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



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


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.


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.


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.


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 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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Whitewater Baldy fire raging within the Gila Wilderness in the Mogollon Mountains on May 22, 2012

Whitewater Baldy fire raging within the Gila Wilderness in the Mogollon Mountains on May 22, 2012

It was early on the afternoon of May 16, 2012 while taking the trash from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses to the Gila transfer station, that one first noticed the fire about 25 miles away to the northwest: two small columns of smoke drifting lazily upward on the southern flank of the Mogollon Mountains. At that time the smoke seemed confined to two small areas, possibly the result of a controlled burn by the Forest Service. If not, one thought, then surely the Forest Service was aware of them since their presence and location could be readily seen from the Glenwood District Ranger Station. And surely, because of their apparent small size, they would be put out soon, and easily too. But, on both counts, it was not to be.

The Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire began with a single lightning strike, first detected on May 9, 2012, as a small quarter-acre burn isolated on steep, grassy slopes on the side of Mogollon Baldy, a 10,770-foot mountain at the western end of the Gila Wilderness. Soon named the Baldy Fire by the Forest Service, the fire was not considered serious initially because of low amounts of fuel and some residual snow in the area where it was burning. Because of this assessment, the Forest Service placed the fire in monitoring status.

Fire on the Mountain—the Baldy and Whitewater fires combine, May 22, 2012

Fire on the Mountain—the Baldy and Whitewater fires combine, May 22, 2012

Then, about a week later, a second fire, named the Whitewater Fire and also the result of a lightning strike, was detected on May 16, high up in the headwaters of Whitewater Creek on the western slopes of Whitewater Baldy Mountain, the highest peak in the Mogollon Range at 10,895 feet. By May 23, the two fires had merged as a result of three days of winds over 40 miles an hour, and had turned into a raging monster of an inferno, rapidly consuming vast stands of old growth spruce and fir across the highest portions of the Mogollon Range. The Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire was now a mega-fire, the size and intensity of which had not been seen within the Gila Wilderness in recorded history. The Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire was to burn for another two months. By the time containment of the fire was officially declared on July 17 and controlled status declared on July 31, the fire had burned over 297,000 acres, at an estimated cost of $100 million, making it the largest and most expensive fire in the history of New Mexico.

The progression, suppression, and aftermath mitigation efforts of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire are well documented and make for interesting reading. The five summary documents listed in the References at the end of this blog give a good overview of the fire from several perspectives, plus a current statement of fire fighting protocol of the U.S. Forest Service.

Almost immediately after the start of the Whitewater and Baldy fires, portions of the Gila Wilderness and surrounding National Forest were closed for safety reasons. Gradually, as the fire grew in size and magnitude, more and more areas had to be closed until virtually the entire western half of the Gila Wilderness and surrounding Forest west of the Gila River were closed to public access. This closure continued until August 9, 2013, when all areas and trails were reopened for public recreation and hunting.


Forest fires caused by lightning are but one element of a vast, complex, eternally evolving, interconnected web of Cycles of Natural Change that exist within every forest. Wildfires in forests are not new; they have been part of Nature since the first forests began to cover the land in the Late Devonian Period 385 millions years ago.

Painting of a Devonian Forest done by Eduard Riou in 1892

Painting of a Devonian Forest done by Eduard Riou in 1892

Considered from Nature’s perspective, forest fires are neither good nor bad; they are simply a Natural Process of Cyclical Change. When viewed from the Human perspective, however, few people appreciate such a philosophical position. No, for most people forest fires are typically considered either good or bad depending upon one’s personal values. Neutral or indifferent positions are rare, especially when it’s a fire coming to a forest near (or dear) to you. Yet the fact remains … inhuman as it is to say it … Nature Doesn’t Care. Only humans care. Unfortunately (or fortunately—your choice), humans care about, or value, different things, values that are often diametrically opposed and mostly irreconcilable. And there’s the rub when you start talking about wildfire in forests. Game hunters or ranchers, for example, typically view forest fires as beneficial in the long run because more grass-covered open land equals more game and more grazing! On the other hand, to the advocate of the endangered Spotted Owl or the devotee of majestic stands of old growth, pristine spruce and fir, or the owner of that little cabin retreat in the pines in a private inholding surrounded by National Forest, wildfire in the forest is a threat and should be stopped. And so it goes—different values, different perspectives. Our National Forests – Lands of Many Uses, Lands of Many Values.


Appreciation of the Forest Primeval—Recreational horseback riding in the Gila Wilderness in 1922.

Appreciation of the Forest Primeval—Recreational horseback riding in the Gila Wilderness in 1922.

Through the efforts of life-long forester, ecologist, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, the Gila Wilderness became the first Wilderness Area within the National Forest system on June 3, 1924.

Through the efforts of life-long forester, ecologist, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, the Gila Wilderness became the first Wilderness Area within the National Forest system on June 3, 1924.

The history of response to wildfire in the forest in the United States, especially in the American West where periods of extended drought are more common, has varied throughout our history. Prior to 1900, most people saw the American Forest as something to be used; lumber, minerals, potential farm or ranch land, source of food, etc., all God given and free for the taking. And from this perspective, fires in the forest were mostly considered not good, something to be feared and fought, and to be put out wherever possible. Unless, of course, one wanted to start one’s own fire and use it as a means to clear land for other uses. Concepts such as conservation and preservation were given little thought in the Western Frontier. By the early 1900s some scientists and naturalists, such as Aldo Leopold, were beginning to speak out about these concepts, as greater insight and understanding emerged regarding the role that various natural cycles, such as wildfire, played in forest ecology.

Then came the Great Fire of 1910, also known as the Big Burn or the Big Blowup. As inconceivably large as the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire at 300,000 acres seems to most people today, by Big Burn standards it would be considered perhaps nothing more than a good-sized brushfire. When the Big Burn Fire was finally extinguished by Mother Nature in the form of a cold front that brought major rain and snow, over 3 million acres or 4,700 square miles (roughly the area of Connecticut) had been charred over Northeast Washington, the Panhandle of Idaho, and Western Montana in >two days! Losses included the total destruction of 7 towns in Montana and Idaho, plus severe destruction in several others; the burning of an estimated 8 billion board feet of timber; and the death of 87 people, 78 of whom were firefighters (second only in US history to the death of the 343 firefighters in the September 11, 2001 attack). During this monumental firestorm, winds blew at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour. It is estimated that during the firestorm, the energy being expended was the equivalent of a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb detonating every two minutes!

Severe burn in a heavy stand of Idaho White Pine on the Little North Fork of the St. Joe River, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, 1910.

Severe burn in a heavy stand of Idaho White Pine on the Little North Fork of the St. Joe River, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, 1910.

