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.

Season Finale, NM & AZ - October 2021: Part 2

Part 2 of 3 - The Gila River

Continued from Part 1

 Click on a photo to see a larger version; you can then use your arrow keys. 

October 19th (continued)

Mogollon Box Day Use Area on the Gila River

As I previously mentioned, last winter I was pouring over my maps to look for places to visit as a first of the season trip. For an early trip I was looking at southern sites that would be warmer than northern locations. I found a spot that was then labeled as Gila Box Recreation Area on Google Maps. Although it was listed as day use, the reviewers commented that it was great for camping. Google now labels it as Box Canyon Day Use Area which is closer to the name USFS uses, Mogollon Box Day Use Area, referring to Mogollon Creek on the north boundary of the area. For anyone not familiar with the southwest US: Mogollon is locally pronounced as muggy-own and Gila as he-la.

I had been undecided on which of these Gila River spots I'd go to first. As it was getting later in the afternoon I decided not to try Turkey Creek Road as the USFS directions warned of 8.5 miles of rough dirt road requiring high clearance and heavy duty tires. Sounded like that might take too long with night approaching.

I turned east onto NM-211 at the "town" of Cliff. A little less than a mile in, you bear left onto NM-293, a nice 2-lane paved road. Note that there are absolutely no directional signs for the recreation area. I had to pull over to check my map to reassure myself I was going the right direction. Also note, the official USFS Gila National Forest map does not show the recreation site, but does show the road. Approximately 5 miles from the junction the pavement ends, but you keep going. The gravel road is good, but watch out for the cattle guards as one of them has quite a drop off on the other side. It was getting late in the day, so I was hoping there would be space available to camp.

There was a small road sign, "Entering National Forest Land", which was reassuring as it was the only indication on the whole route that I was on the right path. There is a sharp turn before the road descends into the river valley.

This small road sign is the only indication along the whole road that there might be something interesting ahead.
Note the cliffs on the left & the two hills on the right.

I confess I was shocked at what I found. Looking at the satellite view on Google Maps the site looks wide open with the network of roads easily seen and very little vegetation. The image must have been taken in the dead of winter when all the leaves had fallen from the trees, as the whole place is heavily forested with cottonwoods and other tall trees. The undergrowth was so tall you could not see beyond the road side in most places. Frankly, I found it a little claustrophobic at first and the roads were a labyrinth. There are, however, very nice vault toilets and animal-proof trash receptacles. As I became accustomed, I began to like this area. I suspect it is quite popular in the warm months with its plentiful shade and water to play in.

There are many potential camp sites in the area, some more open than others and very pleasant. None of the sites are close to the river. There is a gravel bed that I thought was the high water course for the Gila River between the camping area and flowing water.

As seen in the photo above, the cliffs viewed from near my campsite.

As seen above, the hills across the river, as seen from near my campsite.

I seemed to be the only one camped in the entire area. There was a car which I guessed brought hikers. It left about dark. Some time after I'd gone to bed I heard an engine and headlights swept across my site; someone coming in for the night?

My campsite, sheltered by the large cottonwoods and sycamores.
You can just make out the sunlit hills behind me.

The wind came up that night. I'd chosen my spot well and was sheltered by the trees, but leaves and twigs would drop with a clink on my aluminum roof.

Wednesday, October 20

Mogollon Box (continued)

It was chilly in the morning, but after coffee I set out to explore a bit. I had seen approximately where the Gila River was situated the evening before, but hadn't walked down to it. I had to walk a couple hundred feet across sand and river rock. I assumed at the time that this was the flood zone of the Gila, but careful examination of satellite images later at home showed this to actually be the dry bed of Mogollon Creek. I found the river. It was flowing well, but mostly in the shade. The low temperatures combined with a freshening breeze discouraged me from lingering too long. I took two photos from two vantage points then scurried back to the camper to pack up.

The Gila River

This is where Mogollon Creek would enter the river were it flowing.

What with one thing or another it was close to 11am by the time I drove up out of the park. I stopped as I crested the hill to take one more photo looking back.

A look back at the recreation area and the two hills.

I drove back south on NM-293 to the junction with NM-211. I turned left and drove to the tiny village of Gila. Where the highway comes to a 'T' I turned left on NM-153, this is Turkey Creek Road. You essentially follow this road to the end. After a few miles the pavement turns to gravel and, when it enters forest service land, to dirt. On the maps this is called FS-155, but there are no route signs on the road. Again there are no signs indicating a recreation area or even a destination; only one sign admonishing vehicles to stay on the designated road.

