casitas de gila guesthouses bed and breakfast new mexico 575-535-4455
info@casitasdegila.com

Southwestern Guesthouses on 265 Acres
near Silver City, New Mexico
overlooking Bear Creek and the Gila Wilderness

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

THE BEAUTY OF A MID-WINTER HIKE IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

 
EXPERIENCING JANUARY LIGHT AND SHADOW ALONG MINERAL CREEK

mineral creek in southwest new mexico

Upper Mineral Creek

Southwest New Mexico: A Hiker’s Paradise

One of the great things about Southwestern New Mexico is that one has access to incredible hiking opportunities almost 365 days a year. With over two-thirds of the landscape open to public access, the diversity of available hiking in this part of New Mexico is essentially unlimited: from vast expanses of lowland Chihuahuan desert to the soaring alpine peaks and meadows of the Mogollon Mountains, from the deep mountain canyons of the Gila Wilderness to the gently-rolling piñon-and-juniper-dotted grasslands of the Burro Mountains. And no matter which hike one chooses, typically you will have the trail all for yourself to enjoy and not see another person during the course of the day. As it has been throughout its history, Southwest New Mexico is still a place where pristine Nature dominates, and humans are few and far between.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty faced by a short-term hiking enthusiast visitor to this landscape is in deciding which one of the numerous hikes to take. Hiking, of course, is a highly personal type of recreation depending entirely upon one’s interests and abilities, but the variety of hikes that are available here should satisfy all who visit.
 

Mineral Creek: A Hike for Body, Mind, and Soul

southwest new mexico

Morning Solitude:
Mineral Creek, January 15, 2014

People hike for various reasons. For some, it’s all about getting out, stretching the legs, and exercising the body, a proven prescription for continuing good health. For others, it’s more a means of pursuing a particular interest or favorite form of mental stimulation, be it birding, rockhounding, archaeology, or another aspects of natural or cultural history. And then there are those difficult-to-describe or ineffable reasons, those subjective and intangible feelings that seem to flow from deep within one’s being or Soul, which at the end of a day leave one in that unique state of mind that only emersion in pristine Nature can instill.

Of the countless hikes available that one can take in Southwest New Mexico, it can be safely asserted that there are more opportunities and options to pick from than one could explore in one’s lifetime, regardless of one’s interests. Like rocks, in New Mexico there are really only two kinds of hikes: good hikes and better hikes. All hikes will satisfy at least one or two of the three reasons noted above for hiking. However, here and there are those “special” or “perfect” hikes, those hikes that not only satisfy all three of the reasons, but do it so consummately as to keep one coming back again and again and again. Such a hike is Mineral Creek, Gila National Forest Trail 201.

Gila National Forest Trail 201

Mineral Creek Trail, Gila National Forest Trail 201

Gila Wilderness New Mexico

Mineral Creek Trail Head


Mineral Creek: January 15, 2014

Having enjoyed several highly-memorable hikes up Mineral Creek in the past, it had now been three years since the last visit, and one was anxious to return. While a return visit had been anticipated for the Fall of 2013, that trip was summarily cancelled with the overnight happening of the Great Mogollon High Country Flood of September 15, 2013, in which all access to Mineral Creek, the Catwalk Recreation Trail, and Mogollon ghost town was rendered impossible. On that date, a persistent complex of stationary thunderstorms dropped 10 inches or more of rain over a 10-hour period in the highest elevations of the Mogollon Mountains in an area encompassing the headwaters and upper drainage basins of Whitewater and Silver creeks. As a result, the Catwalk Recreation Trail along Whitewater Creek and the town of Mogollon on Silver Creek suffered extreme and extensive damage to both infrastructure and access. Accordingly, each of these locations has required massive restoration efforts which are still in progress as of this date, but should be completed by late spring of this year.

While the status of conditions at the Catwalk and Mogollon were quickly ascertained following the flood, the degree of damage to the Mineral Creek Trail could not be determined and remained a mystery up until a few weeks ago. This was due to the fact that the lower four miles of the six-mile county-maintained gravel road leading to the trail head were either washed out or buried in deep mud and debris by the flood, rendering travel to the trail head impossible. Finally, in early January, word was received that Mineral Creek Road had been rebuilt and was open to the trail head. Nothing certain, however, was known of the status of the trail itself. Since the Mineral Creek Trail has always been a favorite hike for guests staying at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, a reconnaissance hike was definitely in order!

January 15, 2014, dawned clear as a bell. The small front that had passed through a few days previously was now gone, and high pressure had moved in, along with the cold nights and warm, sunny days that are so typical for this time of year. It was a perfect day for hiking and renewing connections with one’s favorite hiking spot.

Casitas de Gila Guesthouses Silver City

Looking downstream from repaired road at crossing of Mineral Creek just above junction with Silver Creek Canyon on January 15, 2014. Boulders and debris in middle of photo are remnant deposits from September 15, 2013 flood waters, which came down Silver Creek Canyon to left of this photo.

Unsubstantiated rumors and speculation gathered over the previous few weeks had it that while Mineral Creek Road itself had been wiped out, the Mineral Creek Trail itself had been largely untouched. This might seem a strange contradiction unless one knows that Silver Creek Canyon, which comes down out of the mountains after passing through the town of Mogollon, joins with Mineral Creek Canyon about two miles downstream from the Mineral Creek trail head. Mineral Creek, Silver Creek, and Whitewater Creek are all found within deeply incised, adjacent and parallel canyons that drain out of the Mogollon Mountains from east to west, with Mineral Creek on the north and Whitewater Creek on the South. So, if indeed the thunderstorms that caused the flooding in Mogollon and the Catwalk were centered just a little bit to the south of the Mineral Creek Canyon drainage, it was totally possible that the rumors were true, and that the Mineral Creek Trail had come through the flood largely unscathed. Riding north from the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses that morning, we were anxious to find out!

Leaving US 180 at Alma, Mineral Creek Road runs four miles east along the north side of Mineral Creek to the point where Silver Creek Canyon joins Mineral Creek. At this point the road crosses Mineral Creek to continue along the south side of the Canyon another two miles to the trail head. While much evidence of the severity and great magnitude of the flood still could be seen in the first four miles, the road itself had been well repaired, and easy access to the trail head is once again assured. Pausing briefly at the junction of Silver Creek Canyon and Mineral Creek, it was obvious that the rumors were true, that indeed most of the flood waters that had caused the damage downstream to US 180 had come down Silver Creek Canyon. Proceeding onward to the trail head, Cooney’s Tomb and the small pioneer cemetery behind were found intact and not at all damaged, although it was obvious that flood waters had covered the road in front of the tomb.

silver city lodging new mexico

Afternoon Delight on Mineral Creek

From the trail head and parking area, a well-marked trail takes one along a steep bank on the south side of the Mineral Creek Canyon floodplain for a few hundred yards before dropping down to the creek. At this point, the landscape changes dramatically as a high-angle north–south fault marking the edge of the up-thrust Mogollon Mountain front is crossed and high canyon walls immediately close in on both sides of the creek. From this point on, the trail is confined to a very narrow canyon with sheer cliffs of brilliantly multi-colored layered volcanic rocks rising up a thousand feet or more on each side. The trail itself migrates from side to side of the canyon. Sometimes the trail is obvious and readily followed as it passes through groves of old growth sycamore, ash and cottonwood; in other places the trail is totally absent as it crosses lengthy stretches of water-worn bedrock or floodplain gravel, but never straying more than a hundred feet or so from the creek itself. For most of the year, except during Spring runoff and Monsoon Season, water levels in the Creek are minimal, averaging about five feet across and less than a foot in depth and in most places easily crossed on the ever-present boulders or logs that litter the valley floor. And so the trail continues upstream for about a mile and a half until the sites of the old mining settlement of Cooney and the mines are reached.

