Saturday, July 16, 2016

Northern New Mexico Mountains - June 2016

Areas of Carson National Forest

June 23 - 28, 2016

Once again I used the excuse of a New Mexico Volunteers For the Outdoors (NMVFO) project to launch my camping trip. The project was trail work for the National Forest Service on Friday through Sunday. We would be headquartered at Agua Pietra Campground near Tres Ritos, NM. After the project I thought I'd explore areas of the Carson NF that I had not seen before. I would return home hopefully before the July 4th crowds ascended to the cool mountains.

Don't forget to click on any photo to view a larger version.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


I couldn't wait to get out of town. It had been so hot and it was a trial getting the camper loaded and ready for this trip in the heat. I headed north on I-25, took the relief route around Santa Fe and gassed up at the Indian Casinos. I turned onto The High Road to Taos, NM-503 at Pojoaque Pueblo (pa-walk-ee), headed for Chimayó (chee-my-OH). I stopped for lunch at Rancho de Chimayó and had a very tasty combination plate.  I don't usually take a picture of my lunch, but it was too wonderful.

Delicious combination plate served on the terraced patio with real honey for the sopapilla in the little bowl.

After lunch I visited Sanctario de Chimayó, a historic church and mission. I took some photos, but it was so hot I didn't stay long. Photography inside the buildings is not allowed.


Santa Niño Chapel

Historical Marker with a little history

Overview of the compound

Many folks have left offerings at this small shrine.

The old Vigil Store

Agua Prieta

I arrived at the campground just behind the group leader and her friend. Camping for us volunteers was not in the campground proper, but we were given access to a meadow behind the livestock corrals. I was asked not to set up my camper until the cooks arrived as the cooks always get first choice for their camping spot. The volunteer cooks drove up about a half hour later and decided where they would camp and where the best kitchen set-up would be. They were very accommodating and let me snuggle my camper up next to theirs in the level area. I helped to erect the kitchen shelter then set up my camper. A few other volunteers came in before evening. We were on our own for this evening's meal; breakfast would be furnished Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; and dinner Friday and Saturday nights.

NMVFO project campsite

Kitchen Shelter just after we set it up and before the cooks moved in supplies.
The cooks were staying in the older pop-up camper next to my modern unit.

Friday, June 24th

It rained fairly hard overnight, or at least it sounded like it on my aluminum roof, but the morning was clear and sunny. After breakfast we gathered to hear the safety and orientation talk by the forest service. We were to be in a couple separate groups with FS employees leading each one. We gathered tools and hard-hats and climbed into FS vehicles to be driven to our assignments.

Craig Saum (left) gives the orientation and safety lecture. Those standing on my side of the circle are not in the photo.

I really should have taken more photos of the trail work. I carried my phone only for that purpose, but only took this one atypical shot.

Working on a creek crossing. After a diversion was built to keep the creek off the trail a section from a large deadfall tree was cut and laid across the water.

We worked the Agua Sarca Trail. It was quite beautiful, climbing through the forest and meadows with lots of wild flowers blooming. Beside "tread work" I learned how to use the 2-person saw. Craig, the trail maintenance supervisor, was our leader.

Several Colorado Columbines were growing next to the trail.

We returned to camp with time to clean up and sit a few minutes before dinner.

Saturday, June 25th

Another full day of trail work. This time on the Comales Trail. Today I did mostly "brushing" - trimming branches and removing small trees (mostly aspen) from the trail. There was a section where we stacked and rearranged rocks to keep the creek in its bed and not running down the trail. Another lovely trail, though not as many wildflowers. Jenn, who leads the Taos band Naturally Magenta, was our leader - she was full of energy and had a great sense of humor.

Sunday, June 26th

We only put in a half-day today on the trail. I was again on Jenn's crew. I think we worked the Tio Maes Trail, but I may be wrong. I did mostly tread work and only a little brushing. I also did a little rock stacking to direct a small brook off the trail. Then we rode back about noontime to Agua Pietra to break camp.

