Monday, July 06, 2020

The southwest corner

Trails atop Wolf Creek Pass

The threats to travel in southwest Colorado showed up early. On the far side of the San Luis Valley, a forest fire raged several mountain ranges to the north, a dense of smoke rising behind the ridges. We wondered if it might impede our trip on its first day. But at South Fork our road swung south to climb Wolf Creek Pass, leaving the San Luis Valley and carrying us to even wilder country in southwest Colorado.

This was new territory for me. For Nancy, my old friend and traveling companion, she had not visited this part of Colorado since she was a kid (Mesa Verde) and on a trip with her folks 10 years ago. 

Driving up Wolf Creek Pass westbound did not offer many driving challenges. At the top of the Pass, mountain bikers traversed trails buried in deep grasses that ran off into the pine-covered hills. The pass descended slowly with one hairpin turn and a few runaway truck ramps. It was not as technical as some mountain passes, but the west side required a slow descent.

Only state and federal routes cut through Southwest Colorado, no interstates for hundreds of miles. Roads dropped lanes and speeds and cities approached and disappeared.

Pagosa Springs hummed with life, a town on amphetamines, unlike any of the sleepier ranch towns on the pass’s eastern flank. Whitewater, tubing and hot springs brought people across the region. Pagosa had just one main street, U.S. 160, and it showed little signs of pandemic impact. The restaurants were a different story, sticking to 25 percent occupancy with wait times for

Too early for a brewery, Kip’s Bar and Grill had a few empty indoor tables. The Pagosa institution served some refreshing spicy tacos that filled us up for the final stretch of the day. While Pagosa could have been explored a little more deeply, it would have taken hours of walking its main drag and the June daylight would run out.

Pagosa’s business district wasted little time in reverting to wilderness. Most of southwest Colorado is covered in national forest and wilderness areas, roadless places that forbid motorized traffic.

The state’s only Indian reservations, the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute tribes, lie south of the towns along U.S. 160, running to the New Mexican border. The Ute Mountain reservation surrounds Mesa Verde National Park.

The road provided a series of impressive mountain views. The jagged San Juan Mountains emerged to the north, sheltering mountain towns like Telluride, Ouray and Ridgway below their rough peaks.

Chimney Rock looms large over the highway, a prominent needle on top of a mountain named for a similarly shaped landmark in the Nebraska Panhandle. Now a national monument that also protects Native American ruins at its base, the column glowed in the golden hour light. There’s a future trip where I get out here to hike to the top in the early morning.

Bayfield has 2,000 people but barely registers from the road. Like most small Colorado towns, it is large enough to host a brewery.

After running through town after town of a few blocks, Durango sprouted into a true metropolis of 18,000 people. It’s still a railroad town, and the regional economic center. New development rose below the soaring buttes and mesas, with the Animas River cutting through town.

On Main Avenue, we ran into the streak of old-school hotels we needed. Occupancies seemed low due to the pandemic and the shorter driving trips Americans were taking. Then again, after the swarms of rafters and visitors in Pagosa, Durango felt sedate.

Looking at the mountains and creeks in the setting sun, Durango did not feel large at all. Only the landscape did out here. The colors of sunset and twilight cast over the mountains.

With such immense wilderness around us and the wear of eight hours on the road, there was no desire to explore Durango. The town would have demanded a day to itself, and the calendar did not allow. But greater exploration across this wild region was just a morning away. 

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Bright birds of Monte Vista

Yellow-headed blackbird takes flight

Five miles south of Monte Vista, a San Luis Valley town with brightly painted hotels, sits a birding paradise. The San Luis Valley has three national wildlife refuges set aside for migratory birds, including Monte Vista, Alamosa and Baca, the last adjacent to the great Sand Dunes,

On this drive, the national wildlife refuge at Monte Vista broke up the trip with its chorus of birds and absence of people. It was one spot int he San Luis Valley where Nancy and I intended to stop (same Nancy as in the past, but new context - strictly friend and travel buddy).

Blanca Peak rainstorm

Not that there were many people anyway. The valley is 120 miles long by 70 miles wide, its towns small, its farms and ranches large. The valley immediately casts a different feel than Colorado’s Front Range.

No sooner had we left La Veta Pass in Fort Garland did the little funnel clouds of dust begin to rise in the distance. The wind continues to whip them up briefly.

The Great Sand Dunes loomed in the San Luis Valley’s northeast corner, 500 feet high at their tallest, but regal nonetheless in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo peaks above them. A series of dusty towns leads into Alamosa, the valley’s largest city. Named for the cottonwoods on the Rio Grande’s banks, Alamosa had a bustling downtown and many older, well-kept houses nearby. Adams State University

The Rio Grande sticks with Highway 160 through a series of small towns across the northern part of the valley – Monte Vista, Del Norte, South Fork. This is the nation’s highest agricultural region, supported by mountain snowmelt swelling the Rio Grande and a large aquifer underneath the valley.

So many tiny ducklings

We rolled through this quiet farmland, surrounded by the soaring mountains that form the valley.