In the shadowed canyons, Mineral Creek flows golden in the reflected morning light.

In the shadowed canyons, Mineral Creek flows golden in the reflected morning light.

southwest new mexico geology

Waterfall over pink rhyolite


Mineral Creek remains to this day a magical place where the spirit of pioneer New Mexico can be sensed at every turn. It is impossible to separate the natural and cultural history of Mineral Creek, so closely are they intertwined. The earlier blog “A Time-Travel Hike Up Mineral Creek to Cooney Camp and Mine” focused on some of the key elements and events that have shaped this microcosm of New Mexican history. While many places in New Mexico share similar stories both geologically and culturally, Mineral Creek is unique.

southwest new mexico hiking

A two- or three-hole outhouse across the creek from the old mill site. Oh, what stories this could tell!

mining in southwest new mexico

Part of the foundation of one of the three crushing and concentration mills that treated the raw ore from the Mineral Creek Mines, possibly the 100-ton Mogollon Gold and Copper Company Mill.

Geologically, rugged Mineral Creek Canyon is quite complex, its sheer walls revealing a multi-million year history of volcanic eruptions, upheaval, and eventual emplacement of rich deposits of gold, silver, and copper along ring faults of the collapsing Bursum Caldera. Today, a hike up Mineral Canyon offers an extremely satisfying journey into the beauty and solitude of Nature Pristine, where civilization disappears and only the murmuring creek and rustle of the sycamore leaves break the omnipresent silence. Yet little more than a hundred years ago this little canyon was home to a small, but booming, mining camp of some 300-400 souls. There were numerous mines, claims, and prospects here in addition to Sergeant Cooney’s Mine that started it all; their names reflecting the hopes and dreams of their finder, such as the Old Strike Lode, the Leap Year Lode, the Free Milling Lode, and the Silver Bar. Serving these mines were three ore processing mills, such as the impressive, 100-ton per day Mogollon Gold and Copper Mill, where the raw ore was crushed and concentrated before beginning its long journey by huge, mule-drawn freight wagons down a road laboriously constructed through the narrow Mineral Creek Canyon by hand labor to far off smelters in Silver City or El Paso.

Only a few fragmental records, reports, and a few anecdotal stories remain today regarding the initial discovery of these riches, the ensuing years of blood, sweat, and tears development and exploitation, and the eventual abandonment of this all-but-forgotten late-1800’s mining camp. Yet for the observant and inquisitive hiker on Mineral Creek, here and there, half-hidden amongst the trees or flood plain boulders, evidence of these bygone days can be discovered along the creek in the form old stone foundations, rusting pieces of mining equipment, rotting timbers, mysterious stone retaining walls, and curious bits and pieces of unknown origin. When viewed in context of the old stories and records, these few remaining artifacts can add a sense of mystery to one’s rambles, as well as a heightened sense of awe and respect for the ingenuity and determination these hardy miners and pioneers who chose to deal and play out the hands of their lives in the depths of this little canyon.

mining history in southwest new mexico

Extensive stonework foundation, arched stone vault, and rusting equipment downstream from Cooney Mine. Assay laboratory?

mining history near Silver City New Mexico

Steam boiler at Cooney Mine


mining history southwest new mexico

Ore car? Buried in creek deposits near Cooney Mine

mining history in Southwest New Mexico

Waterline pipe junction T in creek bed near Cooney Mine


Besides evaluating the access to and conditions along the Mineral Creek trail, a second primary personal objective of this particular day’s hike was to investigate some of the geology and associated mineral deposits further up the creek from where one’s previous hikes had ended. After the first quarter-mile journey up the trail, it quickly became obvious that the September 15 flooding on the creek had not adversely affected the trail in any substantial way. In places, it was obvious that creek banks had been scoured away, and here and there a freshly downed cottonwood or a pile of flood-carried vegetative debris would be found across the floodplain, but nothing that would seriously degrade either the physical or visual enjoyment of the hike. If anything, at least to this geologist anyway, the flood waters had actually improved the enjoyment of the morning’s hike by scouring all of the transported sediment, boulders, and underlying bedrock down to fresh, squeaky-clean surfaces, revealing their true unweathered colors and textures that now sparkled in the morning sun!

hiking in southwest new mexico

Wall-to-wall squeaky clean rocks line a creek of liquid amber

hiking in southwest new mexico

Witnessing the ineffable


Once assured that the physical aspects of the trail were as good, if not better, as on previous visits, several conscious efforts were made at speeding our progress up the canyon to reach the terra incognita portions that lay ahead. But it was not to be. Over and over again, forward progress was thwarted, demanding a full stop, as the overpowering visual feast of the morning light beaming into and reflecting within the canyon walls presented a never-ending series of incredible photo opportunities.

While the light in Mineral Creek Canyon is always special, never during all of the previous visits, or any other hike in memory for that matter, had one experienced the light that was present in that canyon that morning. As we entered the towering, sheer-walled slot canyon portion of the hike, and much to the dismay of one’s hiking companion, patiently waiting 100 yards ahead, forward advance slowed to an absolute crawl, measured in 20 to 30 foot increments at a time, as each new gold-rippled pool or illuminated canyon wall demanded one’s attention. How ineffably marvelous it was! Passing in and out of the magic light we slowly made our way up the canyon to finally arrive at Cooney’s mine and lunch at 2:00 PM, about 2 miles and 15 minutes shy of 3 hours into our journey. Average speed: 0.75 miles per hour.

hiking near Silver City New Mexico

Mineral Creek color and contrast on a January afternoon

winter hiking in New Mexico

Late-afternoon light on the Canyon Rim


The sun was now on its way down behind the towering southern walls of the canyon, cutting the lunch break short as deep-blue shadows and mid-winter chill slowly enveloped our briefly-illuminated spot on the north side of the creek. The terra incognita objective ahead would remain unaccomplished for today … maybe next time. It was time to return.

winter hiking in New Mexico

Traversing the deeply-shadowed world of the Slots

winter hiking in southwest new mexico

Pools of liquid gold warm the cool shadows of the darkening canyon


winter hiking near Silver City

The stone obelisk of The Needle guards both exit and entrance to Mineral Creek Canyon

Mineral Creek Canyon runs from east to west. Thus, the Magical Light of Morning soon became the Magical Light of Late Afternoon, and much to my hiking companion’s returning dismay, every photo opportunity of the morning called out for renewed and repeated attention. So we returned as we had come. Slowly. Although, it must be said, a little faster; the return only taking 2-1/2 hours … 0.8 miles per hour!

Cooney's Tomb New Mexico

Cooney’s Tomb

Cooney's Tomb

Plaque at Tooney’s Tombstone


Cooney's Tomb cemetery

Graveside oak

Cooney's Tomb cemetery

Graves of Mineral Creek pioneers


Three-quarters of a mile down the road after leaving the trail head, rays of the rapidly-setting Sun were illuminating the cross at the top of Cooney’s Tomb as we made our final planned stop. Here, in the silence of the small cemetery behind, one watched as the last of the fading light filtered through the leaves of the spreading oak tree overhead to honor the blue-shadowed graves of those intrepid miners of long ago with accents of glittering gold.

It was somewhere between Cactus Flats and the Moon Ranch that one’s hiking companion made the mistake of uttering one of those “Wow, look at that!” comments. Respectfully answering the call, this in turn triggered a “Quick, pull-over!” response from the passenger. To the east an amazingly-large full moon was rising majestically over the Mogollons, lending its own magical light to one last photo (number 283!) at the end of a perfect day.

moon over the Mogollon Mountains

Moon over the Mogollons

 

NOTE: The Mineral Creek Trail, Gila National Forest Trail 201, offers an excellent easy-to-moderate two-to-four mile day hike in a spectacular canyon in the Mogollon Mountains that is suitable for all ages and abilities. The trailhead is accessed from a maintained County road suitable for all types of vehicles. The first two miles of this trail, which continues deep into the Gila National Forest, follows a mostly easy-to-follow route upstream along the bottom of Mineral Creek Canyon.

