Petrified Forest National Park, Day 2

Near Holbrook, Arizona – March 26, 2022

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.

Wind and water erosion in the northern Arizona desert does some interesting things to rocks, like resting the one on the right side against the one on the left.

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.

Many of the rocks at Petrified Forest National Park represent trees that were quite large when they were living, about 220 million years ago. Here we see a park visitor with her dog observing a massive rock. (It’s Nancy, with Gunther, who appears ready to return home to The Goddard but we’d only been at the park for about 30 minutes at this point.)

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.)

There’s still a lot of detail from the former trees to be seen in their petrified logs. While it appears that the logs have been cut with a chainsaw to achieve those smooth sides, they’ve simply cracked along the crystalline structure of the quartz. That usually happens because of erosional processes: either geologic uplift over millions of years, or supporting materials below the log being removed through relatively quick wind or water action.

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.

This is one of the biggest, if not longest, pieces of fossilized wood in Petrified Forest National Park. “Old Faithful” is 35 feet long and weighs about 44 tons. It’s also one of the relatively few logs that retained part of its root structure, which measures 10 feet across today, during the petrification process. In 1962, lightning struck and fractured this log. The National Park Service used mortar to reattach the pieces and added the retaining wall seen near the base of the former tree – a process that, in the name of resource management, the NPS would probably not undertake today. Old Faithful is located just west of the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center near the park’s southern entrance.
Here we see a park visitor with her faithful dog, standing next to the base of Old Faithful. (It’s Nancy, again, with Gunther, again; the dog appears to have perked up somewhat.)
While perhaps not quite as spectacular as the views we enjoyed in the northern part of the park the day before, there were still great vistas to enjoy on the Giant Logs Trail near the visitor center. One can see erosional forces still at work on the rocks at right.

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 silicic acid in ancient waterways percolated through fallen logs, converting the trees’ organic material into opal. This closeup photo shows that the minerals retained the features of the trees, such as the grain of the wood.

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.

Some of the many trails within the southern part of the park feature these helpful fossilized logs to help keep hikers on the path. Walking beside them gives an idea of just how tall these trees were.

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.

We saw this horned lark while on the Long Logs Trail. It had a very pretty song. We had never seen one before, and were happy to watch and listen to it for a while. (I write “we,” but Gunther couldn’t possibly have cared less.)
More than 1,200 archeological sites, indicating prior human habitation as long as 12,000 years ago, have been found in the park. The Native Americans arrived first as nomadic cultures, then over the centuries began to occupy the area on a seasonal basis. Eventually, the cultures lived in what is now the park year-round. A short spur from the Long Logs Trail leads to Agate House, a building that was reconstructed by the NPS to represent an actual seven-room dwelling built by ancient Native Americans, using the only construction material available, petrified wood, about a thousand years ago. Although centuries of weathering caused the original structure to collapse, park service staff used the same rocks to rebuild the house.
Realizing it’s a reconstruction, Agate House is still very pretty and was probably fairly resistant to the elements when it was first built.

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.

This particular log caught my eye because of the many colors it features. It’s simply spectacular. The different mineral composition within the petrified wood contributes to the varied coloration. The rocks can contain natural quartz, which is nearly clear and translucent, as well as varying amounts of iron, copper, manganese, and chromium, all responsible for the reds, yellows, purples, and greens. I would never take any rocks from Petrified Forest National Park. It would have meant that someone else wouldn’t have been able to see this one. However, if I was going to take a rock home, this would have been the one. But we have a weight limit, for towing safety purposes. on The Goddard. Also, I like my luck the way it is.

Petrified Forest National Park, Day 1

Near Holbrook, Arizona – March 25, 2022

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.

One gets a different perspective of time and distance when visiting this part of Petrified Forest National Park. The different colors in the gullies in the center of the photograph represent 200 million years of sediment being laid down by rivers and then being eroded by later rivers, and the rock formation on the horizon at left, Pilot Rock, is nearly seven miles away. The horizon in the center is much further – perhaps a hundred miles.
This view of a deep basin formed from erosion is from one of the first overlooks on a road that goes through the Painted Desert. One can see for, literally, a hundred miles to the horizon. They’re not visible in this photo, but we could see many, many tractor-trailers traversing Interstate 40 on the other side of this huge basin. Sharp-eyed viewers will, however, note a distinct lack of petrified wood in this view; that’s because most of the petrified logs are well south of this part of the park.

