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



Bear Creek Silver City New Mexico

In mid-June a solitary flowering Sotol accents the surrounding mostly-brown hills in the foreground sloping down to the ribbon of bright green riverine forest along Bear Creek


cholla flowering

Cane Cholla bloom each year at the Casitas in late May to mid June

It is late into the “waiting for the rain time” again here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses on Bear Creek in Gila, New Mexico. It has been a dry Spring with only minimal precipitation, the predictable result of a prevailing neutral to weak La Niña climatic condition over the past Winter that has left the surrounding high desert hills along Hooker Loop in Southwest New Mexico looking somewhat parched and brown. Standing out in scattered counterpoint against the dominant drab browns and tans of the rolling landscape are the ubiquitous deep green One-seed Juniper trees and clumps of Honey Mesquite, now decked out in their sporty new lime-green foliage and fragrant racemes of golden flowers. Most of the stock tanks on the surrounding ranches are already or soon will be totally dry. It’s not as dry as it has been in some years, however, as one observes that a few of the Soap Tree Yucca and Sotol have sufficient water to put up their marvelous flowering stalks, and most of the Cane Cholla are now bedecked in their annual flourish of magenta blooms.

Also, some of the Scrub Oak, particularly those on north- and east-facing slopes, have already replaced their recently shed, tan, dead leaves of last year with new, small olive-green leaves. The others, particularly those on the drier hilltops and south-facing slopes, will wait patiently, of course, for the rains that are soon to come.


June morning light on Gila Wilderness

Looking north towards the ramparts of the Piños Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness, the early morning light of June illuminates the viridescent Bear Creek Canyon in front of the Casitas

Sitting in front of one’s Casita gazing down into Bear Creek Canyon, however, is to witness a totally different landscape altogether than that of the surrounding hills. Here, a mere hundred feet below, the vegetation is lush — very lush! — with all plants and trees in full foliage, a verdant oasis of a thousand shades of green. It is a time when animal and bird life of all types migrate into the Bear Creek drainage as more of natural sources of water in the surrounding hills dry up.

perennial pool

Perennial pool along Bear Creek during the dry season

This year, up until the last couple of weeks or so, Bear Creek has been running the full length of the Casita property. But now, after a solid week of higher temperatures and low humidity, stretches of the Creek have gone dry as the water table dropped another two or three inches in response to the increased uptake of water by the dense riverine forest. Nevertheless, the Creek is still flowing, albeit out of sight, just a few inches below the surface of the stream bed. That this is so is quickly evidenced if one digs a shallow hole or simply walks the stream bed until one comes upon one of the natural depressions scoured by the stream during a previous flooding event, which remain full of water.

Depending upon the depth of these “water holes” and their location relative to 1) the thickness of sediment over the underlying bedrock, 2) the composition of the stream bottom sediments underlying the water hole, 3) the amount of shade from direct exposure to the mid-day sun by water plants or overhanging vegetation, or 4) the possible presence of one of the numerous springs that exist in the bottom of Bear Creek Canyon, these water holes may or not persist until the Monsoon rains begin and the water table of Bear Creek is raised. Having observed these life-sustaining waterholes over the past 14 years, one is aware there never has been a year when at least some of these water holes remained, providing habitat and sustenance for an extremely wide variety of animal species for both year-around and seasonal creek and canyon residents, as well as adjacent upland dwellers.


bighorn sheep

Bighorn Sheep taking a morning respite on the cliff across from the Casitas on June 8, 2013

Over the past two weeks a large group of Bighorn Sheep have been frequenting the sheer cliffs of Gila Conglomerate that line the east side of Bear Creek Canyon across from the Casitas. From past observations, this annual event is a sure sign that the upland stock tanks and natural springs and water holes are drying up. This year the group consists of seven ewes, one young adult ram, and five of this year’s lambs. For our guests and ourselves it is always a great treat to watch the lambs scamper around in death-defying abandon on the 120-foot-high vertical cliffs under the ever-watchful eyes of the adults!

This year the sheep have been coming in for two or three days and nights at a time, where their daily routine consists of grazing on the shrubby vegetation and taking mid-day siestas along the top of the cliffs. Periodically they leave the cliffs to descend to the creek bed below to feast on the succulent fresh green grass lining the creek and to drink from the cool, clear water holes at the base of the cliff. Around dusk the sheep retire to the security of narrow ledges high on the cliffs. Here they will bed down for the night, a relatively safe haven from their two primary predators: the mountain lion and the coyote. Members of the Bear Creek Bighorn Sheep herd have been frequent and regular visitors to the cliffs every year since the Casitas opened nearly 15 years ago. In recent years, however, one has noticed that their visits to the cliffs have been of much shorter duration. Whereas in times past they used to stay for a week or more at a time, now it is only for a night or two before they move on. Game officials and local ranchers attribute this to a greater pressure from their primary predator, the mountain lion, whose population has been on the increase due to an area-wide decrease in lion hunting by the local ranchers. Most likely there are other, unrecognized factors, too.


pool along Bear Creek

A pool bordering cliffs at the southern Casita boundary containing young shoots of Broad-leaved Cattail and partially covered with Pale Duckweed and Watercress

Bear Creek New mexico

In the shade of overhanging willows, Bear Creek continues to run partially covered over by Pale Duckweed and Watercress

It was a perfect mid-June morning for another Nature excursion along the Creek in front of the Casitas. It had been quite warm and dry since the last visit a couple of weeks ago, and it was time to see what changes were taking place. The plan was to start at the Casitas’ south boundary fence and quietly work upstream to observe the progression of the shrinking water levels and study possible affects upon the wildlife present. On this morning, and much to his dismay, Bower, the Casitas’ Dog-of-the-Eternal Hunt, would be left behind to ensure that wildlife would actually be seen.

At the downstream border of the Casita lands there are low cliffs of Gila Conglomerate that extend down to the water’s edge on the west side of Bear Creek. Cut by sediment-laden flood waters over hundreds of thousands of years, these cliffs form ledges a few feet above the Creek and afford a perfect spot to study the varied types of volcanic rock that make up the conglomerate, and to observe the activity in the shallow pools that are perennially found here during the dry months of May and June. This morning found the pools present but greatly contracted, just a few inches deep. Here and there across the drying creek bed a few Broad-leaved Cattails had sprouted up. Most of these succulent cattail shoots, as evidenced by the countless foot prints in the area, had been chewed down to creek bed level by the small band of four to six Mule Deer that had been coming down to the Creek on a daily basis from the surrounding hills in the early morning and evening to drink and forage.

Striped Skunk

Oh! You scared me! Back off or I’ll . . .

Striped Skunk New Mexico

The Striped Skunk shuffles by foraging for its breakfast, totally oblivious to one’s presence

A hundred feet or so upstream from these lower cliffs, the channel of the Creek turns due east for about a thousand feet, passing beneath a dense growth of mature willow and young cottonwoods that overhang and shade the creek. This is a favorite haunt of all types of birds, animals, and creek dwellers, and this morning was no exception, as one paused to watch the Spotted Towhee scratching for insects in the dead cottonwood leaves at the edge of willow-shaded Watercress– and Duckweed-covered pools (the species found here being the Pale Duckweed), and the totally oblivious-to-one’s-motionless-presence-until-it-almost-tripped-over-one’s-feet Striped Skunk hunting for breakfast at the water’s edge!

Spotted Towhee New Mexico

A Spotted Towhee searches for insects beneath cottonwood leaves at the creek’s edge

Continuing upstream, one soon encounters the high sheer cliffs so readily seen across from the Casitas on the east side of the Creek, the same cliffs that comprise the safe haven refuge for the Bighorn Sheep when they are in the area. These cliffs consist of two sections: a short downstream section that faces north, and a much longer upstream section that faces west. Dividing the two sections at the exact point where the downstream course of the Creek changes from north-south to east-west is a steep, narrow cleft, eroded into the cliffside walls over thousands of years by sediment-laden storm runoff cascading down from the mountains above. This cleft serves as a much-used up-down passageway for numerous animals in the area, providing a protective, hidden pathway for the sheep in their stealthy descent from their aerie sanctuary above to the creek below, as well as providing an access route for other animals unable to scale the near vertical cliffs on either side.

bear creek new mexico

Deep pools at the base of the upper section of cliffs, just above the cleft int he cliffs where the creek makes its abrupt change in course to the west

Favorite watering hole of the Bighorn Sheep at the base of the cleft in the cliffs showing numerous footprints and well-grazed vegetation

Favorite watering hole of the Bighorn Sheep at the base of the cleft in the cliffs showing numerous footprints and well-grazed vegetation

Bear Creek flows tight up against the cliff face on both sides of the cleft, and it is here that the deepest pools are generally found during the dry times. This is due to the extreme turbulence and high-energy scouring of the creek bed that takes place here when the fast moving flood waters along the cliff face are forced to make a nearly right angle turn as the course of the creek changes from a southerly to westerly flow.

