SILVER CITY, N.M. - Dawn is a magical time at the Bear Mountain Lodge, an 11-room bed and breakfast on the outskirts of town. The mountain desert air smells crisp and clean. A dog or rooster might be heard in the distance. Most of all is the quiet. It seeps into stressed-out psyches like a balm.
That's part of what the Nature Conservancy, which owns and operates the lodge, wants guests to feel. There are no television sets, and the only radio is in the kitchen when the cook is making the gourmet meals.
The Conservancy, a national non-profit environmental organization that in New Mexico now protects 1.3 million acres, had never been in the bed and breakfast business before, said naturalist Mike Fugagli, who assisted on a recent three-day workshop on Mimbres pottery at the Lodge. But when Myra McCormick, who had run the 1920s property for 41 years as a guest ranch (it had been a home for troubled youths before that), donated the property in 1999 to the Conservancy, it took a second look, he said.
Substantial renovations were done on the ranch, which is at an elevation of 6,250 feet. These included meticulously planned landscaping with native plants and grasses, several hiking trails and locally made furniture done in the Mission style (it all looks like Stickley furniture) from wood cut on one of the Conservancy's restoration projects in the nearby Gila (hee-la) National Forest.
All the rooms were richly appointed with large private baths, wood floors with Indian designed rugs and some with balcony views. Surrounding property was purchased to bring the total to 178 acres. The re-christened Bear Mountain Lodge opened its doors in 2001.
Named in 2004 as one of the top 10 nature lodges in the country by Outside magazine, the Lodge usually operates as a sumptuous bed and breakfast. But periodically it offers three to five day workshops, which include lodging, all meals and guided walks with experts. Guests do not have to be members of the Nature Conservancy to stay or participate in the workshops, although a small donation is part of the fee.
The trails around the Lodge feature such native plants and trees as agave, yucca, cholla, prickly pear, cone flowers, pinon pine, juniper and oak, as well as the many and varied grasses (showy windmill, wolftail, giant Sacaton and silver blue). Many species of butterfly - such as Ladies that look like tiny Monarchs - beetles and bees, lizards and more than 300 types of birds abound. The whir of raven's wings is often heard.
The Lodge's location is perfect to see many other things. Silver City (population 10,545) is only three miles away and boasts a thriving art district of 25 galleries. Western New Mexico University in Silver City has one of the finest displays of 1,000-year old Mimbres black-and-white pottery, basketry, Casa Grande pottery, Maria Martinez's famous black-on-black pottery and historic photographs and a display of Silver City's mining past.
Up a winding and often hair-raising 44-mile road north of Silver City are the Cliff Dwellings in Gila National Forest. Located at the headwaters of the Gila River and supposedly the birthplace of Geronimo, 40 rooms within six natural caves are 175 feet above the secluded canyon's floor. They were once home to several extended families of the Mogollon (Mo-go-yone) culture in the 1200s. Visitors hike a one-mile loop on trails once used by the American Indians. Eighty percent of the masonry and the beams of Ponderosa pine are original, as are the five red petroglyphs. Although one of the rooms' ceilings is black with soot, the site was used only on a part-time basis for gatherings or ceremonies and abandoned after 40 years, said a guide. The site is also on the west side of the Continental Divide, which means the rivers through the spectacular scenery run toward the Pacific Ocean. Other nearby sites for the Mimbres culture might require a guide to find.
Drives of up to two hours away include the Catwalk National Scenic Trail in Glenwood to view geologic and past cataclysmic volcanic activity along an 1890s mining waterway, where famed outlaw Butch Cassidy hid out; past huge canyons made by the Santa Rita copper mining company and its mountains of tailings outside Deming; or Mesilla (Meh-see-ya), a historic community about a 10-minute drive south of Las Cruces (home to New Mexico State University), where another famous outlaw Billy the Kid was once jailed.
Around and near Mesilla's central plaza are numerous galleries, stores with jewelry (especially Navaho turquoise) and western wear. Within walking distance are Andale, famous for its Mexican food, and Lorenzo's for its Italian fare.
The Bean is the local coffee hangout. In the close distance to the east are the Organ Mountains, which look like giant crooked teeth. Beyond them is the White Sands Missile Range and Space Museum.
There is lots to do, and the weather is almost always sunny.