Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Land of Enchantment

Well, all I can say is here in Texas it's gotten hot quick, hotter quicker in fact than I remember lately, so I thought about heading somewhere cooler for my first summer vacation. Many places came to mind, but I've had my thoughts on New Mexico for a while now, so that's where I headed. It's the closest cool mountain area around.

I left Sunday morning after dropping Cricket off at Cap Ranch Kennels, to enjoy puppy camp with her canine friends. I had a low tire the night before so as Walmart was the only thing available on Sun morning, went by to have them check it before hitting the road. Once on the highway and up to 70 mph, I could see they must have either left off the balance weight or put it on wrong, so I got to have my brains and upper body rattled all the way to NM.

My first night I was planning to get as far as Caprock Canyon SP, which I'd never been to. I had always opted for Palo Duro Canyon, but decided it was time to check out CC.....did I mention that it's really hot here in Texas?? Well after a drive through the park at around 4 pm and almost 100 degrees and no hint of a breeze, I decided to drive on and see how far I could get before dark. I ended up spending the night in a nice comfortable Quality Inn in Santa Rosa, NM. This would be my last shower until 6 days later back at Caprock Canyon.

The next morning bright and early, cool and rested, I drove to Las Vegas, NM stopping at the first tire shop, and sure enough the morons at WM hadn't even put a weight back on the tire. I decied to try breakfast at the famed Charlie's Spic n' Span Restaurant, which IMHO is highly overrated. Oh well, onward and upward to the mountains. Ah, cool fresh dry air!

I headed up NM 518 toward Angel Fire. Once I passed Coyote Creek SP, the road, 434, narrowed significantly and became quite scenic. I drove through Angel Fire, Eagle's Nest, Red River, and then on to Questa. This road is known as the Enchanted Circle and is a loop from Taos northward and back down again, encircling Wheeler Peak,at 13,161 ft, the highest in NM. From Questa I drove north and west to the Rio Grande Gorge Wild Rivers Area. I have to say the BLM facilities were quite unexpected, with nicely covered camping areas, extremely clean pit toilets and great trails going down into the gorge, and best of all, almost completely void of humans, which could explain the pristine conditions :) I found a nice spot to camp right on the edge of the gorge, where I could hear the water rushing in the bottom of the canyon. Another treat, an afternoon summer storm hit with lightning, thunder, and beautiful clouds. You would have thought it was July or August, and did I mention the cool dry air?

As an aside, when I walk trails of any kind I am grateful to the trailblazers. In my younger days I did my share of trail building, but it awes me, especially trails that were obviously difficult, such as those dropping into the canyon. Thank you trailblazers past and future.

The following morning I hiked down to the canyon floor to Big Arsenic Spring, and the Rio Grande. It was beautiful and there are even a few covered, three sided shelters there as peaceful, except for the rush of the river; really had me tempted to throw my gear in the backpack and hike back down and stay a day or two...however the hike back up the canyon erased all thoughts of that idea!! Did I mention it's a more than 800 ft drop from rim to floor. This area is really nice and I'd love to go back sometime and stay in the gorge. I slacked off and napped in the shade of my cabana during the heat of the day then drove on to the Taos area.

All I can say of the Santa Fe/ Taos area is that Arroyo Seco is the new Taos, Taos is the new Santa Fe and Santa Fe is just unGodly crowded. That's what you get for waiting 20 years to go back to a place. Well that's progress as they say.
After driving to the lower area of the Rio Grande, then to the Taos ski area, then to the SF ski area to consider hiking Tesuque Creek, my head still pounding with allergies and altitude, I opted to camp that night at Hyde Park SP. The next morning I ventured in to have breakfast at an old friend, Tecalote, to have blue corn flour pancakes with pinon nuts . They were celebrating their 30th anniversary. Nice to know some good things last.

Full as a tick, I drove to Pecos, a noted speed trap, but also the gateway to the Pecos Wilderness in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. I drove to the very end of hwy 63, Jack's Creek campground, then made my way back down to Cowles, then Panchuela, and finally decided on staying at Holy Ghost Cr. campground. I wanted to hike the HG trail, which is a nice easy 6 mile rt intro to the mountains ranging from 8200 to 9100 ft in elevation, then hike the Cave Cr. trail at Panchuela which is also about 6 miles the next day. Since I prefer to start my hikes early am, and it was about noon now, I decided to set up camp and relax. I set up the tent so I wouldn't have to worry about losing my campsite when I left to hike CC; I don't like to leave my hammock unattended. And then set up the hammock and spent the rest of the afternoon hangin' and listening to the creek rush by.

First I should clarify that I'm really not anti-social, well ok, maybe just a little, I do like some people, but I enjoy the peace and quiet of nature. So solo, I headed out about 7:30 to start my hike up the mountain. I should mention that this is really more about not having a decent hiking partner; one that doesn't mind stopping while I take copious pictures, consequently turning a 4 hour hike into a 6+ hr one, one that doesn't whine about not having a bath for 6 days, hey wet wipes work just fine,and the fact that I'm old and hike slow, and don't like to talk when I hike. And I see more when I'm alone.
The downside to this is I have discovered the necessity to be less than honest(ok, downright lie, but only for their benefit) when telling my worrisome co-workers and others that I don't want to alarm, that oh of course I'm going with others :)

