Monday, June 23, 2014

Chaco Canyon on a Very Windy Day

We headed out to visit the ruins at Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. The drive was 2 1/2 hours of very beautiful landscape. The drive goes off into the middle of just plain empty space and it makes you wonder why a group of people would live in such a remote and harsh area. The ruins here show complex architecture that began in the 800s and lasted around 300 or so years. The buildings were multiple stories of hundreds of rooms all arranged according to solar, lunar and cardinal directions. This complex is believed to have been the ceremonial and economic center of the San Juan Basin with roads connecting dozens of great houses in the region. When you drive into this big Canyon you end up on about 13 miles of dirt road that in good weather (like we had) is bumpy but not too bad. Although the ruins themselves are pretty large they are dwarfed by the landscape they sit in. Huge cliffs are behind and just the canyon itself makes everything look miniature. There are some campgrounds that have what appear to be toy RV's in them and the visitor center is a little speck as you wind down the single road toward the ruins. It is $8 per car and that is good for 7 days. Camping is a steal at $15. The visitor center provides maps and a lot of good information about the trails, self-guided tours and there is a guided tour. We arrived a little later than I would have liked and decided to try to hike up to the top so we could look over the ruins from above. There is a 5 mile loop trail that lets you look at the ruins on one side and then out forever on the back side of the mesa. We had to be back down by noon to catch the guided tour so we only managed to over look the ruins and turn back. Looking down you can see the organization much better than from is a very alien view. As we went through a virtual wind tunnel we reached the top and the wind was really howling. I would say maybe 35 miles an hour or so. I couldn't really photograph much because we were getting blown around a bunch and the dust was sand blasting us! We definitely need to return when there is a light dusting of snow or at least a lack of wind! Camping would be great so I could catch the light and sky as it changes. By the time we got there the sun was all the way up and the sky was pretty bland. We did see the wall of dust come in the gap between cliffs and that was pretty neat but scary!
We made it down and decided to walk over to Pueblo Bonito for the tour. There are six sites along the 9 mile Canyon Loop Drive and we only visited two of the sites. The talk was at Pueblo Bonito which is the one we looked down on so we figured we would at least visit this one from above and below. The others would have to wait for an overnight trip. Maybe an over night trip with the bikes? Stay on a night they offer telescope viewing of the night sky? The tour guide offered a lot of ideas about why people would build in that particular location, why they built things the way they did etc etc. Information is pieced together from descendants and archaeologists and the reality is that not much is really known. Nothing was left in the rooms to indicate what they were used for, why there there weren't any windows or ventilation etc. A complete mystery. That leaves some room for imagination which is something I have got! I would like to listen to the tour again on a non windy day when it is more pleasant to stand around. We did get to enter some buildings which amazes me! Here in the southwest we have visited a lot of places already and it amazes us that we can actually enter many of them. Yes a lot of the rooms are roped off and you can't enter or photograph from where you want to but seriously, you can stand a foot or two away from petroglyphs and they are undamaged, graffiti free and accessible!

We headed back to the visitor center a few minutes before it closed and watched a couple ravens playing in some water near a faucet. Then it was off on the long journey home. We were happy to be in the protection of the car! On the way back I got to be the passenger and got to look out at the landscape more. There were neat hoodoos and black sandy hills and rose colored ones and neat stuff everywhere. We stopped in Cuba for dinner. Out in the middle of nowhere I was hesitant to stop but we had another hour or more before we would get home. We went into El Bruno and I was expecting bad things. The place was charming, clean, had super fast service with good Mexican food and a great margarita! Nice ending to the day and somewhere we will stop again when we are in the Jemez Mountains. The southwest is a good place!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Valles Caldera

When Jeff and I passed by Valles Caldera it was after a long day at the Puye Cliff Dwellings site and a visit to the Nuclear Museum in Los Alamos. We knew we had to go back. Sunday was the day. I always prefer to start early and have a real plan other than "let's go to..." but I was overruled by the sleeping man and we got started late considering what we were going to do.

