Saturday, September 14, 2013

Northern New Mexico, featuring Carson National Forest - Part 2

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 (continued)

If you're following along from yesterday's post, we've just crossed the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge west of Taos. A map of the entire journey is at the top of the previous post.

US-64 turns north after crossing the bridge and passes an unusual housing "development." This is The Greater World Earthship Community of radically sustainable buildings - and some of the biotecture is certainly way out and whimsical. I didn't stop or take pictures, but it might be interesting on a future trip.

There is a large plateau between Taos and Tres Piedras that is interesting for those of us who love wide open spaces. On this trip the long mountain vistas were enhanced by the carpet of wildflowers lining the road. 

Straight shot toward Tres Piedras - a scene not untypical for New Mexico.

In March of this year, the president designated five new National Monuments and this area was one. There are nice photos on the website linked below.

Río Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico. Located northwest of Taos, the Río Grande del Norte contains stretches of the Río Grande Gorge and extinct volcanoes that rise from the Taos Plateau. The area is known for its spectacular landscapes and recreational opportunities – like rafting, fishing and hiking – and serves as important habitat for many birds and wildlife. The monument is also home to a dense collection of petroglyphs and extraordinary archaeological and cultural resources dating from the Archaic Period to the more recent passage of Hispanic settlers.  The monument will be managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which currently manages the more than 240,000 acres of the monument.
-- from the BLM website.
After crossing the plateau, I stopped at the ranger station at Tres Piedras for information on routes or closures in this district of the Carson National Forest. I asked about a couple of roads I'd seen on the map, but the young man there recommended I head north on US-285 for about 10 miles, then take NF-87 to the northwest, following it to 87A and then north to Rio de los Piños for camping.

NF-87 runs northwest, south of San Antonio Mountain - one of the aforementioned extinct volcanoes - though a lovely high plateau of grasses, sage and wildflowers. 

On NF-87 looking back toward the east whence I came.

The road then surprisingly dips down into a verdant valley with the Rio San Antonio running through a meadow-like setting. 

The road descends into a small valley of Stewart Meadow.

Rio San Antonio riparian area

Once the road climbs out of that small valley it does indeed begin to climb. Up it goes, providing glorious views back toward the Taos Plateau and the volcanoes, then up into a majestic Ponderosa forest, then continues up into the spruces and miles of aspen groves as it skirts Banco Julian peak.

The road forks at the rim of the Cruces Wilderness Basin with 87 continuing southwest to Lagunitas, which the ranger said got rough, and 87A heading north. I headed north, as recommended, and noted a couple of dispersed campsites along the rim that had gorgeous views across the basin - the sunsets there would be amazing, I'm sure. I was tempted to camp there, but as it was still early I pushed on.

Overlooking the Cruces Basin Wilderness

The road then begins to drop rapidly and for long stretches is extremely rocky. Not impassible rocky, but about as bumpy a road as I've been on - made me wonder just how rough the Lagunitas Road was to merit mention by the ranger. After several miles as the road dropped and continued to be rocky, I wondered if I'd made a mistake pushing on. Lower and lower it went with the temperature climbing and few if any dispersed camping areas. I was about to despair that I'd been steered wrong by the ranger when I caught a glimpse of the canyon below with a small lake or river reflecting the blue sky.

I came down into a grass covered valley with the Rio de los Piños running briskly along. There was a wooden bridge, then the road T's. To the right is a graded road and eventually civilization. To the left is a narrow, uneven road with a warning concerning wet weather… and a spectacular canyon - the lower end of the Toltec Gorge!

Rio de los Piños

I chose the canyon and mentally thanked the ranger who recommended I come here. The river is wide (for a New Mexico trout stream) rushing along over the rocks; the canyon walls push straight up from the far side of the river leaving patches of meadow between groves of evergreen trees. The road would indeed be a nightmare if truly wet, as it was there were larges patches of mud and puddles, some quite large and deep. When confronted with one monster, I backed out and camped at a beautiful meadow right next to the river with a view of those amazing canyon walls.

It was a delightful evening. I enjoyed sitting outside on my lawn listening to the river gurgle and watching a couple of Belted Kingfishers call and chase each other around. I kept the screen door on the camper closed thinking the mosquitoes would be out soon, but luckily none spoiled the show.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

After breakfast I decided to drive up the canyon. The evening before I'd seen a couple of fishermen drive up then later come back down, so the road was probably passible. It looked like the monster mud hole should be tackled head on and I successfully did so. The canyon continued to be lovely. It would widen out a bit and there'd be a nice dispersed camping site, then it would narrow down and there was barely enough room for the road. A few places were muddy and some of the rocks and holes required slow speeds, but nothing was truly challenging for a standard high-clearance truck.

