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View From The Top

Since we had been easy on ourselves for the other hikes we took this week, I thought it was time to do something a bit more challenging. Lee wasn’t too happy when I suggested Manzano Peak, but, being the good sport that he is, he went along with the plan.

It’s a good workout to get to the 10,000 foot peak, the highest point in the Manzano Mountains. The trail starts at 8,000 feet elevation and intersects the Crest Trail after 3 miles or so of uphill. From there it is about a mile of up and down along the Crest to get to the peak. It’s not the most scenic place to hike because much of the trail goes through a large area of forest that was burned during the disastrous Trigo Fire of April 2008.

We have done this hike twice before, November 2017 and November 2018. When I considered how different our lives are now than they were in November 2018, it was comforting to look around on the trail and over the vast forest and desert expanses to see that the beauty of the landscape does not change. Since it was spring this time, there definitely were some differences in the fresh green of the trees and in the plant life sprouting up along the trail.

We have had such a dry spring that there weren’t very many wildflowers, but there’s always something to surprise us. For example, we didn’t have too much further to go getting back to the bottom of the canyon, when we spotted a single columbine blossom hiding in the undergrowth. We see lots of those hiking in the Sandias, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen one in the Manzanos. Another surprise at the peak itself was to find numerous cactii in blossom of a variety that has become a favorite of mine. I think they are Simpson’s Hedgehog, but haven’t researched them in detail.

Obstacles are many on a hike, and often you feel tired and want to give up. But you keep going and before you know it you are there and the view is marvelous. Kind of like life, in general.

A boulder field that had to be crossed.
Struggling up yet another incline.
There’s the summit marker–finally!

View from the top.

Texas vs New Mexico

The Guadalupe Mountain Range, straddling the Texas/New Mexico state line, is home to two National Parks, one in each state. Carlsbad Caverns is the better known of the two, except if you are a Texan, in which case you might realize the importance of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Guadalupe Peak, at 8751 feet of elevation, is the highest point in Texas.

As loyal New Mexicans we might be inclined to favor Carlsbad Caverns, except that hiking up peaks and enjoying wilderness trails is more our style than a tour of underground caverns. Knowing that spring flowers should be making an appearance this week in the Guadalupes we set out for 2 days of hiking at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We knew campgrounds and visitor centers would be closed, but we were totally surprised when we got there to find out that all access, even to the trails, was forbidden.

To me, one of the puzzles in these COVID-19 times is how there can be so much inconsistency in rules and regulations. When we were turned away at Guadalupe Mountains all we had to do was drive north across the state line to Carlsbad Caverns, in the same mountain range, and there all trails were available for hiking. The same mountain range, the same National Park Service managing the two parks, but an entirely different reception. I thought New Mexico’s governor had been over restrictive in her rules, but I was sure counting my blessings that we were being allowed to hike. Neither day did we encounter anyone on the trails so no fear that we were spreading germs. Hooray for New Mexico.

Both of the hikes that we did were reached by driving past the entrance to the caverns on a road that led up into the southwestern face of the mountain range.  Each hike went up a side canyon towards the ridge of the mountains.

Tuesday’s hike up Yucca Canyon was the steepest one, starting at 4600 feet and ascending to 6000 feet in less than 2 miles. Once that elevation was reached the trail leveled off nicely on a long plateau that we hiked across for another mile or so before turning around.

Approaching saddle
Partway up canyon
Looking south Guadalupe Peak is visible in the distance.
Hiking along the plateau.

Wednesday’s hike up Slaughter Canyon had the opposite experience when it came to elevation. The first couple of miles were fairly level, easy walking except for the many ankle-twisting rocks in the arroyo bottom that the trail kept crossing in and out of. The steep ascent up to the ridge started at 4200 feet and went to 5700 feet, again in less than 2 miles.

The goal was to reach the trail junction at 3.5 miles. My GPS showed 3.75 miles when we turned around with no junction in sight.

Rocky footpath in one of the sections in the arroyo.
Turpentine Bush in bloom.

Look closely back down the trail to see Lee enjoying the view

Over the course of the two days, Lee must have taken over a hundred flower pictures. With his professional camera he can capture the most minute detail of the blossoms to show off their real beauty. When I try for flower photos with my phone camera they are a disappointment. I tend to be more drawn to the cactii and here are three favorites.

Ocotillo in bloom

Rainbow cactus
Yellow cactus–not sure of variety.

