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

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

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog


Along Bear Creek, at the Edge of the Gila Wilderness
in Southwest New Mexico

sandhill cranes in new mexico

Sandhill Cranes and Red-Wing Blackbirds in fields along NM211 bordering the Gila River in Gila, New Mexico, February 18, 2014. These Sandhill Cranes winter along the River annually from October thru February.


Gila National Forest map New Mexico

Map of Gila National Forest and Wilderness, New Mexico

The Gila National Forest is vast — comprising some 3.3 million acres — and pristine, with roughly one-quarter of its acreage officially classified as Wilderness, including the Gila, the Aldo Leopold, and the Blue Range Wildernesses. Within this area elevations range from 4,200 feet along the Gila River to 10,895 feet on Whitewater Baldy in the Mogollon Mountains. Within this 6,700 topographical range, the U.S. Forest Service in its excellent publication Birds of the Gila National Forest: A Checklist, recognizes 10 different major bird habitat zones, including Desert, Oak Woodland, Oak-Juniper, Pinyon-Juniper, Ponderosa Pine, Spruce Fir, Mountain Grassland, Open Marsh, Deciduous Riparian, and Coniferous Riparian. Because of this great diversity in habitat, the Gila National Forest is home to or visited by some 377 different species of birds.

Observable species of birds in the Gila National Forest varies dramatically with the seasons due to the fact that it is located on the Rocky Mountain leg of the Central North American Migration Flyway, one of the four Flyway Bird Migratory Systems that cross the United States and Canada in a north-south pattern.

Waterfowl Flyways Map

Waterfowl Flyways Map


All 10 of the different major bird habitat zones of the Gila National Forest listed above occur within a 25-mile radius of Casitas de Gila, and are easily accessed by day-trip excursions from the Casitas. Recently, a joint project of several State and Federal agencies, plus non-profit conservation groups, has resulted in the creation of the New Mexico Birding Trail, which identifies some 40 of the most attractive birding locations in Southwest New Mexico. Eighteen of these sites, Sites 14–31, are excellent day-trip destinations from the Casitas. Several of the best sites are found along the Gila River, just 5 to 10 miles from the Casitas, including Site 21, The Nature Conservancy’s Gila Riparian Preserve at the junction of Mogollon Creek and the Gila River; Site 20, the Billings Vista Birding Area; and Bill Evans Lake. An interesting article describing a few more of these birding sites within the Gila National Forest can be found in the June 2003 issue of Winging It, the Newsletter of the American Birding Association.


The landscape comprising the 265 acres on which guesthouses of Casitas de Gila are situated offers a unique combination of bird habitat and species diversity for the birding enthusiast. Three of the 10 bird habitat zones are represented here, including the Deciduous Riparian along the bottom of Bear Creek Canyon, a narrow zone of Oak-Juniper bordering the Riparian zone, and an expansive zone of Pinyon-Juniper that extends away from the Canyon into the adjacent surrounding hills and low mountains. As the guesthouses are situated on cliffs at the very edge of Bear Creek Canyon overlooking Bear Creek a hundred feet below and the slopes of the mountainous terrain rising from the creek on the opposite side, all three habitats and accompanying species diversity can be observed right from the front porch of each Casita! For 15 years the Casitas have maintained a year-round feeding program that keeps the resident species close at hand and brings the migratory species back year after year. From April through September hummingbird feeders are hung on the porch of each Casita, and a supply of necter is available to keep them refilled.


Winter along Bear Creek at Casitas de Gila is generally mild with overnight lows in the high teens to 20s F, and daytime highs in the 40s to 50s F. Precipitation from the occasional low pressure fronts moving through generally starts out as rain and then turns to light snow as the system passes by. Typically, at 4,800 feet, the Casitas will only receive 2 to 4 light snowfalls during the Winter, with accumulations of 2 to 3 inches, which generally melt away within 24 hours. To the north in the higher elevations of the Gila Wilderness, snow accumulations are heavier and will last for weeks, particularly on north-facing slopes. Consequently, the landscape around the Casitas and the adjacent Gila River Valley is bare 95% of the Winter, providing the birding enthusiast with excellent opportunities for hiking and observing the numerous species of birds that make this area their home during the Winter months.

overnight snow in the Gila

Winter morning on Bear Creek Canyon at Casitas de Gila after a rare overnight snow.

winter on the Gila in New Mexico

Typical Winter morning on Bear Creek Canyon at Casita de Gila, showing diverse bird habitat.

