Tuzigoot National Monument

March 19, 2022 – Clarkdale, Arizona

We enjoyed a one-week stay in Camp Verde, Arizona, in mid-March of 2022, which allowed easy access to two National Park Service (NPS) sites. The first was Montezuma Castle National Monument, a cliff dwelling on which construction began a thousand years ago and which we visited on a couple of consecutive weekday late afternoons. The second was Tuzigoot National Monument, another ancient Native American dwelling site located about 20 miles northwest of Camp Verde. Tuzigoot was declared a national monument on July 25, 1939. Nancy and I visited the monument on a pleasant but overcast Saturday in mid-March.

Look closely at the top of the tower: that’s a group of about a dozen people. Tuzigoot is a big place.

Like the nearby Montezuma Castle, the Sinagua Native Americans began construction on Tuzigoot pueblo about a thousand years ago. Also like Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot is misnamed: it’s a corruption of the Tonto Apache phrase “Tú Digiz,” which means “crooked water” and refers to a bend in the nearby Verde River. The pueblo, located on a hilltop with 360-degree views for miles around the area, featured 110 rooms.

The proximity to Montezuma Castle, and to other pueblo communities like those in New Mexico’s Aztec Ruins National Monument and Bandelier National Monument, as well as Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, points to the fact that the residents traveled frequently between the dwellings and traded ideas and goods with each other. Again, much like the other pueblos in the area, the dwellings were abandoned beginning in the 1300s most likely due to a variety of reasons (depletion of natural resources, climate change, possible threats from other native cultures) rather than just one. Also, the Hopi, who count themselves among the Sinagua culture’s descendants, believe their forebears were naturally nomadic and didn’t like to stay in one place for too long.

The Tuzigoot National Monument experience begins with the site’s visitor center, which is itself a historic structure (although not as historic as the pueblo, since the visitor center dates only to 1936). The visitor center was built as a museum by local Clarkdale residents, who also helped professional archeologists with the initial excavation of the Tuzigoot pueblo. The center contains actual artifacts – not reproductions – that were found during the site’s excavation in the 1930s.

Here we see a Tuzigoot visitor (it’s Nancy), freshly armed with knowledge gained from the visitor center as well as a pair of binoculars, ready to begin her 1/3-mile trek to the pueblo. The center is a really cool building, both on the inside and the outside.

The visitor center is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a collection of 3,158 objects, not all of which are on display. The collection includes ollas (large pottery pieces serving as bowls or baskets), woven baskets, projectile points, and jewelry.

The visitor center has an extensive collection of artifacts from the Tuzigoot pueblo as well as from other ancient communities. Men and women from Clarkdale logged more than 34,000 hours excavating and conserving more than 150 pieces of pottery. These pieces, acquired back in the day by trading with natives from neighboring pueblos, date from the years 800 to 1375.
I really enjoyed these twig figures that represent mammals – they date from 4,000 to 2,000 years ago, but you probably read that. They’re each about four to six inches wide.
This example of a reconstructed wall from the pueblo shows how thick the structures were. That NPS flyer, placed helpfully by a visitor (me), is 8.25 inches wide. As anyone who’s ever built a pueblo knows, thick walls make for good insulation. Summer temperatures in the Verde Valley reach into the 90s, and wintertime lows commonly dip into the 30s.
We were happy to have some excellent birdwatching opportunities at Tuzigoot. This lesser goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) was singing a happy tune just outside the monument’s visitor center. These may be the smallest finches in the world: males generally range from 3.5 to 4 inches long and weigh between a quarter ounce and four-tenths of an ounce. Much of their diet consists of dandelion seeds.
The visitor center also has a nice native plant collection. This is a specimen of ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), which translates to “stay far, far away” in Spanish (not really). Although it looks like a cactus, it’s genetically related more closely to tea and blueberries (really). Ocotillo can grow up to 30 feet tall and is sometimes planted as a living fence.
Desertbroom (Baccharis sarothroides) is a flowering shrub native to the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Tea made from steeping the twigs helps alleviate pain from sore muscles. The plant is rich in compounds that reduce cholesterol and serve as an antioxidant. However, there’s also evidence showing that ingesting the compounds has its share of negative side effects so don’t go drinking that tea just yet.

The Tuzigoot site was first described by Anglo-Americans in the 1850s but wasn’t professionally excavated for nearly a century after that. Following the departure of the Sinagua, centuries of neglect, along with countless rain- and snowstorms, freezing temperatures, and the desert heat, left the pueblo in severe disrepair. The site was first excavated in the early 1930s and Portland cement was used to stabilize the rocks. Unfortunately, that material can, over time, damage the original rocks used in the buildings. In the late 1990s, researchers began to replace the Portland cement with mortar that is a better match with the bonding materials that were used a thousand years ago during initial construction.

This is from the top of the highest tower in the pueblo, looking southeast. The trees just on the other side of the meadow indicate where the Verde River flows. A couple of visitors to the left of the fence on the right side of the image provide a sense of scale. The pueblo was built on a hill that’s 120 feet higher than the surrounding terrain.
Nancy and I are fond of pointing out signs like this, which are necessary for exactly one reason.
This rock wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) was also happily singing, but on the rocks of the pueblo. They are also a very small bird, about 5-6 inches long and weighing half an ounce. Rock wrens are known for laying down a pathway of small stones outside their nests, which are located in rock crevices or in tree stumps.
Tuzigoot visitors are allowed to enter some of the rooms. This one allows access, via a steep set of stairs, to the top of the tower shown in the first photograph. The ceiling shows the viga-and-latilla (large logs crossed with perpendicular smaller logs) ceiling that also served as the supporting floor for the upper story.
Looking southwest from the high tower of Tuzigoot, the town of Jerome, Arizona, is visible from the top of the pueblo. Five centuries after the Sinagua left Tuzigoot, Jerome was founded at this location because of the nearby hill featuring a large capital letter “J.” I’m just kidding with you right now: the town was founded there because of the presence of immense amounts of copper underneath it. The copper mines have since played out. In 1930, Jerome had a population of close to 5,000 people and it now has around 500 residents. Also note the snow on the nearby mountains; Jerome is about 100 miles north of Phoenix and lies at an elevation of about 5,000 feet.

The 190-mile-long Verde River, which flows to the north and east of the Tuzigoot pueblo, drains an area of almost 6,200 square miles. The Verde flows just a few feet from where our campsite was in Camp Verde, which derives its name from the river. It eventually empties into the Salt River east of Phoenix, which in turn flows into the Gila River west of the city. A nice trail leads north from the Tuzigoot visitor center to a natural area called Tavasci Marsh (named after the family that once owned a dairy there). About 10,000 years ago the marsh was part of the river but it has since been separated through erosion and other geological forces to become a separate, but connected, wetland. There were, hundreds of years ago, many marshes in the Verde Valley. They’ve since been drained for human development and pasturelands, and today marshes are very rare in Arizona. The trail is a half-mile walk to an observation deck that overlooks the marsh, and there are more opportunities for birdwatching and plant appreciation.