Rio Chiquito

After helping to break down the kitchen, I broke camp and headed back west on NM-518 which becomes the highway to Taos.

The view looking toward Taos from the "high road." Looks like rain farther north.

I descended to almost Ranchos de Taos where I turned east on FR-437. This dirt road, "Not Suitable for Passenger Vehicles," follows the Rio Chicquito up into the heart of the mountains. The road was actually in very good condition except for one "puddle" that was about 20 feet in diameter, a foot deep, and with a muddy bottom, but I was able to get through in 2WD.

I saw a couple beaver dams on the way up and the road to the old campground, which still shows on some maps, is closed and the access road was blocked by a large berm. A hiking trail continues along the river. I did find a lovely campsite near the Rio Chicquito next to a large meadow and set up there. To find the area, where the forest road turns away from the creek and heads uphill, instead follow the spur that continues along the creek.

My campsite along the Rio Chiquito

I was tired and my feet were sore, so didn't hike up the canyon, rather I sat in my comfy camp chair in the shade listening to birdsong and waiting for them to appear for their portraits. I didn't get any great photos, but passed a lovely afternoon and evening in this beautiful spot.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Ground squirrel in a little meadow across the creek
Rio Chiquito

Monday, June 27th

I took a brief walk around the meadow, taking a few wildflower photos, before packing up and returning to FR-437.

Prairie Smoke across the meadow
A close-up of the plumes that give Prairie Smoke its name

My camp at the edge of the meadow

More wildflowers

The road up the hill was OK, but looked like it would be sketchy early in the season or when wet. I saw I magnificent bull elk with a full rack, but he bolted before I could pick up my camera. The road also crossed the Divide Trail, popular with hikers, runners, and mountain bikers.

Red River

I made it out to US-64 and headed east to the village of Eagle Nest. I had intended to have breakfast at Cowboy's Corner, as I had on other trips, but it was closed - seems he cannot get help for breakfast, so is only open for lunch. Therefor, I turned off on NM-38 and drove to Red River. In this ski and resort town I saw only two cafes that were on open on Main Street. I chose the one that had a parking space in front and was that ever a lucky choice.

I asked my waitress if the Huevos Rancheros were authentic New Mexican, as I knew a larger portion of the tourists to Red River are from Texas. She said they were, so I rolled the dice. Wow! They were excellent! Some of the best I have ever had. Though not exactly super-authentic, instead of a single tortilla under the eggs, the cook had placed two tortillas with cheese between - yummy. If you are in Red River stop at The Old Tymers Cafe. When I mentioned I would promote them in my blog, one of the waitresses said "Tell them about our pancakes. We are well known for our large pancakes" and held her hands about 12" a part. And so I have.

Cabresto Lake

From Red River I drove up FR-597 - the road is not marked as such in town, look for Mallette Road. This somewhat steep and windy road leads to FR-134, but was in very good condition.

This is the view after the road from Red River crests the top.

From there I explored FR-134 northeast to Lagunitas Saddle, there were only a couple dispersed sites along the way. There were primitive roads to various nearby locations from the crossroads, which looked popular with the ATV crowd, but I turned around to drive to my destination, Cabresto Lake.

You turn off onto FR-134A to Cabresto Lake. It is a steep 4WD drive road, but fine for high clearance vehicles. Watch for ATVs traveling fast downhill. It seems the lake is a popular destination for these 4 wheelers. Although it is a National Forest Campground, that is stretching the term a bit. Mostly it is a flat parking area for those fishing the lake or the aforementioned ATVs. This is also the trailhead for the Lake Fork Trail #82, so those folks park here, too. The parking area has one picnic table.

There are three other camping "sites." The two closest to the lake are not at all level, the one a bit farther away is only somewhat un-level. Nonetheless I was determined to camp with a view of the lake, so chose the site with a view that, although it was on a severe incline, did not tilt to the side. I used all 20 of my leveling blocks on the rear wheels and the camper still sloped. However, as I like to sleep with my head higher than my feet, I was OK.

My campsite looks fairly level as the camera is pointed downhill. Note all the leveling blocks under the rear wheels.