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.

There are still living trees to be found in Petrified Forest National Park, but they’re nothing like the towering conifers that grew 200 million years ago when the area was located at about present-day Costa Rica. The park’s overlooks are built on a layer of basaltic rock that was ejected from volcanic eruptions only between 16 and five million years ago, forming a protective layer that is much more resistant to erosion than the sedimentary layers of rock below.

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 different colors seen in the Painted Desert are quite impressive. Large river systems flowed through this area hundreds of millions of years ago, depositing many layers of gravel, silt, and sand. The different colors of the layers are created by varying mineral content of the soils, which have been exposed through geologic movement as well as water and wind erosion.

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.

Here we see a visitor to Petrified Forest National Park (it’s Nancy) contemplate more than 200 million years of geologic change that resulted in these magnificent views.

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.

I think a lot of people might underestimate just how wide-open the American West can be. This picture, taken from the Pintado Point overlook at the national park, gives an idea of how far one can see in the northern Arizona desert. For instance, Turkey Track Butte is nearly 23 miles away from this viewpoint but is still distinctly visible. Behind the butte, the San Francisco Peaks are barely discernable, but they’re more than a hundred miles away. Pilot Rock is the highest point in the park, and Lithodendren Wash is a seasonal stream.

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.

Records are unclear regarding exactly when the building was first constructed, but descendants of the original owner say he built it in the late teens of the 20th century. The Painted Desert Inn had several owners during the course of its life as a place of rest for Route 66 travelers, but the U.S. government bought the building and four surrounding square miles of land in 1936. Petrified Forest National Monument had been established 30 years earlier, and the area became a national park in 1962.

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.)

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.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

January 16, 2022

President Theodore Roosevelt established Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907 to protect ancient Native American-created structures in the Gila Wilderness of southwest New Mexico. It’s a fantastic destination for anyone interested in the history and culture of the southwest United States (and getting there is rewarding as well).

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.