I really like this plant, which we’d also seen at Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona. It’s desert Christmas cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis), and its pretty red berries were used by Native Americans to create an intoxicating beverage.
Sparrows aren’t generally thought of as especially attractive birds (I disagree), but the black-throated sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) is definitely an exception. These desert natives are 4.5 to 5.5 inches long and weigh about half an ounce. Black-throated sparrows are extremely well-adapted to their desert habitat (they’re also known as desert sparrows in the southwest); while they get a lot of their moisture from water sources during wet times, during dry periods they derive almost all of their necessary moisture from eating insects. This handsome sparrow was hanging out near the trail to Tavasci Marsh.
It wouldn’t be a visit to a Sonoran Desert site without seeing the strawberry hedgehog cactus. They just have ridiculously long thorns compared to their body size.
This is Tavasci Marsh, one of the few remaining wetlands of its type in Arizona. Nearly 245 species of birds have been documented in this riparian area and the marsh attracts plenty of other wildlife – none of which happened to be visiting during our time overlooking the area, but that’s totally alright because we saw plenty of other birds on the trails during our visit.

Tuzigoot National Monument is a fine example of the diversity of ancient Native American pueblos. As conserved by the National Park Service, the monument is a great opportunity to not only learn about its former residents, but to also see some great natural attractions.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

March 14 & 15, 2022 – Near Camp Verde, Arizona

Having nothing at all to do with Montezuma, the early 16th-century emperor of the Aztecs (known now as Moctezuma II), nor a castle in any sense of the word, Montezuma Castle National Monument is still a very rewarding site to visit.

It was very convenient to visit Montezuma Castle in the late afternoons after the workday ended, but the shadows weren’t conducive to good photos. However, we really appreciated our two visits to the monument.

Because access to enter the actual structures is limited to those who really need to go in them, the park also focuses a lot on native species of flora found in the region and provides a lot of interpretive signage next to examples of plants to explain how the plants were used by the occupants of the dwellings. As an (extremely) amateur botanist, this was fine by me.

This pretty shrub is four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens), named for the four-winged bracts on its berries. Everything on the plant – the leaves, fruits, seeds, and young shoots – is edible. The ashes from burned saltbush leaves make a type of baking soda which fortifies baked goods; the leaves can also be used to relieve pain from insect stings.

We were able to make a couple of late weekday visits to fully explore this monument, which is located just a few miles north of our campground in Camp Verde, Arizona. It was also the first opportunity for Gunther to earn a B.A.R.K. Ranger certification (more on that later).

Montezuma Castle includes a 20-room structure, as well as several smaller dwellings on the same cliff face. The area was established as a national monument on Dec. 8, 1906.

The structures in the monument were built by the Sinagua, Native Americans who migrated to this area about 1,400 years ago and began building the cliff dwellings about a thousand years ago – hundreds of years before Moctezuma II was born. The current name of the monument, Montezuma Castle, comes from European Americans who in the mid-1800s were extremely interested in the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures of present-day Central America and wanted to bestow exotic names on nearly everything they found.

Creosote bush (Larrea tridendata) is one of the oldest species of plants on the planet. Some stands of the bush grow in the same location for thousands of years. Its leaves definitely have an earthy smell like you’d experience after a rainshower. Native Americans used parts of the plant to treat a variety of ailments ranging from infections and toothaches to nausea and sprains.

The cliff dwellings are built in Verde Formation limestone, a relatively soft sedimentary rock. Over millions of years, the erosional forces of water and wind have had their way with the limestone to carve many holes into the rock. The erosional holes that are enlarged by humans into structures are called cavates by archeologists. At Montezuma Castle, most cavates extend about 10 feet into the cliff. By closing up naturally open spaces, and building exterior and interior walls with masonry, the Sinagua were able to construct secure housing for their culture.

This collection of 20 rooms belonged to multiple Sinagua families, very similar to today’s apartment buildings.

The Sinagua built and occupied the dwellings between the years 1100 and 1425, leaving the residences about 70 years before Columbus set sail. Montezuma Castle was at the crossroads of a Native American trading network that stretched from the coast of present-day California to eastern New Mexico, and from Utah into Mexico. That central location provided the Sinagua with many resources that weren’t available in the Verde Valley:

  • Obsidian, used for projectile points, came from the San Francisco Mountains north of the castle
  • Wild game and plants were taken from the Mogollon Rim, located east of the structure
  • Strong trading relationships with the Hohokam culture, in present-day southern Arizona, provided much more than was available in the Verde Valley

Contrary, perhaps, to popular opinion, because of that trading network the Sinagua had an awareness of their world that stretched for thousands of square miles.

Where the Sinagua went, and why, after about the year 1425 is still up for debate, but most researchers believe the exodus was due to at least one of three factors: drought, depletion of food resources, and threats from newly arrived cultures.

The Hopi culture, which may be descended partially from the Sinagua, believe this structure wasn’t meant to be the final home of their ancestors. When a culture stays too long in one place, the Hopi believe, environmental disasters and societal collapses remind them of their migratory nature – and they move on. The Zuni and other Puebloan groups are also said to be descended from the Sinagua.

The Apache name for catclaw acacia, ch’ill gohigise, means “a bush that scratches you.” The long and sharp thorns of catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii) are best avoided, but ancient peoples relies on many different parts of the bush for food and the branches are used to make furniture and drumsticks. The honey made from this tree’s blossoms is especially prized for its delicate nature. This specimen is growing directly in front of the dwellings; there’s an doorway visible behind the bush (and accessible only by ladder). We first saw catclaw acacia in late February 2022, when we visited Fort Bowie National Historic Site in southeast Arizona.

Between 1991 and 1994, an inventory of the plants and animals at this national monument was taken by a team of researchers from Northern Arizona University and the United States Geological Survey. That research resulted in the cataloging of 784 species of plants and animals in this 859-acre (less than 1.5 square miles) site; only 11 percent were non-native species.

A level and paved trail passes in front of the five-story castle, allowing visitors to see different perspectives especially as the sunlight changed. The Sinagua made improvements and additions to the castle over a 300-year period beginning around the year 1130.
In the American Southwest, plants with protective thorns – well beyond species of cacti – are very, very common. The catclaw mimosa (Mimosa aculeaticarpa) has the nickname “wait-a-minute bush” because it catches unwary hikers’ clothing. Catclaw mimosa is a genetic cousin of the catclaw acacia, and honeybees also seek out this acacia’s blossoms for their nectar.

Looters of the 19th century took many of the contents of the structures, and today the ruins are open only to scientists for research, inspection, and maintenance. This is in contrast to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southwestern New Mexico, in which visitors are allowed to enter the structures. Part of that policy us is perhaps due to proximity. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is one of those places you have to want to get to, since it’s nearly a two-hour drive from the closest large city; Montezuma Castle is just a couple of miles off Interstate 17 in central Arizona. About 350,000 people visit Montezuma Castle each year; Gila Cliff Dwellings gets about 42,000 visitors annually.

The modern structure at the bottom of the photograph is a kind of amphitheater in which U.S. national park rangers provide talks about the history and culture of Montezuma Castle. I wish we could have seen the castle with better lighting; as always, I blame the sun.
In autumn, the netleaf hackberry (Celtis laevigata) produces berries with high levels of calcium. The leaves are used to treat digestive disorders, and the bark of the tree can be woven into sandals.