Because of the significant threat and danger of unpredictable flash floods in this very narrow, sheer-walled canyon, it is strongly recommended that the Mineral Creek hike NOT be attempted during the annual Summer Monsoon that runs from July 1 through mid-September.

While there is water in the creek year around (with the exception of mountain snow runoff in the Spring, and the Summer Monsoon Season), creek widths and depths are minimal with ever-present boulders and logs to facilitate the countless required crossings of the creek. Most hikers will find that the hike does not require much strength or endurance. However, because of the rocky, rough terrain and boulder-hopping on the numerous creek crossings, a walking stick may be extremely useful. Should you forget, Mother Nature thoughtfully provides an abundance of dead sticks along the creek that will serve quite well. Water in the Creek, although pristine and clear, will require purification because of the presence of the protozoan parasite Giardia. Ample drinking water, sunscreen, long sleeves and pants, and a wide-brimmed hat should considered essential. The trail for the first two miles is generally accessible year around. Beyond that distance, snow and ice may be encountered during December, January, and February. As always, Casitas de Gila Guesthouses will provide their guests up-to-date weather and likely trail conditions, directions, and maps for any of the hikes in the area.

 

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WINTER SOLSTICE IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

 
THE MAGIC OF WINTER SOLSTICE LIGHT ON
BEAR CREEK IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

winter solstice sunrise

Winter Solstice sunrise on south side of South Peak, across from the Casitas

CYCLES OF SOLSTICE ON BEAR CREEK

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 above Bear Creek. In mid to late June the sun will pop 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, steady, 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 a few days respite when 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 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 23.44° 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 sipping tea every morning while waiting for Sunrise at the Casitas, over a year’s time, and about 46 gallons of tea, 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.

winter solstice sunrise

Track of Sunrise: Progression of sunrise south from Summer Solstice at Turtle Rock (far left) South to Winter Solstice on south side of South Peak (far right)

At Summer Solstice on either June 20 or 21 (the date varies with the year), the Northern Hemisphere’s rotational axis of the Earth is tilted most directly towards the Sun. As a result, this day has the greatest number of hours of daylight in the year, with the Sun at its highest point above the horizon overhead at noon and observed rising to the northeast, over Turtle Rock. On Winter Solstice, which falls on either December 21 or 22, the earth’s axis and the Casitas are now turned the farthest away from the Sun, resulting in the fewest hours of daylight of the year, with the Sun at its lowest point above the horizon at noon, and observed rising to the southeast, over South Peak.
 

THE MAGICAL LIGHT OF NEW MEXICO

flag of New Mexico

Flag of New Mexico

Sunlight is magical in New Mexico. Its imprint upon the landscape and its inhabitants is sacred, legendary, and unique. To the ancient Native American Pueblo cultures of New Mexico, the Sun and its rays of life-giving and life-sustaining light were of central and sacred importance in their religion and cosmology, as so beautifully exemplified by the Zia Sun Symbol of the Zia Pueblo, which since 1924 has been honored as the central image in the New Mexico State Flag.

Indeed, it was the sight of the golden rays of the setting Sun illuminating the adobe walls of the Hawikuh Pueblo of the Zuni people in Northwestern New Mexico that convinced the Spanish priest Padre Marcos de Niza, on his expedition of 1539, that he had discovered one of the legendary Seven Cities of Gold of Cibola, leading to perhaps the most significant Spanish Expedition in the American Southwest. So convinced was he of this perceived wealth that upon his return to the Province of Nueva Galicia in what is now Northwest Mexico, his enthusiastic report inspired the Governor of New Galicia, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, to assemble and lead the famed Coronado Expedition of 1540.

In more recent times, the unique light that permeates the New Mexican landscape has served as a visual magnet for artists and photographers for over 100 years. Beginning with the founding of the Taos Art Colony in 1902, and the Taos Society of Artists in 1915, New Mexico quickly became, and remains today, a mecca for some of the greatest talent of artists, photographers, and writers in the United States, including such luminaries as Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams, who have come to this land inspired by the intense light and color that inundates the unique landscape throughout the year.
 

EXPLORING THE UNIQUENESS OF NEW MEXICO LIGHT

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.
 

THE INTENSE LIGHT AND SHADOW OF WINTER SOLSTICE

The perceived intensity and brilliance of the New Mexico Sun will also vary 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. By Winter Solstice this transition is complete and the contrast between light and shadow reaches its maximum, so that while the actual intensity of the light is less at any given time of the day when compared with Summer, it seems just as bright because of the greater contrast with the darker shadows. One notices that with the passing of Winter Solstice there is no warmth in the shadows at all and that snow, frost, and frozen ground will remain in shadowed places day after day even though daytime temperatures may rise 20° or more above freezing.
 

A JOURNEY INTO WINTER SOLSTICE LIGHT ON BEAR CREEK

Gila Wilderness mountains

Winter Solstice December 22, 2013. Looking north up Bear Creek from the Casitas past Turtle Rock to the snow-covered Piños Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness

   
winter solstice light in new mexico

Early morning light on the cliffs and Bear Creek, just above the south boundary fence


Morning Light

December 22, 2013, dawns high-pressure clear and in the mid-20s at Casitas de Gila, the low pressure and accompanying light snow of three days prior are now long gone, well on their way east to deliver a New England White Christmas. Looking up Bear Creek past half-shadowed Turtle Rock, the snow covered ramparts of the Pinos Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness glisten beneath low-hanging clouds in the chill morning light. Below, in the creek, the leafless cottonwoods stretch skyward for the morning light from the still-shadowed floodplain. It is an absolutely perfect day to explore and experience the brilliant morning light of a New Mexico Winter Solstice in Bear Creek Canyon.

Leaving the sun-drenched, east-facing Casitas behind, one descends the trail down the cliff-lined western slopes of the canyon to the creek bottom a hundred feet below. Reaching the bottom of the trail one sees that the morning light has also had just arrived at the base of the western slopes of the canyon. Bear Creek itself meanders in and out of the light. Starting at the south boundary fence of the Casita Nature Preserve in the early morning light, one begins a slow ramble upstream along the Bear Creek floodplain and adjacent forested stream terrace.

Gila National Forest Winter Solstice

Willow tree shadows on Bear Creek on Winter Solstice morning

Gila Conglomerate Winter Solstice

Approaching the shadowed cliffs of Gila Conglomerate


With the Solstice Sun still very low in the sky, the long shadows of the cottonwoods and willows bordering the creek criss-cross the floodplain producing a two-dimensional forest of trunks, branches, and twigs. Emerging into the light, the Creek blazes with swirling ripples of gold engulfing the even brighter, shining, gold-tinged boulders of white welded tuff. Walking at the water’s edge the silence is complete, broken only by the low murmurings of the creek and the crunching of the icy pinnacles of frost-heaved sand beneath one’s boots …

Approaching the deeply-shadowed cliffs, shallow frozen pools at the water’s edge offer crystalline windows into mosaics of entombed drab, brownish, and decaying cottonwood, willow and sycamore leaves, the microbial degradation of the leaves temporarily halted until once again revitalized by the Sun’s returning rays. Above the water’s edge, thick carpets of heavily-frosted leaves display a Winter Solstice kaleidoscope of texture and muted color.

southwest new mexico solstice

Frozen pool with entombed cottonwood, sycamore, and willow leaves and blue-green algae

winter leaves in the Gila

Heavy frost coating decaying sycamore, cottonwood, and willow leaves


cottonwoods in the Gila Forest

Young cottonwoods in morning light and shadow

Continuing upstream, the Creek meanders slightly westward away from the cliffs, leaving the Creek in alternating patterns of light and shadow that change rapidly as the Sun arches ever higher above the cliffs. Leaving the Creek to walk the trails on the east side of the Creek one soon comes to the Big Cottonwood, where the quirky wrought iron bistro table and chairs wait in illuminated silence, the table thoughtfully set by Mother Nature with last night’s fallen leaves.

