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

The Cliffside Loop Trail

A Special Place of Nature within the Casitas de Gila Bear Creek Nature Preserve

view of Gila Wilderness

Situated in a Special Place on the west side of Bear Creek Canyon, Casitas de Gila Guesthouses provide a timeless view of the Gila Wilderness and Turtle Rock


Within every Natural landscape there are places that are so special that they are capable of creating a deep state of awareness, well being, or sometimes even transcendence, upon those who visit. Such places can range in scale from the grandiose, as in our National Parks, where visitors are typically awestruck by the magnificence of Nature before them. Or, they can be much smaller, often hidden, little places … places that are quickly passed through, completely unnoticed by the hurrying hiker, yet equally capable of instilling the same degree of an ineffable sense of well being to those who would stop and linger. Many of these special places in Nature possess an enchantment that is timeless, enduring for thousands of years. More typically, however, that specialness is much more ephemeral, sometimes lasting only a few moments at a certain time of day, perhaps sensed only during a certain season, or possibly lasting a few years before that elusive essence is gone.


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A Special Place within the Bear Creek Nature Preserve for just a few moments in time at Casitas de Gila

It was very late on a crystal clear afternoon in October of 1998, when we first viewed the magnificent landscape surrounding what would eventually become Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. Behind us, the setting Sun was already starting what we would soon come to call “the Magic Hour”: our daily yellow, to orange, to red, magic light show on the distant mountain ramparts of the Gila Wilderness to the north, the closer towering crags of Turtle Rock and the two smaller mountain peaks rising up from the east side of Bear Creek directly in front of the Casitas. Instantly, without speaking, we each knew that this was it: this was the Special Place in Nature that we had long envisioned and had been searching for. It was an emotional moment for both of us. We were home.

From that moment almost 19 years ago, both we and our guests at Casitas de Gila have been privileged to enjoy this incredible New Mexican landscape that surrounds us, a unique landscape of mountains, rock, and sky, that changes dramatically in response to the daily and monthly cycling of the Sun and Moon, the Seasons, and the ever-changing weather. But while the distant view from the unique cliffside perch of the Casitas was spectacular from the beginning, the view down into Bear Creek canyon was not that special when we first arrived on Bear Creek.

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Bear Creek and Turtle Rock from the Casitas, March 5, 2015

hiking in the gila wilderness

This is what the entire Bear Creek floodplain in front of the Casitas looked like in October 1999

Of course any year-round running creek in high-desert Southern New Mexico can and should be considered special in its own right. However, in 1999, when looking down into Bear Creek Canyon from the Casitas now under construction, what met the eye was a rather uninspiring, narrow rivulet of water winding its way south down a broad, featureless floodplain strewn with a chaotic jumble of grayish-tan boulders, gravel, and coarse sand, broken only by a scattering of logs and other vegetative debris left over from the last monsoonal flash flood in September. Other than a few old-growth cottonwoods and sycamores along its outer edge, there was not the expected growth of a diverse riverine forest across this floodplain, but only a few clumps of mostly less than head-high, flood-decimated vegetation.

On initial hikes downstream along the Creek one observed that this riverine landscape showed all the signs of a creek and floodplain greatly out of natural equilibrium, apparently the result of an ongoing cycle of repeated major flash floods that had resulted in extensive erosion, scouring, and transitory channels that migrated back and forth across the entire floodplain due to the lack of vegetation. Why were there no actively growing stands of young trees and shrubs here on this floodplain, as commonly found elsewhere in the area? Was the Bear Creek drainage experiencing an unusual period of exceptional rainfall, or perhaps an increase in Summer Monsoon flash floods that had eroded and carried away all the normal floodplain vegetation?


It would be a year or two before the answer to that question was fully understood by us, even though the answer was literally wandering around before our eyes from the the first moment we looked down on Bear Creek 80 feet below. The reason was cows, lots of cows, voracious cows, that seemed always hungry and constantly looking to devour any remaining green shoots of grass, weeds, willow, or cottonwood seedlings and just about any other plant that had managed to sprout within the floodplain since the last big flash flood. Gradually, over time, the simple answer became quite obvious: the barren boulder and gravel strewn floodplain in front of the Casitas was simply due to repetitive cycles of overgrazing by legions of voracious cattle following major flash floods!

Construction of the Casitas began in February of 1999. By June two guesthouses were finished, allowing us to move onto the Casita property from the temporary quarters in Gila we had rented while our house and office were being finished. In addition to our dog, Gus, and our cat, Spota, both of which we had brought with us from Ireland, we also moved up our two horses, Saino and Yaqui, which we had acquired locally shortly after our purchase of the Casita property. We built a small corral down at the creek, and fenced off the north and south ends of our property to keep out the cows that had been invading from points upstream so our horses could enjoy the sparse amount of fresh green grass that remained on the floodplain, in addition to their regular rations of alfalfa hay.

With the coming of Spring the following year, after fencing out the cows, we began to notice that that the remaining clumps of vegetation on the floodplain were enlarging. Nature was beginning to put the floodplain back in balance, and our two horses, try though they might, were simply unable to keep up with the massive and rapid growth of the vegetation that was taking place!

During the next two or three years after the Casitas opened, Bear Creek continued to migrate here and there across the floodplain, eventually coming to stabilize in a channel on the east side of the floodplain, at the foot of the mountains across from the Casitas. At the same time, and to our great delight, a scattered but promising stand of young cottonwoods, willows, and sycamores were taking root over the rest of the floodplain, greatly enhancing the view of Bear Creek from the Casitas.

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The Bear Creek Nature Preserve from the Casitas,
July 9, 2001

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The Bear Creek Nature Preserve from the Casitas, October 22, 2004

As the vegetation over the flood plain expanded and stabilized, The Casita Loop Trail, a half-mile Self-guided Nature Trail with a comprehensive printed guide, was completed in 2002, so our guests could discover, explore, and learn about the overall Natural History and various natural phenomena that were now taking place along the Creek. Starting and ending in front of the Casitas, the half-mile loop trail was constructed down the Gila Conglomerate cliffs on the west side of the canyon, where it would cross Bear Creek and then meander north upstream for a quarter of a mile through the floodplain forest, before crossing back over Bear Creek and climbing back up the cliffs to the starting point. Thus, what we call the Casitas’ Bear Creek Nature Preserve was born, and what a Special Place it was becoming!

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The Bear Creek Nature Preserve during the Great Flood of February 12, 2005

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Not a good day for relaxing in the hammock along Bear Creek, February 12, 2005

Then, in February 2005, a major three-day storm coming up from Mexico brought about three inches of rain over the entire Gila area, melting most of the Winter snow in the Gila Wilderness and causing major flooding on the Gila River and Bear Creek for almost two weeks. During this time the entire Bear Creek floodplain in front of the Casitas became one vast, 200-300 foot wide raging river, with depths peaking at eight feet above normal. Eventually, the flood waters did finally recede to reveal an unexpected surprise. Hidden beneath the turbulent waters of the flood, Mother Nature had certainly been very busy, for now the main channel of Bear Creek was found to be relocated 200 feet to the west on the Casita side of flood plain, somehow bypassing and leaving the young stand of young riverine forest in the middle of the floodplain essentially intact with little significant damage; a spatial rearrangement of Nature that has persisted up to the present.

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The Bear Creek Nature Preserve as seen from the Casitas, November 3, 2012


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A threshold is reached in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve, November 1, 2013

Between 2003 and 2010, Casitas de Gila Guesthouses acquired several additional parcels of land, greatly expanding the Bear Creek Nature Preserve from its original 71 acres and one-half mile of Bear Creek to 265 acres and three-quarters of a mile of Bear Creek, with over 5 miles of new trails on the property. During this period of expansion and the following two or three years, out of necessity most of our attention was diverted from our original Bear Creek Nature Preserve to focus on acquiring and then learning about these new lands and habitats to determine how they could best be utilized and preserved for the benefit of both our visiting guests and the diverse variety of fauna and flora that lived there. And during this time, pretty much unnoticed by us, the Bear Creek Nature Preserve matured: the young cottonwood, sycamore, ash, and walnut saplings became big trees, while an understory of highly-diverse species of shrubs, ground cover flora, and grasses spread across the floodplain, reestablishing a dynamic equilibrium with the periodic floods surging downstream.

Thus it was, between 2013 and 2014, that several of our long-term returning guests, some who had been coming for many years, began asking questions like “What’s going on in the floodplain?”, “The floodplain seems so different now; the trees seem to be much bigger”, “It’s getting to be like a jungle down there”, or “There seems to be so much more wildlife now”. And, indeed, they were right! As so often happens in Nature when something is observed only at spaced intervals, great changes had taken place. A Natural Threshold had been reached in the Bear Creek floodplain below the Casitas. Protected from the incursion of the cows and human development, and within a little over a decade, the natural environment of the Bear Creek riverine ecosystem had been restored. Mother Nature, the primal force that never sleeps, had done her thing …

hiking in the Gila Wilderness

The Cliffs at the south end of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve


Towards the southern end of the Casitas property are massive, 120-foot high, vertical rock cliffs that form the east border of the Bear Creek floodplain. These cliffs are composed of a rock formation called the Gila Conglomerate which display layers upon layers of well-cemented, horizontally-bedded sedimentary rock comprised of silt, sand, coarse gravel, and large boulders of mostly volcanic material. Millions of years ago, ancient rivers flowing out of nearby volcanic mountains deposited and sequentially buried these layers of sediment. The thick sequence of Gila Conglomerate as seen in the cliffs today are the result of many thousands of years of erosion and downcutting action by Bear Creek.

