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

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

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

THE SOUTHWEST MONSOONS BEGIN

 

THE 2013 MONSOONS BEGIN RIGHT ON SCHEDULE: RAIN, HAIL, AND FLASH FLOODS!

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 …
 

THE HAIL AND RAIN STORM OF JULY 3, 2013

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.
 

VEGETABLE GARDENS AND HAIL DON’T MIX

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.

garden

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 …

garden

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 …

THE FOLIAGE RETURNS… WITH A VENGEANCE

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 FLOOD … ROUND TWO

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.

FLASH FLOODS: PRIMARY CHANGE AGENT FOR SOUTHWEST LANDSCAPES

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.


THE GREENING OF BEAR CREEK CANYON

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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A BRIGHT GREEN NEW MEXICO OASIS

 
BEAR CREEK IN JUNE: A BRIGHT GREEN OASIS
IN A HIGH-DESERT LANDSCAPE WAITING FOR THE RAINS TO COME

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


MAY AND JUNE: DRYING TIME IN THE HIGH DESERT SOUTHWEST

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.
 

BEAR CREEK CANYON: VERDANT OASIS IN A HIGH DESERT LANDSCAPE

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.
 

ROCKY MOUNTAIN SHEEP ON THE CLIFFS:
A SIGN THAT MANY OF THE UPLAND SOURCES OF WATER HAVE DRIED UP

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.
 

A MORNING’S NATURE EXCURSION ALONG BEAR CREEK

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.
 

FLOODS: PRIMARY AGENT FOR PHYSICAL AND BIOLOGICAL CHANGE IN THE HIGH DESERT SOUTHWEST

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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FLUORITE MINING IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

 

SEARCHING FOR CRYSTALS AND HISTORY IN THE
GILA FLUORITE DISTRICT OF SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

Mogollon Mountains New Mexico

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

THE GILA FLUORSPAR DISTRICT AND THE GILA FLUORSPAR MILL

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.

 

EARLY MINING IN THE DISTRICT

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.

 

A VISIT TO THE FOSTER MINE

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.

 

    IMPORTANT NOTICE AND ADVISORY REGARDING THE MINES AND PROSPECTS OF 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 …


REFERENCES

  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

A HIKE DOWN LITTLE DRY CREEK CANYON

 
A FASCINATING JOURNEY THROUGH DEEP CANYONS OF MULTICOLORED VOLCANIC ROCKS LINED WITH ANCIENT, WHITE-BARKED SYCAMORE

 

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.

 
A LANDSCAPE FORGED IN FIRE AND SCULPTED BY UPLIFT AND RUNNING WATER

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.


 
THROUGH CORRIDORS OF ANCIENT, WHITE-BARKED SYCAMORES

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!

 

IMPORTANT NOTICE AND ADVISORY REGARDING TRAIL CONDITIONS FOR LITTLE DRY CREEK

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.

 

REFERENCES

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

 

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

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