Valles Caldera Treasure

It’s hard to describe the experience of hiking in the Valles Caldera. You’re not going to see any breathtaking mountaintop views but, for me, being out in that vast, empty space is special enough that it almost takes my breath away. And then I’m always impressed by the stillness and quiet as you gaze out over the huge valley floor of the caldera.

Most of what are labeled as hiking trails in the caldera are actually old roads used in the days when the area was owned by ranchers. You usually have to walk out in the open for quite a ways until you reach the tree-covered slopes. On a day as hot as today that can be less than enjoyable.

There was more elevation than I had expected. After a mile or two the road was overgrown with dried grasses and vegetation that scratched my legs and filled my socks and shoes with prickers. I was berating myself for not bringing gaiters. By the time that we came to the huge, washed out gully that had to be crossed if we wanted to go any further I was quite cross. But we managed to find a way to climb down into it and back up the other side. Shortly after that was our lunch stop so I started to feel better.

The highlight of the day for me was the treasure that I found on the way back. It was laying right by the gully crossing and I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. The caldera is a protected area and I couldn’t have brought it home even if I wanted to. But I was content to marvel at the thought of the huge bull elk that left it behind. Then I left it behind for the next passerby to admire.

Glamping in the Enchanted Forest

My idea for an overnight getaway was to rent an AirBnb for one night in either Angel Fire or Red River and then hike somewhere the next day in the Carson National Forest. We haven’t done much hiking there because it’s a bit far too far from Albuquerque for a day trip. We could have camped, but I didn’t feel like roughing it.

When I searched for Airbnb rentals there were quite a few, since both towns are close to ski areas and are popular tourist destinations. But one result that popped up captured my attention. A business called Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area in Red River was advertising yurt rentals as a “glamping” experience. Think of glamping as camping for city slickers.

We would have the benefit of spending the night in an isolated clearing in the forest without having to set up a tent or sleep on the ground. The yurt would have a camp stove, basic cooking utensils, bunk beds and water in it. We would need to bring sleeping bags and our food. No running water, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing so we’d still be roughing it to a certain extent. But it sounded like a fun outing so we booked it and made our plans.

When we got to Red River yesterday afternoon the temperature was in the high seventies, which, compared to Albuquerque’s 90-plus degrees, felt quite comfortable. It didn’t take long, though, to work up a sweat. Getting to the yurt was not a simple matter of driving up to the front door and unloading our gear. You have to leave your car at the entrance to the ski area and then hike the backwoods trails to get to your yurt. Ours was a mile and a quarter hike, which turned out to be almost 2 miles because we got lost.

The area is a maze of color coded trails supposedly marked with plastic streamers on trees and trial names that match a map printout. But the letters and numbers on the map were barely legible and some of the trail markers were either missing or in need of repair. Lee had his gear on his back but my only backpack is a small one for day hikes. I knew I would need extra clothes and a warm sleeping bag for the chilly night temperatures and was happy to take advantage of a hand wagon that was available at the parking area to haul gear. Even with that help, though, it was a tough pull uphill and over rough terrain until we finally found our yurt.

Yurt
Sure beats having to pitch a tent and sleep on the ground!
Red River view
A trail near our yurt led us on an evening walk to a couple of nice views, including one overlooking the town of Red River.

Our home for the night was cozy, actually a bit too warm until the sun went down. At 10,000 foot elevation it’s amazing how quickly the temperature drops at night. We’d been sweating that afternoon but by dark were ready for the warmth of our sleeping bags. Overnight temperatures were in the 40’s so by breakfast time we had put on all our extra layers of clothing and were hunting for that first spot of sunlight coming through the trees to warm us up.

Wagon
Pulling my wagon back down to the car the next morning was much easier, especially since we knew the way.

Our hike today was a pleasant 6-mike trek without too much elevation gain. It started up a valley along a tributary to the Red River. We had views along the trail of Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest mountain at 13,159 feet. There were even a couple of small snow fields visible on its crest. But we were content to keep on our valley trail and enjoy the lush meadows beside the stream. It was a perfect day and a wonderful way to end our glamping adventure.

Meadow
Meadow with view of Wheeler Peak.

Mushroom

Fireweed

Bells

Meeting the Challenge

According to the Maps app on my phone, the trailhead where I planned to start hiking was about a mile and a half ahead. A ‘Road Closed’ sign was not what I wanted to see. I hadn’t been up here before, but it didn’t appear that there was any access to the trails except by this road. A couple of cars were parked on the side of the road in front of me and as I got out of my car a pickup truck pulled in behind me. Thinking maybe the driver was a local resident who could offer some advice, I asked him if he knew what was going on. He was as clueless as I was. We decided the only option was to start walking up the road.