Montezuma Castle National Monument was established by the administration of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. During his administration (1901-1909), five national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, and 51 bird sanctuaries. In all, Roosevelt authorized a total of 230 million acres (almost 360,000 square miles) for the enjoyment of future generations like ours.

Reaching up to 120 feet high, Arizona sycamores (Platanus wrightii) are some of the state’s largest trees. When seasoned properly, the logs stay structurally sound for hundreds of years: there are Arizona sycamore beams inside Montezuma Castle still supporting roofs, 700 years after they were first placed.

We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife while at the monument (Nancy and I were both surprised at the number of late-day visitors each day, but that was probably due to the monument’s easy access from the Interstate); however the habitat’s diversity (holes in cliffs to dry meadows to riparian areas) supports all kinds of bats, foxes, mice, owls, songbirds, snakes, lizards, and turtles.

These partially reconstructed ruins are just a few steps down the trail from the vantage point underneath the castle. Smaller cliff dwelling structures were located above these rooms.

Being open only to researchers is also due to the fact that ladders must be used to access the cliffside ruins: the buildings were definitely at least partially planned with defense in mind. Additionally most of the cliff faces south, which allows the dwellings to be warm in the winters and cool in the summers. The elevated location also protects the dwellings from occasional flooding of Beaver Creek, which flows beneath the cliffs.

Oneseed juniper (Juniperus monosperma — hey: I can figure out that Latin!) provided the Sinagua with wood for cooking, heat, and light, as well as shelter. The branches are also boiled for treating stomach disorders. When we’re hiking, Nancy and I really enjoy finding juniper berries — they smell really, really good. I love the character of this juniper’s trunk.
This is Beaver Creek, which flows a few hundred feet south of the main cliff dwellings at Montezuma Castle. Residents of the cliff dwellings dug ditches to transport water for irrigating corn, beans, squash, and cotton crops that were planted on land by the creek. The large tree on the far bank of Beaver Creek is an Arizona sycamore.
Providing food and shade, the Arizona walnut tree (Juglans major) was named ch’il nehe (“nuts you pound”) by the Apache. The thick husks of the walnuts were also ground to produce cloth, hair dye, and paint.
Here we see a monument visitor and her dog (it is Nancy with Gunther) passing underneath the branches of a western soapberry (Sapindus saponaria) tree. The tree produces small yellow berries, but the fruit is harmful when eaten. Despite their toxicity (and true to the tree’s name), the berries are used to make soap for laundry, shampoo, and general bathing. You can also see an interpretive sign next to the tree; that signage adjacent to the plants and trees is where I got most of the background information for this posting.
This is a view of Beaver Creek looking to the southwest. A few dwellings, much smaller than the main one we first encountered, were built in the cliffs on the right side of the photo. The creek was prone to flooding in spring, which was one reason the dwellings were built high on the cliffs.
Here’s a plant that should be familiar to many: the prickly pear cactus, in particular the Engelmann’s variety (Opuntia phaeacantha). This most common of Arizona’s prickly pears is still widely eaten throughout the southwest (after removing the spines). The pads, called nopalitos in Spanish, can be steamed, fried, pickled, or roasted. The fruits after flowering, too, are edible and are used to make jelly as well as to create red dye. This specimen was just outside the visitor center at Montezuma Castle National Monument.
Un cactus más para ti: the desert Christmas cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis). In December of each year, this cactus produces a bright-red fruit which is crushed and made into jam. We saw some of these plants at Saguaro National Park near Tucson and would see additional specimens of desert Christmas cactus in a few days, at Tuzigoot National Monument.

The National Park Service has a pretty nifty program in which dogs can earn their B.A.R.K. Ranger certification in certain parks and monuments. Gunther knows, and you should too, that B.A.R.K. Rangers:

  • Bag your poop. Always have your humans bag and dispose of your waste properly.
  • Always wear a leash. When in the park, always wear a leash (6 feet or less) and don’t let your humans leave you unattended.
  • Respect wildlife. Don’t harass or harm wildlife by making noise or chasing them.
  • Know where you can go. B.A.R.K. rangers are permitted in parking lots, campgrounds, picnic areas, roads, and designated trails.
Park Ranger Stephanie greets the newest B.A.R.K. Ranger, Gunther, at the Montezuma Castle National Monument Visitor Center and congratulates him on his many achievements.
Here’s Gunther relaxing in the Goddard with his certification (the inside is signed by Ranger Stephanie). Good job, Gunther!

The B.A.R.K. Ranger program is really clever: it keeps dogs out of hot vehicles while their owners visit national parks and monuments, while encouraging those owners to be responsible for their pet. Since that great day at Montezuma Castle, Gunther has also earned B.A.R.K. Ranger certification at Petrified Forest National Park, also in Arizona, and Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico. Look for future blog postings about those visits and more, and look for Gunther on the trails!

Saguaro National Park

March 12, 2022 – Tucson, Arizona

Nancy and I visited Tucson in 2010 in part to see the Colorado Rockies baseball club play a spring training game. It was their last spring in Tucson, as they moved their training operations to Phoenix the next year. We got a rental car at the airport, and driving away from the airport and into Tucson proper, we saw a saguaro (pr.: sah-WAH-row) cactus growing by the side of the road. We were so excited that we almost stopped and took a picture of it.

We needn’t have. We saw a lot more saguaros on that trip. They’re fairly common in the Tucson area, but not as common as they used to be because of land development and agricultural practices. Protecting a forest of saguaro cactus was the impetus behind the establishment of Saguaro National Monument in 1933, and the area was elevated to a national park in 1994.

The national park is divided into two districts, Rincon Mountain on the east and Tucson Mountain on the west, with the city of Tucson in the middle. We visited the Rincon Mountain District in mid-March, and enjoyed a five-mile loop hike (with only 185 feet gain in altitude) on the Loma Verde Trail.

I think this is a fairly typical image that most people see in their minds when they think of Arizona: flat, hot, and not a lot of plants, with some mountains in the background. But there’s a lot of diversity in this photo: several different species of cacti, some grasses, and a palo verde tree on the right side. There are a lot of palo verde (Spanish for “green stick”) trees in and around Tucson. They are the state tree of Arizona, and easily live for 100 years and in some cases 400 years.

During the hike, Nancy and I saw a lot of different kinds of cacti and succulents, some nifty birds, and a group of three German tourists with whom I briefly practiced mein Deutsch. (Me: “Woher kommen sie?” They: “Deutschland.” Me: “Willkommen!” And then we went our separate ways.)