These photos of Winter Birds were all taken at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses (click on photo for full-size image):

bewick's wren

Bewick’s Wren

canyon towhee

Canyon Towhee

northern cardinal

Northern Cardinal

chipping sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

dark-eyed junco

Dark-Eyed Junco

field sparrow

Field Sparrow

gambel's quail

Gambel’s Quail

gray-breasted jay

Gray-Breasted Jay

green-tailed towhee

Green-tailed Towhee

house finch

House Finch

lesser goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch

scrub jay

Scrub Jay

spotted towhee

Spotted Towhee

white-crowned sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

white-winged dove

White-winged Dove


By the third week in March, Spring is very much in the air at Casitas de Gila. The Cottonwoods and Willows are showing green buds and various grasses and plants along the Creek are beginning to put out green shoots. Daytime temperatures are in the low 60s and the nights are in the low 30s to 40s. By the last week of April, it has warmed up with daytime temperatures in the high 60s and into the 70s. By this time, Bear Creek Canyon below the Casitas is once more a ribbon of green, with the Cottonwoods and Willows well leafed out, and the Mesquite on the hillsides are putting out leaves as well. While it is still possible for a late frost, this year it doesn’t happen, once more confirming the local conventional wisdom that the Mesquite always waits until the frosts are over before leafing out.

early spring morning in Southwest New Mexico

Typical first-week-in-April Spring morning on Bear Creek Canyon at the Casitas

late April on the Gila

Typical last-week-in-April Spring morning on Bear Creek Canyon at the Casitas

By the last week in March, the annual Spring Migration is starting. While most of the birds of Winter are still dominant in numbers, new faces appear daily at the Casita bird feeders. And most colorful and varied these newcomers are! Depending on the year, within a few days either side of April 1, the first telltale zoom-zoom of the hummingbird, generally the Black-chinned, is heard announcing their arrival. And embedded in the the zoom-zoom is the not-so-subtle demand “Where are the feeders, where are feeders! We’re starved!” And so, up go the feeders at each Casita, which will consume untold gallons of sugar water on a daily basis between April and October when they are purposely taken down, sending a message to those ravenous little travelers that it’s high time to head South!

The Gila National Forest Bird Checklist lists seven species of hummingbirds that can be found in the forest: Blue-throated, Magnificent, Black-chinned, Anna’s, Calliope, Broad-tailed, and Rufous. Here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses we will generally see five of the seven over the course of the Spring and Summer months. In order of abundance they would be: the Black-chinned and the Broad-tailed which are here all season, the Rufous which arrives in late July, with occasional visits by the Calliope and the Magnificent. By July and August the hummers are at their peak here, when literally swarms of them will be at the feeders from the first light of day until dusk. Since the feeders at each of the Casitas are under the porch just outside the bedroom window, most guests find it quite a unique experience to be awakened by the whirring drone of numerous little wings beating at 50 to 100 times per second as the hummers begin their day-long siege on the feeders.

These photos of Early Spring Birds were all taken at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses (click on photo for full-size image):

mourning dove

Mourning Dove

scott's oriole

Scott’s Oriole

bullock's oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

blue grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

lazuli bunting

Lazuli Bunting

black-chinned hummingbird

Black-chinned Hummingbird

black-headed grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

brown-headed cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

lesser goldfinch and house finch

Lesser Goldfinch
House Finch

hooded oriole

Hooded Oriole


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A Fascinating Landscape of Natural and Cultural History
in the Old Southwest

off road in Southwest New Mexico

In the heart of the San Francisco River Backcountry


About 40 minutes north of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses there is a pristine, rarely-visited landscape hidden within the Gila National Forest of Southwest Catron County, where the essence of the Old Southwest awaits discovery for those intrepid seekers of roads and trails less travelled. This area, known as the San Francisco or Frisco River Backcountry, comprises roughly 200 square miles of rugged, highly-dissected mountains and mesas, bounded by US Highway 180 on the east and the New Mexico-Arizona state line on the west; situated between the San Francisco River and Little Dry Creek on the south; and the Blue Range Wilderness on the north. It is a timeless landscape, little changed from the times of the ancient Native American Mogollon Culture, who thrived here from early in the first millennium until around 1350, the subsequent replacement by the Apache Culture in the early 1600s, and the eventual arrival of Anglo pioneer farmers and ranchers in the late 1800s.

cottonwoods along San Francisco River

Looking south at cottonwoods lining the San Francisco River near Alma

Throughout most of this area, the San Francisco River flows parallel to and within one or two miles to the west of US 180, bordered by broad river terraces suitable for farming, between the communities of Pleasanton and Glenwood and a few miles further north in the vicinity of the community of Alma. During the times of the Mogollon Culture, the San Francisco River served as a major north-south trade and travel route. Along those sections where the canyon widened, the trail linked numerous small villages that dotted the adjacent river terraces, which were extensively farmed for maize, beans, and squash. Convincing evidence from recent research suggests that the Spanish explorer Coronado led his expedition along this very same route in 1540, on his way north to search for the legendary Seven Cities of Gold or Cibola.

