Friday, September 13, 2013

Northern New Mexico, featuring Carson National Forest - Part One

This was only a four day trip, but I've broken it into two parts to make it a bit more digestible. Recall that you may click on a photo to open a larger version in the viewer. Below is a map of the complete journey.

I traveled this route counter clockwise. Red pins - my campsites.

August 26, 2013

I had intended this trip to be dragonfly hunting in the Gila NF, but a last minute status report from two traveling Odonata experts from Texas informed me that the Gila and Membres Rivers were running high and dirty due to run-off from a wildfire scar burned earlier this year - terrible conditions for finding odonates. I was psyched up for a trip, so came up with a quick alternate plan. My new plan was to first check the river in the Rio Grande Gorge, then to head up into the national forest, explore the area around Tres Ritos, then play it by ear. 

I got a timely start on Monday morning, fought my way through the morning commute, and headed north on I-25. It was cloudy and hazy, unusual for New Mexico, so I crossed my fingers for good weather. I drove around Santa Fe on the bypass and took NM-68 at Española toward Taos. The skies were clearing as I drove up along the rio. I stopped at the County Line River Access site where river rafters usually conclude their voyage. At only a little past 10, it was quiet and I waded into the shallows. I found an American Rubyspot damselfly and a Sooty Dancer damselfly, but that's all. Still, it was a pretty place with picnic tables and toilets.

I drove on, passing the junction to Dixon that I'd return to shortly. I made the left turn at NM-570 into the gorge proper where the main highway to Taos climbs away from the river. I'd never been this way before. There are a few homes amid the cottonwoods, then I entered U.S. Bureau of Land Management land. I had the misconception this area would be barren and rocky. Yes, the canyon walls are volcanic rock, but there is a lovely riparian area along the river. 

Looking at the Rio Grande in the gorge near the old bridge.
I drove up to the old bridge, passing a number of nice campgrounds. FYI, there appears to be no dispersed camping in the gorge. I checked around the boat (raft) ramp, but found no odes. I'd printed out a satellite map where a friend had found some interesting species about a half mile up the old dirt road along a small tributary. I parked where the road is blocked; it's a hiking and mountain biking trail now. It was very difficult to get to the stream, and impossible to walk along it, as the water flows between very large boulders in a steep, narrow slot with heavy vegetation. I was photographing a few flirtatious damsels when I discovered I was standing on an ant hill! They were crawling all over my sandaled feet and ankles, so I did the "I'm standing on an ant hill dance!" I was luckier than I deserve. These were not biting ants. Whew! 

I climbed back up to the trail and walked along it. It would have been very difficult to get to the stream and maybe even a bit dangerous for an old fat man with lousy knees, so I would check the banks with my binoculars. Had I seen a dragon flying I might have risked the steep climb down the boulders, but I didn't, so I didn't. 

I stopped and checked a few other spots as I drove out of the gorge, but found no dragonflies. I pointed the truck south at the highway to turn east on NM-75 at Dixon. I stopped at the district ranger station in Peñasco to check if there were any closures or flooding to watch out for. The report was all clear. 

Before I left the parking lot I checked my map and saw a overlook marked only a couple of miles out of my way and as I was past due for lunch turned left at the junction of NM-518 to check it out as an impromptu picnic. To my unexpected delight this was the exact view that had impressed me when I passed this way in 1973. The intervening years had enhanced the view, but it was still a wonderful vista. Unfortunately the overlook itself was mared with graffiti and trash. Sigh. 

Looking toward Taos from the scenic overlook on NM-518.
I reversed course and headed toward Tres Ritos on 518. I checked the lovely trout stream named Rios de Pueblo in a few places for odes without success other than the natural beauty of the flowers, trees, babbling waters, and rock outcrops of the canyon walls - no complaints in that regard. 

Cliffs along the Rio de Pueblo.

I turned north on NF-76 just passed the little village of Tres Ritos. The graded dirt road heads up La Junta Canyon along which flows the Rito la Presa. 

Rito la Presa
There are two campgrounds and many campsites in the first 4 &1/2 miles. These are not considered dispersed sites, so fees apply. On the plus side, the fee is small and the forest service controls vehicle access in the camping areas resulting in prettier sites with more grass than those farther up the road. This is the area to choose if pitching a tent.

La Junta Canyon - camping and river to the right of the road.

Beyond the gate at mile 5, dispersed camping begins and this is where I settled after first exploring farther up the road. Up the road I spotted a couple of grouse along the road. I was just able to take this photo by shooting out my truck window.

Dusky Grouse (formerly the Dusky varient of the Blue Grouse.)
The canyon has obviously seen heavy use over the years, especially by ATV riders, so many areas along the river, beyond that 5 mile gate, have lost their grass and are compacted dirt and ruts.It is a shame they've turned so much beauty along the river into a racetrack. (However, if you want to park your camper next to the creek, then accept the conditions.)

Campsite along the creek.
I hadn't thought much about it, but apparently every night I'd camped this year had a bright moon. This night was totally dark and the stars were amazing, though my view was restricted by the tall trees around camp. I was wishing now I'd brought my spotting scope. It was nice listening to the creek running as I fell asleep. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

It was 41 degrees when I woke up and it took a while before the sun reached down into the canyon. Once it did, I got out my camera and enjoyed photographing the flowers, butterflies and scenery in camp and along the road as I took a short walk. I hung out there long enough to see if there were any odonates along the creek; there were not.