The drive there was beautiful. We stopped at a flowstone waterfall we hardly noticed coming from the other direction on our last trip. This time we got out and took a look. The flowstone brought back fond memories of our underground adventures in Puerto Rico (sort of). The rock looked like a wasp's nest. We reached the entrance to the preserve and on the long drive in toward the speck of a visitor's center we stopped and watched two coyotes trotting across the expanse. One kept dropping something and picking it back up before running some more. Next we saw Prairie Dogs and honestly they still are the highlight of the trip for me! Prairie dogs everywhere...lots of prairie dog towns all day with hawks and eagles circling around. This is a fabulous place to visit but one you can not just show up at randomly and expect to do what you want. 89,000 acres is a lot of area. There are three free trails that are pretty short and flat so we opted for the "backcountry hiking" which was $10 bucks each but well worth it! This is a National Reserve that is pretty restrictive about how many people are around and how those people get around. The shuttle will take you into the back country (as in 1 1/2 hours back) and drop you off at a trail and then when it comes back around (or another shuttle comes) they will pick you up where you say you will be or I suppose anywhere along the road on their set route. They have you put a card inside your car with names, phone number and destination etc. They have that information inside the visitor center. The shuttle drivers have it. Surprisingly, it IS needed! On Sunday there were 3 other hikers and a couple of people just on the van tour (it is over 2 hours in the van to get out to any of the trails and back). The first shuttle goes out at 8:30am and the last is at 2:30 and only takes mountain bikers and sightseers out and picks up everyone else. Your hike needs to be finished as early as 3:40 or at the latest 5:20 depending on which trail you take and where you come out. The schedule is set and when you get out there you understand why! We got there and got on the 11:30 shuttle and after a 4 mile hike got back when the preserve was closing - 5:45. The van driver provided a lot of information about the geology and history of the land. We only saw the three other hikers as we crossed on the trail - they went down and we went up. On the van drive to the trail we saw elk. This area can only be described as "huge." There are 80 miles of trails and we we chose one that took us on a really wide almost like a grassy road trail through a canyon and past a couple bubbling sulfur smelling ponds. They were not warm but you could see the bubbling and it was really neat. It smelled like sulfur on and off on the low parts of the trail. The temperature was pretty cool which was surprising for us.

There were wild iris blooming and the other hikers said they saw over 30 different types of wild flowers. They saw a bear. We didn't. The weather changed and we all got sprinkled on and thought the thunder was going to bring a downpour but it didn't. The light and clouds moving over the caldera were amazing and I really want to put in for the lottery they have for photographers - 30 bucks and if your name is drawn you get 3 days with a companion in the park to take your own car, camp and photograph to your hearts content at all hours. Seeing the sun come up and set would be just amazing and on a full moon? Oh well, some later date.

We had to wait for the shuttle for 40 minutes or so but that was ok - it wasn't raining! We both are learning to bring layers of clothes. We both had light jackets and that was a good thing! No one was there. Just us for hours. On the shuttle trip back we heard all about the other peoples' hike and did some chatting. The ride back was long but interesting. Then we went into the visitor's center and got some coffee and a coke. Considering how far out this place is it appears to be well thought out. The visitor's center is prepared for the underprepared with sweatshirts, fleece, sunscreen, hats and snacks/drinks for sale. Nice touch to have hot chocolate, coffee, tea and cider available. The staff is very knowledgeable about the area but there are almost too many choice of things to do. The Preserve is open to people but pretty controlled and they are opening more trails up (there are 80 miles of hiking and biking trails) and offering snowshoeing, skiing, sleigh rides, photo adventures, and a bunch of other stuff but to limited amounts of people. The site itself really keeps things limited since people are not allowed to just drive around on their own. They are slowly introducing a little of this and are going to see how behaved people are! Where else can you catch a shuttle to an amazing back country area of a super volcano and bike or hike for miles and then get picked up? Next time we'll bring bikes. So at the end of a long day we did the 1 1/2 to 2 hour drive back stopping at interesting trail heads until we realized we'd never get home if we kept stopping! We did stop at Battleship Rock and want to hike past the waterfall and up to the top at some point. This was not at all what I expected to see when moving to the desert! I am amazed at every much to do...