With the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1910 came a National Policy for the newly established, five-year-old U.S. Forest Service: a non-negotiable policy of complete fire suppression. This far-reaching policy was to last until the 1960s when discussions began to take place at the National level regarding the recognition that fire in the forest was a natural process and that forests should be managed as ecological systems, a concept embracing the conviction that total suppression was not always the best solution. As a result of these discussions, and with the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, naturally-caused fires were permitted to burn within the newly-established Wilderness Areas. In 1968, the National Park Service policy regarding wildfire was likewise changed, recognizing fire as a natural process. As a result, wildland fires were permitted to burn within our National Parks as long as the fires achieved management objectives. Finally, in 1974, the U.S. Forest Service abandoned its 64-year policy of complete fire suppression (which had been formalized in 1935 by the adoption of the so-called 10:00 AM Policy, a hard-line, no excuse policy that mandated that all fires within National Forests would be suppressed by 10:00 AM the day after they were detected), and embraced a more ecologically-based policy of prescribed fire management involving both suppression, allowing certain fires to burn, and the setting of prescribed controlled burns. Since that time, the protocol for prescribed fire management has evolved as experience was gained from major fires that occurred within fire suppression or exclusion zones, wildfire escapes from controlled burns, and the extensive monitoring of naturally-occurring wildfires throughout the West. As a result of this experience, although today’s management programs will vary somewhat from agency to agency, the first priority and prime directive for all federal wildland fire programs is that of firefighter and public safety.


As of August 9, 2013, all areas of the Gila Wilderness that were closed in 2012 because of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire are once again open to the public. For the remainder of 2013, visitors to the Gila Wilderness and National Forest should be aware that some roads, trails and recreational areas are still being repaired or remain in poor condition as a result of the fire and subsequent damage from the 2012 and 2013 Monsoon rains.

Gila River at NM211 bridge at flood stage of 12,000 cubic feet per second on September 16, 2013.

Gila River at NM211 bridge at flood stage of 12,000 cubic feet per second on September 16, 2013.

The Monsoon Season for 2013, which began at the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses on July 1, is now over throughout the area, with the last rain received here on September 20. This year’s Monsoon Season was a long one, with most areas receiving substantial rainfall. Here at the Casitas total rainfall for the period was 11.4 inches, about twice the normal average. Higher elevations in the mountains and Wilderness areas, however, received greater amounts, with some areas, particularly in the western part of the Mogollon Mountains, reporting as much as 25 inches. While the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire covered a vast area of the Gila Wilderness, the most severely burned areas also occurred in the highest elevations in the western part of the Mogollon Mountains. Consequently, serious flooding occurred here in the latter part of the Monsoon Season, particularly in the Whitewater Creek, Silver Creek, Mineral Creek, and Gilita Creek drainages, leading to downstream damage in the communities of Alma, Mogollon, and Glenwood.

Hiking a forest trail up Whitewater Canyon towards the Gila Wilderness, September 2, 2013.

Hiking a forest trail up Whitewater Canyon towards the Gila Wilderness, September 2, 2013.

During the Fall Season from late September through December, hiking, birding, touring, camping, and other recreational pursuits are at their best in the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness. Typically the skies are clear, the air cool and crisp, and precipitation nil, with rivers and creeks running at normal levels and clear. This statement, of course, was significantly compromised last year in the aftermath of the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, with major trail, road, and area closures; rivers and creeks running black from colloidal ash and silt runoff; and charred, barren landscapes in the high country. This year, just one year later, however, visitors to the area will once again be able to experience the solitude and magnificence of the Gila Country and all that it has to offer.

Looking north into the Mogollon Mountain High Country towards West Baldy Mountain (9,875 ft.) on left and Sacaton Mountain (10,658 ft.) on right, from burned piñon-juniper area on Sacaton Mesa on September 6, 2013. Photo shows distribution of both unburned spruce-fir conifer (dark green) and new shrub and tree growth (light green and yellow) one year after Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Looking north into the Mogollon Mountain High Country towards West Baldy Mountain (9,875 ft.) on left and Sacaton Mountain (10,658 ft.) on right, from burned piñon-juniper area on Sacaton Mesa on September 6, 2013. Photo shows distribution of both unburned spruce-fir conifer (dark green) and new shrub and tree growth (light green and yellow) one year after Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Completely burned area of piñon and juniper showing rapid regeneration of flowering plants, shrubs, and scrub oak on September 6, 2013, one year after Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Completely burned area of piñon and juniper showing rapid regeneration of flowering plants, shrubs, and scrub oak on September 6, 2013, one year after Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Hiking up mountain creek on September 6, 2013, the trail passes through fire-scorched ponderosa pine trunks from spotting ground fire set by wind-carried embers from Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Hiking up mountain creek on September 6, 2013, the trail passes through fire-scorched ponderosa pine trunks from spotting ground fire set by wind-carried embers from Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Most popular day trips and hikes along roads and trails within the lower elevations and periphery of the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness show little or no sign of burning from the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire since the most severe burning was confined to the highest elevations in the interior of the Wilderness. Where such effects are encountered they tend to be isolated and small in area extent, the result of localized fire spotting from wind blown embers. Most lower elevation canyons and creeks show minimal effect, whereas adjacent ridge-tops may exhibit more extensive burning.

Alligator Juniper seedling growing at base of stump of juniper tree burned by Whitewater-Baldy Fire one year later, on September 6, 2013.

Alligator Juniper seedling growing at base of stump of juniper tree burned by Whitewater-Baldy Fire one year later, on September 6, 2013.

A short distance further up the same creek, the forest is untouched and remains in pristine condition.

A short distance further up the same creek, the forest is untouched and remains in pristine condition.

During forest fires in the Gila National Forest, firefighters will, wherever possible, protect historic structures such as this old miner's cabin by wrapping them in fire retardant material.

During forest fires in the Gila National Forest, firefighters will, wherever possible, protect historic structures such as this old miner’s cabin by wrapping them in fire retardant material.

It is true that some favorite area trails in the high country are difficult to access and traverse, and will remain so for considerable time, as many of these areas were greatly changed by the fire. Yet if one does choose to travel these areas, one will be impressed to find a forest well into comeback mode, with much of last year’s barren landscape now showing an abundant growth of new grass, shrubs, and young trees. The Natural Cycle of Forest Regeneration and Succession has begun. And if one is able to focus on the present and what will eventually be again, without excessive obsessing on what once was, such a visit offers the potential for a rewarding experience of observation and insight as to how Nature never gives up, but instead adapts and perseveres within the never-ending Processes of Cyclical Change.

Immediately following the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, mountain streams draining the area ran black with ash and silt, but one year later, following the 2013 Monsoon Rains, all rivers and creeks have been flushed out and are once more running crystal clear and pure.

Immediately following the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, mountain streams draining the area ran black with ash and silt, but one year later, following the 2013 Monsoon Rains, all rivers and creeks have been flushed out and are once more running crystal clear and pure.

Crystal clear mountain stream running across lime green welded tuff bedrock near end of hike in the Gila National Forest on September 6, 2013.