By the early 1600s, the nomadic Apaches, who had come down into New Mexico from the north, likewise travelled this same San Francisco River trail system extensively for over 200 years as it ran through the very heart of their vast new homeland of Apacheria. Then in the early 1870s, and much to the consternation of the Apache, the first wave of Anglo settlers began moving into the area to take up farming, ranching, and eventually mining.

old west history

An old steam boiler at the Cooney Mine on Mineral Creek

In 1876, Sergeant James Cooney mustered out of the Union Army and returned to the San Francisco River Backcountry to prospect a mineralized vein of silver, gold, and copper that he had discovered a few years earlier while on patrol chasing Apaches. The vein was located in a canyon in the Mogollon Mountains about eight miles east of the community of Alma. The vein proved to be of excellent value and by 1880 the thriving mining camp of Cooney on Mineral Creek was home to some 300 to 400 souls seeking their fortunes in the numerous mines and prospects or in three ore processing mills that now lined the narrow Mineral Creek Canyon. In time, the rich veins of ore in Mineral Creek were traced south into the adjacent drainage of Silver Creek. Here, the veins were found to be larger and richer, and by the late 1880s the mining town of Mogollon was founded, eventually boasting a population of 6,000.

Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo Celebration in Mogollon, 1914

At the same time Cooney Camp was booming, farming and ranching were coming on strong along the San Francisco River. Needless to say, the Apaches were not happy with this expanding intrusion into their homeland, and conflict soon erupted, most notably Chief Victorio’s attack on the Cooney Mine and Alma on April 28, 1880, and Chief Ulzana’s ambush of Federal troops at Soldier Hill on December 19, 1885, near the present day Aldo Leopold Overlook rest stop on US 180, about seven miles south of Pleasanton. Conflict with the Apache remained an ever-present danger throughout the 1880s until Geronimo’s surrender on September 4, 1886.

Solder Hill New Mexico

Solder Hill looking east to Mogollon Mountains. Site of Chief Ulzana’s ambush.


During the early 1880s, at the same time that the frenzy of prospecting and mining was intensifying in the Cooney and Mogollon District in the rugged mountains east of the San Francisco River, small farming homesteads and larger ranching operations were starting up throughout the San Francisco River valley. While there was grazing land east of the San Francisco River up to the front of the Mogoollon mountains, it was the land on the west of the river that caught the eye and imagination of these early ranchers. For here, they soon discovered, in the vast rugged mountains and mesa country west of the San Francisco River, were hundreds of thousands of acres of Open Range that were covered with rich virgin grasslands and in the Public Domain, just waiting for their long-horned herds. And, thus, during the 1870s, ’80s and ’90s large-scale cattle ranching came to the San Francisco River Country with the establishment of such historical operations as the SU Ranch, the Siggens Ranch, and the WS Ranch.

San Francisco River Backcountry

On the Open Range of the San Francisco River Backcountry, looking east to the Mogollon Montains.

Much less is known about these early large-scale ranching operations than is known about what went on in the mining districts (Cooney Camp and Mogollon). Unlike the numerous local newspapers, mining reports, and various government documents that traditionally chronicled the development of these early mining towns and districts, the more isolated and solitary lifestyle of the ranchers and the wranglers that worked for them tended to leave a very short paper trail. And such is the case for most of the early ranching that took place within the San Francisco River Country, with one very important exception: the fascinating book: Captain William French’s book Some Recollections of a Western Ranchman, 1883-1899, New Mexico1.

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch Gang: left to right, seated: Harry A. Longabaugh (alias the Sundance Kid), Ben Kilpatrick (alias the Tall Texan), Robert Leroy Parker (alias Butch Cassidy). Standing: Will Carver and Harvey Logan (alias Kid Curry). Fort Worth, Texas, 1900.

Captain William French was born in 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. He was an officer in the British Army from 1876 to 1882, attaining the rank of Captain before emigrating from County Roscommon, Ireland, on November 4, 1883 to the United States, where he soon became a partner in the expansive WS Ranch operation at Alma, New Mexico Territory. At that time the WS Ranch was owned by English interests and was grazing a vast area of Public Domain land that stretched from the San Francisco Hot Springs near Pleasanton, NM on the south, to Saliz Pass on US 180 on the north, and from the headwaters of Mineral Creek and Whitewater Creek in the Mogollon Mountains west to the Blue River in Arizona. Through French’s eyes and writing the early history of the San Francisco River Country comes alive in fascinating first-person detail. He tells it as he lived it, and he witnessed it all, from saloon shootings up at the mining camps at Cooney and Mogollon, to his transportation of the fallen soldiers from Ulzana’s Ambush at Soldier Hill back to the WS Ranch cemetery, to his professed eventual realization that some of the former wranglers that worked for a time at the WS Ranch included none other than the outlaw train robber Robert Leroy Oarker, alias Butch Cassidy, and possiby Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, alias The Sundance Kid, and probably several other members of the famous Wild Bunch gang.



