Big Tree Trail

January 15, 2022

Silver City is situated on the southern border of the Gila National Forest, a 3.3-million-acre region in southwest New Mexico. This national forest, which is just slightly smaller in acreage than the state of Connecticut, includes 170 miles of the Continental Divide and ranges in elevation from 4.500 feet in the Chihuahuan Desert to nearly 11,000 feet at the summit of Whitewater Baldy. In its boundaries are three national wilderness areas (in which the only travel permitted is by foot, horseback, or canoe; there are no roads):

  • Gila Wilderness, which was the nation’s first designated wilderness (established on June 3, 1924); 558,065 acres
  • Aldo Leopold Wilderness, named for the great conservationist who’d urged the establishment of the Gila Wilderness; 202,016 acres
  • Blue Range Wilderness, which adjoins Arizona’s Blue Range Primitive Area along the borders of the two states; 29,304 acres

The Gila National Forest also includes Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, the home to Mogollon Native Americans in the 13th century which was established as a national monument in 1907.

It’s also home to a number of developed campgrounds, one of which is the Cosmic Campground: the first designated International Dark Sky Sanctuary in North America as well as the first to be situated in a national forest. Dark Sky Sanctuaries are areas established to preserve their light-free environments at night; they’re great for stargazing and other astronomical research.

Nancy and I planned to go to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, where dogs aren’t allowed, on Sunday, January 16, and the dog-boarding business in Silver City didn’t accept dogs on Sundays, so we dropped Gunther off on the morning of January 15 (he had a terrific time on the weekend, by all accounts) and headed to one of the many hiking trails in the Gila National Forest, Big Tree Trail.

True to its name, the Big Tree Trail leads to an alligator juniper tree that towers over most of the other trees in the area. The trail connects with a number of other named trails in the immediate area, making for a number of different one-way and loop hiking options. Our hike turned out to be a five-mile loop, and it was a fantastic experience.

The trail is mostly level and wide, with great views of the mountainous region all around. There are a number of different types of pine and spruce trees, along with a wide variety of grasses, shrubs, and even lichen (note the yellow lichen on the rock in lower right). We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, but did spot and hear a couple of woodpeckers at work.
Before we get too far down the trail, however, I wanted to share this photo of the parking lot at the trailhead for the Big Tree trail. This was about 9 AM on a Saturday morning. That’s our pickup on the right and the Jeep on the left arrived a couple of minutes after we did. Anyone who’s tried to find parking at a trailhead within an hour of a Front Range city in Colorado, especially on a weekend, will understand why I wanted to take this photo.
This is not the Big Tree, but Nancy and I both remarked on its pleasing symmetry. It was a beautiful day for a hike.
While there are great vistas to be enjoyed, the trail is also heavily wooded in places and it’s difficult to see what’s ahead of you. However, it was readily apparent, even before seeing the wooden fence around it that this is indeed the Big Tree. It’s in a very pretty grove about two miles from the trailhead. The U.S. Forest Service, which ought to know, ranks this tree as the second largest alligator juniper in all the land. It’s 63 feet tall, and its trunk has a diameter of 70 inches and a circumference of 18 feet.
The crown spread of the Big Tree is 62 feet: it’s nearly as wide as it is tall. Perhaps the Big Tree’s most impressive statistic, though, is its age: according to the scientists, it’s 600 years old. The Big Tree had already been growing in this forest for 70 years when Columbus set sail for the New World. Standing under its boughs was a mighty rewarding experience for both Nancy and me.
You may rightly wonder how the alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) got its common name. If you figure it out, please let Nancy or me know.
Anything green on the ground (that’s not evergreen) in the middle of January tends to stick out. Although most of the foliage on the trail was dormant on our hike, I noticed this little green plant under the Big Tree (that’s one of the corner fenceposts on the left; Ken’s hiking poles are on the right). It’s white horehound, which has been valued for its various (and purported) medicinal properties for centuries. It’s also used in the making of horehound candy, which Ken really, really likes.

After a pleasant snack break at a picnic table underneath the Big Tree, we began our return to the trailhead.

We took a different route back, which included a stretch of trail along this bosque growing next to a seasonal waterway. It’s probably quite lovely to listen to the cottonwoods when they’re leafed out.
I liked the different colors of lichens on this basalt. There are about 3,600 known species of lichens in the world. Lichens are actually two different organisms in a symbiotic relationship: fungi and algae. Fungi help in the decomposition of organic matter but they don’t produce their own food; the algae do that for them. The basalt rock was ejected from a volcanic eruption millions of years ago; the Gila National Forest was the site of many eruptions over the millennia.
This picture was taken close to the trailhead on our return to the pickup. This pretty cluster of black-spined agave reminded us, although we’d walked through patches of snow on our hike, that we were still in the Chihuahan Desert.

The Big Tree hike was immensely rewarding, and Nancy and I are looking forward to enjoying more hikes in the area when we return to Silver City.

2 thoughts on “Big Tree Trail

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  1. I love your pictures of Gila National Forest and the Cliff Dwellings. I can feel the warmth of the sun from the dazzling blue sky and I’m aware of all the scents as I meander along. Thanks Ken!

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