Thursday, July 13, 2017

Bluff Springs and Big Spring

After messing around on the Trestle Recreation Area trails until well past lunch, I just had time to quickly check out Bluff Springs, another spot the Lincoln National Forest ranger had told me about.

And I’m glad I did.

From the turn onto Sunspot Highway off of SR130 just south of Cloudcroft, I continued south about 8.5 miles and turned left onto Upper Rio Penasco Road. (Also known as County Road 17.)

A little more than 3.5 miles later Bluff Springs is on the right.

Upper Rio Penasco Road follows along – you guessed it! – the Rio Penasco which is a major west-to east watershed out of the Sacramento Mountains, though up here it’s just getting started so looks a little humble. Note that I took the photo above as well as the next photo while driving west so the river is actually on the south side of the road, the right side when driving it east towards Bluff Springs.

Initially the road is paved

But soon becomes a single lane of gravel.

Although wet in some spots from seeps coming down out of the mountain the road was in good shape when I was on it and any type of car short of a ground-hugging performance rocket could have made it to the springs without dinging up the ground-spoilers too bad.

With the exception of a single block of private land that was very well posted, the MVUM indicates that dispersed camping is allowed along the road anywhere between Sunspot Highway and the springs but there are actually only a few spots where it’s possible to get off the road.

A steep slope drops down right next to the north side of the road and while it may look like a person could pull off the south side and camp there next to the river, there are two problems with that. First, ever since my Boy Scout days I’ve always been taught not to camp within two hundred feet of water so as to not disturb the delicate eco-system too much nor unduly disturb the wildlife. Second, as usual the camera has flattened things out, but there is quite a drop there from the road to that bench along the river and I would have spent the entire sleepless night worrying about getting back up onto the road in the morning.

By the way, the road I'm driving on, Upper Rio Penasco Rd. sits on top of what used to be the Southwest Lumber Company's railroad.

This company-owned logging railroad connected to the rest of the world via the Alamogordo & Sacramento Mountain Railroad at Russia Canyon, which is about where FR 257 turns east off of Sunspot Highway today. If you look to the left at this intersection when southbound on Sunspot you can see a little ways down this canyon, now called Pierce Canyon, I would guess because after about 1950 all things Russia were verboten.

Back along the Rio Penasco, just east of Bluff Springs a branch of the SWLCo railroad looped around the end of the ridge and climbed up into Willie White Canyon then used a series of 5 switchbacks (Yep, 5 is a strange number since it leaves the engine on the wrong end of the train but that's what's on the maps. . .) to climb up and over the ridge into Hubbell Canyon, and then another series of 6 switchbacks to climb up and over into Hay Canyon.

Next time I'm in the area it's on my list to hike the general route of this railroad into Willie White Canyon and up over the first ridge via Forest Trails T113 and T5008.

This railroad started up in 1920 and wrapped up operations in 1942. That might not sound very long to us today, but in terms of logging railroads that made it the old man of the mountain, operating longer than any other logging company railroad in the area.

Even the demise of this railroad has a fascinating story behind it that involves a missed water-stop and abandoned engines, and I quote directly from the document:

It was not until 1945 that the railroad and logging equipment remaining at Marcia (My note: Marcia, very much a company town, used to be about 1.5 miles west of Bluff springs, right where FR 5009, also known as Telephone Canyon Rd. intersects with Upper Rio Penasco Rd. today. It used to be an important point on their railroad where short 'woods trains' were consolidated into longer 'road trains' for the run up to the interchange at Russia and had it's own post office from 1923 to 1942, Not much there now except a wide spot where two roads meet.) was brought up to Russia. One of the rusty Shay locomotives was fired up for the chore. During 1946, several SP trains carefully traversed the now little used track to Russia to bring out the SWLCo equipment for salvage.
P. S. Peterson, an SP engineer, and brakeman Wilbur Fifer had the job of bringing the remaining SWLCo locomotives down the railroad to Alamogordo. With locomotive 2510, they formed a train at Russia, with ancient logging locomotives separated by empty flatcars for added braking power. Peterson pulled the cumbersome affair down to Cloudcroft, and coasted right on by the water tank. The 2510 needed water, but lacked the power to back up the train to get back to the tank. And there was not time, under the Hours of Service Act, to cut off the locomotive and run down to Wooten for water and return. So he chained the whole outfit to the rails at the Cloudcroft depot and left with the 2510 for Alamogordo. In consideration of the risk in bringing the decrepit string down the steepest part of the mountain by rail, it was decided to leave the train where it stood. The entire outfit was cut up at the depot and trucked out (Neal 1966:66).(My note again: At the time this happened the road down into the basin more or less followed a parallel route between Cloudcroft and High Roles so shared the canyon with the railroad, unlike today where US 82 sits right on top of the original railroad route between these two towns. You can hike the Old Cloudcroft Road today by following T5002 from the Trestle Recreation Area.)

I realize that most people that drive Upper Rio Penasco Rd. have no idea that they are driving on the bones of a railroad and the backs of the men who built it, but who says railroads aren't fascinating!!!

This photo, taken from part-way up the bluff of Bluff Springs, shows the county road up there on the left just below the trees, and below that an overflow parking area edged with boulders to keep vehicles out of the river.

With some careful parking (On days without crowds, but if there weren’t crowds why the big parking area in the first place??) a person could get fairly level here and my interpretation of the MVUM along with a perusal of the notices on the board in front of the pit-toilets finds nothing saying you can’t camp here, but that sounds a little fishy to me so I don’t know. Besides, it’s still within the 200 foot exclusion area. (I've since learned that people do camp there but it's likely to be a noisy camp on weekends.)

So why all the hoopla about Bluff Springs??

Well by all accounts it’s the only ‘drive-up’ waterfall in this district of the National Forest and one thing we Americans just love is a drive-up, drive-in, drive-through anything.