The last three decades of the 1800s saw tumultuous times in the San Francisco River Backcountry as increasing numbers of homesteading farmers, miners, and ranchers moved into the area drawn by the diverse natural resources of this wild and rugged landscape. In many ways the area in those days was a microcosm of what was taking place throughout the American West. Clash of values, individual and group self-interest, and major cultural differences were inevitable, ubiquitous and unending. Homesteaders built fences, closing off water and good pasture, whereas ranchers demanded unlimited access to open public range. Miners demanded both the right to prospect and then develop mineral properties wherever they were found, unfettered by government regulation or interference. And then, of course, were the indigenous Apaches who considered this country their sacred homeland, and were simply defending it from the defiling invaders. Finally, add to this mix the individual lawless opportunists, scoundrels, outlaws, rustlers, claim jumpers, purveyors of desultory pleasures and other unsavory characters who followed the frontier developments, and you have a rather unstable mix that was subject to explosive events that could detonate at the drop of a hat.

WS Ranch Cemetery

WS Ranch Cemetery near Alma, New Mexico.

Boot Hill cemeteries are a legendary staple in the traditional lore of the American West. Most commonly they refer to those particular havens of everlasting rest where persons—typically Alpha males—such as outlaws, gunfighters, drunken cowboys, gold-crazed miners, gamblers, etc., who died with their boots on after being shot, hung, stabbed, choked, or otherwise terminated, are interred. The term, however, can also refer to those who died in the pursuit of more honorable activities such soldiers, ranchers, farmers, or travelers who were killed or murdered simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The small WS Ranch Cemetery located near Alma falls mostly, and possibly totally (as there being two sides to every story), in the latter category. All were men, all died violently, all were shot, and all died with their boots on . . .

Boot Hill Cemetery

Edward W. Lyon tombstone; killed By Apaches on May 30, 1885

In the same context that the San Francisco River Country can be considered a microcosm of what was taking place throughout the American West in the late 1800s, the WS Cemetery abides as a virtual time capsule chronicling the events and culture of the surrounding area during this same time period. Situated on the north side of a small hill on Gila National Forest land just of US 180 near Alma, New Mexico, the WS Ranch Cemetery today contains four tombstones commemorating seven burials, resulting from four separate traumatic events that occurred during the time that Captain William French managed the ranch from the mid-1880s to late 1890s.

According to Captain French, the first body to be buried in the cemetery was that of Edward W. Lyon, a young man whom French had met two years earlier on board the Royal Mail Ship Arizona during his move to the United States, who worked on the SU Ranch 35 miles to the north. Lyons had come down to Alma to pick up the ranch’s mail, and was killed by Apaches on his way back. His tombstone consists of a small, greatly-weathered and difficult-to-read marble stone topped with a cross. The stone is inscribed: EDWARD W. LYON, CLONHOLME? DERBYSHIRE ENGLAND, KILLED BY APACHES MAY 30 1885, AGED 25 YEARS

In his book, Captain French reports, “The poor fellow had evidently been reading his mail and was utterly oblivious to such a thing as an Indian when shot, for an open letter of his was picked up on the trail, evidently where he had fallen off his horse and a short distance from where his body was found. He had evidently crawled into shelter to die and the Indians took no further notice of him.”

Chief Ulzana ambush in New Mexico

Foreground: Common grave of U.S. Calvary soldiers killed in Chief Ulzana’s ambush on December 19, 1885

The next burials took place on December 21, 1885, following the ambush of Troop C of the 8th US Calvary at Soldier Hill, seven miles south of Pleasanton, by the Apache Chief Ulzana and nine warriors on December 19, 1885. Four or five troops (accounts vary) and a surgeon by the name of Dr. Maddox were killed. On same day as the ambush, Captain French received a message at the WS Ranch sent by Lt. Samuel W. Fountain, officer in charge of C Troop, stating the following: “Troop ambushed on Dry Creek Hill. Maddox and five others killed. Would you kindly send up a wagon to help to bring up bodies.” Captain French complied and reports in his book the following: “As I walked back to the camp with Fountain that night he talked over the final disposition of the bodies, and expressed a wish to bury them in our little cemetery. He said that both Maddox and he had always admired its situation, and he was sure the poor doctor would like to be buried there, even if it was only a temporary resting-place. So it was arranged.

French further describes how two graves were dug following the return to the WS Ranch: a large mass grave for the soldiers and a separate temporary grave for Dr. Maddox, who would be subsequently returned to his family. He reports in great detail on the funeral ceremony, which he estimates was attended by nearly 200 residents of the local area.

Boot Hill Cemetery New Mexico

West side of common grave bearing names of BS Daniel Collins and PVT George Gibson.

Boot Hill Cemetery graves

East side of common grave bearing names of WAGR Frank E. Hutton and PVT Harry E. McMillan.