Although the sheep had moved on several days ago, signs of their last visit were obvious everywhere around the pools at the base of the cleft in the cliffs: cloven hoof prints by the hundreds, small mounds of distinctive pellet-shaped scat, and grasses and other creekside vegetation recently nibbled to the ground.

If one looks closely at this small stretch of the creek, with its dependable, deeper pools and protective cliffs above, it is obvious that it is a special gathering place for other inhabitants of Bear Creek Canyon as well. Looking up at the cliff faces, numerous crevices and horizontal recesses of various dimensions can be seen at different levels above the creek bed. High up, virtually inaccessible from the ground, large open nests of sticks and dried vegetation can be seen that are constructed and used by Chihuahua Ravens year after year. In other places, larger sticks and debris are piled into conspicuous mounds within shallow recesses on wide ledges with no apparent entrance visible, most likely the home of the Gray Fox.

desert striped whipsnake

Desert Striped Whipsnake hunting for brunch in the crevices of the cliff

Looking closer, one also observes numerous smaller crevices that extend back into the cliff, some of which appear to have been blocked off purposefully with bits of organic material and rock. It’s obvious that these conglomerate cliffs towering above Bear Creek are home to creatures of all types and sizes, mammals, reptiles, and insects, essentially serving as Nature’s high-rise condominiums in stone!

A hundred feet or so upstream from the cleft in the cliffs the creek bed diverges away from the cliffs and ascends a long, straight and narrow boulder-strewn channel running between dense growths of young Freemont Cottonwood, several species of willow and Arizona sycamore lining the banks on either side. In times of normal to high water levels, this section of the creek is characterized by a high-energy turbulent flow over a steeper gradient that leads to active downcutting of the channel and adjacent creek banks, plus selective removal of finer-grained sediments from the stream bed itself. The predominance of course sand to boulders, abundant concentrations of heavy mineral sands or “black sands” (high specific gravity minerals), coupled with an obvious steepening of the stream bed gradient suggests that the Gila Conglomerate bedrock is close to the surface along this section of the creek bed.

Bear Creek Silver City New Mexico

High-energy section of creek looking downstream towards cliffs

Today, however, the water level in this section is very low with only a few deeper pools and large boulders protruding from the creek bed as evidence of the higher energy flow that is found here during higher water levels. The weedy vegetation covering the banks of this section of the creek is thick, lush and now matured to the stage of flowering. The profusion of weeds along the banks is obviously enhanced by the amount of shade afforded by the tall cottonwoods and cliffs lining the creek, plus the continued presence of abundant water.

Blue damselfly

Blue damselfly looking for prey

Orange dragonfly

Orange dragonfly resting after last patrol up the creek

broadtail hummingbird

Female broad-tail hummingbird in flight (photo by B. Miller)

On this morning, the airspace above the channel is alive with the buzz and whir of flying insects of every type, from near-microscopic gnats, to pollen-coated honey bees and grey and white flitting butterflies in search of their favorite nectar, to small blue-bodied damselflies and large bright-orange dragonflies constantly patrolling up and down the creek bed, voraciously feeding on their smaller winged prey. Sitting quietly on the creek bank one is soon mesmerized by the primal spectacle of this lilliputian food-chain dance of Nature. Suddenly, the reverie is broken as one’s focus is drawn upward, startled by the rhythmic a-rumm, a-rumm, a-rumm zooming sound produced from a tiny Broad-tailed Hummingbird‘s alternating dives and ascents, engaged a little-known aerial stratagem, known only to the most dedicated avian devotees as “hover-hawking”, as it selectively gorges on the smorgasbord of insect prey below.


floodplain at Casitas de Gila

Wide floodplain in front of the Casitas, showing dry creek bed in foreground, young cottonwood, sycamore and willow riverine forest growing across the floodplain

Change in the physical and biological landscape of the High Desert Country of the American Southwest is immeasurably slow and unrecognizable by human standards most of the time. Weeks, months, and in some cases years can go by without noticeable visual change. Then, often in the matter of just a few hours, greater change can take place than has occurred in the past several previous decades. The primary agent of this change, of course, is running water, that eternally rare and unpredictable phenomenon of the American Southwest that turns flat desert landscapes into temporary lakes called playas, and gentle slopes, sandy dry washes or small creeks into raging torrents of mud and debris charged water called flash floods ravaging everything in their path. Unless one has personally witnessed such an event, the prime importance of running water upon the High Desert landscape is typically not appreciated or understood. However, it is in the floodplains of the creeks and rivers of the desert that one has the best opportunity for to observe and decipher the effects of running water upon this otherwise stoic and inscrutable landscape. Over the last 15 years here at the Casitas, Bear Creek has experienced one major flood and numerous small flash floods that have left behind an excellent observable record of the affects of running water upon this High Desert landscape. The final section of our morning’s nature walk up Bear Creek displays an excellent record of these high water events.

desert whiptail lizard

Desert Whiptail Lizard hunting for brunch along a dry portion of the stream bed. Designated the official state reptile of New Mexico in 2003.

Continuing a few hundred feet more upstream from our “hover hawking” hummingbirds and dragonflies and past the end of the cliffs on the east side of the creek, the overall nature of the creek changes abruptly. The main channel is now found to be running along the west side of a broad floodplain that gradually widens in front of the Casitas to twice and then three times the width of the floodplain observed in front of the cliffs. East of the channel the broad floodplain is covered with a dense riverine forest of young cottonwood, willow, and sycamore, with some individual cottonwoods already reaching heights of 60 to 80 feet. This riverine forest provides a diverse habitat for a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians who live here as well as visit regularly from the surrounding hills and mountain slopes. Many of these species are commonly observed by Casita guests during a quiet early morning or late afternoon nature excursion along the several maintained trails that traverse the floodplain.

Rock Squirrel

Rock Squirrel also hunting for brunch along a dry portion of the stream bed near the Desert Whiptail.

Doe Mule Deer enjoying brunch along the dry portion of the stream bed

Doe Mule Deer enjoying brunch along the dry portion of the stream bed

Having observed the changes in this section of the floodplain for the past 15 years, it’s hard to believe that most of this dense forest is only 8 years old, with most of the young trees having grown up since the last major flood on Bear Creek in February 2005.

The 2005 flood resulted from a three-day precipitation event, in which a warm front coming up from Mexico dropped 2-1/2 inches of rain over the entire Bear Creek drainage, while simultaneously melting most of that winter’s snow pack in the mountains. The resulting high water on Bear Creek lasted for two weeks, and at its peak covered the entire floodplain bank to bank with waters up to 8 feet deep that swept downstream at speeds sometimes in excess of 20 miles an hour.

Bear Creek floods

Bear Creek in front of the Casitas on February 12, 2005, at peak of flood

When the waters finally receded, it was seen that the main channel, which previously had been located along the base of the mountain across from the Casitas on the east edge of the floodplain, was now relocated 500 feet to the west on the opposite border of the floodplain up against the cliffs below the Casitas. Even more impressive were the changes in the floodplain itself. Not only had the floodwaters scoured away much of the vegetation covering the floodplain as the channel migrated to the opposite side of the canyon, but simultaneously, as the channel was migrating to the west, a backfilling process had occurred whereby the scoured floodplain was subsequently covered over with thick new layers of sand and gravel, leaving the surface across the new floodplain elevated by some four to five feet!

The changes just described in the Bear Creek floodplain that resulted from the 2005 flood are typical of any stream or watercourse not confined in solid rock, where the valley or canyon is wide enough, and the gradient low enough to permit the migration of the main channel in response to the changing energy of the stream, be it a small brook, creek, or large river system. Such streams are called meandering streams.

The Bear Creek flood of 2005 was an uncommon event for this area, and one that resulted from a unique combination of climatic events. Much more common are the small to medium-sized floods that occur each year during the summer Monsoon season, where intense thunderstorms, typically of short duration, will dump anywhere from an inch to three inches or more in rain over various parts of the Bear Creek drainage, resulting in flash floods. These floods will move downstream at speeds of 10 to 20 miles an hour, often arriving as a wall of water a few inches to several feet in height that will raise the water level for one to several hours. Flash floods can be very destructive because of the high percentage of sediment and debris that is being carried. However, because of their short duration they do not usually result in the large scale changes in the floodplain as occurred during the 2005 flood. Occasionally during the Monsoon Season, however, conditions will result in numerous intense thunderstorm activity being concentrated in a localized area for an extended period of time. While not common, the results can be disastrous in which the floodplain of a creek or river can undergo monumental change that will endure for decades.

deep pool on Bear Creek

The deepest pool on the floodplain, refuge of last resort during the dry season

On the east side of the floodplain across from the northernmost Casita, there are several mature growth cottonwoods that are situated on an old stream terrace about 7 to 10 feet above the present floodplain. These trees are very old, with the largest one measuring some 27 feet in circumference. Dating of old cottonwoods and sycamores in the floodplain is difficult, but the age of this tree is estimated to be in excess of 200 years. The tree is growing against a cliff face of Gila Conglomerate which clearly has protected it from severe wind storms, lightning, and rampaging floods down through the years. Undoubtedly this tree has witnessed floods in the past which would dwarf the 2005 flood in terms of floodplain change. Oh, what stories this tree could tell if we mortals could only hear!

