Four Corners Vacation

August 13-21, 2011

I love it when my family gathers for a family reunion! There are so many ways to travel from Tucson to central Colorado, and they all pass through some of the Southwest's most beautiful and remote landscapes.

Route 666

I have very fond memories of a visit to Navajo Lake on the Colorado/New Mexico border in 2000, so this year we made it part of our itinerary, spending one night at the El Rancho Motel in Gallup and then traveling north along the old Route 666 (now 491). A side trip west from Sheep Springs took us into the surprisingly lush Chuska Mountains, and from there we thought we'd explore Route 5000, a "shortcut" to Two Grey Hills Trading Post. It began as two-rut dirt road and devolved to two faint tracks across the desert, but we were lured on by the spooky silhouette of Ship Rock in the distance.

Although Two Grey Hills was closed on Sunday, Les Wilson, who has operated the post for the last 28 years, opened up for us and let us "ooh" and "ah" over a stack of Navajo rugs featuring the distinctive natural gray, brown, black and white of the Churro sheep.

Navajo Lake

After passing through the armpit of America -- the dismal trail of scrap metal, oil derricks and mining debris that stretches from Shiprock to Bloomfield, New Mexico -- we arrived late that night at our camping spot on a cliff overlooking Navajo Lake. A flashlight picked up the glow of two pairs of eyes, and we watched while the two largest raccoons I've ever seen clambered out of a pi&tildenon just below our campsite.

In the morning, we made our way down a sandy wash to a sandstone. Here the water was 30 feet deep and every bit as clear bottle green as I remembered it. So Navajo Lake is still the best swimming lake in the Southwest, if you make your way along the shore away from the huge marina and RV city next to the dam. I've heard you can rough camp along the shore with your own boat, so that will be out next trip.

If making a living were no object, I think I would make my home in the uplands of northern New Mexico or southern Colorado. The foothills of the southern Rockies have the most delightful climate in America and are watered by a half-dozen sparkling streams: Piedra, San Juan, Chama, Conejos, and Animas to name just a few.

But there may be trouble in Paradise. As we drove north on Route 551, we quickly became aware that a) every road leads to a brand new oil drilling rig and b) the only other vehicles on the road are all oil and gas company utility trucks.

Weminuche Wilderness

We thought we might spend some time in Pagosa Springs. I remembered it from my 2000 trip as a small tourist town with a developed but mellow community-owned hot springs. But standing on the bridge in the center of town, I couldn't even see where the hot springs used to be. It has been gobbled up by a huge and hideous Victorian-style hotel, and the hot springs has been "improved" to the point where it just looks like another water park. We had a cup of coffee, used the free wifi, and moved on.

Despite hopelessly inaccurate directions, we somehow made our way to the Bridge Campground about 20 miles north of Pagosa Springs on Williams Creek. A big thunderstorm was brewing all around us, but never produced any rain. As we broke camp in the morning, we were befriended by a sparrow, and Dennis got some great photos of two ospreys in a dead tree beside the road.

We squeezed in a hike that morning to a gorgeous waterfall on the middle fork of the Piedra River.

Orient Land Trust

Our objective that evening was Orient Land Trust, and we were determined to get there in time for the bat hike. An abandoned iron mine on the property is the summer home for a colony of 100,000 to 250,000 Mexican free-tail bats -- the largest known bachelor colony known in North America. It's a steep five-mile round trip hike to see the nightly outflight, but worth every step. It took me a minute to realize that the sudden gust of wind was actually the sound of their wings as they swirled out of the glory hole, and Dennis' rummage sale toy ultrasonic amplifier went nuts.

Four Mile Creek

Our time at Orient Land Trust was far too short as usual, but there were further adventures waiting for us at my sister's place near Antero Juntion, Colorado. My sister Frankie and her daughter Ronnie put together an adventure that the whole family could enjoy: a 50-mile ride on ATVs along Fourmile Creek. And as much as I've cursed ATV riders, when practiced responsibly, this is a great way to explore the backroads of Colorado, and we all had a fine time.