Monday, November 8, 2021

Season Finale, NM & AZ - October 2021: Part 3

Part 3 of 3 - Driving out of NM into AZ

Begin this trip from Part 1

Continued from Part 2

October 22nd (continued)

Highway 180

When I got off the mountain and drove through the village of Gila, I pulled off the highway before entering US-180. I had to decide if I was going to turn right (north) or left toward Silver City and maybe the City of Rocks Campground. I'll spare you my internal debate of all the options. 

I decided to go north, then take NM-78 west to US-191 in Arizona where I'd go north up through the Apache National Forest. I have been wanting to camp at a cute, little campground I'd found on an earlier trip along the Blue River. Maybe this was a good time.

As I got close to the junction I realized I'd be driving west and south across more dry hills and plateaus with sparse piñon and juniper, much like the last several days. At the last minute I changed my mind and kept going north. This would take me up into the mountains, then I would cut west on Pueblo Park Rd, FS-232, though the San Francisco Mountains to Blue, AZ.

I stopped again at the Leopold Picnic area for... a picnic (and to use the toilet.) I proceeded on after lunch, stopping again in Glenwood to top off my tank. A ways north of there the highway begins to climb up into the mountains. About 5 miles before the junction with NM-12 was the sign for the Pueblo Park Campground where I turned toward the west. 

Pueblo Park Road

This was County Route CO-13 or FS-232. The dirt road had been very recently graded and was as smooth with no washboard. You could still see the tread marks from the grader in the soft dirt. The road snaked though a ponderosa forest. Once again, in retrospect, I should have taken a photo.

Pueblo Park Campground

In six miles I came to the campground. It was pleasant enough, though not remarkable. It is situated in old growth ponderosa. If you were traveling on US-180 and needed a place to spend the night, even dragging a medium to small trailer, you would find it convenient. There is a corral if you have horses with you and want to ride.

After my reconnaissance I turned toward Blue, AZ. The road continued smooth only about a mile farther. It begins climbing though rocky terrain. Then becomes very rough as it skirts around Saddle Mountain. The view off to the south would have been amazing except for the haze that day, made worse by the sun being in the southern sky.

Saddle Mountain

Progress was very slow and this is even after having a road crew pass though. I could see where they'd filled in a couple of wash-outs, but I also found one or two that they had missed. My recommendation is to NOT access Pueblo Park Campground from the west. It took quite a while to get past this rocky section.

Just before the state line is the junction with FS-209 that winds north and eventually comes out at US-180. I have no idea about the condition of the road. The USFS map shows it as gravel suitable for passenger cars, but they have also marked the rough road I barely made it through the same. The usual rules apply.

Once I crossed into Arizona the road was no longer freshly graded, but it was also in good condition. There was evidence of previous low-intensity wildfires in places, perhaps prescription burns. The dirt road descends for several miles down to the community of Blue on the Blue River. I turned north on the Blue River Road and soon came to the junction with Red Hill Road. I turned left onto Red Hill, drove through a shallow water crossing of the small river. Immediately thereafter is the access road to the campground on the north side.

Blue Crossing Campground

I first found Blue Crossing Campground on my 2015 spring shakedown. It is named Blue Crossing I believe as the road crosses the Blue River at this location.

I wrote:

As the road reached the bottom there was the Blue River and a green, riparian area.... There is a tiny campground there called Blue Crossing - a gem hidden in a thick grove of narrow-leaf cottonwoods. I will want to camp there on a return trip. I did stop for about an hour to walk about, try to take photos of the many birds I could hear in the trees and brush, look for dragonflies (none) and have lunch.

I had been hoping since then that my travels and timing would align so I could get here to camp. This was the time. As I drove in on the narrow access road I became concerned. First, there had been no sign announcing the campground. Secondly, there were large piles of logs and slash on either side of the road. As I got close enough that I could see a USFS bulletin board I could also see a large, three-railed barricade with a Road Closed sign. Oh, dear. I drove on to learn my fate and hoped if all else there was a place to turn around.

