Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Jemez Mountain Loop

[Remember, you can click on a photo to see a larger version. You can even move from photo to photo to enjoy the views and the flowers and cute critters while avoiding my tedious verbiage.]

I had time for a short trip, so thought I'd zip up to the western half of the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico which are only about 60 miles north of Albuquerque. [Jemez is pronounced, "HAY-miss" with just a slight 'z' sibilant in the 's' sound.]

I wanted to check for dragonflies, revisit old haunts, and to also explore some of the areas I'd not been to before. I figured my 4x4 truck and camper would be ideal. I used my Benchmark Recreation Atlas before I left to rough out my journey, being careful to avoid areas that I knew were damaged due to flooding caused by excessive runoff from recent forest fires. My map covered some of the National Forest roads, but not all, so I planned on stopping at the Walatowa Visitor Center for Jemez Pueblo before leaving the highway, as they have a National Forest Information center where I planned to buy a detailed map of the forest and its myriad back roads.

I figured I'd drive up through the Gilman Tunnels following the one forest road with which I was familiar, up a pretty valley with a clear trout stream. I'd then stop at the Seven Springs Fish Hatchery, as it usually had lots of dragonflies. Then I wanted to revisit San Gregorio Lake where my dad and I used to camp and fish. I guess I was last there when I was about 14. From there, I had no plans, but would just explore and see what I could find.

Here is a map of the route I ended up driving:

Jemez Mountain Loop - August 2013

Thursday, August 8, 2013

I started a day later than originally planned to avoid a large storm headed toward my destination. There were still a few clouds, and naturally I had a headwind, but otherwise a great day to be on the road and headed for the mountains. After making the turn at San Ysidro from US-550 to NM-4 and passing through Jemez Pueblo I stopped at the Visitor Center. There I had my first bad luck of the day, they were out of maps. So I studied the one they had framed on the wall to supplement what I'd already learned from my map and from looking at the satellite Google map.

Rio Guadalupe before entering the canyon
I turned on NM-485 to pass through the tiny hamlet of Gilman. I first travelled this road back in the early 1960's. At that time it was a private logging road which they opened on Sundays and it was one-way north to south. It was a thrill to go through the two short tunnels that had been bored through solid rock. It is now National Forest road 376 open in both directions. It is popular for picnics, for fly fishing in the Special Trout Waters, and in the autumn for colorful aspen groves. There is also dispersed camping allowed for much of its length.

Looking back at the tunnel after passing through. Rio Guadalupe Box Canyon.
I headed north, stopping just past the tunnels to check the Rio Guadalupe for dragonflies. I found American Rubyspot damselflies, a few other as yet unidentified damselflies, and a cool spider.

American Rubyspot damselfly.

Thin-legged Wolf Spider with egg case beside the river.

Continuing north, even without the detailed map, I managed to find the turn-off I wanted which would take me to the Rio de las Vacas. I drove north on NF-539 to a delightful spot right next to the creek. 
Rio de las Vacas

 A Pale Snaketail dragonfly landed at my feet.

A Spiny Tachina Fly and a Flower Crab Spider on a Sneezeweed blossom.

A pretty blue Pleasing Fungus Beetle

There were Pale Snaketail dragonflies here as well as blue darners. Later on examining my photos I discovered I'd managed to photograph a new species for me, a Shadow Darner. I had lunch in this scenic spot.
Shadow Darner dragonfly.

I returned to NF-376 to proceed north. I stopped at a fishing access to again check for dragonflies. The stream was interesting here as it was confined to a narrow serpentine channel though deep grass surrounded by trees and shrubs. I was tracking a darner and started to cross a foot bridge so I'd have better light for a photo on the other side.

As I was walking across, the plank underfoot tilted. Next thing I knew I was falling into the creek. Instinctually, I tossed my camera onto the far bank as I fell. I managed to catch myself without a complete dunking, but was a bit shaken (and later learned I was a bit bruised and battered.) My wallet stayed above water, too, thankfully. As I pulled myself out I was worried about my camera and telephoto lens… and where was my hat? I was greatly relieved to determine that my camera seemed to work. The integrated/retractible lens hood was now oval, not round. I pushed it into a more circular shape, but it no longer seemed to retract. I thought it best not to try a field repair. I spotted my straw hat half submerged under a log down stream.

After retrieving my hat I looked down and there was an enormous snake right at my feet - well, it looked enormous to me! It wasn't moving, probably lying in wait for lunch to wander by. It was really quite pretty with broad, glossy black and brown bands, but I'm not really a fan of snakes. Don't bother me and I won't bother you, is my philosophy. As I slowly backed away I realized I could see neither head nor tail in the deep grass, so didn't know which end to avoid. However, it never moved and I escaped.