San Pedro Parks

With the arrival of hot weather this week it was time to change our preferred hiking locations. The desolate areas of the Rio Puerco Valley have recently provided us some excellent hikes, away from the crowds and at lower elevations, just right for springtime temperatures. But with upper 80’s in today’s forecast, hiking in the mountains is what came to mind. Since it’s Saturday, though, we knew the local trails in the Sandias would be too crowded. Fortunately, without driving too much farther we can find pleasant mountain hiking in the San Pedro Parks Wilderness.

This is one of New Mexico’s oldest wilderness areas, created in 1964 as part of the Federal government’s original Wilderness Act of 1964. The area had first been set aside by the Forest Service as a Primitive Area in 1931. The word “Parks” was commonly used in the American West to refer to an area of open grassland hidden amongst forests at higher mountain elevations. The average elevation at San Pedro Parks is 10,000 feet and it averages 35 inches of precipitation a year–much more than what we generally see anywhere else in the state.

Most of the precipitation is in the form of snowfall and we saw that today.  Because the Nacimiento mountain range is rounded and not jagged high peaks, when you look at them from the valley, it isn’t obvious that there could be unmelted snowbanks up there. Our planned hike was an out and back on the Las Vacas Trail.  There were many cars at the trailhead but we knew that most of the people would only be going as far as the San Gregorio Reservoir, a popular spot just a mile up the trail.  This was earlier in the season than the other times we have hiked there and we were pleasantly surprised at the amount of water in the lake and stream.  It was challenging to avoid the muddy spots as the trail went along the lake and then to find a way to get across Clear Creek at the point it empties into the lake.

Nacimiento Peak across the lake.
One of the creek crossings

After  passing the lake the trail follows Clear Creek to an intersection with another trail near a meadow which we knew would be a good lunch spot and turnaround point. We couldn’t quite make it, though, to the intersection. The snowbanks along the creek were in heavily shaded areas and got deeper and deeper as we approached the meadow. We tried climbing higher up the rocky slopes next to the creek where the snow had melted but finally decided to just make do with eating our lunch in one of the open sunny spots before heading back down.

Snowbanks along the trail
Some spots required stepping into tracks that were even deeper.

If we would have made it to one of the meadows we might have seen more flowers. The two varieties we did see, Candytuft and Buttercups, were few and far between but, given all the other beauty around us, I have no complaints about the day. We knew we had picked the right place for today’s hike in pleasant 70 degrees when we got back to Albuquerque and saw that the temperature had reached a record-breaking 90 degrees here.

Blue sky and green trees
Easy walking


A Shoulder to Climb On

A number of our hikes recently have been on trails through the Rio Puerco Valley that will inevitably have one or more views of Cabezon Peak, a prominent volcanic formation that rises nearly 2000 feet above the valley floor. To reach the summit requires rock climbing expertise beyond our desires and abilities, but we did hike once on a trail that circles the shoulder of the peak. Since we have had it in view so often lately we decided that today’s hike would be a revisit of the trail we had done before.

I only had a vague recollection of our previous Cabezon Peak hike. Seen from a distance it doesn’t look like it would be all that difficult to walk around the shoulder. What I didn’t realize is how much climbing was involved in getting to the shoulder. The first half mile of the trail is very steep and rocky, gaining about 600 feet of elevation. It levels off somewhat, but on the backside there is a challenging stretch over a boulder field. Coming back down was a bit of a knee cruncher but taking it slowly and carefully we were down in time to relax with our lunch break.  A short but rewarding hike that allows us to check off that landmark the next time we view it off in the distance.

Cabezon Peak in the distance on a previous hike.
Road to trailhead.
From the trailhead parking lot.
Section of the steep uphill to the shoulder.
Made it to the shoulder.
It sure is a massive rock formation.
Part of the boulder field.
After circling the peak this is the view back down to the parking lot.


CDT Social Distancing

New Mexico’s share of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) passes through many desolate and deserted landscapes.  It’s an ideal place to practice COVID Death Trap (CDT) social distancing.

On the 7.5 mile hike we did today we saw a couple of cows but not a single human being.  I don’t think New Mexico cows are COVID carriers but they were more than happy to give us a wide berth, anyway.

We were on the CDT itself only for the last couple of miles.  The majority of the hike went through a badlands area called the La Lena Wilderness Study Area. Until we got to the CDT section there was no marked trail.  Instead,  we were following a GPS track downloaded from the Albuquerque Senior Center Hiking Groups website to a tracking app on my phone.  We found ourselves wandering off track a couple of times but quickly got back to where we needed to be.

In this type of terrain a GPS track is pretty much just a suggestion, anyway.  There are multiple ways to wander around the mesas and eroded rock formations, gaping up at the endlessly interesting shapes silhouetted against the bright New Mexico sky.