Crystal clear mountain stream running across lime green welded tuff bedrock near end of hike in the Gila National Forest on September 6, 2013.

When planning a hike or visit within the Gila National Forest or Wilderness this Fall or Winter, it is strongly suggested that one contact the Gila National Forest District Ranger Station in Glenwood (575-539-2481) regarding road and trail conditions in specific areas, as maintenance and repairs following the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire will be ongoing during this time period. Visitors that have computer access will find the Google Earth program to be of great value in planning and previewing a hike or outing since new high-definition imagery of the Gila Wilderness was taken this year on February 22, 2013. By comparing this imagery with the newly revised map of the Gila National Forest that came out on September 13, 2013, one should be able to determine probable conditions on various trails and roads.

Here at Casitas de Gila we do our best to stay updated on existing conditions on various roads and trails and are always happy to provide information and maps for our guests. And, as always, we will be pleased to give full directions and information regarding any hikes discussed or pictured in this blog.


These reports and documents present a good detailed summary and statistics of the beginning, progression, and aftermath of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire.

  1. Wildfire Review Report of Whitewater-Baldy Complex and Little Bear Fires in New Mexico, May through June 2012 (.pdf file), William A. Derr, Legislative Fellow for Steve Pearce, Member of Congress, Second District, New Mexico.
  2. Narrative of Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire May, 23rd, 2012 to June 19th, 2012 (.pdf file), Observations and actions by Doug Bohykin, Socorro District Forester, NM EMNRD, Socorro District, New Mexico.
  3. Whitewater Fire, A Lasting Legacy (.pdf file), Alan Campbell.
  4. Whitewater-Baldy Complex, Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team, Executive Summary, Glenwood, Reserve, Black Range, and Wilderness Ranger Districts Gila National Forest (.pdf file)
  5. 2013 U.S. National Forest Service Wildland Fire Response Protocol (.pdf file)


Posted in Gila National Forest, Gila Wilderness, history, nature, wildfire | Tagged , | 6 Comments



bear creek at harvest time

Bear Creek at harvest time


It’s late August and the rains of the 2013 Southwest Monsoon season have shown no sign of weakening. As of this morning, Casitas de Gila Guesthouses has had 8.54 inches of rain since the monsoons began on July 1. Despite the devastating hailstorm of July 3, the courtyard garden at the house is thriving (except for the tomatoes, which were completely destroyed) and is now producing abundant yellow squash, basil, and green peppers for harvest, plus flowers galore. The over-composted soil brought up from the Bear Creek floodplain below the Casitas last year has obviously aged to just the right nutrient levels.


Experimental garden on Bear Creek at harvest time

The large experimental garden put in this year down on the Bear Creek floodplain has also been highly successful. While most plants located at the periphery of the garden and some situated beneath the protective shade cloth where it ripped apart from the weight of the hail suffered significant damage by the July 3rd hail storm, those areas quickly regenerated new growth and soon caught up with the protected parts of the garden. Now well into the harvesting phase, the garden has produced abundant snap peas, string beans, carrots, and tomatoes. The delicata and butternut squashes, potatoes, and two kinds of watermelon should be ready for harvesting soon. The experimental plot of Einkorn Wheat has also done well, yielding a dense growth of two-foot high shafts of wheatberries now ripening golden in the late August sun. Only the cantaloupe have failed. They continue to put out long vines with lots of flowers, but, alas, only a few fruit, seemingly unwilling or unable to compete with the overpowering growth of the delicata and the butternut squash.


USDA Soil Texture Diagram

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture USDA Soil Texture Diagram, as modified by Mikenorton 2011.

Productive agricultural soils consist of the right mixture of mineral particles (sand, silt and clay), water, gases, organic matter, and necessary nutrients which have developed over significant periods of time. The source of the mineral particles can be either igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary rocks which have been broken down and altered by physical and chemical weathering at or near the surface of the earth. If the altered mineral material remains at the site where it was formed, on top of the parent rock, it eventually develops into what is known as a residual soil. Most soils, however, can be classified as transported soils, whereby the mineral particles are transported by the processes of water, gravity, wind, or ice, and then subsequently deposited. A third type of soil called cumulose soils are those that develop entirely from organic material that lives, dies, and collects in place such as peat or muck soils.

An essential form of both the mineral particles and organic matter in soil is the abundant presence of colloidal-sized particles (extremely fine particles between 2 and 500 nanometers). Colloidal particles act as storage repositories for essential nutrients and ions and act to stabilize soil chemistry through time and space.

sandy soil

Mesquite and Juniper growing on nutrient-deficient pebbly sandy soil on Casita Flat behind the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.

Soils must contain sufficient nutrients in the right proportion in order to promote healthy and abundant plant growth. Some 20 elements are essential for plant growth and nutrition. Two of these, carbon (C) and oxygen (O) are taken in by plants from the air. The rest, including hydrogen (H) from water (H2O), are taken from the soil and are divided into four categories: the three primary macronutrients of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K); the three secondary nutrients calcium (Ca), sulphur (S) and magnesium (Mg); the macronutrient Silicon (Si); and the micronutrients/trace minerals: boron (B), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), iron (Fe) zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), selenium (Se), and sodium (Na).

The soil comprising the flats on which the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are constructed consists of materials transported down from the hills to the west of the Casitas by surface rainwater runoff, and ranges in thickness from 5 or 6 feet beneath the Casitas to about 20 feet at the west side of the flat. The soil on the flats consists mostly of silt to course sand with variable amounts of gravel derived either from the erosion of thin residual soil developed on the underlying weathered and altered Gila Conglomerate or physical erosion of unweathered Gila Conglomerate bedrock exposed over the surrounding hills.

sandy soil

Profile of nutrient-deficient pebbly sandy soil in road cut coming up on Casita Flat.

sandy soil

Hill to the west behind flats around the Casitas from whence the poor nutrient soil on Casita Flat has been derived. Note that the soil is very thin on the hill as shown by the outcrops of underlying Gila Conglomerate.

Following the construction of the Casitas 15 years ago, numerous attempts were made at landscaping and gardening around the Casitas. These attempts included vegetable gardens, flower and herb gardens, and an orchard of fruit trees. While some of the efforts yielded results for a year or two, most ended in failure no matter what amount of physical effort was expended or advanced agricultural techniques, such drip irrigation systems, were implemented. Depending on the year, reasons for the these failures would be attributed to various scapegoats such as too cold and late frosts in the spring, too hot and a scorching sun in the summer, too little precipitation, too much wind, gopher attacks, grasshopper plagues, marauding deer, or even our own bad-acting horses. And, at first consideration, these were obvious and valid reasons.


Large grasshopper (up to 3 inches) on snap peas in Bear Creek Garden in August 2013. One of numerous species available to terrorize the would-be gardener!


