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



winter solstice sunrise

Winter Solstice sunrise on south side of South Peak, across from the Casitas


Guests that return to Casitas de Gila Guesthouses at different times of the year will observe, while sitting in front of their Casita watching the Sunrise, that the Sun comes up at different places along the mountainous skyline above Bear Creek. In mid to late June the sun will pop up repeatedly and predictably for a few days from the same place behind Turtle Rock at the north end of the skyline. Then, as Summer fades and transitions into Early Fall, this anticipated shaft of Dawn’s first light begins its annual, steady, southward migration, arriving at the middle of the skyline in late September. Without pausing, the southward journey of Sunrise continues for another three months until late December, when it finally comes to its southern-most point of emergence near the top of South Peak. Then, after a few days respite when it will be seen to rise in the same place, this first light of Sunrise will begin once more to trace its six-month-long journey northward along the skyline to finally again emerge from behind Turtle Rock.

This observed seasonal progression of Sunrise is, of course, as most of us were taught so long ago, due to the annual, year-long cyclical progression of the Solstices, from Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice and then return. The Solstices, along with the Equinoxes, mark the passage of the Seasons and the progression of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. Because the Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted at an angle of about 23.44° relative to its orbital plane about the Sun, the angle at which the Sun’s rays strike the earth varies as the Earth proceeds in its orbit. Hence, for a person who enjoys sipping tea every morning while waiting for Sunrise at the Casitas, over a year’s time, and about 46 gallons of tea, she or he will observe that the exact position of Sunrise will shift back and forth with the Seasons along the mountainous horizon to the East, covering a horizontal distance of about 0.8 of a mile between Turtle Rock and South Peak.

winter solstice sunrise

Track of Sunrise: Progression of sunrise south from Summer Solstice at Turtle Rock (far left) South to Winter Solstice on south side of South Peak (far right)

At Summer Solstice on either June 20 or 21 (the date varies with the year), the Northern Hemisphere’s rotational axis of the Earth is tilted most directly towards the Sun. As a result, this day has the greatest number of hours of daylight in the year, with the Sun at its highest point above the horizon overhead at noon and observed rising to the northeast, over Turtle Rock. On Winter Solstice, which falls on either December 21 or 22, the earth’s axis and the Casitas are now turned the farthest away from the Sun, resulting in the fewest hours of daylight of the year, with the Sun at its lowest point above the horizon at noon, and observed rising to the southeast, over South Peak.


flag of New Mexico

Flag of New Mexico

Sunlight is magical in New Mexico. Its imprint upon the landscape and its inhabitants is sacred, legendary, and unique. To the ancient Native American Pueblo cultures of New Mexico, the Sun and its rays of life-giving and life-sustaining light were of central and sacred importance in their religion and cosmology, as so beautifully exemplified by the Zia Sun Symbol of the Zia Pueblo, which since 1924 has been honored as the central image in the New Mexico State Flag.

Indeed, it was the sight of the golden rays of the setting Sun illuminating the adobe walls of the Hawikuh Pueblo of the Zuni people in Northwestern New Mexico that convinced the Spanish priest Padre Marcos de Niza, on his expedition of 1539, that he had discovered one of the legendary Seven Cities of Gold of Cibola, leading to perhaps the most significant Spanish Expedition in the American Southwest. So convinced was he of this perceived wealth that upon his return to the Province of Nueva Galicia in what is now Northwest Mexico, his enthusiastic report inspired the Governor of New Galicia, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, to assemble and lead the famed Coronado Expedition of 1540.

In more recent times, the unique light that permeates the New Mexican landscape has served as a visual magnet for artists and photographers for over 100 years. Beginning with the founding of the Taos Art Colony in 1902, and the Taos Society of Artists in 1915, New Mexico quickly became, and remains today, a mecca for some of the greatest talent of artists, photographers, and writers in the United States, including such luminaries as Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams, who have come to this land inspired by the intense light and color that inundates the unique landscape throughout the year.


There are several climatic, atmospheric, and terrestrial factors that combine to produce the unique light found in New Mexico. Primary and most important is the ubiquitous high-desert climate itself, characterized by predominately high barometric pressure, low humidity, and scant precipitation. Couple these factors with the extreme atmospheric clarity that results from the State’s small population and low levels of pollution, and the relatively thinner atmosphere, due to the general high elevation of the landscape, and the result is the distinctive turquoise blue New Mexican Summer sky that gradually takes on the deeper shades of cobalt blue seen in Winter. And it is because of this atmospheric clarity that the full spectrum of undiluted, non-refracted or non-degraded frequencies of sunlight are allowed to penetrate and illuminate the iconic New Mexican landscape with such intensity and brilliance.


The perceived intensity and brilliance of the New Mexico Sun will also vary along with the seasons in response to the angle at which the Sun’s rays strike the earth due to the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis. In the Summer, when the Sun traces its daily passage high overhead, the sunlight in New Mexico is virtually omnipresent – penetrating, bouncing, and reflecting soft, warm, glowing light into the shadows of even the deepest canyons and thickest mountain forests. With the coming of Fall, however, as the daily arc of the Sun’s passage traces ever lower towards the southern horizon, the intensity of the direct sunlight gradually decreases. And with this decrease, one notices that the soft warm glow once reflecting within the shadows of the canyons and forests takes on a harder, cooler, dimmer, bluish tone, and that the contrast between light and shadow has increased markedly. By Winter Solstice this transition is complete and the contrast between light and shadow reaches its maximum, so that while the actual intensity of the light is less at any given time of the day when compared with Summer, it seems just as bright because of the greater contrast with the darker shadows. One notices that with the passing of Winter Solstice there is no warmth in the shadows at all and that snow, frost, and frozen ground will remain in shadowed places day after day even though daytime temperatures may rise 20° or more above freezing.


Gila Wilderness mountains

Winter Solstice December 22, 2013. Looking north up Bear Creek from the Casitas past Turtle Rock to the snow-covered Piños Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness

winter solstice light in new mexico

Early morning light on the cliffs and Bear Creek, just above the south boundary fence

Morning Light

December 22, 2013, dawns high-pressure clear and in the mid-20s at Casitas de Gila, the low pressure and accompanying light snow of three days prior are now long gone, well on their way east to deliver a New England White Christmas. Looking up Bear Creek past half-shadowed Turtle Rock, the snow covered ramparts of the Pinos Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness glisten beneath low-hanging clouds in the chill morning light. Below, in the creek, the leafless cottonwoods stretch skyward for the morning light from the still-shadowed floodplain. It is an absolutely perfect day to explore and experience the brilliant morning light of a New Mexico Winter Solstice in Bear Creek Canyon.

Leaving the sun-drenched, east-facing Casitas behind, one descends the trail down the cliff-lined western slopes of the canyon to the creek bottom a hundred feet below. Reaching the bottom of the trail one sees that the morning light has also had just arrived at the base of the western slopes of the canyon. Bear Creek itself meanders in and out of the light. Starting at the south boundary fence of the Casita Nature Preserve in the early morning light, one begins a slow ramble upstream along the Bear Creek floodplain and adjacent forested stream terrace.

