We succeeded today in finding an isolated hiking destination that avoided the crowds of other outdoor enthusiasts enjoying the Labor Day holiday. In fact, the destination was almost too isolated for comfort. When we leave the highway and turn onto dirt roads that have multiple warning signs “Road Impassible in Wet Weather” and the weather report is calling for isolated thunderstorms, I tend to get a little nervous. Especially when our vehicle is a sedan not designed for rough roads and we are heading into the backside of nowhere and we don’t see another human being on any of the dirt roads.
Our goal for the hike was a section of the Continental Divide Trail that climbs Mesa Chivato, a prominent landmark in the vast Mount Taylor volcanic field. Mount Taylor itself is not visible from this section of the trail but numerous other eroded cinder cones and volcanic necks are visible in every direction. The iconic Cabezon Peak is one of our favorites and we had excellent views of that, since one of the dirt roads crossed in front of it.
As we drove on the dirt roads it was obvious that there had been a major rainstorm recently in the area. Dark clouds were on the horizon all around us so we knew that we might have to leave in a hurry if the rain headed our way. It’s not that we would mind getting wet but we know how quickly the roads would become a sea of mud in a heavy rainstorm. We could hear thunder in the direction of the black cloud that was hovering over the mesa as we headed up the trail. Fortunately, it didn’t get closer and we made it most of the way to the top before we decided it was time to turn around.
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.
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.