Another 3-inch species of grasshopper seen around the Casitas in August 2013. Colorful, yes! But hard on one’s garden.

Yet in retrospect, all of these reasons were for the most part secondary to a fundamental underlying cause, namely that the soil was extremely poor, too poor for the struggling plants to prevail against the various challenges that face all plant life in the American Southwest. Essentially the soil was almost devoid of necessary organic matter, nutrients, and especially, the critically-important colloidal clay mineral and organic particles. No, because of its extremely fine particle size, the bulk of the colloidal material, instead of being deposited over the flat with the coarser mineral particles, would be be swept along, suspended within the rushing runoff waters, across the flat, and then over and down the cliffs to be deposited either on the floodplain or to join with the waters of the creek itself some 80 feet below. With little or none of the critical colloidal materials which act to retain moisture and store nutrients, the small amount of nutrients in the soil would be quickly used up during the first or second year after an initial planting and could not be replaced from the mostly-sterile mineral soil remaining.

It was with this understanding, plus the personal aversion to using commercial fertilizers, that the decision was made to utilize the silty to fertile sandy loam from the Bear Creek floodplain terraces below. As related in the July 2013 blog and the opening paragraph above, the decision was a propitious one. The gardens flourished and good veggies were at last being enjoyed by all at the Casitas, (albeit somewhat reluctantly by Becky, who really much prefers chocolate!). And thus it also came to pass that the knowledge of how to grow food crops in Southern New Mexico was rediscovered by this writer, a body of knowledge that had been worked out in great detail by the Native American Mogollon Culture who were farming the Bear Creek drainage for hundreds of years some 2,000 years ago.


map of Mogollon homelands

Map showing extent of Anazasi, Hohokam and Mogollon homelands (source:

The Mogollon Culture was one of four essentially contemporaneous prehistoric Native American cultures that included the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo People, the Hohokam, and the Patayan cultures. These cultures thrived a huge area in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico that is sometimes referred to as Oasisamerica during the time period of roughly 1200-100 BC until 1300-1450 AD, a time span that has been subdivided into various eras under the Pecos Classification in the Four Corners area.

The large area in which the Mogollon Culture lived included Southern New Mexico and Southeastern Arizona in the U.S., plus Eastern Sonora and most of the Chihuahua states in Northern Mexico. Their cultural boundaries joined with the Hohokam Culture of Southeastern Arizona on the west and the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo Peoples Culture of the Four Corners area of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico on the north.

mogollon pottery sherds

Pottery sherds representing several Mogollon phases. Photo taken during archaeological excavation of a long-term habitation site on the Gila River.

The Mogollon Culture is thought to have developed from an earlier nomadic Archaic Culture called the Cochise around 150 AD, at which time pottery was introduced, probably from the south in Mexico. Over the years, archeological investigations of the Mogollon Culture have led to the recognition of several chronological phases in the development of the culture1, including:

  • the Georgetown Phase, 550 to 650 AD, characterized by deep, round pit houses for living quarters, development of San Francisco Red, Alma series plainwares and San Lorenzo red-on-brown pottery
  • the San Francisco Phase, 650 to 750 AD, characterized by shallow rectangular pit houses with rounded corners, continued production of San Francisco Red and Alma Series plainwares, plus the development of Mogollon red-on-brown and Three Circle red-on-white pottery
  • the Three Circle Phase, 750 to 1000 AD, continued use of shallow rectangular pit houses with rounded corners, gradual replacement of San Francisco Red and Alma Series plainwares by Reserve Plain and Corrugated wares, plus development of the Puerco and Mimbres black-on-white pottery
  • the Reserve Phase, 1000 to 1125 AD, pit houses giving way to surface pueblos of rock and adobe, development of the Reserve black-on-white pottery
  • the Tularosa Phase, 1125 to 1300 AD, rectangular surface pueblos now the preferred building mode plus development of cliff dwellings, introduction of Tularosa black-on-white and some polychrome pottery
  • the Mimbres Phase, 1025-1300, rectangular surface pueblos, some attaining large compounds of adjoining room blocks up to 150 or more rooms, development of the classic black-on-white Mimbres pottery which featured intricate geometric designs as well as figures of animals, birds, insects and humans

Mogollon Culture Mimbres Phase bowl showing wild turkeys feeding on a large centipede. (Source:

Mogollon Culture Mimbres Phase bowl showing wild turkeys feeding on a large centipede. (Source:

Starting in 1250 to 1300 and continuing until 1400 to 1450, the Mogollon people began to abandon the large pueblo complexes and disperse. Traditional explanations for this depopulation have centered on climate change, as evidenced by a 50-year period of extended and persistent drought that began in 1250. More recent investigations have considered outside pressures brought on by an influx of other Native American cultures with resulting conflict and warfare.


Mogollon snake petroglyph

Mogollon Culture snake petroglyph pointing way to nearby spring on mountain at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.

The mostly mountainous area enclosed by the Gila, San Francisco, and Mimbres rivers and their tributaries in Southwest New Mexico were heavily populated by the Mogollon Culture, and ruins of their early pit houses and later adobe and stone pueblo complexes and various cliff dwellings are found throughout the area. In the vicinity of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, numerous village ruins and habitation sites are found along the Gila River near today’s communities of Cliff and Gila, upriver to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and throughout the Bear Creek Drainage from its confluence with the Gila River at Gila upstream to its headwaters in Piños Altos. In the Bear Creek drainage, signs of the Mogollon Culture are especially abundant, including pit houses, small pueblo complexes, cliff dwellings, occasional petroglyphs, and sites of intense and extended agricultural activity, as evidenced in small caves and on bedrock surfaces along the creek that contain abundant mortar holes in which maize, acorns, and other harvested wild seeds were ground.

The Mogollon Culture depended on farming, supplemented by hunting and gathering, as a way of life. Like the Anasazi, Hohokam, and Patayan Cultures, they employed what is known as Three Sisters Agriculture, a type of farming used by many North American Native American cultures in which maize (corn), squash, and climbing beans are planted in close association. When planted in this manner, these three plants have a unique symbiotic association with one another. The maize provides a pole for the beans to climb on, the beans provide nitrogen to the soil that the maize and squash utilize, and the squash spreads out horizontally covering the ground with big leaves that retard weed growth and retain ground moisture.


experimental garden

Looking north from the Casitas’ Self-Guided Nature Trail at the Experimental Garden, which is located on a five-foot terrace on the west side of Bear Creek. Piños Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness are in background.

