I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate the first day of autumn than to hike up one of the many trails in the Sandia Mountains. It will be a couple of weeks before we see the golden colors of the aspen and cottonwood trees. But the timing today was perfect for enjoying the beautiful displays of the feathery pink seed heads on the Apache plume shrubs along the trail.
I think I have a love-hate relationship with rocks. I was hating every single one of the rocks that littered the countless ruts in the maze of dirt roads we were navigating in our attempt to find a trail that started at an abandoned campground in the Manzano Mountains. I winced at every thud and jolt under the body of our car as we inched forward at a snail’s pace. No one in their right mind would take a Toyota Corolla on these roads. Lee could tell I was greatly annoyed at having been persuaded yet again to do one of these “exploratory” hikes.
But after two hours, when we finally got to the base of the mountains and started up the trail, all was forgiven. I was no longer upset with Lee and I was absolutely loving the rocks I was seeing in this part of the mountains. I was pretty sure they were metamorphic rocks, which we don’t see as often as igneous and sedimentary rocks. The intense heat and pressure that’s required to form metamorphic rocks gives many of them fascinating wavy layers in patterns referred to as foliation or schistosity. I could have hauled home pounds of beautiful specimens but limited myself to a few photos. Rocks are meant to stay where God put them for us to enjoy and cars are meant to stay on the paved roads. Me and rocks will get along just fine if we both stay where we belong.
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.
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.
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.
The day started with a field trip organized by the Albuquerque Gem and Mineral club–my first field trip since joining the club. The meeting spot was a 2-hour drive north of Albuquerque, near Abiquiu, which meant we had to get an early start. The morning clouds hadn’t yet cleared and as we drove by Santa Fe we encountered a brief flurry of snow.
The field trip required a short walk up an arroyo to the site of an abandoned flourite mine. A member of the group showed us a couple of samples and gave some pointers on what to look for. Lee and I weren’t very serious about collecting specimens but enjoyed poking around in the rocky hillside picking up a few small samples to keep.
After about an hour the day began to warm up with the promise of good hiking weather. It was a short drive to Ghost Ranch, where we had hiked once before. There were a couple of other hikes there that we knew about, so after a stop at the Visitor Center we decided to do the 5-mile hike that goes up and back down Kitchen Mesa. It was a good choice–perfect weather and wonderful views from the top of the mesa.
The trail goes around the back side of the mesa and doesn’t get too steep except for the one spot near the top that requires squeezing through a narrow rock chimney.
From the top you can look down at the buildings of Ghost Ranch and off in the distance Abiquiu Lake is visible. We had never gone down to the lake so after the hike we took a different road home that circled the lake and then cut over to join Hwy 550 at Cuba. New sights to see, as well as some old favorites–a perfect way to spend Earth Day.
A last-minute plan to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary with a two-day hiking excursion in the Sacramento Mountains turned out to have an added bonus. We had an unexpected opportunity to once again intercept our favorite Celadon driver, this time on a Laredo to LA load he was hauling.
We were already on the road Tuesday, headed to Alamogordo, when Mike messaged the news that he would be coming through New Mexico. As usual, it was uncertain what his schedule would be–when he’d be passing through and how much time he could spare for a stop. But we told him to keep us posted and we would see if we could arrange a meet up.
As originally planned, we stayed overnight in Alamogordo and Wednesday morning headed up into the mountains to enjoy the beautiful spring day.
After getting some maps and information at the ranger station in Cloudcroft, we decided to do an out-and-back hike on part of the Rim Trail. All of the years I lived in Alamogordo I don’t think I was even aware that there was such a trail. I think in those days I had too many other things to deal with.
After the hike we drove further up the road to the Sunspot Solar Observatory. I do remember having gone there several times in the past. But now I was saddened to see how the place is virtually abandoned, its functions taken over by newer technologies. At least it is still possible to take a self-guided tour through the complex, reading information signs in front of the various buildings and telescopes. We finished our day with a stroll through the cute little mountain town of Cloudcroft. It seems to have gotten a few more tourist attractions from what I remembered, even an ice cream shop where we rewarded ourselves with a couple of scoops.
Shortly after getting back to Alamogordo we heard from Mike that he had made good progress that day driving across Texas. He would be able to meet us Thursday morning for breakfast in Las Cruces. So instead of spending a second night in Alamogordo, as we’d originally planned, we drove to Las Cruces and got a motel room off the interstate close to the truck stop he directed us to.
The sun hadn’t yet made it over the Organ Mountains this morning when he pulled off the interstate but I was there on the sidewalk waving and jumping up and down as the Celadon truck approached the intersection. We had almost an hour to visit over breakfast before he had to get back on the road.
Our original plan for today had been to do another hike in the Alamogordo area. But we did some replanning since we would be now be driving up I-25. We decided to check out Elephant Butte Lake, a place we’ve never stopped at before in our travels. A Google query turned up a map for West Lakeshore Trail, which appears to be a fairly new development. We couldn’t do the whole trail but picked a section that would give us a good view of the lake. I was interested to read on the sign that this stretch of trail is part of the work-in-progress Rio Grande Trail that eventually will cross the length of New Mexico.
I was glad to be on this trail in March and not during the summer. Even though it’s a lakeside trail it really is desert hiking.