The Loma Verde (“green hill”) Trail allows hikers to walk next to the impressively tall saguaros. The cacti usually grow up to 40 feet in height, and many have eight or more arms branching from their trunks. They are found only in the Sonoran Desert of southwestern Arizona, southeastern California, and northern Mexico.
Saguaros grow very slowly: just about an inch to one-and-a-half inches in the first eight years of their lives. At 70 years of age, a saguaro will be about 6 feet tall and can start producing flowers. A 15-foot-tall saguaro is probably 95 to 100 years old, and will only start producing its first arm at that age. The spiral-looking cactus on the right was germinated around 1950 or so, and the ones on the left and center were most likely germinated in the mid- to late 19th century. The tallest saguaro on record, one growing near Cave Creek, Arizona, reached 78 feet into the sky. It was felled by a windstorm in 1986; because the plants’ root systems reach only a few inches into the soil, their great weight makes them susceptible to toppling.
The pleated structure of a saguaro allows it to expand during periods of heavy rainfall. Its roots may extend only three or four inches underground, but they draw in a lot of moisture: a 40-foot saguaro that’s full of rainwater can weigh 2,000 pounds, and taller and wider cacti can weigh seven tons.
Among the 25 species of cactus in the national park, including saguaro, are seven species of cholla. This specimen of staghorn cholla, spanning about five feet wide, was one of the largest we saw.
This is a very common type of cactus in the southwest United States: it’s a fishhook barrel cactus, named so because of its formidable curving thorns.
Some cacti say “Stay away,” and others scream it loudly. This strawberry hedgehog cactus is one of the latter.
This is desert globe mallow. While they can grow up to 3 feet tall, this particular one was only about 12 inches high.
This flowering shrub is called fairy duster. Its blossoms are an important source of nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies.
One of the features of the Loma Verde Trail is a very short spur that leads to the top of Pink Hill (where we gained most of that 185 feet in altitude). This is looking west from the top of the hill toward the Tucson Mountains, and you can see part of Tucson at the foot of the mountain range. The Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park is to the right of the mountains.
This is a cristate, or crested, saguaro. The scientists aren’t entirely sure what causes the growth pattern at the top, whether it’s a genetic mutation or damage caused by lightning strikes or freezing, but it’s pretty rare: only about 25 saguaros in the park, which has thousands upon thousands of them, have this fan-shaped feature.

Damage from freezing temperatures is a real threat to saguaros. A record cold snap in Tucson in 1937 caused many of the huge cacti to die a few years later. In the 1960s researchers discovered that exposure to 20 straight hours of sub-freezing temperatures can kill a saguaro. As recently as 1980 there were predictions of saguaros being extinct by the 1990s. The cacti have recovered, however: there are now plenty of healthy saguaros in the park.

Many birds make their nests in the protective height of saguaros. The holes are originally made by Gila woodpeckers or gilded flickers, and then when they leave the cavities are occupied by a number of different other birds including owls, finches, and sparrows.
Hikes with unexpected surprises are always fun. This is the site of the Loma Verde Mine, a copper and gold venture in the 1880s. It had a 350-feet-deep shaft. Although the copper ore was fairly high-grade, the mine soon closed and the shaft was filled by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews in the 1930s.

I couldn’t find online why the Loma Verde Mine closed, but I do know that it’s remarkably hot in Tucson. It was in the low 80s in mid-March when we visited the national park. I’m writing this post on April 27, and Tucson recorded its first 100-degree day of 2022 yesterday.

I learned a valuable bird photography lesson while taking this photo. From an eighth-mile away, the object on the right top of this saguaro appeared to look through my telephoto lens to be another bud of cactus growth. However, I took a picture anyway in case it was a bird of some kind. The picture didn’t turn out very well because it was from 700 feet away. From about 150 yards, it still appeared to be a cactus bud, but I took another photo anyway (this one) so that I’d have a better picture of a possible bird. From about 50 yards, it was clear without looking through my telephoto lens that it was only a cactus growth so I didn’t take any more pictures of it (I already had plenty of pictures of cactus from 150 feet away). Then, at about 40 yards, the cactus growth lifted its wings and flew off to the west. It was, in fact, an American kestrel, North America’s smallest raptor and a bird that I have really, really wanted to get a good picture of for several years. This terrible photo will have to do for now.
Here we see an intrepid hiker making her way past some saguaros on the Loma Verde Trail. Who knows what she’ll see around the bend of the trail? (It’ll be more saguaros.) Note the large number of bird-nest cavities in the cactus nearest the trail – it’s like a condominium building.
This cactus is at least 50 feet tall and looks like it has some stories to tell. Maybe while giving you a big hug …
… but you probably wouldn’t want it to. This is a closeup of the top of a three-foot-tall saguaro growing next to the trail. It’s definitely a cactus.
This photo gives an idea of the number of saguaros in the park – they’re in good shape for now, but it’s only because of the establishment of the national park that we get to see them in this quantity.

As is the case with all of the national parks and monuments we’ve visited, our experience at Saguaro National Park was fantastic. We’ll likely go to Tucson again in the coming years, and we’ll definitely travel to the other district of the park where we’ll hopefully see … more saguaros!

Chiricahua National Monument

February 13, 2022 – 35 miles southeast of Willcox, Arizona

The Chiricahua Apache culture entered what is now the southwestern United States sometime between the years 1400 and 1500. They were nomadic, moving with the seasons as hunting and farming conditions changed. Being a warrior was a sacred honor for both genders of Apaches. They began training at a young age, and worked to reach a peak level of physical training. The warriors were trained to become completely still and disappear into their surroundings. The coming-of-age test for a warrior was to run for two straight days with no food or sleep.

The Apache Wars, which began in 1849 when white emigrants began moving through the region and ended in 1886 with the surrender of Geronimo and his followers, ended the Chiricahua historic way of life. The Native Americans were removed to reservations in Oklahoma and Florida, and Geronimo died at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1909. In 1913, the Apaches were no longer considered prisoners of war by the U.S. government and about two-thirds (only 183 individuals) moved from Fort Sill to the Mescalero Apache Reservation, which had opened itself to other bands of Apache, in south-central New Mexico just east of the present-day White Sands Missile Range. The rest, less than 80, remained in Fort Sill; the descendants of both groups still live in those respective areas today.

The drive from the monument’s visitor center to Massai Point, one of the monument’s higher points and the location of a number of hiking trailheads, gives an idea of the nature of the rock pinnacles.

Chiricahua National Monument, established in 1924 about 35 miles southeast of Willcox, Ariz., was part of the Apache band’s homeland. Today it’s a federally protected area measuring just under 20 square miles in area containing forested slopes, incredible rock formations, and sweeping vistas of southeast Arizona. Nancy and I visited the monument on Feb. 13, 2022. Since dogs aren’t allowed on the monument’s trails, Gunther took a break from sightseeing for the day.

The monument’s rock formations are the result of eruptions 28 million years ago from the Turkey Creek Volcano, the 12-mile-wide caldera of which is in the mountains on the horizon 10 miles away from this viewpoint. This photo was taken from Massai Point, looking to the southeast.

Perhaps the monument’s most famous features are its rock columns, resulting from a series of volcanic eruptions that occurred 27 million years ago from a magma chamber south of the present monument. During the eruptions, immense quantities of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and molten rock were thrust into the atmosphere. Other eruptions caused flows of gas and ash to flow down the volcanic slopes at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. When the eruptions subsided, more than 1,200 square miles of land was covered with thousands of feet of ash. The deposits, called tuff, compressed and cooled over the ensuing years to form a rock called rhyolite.