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Jemez Mountains

After our Puye Cliff excursion we decided to explore a different way home via Los Alamos so we could stop in at the Nuclear Museum there. The Bradbury Museum is always free. Most museums in New Mexico are free on Sundays to residents but this one is always free for everyone! Primarily the museum is about the development of the nuclear bombs "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" - the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although a lot of the research oriented exhibits and displays were a bit beyond me I enjoyed finding out about the history of how Los Alamos became the secret spot for the development of nuclear implosion-type weapons. There was a film about how the site was selected, who was recruited and why, how the land was purchased and the secret lives the residents lived... as nameless numbers... that all were born, worked, and lived at the same postal address! There were a lot of newspaper articles and documents about World War II that added more context to the exhibits - there were timelines and information about how nuclear weapons work alongside the replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man. Current research and develop and interactive exhibits were plentiful and you could spend hours here. We spent an hour or so before heading through the Jemez Mountains home.

It was mid-afternoon and the sun was pretty high up. As we headed into the mountains we had no idea what was to come! Everything was very green and the light was amazing. There were trails everywhere and streams and picnic/camping areas. There are many areas to explore. We drove through the mountains on good roads for an hour maybe and suddenly it all opened up with canyons on the right and stratified mesas on the left.

We stopped to take in the sweeping view and thought we had seen the highlight of the drive. Next we came across Valles Caldera which is a 13.7 mile wide volcanic caldera and National Preserve. We didn't have time to stop and this 89,000 acre National Park needs its own weekend, or multiple trips to see. There are elk herds and views everywhere and guided or non-guided hikes. Mountain trails, horse trails, wildlife trails, snowshoeing and skiiing and sleigh rides.... The visitor center is supposedly sitting on a prairie dog homeland. They are working to expand the 80 miles of trails accessible and even have a back country van shuttle so you can go further into the outer trails. It has hot springs and fumaroles. The park is 14 years old and still being developed. There are fees for different activities but I believe that they will be well worth the price! If we can get a car up there when there is snow I can imagine snowshoeing there would be awesome with lots of wildlife! It is surrounded by National Forest, Bandelier and the Jemez Recreation Area all of which need exploring!

After this surprise we continued on. We saw a lot of forest and trails that need exploring. As we were getting closer to home we rounded a corner and all of a suddent everything was a deep red and pink with layers and layers of pastel rock completely different than anything we had seen prior...and this was in the afternoon when the rock was in shadow. I definitely need to go back with morning sun hitting the rocks just to see it. Then I need to learn to use the camera better so I can capture some of the magic. I have never seen anything like it. The rock is completely different than what is behind our house and it is only 45 minutes or so away. Amazing is all I can say ...what a day! It truly is the Land of Enchantment here and I am drawn in by the fabulous textures, colors, and light found in this place! You would think coming home would be disappointing...but nope...another nice sunset just like every other night!


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Puye Cliff Dwellings

On Saturday we headed out to the Puye Cliff Dwellings in Santa Clara Canyon on Santa Clara Pueblo land near Espanola. We headed toward Santa Fe, then toward Bandelier and then trusted the "smart phone" to get us the rest of the way. Where could they be? We were driving for about an hour and a half without seeing any cliffs or places cliff dwellings could be located. Then, as we rounded a corner, up popped several mesas. We found the gas station where you purchase tour tickets, filled up the tank, got our combined Cliff Side and Mesa tour tickets and then meandered the 15 minutes up to the National Historic Landmark that is the Puye Cliff Dwellings. The site was inhabited from around 900 - 1580 AD by 1500 or so Pueblo Indians that were ancestors of today's Santa Clara People. The site was excavated in 1907. It sits on the Pajarito Plateau which is volcanic tuff and basalt and was formed when the Jemez Valles Caldera Supervolcano erupted. There are only six known supervolcanoes on dry land with only another 6 or so underwater - The Jemez Valles Caldera is one of them. Now to the interesting stuff.