Eventually one arrives at the trail’s end at the northern end of the Casita land. Here the floodplain is much wider and more open. With Turtle Rock towering in the distance, but no sheer cliffs nearby to cast Bear Creek into shadow, this section of the creek receives perhaps twice as much Sun during the course of a Winter Day. As a result, one observes that the quiet pools are not frozen here and display more abundant signs of life and activity than seen down by the cliffs. Tiny minnows dart over the fallen leaves covering the bottom of the pools, and here and there numerous new small clumps of bright-green watercress are observed growing on top of the pools and eddies along the creek.

Winter Solstice in Southwest New Mexico

Beneath the old cottonwood, the table and chairs wait empty on a chilly Winter Solstice morning

winter in southwest new mexico

Sunlit pool with new growth of watercress and blue-green algae


 

Late Afternoon Light

Some of us may remember, when as children playing outside just before sunset, the way our shadows lengthened, making us seem taller and taller as the sun slowly set in the West, and how we delighted in this phenomena as we ran home for dinner, flapping our arms in glee as we watched our shadows assume the dimensions of some giant bird.

Very few of us, however, probably ever noticed in those days the similar phenomena of how, at any given time of the day, our shadows would also grow progressively longer day by day as the Sun’s daily arc across the sky sank ever lower towards the southern horizon in its passage towards Winter Solstice.

The hilly western horizon behind the Casitas is 400 to 600 feet lower than the mountainous horizon on the other side of Bear Creek to the east of the Casitas between Turtle Rock and North and South Peaks. Consequently, the rays of the setting Winter Solstice Sun cast much longer, deeper, and higher-contrast shadows across the Casitas and down into Bear Creek Canyon than those of the morning Sunrise, because of the higher angle of the Sun when it eventually emerges on the eastern horizon about an hour after official local sunrise.

For some 15 years now, the ever-changing late afternoon play of light, shadow, and color upon the rocky crags of Turtle Rock and adjacent summits of North and South Peaks across from the Casitas has created a fascinating daily panorama of Nature’s magnificence for both guests and hosts alike. The visual effect and resulting mood imbued by this daily spectacle varies markedly with the season and the weather over the course of a year. However, for many it is during the Winter that the effect is most dramatic, when the air is the clearest and the Sun’s rays strike the Earth at their lowest angle, creating the greatest contrast between light and shadow.

winter solstice shadows

In late afternoon at Winter Solstice, long shadows of young cottonwoods cross Bear Creek downstream from the deeply-shadowed cliffs on Bear Creek

Having thought about these concepts for most of the day, it was with great anticipation that one quickly descended the trail from the Casitas to Bear Creek once more to observe, photograph, and compare the effects of the Late Afternoon Winter Solstice sunlight along the same route through the canyon that was taken earlier that morning. Having observed the Creek along the canyon bottom for over 15 years, one knew from previous photographic and painting excursions that the light and shadow of the late afternoon was typically more dramatic than that of the morning, but this was the first time that a direct comparison was made on the same day, and especially at Winter Solstice.

Arriving at the Canyon bottom about an hour before Sunset, the shadows cast from the young cottonwood trees along the western bank of the creek are already twice as long as the height of the trees that cast them, creating a ladder-like pattern of alternating light and dark contrast across the floodplain when facing upstream towards the deeply-shadowed cliffs below South Peak.
casitas de gila and bear creek Current sculpted blue-green algae encapsulating a decayed sycamore leaf showing bubbles of oxygen produced from a Winter Solstice photosynthesis[/caption]

One observes that most of the frost and frozen pools seen during this morning’s hike have now disappeared; only a few icy patches remain along the cliffs where the Sun will not penetrate again for several weeks. Shallow frozen pools that only a few hours earlier entombed fallen leaves and comatose filamentous blue-green algae are now vibrant and alive, the slow moving currents sculpting irregular masses of blue-green algae into delicately festooned amoeba-like forms of bright yellowish green, delicately capped with shining bubbles of oxygen recently released from the day’s photosynthesis.

Further along, the creek flows up against vertical cliffs of layered conglomerate. Here the contrast between light and shadow reaches its maximum, the entire creek bottom now in deep shadow with the only source of visible light that of the rippling water reflecting the last of the retreating light high above at the top of the cliffs.

gila wilderness new mexico

In the deep shadows of the cliffs ripples reflect the retreating light of the sunlit cliffs above

geology of southwest new mexico

Boulders of welded tuff, rhyolite, and andesite catching the last of the Winter Solstice light


Continuing upstream not far beyond the chill of the shadowed cliffs one comes to a transition point where steadily advancing prongs of darkness penetrate and slowly envelop remaining patches of light. One pauses to watch in fascination as one by one shining rounded boulders of welded tuff are snuffed into darkness, and the young cottonwoods on the bank beyond appear to stretch higher in the remaining light as if in a futile attempt to escape the pending tendrils of darkness now swirling about at their roots.

shadows at Winter Solstice

Fleeting patterns of late afternoon light and shadow on boulders and cottonwoods at Winter Solstice

shadows at winter solstice in new mexico

Cotonwoods catching the last of the Winter Solstice sun, along with a cobalt blue sky, reflect upon the shadowed waters of Bear Creek


Bear Creek canyon widens below the Casitas, and in response the creek, now flowing along the deeply-shadowed western side of the canyon, spreads out laterally, its shallow depths masked by the reflections of the cobalt blue of the sky above and the yellow-tinged branches of the cottonwoods along the bank, still illuminated by the setting Sun.

At the northern end of the Casita Nature Preserve, Bear Creek flows through a heavily-vegetated floodplain where during times of high water or flash floods, such as during the Summer Monsoon Season, the floodwaters overflow the bank’s primary creek and spread across the floodplain to cut various secondary channels to carry the additional volume of water. After the flooding is over, most of these secondary channels are abandoned and dry up, except for occasional pools and small rivulets which may persist in them for months afterward. The ecology of this upper portion of the Casita Nature Preserve is highly diverse, varying from dense thickets of young trees and shrubs between the secondary channels to vaulted groves of very large, old-growth cottonwoods and occasional sycamore that attain heights of 120 feet or more on the bordering creek terraces. By the time one arrives at this area on the afternoon’s hike, the Sun is very close to setting behind the low hills in the west, creating a complex mosaic of contrasting light and shadow in all directions.

shadows on Winter Solstice

In the reflections of the darkened pool, a shaft of Winter Solstice light illuminates the trunk of one cottonwood amidst the shadowed tangle of a floodplain thicket

Upstream progress slows as one leaves the main channel to follow a meandering animal trail through a dense tangle of floodwater debris trapped in the maze of young new growth along one of the secondary channels. Much of this portion of the floodplain is dark now, with only the occasional shaft of intense brilliant sunlight piercing through the dense undergrowth to illuminate selected scenes in vignettes of incredible, magical beauty.