On a 95 degree day in August it’s not a pleasant experience to walk on a newly surfaced blacktop road that is being baked by the afternoon sun. My goal was to hike to the radio towers at the top of Roxy Ann peak. It’s a landmark we’ve become familiar with on our many trips to Medford but there are so many other hiking opportunities that we never bothered with these few local trails. This visit, though, wasn’t about hiking. I’d been busy with other priorities and made a last minute decision to get out for what I thought would be a short climb up the shady slopes of the peak.

Trees were few and far between as I trudged up the road. I grabbed every little bit of shade there was. Since I hadn’t been here before I didn’t know how many twists and turns the road would take before the trails started. When I finally got to the first trailhead I could see that the trails didn’t have as many trees as I expected.

I was grateful for the many switchbacks on the trail, even though with all the winding back and forth, it seemed the trail would never get to the top. Finally, there was the base of the first tower and by walking over to the rock outcropping I could look out over the city and enjoy the rewards of all that sweaty labor.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend this way of hiking Roxy Ann peak. But now I can look up there every visit to Medford and remember another challenge met and conquered.

Southern Utah Wrap-Up

As mentioned in my last post, we planned a stop at Bryce Canyon National Park for the wrap-up of our southern Utah adventure. And what a wrap-up it was. Everyone has seen pictures of the natural wonders that are on display in this eroded landscape, but even the best photography can’t duplicate the experience of actually being there.

We knew we’d find crowds of people like we experienced at Zion, but there’s more room at Bryce so it didn’t feel as suffocating. With about 4 hours to spend there, we picked the most popular hike, a 3-mile circuit that descends into the canyon at Sunset Point, winds through some of the formations and then ascends through a narrow slot canyon back up to the rim at Sunrise Point. After the hike, we completed the remainder of the scenic drive, stopping at several of the viewpoints along the way.

As I said, we have all seen pictures of Bryce so it’s understandable if you don’t want to take the time to page through photos that I took. But I couldn’t resist putting some online, anyway.

Rather than upload the pictures here, they are available in a Google photos album that you can access by clicking on the photo below that was taken at one of the overlooks.

We have wrapped up southern Utah for now, but it is such beautiful country and there were many places we didn’t have time to see, so I’m hoping we will make another trip there soon.

Our Southern Utah Adventure

Our southern Utah adventure started with a couple of days spent in the southeastern part of the state. Probably the most well known place to visit there is Monument Valley but, given our time constraints, we had to save that for another time. I had seen pictures of the twisting, entrenched river meander visible from an overlook at Goosenecks State Park and that was an easily accessible stop to make after our day of driving from Albuquerque.

We also had enough time to drive down the road to Mexican Hat and then take the side road to a good view of the formation that gives the town its name.

Friday was the day set aside for hiking. With all of the options available it wasn’t easy to select one, knowing what we would have to pass up. The weather helped us make a decision. Deserts and mesas would be too hot so we headed to the mountains.

Not far from Blanding, several access roads lead into the Manti-La Sal National Forest, close to the controversial Bears Ears formation. We thought we had picked an isolated area for our hike, but after driving a winding dirt road up the mountains to the trailhead we were surprised to find a large group of people setting up booths and tents. We had stumbled upon the Annual Summer Gathering of the Native peoples who have ancestral ties to the Bears Ears region. It was interesting to talk to them and get an understanding of the issues involved.

The first hike we attempted was on a trail so overgrown that, even after several times backtracking, we never found what we thought would be a trail into Kigalia Canyon. We drove further up the road and had better luck finding a couple of other trails that lead into Hammond Canyon. But by then we didn’t have enough time to go too far into the canyon.

Spring in Kigalia Canyon
Hammond Canyon
View of Bears Ears formation on drive back from hiking

As we left Blanding on Friday, heading to Cedar City in southwestern Utah, we drove the loop road through Natural Bridges National Monument. At the stop for the last of the three Bridges we walked the trail that led under the impressive stone structure.

Sipapu Bridge at Natural Bridges.

By lunchtime we were driving through Capital Reefs National Park. We ate at the picnic area near the Visitors Center and stopped for a couple of scenic viewpoints but then it was time to get back on the road.

Capital Reefs National Park.

The main attraction for our week in Utah awaited us in Cedar City. We had five days to spend enjoying hiking (me and Lee) and biking (Aaron and Ruth) trails. Not to mention just the fun of being together for the week.

We found time to visit Cedar Breaks National Monument, Zion National Park, and several areas in the Dixie National Forest.