Prior to the 2005 flood, Bear Creek was flowing up against these cliffs, with the Self-guided Nature Trail located 150 feet to the west, running parallel to Bear Creek and cliffs. Then, during the 2005 flood as described above, Bear Creek relocated to the west side of the Canyon, putting the Nature Trail on the east side of the Creek just west of the cliffs.

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During the flood of 2005, the floodwaters flowed along the base of the cliffs, completely submerging what would become the Cliffside Loop Trail

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This photo shows the cliffs immediately downstream from the photo on the left. The photos were taken at the same time; left two-thirds of this photo shows the entire cliff face that would be included in what would become the Cliffside Loop Trail; note the absence of significant vegetation at the base of the cliffs

By Late Summer and Early Fall of 2005, a line of young cottonwood and sycamore shoots could be seen growing between Bear Creek and the Nature Trail to the east. At the same time, a rather continuous line of Bluestem Willow shoots began to grow along the east side of the Nature Trail. Further toward the cliffs, scattered shoots of young cottonwoods, sycamores, and Red Willows were also popping up. Mother Nature was wasting no time in reclaiming and revegetating the floodplain where Bear Creek had been flowing just a few months before.

During the next nine years there were no major floods to change the course of Bear Creek or to disturb the gradually maturing riverine forest across the floodplain. As these years passed, one noticed how the view from the Casitas of the forest across the floodplain below was steadily increasing in grandeur, as the cycling of each season recast the floodplain from a ever-changing palette: from the somber blues, grays, and mauves of Winter, to the delicate yellow-greens of Spring, to the mysterious, deep, forest greens of Summer, to finally climax as a blazing ribbon of gold in the Fall.

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Trail crossing Bear Creek to the passageway through the Blue Stem Willow thicket

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The passageway through the Blue Stem Willow thicket

Trails in the Bear Creek floodplain require maintenance with the tractor at least two and sometimes three times a year. It was during the Summer of 2015, while doing trail maintenance across the Creek in front of the cliffs at one of the stops on the Self-guided Nature Trail, that one noticed how the line of Blue Stem Willows along the east side of the trail had grown into an impenetrable,15-20 foot high thicket that completely blocked the view of cliffs behind them; a view which was the subject of a lengthy discussion at that particular stop in the Nature Trail guide. Upon investigating, it was discovered that the problem might be easily solved by cutting an opening through the thicket into what appeared to be a small natural clearing just on the other side of the thicket.

A narrow passageway, just wide enough for a person to squeeze through, was easily cut through the thicket. Passing through into the clearing one observed that the view once again matched the description in the Nature Trail guide: a spot where great views of the cliffs and the Big Horn Sheep that occasionally came to the cliffs, and the large variety of birds that frequented the area, would once again be available to guests using the Nature Trail guide.

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The clearing just inside the passageway

Upon entering the clearing for the first time, however, one immediately sensed that there was much more here than just the view of the cliffs. There was also an ineffable feeling of having just discovered of one of Nature’s Special Places, a place that up to that moment had been completely hidden from the world outside by the enclosing willows, young cottonwoods, and sycamores; a newly-created Special Little Place never before witnessed by a human being.

Over the next two years, this Special Little Place became a favorite stop for guests walking the Self-guided Nature Trail, and a favorite haven for those seeking the deep solace and connection that only pristine Nature can provide.

By late 2017, it was obvious that the cumulative effect of the many small, but constantly occurring, natural changes along the Self-guided Nature Trail since the 2005 flood had rendered the existing guide essentially useless. Javelina had eaten several of the cacti referenced in stops on the canyon side, while other referenced plants had simply died during droughty periods and vanished. Down in the floodplain, ground squirrels had taken away the orange tapes marking trail stops, either for making nests or perhaps just out of spite because of some innate, inexplicable dislike for neon orange. Also, with the culminating growth and maturing of the Bear Creek floodplain forest, Mother Nature had accomplished such a complete makeover that many of the stops as described in the guide bore little or no resemblance whatsoever to observed reality. It was time to bite the bullet. A comprehensive rewrite of the Nature Trail guide was long overdue.

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Looking north through the clearings between the cliffs and the trees along Bear Creek

A new field study and evaluation of the entire Nature Trail was needed before the rewriting of the guide could begin. Immediately, it became obvious that this was not going to be an easy task. After a few days work, the field work for the rewrite had progressed to the other side of Bear Creek to the Marked Stop in the Nature Guide for the “Special Little Place” by the cliffs. Stepping through the opening in the willow thicket into the clearing on the other side one realized that this was the first time that one had visited the little clearing in Winter.

With all the leaves off the trees, closer examination of the clearing revealed that what up to that time had been considered a rather small clearing enclosed by dense vegetation was actually a series of elongated clearings that extended a couple of hundred feet to the south between the cliffs and Bear Creek before ending where the channel of the Creek shifted against the cliffs. Dense stands of young cottonwood, sycamore, and willow lined the west side of these clearings along the creek bank, and a scattering of tall trees and shrubs grew along the east side of the clearings up against the cliffs, creating a secluded sanctuary quite hidden from the rest of the Self-Guided Nature Trail.
Intrigued by the uniqueness of this heretofore unknown and unexplored segment of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve, several more days were spent investigating the area. The studies confirmed that the area was so exceptional and special that a new trail should be established which could be included as an optional loop off of the old Self-guided Casita Loop Trail. The trail would be called the Cliffside Loop Trail.


The Cliffside Loop Trail begins at and returns to the marker post at L6-5 on the Self-guided Casita Loop Trail and consists of three distinct sections. In the first section the trail begins by going south, downstream along the east bank of Bear Creek for about 230 feet, before heading away from the Creek to the base of the cliffs, where the second section begins.

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The log benches in Winter along the first section of the Cliffside Loop Trail

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Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep on the cliffs above the Cliffside Loop Trail; these sheep have been coming to the cliffs here several times a year at unpredictable intervals for 19 years.

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Very large Merriam Wild Turkeys are frequent visitors to the Cliffside Loop Trail

Along the first section of the trail several large cottonwood logs have been placed, allowing a guest to sit and relax in the special magic of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve. Here, one can watch for birds or animals, observe in detail the towering cliffs, or meditate in the silence of pristine Nature, a silence broken only by the rustle of the wind in the willows and cottonwoods above or the quiet murmur of the Creek nearby.

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Bear Creek on the west side of the first section of the Cliffside Loop Trail

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Great Horned Owls are resident in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve year round; they are frequently heard just before dawn and just after sunset in the trees along the Cliffside Loop Trail

The second section of the trail begins at the base of the cliffs, and proceeds 70 feet downstream, traversing a recessed cave-like passageway or alcove that has been cut back into a weak layer of the cliff face by the grinding action of the sediment-laden waters of Bear Creek acting over thousands of years. Stream-eroded cave-like features, such as this small one, can be found all along the Bear Creek drainage and the Gila River, with many of the larger ones having been used for human habitation for thousands of years, such as those found at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, some 25 miles northeast of the Casitas.

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Looking south through recessed alcove in the second section of the Cliffside Loop Trail

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At night, Kit Foxes make regular use of the recessed alcove while hunting along the cliffs

At the Gila Cliff Dwellings, members of the Native American Mogollon Culture in the late 13th Century built and lived in 40 rooms constructed of rock and adobe mud within 5 very large caves in Gila Conglomerate located up a side canyon on the West Fork of the Gila River. Although this small recessed alcove on Bear Creek is much too small for continuous human habitation, it has certainly been home to many animals over the years and probably provided an occasional overnight or temporary shelter to Native Americans waiting out a monsoonal thunderstorm as they travelled up Bear Creek.

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The ledge at the south end of the second section of the Cliffside Loop Trail

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Looking upstream at the ledge at the south end of the second section of the Cliffside Loop Trail

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Damselfly on a creekside rock in the Cliffside Loop Trail

The second section of the trail ends at a flagged small tree growing on a rocky ledge that sticks out into the creek. Here, during the warm months of the year, you will find a tranquil and delightful little spot were you can sit and peer down into the shallow, crystal clear waters of Bear Creek, watching the minnows dart up and down along the bottom, the water bugs skating on its surface, and the colorful dragonflies and damselflies patrolling the airways just above. From the end of the second section at the flagged tree on the rocky ledge, the trail is retraced back along the alcove to its beginning, where the third section begins.

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Looking north at the beginning of the third section of the Cliffside Loop Trail

The third section of the trail heads north along the cliffs for approximately 250 feet, to end back at the marker post at L6-5. The trail in this section follows an elongated shallow trough or depression close to the cliffs that delineates the now-almost-filled former main channel of Bear Creek which flowed there prior to the 2005 flood. Over the first half of this third section of the trail one notices that the layers of conglomerate that make up the cliffs are exposed right to the ground level of the trail. Then, as one continues along the trail a point is reached where the exposed layers of rock in the cliff at ground level disappear behind a layer of soil and rock containing exposed roots and fallen trees that extends from ground level 6 or 7 feet up the side of the cliff. Continuing further along the trail, the horizontal thickness of this layer of soil and rock is observed to gradually widen so that mature trees can be seen growing on its upper surface. About here the origin of this soil and rock layer becomes apparent. What one has been observing is the eroded remnant of an old river terrace that bordered the rocky cliffs in times past, which was in the process of being eroded away before the flood of 2005 moved the stream channel to the west, away from the eroding cut bank. From this point the trail continues along the face of this old cut bank for another 100 feet or so before turning west to return to and end at Marker L6-5.

