Return to Villanueva

Our last camping trip to Villanueva State Park was over four years ago. I had forgotten what a quiet, peaceful little spot it is. Nestled between sandstone bluffs along the Pecos River it’s a nice compromise between camping in higher elevations of the Pecos Wilderness (headwaters of the river–too cold) and being along the lower stretches of the river (too hot) as it crosses the deserts of New Mexico and Texas on its way to join the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas. I like this time of year for camping because, unlike earlier in the summer, it doesn’t get very cold at night. Late afternoon thunderstorms can be a problem in August and, although there were some threatening clouds when we arrived to set up camp, nothing more than a few sprinkles developed. On our evening walk along the river a rainbow arched behind a hill across the river.

There are two sections to the campground, one along the river and the other on a couple of hilltops above the river. The first time we were by the river, but this time we selected a site on one of the hilltops. It was a good choice. The river side campsites were practically full by dark but we were the only ones up on the hilltop. We could hear the river down below and in the morning our site got the first rays of sunrise.

View from our campsite. River is visible in lower left-a bit muddy this time of year.
Shortly before sunrise on a trail above our campsite.

At Villanueva there are a couple of short hikes on the cliffs above the river and one short hike along the river, but to do a longer hike it’s necessary to drive back to the highway and find something in the mountains. The next day we decided to hike a Santa Fe National Forest trail close to Glorieta, New Mexico. It was another trail that ended up being longer than I had planned for, but since it didn’t have as much elevation gain as the Pino Trail, it didn’t wear me out quite as much. We didn’t have accurate information on how to access the trailhead and much of our walking was wasted miles before we got to the forest boundary. There might have been better views if we had gotten to higher elevations, but when the GPS showed we had gone over 4 miles I figured it was time to turn around. Between 9 and 10 miles is about my limit for a day’s hike. Maybe another time we can start at the right place and get further up the trail.


First time I’ve seen such big mullein. It’s usually small like the one to the left.

View towards Santa Fe.

More hiking to get to the ridgeline, but we didn’t make it that far.

Pino Trail

When I suggested to Lee that we hike the Pino Trail, I was remembering it as a moderately strenuous 3 1/2 mile climb to the South Crest Trail. I knew that we had done it more than once before, but didn’t bother to look up the details from previous hikes.

The first time that we did it was 6 years ago at the end of October just before we moved into our apartment. Then in January of 2014 I hiked it with 2 friends during one of the times when Lee was housesitting for his brother in Ohio. That hike adventure is documented in a blog posting. . In September of 2016 Lee and I did the hike again, which meant yesterday was the fourth time for me and the third time for Lee.

If I had looked up the hike details in advance I might not have been so hasty to suggest the hike yesterday. It’s actually 4 1/2 miles to the Crest, making a 9-mile hike with 2000 feet of elevation gain. The last few months have been busy with travel and the hiking we have done has been mostly short hikes. We probably weren’t in as good of shape as the other times we hiked the Pino Trail.

Hiking in summer, instead of fall or winter, makes an additional challenge. The first mile of hiking is in the foothills with no tree cover. We had gotten a start early enough in the morning that lack of shade was not a problem in the beginning. It was that last mile coming back down in the heat of the afternoon that had us panting for water. I had forgotten how much of the trail crosses open areas even after you get to the higher elevations. We both had taken our usual amount of water, but we really should have taken some extra because our bottles were empty before we got back.

Many good views of the crest. Pino Trail intersects the crest but further south of this point.

Looking back at Albuquerque, lost in the summer smoke haze.

The trail skirts the base of the distant cliff. Nice to be in the aspens but still a lot of climbing left at this point.

Reaching the point on the trail where we had glimpsed this cliff in the distance. Still a couple of miles of climbing.

An unexpected benefit of an August Pino Trail hike was to see many different wildflowers in bloom. It has been such a dry year that we had given up on seeing the array of Sandia Mountain flowers we usually look for on our spring and summer hikes. But even though the rain here in the valley has been scarce, apparently those afternoon thunderclouds we observe over the mountains have provided some moisture. As we got to the higher elevations, there were our old friends. Purple Geranium, Harebells, Red Columbine, and Birdsbill Dayflower were the most plentiful. There were many others that Lee could tell you about. And he could show you flower pictures much more professional than my poor attempts to capture a bit of the beauty.
Lee with camera in hand after one of his many stops to take flower photos.

Draba, a member of the mustard family.

Purple geranium were plentiful.

One of the many patches of Red Columbine along the trail at the higher elevations.

Nature’s artwork.

Horse or Hike

When I told my sister, Sande, that we were planning to come for a visit to her ranch in Salmon, Idaho, she was excited at the prospect of taking us along on one of the backcountry horseback riding excursions that are her favorite recreation. Although Lee and I look forward to any opportunity to get into the mountains, we weren’t too sure we wanted to do it on horseback. But I was willing to give it a try and told her to go ahead and plan the outing.

