We made our first visit to Petrified Forest National Park on March 25, 2022, restricting our time to only the northern, smaller section of the park. That part doesn’t have much in the way of petrified wood, but it has plenty of awe-inspiring views. We returned the next day, with Gunther, to experience the southern side, and we did see some fossilized wood. And how!
Petrified Forest National Park, which measures about 350 square miles, receives about 600,000 visitors per year. That number, while impressive, makes it just the third-most-visited national park in Arizona, following Saguaro National Park in Tucson (1 million visitors per year; Nancy and I were two of those people a couple of weeks earlier) and the most-visited park in all the land, Grand Canyon National Park (4.5 million). Incidentally, Rocky Mountain National Park in north-central Colorado is just behind Grand Canyon, at 4.4 million visitors per year. If you’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park in the last 20 years and felt a bit cramped, it’s probably due to 4.4 million other people visiting a park measuring 415 square miles.
But we’re here to talk about rocks. A piece of petrified wood isn’t really wood any longer: it no longer contains any organic material and it is most definitely a rock. The process of petrification takes several important factors, including a tree, water, sediment, and time. Lots and lots of time.
Let’s start at the beginning. The scientists believe that the trees in Petrified Forest National Park were alive between 210 and 227 million years ago. At that time, the Late Triassic Period, the current area of the park was just north of the equator – in fact, it was close to where Costa Rica is today. The land was much different then: covered with forests of immense trees as well as large rivers and other wetlands. Huge amphibians and early dinosaurs roamed the forests and dwelled in the rivers. (Although there were many dinosaur species in the ensuing years, famous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops wouldn’t appear until the Late Cretaceous Period, almost 160 million years later.)
Many of these coniferous trees (there are nine species identified in the park; all are now extinct) grew to be enormous: some may have grown to 200 feet in height. When the trees died they lost their branches and bark, then eventually toppled over after being undercut by a river. If the tree fell into the river, it may have eventually been covered in sediment being carried by the waterway. This relatively rapid burial is critical to later petrification: the water sealed the dead tree away from both oxygen and bacteria, which helped prevent decay. That delay gave time for silicic acid in the rivers to percolate throughout the tree. This process chemically altered the wood into a mineral called opal that still retained the tree’s fine features, like the grain of the wood, or indications of where branches once sprouted from the trunk.
Converting the wood into opal took only a few thousand years. Further layers of sedimentation over millions upon millions of years would cover the logs with tons upon tons of soil and rock. This process recrystallized the logs, converting the opal into quartz and a few other minerals. Over many other ensuing millions of years, erosion and geologic upheaval brought the logs back to the surface of the earth to once again see the light of day – this time as petrified wood.
Now that you know the factors involved in creating petrified wood, can you name the states in our country that contain it? The answer is below – keep on scrollin’!
The visitor center at the southern end of the park, which is part of the original monument created in 1906 (it was made a national park in 1962), contains some interesting fossils of both trees and animals. The fossilized remains of many amphibians and some dinosaurs dating to the time that the trees were alive have been discovered in the park (and the process for creating animal fossils is much the same as that used to create petrified wood). The museum also exhibits some handwritten letters: apparently, some visitors over the years were unable to withstand the temptation (and federal law) to leave the petrified wood where it lay within the park. Upon their return home with a fossilized wood souvenir, some of them inexplicably fell into bad fortune, such as personal or business relationship issues, and returned the rocks via mail, with an apologetic letter, to the national park.
After going to the visitor center and museum, and walking the Giant Logs Trail behind the building, we decided to go on a longer walk to see some more rocks. The Long Logs Trail, located a short distance from the visitor center, is so named because some of the petrified wood is more than 180 feet in length.
About the states that contain petrified wood: were you able to name them? If you named all 50, you’re correct. Although each U.S. state contain some amount of petrified wood, northern Arizona is able to display one of the largest concentrations in the nation because of the geologic upheaval processes that brought the logs to the surface of the earth.
