Sunday, July 13, 2014

South Central Colorado (NM/CO) - June 2014

New Mexico and Colorado Trip - June 2014

I've broken this trip into two blog posts, which is not unusual. However, instead of doing this strictly chronologically, I have divided the posts into a New Mexico post (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday morning, Thursday afternoon and Friday), and then this Colorado post (Wednesday noon to Thursday afternoon).

Remember, you can click on a photo to see them all in a larger size.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Alamosa, Colorado

I left Rio de los Piños, NM heading northeast on Los Piños Road and was soon in Colorado. I decided not to stop at Antonito as it was still too early for lunch and the one gas station didn't even post their prices, so I could imagine they were high. Instead headed north along US-285 to Alamosa. I don't think I'd ever been there and figured gas would be less expensive. I also found an interesting small, local place to eat, the Monterey Cafe. Though it was approaching lunchtime, they advertised breakfast all day and a lady at the next table was having chicken-fried steak and eggs. I asked her if it was good and she affirmed that it was, so that's what I ordered and it hit the spot.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Looking at the map I decided that rather than turning back to more familiar areas to the south, I would explore south central Colorado where I'd never been to before. As a New Mexico native, I'd never really felt drawn to go to Great Sand Dunes National Park, but as it wasn't very far away and I had my senior pass, I figured I'd check it out. First I drove north on CO-17, then east on Mile 6 Lane, then north on the turn-off to the park.

View of Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind irrigated fields from Mile 6 Lane.
You can just make out the Great Sand Dune to the right between field and mountain.

The terrain below the dune is grass- and shrublands. At a pull-out on Mile 6 Lane.

As those of you who have been there know, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is actually a pretty cool area with much more diversity in landscape than I had guessed.

Near the park entrance: Sand dune with mountains.

Medano Creek

Sand sledders on the High Dune

Dune Panorama

I waded in the river with a bunch of other folks, then drove up the primitive road to the "Point of No Return." As is apparently typical of the National Park Service, the warning sign on that primitive road is quite dire in an attempt to turn back the unprepared. At the visitor center I talked with a ranger intern and she & her brother painted a less bleak picture, explained where the camping areas were up the road and gave me a map. The first five miles are very sandy and they recommend lowering your tire pressure. Sounds like a fun adventure perhaps during the aspen season.

View of the dunes from the primitive road

The Starvation Prickly Pear was blooming all around

Looking south from near the campground toward the dunes and Visitor Center

Afterwards, I headed south on CO-150 and connected up with East US-160, then south on CO-12. It goes through the town of La Veta, then up into the mountains of the Spanish Peaks.

Spanish Peaks

View of the Spanish Peaks from US-160

Past La Veta, as the road began to climb the wide valley, I stopped to photograph a dramatic rock formation. It looked like a granite wall sticking out of the hillside. Later there was another with a formal pull-out and an informational sign. These formations are "dikes" formed by molten rock filling cracks deep under the earth during the volcanic formation of the mountains. Over time, after uplift, the soil has worn away exposing the dikes.

Volcanic "Dike"

San Isabel National Forest

I continued up the valley, passing through the resort & summer community of Cuchara. From the map I could see that there was really just one road into the national forest before Cucharas Pass. I took the road which ran along side a rushing creek. The road was signed as only allowing camping at one of the two campgrounds. There were a number of fishing access parking areas along the road. It did look like good fishing.

I looked over both campgrounds and decided to stay at Blue Lake Campground. By the time I set up there wasn't enough time to do more than have supper and take a short walk around the campground.

My site at Blue Lake Campground


Blue Lake

In the morning I decided to take the trail down to Blue Lake. The sign said 3/4 mile to the lake. I think it was a bit farther than that, but not much. It was an absolutely beautiful trail winding up and down around the hillside.

Trail from campground to Blue Lake

Lots of butterflies were enjoying the wild flowers

Wild Strawberry blossom

As a native New Mexican, I was in heaven with all this Colorado greenery.

Butterflies were not the only ones feasting on the flowers along the trail.
I believe this is a Broad-tailed Hummingbird female, but am not positive.

There were lots of blooming wildflowers with butterflies, a cascading brook, and then the crystal clear lake.

This cascade is wide enough you need a couple of rocks
to step completely across it.

Pretty, tiny geranium blossom.

Blue Lake - currently my favorite photo of the summer.

I took photos and talked to a couple of the fishermen. I then walked the short distance to Little Blue Lake where there were more wildflowers, but no one fishing.

There were lots of Shooting Star Columbines in the area.

Close up of Shooting Star Columbine blossom

Little Blue Lake

Returning to camp, I packed up, drove down the mountain, then continued on CO-12. At the pass I noticed a road to the left crossing a high meadow. I pulled over to let the truck behind me by, then reversed to the road. Looking at the NFS road sign, I didn't know if I wanted to take the dirt road all the way to I-25, especially after just bumping over some rough, rocky roads in New Mexico, but would certainly drive to the scenic overlook only a half mile in.