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Young trees along the base of the middle of the third section of the Cliffside Loop Trail

All of the field work, trail construction, trail photographs, and writing of this blog on the Cliffside Loop Trail was done between January 1 and and early March 2018. Throughout this time the landscape was still locked in drab Winter dress. But then, right on schedule, on a short visit down to the Creek during the first week of March, one heard a new, but familiar, buzzing sound near the beginning of the Cliffside Trail. Tracing the sound quickly led one’s eyes upward to the highest branches of an especially tall Blue Stem Willow. There, caught in the first rays of morning Sun, were flowering catkins, offering a breakfast of the first nectar of Spring to an obviously delighted swarm of honey bees! Spring had sprung, and the greening of the Cliffside Loop Trail had begun. Heading back up to the Casitas, one smiled as he thought about the coming privilege of observing for the first time as Mother Nature cycled her ever-changing pallet of colors in this Special Place through Spring, Summer, and Fall.

Most people when first visiting the Cliff Side Loop Trail will think that they have entered a Special Place that has been there for a very long time. But, as these writings have attempted to explain, this is not the case. This unique and special corner of the Bear Creek floodplain has only become so over the last three or four years, its evolving creation carefully hidden from view behind Mother Nature’s construction site screen of the towering willow thicket. How long will it be there for us to enjoy? Impossible to say. Could it be completely washed away this Summer during the 2018 Monsoon Season? Possibly. But considering the last 20 years of observed history, probably not. Next year? Possibly; but still probably not. Within a decade? Well, quite possibly; the odds are certainly increased. Will your great-grandchildren get to see it in the next century? Probably not! However, even if the Casitas are not here, they will still be able to enjoy during the Magic Hour from this Special Place the timeless view of the Gila Wilderness and Turtle Rock to the north and the two small mountains rising up from Bear Creek Nature Preserve below!

Floodplains are a dynamic landscape of constant change. But, for the avid Seeker of Nature’s Special Places, it should now be an obvious comfort to know that hardly any Special Place is lost, without Mother Nature creating another … somewhere … Happy Seeking!

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Monsoon Rainbow arching above Nature’s Special Place: Casitas de Gila’s Cliffside Loop Trail


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Reconnect with Nature at Casitas de Gila!

In the Stress-Free Zone of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve
at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses in Southwest New Mexico


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Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out
that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity;
and that mountain parks and reservations are useful
not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.

John Muir – 1901



Mogollon Culture adze or hoe

Mogollon Culture adze or hoe found on 10-foot terrace above Bear Creek near current garden at the Casitas, probably used in farming there; groove for attachment of handle extends 3/4 of the way around tool; tip of tool (left end) broken off

Mogollon Culture pottery shards

1,000-year-old pottery shards from Mogollon Culture litter the ground at a village site on the Gila River near Gila, NM.

Current scientific thinking suggests that Modern Humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) began to acquire modern behavioral traits around 50,000 years ago, existing as hunter-gatherer societies up until around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago when some groups began to develop sedentary agriculture. How and what these prehistoric Humans thought about is poorly understood, particularly the question of how they saw themselves relative to the rest of the Natural World in which they lived. With the advent of writing around 5,000 years ago and modern world-wide archaeological and anthropological studies, especially cultural anthropology, we have been able to obtain much greater insight into this question.

In his 2002 book The Lost Language of Plants, Stephen Buhner, herbalist, naturalist, and teacher, presents a synthesis of how a majority of nonindustrial and indigenous peoples thought about Human and Nature connections and relationships. Some of key points of his synthesis are:

  • “At the center of all things is Spirit. In other words, there is a central underlying unifying force in the Universe that is Sacred.”
  • “All matter is made from this substance. In other words, the Sacred manifests itself in physical form.”
  • “Because all matter is made from the Sacred, all things possess a Soul, a Sacred Intelligence or logos.”
  • “Parts of Earth can manifest more or less sacredness, just like human beings. A human being can never know when some part of Earth might begin expressing deep levels of sacredness or begin talking to him. Therefore it is important to cultivate attentiveness of mind.”
  • “Human beings are only one of the many life-forms of Earth, neither more nor less important than the others. Failure to remember this can be catastrophic for individuals, nations, and peoples. The other life in the Universe can and will become vengeful if treated with disrespect by human beings.”

Prague astronomical clock

The Prague astronomical clock: Installed in 1410, the Orloj clock is still operating on the southern wall of Old Town Hall in the Old Town Square in Prague, Czech republic

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René Decartes, after Franz Hals, 1648

As Buhner summarizes in his book, this view of a Sacred Intelligence at the center of the Universe prevailed in various forms until the concept of a Clockwork Universe began to emerge during the Renaissance (14th to 17th century) and the following Scientific Revolution (16th to 18th century). The scientific paradigm that arose during these early days of science was that the Universe and everything in it is to be thought of as a giant clocklike machine that eventually can be completely understood through the process of scientific reductionism, a method and process whereby something is reduced to smaller and more basic individual parts which can then be further dissected and studied to determine to see how they work.

Gradually overtime, and greatly influenced by the thinking of René Descartes (1596-1650, French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist) the concept of the Universe as Machine evolved to a point where much of science concluded that human beings were the only conscious and intelligent life-form on Earth; and, depending on the scientist’s religious beliefs, that humans were endowed either with or without a soul. Once having reached this state of understanding, as Buhner elaborates in his book, humans thus became separated, isolated, and estranged in Body, Mind and Spirit from the rest of Nature both in thought and deed, setting up most of the environmental and societal problems we struggle with today.


There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore,
there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar;
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.

Lord Byron, British Romantic Poet, 1788-1824

By the beginning of the 19th century the concept of a Universe as Machine prevailed within most scientific thinking in the Western World, along with widespread acceptance of the corollary that humans were to be considered separate from, unconnected to, and even dominant over Nature. The fallacy of this premise began to be challenged in mid- to late-19th century England and other countries, however, with the emergence of what was eventually to become known as the environmental movement. In England, this initial awareness developed around the recognition of the human-caused problem of severe smoke pollution in the atmosphere that was being caused by the Industrial Revolution. For those early environmentalists, there was no question that humans were indeed connected to Nature in that it was obvious that humans were destroying the very air which they breathed, and consequently ruining peoples’ health!

"Rocky Mountain Landscape" painting

“Rocky Mountain Landscape”, Albert Bierstadt, 1870; Location: White House, Washington, DC

About the same time, an early “Back-to-Nature” conservation movement was also developing in England, promoted by advocates such as John Ruskin who wrote extensively on the value of retaining and living a rural life surrounded by unspoiled Nature. On the other side of the Atlantic in the United States, environmental awareness was simultaneously emerging out of concern for protecting the natural resources of the West, a movement that was especially spurred on through the widely read and appreciated philosophical writings of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, and American landscape painters such as Albert Bierstadt. Gradually over time, the environmental movement expanded, matured, and spread throughout the world. Embedded deep within the core philosophy of this movement was the recognition that humanity is, indeed, very much connected to and a participant in Nature.

Today, the values and benefits of Humans reconnecting with Nature are being increasingly explored, studied, and researched in a multitude of disciplines concerned with various aspects of well being of the Human Body, Mind, and Spirit.


The old adage “Use It or Lose It” has never been more appropriate than it is today relative to maintaining and improving human health. The key point is that the human body and form were designed to MOVE: fast, over long distances, and for extended periods of time from the earliest days of the species. This was the way it was used through the hunter-gatherer days, the nomadic days, the early agricultural days, until the start of the industrial revolution. Then, as machines began to take over physical work, accompanying human lifestyles became increasingly sedentary, until the ultimate degree of sedentism arrived with the advent of the Digital Age. Exit the Human as Runner; enter the Human as Couch Potato, and long live Screen Time! It is not necessary to describe the effects of this evolutionary—or would we better say devolutionary—journey on the health of the body; millions of us suffer because of it every day and in so many different ways. Thank God for and long live Big Pharma!

Gold Dust Trail, New Mexico

Hiking the Gold Dust Trail, Whitewater Canyon, Gila National Forest, New Mexico

Of course, there have been many efforts to counter this world-wide epidemic of Debilitating Ultimate Digital Sedentism Syndrome, or (DUDSS), in the Human species. Home gym and exercise machines (increasingly digital, of course) are quite the rage, available in various (though mostly high) price ranges. Public gyms now proliferate everywhere offering any number and type of machines, focused on various muscle groups (available in both manual and, of course, digital models). Participation via membership in such gyms is available in various formats and (again, mostly high) price ranges.

There is, however, an alternative prescription for combating DUDSS which has been around for ages, that in recent years has been making a comeback, particularly by cognoscenti of Nature, and that is the humble field of Outdoor Sports Activity Enthusiast (OSAE). While the Digital Age has been making inroads into this time-honored form of Human endeavor, the basic prerequisites for participation have remained the same down through the years, requiring only two ingredients: 1) One Body, and 2) the Will To Move It … the latter sometimes being the hardest to come by. Admittedly the transition for a person suffering from DUDSS TO OSAE can be a challenge. But evidence shows that it is well worth the effort. The great thing about becoming an OSAE person is that all people of all ages can participate according to their ability and needs. Programs can range from a short walk in a public park, to watching birds in a pristine forest, to cross-country running over rough terrain, to mountain climbing. Results will vary with the individual, but frequency, persistence and commitment are primary keys to success. Costs for these programs vary but generally can be done on the cheap — unless you have developed an addiction for the latest in personal designer attire, footwear, or the latest in digital body function monitoring devices (DBFMD), which can drive up your costs exponentially.