Leaving the thicket behind, another side channel with a larger flow of water is followed upstream. By now most of this channel is in complete shadow except for the periodic pools of reflected light that thwart the gathering darkness. The beauty of the pools is breathtaking, ranging from unbelievably brilliant, cobalt-blue reflections of the overhead sky set within a surrounding frame of reflected dark twigs and branches, to surrealistic pools of shimmering white and deep yellow where the reflected light from the uppermost branches of the still-lighted crowns of the old cottonwoods is splintered into a thousand points of light by the swirling waters of the rock-strewn creek. How fleeting it all is, and how fortunate one is to have passed this way!

winter sky in southwest new mexico

Winter Solstice reflections of willows set against a cobalt-blue sky

Bear Creek at Casitas de Gila

Reflections of sunlit cottonwoods shimmer in a shadowed side channel of Bear Creek on Winter Solstice just before sunset


Diverting from the side channel, a short pathway leads up onto a sandy creek terrace where a grove of old-growth cottonwoods towers in stately silence. Here at the northern edge of the Casita Nature Preserve, one lingers a final moment in the deepening solitude, immersed in the magnificent view across the creek towards Turtle Rock before turning for home. The scene is entrancing and one of those that will live on in one’s mind for a lifetime, an incredible display of Light and Shadow on a Winter Solstice afternoon.

long shadows on Winter Solstice

Long shadows of cottonwoods point upstream to Turtle Rock at the end of a Winter Solstice day

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

A HIKE UP LITTLE DRY CREEK IN THE GILA FOREST

 
A THANKSGIVING HOLIDAY HIKE UP LITTLE DRY CREEK IN THE MOGOLLON MOUNTAINS OF THE GILA NATIONAL FOREST IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

Finding Nature’s Treasure Where Early Miners and Prospectors Toiled

Sacaton Mountain Gila Wilderness

Starting up Little Dry Creek Trail, with snow-covered Sacaton Mountain, elevation 10,658 ft., on right in the far distance.

A HIKE FOR THE OVERINDULGENT

The day after Thanksgiving dawned bright, crisp, and clear, absolutely perfect for walking off those over indulgences of the previous day’s feasting. It was to be a group hike, a mixture of three long-time, returning guests to Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, a couple of our good neighbor-friends and their dog Red, both of the Casita’s hosts, and our dogs Chloe and Bower.

Our destination of choice for the day was the Little Dry Creek Trail, Gila National Forest Trail 180, in the magnificent Mogollon Mountains of Catron County. The drive north along U.S. 180 was once more a visual feast but now of a totally different palate, with October’s golden leaves of the Mogollon High Country having been replaced a few days earlier by a heavy coating of snow, glistening brilliantly in the early-morning sun. Arriving at the trail head, it was not at all surprising to find that there were no other vehicles there. Nor would we encounter another soul on the trail that day; a typical experience and one of the most wonderful aspects of hiking in the Gila.

southwest new mexico hiking

Trail sign at beginning of Little Dry Creek Trail

  
Sacaton Mountain Gila Wilderness

Telephoto of snow cover on Sacaton Mtn. as viewed from the beginning of Little Dry Creek Trail on November 29, 2013.

The Little Dry Creek Trail offers spectacular access into the heart of the Gila Wilderness. From the trail head on Little Dry Creek, at an elevation of 6,300 feet, the trail extends some 11.5 miles to terminate at Apache Cabin, at a lofty 10,200 feet in elevation, where it junctions with the Holt–Apache Trail, FT 181, coming in from the west. Our goal for the day was, of course, much more modest: a leisurely hike of two miles to the Gila Wilderness boundary, and if time permitted, possibly a little further to explore some of the old ruins and workings of the mining activity that thrived here in the Wilcox Mining District during the glory days of mining and prospecting that took place throughout Catron and Grant Counties during the past century.

 

THE WILCOX MINING DISTRICT OF THE MOGOLLON MOUNTAINS

map of Wilcox Mining District

This map (Figure 37 on page 100 of USGS Bulletin 1451 [Ref. 1 this blog] shows areas of greatest mineral resource potential in the Wilcox Mining District between Whitewater Creek on the north and the Gila Fluorspar District on the south. In the figure the heavy solid line marks boundary of Gila Wilderness; dashed line is boundary of Gila Primitive Areas; and hashed lines are boundaries of the Bursum and Gila Cliff Dwelling Calderas. Note how mineral zones straddle Gila Wilderness Boundaries.

Between 1968 and 1971 an extensive and comprehensive mineral survey (Ref. 1) of the entire Gila Wilderness and adjacent Gila Primitive areas, was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the the U.S. Bureau of Mines. The study, published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1979 as USGS Bulletin 1451, delineated several areas in which anomalous concentrations of metals including beryllium, mercury, bismuth, antimony, arsenic, gold, silver tellurium, copper, molybdenum, lead, zinc, and manganese occur. The study concluded that the portion of the Gila Wilderness and adjacent primitive areas having the greatest mineral potential was within an area known as the Wilcox Mining District.

The Wilcox Mining District comprises an area some 15 miles long and a few miles wide that straddles the Gila Wilderness boundary that extends south and southwest along the front of the Mogollon Mountains between the towns of Glenwood and Gila. This area has been the focus of extensive prospecting and mining activity since 1879 when gold was discovered on Little Dry Creek. During the 1880s additional discoveries of gold were made within the district and in 1889 John Lambert and Dan Lannon discovered tellurium along with gold on a ridge about one mile east of Little Dry Creek near the top of Lone Pine Hill. Over the next 100 years approximately 1,500 claims were made within the district, including 16 patented claims and 2 patented mill sites. Quite a few of these claims were along Little Dry Creek, with the most intense activity concentrated near the present Gila Wilderness boundary.

During the many decades following the initial discoveries, countless prospectors and miners flocked into the rugged Mogollon High Country along Little Dry Creek and the rest of the Wilcox District area, setting off a gold and silver fever-fueled frenzy in which an incalculable amount of blood, sweat, and tears were expended. It is probably not much of an exaggeration to say that by the end of this hundred-year interval there was hardly a stone left unturned from the deepest canyons to the highest rocky peaks during their relentless search for the precious gold, silver and other metals.

mining history southwest new mexico

Old miner’s cabin on Little Dry Creek Trail

Today, remnants of these perpetual pursuits can be encountered almost anywhere and when least expected while hiking the Forest trails within the District. Sometimes the evidence will be nothing more than an anomalous piece of rusted pipe or corrugated metal roofing poking through the leaves where an old cabin once stood. In other places the evidence is much more obvious, such as an abandoned piece of mining equipment near a grown-over prospecting trench, horizontal adit or shaft. And, oh what stories these remnants could tell regarding the many grubstakes won, lost, or squandered, only to be pursued again and again until the lack of funds, hope, or failing health brought these endless quests to their final demise!

Little Dry Creek trail

Small waterfall at narrow spot in Little Dry Creek canyon, approximately 0.5 miles south of Gila Wilderness boundary. Natural barriers such as this made travel and transportation difficult for miners throughout the Wilcox Mining District.

Unlike some of the other mining districts in the Mogollon or Piños Altos Ranges or the Burro Mountains, there are no great strike-it-rich legends or success stories associated with the Wilcox Mining District. At least, that is, none that survive today. Known recorded production for the District is reported as consisted of only 10,912 tons of fluorite, 1.23 oz. of gold, 19 oz. silver, 50 tons of copper ore, 5 tons of copper-silver ore, 1.5 tons of copper-lead-zinc ore, and 5 tons of tellurium ore. What was really extracted and never reported, of course, will never be known. Prospectors and small-time mining operators are traditionally secretive by nature and not prone to keeping written records.

What is known, following the extensive sampling and chemical analyses made on materials collected at numerous known sites and workings within the district as part of the 1979 U.S. Geological report, is that the concentration of gold, silver, and other metals within the Wilcox Mining District is generally quite low, except for very thin veins and fracture fillings, typically only a few inches thick, which occasionally show promising concentrations.