Gila National Forest Winter Solstice

Willow tree shadows on Bear Creek on Winter Solstice morning

Gila Conglomerate Winter Solstice

Approaching the shadowed cliffs of Gila Conglomerate

With the Solstice Sun still very low in the sky, the long shadows of the cottonwoods and willows bordering the creek criss-cross the floodplain producing a two-dimensional forest of trunks, branches, and twigs. Emerging into the light, the Creek blazes with swirling ripples of gold engulfing the even brighter, shining, gold-tinged boulders of white welded tuff. Walking at the water’s edge the silence is complete, broken only by the low murmurings of the creek and the crunching of the icy pinnacles of frost-heaved sand beneath one’s boots …

Approaching the deeply-shadowed cliffs, shallow frozen pools at the water’s edge offer crystalline windows into mosaics of entombed drab, brownish, and decaying cottonwood, willow and sycamore leaves, the microbial degradation of the leaves temporarily halted until once again revitalized by the Sun’s returning rays. Above the water’s edge, thick carpets of heavily-frosted leaves display a Winter Solstice kaleidoscope of texture and muted color.

southwest new mexico solstice

Frozen pool with entombed cottonwood, sycamore, and willow leaves and blue-green algae

winter leaves in the Gila

Heavy frost coating decaying sycamore, cottonwood, and willow leaves

cottonwoods in the Gila Forest

Young cottonwoods in morning light and shadow

Continuing upstream, the Creek meanders slightly westward away from the cliffs, leaving the Creek in alternating patterns of light and shadow that change rapidly as the Sun arches ever higher above the cliffs. Leaving the Creek to walk the trails on the east side of the Creek one soon comes to the Big Cottonwood, where the quirky wrought iron bistro table and chairs wait in illuminated silence, the table thoughtfully set by Mother Nature with last night’s fallen leaves.

Eventually one arrives at the trail’s end at the northern end of the Casita land. Here the floodplain is much wider and more open. With Turtle Rock towering in the distance, but no sheer cliffs nearby to cast Bear Creek into shadow, this section of the creek receives perhaps twice as much Sun during the course of a Winter Day. As a result, one observes that the quiet pools are not frozen here and display more abundant signs of life and activity than seen down by the cliffs. Tiny minnows dart over the fallen leaves covering the bottom of the pools, and here and there numerous new small clumps of bright-green watercress are observed growing on top of the pools and eddies along the creek.

Winter Solstice in Southwest New Mexico

Beneath the old cottonwood, the table and chairs wait empty on a chilly Winter Solstice morning

winter in southwest new mexico

Sunlit pool with new growth of watercress and blue-green algae


Late Afternoon Light

Some of us may remember, when as children playing outside just before sunset, the way our shadows lengthened, making us seem taller and taller as the sun slowly set in the West, and how we delighted in this phenomena as we ran home for dinner, flapping our arms in glee as we watched our shadows assume the dimensions of some giant bird.

Very few of us, however, probably ever noticed in those days the similar phenomena of how, at any given time of the day, our shadows would also grow progressively longer day by day as the Sun’s daily arc across the sky sank ever lower towards the southern horizon in its passage towards Winter Solstice.

The hilly western horizon behind the Casitas is 400 to 600 feet lower than the mountainous horizon on the other side of Bear Creek to the east of the Casitas between Turtle Rock and North and South Peaks. Consequently, the rays of the setting Winter Solstice Sun cast much longer, deeper, and higher-contrast shadows across the Casitas and down into Bear Creek Canyon than those of the morning Sunrise, because of the higher angle of the Sun when it eventually emerges on the eastern horizon about an hour after official local sunrise.

For some 15 years now, the ever-changing late afternoon play of light, shadow, and color upon the rocky crags of Turtle Rock and adjacent summits of North and South Peaks across from the Casitas has created a fascinating daily panorama of Nature’s magnificence for both guests and hosts alike. The visual effect and resulting mood imbued by this daily spectacle varies markedly with the season and the weather over the course of a year. However, for many it is during the Winter that the effect is most dramatic, when the air is the clearest and the Sun’s rays strike the Earth at their lowest angle, creating the greatest contrast between light and shadow.

winter solstice shadows

In late afternoon at Winter Solstice, long shadows of young cottonwoods cross Bear Creek downstream from the deeply-shadowed cliffs on Bear Creek

Having thought about these concepts for most of the day, it was with great anticipation that one quickly descended the trail from the Casitas to Bear Creek once more to observe, photograph, and compare the effects of the Late Afternoon Winter Solstice sunlight along the same route through the canyon that was taken earlier that morning. Having observed the Creek along the canyon bottom for over 15 years, one knew from previous photographic and painting excursions that the light and shadow of the late afternoon was typically more dramatic than that of the morning, but this was the first time that a direct comparison was made on the same day, and especially at Winter Solstice.

Arriving at the Canyon bottom about an hour before Sunset, the shadows cast from the young cottonwood trees along the western bank of the creek are already twice as long as the height of the trees that cast them, creating a ladder-like pattern of alternating light and dark contrast across the floodplain when facing upstream towards the deeply-shadowed cliffs below South Peak.
casitas de gila and bear creek Current sculpted blue-green algae encapsulating a decayed sycamore leaf showing bubbles of oxygen produced from a Winter Solstice photosynthesis[/caption]

One observes that most of the frost and frozen pools seen during this morning’s hike have now disappeared; only a few icy patches remain along the cliffs where the Sun will not penetrate again for several weeks. Shallow frozen pools that only a few hours earlier entombed fallen leaves and comatose filamentous blue-green algae are now vibrant and alive, the slow moving currents sculpting irregular masses of blue-green algae into delicately festooned amoeba-like forms of bright yellowish green, delicately capped with shining bubbles of oxygen recently released from the day’s photosynthesis.

Further along, the creek flows up against vertical cliffs of layered conglomerate. Here the contrast between light and shadow reaches its maximum, the entire creek bottom now in deep shadow with the only source of visible light that of the rippling water reflecting the last of the retreating light high above at the top of the cliffs.

gila wilderness new mexico

In the deep shadows of the cliffs ripples reflect the retreating light of the sunlit cliffs above

geology of southwest new mexico

Boulders of welded tuff, rhyolite, and andesite catching the last of the Winter Solstice light

Continuing upstream not far beyond the chill of the shadowed cliffs one comes to a transition point where steadily advancing prongs of darkness penetrate and slowly envelop remaining patches of light. One pauses to watch in fascination as one by one shining rounded boulders of welded tuff are snuffed into darkness, and the young cottonwoods on the bank beyond appear to stretch higher in the remaining light as if in a futile attempt to escape the pending tendrils of darkness now swirling about at their roots.

shadows at Winter Solstice

Fleeting patterns of late afternoon light and shadow on boulders and cottonwoods at Winter Solstice

shadows at winter solstice in new mexico

Cotonwoods catching the last of the Winter Solstice sun, along with a cobalt blue sky, reflect upon the shadowed waters of Bear Creek

Bear Creek canyon widens below the Casitas, and in response the creek, now flowing along the deeply-shadowed western side of the canyon, spreads out laterally, its shallow depths masked by the reflections of the cobalt blue of the sky above and the yellow-tinged branches of the cottonwoods along the bank, still illuminated by the setting Sun.

At the northern end of the Casita Nature Preserve, Bear Creek flows through a heavily-vegetated floodplain where during times of high water or flash floods, such as during the Summer Monsoon Season, the floodwaters overflow the bank’s primary creek and spread across the floodplain to cut various secondary channels to carry the additional volume of water. After the flooding is over, most of these secondary channels are abandoned and dry up, except for occasional pools and small rivulets which may persist in them for months afterward. The ecology of this upper portion of the Casita Nature Preserve is highly diverse, varying from dense thickets of young trees and shrubs between the secondary channels to vaulted groves of very large, old-growth cottonwoods and occasional sycamore that attain heights of 120 feet or more on the bordering creek terraces. By the time one arrives at this area on the afternoon’s hike, the Sun is very close to setting behind the low hills in the west, creating a complex mosaic of contrasting light and shadow in all directions.

shadows on Winter Solstice

In the reflections of the darkened pool, a shaft of Winter Solstice light illuminates the trunk of one cottonwood amidst the shadowed tangle of a floodplain thicket

Upstream progress slows as one leaves the main channel to follow a meandering animal trail through a dense tangle of floodwater debris trapped in the maze of young new growth along one of the secondary channels. Much of this portion of the floodplain is dark now, with only the occasional shaft of intense brilliant sunlight piercing through the dense undergrowth to illuminate selected scenes in vignettes of incredible, magical beauty.