CDT markers out here aren’t fancy.
Carved on a rocky cliff face.
Ugly face. A COVID threat?
Cabezon Peak in the distance

Thank you, New Mexico, for providing such a pleasurable day and location to practice social distancing.

Out of the Ordinary

The New Mexico Native Plant Society had a field trip to Deming, NM, planned for March 21. Since it’s a bit too far from Albuquerque for a day trip, we had made arrangements to spend the weekend at a motel in Deming. As the day of our departure approached, it was obvious that this was not going to be an ordinary weekend. In fact, the whole week was definitely out of the ordinary.

Every single group activity that the two of us are usually involved in was sending out notices of cancellation. Hey, let’s take advantage of all the free time, was my first thought. And that’s exactly what we did.

We left Albuquerque early Wednesday morning for a hike near Reserve, NM, hoping that the rainy day weather forecast wouldn’t materialize. By 2pm we had completed a 7-mile out and back hike on the Continental Divide Trail just as the rain clouds started to sweep through the mountain pass towards us. A short drive took us into Reserve where we warmed up with hot tea and dessert at a small cafe.

Thursday and Friday we decided to keep with the CDT theme and investigate some of the sections of trail in the Silver City area. Thursday found us at the Jack’s Peak Trailhead where we endured more of an uphill hike to reach a turnaround point at 3-1/2 miles. Jack’s Peak itself could have been reached by exiting the trail and walking on the maintenance road that leads up to the towers on the peak. But we were content to view the peak through the trees before heading back down the way we had come. The rain from the day before had left some lingering morning snow flurries on the mountaintops around Silver City. As the day warmed the sun made short work of the snow on Jack’s Peak but we did catch a glimpse of whiteness.

The Gomez Peak Trail System, a popular day use area located in the Gila National Forest a few miles outside of Silver City, was the location of our Friday hike. Once again we didn’t tackle the peak itself. Most of the trails were pretty tame winding around through the woods. One of the trails was an access trail to the CDT so we got on it and then did a short section of the CDT just to keep the theme going.

The three days of hiking was an unexpected bonus to the original plan of being in Deming today for the field trip with the flower experts. They may not be hikers but they sure do know their flowers. Conditions were perfect for seeing the springtime bloom of Mexican poppies. We don’t get to see them in the northern part of the state so it is a real treat. In the first picture most of the yellow is bladderpod; the golden color is the poppies.

A “Maars” Scape

In New Mexico we are accustomed to hiking in landscapes that can be described as “moonscapes.” Today’s desolate hiking destination took us through an otherworldly landscape around a special type of volcanic crater known as a “maar”,  hence a “maars scape.”  When hot, molten rock comes into contact with subsurface water it can cause a huge explosion of steam that hurls ash and volcanic material over a large area before collapsing and creating a shallow crater.

Kilbourne Hole, located about 25 miles southwest of Las Cruces, is a large maar designated a National Natural Landmark in 1975 due to its unique geology.  We are spending a couple of days exploring hikes in the Las Cruces area and decided that today would be a good day to check out this special volcanic feature.

I thought a feature designated a national landmark would be fairly accessible, but without the detailed driving directions in our guidebook “Day Hikes in the Las Cruces Area”, we never would have found it.   There’s no such thing as a direct route through this part of Dona Ana County.  Once leaving the interstate, it is a series of 8 different turns back and forth on increasingly rough county roads leading out into the vast Chihuahuan Desert grasslands.  The only sign indicating that we were headed towards Kilbourne Hole was a hand written sign placed on one of the dirt roads that branched in two directions.  My guess is that the rancher got tired of having lost tourists taking the wrong branch and ending up at his ranch.

The edge of the crater itself is the only indication that you have finally arrived at your destination. The bottom of the crater is private land but a number of jeep trails and dirt roads surround the rim, making it possible to hike the entire 7-mile perimeter. Except for some sandy areas that made for difficult walking, it is not a strenuous hike. It’s not exactly a scenic hike, but it does have the desolate beauty of the desert solitude we enjoy so often in the Land of Enchantment.

Besides being a volcanic maar, Kilbourne Hole is renowned among rockhounds as a place to find “volcanic bombs” or xenoliths. These are blobs of molten lava ejected from the volcano that contain pieces of other rocks, most notably olivine crystals in the hardened lava rocks at this location. We found many broken pieces of black basalt that were encrusted with the bright green olivine crystals.

Bright green anything is a welcome sight this time of year.  Lee found a couple of tiny flowers that he could photograph but not much else was growing yet.  Thankfully, the spring winds aren’t blowing yet either.  After a chilly start in the morning we had plenty of sunshine to warm us up and make a perfect hiking day.