Having spent some 15 years on foot and horseback studying, observing, and researching the natural and cultural history of the Bear Creek drainage, it seems highly probable that most if not all of the lower stream terraces bordering Bear Creek and the active floodplain were farmed by the Mogollon peoples during the thousand years or so that they lived here. On Bear Creek these terraces occur at elevations of 5 to 10 feet above normal creek level and range from a few feet to several hundred feet in width. The typical composition of these terraces is that of an organic rich, fine-grained silty and sandy loamy soil which accumulated over time from repeated deposition from sediment laden flood waters that overflowed the main channel and spread across the floodplain. As the flood waters spread out across the floodplain, the velocity of the water slowed, allowing the suspended fine sediment and organic debris to settle out and be left behind as a new thin layer of soil over the floodplain. It is this process operating repeatedly year after year down through the ages that produces the thick stream terrace deposits of organic rich, loamy soil that the Mogollon People farmed so long ago along Bear Creek.

Once formed, these stream terraces may persist for decades or even hundreds of years, or may be eroded away depending on the local action of the never-ending process of stream migration. In stream migration, the main channel of a stream constantly meanders or shifts back and forth in broad loops across the floodplain as it seeks to maintain a dynamic state of equilibrium between the sediment being transported and the velocity of the stream. As the channel meanders across the floodplain, it will often cut away the stream terraces that have existed for many decades. In other places it will bypass a stream terrace for a sufficient length of time to allow the downward cutting of the entire canyon bottom to be lowered sufficiently so that the terrace is left at an elevation high enough above the creek that even the largest floods will no longer inundate it.

creek terrace

Looking west from Bear Creek, showing present channel, active floodplain, and line of cottonwood and willow trees at the lower edge of cut-bank into 5-foot terrace on which the Experimental Garden is located.

creek terrace

Looking north to Experimental Garden on 5-foot terrace showing steep rise immediately to left of garden to ancient 10-foot terrace now vegetated with old growth juniper, oak and mesquite trees, which was probably farmed by Mogollon people.

The garden that was put in below the Casitas this year is located on a terrace some five to six feet about the present level of the creek. Presently about 100 feet in width, this terrace was at least 50 feet wider when the Casitas were built in 1999. As described in the June 20, 2013 blog the big flood of 2005 caused the main channel of Bear Creek to shift from the east side of the floodplain to the west side. In the process a large part of the east side of the terrace where the garden is now located was cut away. Over the next couple of years the cut bank of the terrace was stabilized by new growth of cottonwood and willow. Today the cut bank at the edge of the terrace is completely stabilized and protected from further erosion by a continuous row of shrubs and trees up to 50 feet in height. From time to time major floods will spread out across the terrace to deposit a new layer of fine nutrient rich loamy soil gradually raising the level of the terrace surface ever higher.

ancient adze

Mogollon Culture adze or maul found on 10-foot terrace at Casitas de Gila, probably used in farming there. Groove for attachment of handle extends three-quarters the way around tool. Tip of tool (left end) broken off.

It is unlikely that the terrace on which this year’s garden was planted existed at the time of the Mogollon Culture, but rather is a product of stream deposition in much more recent times, probably within the last 100 to 200 years. However, just a few feet to the west of the garden, the surface of this modern stream terrace rises abruptly four to five feet to another level surface that extends westward several tens of feet to terminate against water-worn cliffs of Gila Conglomerate that form the west side of the Bear Creek Canyon. This higher level surface, now vegetated with old growth juniper, oak and mesquite, is a remnant portion of a much older stream terrace that can be traced along Bear Creek throughout much of the Casitas’ property. Evidence from personal research conducted to date on this ancient terrace indicates that it not only existed at the time of the Mogollon Culture, but that it was probably farmed by them as well.

During the initial development of the Casita property a small access road was constructed to the edge of the Bear Creek floodplain, terminating at the edge the ancient Bear Creek terrace just described. In the process of doing so, numerous rocks left in the path cut by the bulldozer were personally cast aside under nearby trees. About three years ago, while hiking the Casita trails, one of our guests picked up a rock off to the side of the terminus of this road and noticed that it showed evidence of having been worked. Indeed it had been. Examination suggests that the artifact had been quickly and roughly worked into a maul or adze-like shape with medial grooves for attachment of a handle. When shown the location of where the artifact had been found, it turned out that it was one of the rocks that had been scraped up from the ancient terrace at the end of the road during construction and cast aside under the trees 15 years ago!


Most information that is written for general consumption concerning the lifestyle of the Mogollon People will start out by mentioning that they cultivated and depended upon the Three Sisters crops of maize, squash, and beans, which they supplemented by hunting and gathering. Typically, however, that’s about as far as these articles go. For the curious sort of person, and especially one who had just expended considerable amount of time and energy on an experimental garden down along Bear Creek, however, several inevitable questions soon began to pick away in one’s brain as to just what kind of squash and beans and corn were they growing, and what sort of plants might they have been gathering. Fortunately, there is a vast body of information available regarding these questions residing in the numerous in-depth archaeological studies that have been done on the Mogollon Culture over the past 80 years or so. But it does require a bit of digging (unearthing maybe?) to get it. Sorry … Anyway, here are some answers to those questions, gathered from two reports published in 19562 and 19863.

The 1956 report by Martin, et al, Higgens Flat Pueblo, Western New Mexico, details results of excavations done in 1953 on a Tularosa Phase Mogollon Pueblo village site located near Reserve, New Mexico, dating from about 1200 to its abandonment around 1250. Considerable identifiable plant remains of both cultivated and wild plants were recovered at this site from partially burned or charred material, which are summarized below. Wild plants identified in these studies and which are listed below as being used for food or medicinal purposes have been researched against the University of Michigan at Dearborn’s Native American Ethnobotany Data Base, an excellent reference source for those readers interested in learning more about how Native Americans have used various species of wild plants throughout history.

Cultivated food plants:

  • Corn (Maize), specific name Zia mays: The bulk of the preserved plant material was corn and considerable research is presented comparing the Higgens Flat corn types to other varieties found at other Native American sites in the Southwest based on cob and grain measurements
  • Squash, genus Cucurbita: Two types of squash, identified by seeds, were cultivated at Higgens Flat. Most abundant were seeds of a cultivated variety of Curcubita pepo, which at the time of the study was still being farmed by many Native Americans throughout the southwest. Today there are many cultivars of this species including Acorn, Delicata, Yellow Summer Squash, and Zucchini, as well as some winter squash.

    Second in abundance was a variety of Cucurbita argyrosperma, syn. C.mixta Pangalo which at the time of the report was still being farmed by the Hopi and at Taos pueblo, a cultivar known as the Green Striped Cushaw. This species includes numerous cultivars of pumpkin and winter squash.