Leaving the thicket behind, another side channel with a larger flow of water is followed upstream. By now most of this channel is in complete shadow except for the periodic pools of reflected light that thwart the gathering darkness. The beauty of the pools is breathtaking, ranging from unbelievably brilliant, cobalt-blue reflections of the overhead sky set within a surrounding frame of reflected dark twigs and branches, to surrealistic pools of shimmering white and deep yellow where the reflected light from the uppermost branches of the still-lighted crowns of the old cottonwoods is splintered into a thousand points of light by the swirling waters of the rock-strewn creek. How fleeting it all is, and how fortunate one is to have passed this way!

winter sky in southwest new mexico

Winter Solstice reflections of willows set against a cobalt-blue sky

Bear Creek at Casitas de Gila

Reflections of sunlit cottonwoods shimmer in a shadowed side channel of Bear Creek on Winter Solstice just before sunset

Diverting from the side channel, a short pathway leads up onto a sandy creek terrace where a grove of old-growth cottonwoods towers in stately silence. Here at the northern edge of the Casita Nature Preserve, one lingers a final moment in the deepening solitude, immersed in the magnificent view across the creek towards Turtle Rock before turning for home. The scene is entrancing and one of those that will live on in one’s mind for a lifetime, an incredible display of Light and Shadow on a Winter Solstice afternoon.

long shadows on Winter Solstice

Long shadows of cottonwoods point upstream to Turtle Rock at the end of a Winter Solstice day

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Finding Nature’s Treasure Where Early Miners and Prospectors Toiled

Sacaton Mountain Gila Wilderness

Starting up Little Dry Creek Trail, with snow-covered Sacaton Mountain, elevation 10,658 ft., on right in the far distance.


The day after Thanksgiving dawned bright, crisp, and clear, absolutely perfect for walking off those over indulgences of the previous day’s feasting. It was to be a group hike, a mixture of three long-time, returning guests to Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, a couple of our good neighbor-friends and their dog Red, both of the Casita’s hosts, and our dogs Chloe and Bower.

Our destination of choice for the day was the Little Dry Creek Trail, Gila National Forest Trail 180, in the magnificent Mogollon Mountains of Catron County. The drive north along U.S. 180 was once more a visual feast but now of a totally different palate, with October’s golden leaves of the Mogollon High Country having been replaced a few days earlier by a heavy coating of snow, glistening brilliantly in the early-morning sun. Arriving at the trail head, it was not at all surprising to find that there were no other vehicles there. Nor would we encounter another soul on the trail that day; a typical experience and one of the most wonderful aspects of hiking in the Gila.

southwest new mexico hiking

Trail sign at beginning of Little Dry Creek Trail

Sacaton Mountain Gila Wilderness

Telephoto of snow cover on Sacaton Mtn. as viewed from the beginning of Little Dry Creek Trail on November 29, 2013.

The Little Dry Creek Trail offers spectacular access into the heart of the Gila Wilderness. From the trail head on Little Dry Creek, at an elevation of 6,300 feet, the trail extends some 11.5 miles to terminate at Apache Cabin, at a lofty 10,200 feet in elevation, where it junctions with the Holt–Apache Trail, FT 181, coming in from the west. Our goal for the day was, of course, much more modest: a leisurely hike of two miles to the Gila Wilderness boundary, and if time permitted, possibly a little further to explore some of the old ruins and workings of the mining activity that thrived here in the Wilcox Mining District during the glory days of mining and prospecting that took place throughout Catron and Grant Counties during the past century.



map of Wilcox Mining District

This map (Figure 37 on page 100 of USGS Bulletin 1451 [Ref. 1 this blog] shows areas of greatest mineral resource potential in the Wilcox Mining District between Whitewater Creek on the north and the Gila Fluorspar District on the south. In the figure the heavy solid line marks boundary of Gila Wilderness; dashed line is boundary of Gila Primitive Areas; and hashed lines are boundaries of the Bursum and Gila Cliff Dwelling Calderas. Note how mineral zones straddle Gila Wilderness Boundaries.

Between 1968 and 1971 an extensive and comprehensive mineral survey (Ref. 1) of the entire Gila Wilderness and adjacent Gila Primitive areas, was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the the U.S. Bureau of Mines. The study, published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1979 as USGS Bulletin 1451, delineated several areas in which anomalous concentrations of metals including beryllium, mercury, bismuth, antimony, arsenic, gold, silver tellurium, copper, molybdenum, lead, zinc, and manganese occur. The study concluded that the portion of the Gila Wilderness and adjacent primitive areas having the greatest mineral potential was within an area known as the Wilcox Mining District.

The Wilcox Mining District comprises an area some 15 miles long and a few miles wide that straddles the Gila Wilderness boundary that extends south and southwest along the front of the Mogollon Mountains between the towns of Glenwood and Gila. This area has been the focus of extensive prospecting and mining activity since 1879 when gold was discovered on Little Dry Creek. During the 1880s additional discoveries of gold were made within the district and in 1889 John Lambert and Dan Lannon discovered tellurium along with gold on a ridge about one mile east of Little Dry Creek near the top of Lone Pine Hill. Over the next 100 years approximately 1,500 claims were made within the district, including 16 patented claims and 2 patented mill sites. Quite a few of these claims were along Little Dry Creek, with the most intense activity concentrated near the present Gila Wilderness boundary.

During the many decades following the initial discoveries, countless prospectors and miners flocked into the rugged Mogollon High Country along Little Dry Creek and the rest of the Wilcox District area, setting off a gold and silver fever-fueled frenzy in which an incalculable amount of blood, sweat, and tears were expended. It is probably not much of an exaggeration to say that by the end of this hundred-year interval there was hardly a stone left unturned from the deepest canyons to the highest rocky peaks during their relentless search for the precious gold, silver and other metals.

mining history southwest new mexico

Old miner’s cabin on Little Dry Creek Trail

Today, remnants of these perpetual pursuits can be encountered almost anywhere and when least expected while hiking the Forest trails within the District. Sometimes the evidence will be nothing more than an anomalous piece of rusted pipe or corrugated metal roofing poking through the leaves where an old cabin once stood. In other places the evidence is much more obvious, such as an abandoned piece of mining equipment near a grown-over prospecting trench, horizontal adit or shaft. And, oh what stories these remnants could tell regarding the many grubstakes won, lost, or squandered, only to be pursued again and again until the lack of funds, hope, or failing health brought these endless quests to their final demise!

Little Dry Creek trail

Small waterfall at narrow spot in Little Dry Creek canyon, approximately 0.5 miles south of Gila Wilderness boundary. Natural barriers such as this made travel and transportation difficult for miners throughout the Wilcox Mining District.

Unlike some of the other mining districts in the Mogollon or Piños Altos Ranges or the Burro Mountains, there are no great strike-it-rich legends or success stories associated with the Wilcox Mining District. At least, that is, none that survive today. Known recorded production for the District is reported as consisted of only 10,912 tons of fluorite, 1.23 oz. of gold, 19 oz. silver, 50 tons of copper ore, 5 tons of copper-silver ore, 1.5 tons of copper-lead-zinc ore, and 5 tons of tellurium ore. What was really extracted and never reported, of course, will never be known. Prospectors and small-time mining operators are traditionally secretive by nature and not prone to keeping written records.