I was going to hike up the lake trail after I set up, but an afternoon thundershower came before I could get going. I sat in the camper and read, and started writing this blog post. After the shower was safely over, I gathered my photography gear and set out.

Caberesto Lake. The trail is on the left, cutting through the slide area.

The Lake Fork Trail starts out at the northwest end of the parking lot, skirts the lake, then follows the creek up the canyon. It is gorgeous! One of the most beautiful trails I've walked since I've had my camper. There are not the breathtaking views that many Colorado trails provide, but the trail itself as it follows the creek, though the trees and flowers, is delightful. I was told by the ranger who headed the trail maintenance crew that many backpackers take this trail up to Heart Lake, then loop back around via Trail #85 along Bull Creek.

Lake Fork Trail as it enters the canyon.

This butterfly probably hatched last season and is just about at the end of its life.

Wildflowers lined the trail.

Lake Fork Creek was a rushing torrent.

Lake Fork Trail

Here the trail flows along side part of the creek.

After I returned from my 2-1/2 hour hike, I set up my chair above the lake shore hoping for a colorful sunset to reflect on the water. I didn't get the red, orange or yellows of the hoped for sunset, but enjoyed the blues as evening settled in.

Evening photo of Cabresto Lake

Here is my evening photography set-up and chair.

Actually, you shouldn't be discouraged to camp at Cabresto Lake, especially if you're in a camper. Go ahead and camp in the level parking area up next to the hillside and spend your day hiking the beautiful Lake Fork Trail. When you return, your camper will be in the shade, the ATVs will be long gone, and those who've been fishing will be leaving. You will likely have the place to yourself.

On the other hand, there were quite a few dispersed camping areas along FR-134 the first couple of miles east of the turn-off to the lake, many not far from the creek. They do look like they see heavy use, so be cautioned in that regard.

Tuesday, June 28th


I decided to simply pack up and drive into Questa for breakfast, as it is only about 8 miles. Turned out, however, the only real cafe in town was closed due to equipment problems. The owner directed me to the Chevron station on the south edge of town. What?! Yeah, that's what I thought. Turns out there was an actual grill/kitchen in the station run by a little, Hispanic lady. She cooks up your breakfast to order. It's called Banana's Take Out Grill, but there is a small area to sit and eat with several tables. I don't know what all is on the menu as I didn't bring in my reading glasses, but the breakfast burrito I ordered was very good and huge! So good I joined Yelp just so I could give them 4 stars.

Valle Vidal Unit

From Questa I drove north on NM-522 to the town of Costilla, just south of the Colorado border. At that tiny village I turned southeast on NM-196 toward Amalia. Somewhere past Amalia the road becomes FR-1950 and leads to the Valle Vidal Unit. The road runs though private land until you get to Valle Vidal. You can camp along the creek if you get a $20/car permit from the Rio Costilla Park office. It is a very pretty area.

Approaching Valle Vidal from the west. Costilla Creek, hidden by brush, on right.

Entering Valle Vidal Unit

Valle Vidal is a 100,000 acre tract that was once the playground of the rich and famous, such as Herbert Hoover, Douglass Fairbanks, and Cecil B. DeMille. The entire area was donated to the people of the United States though the Forest Service by Pennzoil in 1982. It is now managed to enhance opportunities for wildlife.

View up FR-1900, a side road that follows Costilla Creek

Looking back along main road and interesting rock formations.

The entire eastern half is closed in winter to protect the large elk herds; the western half is closed in spring as an elk calving area, though the designated though roads are open year-round (weather permitting.) No vehicular camping is allowed in the unit, though there are two campgrounds. Backcountry camping is allowed on foot or horseback in those ares that are not closed for elk protection and both campgrounds have corrals for horses, which use seems to be popular. The Cimarron Campground is located among fir and spruce; the McCrystal Campground is at lower elevation in a Ponderosa pine grove.