  • Beans, genera Phaseolus and possibly Canavalia: Two species of Phaseolus were identified, P. vulgaris, the Common Bean or Kidney Bean, and P. acutifolius var. latifolius, the Teparary Bean. A large third type of bean was identified as possibly being either P. lunatus, the Lima Bean, P. coccineus, syn. P. multiflorus, the Scarlet Runner Bean, or Canavalia ensiformis, the Jack Bean, all three of which have been found at sites in central and southern Arizona.

delicata squash

Delicata Squash (cucurbita pepo cultivar)

green beans

Green Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris cultivar)

Wild food or medicinal plants:

  • Utah Juniper, Juniperus osetosperma, syn J. utahensis: berries.; used as medicine
  • Arizona Walnut, Juglans major: nuts; gathered for food
  • Freemont’s Goosefoot: Chenopodium fremontii, a member of the Amaranthaceae family: seeds; leaves and stems used as vegetable greens and seeds as grain in bread and porridge
  • Cactus, Oputnia sp.: fragments of pads; pads and fruits used for food
  • Jimson Weed or Sacred Datura, Datura wrightii, syn: D. metelodies Seeds; used as medicine and as hallucinogenic drug

Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii)

Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii)

The 1986 report by Anderson, et al, The Archaeology of Gila Cliff Dwellings, is a report that analyzes, synthesizes, and interprets existing field research data, excavations and collections made on the Gila Cliff Dwellings since the time of their discovery in the late1800s. As presented in this report, the Gila Cliff Dwellings, like the Higgens Pueblo site near Reserve, were constructed and occupied during the Tularosa Phase of the Mogollon Culture and housed some 40 to 60 people during a short period from roughly 1270 until 1290. Cultivated and wild plants used for food and medicinal purposes recovered and identified from the Cliff Dwellings include all of the plants listed from the Higgens Pueblo, plus some additional ones which are listed below.

butternut squash

Butternut Squash (Curcurbita moschata cultivar)

Cultivated food plants:

  • Squash, Cucurbita moschata: This species includes cultivars of both squash and pumpkin. Modern day cultivars include the Butternut Squash

Devil's Clas

Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea parviflora)

Wild food or medicinal plants:

  • Wild or Spotted Bean, Phaseolus maculatus, syn. P. metcalfei: used both as food and as medicine
  • Wooton’s Devil’s Claw, Proboscidea parviflora or Hollyhock Devil’s Claw: young pods and seeds used for food, and also used as medicine
  • Pinyon, Pinus edulis: seeds used for food


Careless Weed

Massive stand of Careless Weed (Amaranthus palmerii) surrounding the experimental garden on Bear Creek.

It is highly probable that the Mogollon Peoples who lived and farmed on Bear Creek cultivated and gathered all of the plants recovered and identified from the Higgens Pueblo and Gila Cliff Dwellings archaeological studies. It is also highly probable that these plants are only a small fraction of the large number of plants found within the Bear Creek drainage that were gathered for food or used for medicinal purposes. For example, this year one of the most common plants found throughout the Bear Creek drainage and surrounding area and known by its common name of Careless Weed or Pigweed, Amaranthus palmeri, has virtually taken over most of the ground surface surrounding the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses and has formed thick massive stands of up to five feet high down on the Bear Creek floodplain. It is known from other archaeologic and ethnobotanical studies that this plant was extensively gathered and used throughout Native American history as an important food source, the leaves and stems boiled or baked as vegetable greens, and the dried seeds ground for flour. Also this year, a fine crop of Wooton’s Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea parviflora) and Hollyhock Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea althaeifolia) are to be found both around the Casitas on the terraces below along Bear Creek.


In preparing this blog, it also must be said that some possible insight may have been gained in understanding the hierarchy of horticultural success of the various plants tried in this year’s experimental garden on the Bear Creek floodplain terrace. As discussed earlier, of all the plants tried, only the cantaloupes failed to produce fruit in abundance, seemingly having been completely overgrown and outproduced by the neighboring Delicata squash cultivar of Cucurbita pepo and Butternut squash cultivar of Cucurbita moschata. A little research has shown that the cantaloupe, while it is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, belongs to an entirely different genus and species, Cucumis melo var. catalupensis. Cantaloupes originated in Iran, India, and Africa, and were cultivated in Iran 5,000 years ago and in Greece and Egypt 4,000 years ago. Cantaloupe is not native to North America. Yet down in the Bear Creek garden, the two squash that were planted beside the cantaloupe, Curcubita pepo and Cucurbita moschata, belong to a genus that is native throughout the American Southwest, and are species that have been genetically adapting and thriving here on Bear Creek for over 2,000 years. No wonder they did so well!


  1. Power point presentation Beloit University: PPT Southwest Complex Societies – Oneonta
  2. 1956, Martin, Paul S., Rinaldko, John B., Bluhm, Elaine A., Cutler, Hugh C.,
    Higgins Flat Pueblo Western New Mexico, Fieldiana: Anthropology, Volume 45, Chicago Natural History Museum
  3. 1986, Anderson, Keith M., Fenner, Gloria J., Morris, Don P., Teague, George A., McKusick, Charmion, The Archeology of the Gila Cliff Dwellings, Western Archeological and Conservation Center, Tucson, Arizona, The Digital Archaeological Record


Posted in Bear Creek, fall, history, monsoon rains, native plants | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments




southwest mountains

An intense afternoon thunderstorm bearing down on Turtle Rock and the Casitas, completely obscuring the view of the towering Piños Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness behind.

The Dry Season, the typical climate at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses during April, May, and June, is over. On July 1st the Summer Monsoon rains arrived in Southwest New Mexico right on schedule, with a respectable 0.67 inches being measured here at the Casitas. It was the first significant rainfall since March. So far, the total for the month through the third week in July here at the Casitas stands at 4.08 inches, a number that portends a strong Monsoon Season for 2013.

As is typical for Monsoon rains here in Southwest New Mexico, almost all of this July precipitation has been as brief showers, plus a few more-intense thunderstorm events, occurring on 12 separate days. For 11 of those events, precipitation was typical, ranging from .04 to .45 inches, and averaging about 0.2 inches per event. Most of the events were of short duration, less than 20 minutes, which is also typical for the Monsoon rains here in Southwest New Mexico.

But then there was that one event …


Casitas de Gila thunderstorm

Afternoon thunderheads rising to the north above Casita de los Arboles.

The day started out clear and bright with a nice breeze out of the Northeast. By early afternoon the thunderheads began to rise above the Piños Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness, five miles north of the Casitas, a common sight this time of year. By late afternoon, though, it was noticed that one could no longer see the mountains in the Wilderness as heavy rain was falling in the Bear Creek drainage, between the mountains and Bear Creek.

Watching thunderstorms move around on NOAA weather radar and speculating as to whether your area will receive some rain from it is a great spectator sport here at the Casitas during the Monsoons. And this day was no different. After a considerable time of monitoring the storm’s slow progress towards the Casitas, one’s analysis vacillated every few minutes from “Yes, we will!” to “No, we won’t!” to “Well, it looks like we’ll just catch the edge of it.” Standing outside as the approaching storm entered Horseshoe Canyon (about one and half miles to the north of us), one watched as the dark gray wall of rain slowly advanced towards the Casitas. Then, to one’s deepening consternation, the gray wall of rain turned white and one’s ears perceived a distant, familiar-yet-ominous roaring sound … That was not rain coming. That was hail. And by the increasing sound of it, it was a massive hail storm that was now bearing down on the Casitas.

new mexico hail storm

The porch outside the office, during the hail storm.