Upon returning to my truck I continued to drive north along the forest road. I have to say that I'd never seen the forest look so green and healthy. After years of drought apparently a few weeks of monsoon rains restored all the plants. The grass was green and the evergreens and aspen were flourishing. I bet the autumn colors will be great this year. Unfortunately for you, dear reader, I neglected to take general landscape photos of this area.

There are lots of dispersed camping areas along here, but the day was still young. I turned left on NM-126 toward Fenton Lake SP. I passed that by to get to the Seven Springs Fish Hatchery a few miles farther north. The ponds there had provided lots of good dragonflies and damselflies in years past. To shorten the tale, there were no dragonflies and darn few damselflies there. I drove on up the creek another mile or so on NF-314 to where the road is blocked off and the former campground is day-use only. There was no activity in the creek there, either.

So, back to NM-126 to head to San Gregorio Lake. The state highway is only paved to the turn off to the fish hatchery. The middle section is gravel and "native surface," i.e., dirt. Nonetheless, it is a scenic drive up a canyon and onto high meadows.

Once I turned off NM-126 onto NF-70, following the sign to San Gregorio Lake and the San Pedro Wilderness, nothing looked familiar. As if I'd recognize it after all these years. Still, I didn't figure out the trailhead for the wilderness was where one parks to hike to the lake - there was no signage to that effect. Consequently, I drove a number of miles past that spot before it began to dawn on me. It was a nice drive, in any case, and I backtracked a couple of miles to find a nice, level camping spot. I went to sleep listening to the elk call and the cattle low. Did I mention that much of the national forest land is used for cattle grazing?

Campsite (phone photo)

Friday, August 9, 2013

After breakfast I drove the couple of miles back to the wilderness trailhead. I had cleverly built a sandwich to take along in my camera back before I lowered the camper roof, together with an apple juice pouch and additional water I set off for the lake. The trail to the lake was totally unfamiliar, too. Later I figured out that it was indeed a different route than that my dad and I took years ago, once I saw the old trail from the lake. I guess they moved the parking and trail at some point in the intervening years.

About halfway to the lake I started to see some small damselflies on the ground along the trail. By the time I reached the lake there must have been hundreds. Curiously, since there were so many, I neglected to take more than a couple of photos, which made identification later a bit tricky.

Boreal Blue - immature

The lake was fairly low with only a couple of people fishing near the earthen dam. San Gregorio is actually a reservoir, not a natural lake. There were lots of ground squirrels and chipmunks living among the rocks along the dam surface.

Least Chipmunk - the cutest of the cute critters.
There were a few dragonflies hunting back and forth along the shore and I attempted to photograph them when they'd hover. Later I found a species that would land and pose for a photo - much easier.

Four-spotted Skimmer

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel give me the "business."
I spent a couple of hours walking the lake taking pictures of odonates, chipmunks, ground squirrels, and flowers, and having my lunch with a great view. 

Wild Geranium

Spotted Sandpiper along the lake shore (non-breeding plumage - no spots.)

Stripped Meadowhawk

Woolly Cinqfoil

I'd left my landscape lens in the truck, so used my phone to take this photo of the lake.

San Gregorio Lake (phone photo)

I walked through a moist area below the dam where there was a small seepage creek. There I found a bunch of darner dragonflies both hunting and mating. Lots of opportunity for photos here.

Paddle-tailed Darner

Common Water Strider
With a storm on the horizon and the sound of thunder, I headed back to the truck. I was happy to have finally revisited the lake and had the chance to take lots of photos.

From the parking lot I headed back to NM-126 as I'd found a Santa Fe National Forest Pocket Guide among the maps I did succeed in bringing along and it showed that NF-103 was a through route to NM-96 which crosses west to east on the north side of the mountains.

I stopped a few times at creeks and a small retention pond to look for dragonflies, but didn't have much luck with dragonflies, but saw these damselflies doing the deed.

Boreal Bluet damselflies in copula
I saw a bear! My first wild sighting, though far from a close encounter. I was driving and as I came around a curve in the road, I enjoyed the view of the east end of a westbound bear. He had obviously heard me first and was really moving. He disappeared into some small bushes in a shallow draw. I slowed down with my camera ready, but he never poked his head up for me.

Once I got to the paved highway I headed east with intentions to stop at the Coyote District Ranger Station and finally get my National Forest map. I did indeed achieve this lofty goal and also got a recommendation to try the Rio Chama to look for dragonflies and advice on where I could find dispersed camping for the night. They also provided me with a Motor Vehicle Use Map which shows all the approved dispersed camping areas in the western half of the national forest.

It was nearly 4:30pm by the time I left the ranger station, so planned to camp first and go on to the Chama river in the morning. The ranger had warned me that NF-100 had some washboard and he wasn't just a whistling "Dixie." It climbed up through some rugged, dry hills with interesting geology. 