While the personal benefits of reconnecting with Nature for physical health are for the most part well known and universally accepted, even within orthodox medicine the concept of reconnecting with Nature as a prescription for improving one’s mental health and general well being has only in recent years become a subject of considerable formal scientific study and research. Folk wisdom and old-time country doctors, of course, have always known of the peace of mind and well being that comes from a quiet interlude or sojourn in a natural setting. Most early sanatoriums were often built in places renowned for their pristine Nature, be it a scenic landscape of mountains, lake, or forest or a special climate or purity of air or water. However, the scientific evidence that a short-term one-on-one encounter of a human being with Nature could bring about an actual measurable physiological or psychological improvement in an individual’s mental health, mood, or sense of well being has only in recent years been forthcoming from mainstream scientific research.

Mineral Creek Trail, New Mexico

Hiking Mineral Creek in Winter, Gila National Forest, New Mexico

In the past decade there has been a virtual explosion of renewed interest and research regarding the benefits of reconnecting with Nature for mental health and general well being. News articles championing the concept appear with great frequency on the topic, such as this one in the Stanford News: Stanford Researchers Find Mental Health Prescription: Nature. This article reviews two studies by Stanford University researcher Gregory Bratman and his colleagues. The first study compared the effects of a 50-minute walk by 60 participants in a natural versus an urban environment. The results showed that the walk in nature produced a decrease in anxiety, rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self and emotions, a known risk factor for mental illness), and benefits in complex working memory tasks among participants. A second expanded study involving 38 participants compared a 90-minute walk in a natural setting with a 90-minute walk in a high-traffic urban setting that gave similar results, i.e. reduced rumination in the natural setting, plus reduced activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex of the brain (an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness and depression). Both of these studies support other related research which reports that people who live in cities have 20% higher risk of anxiety disorders, a 40% higher risk of mood disorders, and are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia as people who live in rural areas. The results of these two studies are highly significant, the Stanford News article reports, in as much as presently more than 50% of the world’s population live in urban environments, a figure that is projected to increase to 70% by 2050.

A recent article in the National Geographic Magazine, 2016, entitled This Is Your Brain on Nature describes several research projects around the world which have shown positive benefits of Nature upon mental health and well being. One project, led by Dr. David Thayer, cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, involves three-day camping trips in the wilderness where participating students are wired up to a portable EEG machine that records changes in brain waves over the three-day immersion in Nature. The results of his project in many ways mirror the Stanford results, it that they show a positive restorative effect where the brain basically calms down and resets itself so that mental performance and well-being improves.

Sacaton Creek hike, New Mexico

Hikers immersed in Involuntary Attention going up Sacaton Creek in the Gila National Forest

Summaries of additional research into the restorative effects of Nature upon the Mind can be found in a 2013 article in the Atlantic Magazine entitled How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies. The article goes into what it is that sets natural environments apart from others, namely the two types of human attention as identified by William James, the great American philosopher and psychologist. One is Directed Attention, the type of attention that rules the day in completing daily tasks in the urban environment, such as driving, writing, tending to business, etc. Directed Attention demands a highly focused attention which tires and depletes the energy of the mind quickly. The other type of attention is Involuntary Attention which requires no mental effort at all and actually is restorative to mental well being, just as food and water restore the body.

When out in Nature it is Involuntary Attention that entrains one’s consciousness, an effortless attention of immersion into the myriad of Nature’s delights and ways … the pretty stone, the falling leaf, the gurgling stream. Psychologists have a name for this mental restorative process resulting from contact with Nature and it is Attention Restoration Theory or ART. This theory was developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in 1989 in their book The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. A more recent article on the theory, The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework can be found by doing an Internet search on the title.

children making plaster casts

Children connecting with Nature by making plaster casts of animal tracks in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Children connecting with the Natural World of the Mogollon Culture of 750 years ago at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

In 2005, an author by the name of Richard Louv coined the interesting term Nature-Deficit Disorder (NDD) in his 2008 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. This book investigates the phenomena of increasing estrangement of children from Nature in a historical context from past to present. The term has caught on and is in wide use today to describe numerous physical and psychological problems that result from a lack of physical and mental connection of both children and adults from the natural world. Louv cites increasing lines of research that investigate a variety of problems that can result from NDD, such as limited respect for immediate natural surroundings, attention disorders and depression, child obesity, and myopia. Primary causes suggested for these problems would include our increasing digital addictions, loss of access to and time spent out in Nature, and parental fears which keep children indoors. Several organizations both in this country and abroad have been formed with the focus of increasing childhood connection with Nature, such as The Children and Nature Network and The No Child Left Inside Coalition.

For those interested in reading further about the connection between Nature to Human Health and Well Being, there are numerous recent books, articles, and reports on the subject. Some which have received favorable reviews would be:

  • Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life by Richard Louv
  • Your Brain on Nature by Alan C. Logan
  • The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More by Florence Williams
  • For those who would appreciate a more comprehensive and in-depth discussion of this subject, the following report available on line might be also be of interest. In 2010, a large research project was completed for Beyondblue Limited, the National Depression Initiative, a non-profit Health Promotion Charity funded by the Federal, State and Territory Governments of Australia to research the connection between Nature and mental health and well being. The completed report for this research project conducted by Professor Dr. Mardie Townsend and Rona Weerasuriya of Deakin University, Australia, is entitled Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being. This comprehensive report (160 pages), although somewhat dated in terms of current research into the subject, is an excellent overview that goes deeply into the history and present trends regarding the scientific background, theory, areas of research, and discoveries regarding Nature and Human mental health and well-being.



Keep close to Nature’s heart …
and break clear away, once in awhile,
and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.
Wash your Spirit clean.

John Muir – 1915

Bear Creek Nature Preserve, New Mexico

Monsoon thunderstorm over Turtle Rock at Bear Creek Nature Preserve

Spirit, as in human spirit, and spirituality, are prime examples of words in common everyday usage that have various meanings to those that hear, speak, or read them. Traditionally, the terms have had a deeply religious context, with specific meanings tied to the various religions of the world and their accompanying Diety belief systems. In many of these religions, the connection of spirituality to the world of Nature is considered an important and often-referenced concept in the scriptures.

In modern times, there has been a gradual separation of the term spirituality from a strictly organized religious context as stated in the increasing espoused phrase “Spiritual but not religious”, or SBNR, to a context where the emphasis in meaning is placed on 1) the subjective experience of a sacred, unknowable, unseen, or ineffable (that which cannot be put into words) dimension, and 2) the deepest values, principles, and learnings by which people live, which typically include a focus on personal psychological growth and improvement, a quest for an ultimate understanding of the meaning and purpose of life, pursuit of spiritual experience, or discovering one’s inner self, being, or dimension.

William James in his 1902 seminal book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, was not particularly interested in the theology and organizational aspects of religion, but rather investigated and wrote about various aspects of direct, personal religious experience. Two important parts of this work included discussions of 1) the reality of the unseen aspects of the Universe, for which he criticized science for ignoring, and 2) the two main features of mystical experience, namely its Ineffability – where “no adequate report of its contents can be given in words”, and its Noetic Quality – where “mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect”.

Today, the concepts of the SBNR and James’ ineffability and noetic quality of mystical experience are integral parts of a growing ecological movement known as Ecospirituality, a concept that connects the science of ecology with spirituality, and brings together religion and environmental activism. Ecospirituality has been defined as “a manifestation of the spiritual connection between human beings and the natural environment”(Nature). Ecospirituality includes many of the tenets of Deep Ecology, an ecological and environmental philosophy that explores the importance of recognizing and preserving the complex inter-relationship of all organisms of which humans are just one part; and Ecopsychology, a branch of psychology that studies the relationship between human beings and the natural world.

If one considers the combined philosophies of ecospirituality, deep ecology, and ecopsychology it seems to suggest an emerging overall worldview that is in many ways similar to the major points presented above in Stephan Buhner’s synthesis of how nonindustrial and indigenous peoples of the past thought about Human and Nature connections and relationships. Hopefully the emerging worldview is a more enlightened one, having evolved from an interconnected Universal Consciousness and intelligence that infuses all life and matter where humans are just one part, to an inanimate, clock-like, Mechanistic Universe where humans are the sole conscious life form , and is now slowly returning to a more inclusive and connected worldview where Humans are no longer separated from the rest of Nature.


winter in southwest new mexico

Rising majestically above Bear Creek, Turtle Rock is the centerpiece of this Mid-Winter scene.

gila wilderness spring

By Late Spring, Turtle Rocks takes on an even warmer tone as the Sun soars ever higher in the sky and the Bear Creek riverine forest puts on its brightest show of yellow-green.

gila wilderness new mexico

As the Summer afternoon Sun slowly sets in the West, Turtle Rock will change from yellow, to orange, and then to red just for an instant before … lights out!

Fall in the Gila Wilderness

Once the leaves peak along the Creek and start to fade and fall, the towering shadowed cliffs of Turtle Rock will remain as an essential focal point of contrast in this gorgeous scene until the last of the color is gone and the more somber tones of Winter once more return.


The Bear Creek drainage is roughly 25 miles long, extending west from its headwaters in the town of Pinos Altos, 5 miles north of Silver City, to empty into the Gila River between the communities of Gila and Cliff. From prehistoric days up until the late 1800s Bear Creek served as a major route for east-west travel because of the presence of year-round water and plentiful game, and a constant, gentle change in elevation. Up until the discovery of gold in and around Pinos Altos in 1860, followed by open-range ranching in the 1870s and 80s, Bear Creek flowed through pristine, wild, mountainous country. With the exception of a continuing presence of low-intensity cattle ranching, and minor placer mining in the early 1900s, the greater portion of the Bear Creek drainage has remained in an essentially pristine state with little human development to speak of, with approximately 65-70% of its course flowing through Gila National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, and State of New Mexico land.