What is known, following the extensive sampling and chemical analyses made on materials collected at numerous known sites and workings within the district as part of the 1979 U.S. Geological report, is that the concentration of gold, silver, and other metals within the Wilcox Mining District is generally quite low, except for very thin veins and fracture fillings, typically only a few inches thick, which occasionally show promising concentrations.

Perusing the overall rather-uninspiring concentrations of heavy metals reported from the sample analyses of the 1979 USGS report, one can only wonder what kept these legions of prospectors and miners enthusiastically pursuing their elusive dreams of riches for all those years. Was it a case of simply blind hope, or perhaps the just-frequent-enough return of a marginally-rich-enough assay that kept them going? Or, perhaps, was it a more psychological attitude that prevailed in which the strike-it-rich stories constantly coming out of the very rich mineral discoveries and mines in the surrounding areas of Piños Altos, Silver City, and the Burro Mountains that goaded them into believing that surely those same riches lay just another few feet deeper in their own claims on Little Dry Creek. Or, which seems probably likely in some cases, did they really find small pockets of valuable concentrations and just kept quiet about it!


We’ll probably never know whether those seekers of treasure in decades past found what they were looking for. But at the end of the day on November 29, 2013, all of those participating in the Hike of the Indulgent agreed that they had found a superfluous abundance of Nature’s treasure on our little hike up Little Dry Creek.

Starting from the trail head parking area, which is accessible for all types of vehicles, the Little Dry Creek Trail follows an unmaintained, old mine road for a half mile or so before becoming a well-defined foot and horse trail that closely parallels and at widely-spaced intervals crosses Little Dry Creek as it heads up the canyon. While burned areas resulting from the Whitewater-Baldy fire of 2012 could be seen in the surrounding mountains as we worked our way up the trail, fire damage along the trail within the canyon was found to be minimal with almost all of the old growth ponderosa, fir, and spruce surviving with only scorched bark to show where ground fire had passed through. Studying the large slabs of bark on these massive giants of conifers that range up to three feet in diameter, it was obvious that many of them had experienced fire before.

ancient conifer trees

Little Dry Creek Trail meandering through magnificent stands of ancient conifers.

Gila Forest hiking trail

At various places along the Little Dry Creek Trail, massive rock formations constrict the canyon to an impassable chasm, requiring the trail to leave the creek bottom and ascend the side of the canyon to get around them.

The first mile or so of the trail was found to be in relatively good shape and easily followed, and the various creek crossings easily navigated by stepping across the many boulders that fill the crystal clear, shallow creek. Progressing further upstream into the second mile of our journey, in places the trail became a little more difficult to follow, particularly where the canyon bottom floodplain broadened and steep slopes of the adjacent canyon walls force the trail to the opposite side of the creek. At these places no trace of the trail existed across the floodplain due to the deposition of a two to four foot-thick layer of gravel and boulders that had been carried down the canyon late this past summer by major runoff following a 10-hour period of continuous stationary thunderstorm activity over the highest peaks in the southwest corner of the Mogollon Range on September 15, 2013. Crossing these boulder-strewn floodplain deposits was slow but not very difficult, and since the trail stays along the canyon bottom throughout this stretch of the trail, in most cases it was easy to predict where the trail would pick up on the opposite side above the floodplain.

crossing Little Dry Creek

Crossing the boulder-strewn floodplain resulting from the September 15, 2013 flooding.

mining history southwest new mexico

Here the trail passes by a well-made retaining wall of stone, behind which another miner’s cabin once stood.

About 1.25 miles into the hike, a well-constructed stone wall was encountered standing in mute testimony to one of the early miner’s cabins that once existed here on the east bank above the creek. From this point on, more remnants of former mining activity were encountered, each prompting their own set of questions, intrigue, and challenge to our curious minds as we pushed ever further up the canyon.

eating lunch along the trail

The Perfect Lunch Spot, with shadows rapidly approaching in the foreground

By 1:30 PM our GPS indicated that we were within two-tenths of a mile of the Gila Wilderness Boundary, our first goal for the day. However, with the canyon walls now closing in and towering increasingly high above, the trail was already in deep shadow and the first cold drafts of air of were beginning to flow down the canyon. In addition, there began to be grumblings of “when are we going to eat” and “I’m hungry” coming from the lesser indulgent of yesterday’s feasting. As the grumblings began to spread through the group and increase in frequency and intensity, it was with no little relief that as we rounded a bend in the canyon the perfect lunch spot appeared just 300 feet ahead … And it was still bathed in the afternoon Sun!

hiking in the Gila

Here, near the Perfect Lunch Spot, a miner’s cabin once stood.

mining cave in southwest new mexico

And here is the adit where the miner toiled away the hours. Only in this case to find … nothing!

Settling ourselves down amongst the huge, flat-topped boulders that lined the creek, a great lunch was enjoyed by all, which we finished just as the Sun sank behind the western canyon rim 1,200 feet above. Donning our packs once more, some of our group scattered to explore our lunch spot before heading back. Within a few minutes they soon discovered that we were not the only ones to have found this a perfect spot. For just a hundred feet away from our picnic site were the scattered remnants of another miner’s cabin on one side of the creek and a shallow adit on the other. Oh, that rocks could talk, for what stories these stones could tell!

Hiking in the Gila

Crossing Little Dry Creek on the way back.

The retracing our of steps back down the canyon was a magical end to a perfect day, a journey through time as well as space. Increasingly, as the sun slid ever lower in the west, the trail along the canyon floor was transformed into a kaleidoscope pattern of light and dark as shafts of brilliant sunlight piercing through the trees alternated with chill-laced shadows cast from the cliffs far above.

late afternoon sun on a hike

In the late afternoon Little Dry Creek becomes a kaleidoscope of light and shadow.

hiking in the Gila

Deep in the shadows of the cliffs above, a series of pools mirror the sky above.

afternoon sunlight in the Gila

With the crossing of the creek for the last time, the canyon walls lower, allowing shafts of sunlight to guide the way back to the trail head.

Trudging along, it was noticed that in a similar way, one’s mood and thoughts seemed to fluctuate as well. While traversing the light, the immediacy of the surreal beauty of the sunlit pools and stones was overpowering, banishing all thought. Yet upon passing into the cool shadows, one’s thoughts would repeatedly return to pensive contemplation of those early miners and the spectrum of emotions that they must have experienced, as day after day they, too, trudged to and fro along this same canyon trail in their endless pursuit of the yellow and silver metal …

And then, an hour and a half later, it was over, as we emerged from the canyon and found ourselves at the trail head and once more back in the world of today. It had been a great day, and we returned home satisfied that we had indeed been successful in finding a full day’s worth of Nature’s Treasure on Little Dry Creek.

NOTE: The Little Dry Creek hike is an easy to moderate hike that for the first two miles follows a mostly easy-to-follow trail. The trail head is accessed from a maintained Forest road suitable for all types of vehicles. While there is water in the creek year around, it will require purification because of the presence of the protozoan parasite Giardia. Ample water, sunscreen, long sleeves and pants, and a wide-brimmed hat should be considered essential. The trail for the first two miles is generally accessible all year. Beyond that distance, snow may be encountered during December and January. During the Summer Monsoon season hikers should remain aware of thunderstorms and possible flash flooding in the afternoon. As always, Casitas de Gila will provide to our guests up-to-date weather and likely trail conditions, directions, and maps for any of the hikes in the area.


