willows (Chilopsis linearis) (immediately above) were just coming into flower, their orchid-like pink, purple and yellow flowers glistening in back-lighted brilliance against the long, drooping arcs of shadowed green leaves.

lodging near Silver City

Leaving the dry wash behind, the Hidden Spring Trail intersects the Big Tree Trail on Bear Creek towards the north end of the Casitas land. Here, a thousand shafts of sunlight filtered down through the foliage of the high-rising stands of young Freemont Cottonwoods (Populus freemontii) on the east bank of the Creek, creating a creekside sylvan tapestry of light and shadow in a myriad of different shades and tones of lush, Sun-dappled green. The air was still and the silence complete, except for the frequent plaintiff calls of numerous unseen birds wafting down from overhead.

Canyon Grapehiking southwest new mexico

Continuing south along along the Creek, the Big Tree Trail passes beneath overarching branches of large, mature Goodding’s Willow (Salix goddingii) to soon enter a very dark and shadowed grove of Gray Oak (Quercus grisea) guarded by a sunlit curtain of tendrils of Canyon Grape (Vitus arizonicus).

casitas de gila silver citysouthwest new mexico birdwatching

The Sun is rising higher now; time to leave the comfortable hammock beneath the ancient Cottonwood and continue hiking south along the Creek. Once more the Creek itself is bathed in alternating bands of light and shadow. The banks along the Creek’s edge are lined with moist-ground-loving flowering plants such as the beautiful Spotted Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) (below left) and the exquisite stout and furry blooms of Rabbitfootgrass (Polypogon monspeliensis) (below right) ablaze in the light of the Solstice Sun.

Spotted MonkeyflowerRabbitfootgrass

Bear Creek New Mexico

Approaching the cliffs, the stream channel narrows. Dense stands of tall Cottonwoods, Bluestem Willow (Salix irrorata), Seepwillow (Baccharis salicifolia), and occasional Arizona Sycamore (Platanus wrightii) press in on the boulder-strewn channel, casting the creek in deep mid-morning shadow, except where sporadic shafts of brilliant sunlight penetrate the foliage above to illuminate, without giving reason, that which Nature wishes to be seen …

Turning and continuing downstream, it was only a short distance to the place where the towering vertical cliffs of Gila Conglomerate reach down to join the creek And it was here, in one of those moments of instant awareness and recognition, that one encountered one of those magical special places that every seeker of Nature is always looking for but seldom finds. Such places can be sought, but cannot be summoned. Like the fragrance of a flower, such places are one of the true gifts of Nature, a gift to be experienced only in the ephemeral moment, but capable of being treasured in one’s memory forever.


The scene in itself was a simple one, just a bleached rock outcrop, reddish sediment and crystal clear creek water, with a dash of complementary plant-life green thrown in, part in shadow, part in light. But oh!, how these simple elements were arranged! In essence, it was yin and yang Nature in perfect balance: light and shadow, hard and soft, big and small, placid and turbulent, life and lifeless, and on and on. A photograph was taken. Could it capture the essence of this fleeting moment? In totality no, but in part possibly, and hopefully in a way that this gift of Nature could be shared.


Downstream from the cliffs, Bear Creek makes a sharp turn to flow west. By now the late morning light of the Solstice Sun was washing at full flood stage over the shallow waters. On the south side of the creek, and bordered by one last bedrock outcrop of Gila Conglomerate, occurs an isolated shallow pool that in times of low flow in the creek, like this day, is typically completely cut off from the main flow of the creek. Often this pool is filled with small minnows, but today it was the consummate tadpole nursery, with hundreds of black tadpoles swarming among clumps of green algae. The Monsoon rains would soon be coming with flash floods that would wash away their nursery. Would they be mature enough to survive?


The Creek is running deeper and wider downstream from the cliffs, an indication that the layer of sediment over the bedrock is thinner here than the sediment upstream from the cliffs, where more of the water in the creek is flowing through the sediment beneath the surface of the creek bed. With the increase in water depth minnows are more abundant and larger along this section of the creek, darting back and forth in small schools over the pebbled bottom, the refraction of light passing through the swirling waters altering their shapes into bizarre patterns just like the curved mirrors in the funhouse at a county fair. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is in full bloom along the margins of the creek, with Springwater Dancer Damselflies (Argia plana) perched on these floating masses waiting for dinner to appear, while on the adjacent stream bank thick stands of flowering White Sweet Clover (Melilotus albus) attract a variety of butterflies such as the Cabbage White (Pieris rapae), Western Honey Bees (Apis mellifera), and other small flying insects.

Watercress and damselflybutterfly and bee

Prickly Poppy

By 11:00 AM, the drama of the alternating play of Light and Shadow of Morning Summer Solstice is almost over. As always, the Morning Light has once again prevailed and is now penetrating into almost every corner of the Bear Creek floodplain. But not quite, for while walking back to the Casitas on the floodplain across the outwash from the Dry Wash Trail, a large group of Prickly Poppies (Argemone pleiacantha) is discovered with their back-lit blue-green leaves and delicate white blossoms with deep yellow centers glistening in high contrast against the fast-disappearing shade of a young Arizona Walnut tree.


Summer Solstice eveningSummer Solstice Evening

By 6:00 PM MDT, the Summer Solstice Sun is once again beginning the eternal ever-changing competitioin of Light versus Shadow in Bear Creek Canyon. Having discovered the best vantage points for witnessing this annual contest in the past, our late afternoon journey begins at the south end of Casita lands and heads upstream in a northerly direction as the Sun slowly arcs down in the west.

