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

Spring Birding and Migration



zone-tailed hawk and nest

Zone-tailed Hawk and nest


Over the past week, it was obvious that the Seasons have cycled once more. Looking down into Bear Creek Canyon from the porch of the Casitas both the Freemont Cottonwoods and the Bluestem Willows have awakened, their green and yellow catkins glistening in the bright morning sun, now all abuzz with bees and other insects.

budding cottonwoods on Bear Creek

Budding Cottonwoods on Bear Creek

bluestem willow catkins

Bluestem Willow Catkins

As anticipated in February’s blog, the above-average late Winter snow and rain have indeed brought out an abundance of numerous species of early February and March wildflowers, and now April wildflowers blanket the ground around the Casitas.

Gordon's Bladderwort

Gordon’s Bladderwort along Casita Flats Road

Stemless Evening Primrose

Stemless Evening Primrose in bloom

golden smoke flower

Close-up of Golden Smoke flower

It is afternoon and while hiking down along Bear Creek, one comes upon one of the Casitas’ almost-year-round residents, just returned from its unknown Winter getaway: a Great Blue Heron, standing motionless in the Creek. Sensing one’s presence, the heron quickly snatches a minnow at its feet, and then silently rises, gliding away upstream.

Canyon Tree Frog

Later, shortly after dark, one goes outside and hears again a sound that just two nights ago greeted one’s ears for the first time this year. It is a delightful yet primeval sound, one that over the years has proven to be the most definitive and reliable proof of Spring’s arrival here at the Casitas: the joyful chorus of a multitude of Canyon Tree Frogs passionately engaged in a performance of their annual Spring mating call concert, a performance that one knows will be repeated in early July with the onset of the Monsoon Season.

sandhill cranes

Sandhill Cranes

black-chinned hummingbird

Black-Chinned Hummingbird

Over the past two weeks the bird populations here at Casitas de Gila, the Bear Creek Nature Preserve, and the nearby Gila River have also undergone dramatic change. Many of the Winter birds, from the stoic Sand Hill Cranes to the flocks of gregarious Dark-eyed Juncos, have either left the area or are in the process of leaving. While at the same time our regular Spring and Summer birds, from soaring Common Blackhawks and Turkey Vultures to darting Black-chinned Hummingbirds and Violet-green Swallows, to night-time murmuring Common Poorwills, are arriving daily. For Casitas de Gila’s birding guests, Spring migration is showtime! Just this week, while visiting one of the eight dedicated public birding sites along the Gila River, just a few miles from the Casitas, four of our guests enjoyed seeing two magnificent male and one female Vermillion Flycatchers!

Vermillion Flycatcher

Vermillion Flycatcher


zone-tailed hawk

Zone-tailed Hawk

To the delight of our birding guests, during the past week a mating pair of Zone-tailed Hawks have been building a very large nest in the top of the large, ancient Arizona Sycamore that grows up against the high cliffs of Gila Conglomerate on the other side of Bear Creek, directly across from, and in unobstructed view of, the Casitas. It was a special treat for a few days as our guests watched through their spotting scope as the two birds selected dead branches for their nest from shrubs on the adjacent cliffs during the morning and afternoon. Over the coming weeks these nesting hawks should provide lots of on-going entertainment for incoming birding guests.

Welcome Lady Spring! Welcome!


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Spring Wildflowers

At Casitas de Gila Guesthouses in Southwest New Mexico


Will Casitas de Gila Guesthouses see a Return of the
Elusive-Yet-Magnificent Doubting Mariposa Lily?


Doubting Mariposa Lily

The Magnificent Doubting Mariposa Lily — last seen in 2015

Typically, Spring wildflowers at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses begin to appear in protected sunny areas during the last half of February, with a peak in late March or April, and a decrease in May with the onset of the dry season. Species diversity and relative abundance of Spring flowering plants in Southwest New Mexico are primarily controlled by the amount of precipitation and average temperature during December, January, and February. As explained in the Casita Nature Blog of January 2015, these factors are strongly controlled by the cyclical pattern of the warm versus cool phases of equatorial surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, known as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), where the warm phase, El Niño, results in warmer temperatures and more precipitation, and the cool phase, La Niña, results in cooler temperatures and less precipitation.

During the Winter of 2014-15, Southwestern New Mexico was experiencing a weak El Niño phase with an exceptional and well-above-average amount of precipitation in the form of both snow and rain. During December 2014 and January and February 2015, Casitas de Gila received a total of 3.72 inches of precipitation (which included the exceptional seven-inch snowstorm of January 2, 2015). As a result, with the coming of Spring in 2015, guests at the Casitas were treated to an amazing extravagance and profusion of common, as well as rarely seen, wildflowers, such as the magnificent Doubting Mariposa Lily that emerged between early March and late May. This spectacular flowering of Spring 2015 had not been witnessed in the 14 years of previous operation of the Casitas de Gila. Nor has it been repeated since. The flowering was so spectacular that two separate blogs were written at the time to celebrate the event. Readers of this blog will find most of these flowers identified, discussed, and profusely photographed in the March 2015 and April 2015 blogs.