This view, to the northwest from Massai Point, includes the large rounded mountain at right-center called Sugarloaf. At 7,310 feet, it’s the tallest accessible point in Chiricahua National Monument. Sugarloaf has thick layers of fragmented rock capped with hard lava. It might be hard to imagine, but all of the rocky area 2,000 feet below Sugarloaf was once a solid layer of rock all at the level of the top of that mountain. A variety of erosional actions, some more active than others, over the 28 million years since the eruptions have caused the lowering of the elevation and the fantastic carved rock columns. There’s a fire lookout, staffed during the hottest months of the season, at the top of Sugarloaf.

This is a mountain called Cochise Head, from a viewpoint looking northeast from Massai Point. It’s said to resemble the rugged face of a Chiricahua lying on his back. Fort Bowie National Historic Site, which we visited the previous weekend, is just on the other side of this rock profile.

Here’s a view to the northeast of Massai Point, with Harris Mountain in the middle of the wide desert San Simon Valley. The Harris family had been part of a wagon train moving west in 1873. The family attempted to take a shortcut through these Chiricahua Mountains and disappeared. Several years later, soldiers from Fort Bowie found one of the Harris girls in an Apache camp in Mexico. The girl related the story of a Native American attack and led the soldiers to the spot at Harris Mountain where the rest of her family had been killed. The soldiers found the bones of the Harris family and buried the remains.
One last image from Massai Point: this is another view to the southwest. We were fortunate to visit on a clear day, because we could see the location of Cochise Stronghold (a sanctuary for the Chiricahua chief and his final resting place) 40 miles away, as well as Rincon Peak (elevation 8.482 feet) and Mica Mountain (elevation 8,666 feet) in Saguaro National Park near Tucson (which we’d visit in a few days after Chiricahua National Monument). The 23-mile-wide Sulphur Springs Valley is between Chiricahua and the closest mountains.

Let’s get back to rocks: the pinnacles in Chiricahua National Monument are formed by erosion. Cooling and uplift of the rocks formed cracks and joints in the tuff. Over millennia of weathering from ice wedging and water erosion, the cracks widened and weaker materials washed away to leave spires of rock. Here’s an interactive exercise: hold up your hand in front of you with your fingers straight and close together (go on: it’s fun!) Imagine that your closed fingers are a wall of volcanic rock, with your fingers separated by joints in the rock. Now slowly separate your fingers, as millions of years pass and countless freeze and thawing cycles of ice, as well as other erosional actions, wear down the rocks between your digits. Congratulations: you’ve created rock spires – told you it was fun.

The pinnacles were later smoothed by wind, chemical action, and further water freezing and thawing over the last 10,000 years to their smooth and rounded shapes. Here we see an intrepid hiker (it very well be Nancy) making her way toward the columns on a trail called the Echo Canyon Loop.

We went on a 5-mile loop hike from Massai Point that dropped about 1,000 feet into Echo Canyon. It was an incredible hike that allowed us to walk among the pinnacles, as well as see wonderful views and a variety of plants and wildlife.

When the flows of hot ash settled to the earth, the heat they contained, combined with the immense pressure of layer after layer of ash, welded the material into solid rock. That welding action wasn’t always enough to transform the ash into solids; some layers cooled too quickly to weld together, and remained softer than other areas. There’s a hiker (in purple on the left) behind this column to give a sense of scale; also note the evergreen shrub growing out of the top of this column. Many years ago, the seed of that shrub was dropped into a crevice in the top of the rock (perhaps by a bird or a breeze); the seed germinated and the roots of that growing shrub are now helping to expand the crevice even further. We saw many cases of that happening: grasses, shrubs, cacti, and trees, growing in loose material in rocks and those plants’ roots helping to slowly but surely break those rocks apart, especially as rainfall and snowmelt freezes and expands in the crevices.
Those layers in the rocks are seen in this photo. Also note the green material that’s on the rocks (and seemingly every other rock in the monument).
Here’s a closeup of that green material: lichen, along with several other different-colored varieties. Lichen, too, is an erosive factor for rocks. Lichen is a plant-like composite organism (but not a plant) that attaches to rocks and organic materials like tree trunks. In their very slow growth cycle, they release weak acids that contribute, day by day over the centuries, to the breakdown of rocks.
There are about 20,000 species of lichen in the world, and there are at least four of them in this picture. I have a hard enough time remembering how to tell sparrows apart and I’m not about to try learn how to identify lichen (but I like ’em)!

We got a really good sense of just what nature is capable of doing, given enough time, during this hike. I was especially struck by how some rocks have broken off, through erosion, from their original formations but didn’t end up on the ground.

Check out the placement of the rocks at the top of the column on the left: the larger rock at the top right of the column is probably seven or eight feet long. There’s no way these were placed by people.
It’s just crazy.

There were other types of erosion on view as well. Running water can be an incredibly effective factor for erosion, especially given enough time.

This is a rock formation on the trail called “The Grottoes.” The smooth sides of the rock walls in the center of the photo were created by year after year of water running through the opening.
Check out this weathering in the solid rock. A helpful passerby (again, most likely Nancy) provides a sense of scale; like most thoughtful hikers, she’s not actually touching the rock so that others can enjoy this formation for years to come.
Again, just fascinating. I wonder if this and the previous formation were formed by softer materials being caught in the ash flow before it solidified, and then wearing away before the surrounding rock could.

There’s more to enjoy in Chiricahua National Monument in addition to rock formations. The only wildlife we saw was a chatty acorn woodpecker and some acrobatic swallows swerving through the rocks, but we saw a good variety of plants. The varying topography and elevations in the monument lend themselves to supporting a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and other plants.

Here are two species of oak trees growing just a couple of feet apart from each other along the Echo Canyon Trail. The one on the left is netleaf oak (Quercus rugosa) and on the right is silverleaf oak (Quercus hypoleucoides). With enough water, silverleaf can grow up to 60 feet tall. That’s not happening in this desert canyon; both of these were two-feet-high shrubs.
This is narrowleaf four-o’clock, a wild close relative of the four-o’clock annual plant that’s popular in gardens. Four-o’clocks have been cultivated since the time of the Aztecs. I think we were a bit too early to see it in bloom.
Here, though, is a plant in bloom. This purple prairie verbena was attracting a large black butterfly that wouldn’t stay still for a picture.
This is a very common type of cactus called strawberry hedgehog, growing in a rhyolite crevice along the trail. It has pretty fearsome spines.
This was an extraordinarily rewarding hike. We seemed to stop every few paces just to enjoy the formations and views.
We were a little surprised to see this good-sized spring at about the halfway point of our loop hike. It provided a little rivulet of running water further downstream.
Just another example of nature being absolutely wild sometimes. This is a formation of rocks alongside part of the hike called Hailstone Trail. I’d love to find out how these rocks were formed, as well as some of the other atypical formations earlier in the hike. We had a blast at Chiricahua National Monument and will definitely return to get those answers.

