Stalagmite Sitting

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Reading the signs as we walked through the Lost World underground caverns at Lewisburg, WV, I knew I could refresh my memory of stalactites versus stalagmites, but I didn’t expect to learn that there was a World Record for “stalagmite sitting” and it was set right here at Lost World. As we stood gazing up at the 28-foot high stalagmite called The War Club, on which the event took place, it was hard to imagine who in their right mind would do such a thing. Bob Addis in 1971 spent 15 days, 23 hours and 22 minutes sitting on a small platform built on the 4-foot diameter peak of the column. I guess “flagpole sitting” was once a fad and maybe that’s where he got the idea. But thinking of all that time hunched in a cold, dark, drippy cave gave me extra shivers beyond what I already felt in the 52 degrees underground chill.

The War Club, stalagmite on which the event took place.
The War Club, stalagmite on which the event took place.
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Flowstone Formation
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Goliath

Besides gazing up at cave formations, we also got to shine flashlights down into holes and passageways filled with unknown mysteries. One hole we were particularly interested to peer into was the one in the center of the cave where the sign explained how the cave had been discovered in 1942. For years before that discovery, the farmer who owned the surrounding land had been making use of a hole in one of his fields as a convenient place to dispose of animal carcasses and other debris. He didn’t know how deep the hole was but knew it was deep enough that he couldn’t hear things hit the bottom. When some cave explorers heard about the hole and talked to the farmer he said they were welcome to check it out. Letting himself down the hole with a rope, one of the men reached the 120 foot bottom, and was excited to discover that he was in the middle of a vast underground cavern.

In the years since the cave’s discovery a new opening with steps and a walkway was constructed at one end of the cave so tourists like us could explore it without climbing down a rope ladder. But when you get halfway through the tour you can climb up a platform that is below the natural opening. This allows you to look down at the pile of bones and junk that had collected for years at the bottom, as well as looking up at the daylight through the natural opening above.

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Looking up at daylight through the hole that opened up in the farmer’s field to the cave below.

Fun stuff for 2 young boys and always a delight for grandparents to take the grandkids on new adventures. You never know what World Records your grandkids might end up setting (sitting?)

Wildflower Weekend

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We spent a wonderful weekend as amateur wildflower enthusiasts, taking part in the 2015 Annual Conference of the New Mexico Native Plant Society. One of the first things that we learned was why a conference of the New Mexico Native Plant Society was being held in Durango, Colorado. Every state and region has its own unique native plants. Southwestern Colorado and El Paso, Texas, are 2 regions where the native plants are more closely related to neighboring New Mexico. Hence, the 8 chapters of the New Mexico Native Plant Society include an El Paso, Texas, chapter and the San Juan chapter, which hosted this year’s conference “Flora of the High San Juans”.

Driving home from Oregon last year, we passed through Durango, Colorado, and, until this weekend, that was my only acquaintance with the San Juan Mountains. Being out in the mountains on the 2 field trips that we had signed up for, I got excited, not only for the wildflowers we saw, but for the incredible scenery and hiking opportunities in the San Juans. I hope that one of these days soon we will be able to spend more time there enjoying the area.

One of the flowering plants that I was not familiar with until this weekend is the tall, impressive Monument Plant, also known as Green Gentian. They are perennial and grow for many years before blooming. In a given area the blooming is synchronized so that all the plants flower at the same time. We happened to walk through one of those areas on the first day’s field trip and the surrounding slopes were covered with the tall, stalky, blossom-covered plants, reminding me of a lush version of Arizona hillsides covered with giant saguaro cacti.

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Monument Plant aka Green Gentian
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Hillside covered with Monument Plants.
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Monument Plants along the Pass Creek Trail.

For both of our field trips we drove north from Durango on Hwy 550 towards Silverton. The first day we stopped at the Coal Bank Pass parking area and walked across the highway, where we hiked partway up the Pass Creek Trail.

View of Hwy 550 from Pass Creek Trail.  Larkspur in foreground.
View of Hwy 550 from Pass Creek Trail. Larkspur in foreground.
Turnaround point and lunch stop on Pass Creek Trail.
Turnaround point and lunch stop on Pass Creek Trail.
Chainpod pea.  Interesting because you could see the seed pods, hanging together in a dangling chain.
Chainpod pea. Interesting because you could see the seed pods, hanging together in a dangling chain.
Bittercress.
Bittercress.
Heartleaf Arnica
Heartleaf Arnica
Globe Flower
Globe Flower
Along Pass Creek Trail.
Along Pass Creek Trail.

The second day we drove almost as far as Silverton, stopping at the Molas Pass Summit to look at Botrychium (moonwort), a wild fern that you would never think to look for, except that we had an expert botanist in the group who has studied them extensively. From there we drove to Little Molas Lake, one of the trailheads for the Colorado Trail. We didn’t walk very far on the Colorado Trail, as the wildflowers weren’t as abundant as expected. Most of our time was spent walking through marshy areas and along the shore of the lake.

