Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder
Three years into my new life in Silver City, I do not take for granted the value of having wilderness trails and hiking just 10 minutes from my front door. Back east in Princeton, NJ, I'd drive an hour and a half to the scenic Delaware Water Gap. After circling the parking lot a few times, looking for a space—any space!—I'd get to enjoy a hike with, say, 3,000 of my closest friends. The atmosphere could not be described by the word "silence," nor the view as "pristine."
Soon after moving to Silver City, I discovered Bear Mountain Lodge, just "up the hill" from my backyard, with well-maintained, gently rolling trails that are, "yes," the nice woman at the lodge desk told me, "open to the public." I've built my altitude stamina on the easy Quail Flats Trail, caught many a glorious sunset from Sunrise Ridge Trail, and logged countless peaceful hours on the Old Windmill Trail, with its inspirational Contemplation Point.
But on this particular chilly Sunday afternoon, I want to come in out of the cold and get the inside story. Today I am getting a tour of the lodge by manager Maura Gonsior, a woman whose down-to-earth natural beauty and easy, friendly smile say "welcome."
The fireplace in the Great Room is stoked and the room is filling with wonderful smells—dinner for the lodge's lucky guests—coming from the kitchen around the corner. Gonsior brings out books and papers, describing the unusual history of Bear Mountain Lodge and detailing its mission today, operating under the auspices of the not-for-profit Nature Conservancy.
Bear Mountain Lodge has evolved through several incarnations. It was originally built as the Rocky Mountain Ranch School for Boys in 1928 by longtime Silver City resident Juanita Franks. Later, in the 1930s, the lodge was an exclusive country club and hotel, featuring tennis courts, a swimming pool and a golf course.
After changing hands several times, Bear Mountain Lodge reemerged in 1938 as a dude ranch. One owner even advertised cougar hunting expeditions. (Hard to imagine on a property now owned by The Nature Conservancy!)
In 1959, Myra McCormick and her husband Fred bought the property and operated it as the Bear Mountain Guest Ranch for 41 years. Fred McCormick died in 1978. Wanting to see her beloved sanctuary preserved and her naturalist legacy stewarded, Myra McCormick donated the property to The Nature Conservancy before her own death in 1999. After an extensive renovation, the conservancy reopened the lodge in March 2001, with current manager Maura Gonsior at the helm.
The grand reopening was nail-biting time for Gonsior, who had been managing The Carter House (now Cienega Spa) in Silver City and was taking reservations for the soon-to-reopen Bear Mountain Lodge. Getting daily updates from the renovation crew, Gonsior says she was "crossing my fingers every day" that the lodge would be able to open for business on its projected date. "We barely pulled it off!" she remembers with a laugh.
Though she has a strong background in restaurant and hotel management, that's not the only reason Gonsior says she was drawn to managing Bear Mountain Lodge. A longtime trail runner, she loved visiting the place for its peace and natural beauty. Hiring on with The Nature Conservancy gave Gonsior a chance to have a role in preserving a natural treasure.
Across the top of one page in one of the big notebooks Gonsior has produced, the mission of Bear Mountain Lodge is spelled out: "To operate a profitable lodging facility that exceeds our guests' expectations and supports The Nature Conservancy's mission, through conservation, education and major donor cultivation." Bear Mountain Lodge is one of nine "nature lodging" locations owned by the conservancy, including Hart Prairie and Muleshoe Ranch in Arizona and ranging from Oregon to Virginia.
The Nature Conservancy "doesn't operate Bear Mountain Lodge because a B&B is a great money maker," Gonsior says with a laugh. But the magnificent property is a way "to show people our work (in conservation) and a great place to host donors."
We begin our tour in the cozy paneled room known as the Conservation Education Room. It boasts printed resources, an activity board with listings of naturalist hikes, a telescope and two huge windows on the natural world outside the lodge. Bear Mountain Lodge trail maps are available to the general public, and there are numerous educational pamphlets on local birding, scenic hikes and more.
A logbook on the big wooden table contains the wildlife sightings of lodge guests and visitors, day-hikers and staff. Gonsior recalls coming across a mountain lion on the property a few years back, when she lived on-site as the resident manager. She describes the encounter as "very exciting!"
The lodge these days has nine staff, in addition to Gonsior. There is also a rotating volunteer position, and the people who fill this role also live on the property to attend to guest inquiries and emergencies, and to feed the birds and care for the grounds.
Gonsior says that guests sign up for the hikes on the activity board—some involving van trips to local sites of conservation and naturalist interest, some right on the property. Guests are given sack lunches for the outings, and my mouth waters at the options: Southwest chicken salad, salami with provolone, herbed cream cheese with cucumbers or avocado with roasted red peppers are the sandwich choices, with carrots, water of course, potato chips, and a homemade Bear Mountain Lodge cookie.
Forcing myself to get past the idea of a sack lunch better than any I've ever prepared for myself, I focus on the educational aspect of the field trips and ask about the "Fire Hike" led by staff naturalist Mike Fugagli on the Old Windmill Trail. Gonsior explains that the hike illustrates the overgrowth of vegetation not allowed a "natural" burn cycle, and how humans' impact in this way can change entire landscapes.
Framed magazine articles on the wall of the Conservation Education Room tell of other expeditions Fugagli leads regularly, including one to the Gila Riparian Reserve. A 45-minute drive from the lodge, this conservation project is one of the conservancy's more visible local achievements, restoring a land ravaged by years of heavy cattle grazing. In the 1980s, scoured by "big floods roaring down a degraded watershed," just a few trees stood in the area, with no saplings or grasses. Today the same land, restored by The Nature Conservancy's stewardship, boasts cottonwood, Arizona sycamore, New Mexico alder and willows, some 40 feet tall. It has become a thriving bird habitat and home, once again, to native beavers.