The road (part of The Trail of the Mountain Spirits National Scenic Byway on New Mexico State Highway 15) is paved and well-maintained, although we saw plenty of ice and snow along the roadside.
The drive isn’t only through dense forests: there are also plenty of extraordinary vistas to enjoy. This is looking to the northeast from NM Highway 15. It’s at least another half hour to the monument from here.
Due at least partially to the Covid-19 pandemic, the monument’s visitor center was closed (which we knew prior to leaving Silver City that morning). We proceeded to the trailhead that takes hikers to the dwellings themselves, but first stopped at a pullout to read about a 1966 excavation that uncovered evidence of nearly 2,000 years of consistent human habitation at this particular site. Evidence of a pithouse structure dating from the year 200 was found, along with other buildings from between 650 and 1000, as well as Pueblo rooms from the period between 1000-1300, and finally a relatively modern three-room adobe homestead dating to the year 1883. The highway on the right side of the photo, which leads to the cliff dwelling’s trailhead, was built in 1966 over some of the excavated ruins; the stone outlines in front of our pickup represent the location of the Pueblo structure dating from between 1000 and 1300. This site is just a few steps from the Gila River (to the left of this photo), so it had easy access to consistent water for all of those inhabitants over the centuries.
The monument has a bookstore adjacent to the trail leading to the dwellings, and this American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) was hanging out on the bookstore’s roof. There was a time that I didn’t think too much of crows (the big park that we once lived next to in central Denver had a very large and vocal group of them), but I’ve since begun to appreciate them more. They’re very smart and adaptable birds. While Anglos tend to have negative connotations of crows, many Native American cultures view them with quite a lot of respect. I took this guy’s appearance before our hike as a positive sign, although it’s very possible he was just eyeing my pre-hike peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
This is the trailhead view of the cliff where the dwellings are located, although the dwellings themselves are on the other side of the cliff and not visible from this point. The Mogollon Mountains, which include the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, are located in the caldera of a supervolcano that erupted about 28 million years ago. The eruption, one of several that occurred at about the same time in the same area, had an explosive power 1,000 times that of Mount St. Helen’s eruption in 1980. The volcanic material fell to the ground and, because it was incredibly hot, welded together into a rock called tuff. Later volcanic eruptions covered the tuff with another type of volcanic rock called andesite. All of the ground level of this area was once near the top of the cliffs. Following the eruptions, millions of years of erosion by water, wind and other forces created the sedimentary stone that’s in this and other cliffs. Harder types of rocks at the top of the cliff keep the ground there from eroding as quickly as the softer rocks below. A creek flowing through the area gradually carved out a canyon, and also dislodged huge boulders to expand holes in the cliff that would become caves. About 700 years ago, the Mogollons built their dwellings in those caves.
This is the West Fork of the Gila River, which starts a few miles just north of the dwellings and which one crosses over a bridge to begin the hike. The West Fork joins the Middle Fork of the Gila River a couple of miles east of this bridge near the monument’s visitor center, and they converge with the East Fork a few miles further downvalley. We’d see more of the Gila River in the weeks to come.
The short hike, a one-mile loop that passes the dwellings, is one of the more pleasant ones Nancy and I have been on in a long time. It’s shaded by trees and by the walls of the steep canyon through which Cliff Dweller Creek, a year-round source of water that converges with the Gila River, flows. The canyon and surrounding area are home to a number of species of animals like deer, turkey, and javelina – all of which provided the Mogollon in their day with food as well as materials with which to build tools. Between the animals, the trees and plants, and the water of Cliff Dweller Creek (the Mogollons likely called it something else), the cliff dwellers had everything they needed to make a home.
I regret not keeping count of how many bridges cross Cliff Dweller Creek on the way to the dwellings, but it was at least a dozen. Having helped build parts of quite a few trails, Nancy and I appreciated the work that went into developing and maintaining this one. Even though we were in southwestern New Mexico, we were glad we both had jackets for this hike – it was chilly in the shade.
To wit: I thought the material on the canyon wall on the left was evidence of a popular place for birds or maybe rodents; as we walked closer I realized that it was frozen water coming from a spring that feeds the creek.
After a very pleasant walk in the canyon, the trail rises gradually to provide this view (with a telephoto camera lens) of the dwellings. The person at the structure on the left provides a sense of scale; we were to find that she’s an National Park Service volunteer named Lena. The black streaks arising from the caves are evidence of human habitation: carbon from cooking and heating fires from 700 years ago and even further back. Soot on the cave ceilings indicates that humans lived in these caves for thousands of years before the Mogollon arrived and made improvements.

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.

About 40 structures, ranging from large communal rooms to small storage areas, were built in five natural caves within the cliff. The dwellings provided homes for 12-15 families.
Lena, the NPS volunteer, said that about 90 percent of the present-day dwellings is original; the rest has been work done by NPS to help protect and fortify the structures. It’s notable that walking around the structures within Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is permitted and encouraged; that’s not the case with all NPS cliff dwelling sites because of (wholly understandable) concern about destruction from human traffic. Nancy and I have really enjoyed visiting some of the more remote NPS locations in New Mexico and Arizona, in part because of the lack of crowds.
This wood beam, or viga, is original to the cliff dwellings, and along with a series of other vigas and additional materials supported another floor above this room. The tree that the wood log came from was felled 500 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I didn’t place anything next to it for a sense of scale (it’s 750 years old), but I’d say about 18 inches of the viga is protruding from the wall.
Here is an intrepid researcher, from her tenuous perch high atop a wooden ladder, peering into the depths of one of the structures. What clues will she find as to what really happened?
This is a view looking through the natural cave opening to the canyon wall on the other side of Cliff Dweller Creek below. The holes in the walls of the structure are where vigas were placed to provide support to another floor of the still-existing room.

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.

Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument

November 28, 2021

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.

The Organ Mountains were formed from a series of volcanic eruptions that started about 36.5 million years ago and ended 500,000 years later. The mountain range was tilted and uplifted through action of the Rio Grande Rift about 18 million years ago. That tilting, and the erosion in the millennia following, resulted in the distinctive look of the mountains.