This tour is fantastic! Our guide was Elija Smith of the Santa Clara Pueblo. He is intelligent, courteous, knowledgeable and his historical, direct relationship with this place and its history clearly makes him an educator and not just a tour guide. Much of what he explained about the site came from information he learned from his relatives. We started the tour with some basic information about the 1907 excavation by Edgar Hewitt and his relationship with the Santa Clara Pueblo. There are two levels of cave and cliff dwellings and a village on top of the mesa built around a plaza. The caves were excavated by hand or with wooden tools. The holes that line up were where poles projected out from the cliff to create the outer room roofs and framework. Caves provided the rest of the dwellings and usually went one or two rooms into the cliff. The walls were plastered and often valuables were placed in cubbies that were plastered over. Petroglyphs adorned the outside on each level and included original Pueblo-made carvings with additional things added by Spaniards. The site was abandoned during drought and the Pueblo moved to its current location closer to water.

Up we went on a paved trail to the base of the cliff. Elija would stop to explain pottery shards we encountered or depressions in the rock or other features. There are pottery shards all over the site and he explained the pottery making process that his Pueblo still uses to make beautiful pottery from things of the earth. He explained the many types of pottery that were made and/or were traded. After learning about the cliff dwellings we headed up what appeared as a sort of slough going to the mesa top. His ancestors carved a path for rainwater to move from the mesa top, down the cliff face and down to the waffle-style gardens. I would love to be there when it rains to see and hear water travel down this chute! Carvings are everywhere on the rock face and he was careful to explain the meaning of many of them.

Up on top of the mesa the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. From up top you could see forever! He explained that the cliffs were used in the winter and people moved up top during the warmer months. We saw ruins of hundreds of rooms that would have been the first floor of multi-story pueblos with a plaza in the center. A partially reconstructed building sits among the ruins and a ceremonial kiva that is original except for the roof rounded out the tour. It is the stories and personal knowledge that made this a wonderful experience. Seeing how people lived and seeing/hearing how a culture is passed on and preserved is simply a great thing. Our guide spoke his Pueblo's language and explained how it is being passed on. He explained the relationship his Pueblo has/had with other Pueblos. "Puye" means a place where rabbits gather - we saw lots of evidence of that up on the mesa! Like many parks/monuments etc there is a visitor's center with artifacts displayed and a video of Elija talking about learning pottery making with his mother and daughter. It is the personal experience and desire to educate that made this place come alive!

After Work Hike - Tunnel Spring - Agua Sarca

We discovered this trail a couple weekends ago. A neighbor brought me to the trailhead while we were visiting a nearby artist during the Placitas Studio Tour weekend. If she hadn't shown it to me I would have been hesitant to go the two or so miles up the dirt road that looked private. Once you are almost there you can see the official markers, then parking area, bathroom, interpretive signs and trails. From out on the main Placitas road (Highway 165) we have always seen a bright green patch of trees and wondered about water. There are several patches of cottonwoods that cluster where there is either surface or underground water. Right now the bright green new leaves look spectacular when the sun is right and it is always perfect at some point, illuminating them into almost unnatural shades of brilliance!

Jeff met me in the parking lot around 5:30. We got going quickly since the 5 mile loop we wanted to do takes about 2 and 1/2 hours to do. This time we did the steep canyon ascent first up to the top trail and then followed it around the crest and around and around until we got back to the cars. This same green patch we parked at looks quite a bit different from different elevations. We started at about 6,300 feet and went up to about 7,200. We had sweeping views out toward the west.
The steep canyon short cut was really steep and seemed to take a long time to traverse. We saw a little bit of surface water and a lot of neat rock formations. There was even a mine opening in the hillside we peeked into (it is gated). Up we went looking up toward the trail on the side of the mountain. The trail follows the side of the mountain and depending on how you go will connect with other trails including the Sandia Crest Trail. Jeff has done a section of that trail from Albuquerque and almost ended up here! Once we were up the canyon the trail had some elevation changes but they were a lot more gradual. Cactus were blooming, a couple kinds, and many looked like they were ready to burst into bloom. I'm going to need to go up later this week to check out their progress!

This trail has a lot of neat rock formations and excellent views. Mostly I like that it is 15 minutes from the house. The light in New Mexico is amazing and the landscape changes as the light changes. This trail is great in the afternoon as the sun is setting and all the views change from reds to pastels and back as the sun does its thing.