Progressing east and west, Interstate 40 divides Petrified Forest National Park into northern and southern sections. The interstate generally follows the path of historic U.S. Route 66, which connected the midwestern United States to the country’s west coast in the first half of the 20th century. Although Route 66 stretched more than 2,200 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, Petrified Forest is the only national park with former segments of the historic highway within its boundaries. The area south of the interstate, much larger in size than the northern part, contains most of the petrified wood specimens in the park. The northern area, however, boasts incredible roadside vistas of the Painted Desert and a sizable national wilderness area. Nancy and I visited the northern part of the park in late March. Gunther stayed with Rusty in the Goddard, but Nancy and I would enjoy the dog’s company when we returned to the park the following day.
We briefly stopped in at the northern visitor center, which was undergoing significant renovation at the time, then proceeded to drive along a route that included a number of overlooks of Petrified Forest National Park.
I decided to use my 14mm wide-angle lens for taking pictures the day we visited the Painted Desert. I got it a couple of years ago to primarily take pictures of the night sky but thought its properties would help capture the feeling of the vast open landscapes of Petrified Forest National Park. There is a disadvantage to using this lens, though: it’s not automatic, so the aperture, ISO, and other settings all must be set manually. I’m no good at any of that. Many of the photos I took were over- or under-exposed, and I had to make manual adjustments using a couple of pieces of photo editing software.
Petrified Forest National Park contains only a small part of the Painted Desert, which stretches across almost 8,000 square miles of northeastern Arizona. The colorful rocks, primarily mudstone and sandstone, of this region are called the Chinle Formation. Deposited from 227 to 205 million years ago during the Late Triassic Period while most of the land area on Earth was on the single supercontinent Pangaea, the rocks have been buried, lifted, and eroded during Pangaea’s breakup and shift into today’s major continents.
During the Late Triassic Period, the land comprising Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park was located just north of the equator and supported a much different environment (different enough, for example, to support a forest of 180-foot-tall trees that would later become petrified). As Pangaea divided, the land mass migrated north and the land itself underwent massive changes.
The Chinle Formation is itself divided into five members: Mesa Redondo, Blue Mesa, Sonsela, Petrified Forest, and Owl Rock. Each member represents a transition of the land from wet to dry environments over millions of years: the Mesa Redondo, the oldest layer and therefore the one underlying the rest of the formation, consists of red sandstone originally laid down 226 million years ago, and the youngest, Owl Rock, includes pink and orange mudstone at the top of the formation that was deposited 207 million years ago.
Older rock formations in the Painted Desert are at the bottom of the geologic column, and the layers of rock grow younger in age as the elevation increases. The colors of these rocks come from the iron they contain. Drier climates allow the minerals to become exposed to oxygen, causing the iron to rust and develop distinctive red, brown, and orange colors. When the climate is wet, moisture essentially covers the sediments and prevents their oxidation. Those layers are colored blue, gray, and purple.
Nancy and I took a short hike along the rim of the basin, and one of the highlights of that walk was a stop at the Painted Desert Inn, which was originally built as a respite for travelers on Route 66. The highway passed just a short distance south of the building, and a spur road brought visitors to the inn for refreshments.
The interior of the Painted Desert Inn now serves as a visitor center for the Painted Desert as well as a museum with artifacts from the inn’s heyday. It’s all very impressive and you’re going to have to take my word on that because none of the pictures I took inside turned out.
Despite my photographic foibles, we really enjoyed this first visit to Petrified Forest National Park. I grew up on the eastern plains of Colorado, and I know long, uninterrupted distances. They are nothing compared to what can be seen in northeastern Arizona.
We’d see more of the park, and a little bit of actual fossilized wood, the next day. (Actually, we’d see a lot of fossilized wood. So. Much. Fossilized. Wood.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
There were other types of erosion on view as well. Running water can be an incredibly effective factor for erosion, especially given enough time.
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.
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.
The Bascom Affair
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 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 next significant stop on the trail to the visitor center is the ruins of the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency.
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 Battle of Apache Pass
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.
The First Fort Bowie
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.
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.
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.
Nancy and I visited Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on a Sunday in mid-January. Because dogs aren’t allowed on the trail to access the dwellings, we decided to board Gunther that weekend. This national monument is very isolated: despite being only about 45 road miles from Silver City, New Mexico, the drive takes about an hour and 45 minutes because of a large number of extremely tight turns.