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.

This huge rock face (see the people standing outside the cave at the bottom for a sense of scale) is formed from rock that erupted about 36.5 million years ago, forming a rock type called tuff from a moving river of hot gases, ash, and rocks. Dogs aren’t allowed on the trail going to the cave, so we weren’t able to get close to it. Thanks, Gunther!

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.

The plant in the foreground is desert spoon. Although it looks like a succulent, it’s classified as a shrub. It’s also known as sotol.
The monument is located in a really harsh environment, but there’s a huge variety of plant life. Prickly pear cacti abound, of course, but there are also 15 species of grass. Prior to becoming a monument in 2014, the area was used for many years by ranchers for grazing their cattle.
There were some unexpected finds of plant life. A seasonal stream runs near La Cueva, and it supports some decidedly deciduous trees (that look like they still had to work pretty hard to grow).
These are the spines of a type of barrel cactus called a fishhook, and you can see how it earned that name. We have seen lots of fishhook cactus in the wild and also in cultivated gardens in New Mexico.
On the trail, Nancy, always on the lookout for historic mines, recognized the mound of light-colored rocks in the lower left as a tailings pile. Just a few steps later on the trail, an interpretive sign identified the area as being what remains of the Modoc Mine. The Modoc Mining Company spent a million dollars in 1898 (more than $30 million today) to build the silver and lead mine, a three-story ore mill, and a small townsite. The mine had shafts that tunneled several hundred vertical feet, and a well drilled four hundred feet down supplied water to everything.
Here’s a closeup of some desert spoon spines. As with most plant life in the Chihuahua Desert, it’s best to look and not touch. And definitely don’t lick these spoons. The Spanish word for spoon is “cuchara,” which is the name of a spoon-shaped valley in Colorado’s mountains that’s home to a former ski resort also named Cuchara.
This is looking west from the monument. The city of Las Cruces is behind the dark ridge on the left. Prickly pear cactus in the left foreground; desert spoons in the right. Spoons, spoons, spoons … everywhere!
… And here are some more. Desert spoons send up a flower stalk six to 17 feet tall, but their roots extend only about a foot underground.
The Organ Mountains are really interesting to look at – the erosion over millions of years has resulted in some very picturesque rock formations. All of the lighter green plants in front of the mountains are prickly pear cactus.
After all of the desert plants we’ve seen, it was nice to encounter this old friend growing alongside the trail. I learned about sideoats grama, and many other range grasses, as a high-school student in Vocational Agriculture class.
This pretty grass is splitbeard bluestem, also known as silver bluestem. It was not one of the grasses I learned to identify in high school, so more learning for me now. In late November, of course, all of the grasses had already gone to seed but a few retained their seedheads.
This is black grama, which looks very similar to blue grama that grows in Colorado. Because of its quantity and nutritive value, black grama is a very important natural grass for New Mexico’s cattle ranchers. Blue grama is my favorite species of grass (a close second is big bluestem, a relative of the splitbeard bluesteam above), probably because the mature seed heads look like eyelashes. What’s your favorite species of grass, and why is it also blue grama?

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.

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.

First stop: Lathrop State Park

October 23-30, 2021

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.

Sunset at the entrance to the park. The Sangre de Cristo mountain range is on the western horizon.

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.

In addition to the grebe and goose, Ken saw American coots, Canada geese, seagulls, American robins, and mallard ducks all enjoying a late afternoon at the lake.

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.

The eastern side of the Great Sand Dunes from the national park’s visitor center, about half a mile away. Mt. Herard (13,345 feet) is in the background. It’s estimated that the dunes contain 1.2 cubic miles of sand (imagine a cube with edges 1.2 miles long and then fill it with sand).
We were both surprised at how many visitors the dunes received that day, given the time of year. Many were apparently from other countries, which is fairly common to experience during the off-season. The park attracts about half a million people each year.
Gunther had a great time running and jumping around in the sand. We enjoyed ourselves as well, although we neither ran nor jumped.
While we enjoyed a picnic lunch in the parking lot of the dunes, a small herd of mule deer paraded by. There were two bucks and probably eight or 10 does like this one.

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