Northern New Mexico

July 19-August 26, 2019

June is a terrible month. The desert bakes in triple-digit heat while we wait desperately for the life-giving summer rains. Outdoor activities are confined to the early morning hours or else after dark. This year the monsoon arrived very late. It's now August 1st, and Midtown has only had one real gully-washer so far. And so since the monsoon would not come to us, we decided to go the monsoon.

We decided to check out a different route through western New Mexico, heading over Mule Creek Pass, north on 180, then NM 12 through Reserve. At Apache Creek, we picked up NM 32, which follows a lush canyon past some impressive stone pinnacles.

In one of the meadows, we spotted a herd of at least 16 elk.

Like nearly all Southwestern lakes, Quemado Lake is a man-made, shriveled mud puddle that's barely fit for fishing, let alone swimming. And the campsites near the lake were jam-packed, even on a week night. Fortunately we found a quieter site at higher elevation, with a good radio horizon so we could chat with Doug back in Tucson. A cicada took a fancy to Dennis' ham radio mast.
In the morning we continued north through Quemado and then NM 36 to NM 117. South of El Malpais lies a vast, empty gray-green grass plain where we spotted a large herd of pronghorns.
Eventually the gnarly, blackened fingers of El Malpais came into view, and we crept along the eastern edge of the flow to the parking lot for "The Narrows", where there is a 3.9-mile hike along the top of a sandstone ridge overlooking the lava field.
From then on, we planned each day around the monsoon, hiking in the morning and using the afternoon's stormy weather to travel to our next destination.
This photo was a grab shot in cloudy weather, so I was very surprised when I brightened the photo to see a very colorsul bird that my friend Norma identified as a violet-green swallow (Tachycineta thalassina).
What are these pink and green wildflowers I wonder? I wasn't able to identify them but they seemed like hardy sorts.
We had planned to stay at Joe Skeen Campground that night, but like some other no-fee campgrounds, it was populated by a few too many people who appeared to be permanent residents, so we kept heading north and climbing higher into the San Mateo Mountains, finally locating a spot at 9300' on the shoulder of Mount Taylor.
Blue Flax — At 11,300 feet, Mount Taylor is the highest peak in northwestern New Mexico and is sacred to the Navajo, Acoma, Hopi, Laguna and Zuni people. An ancient volcano, its original height is believed to have been 16-18,000 feet.
We opted for the shortest, steepest route to the summit and were thrilled with the "Sound of Music" style alpine meadows and see-forever views.
Dennis demonstrating that our camper is so light, you can pick it up with one finger.
We huffed and puffed like antique steam engines, but we made it to the top, and never saw another soul the whole way.
Mount Taylor Panorama

And what a view awaited us (scroll for a panorama)!

We had not planned to visit El Morro, but got a wild hair on our way down the mountain to visit one of our favorite haunts. We arrived just in time for a spectacular monsoon sunset.
The Loop Trail is one of our favorite hikes, leading past a reliable waterhole where Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish and American travelers carved over 2,000 signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs into the sandstone cliffs.
As one of the rangers commented, it is difficult to imagine anywhere in the Southwest with so much to see in a two-mile hike.
The top layer of rock is ash-white, and elaborate steps are chiseled into the rock.
Juvenile Western Bluebird (Salia Mexicana). Thanks, Norma!
Atsinna Pueblo, only partially excavated, is believed to have contained 800 rooms.
After flirting with the monsoon for several days, we finally smacked into it in the Sierra Nacimiento. While scouting for a campsite atop Blue Bird Mesa, lightning shattered a tree not far from us. That sent us scurrying back down the mountain to the relative safety of a developed campground.
It rained hard almost all night long, and we woke up to dense fog and a rushing river where Rio Las Vacas had been just a trickle.
PS: We can now confirm that NM 126 — a numbered state highway — is indeed impassable after a good storm!
Since we had to backtrack more than 80 miles, we decided on a whim to hike to McCauley Hot Springs from Battleship Rock.
The slope is covered with chunks of obsidian — some of them quite large.
Unfortunately the previous night's big storm had washed out most of the large pool.
But it was still a pleasant soak after a steamy trek uphill.
We searched long and hard for a campsite near Valles Caldera, but there are national monuments on both sides of the road here, and the area south of the Caldera is badly scarred by the Las Conchas Fire of 2011 which burned more than 150,000 acres.
Elk Panorama

At Valles Caldera we were startled to see an extremely large herd of elk — more than 100 animals!

We finally found a spot up a rough 4WD road on a promontory overlooking Los Alamos in the Santa Fe National Forest.
Note to self: The highest point for miles around is not always the best place to camp, three bars of internet and a killer view notwithstanding. There's nothing like a violent lightning storm to remind that you are sleeping in vinyl tent with a metal roof! Fortunately most of the strikes were 2-3 miles away on Pajarito Mountain.
Valles Caldera — 1.25 million years ago, a volcano 300 times the size of Mount St. Helens reconfigured northern New Mexico. The impossibly vast alpine meadow peppered with ancient cinder cones is some of the best scenery anywhere in the Southwest. Management is still a work-in-progress but we're glad we finally got to spend some time here.
Access requirements are quite strict and the permitting process is opaque. Next time we visit, we'll know better.
Sue the cool ranger at the new headquarters helped us locate this lovely cabin along the San Antonio River.
And of course no trip to Valles Caldera would be complete without a stop at the cabin so prominently featured in the popular "Longmire" series. Ostensibly situated in Absaroka County, Wyoming, most filming locations were actually in northern New Mexico. Why there's Sheriff Longmire himself, with his lever action 30-30 (and a little help from Photoshop).
A few of the wildflowers decorating some of the burn scars — Nodding Onions
Leafy Cinquefoil?
Wild Bergamot
After all the peaceful wilderness we enjoyed on this trip, it was a bit of shock to find ourselves on a standing-room-only shuttle to Bandelier National Monument, and stuck on narrow paths behind people who were — literally — waiting in line to take selfies.
But a big thunderstorm cleared things up very nicely, and having climbed the 140-foot ladder in the rain, we were delighted to find ourselves alone in Alcove House.
Luckily that night there was space at Juniper Campground. The afternoon storm intensified, and heavy rain pounded the camper for three hours straight.
We spent a half day trying to navigate the very bad road to San Antonio Hot Springs, only to find a tree blocking the road.
And now the reason why we came to New Mexico! Our friend Tom has long dreamed of creating his own observatory modeled after the giant Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar. After years of careful planning, with help from the late Kit Schweitzer, the dome is ready. But how to transport the 350-pound dome from the barn where it was built to its permanent platform?
A physicist by trade, Tom calculated that with at least 10 people, no one would need to lift more than 35 pounds. And if more than 30 friends turned out to help?
It's amazing what a group of people can do when they get organized!
Directing traffic.
A few loose screws ...
The final push.
And the dome is ready to welcome visitors from outer space!
The dome gnome is home!
Faced with that interminable drive back to Tucson, it has become a bit of a tradition for us to detour via La Posada in Winslow. We arrived in time to check out my theory that it might be possible to bypass the crowds at McHood Lake and hike down to the creek farther up the canyon.
It was 97 degrees. That cool, clear bottle-green water sure felt good!
And it was great to have a night at La Posada to chill out, take our first real showers in 10 days, and soften the blow of returning to civilization!