1. James C. Ratte, David L Gaskill, Gordon P.L. Eaton, Donald L. Peterson, Ronald B. Stotelmeyer and Henry C. Meeves, 1979, Mineral Resources of the Gila Primitive Area and Gila Wilderness, New Mexico, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1451


Posted in Gila National Forest, hiking, history, mining | Tagged , , | 2 Comments



Gentle on the Body … Exhilarating for the Soul

Gila Wilderness

Looking east from Leopold Vista Trail at a view of the western escarpment of the Mogollon Range


Setting out from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses for a late October day’s touring and hiking in Southwest New Mexico, the annual Fall foliage of the High Desert landscape presented an ever-changing feast for one’s eyes and soul. On that morning, the air was cool, clear, and crisp, the hard light of the early-morning sun brilliantly illuminating the sinuous band of golden cottonwoods defining the Gila River Valley below as we headed down Hooker Loop. Crossing the Gila, we then headed northwest along Sacaton Road towards our destination: the Mogollon High Country of southern Catron County.

gnarled sycamores in the Gila

Gnarled sycamores in Little Dry Creek Canyon

golden aspen in the Gila Wilderness

Aspen gold in the Mogollon High Country

In southern Catron County the highest peaks of the Mogollon Range soar to within an eagle’s cry of 11,000 feet, etching a multicolored tapestry against the late October cobalt sky. Impressive at any time of year, come October, when the Fall colors reach their peak, a cascade of golden yellows and orangish reds slowly descends from the towering groves of Aspen on Whitewater Baldy to the gnarled and ghostly white-trunked sycamores lurking below in the deep canyons of Little Dry Creek.

Our objectives for the day were threefold: 1) check out the condition of Sacaton Road following the mid-September flooding in the western Mogollons; 2) check the status of the Gila National Forest roads leading off from Sacaton Road to the trailheads that provide access into the southwest portion of the Gila Wilderness; and 3) round out the day with an exploratory hike across a portion of the Lower Dry Creek “Mesa” Country lying between the Mogollon Mountains on the east and the San Francisco River on the west.


Gila Wilderness mountains

Forest road off Sacaton Road looking north towards Mogollon escarpment.

Sacaton Road is a scenic, 25-mile county-maintained gravel road that borders and parallels the northwest trending escarpment of the Mogollon Mountains between Gila and Glenwood. Now little used except for the large ranches it passes through, in the past this road served as a major route of north-south travel and transportation during pioneer settlement of the area. In addition to providing access to some of the best forest trails in the southwest portion of the Gila Wilderness, Sacaton Road offers breathtaking closeup views of the south-facing Mogollon Mountain escarpment that rises abruptly from the valley floor a short distance to the north, as well as expansive views across the gently-sloping grass- and mesquite-covered grazing lands of Sacaton Mesa towards the distant Burro Mountains and the rugged volcanic terrain of the San Francisco River Country.

Burro Mountains New Mexico

Forest road off Sacaton Road looking south across Sacaton Mesa towards the Burro Mountains

By 1 PM the first two objectives for the day were completed, with positive results. Thanks to a timely response by Grant and Catron County road departments, Sacaton Road was found to be once more in excellent condition along its entire 25-mile length and ready for all types of vehicular travel. Likewise, the adjoining National Forest roads, trailheads, and trails that lead north from Sacaton Road into the Mogollon Mountains that were visited were found to be in good serviceable condition. While a few of the drainages examined showed some signs of moderate flooding and transported debris, it became obvious that the severe thunderstorms of September 14 and 15 that had caused major flood damage further north in the Whitewater Creek, Silver Creek, and Mineral Creek drainages had not greatly affected the south-facing slopes and drainages in this part of the Mogollons.

Gila Wilderness New Mexico

Lunch spot on Upper Little Dry Creek

Mogollon Mountains New Mexico

Heading up Upper Little Dry Creek Trail (FT 180) into the Mogollons

As discussed in the September 2013 Nature Blog, this year’s Monsoon Season was long and strong. Most local areas around the Casitas received over 10 inches of rain during the 2-1/2 month period, but it was in the western end of the Mogollon High Country that the totals were the greatest and the thunderstorms most severe. Here, in the headwaters of Whitewater, Silver, and Mineral Creeks, stationary coalescing thunderstorms dropped over 10 inches of rain in a 10-hour period commencing around 5 PM on the evening of September 14 and continuing until around 3 AM the next morning, resulting in devastating floods that severely damaged roads, buildings, and trails in those drainages. Hardest hit were the old mining town of Mogollon on Silver Creek, where the road through the center of town was completely washed away, and the Catwalk Recreation Area on Whitewater Creek, where the elevated metal catwalk and picnic areas were washed away, and the small community of Alma, where the access road to the Mineral Creek trailhead was washed away. As of this date, the Bursum Road (State Rt 159) to Mogollon, the Catwalk Recreation Area, and the access road to Mineral Creek remain closed as repair work continues.


Throughout the Southwest U.S. the term mesa is frequently encountered in geographic place names. Technically, the term is used to describe elevated landforms that have been left behind following a long period of weathering and erosion of horizontally layered rocks of different chemical and physical stabilities. These landforms have the distinctive shape of a flat-topped hill or mountain that are capped with a resistant rock layer, such as a sandstone or a volcanic basalt lava flow, that overlies and protects a weaker and more-easily weathered and eroded underlying layer, such as a shale or ash fall.

Here, in the area surrounding Casitas de Gila Guesthouses in Grant and Catron Counties, there are numerous landforms which have been given local place names that include the term mesa, examples being Circle Mesa between Silver City and Gila, Sacaton Mesa between Gila and Pleasanton, and Whitewater Mesa between Glenwood and Alma. While it is true that these areas display elevated and nearly horizontal layers that rise above the surrounding landscape, they are technically not mesas but another type of arid region landform that would be classified as piedmont slope surfaces.

Piedmont slope surfaces surround uplifted mountain areas and are composed of sediment material eroded from the mountains and carried downslope by running water and gravity out onto the adjacent valley floor where they are subsequently deposited. Over time these processes will build up thick sequences of boulder- to clay-sized sedimentary layers which slope away from the mountain at angles of 2° to 15° towards the valley below, with coarser materials deposited closest to the mountains and grading finer and finer outward and down slope from the mountain source. Piedmont slope deposits are divided into several different types, such as alluvial fans and bajadas, depending on their morphology and relative age.

waterfall New Mexico

Waterfalls will sometimes develop on creeks where they cross the dip-slope faults bordering the south and western escarpments of the Mogollon Mountains.

In the Southwest U.S. many mountain ranges are commonly bordered by high-angle, normal dip-slip faults which separate the uplifted mountains from the downthrown valley floor. Repeated periods of active movement on these faults, plus variation in rainfall due to climate change through time, will result in periodic pulses of greater volumes of sediment being transported out from the mountain escarpment. Once mountain building within an area terminates and these faults are no longer active, the faults are then buried beneath the continuing downslope deposition of sediment eroded from the mountains.

Both the southern escarpment of the Mogollon Mountains along Sacaton Road and the western escarpment of the Mogollons that parallels US Rt. 180 from Little Dry Creek north to Alma are bordered by long-inactive, high-angle, normal dip-slip faults as described in the preceding paragraph. Today these faults are now mostly deeply buried beneath thick deposits of piedmont slope sediment which was carried downslope from the mountains for the last million years or so since the mountain building terminated. In more recent times the topography of these piedmont slope surfaces has been, and continues to be, modified by subsequent erosion and deposition to form the highly dissected and topographically chaotic up-and-down land surface observed today as one travels north from Little Dry Creek on U.S. Rt. 180 north to Alma, especially in the area lying between Little Dry Creek and Glenwood, where the most rugged and highly dissected portions of the piedmont slope surface occur.