Cordova Pass Road

Gorgeous view of Colorado mountains and wildflowers.

This high meadow was full of flowers with a mountain top background and a view down the valley. I stopped at the overlook which had an informational sign for Cordova Pass Road.

Informational sign photoshopped to remove most bullet holes. Sigh.

I read about the road, the vista point at Cordova Pass which promised a 180 degree view, and an arch that had been constructed through one of the dikes for the road to pass through. I was sold, so I continued on the road, hoping it would be passible and not too rough.

Each time the road passed a turn-off for private ranch property, its condition deteriorated and I'd hold my breath, but never got very bad. I wondered what I'd find when I reached Cordova Pass. I envisioned a baren pass with maybe one other car, but the reality was very different. The pass was in a wooded area and there were at least 8 cars parked there. I realized this trailhead into the Spanish Peaks Wilderness must be popular with backpackers.

Sign at the parking area of Cordova Pass. Only one hole to patch on this one.

I gathered my photo gear and started up the trail to the vista point, which was supposed to be half a mile away (and was about half again as much.) They claim this vista point is handicap accessible - yes, maybe if someone carries you; no way a wheel chair could make it up that trail. The trail itself was quite scenic, passing through both woods and flower covered meadows, with views of West Spanish Peak as well as the lowlands to the east.

View of West Spanish Peak and the plains to the east

What a colorful butterfly!

The Rocky Mountain Clover was a feast for all the butterflies.

This black swallowtail was active right at the vista point

The view on top was indeed spectacular and even wider than promised. I took a pano with my iPhone and separate photos with my real camera to stitch together later. Turns out the phone photo in this case turned out very nice, so I never bothered with the other photos. I also had fantastic phone reception from there, so took the opportunity to check in with a friend.

Panoramic photo of the view from this vista point.

The road over the pass looked just fine so I continued on after my short hike. I'd realized I was out during a week leading up to a new moon. I had intended to try my hand again at star photos, but had been closed in by mountains all week. Looking at the map I thought I'd do something novel and drive out to the Kiowa National Grasslands in eastern New Mexico. Surely that would provide plenty of sky for photos. I thought ahead for once, and after finding the phone number for the grasslands headquarters in my Benchmark map, called to verify the campgrounds and roads were indeed open. Yes, they were.

Beauty along the roadside.
I took this one out the window of my truck, too.

I continued down Cordova Pass Road and then came to the tunnel through the dike, the Apishapa Arch.

The WPA built this arch through the volcanic dike

It was unsurprisingly hot by the time I descended all the way through the foothills and onto the plains and then south on I-25. I'd tried to take my time up in the mountains, but hadn't stalled enough and was afraid I would get to the grasslands while it was still hot. So, I stopped in Trinidad to kill a little time, getting an old fashioned root beer float at a small ice cream shoppe downtown.

I continued down I-25 and crossed into New Mexico at Raton Pass.

The narrative continues in the previous post.

Northern New Mexico (NM/CO) - June 2014

New Mexico and Colorado - June 2014

I'm breaking this trip into two blog posts, which is not unusual. However, instead of doing this strictly chronologically, I will divide the posts into a New Mexico post (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday morning, Thursday afternoon and Friday), then a Colorado post (Wednesday noon to Thursday afternoon).

Remember: to see larger versions of the photos, simply click on one.

Monday, June 23, 2914

Jemez Mountains

I started out this trip by revising favorite areas in these mountains only about an hour NW of home. I intended to search out the small rivers and streams for dragonflies. For some reason all the fishing access spots along the lower Jemez River were closed.

Jemez River

 I stopped on the shoulder of NM-4 where it was close to the river. There was no dragonfly activity, but I did photograph this lizard.

Whiptail Lizard next to the Jemez River

I turned back to the NM-485 turn off that leads to FR-376. I always enjoy the scenery where the Gilman Tunnels punch through the narrow canyon of the Rio Guadalupe before it flows into the Jemez River.

Gilman Tunnels

I stopped at my favorite place to access the stream just past the tunnels. Very little activity there, though I did see a Four-spotted Skimmer dragonfly that is usually only seen on lakes and ponds. I'll post a photo of this species later in this narrative. I also was happy to find a Red Rock Skimmer, a species I'd been looking for in the Jemez for two years, though other people didn't seem to have any problems finding them.

Red Rock Skimmer

I then drove up FR-539 that runs along the Rio de las Vacas. The stream at my second favorite stop was lower in June than it had been last year in August - not a good sign for the forest. Very little wildlife activity there, either, though I photographed a pretty butterfly and a very blue damselfly.