And what a storm it was! Within 15 or 20 minutes the Casitas received 1.75 inches of precipitation, over half of which fell as large, half-inch to three-quarter-inch hail, driven by 50 to 60 mile an hour winds out of the northeast. Physical damage to the Casitas was minimal and mostly cosmetic, with some chipped paint and one broken window.

The plant kingdom, however, was decimated. The hardy Honey Mesquite, having just begun to fatten up their annual crop of mesquite beans, was very hard hit with most of the compound leaves and immature beans being stripped from the branches and pounded into the ground. The One-seed Junipers also suffered greatly, with most losing about half of their deep green foliage, stripped off by the hail and left as a deep green blanket carpeting the ground beneath the trees. The Scrub Oaks, at least those that had stored enough moisture during the Spring to put on new leaves, were stripped completely bare. In addition, all ground cover, be it dead grasses or weeds left from last year, or any new growth of green grass or weeds that had struggled to emerge during the dry Spring, was completely obliterated by the pounding hail. With the ground now devoid of any cover, the resulting runoff of nearly two inches of a dense slurry of rainwater and hail completed the devastation by scouring and eroding the ground surface unlike any storm witnessed here during the 15 years we have lived here.

A juniper on the east side of the Casitas, facing the direction from which the hail came, with about half of their foliage stripped from their branches, forming a green carpet under the tree.

A juniper on the east side of the Casitas, facing the direction from which the hail came, with about half of their foliage stripped from their branches, forming a green carpet under the tree.

East-facing hillside in foreground showing Honey Mesquite Catclaw and Scrub Oak completely stripped of foliage, plus complete destruction of all the vegetative ground cover.

East-facing hillside in foreground showing Honey Mesquite, Catclaw, and Scrub Oak completely stripped of foliage, plus complete destruction of all the vegetative ground cover.

About a half-hour after the storm had moved on to the west, the resulting flash flood that traveled down Bear Creek reached the Casitas. It had been over a year since flood waters had reached this magnitude – over 4 feet in depth, covering the entire floodplain bank to bank, and moving at speeds nearing 20 miles an hour. Although a 4-foot flash flood level is fairly common on Bear Creek during the Monsoon Season, there were two factors that set this event apart. First, the water itself was not normal floodwater runoff. Instead, it was a highly viscous, density current slurry of water and hail that resulted in much greater scouring, erosion, and sediment transport within the creek bed than water alone would have done. Second, because of radar monitoring of the storm’s approach towards the Casitas, one knew that the storm had concentrated its fury on several of the canyons feeding into Bear Creek from the Piños Altos Range to the north. Because of the high volume of water and the steeper gradients on these side canyons, vast amounts of vegetative debris had been scoured from these canyons and was carried downstream as a dense debris flow mixture of hail, floating mats of branches, twigs, leaves, and smaller particles, on up to large cottonwood logs, more than sufficient to take out all of the stock-animal water-gap fences across Bear Creek at property boundaries all the way down to the Gila River … After months of slumber, the physical dynamics of the High Desert Landscape had once more roared into wakefulness.


Over the last 15 years various attempts at horticulture have been tried at the Casitas. So far, what has been proven is that gardening of any type in the High Desert Landscape of Southwest New Mexico can be a frustratingly difficult challenge. Essentially all attempts to date, and there have been many, have failed for various reasons, including searing drought, swarming insects, foraging deer, tunneling gophers, rampaging javelina, ravenous birds, nutrient-deficient soil, or excessively nutrient-rich soil due to over composting. Determined to overcome failures from previous years, this year two more attempts were made at vegetable gardening at the Casitas.

In the courtyard at the office/house a very small garden was planted consisting of yellow squash, a couple of tomato plants, a few sweet peppers, and basil. This garden was basically a scaled down repeat of last year’s efforts, which had included initial removal of the original rocky and nutrient-impoverished soil down to 12 inches depth and replacement with nutrient-rich loam brought up from the Bear Creek floodplain. That garden, while it could be considered somewhat successful since it did produce luxurious towering tomato plants that Jack of the Beanstalk would have admired, and yellow squash leaves the size of a Ringling Bros. elephant’s ears, was definitely not a famine stopper since little or no fruit was produced, due to the over abundant addition of too much of the Casita’s own composed horse manure. Building upon our by now substantial wealth of knowledge-through-failure agrarian enlightenment, this year no compost was added and by the end of June the courtyard garden was off to an excellent start with baby squash, tomatoes, and sweet peppers already forming on the plants.


The Bear Creek garden in May, at time of planting.

The second garden undertaken this year was carefully designed to be a totally fail-safe garden, one that would implement all 15 years worth of our hard-won knowledge-through-failure experience. This new and improved garden would be fairly large, 20 x 30 feet, situated 6 feet above the active floodplain of Bear Creek on a flat terrace of rich loamy soil that had been built up and periodically naturally fertilized by the occasional exceptionally high floods that occur here every 10 to 25 years. The garden would be fenced with 6 foot high, 2 x 4 inch steel mesh to thwart the foraging deer, encircled with 20 inches of sub-ground-level 1-inch mesh chicken wire to block the tunneling gophers, and extending 16 inches above ground to keep out the baby rabbits, as well as being totally covered over with 50% shade cloth to protect the young plants from the blazing sun and the hungry birds until the Monsoons began. In addition, the garden was also carefully located geologically so that it would not be subjected to strong currents should a 10-year flood happen to occur and submerge the garden for a day or two.

To our delight, by the end of June this proof-of-concept garden was well on its way to becoming an agrarian success story. Potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, string beans, snow peas, cantaloupes, large and small watermelons, butternut and delicata squash, and even a test plot of Einkorn wheat, favorite grain of Otzi the 5,300 year old Bronze Age Alpine hunter, were all thriving beautifully, and by July 2, some plants had even started to put out flowers!

But then, on July 3, the hail storm came. If the tough-as-nails mesquite couldn’t stand up to the hail storm, what chance did the soft, vulnerable plants of the Casita’s Vegetable Gardens have? Absolutely none …


The Bear Creek garden after the July 3rd hail storm. Everything under the shade cover was pretty well battered, and the shade cover was full of balls of hail which took several days to melt away!

hail storm in Southwest New Mexico

Those bare stalks used to be sweet pepper plants in the Courtyard garden, before the hail hit.

