Highway to Heavenly Hiking

One of my favorite roads in New Mexico is US Highway 550 that runs from Bernalillo through Cuba and Farmington and on into Colorado.  I always look forward to the 20-mile stretch that starts about mile marker 25.  This is a section of the Rio Puerco valley that has been eroded into colorful red and yellow sandstone cliffs.  On the west side of the highway is the Ojito Wilderness, miles of a rugged desert landscape with Cabezon Peak beckoning in the far distance. Next to the highway on that side is a gypsum covered mesa that is a favorite of mountain bikers.  We have often hiked in that section of the Ojito, called the White Ridge Bike Trails.

The east side of the highway doesn’t have as many hiking opportunities, since it is close to the boundary of the Jemez Pueblo.  But veteran hikers at the Albuquerque Senior Centers Hiking Group (ASCHG) over the years have developed many off trail hikes on BLM land that can lead to explorations of unexpected places.  On our drives through the scenic section of 550 I always look at the geology on display on the west side of the highway.  I didn’t realize that on the east side, hidden behind scrubby hills and cow pastures, is a large mesa eroded into a jumble of canyons and sandstone formations.  The ASCHG website lists a 6.5-mile hike there called the Red Mesa East Loop hike.  We chose that yesterday as our hiking destination.

Lee had been on this hike a number of years ago with a group from the ASCHG but it was new to me.  Thankfully, the ASCHG posts a downloadable GPS file for all of their hikes.  We could have wandered around for hours and eventually found a way up the mesa but I feel more comfortable knowing I am on a track that won’t lead me to a cliff edge or into a dead end canyon.  As it was, we struggled several times trying to figure out exactly which ledge we were supposed to head for or at what point we were supposed to cross over one of the many canyons.  By the time we got back to the car we had hiked 7 miles and I was happy with the great workout and beautiful scenic views we had enjoyed.

I loved this view because it gave me a new perspective on Highway 550. Usually I’m just riding along in one of those cars down there gazing off to the left at the geology formed from the eroded cliffs. Cabezon Peak is the little bump in the far distance.
Leading the way.
It’s always surprising to me that there are so many Ponderosa Pines that grow in the canyons in the landscape that looks totally barren from the highway.
Across the highway is the White Ridge Bike Trails area. One of the trails, named Dragon’s Backbone, is visible as the squiggly white line on the ridge.
Looking southeast Sandia Mountains are visible on the horizon.
The geology is always fascinating.
Jumbles of conglomerate boulders in the bottom of the canyons are a testimony to large amounts of water that once rushed through here.

Cold Feet

When we planned a hike Monday on the east side of the Sandias I expected there might be some snowy spots on the trail. Here in the Rio Grande valley earlier snowfalls are long gone and there isn’t even any snow visible when we look up at the mountain peak. But I’ve learned that on the north facing slopes piles of snow can linger amongst the trees even after a long spell of warm sunny days. It was warm and sunny for our Monday hike and, although there was quite a bit of snow, we were fine with just our usual hiking boots and winter jackets.

Snow on Osha Spring Trail
Looking east from Osha Spring Trail

The hike we did yesterday was the hike that caught me unprepared for snow covered trails. We would be in the desert badlands area of the San Juan Basin, where we have hiked before, and I always think of those hikes as tromping around in the sand and scrub, nowhere near snowy mountain slopes. But what I forget is that when you drive the 60 miles from here to Cuba, New Mexico, you are going from 5000 feet elevation to over 7000 feet. It is further north and on the Colorado Plateau and the weather can be quite different from the Rio Grande Valley.

There hadn’t been any recent snowfalls but it was obvious when we got out of the car to begin the hike that there had been a lot of snow at some point and it hadn’t yet melted. It was a warm day but with just my regular hiking boots by the time we finished the hike my feet were freezing cold and soaking wet. It was a small price to pay, though, for the pleasure of viewing the many interesting rock formations made even more striking by the whiteness of the snow patches.