The Bear Creek Nature Preserve had its beginning in 1998 with the purchase of 70 acres of land bordering a half-mile stretch of Bear Creek about 5 miles upstream from its confluence with the Gila River by the present owners, Becky and Michael O’Connor, for the development of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. Originally, this parcel of land was part of the vast Hooker Ranch, a pioneer ranch dating from the 1880s, that encompassed some 100,000 acres. Prior to the Hooker operation, all of this portion of Southwest New Mexico was considered Apache Indian territory, who continued an active and much-feared presence over the landscape from sometime in the late 16th or early 17th century until 1886 when Geronimo surrendered. Preceding the nomadic Apache, around a thousand years ago, the Native American Mogollon Culture lived in several villages along Bear Creek, farming the river bank terraces, growing the “Three Sisters” crops of maize (corn), squash, and beans.

In 1998, the section of Bear Creek which was to become the Bear Creek Nature Preserve, especially the active floodplain, was in a very degraded state due to extreme overgrazing by feral cattle which had been allowed to roam over the property for about 15 years following the termination of the Hooker Ranch operation. While a few mature and very old Cottonwoods, Sycamores, Willows, and Gray Oaks lined the sides of the floodplain, the creek banks and adjacent floodplain were extensively channeled by repetitive flooding, covered with coarse gravel, and almost devoid of any vegetation taller than the new owners. Soon after purchase of the Casita property, the north and south ends of the property along the creek were fenced and the Bear Creek Nature Preserve was born.

great horned owl

Great Horned Owls nest within the Bear Creek Nature Preserve

The restoration of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve along Bear Creek is now beginning its 19th year, and what amazing changes have taken place there during that time! The floodplain is now covered with a mature mixed forest of Cottonwood, Sycamore, and Willow with many cottonwood exceeding 60 feet in height. The indigenous understory vegetation is more diverse and lush, providing ample shelter, food, and safety for animals, birds, and reptiles. For the past three years, breeding pairs of Great Horned Owls, Cooper’s Hawks, and a large flock of wild Merriam’s Turkeys have taken up residence. Last Spring a returning amateur ornithologist from England reported 91different species of birds on the Bear Creek Nature Preserve and nearby surrounding areas during a one-week stay at the Casitas.

Animal life is also diverse and plentiful. All of the small mammals of Southern New Mexico including the rare and rarely-seen White Nosed Coatimundi are resident, as well as a small herd of Mule Deer. Occasional visitors to the Preserve include Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Couger, and Black Bear. Many varieties of reptiles live on the property, and during the summer the creek is a haven for a wide variety of butterflies and insects. Small minnows and frogs abound both in and along the creek. The restoration of harmony and balance of Nature is evident everywhere.

rocky mountain bighorn sheep

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep on the cliffs above Bear Creek at the Bear Creek Nature Preserve

Over the years, between 2003 and 2010, additional acreage was acquired on both sides of Bear Creek, enlarging the Bear Creek Nature Preserve to a total of 265 acres, much of which is accessible to Casita guests over a network of 6 miles of maintained trails, ranging from foot paths over a variety of terrain to a challenging hike up Paradise Overlook Mountain where a 360° view looks out into the Gila Wilderness to the north and the newly established 6,000-acre New Mexico Game and Fish Wildlife Preserve directly adjoining the Casitas de Gila property to the east.

hiking trails at Casitas de Gila New Mexico

View from the top of the Paradise Overlook Trail at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses

The Bear Creek Nature Preserve is a very special landscape of unique geology, diverse habitats, and topography including juniper- and mesquite-covered hillsides, Bear Creek Canyon and Creek, adjoining dry washes, and a 1,000-foot range in elevation. With the exception of the Casita buildings clustered on the edge of Bear Creek Canyon, the ¾ mile private gravel road leading into the property, a short dirt road leading to a small horse coral and vegetable garden down near the Creek, and the six miles of foot trails, the rest of the property is undeveloped and is reserved untouched for the plants, birds, animals, reptiles and fish that choose to inhabit and visit the Preserve.


Reconnecting with Nature is easy in the stress-free zone of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve for people of all ages and physical abilities at any time of year. The Casitas are situated along the very edge of Bear Creek Canyon, 80 feet below. All that is necessary is to step outside one’s Casita, plop down in a chair overlooking the the Gila Wilderness to the north, the close-by rocky crags of Turtle Rock, and the small mountains of North and South Peak rising up from the Creek to the east, relax and, presto, you will soon be connected! Best times are early morning when, depending on the time of the year, you can watch the Sun rise over Turtle Rock or North and South Peaks, and late afternoon when the setting Sun in the west illuminates those same mountains with a gradually-changing hue of yellow to orange to red, just before lights out. Or, if your visit is timed just right, a full or near-full moon rising over those same mountains is transcendent.
The silence of Nature is pervasive throughout the Preserve. When walking the trails along Bear Creek or reclining in the hammock at the foot of the big Cottonwood, the only sounds are those of Nature: the murmuring of water passing over rocks, the hoot of the owl, the call of the Gamble’s Quail or White-winged Dove, or the rustle of the wind in the Willows and the Cottonwoods overhead. No personal effort required, just relax and Nature will make the Connection.

fall color in southwest new mexico

In late October Bear Creek becomes a winding ribbon of gold

Have a camera?
Unlimited connections are there for the taking.


new mexico snow oil painting

Bear Creek Sycamore in the Snow, oil on canvas, 2015, M. O’Connor

Like to sketch or paint? A thousand or more subjects await your enchantment and connection!

lodging near silver city new mexico

Reconnecting through Chi Gong next to Bear Creek in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve

Is meditation, yoga, or chi gong your path? Scattered over the Preserve and awaiting your discovery are numerous hidden spaces perfect for an ultimate connection.


Supermoon rising over North Peak, Bear Creek Nature Preserve

Is the starry firmament above your source of connection? if so, bring your telescape and your camera, for the night skies over the Preserve are absolutely some of the clearest and darkest skies in the continental United States.

John Muir quote

Are words and journals your joy?
Poetic inspiration surrounds you in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve

The Mountains are calling and I must go . . .
John Muir


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A Southwest New Mexico Winter!


snow-covered Gila Wilderness

January 22, 2017 at Casitas de Gila on Bear Creek, looking north to the Gila Wilderness covered in deep snow


The High Chihuahuan Desert of Southwest New Mexico is a landscape of exceptional beauty, diversity, and distinct seasonal climatic change due to a rugged topography ranging from 4,000 to 11,000 feet. For the city or urban dweller longing to reconnect with millions of acres of pristine and untrammeled Nature, the lowland deserts, soaring mountains, and numerous rivers and creeks of the vast Gila Wilderness, Gila National Forest and other public lands in Southwest New Mexico offer an unlimited array of outdoor opportunities that can be enjoyed every season of the year … including Winter!

Situated on 265 private acres on Bear Creek, near to and directly overlooking the Gila Wilderness and National Forest, Casitas de Gila Guesthouses has since 1999 specialized in providing its guests with the best directions and information regarding access to, knowledge of, and pursuit of the various outdoor activities possible on these public lands. In addition, Casitas de Gila is most fortunate in having been able to develop within its own property the Bear Creek Nature Preserve, a unique landscape that offers Casita guests an exceptional connection and access with Nature right out the door of their Casita to over six miles of trails along Bear Creek and the adjacent mountains.

winter along Bear Creek

In Winter, Cottonwoods cast long shadows across trails along Bear Creek


In most years, Winter at the Casitas and the Bear Creek Nature Preserve is a rather laid-back season, a time for quiet personal reflection on the year gone by. It’s a time for leisurely walks on sun-dappled paths beneath towering groves of the leafless Cottonwood and Willow that line the tranquil, faintly gurgling waters of Bear Creek. Or a time for an exhilarating climb up the more challenging trail just across Bear Creek leading to a magnificent 360° panorama at the top of Paradise Overlook Mountain. Or, if the spirit is feeling a little more restless and adventurous, one might head out to the nearby spectacular Catwalk Recreation Area, the intriguing Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, or one of the many beckoning nearby trails in the Gila Wilderness and National Forest. Later, as the afternoon shadows lengthen and the temperature begins to fall, it is time to return to the comforts of one’s own warm Casita to end the day with a relaxing meal, followed by a good book in front of a crackling fire in the kiva fireplace, a serious game of Scrabble or Monopoly, or maybe even putting together a 1000-piece puzzle! Ah yes, that has been the Winter experience at the Casitas for most years. But so far, this Winter has certainly not been like most!


jet stream map

Jet Stream pattern responsible for White Christmas at Casitas, Dec. 25, 2016 (source:

jet stream map

Jet Stream map showing cutoff loop bringing moisture from Baja California to Casitas on Dec. 22, 2016. (Source: CA Regional Weather Server, Dept of Earth & Climate Sciences, San Francisco State Univ,

Weather wise, early Fall at the Casitas in 2016 was essentially normal, a little drier perhaps and somewhat warmer, but typical great weather for outdoor pursuits. During the first three weeks of December this pattern continued for the greater part, but with interspersed short periods of clouds, minor precipitation, and colder than average weather in response to repeated events in which the Arctic jet stream would loop south from Canada down the US West Coast and then into Southwest New Mexico.