The courtyard vegetable garden was essentially destroyed since the most of the plants were not protected in any way. Only a few squash plants that had been covered with a small shade cloth survived. In the large garden down by Bear Creek, the shade cloth protected the young plants initially, until the cloth ripped under the weight of hundreds of pounds of hail, and at which point many of the plants were exposed and decimated. Yet, as disheartening as it was to look at this pulpy, flattened mass of green, at least we had the fall-back position of the vegetable section at Albertson’s Supermarket. One could only imagine how the Ancient Ones, the Mogollon Pueblo Peoples who lived and farmed their life-sustaining crops of maize, beans, and squash here on Bear Creek a thousand years ago must have felt when these natural events occurred, knowing that there was insufficient time to replant and reap a harvest … if they even had enough remaining seeds left to do so …


Within a week after the hail storm, new green buds could be seen growing on the mesquite and scrub oaks, and on the ground small shoots of grasses and weeds were poking their heads up everywhere. Two weeks after the hair storm all of the smaller mesquites and most of the scrub oaks were now covered in bright green leaves, spurred on by four small rain showers that had fallen at the Casitas during the interim. Perhaps even more amazing was that the ground which had been virtually stripped bare of any living plant or weed by the storm, was rapidly being covered with a dense variety of grasses and weeds. It was if the pounding of the ground by the hail had served to waken and germinate every seed that had been buried in the ground and had laid dormant over several years, just waiting for the wake-up call. Unfortunately, such was not the case for the unprotected garden plants. While a few plants that were only peripherally damaged did eventually manage to stage a comeback, many simply shriveled up and died.

hail storm destruction

Two scrub oaks on east-facing slope three days after the hail storm: all leaves stripped off oaks and surrounding ground vegetation pulverized and obliterated.

Same view of two scrub oaks on east-facing slope photographed 16 days after the hail storm, showing amazing regeneration of leaves on scrub oaks and ground-cover vegetation.

Same view of two scrub oaks on east-facing slope photographed 16 days after the hail storm, showing amazing regeneration of leaves on scrub oaks and ground-cover vegetation.


flash floods

During flash floods, large deposits of logs and smaller vegetative debris collect along the sides of the main channel and across the floodplain, which can be measured later to determine peak water depths.

Exactly two weeks after the big hail storm, one was watching the radar as a large and seemingly extremely-intense thunderstorm made its slow journey towards the Casitas from the East downstream along the Bear Creek drainage. Going outside, the sky did look somewhat dark to the east but not all that threatening. By the time the storm reached the Casitas, most of the its energy had dissipated, but it still retained enough moisture to drop about a third of an inch of rain in a brief 15 to 20 minute period as it passed through. “Not much of a rainstorm,” one thought, looking down at the Creek. “It hardly even muddied the water.” It was at least an hour later, while working at the computer in the office, that one’s concentration was intruded by a persistent sound outside the building. Opening the door it was immediately apparent what the sound was: Bear Creek was once again running and it was running very big and very loud!

Going to the edge of the cliff and looking down, an impressive spectacle of sound and fury greeted the senses. Obviously, the storm that had been watched earlier on the radar had been quite severe upstream, and had continued to release several inches of rain as it made its way down towards the Casitas. Soon, the flash flood arrived, in full force, with chocolate-colored water now transporting an even greater charge of floating debris, this time with logs up to a foot or more in diameter and up to 10 feet in length. Awesome! It was obvious that the water was much deeper and running faster than the flood following the hail storm, but it was not until the next day when observations down in the Creek showed that the water had been over 6 feet deep, raging across the entire floodplain.

flash flood

Forced against the cliffs of Gila Conglomerate along its course, the sediment-laden waters of Bear Creek continue the slow abrading.

flash flood

The flash flood of July 17th crested at 6 to 7 feet within the main channel, overflowing its banks and surging across the entire floodplain.

As discussed in the June 2013 Nature Blog, during the Dry Season and the run-up to the Monsoons, Bear Creek at the Casitas had gradually shrunk in volume until most of the open water was confined to sporadic shallow pools. Within the creek channel itself, extensive mats of drying Watercress and Duckweed coated everything from broad sand and gravel beds to periodic jumbles of large boulders. And with the passing of two flash floods, the landscape of the Bear Creek floodplain was entirely changed.


Bent iron T-posts are all that remain of the Casitas' southern boundary watergap fence.

Bent iron t-posts are all that remain of the Casitas’ southern boundary watergap fence.

Unless one has the opportunity to witness the occurrence and the aftereffects of a flash flood in the American Southwest, it can be difficult to understand that the stunning iconic beauty of this dry and often barren landscape is almost entirely a product of running water. Each year numerous visitors to the Southwest, along with newly-arrived residents, find themselves in deep and often fatal trouble by underestimating this powerful force of nature.

The following photographs illustrate the changes observed along Bear Creek following the July 3 and 17 flash floods. While Bear Creek is not very large, the processes that produce these changes are the very same as those that have carved the Grand Canyon. It’s just a matter of scale, both in magnitude and time.

flash floods

Lag deposit of boulders near the southern end of the Casita property created by extreme turbulence developed when the south-flowing Bear Creek is forced by cliffs of Gila Conglomerate to abruptly change direction and flow to the west.

flash flood

Log jam left at side of main channel of Bear Creek after the major flash flood on July 17th, when waters peaked at 6 to 7 feet above normal flow in the channel. Our dog Bower (center of pix) is 24 inches tall.

heavy mineral sands

Deposits of heavy mineral sands (minerals with a high specific gravity, such as magnetite, rutile, zircon and garnet) accumulate where the velocity of flood waters is sufficient to selectively remove lower specific gravity mineral sands, such as quartz and feldspar, from the transported sediment. Heavy mineral sands or black sands are sought for and panned by prospectors when seeking placer deposits of gold.

ripple marks in mud

Ripple marks are formed when running water transports sand along the bottom of a creek, stream, or river. This photo shows that Bear Creek was flowing from right to left. In this case, the ripple-marked sand has been coated with a much finer layer of silt and clay that was deposited as the flood waters receded, transport of sand-sized particles stopped, and fine silt and clay particles settled out of slow-moving to still waters along the creek. The bright yellow cottonwood leaf is about 2-1/2 inches in diameter.


summer poppies

People often ask when is the best time to come to see wildflowers. The answer is always: When the rain comes!, as this brilliant hillside of Summer Poppies illustrates.

The strong start of the Monsoon Season of 2013 was to continue for the rest of the month, as persistent brief showers and thunderstorms brought welcome relief from the enduring dryness of the previous Winter and Spring months. By the last week of July the rain total for the month measured 6.18 inches, only 0.8 inches less than the Casitas had received for the entire year of 2012 … And in less than a month, the Bear Creek landscape was transformed into an undulating landscape of brilliant green.

Amazingly, everything in the office courtyard garden came back with the exception of one tomato plant. Even the sweet pepper plants, which were literally just a stem after the hail storm, have many new leaves and may even produce a pepper or two. Many of the mesquites have regrown their leaves; the scrub oaks are now fully-leafed and beautiful, and the floodplain garden is thriving.

the Gila Wilderness

Looking north along Bear Creek canyon at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, with Turtle Rock and the Gila Wilderness rising in the background.


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



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