Weidemeyer's Admiral Butterfly

Tule Bluet Damselfly

I decided to continue up 539 as I'd never driven past that one spot before. My poor reading of the map led me to believe it connected to FR-126. Physically it does, but where it passes through private land the gate is locked. I returned to 376 and continued north. I took FR-604 which branches off 539 about a mile before it hits NM-126. I'd wanted to explore up this way as the USFS map showed it led to Ghost Rocks above La Cueva. I'd explored these rocks where I was a kid. The road does indeed lead there, but to the top of that feature, so there is no way to explore the rocks from there, but I did take pictures. I should have realized the rocks were on private land, but was still disappointed to discover someone had built a cabin just below them.

Looking down at Ghost Rocks

I then took NM-126 west past the turn to Fenton Lake to the Fish Hatchery. I'd found interesting dragonflies here before, but only saw the Four-spotted Skimmer and lots of damselflies. I did also get a nice shot of a Song Sparrow.

Four-spotted Skimmer

Song Sparrow

Continuing on NM-126 I ran into a couple miles of white dust of the consistency of talcum powder. It was so deep that I shifted into FWD just for stability as it was actually slippery! This was surprising as the road was perfectly fine last August. I guess it really is dry this year (glad to report the Jemez has received a couple of good rains in early July since my trip.) I then hit a delay for road construction. I was going to stop to check for dragonflies where Rio de las Vacas crossed 126, but that clearing is just where the construction company was parking their heavy equipment. Sigh.

I continued on the the town of Cuba. I stopped there at El Bruno's for either a late lunch or early dinner and had one of the best green chile cheese burgers, evar ;-) With the large portion of fries, I couldn't finish it so took half along for later. Gotta love having a fridge in the camper. (Spoiler: it was better cold that most other burgers are, hot.)

Just northwest of Cuba I took NM-96 north, then east, to connect to north US-84 and hence to US-64.

Tres Pedras

I'd never been on 64 between 84 and 285 before. It is a lovely area, but all of it until well after you go over the pass is private. There was a spectacular rock mountain to the north which I learned is named the Brazos Cliffs. I stopped at the overlook just past the pass to try to get a photo. The light wasn't very good and I waited a while to see if the clouds would change and sun would shine on the cliffs, but it never happened.

Brazos Cliffs

Once I entered Carson National Forest I turned off to try to find dispersed camping, but the forest road on the map was closed. I tried a smaller road on the other side which was a bit rough. I found a couple of potential spots, but the mosquitoes were thick. I did get this interesting photo of a lone pronghorn shedding it's winter coat.

Pronghorn in molt

As there was no immediate prospect for bug-free dispersed camping and it was getting late, I turned into the National Forest campground at Hopewell Lake. As in most areas I've noticed that older forest camps have become day-use only and new camping areas have been built to be more ecologically sustainable and physically larger to accomodate the trend toward larger camp trailers and vehicles. Such was the case at Hopewell Lake where camping is no longer permitted at the scenic lakeside sites. The new campground had the advantage, at least, of being mosquito free.

I didn't realize until the following day, many miles away, that this was the first campsite I've utilized in my FWC camper where I forgot to take a photo of my camper in the site. Perhaps because of my late arrival. Oh, well, it was bound to happen and this was a pretty ordinary site, after all.

Tuesday, June 24

After breakfast I took the trail from my campsite down the hill to Hopewell Lake. It's a nice looking lake and I had fun chatting with the folks fishing and the family cooking breakfast lakeside. There were wildflowers to admire, as well.

Blue Flax

The north end of Hopewell Lake

I spoke with the fisherman who had the blue, inflatable pontoon boat in the photo below; he said there were enormous trout, some even 24" in length out in the middle of the lake. Of course that could be a fish story.

The south end of Hopewell Lake.

Blossoms of the shrub that was all around the lake.

After returning to camp and packing up I kept on 64 with the goal of heading north on US-285 and then west on FR-87, an interesting road I traveled last year. I had asked the camp host about FR-133 that heads north from 64 up to the same area, but her description of the roughness of the road convinced me to take the pavement around.

Taos Plateau

I love driving west on FR-87. The first 15 miles, or so, are the northwest-most part of the Taos Plateau Volcanic Field.  It is the largest volcanic field within the Rio Grande rift, but you wouldn't necessarily realize that looking at the grass and shrub covered praire. The first 5 miles are BLM, then you enter Carson NF. Incidentally, the largest section of the field, east of US-285 is now part of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, established in March 2013 which runs from the Colorado border to just north of US-64.

San Antonio Mountain looks like a small, round hill, but is a volcano with a height of 10,908 feet.

San Antonio Mountain from FR-87 near US-285

I stopped where 87 crosses Rio San Antonio creek to look for dragonflies. I only saw a few damselflies and some lovely wildflowers, but it is a pretty stream.

Where 87 crosses the Rio San Antonio.