It is with this background, then, that we can turn to the prognosis for wildflowers for Spring 2019. Climatic factors prevailing during the Winter months of 2018-19 continue to closely match the climatic factor experienced during the same period of 2014-15.


Primary Climatic Factors Affecting Spring Wildflowers in Southwest New Mexico


Total precipitation at Casitas de Gila so far this Winter (December 2018 thru February 23, 2019), which includes an 8-inch snowstorm on December 28 and a 5-inch snowfall on January 1 and 2, totals 3.42 inches, comparing closely to the 3.72 inches received for the same period in 2015.

El Niño Southern Oscillation

In addition to the precipitation similarities, other regional climate factors for December, January, and February for 2014-15 and 2018-19 are also very similar, such as the phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The ENSO, as recorded on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Oceanic Niño Index (ONI), for both time periods shows the presence of a weak El Niño phase which favors more moisture in the Southwest during the Winter months.

Jet Stream Patterns

Integrally related to the ENSO phase for any given year in the Southwest are the prevailing atmospheric patterns of the Jet Streams. The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), manifests as irregular variations in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical equatorial eastern Pacific Ocean. These varying winds and temperatures, in turn, interact with and affect the major currents of air encircling the Earth in the Northern Hemisphere known as the Jet Stream. The Jet Stream consists of two distinct, rapidly-moving masses of air that encircle the Earth in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres at elevations of 30,000 to 50,000 feet. In each hemisphere there is both a Polar Jet and a Sub-Tropical Jet. These two currents of air vary in position and pattern along with the seasons, and in the Northern Hemisphere are closely tied to the ENSO phenomena, as shown below from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

typical Jan-Mar weather anomalies

This image shows the pattern that is normally experienced in the Southwest for El Niño jet streams during January-March. However, in recent years the Southwest has repeatedly experienced a much different, anomalous pattern which is well illustrated by the Winters of 2014-15 and 2018-19. In this anomalous pattern, the Polar Jet Stream repeatedly dips down from the Arctic in a southward loop along the West Coast of the United States, dragging with it embedded, moisture laden, low pressure systems which intersect and combine with the eastward moisture laden flow of the Pacific Jet Stream, resulting in above-average rain and snowfall to the Southwest. This recurrent jet stream pattern is illustrated below in three Archived Jet Stream Maps as produced by the Department of Earth and Climate Sciences at San Francisco State University. As can be seen in these maps, the Jet Stream pattern in the Southwest for the Winter of 2018-19. continues to be virtually the same as that of 2014-15.

jet stream map for February 26, 2015

Jet Stream Map for February 26, 2015

jet stream map for 12/28/18

Jet Stream Map for December 2, 2018; Casitas de Gila received 8 inches of snow (approximately 0.8 inches rain)

jet stream map for 2/5/19

Jet Stream Map for February 5, 2019; Casitas de Gila received 0.32 inches rain

Effect of Cloud Cover Upon Ground Moisture Retention

A final climatic factor which greatly affects the abundance of Spring Wildflowers in the Southwest is the amount of cloud cover during the December–March Winter season. As discussed above, La Niña years are dry and cold in the Southwest. But in stark comparison to more cloudy El Niño years, La Niña years are also characterized by endless cloudless days of crystal clear, cobalt blue skies, illuminated by an incredibly brilliant Southwest Sun. As would be expected, all of these sunny days quickly evaporate most of the scant moisture that might fall during the La Niña Winter months, but are also very effective at drawing out moisture retained in the soil left over from the previous Summer monsoon and rainfall during the Fall. Thus, La Niña years typically have a much lower ground moisture content going into Spring than the wetter and cloudier El Niño years, which leads to a much reduced showing of both numbers and species of wildflowers.

Days of increased cloud cover always accompany the arrival of moisture-bearing low pressure weather systems. Thus, greater precipitation, cloud cover, and consequently increased ground moisture retention, are to be expected during Winter seasons such as 2014-15 and 2018-19 where the Polar Jet Stream with embedded low pressure systems repeatedly drop down into the Southwest to merge with the moisture laden Pacific Jet Stream.



In this Blog both the 2014-15 and 2018-19 Winter seasons have been shown to be extremely similar with regards to all of the climatic factors, which would favor a Spring wildflower showing of exceptional abundance and diversity. Assuming that there are no great changes in the climatic factors during the coming month, guests at Casitas de Gila during March through May are highly likely to witness a bountiful repeat of the exceptional 2015 Spring Wildflower florescence!


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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.


fall foliage near Silver City

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.

winter snow in the Gila

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.

hiking in the gila wilderness

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


darkest skies in united states

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.

stargazing in the gila wilderness

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.

blue stem willows new mexico

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.

birdwatching in the gila wilderness

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.

hot springs in the gila wilderness

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.

hiking in the gila wilderness

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

rocky mountain bighorn sheep in new mexico

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.

wild turkeys in the gila wilderness

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

great horned owls in the gila wilderness

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.

hiking in the Gila National Forest

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!

rainbow in southwest new mexico

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


lodging in silver city area

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

portrait of Rene Decartes

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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Guesthouses • Art Gallery • Nature Preserve


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

©2019 Casitas de Gila, Inc. • Updated February 2019

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