Looking SW toward Mt. Wheeler (which is not within Valle Vidal), the highest point in New Mexico

As I pulled into the Cimarron Campground to check it out I thought I was looking into a mirror. There was a silver, extended-cab Tacoma with a FWC camper right in front of me. They had fancy after-market bumpers and an Eagle, not a Fleet, but otherwise my twin. They were as pleasantly surprised as I was. I pulled over to meet Jay and Kay who were in the middle of a long sojourn across the country. We probably talked campers, traded tips, and admired each others modifications for the better part of an hour. Good fun. I provided recommendations for the areas they were planning to visit the next week.

I stopped at Shuree Ponds for photos and hoped to find dragonflies, but was disappointed in the later goal. I exited Valle Vidal by continuing on FR-1950 to the southeast through part of the Philmont Scout Ranch to US-64. From there I took NM-58 to I-25 and headed south toward home.

Looking across the big Shuree Pond at thunderstorms developing to the south.

On the recommendation of the NMVFO project leader I stopped in Pecos, NM for dinner. Apparently, it is now a thing for there to be quality, cook-to-order food in gas stations in NM. Is this true other places? If so, let me know in the comments. Pancho's Gourmet To Go is located in the Shell Station in the center of Pecos. I got the roast beef and green chile burrito. The beef was as tender and juicy as any brisket I've had - delicious.

Will a full stomach and a song in my heart, ha-ha, I headed back to the freeway and home.

Thanks for joining me on this little journey.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Spring 2016 Shakedown, AZ and NM: Part 3

Part 3 of 3

Hubbell Trading Post, Canyon de Chelly, Window Rock, Zuni Mountains

Continued from Part 2 - Began in Part 1

May 4, 2016 (continued)

Remember to click any photo for a larger version - highly recommended.
In many cases I have posted only a few site photos in the blog. Look for links to full photo albums.

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

From Petrified Forest, I drove east on I-40 for a little over 20 miles where I exited onto north US-191 for the drive to Ganado, AZ, location of the Hubbell Trading Post (NPS site.)

This site is the oldest continually operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. Some visitors leave unimpressed, but I find it fascinating. Don't forget, if you visit this area in summer, Arizona does not observe daylight savings time, but the Navajo Nation does.

Main Entrance

General Store; first room inside entrance.

Basket Room

Blanket Room

Another view of the Blanket Room

View my full Hubbell Trading Post photo album.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

I was returning to Canyon de Chelly primarily to take photos of Spider Rock in better light than I found on my last visit late last year. From Hubbell I continued on 191, stopping only for gas in Chinle, then directly to the Spider Rock overlook. The sky was full with small, medium, and large puffy clouds. That was beautiful to see, but a challenge to photography. I'll show you two photo versions, one with clouds and one where the entire canyon was covered in cloud.

Spider Rock - Cloudy Version with strong Orton effect.

Spider Rock - Contrast Version with mild Orton effect.

After I left Spider Rock I camped in the native-owned Cottonwood Campground with lots of other folks. Although cars and RVs were lined up to enter and it took a while to advance to the entrance station, there were plenty of sites for everyone. The weather was mild, but the campground should be pleasant even in warmer times due to all the cottonwood trees. This early in the season the leafy canopy is not fully developed. There is no dispersed camping anywhere nearby; there is one other private campground near the end of the south rim road.

Cottonwood Campground located off the highway near the park entrance.

I saw my friends from the night before come in and camp. I also struck up an interesting conversation with some folks I'd seen at Spider Rock. They were from Washington state and were visiting sites in Indian country that had been featured in the famous mystery novels of Tony Hillerman. As I am also a fan of those Navajo detective stories, we had lots to talk about.

May 5th

Canyon de Chelly (continued)

Antelope House

I intended to visit the sites along the north rim that I didn’t get to last fall. My first stop was the Antelope House overlook. At the visitor center they recommend the north rim for mornings and the south rim for afternoon, but I discovered you can be too early for good photos on the north rim. I arrived at the first stop at 9am, but had to hang around until 10am before the full ruin was in the sun. Not that hanging around that spectacular scenery on a beautiful morning was much of an imposition.