Today, a single white government tombstone, erected in 1950, is found at the mass grave of the enlisted men killed that day. Inscribed are the names of four soldiers, two on each side. On the west side of the stone is inscribed: DANIEL COLLINS, MASSACHUSETTS, BS 8 CALVARY; GEORGE GIBSON, PENNSYLVANIA, PVT 8 CALVARY, DECEMBER 19, 1885, KILLED BY APACHES. The east side of the stone is inscribed: FRANK E HUTTON, ILLINOIS, WAGR 8 CALVARY; HENRY E MCMILLAN MICHIGAN PVT 8 CAVALRY, DECEMBER 19, 1885.

Old West tombstone

Charlie Moore tombstone: Murdered in Cooney on October 30, 1888.

The next burial to take place was that of Charlie Moore, employee on the WS Ranch and friend of Captain French. According to Captain French, Old Charlie had a great interest in mining and invested heavily in numerous mining prospects in the area. In this regard he developed a friendship with a prospector he had grub-staked by the name of Mike Tracy. At that time, there was a saloon in Cooney operated by two men by the names of Penny and Shelton that Tracy was prone to frequent. As Captain French relates, it seems that this particular saloon had a bad reputation for getting patrons drunk, and then, having once relieved them of their money, beating them up and tossing them out into the street. After one unfortunate night of carousing, Tracy suffered this particular fate himself, and the next day went down to share his troubles with Charlie Moore. As Captain French confides “Charlie was not a man to be trifled with” and post haste went to Cooney with Mike to right the situation. After verbally confronting Penny and Shelton regarding the error of their ways, another afternoon and evening of drinking ensued with the ultimate result that Charlie was shot by Penny in the saloon. Upon hearing the news, brought by a messenger sent from Cooney, of Old Charlie’s demise, Captain French and others from the ranch rode up to Cooney. Appraised of the happenings by Uncle Billy Antrim (William H. Bonney’s, alias Billy the Kid, step-father), French succeeded in getting Penny arrested for murder and personally escorted him to Socorro where he spent a year in prison before being tried and acquitted by jury. Captain French remained forever convinced that Charlie had been murdered by Penny, as is clearly evidenced on the tombstone he bought and had inscribed and erected in the WS Ranch cemetery: CHARLEY MOORE, AGED ABOUT 60 YEARS, MURDERED AT LOVNEY [inscription error, should have been COONEY], OCTOBER 30, 1888.

The last burial in the WS Cemetery was that of Luke Flanagan, long-time Foreman of the WS Ranch and personal friend of Captain French. Flanagan had followed French to the United States from Ireland, where French relates his family had been tenants on French’s land for centuries.

old west tombstone

Luke Flanagan tombstone: Murdered in Mogollon on November 9, 1889.

The year of Flanagan’s death was 1899, and during these final years of the 19th century the winds of change were beginning to howl in Southwest New Mexico. With the surrender of Geronimo in 1866, the fear of Apaches raids ended, encouraging an ever-increasing influx of homesteaders, miners, and entrepreneurs into the San Francisco Country. The mines in the Mogollon District and neighboring Grant County were booming, with new discoveries being made every day. The standard gauge Santa Fe Railroad had reached Silver City in 1886, and on August 24 1889, the Silver City, Piños Altos and Mogollon Railroad Company was incorporated to build a railway north to Mogollon. At the same time, big changes were taking place in the vast surrounding lands of Public Domain.

In response to increased population growth, and the accompanying increased use, overuse, and in some areas abuse that was occurring within Public Domain Lands in the West, the Land Revision Act of 1891 gave the president authority to set aside and reserve parts of Public Domain land, wholly or partly covered with timber, regardless of whether it had commercial value or not. The first of these reserves was the Yellowstone Park Timberland Reserve established on March 30, 1891. During the next decade, millions of additional acres were set aside throughout the West during the Cleveland and McKinley administrations, including The Gila River Forest Reserve established by proclamation of President McKinley on March 2, 1899. Eventually, these early Forest Reserves would become part of the U.S. National Forest System.

With the establishment of these forest reserves and the probable inevitability of additional rules and regulations, the days of unlimited, unchallenged, and unfettered use of Public Domain lands were coming to an end, and Captain French was surely aware of it. Such legislation did not bode well for the future for the large operations such as the WS Ranch that, up until this time, had considered these Public Domain lands as their own private domain. In addition to the problems posed by the Forest Reserves, private land acquisition was increasing within the San Francisco River Country, greatly accelerated by Congress’ expansion of the Homestead Act of 1862 by the Desert Land Entry Act of 1877, which provided purchase of a section (640 acres) of Public Domain Land for $1.25/acre if the buyer irrigated within three years; and the Timber and Stone Act of 1878, authorizing settlers and miners to buy up to 160 acres of land with potential timber and mineral resources at $2.50 per acre. Natural water sources long used by the large cattle operations were being bought up and fenced off. Compounding these threats to large scale ranching, in 1889, the New Mexico Territorial Assembly passed an act to prevent the overstocking of ranges by limiting the use of Public Lands to the extent that livestock would be supported on by water to which the owner of the livestock had title.

