Friday, February 28, 2014

US50 Phase 1: Villanueva NM

Oct 24 Hogs and wind, both on a rampage

Got a call from my wife this morning. Sounds like feral hogs tore up all her potted plants last night! What a mess!

The original plan for today was to backtrack about 30 miles to Fort Union NHP, but! The wind this morning was just as bad as yesterday and the fort, or rather the ruins of a classic star-shaped fort built by the Union during the Civil War, is out on open rangeland where it once straddled the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. With these kinds of winds tearing down out of the mountains and across the plains the thought of trying to stay on my feet, let alone dodge whatever the wind has picked up and is throwing around, while I toured the largely wall-less ruins of the fort just didn’t do it for me. So instead I fought the winds  from inside the safety of the van while getting a few more miles south on I25 (Which is actually going west and even a little north along here.) to get to SR3.
SR3 roughly follows the course of the Pecos river along here and the Villanueva State Park is about 9 miles in. For most of those 9 miles SR3 has a speed limit of 25 and never more than 45 as  it twists and turns its way between the bluffs and mesas and the river.
Carefully negotiating the roads through the tiny but confusing little hamlet of Villanueva, I coasted on into the state park of the same name. This is the first time since somewhere in Colorado that I have been below 6000 feet.

The state park consists of two separate camping units, one up on a bluff that was already closed for the season and the other strung out right along the river. The ones along the river are very nice, large campsites that are reasonably isolated from each other, each of which comes with a generous three-walled shelter that any tent camper would swoon over in bad weather.
As is the case with many public campgrounds, when visiting the New Mexico State Park system it's a good idea to carry a stash of $5 and $10 bills to use at the self-pay stations. In the state parks I stayed at it cost $10 per night to camp, $5 for the day-use pass and another $5 for the campsite.
Once I got myself parked, paid and properly tagged I crossed the Pecos River, which was running right by the back of my campsite, on a footbridge that put me at the base of a 400 foot cliff. The river runs right up against this cliff along here leaving hardly any room, but even so there is a 2 point something mile loop trail that climbs along the cliff and past a small bench where there are Spanish built ruins of a circular enclosure that they used to fill with grain from the valley below and drive horses and mules around and around to thresh during harvest. The trail eventually comes out near the top of the mesa, another 100 or so feet above the cliff-edge.
Up here there is the option of a side trail that climbs a bit further up to an overlook with views up the valley towards the little settlement of Villanueva which is sitting on another bench above the river to stay clear of flooding. To this day there are no dams upriver on the Pecos so it is still a wild river through here.
As has been the rule rather than exception ever since I got west of the Mississippi, I had the trail pretty much to myself and spent quite a bit of time just - well - just being, as I lollygagged along breathing in the air and the sights.
From the lookout spur the main trail turns back and follows the edge of the mesa, (And I do mean the edge!) before it turns one more time and plunges back down to the river where you then have to negotiate narrow limestone ledges to get back to the footbridge.

After that hike I spent the remainder of the evening sitting in my campsite alongside the river reading and watching the shadows change on the face of the cliff. Once it was too dark to read I decided I should do something about dinner, but then I just sat there for a while longer, unwilling to let this day go.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

US50 Phase 1: Viva Las Vegas! (New Mexico that is. . .)

Oct 23 Leaving Cimarron

I squandered the morning with more hiking and messing around along the river and up the flanks of the canyon and it was with some reluctance that I left Cimarron Canyon behind.
I drove back out to Cimarron (the town.) then turned south on SR21 which roughly follows the route of the mountain branch of the old Santa Fe trail. Along the way I went past the Boy Scout’s massive Philmont Ranch complex. We had a very active scout troop that I belonged to as a boy (Man that was a long time ago!) but we never did make it out here to one of the massive rallies. I guess it was too far and expensive.
After passing Kit Carson Mesa I made a sharp turn to the east on SR199 and worked my way across to I25. It's still very windy around here and now I'm out on the open plains where the wind has nothing to stop it! It’s a bit of a shock to drive a few miles from the steep canyons and thick forests and find yourself on treeless plains where you can see forever from the mesa tops.
At the intersection of SR199 and I25 sits the town of Springer. Though small, my map showed that this town hosts the Santa Fe Interpretive Center and Museum. Unfortunately it appeared to be closed so I never got in to see what it's about.