Fort Bowie National Historic Site

13 miles south of Bowie, Arizona – February 6, 2022

Apache Pass is a natural low geologic divide in southeast Arizona separating the Dos Cabezas (Spanish for “two heads”; see more below) Mountains from the much larger Chiricahua (pr. “cheer-uh-cah-wah”) mountain range. Apache Spring, a year-round source of flowing water near the pass, is the main reason many thousands of people traversed the pass beginning in 1848 through the end of the U.S. Army’s conflicts with Native Americans in the mid-1880s. Horses and people needed water to keep moving, and Apache Spring was the only dependable source of water for many miles. From the end of the Mexican War in 1848 through the end of the Apache Wars (1862-1886), Apache Pass provided a corridor for travelers between El Paso and Tucson. Once the southern route of the intercontinental railroad was completed in 1880, the pass became less important for travelers and commerce since trains weren’t as dependent on water as horses were. Until then, Apache Pass was an important point in the expansion of the American west: many thousands of people and great tonnages of goods found their way to the West by traversing the pass.

Chiricahua Apaches lived in this area for many years prior to other cultures entering the Apache Pass region. The pass was identified by both Spanish and, later, Mexican forces during their respective control of the area in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Many Anglos first used Apache Pass on their way to the California gold fields in 1849. In 1858, the U.S. Congress authorized the development of an overland mail route, operated by the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. In operation between 1851 and 1861, the Butterfield route took advantage of Apache Spring to water its horses.

Apache Pass was also the site of the Bascom Affair, a conflict between Chiricahua leader Cochise’s band of Apaches and the U.S. Army in 1861. The Bascom Affair was the beginning of a decade of conflict between the Chiricahua and the Army, and led to the development of Fort Bowie to protect travelers using the pass and spring.

In 1872 the U.S. government struck a peace accord with the Apaches, establishing the Chiricahua Apache Reservation. For four years things went pretty smoothly, but the Apaches began to flee the reservation and conduct raiding parties into Mexico; the military presence in the pass subsequently increased. Geronimo eventually surrendered to the Army in 1886. Between the removal of the Native Americans and the completion of the railroad, the need for the U.S. military in the pass disappeared. Fort Bowie’s last garrison left the fort in 1894.

Fort Bowie National Historic Site, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and located about 35 miles from Willcox,, preserves some of the building ruins and other features of a U.S. Army outpost built in the 1860s to protect travelers using Apache Pass from Native American attacks. In addition to fort ruins, this 1,000-acre site also features a number of other interesting historical areas, all of which are accessible by a 1.5-mile hike from the parking lot to the site’s visitor center.

Nancy and Gunther and I visited Fort Bowie National Historic Site in early February. It was an immensely rewarding experience, from both a historical perspective as well as a natural history view.

The site is unique in that visitors are encouraged to hike 1.5 miles to the visitor center rather than simply driving to a visitor center parking lot and then hiking from there; it’s certainly possible to drive to the center and park, but you’d miss out on a lot of natural and historical points of interest.

One of the first historic stops on the trail is this view of the camp site for a survey party led by Lt. John Parke of the Topographical Engineer Corps in March of 1854. The party, searching for an all-weather route for a transcontinental railroad, had marched 55 miles through the desert prior to reaching Apache Pass and the spring. The men rested at this spot for two days, enjoying both easy access to water and the companionship of the then-friendly Apaches. Parke would find an easier route for a railroad to the north of the pass, and the rail line was completed in 1880. The route, which passes between present-day Willcox and Bowie, is still in use today; there was puh-lenty of railroad traffic passing through Willcox while we stayed there.

The Bascom Affair

The next significant event, from an Anglo perspective, in the Apache Pass region occurred in January, 1861. A boy named Felix Martinez Ward was kidnapped by Apaches when the Native Americans raided the Ward family ranch. Lieutenant George Bascom was put in charge of the U.S. Army’s effort to find the boy. Bascom arrived in the Apache Pass area on Feb. 4, 1861, with a detachment of 54 men and camped in the area shown above. Cochise, the famous Chiricahua Apache chief, was invited to meet with Bascom. The young lieutenant accused Cochise of kidnapping Felix Martinez Ward, and Cochise denied the claim. Nevertheless, Bascom ordered that Cochise and his party be held hostage.
The Bascom camp was just on this side of the hill shown above. Cochise escaped from the tent in which he’d been held and ran up the hillside. Cochise used a knife that he’d hidden to cut through the tent’s fabric; Cochise’s action is still remembered as “Cut the Tent” by the Apache today. The other Chiricahua, including members of Cochise’s family, were recaptured by U.S. forces. Bascom moved his detachment to a stage station nearby and fortified that building, apprehensive about what might occur during the night.
These are the ruins of the Butterfield stage stop where Bascom and his soldiers sought refuge. Built in July 1858, the station had walls that reached up to 8 feet high. The morning after Cochise escaped, Apache warriors approached the station and told Bascom that Cochise wanted to talk. The meeting progressed for about half an hour before ending abruptly; one of the station workers had been captured by the Native Americans. Shots were fired and in the following weeks Cochise took more captives, attempting to exchange them for his family and other warriors held by the U.S. Army. Those talks failed as well, and Cochise killed the hostages; the Army retaliated by killing the Apaches in their custody.

The Bascom Affair ignited more than 20 years of conflict between the Chiricahua Apache and the United States government. Significantly, Felix Martinez Ward had indeed been kidnapped by Apaches but not by Cochise’s Chiricahua. He was raised among the White Mountain Apache and, as an adult, became a scout and interpreter for the U.S. Army.

The Butterfield Overland Mail route passed through the center of the area shown in this photo (I think the trail is a modern hiking one, not a remnant of the stage trail) and passed by the stage stop. In 1857, the U.S. government awarded John Butterfield a contract to carry mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. The stage coaches took 25 days to complete the 2,500-mile route. The Chiricahuas permitted the passage of the stages for two years; in exchange for gifts, the Apaches provided firewood for the stage station. Butterfield used smaller mule-driven coaches for this mountainous stage of the route, as opposed to larger horse-driven coaches on either end of the line.

The company received $600,000 per year to carry the mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. Butterfield started with 2,000 employees, more than 250 coaches, nearly 2,000 horses and mules, and 240 stage stations along the route.

After the stage stop ruins, the next stop along the trail is the post cemetery for Fort Bowie.

The cemetery actually predates the fort, as some U.S. Army soldiers were buried here in 1862. In addition to soldiers, the cemetery held the remains of the soldiers’ families, civilians, emigrants, mail carriers, and three Apache children, one of whom was Geronimo’s two-year-old son. About a half-year after the closure of Fort Bowie, most of the remains were reinterred at the San Francisco National Cemetery. However, the graves of 23 civilians are still here.

The next significant stop on the trail to the visitor center is the ruins of the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency.

Cochise died of natural causes in 1874 on the Chiricahua Reservation. Before his death he’d befriended a U.S. Indian agent named Thomas Jeffords, who governed almost a thousand Apaches from this agency from 1875-1876. The U.S. government removed Jeffords from this agency in June 1876 and relocated 325 Apaches north to the San Carlos Reservation. Many of the Chiricahua fled the reservation, however, and resumed hostilities with Anglos that would continue for another decade. The ruins of this agency were excavated in 1984. The building had three rooms, each with its own fireplace, and wood floors. National Park Service conservators have stabilized the ruins with plaster to slow their erosion; an ill-behaved dog at right provides a sense of scale.