Then, on December 22, the first of what would become a month-long series of abnormal precipitation events began, when a persistent, cut-off segment of one of these Arctic Jet Stream loops began pumping a cell of Low Pressure moisture from Baja California across the Southwest into New Mexico, bringing the Casitas over an inch of rain. At the Casitas, most of this rain was quickly absorbed by the very dry ground. Bear Creek, however, rose several inches in response, making access to the trails on the other side of the creek a little more difficult, but still doable for most of the guests who were now coming in for the holidays. Following a brief day of clearing, on Christmas Eve the clouds came in once more as a new Arctic Jet Stream loop of cold air pushed down from the North to collide with a still active Southern Jet Stream segment that was pumping moist Low Pressure air in from Baja California.

Christmas morning 2016

Christmas morning 2016 at Casitas de Gila, looking north to the Gila Wilderness (hidden in clouds)

The snow began falling after midnight and by morning the Casitas awoke to a big surprise: a magnificent White Christmas with three inches of snow coating everything in sight. By early afternoon, temperatures had warmed considerably as the Arctic loop of cold air dissipated, melting all of the snow except in the higher elevations in the Gila Wilderness mountains to the north. Over the next few days a persistent plume of Jet Stream coming up from Baja California continued to bring warm, cloudy, moist unsettled weather in over Southwest New Mexico, culminating with a major storm on December 31, to finish out the month of December with over two inches of rain at the Casitas. Throughout this time water levels in Bear Creek continued to rise as the rain and warm weather melted the snow in the higher mountains, rendering trail stream crossings in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve impossible. Outdoor pursuits elsewhere in the surrounding area were likewise severely curtailed as the same storms caused numerous problems: highways, roads and destinations were closed by snow or washed out, including the Gila Cliff Dwellings and the Catwalk, as well as many of the trails of the Gila Wilderness and National Forest. Two groups of hikers in the Gila Wilderness had to be helicoptered to safety on Christmas Day when land based rescue teams could not reach them because of high water on tributaries of the Gila River.

jet stream map

Jet Stream loop responsible for bringing 1-1/2 inches of rain to the Casitas January 14-16, 2017 (source:

jet stream map

Jet Stream pattern responsible for bringing persistent clouds and moisture to Casitas from Pacific and Baja California for first week and a half of January 2017 (source:

During the first week and a half of January, another strong Southern Jet Stream flow continued to bring in clouds, moist air, and various amounts of rain from the Pacific and Baja California to Southwest New Mexico, keeping Bear Creek running high, fast, and uncrossable. Not to be deterred, however, intrepid Casita guests ventured out on most days to give the various trails on the Casita side of the Creek a good workout or hiking Gila Wilderness trails that still remained open. On the bad days, they stayed inside their cosy Casita reading by the kiva fire, besting their partner at Scrabble, completing that puzzle, keeping up with the outside world on the Internet, or simply resting up for that all-to-soon return to the outside world. Elsewhere in the area, the Catwalk, Cliff Dwellings, and many Gila Wilderness and National Forest trails remained closed.

Then … surprise again! Just when one thought the rain was over, another Arctic loop came down from the north for another three days, dropping another inch and a half of rain from January 14-16 before gradually moderating into three days of patchy clouds, wind, and cold, but without rain. An improvement! But not for long, as, totally unsurprising at this point, on the 20th yet another major Arctic loop dropped down from the north bringing more than an inch of rain over the next four days for a total monthly rainfall on January 24, 2017, of 2.68 inches!

Is the Midwinter Deluge of 2017 over? Well, as of January 24th, the five-day Jet Stream forecast looks promising, and the ten-day Weather Underground forecast reads clear and sunny with rising temperatures! We shall see …


Bear Creek flooding

Bear Creek out of its channel and flowing across the adjacent floodplain, making crossing the creek impossible

Put in historical perspective, the Midwinter Deluge of 2016-17 was a truly-unique Winter weather event during the 18 years of operation of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. Never during that period has this much rain (4.5 inches in 5 weeks) fallen in such a short time at this time of year, turning seasonally placid and faintly gurgling Bear Creek into an raging, growling Bear RIVER for over a month! The closest similar Winter Season event was the Great Flood of February 12, 2005, when a slow-moving warm front coming up from Mexico dropped 2.5 inches of rain over a three-day period over the entire Bear Creek drainage and also melted most of that Winter’s snow pack in the Pinos Altos Mountains and Silver City Range in the headwaters of Bear Creek. The combined runoff from that storm resulted a two-week flood at the Casitas that crested at 8 feet above normal level, and relocated the channel from the east side to the west side of the floodplain in front of the Casitas.

During most of the time period covered in this blog, half of the floodplain trails and the trail up Paradise Overlook Mountain on the east side of Bear Creek remained unreachable because of high water. All of the numerous trails along the west side of the floodplain below the Casitas, however, remained accessible, offering guests unique opportunities to experience up close and personal the magic, the many changes taking place, and insight into cause and effects of Nature’s unleashed power that were unfolding below their Casita on a daily basis.


snow along Bear Creek

Entering the grove of Gray Oaks by Bear Creek, the trail passes through a fantasy world of white lace on gnarled branches!

snow at Casitas de Gila

Along the trail heading down to Bear Creek and the cliffs beyond

No matter what the season, unexpected moments of Nature’s Magic are frequent at the Casitas for those who seek them, whether just sitting in front of the Casita on the edge of the Canyon gazing out at Bear Creek below and the mountainous Gila Wilderness beyond, or while answering the call of the ever-beckoning trails. In Spring, it might be the sudden encounter of a profusion of rare wild flowers blooming along one of the Casita trails. In Summer, the sudden flash flood from a monsoon thunderstorm surging across the Bear Creek floodplain is an awesome experience. In Fall, a brief flurry of golden Cottonwood leaves swirling to the ground along Bear Creek can cause one’s Spirit to soar. But come Winter’s cold, typically it is the magical rays of the Sun that stir one’s senses, be it those first rays of a frosty morning Sun breaking over Turtle Rock to illuminate a snow-covered wonderland, or the brilliance of the late afternoon Sun piercing through the maze of barren branches above to cast a kaleidoscope pattern of hard light and deep shadow over the floodplain path below.

This winter, the magic of the snow-covered wonderland came early Christmas morning, and for those guests who trekked out early on the trails before dawn, the magic was palpable at every turn. This was especially so down along Bear Creek where the snow created a fantasy world in high contrast black and white among the majestic trunks and tangled branches of the gnarled Gray Oak, Cottonwood, and Willow. However, on this Christmas morning, the Sun’s rays didn’t break over Turtle Rock as the clouds hung on until around ten o’clock before clearing slowly to reveal the gleaming soaring peaks of the Gila Wilderness mountains just to the north. During the following weeks, the Sun’s rays became an increasingly rare magical treat as the persistent jet stream continued to drag clouds and rain in from the Pacific, reminding the Casita hosts more and more of their seven-year sojourn in Southwest Ireland than of the normally ever-sunny Winter enchantment of Southwest New Mexico!

snow at the Casitas

Heading down the Corral Road to Bear Creek with Turtle Rock beyond

snow in southwest New Mexico

Over the Creek and through the Willows leads the trail to Paradise Mountain.

But while the Sun’s rays continued to play a mostly well-hidden game of hide and seek, down below the Casitas there was a rare form of Nature’s Magic taking place for those who would care to observe … the magic of Active Change within the Bear Creek floodplain.


The month-long duration of the Mid-Winter Deluge of 2016-17 provided an exceptional opportunity for interested Casita guests to observe and reach an understanding of the primary forces and processes of Nature that have acted overtime to create the Bear Creek Nature Preserve environment.


Stream channels and floodplains, by their very nature, are environments of constant physical change in terms of shape and location (geomorphology). This is due to the constantly fluctuating volume, velocity, and turbulence of stream water flow through time that causes the erosion, transport, and deposition of the loose sediment being carried downstream. Most of the time the changes are imperceptibly slow; at other times they can be extremely rapid, causing major change in a matter of hours. During the Midwinter Deluge of 2017 the stream channels and portions of the floodplain underwent major physical change largely because of the exceptional, month-long duration of a persistent rain and snowmelt runoff event.

Stream Gradient and Base Level

flooding creek in New Mexico

As the high water continued, both the bottom and sides of the channel were eroded, undercutting the Cottonwoods on the edge of the floodplain

It is the nature of all streams, rivers, and creeks, no matter what size or where they are located, to evolve towards a state of an equilibrium where there is neither erosion nor deposition of sediment within the channel of the flowing water. Factors inherent in achieving such a balance include the variables of volume, velocity and degree of turbulence of the flowing water, plus the gradient of the stream.

Stream gradient is a term that describes the grade or slope of the stream’s surface, and is a measurement of the drop in elevation of the stream’s surface over a horizontal distance. Stream gradient is typically stated in feet per mile or meters per kilometer. High gradient streams have a steep grade with greater velocities and turbulence within the flowing water, typically resulting in erosion of loose sediment from the bottom and the degradation or cutting down of the channel bottom. Conversely, low gradient streams have less slope with slower flowing water and less turbulence that typically results in deposition of transported sediment and aggradation of the channel bottom.

Bear Creek southwest New Mexico

Downstream at the southern end of Casita lands, as Bear Creek Canyon widens, so do the channel and floodplain, resulting in a lower gradient stream with deposition of finer-grained bed load and coarse suspended load

As the gradient of a stream approaches zero the stream is said to be approaching equilibrium at base level where all sediment transport and deposition ceases. Attainment of equilibrium along the course of a stream is rarely achieved for more than a brief span of time during periods of changing velocity or volume of water flow, exceptions being when the stream encounters a temporary base level, such as a stream flowing into a lake or reservoir. Ultimate base level is reached when a stream finally flows into the ocean.