Situated about five miles south of the town of Glenwood, and a half-mile south of where Sacaton Road junctions with U.S Rt. 180 at Little Dry Creek, is the Leopold Vista Overlook, a scenic highway rest stop providing shaded picnic tables and restrooms a few hundred feet west of U.S. Rt. 180. The rest stop is named for Aldo Leopold, a former supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service whose dedicated work led to the establishment of the Gila Wilderness in 1924, the first wilderness area in the National Forest System. Leopold Vista offers the traveling public a breathtaking view of the western end of the Gila Wilderness and the southwest corner of the highest peaks of the Mogollon Mountains. It is a quiet place where the frenetic pace of the open road immediately disappears and the silent magnificence of the natural world once more reigns supreme.

Many hundreds of people, both tourists and locals alike, will stop at the Leopold Vista and marvel at the magnificent view each year. Yet few will notice, let alone take the time to explore and experience, the incredibly complex up and down landscape of alternating flat-topped ridges, arroyos, and canyons that comprise the Lower Little Dry Creek Country surrounding them on all sides, so commanding is the magnificence of the towering Mogollons a few miles to the east.

North-south travel through the jumble of up and down landscape of Lower Little Dry Creek Country has been a challenge to humans since earliest times. Even today there is no straight and easy way across, as evidenced by the winding course and numerous grades encountered when driving through this area following the current route of U.S. Rt. 180. Nearly 500 years ago, in the Summer of 1540, the Spanish explorer Coronado passed through here, probably within less than a mile of the Leopold Vista rest stop, with his expeditionary force of 250 horsemen, 70 Spanish foot soldiers, 300 native Mexican allies, plus over a 1,000 Indian servants, 4 Franciscan monks, and several slaves, before making camp on Big Dry Creek two miles to the north. In a document written some 20 years after the Expedition, Juan Jaramillo, a member of the Expedition, recalled the difficulty of traversing this area, calling this segment of Coronado’s route “La Tierra Doblada”, meaning the up and down or doubled-over country. Three hundred and forty-five years later, on the morning of December 19,1885, it was this same doubled-over landscape that provided the Chokonan Apache Chief Ulzana and his nine warriors the perfect strategic site for the ambush of the 34-man-strong C Troop of the 8th US Calvary under the command of Lt. Samuel W. Fountain while on patrol in the Mogollon Mountains. The ambush took place as the patrol neared the top of a small promontory, known forever after as Soldier Hill, located on the north side of Little Dry Creek, about three-quarters of a mile due north of the Leopold Vista rest area.


The Casita Nature Blog of April 2013 described a deep, steep-walled canyon hike that offers a fascinating, intimate exploration of the volcanic rocks and flora that line the deeply incised canyons of Little Dry Creek Canyon and its tributaries down to its confluence with Lower Big Dry Creek Canyon, which in turn can be followed downstream to its confluence with the San Francisco River. This hike offers great insight into the geology that borders and underlies the western extent of the piedmont slope deposits that extend westward from the Mogollon escarpment, but affords no opportunity for long view vistas or surface examination of the adjacent up and down piedmont slope geology or ecosystems that border these deep canyons.

Leopold Vista overlook New Mexico

Entrance to the Leopold Vista Trail

Fortunately, for those who would like to experience and better understand the detailed nature of the Lower Little Dry Creek Up and Down Country while surrounded by magnificent views, the Leopold Vista Trail is a National Forest trail that is easily accessed and traversed, just waiting for those who would like to spend a couple of hours or longer hiking in this unusual high desert landscape.

Leopold Vista New Mexico

Looking northwest down into Little Dry Creek Canyon from Leopold Vista Trail on October 26, 2013, with gnarled white sycamores in full fall dress lining the floodplain. Outlaw Mountain Peak, 6,085 ft, upper left skyline.

The Leopold Vista trail follows an old four-wheel-drive track across an undulating piedmont slope surface that extends westward from U.S. Rt. 180 for about two miles on the south side of Little Dry Creek Canyon. At several points, less-used tracks split off from the main track which offer views as well as occasional unmarked access down into Lower Little Dry Creek Canyon and several of its side canyons. Incredible long-view vistas extend out in all directions along every part of this hike, affording exceptional opportunities for photography, particularly in the late afternoon. Dominant vegetation along the trail consists of abundant, widely-spaced One-Seed Juniper (Juniperus monosperma), several species of grass including Side-oats Gramma (Bouteloua curtipendula), Desert Scrub Oak (Quercus turbinella), Banana Yucca (Yucca bacatta), Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), Catclaw or Wait-a-Minute Bush (Mimosa aculeaticarpa) and occasional Pinyon (Pinus edulis), and Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana). The overall mood of this hike is perhaps best described as one of endless openness and serene expansiveness … and, perhaps, welcoming isolation; a totally different feeling than that felt when hiking within the high-walled confines of the Little Dry Creek Canyon 200 feet below.

The Leopold Vista Trail ends on a narrow finger of a ridge overlooking and 250 feet above the junction of Little Dry Creek Canyon and its tributary Eliot Canyon that comes in from the south. Here, beneath the welcome shade of a juniper, is a great place to rest and have lunch. It is a great observation spot to look for birds and game while scanning canyon bottoms below that stretch off to the west and south and the mountains beyond. Or perhaps to contemplate the possibility that Eliot Canyon was indeed the escape route taken by Ulzana and his warriors following the ambush on Soldier Hill.

Southwest New Mexico fall color

Looking southwest and upstream down into Eliot Canyon on October 26, 2013. This canyon, a tributary to Little Dry Creek, may have been used as an escape route by the Chokonan Apache Chief Ulzana and his warriors following their ambush of Lt. Samuel W. Fountain and 33 soldiers of C Troop, 8th U.S. Calvary, on December 19, 1885.

Essentially, the two-mile-long Leopold Vista Trail is a scenic, relaxing, easy hike suitable for all ages and physical abilities. However, it can also serve as a starting point for a more strenuous hike down Little Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek canyons to the San Francisco River, or an even more strenuous 1,300 foot climb to the top of Outlaw Mountain.

For the experienced and physically adept hiker armed with relevant 1:24,000 topographic maps, a compass, or preferably a good hand-held GPS, unlimited, off-trail, cross-country hiking and orienteering on Gila National Forest Land is possible to the north and west from several points along the Leopold Vista trail. Perhaps it is only by taking a cross-country hike to the north on a course that requires crossing several of the east to west drainages and intervening ridges and flats on the piedmont slope surface that one could gain a full appreciation of the challenges those early travelers, such as Coronado, calvary on patrol, or miners chasing the promise of gold and silver riches in early Mogollon, faced in traversing the Up and Down Country of Lower Little Dry Creek.

Yes, history abounds in the up and down country of Lower Little Dry Creek, both geologic and cultural.

Leopold Vista New Mexico

Looking southeast along Leopold Vista Trail

NOTE: While at first consideration this is an easy hike that traverses a nearly level landscape, it passes over very open terrain with little shade. Ample water, sunscreen, long sleeves and pants, and a wide-brimmed hat should be considered essential. Early morning or late afternoon would offer the best times for hiking, and Fall through Spring the best seasons. As always Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is happy to provide to our guests up-to-date conditions, directions, and maps for any of the hikes in the area.


Posted in fall, hiking | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment




Whitewater Baldy fire raging within the Gila Wilderness in the Mogollon Mountains on May 22, 2012

Whitewater Baldy fire raging within the Gila Wilderness in the Mogollon Mountains on May 22, 2012

It was early on the afternoon of May 16, 2012 while taking the trash from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses to the Gila transfer station, that one first noticed the fire about 25 miles away to the northwest: two small columns of smoke drifting lazily upward on the southern flank of the Mogollon Mountains. At that time the smoke seemed confined to two small areas, possibly the result of a controlled burn by the Forest Service. If not, one thought, then surely the Forest Service was aware of them since their presence and location could be readily seen from the Glenwood District Ranger Station. And surely, because of their apparent small size, they would be put out soon, and easily too. But, on both counts, it was not to be.

The Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire began with a single lightning strike, first detected on May 9, 2012, as a small quarter-acre burn isolated on steep, grassy slopes on the side of Mogollon Baldy, a 10,770-foot mountain at the western end of the Gila Wilderness. Soon named the Baldy Fire by the Forest Service, the fire was not considered serious initially because of low amounts of fuel and some residual snow in the area where it was burning. Because of this assessment, the Forest Service placed the fire in monitoring status.

Fire on the Mountain—the Baldy and Whitewater fires combine, May 22, 2012

Fire on the Mountain—the Baldy and Whitewater fires combine, May 22, 2012

Then, about a week later, a second fire, named the Whitewater Fire and also the result of a lightning strike, was detected on May 16, high up in the headwaters of Whitewater Creek on the western slopes of Whitewater Baldy Mountain, the highest peak in the Mogollon Range at 10,895 feet. By May 23, the two fires had merged as a result of three days of winds over 40 miles an hour, and had turned into a raging monster of an inferno, rapidly consuming vast stands of old growth spruce and fir across the highest portions of the Mogollon Range. The Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire was now a mega-fire, the size and intensity of which had not been seen within the Gila Wilderness in recorded history. The Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire was to burn for another two months. By the time containment of the fire was officially declared on July 17 and controlled status declared on July 31, the fire had burned over 297,000 acres, at an estimated cost of $100 million, making it the largest and most expensive fire in the history of New Mexico.

The progression, suppression, and aftermath mitigation efforts of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire are well documented and make for interesting reading. The five summary documents listed in the References at the end of this blog give a good overview of the fire from several perspectives, plus a current statement of fire fighting protocol of the U.S. Forest Service.

Almost immediately after the start of the Whitewater and Baldy fires, portions of the Gila Wilderness and surrounding National Forest were closed for safety reasons. Gradually, as the fire grew in size and magnitude, more and more areas had to be closed until virtually the entire western half of the Gila Wilderness and surrounding Forest west of the Gila River were closed to public access. This closure continued until August 9, 2013, when all areas and trails were reopened for public recreation and hunting.


Forest fires caused by lightning are but one element of a vast, complex, eternally evolving, interconnected web of Cycles of Natural Change that exist within every forest. Wildfires in forests are not new; they have been part of Nature since the first forests began to cover the land in the Late Devonian Period 385 millions years ago.

Painting of a Devonian Forest done by Eduard Riou in 1892

Painting of a Devonian Forest done by Eduard Riou in 1892

Considered from Nature’s perspective, forest fires are neither good nor bad; they are simply a Natural Process of Cyclical Change. When viewed from the Human perspective, however, few people appreciate such a philosophical position. No, for most people forest fires are typically considered either good or bad depending upon one’s personal values. Neutral or indifferent positions are rare, especially when it’s a fire coming to a forest near (or dear) to you. Yet the fact remains … inhuman as it is to say it … Nature Doesn’t Care. Only humans care. Unfortunately (or fortunately—your choice), humans care about, or value, different things, values that are often diametrically opposed and mostly irreconcilable. And there’s the rub when you start talking about wildfire in forests. Game hunters or ranchers, for example, typically view forest fires as beneficial in the long run because more grass-covered open land equals more game and more grazing! On the other hand, to the advocate of the endangered Spotted Owl or the devotee of majestic stands of old growth, pristine spruce and fir, or the owner of that little cabin retreat in the pines in a private inholding surrounded by National Forest, wildfire in the forest is a threat and should be stopped. And so it goes—different values, different perspectives. Our National Forests – Lands of Many Uses, Lands of Many Values.


Appreciation of the Forest Primeval—Recreational horseback riding in the Gila Wilderness in 1922.

Appreciation of the Forest Primeval—Recreational horseback riding in the Gila Wilderness in 1922.

Through the efforts of life-long forester, ecologist, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, the Gila Wilderness became the first Wilderness Area within the National Forest system on June 3, 1924.

Through the efforts of life-long forester, ecologist, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, the Gila Wilderness became the first Wilderness Area within the National Forest system on June 3, 1924.

The history of response to wildfire in the forest in the United States, especially in the American West where periods of extended drought are more common, has varied throughout our history. Prior to 1900, most people saw the American Forest as something to be used; lumber, minerals, potential farm or ranch land, source of food, etc., all God given and free for the taking. And from this perspective, fires in the forest were mostly considered not good, something to be feared and fought, and to be put out wherever possible. Unless, of course, one wanted to start one’s own fire and use it as a means to clear land for other uses. Concepts such as conservation and preservation were given little thought in the Western Frontier. By the early 1900s some scientists and naturalists, such as Aldo Leopold, were beginning to speak out about these concepts, as greater insight and understanding emerged regarding the role that various natural cycles, such as wildfire, played in forest ecology.

Then came the Great Fire of 1910, also known as the Big Burn or the Big Blowup. As inconceivably large as the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire at 300,000 acres seems to most people today, by Big Burn standards it would be considered perhaps nothing more than a good-sized brushfire. When the Big Burn Fire was finally extinguished by Mother Nature in the form of a cold front that brought major rain and snow, over 3 million acres or 4,700 square miles (roughly the area of Connecticut) had been charred over Northeast Washington, the Panhandle of Idaho, and Western Montana in >two days! Losses included the total destruction of 7 towns in Montana and Idaho, plus severe destruction in several others; the burning of an estimated 8 billion board feet of timber; and the death of 87 people, 78 of whom were firefighters (second only in US history to the death of the 343 firefighters in the September 11, 2001 attack). During this monumental firestorm, winds blew at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour. It is estimated that during the firestorm, the energy being expended was the equivalent of a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb detonating every two minutes!

Severe burn in a heavy stand of Idaho White Pine on the Little North Fork of the St. Joe River, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, 1910.

Severe burn in a heavy stand of Idaho White Pine on the Little North Fork of the St. Joe River, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, 1910.

With the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1910 came a National Policy for the newly established, five-year-old U.S. Forest Service: a non-negotiable policy of complete fire suppression. This far-reaching policy was to last until the 1960s when discussions began to take place at the National level regarding the recognition that fire in the forest was a natural process and that forests should be managed as ecological systems, a concept embracing the conviction that total suppression was not always the best solution. As a result of these discussions, and with the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, naturally-caused fires were permitted to burn within the newly-established Wilderness Areas. In 1968, the National Park Service policy regarding wildfire was likewise changed, recognizing fire as a natural process. As a result, wildland fires were permitted to burn within our National Parks as long as the fires achieved management objectives. Finally, in 1974, the U.S. Forest Service abandoned its 64-year policy of complete fire suppression (which had been formalized in 1935 by the adoption of the so-called 10:00 AM Policy, a hard-line, no excuse policy that mandated that all fires within National Forests would be suppressed by 10:00 AM the day after they were detected), and embraced a more ecologically-based policy of prescribed fire management involving both suppression, allowing certain fires to burn, and the setting of prescribed controlled burns. Since that time, the protocol for prescribed fire management has evolved as experience was gained from major fires that occurred within fire suppression or exclusion zones, wildfire escapes from controlled burns, and the extensive monitoring of naturally-occurring wildfires throughout the West. As a result of this experience, although today’s management programs will vary somewhat from agency to agency, the first priority and prime directive for all federal wildland fire programs is that of firefighter and public safety.


