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

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Fall Color in Southwest New Mexico

Color, Light and Shadow Amongst the Floodplain Cottonwoods and Sycamores

fall color in southwest new mexico
Cottonwoods in Peak Fall color on Bear Creek in front of Casitas de Gila, looking north to Turtle Rock and Gila Wilderness beyond

fall color at Casitas de Gila
In like form, about five miles north of the Casitas, within the Upper Box of the Gila River floodplain in the Gila National Forest, golden Cottonwoods arch into a deepening cobalt sky
Bear Creek fall color
On the Bear Creek floodplain below the Casitas, a grove of mature Cottonwoods catch the last rays of the setting Sun

Each year between the last two weeks of October and the first two weeks in November, visitors to Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are treated to the annual visual feast of color, light, and shadow along the floodplains of Bear Creek in front of the Casitas and at the nearby Gila River Riparian Preserve in the Gila National Forest.

fall color along Bear Creek near Silver City
In early morning light a small Velvet Ash in peak color casts long shadows beneath a towering Cottonwood on the Bear Creek floodplain below the Casitas
fall color along Bear Creek near Silver City
Looking down from the Casitas to the Bear Creek floodplain, deepening shadows gradually extinguish the light on the Cottonwoods and Sycamores ablaze in the last rays of the setting Sun

By Late October and Early November, the bright cerulean-blue skies of Summer are in transition to the deeper cobalt blues of Winter as the Sun arcs ever closer to the southern horizon. At this time the deep verdant greens of the dense riverine forest of Cottonwood, Sycamore, Willow, Ash, and Walnut are transformed into an evolving kaleidoscopic display of varying shades and tones of yellow, orange, red, brown, and purple as each of the species responds in its own way to the increasingly colder nighttime rivers of air that flow down into the canyons from the lofty mountain peaks of the Gila Wilderness to the north.

late afternoon light on Bear Creek in New Mexico
Late afternoon on Bear Creek, just upstream from the cliffs, November 11, 2014
early morning light on Bear Creek in New Mexico
Early morning on Bear Creek, just upstream from the cliffs, November 12, 2015

Depending on the year, the time of transition from first coloring to that final blaze of glory for each of the species can be prolonged or remarkably all-too-short depending on the vagaries of temperature, precipitation, wind, and controlling weather systems. This year the change was gradual and prolonged in response to a strong El Niño weather pattern dominating over the southwest, bringing milder temperatures and above-normal precipitation.

fall along the Gila River
Late afternoon in the Upper Box of the Gila River, November 18, 2015; this is the exact same scene as photo on left, but one week later, and what a difference! By this date the leaves of the Cottonwoods and Sycamores are now at their peak
fall along the Gila River in New Mexico
Late afternoon in the Upper Box of the Gila River, November 11, 2015; at this date the Cottonwoods and Sycamores are about halfway to reaching full color

One of the greatest joys of living surrounded by nature at the Casitas is the opportunity to visit and observe the same sites along Bear Creek and the Gila River on a frequent daily basis throughout the year and at different times of the day. Typically, the changes are slow, the change measured in weeks. However, come Fall and the coloring of the leaves, the changes are measured in days, especially towards the end of this month-long process. At this time the rate of change gradually accelerates to literally overnight transformation as Mother Nature completes her annual tapestry in color and signs it with an artistic flourish.

southwest New Mexico fall color
Looking east down the trail leading into Bear Creek Canyon below the Casitas on an early November afternoon; North and South Peak in the background. The white rock at the top of the cliffs directly above the top of the big Cottonwood is a large boulder of welded ash flow tuff, most likely placed there as a way-marker by the Apaches who traveled Bear Creek frequently.

Cottonwoods (Populus fremontii) are typically the dominant floodplain tree along Southwest New Mexico rivers and creeks. When their fall colors are at their peak, Bear Creek Canyon and the nearby Gila River Valley are literally transformed into rivers of gold. Taking a quiet walk within a mature grove of floodplain Cottonwoods on a warm afternoon at this time of year is to experience the essence of the Old Southwest, of times long ago when most of these river and creek valleys served as the primary trails and early roadways for the peoples of the Prehistoric and Pioneer Southwest. To pause and sit beneath one of these ancient Cottonwoods in the pervading silence will only heighten the experience … listen to the wind rustling high above in the upper branches; watch as the golden leaves spiral down to coat the canyon floor, their trunks reflecting in the still waters of the creek. Remain there for a longer time and perhaps the snapping of twigs will herald the approach of a trio of young Mule Deer, or possibly a furtive Bobcat on its way for a drink at the creek …

fall color in southwest new mexico
Cottonwood trunks reflecting in Bear Creek near the cliffs
cottonwoods and sycamores in fall color
Cottonwoods and Sycamores at the peak of Fall color on the Gila River floodplain in the Upper Box of the Gila; it is said that Watson Mountain in the background was a favorite stronghold of the Apache Chief Geronimo

Be assured that Mangas Coloradas, Geronimo, Victorio, Naiche, and the other Apache chiefs and their people passed where you sit on such an afternoon not all that long ago, for this was their homeland … the heart of Apacheria. And a few hundred years before the Apache, the Mogollon People were harvesting their crops of maize, squash, and beans on the first terrace above the floodplain, perhaps just across the stream from you. It is reported that for some people, their presence is still sensed here.