Turkey Creek Road

Once on the dirt road be prepared for the surface to degrade quickly. A high clearance vehicle is required and I was much more comfortable negotiating the loose rock on the steep climbs with four wheel drive engaged. I stopped periodically to admire and/or photograph the view. 

This is a double-wide panorama looking back a the Gila River where I was last night.

There were many bushes with yellow flowers blooming. 

Turkey Creek Road climbing up, up, up.

The drive seemed interminable since I had to go so slowly. (I timed it on the way out and it took only one hour and 15 minutes to go from where the road reaches the parking area to the start of the national forest land.) I was thankful that I had chosen the other camp last evening as it is not a road you want to drive in the dark.

A view to the north of the rugged mountains from along the ridge. Now to descend.

There were several places where I had to come to a stop and inch across wash outs, but there was never any danger of getting stuck or sliding off the road. Still, maybe not for the faint of heart. Also, don't attempt if there is a chance of heavy rain, or it has recently rained heavily. You climb up and descend about 1100 feet on both sides absolute, though I'm sure with the ups and downs the total gain is much higher. I didn't stop and take photos of the descent as I was too busy.

The Gila River is flowing across the valley where you see the trees at the foot of the hills.

I was very happy to finally see the river and recognize the area I'd studied via the satellite images. I took a photo and drove the last section of road, dodging a washed out spot on the steep descent. Now to find a campsite.

Finally, my destination was in sight.

Turkey Creek Recreation Area on the Gila River

I haven't found an official name for this trailhead/camping area. Google labels it prosaically as Turkey Creek Parking Area. USFS provides information and status on the Turkey Creek Trail, but only says "There are no facilities and parking is limited to a few pull-offs along the road." So I've decided to call it the Turkey Creek Recreation Area on the Gila River.

I will spare you the details, but I drove through the riparian area a couple of times looking for the ideal site - next to the river with both sun and shade. There were a few tight squeezes between the trees and branches. I probably picked up a few more scratches along the truck and camper.

Prickly Pear on the rocks along Turkey Creek Road.

A typical view of Turkey Creek Recreation Area

I found a nice big site right on the river. I was able to park in the sun to finish charging the batteries while I sat in my chair in the shade enjoying the river and reading my book. 

My campsite beside the Gila River. 
There was a nice grassy area beyond the truck to set up my chair.

There were myriad butterflies going up and down the river. A few would stop long enough for me to point my camera at them, but few long enough for me to actually get a shot. One of the butterflies that cooperated, a Hoary Comma, is the same species I photographed last month in Rico, Colorado. I was able to image both the dorsal and ventral sides of this individual and you can see with the wings closed it is well camouflaged.

The colorful side of the Comma butterfly.

The camouflaged side of the Comma butterfly.

I was also lucky enough to photograph a Tailed Orange butterfly. I'd never seen one this shape before. Turns out this small butterfly rarely flies this far north and its tail becomes more pronounced in winter.

Tailed Orange butterfly perched upon a cottonwood leaf.

There were at least three species of cottonwood. I'll call them big leaf, little leaf, and narrow leaf. Coyote willows were thick along the river. I noticed the distinctive leaves of the Arizona Sycamore. Some of the trees were beginning to show color. A few were well along. A few juniper had encroached from the surrounding dry hills where they and piñon rule. Of course there were a number of bushes and other plants that I have no identification to pass along.

It was a warm afternoon. In fact maybe a bit too warm where I'd set up. I walked down the road to another nice site I almost chose and it was cool in the shade. Though I figured by the time I moved it would cool down where I was now, but maybe I'd move tomorrow. Yep, it did cool down and I enjoyed a very pleasant evening.

Thursday, October 21

Gila River (continued)

Though it had been warm yesterday afternoon, it was pretty chilly this morning. So I was slow getting going. Once I did I made a sandwich and gathered my few supplies to carry in my daypack before I broke camp. I drove the short distance to the clearing just before my new site so the panels would get full sun all day while I took a hike up the river.

My campsite will be under those trees just ahead of my truck.