All of these factors undoubtedly weighed heavily in the decision by Captain French and his partner Wilson in 1899, to purchase private land in northern New Mexico, near Cimarron in Colfax County, where it would be put into cultivation to raise alfalfa for the cattle. To accomplish this, French decided that his right-hand man, Luke Flanagan, would have to move there from the WS Ranch. On November 9, 1899, Captain French left for Cimarron by train from Silver City, leaving Flanagan behind to bring up French’s buggy and team.

On the same afternoon of Captain French’s departure, Luke Flanagan went up to Mogollon to say goodby and have a few drinks with some friends and pay off some bills. On the following day, a telegram from Silver City caught up with French just as he arrived in Springer, New Mexico. The telegram contained the news that Flanagan had been murdered and requested that he return. Devastated, Captain French immediately returned to Mogollon, where he found out that Flanagan had been shot in James Johnson’s saloon at the hotel by a man by the name of Saunders or Sanders (accounts vary) after a previous encounter that evening in Landerburgh’s Saloon. Saunders, a local man, had recently been appointed town marshall by the authorities in Soccoro, the County seat, to enforce a new town ordinance prohibiting the wearing of firearms within town limits. This new ordinance had resulted from complaints by the new owners of the Last Chance Mine who were, as Captain French puts it, “shocked at the Western habit of going about armed and the reckless manner in which they loosed off their guns on slight provocation”.

Accounts vary as to the exact sequence of events leading up to the shooting and how and why Saunders shot Flanagan, but apparently it had something to do with the gun that Flanagan insisted on wearing despite the ordinance. Evidence at the scene and witnesses accounts suggested that death came instantaneously to the unsuspecting Flanagan, as Saunders had shot him in the back of the head. Saunders had been arrested on the spot, and over the ensuing weeks, Captain French pressed charges for murder, engaged special counsel to assist the prosecuting attorney, and took care of bringing the witnesses to court in Socorro. But it was all in vain, for despite, in French’s words “the judge’s summing up practically told the jury that if they believed the evidence then they had no choice except to convict him”, the jury’s deliberation was short, returning a verdict of not guilty.

Much to the dismay of his family in Ireland, and despite a great effort, Captain French was unable to obtain consecration of Luke Flanagan’s gravesite. Having made an application to the padre in Silver City, French received the reply that it was outside his parish and jurisdiction, and that he would have to use a padre on the Rio Grande over 200 miles away. It seems that this padre would only visit the Alma area every four years, and by the time he did pass through again, Captain French had long since left the San Francisco River Country, having moved his ranching operation to the Cimarron area in 1900, and was by then living in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

As in the case of Old Charlie Moore, Captain French was convinced that Luke Flanagan had been murdered in Mogollon, as is indicated on the tombstone that be bought and erected: LAKE FLANAGAN [inscription error, should be LUKE], AGED 44 YEARS, MURDERED AT MOGGOLLON [inscription error, should be Mogollon], NOV. 9, 1899.



Traveling north or south on US 180 between Alma and the Gila/Cliff area one’s eyes are constantly drawn to the east to the magnificent towering front range of the Mogollon Mountains. Rarely is one’s gaze drawn to the west except for the occasional fleeting views of the San Francisco River where it closely parallels the highway, beyond which there is relatively little to catch the eye other than a mostly continuous and rather monotonous front of low, partially-forested mountains. But just as books shouldn’t be judged by their cover, the same holds true for the vast, fascinating landscape that lies waiting on the west and north sides of the San Francisco River, totally hidden from view by the low mountain front seen from the highway.

With the exception of a few small private inholdings near the San Francisco River and US 180, almost all of this hidden backcountry landscape is today part of the Gila National Forest. This is the Public Domain and Open Range land on which the cattle from Captain French’s WS Ranch and other nearby ranches grazed. Today, this vast area remains essentially unchanged since the pioneer days of the WS Ranch. Cattle still graze here, although the once Open Range has long since been divided up into large grazing allotments, bounded by rusting old barbed wire fences, which are regulated and administered by the Gila National Forest.

wide western views

Breathtaking view west towards Arizona from the road through the San Francisco River Backcountry

Roads are few and far between over this area, and those that are there are mostly rough gravel roads that generally require high clearance vehicles and are often rendered impassable during wet seasons. Most of these roads through this rugged landscape of forested mountains and intervening elevated rolling grassy mesas follow old cow, horse, and wagon trail routes established and used by the pioneer ranchers and loggers. With the establishment of the Gila National Forest some of these old cattle trails were eventually upgraded to official National Forest road status and improved to permit modern vehicular travel. In the last few years, some of these National Forest roads as designated and numbered on older maps of the Gila National Forest have been further upgraded, renumbered, and signposted as County Roads, which are now maintained by Catron County.