One of the overlooks on our hike at Cedar Breaks.
I was amazed at the size and abundance of Bristlecone Pine trees.
A hike at Northgate Peaks in the northern section of Zion.
Hike in Kolob Canyons area, also in northern section of Zion.
Overlook that we hiked to in Pine Valley section of Dixie National Forest.
One of my favorite rock formations–reminds me of ET.
Cascade Falls Trail in Dixie National Forest.
Looking towards Zion from Virgin River Rim Trail.

Today as we head back to New Mexico we will make one more stop at another of the southern Utah wonders we have always wanted to visit–Bryce Canyon National Park.

Back in New Mexico

Ute Lake, NM
Conchas Lake, NM

A week ago we were at the tail end of our two-week road trip to Ohio and Michigan. The last day of driving was only a couple of hundred miles from Tucumcari to Albuquerque. We took some time to stop and visit two New Mexico destinations that we hadn’t yet seen-Ute Lake State Park and Conchas Lake State Park.

Both lakes are reservoirs on the Canadian River, in relatively flat terrain, where hiking trails are pretty much non-existent. Ute Lake had a nature trail along the lake that provided an enjoyable short walk, but mostly we were just sightseeing from the car. Today it was time to get out for some real hiking.

Lee wasn’t too thrilled with my suggestion that we hike the La Luz Trail. But, being the good sport that he is, he agreed with the plan. If you start at the trailhead, hike the 7 1/2 miles up to the tram, and then take the tram down, it’s another 2 miles of hiking to get from the tram back to your car. There wasn’t anyone we could impose upon to give us a ride and I wasn’t anxious to hike the extra distance. My solution was to use Uber to get back to our car after the hike.

Some might say that La Luz Trail is an expensive hike by the time that you buy tram tickets and pay Uber. But to me, it’s more than worth it. Couples wouldn’t think anything of paying an amount more than that for a dinner and movie date. And I enjoy that hike much more than any movie or concert or dinner date. There’s such variety on the trail. The views are awesome, especially the towering granite cliffs when you get closer to the top.

When you know it’s going to be high 90’s down in Albuquerque you start hiking early enough so that the first couple of miles before the tree line is done before the heat of the day.  Then the trail begins to weave in and out of nice shady spots as it winds up the mountain.  The section that goes multiple times across the big rock slide starts to get tiresome, but just when you think you can’t take any more, you come to the intersection with the side trail up to the Crest House and you know the worst is over.  After a refreshing lunch break it’s an easy mile or so to the tram.  And I enjoy that section because it parallels the tram line and you can hear the humming of the wires and watch the tram cars as they go up and down.

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As much as we enjoy our trips to other places, it’s still good to be back in New Mexico.

Mesa Penistaja

After viewing hundreds of photos last night from Mike Richie’s “San Juan Basin Badlands” presentation at the Native Plant Society meeting, it was obvious that today’s hike should be an exploration of one of the areas discussed in the presentation. Shortly after moving to Albuquerque, I went on a hike with the hiking club to Ceja Pelon, one of the 5 Nacimiento Badlands west of Cuba. Lee and I have considered exploring out there before on our own but without any established trails we didn’t know if we should attempt it.

Just recently, however, I discovered a phone app that allows me to load a GPX track on to a map and then follow the track–exactly the functionality that a handheld GPS device provides but no need for an extra gadget. The hiking club publishes their GPX tracks on their website so now we can use their tracks to guide us to new destinations.

For today’s hike we selected Mesa Penistaja, a 6.6-mile loop hike that promised interesting rock formations and lots of petrified wood. It certainly delivered on the petrified wood. Pieces of all shapes, sizes and colors were scattered throughout the arroyos and on top of the hillsides. The dominant flower in the grassy areas was the Mariposa Lily. I have never seen them in such abundance. Many were growing together in clusters, whereas usually they are just a single isolated plant.

The GPX track gave us a place to start the hike and a reassurance that we could find our way back through the maze of arroyos. We ended up only doing about half of the published hike before we veered off and created our own track. With so many things to look at we weren’t hiking very fast and, given how hot it was, we felt that 5 miles was enough to call it a day.

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Ponderosa Pine grow on the mesa tops.
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And some of them are fighting for their lives!
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Detail in petrified wood.
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A pile of petrified wood.
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Bleached white petrified wood in arroyo bottom.
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Looks like a regular log, but it’s petrified.
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A chunk of petrified wood that got left on top of eroded mud.
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Petrified log next to a dead branch.
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Close-up of Mariposa Lily.
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Cluster of Mariposa Lily.

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