Beautiful view of Canyon del Muerto from the NE overlook at the Antelope House site.

Antelope House is named for the beautiful pictographs painted on the cliff face above the ruin. (Though it should really be named Pronghorn House, as this native artiodactyl mammal is not an antelope.) The ruin is dated at 1300 A.D. the illustrations are attributed to a Navajo artist in the 1800s.

Antelope House at the foot of a sheer cliff

Antelope House Pictographs. They are just above the ruin and to the left.

While waiting for the canyon shadow to recede, I met an interesting amateur photographer from Hamburg. Achim was driving around the southwest for the entire month of May visiting as many parks and scenic areas as he could, as far north as Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, before returning to Phoenix for the flight home. We had a fun discussion about southwestern scenery and photography, and our conversations have continued via email ever since.

Note the colorful chin on this lizard.

Mummy Cave Ruin and Yucca Cave Ruin

These two ruins are close to one another and the northern most in the park. Mummy Cave Ruin is one of the largest in the canyon and the details can be more easily seen than with others due to the contrast between the light walls and dark rock floor. Yucca Cave Ruin is one of the few located near the rim of the canyon.

Mummy Cave ruin is midway up the cliff at left.

Composite telephoto panorama of the Mummy Cave ruin.

I spotted this Peregrine Falcon fly up to this perch. The falcon never moved where I could get a better photo.

Yucca Cave ruin high above the canyon floor - probably accessed from above.

View my full Canyon de Chelly photo album.

From the last overlook I continued north on the rim road, Indian Route 64, to IR-12 and down to Window Rock.

Window Rock, AZ

While looking for the "Navajo Inn" to have lunch in a Hillerman novel, I found the actual Window Rock. I photographed it and the Code Talker statue. There was a Quality Inn with its Diné Restaurant. I'm guessing that was the place, but with the name changed in the book. I stopped in for a late lunch and had their Navajo Taco. I thought it was a bit expensive, but I had a pleasant table with a nice view of the courtyard and fountain, so was happy. The restaurant seems to be popular with the locals.

Window Rock and the Navajo Code Talker Memorial

Zuni Mountains, Cibola National Forest, NM

From Window Rock I drove to Gallup, NM and got on eastbound I-40. After just a few miles I turned south on NM-400 at Wingate. My intention was to drive through the Zuni Mountains on FR-50. This small mountain range is located south of I-40 roughly between Gallup and Grants. I had never been in this exact piece of New Mexico and was curious what was here.

You lookin' at me?

The two forest service campgrounds in the McGaffey vicinity were both closed, not that I had intended to stop, just a FYI. The asphalt road turned to gravel. The road was very good for a number of miles passing through meadows and grasslands, and I saw a herd of elk cross the road ahead. I was following FR-50 which looks like a good, through road on the map. At a junction by a large ranch there was a sign: “Primitive Road - Not Suitable for Passenger Vehicles.”

That didn't concern me too much at first, but over the next several miles, slowly following the route, I decided the road was barely suitable for high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicles. Yikes! It would have been impassable just a few days before due to rain in the area. The mostly hardened ruts were extremely deep and there were many tricky places where I held my breath. For all the effort, the scenery was that of your basic Ponderosa forest - nothing extraordinary, nothing to call for a repeat visit.

A view of Mt. Taylor as I came down out of Zuni Mountains.

I finally came to FR-480 which was in much better shape. I followed it to FR-178, though remnants of wildfire, to FR-180 (a.k.a., Zuni Canyon Road), to Grants. If you ever pick up a brochure for the Zuni Mountain Historic Auto Tour (for railroad buffs) ask a knowledgable local about road conditions before you start out. The last sites, north on 50, would not have been accessible to a passenger vehicle and I saw no sign at that end of the road warning of the primitive conditions.

Pretty roadside wildflower.

On the way home.

I rejoined I-40 and drove home, arriving at dusk. That last section in the Zuni Mountains notwithstanding, this was an extremely enjoyable trip with lots of great scenery and camping. It was one of those rare trips where all the pieces fell into place.

Thanks for reading along.