Perusing the overall rather-uninspiring concentrations of heavy metals reported from the sample analyses of the 1979 USGS report, one can only wonder what kept these legions of prospectors and miners enthusiastically pursuing their elusive dreams of riches for all those years. Was it a case of simply blind hope, or perhaps the just-frequent-enough return of a marginally-rich-enough assay that kept them going? Or, perhaps, was it a more psychological attitude that prevailed in which the strike-it-rich stories constantly coming out of the very rich mineral discoveries and mines in the surrounding areas of Piños Altos, Silver City, and the Burro Mountains that goaded them into believing that surely those same riches lay just another few feet deeper in their own claims on Little Dry Creek. Or, which seems probably likely in some cases, did they really find small pockets of valuable concentrations and just kept quiet about it!
 

FINDING NATURE’S TREASURE ON LITTLE DRY CREEK

We’ll probably never know whether those seekers of treasure in decades past found what they were looking for. But at the end of the day on November 29, 2013, all of those participating in the Hike of the Indulgent agreed that they had found a superfluous abundance of Nature’s treasure on our little hike up Little Dry Creek.

Starting from the trail head parking area, which is accessible for all types of vehicles, the Little Dry Creek Trail follows an unmaintained, old mine road for a half mile or so before becoming a well-defined foot and horse trail that closely parallels and at widely-spaced intervals crosses Little Dry Creek as it heads up the canyon. While burned areas resulting from the Whitewater-Baldy fire of 2012 could be seen in the surrounding mountains as we worked our way up the trail, fire damage along the trail within the canyon was found to be minimal with almost all of the old growth ponderosa, fir, and spruce surviving with only scorched bark to show where ground fire had passed through. Studying the large slabs of bark on these massive giants of conifers that range up to three feet in diameter, it was obvious that many of them had experienced fire before.

ancient conifer trees

Little Dry Creek Trail meandering through magnificent stands of ancient conifers.

Gila Forest hiking trail

At various places along the Little Dry Creek Trail, massive rock formations constrict the canyon to an impassable chasm, requiring the trail to leave the creek bottom and ascend the side of the canyon to get around them.


The first mile or so of the trail was found to be in relatively good shape and easily followed, and the various creek crossings easily navigated by stepping across the many boulders that fill the crystal clear, shallow creek. Progressing further upstream into the second mile of our journey, in places the trail became a little more difficult to follow, particularly where the canyon bottom floodplain broadened and steep slopes of the adjacent canyon walls force the trail to the opposite side of the creek. At these places no trace of the trail existed across the floodplain due to the deposition of a two to four foot-thick layer of gravel and boulders that had been carried down the canyon late this past summer by major runoff following a 10-hour period of continuous stationary thunderstorm activity over the highest peaks in the southwest corner of the Mogollon Range on September 15, 2013. Crossing these boulder-strewn floodplain deposits was slow but not very difficult, and since the trail stays along the canyon bottom throughout this stretch of the trail, in most cases it was easy to predict where the trail would pick up on the opposite side above the floodplain.

crossing Little Dry Creek

Crossing the boulder-strewn floodplain resulting from the September 15, 2013 flooding.

mining history southwest new mexico

Here the trail passes by a well-made retaining wall of stone, behind which another miner’s cabin once stood.


About 1.25 miles into the hike, a well-constructed stone wall was encountered standing in mute testimony to one of the early miner’s cabins that once existed here on the east bank above the creek. From this point on, more remnants of former mining activity were encountered, each prompting their own set of questions, intrigue, and challenge to our curious minds as we pushed ever further up the canyon.

eating lunch along the trail

The Perfect Lunch Spot, with shadows rapidly approaching in the foreground

By 1:30 PM our GPS indicated that we were within two-tenths of a mile of the Gila Wilderness Boundary, our first goal for the day. However, with the canyon walls now closing in and towering increasingly high above, the trail was already in deep shadow and the first cold drafts of air of were beginning to flow down the canyon. In addition, there began to be grumblings of “when are we going to eat” and “I’m hungry” coming from the lesser indulgent of yesterday’s feasting. As the grumblings began to spread through the group and increase in frequency and intensity, it was with no little relief that as we rounded a bend in the canyon the perfect lunch spot appeared just 300 feet ahead … And it was still bathed in the afternoon Sun!

hiking in the Gila

Here, near the Perfect Lunch Spot, a miner’s cabin once stood.

mining cave in southwest new mexico

And here is the adit where the miner toiled away the hours. Only in this case to find … nothing!


Settling ourselves down amongst the huge, flat-topped boulders that lined the creek, a great lunch was enjoyed by all, which we finished just as the Sun sank behind the western canyon rim 1,200 feet above. Donning our packs once more, some of our group scattered to explore our lunch spot before heading back. Within a few minutes they soon discovered that we were not the only ones to have found this a perfect spot. For just a hundred feet away from our picnic site were the scattered remnants of another miner’s cabin on one side of the creek and a shallow adit on the other. Oh, that rocks could talk, for what stories these stones could tell!

Hiking in the Gila

Crossing Little Dry Creek on the way back.

The retracing our of steps back down the canyon was a magical end to a perfect day, a journey through time as well as space. Increasingly, as the sun slid ever lower in the west, the trail along the canyon floor was transformed into a kaleidoscope pattern of light and dark as shafts of brilliant sunlight piercing through the trees alternated with chill-laced shadows cast from the cliffs far above.

late afternoon sun on a hike

In the late afternoon Little Dry Creek becomes a kaleidoscope of light and shadow.

hiking in the Gila

Deep in the shadows of the cliffs above, a series of pools mirror the sky above.


afternoon sunlight in the Gila

With the crossing of the creek for the last time, the canyon walls lower, allowing shafts of sunlight to guide the way back to the trail head.

Trudging along, it was noticed that in a similar way, one’s mood and thoughts seemed to fluctuate as well. While traversing the light, the immediacy of the surreal beauty of the sunlit pools and stones was overpowering, banishing all thought. Yet upon passing into the cool shadows, one’s thoughts would repeatedly return to pensive contemplation of those early miners and the spectrum of emotions that they must have experienced, as day after day they, too, trudged to and fro along this same canyon trail in their endless pursuit of the yellow and silver metal …

And then, an hour and a half later, it was over, as we emerged from the canyon and found ourselves at the trail head and once more back in the world of today. It had been a great day, and we returned home satisfied that we had indeed been successful in finding a full day’s worth of Nature’s Treasure on Little Dry Creek.

NOTE: The Little Dry Creek hike is an easy to moderate hike that for the first two miles follows a mostly easy-to-follow trail. The trail head is accessed from a maintained Forest road suitable for all types of vehicles. While there is water in the creek year around, it will require purification because of the presence of the protozoan parasite Giardia. Ample water, sunscreen, long sleeves and pants, and a wide-brimmed hat should be considered essential. The trail for the first two miles is generally accessible all year. Beyond that distance, snow may be encountered during December and January. During the Summer Monsoon season hikers should remain aware of thunderstorms and possible flash flooding in the afternoon. As always, Casitas de Gila will provide to our guests up-to-date weather and likely trail conditions, directions, and maps for any of the hikes in the area.