It is a few feet in front of this giant cottonwood that we end our nature excursion, at the side of a small, but quite deep pool that was scoured out by high-energy flood waters during a substantial summer monsoon a few years ago. Approaching the pool, one notices that the water level in the pool has dropped more than a foot to expose numerous roots and fallen branches that are now draped in drying duckweed and watercress. Several splash and kerplunk sounds are heard as one draws closer to see that the pool, still at least a foot deep, is completely covered over with duckweed, that is, all except for one pair of protruding, large and knobby, green-rimmed black eyes.

American Bullfrog

“I see you, but you can’t see me!”
an American Bullfrog hiding!

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Mogollon Mountains New Mexico

Looking northwest along the Mogollon Mountain range from the Gila Fluorite District


It was June of 1943 and the United States was now deep into its second year of involvement in World War II. All projections indicated that demand for fluorspar, an ore of the mineral Fluorite and an essential ingredient in the manufacture of steel, would continue to rise dramatically as the war continued. Accordingly, the Metals Reserve Company of Washington D.C, contracted International Minerals and Chemicals Company to build and operate a mineral processing mill in Gila, New Mexico. The purpose of this mill was to stimulate additional production of the fluorspar ore that was being mined in what is known as the Gila Fluorspar District about seven miles north of Gila in the foothills of the Pinos Altos Mountains.1

Gila Wilderness, New Mexico

Looking north into the Gila Wilderness from the Gila Fluorite District

The Metals Reserve Company was one of eight subsidiary companies set up during WW II by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, an independent agency of the United States government that was established by Congress in 1932. Like the other seven subsidiary companies, Metals Reserve Company was chartered with the objective of stimulating development of alternative sources of essential and strategic materials during the war.

Fluorspar is the term used for ore that contains commercial quantities of the mineral Fluorite, which has the chemical composition of Calcium Fluoride, CaF2. Fluorite has a hardness of 4; a specific gravity of 3.18; and belongs to the Isometric crystal system, commonly occurring in nature as cubic and octahedron crystals. The mineral is vitreous or glassy in appearance, may be clear but is generally translucent, and comes in a wide variety of colors, most commonly light green, yellow, bluish-green and purple.

fluorite crystals

Purple octahedral crystals of Fluorite from the Gila Fluorspar District

Fluorspar ore is categorized into three grades based on the percentage of calcium fluoride content: Metallurgical grade, 60-85%; Ceramic grade, 85-95%; and Acid grade (97%). The largest volume of fluorspar goes into metallurgical usage. Because of its essential use in the manufacture of steel and aluminum, fluorspar was classified as a Strategic Ore Mineral during WW II. Approximately 8 to 10 pounds of fluorspar is used in the open-hearth process to make one ton of steel, in which the fluorspar functions to make the slag more fluid, and to desulfurize the molten metal. In the manufacture of aluminum, fluorspar is used to make hydrofluoric acid, HF, an essential ingredient in the manufacturing process. Hydrofluoric acid was also used extensively during the war in the manufacture of catalytic compounds used in the refining of petroleum products to make gasoline. Ceramic grade fluorspar is used in the manufacture of glass, enamels and cooking utensils. In recent years fluorite has found a growing niche market in jewelry and stone carving.

Semi-precious beads cut from clear, purple, green, and blue Fluorite

Semi-precious beads cut from clear, purple, green, and blue Fluorite

With the completion of the Gila Fluorspar Mill in 1943, and the availability of a dependable local market for the raw, unprocessed fluorspar ore, the objectives of the Metals Reserve Company were realized. Mining of fluorspar from the existing local deposits increased dramatically, along with extensive prospecting and identification of additional potential deposits in the surrounding area.

The Gila Fluorspar Mill was located just east of where Bear Creek crosses NM 211 just south of the village of Gila. From its startup through the end of the war, the Gila Mill bought, stockpiled and processed approximately 50,000 tons of fluorspar ore, all of which was mined from a number of small deposits discovered, prospected, and subsequently claimed within the Gila National Forest by mostly local residents of Gila and Cliff area. While prospecting was extensive in the area and numerous new claims were recorded, only three mines yielded significant tonnage that was processed at the Gila Mill: the Clum Mines, the Foster Mine and the Victoria Mine. Combined production from these three mines in 1944 was about 50 tons per day, with most of it coming from the Clum Mines.

Gila fluorspar mill of the Metals Reserve Corporation, circa 1944 (from New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources Bulletin 21, "Fluorspar Resources of New Mexico", 1946)

Gila fluorspar mill of the Metals Reserve Corporation, circa 1944 (from New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources Bulletin 21, “Fluorspar Resources of New Mexico”, 1946)

The processing capacity at the mill was about 14 tons an hour, 15-1/2 hours a day, 6 days a week, or about 5,400 tons a month, producing about 95 to 100 tons a day of metallurgical grade concentrate averaging 85% calcium fluoride. Most of this ore concentrate was then shipped to the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company steel mill in Pueblo, Colorado. Using a figure of roughly 50% recovery of 85% grade concentrate from the raw ore processed at the Gila Mill, and considering that most of the concentrate was used in the manufacture of steel, it is interesting to consider that mill concentrate derived from the Gila Fluorspar deposits would have contributed the production of up to 5 million tons of steel for the war effort! After the end of WW II, fluorspar mining in the Gila District gradually ceased, except for a brief period in the early 1970s, when the demand and price of hydrofluoric acid for domestic use once more stimulated fluorspar mining in the area.

Today, all of the mines, prospects, and claims within the Gila Fluorspar District are long abandoned, with the land ownership belonging to the Gila National Forest. Like so many of the numerous small mines that flourished in this area in times past, these mines and prospects are mostly forgotten and rarely visited except for the occasional rockhound or hiker. Both novice as well as serious rockhounds will find the Gila Fluorspar District a real treat to visit, providing an excellent opportunity to find some nice specimens and crystals of fluorite. For those who enjoy hiking, coupled with an interest in exploring and history, the area offers hikes for all capabilities and interests. These hiking opportunities range from short, easy walks along old roads with spectacular views of the Gila Wilderness, to challenging, off-trail, cross-country trekking in extremely rugged, pristine terrain for the experienced and properly-equipped outdoor enthusiast.

Hiking an old mining road in the Gila Fluorspar District, overlooking the Gila Wilderness.

Hiking an old mining road in the Gila Fluorspar District, overlooking the Gila Wilderness.



1936 Chevrolet

What stories it could tell! A 1936 Chevrolet sedan in permanent rest just off an old mine road in the Gila Fluorspar District.

While the most intensive mining, prospecting, and production in the Gila Fluorspar District occurred during the World War II period, the initial mining in the District began some 60 years earlier with the discovery and subsequent development of two deposits now known as the Foster Mine and the Clum Mines in the 1880s. The Foster Mine began operation in the early 1880s and is considered either the oldest or second oldest fluorspar mine in New Mexico, the other contender being the the Burro Chief Mine in the Burro Mountains, 15 miles to the southwest. Little is known about the Foster Mine other than it was operated by Apoloinario Ogas and Pedro Carajal, who, like the operators of the Burro Chief Mine, sold their production to the silver and lead smelters in Silver City, 30 miles to the east. In those days Silver City was the classic booming, thriving mining town of the Old West, serving a never-ending flood of miners, merchants, and settlers that were pouring into the area on a daily basis, hoping to capitalize on the riches of silver, gold, copper and other minerals coming out of the mountains surrounding the town. In these heady, early days of mining and processing, few production records were kept, however it is reported that the Clum Mine was also producing fluorspar in the Gila District about a mile east of the Foster Mine about 1885. Production from both the Foster and Clum mines continued into the early 1900s with both mines supplying fluorspar to the war effort during World War I and into the 1930s, and then reaching their peak production during World War II. Apparently the Foster Mine was not worked after the late 1940s, but the Clum Mines did reopen for a brief time during the 1970s.

Clum Mine, Gila, New Mexico

Mine structures at the Clum Mine circa 1944 (from New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources Bulletin 21, “Fluorspar Resources of New Mexico”, 1946)

Eventually, increasing production at the Foster and Clum Mines lead to the construction of a primitive road into the Gila Fluorspar District to facilitate operations and haulage of the raw ore out of the area. Significant improvements to the road were made during the 1930s and 1940s and in the decades that followed. Today this road is known as Turkey Creek Road and Forest Road 155, a primitive but usually passable forest road that extends some nine miles into the Gila National Forest from the Gila Valley at the end of State Road 153 to terminate at the Gila River, about 3 miles downstream from the Gila Wilderness. The road is maintained by the County on a semi-regular basis, and except for brief periods during the Monsoon Season (late June/early July until early September) provides good access into this magnificent part of the Gila National Forest for hiking, rockhounding, fishing, hunting, and camping. In recent years most of the roughest spots on the road have been upgraded so that while high clearance is still advisable for vehicles, four-wheel drive is not necessary.



old mine in Southwest New Mexico

Close-up of the two open drifts at the Foster Mine, sealed off with steel grating.