Access across the San Francisco River to this rarely visited portion of the Gila National Forest is limited. Only one bridge provides year-around access, and the few roads that ford the river require high clearance, almost always require four-wheel drive, and are only passable part of the year.

cattle grazing land New Mexico

Looking northwest from road across the varied terrain of the San Francisco River Backcountry towards Blue Range Wilderness. All of the land in this photo was grazed by WS Ranch cattle in the 1880s and 1890s.

Close to the San Francisco River these County access roads are generally in fairly good condition. However, as one proceeds farther into this increasingly rugged and rarely visited terrain, the roads gradually become narrower and rougher, until the bone jarring and head snapping stage is reached were one begins to think maybe it’s a good time to turn around before the vehicle suffers something more than a cosmetic malfunction and help is a mere 20-mile-hike away. Part of the poor condition of these roads can be attributed to lack of use and less-than-frequent maintenance. However most of the roughness, or torture, as the case may be, is primarily due to the nature and composition of rocky terrain over which these roads pass. For this is volcanic rock country, consisting of a vast complex of mostly basaltic andesite and andesite lava flows which spread out from broad nearby shield volcanoes during the Late Oligocene to Early Miocene Epochs, between 24 and 29 million years ago, plus some occasional younger basalt flows that were extruded as the last gasp of volcanism in this part of New Mexico at the end of the Late Miocene about 5.5 million years ago.



The geology and geologic history of the mountains and uplifted mesas of the San Francisco River Backcountry differs significantly from that of the uplifted Mogollon Mountains and Gila Wilderness east of the San Francisco River. Separating these two uplifted areas is an essentially north-south trending valley averaging about six miles wide in an east-west direction. Between Alma on the north and Pleasanton on the south, the San Francisco River flows south along the western boundary of this valley.

In geological terms, this valley is what is known as a graben, which is a block of the Earth’s crust bounded on each side by high angle normal dip-slip faults that has subsided or moved downward vertically relative to the adjacent uplifted blocks of the Earth’s crust, which are called horsts. This particular graben is known in the geological literature as the Mangas Trench2, and is a major geologic feature that stretches southeast from Alma, through Glenwood, Pleasanton, Cliff, and Gila towards Silver City, forming a broad valley between the Burro Mountains on the south and the Mogollon and Piños Altos Mountains on the north. When driving north along US Highway 180 from Cliff and Gila towards Glenwood and Alma, one is driving up the middle of the Mangas Trench.

Vigil Canyon New Mexico

Looking east and downstream from spectacular Vigil Canyon across the Mangas Trench towards the Mogollon Mountains, about one mile upstream from the canyon’s confluence with the San Francisco River. Here the canyon has cut deeply into lava flows of basalt, 5.5 million years old, and is lined with old-growth sycamore, gray oak, and juniper.

The Mangas Trench graben can be considered an elongated, subsiding, sedimentary basin which, over millions of years, has been filled with sediments that have been eroded and carried by streams flowing out of the uplifted mountains on either side of the trench. Over millions of years, these sandy and gravelly sediments can gradually solidify and become cemented into sedimentary rocks which can be mapped and named as distinct formations, such as the Gila Conglomerate which is found throughout the Mangas Trench.

The Mangas Trench is one of several similar basins in the area which began to form about 19 million years ago, during which time the Earth’s crust began to be stretched in an east-west movement, known as the Basin and Range Province extension, producing a landscape of alternating subsiding basins (grabens) and uplifted mountain blocks (horsts).

The vast uplifted area comprising the Mogollon Mountains and the surrounding Gila Wilderness east of the Mangas Trench and the uplifted mountains of the San Francisco Backcountry west of the Mangas Trench are both volcanic in origin; however, they differ markedly in composition, rock type, age, and manner of formation.

basaltic andesite flow rock

This boulder of basaltic andesite flow rock was broken during construction of a gravel road through the San Francisco Backcountry. Note the tan-colored, highly-oxidized, and chemically-altered outer layer of the boulder and the dark gray, fresh rock on the inside. The holes in the boulder are gas bubbles from the time of formation. This boulder is typical of the volcanic material found at or just beneath the surface of the ground over much of the San Francisco River Backcountry. Over millions of years this rock has gradually weathered and altered to form a thin layer of rich clayey soil that supports a dense cover of grassland for the grazing of cattle.

As described in the March 23, 2012 blog on the Supervolcanoes of the Gila Wilderness, the volcanic rocks found in the Mogollon Mountains and the Gila Wilderness were formed primarily by the eruptions of several large super-volcanoes which occurred in two time periods, the first around 34 ma (million years ago) and a second one around 29-28 ma. These eruptions were very explosive due to the high silica (SiO2 content 63-70%) of the magma which forms a highly viscous melt that does not flow easily. Owing to their highly silicic composition, the greatest volume of the volcanic rocks in the Mogollon Mountains and Gila Wilderness would be classified as rhyolite in composition with most of the material being violently ejected from the exploding caldera as pyroclastic ash that formed welded tuffs, rather than flowing out on the surface.