 

REFERENCES:
1. James C. Ratte, David L Gaskill, Gordon P.L. Eaton, Donald L. Peterson, Ronald B. Stotelmeyer and Henry C. Meeves, 1979, Mineral Resources of the Gila Primitive Area and Gila Wilderness, New Mexico, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1451

 

Posted in Gila National Forest, hiking, history, mining | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A FALL HIKE IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

 
A FALL AFTERNOON’S HIKE ACROSS THE UP AND DOWN COUNTRY OF
LOWER LITTLE DRY CREEK IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

Gentle on the Body … Exhilarating for the Soul

Gila Wilderness

Looking east from Leopold Vista Trail at a view of the western escarpment of the Mogollon Range

SEARCHING FOR OCTOBER GOLD IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

Setting out from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses for a late October day’s touring and hiking in Southwest New Mexico, the annual Fall foliage of the High Desert landscape presented an ever-changing feast for one’s eyes and soul. On that morning, the air was cool, clear, and crisp, the hard light of the early-morning sun brilliantly illuminating the sinuous band of golden cottonwoods defining the Gila River Valley below as we headed down Hooker Loop. Crossing the Gila, we then headed northwest along Sacaton Road towards our destination: the Mogollon High Country of southern Catron County.

gnarled sycamores in the Gila

Gnarled sycamores in Little Dry Creek Canyon

golden aspen in the Gila Wilderness

Aspen gold in the Mogollon High Country

In southern Catron County the highest peaks of the Mogollon Range soar to within an eagle’s cry of 11,000 feet, etching a multicolored tapestry against the late October cobalt sky. Impressive at any time of year, come October, when the Fall colors reach their peak, a cascade of golden yellows and orangish reds slowly descends from the towering groves of Aspen on Whitewater Baldy to the gnarled and ghostly white-trunked sycamores lurking below in the deep canyons of Little Dry Creek.

Our objectives for the day were threefold: 1) check out the condition of Sacaton Road following the mid-September flooding in the western Mogollons; 2) check the status of the Gila National Forest roads leading off from Sacaton Road to the trailheads that provide access into the southwest portion of the Gila Wilderness; and 3) round out the day with an exploratory hike across a portion of the Lower Dry Creek “Mesa” Country lying between the Mogollon Mountains on the east and the San Francisco River on the west.
 

SACATON ROAD: A SCENIC BACKCOUNTRY ROUTE IN USE SINCE EARLY PIONEER DAYS

Gila Wilderness mountains

Forest road off Sacaton Road looking north towards Mogollon escarpment.

Sacaton Road is a scenic, 25-mile county-maintained gravel road that borders and parallels the northwest trending escarpment of the Mogollon Mountains between Gila and Glenwood. Now little used except for the large ranches it passes through, in the past this road served as a major route of north-south travel and transportation during pioneer settlement of the area. In addition to providing access to some of the best forest trails in the southwest portion of the Gila Wilderness, Sacaton Road offers breathtaking closeup views of the south-facing Mogollon Mountain escarpment that rises abruptly from the valley floor a short distance to the north, as well as expansive views across the gently-sloping grass- and mesquite-covered grazing lands of Sacaton Mesa towards the distant Burro Mountains and the rugged volcanic terrain of the San Francisco River Country.

Burro Mountains New Mexico

Forest road off Sacaton Road looking south across Sacaton Mesa towards the Burro Mountains

By 1 PM the first two objectives for the day were completed, with positive results. Thanks to a timely response by Grant and Catron County road departments, Sacaton Road was found to be once more in excellent condition along its entire 25-mile length and ready for all types of vehicular travel. Likewise, the adjoining National Forest roads, trailheads, and trails that lead north from Sacaton Road into the Mogollon Mountains that were visited were found to be in good serviceable condition. While a few of the drainages examined showed some signs of moderate flooding and transported debris, it became obvious that the severe thunderstorms of September 14 and 15 that had caused major flood damage further north in the Whitewater Creek, Silver Creek, and Mineral Creek drainages had not greatly affected the south-facing slopes and drainages in this part of the Mogollons.

Gila Wilderness New Mexico

Lunch spot on Upper Little Dry Creek

Mogollon Mountains New Mexico

Heading up Upper Little Dry Creek Trail (FT 180) into the Mogollons

As discussed in the September 2013 Nature Blog, this year’s Monsoon Season was long and strong. Most local areas around the Casitas received over 10 inches of rain during the 2-1/2 month period, but it was in the western end of the Mogollon High Country that the totals were the greatest and the thunderstorms most severe. Here, in the headwaters of Whitewater, Silver, and Mineral Creeks, stationary coalescing thunderstorms dropped over 10 inches of rain in a 10-hour period commencing around 5 PM on the evening of September 14 and continuing until around 3 AM the next morning, resulting in devastating floods that severely damaged roads, buildings, and trails in those drainages. Hardest hit were the old mining town of Mogollon on Silver Creek, where the road through the center of town was completely washed away, and the Catwalk Recreation Area on Whitewater Creek, where the elevated metal catwalk and picnic areas were washed away, and the small community of Alma, where the access road to the Mineral Creek trailhead was washed away. As of this date, the Bursum Road (State Rt 159) to Mogollon, the Catwalk Recreation Area, and the access road to Mineral Creek remain closed as repair work continues.
 

MESAS AND PIEDMONT SLOPE SURFACES

Throughout the Southwest U.S. the term mesa is frequently encountered in geographic place names. Technically, the term is used to describe elevated landforms that have been left behind following a long period of weathering and erosion of horizontally layered rocks of different chemical and physical stabilities. These landforms have the distinctive shape of a flat-topped hill or mountain that are capped with a resistant rock layer, such as a sandstone or a volcanic basalt lava flow, that overlies and protects a weaker and more-easily weathered and eroded underlying layer, such as a shale or ash fall.

Here, in the area surrounding Casitas de Gila Guesthouses in Grant and Catron Counties, there are numerous landforms which have been given local place names that include the term mesa, examples being Circle Mesa between Silver City and Gila, Sacaton Mesa between Gila and Pleasanton, and Whitewater Mesa between Glenwood and Alma. While it is true that these areas display elevated and nearly horizontal layers that rise above the surrounding landscape, they are technically not mesas but another type of arid region landform that would be classified as piedmont slope surfaces.

Piedmont slope surfaces surround uplifted mountain areas and are composed of sediment material eroded from the mountains and carried downslope by running water and gravity out onto the adjacent valley floor where they are subsequently deposited. Over time these processes will build up thick sequences of boulder- to clay-sized sedimentary layers which slope away from the mountain at angles of 2° to 15° towards the valley below, with coarser materials deposited closest to the mountains and grading finer and finer outward and down slope from the mountain source. Piedmont slope deposits are divided into several different types, such as alluvial fans and bajadas, depending on their morphology and relative age.

waterfall New Mexico

Waterfalls will sometimes develop on creeks where they cross the dip-slope faults bordering the south and western escarpments of the Mogollon Mountains.

In the Southwest U.S. many mountain ranges are commonly bordered by high-angle, normal dip-slip faults which separate the uplifted mountains from the downthrown valley floor. Repeated periods of active movement on these faults, plus variation in rainfall due to climate change through time, will result in periodic pulses of greater volumes of sediment being transported out from the mountain escarpment. Once mountain building within an area terminates and these faults are no longer active, the faults are then buried beneath the continuing downslope deposition of sediment eroded from the mountains.

Both the southern escarpment of the Mogollon Mountains along Sacaton Road and the western escarpment of the Mogollons that parallels US Rt. 180 from Little Dry Creek north to Alma are bordered by long-inactive, high-angle, normal dip-slip faults as described in the preceding paragraph. Today these faults are now mostly deeply buried beneath thick deposits of piedmont slope sediment which was carried downslope from the mountains for the last million years or so since the mountain building terminated. In more recent times the topography of these piedmont slope surfaces has been, and continues to be, modified by subsequent erosion and deposition to form the highly dissected and topographically chaotic up-and-down land surface observed today as one travels north from Little Dry Creek on U.S. Rt. 180 north to Alma, especially in the area lying between Little Dry Creek and Glenwood, where the most rugged and highly dissected portions of the piedmont slope surface occur.
 