I discovered the closed road was placed across an old trail that ran between the campground and the river. Why they placed a highway barricade there to close it off instead of simply rolling a big log or a few large rocks on the side road, I don't know. It had given me a scare and I bet it's driven off many a visitor.

The entry to the campground was open and inviting. It was like moving into another world of calm and beauty. Trees in their autumn colors closed in from all sides with their branches forming a cathedral ceiling overhead. The ground and road were dusted with fallen leaves of all colors. 

Blue Crossing Campground

The bulletin board said to camp only in designated sites. The first two small campsites, beside the road, had Adirondack style shelters, picnic tables, and a fire ring. The third drive-in site was perfect for a small camper and a tent, also with a table and fire ring. There were only 3 sites in this hobbit sized campground, thought the USFS webpage says 4. There is also a very clean vault toilet with men's and women's sides.

Perfect. Even more charming than I'd remembered. How often is that the case? The compact campground was lovingly maintained. I could see where they had removed side limbs from a mature ponderosa rather than risk them falling on a camper. There was ample vegetation to provide the sites privacy, but not so much that it felt overgrown.

My cozy campsite.

After I set up in the third site, I grabbed my camera to go explore. At the end of the campground was an interesting looking gate. On the gate was a sign I wasn't expecting here. It warned not to "destroy any historic or prehistoric objects, ruins, or sites." I looked up and there was an exposed rock face. Could there be...? Sure enough, there were petroglyphs! 

The petroglyph rocks are fenced off to encourage visitors to behave themselves.

Wow, I had totally missed seeing those last time. They were beautiful and I could see no defacement which was a boon. According to the placard these petroglyphs were likely created between 700 and 900 years ago by the Mogollon Culture.

One of the petroglyph rocks

There are two sections of petroglyphs in this photo.

In another location I noticed an unusual set of rock steps. There was an information sign nearby explaining they were a stile/bench made by the CCC when the campground was built in the mid-1930s. The rock was hand fashioned using the feathers & wedges technique. The stone steps were once the main entrance to the campground. I also learned the lean-to shelters in the other campsites were restorations of the original shelters built by the CCC.

Stone steps hand made by CCC stoneworkers.

The Blue River flows just to the east of the campground.

Colorful foliage in the campground.

Campsites 1& 2 have these log shelters.

A grove just to the north of the campground.

What a delightful place that I had all to myself. There wasn't a sunset, per se, but I did see some color in the clouds though the weave of the bare tree branches -  almost like an aurora borealis.

Red sky at night; camper's delight.

The only negative was that Red Hill Road climbed past close by. Many small, loud trucks pulling cattle trailers rattled down the road perhaps on their way to the corrals I'd seen beside Blue River Road. The saving grace was the trucks stopped once it got dark.

Saturday, October 23

Blue Crossing (continued)

It was cold in the morning, 31º as I recall. Consequently, I didn't get outside until after 10am. I took a short walk up the valley. It was still chilly, but warming quickly. Many of the deciduous trees had already lost their leaves or were well on their way. There were some ponderosa and piñon. Almost all the flowers were gone by, though a few chamisa still had some blossoms that the few butterflies were visiting.

My campsite in morning light... well, late morning light.

A dry wash along my amble north of the campground.

A Sulphur butterfly on Chamisa near the river.

Red Hill Road

I broke camp and turned right going up Red Hill Road. I stopped and took a photo looking down on the campground. You can't see the sites for the trees, but you can see the rocks where the petroglyphs are located. I understood why the trucks yesterday sounded so loud.

Looking down at the petroglyph rocks from the road.

I noticed a few side roads as I drove northwest. One was marked as a trailhead. Others may lead to dispersed campsites. I stopped again for photos of some rock formations.

I had remembered from my previous trip that there were interesting and prominent, red sandstone formations on the road. Last time the light had not been good so I crossed my fingers. I was lucky this time that the largest formation was in excellent light.

Aerial view of the red sandstone formation.