Interesting geology and Cerro Pedernal along NF-100 (phone photo)

In case I hadn't mentioned it, the whole of the Jemez Mountains was built by a large ancient volcano. When I was growing up it was considered the largest volcanic caldera in the U.S. at over 12 miles across - that was before anyone realized that in fact the whole of Yellowstone was one gigantic, enormous volcanic caldera in which Valles Grande, as it was named then, would be just a speck. It is now the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Once the road climbed  up into the timber zone it cooled off rapidly and became verdant. I should have taken photos of the wide, shallow valleys covered in green grass with a border of pines and evergreens, but I was just too busy sightseeing, I guess.

When I got up around ten thousand feet in elevation I spooked a herd of around 20 elk. The herd was all cows and calves. They were not happy to see me. I did manage to grab a few shots with my long lens out the truck window. I'm guessing these are of the Rocky Mountain subspecies.
Elk calf and cow

After exploring the mountain roads for a while, I decided to backtrack to a large meadow I'd passed earlier that appeared to be in an approved camping zone. The meadow had the most magnificent Ponderosa Pines and was a gorgeous place to camp. It also had the benefit of being several miles from any of the herds of grazing cattle in the area.

Campsite along NF-100 - no crowds of tourists here, no one, but me.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

It was lovely to wake in this green meadow with the grand trees. I filled my travel mug with hot coffee and drove down the mountain, enjoying the changing scenery in reverse.

Ponderosa Pines

After only a few miles east on NM-96 I came to Lake Abiquiu. On impulse I drove down the backside of the rock covered, earthen dam to check the Chama River below the power house. It was running pretty fast, so I didn't expect many odes, but in fact found none. I talked to a number of folks fishing. They hadn't seen any dragonflies and not any fish either. One said there were many dragonflies at the lake itself.

I checked out the campground at Lake Abiquiu, which like the lake, is run by the Corps of Engineers. It seemed to be very popular with a nice view of the lake, though it was above and a ways back from the water - on reflection that probably keeps the bugs away.

I drove over to the boat ramp to check for odes, but only saw one - a common Variegated Meadowhawk. So on to my next destination.

Chama River Canyon Wilderness
The Rio Chama above the lake is a Wild & Scenic River preserve administered jointly by the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. There are two sections, if you will. The upper section starts below El Vado Lake and flows through a narrow canyon. Access is only by water and a permit is required to launch a raft. The lower section which I visited, is accessible via NF-151 from US-84. The road is about 13 miles long and ends at a Monastery. There are places to launch and retrieve rafts, day use sites and campgrounds. Rafters my camp along the river in designated areas.

Rio Chama and rafters.
I'd never been along here before and it was indeed scenic. Deep red puddles on the side roads gave evidence of heavy thunderstorms the previous day. I briefly occupied a free campsite to check out the river for dragonflies (there were none) and to have lunch at the picnic table. I checked the river at a couple of other spots for odonates with a similar lack of success.

I left in the early afternoon once it clouded up and storms began to move in. I traveled back south on US-84 to the small city of Española along the Rio Grande where I got gas. Having seen all the green heathy forest in the western and northern parts of the Jemez, I felt strong enough to drive up the east side, which had been devastated by the Los Conchas fire of two years ago.

I drove up the opposite end of NM-4 on which I'd been on Thursday. This stretch bypasses Los Alamos, the Atomic City, and Bandelier National Monument. The monument has been affected by bad flooding due to loss of ground cover caused by the forest fires. Only certain sections are again open to the public and access is only by shuttle bus from White City.

The east side of the Jemez is much, much dryer than the west side - I'm guessing it's the "rain shadow" effect. There are stands of pines totally dead, not just brown. This has to be due to the excessive drought that has affected the region for a number of years.

The burnt areas are very sad. A few areas apparently experienced only a lower intensity fire and in those aspen and other vegetation has started to come back, though it will be many years before pines and other evergreen trees will achieve any height.

Many areas must have experienced a high intensity burn, hot enough to kill roots and soil bacteria. Those areas show little recovery. And there are a few in between which have not tree activity, but annuals, such as wildflowers are flourishing due to increased sunlight, I'm thinking.

A number of my favorite areas, such as along NF-289, where I used to go birding and simply enjoy the scenery are gone and won't recover in my lifetime. Very sad.

As I drive farther west and then south the affects of the fires become less, but still evident, and the affects of flash flooding become more apparent as evidenced by the high water mark of debris along stream channels and draws. Many day use and fishing access points along the Rio San Antonio and Jemez Rivers remain closed due to flood damage or the risk of additional flash floods. 

I passed through the village of Jemez Springs and closed the loop where I'd turned west on NM-485 on Thursday. An uneventful drive back home completed this enjoyable short escape.

Thanks for reading.