Looking northeast, parallel to the fluorspar vein at the Foster Mine, showing two old drift workings.

Looking northeast, parallel to the fluorspar vein at the Foster Mine, showing two old drift workings.

The Foster Mine is located a short distance off Turkey Creek Road and makes for an interesting day’s outing for hiking and rockhounding in spectacular surroundings. The mine is reached by a short hike along the old mine access road and affords the visitor the opportunity to search fluorite crystals and colorful specimens of fluorspar ore, as well as to examine the workings of a typical small mining operation. The old workings of the mine are extensive, stretching about a quarter of a mile along a NE to SW trending nearly-vertical fissure vein of fluorspar, averaging 3-4 feet in width, that is exposed at the surface along a southwest sloping ridge line that drops down into E-W trending gulch.

Foster Mine, New Mexico

Looking parallel to vein at Foster Mine with close-up of open drift in foreground that has been sealed off with steel grating, and stope in background that was mined to the surface and now covered with steel mesh.

Foster Mine, New Mexico

Looking southwest along trench cut into vein at Foster Mine, from which fluorspar was mined.

Several types of mining were employed at the Foster Mine including: the blasting of a primary adit (a horizontal tunnel driven into the mountain side to provide access to an ore body) into the vein at the bottom of the gulch, followed by overhead stoping (the mining of an ore body underground creating an open space or rooms); the blasting of several short drifts, (a horizontal tunnel driven into the mountainside following an ore body), coupled with stoping; the sinking of several shafts, (the excavating of a vertical tunnel from the surface, from which horizontal workings are made into the ore body) coupled with stoping; and several open trenches at the surface following the vein.

In the 1990s, the Abandoned Mine Land Bureau (AMLB) of the New Mexico Department of Energy and Minerals sealed off or otherwise rendered safe numerous mine workings in the Gila Fluorspar District considered hazardous for the visiting public. While due care should still be taken in visiting the Foster Mine because of loose rock and steep slopes, the really dangerous underground portions of the Foster Mine have been properly sealed off with heavy steel grating which still allow the visitor the chance to observe and photograph how the underground mining was done.2

Foster Mine, New Mexico

Stoped portion of near-vertical vein at Foster Mine. Photo taken through steel grating showing timber “stulls” used to keep sidewalls of stope from collapsing after ore is removed. Width of stoped veins at Foster Mine averages 3.5 feet.

Foster Mine, Gila, New Mexico

Another stope at Foster Mine showing stulls and steel grating behind. Note varying width of vein from 3 to 5 feet.

Most of the host rock in which the fluorite veins occur is a fine-grained volcanic lava flow rock which contains less than 5% quartz, a predominant mixture of alkali and plagioclase feldspar, and a small percentage of iron and magnesium rich silicate minerals such as biotite, hornblende, and pyroxene. In technical terms, the rock would be called an alkali-feldspar rich latite. The host rock is considered to be Early Oligocene in age and was probably ejected from the Mogollon Caldera eruption some 34 million years ago. The fluorite veins occur within a normal fault which took place millions of years after the host rock was deposited. The time of faulting and emplacement of the veins themselves is probably related to either the eruption or subsequent collapse of the Bursum Caldera, which occurred roughly 28 and 17 million years ago.

Foster Mine New Mexico

Vein of fluorspar (whitish rock) left at top of stope where vein reaches surface at Foster Mine.

fluorite vein

Small vein of green and purple fluorite in an old prospect trench within the Gila Fluorspar District

Here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, we are quite familiar with hiking and rockhounding opportunities in the Gila Fluorspar District area. We are happy to provide guests staying at the Casitas with detailed directions and maps for this fascinating area, as well as for all the hikes detailed in the Casitas de Gila Nature Blog and on our website. All one needs to do is ask!

Fluorite crystals

Crystals of purple Fluorite in small vein in an old prospect trench within the Gila Fluorspar District.



    Extreme caution is advised when visiting any old mines or prospects regardless of where they are found. While many of the openings to underground mines and prospects on the public lands in Southwest New Mexico have been sealed off, others have not, especially in the more remote and less accessible locations. All abandoned underground mines and prospects should be considered dangerous and unsafe, and should never be entered. Even open surface trenches, mine tailings (waste rock) dumps and adjacent land surfaces can be very unstable and should be traversed with care. Also, as a final word of caution: during the late Spring through early Fall months, always be alert for rattlesnakes around these old workings; they seem to like them a lot …


  1. 1946, Rothrock, H. E., C. H. Johnson, and A. D. Hahn, Fluorspar Resources of New Mexico, Bulletin 21, New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources, Socorro, New Mexico
  2. 1991, Schlanger, S., Archaeological Survey of Two Abandoned Mine sites in the Gila Fluorspar District, Grant County, New Mexico, Archaeology Notes No. 21, Museum of New Mexico, Office of Archaeological Studies, Santa Fe, New Mexico


Posted in fluorite, geology, history, mining, rockhounding | Tagged , , | 1 Comment




Sycamores and towering volcanic cliffs just downstream from confluence of Little Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek

Sycamores and towering volcanic cliffs just downstream from confluence of Little Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek

It was around October 26, 1885, when the Chokonon Apache Chief Ulzana and about 20 warriors crossed the border into New Mexico from Mexico to begin a series of raids in New Mexico and Arizona. Their purpose was threefold: to find and rescue wives and children captured by White Mountain Apache Scouts for the U.S. Army earlier that summer, to wreak vengeance on the Scouts for capturing their families, and to take prisoners whom they would take back to Mexico. Thus began one of the more legendary episodes of the Southwest known Ulzana’s Raid, a two-month period of mayhem and killing as Ulzana and his warriors terrorized ranchers, settlers, and miners, while at the same time totally humiliating the U.S. Army as they swept back and forth between the two territories executing their plan, before returning to Mexico with their captives on December 31.1

At top of Soldier Hill, looking east to Mogollon Mountains. Ulzana's ambush possibly occurred about here.

At top of Soldier Hill, looking east to Mogollon Mountains. Ulzana’s ambush possibly occurred about here.

By early December, Ulzana and his men surfaced in the Mule Creek and the Mogollon Mountains area attacking ranches, stealing property and stock and killing several men. On December 9, they attacked the Lillie Ranch near the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Gila River, killing two men, but were surprised just after burning Lillie’s cabin by the arrival of Lt. Samuel W. Fountain, seven calvary troops and three local men. After a brief firefight, Ulzana and his men fled into the mountains, allowing Lt. Fountain the small satisfaction of recapturing all of the property and most of the stock that Ulzana had taken in the last few days. Yet this encounter was far from being over. It would only be a matter of days before Ulzana would extract his revenge.

Looking west down Little Dry Creek from top of Soldier Hill near ambush site

Looking west down Little Dry Creek from top of Soldier Hill near ambush site

Still smarting from his defeat at the Lillie ranch, Ulzana plotted his revenge carefully, choosing a site where the odds would be in his favor. On the morning of December 19, 1885, Ulzana and 9 warriors ambushed 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. The site is located on the north side of Little Dry Creek, just off US Highway 180, about a mile north the Catron County/Grant County line, and about seven miles south of Pleasanton, New Mexico.

This time it was Lt. Fountain and his men that were taken completely by surprise. Lt. Fountain’s patrol suffered a loss of five men killed and three more wounded when caught in a vicious crossfire as they retreated downhill from the ambush site. Quickly the calvary regrouped and a counter attack ensued as Lt. Fountain and his men charged back up the hill. But then, just as suddenly as it had started, it was over. As the soldiers advanced, Ulzana and his band abandoned the high ground and slipped away to the west, heading down Little Dry Creek canyon into the San Francisco River country, an Apache safe-haven landscape of rugged mountains cut by numerous deep canyons. Ulzana had chosen the ambush site with just this escape route in mind, a route that he knew the Calvary would not be able to follow. In his report Lt. Fountain described this land succinctly: “rough country where horses can not go”.

Today, all of this rugged country into which Ulzana vanished, from Soldier Hill west along Little Dry Creek Canyon to its convergence with Big Dry Creek Canyon and then on the San Francisco River, lies within the Gila National Forest and is open to the public. It is a highly diverse and fascinating landscape. No matter what your interest, be it frontier history, nature photography, geology and rockhounding, unusual riverine forest and high desert plants, birding, wildlife, or simply exploring wild, pristine and uncommon natural places, a hike down Little Dry Creek promises a unique and fascinating experience.


Spectacular cliff of weathered red rhyolite welded tuff overlying dark purplish-gray andesite flow. Note cream-colored rhyolite boulder next to boulder of dark gray andesite flow in foreground.