In contrast, the volcanic rocks of the San Francisco Backcountry are somewhat younger, mostly in age from 24 -29 ma with some very late extrusions of basalt which have been dated to 5.5 ma. These rocks are also quite different compositionally, since the magma that formed the volcanic rocks west of the Mangas Trench was much lower in SiO2 content (45-63%), resulting in a less viscous, more fluid melt that flowed easily from the various local volcanic vents, or that rose up along major faults to form sheet-like layers of volcanic rock ranging in classification from mostly andesite and basaltic andesite to occasional basalt.

The volcanic pyroclastic rhyolitic rocks of the Mogollon Mountains and the Gila Wilderness, while rich in the hard, chemically stable mineral quartz, are often poorly fused or cemented together, and somewhat porous. As a result they are structurally weaker, more susceptible to erosion, and are more easily worked by road machinery. In contrast, the andesite, basaltic andesite, and basalt volcanic rocks of the San Francisco River Backcountry are primarily composed of softer and chemically unstable minerals such as plagioclase, pyroxene, and amphibole silicate minerals. When freshly exposed these rocks are typically massive, dense, and hard, making the construction of roads a difficult undertaking. If, however, these silica deficient volcanic rocks, are exposed to the atmosphere and subjected to chemical and physical weathering over thousands of years, these minerals will break down through chemical and physical alteration to form a rich, clayey soil capable of supporting a dense cover of vegetation. This, then, is the origin and nature of the soils that cover much of the San Francisco Backcountry, where forested, rugged, low mountain highlands intersperse with broad expanses of nearly flat mesas covered by a lush growth of grasslands, the same land so greatly prized and grazed by the WS Ranch 130 years ago.

San Francisco River Backcountry

Hiking through luxurious grasslands deep within the San Francisco River Backcountry. Note the rich clayey soil derived from altered volcanic bedrock lying a few inches beneath the surface of the ground. During wet periods, these roads can become a clayey quagmire, impassable for any vehicle.


Lower Big Pine Canyon New Mexico

A perfect spot for lunch on the rim of magnificent Lower Big Pine Canyon, looking southwest to its confluence with the San Francisco River, where the canyon is over 1,000 feet deep.

To travel these old pioneer roads of the San Francisco Backcountry is to travel back in time to witness a landscape essentially the same as Captain French saw. It is raw nature at its finest where, depending on the time of the year, a wide diversity of animal and birds life can be observed in a variety of habitats ranging in elevation from 5,000 to 7,000 feet, from riparian forests of cottonwood and sycamore along the San Francisco River and its major tributary canyons, to ponderosa-lined mountain canyons, to vast expanses of upland mesa grasslands dotted with juniper and pinon.

For the photographer and the artist, it is a spectacular landscape offering endless vistas in all directions, as well as close-up nature studies. For the hiking enthusiast, the opportunities are endless, ranging from easy walks along rarely-travelled primitive roads across gently rolling grassy mesas to challenging hikes down into deep rocky canyons that flow into the San Francisco River. For the strong of heart, and even stronger of vehicle, the San Francisco River Backcountry is a great place to reconnect with nature and to explore and experience the New Mexico Territory of the late-1800s.

NOTE: The San Francisco River Backcountry is easily accessed from the Alma area by several gravel County roads that extend deeply, in some cases more than 20 miles, into this rugged portion of the Gila National Forest, some of which go all the way to the New Mexico-Arizona State line. While unlimited hiking is available over a variety of terrain, other than the County roads and the primitive forest tracks that lead off from them, there are no official, numbered Forest Trails. Consequently, visitors to the area are strongly advised to carry maps such as the new, 2013, Gila National Forest map or relevant USGS Quadrangle maps, plus, a compass or hand-held GPS if planning to hike off road.

Because of the rough condition of county roads and primitive forest tracks in this area, a high clearance vehicle is essential, and in some place 4-wheel drive is necessary. In wet weather, many of these roads become impassable for any vehicle due to the clayey gumbo soil that covers much of the area.

There are no sources of water available in this area, other than stock ponds and occasional springs and runoff in the deeper canyons.

As always, Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is happy to provide our guests with maps, detailed directions, current trail status and conditions, and updated weather information for any of the hikes or travels discussed in these blogs.


1. French, Captain William, 1928, Some Recollections of a Western Ranchman, 1883-1889, New Mexico, Frederick A. Stokes Co., New York.
2. Geology of the Late Cenozoic Alma Basin, New Mexico and Arizona (.pdf)


Posted in history, nature, Old West cemeteries, Old West history | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments



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.


Posted in Gila National Forest, hiking, Mineral Creek, mining | Tagged , | Leave a comment



winter solstice sunrise

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


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.


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.


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 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.


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

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



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