View from Molas Pass.  Hwy 550 is in the upper left corner and Silverton is around the curve in the valley to the left.
View from Molas Pass. Hwy 550 is in the upper left corner and Silverton is around the curve in the valley to the left.
View of Turks Head and Grand Turk from Molas Pass.
View of Turks Head and Grand Turk from Molas Pass.
Looking south from shore of Little Molas Lake towards West Needle Mountains.
Looking south from shore of Little Molas Lake towards West Needle Mountains.
Yellow Paintbrush
Yellow Paintbrush
King's Crown
King’s Crown
Colorado Trail near Little Molas Lake, looking east at Grenadier Range.
Colorado Trail near Little Molas Lake, looking east at Grenadier Range.

Our last field trip of the weekend was very different from the other two. We spent Sunday morning on an ethnobotany tour, led by a ranger at Aztec Ruins National Monument. This meant we were back in desert country, walking through an arroyo and up a mesa, learning the many uses that have been found over the centuries for the native plants in the Four Corners area. A lot of restoration work is being done at the monument to get rid of invasive species and encourage the growth of native species.

Learning about a plant (can't remember the name!) in an arroyo at Aztec Ruins.
Learning about a plant (can’t remember the name!) in an arroyo at Aztec Ruins.
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Rocky Mountain Beeplant

Colorado Camping

Weather is always an unpredictable factor in planning a camping trip, especially if you plan to camp in Colorado. The rugged beauty of Colorado mountains and valleys is a big draw, but all of that lush greenery doesn’t get there by magic. It takes winter snow and summer rain and lots of it.

We experienced some of that summer Colorado rain this week when we set out for South Fork, Colorado, to camp and hike for a couple of days in the Rio Grande National Forest. When we arrived Monday afternoon we barely had time to set up our tent before a thunderstorm blew in through the mountain pass drenching everything and dropping the temperature about 15 degrees. Fortunately, it stopped raining before dinnertime and we were able to crawl out of the tent to cook dinner and then take an evening walk around the reservoir before dark.

Big Meadows Campground is along the shore of Big Meadows Reservoir.  Spruce beetle infestation has killed many of the firs.
Big Meadows Campground is along the shore of Big Meadows Reservoir. Spruce beetle infestation has killed many of the trees.
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Looking north from trail around Big Meadows Reservoir. Campground is visible on the east shore.
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From north end of Big Meadows Reservoir, the South Fork of the Rio Grande flows north to join the Rio Grande River.

Throughout the night Monday we were periodically awakened by the sound of rain and thunder. Although we stayed dry in our tent, by the next morning it was obvious the day would be too cold and wet for the hike we had planned in the nearby mountains. Instead, we drove back south about 50 miles to the San Luis Valley, where we spent the day exploring Great Sand Dunes National Park. It was cloudy all day, even in the valley, and the temperatures barely warmed up to 60 degrees.

The dunes are behind Medano Creek.
The dunes are behind Medano Creek.
The only way to get to the dunes was to wade across Medano Creek.  This is wading back across to the visitor center after we climbed the dunes.
The only way to get to the dunes was to wade across Medano Creek. This is wading back across to the visitor center after we climbed the dunes.
Cloudy day meant we missed the view of Sangre de Cristo Mountains as the backdrop to the dunes.
Cloudy day meant we missed the view of Sangre de Cristo Mountains as the backdrop to the dunes.
Cloudy day had its advantage.  It was a long hike to the highest dune and would have been very hot on a sunny day.
Cloudy day had its advantage. It was a long hike to the highest dune and would have been very hot on a sunny day.
Tough hiking, but we made it to the top of the highest dune.
Tough hiking, but we made it to the top of the highest dune.
These dunes are massive.  We only saw a small portion of them.
These dunes are massive. We only saw a small portion of them.

By Wednesday morning we were ready to pack up and head back to New Mexico where there was a better chance of clear skies and warmer temperatures. On our way to Colorado, traveling on US285, just before the Colorado border, we had noticed the interesting peak, San Antonio Mountain, just west of the highway. It sits by itself out in the sagebrush plains on the west side of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument. There aren’t any established trails on the mountain, but it is BLM land, open to the public, except for one small area of private land. We decided that on our way back to Albuquerque we would stop there and investigate.

The one road access from US285 dead ends at a fence with a closed gate, blocking the way to the private land. We parked our car by the gate and then began our trek around the private land and up the grassy slope of the mountain. We didn’t make it all the way to the top, but had a good time looking at wildflowers and the views to the east. All that open land and blue skies was a nice welcome back to New Mexico.

Not as green as Colorado but nice to see some blue sky.
Not as green as Colorado but nice to see some blue sky.
Walking across field towards San Antonio Mountain.
Walking across field towards San Antonio Mountain.
Lupine on San Antonio Mountain
Lupine on San Antonio Mountain
Interesting to watch a bumblebee as it pollinated the lupine flowers.
Interesting to watch a bumblebee as it pollinated the lupine flowers.
Indian paintbrush on San Antonio Mountain.
Indian paintbrush on San Antonio Mountain.
From partway up San Antonio Mountain looking east.  Highway 285 in the distance and beyond that Ute Mountain on Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.
From partway up San Antonio Mountain looking east. Highway 285 in the distance and beyond that Ute Mountain on Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

Enhanced Hiking

The hiking experience is greatly enhanced when driving time to the start of a hike is minimized.  We live in a city that is surrounded by opportunities for many great day hikes and we have taken advantage of that in the 2 1/2 years we’ve lived here.  But our hiking experience this week was extra special because we were able to do 2 10-mile hikes in a beautiful wilderness area and didn’t have to spend time driving either morning to start the hikes.