A recreation of an Apache camp is a little ways further down the trail. The surrounding area, although rocky and mountainous, provided everything that the Chiricahua needed to make their home here: water from Apache Spring, wild game, edible plants, and materials for building shelter, weapons, and tools. The Chiricahua culture centered around the wife’s extended family; after marriage, the husband entered into the family and committed to supporting his wife’s relatives. While the men hunted and participated in raiding expeditions, the women maintained the wild food crops.

The camps consisted of small groups of several wickiups, built from a pole framework and covered with long grass and animal hides, like this one. Because of inconsistent food supplies and threats of enemy attack, the camps were not permanent and the Apaches moved often. Here we see a big baby absolutely terrified of what unimaginable horrors might wait in the dark depths of the wickiup recreation (there was nothing, as it turned out), accompanied by Nancy.
We got Gunther as an eight-week-old puppy in early November 2019, just a couple of months before the pandemic started, so he grew up in the last couple of years not having a whole lot of exposure to new experiences. For instance, we were made to realize he’d never been very close to horses when we went to Tombstone a few days after this hike. Once he gets used to new things, he’s generally okay with them. He gets along great with other dogs and people (and horses, once he’s seen one). He’s a really good dog, although I think he prefers hikes that have a lot more walking and a lot fewer opportunities to learn about history than this one did.

The Battle of Apache Pass

In mid-July, 1862, a guard of about 100 California Volunteers marched through Apache Pass toward the San Simon River in order to build a supply depot in that area. When the column approached the Butterfield stage station, which had by then been abandoned, it was attacked by Cochise, his ally Mangas Coloradas, and about 150 Apache warriors. The Californians drove the Apaches into the hills shown above, only to find that the Native Americans had taken up new positions around Apache Spring. After another attack, the Californians finally reached the spring and drove the Apaches away once again. The Battle of Apache Pass, July 15-16, 1862, led to the establishment of Fort Bowie.

We were on this trail in early February and were plenty warm; I cannot imagine what it would have been like to engage in battle with Apaches in mid-July, and while trying to fight your way to water.

Apache Spring

This is what all the deadly fighting over the decades at this site was about: Apache Spring, the only year-round source of water in the region. Archeologists have found pottery fragments around the spring that suggest the Mogollon Native Americans were here many years before the Apache came to this area.
Apache Spring averages a flow of about 5 gallons per minute, but that can vary significantly depending on the time of year and recent precipitation amounts. It’s not a big outflow, but it’s wet and that’s all that matters. This little rivulet a few yards from the mouth of the spring is about a foot wide. Fort Bowie is a quarter-mile further down the trail.

The First Fort Bowie

A 500-yard spur from the main hiking trail leads to these ruins of the first Fort Bowie. Construction started in July 1862 following the Battle of Apache Pass and the U.S. Army’s control of Apache Spring. A 100-man detachment of the 5th California Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Col. George Washington Bowie, completed the fort in two weeks. Incidentally, this instance of “Bowie” is pronounced “BOO-ee,” not “BOH-ee.” Also, that tree growing in the middle of the ruins is a catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii). Its Apache name is “ch’il gohigise,” which means “a bush that scratches you.” It has very sharp and claw-like thorns, but its seed pods were a significant food source for the Apache and they used the wood to make furniture and drumsticks. Bees are attracted to the catclaw’s blossoms and make a very distinctive honey.
Although the Apaches didn’t control the water at Apache Spring any longer, they continued to attack travelers that weren’t being protected by the U.S. Army as they traversed Apache Pass. This first fort was only in use for six years as the California Volunteers pursued the Apaches with little success. It was apparently not an enviable duty post because of the extraordinary isolation, constant illness, poor living conditions, and consistent threat of Native American attack. I’d think, however, that the original builders would be pleased to know that the walls they constructed are still standing, in the heat of the Arizona sun, 160 years later. Regular U.S. Army soldiers relieved the volunteers in 1866 and began construction of the new Fort Bowie, 300 yards northeast of this location.
This picture was taken looking to the southwest of the hill on which the first Fort Bowie was built; I’ve indicated the locations of several stops on the trail. The location of Apache Spring is not in this photo; it’s to the right of the area shown in the picture. The prominent mountain in the background is Government Peak, elevation 7,556 feet.
As we approached the visitor center, we encountered a herd of 10-12 mule deer about 100 yards away. They gradually made their way up the opposite hillside, blending really effectively into the rocks and brush of the area.
This is the visitor center for the Fort Bowie National Historic Site. At the end of the 1.5-mile hike, it’s an impressive structure that overlooks the site of the second Fort Bowie, and has a wonderful wraparound patio with plenty of rocking chairs and benches from which to admire the view. The building contains artifacts from the fort and other items representative of military life in the late 19th century; we didn’t spend much time in the building because due to Covid concerns NPS was understandably limiting how many people could be inside at the same time. That’s what is left of the fort’s armory on the left side of the image, well removed from the original site of the fort itself.
Like the Indian agency from down the trail, there’s not much remaining of Fort Bowie. The mounds you see in the middle foreground are walls of the fort’s buildings that have been covered in plaster by NPS conservators in an attempt to preserve as much of the original construction as possible. This picture is taken from in front of the visitor center, looking to the northeast.
This is a picture of a picture of Fort Bowie from January 1894, at the height of its presence at Apache Pass. For a perspective, the angular hill at the top left of the previous photo is the same one at the top center of this one. The tall building on the right side of the photo comprise the commanding officer’s quarters and in front of that structure are the officers’ quarters. The hospital is to the left and up the hillside a bit from the CO’s quarters. The low buildings at left are the corrals and stables; behind those are the ice machine and steam engine. In total, there are about 38 buildings in this photo. With the Apache Wars ending after Geronimo’s final surrender in 1886, the Army occupied Fort Bowie for eight more years. The U.S. Army abandoned Fort Bowie nine months after this original photo was taken. Area residents stripped the wood from the buildings for their own uses, and all that was left were adobe walls.
Here’s a view over the ruins looking southeast from the visitor center’s railed porch, where Nancy and I sat on rocking chairs while enjoying a picnic lunch. Gunther collapsed in the shade of the porch. Some of the fort’s ruins can be seen in the mid-foreground as light tan mounds. You may have noticed the prominent rock formation in the background in previous photos; it is called Helen’s Dome, elevation 6,376 feet. The granite peak is reportedly named after the wife of an officer at Fort Bowie, and served as an important landmark for travelers approaching Apache Pass.

After the visitors center, hikers can either retrace their steps back to the trailhead’s parking lot or use an alternate route that provides a different perspective on the surrounding area. We chose the latter.

This spectacular view shows the valley of the eastern approach to Apache Pass and the Peloncillo (Spanish for “little baldy”) Range, 35 miles away on the horizon, and just beyond those mountains lies the New Mexico/Arizona border.

We also decided to drive back to The Goddard by a different route, making a loop between Willcox and Bowie on either end. It gave us a chance to see some different country, and I’m glad that we did.

This is the rock formation that gives the Dos Cabezas (“two heads” in Spanish) Mountains their name. It doesn’t take much imagination to see faces in the rocks, especially the one on the left. This formation is about 15 miles due west of Willcox; it’s easily visible from the town (I enjoyed watching the colors of the setting sun on the formation while playing with Gunther in the campground’s dog run), but this perspective from the opposite side definitely shows you why it’s named what it is.
We also passed this red-tailed hawk, perched on a roadside fencepost, on the way back to Willcox. It let me take five or six pictures before taking off. That’s snow-covered Mount Graham in the background, but from the opposite side of where we saw it while staying in Safford, Arizona.