Toad Flax on the side of the cut above the Rio San Antonio

Rio San Antonio

Boreal Bluet on the Rio San Antonio

Tusas Mountains

I continued up 87. It quickly climbs up into the foothills of the Tusas Mountains leaving the plateau behind. There are gorgeous views from up here.

Looking back (east) toward San Antonio Mountain and the plateau.

Paintbrush near my feet where I took the photo just above this one.

At the "top" of 87 you can go left, continuing on 87 to Lagunitas or right, following 87A, to Rio de los Piños. Last year I went right, this year I wanted to look at Lagunitas to see if the campground was worth spending the night, then head back the way I did last year. There was some pretty country on 87 and some rough road, too.

Looking over the Cruces Basin Wilderness from the junction of 87 and 87A

Olguin Mesa seen from FR-87

The campgrounds at the lakes at Lagunitas are of the old style, though it looks like they are trying to refurbish the lower campground. Seems they brought down quite a number of full grown trees, but then stopped without taking them away or doing anything else to the sites.

Lower Lagunitas Campground and one of the little lakes.

Strange and it didn't make it inviting for me to stay, so I headed back, then continued on on 87A.

Golden Banner growing alongside the road.
I simply poked my camera out my window.

Last year when I camped at Rio de los Piños, it was just me and one couple way down the road. This year there were folks in nearly every site. That doesn't make it "crowded" like most campgrounds as most sites are placed along the road at far enough intervals that you are out of eyesight and hearing of other campers. I didn't get as pretty of a site this year, but did find one with lots of shade for the very warm afternoon.

My campsite next to the river.

It is a beautiful area with the river running along rocky cliffs. I enjoyed my early evening walk and took a few photos.

River and canyon walls

Wild Rose

Bend in the river

Spotted Sandpiper

FR-284 runs along side the river

Wednesday morning

After a short morning walk, I left the campground on Los Piños Road that leads north to Colorado.

The next section of my trip in Colorado will be covered in the next post.

Thursday, continued.

I returned to New Mexico from Colorado on a hot Interstate-25 late in the afternoon.

I tried to find the family New Mexican restaurant I'd had recommended to me in Raton, but was mistaken on where it was and couldn't remember the name. So I just gassed up and continued down the freeway. I turned east at Springer onto US-56, then south on NM-39 to Mill's Canyon Road where I turned back west. I was amused to find this windmill smack-dab in the middle of the road.

Windmill in the middle of Mill's Canyon Road

There are two campgrounds at this western unit of the Kiowa National Grasslands. The Rim Campground is, as its name implies, on the rim of Mill's Canyon and includes two covered horse corrals. As the hot wind was blowing across the rolling prairie, I decided to drive down the high-clearance vehicles only, primitive road. I was not optimistic about my chances for star photos as high clouds had been evident for hours.

There were several Kingbirds in the Rim Campground.

I had expected Mill's Canyon to be a small, unimpressive feature, like some of the canyons I'd seen on the high plains of the Texas panhandle. But no, the narrow road switchbacks down the rock canyon wall 1000 feet to the bottom where the Canadian River flows. Along the river are ruins of a ranch with orchard, and hotel and stage stop.

The old orchard along the Canadian River

The campground was fairly new, though just basic with vault toilet and level gravel parking for campers, metal fire pits, and tables. There is evidence of much dispersed camping in the area, but the mosquitoes chased me back to the no-fee, developed campground. Plus, if the clouds did clear, the wide gravel area would be a good, safe place to set up my tripod and camera.

My campsite

The clouds didn't clear entirely that night, but there were areas where I could see the stars. I think there was still a lot of high altitude moisture as the stars weren't very bright even though there was no moon. I worked around them best I could. I was also surprised there there were one or two lightning bugs in the canyon.

The Milky Way shining down into Mill's Canyon


Before I left Mill's Canyon I stopped to look over the ruins of the old Mill's ranch. Interesting, but not particularly photogenic. As I was climbing the road up out of the canyon I spotted a bear crossing the road ahead; that was cool.

Looking across the grasslands on my way back to the highway.

Once I was back at the highway, I drove south to Roy, then west on NM-120 toward Wagon Mound and the freeway. About seven miles west of Roy the highway descends into the Canadian River Canyon before climbing right back up the other side.

I was heading home, but decided to head over to Mora first as the thought of the brisket enchiladas made New Mexico style with blue corn tortillas at Rene's Diner was too enticing to pass up. And I could check the Mora River for dragonflies.

The enchiladas were every bit as good as I'd remembered from last year. There weren't very many dragonflies, but I did get photos of one of my favorites, a Pale Snaketail.

Pale Snaketail in the Mora River

Thus, I headed down NM-518 to Las Vegas where I picked up I-25 that took me back to the Albuquerque area.

My next post will cover those parts of Colorado I skipped above. Thanks for reading.