La Presa creek and mountain daisies 
The colorful side of the Hoary Comma butterfly on Sneezeweed.
The same butterfly with its wings closed - what great camouflage for tree bark or leaf litter!
Cute little guy let me share the campsite with him.
I realize not everyone is as fond of creepy bugs as I, but really can't you see how cool he is?
Ever since I'd noticed that Mora was less than 30 miles away, I'd been salivating over the memory of the wonderful blue-corn, brisket enchiladas I had on my inaugural camping trip early last spring. I decided to adjust my itinerary so I could get back there for lunch. It would also be a good place to top up the gas tank. It was a beautiful drive to Mora and with very dramatic views coming down the backside of the mountain. 

Rene's 50's Diner is not the first name that might come to mind for quality New Mexican cuisine, but the enchiladas were every bit as good as last time and the sopapillas were excellent, too! Highly recommended. I got to meet Rene this time as he came out of the kitchen to meet and greet his customers. Super nice guy. Played football for SMU in the Class of 1962. 

While I was in the neighborhood I drove the 10 miles to Morphy Lake State Park to check it out and to see if there were any dragonflies. It is a pleasant campground but the lake is very, vey low. There were a zillion damselflies, but only a couple of blue darners. The road is not suitable for long trailers or large RVs.

A view back toward the Pecos Mountains from a valley south of Mora from my Morphy Lake jaunt.
An alpaca ranch just north of Mora.
I returned to Mora then drove up NM-434 toward Coyote Creek State Park, as I thought the creek might be a good place for dragonflies. I didn't see anything at a quick glance in the park, so declined to stay and pay. What I hadn't noticed on my earlier trip is that there are a few fishing easements just north of the park. I stopped at the first one and did find a Pale Snaketail dragonfly along with Paddle-tailed Darners and a Springwater Dancer damselfly, plus a cool Sphinx Moth.

Coyote Creek

Paddle-tailed Darner dragonfly

Pale Snaketail dragonfly

Sphinx Moth
When I had enough playing in the creek I continued up the paved road - it is too narrow and crooked to really call it a highway along that stretch. It winds through timber at first, then opens to high meadows. 

View of Taos Mountains from NM-434
I thought to drive up to the north end of NF-76, where it comes out south of Angel Fire, then go up the road to look for camping sites. The road was fine at first, but then degenerated to extremely rocky with deep ruts. I kept on for a while looking for dispersed camping, but the few spots I did find were not at all level. 

I gave up and checked the maps. NF-5 just off US-64 west of Angel Fire looked promising (as long as it didn't turn into another rocky obstacle course, I thought.) I drove back down the mountain, then back north through Angel Fire, then west on US-64. NF-5 is a short way west of the pass. When I turned onto the road I was happy to see it had been recently graded. I drove up it about a mile and found a lovely, level meadow just off the road and set up camp there as the sun dropped below the ridge.

Campsite along NF-5 
Another pitch black night with amazingly bright stars and the Milky Way overhead. The trees and canyon cut off my view close to the horizon, so I wasn't able to find any of the constellations that I've always been able to quickly spot. I was surprised how disconcerting that was. I'd never realized how comforting it was to be able to pick out at least a couple constellations in the night sky.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

It was a beautiful morning and it was great to see all the green grass and trees around me. I drove the couple of miles farther up the road just to check it out and found additional dispersed camping sites. A good place for dispersed camping in the Eagle Nest/Taos area. 

I returned to US-64 and retraced my steps west, then continued on north. I thought I'd see if Cowboy's Corner in Eagle Nest would still be serving breakfast by the time I got there. They do "until 10am or so" so I was in luck. Got one of the scrambles and what a huge plate of food it was! I believe I mentioned this little cafe on the post of my very first trip with the camper when I had an excellent green-chile cheeseburger. In talking to the owner, Frank, he said things were very slow in Eagle Nest for all the businesses. For whatever reason they just didn't get the usual tourists from Texas this year. He thought I might have to do with the economy; I speculated that all the wildfires in NM early in the season might have prompted the vacationers to set their plans for elsewhere. I put about half my scramble in a go-box to heat up for a full meal later.

I left Eagle Nest on NM-38 headed toward Red River. An interesting drive that I don't think I've ever made. Just before Red River I turned south on NM-578 which runs along a pretty trout stream. I didn't go far, but it looked interesting. Past Red River I stopped at Fawn Lakes to check out the dragonflies, but there weren't too many.

I hadn't realized there were mines near Red River until I saw the tailings reaching as high as a mountain. Seems there are molybdenum mines and mills there that have been worked for almost a hundred years.

I turned south at Questa on NM-522 toward Taos, then back west on US-64 just before town. This route takes one across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. These two photos are from my crossing last fall when I drove up to Denver to get my first look at an actual FWC camper.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

Looking north from the bridge at the Rio Grande
I crossed the Rio Grande as soon as I left my house, followed it north for the first half day before driving east and looping back around to it. I think this second crossing is a good place to break my tale in two. The next installment will follow shortly. Thanks for reading.

End of Part One


  1. Bill! What an amazing adventure. I enjoyed it reading about it accompanied by amazing photos. Looking forward to part II.
    If you're ever up in the Gila NF, give me a buzz. One of my favorite places in the southwest.

    1. Thanks, Donna, I appreciate your comment very much. By the way, part 2 is up now.

      I see one of my photos is not displaying - I'll fix that next.

      I do plan to explore the Gila, but now it looks like that will be next year.

  2. Love your commentary and excursion. We did part of it recently. Wish I had more time to discover the wildlife. We only had a few days so I concentrated on birding

    1. Thanks, El Judith, glad you enjoyed the post. I hope you trip was even better!


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