Our predilection to finding 'faces' in things is evolutionary, but still, did you notice the two faces in the bluff there, one stacked on top of the other? 

This would be a challenging photo in the best of circumstances what with it being mid-day and the foreground in deep shadow while the background is in bright sun, but since I wasn’t paying attention I only made it worse and managed to blow out the highlights, the sunny areas, by not setting my camera properly. (The way digital works, if the shadows look too dark they can be fixed since the data is still there, but if the highlights are blown out, too bright, there’s nothing you can do to fix that since the data just isn’t there.) I’m only using it here because it’s the one photo I have that gives an idea of the general layout here.

I’m standing at the top of the falls here and the overflow parking is mostly out of sight there behind the brush in the upper center. Off the top right corner of the photo is the top of a set of timber steps leading up from the main parking area. You can see the path to the lower end of these steps there beside The Van and there’s a bridge across the river so you can keep your feet dry on the way up.

But if dry feet are a priority be careful about where you wander once on top of the bluff!

There are large patches of lush looking pasture up here that are actually more water than solid ground, at least at this time of year (Mid-April)

But you will want to wander this natural park-like setting once you’re up here!

The steps up might look challenging from the parking-lot level, but one big behemoth of a guy as wide as he was tall that I was sure would be staying down by the river when I saw him haul himself out of the car on tree-trunk sized legs (The car shuddered, straightened up, and heaved a sigh of relief when he got out!) made it to the top so they can’t be too bad.

From here you can also connect with the Willie White and Wills Canyon trail systems.

The bluff is along one edge of a gorgeous Alpine bench that just begs to be explored and picnicked on.

And cutting through the middle like something out of a Hallmark movie or a Thomas Kinkade painting is the small creek that eventually becomes the waterfall.

This trickle isn’t very long,

bubbling out of the side of the mountain there at that dark patch,

but it does its part to grow the Rio Penasco which will eventually empty out of the mountains near Elk, some 40 miles away, as a full-blown river.

I hung around in the gentle ambiance of Bluff Springs for several hours, snacking, wandering, sitting, just being, but eventually it was getting late enough that I needed to head off to a boondocking site that I had scouted out along FR206C nearly a week ago.

It had been dry for most of that week so I figured I wouldn’t have any trouble getting The Van into it, and I was right.

My only company all night was a pair of mountain bikers that came flying down the mountain from the left, right past a sign warning that this was an illegal trail and users are subject to fines, and disappeared just as quickly off to the right just after I shot this photo.

Once again I woke to snow, a sleety snow this time, but had no problem getting out to the highway to begin my long trek back home, though the next 40 miles were on slick, snow and sleet dusted roads. Normally I would have just stayed put until later but the forecast called for an all-day event and I had already used up any leeway I might have had in my schedule so I just took it easy until I got down low enough to leave the snow behind.

My route that day took me across the oil-fields of eastern New Mexico and far west Texas as the storm, now pretty much toothless but not giving up just yet, chased along behind me. At one point signs warning me of construction delays on NM 529 tempted me onto NM 360 instead, but shortly after making the turn I passed another sign warning me that NM 360 was subject to subsidence and sudden sink-holes because so much oil has been pumped out of the ground under it!!

But despite the potential consequences of this conspicuous consumption I made it safely to US 62 which took me through middle-of-nowhere Hobbs NM where there is a tiny little Air Force base.

Among Air Force members, getting stationed here is considered worse than being stationed in Minot North Dakota!! Not sure I agree with them. No crowds, no tourists, no snow, and a 10 minute, three-car rush hour. What’s not to like??

My destination for the day was Big Spring Texas. I got there in time to drive up the hill to the Big Spring State Park that sits on top of a rocky hill above town and is a favorite with joggers and bicyclists circling the one-way road through the park. 

There’s no camping in this park and the gate is closed at sunset, but that still gave me plenty of time to back into a quiet spot and have dinner before heading down the hill to find a parking-lot somewhere.

As I was cleaning up after dinner a ranger drove up in his pickup, parked in front of me and commenced talking on the radio.

Uh oh!!

I don’t care how guiltless you are, this is when you start running your life back through your head trying to figure out just what the hell you did wrong and how bad it’s going to be!

Now I read almost every week in the 6 page, twice-a-week local paper where Deputy Sheriff (Name redacted because it would give too much of a hint about where I live.) and his K9 partner (Name redacted because ditto.) stopped a vehicle for a ‘traffic violation’ (for some reason they never say just what the violation might have been. . .) and after making contact with the occupants noticed ‘criminal indicators’ that resulted in a search of the vehicle which resulted in arrest. Dammit, right about now I wish I knew just what criminal indicators are so I could avoid them!!!

Eventually the ranger got out of the truck and we started talking. You know, just normal everyday conversation stuff, no hands-behind-the-head, body-searches, handcuffs, or anything exciting like that. . .

Turns out this wasn’t just a ranger. He was the head ranger, the park superintendent, and after talking for a few minutes about different state parks he and I have both been to and what it’s like to be a ranger here at Big Spring, he very graciously offered to let me camp right where I was for the night.

I wasn’t expecting that!  That would be breaking the rules! (though he pointed out that he’s the one that makes the rules up here.)

Normally I would have jumped on the offer. After all, camp all by myself up here on the hill far above the bustle of town, who wouldn’t chose that? But the gates would be locked until 8 the next morning and tomorrow, Thursday, was the day the Good Friday road-madness would start, and I was still a long way from home and the only way to get there before the hoards were released was to get a pre-dawn start.

So with regret I had to decline his extremely kind offer and slink dejectedly back down the hill to spend the last night of this trip at Walmart. . . Acceptable, but not nearly as good as a whole state park to myself!!

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