ancient sycamore on Gila River
A magnificent ancient Sycamore on the Gila River floodplain in the Upper Box of the Gila; it is highly likely that Geronimo passed near this tree on his way upstream to his Watson Mountain stronghold

Once the Cottonwoods pass their peak of color, the Sycamores (Platanus wrightii) then emerge in striking visual accent and counterpoint from the mass of Cottonwood Gold, their russet-red star-shaped leaves and bone-white trunks and limbs set against the cobalt blue sky. For the photographer or landscape painter the sycamores are a special delight, particularly when their reddish leaves and white branches are reflected in the waters of the passing stream.

sycamores along the Gila River
Two young Sycamores in peak Fall foliage on Bear Creek floodplain, November 18, 2015; note the tall Cottonwoods in background with golden leaves only remaining in uppermost branches at 50 to 60 feet, their lower leaves having turned and fallen earlier due to the much colder air flowing down the canyon at floodplain level
sycamore leaves
Large and small Sycamore leaves and a few Willow leaves with a bright green accent of watercress in a quiet pool along Bear Creek

winter sycamore in Southwest New Mexico
Another flood-battered Sycamore in Elliot Canyon off Lower Little Dry Creek; note the height of battering on trunk on right, and the 3+ foot red rhyolite boulder wedged in between trunks. Sycamores are indeed the Warrior Giants of the floodplain forest.
magnificant winter sycamore in New Mexico
A magnificent old and flood-battered Sycamore in Elliot Canyon off Lower Little Dry Creek

On some creeks, such as the lower reaches of Little Dry Creek a few miles upstream from its junction with the San Francisco River, Sycamores are the dominant floodplain tree, replacing most, if not all, of the Cottonwoods. The reason for this change is readily discerned in the gnarled and battered appearance of their trunks and lower branches. For where Sycamores are found to dominate, one quickly observes that these are high gradient, high energy creeks; creeks that are often the scene of raging floods and flash floods that stem from Springtime melting snows and Summer Monsoon thunderstorms in the nearby soaring mountains.

Torrential floods transport large volumes of coarse sediment and gravel. Often they carry boulders as big as small cars that crash into the Sycamores, gouging big holes in their trunks, and occasionally washing or tearing away all of their roots, causing them to fall. But many Sycamores can stand this perennial onslaught of Nature and grow to great size and age. Sycamores are much tougher and harder than Cottonwoods, which, even if by chance were to germinate and start growing here in these rocky canyons during a cycle of years of less severe flooding, would be quickly eliminated when the big floods occur.

Sycamore root with boulders
Closeup of Warrior Giant Sycamore in process of digesting rhyolite boulders!

Frequently, one of these ancient and gnarled Sycamores will be observed growing around and beginning to encapsulate one of these huge flood-carried boulders. Often it appears as if the tree is in the process of digesting the boulder. Oh yes, these deep canyon Sycamores are without a doubt the Warrior Giants of the floodplain forest, and they proudly display their battle scars for all who choose to pass here as proof of their prowess.

Velvet Ash in Southwest New Mexico
A beautiful Velvet Ash in a drywash near the Casitas in full Fall foliage

Along the banks of calmer creeks, such as Bear Creak, a variety of Willows (Salix sp.), Velvet Ash (Fraxinus velutina), and Arizona Walnut (Juglans major) grow to more modest size in comparison to the Cottonwoods and Sycamores. These smaller shrubs and trees present a variety of colors from yellow to orange and red to purple which provide both visual harmony and counterpoint accents to the larger and taller Cottonwoods and Sycamores. These trees almost always color and lose their leaves earlier because of their closeness to the floodplain floor where the cold nighttime air flowing down the canyons is often 10 to 15 degrees colder than the upper branches of the floodplain Cottonwoods and Sycamores.


Gila River floodplain
Where the Ancient Ones Once Tread: Floodplain Cottonwoods in the Upper Box of the Gila
Gila River fall trees
Fall in the Upper Box of the Gila. Looking upstream at the junction of Mogollon Creek and the Gila River; Watson Mountain in the background

Over time, as one becomes familiar with the various segments of a particular creek or river, one eventually will come to recognize some “special places” — unique places where the balance and harmony of Nature’s landscape is perfect in every aspect. These are the uncommon places for which the Naturalist, photographer, or landscape painter blindly seek, but instantly know when encountered — places that cannot be summoned or set up, but, at that moment, just are.

sycamores along the Gila River
Looking downstream, Sycamores in the Upper Box of the Gila River, November 11, 2015
sycamores along Gila River
Looking downstream, Sycamores in the Upper Box of the Gila River, November 18, 2015

Sycamore in fall color along Gila River
Floodplain Sycamore, Upper Box of the Gila River, November 18, 2015

A few of these places have an extended timelessness in which their specialness prevails and can be savored slowly again and again; however, most do not. No, for most of such places, this ineffable specialness is fleeting, often measured in mere minutes as the play of light and shadow transforms the common into a brief perception of the Divine. These are the true treasures of Nature, and in Southwest New Mexico during those few weeks of Fall Enchantment from Late October to Mid November is when they are most likely to be found … and they wait for you here every year.

Fall in the Upper Box of the Gila, New Mexico
A late Fall evening in the Upper Box of the Gila River,­ November 18, 2015