Spectacular cliff of weathered red rhyolite welded tuff overlying dark purplish-gray andesite flow. Note cream-colored rhyolite boulder next to boulder of dark gray andesite flow in foreground.

The geology of the Little Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek canyons in the vicinity of the San Francisco River consists of a highly-diverse and colorful assemblage of Middle Tertiary volcanic rocks, most of which were ejected from nearby volcanoes some 26 million years ago during the Late Oligocene Epoch. The range in composition and rock type in this thick sequence of layered volcanics is truly amazing, covering the spectrum from iron- and magnesium-rich basalt flows; to massive, fine-grained to porphyritic andesite flows, which sometimes contain large phenocrysts of andesine or labradorite plagioclase feldspar or flows containing abundant gas bubbles, commonly filled with quartz, calcite and other crystals; to many varieties of silica-rich rhyolite pyroclastic deposits ranging from fine-grained ash fall welded tuffs and pumice to coarse, blocky breccias with a fine ash matrix.

Basalt flow 1 mile up Eliot Canyon from Little Dry Creek.

Basalt flow 1 mile up Eliot Canyon from Little Dry Creek.

Andesite flow with numerous large quartz-filled gas bubbles (geodes).

Andesite flow with numerous large quartz-filled gas bubbles (geodes).

Rhyolite flow with abundant small quartz-filled gas bubbles.

Rhyolite flow with abundant small quartz-filled gas bubbles.

The variation in these rocks along the course of these canyons is amazing, exceptional enough to excite even the most jaded professional geologist or vulcanologist. What it translates to for the layperson (anyone who simply enjoys finding nice rocks) or the more dedicated rockhound looking for good specimens such as geodes or semi-precious material to cut and polish, is a several-mile-long rock and mineral collecting paradise, through canyons that are lined with more unusual and special rocks than your hiking companion can (or is willing to) carry!

Colorful cliffs of pyroclastic white to reddish rhyolite semi-welded ash fall tuffs overlying andesite flow rocks.

Colorful cliffs of pyroclastic white to reddish rhyolite semi-welded ash fall tuffs overlying andesite flow rocks.

Following the major volcanic eruptions and deposition of the dominant andesite flows in the area 26 million years ago, a period of quiescence took place. Then, between 18 and 20 million years ago, volcanic activity resumed. Once more the fires down below were stoked sufficiently to open numerous small vents at the surface of the earth, followed by the ejection and deposition of more localized formations of silica-rich rhyolite flows and pyroclastic material, plus flows of natural glass in the form of perlite and obsidian. Nodules of this naturally formed glass, technically known as marekanites, or more commonly as Apache Tears, can be found within the loose sediment in transport down the canyons.

Pyroclastic rhyolite ash flow breccia with angular fragments of rhyolite torn from sides of volcano during eruption.

Pyroclastic rhyolite ash flow breccia with angular fragments of rhyolite torn from sides of volcano during eruption.

Gas bubble geode filled with quartz crystals.

Gas bubble geode filled with quartz crystals.

Jasper and quartz breccia from creek bed.

Jasper and quartz breccia from creek bed.

Following the deposition of the older volcanic units, tectonic uplift and movement took place throughout the Little Dry Creek, Big Dry Creek, and San Francisco River region, resulting in extensive fracturing and faulting of the landscape. Most of the faults are high-angle (nearly perpendicular) faults trending NE to NNE and NW to WNW. Faults create linear zones of structural weakness within the rocks they penetrate. As a result, the course and direction of the canyons and side canyons that are found in the area often follow or are influenced by this faulting as a result of millions of years of erosion and downcutting by the numerous creeks and streams flowing across area from the Mogollon Mountains to the east. Many of these major faults, as well as smaller scale faulting, can be observed in the cliffs as one hikes these canyons.

Banded agate, possibly contains layers of "fire" with drusy quartz on top.

Banded agate, possibly contains layers of “fire” with drusy quartz on top.

Jasper breccia with quartz matrix from creek bed.

Jasper breccia with quartz matrix from creek bed.

Selenite crystals from fracture zone in andesite flow.

Selenite crystals from fracture zone in andesite flow.

Perlite cobble from creek bed.

Perlite cobble from creek bed.

Marekanites or Apache Tears from creek bed.

Marekanites or Apache Tears from creek bed.


Afternoon shadows come early in the deep canyon of Lower Dry Creek

Afternoon shadows come early in the deep canyon of Lower Dry Creek

As one hikes deeper into the Little Dry Creek, Big Dry Creek, and side canyons such as Eliot Canyon, the sheer walls of the surrounding volcanic cliffs and mountains rise higher and higher, gradually soaring to heights of 1000 feet or more above the canyon floor. The entombed silence within these canyon depths becomes increasingly pervasive as the canyon wall press ever closer, initially unnoticed until suddenly thrust into palpable awareness by the piercing cry of a soaring raptor from somewhere high above. Steadily, all of one’s senses heighten as the world away fades from mental focus and the immediacy of the Now of Nature entrains one’s mind and soul. But above all, it is the ancient, white-barked sycamores lining and guarding the corridors of these winding canyons that command and mesmerize one’s total awareness, these persevering, mute, ghostly-white witnesses to the centuries-old, eternal pageant of Nature’s periodic rampaging floods and the occasional Human intrusion that have past them by … Oh, what stories they could tell!

Gnarled sycamores lining Little Dry Creek

Gnarled sycamores lining Little Dry Creek

The Arizona Sycamore, (Platanus wrightii) is named for the American botanist Charles Wright (1811-1885) who collected the first specimens in 1851 while participating in the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey. Platanus wrightii is native only to Southwestern New Mexico, Arizona, and Northwestern Mexico. Here it is only found along rivers, streams, and intermittent creeks and streams in rocky canyons, where, even if the canyon is dry at the surface most of the time, a good supply of water is always available in the subsurface alluvial sediments below the valley floor. The Arizona Sycamore is one of the largest deciduous in the Southwest, growing to heights of 80 feet or more. It easily identified by its white-barked upper branches and pastel greenish to reddish gray or tan mottled trunks which flake off in patches revealing a bone-white inner bark. In late October to early November the tree is absolutely spectacular when its large, palmate leaves turn a deep orange to brick red. Later in the season, the beauty of these noble giants increases further when the red leaves remaining on the arching, upper white branches atop the bone-white gnarled and twisted trunks are now silhouetted against the clear, cobalt blue skies of Winter. For the photographer or artist it can be a source of unending inspiration.

Sycamore in late Winter light in Lower Elliot Canyon.

Sycamore in late Winter light in Lower Elliot Canyon.

The old saying ”when the going gets tough, the tough get going” could well have been coined by some ardent admirer of Platanus wrightii. For when the canyons get really rocky, and are often subjected to extreme flooding, capable of transporting boulders up to 6 feet or more in diameter, it is here that the the Arizona Sycamore seems to thrive at its magnificent best. Indeed, these sycamores prosper in an environment where other common New Mexico riverine species such as cottonwoods and willows would not even think of putting down roots. And, such is the case in Little Dry and Big Dry Canyons where phalanxes of these ancient, white-barked giants stoically line both sides of the canyons in ongoing benign defiance of their hostile environment. Even more impressive is that some of these warrior sycamores make their stand right out in the middle of the canyon, the bark of their battered and scarred upstream trunks now slowly growing around some huge, oversized boulder that mistakenly thought it could take this tall piece of cellulose out all on its own! Looking at one of these warrior sycamores one can almost hear it calling out to the oncoming boulder during the onslaught of the peaking flood: All right, Pilgrim, come on, give it your best shot!

Debris and boulders from earlier flood showing minimum water depth of 8 to 10 feet.

Debris and boulders from earlier flood showing minimum water depth of 8 to 10 feet.

After becoming somewhat familiar with this “rough country where horses can not go”, one eventually begins to contemplate just what route Ulzana took when retiring from the ambush on Soldier Hill. An indication of this route can be inferred from two facts that were reported at the time: first is that Ulzana and his men retreated to the west, down Little Dry Creek, and second, that four days later, on Christmas Eve, he and his warriors raided the mining community in the vicinity of Carlisle, NM, killing 3 men, wounding 2 or 3 others, and stealing 40 head of horses at Steeple Rock. With these horses the raiders could once more “move like the wind”, crossing the Gila River into Arizona on Christmas Day, and then traveling swiftly south for the next six days, committing much murder and mayhem as they went, before crossing the border into Mexico on December 31.1

Ancient sycamore in the process of digesting welded tuff boulder that attacked it ...

Ancient sycamore in the process of digesting welded tuff boulder that attacked it …

With these facts in mind, and studying the land between Soldier Hill and Carlisle, some 30 miles to the south, it seems quite likely that after leaving Soldier Hill Ulzana would have only gone about 2 miles downstream on Little Dry Creek to the west, before turning south into Eliot Canyon. From here they would have had safe passage up rugged Mineral Spring Canyon, following it south upstream to Burnt Stump Creek Canyon, which leads south and upstream to the Mule Mountains. From the Mule Mountains they then could have followed Pine Cienega Creek along well-documented old Indian trails that lead southwest to what is now Brushy Mountain Road and then south along Apache Creek to the Carlisle mining community.