As of August 9, 2013, all areas of the Gila Wilderness that were closed in 2012 because of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire are once again open to the public. For the remainder of 2013, visitors to the Gila Wilderness and National Forest should be aware that some roads, trails and recreational areas are still being repaired or remain in poor condition as a result of the fire and subsequent damage from the 2012 and 2013 Monsoon rains.

Gila River at NM211 bridge at flood stage of 12,000 cubic feet per second on September 16, 2013.

Gila River at NM211 bridge at flood stage of 12,000 cubic feet per second on September 16, 2013.

The Monsoon Season for 2013, which began at the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses on July 1, is now over throughout the area, with the last rain received here on September 20. This year’s Monsoon Season was a long one, with most areas receiving substantial rainfall. Here at the Casitas total rainfall for the period was 11.4 inches, about twice the normal average. Higher elevations in the mountains and Wilderness areas, however, received greater amounts, with some areas, particularly in the western part of the Mogollon Mountains, reporting as much as 25 inches. While the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire covered a vast area of the Gila Wilderness, the most severely burned areas also occurred in the highest elevations in the western part of the Mogollon Mountains. Consequently, serious flooding occurred here in the latter part of the Monsoon Season, particularly in the Whitewater Creek, Silver Creek, Mineral Creek, and Gilita Creek drainages, leading to downstream damage in the communities of Alma, Mogollon, and Glenwood.

Hiking a forest trail up Whitewater Canyon towards the Gila Wilderness, September 2, 2013.

Hiking a forest trail up Whitewater Canyon towards the Gila Wilderness, September 2, 2013.

During the Fall Season from late September through December, hiking, birding, touring, camping, and other recreational pursuits are at their best in the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness. Typically the skies are clear, the air cool and crisp, and precipitation nil, with rivers and creeks running at normal levels and clear. This statement, of course, was significantly compromised last year in the aftermath of the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, with major trail, road, and area closures; rivers and creeks running black from colloidal ash and silt runoff; and charred, barren landscapes in the high country. This year, just one year later, however, visitors to the area will once again be able to experience the solitude and magnificence of the Gila Country and all that it has to offer.

Looking north into the Mogollon Mountain High Country towards West Baldy Mountain (9,875 ft.) on left and Sacaton Mountain (10,658 ft.) on right, from burned piñon-juniper area on Sacaton Mesa on September 6, 2013. Photo shows distribution of both unburned spruce-fir conifer (dark green) and new shrub and tree growth (light green and yellow) one year after Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Looking north into the Mogollon Mountain High Country towards West Baldy Mountain (9,875 ft.) on left and Sacaton Mountain (10,658 ft.) on right, from burned piñon-juniper area on Sacaton Mesa on September 6, 2013. Photo shows distribution of both unburned spruce-fir conifer (dark green) and new shrub and tree growth (light green and yellow) one year after Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Completely burned area of piñon and juniper showing rapid regeneration of flowering plants, shrubs, and scrub oak on September 6, 2013, one year after Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Completely burned area of piñon and juniper showing rapid regeneration of flowering plants, shrubs, and scrub oak on September 6, 2013, one year after Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Hiking up mountain creek on September 6, 2013, the trail passes through fire-scorched ponderosa pine trunks from spotting ground fire set by wind-carried embers from Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Hiking up mountain creek on September 6, 2013, the trail passes through fire-scorched ponderosa pine trunks from spotting ground fire set by wind-carried embers from Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Most popular day trips and hikes along roads and trails within the lower elevations and periphery of the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness show little or no sign of burning from the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire since the most severe burning was confined to the highest elevations in the interior of the Wilderness. Where such effects are encountered they tend to be isolated and small in area extent, the result of localized fire spotting from wind blown embers. Most lower elevation canyons and creeks show minimal effect, whereas adjacent ridge-tops may exhibit more extensive burning.

Alligator Juniper seedling growing at base of stump of juniper tree burned by Whitewater-Baldy Fire one year later, on September 6, 2013.

Alligator Juniper seedling growing at base of stump of juniper tree burned by Whitewater-Baldy Fire one year later, on September 6, 2013.

A short distance further up the same creek, the forest is untouched and remains in pristine condition.

A short distance further up the same creek, the forest is untouched and remains in pristine condition.

During forest fires in the Gila National Forest, firefighters will, wherever possible, protect historic structures such as this old miner's cabin by wrapping them in fire retardant material.

During forest fires in the Gila National Forest, firefighters will, wherever possible, protect historic structures such as this old miner’s cabin by wrapping them in fire retardant material.

It is true that some favorite area trails in the high country are difficult to access and traverse, and will remain so for considerable time, as many of these areas were greatly changed by the fire. Yet if one does choose to travel these areas, one will be impressed to find a forest well into comeback mode, with much of last year’s barren landscape now showing an abundant growth of new grass, shrubs, and young trees. The Natural Cycle of Forest Regeneration and Succession has begun. And if one is able to focus on the present and what will eventually be again, without excessive obsessing on what once was, such a visit offers the potential for a rewarding experience of observation and insight as to how Nature never gives up, but instead adapts and perseveres within the never-ending Processes of Cyclical Change.

Immediately following the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, mountain streams draining the area ran black with ash and silt, but one year later, following the 2013 Monsoon Rains, all rivers and creeks have been flushed out and are once more running crystal clear and pure.

Immediately following the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, mountain streams draining the area ran black with ash and silt, but one year later, following the 2013 Monsoon Rains, all rivers and creeks have been flushed out and are once more running crystal clear and pure.

Crystal clear mountain stream running across lime green welded tuff bedrock near end of hike in the Gila National Forest on September 6, 2013.

Crystal clear mountain stream running across lime green welded tuff bedrock near end of hike in the Gila National Forest on September 6, 2013.

When planning a hike or visit within the Gila National Forest or Wilderness this Fall or Winter, it is strongly suggested that one contact the Gila National Forest District Ranger Station in Glenwood (575-539-2481) regarding road and trail conditions in specific areas, as maintenance and repairs following the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire will be ongoing during this time period. Visitors that have computer access will find the Google Earth program to be of great value in planning and previewing a hike or outing since new high-definition imagery of the Gila Wilderness was taken this year on February 22, 2013. By comparing this imagery with the newly revised map of the Gila National Forest that came out on September 13, 2013, one should be able to determine probable conditions on various trails and roads.

Here at Casitas de Gila we do our best to stay updated on existing conditions on various roads and trails and are always happy to provide information and maps for our guests. And, as always, we will be pleased to give full directions and information regarding any hikes discussed or pictured in this blog.


These reports and documents present a good detailed summary and statistics of the beginning, progression, and aftermath of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire.

  1. Wildfire Review Report of Whitewater-Baldy Complex and Little Bear Fires in New Mexico, May through June 2012 (.pdf file), William A. Derr, Legislative Fellow for Steve Pearce, Member of Congress, Second District, New Mexico.
  2. Narrative of Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire May, 23rd, 2012 to June 19th, 2012 (.pdf file), Observations and actions by Doug Bohykin, Socorro District Forester, NM EMNRD, Socorro District, New Mexico.
  3. Whitewater Fire, A Lasting Legacy (.pdf file), Alan Campbell.
  4. Whitewater-Baldy Complex, Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team, Executive Summary, Glenwood, Reserve, Black Range, and Wilderness Ranger Districts Gila National Forest (.pdf file)
  5. 2013 U.S. National Forest Service Wildland Fire Response Protocol (.pdf file)


Posted in Gila National Forest, Gila Wilderness, history, nature, wildfire | Tagged , | 6 Comments

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



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