There is no consistent trail along the river bank, so I started up one of the roads through the riparian area. I found a place where vehicles had crossed the river. I don't think stock vehicles would make it. You'd need an ATV with big tires and super high clearance. This isn't the Turkey Creek trail, per sé, but may lead to it. USFS says the actual trail begins 1.3 miles upstream. In my photo, what looks like a large dark rock on the other side is actually mud deformed by tire tracks.

A ford across the Gila. Not for stock highway vehicles.

Appropriately enough, I found turkey tracks hardened in the mud. Later on I accidentally flushed a rafter of Wild Turkey from a small tree along the road. I think they were more startled than I was - but not by much!

Modern dinosaur tracks

Turkey Creek Trail

The riparian road led back to the "main" road. Turkey Creek Road is permanently blocked at 33.0670, -108.4989 by large boulders purposely placed. Within 50 feet, half of the road was washed into the river and the trail becomes single track which explains why they blocked the road. Surprisingly, after 50 yards or so the road is back. Apparently it used to continue on. I believe there is zero chance the washed out section will be rebuilt.

I was taken by a small blue juniper tree beside the road. I've seen blue spruce, I have two in my yard, but never a blue juniper. I processed the photo to match as closely as possible what my eyes perceived. Research has led me to believe this is an Arizona Cypress. It is a southwestern native that usually grows below 6500' and can reach heights of 35-50 feet. So this is a baby.

Arizona Cypress beside the orphaned section of Turkey Creek Road.

I followed this road and was surprised by there being fresh tire tracks. Where in the heck did they come from? After a quarter mile or so the road curved back to the riverside. There was a gravel bar and I could see that was where the vehicles crossed the river. Apparently they can drive on the other side from the ford I saw before. Very little of this can be discerned by looking at the satellite photos even after the fact. However, I can see remnants of double-track on one side of the river or the other for maybe a mile or so farther upstream on the satellite image.

Nonetheless, that spot was amazing. There was a long, straight stretch of calm water that was reflecting the colorful cottonwoods on the bank and an interesting mountain peak in the background. I must have taken two dozen photos at various angles and exposures, but to someone who hadn't been there, they would all look very similar. I will, therefore, only share one.

A calm stretch of the Gila River

I enjoyed my lunch there and basked in the solitude and beauty before starting back. When I got back to my campsite I sat in my chair overlooking the river in the shade and rehydrated. Read a bit, then simply soaked up the scene, repeatedly. After an hour or so a couple of fishermen came through, asking if I minded them fishing at my site. That was the big excitement of the afternoon LOL.

The two fishermen claimed they had caught fish in the river, but released them.

Before I moved my camper into the shade under the trees and set up my full camp I took the drone up for photography. 

An aerial view of the Gila River winding between the hills.

A spherical panorama of Turkey Creek Recreation Area.

Once I raised the camper top returned to my chair for more relaxing. 

Now, this is the life!

I was surprised I hadn't seen any dragonflies. Seems like this should be a good environment for them. Maybe it was too late in the season. Late in the afternoon a number of Rubyspot damselflies happened by. This common riparian species was easy to detect when the sinking sun lit up the ruby spot on the wings.

American Rubyspot damselfly

It was a very pleasant evening in camp. 

Only the western hillsides are still in the sun.

There was no sunset, but the last of the sun shone on the peak to my east turning it orange.

View from my campsite as the sun sinks slowly in the west.

Friday, October 22

Gila River (continued)

I figured to move on today. I was undecided on where to go or might even start heading home, but I was too restless to stay here another day. I was in no hurry to leave either, so spent most of the morning in this lovely spot.

I finally got packed up and on the road by about 11am. I took a few more photos of the area as I left.

Turkey Creek Road begins here to climb out of the valley.

Looking back down at the camping area. The river makes a horseshoe bend around that small ridge in the medium foreground. My campsites were just on the far side of the ridge.

I took more photos from the road. 

As I was almost to the top of Brushy Canyon I spied these backlit oak leaves.

Enjoy this last view from Turkey Creek Road.

Regarding this portion of the Gila River. If you're traveling through and looking for an overnight stay not too far off the highway with lots of shade, then the Mogollon Box is your logical choice. If you're looking for a destination, would like to camp next to the river, and have a high-clearance vehicle, then consider Turkey Creek Road Recreation Area and its rugged beauty.

Continue to Part 3 - NM to AZ