Eager to share more of "the guest experience," Gonsior offers a guided tour of the accommodations, and we head up the grand hand-carved wood stairway.
Bear Mountain Lodge consists of the two-story main lodge; the adjacent Myra's Retreat, which is named for the former owner, Myra McCormick; and the Wren's Nest. All 11 guest rooms feature hardwood floors, handcrafted Mission-style furnishings, private bathrooms with blue-and-white ceramic block tile and classic 1920s-style fixtures. Rooms range from $115-$185 a night, double occupancy, with an additional $15 per night for Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
The lodge itself houses the open kitchen and dining room, a small guest library with computer and Internet, the reception area, the Conservation Education Room and the "great room" with hand-hewn beams and two impressive stone fireplaces, as well as six guest rooms. The Gila and Mimbres guest rooms, named after The Nature Conservancy's nearby nature preserves, are located on the lodge's first floor. Both rooms have king-size beds and outdoor access. The Mimbres is fully handicapped accessible with separate shower and tub.
Upstairs in the lodge are four deluxe rooms honoring individuals prominent in New Mexico's history—Georgia O'Keeffe, Aldo Leopold, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and Lieutenant Col. William H. Emory. Queen- or king-size beds and full-size sofa beds make these rooms a comfortable option for families. All have private balconies; two have shower/Jacuzzi baths. I step out onto the balcony of the Cabeza de Vaca room and catch the strong light just before sunset illuminating the mountain range before me.
I could spend a few days up here, I think, and imagine morning hikes and restful afternoons poring over birding books and local maps.
We walk back down through the lodge, where the smell of dinner is now filling the air. Weekend cook Sue Schiowitz has already whipped out a huge batch of the homemade cookies that fill the glass jars on the counter, available at all times for hungry guests. She is now sautéing garlic and vegetables for the evening meal.
Dinner is available at Bear Mountain Lodge to guests for a small cost (currently around $15), and they can invite and sign up a guest or two of their own, Gonsior tells me. Though most guests "choose to go into town for some restaurant meals, it's nice to just stay in sometimes, too," she says. Not to be outdone by the elegant sack lunches, dinner is on the decidedly delicious side, including Thai, Mexican and Turkish cuisines, and a very popular pork loin with apricot sauce.
Gonsior and I next go outdoors, up the walk to Myra's Retreat. We first enter the large, friendly common room, furnished with couches and a gas fireplace. Bookcases run floor to ceiling, filled with what I call "vacation reading," those leisurely books one delves into when in that rarified space of time away from home and routine.
"It's wonderful. We get so many donations," says Gonsior. The books have come from staff members, she informs me, as well as conservancy board members, "and even some of our first guests!" Another generous donor, local real estate agent Patrick Conlin, gave two mountain bikes the lodge loans to guests.
Off the common room are four private sunny guest rooms, named for birds found in the area. All have locally made pine beds and the lodge's distinctive 1920s-style tiled shower/baths.
Just across the path from Myra's Retreat is the Wren's Nest, a private guesthouse located just east of the lodge dining room. An inviting space for an extended stay, the Wren's Nest features a hardwood floor, exposed wood ceiling, a kitchen with breakfast table, a handcrafted queen-size bed and a corner shower.
As a lodging business, Bear Mountain Lodge boasts an occupancy rate of better than 60 percent over the year, and is booked at 90 percent or more in the busy season. Average length of stay is two nights, "going on two and a half now," says Gonsior. Fully 60 percent of guests are Nature Conservancy members, and Gonsior speculates that, although the lodge and the organization do not yet track it, some guests who were not members before their stay at Bear Mountain "probably become members after their visit." Visitors come from all over New Mexico, as well as out of state, especially from Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Texas and California.
Adding to income from the lodging business, and to further the educational work of The Nature Conservancy, Bear Mountain Lodge runs numerous programs and events throughout the year on various topics of interest to the conservation-minded folks who tend to be its guests. The lodging and education packages include hummingbird weekends, Mimbreño art and archaeology workshops, and a photography workshop with famed photographer Michael Berman called "The Intimate Landscape."
May and October are the busiest for birding guests, owing to major bird migrations. The Christmas to New Year holiday span is busy, as one would expect, Gonsior says, and then things fall off a bit in January.
This year, the lodge will run two Winter Weekend specials, designed to draw some January and February business, Gonsior says. The event, "Winter Weekend: Native People of the Southwest," is a bargain, considering the $310 per person (lodging tax not included) includes three nights lodging (which includes breakfasts), three suppers and one of those marvelous sack lunches for a field trip/hike, as well as expert guidance from a local astronomer and archaeologist.
The weekend events, offered Jan. 20-22 and Feb. 3-5, are described on the lodge's Web site: "In winter's heart of darkness, native peoples gathered around fires and told stories. At Bear Mountain Lodge, the tradition continues. Join us around our hearth and on our nearby preserves for a winter weekend of Apache and Mimbreño lore. Who were these peoples and what stories guided their lives? What messages have drifted down to us through time? Joined by a local archaeologist and astronomer, we will look for answers scattered among the stones, and we will look to the stars above. And in the warm light of the lodge's fire, we will look beyond winter's darkness into the storied heart of the past."
Though I live just a few minutes up the road, I think about an overnight stay at Bear Mountain Lodge. I imagine the feeling of total immersion into this natural paradise: day hikes, Thai food for dinner, evenings by the fire, tales of ancient people, stargazing—and those homemade cookies, always fresh and waiting.
Donna Clayton Lawder is an arts administrator