At the suggestion of our friends, Ken and Sue, who had been in the area before, we camped Monday and Tuesday at the Santa Barbara campground in the Carson National Forest, just north of the Pecos Wilderness. We shared a campsite with them both nights and they helped us plan a 10-mile hike Tuesday and another 10-mile hike Wednesday before we headed back to Albuquerque. They are experienced backpackers and their plan Wednesday was to head further into the wilderness for 3 days of backpacking.

Campsite at Santa Barbara campground.
Campsite at Santa Barbara campground.
An extra treat was watching the moonrise--one day short of full moon.
An extra treat was watching the moonrise–one day short of full moon.

Hiking in wilderness areas can be a challenge because it’s often difficult to find accurate and helpful information about the trails. That’s the experience that we had the first day. Our first challenge presented itself as soon as we walked to the trailhead from our campsite and realized that we were on the west side of the Rio Santa Barbara and the trail started on the east side with no bridge across the river. Most of the time this wouldn’t be an issue for hikers because the stream would be small enough to cross on logs or rocks. This happened to be one of those times when the stream was very full and it was not obvious where to cross. It took us about 30 minutes of going up and down along the banks of the stream before we found a way across.

This was not the way across.  Lee ended up having to back his way out again.
This was not the way across. Lee ended up having to back his way out again.
This was the doable crossing we finally found.
This was the doable crossing we finally found.

The second major challenge of Tuesday’s hike was trying to reconcile trail signs with names and numbers and maps we had of the area. Our goal was a ridge called Ripley Point, about 5 miles east of the campground at an elevation of 11,800 feet. The campground was at 8,800 feet, which meant 3000 feet of elevation to climb in the 5 miles. After about 2 miles of hiking, we started up what looked like a connector trail on the maps and GPS but turned out to be a brutal bushwhack straight up for at least a mile through thick woods before we finally connected with a real trail.

A lot of consultation of maps and GPS.
A lot of consultation of maps and GPS.
Trail numbers were confusing but it was a welcome sight to see one when so many times we weren't sure we were on a trail.
Trail numbers were confusing but it was a welcome sight to see one when so many times we weren’t sure we were on a trail.
Rock cairns were also a welcome sight to let us know we were in the right place.
Rock cairns were also a welcome sight to let us know we were in the right place.
Beautiful views.
Beautiful views and lots of wildflowers.
Well deserved lunch break on ridge.
Well deserved lunch break on ridge.
Pecos Wilderness views.
Pecos Wilderness views.
Through the gate.
Through the gate and down into the valley back to the campsite.

The second day’s hike was an out-and-back following a trail along the West Fork of the Rio Santa Barbara. At least for me and Lee it was an out-and-back hike. For Ken and Sue it was the beginning of their 3-day backpacking trip into the Pecos Wilderness. We hiked together for the first 5 miles, enjoying the views of the canyon walls, the rushing stream, the many wildflowers, the shady woods and the green meadows and valleys. Then Lee and I bid adieu to our camping companions and headed back to camp while they continued up the trail.

Canyon walls along first section of West Fork trail.
Canyon walls along first section of West Fork trail.
Walking through stand of aspen.
Walking through stand of aspen.
A couple of stream crossings but easier than the one yesterday.
A couple of stream crossings but easier than the one yesterday.
Walking through meadows on West Fork trail.
Walking through meadows on West Fork trail.
West Fork of the Rio Santa Barbara.
West Fork of the Rio Santa Barbara.
Ken and Sue continue up the trail for the backpacking trip.
Ken and Sue continue up the trail for their backpacking trip.

Both days of hiking provided us with opportunities for viewing and photographing wildflowers, some of which were old favorites, others that we have yet to identify. Columbines are some of my favorite wildflowers. The Red Columbine is what I’m familiar with, but in the Pecos I got my first chance to see the Blue or Colorado Columbine. They were everywhere on the West Fork trail and I took countless photos because they were so beautiful. Of course, with only a phone camera I just couldn’t seem to get a photo that really captured the beauty. And that went for the scenery, as well. I suppose, in the future, another way to enhance the hiking experience might be to get more serious about photography. For now, I’ll use the photos I do have to enhance my memory of this wonderful experience until the next time I’m able to be out there enjoying God’s creation in person.

Lee and Sue hard at work trying to get that perfect flower photo.
Lee and Sue hard at work trying to get that perfect flower photo.
Blue (Colorado) Columbines.
Blue (Colorado) Columbines.
Closer view of columbines.
Closer view of columbines.
One of the yellow flowers I can identify--Golden Pea.
One of the yellow flowers I can identify–Golden Pea.
Jacob's Ladder (we think).
Jacob’s Ladder (we think).