I pulled off the road to launch my drone. I captured a still image of the formation, above, then took a spherical panorama. This turned out well and was also useful once home. At the time I thought the formation was Red Hill, but according to the map it is to the left on the west side of the canyon. Panning left in the panorama you can see Red Hill, though it doesn't appear particularly red as it is covered with vegetation. "Turn around" and far to the south is the Blue Range Primitive Area.

I continued up the the road and noticed an old corral with an excellent view of the red sandstone formation. I pulled into the circular road at the corral to take a photo. Not only was the view great, but the shape of the clouds almost made it seem like the formation was a benign volcano. For the purists, I apologize as I could not stop myself from over saturating the image in postprocessing.

Another view of the red formation.

The road continues to wind up the valley, then climbs up onto a plateau. At a hairpin turn almost to the top is a vista point. You will see the Blue Mountains in the background. The hills in the foreground appear to be covered in dead trees. At least that is what I thought until I looked at my old blog post photos and saw the trees were bright green - probably oaks or other fast growing deciduous trees that had turned brown.

View looking back from the top of the climb.

At the top I turned right onto FS-58. The elevation gain at this point is enough to cause a transition from piñon/juniper forest to ponderosa pine. In fact the large, mature ponderosas were quite majestic. Once again I've failed you by not taking a photo. By the time I thought of it I was into newer growth (and I seem to have a strong predilection to never backtrack for a photo - maybe I should work on that.) There were dispersed campsites all though here.

Ponderosa pine in Apache National Forest

The road came out onto US-191 where I turned right, north. Along much of this section is scaring from the enormous Wallow wildfire of 2011.

Alpine, AZ

The highway drops down into the town of Alpine. At the junction with US-180 there was a NM pickup truck with signs offering tamales for sale. As I drove past an impulse caused me to pull off. I was hoping he had ready-to-eat food like you will often find at junctions in northern New Mexico cooked by the nearby tribes. Unfortunately (or not) he was selling frozen dozen-lots of homemade pork or beef tamales and batter or cornmeal chile rellenos. I bought a dozen pork tamales, being a traditionalist. I put 8 into my freezer and four into the fridge so they would slowly defrost to eat at home. (And OMG were they ever delicious!)

I got back on the highway headed north though the foothills toward Springerville where I'd turn right to head back to New Mexico on US-60. Of course now I was getting hungry so tried to find a place to eat the light lunch I'd prepared before breaking camp this morning. I finally found a gravel road marked as Wildlife Viewing. I've subsequently learned this road leads to the White Mountains Wildlife Area. I didn't drive that far, but pulled off at a close-by parking area to have lunch. 

As I was stretching my legs I noticed a flat-topped mountain way off across the grasslands. It was so far away that it wouldn't have attracted my interest on its own, but the cloud formation seemed to frame it. I've now learned that this is Escudilla Mountain, a wilderness area north of Alpine.

Escudilla Mountain framed by the clouds.

Highway 60

At Springerville I connected up with US-60 East. Nothing but NM plains for 50 miles until Quemado where I turned north on NM-36 as the first leg of the back way to I-40. From there north on NM-117 that leads through El Malpais National Monument. The stark and magnificent landscape was a joy to behold, but I was too focused on getting home to stop for photos. Sorry. But then, again, I have covered the scene in two previous blog posts that you can find here.

I-40 to Home

On the freeway, with all the big rigs speeding along, a tailwind let me keep up with the traffic and even pass some. There was construction near Laguna that slowed everyone down, queuing up to get into a single lane. Perhaps because it was Saturday, it wasn't as bad as I had feared.

Coming into Albuquerque I glanced over to my left and got my first look at Amazon's new fulfillment center, which is scheduled to finish and be in service by the end of the year. OMG - that's the largest building I've ever seen. I think it would rival many professional football stadiums for shear volume. I'm hoping that once it gets going my 2-day Prime deliveries will actually get to me in two days rather than the 3 to 4 that it takes now.

Home Sweet Home

I made it safely home with just enough time to unload the truck and camper before dark. This was a fantastic season finale and I'm glad you came along via my blog. In the time it took to publish I have stored my camper in the garage for the winter. I hope you will come along next season, as well.