A storm we grazed when passing through Alamosa moved onto lash Blanca Peak, the highly prominent 14’er on the valley’s eastern edge. Western rain showers still amazed me; the water spouts down from gray clouds in ways we can only dream further east.

In later winter, the ponds and canals run thick with sandhill cranes, then again for a shorter visit in October. Monte Vista even hosts a March festival.

On this day the Monte Vista refuge hosted some stiff winds among its ponds and canals, the reeds holding their own against each stiff gust. This touch of local wildlife offered a good respite from the highway. We spent less than an hour on the gravel loop, but places this flush with wildlife take on a spiritual feel. In summer, the refuge waterways don’t lack for other species. Yellow-headed blackbirds were everywhere, as were the more common red-winged blackbirds. Many species of duck, geese, teals and other waterfowl drift in the ponds, trailed by their rapidly growing offspring.

The two-mile drive presented no raptors or birds of prey, but dozens of species most of us rarely encounter. Birdsong ripped across the quite farmland, dozens of species talking at once. Sure, the occasional mountain bluebird, robin or red-winged blackbird flitted through the forests of reeds, but this rich habitat had more unexpected species.

Nobody else circled the loop while we visited. That surprised me for a second before it didn’t.

Wildlife refuges were not the flashiest stops. They demand a little patience and a lot of quiet for the wildlife to adjust to humans in their habitat.

Monte Vista had the advantage of birds I had never seen before. Anytime the birds break from what we’re used to – my neighborhood murder of crows, robins, mourning doves and more – a little patch of land becomes exotic. A few canals and a patch of reed-filled ponds can present an ecosystem so foreign from what we often encounter. I will always enjoy those little places.

The wildlife refuge provided a little, memorable loop. Yellow-headed blackbirds help every time they took to the air and showed off colors only visible with their wings extended. Every drive needs its excursions, and Monte Vista provided a rush of birds among the reeds. Something tells me it will again.

Looking west from Monte Vista NWR

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Chokecherry volcano rim

“I wonder if that is Capulin.”

Roaring through Texline, one of the many towns along the Texas border touting its location, I noticed a pair of volcanic hills or mountains rose from the plain across the New Mexico border. Of course it had to be New Mexico.

It’s funny how borders announce themselves. Some seem arbitrary, but the terrain shifts at this northern part of the Texas-New Mexico border. Most of the Panhandle was washboard flat. The land west was flat but broken by conical mountains. Farmlands of the Panhandle just stop. The dusted beauty of New Mexico takes over. Some people call it boring – I call them ill-informed.

The first peak was not Capulin Volcano National Monument, but the Rabbits Ears, a pair of mountains westbound migrants used as a landmark due to the presence of nearby water.

Winding through Clayton, a series of pronghorns grazed alongside the road. A large mountain loomed ahead, one I assumed to be Capulin Mountain. It was conical and clearly volcanic in nature, although foliage was limited along its inclines.

Sierra Blanca from the Capulin crater rim

Only when the road circled around it and exposed a forest, extinct volcano did I realize the error. I found out that the earlier mountain was Sierra Blanca, the large dead volcano in the Clayton-Raton Volcanic Field that covers much of northern New Mexico. It might seem bleak to some, but not me. This was new landscape, foreign landscape and I wanted to enjoy all I could.

Several hours out of Amarillo, I figured I should at least grab a few pictures of Capulin before I finished the drive. The monument might be closed but I could snap photos from the road. I got a few then decided to check on the monument’s status. Not only was the gate open, but the road to the caldera and the visitor center were too.

Since I moved to Colorado, Capulin Volcano had become my national parks white whale. Every time I wanted to go, a new obstacle arose. First 2019 storms washed out a portion of the volcano road. You could tour and hike around the volcano base, but that omitted the marquee attraction. Then came limited winter hours. Then COVID-19 closures hit the national parks. I checked until I left for Amarillo, then gave up for this trip.

I had not counted on a soft reopening for the monument. The road to the crater was open. I was elated. I got a new NPS annual pass and a few stickers before striking up the volcano. At the visitor center I could not hide my elation at Capulin being open. Capulin is almost perfectly symmetrical, standing 1,500 feet above the plains. The Spanish named it Capulin, their word for chokecherries, which grow on its upper reaches. 

Across three miles and a short one-lane portion of the road, I reached the small lot at the caldera’s edge. There was only room for a dozen cars but even on a Saturday tourists turned over quickly enough to keep a half-dozen spots open at any time. The second I left the car, the sense of wonderment hit me – this silent volcano was a special place, its crater covered in trees and shrubs.

Without hesitation I set out for the caldera loop trail, the air instantly reminding of the 8,000-foot altitude. Hesitation came soon enough as the trail, a paved relic of the NPS’s ill-advised Mission 66 modernization plan in the 1960s, wound to the crate rim at a steep grade. I huffed and puffed, moved in small strides, remembering the 5-plus miles from Pale Duro with every step.