A smooth, dry stretch of NF-284 along the Rio de los Piños

The road, NF-284, continues up into Colorado according to the map, but the ranger said the road got bad as it went on. From the map it looked like it hit private land then climbed up out of the canyon, so when I got to a scenic point I got out of the truck and admired the view for a while before turning around. Perhaps earlier in the year, before the seasonal rains, this would be an interesting road to explore. On the way back down the road I met a young man who was camping nearby and he recommended a forest road in Colorado, off Hwy 17, for scenic camping. He didn't know the name or number, but described the junction very well.

On the way down the canyon I stopped a couple of times to check for dragonflies, but other than a few darners it must have been too late in the season. After passing the bridge at NF-87A I'd crossed the day before, the canyon walls disappear and there is private land labelled as the village of San Miguel. Past there the valley is wide and the road and river pass through a NM State Recreation Area named after the river. There are several small informal camping areas, which were poorly maintained, and a number of people fishing. From there agriculture takes over and before too long the dirt road is paved and crosses north into Colorado where it is as straight as a ruler and named "Road 12.5".

The road arrives in the town of Antonito at a confusing intersection near the terminal station of the Combres and Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad. It was getting on to lunch time, so looked for a cafe for a hot meal. I drove completely through town and saw several liquor stores and an old downtown hotel, but only one eatery, The Dutch Mill Tavern & Cafe in the small downtown section of town. There was a convenient parking space on the street nearby. I had my doubts when I entered as there was only one person at one table though it was nearly noon and no sign of wait staff.

I needn't have worried (by the time I finished the cafe was full of locals enjoying lunch.) The menu was a combination of home cooking and mexican food. I didn't know if this would be New Mexico style cuisine being this close to the NM border, but they did spell chile correctly and offered red & green, so it would probably be OK. I decided to order their "famous" open-faced chili burger. I ordered it with red & green chile, aka "xmas", and with fries rather than mashed potatoes (?).

OMG, when the plate arrived it was covered with a huge mound of food. The burger was indeed open faced and the fries were placed on the other half of the bun and the whole thing was drenched in chile sauce. As I shoveled it down I could envision my arteries clogging as I sat - actually I exaggerate, even though it was probably a few thousand calories, it wasn't greasy.

As I was paying my bill I noticed a hand lettered sign on a paper place mat taped to the wall: "Homemade Strawberry Rhubarb Jelly $5". On the spur of the moment, even though I was stuffed, I asked for a jar. Actually, it wasn't jelly at all, but rather jam or preserves and rather than draw things out, when I tried it later that evening, it was incredibly delicious! Sadly, it is long gone as I write this post.

I asked for directions to Hwy 17 as I was turned around and, as I hadn't planned on coming to Colorado, I didn't have my good maps. Heading west it wasn't long before entering the Rio Grande National Forest and the road began to climb up into Ponderosa pine country following the course of the Conejos River. Beautiful country, but also lots of dude/hunting ranches and private homes.

I found the road the fellow I'd met recommended. It is NF-250 and entered a beautiful valley surrounded by tall mountains. However, the scenery could not compete with the horrible washboard of the compacted gravel road. I'm guessing this is an aspect of decreased national forest budgets caused by the sequestration - no money to grade roads. If I needed to drive the road or really knew if it was worth it I could have aired down my tires. As it was I turned around and headed back to the highway.

Climbing out of the valley on the newly resurfaced asphalt was a dream, especially with the great views. Here's a photo looking back up the valley where I'd turned around and it does look gorgeous. I may have to explore it on another trip and hope the road has been graded in the meantime.

Conejos River Valley, Colorado

The highway turns south and travels though La Mango Pass at 10,230 feet and Pinorealosa Mountain following the scenic railroad line in many places. This part of the national forest may be a good area to explore later, too. The highway continues south, exits the national forest, and returns to New Mexico after passing through tiny Cumbres.

As I was getting near Chama, I recalled that this is the southern terminus and location of the headquarters of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. When I passed the station and yard, just north of town, I turned around and parked to walk around and photograph the buildings, engines and equipment. The train itself was off on its travels, apparently, so I'd content myself with what might be there.

Engine 487

Station and Ticket Office

Switch Engine

Rotary Snow Plow (steps & platform not original equipment!)

Water and Coaling Towers

Denver & Rio Grande Western rolling stock

I picked up a brochure from the ticket agent so I can plan to ride the historic train on its scenic route another time.

I proceeded south on US-84 from Chama. As it was Thursday before the Labor Day holiday, I figured I'd camp one more night in the southwest corner of Carson NF before heading home. This was an area with which I was totally unfamiliar, so I stopped at the Canjilon District ranger station to ask about road conditions and camping.

I was informed that NF-137 from Canjilon to Las Placitas passed through piñon/juniper habitat at lower elevations, and would be fairly warm, I asked for suggestions for something at higher elevations. I was told the area around Canjilon Lakes was very nice, but probably already getting busy due to the holiday. Trout Lakes was also a good place, but the road was very difficult when wet, and since thunderstorms were expected to move through the area, that was probably out.