There are many of those ancient white-barked sycamore giants at the junction of Little Dry Creek and Elliot Canyon. For sure they witnessed Ulzana and his men pass by on that December morning of 1885 and know which canyon he chose. So far they haven’t shared this knowledge, but perhaps, just maybe, if one was to spend a little more time with them some afternoon when the red leaves are falling and white branches are soaring into a cobalt blue sky, well, maybe they just might …

As always, we are happy to provide guests staying at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses with detailed directions and maps for this hike, as well as for all the hikes detailed in the Casitas de Gila Nature Blog and on our website. All one needs to do is ask!



While this hike is an excellent easy to moderate hike across level terrain in unique and spectacular country, visitors are strongly advised to inquire as to local existing conditions regardless of the time of the year, before taking this hike. The reason for this caution is that while Little Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek are, as their name implies, dry most of the year, there are certain times when both are subject to sudden flash floods of depths of 8 to 10 feet or more, especially during the Summer Monsoon season between late June and early September. While this is not a problem for the first one-half mile or so because of the broad floodplain and accessible adjoining hillsides, beyond this point the canyons are frequently narrow, with sheer vertical rocky cliffs on both sides, and where water will run deep the width of the canyon. While in most places one could access higher ground out of the reach of the flood waters, one could be stranded for a few hours … or possibly a day or more until the water recedes! Both of these creeks have their headwaters in the high Mogollon Mountains a few miles to the east, and because of the steep gradient of the creek bed, the rate of flow can exceed speeds of 20 miles an hour. Also, during the Spring months of February through May, melting snowpack in the Mogollons can often result in weeks of prolonged high runoff when the trail would not be passable in many places.



1. Edwin R. Sweeney, 2012, From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886, University of Oklahoma Press.


Posted in Apaches, geology, hiking, history | Tagged , , | 3 Comments



NOTE: This is Part 2 of a blog covering the history of the Chiricahua Apache from the initial Spanish incursion and later Anglo-American settlement in their ancestral homeland up to the final surrender of the Chiricahua in 1886. (Read Part 1)


Southwest New Mexico landscape

Looking down into Hidden Valley
(all photos will open larger when clicked)

Yaqui and Saino, our two Mexican horses, were breathing heavily when we finally reached the top of the ridge to the north of us. We were about a mile or so from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, in the mountains on the other side of Bear Creek, enjoying a short getaway-ride before our guests would begin arriving. It was time for lunch and we were responding to the little inner voice that said “Why not go up to the top of that ridge where we’ll have a nice view”. Reaching the ridge top, the view was indeed superb, but the early March wind on this bright late winter day was strong and very much on the cool side as it raced over the ridge out of the north. No, it was far too strong for a comfortable lunch, regardless of the magnificent view of the towering Mogollon Mountains in the distance. Considering alternatives, we noticed that in front of us the ridge dropped abruptly away into a small bowl-shaped valley floored with interesting outcrops of white-colored, rhyolite ash-flow welded tuffs. The valley was about one hundred feet deep, rimmed and protected on all sides by a circle of sheltering ridges and a steep mountain slope to the east. We agreed it would be a great place for lunch as we made our way to the bottom.

Reaching the bottom of the valley, it was if we had entered another world … a small, magical place of bare volcanic rock outcrops dotted with sparse grass, mesquite, prickly pear cactus, small juniper and scrub oak, all bathed in brilliant, warming sunlight and awash in incredible silence. Here, in this little valley, it was impossible to escape a feeling of being totally separated and hidden from the world beyond. Basking in the bright warm sun, we enjoyed our lunch. We had some time before we needed to get back to work at the Casitas, so we began our ritual search for interesting rocks, particularly the unique white and pink chalcedony that abounds in the the volcanic terrain surrounding the Casitas.

Slowly we worked our way up the slope to our west. Reaching the top of the ridge, the vast panorama greeting the eye was breathtaking. In the foreground stretched the sinuous trail of Bear Creek as it made its way to its terminus in the Gila River Valley. Beyond lay the triangle-shaped coalescing alluvial fans of Sacaton Mesa at the foot of the soaring heights of the majestic Mogollons, with the peaks of the Blue Range Wilderness forming the distant skyline some 50 miles northwest.

southwest new mexico landscape

Looking west from ridge above Hidden Valley with Bear Creek in foreground and Gila River in distance

The wind had died and once more silence prevailed. It was then that we noticed a curious depression in the top of the ridge. It was a shallow circular hole a couple of feet deep and maybe eight feet across. Loose boulders of angular welded tuff and dirt had been piled around it. It was obviously very old, and definitely man-made. But who would have dug this? And why? Looking around close by, and still pondering these questions, we came upon several, offset, short discontinuous walls of piled rocks, running north-south along the top of the ridge that dropped off steeply to the west.

Whether crouched behind the rock structures or hunkered down in the circular depression and looking westward, it was obvious that the structures provided a mostly continuous and unobstructed birdseye view along the entire Bear Creek drainage several miles downstream to its junction with the Gila River. It was unmistakable that whoever had made these structures was waiting and looking for someone coming east up Bear Creek. And it was clear by the effort that went into making these structures that they didn’t want to be seen.

But who? Why? When? It would be 10 years before we stumbled onto possible answers to these questions.

apache rifle pit

Circular, rock-lined pit overlooking Bear Creek to the west in the distance

apache fortifications

Stacked rock walls overlooking Bear Creek to the west in the distance


The following paragraph is repeated from Part 1 (February 2013) as it sets the stage for the final 25 years of the “Chiricahua Problem” in the American Southwest. As in Part 1, the source for most of the historical facts and details that follow derive from three volumes on the Chiricahua by historian and writer Edwin R. Sweeney, whose writing presents a comprehensive, chronological and balanced history of this critical period of cultural change and transformation in the American Southwest.

apaches near wikiups

Group of apaches in front of their wikiups near Camp Apache, Arizona, 1873

During the Mexican-American war the Chiricahua allowed the U.S. Army safe passage through what was to become Southwest New Mexico to fight the Mexicans, ascribing to the old adage – ”the enemy of my enemy is my friend” … With the close of the war and the acquisition of the Mexican Cession in 1848, a peace treaty was signed between the U. S. and the Chiricahua, but shortly broke down as inevitable conflicts broke out between the Chiricahua and some of the thousands of prospectors, miners and settlers flooding into the country. In 1851, the great Chihene Chiricahua Chief Mangas Coloradas was allegedly attacked by a group of miners near Piños Altos, tied to a tree and severely flogged. Numerous subsequent violations of the treaty followed, resulting in various Chiricahua reprisals. One particularly egregious event occurred in December 1860, when thirty miners conducted a surprise attack on a group of Chihene Chiricahua east of Piños Altos, killing four and capturing 13 others. Then, on January 27, 1861, the infamous Bascom Affair occurred in which the great Chokonan Chief Cochise and members of his family were captured at Apache Pass in the Chiricahua Mountains under duplicitous circumstances by Lt. George Bascom and a large force of of U.S. Infantry. Cochise escaped, but in subsequent days Cochise’s brother and two nephews were hanged by Bascom’s forces. It was this event that precipitated the following 12 years of Cochise’s War. It was shortly after the Bascom Affair that Mangas Coloradas declared war on the Whites himself, joining forces with his son-in-law Cochise.

c1871 soldiers quarters

Soldiers’ quarters at Camp Apache, Arizona Territory, 1871


With the joining of forces of the Chokonen and Chihene bands under Cochise and Mangus Coloradas, an unprecedented 12-year period of chaos and violence ensued within the New Mexico and Arizona Territories. The threat of surprise Chiricahua attack was a constant reality for any settler or miner choosing to live there or even attempting to pass through this part of the Southwest. Mining camps such as Piños Altos, small settlements and ranches, and transportation routes were targeted repeatedly. Some important events of this period include:

On January 18, 1863, Mangas Coloradas, then 70 years old and having at last decided to pursue peace, was tortured and murdered at Fort McClane by members of the U.S. California Volunteer Infantry under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Rodman West.

In 1866, Fort Bayard was established about 7.5 miles east of Silver City to protect the mines and settlements in the area, a function which it served with great honor until the surrender of the famed Chiricahua leader Geronimo in 1886, ending the Chiricahua Wars.

Fort Bayard, New Mexico

Sally Port, circa 1870. Post headquarters and one of the first buildings constructed. Stood at southwest corner of parade ground. Calvary barracks at back left.

Fort Bayard c1885, New Mexico

Fort Bayard, circa 1885, with typical parade ground in center. New officers quarters on right, troop barracks on left, Sally Port in center back.

On October 11, 1872, Cochise, then 67 years old, agreed to a peace treaty with General Oliver O. Howard and Indian Agent Thomas Jeffords which included the establishment of the Chiricahua Reservation adjoining Fort Bowie in Arizona Territory. Cochise remained at peace in his beloved Chiricahua Mountains on the reservation for the rest of his life, dying of natural causes in 1874.