Now, there are certain things that are discouraged when hiking, the first and foremost, is hiking alone....the second, especially in bear/cougar country, is hiking alone, and going early am or late pm, when said animals are still active. Well I know it's a risk to hike alone, and I don't condone my own actions, nor to I encourage others to do so, but my thoughts, are this.....yes, I likely might get injured or even killed doing so, but I could also get killed on the way to Walmart, and where would you rather die? I also carry a PLB, bear spray and I try to exercise extreme caution and awareness. I have no family to leave distraught and heartbroken, and I did mention I'm already old right? Lived a good life and all yada yada yada. I also know if something happened to me my dog and cat would be quickly adopted by friends, in fact I have trouble now with people wanting them, and I'm still here!!
As far as going into bear/cougar country, yes it does make me somewhat uneasy. Mostly, I would be embarrassed to have someone hear me singing (badly and out of key) little made up ditties out loud to alert said animals to my presence when I am in a questionable area, at least the bears, the cougars already know, nothing gets by them. For them, I sometimes wonder if wearing a mask on the back of my head like some jungle tribes do for jaguars would deter an attack from behind, somehow I think not, but it might be fun for someone hiking up from the rear :)

My altitude headache finally disappeared, another sign of old age, altitude never bothered me more than a few hours snow skiing when I was young! Even with the aide of allergy meds, my left eye ran like a faucet, as well as my nose to the point of being quite sore by the end of the trip.
I thought when I got out of East TX and into the high dry mountains, the allergies would go away, but with the wind blowing each day I could see all the wind borne pollen from the conifers, willow, and aspen, cutting me no slack whatsoever.

My hike up Holy Ghost Creek was beautiful, but not as easy as describe in the guide book, I'm such a flatlander! I actually hiked this trail twice, the next day with my camera gear, and the second time was easier.
I can't get over all the wildflowers, the irises, the lady slipper orchids, even the common dandelions are uncommonly beautiful and of course the butterflies.

The wind increased each day, until by Sat it was really unbelievable. Boy I would hate to be pulling a travel trailer in it. It was nice to feel the cool air from the snow capped peaks while hiking up the mountainside though especially later in the heat of the day, yeah all 86 degrees LOL.

Friday after returning to camp at about 4 pm, the campground was completely full, obviously a popular place on the weekend. After dinner, I laid on my back on the picnic table watching the clouds scud by, the wind had really picked up. I noticed something shiny about 80 ft up in a Douglas fir, and discovered it was a piece of what looked like purple mylar ribbon, I thought at first of a bird or a squirrel, then about 10 ft higher another silver something caught my eye. Crows/ravens I thought, as I know they love to play with stuff like that. I got a laugh out of it anyway.

Sat am I headed out early for the Panchuela trailhead, which sits at the end of a 3 mile one lane road with but a few turnouts; I absolutely hated the thought of navigating that on a busy Sat; not to mention the limited parking spaces once there. Even at 7 am I almost didn't get a spot, as many people camp at the trailhead even though it's no longer a campground since the forest service closed it because of possible lead contaminated road fill from the Terrero mine.

Once I got on the trail I quickly left the campers behind . The Cave Creek trail goes along the creek until it arrives at a couple of caves, the cool part is that the creek goes underground for a while then reappears at the caves. The trail is considered an easy 6 mi rt. There are several junctions going to other trails in the area. After the second junction, the trail began to grow narrower and more grown up, at around two miles in, it became quite treacherous and I decided it was not worth risking a fall. This was an unexpected disappointment, but I just wasn't prepared to bushwhack and climb scree alone to get there. Even though I'd signed the trail register, it would take them a long time to know I was missing. As they say, I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid :) Just before the trail became to risky I had to detour down and skirt the waters edge, which was fine as it was a solid sandy eddy. Next to the water was a soft muddy area and looking down I noticed a print...a cat print...a 3+ inch cat print. My mind first said cougar, then I talked myself into bobcat. I didn't want to exaggerate. I didn't take a photo since I'd put away the camera due to the rough terrain. I hiked on for a bit, maybe twenty or so minutes longer before deciding to turn around. Walking back I noticed the print had almost vanished in the soft mud. It wasn't until I got home and looked again at my track book that I realized it was a cougar print, and evidently a very fresh one at that, very cool and a little scary! Come to thing of it, I did hear twigs snapping a couple of times behind me.....

I ended up finishing the hike about 12:30 so I decided that in order not to arrive at Caprock before dark in the heat, I had time to drive into Santa Fe and have a nice lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, La Choza. La Choza means the shed in spanish, and it's the sister to the more famous plaza venue. It's much easier to get to and the food is great. Especially after a week of eating camp food. And the margaritas were superb :)

I hit the road about 2 pm, taking a backroad (hwy 3) south from 25 to 40. It was like going back in time to what New Mexico once was...delightful.

I arrived at the state park about 10 pm, rolled the windows down, and with the wind blowing and lightning flashing far away to the north, climbed in the back and drifted off to sleep. I awoke the next morning and headed for the showers, boy did that feel good! Wet wipes are all and well, but my hair follicles begin to hurt when I go too many days with out shampooing...probably has much more to do with wearing a cap or buff for a week LOL.

The clouds had rolled in overnight and it was cool and overcast. I took a few photos and hit the road, picked up Cricket, headed home, unloaded the car, and hit the hay. What a great trip! I already want to go back again as there are a number of places I didn't get to...maybe in the peak of the summer afternoon thunderstorms. Great photo opts then! Link to a few pics