LOWER LITTLE DRY CREEK UP AND DOWN COUNTRY: CROSSROADS OF HISTORY

Situated about five miles south of the town of Glenwood, and a half-mile south of where Sacaton Road junctions with U.S Rt. 180 at Little Dry Creek, is the Leopold Vista Overlook, a scenic highway rest stop providing shaded picnic tables and restrooms a few hundred feet west of U.S. Rt. 180. The rest stop is named for Aldo Leopold, a former supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service whose dedicated work led to the establishment of the Gila Wilderness in 1924, the first wilderness area in the National Forest System. Leopold Vista offers the traveling public a breathtaking view of the western end of the Gila Wilderness and the southwest corner of the highest peaks of the Mogollon Mountains. It is a quiet place where the frenetic pace of the open road immediately disappears and the silent magnificence of the natural world once more reigns supreme.

Many hundreds of people, both tourists and locals alike, will stop at the Leopold Vista and marvel at the magnificent view each year. Yet few will notice, let alone take the time to explore and experience, the incredibly complex up and down landscape of alternating flat-topped ridges, arroyos, and canyons that comprise the Lower Little Dry Creek Country surrounding them on all sides, so commanding is the magnificence of the towering Mogollons a few miles to the east.

North-south travel through the jumble of up and down landscape of Lower Little Dry Creek Country has been a challenge to humans since earliest times. Even today there is no straight and easy way across, as evidenced by the winding course and numerous grades encountered when driving through this area following the current route of U.S. Rt. 180. Nearly 500 years ago, in the Summer of 1540, the Spanish explorer Coronado passed through here, probably within less than a mile of the Leopold Vista rest stop, with his expeditionary force of 250 horsemen, 70 Spanish foot soldiers, 300 native Mexican allies, plus over a 1,000 Indian servants, 4 Franciscan monks, and several slaves, before making camp on Big Dry Creek two miles to the north. In a document written some 20 years after the Expedition, Juan Jaramillo, a member of the Expedition, recalled the difficulty of traversing this area, calling this segment of Coronado’s route “La Tierra Doblada”, meaning the up and down or doubled-over country. Three hundred and forty-five years later, on the morning of December 19,1885, it was this same doubled-over landscape that provided the Chokonan Apache Chief Ulzana and his nine warriors the perfect strategic site for the ambush of the 34-man-strong C Troop of the 8th US Calvary under the command of Lt. Samuel W. Fountain while on patrol in the Mogollon Mountains. The ambush took place as the patrol neared the top of a small promontory, known forever after as Soldier Hill, located on the north side of Little Dry Creek, about three-quarters of a mile due north of the Leopold Vista rest area.
 

THE LEOPOLD VISTA HIKE ACROSS THE LOWER LITTLE DRY CREEK UP AND DOWN COUNTRY

The Casita Nature Blog of April 2013 described a deep, steep-walled canyon hike that offers a fascinating, intimate exploration of the volcanic rocks and flora that line the deeply incised canyons of Little Dry Creek Canyon and its tributaries down to its confluence with Lower Big Dry Creek Canyon, which in turn can be followed downstream to its confluence with the San Francisco River. This hike offers great insight into the geology that borders and underlies the western extent of the piedmont slope deposits that extend westward from the Mogollon escarpment, but affords no opportunity for long view vistas or surface examination of the adjacent up and down piedmont slope geology or ecosystems that border these deep canyons.

Leopold Vista overlook New Mexico

Entrance to the Leopold Vista Trail

Fortunately, for those who would like to experience and better understand the detailed nature of the Lower Little Dry Creek Up and Down Country while surrounded by magnificent views, the Leopold Vista Trail is a National Forest trail that is easily accessed and traversed, just waiting for those who would like to spend a couple of hours or longer hiking in this unusual high desert landscape.

Leopold Vista New Mexico

Looking northwest down into Little Dry Creek Canyon from Leopold Vista Trail on October 26, 2013, with gnarled white sycamores in full fall dress lining the floodplain. Outlaw Mountain Peak, 6,085 ft, upper left skyline.

The Leopold Vista trail follows an old four-wheel-drive track across an undulating piedmont slope surface that extends westward from U.S. Rt. 180 for about two miles on the south side of Little Dry Creek Canyon. At several points, less-used tracks split off from the main track which offer views as well as occasional unmarked access down into Lower Little Dry Creek Canyon and several of its side canyons. Incredible long-view vistas extend out in all directions along every part of this hike, affording exceptional opportunities for photography, particularly in the late afternoon. Dominant vegetation along the trail consists of abundant, widely-spaced One-Seed Juniper (Juniperus monosperma), several species of grass including Side-oats Gramma (Bouteloua curtipendula), Desert Scrub Oak (Quercus turbinella), Banana Yucca (Yucca bacatta), Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), Catclaw or Wait-a-Minute Bush (Mimosa aculeaticarpa) and occasional Pinyon (Pinus edulis), and Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana). The overall mood of this hike is perhaps best described as one of endless openness and serene expansiveness … and, perhaps, welcoming isolation; a totally different feeling than that felt when hiking within the high-walled confines of the Little Dry Creek Canyon 200 feet below.

The Leopold Vista Trail ends on a narrow finger of a ridge overlooking and 250 feet above the junction of Little Dry Creek Canyon and its tributary Eliot Canyon that comes in from the south. Here, beneath the welcome shade of a juniper, is a great place to rest and have lunch. It is a great observation spot to look for birds and game while scanning canyon bottoms below that stretch off to the west and south and the mountains beyond. Or perhaps to contemplate the possibility that Eliot Canyon was indeed the escape route taken by Ulzana and his warriors following the ambush on Soldier Hill.

Southwest New Mexico fall color

Looking southwest and upstream down into Eliot Canyon on October 26, 2013. This canyon, a tributary to Little Dry Creek, may have been used as an escape route by the Chokonan Apache Chief Ulzana and his warriors following their ambush of Lt. Samuel W. Fountain and 33 soldiers of C Troop, 8th U.S. Calvary, on December 19, 1885.

Essentially, the two-mile-long Leopold Vista Trail is a scenic, relaxing, easy hike suitable for all ages and physical abilities. However, it can also serve as a starting point for a more strenuous hike down Little Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek canyons to the San Francisco River, or an even more strenuous 1,300 foot climb to the top of Outlaw Mountain.

For the experienced and physically adept hiker armed with relevant 1:24,000 topographic maps, a compass, or preferably a good hand-held GPS, unlimited, off-trail, cross-country hiking and orienteering on Gila National Forest Land is possible to the north and west from several points along the Leopold Vista trail. Perhaps it is only by taking a cross-country hike to the north on a course that requires crossing several of the east to west drainages and intervening ridges and flats on the piedmont slope surface that one could gain a full appreciation of the challenges those early travelers, such as Coronado, calvary on patrol, or miners chasing the promise of gold and silver riches in early Mogollon, faced in traversing the Up and Down Country of Lower Little Dry Creek.

Yes, history abounds in the up and down country of Lower Little Dry Creek, both geologic and cultural.

Leopold Vista New Mexico

Looking southeast along Leopold Vista Trail

NOTE: While at first consideration this is an easy hike that traverses a nearly level landscape, it passes over very open terrain with little shade. Ample water, sunscreen, long sleeves and pants, and a wide-brimmed hat should be considered essential. Early morning or late afternoon would offer the best times for hiking, and Fall through Spring the best seasons. As always Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is happy to provide to our guests up-to-date conditions, directions, and maps for any of the hikes in the area.

 

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

info@casitasdegila.com

 

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