We really enjoyed Fort Bowie National Historic Site. This was a “the journey is the destination” sort of experience — while it was interesting to see the ruins of the actual fort, the hike to those ruins, and the natural and cultural historic points we saw, was more rewarding. Hiking in the same paths that Cochise and Geronimo once walked, and learning more about the conflicts between the Chiricahua who lived here and the U.S. Army, is something that we’ll always remember.

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.

Rockhound State Park

December 12, 2021

One of the few state or national parks where one is encouraged to bring home natural souvenirs, Rockhound State Park is located about 7 miles southeast of Deming, N.M., along the western flank of the Little Florida Mountains. Nancy and I learned, prior to coming to Deming, that Florida in the case of the mountain range is pronounced “flor-EE-duh,” in the Spanish way, much like the Arkansas River is the “ar-CAN-zus” River in Kansas. The Little Florida Mountains are adjacent to the Florida Mountains, separated by a valley. Rockhound a fairly small park, with only about 1.5 miles of hiking trails in the main part of the park. However, it has great views not only of the Floridas but of the open desert to the west, and you can take home up to 15 pounds of rocks! The park has plenty of rocks for the taking, including jasper, rhyolite, and perlite, and geodes – round rocks that have a solid or partially filled (usually with quartz) cavity – can be found as well. The campground in the park has 29 sites.

True to their name, the Little Florida Mountains are a range about three miles long. Rockhound State Park lies between the Little Floridas and the Florida Mountain range, which is about 12 miles long and has mountains ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation. Volcanic activity from millions of years ago is responsible for the appearance of the mountains, as well as the type of rocks at their base.
This is a rock that was in the hiking trail; the photo shows an area about a foot wide. I thought it was a very striking rock (some rocks are more striking than others, I’ve found), and it’s held up to thousands and thousands of footsteps. This is jasper, one of the more common minerals in Rockhound State Park. Jasper is from the quartz family and can be red, yellow, brown, pink, white, or all of the above.
Rockhound also has a plethora of prickly pear cactus.
Rock hound at Rockhound. I told Gunther he’d have better luck at finding the really good rocks if he looked at the ground rather than at the sky, but what do I know?

I believe there’s a state park in Arkansas (pr. ARR-kan-saw) that allows visitors to take home any diamonds they find, but I think Rockhound is the only other park that encourages its visitors to bring away mineral resources. I brought two specimens back to the Goddard.

This is a small sample of perlite,, which is a natural type of glass that is formed by quickly cooling lava that has a lot of silica in it. Perlite is mined in northern New Mexico, and it’s later heated to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit when it forms small white balls that are used in construction products, filters, and gardening products (gardeners often add perlite to soil to keep it from compacting too much). The ballpoint pen at right is for scale only; it didn’t come out of a volcano.
You might think this is petrified wood, and you’d be wrong. This is a mineral called rhyolite, which is found throughout Rockhound State Park (as opposed to petrified wood, in which Rockhound is sorely lacking). The banded contortions show how lava flowed during volcanic eruptions.

We weren’t in the part of the park that featured geodes just laying around, but we saw some really pretty rocks nonetheless and enjoyed a pleasant hike with Gunther. The views, too, were just beautiful, especially looking to the open spaces of the desert to the west. We also brought home two specimens to add to the Goddard’s growing gem and mineral collection, which now numbers two.

Hiking at Petroglyph National Monument

November 7, 2021

Gunther, Nancy, and Ken went for a very interesting hike on Sunday, Nov. 7, at Petroglyph National Monument on the west side of Albuquerque. It’s about six or seven miles away from the campground at which we’re staying, and a couple of the trails there allow dogs. The Rinconada Canyon trail, about two and half miles long, has several hundred of images like this carved into the rocks. Not all of them are visible from the trail, and some disappear and reappear depending on the angle of the sun.

The canyon and surrounding area are covered with fairly large basaltic rocks from volcanic eruptions that occurred a couple hundred thousand years ago. The rocks contain a lot of metallic minerals such as iron and manganese, and, when exposed to water and sun over the millennia, the rocks turn nearly black. The people who lived in this region used tools to carve abstract designs as well as depictions of animals and people into the basalt. Although some of the petroglyphs in the monument are 3,000 years old, most date from between A.D. 1300 and A.D. 1700. The people who carved them didn’t live in what is now the monument; they lived closer to the Rio Grande river that flows through present-day Albuquerque, five or six miles away.

This is obviously a bird of some kind. It’s about a foot wide.

This one is pretty wild. Although it looks like a piece of modern art, a sign on the trail stated that it’s been dated to have been carved around the same time as the other petroglyphs. It really makes one wonder what was going on in the carver’s mind. It’s maybe 18 inches tall.
This rock has what appears to be a carving of a mule deer on the bottom, and some other kind of quadruped in the top left.
Unless you’re next to the Rio Grande, central New Mexico is definitely a desert environment. Although it was a very pretty day in early November, we both decided we wouldn’t have wanted to be on the trail in July or August. I don’t know nearly enough about cacti to be able to say what this is, but we knew enough to stay well away from it.

It was a very pleasant hike, and Nancy and I learned a lot. Standing on the sandy trail, it was pretty easy to picture the people using stone tools to carve the designs and wonder what their day-to-day lives were like. The petroglyphs are an extraordinarily significant cultural resource to native and Mexican cultures, and the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque are making great efforts to preserve the area and the petroglyphs. The NPS website, recognizing the cultural sensitivities involved with the carvings, doesn’t include photographs representing the human figure on its online pages.

A Hike on the Hogback Trail

October 28, 2021

Nancy and I took a long lunch break to enjoy a hike above the Lathrop State Park campground. The Hogback Trail is a loop providing incredible views of the Spanish Peaks, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, and the area to the north of the park including Pikes Peak (14,115 feet).

East Spanish Peak (on the left, 12,683 feet) and West Spanish Peak (13,326 feet) are a pair of mountains formed by igneous intrusions (lava flow) that overlook the two lakes of Lathrop State Park. West Spanish Peak is the easternmost mountain in the United States with an elevation greater than 13,000 feet. They were prominent landmarks on the Santa Fe Trail in the early 19th century. The Sangre de Cristo mountain range, topped with an early snowfall, is on the right.
The same igneous intrusion process that formed the Spanish Peaks also formed a number of volcanic dikes in the area, including the hogback on which we were hiking.

The famed photographer William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), whose images chronicled the American Civil War as well as the growth of the American West (his famous photograph of Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross, along with other images of the areas around present-day Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, convinced many people in the east that they needed to travel west), visited the area that is now Lathrop State Park in the 1880s. A short spur hike from the Hogback Trail takes one to the spot where Jackson took the photograph below; I took the one below that one about 120 years later (with the only lens and camera that I had on the hike, so it’s not a great match). Still, a pretty neat experience from a historical perspective.

Image courtesy History Colorado.

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