Stream Sediment Transport

Sediment transport by running water in rivers, streams, or creeks, such as Bear Creek, occurs in two ways: as bed load where the coarse sediment (sand and gravel) maintains contact with the stream bottom by rolling, sliding, and skipping along the bottom (a process also known as saltation); and as suspended load where finer-grained sediment (sand, silt, and clay) are carried suspended by turbulence within the moving water column.

The unconsolidated fluvial sediment that makes up the channels, floodplain, and adjacent stream terraces of Bear Creek ranges from clay size particles less than 4 microns (.004 millimeters) in diameter to boulders up to 1 meter in diameter. The rate at which this sediment is transported downstream as bed load and suspended load varies greatly depending on the sediment size, the velocity and the turbulence of the moving water. In general, the larger the sediment particle, the slower it travels downstream.

Bear Creek Gila New Mexico

As the flood waters begin to recede, a coarse deposit of cobbles and boulders bed load is deposited on a gravel bar at the side of Bear Creek while the suspended load muddying the water continues downstream

Suspended load sediment is carried downstream at the velocity of the stream, which during flood stage on Bear Creek can move at rates of up to 20 miles an hour. The size of sediment particles carried in the suspended load is dependent on the velocity of the water plus the roughness of the stream bottom due to big rocks, roots, branches, etc., along the bottom and sides of the channel which create turbulence in the water column that acts to keep the sediment suspended.

In most years, the waters of Bear Creek within the Bear Creek Nature Preserve measure a few inches in depth and only 10 to 20 feet in breadth for about ten months out of the year; the water is crystal clear, and moves downstream at speeds of only a few feet per second. During such times, sediment transport and changes in the morphology of the stream channels and the adjacent floodplain are, to the casual observer, essentially non-existent. It is only upon very close examination that movement of fine-grained sediment as bed load can be observed along the bottom.



During the Midwinter Deluge Event, the flow of water in Bear Creek remained high, fluctuating between just remaining within the main stream channels with depths of 2 to 3 feet to occasionally overflowing the channels by an additional 1 to 2 feet and flowing out across the floodplain. While the velocity and volume of the water during the event were elevated, it was not just the velocity or volume of the flowing water that produced the major changes observed in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve during and following the event. In this case, it was the duration of the high water event, which persisted unabated at consistently elevated levels for more than a month. This produced many dramatic changes, including:

Gila, New Mexico, lodging

As high water erodes banks of the channel, floodplain trees topple in the Creek diverting the course of the channel

• Significant channel modification through erosion of channel banks and diversion of stream flow by the undercutting and toppling of trees along channel margin

• Initiation of new channel development and deepening of older high water channels across the floodplain

• Massive erosion, transportation, deposition, or relocation of vast tonnages of coarse bed load and suspended load sediments

• Selective suspension and removal of sand, silt, and clay sediment from the bottom and sides of stream channels due to high level turbulence within the fast moving water. Under these conditions, once this sediment was suspended it was carried downstream out of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve leaving behind channels that have been cut deeper by one to several feet and filled with coarse gravel and boulders.

Gila New Mexico

As floodwaters leave the channel and flow across the floodplain, new channels are cut, such as in this photo with the old channel on the right and the new channel that was started at high water on the left

Gila New Mexico

With only a few more floods, this new channel being cut into the floodplain will soon become the main channel; note the massive amounts of bed load and suspended load left behind by the receding waters

Gila New Mexico

By early February 2017, the flood waters had dropped significantly, revealing the active Bear Creek channel cut down about 2 feet with the sides and bottom lined with large coarse gravel, cobbles, and boulders deposited from the bed load; the sand, silt, and clay sediment having been selectively removed from the channel as suspended load and carried away downstream

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Fire Agate and Chalcedony


fire agate and chalcedony

Fire-agate and chalcedony collected at Black Hills Rockhound Area


physiographic regions of AZ

The three physiographic regions of Arizona: Colorado Plateau Region, Mogollon Rim Transition Zone which includes the Mogollon-Datil Volcanic Field, and the Basin and Range Province (Wikimedia Commons: Mortadelo 2005)

The Southwestern New Mexico and Southeastern Arizona Border Country offers some of the finest and most diverse rockhounding opportunities to be found anywhere in the Southwest. Semi-precious gems, minerals, and rocks of an extremely wide diversity can be found here, including white to pink chalcedony, fire agate, banded agate, red and yellow jaspers, carnelian, obsidian, geodes and thunder eggs, and banded rhyolites, as well as exotic copper minerals like turquoise, malachite, azurite, and chrysocolla. These are but a few of the treasures that can be hunted and collected here, scattered over the surface on many thousands of acres of public lands, as well as excellent specimens that can be dug from the tailings dumps at numerous abandoned gold, silver, and copper mines that operated in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The reason for this great abundance and diversity of collectable rocks and minerals is that the Southern New Mexico-Arizona border straddles a complex geological transition zone encompassing the eastern edge of the Basin and Range Province and the southwestern side of the Mogollon-Datil Volcanic Field at the southern end of the Colorado Plateau. During the Oligocene and Miocene Epochs of the Mid-Tertiary Period between 35 and 15 million years ago, this vast area in the American Southwest was the site of repeated episodes of extensive faulting, vulcanism, and extensive mineral vein intrusion, each of which are critical factors favoring the formation of unique and desirable specimens sought by the avid rockhound. Situated just 30 miles east of the New Mexico-Arizona border, Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is located in the heart of this rockhounding paradise. As such, no matter which direction one takes from the Casitas on a single day’s outing, there are excellent collecting sites to be discovered.


fire agate

An exceptional piece of high grade fire agate in the rough from Slaughter Mountain, AZ, showing beautiful fire agate just beneath an enclosing layer of semi-transparent chalcedony (Wikimedia Commons: Maricopa Mining LLC )

One of the semi-precious stones most highly sought after by rockhound guests staying at the Casitas is fire agate. Fire agate is a type of chalcedony (SiO2) which contains multiple, extremely thin layers of the iron oxide minerals of Goethite (FeO(OH)) and Limonite (FeO(OH)·nH20) imbedded within, and commonly completely enclosed by, semi-transparent to translucent layers of cryptocrystalline chalcedony. When cut and polished down to the layers containing the iron oxides, the stone displays a metallic, shimmering iridescence known as the Schiller Effect, where light is reflected and refracted off the various layers containing the Goethite and Limonite iron oxides to give the exquisite play of colors—or “fire”—for which the gemstone is named. Colors displayed by the “fire” vary greatly, the most common being shades of orangish brown, but also all shades and tones of yellow, orange, red, and green, and more rarely, purples and blues.


Semi-transparent and translucent chalcedony as collected at Black Hills Rockhound area February 10, 2016

Pure chalcedony, while composed of only cryptocrystalline SiO2, is actually a very fine intergrowth of two separate minerals, quartz and moganite, which have the same chemical composition but differ in their crystal structure. In the New Mexico-Arizona border country, chalcedony is typically found in shades of translucent white to pink and light grays and blues. It commonly displays a waxy luster and botryoidal texture.


The fire agate and chalcedony of the Southern New Mexico–Arizona border area is formed when low pressure and low temperature epithermal hydrothermal waters (50°-200°C / 122°-392°F) carrying colloidal SiO2 and iron oxides are injected into cavities in volcanic rocks such as gas bubbles in flow rocks, irregular-shaped vug fillings, or along fault or bedding plane fractures. Deposition of the chalcedony can take place by the slow buildup of numerous thin layers over an extended time from watery fluids, or rapidly all at one time from viscous silica gels, which appear to have had a viscosity of tooth paste … an extremely hot tooth paste! The May 27, 2014 Blog “Seeking Chalcedony and Jasper in Southwest New Mexico” includes numerous photos on the various forms and shapes of chalcedony and fire agate that have been found at or near the Casitas over the years, and presents more details on their various modes of formation.


The Black Hills Rockhound Area is located in Arizona, 50 miles west of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, just off US Highway 191, about 13 miles west of the crossroads community of Three Way and 19 miles east of Safford, Arizona. The site is a designated rockhound area on BLM (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) land, and is open to the public year round.


The drive from the Casitas to the Black Hills Area takes about 1.5 hours, traveling on excellent highways that pass through some of the most scenic mountain country in Southwestern New Mexico and Southeastern Arizona. From the Casitas, the route goes northwest on US 180 through a High Chihuahuan Desert landscape affording magnificent views of the Mogollon Mountains before turning west on NM 78 through the incredibly beautiful Mule Creek Country.

Mule Creek Country, New Mexico

Looking east to the Mogollon Mountains in the Gila Wilderness across the rolling grassland of Mule Creek Country just off State Road 78

Notable for having some of the finest ranch land in Southern New Mexico, the Mule Creek area is a mile-high landscape of rolling grasslands offset by a sparse scattering of Alligator Juniper trees. After passing through the tiny community of Mule Creek — don’t blink or you’ll miss it! — the road immediately enters the Gila National Forest where it begins a gradual six-mile climb over the northern extent of the Burro Mountains before crossing into Arizona and entering the Apache National Forest at an elevation of 6,000 feet.

High Sonoral Desert view

Looking southwest across High Sonoran Desert from the overlook on State Road 78, 5.6 miles into Arizona from the New Mexico-Arizona border. From this overlook at an elevation of 6,250 feet the road descends 2,650 feet over the next 14 miles to the small community of Three Way, Arizona, on the Gila River. The 10,696-foot peak of Mt. Graham commands the center skyline 52 miles in the distance.