Did some freeway driving on i25; the first since leaving Michigan and running down I75 to Cincinnati unless you count the hop over Raton Pass; to get south to Las Vegas NM. Found the tourist info office near the tracks and the Amtrak station. Amtrak is about the only rail traffic the Raton Pass line sees now days since consolidation of the railroads has given them the option of using much flatter and cheaper routes to the east for freight. Good for business, not so good for rail-fanning.

At the tourist office I picked up a bunch of stuff before going on a few more miles to land at the Las Vegas 
 KOA where I could get a shower and do some laundry.

Heard that a wildfire started this afternoon up near Questa and campers in Cimarron Canyon have been warned they may need to evacuate if it gets worse.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

US50 Phase 1: Cimarron Canyon State Park

Oct 22 Sunrise in the canyon

Got up this morning and spent some time taking a series of progressive sunrise photos up the canyon, then decided to stay where I was for today. By the way, none of the four campgrounds in this park show up in the Trailer Life campground guide, but other New Mexico state parks do, can’t figure that one out.

After chilling alongside the Cimarron River which runs alongside the campground (And pretty much everything else in the narrow Cimarron Canyon!) for a while I then made a morning run down the canyon, through Ute Park, which is a small wide spot in the canyon with some homes and a convenience store, to the town of Cimarron just beyond the mouth of the canyon. I used up the last of my fresh vegetables last night and was looking for a resupply.

I drove through town from one end to the other and back (Which isn’t very far.) but still had to ask where the grocery store was. I knew there had to be one since Raton, the nearest town of any size, is 40 lonely miles away. Turns out I was just two doors down from it but there is no sign on the place and it looks more like a gas station.

Fresh is a relative term, (I found out later that the place is called Sam’s Grocery and they get a truck on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And of course I showed up on a Monday!) but I got a few vegies anyway and headed back up into the mountains.

Spent the rest of the day chilling out, hiking along the Cimarron River and up Maverick Canyon, just down the road from where I’m parked. Other than a few people fishing the ponds near the campground I saw no one all day. Temps were in the 50’s but the winds meant keeping a jacket close. Inside the rig this evening the wind is making it sound colder than it really is and I'm hunkered down, glad that I'm not sleeping in a cot set up alongside my pickup as one of the fishermen I ran into today is doing!


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

US50 Phase 1: Enchanted Loop and Cimarron Canyon

Oct 21 Hanging around the high country

Red River, or at least a part of it
Since I was already there, and had done a few miles of it yesterday, today I decided to finish driving the Enchanted Loop. This is an 84 mile route that circles Mt. Wheeler, the tallest in New Mexico.

The river bank is pretty developed along here
but I spent a pleasant couple hours here anyway
Leaving Angel Fire on Route 64 it was a steep and twisty uphill climb to 9000 feet followed by an equally twisty downhill run. Even though I did this portion of the route once before many years ago, after driving the tight, densely wooded canyons it was still a bit of a shock to break out into vast and lightly treed expanse of the Rio Grande river valley where Taos sits.

Heading north out of Taos the trees started coming back and after making the right turn at Questa I was back in tight, wooded canyons for the climb up to Red River. A molybdenum mine dominates the scenery alongside SR38 for much of the trip between Questa and Red River. Yeah, I know, or rather I didn't know what the heck molybdenum is either and had to look it up. Now I still don't really know, except that it is used in various metal alloys. I do know I would have to think twice about living under the mountains of tailings piled up so high in some places it looks like canyon walls.!

But fortunately all that stopped before I got to Red River. This is a town that was a favorite vacation place for my wife's family many, many years ago, long before there was a ski hill in town. I made a leisurely stop here and walked along the river on a trail that accommodates the many fishermen that fish the river, I assume in other seasons since there was no one fishing today.
The climb to the east out of Red River to Badger Pass was steep, and got me up to 10,000 feet, but unlike other canyon passes in the area this one actually had a few buildings right there at the high point. The drop down the other side of the pass was steep enough that engine braking was not enough to keep my speed in check. That hasn’t happened very often this trip.

As the angle of decent gradually decreased I entered a narrow and isolated valley that opens up into ranch lands. This valley gradually widens, a little, as it drops down into Eagle Nest which is a small town (Basically the one street) at the north end of Eagle lake which sits about halfway down the north/south valley with Angel Fire at the lower end some 12 miles away but visible down the treeless valley if you know what to look for.

