The Great Northern New Mexico Loop

July 16-18, 2021

Angel Peak to Heron Lake

One of the highlights of this trip was a visit to Aztec "Ruins" National Monument. Second in size only to Chaco Canyon, this pueblo is somewhat better preserved.

Ann at Marion Aztec Ruins

Constructed c 1000 - 1200 AD, the West Ruin has at least 400 interconnected rooms of three stories.

Aztec Ruins

The original pine, spruce, and aspen beams are still visible.

low doorways

Multi-story structures with intact upper floors convey sense of what it might have been like to live in an ancestral pueblo, with hundreds of tiny, dark rooms linked by low doorways.

the great kiva

By far the most impressive building was a reconstructed great kiva. Archeologist Earl Morris excavated the Great Kiva in 1921, and then reconstructed it 13 years later based on uncovered remnants of the original building. Fifteen surface rooms encircle the central chamber. Four massive pillars hold up the ceiling beams, and each pillar rests on four limestone discs. The colors are based on bits of reddish and white-washed plaster found clinging to the original walls.

There are many great kivas in northern New Mexico, but most are simply excavated circular holes in the ground. With its intact walls and ceiling, his building emphasizes the public purpose and majesty of a great kiva.

great kiva ceiling

The reconstructed great kiva ceiling.

camping rigs at Navajo Lake

One by one, our friends arrived at Navajo Lake, in every possible camping rig: tents, popups, Four Wheel Campers, Teardrops, and one Class C RV.

Navajo Lake panorama

There was just one problem. I recommended this campground based on a memorable weekend at Navajo Lake in 2011. But in the intervening decade, like many Southwestern reservoirs, the lake level has declined precipitously, making most of it inaccessible except via a steep and treacherous slope. What a bitter cruelty, to be camped next to a beautiful lake in 90-degree heat, with no way to get to the water!

swimming at Navajo Lake

The stronger hikers in the group eventually clambered down to the "beach" for a refreshing swim.

potluck dinner

We all pitched in to create a celebratory potluck dinner on Saturday night.

By Sunday morning, we were on the road again, heading east with no particular destination in mind. We wandered into Chama at sunset, where Dennis and I never venture without stopping to ogle the steam trains at Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Named for Toltec Gorge and Cumbres Pass, these trains climb to 10,015 feet — the highest elevation reached by rail in the United States. Thinking all restaurants were closed on Sunday, we were delighted to discover Local, a new "farm to table" restaurant specializing in food grown in the Rio Chama Valley.

Heron Lake at sunset

We camped that night at Heron Lake, historically one of the most popular recreation sites in New Mexico. But a decade of drought has taken its toll. Surface elevation for Heron Lake is currently 7108' — 78 feet below "minimum storage level" and nearly 160 feet below "full".

Heron Lake panorama

The gathering at Navajo Lake was in honor of the late Kit Schweitzer, but Kit was no fan of these artificial desert lakes. As Kit would say, "They're not supposed to be here!" The sad irony would not be lost on him.