By the end of 1872, all Chiricahua were living on two reservations: the Chiricahua Reservation and the Tularosa Reservation in the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico. While the Chiricahua maintained peace in Arizona and New Mexico, they continued to make periodic raids into Mexico, returning to the safe haven of their reservation in Arizona.

apache scouts in New Mexico

Apache scouts drilling with rifles, Fort Wingate, New Mexico


With the death of Cochise in 1874, the Chiricahua no longer had a overall leader that commanded the respect and allegiance of the four major bands and smaller groups within them. From this time forward, the leadership of the various Chiricahua bands was decentralized, with a number of chiefs emerging to lead various bands and family groups.

In 1874 the Tularosa Reservation was closed and the resident Chihene Chiricahua were transferred to the Ojo Caliente Reservation.

apache history

Apache prisoners at Fort Bowie, Arizona, 1884

In 1876, the Chircahua Reservation at Ft. Bowie in Southeast Arizona Territory closed. As had happened with the Gila Reservation at St. Lucia Springs in New Mexico Territory 11 years earlier (see Part 1, February 2013), once again Anglo mining and agricultural interests trumped Chiricahua desire to remain in their homeland. Reportedly, less than half of the Chiricahuas moved to the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, were they were forced to live with other Apache bands, friend and foe alike, on the Gila River in north-central Arizona Territory. The other half dispersed into New Mexico and Mexico, some going to the Ojo Caliente Reservation in New Mexico, others preferring a last attempt to live free following their traditional lifestyle. Life was to become extremely difficult for those Chiricahua sent to the San Carlos Reservation, where many were soon to die of infectious diseases such as malaria, then rampant in the Gila River lowlands. For those choosing to live free, a life of 10 years of conflict and life on the run had begun.

Because of increasing discontent with reservation conditions and government policy, plus innate cultural inability to adapt to the forced agriculturally-based lifestyle, it wasn’t long before various factions soon began departing the reservation to live free and resume their raids throughout Arizona and New Mexico Territories and Mexico. Military operations to capture, subdue, or eliminate the rampaging renegades once again became a way of life on the frontier until Geronimo’s final surrender and capture in 1886. During this time numerous new leaders of the Chiricahua emerged, some preferring the path of peace, others the path of war. Naiche (son of Cochise), Mangas (son of Mangas Coloradas), Victorio, Chihuahua, Ulzana, and Geronimo are some of the more influential Chiricahua leaders to shape the course of events during this time.

On September 4,1886, Geronimo surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles of the U.S. Army at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona. Except for a few holdouts, the Anglo-American “Chiricahua problem” had come to an end. But for the Chiricahua, their problem of 27 years of incarceration as Prisoners of War in Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma was just beginning.

Apache chief Geronimo (right) and his warriors in 1886, from left: Yanozha (Geronimo's brother-in-law), Chappo (Geronimo's son of 2nd wife), and Fun (Yanozha's half brother)

Apache chief Geronimo (right) and his warriors in 1886, from left: Yanozha (Geronimo’s brother-in-law), Chappo (Geronimo’s son of 2nd wife), and Fun (Yanozha’s half brother)

Apaches at rest stop beside Southern Pacific Railway

Band of Apache prisoners at rest stop beside Southern Pacific Railway, near Nueces River, Texas, Sept. 10, 1886. Among those on their way to exile in Florida are Natchez (Naiche, son of Cochise), center front, and to the right, Geronimo and his son in matching shirts.


Circular pit with stacked rock walls in background.

Circular pit with stacked rock walls in background.

It was late in the year of 2012 that the Casitas obtained their own copy of Edwin Sweeney’s excellent book: From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886. The book had come out earlier that year and one of our guests had recommended it to us. Sweeney is a meticulous historian and writer, searching deeply for the facts and the “true story”. There are many, many books that have been written on the Apaches, which range from extreme fiction to highly-researched fact. Sweeney’s three books on the Apaches (Mangas Coloradas: Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, and Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief are the other two) fall into the latter category. They are definitely not what might be called “light reading”. However, for the person who wants to know what really happened during this fascinating period of Southwest history, and who appreciates a comprehensive narrative presented from a neutral perspective, these books are the definitive choice.

So, it came to pass one cold winter night, when my reading of Sweeney’s tome had progressed to the concluding chapters, that the reportage of a series of events occurring in early 1885 caught my eye, and with it the triggering of a series of “hmms” and “ahas”, as our 2010 discoveries in Hidden Valley fell into place.


Sometime during the evening of May 17, 1885, 134 Chiricahua, including 34 men (including 4 reservation scouts), 8 teenage boys, and 92 women and children fled the reservation a few miles east of Ft. Apache in north-central Arizona. Leading the exodus were the Apache Chiefs Geronimo, Mangas, Naiche, Chihuahua, and Nana. Instigated largely by Geronimo and Mangas, the uprising resulted of the Chiricahua leaders’ fear and anxiety over having broken reservation rules and regulations and the punishment that they would likely face. Initially, the group fled east towards the Black Range in New Mexico, with Mangas in command. Pursued by the U.S. Troops and Apache Scouts, the fleeing Chiricahuas soon reached the Mogollon Mountains where they split into two groups.

With Federal Troups and Apache Scouts close on their trail for most of their journey, Geronimo and Mangas and their followers crossed the Black Range, then went south past Fort Cummings. From there they headed southwest to Tres Hermanas Peaks south of Deming, where on May 29, they crossed safely into Mexicio near Palomas Lake.

Geronimo (left) and Naiche (right) on horseback. Geronimo's son standing beside him.

Geronimo (left) and Naiche (right) on horseback. Geronimo’s son standing beside him.

Meanwhile, the other group led by Chihuahua and Naiche, having been successful in eluding the military, stayed in the northern Mogollons until about May 24, at which time they, too, began their flight towards Mexico. On May 26, Chiricahua raiding parties were reported attacking ranches along Mogollon Creek at the head of Sacaton Mesa about 15 miles northwest of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. A day later, on May 27, Chief Chihuahua led most of the party, including the women and children, to the Gila River near Cliff, just 5 miles west of the Casitas. Once across the river, they then headed for the safe corridor of rugged Bear Creek Canyon which empties into the Gila River Valley at that point from the east. After a hurried crossing of 6 miles of open and dangerously-exposed country, they knew the canyon walls would soon begin to close in. Within an hour’s travel they could relax somewhat as they entered the dense forest of cottonwood and sycamore beneath the conglomerate cliffs and towering volcanic promontory of Turtle Rock across from the Casitas. Once past Turtle Rock, and another 9 more miles up Bear Creek, they soon arrived at Juniper Springs, about 10 miles northwest of Silver City. Here they would wait for the return of Chiefs Naiche and Ulzana and a small raiding party who, once across the Gila, had headed south to try and secure horses to speed up the pace of the group’s travel. Evidence for this is verified by accounts given by ranchers living in the Mangas Valley at the time who reported seeing a group of 8 Apaches around 8 AM on May 27th. By mid-afternoon Naiche and the raiding party had joined up with the others at Juniper Springs.

So, there it was … a documented explanation for the rock walls and rifle pit on the ridge above Hidden Valley! Probably constructed between May 26 and May 27, 1885, these structures were most likely a rear guard observation post to watch for pursuing military, and if necessary, provide diversionary protection to give additional escape time for the main group as they fled up Bear Creek Canyon. Indeed, it was the perfect place. From this hilltop position, the rear guard had a clear, unobstructed view of the first 6 miles of the Bear Creek drainage leading from the Gila River to where the canyon walls began to close in. Just a few warriors behind these low rock walls and rifle pit could hold off a large detail of pursuing military for hours, before retreating and diverting their pursuers into the extremely rugged YL Canyon country that the Chiricahua knew all too well, which lay immediately to the east behind Hidden Valley.


Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are ideally situated as a base of exploration for visiting several locations where key events or confrontations occurred between the Chiricahua and the newly arrived prospectors, miners, and settlers. All of the sites listed below can be visited on a day-trip basis. Casitas de Gila will gladly provide maps, directions, and details for those guests who wish to pursue first-hand these and other localities and the stories that surround them. Most of these sites are in exceptionally beautiful terrain on public lands, ideal for hiking, a nice afternoon picnic, or just a quiet interlude in pristine Nature.