Archeologists believe, based on studying designs on pottery found within the ruins, the Mogollon people who built and lived in these dwellings originally came from the Tularosa River region, which is about 60 miles north of the monument. From dendrochronology that dates timbers used in the construction of the dwellings, researchers believe the structures were built between the years 1276 and 1287.
Despite putting a lot of effort into the construction, the Mogollon lived in these dwellings for only a short time before moving southward in about the year 1300. While research continues to determine reasons for their departure, most evidence points to a widespread and prolonged drought that forced many Native Americans into larger communities in present-day northern Mexico.
Present-day Native Americans say that the Mogollon never left; their descendants became the Zuni and Acoma Pueblo tribes of present-day New Mexico and the Hopi tribe in present-day Arizona.
The Mogollon weren’t the last Native Americans to live in this area. Evidence shows that the Apache moved to the upper Gila River in the sixteenth century. The storied Apache leader Geronimo was born very near the cliff dwellings, at the headwaters of the Gila River, in the early 1820s.
Because of the nearly two-hour drive from Silver City, the largest municipality close to the dwellings, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is not a destination one goes to by accident. However, it’s well worth the effort to get there, and we’re both looking forward to a return trip in the future.
The Organ Mountains, situated 10 miles northeast of Las Cruces, are visible from nearly every part of the city. They’re really distinctive, and, while always beautiful, look their best in the evenings as they catch the setting sun. The range extends north and south for a distance of about 20 miles, and the highest peak reaches 9,006 feet in elevation. The Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument, in three different regions, spans almost 500,000 acres of BLM-managed land and surrounds the city of Las Cruces. The Desert Peaks part of the monument is west of Las Cruces and includes the Doña Ana Mountains, the Robledo Mountains, and Sierra De Las Uvas, and the Potrillos Mountains 30 miles southwest of Las Cruces. Nancy and Gunther and I visited the Organ Mountains region of the monument in late November and enjoyed a nice 3.6-mile hike – the monument has a total of 48 miles of hiking trails.
One of the first features we encountered on the trail was La Cueva (“the cave” in Spanish), at the base of a huge rock face. It started being inhabited by the Jornada Mogollon natives about 5,000 years ago. Excavations in the 1940s and 1970s uncovered fragments of ceramic pots as well as projectile points and stone scrapers. There are 243 known archeological sites in the monument. La Cueva was later used as an outlaw hideout.
We both grew up and spent most of our lives in Colorado, so it’s been exciting to learn about all of the animals and plants of the southwestern desert region. Despite the rugged and arid environment of the monument, almost 150 different grasses, ferns, cacti, trees, shrubs, and herbs have been identified in the area.
I took the grass photos toward the end of our hike. Although it was relatively short, the hike afforded an opportunity to see a huge variety of plants. We didn’t see very much wildife, but the area supports dozens and dozens of native and migratory bird species, including seven species of hummingbirds and 23 species of towhees and sparrows.
Several historic persons of note, including William H. Bonney (“Billy the Kid”) and Geronimo, are known to have passed through what is now the monument. Twenty-two miles of the Butterfield Overland Trail, which, from 1858 to 1861 ran between St. Louis and San Francisco as a forerunner of the Pony Express, passed through the region. Areas of the monument, prior to coming under BLM management, have also been used for bombing practice by the U.S. Air Force and for astronaut training (not at the same time).
We’ll definitely return to the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument, and next time we’ll leave Gunther in the Goddard so we can visit some of the features that (understandably) are off-limits to dogs. I’d especially like to see the area in the spring during the wildflower blooming season.
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.
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.
We’re starting off in Colorado’s first state park, which opened in 1962. The state now has 42 parks across Colorado, and a new one, including the area around Sweetwater Lake in Gypsum, was just announced earlier this month.
Named after Harold Lathrop, the first director of Colorado’s Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation (now Colorado Parks & Wildlife), the park has two large (for Colorado) lakes that attract a huge variety of migratory birds throughout the year. On a walk around one of the lakes, Ken saw two birds he’d never seen before: a western grebe (which had just happened to catch an early supper) and a juvenile snow goose.
Lathrop State Park is about an hour’s drive east of Great Sand Dunes National Park. On Sunday, Oct. 24, we took Gunther on a visit to the dunes, which are the tallest in North America – some are 750 feet tall.