For the next 5.6 miles the road winds through a Ponderosa-shaded mountain roadway within the Apache National Forest before reaching an amazing overlook and parking area at the edge of a major topographic, physiographic, geologic, biologic, and ecologic boundary that marks the abrupt transition from the southwestern extent of the High Chihuahuan Desert of the Mogollon-Datil Volcanic Field into the eastern edge of the High Sonoran Desert of the Basin and Range Province. The westward view from this overlook affords a marvelous long-distance view into the Sonoran Desert Country within the Basin and Range Province of Arizona, with the 10,696 foot towering presence of Mt. Graham looming 52 miles to the west.

Leaving the lookout parking area at an elevation of 6,250 feet, the highway descends rapidly through a series of switchbacks and a distance of 4 miles some 1,200 feet down the face of a west-facing escarpment, leaving behind the flora and fauna of the High Chihuahuan Desert and entering the totally different natural world of the High Sonoran Desert. Upon reaching the base of the steep escarpment, Highway 78 continues a downward but more gradual descent of another 1,400 feet in elevation over the next 10 miles to arrive at Three Way, Arizona, at elevation of 3,600 feet. The change in landscape, both topographically, geologically, biologically and ecologically over this 14 mile stretch of highway is both dramatic and amazing and for most travelers will be remembered as one highlight of the day’s journey.

entrance to Black Hills Rockhound Area

Entrance sign at U.S Highway 191 for BLM’s Black Hills Rockhound Area

At Three Way, Highway 78 ends and the journey continues straight ahead on U.S. Highway 191 to once again cross the Gila River and for the next 13 miles passes through a fascinating Sonoran Desert landscape of weathered and dissected volcanic hills, mountainous ridges, mesas, and sharp pinnacles or buttes, almost all of which is public BLM or State of Arizona land. At mile marker 141.6, a sign on the right (north) side of the road marks the entrance road to the Black Hills Rockhound Area.

Turning in off the highway, a well-maintain gravel road is followed for two miles to a parking area where another sign informs the visitor that they are at the center of the Black Hills Fire Agate deposit, and further states that while small pieces of fire agate can be found on the surface, large pieces will have to be dug for! Translation of BLM wordage: “the big pieces have already been picked up by somebody else before you got here.” But don’t be put off: there are still tons of collectable material out there … somewhere!



Black Hills Rockhound Area

Every year during the Summer Monsoon Season intense thunderstorms expose, transport, and deposit new fire agate and chalcedony for collecting as heavy rain runoff rushes down from the higher regions of the Black Hills Rockhound Area to the lowlands below

Black Hills Rockhound Area

Looking west from the prominent ridge on north side of fire agate deposit towards the parking area at Black Hills Rockhound area in center of photo, 2 miles in from US Highway 191

The Black Hills Rockhound Area is one of two designated fire agate localities on BLM land in Southeastern Arizona, the other being the Round Mountain Rockhound Area, some 27 miles to the southeast near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Both of these areas are well known and receive many visitors each year. Because of this, one might wonder if there is any material left to be collected. Actually this is not a problem for two reasons: the first being that the area at the Black Hills site where fire agate and chalcedony can be found is vast, comprising thousands of acres of public BLM land surrounding the main collecting area, some of which comprises incredibly rough and steep terrain which is rarely visited. The second reason is that because of the heavy rainfall the area receives during the annual Summer Monsoon thunderstorm rains, which can exceed 2 to 3 inches in a half hour, fire agate and chalcedony buried beneath of surface of the ground is constantly being uncovered and exposed by high energy flash flood runoff every year. Proof of this process of replenished collectable material is the fact that over the past 18 years no Casita guests visiting the area have ever returned empty handed!

Are some areas better to look than others? Of course! And in that respect, rockhounding is much like fishing:. experience and understanding of the quarry counts! And so, it is in that context that the following brief geologic overview is offered as an aid to knowing where to look for the Black Hills fire agate and chalcedony. After reading this, however, it must always be kept in mind when setting out for a day of rockhounding, that just like it is in fishing, there will always be the occasional great day, many good days, and those other days where, well, it was certainly a nice day for being out in the desert connecting with nature! But, then, isn’t that at least half of the fun anyway?


welded tuff bedrock cliffs

Close up of pyroclastic rhyolite ash fall welded tuff bedrock forming massive resistant cliffs at east end of ridge north of parking area

barrel cactus

Outcrop of broken angular blocks of andesite bedrock showing abundant gas bubbles near west end of ridge east of parking area. The large cactus is the Barrel Cactus, a common plant of the High Sonoran Desert.

The geology of the Black Hills Area is not very complex. Basically, there are two main volcanic rock types of Mid-Tertiary age (Oligocene to Middle Miocene or 30 to 15 million years ago) which make up the bedrock that crops out at the surface on the tops of the hills, ridges, and small mountains that surround the Black Hills parking area. These rock types consist of 1) dark gray to reddish gray andesite lava flow rock that is deposited in a sequence of essentially horizontal layers, many of which contain abundant gas bubbles, and 2) gray to light tan, silica rich, rhyolite pyroclastic ash flow or ash fall welded tuff that overlies or is interbedded with the andesite flow rock. The andesite flow rock is the host rock for the fire-agate and chalcedony which, as explained above, forms over time through secondary deposition from hydrothermal waters containing colloidal silica and iron oxide colloids that slowly fill or are injected into cavities such as gas bubbles, irregular shaped vugs, and thin veins within the andesite flow deposits. In most cases the overall volume percentage of chalcedony and fire agate that forms within the flow rock is extremely small — much less than 1%, although examination of the vertical sequence of the Black Hill andesite deposits does show that certain layers or levels do contain more void space and hence higher concentrations of chalcedony and fire agate than others.

black hills rockhound area

Both andesite and rhyolite ash fall welded tuff bedrock occur along the top of the ridge north of parking area. In this photo weathered and disintegrating blocks of andesite comprise the foreground on left, and the high promontories on far right horizon, and rhyolite welded tuff constitutes the cliffs in middle distant horizon.

Massive cliffs and large broken blocks of andesite flow rock and rhyolite welded tuff bedrock comprise the tops of a low ridge lying about a half mile to the north of the designated parking area in the center of the Black Hills Fire Agate area. On the sides of this ridge, below and surrounding the solid rock outcrops, are loose accumulations of smaller broken rock, coarse rock debris, and soil that is in the process of being carried downslope from the rock outcrops.

Andesite is composed of a high concentration of feldspar and other minerals which over time will break down physically and chemically decompose to form an unconsolidated mineral soil of clay minerals and fine rock particles, thereby releasing the contained fire agate and chalcedony which retains its original size and shape because SiO2 minerals are very stable and inert to weathering and chemical decomposition at the Earth’s surface.

Following this breakdown of the andesite bedrock, the processes of gravity, wind (desert pavement), and running water in the form of flash floods, acting over thousands of years, will carry the altered and disintegrated clay particles, fine rock debris, and the fire agate and chalcedony further and further downslope and away from the bedrock to be redeposited in and over the surrounding lowlands, flats, valleys, and washes.

black hills rockhound area

As weathering of the andesite bedrock continues over time, the bedrock and large blocks of andesite found higher up on the ridge are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces and loose mineral soil which are gradually transported further and further downslope by Monsoon rain runoff. Here, on the lower slopes well below the ridge east of the parking lot an abundance of Prickly Pear Cactus indicates the presence of an increased percentage of fine sediment and mineral soil plus accompanying retention of ground moisture. Note also the numerous small white rocks in the foreground. These are pieces of white chalcedony that also become concentrated on the lower slopes through the breakdown of the andesite bedrock.

Gradually, this process will produce a thick, wedge shaped deposit of successive layers of transported sedimentary material surrounding the bedrock core of the ridge. Since the clay and finest rock particles are selectively carried furthest away by the periodic flash flood runoff from the source bedrock upslope, a concentration or lag deposit of the larger rock fragments and, of most interest to rockhounds, the physically and chemically inert pieces of chalcedony and fire agate, accumulates over the ground surface following each successive flash flood coming off the surrounding the uplands. Successive floods will, of course, bury previously deposited layers of the concentrated fire agate and chalcedony as the erosion of the bedrock upslope on the ridge continues and the wedge shaped deposits surrounding the ridge thicken.

The important result of this process is, of course, that the concentration of fire agate and chalcedony which was less than 1% in the original solid host rock may now be increased many times over in the loose, unconsolidated sediments and mineral soil, which in addition to being picked up on the surface can be successfully recovered by digging with pick and shovel.

Naturally, the big question of course is: Where does one dig? Hopefully, the above discussion offers some clues as to where to begin, and your hosts at the Casitas will be pleased to offer additional suggestions if asked. However, it must be kept in mind that it is this very same question that has perplexed every prospector in the American Southwest for over a hundred years, and in most cases it is only after much personal experience and perseverance that Mother Nature will even consider beginning to answer the question. So in the meantime, good luck in your quest and enjoy the chase!

looking for fire agate

On the hunt for the reclusive and elusive fire agate amongst the Ocotillo and Prickly Pear Cactus at Black Hills Rockhound area

lunch time!

A welcome lunch break in the shade of the rhyolite welded tuff cliffs at the top of the ridge


As further proof that there is still lots of good fire agate and chalcedony to be found at the Black Hills Rockhound Area, the following photos represent the best of the “Day’s Catch” over a four-hour period by your Casitas’ hosts on a beautiful early Spring day in February 2016.

fire agate in chalcedony

A large piece of fire agate encased in translucent chalcedony

fire agate

No two pieces of fire agate in the rough are the same

fire agate

Only through grinding and polishing of this fire agate in the rough can the underlying beauty be revealed

fire agate

Fire agate is often encased in thick layers of semi-transparent to opaque chalcedony

fire agate chalcedony

Pure chalcedony can take on a variety of shapes and forms, such as this strange frog-like little creature perched on this fragment of weathered andesite¬


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