Eagle Lake
Having started my morning in Angel Fire and having already done the Eagle Nest to Angel Fire stretch of the Enchanted Loop the day before, at Eagle Nest I turned east and, after spending a couple very windy hours at the Eagle Lake State Park walking the shoreline, climbed over a saddle before starting the drop down Cimarron Canyon, the upper end of which is also state park. (Most of the lower end belongs to the Boy Scouts.)

Though the slopes above are timbered the valley floor
is devoid of trees
There are four campgrounds in the state park. On the way up the canyon a couple days ago I stopped in one near the upper end of the canyon but it was full, or at least the full sign was out even though I could see several sites that looked empty. Today, a weekday, things looked a little emptier and after checking out the two campgrounds at the lower end of the state park I stopped for the night at the one called Maverick. The other one, Ponderosa, was pretty much just a paved parking lot, the attraction being the electric hookups. It looks a lot like the Rio Grand Village RV campground in Big Bend National Park which is also just a glorified parking lot but , just like here, has the only available electric hookups.
And Cimarron Canyon is just over the saddle
You can see just a small chunk of the road in the center of the photo
No electric available at Maverick and the water and bath houses were shut down for the season back in September (Three portable toilets filled in for the two bath houses.) but this is a much nicer campground and I can get along without services for several days so that's where I parked myself and I think it's going to work out well. Used the time this evening to start sorting all the photos I’ve taken, watch another installment of my ‘How the Earth Works’ course on DVD, and read. Threw my extra blanket on the bed so I didn’t have to worry about heat and I'm going to bed early.

Monday, February 24, 2014

US50 Phase 1: Angel Fire, memorials and hanging driveways

Oct 20 A day of changing plans

When I headed out this morning I didn’t have a very clear plan for today. I knew I was finally going to leave Raton and drive up Cimarron canyon to Eagle Nest and kind of thought I would then turn around and retrace the canyon and maybe head on down to Las Vegas (NM).
Along the way I was struck by how New Mexico drivers seem to understand speed limits and the concept of safe driving as I traversed the generally flat, straight and largely uninhabited stretch of US64 from where it leaves I25 south of Raton across to the town of Cimarron at the mouth of the Cimarron Canyon. If this had been Texas vehicles would have been ignoring the speed limit and zipping by me like I was standing still (Of course if this was Texas the speed limit would have been a ridiculous 75 instead of the sensibly posted 65 down to 55 at major intersections.) and when they couldn't pass they would have been following so close I would have been able to see the spinach in their teeth! Here the drivers stick to the speed limit, no mater how far ahead they can see, and space themselves out at reasonable intervals.
I drove straight on through the town of Cimarron expecting to be coming back this way later in the day, and had a pleasant drive up through Cimarron Canyon. But once I went over the saddle at the head end of the canyon and got to Eagle Nest I realized I wasn’t that far from the Vietnam Memorial outside Angel Fire so went about 12 miles down the high mountain valley so see it.

The memorial was started by parents that lost their son in Vietnam and is now part of the New Mexico state park system. I'm glad I made the effort to get there, but It was a very difficult place to visit and not a tissue anywhere. They even removed the paper towels in the bathrooms and installed air driers instead!

The valley between Eagle Nest and Angle Fire
is at about 8400 feet. The valley floor is devoid of
trees but the slopes above are thickly timbered
Right next to the memorial was a real-estate sign that seemed to match what a friend and his wife had described when they told me about some property they were looking at in the area so I called him to see if this was the place. It wasn’t but he had me go take a look anyway as it sounded like something they might be interested in. In the meantime he described the place they had been looking at (On the web) and after a little trial and error, since the original access road wasn’t there anymore, I managed to find it as well.
The Vietnam Memorial chapel
It was in a development tucked up on the side of a mountain and I was glad there was no snow on the roads up there! There was one house where the driveway was actually a bridge that lead off of the road right into the garage which was on the second floor of the house!

All this took up some time so I decided to just stay in Angel Fire for the night at a campground I had passed just outside town on SR434 across from the airport while looking for a way up the mountain. Apparently the Monte Verde RV park was officially closed for the season but I saw no signs  saying so and the owners live right there on the property and graciously booked me in for the night at $15. Pretty inexpensive for a private campground!