My brother, Clint, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, is also enthusiastic about riding so he drove over to Salmon to join us. Sande has a friend, Arnie, who was willing to loan us some horses and suggested a trail that he thought we would all enjoy. With lunches packed, saddles and gear assembled and horses loaded in the trailers, the five of us set off for the mountains.

After miles of rattling and jolting over a rough forest road we finally got to the trailhead. We unloaded 3 horses from Arnie’s trailer and 2 horses from Sande’s. I would be riding Sugar (sounded sweet), Lee would be riding Penny and I can’t remember the name of Arnie’s horse or the one Clint would be riding. They all looked friendly and Arnie said Sugar and Penny would be gentle enough for us two New Mexico greenhorns.

Sugar is the Palomino, Penny is in the middle and Arnie’s horse is the one with the blaze.

Since this was going to be a trail ride, single file, one horse plodding along behind another, I had envisioned that I wouldn’t need to do anything except sit in the saddle and let the horse carry me up the mountain. As best I can remember, the extent of my experience with horses was as a kid riding bareback on a pony we owned. I can’t remember ever having sat high off the ground in a saddle on the back of a huge animal like this that was expecting me to manipulate a leather strap laying on it’s neck to tell it where I wanted it to go.

I barely got myself in the saddle before Sugar started heading off the trail into the woods. Clint hollered at me that I was supposed to be using the reins, but I hadn’t even yet figured out where they were. I fumbled around for them and got the horse headed in the right direction behind Clint’s horse. I was not prepared for the roughness of the trail and was soon convinced that Sugar was determined to step on the biggest, slipperiest rocks she could find. My feet were wedged into the stirrups, twisting my knees into a very uncomfortable position. I was gripping the saddlehorn in both hands, squeezing tight in the saddle with my legs and bracing my feet in the stirrups. But as the horse lurched up the steep, rocky trail I was sure that any minute I would slide off her back or worse yet the horse would slide off the edge of the cliff whenever we had to navigate a narrow ledge.

Lee handled Penny like a pro.
A section of the trail.

After about half an hour my knees were aching so badly that I gave up on using the stirrups and just let my feet dangle free. Then I felt even less secure on the slippery saddle as the trail got steeper and the horse stumbled over the rocks. I didn’t know how long we’d been riding or how much further we had to go but I was just about ready to ask Clint if we could stop for a minute so I could get off and use the bathroom. Suddenly, Sugar lurched to the left and smashed my leg up against a tree. That was it. I got off the horse, did my business in the trees and said that I would walk the rest of the way up.

Arnie was kind enough to lead my horse and I was finally free to make my way using my own two feet. As it turned out there was less than a mile to our destination. It was steep going and I was huffing and puffing to keep up with Clint’s horse but it was worth it to be on solid ground.

Lee on Penny, Sande in the background.
Arnie and Lee.
Alan Lake, our lunch destination.
Arnie, Sande and Clint enjoying the view.

We had a relaxing lunch next to Alan Lake and I mentally prepared myself for the ride back down. But then Arnie said he would walk down and Lee decided to do the same. So 3 of us walked and 2 rode. Walking down, the trail didn’t seem as rocky or steep as it had when I was on the horse. It turns out that the trail up to the lake was 4 miles with 2000 feet of elevation gain. It would have made a nice day hike, if you ask me. I think as long as I’m able to walk, I will be hiking up trails, not horseback riding.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Friends at various times have encouraged us to visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. While it did sound interesting, it never seemed to fit in with our travel plans. That changed on this year’s visit to Salmon, Idaho. Normally, we would take 2 days for the 1000-mile drive from Albuquerque to Salmon, staying overnight in Price, Utah. But we took an extra half-day this time and drove a longer route that went through western Colorado.

There wouldn’t be a lot of extra time to spend along the way but we would be driving through a part of Colorado we hadn’t seen before. We made plans to spend Tuesday night in Montrose, CO, and Wednesday night in Rock Springs, WY. Wednesday would have some flexibility, as far as time to stop and look at some of the interesting places we knew were on the route.

It was the desk clerk at the motel in Montrose who suggested we check out Black Canyon of the Gunnison. She said the entrance was a 20-minute drive out on the highway east of town. Lee usually has scoped out ahead of time all the points of interest so I was surprised that he didn’t know we were that close. Even though we needed to head west out of town this morning, we decided to take the short detour to the east and check out the canyon. That turned out to be a good decision.

“Spectacular” is the one adjective that kept coming to mind as we drove along the South Rim Road, stopping at each of the 11 overlooks. Well, not quite, as we saw the time slipping by we did skip a couple of overlooks. This is definitely a place worth coming back to spend more time exploring. Especially since August is the height of fire season in the West. Like our trip to Glacier National Park last August the dramatic views of distant vistas that we should have been seeing were lost in a haze of smoke from a number of different wildfires.
park entrance

Lee is enjoying the view at the first lookout.

canyon 1

canyon3

canyon 2

Painted Wall, at 2300 feet, the highest wall in Colorado.
On the road north from Grand Junction we saw one of the fires that had been making all the smoke.