Cooney's Tomb, New Mexico

Cooney’s Tomb, Mineral Creek Road near FT 701 trailhead

Site of the Alma Massacre by Chihene Chief Victorio and his warriors on April 28, 1880. Mineral Creek is a great place to spend a full-day hiking and reliving the pioneer and mining history of this area in a spectacular, rugged, pristine mountainous environment. The day’s outing begins with a six-mile drive up Mineral Creek Road from Alma and a stop beside the road to visit Cooney’s Tomb and the small pioneer cemetery behind it. Here, Sgt. James Cooney and other miners were interred following the Alma Massacre. After leaving Cooney’s Tomb, the road continues another half-mile to dead-end at the Forest 701 Trailhead. This easy to moderately difficult trail follows the course of Mineral Creek through a narrow slot canyon bordered on each side by towering shear cliffs of brightly colored volcanic rocks. Within the first two miles of the trail one will see the remnants of the old mining camp of Cooney which was active from 1875 until about 1900, when most of the mining activity shifted a couple of miles south where larger and richer veins of ore were found, giving birth to the historic boom town of Mogollon. Cooney’s mine itself, where the initial battle of Victorio’s Raid took place, lies about two miles up the creek. To sit quietly amongst the ruins at the old Cooney Mine and reflect on the events that took place here one fateful afternoon some 128 years ago, just as the miners were quitting for the day, is an experience never to be forgotten, as the late afternoon sun begins to shadow the rocky cliffs above, and the soft murmuring of the creek and the wind in pines are the only sounds to be heard.


Soldier Hill, New Mexico

Possible site of massacre at top of Soldier Hill, looking east down road towards the Mogollon Mountains

Site of the ambush of Lt. Samuel W. Fountain, 1 officer, a surgeon, 19 cavalry men, 10 Navajo scouts, and 2 civilian scouts by Chokonon Chief Ulzana and 9 warriors on December 19, 1885. Soldier Hill is located within the Gila National Forest, a half mile west of US 180, 4.5 miles north of the US 180–NM 78 junction, and about a mile north of the Aldo Leopold Gila Wilderness Overlook. This site is easily visited and offers the opportunity of a short hike, following the trace of the old road that Fountain and his men rode into the unsuspected ambush early on the morning of December 19, 1885. The top of Soldier Hill is a great place for a picnic lunch, offering a magnificent panorama of the Mogollon Mountains to the east and views down Little Dry Creek and the mountains to the west. An interesting hike is available from Soldier Hill by following the course of Little Dry Creek towards its confluence with Big Dry Creek and eventually the San Francisco River, passing through deeply-incised canyons with spectacular volcanic rock formations and lined with magnificent old-growth sycamore.

Important Notice: Because of the potential danger of flash floods in the canyons, this hike should only be attempted during dry seasons, and even then, only after inquiring locally as to conditions prevailing at the time of visit.


Old Apache Trail New Mexico

Looking east down Geronimo Draw towards Arizona on the Old Apache Trail

A major trail in the Burro Mountains used by the Chiricahua Apache when traveling from the desert lowlands of Southeastern Arizona to the high country of the Mogollon Mountains. Portions of this trail followed closely along what is now Brushy Mountain Road, a 16-mile county-maintained road leading south from the community of Mule Creek into the Gila National Forest. This road provides a very scenic motor tour which begins in the rolling hills of grass-covered ranch lands of Mule Creek Country, dotted with juniper, oak and pinon, before passing into more heavily forested reaches of the northern Burro Mountains, where one has access to unlimited rough country hiking in the Gila National Forest.


High mountain heartland and safe haven of the Bedonkehe and Chihene Chiricahua. Here one can visit Geronimo’s birthplace at the headwaters of the Gila River, and seek out the location of numerous skirmishes, battles, and military expeditions. The Chiricahua knew the Mogollons and Gila Wilderness intimately, traversing the deep canyons of the Gila River and its tributaries and sky-high ridge-top trails for generations. To the Chiricahua, this lofty mountain wilderness was cherished as a dependable source of food, water, medicine, and a spiritual sanctuary. Many of the trails that one hikes today in the Gila follow these old Indian trails, and one can be sure that all of the various hot springs that are sought out and enjoyed by visitors today were a well-known and favorite stopover for the Chiricahua whenever they were passing through.


Casitas de Gila view

View from top of Paradise Overlook Trail at Casitas de Gila, overlooking northern half of proposed Gila Preserve Chiricahua Apache Reservation

Set aside by Congress in 1860, the Gila Preserve Reservation was to encompass a 15-mile square area or 144,000 acres, with its SE corner near Mangas Springs, about 15 miles northwest of Silver City. Because of the commencement of the American Civil War in 1861, the reservation never materialized, and the land was returned to public land status following the termination of the War. All of the land along U.S.180 between today’s communities of Mangas and Buckhorn, plus the entire Gila River Valley between the Burro Mountains on the west and the foothills of the Piños Altos and Mogollon Mountains to the east, including the present-day communities of Cliff and Gila, would have been part of this reservation. Guests at Casitas de Gila can obtain a birdseye view of a major portion of the land that this reservation would have encompassed by climbing to the top of the Casitas’ Paradise Overlook Trail.


Ft. Bayard, New Mexico

Sculpture of Corporal Clinton Greaves

Frontier U.S. Army post established in 1866 to protect the early miners and pioneer settlers in what is now Grant and Catron Counties, as well as transportation routes through Southern New Mexico. Historic Fort Bayard is located near the village of Santa Clara about 7 miles east of Silver City, and a mile north of US 180. In 1869 the post was expanded to include 15 square miles of land to be known as the Fort Bayard Military Reservation. During the Apache Wars, members of the racially segregated units of the U.S. Army, known as the “Buffalo Soldiers” by the Apaches who fought them, served with distinction at Fort Bayard for many years. After the capture of Geronimo in 1886, the Fort was selected to become an Army tuberculosis hospital and research center, and later served in numerous capacities. Today Fort Bayard is a great place to spend part of a day, touring the National Cemetery, the old parade ground, and numerous old buildings. The Fort Bayard Preservation Historical Society is very active in preserving this historic installation and provides tours several times each month.

Corporal Clinton Greaves (photo right), Company C, 9th U.S. Cavalry, the “Buffalo Soldiers”, was awarded the Congressional medal of honor for his heroism in saving 6 soldiers and 3 Navajo Scouts from attack by 40 to 50 Chiricahua in the Florida Mountains near Deming on June 26, 1877.

Ft. Bayard New Mexico

Officers Row, today. New quarters built circa 1910.


narrow gauge railroad new mexico

A narrow gauge railroad to the mines at Piños Altos, in the Gila National Forest, circa early 1900s.

Historic mining camp dating from 1860 when placer gold was discovered in Bear Creek. Substantial deposits of hard-rock gold and silver were also mined in Piños Altos until after the turn of the century. The town was the scene of several raids and battles between the Chiricahua and the miners, with the greatest battle occurring on September 27, 1861 when a large force of Chiricahua under the combined leadership of Chiefs Mangas Coloradas and Cochise attacked the town, with heavy losses on both sides. Today many of the old buildings remain, including an old log cabin dating from c1860s that has been in the Schafer family for over 130 years, and which now houses the unique Piños Altos Historical Museum filled with memorabilia from the early days of the town.


The Apaches had mined veins of pure copper at what was to become the town of Santa Rita del Cobre, near the present day town of Bayard, and some 15 miles east of Silver City, for an unknown number of years before the Spanish began mining there in 1800. Chiricahua raids upon the mines started soon after and continued sporadically, off and on, nearly until Geronimo’s surrender in 1886. Eventually the little town of Santa Rita disappeared, literally into thin air, as the huge open-pit mining operation, which still continues today under the ownership of Freeport-MacMoran Copper and Gold, consumed the land on which the town was built. Still increasing in size, this immense pit can be easily viewed today from a dedicated roadside overlook on NM 152, about 12 miles east of Silver City. The Santa Rita del Cobre Mine of the 1800s would have been at ground level somewhere around the middle of the vast open pit in the photo below. Each of the benches on the far side of the pit are 50 feet deep. The depth of the pit is now in excess of a quarter of a mile.

Santa Rita, New Mexico

Santa Rita in 1919, with mine in background

Chino Mine in 2000

Chino Mine in 2000



    1. Edwin R. Sweeney, 1995, Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief, University of Oklahoma Press
    2. Edwin R. Sweeney, 2011, Mangas Coloradas: Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, University of Oklahoma Press
    3. Edwin R. Sweeney, 2012, From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886, University of Oklahoma Press
    4. Eve Ball, 1988, Indeh: An Apache Odyssey, with New Maps, University of Oklahoma Press
    5. David Roberts, 1994, Once They Moved Like the Wind, Touchstone
    6. Geronimo and S.M. Barrett, 1906, 2005, Geronimo: My Life (Native American), Dover Publications. Geronimo’s autobiography as told in his own words to author S.M. Barrett while he was a Prisoner of War at Fort Sill, Oklahoma
    7. Robert M. Utley, 2012, Geronimo, Yale University Press


Ulzana’s Raid, 1972, MCA/Universal Pictures, starring Burt Lancaster. This is an interesting film, with considerable accurate detail, and a fictionalized plot involving the Chokonen Chief Ulzana and a small number of warriors who flee the San Carlos Reservation and go on the war path. Filmed on location in Arizona.

Desert Exposure article about “Ulzana’s Raid”
Some interesting commentary on “Ulzana’s Raid”
Watch “Ulzana’s Raid” on YouTube!


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



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