The lady at the station recommended that I loop up into the aspen of the high country on NF-124 and tipped me off that the road sign at the junction on the main road to the lakes had been stolen and not yet replaced, so to keep an eye out for the turn just after entering the national forest boundary.

I found the road and drove up the mountain. Dispersed campsites were not prevalent at all and the few I saw were far from level enough. Plus, the aspen in this area did not look very healthy and lots of cattle were grazing in this area, too. Not the most attractive area. I went up and started back down, then found an interesting spot. It was not much more than a parking space, at right angles to the road, between some tall trees, but it was right at the edge of an escarpment, so there was a spot to place my chair for a wonderful view across the basin to the northwest.

I spent some time leveling the camper and started on the preliminaries needed to camp. I was slightly concerned that this spot seemed to be a drainage area and if there was a heavy rain it would run right under and around my truck. I had also been noticing more and more bees buzzing around, in fact I realized there were lots of bees and they were flying in the truck when the door opened and would likely get into the camper, too. Those two factors caused me to abandon that campsite and continue down the mountain.

I drove all the way down to the junction with NF-125, a couple of miles in from the main highway, without finding a single passible campsite. I didn't want to go very far up 125 as I could see evidence that it would indeed get bad when wet, and the skies were already darkening and there were rumbles of thunder. I finally found a camping area about halfway to the highway with ground that looked like it wouldn't turn to gumbo in the first rain.

"Emergency" campsite

It was a little closer to the road than I would have preferred and was a bit on the well-worn side, but it was either that or head back home and end up driving late into the night as I didn't know of any camping between there and home. That night as the thunderstorm chased me into the camper and the rain went on and on, I wondered if I'd made the right decision. 

I remembered that I'd actually received a phone call from a friend while I was setting up camp and noticed at the time I had a good connection for data, as well. So, I opened my Wundermap app and checked the RADAR. I was relieved to see most of the storms were well to the south and the rainy area near me would soon pass away. That put my anxiety to rest and I was able to get a good night's sleep.

Friday, August 31, 2013

The morning dawned clear and bright. I had the satisfaction that I'd chosen my "emergency" campsite well, as the ground was wet, but not soggy. I traveled the short distance to US-84 and set off to the south with the goal to be home by early afternoon.

There were open vistas of tree covered hills and as red rock cliffs came into view I wished I'd left my camera set up for a few quick shots through the windshield. That reminded me that Echo Amphitheater was along here somewhere. I'd last been to it when I was still in high school when the youth group I was with stopped here for a picnic lunch on our way farther north for a camping trip. But like my last high school trip to Carlsbad Caverns, I was more interested in the cute girls on the trip than the natural beauty of the landscape - so didn't remember much about it. Plus, that was a lot of years ago.

There it was. Cool. I turned in for a couple of quick pictures, but as I drove up into the parking lot it looked interesting enough for me to pay the very modest fee and walk around.

The piñon and juniper provided an attractive contrast to tall sandstone cliffs in shades of cream and red. The sky was an incredibly deep blue. The chamisa and sunflowers were blooming. It was gorgeous and I took photos like crazy as I walked around, then up to the amphitheater itself.

Looking south along the cliff line toward the Jemez Mountains.

The paved trail up to the base of the amphitheater. Yes, you can hear your echo up there.

As I'd driven into the park area, I'd noticed they had a small campground which I hadn't realized was here. I drove the loop through the ten modest campsites on my way out, wishing I'd known about it the day before as it was much prettier than my previous night's camp. I'll remember next time.

Back on the highway, headed home. I soon reached the familiar area from my previous Jemez Loop trip, just a few weeks before. Though this time, after filling the gas tank in Española, I drove straight home. 

A wonderful journey around northern New Mexico with a short "detour" in Colorado. Thanks for joining me. See you next time!


  1. Another interesting trip for your readers Bill! I finally had to look up "riparian", and I was also pleased to see the "Anthill Dance" did not involve bites!. The Sphinx moth looked really great (notwithstanding all your other nice photos), and I thought the inclusion of the map very useful to help me keep track. All in all, and enjoyable 4-day trip for all involved :-)

    1. Argh. The disappearing comment bug just bit me - I know you know what I mean. I used to use the Lazarus extension (plug-in), but disabled it as I hadn't needed it in a long time. I've re-enabled it now the horses are out of the barn and notice they now let you set a password to protect the saved data - great feature. It is available for Firefox, Chrome and Safari.

      Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

      Thanks very much, Peter, glad you were able to comment on the blog this time.

      Riparian is a useful term in these parts for birders and dragonfly folk.

      Sphinx moths are very cool. I've seen more this year than the last five years combined.

      Glad you like the map. I think it will be useful for me, too, especially in looking back at my posts.

      p.s., just realized I may not have been bit by the bug, but may have simply clicked in the wrong place when I lost my reply to your comment, but I'll leave Lazarus enabled now it has a password.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it!