Deep shadows are already encroaching on Bear Creek upon reaching the point where the morning’s observations ended seven hours ago. The light of the Afternoon Summer Solstice is markedly different than that of this morning, more yellow and warmer due to atmospheric changes. With the shadows from the Willows and Cottonwoods overarching the creek now coming in from the opposite direction, the observed landscape is immediately perceived as being very different, almost to the extent of being unrecognizable as the same location.

prickly pearbear creek new mexico

Walking up the Creek, this reversal in light and shadow perspective continues with cliffs now bathed in brilliant light that reflects down into the creek casting a warm glow into the deepening shadows beneath the Cottonwoods, Willows, and Seepwillows. High on the cliffs above the creek the pads of an Engelmann Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii) gleam in stark silent contrast against the shadowed, eroded recesses of more weakly cemented layers of Gila Conglomerate.

solstice evening

Upstream from the cliffs, where the Creek channel narrows, the shadows, as witnessed in the morning, once again press in on the boulder-strewn channel, casting the creek into a near totality of deep, late afternoon darkness. Except that now it is the opposite side of the creek that is displayed in resplendent intensity as sporadic shafts of brilliant sunlight illuminate new microcosms of water, rock, and greenery along the creek, still without reason, only revealing that which Nature wishes to be seen.

solstice evening

Over the years, Bear Creek has migrated back and forth across the floodplain in front of the Casitas, leaving in its wake alternating linear bands of barren sediment deposits filling old creek channels and densely forested intervening stands of Willow and Cottonwood. The Floodplain Loop trail offers a unique opportunity to observe this part of the Bear Creek evolution as it follows along several of these old channels. But on this Solstice day an extra added perspective is experienced as one watches how the intervening stands of trees cast a complex, ever-changing pattern of light and shadow across the trail.

hiking trails in the gilasolstice sunset new mexico

Passing from the Floodplain Loop Trail onto the Big Tree Trail, the Big Tree itself is soon encountered, the late afternoon Sun creating a kaleidoscope pattern of light and shadow on the massive multi-hundred-year-old trunk and the now deserted bistro chairs and table below. Soon after leaving the trail and heading back to the creek another of Nature’s special moments of time and space is encountered, this time a young Sycamore caught in the rays of the setting Sun, its white bark reflected in the quiet waters of the deeply shadowed creek. Magnificent!

Prickly Poppytrails at Casitas de Gila

Crossing the creek beneath the young Sycamore and climbing up onto the first terrace above the floodplain, the Big Tree trail is rejoined near the garden and the horse corral, where an extensive field of Prickly Poppies dance in the late afternoon Summer Solstice Sun. The Big Tree trail is followed north for a short distance, passing once again beneath the same overarching branches of Gooding’s Willow described in this morning’s hike, the light now coming from the opposite direction, and illuminating the first blooms of an amazing 10-foot tall stand of Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus).

common sunflower

summer solstice

As traversed previously this morning, the Big Trail is again followed past the now shadowed curtain of tendrils of the overhanging Canyon Grape and into the darkened grove of Gray Oak. Halfway through the grove of oaks the trail is abandoned, walking west to witness a spectacular display of Summer Solstice Light and Shadow that was discovered many years ago and visited regularly on Summer Solstice ever since. Here, on the west edge of the grove stands an old oak consisting of several trunks that splay out from a common base. Beyond this oak a few other trees, including several old Junipers, grow, leaving an opening in the overhead canopy through which the late afternoon rays of the setting Summer Solstice Sun penetrate in full intensity to silhouette and cast in shadow on the ground the multiple trunks of this unique tree! Because of the unique orientations of the opening behind the oak and the oak itself, this marvelous display only occurs at Summer Solstice!

solstice sunset

It is now nearly 7:00 PM MDT and Bear Creek Canyon is growing increasingly shadowed as the Sun sinks closer to the hills rising up just to the west of the Casitas. Climbing the Self-Guided Loop Nature Trail out of the Canyon one pauses to watch as the failing Summer Solstice Light catches the very tops of a large old Juniper, its branches loaded with a crop of soon-to-ripen berries from this Spring’s rain. And then … poof! … the Light is gone, as the Shadows of Summer Solstice prevail.


Posted in Bear Creek, Casita trails, nature | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A Mid-Spring Hike Into the Gila Wilderness



Gila Wilderness

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



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


Sheridan Corral Trail

Trailhead Kiosk for Sheridan Corral Trail

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

Sheridan Corral Trail in Gila Forest

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

Banana Yucca in New Mexico

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

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

Parry's Agave in New Mexico

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

hiking in southwest new mexico

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

hiking the Gila National Forest

Looking southwest down Sheridan Gulch Canyon towards the San Francisco Backcountry

lichens in silver city area

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

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

hiking near Silver City New Mexico

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

Fanney Rhyolite in Gila Wilderness

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

hiking in Gila National Forest

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

hiking in southwest New Mexico

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

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

hiking in southwest New Mexico

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

Hiking in Gila Wilderness New Mexico

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

Hiking near Silver City New Mexico

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

Golden Columbine

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

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

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

Holt Apache Trail New Mexico

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

Whitewater Baldy Forest Fire

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

Sheridan Corral Trail New Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

Gila Wilderness New Mexico

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



map of Holt Quadrangle

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

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

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


0.0     Sheridan Corral Trailhead:

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

0.25     Fault:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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