Every time I stopped, the views got better. Then everything leveled off, as the trail rolling toward a peak across the caldera. Pine trees along the path bloomed. The wind roared but didn’t reach me through the forested rim. Insect hummed around other blooming plants, with spring temperatures just now reaching the top of Capulin. I arrived a few weeks too early for Capulin’s well-known swarms of ladybugs covering all the flowering plants atop the volcano.

Few people circled the whole rim. I don’t feel bad saying they missed out. This was the peace that mountaintops deliver for the short time we can claim them. It was a peaceful place on top of a mountain we cheated to reach. Let’s face it, hiking from the parking lot to the rim top was a change of 300 feet in elevation. Imagine if the road had never been built and achieving the caldera base required an intensive hike – it could have been much harder. The park superintendent who crafted the road was a forward thinker. Had a steep four or five-mile hike been required the reach the bottom of the caldera, few would oblige.

Looking north from the Capulin rim

That few visitors bothered to reached the top of the rim didn’t concern me. The 360-degree views highlighted the volcano field in a way field nothing else could. The park service advertises that one can see into Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. I cannot say I saw into any of them, but the view atop Capulin showed me the tops of mesas and mountains I previously drove below. My car was a pinprick among the other pinpricks in the parking lot.

Bottom of the crater

To finish the mountaintop tour I descended into the caldera on a short trail that stopped at the volcano’s vents, which last erupted about 60,000 years ago. Across the lava field, only Sierra Blanca stood taller, but it the misfortune of an antenna farm at its summit, not a landmark to dry hikers. The rock field at the caldera bottom was unquestionably volcanic. A chipmunk or rock squirrel darted across the trail and disappeared into the unnavigable fields of rock.

I stood for a long minute at the base of the caldera, a place once running molten flows that would melt me in an instant. On this day, it was placid, filled with blooming plants and pollinating insects.

Capulin followed me almost to Raton, where the mountain pass crossed to Colorado. Sangre de Cristo Range appeared in the distance beyond the local mountains, which impressed at every turn. Whenever the wind gusted through the window, I hurtled back to top of the dead volcano, its jagged ridge and gnarled pinon pines and chokecherry bushes trembling in the breeze.

A near-panoramic view of the crater

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The palette of Palo Duro Canyon

Palo Duro Canyon long after sunrise

Early sun on the High Plains streaked red the thin cloud banks. The dome of sky over this flat land put on a light show in morning and evening. The quiet was pervasive – no traffic, only birdsong breaking everywhere.

Then the flatness ended abruptly at Palo Duro Canyon. There were no signs, the plains just opened. A half-dozen cars queued at the entrance gate, and more joined before the rangers rolled it back. The road passed a handful of lookouts onto the country’s second-largest canyon before the road began steeply winding down the canyon wall.

From the rim to its floor, Palo Duro ranges from 800 to 1,000 feet, and the canyon width runs from six miles to 20 miles. In the U.S., only the Grand Canyon is larger.

At every step the canyon delivers geology lessons. The canyon formed from the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River – you read that correctly – which wore down the Llano Estacado plains along its banks to the caprock, forming scores of caves and hoodoos among the banded red rocks.

I found the Lighthouse trailhead quickly, although delayed my start by wandering down a series of other interconnected trails for about 20 minutes. Returning to the parking lot, found a trail marker with multiple warnings about high temperatures and need for a gallon of water per person. From one sign, an anthropomorphic prairie dog in a cowboy outfit told me – he wasn’t lying. Large stretches of the trail had little cover from the sun – or at least they would at a later hour. At 7 a.m., the sun had not baked all the cool air out of the canyon.

Trust this guy

I moved pretty fast. Once the trail climbs steadily during its first mile, it levels off, only dipping into a few dry creeks and arroyos. At its end lies the Lighthouse, the park’s most famous hoodoo, a tower of rock created by wind and water erosion. Anytime the wind kicked up, the mounting temperatures eased, if only for a minute or less.

Blue posts marked the trail every tenth of a mile. They either helped or annoyed people on the trail, but when branches of possible trails forked off the main route, blue posts kept me on target. Mountain bikes and horses shared the trail, which had multiple side loops. I watched enough people walk up turns meant for bikes and shook my head, especially those with really young kids.

Several towering hoodoos rose along the mesas on either side of the trails. A few resembled the Lighthouse. I had glimpsed the Lighthouse from an overlook that highlighted the various peaks and geologic features throughout the canyon.

The trail changed at mile marker 2.7, growing narrow and rolling over some steep terrain. Not being the most sure-footed person, I realized this path might not be for me. Besides, I was alone, and it seemed like the Lighthouse might be better experienced with someone else.

That I didn’t make it to the Lighthouse felt fine – I had seen numerous hoodoos along the trail and later on the loop drive along the canyon floor. Just being in this wild space between the looming red cliffs and their fragile towers left me refreshed.

While Charles Goodnight famously started one of the Panhandle’s first cattle ranches in the canyon. But for centuries, Palo Duro had been Comanche land, a place where they could hide and outwit their enemies. The Comanches were routed here during an 1874 battle, and most ended up on the Fort Sill reservation. It’s hard not to feel the Comanche influence across canyon. One could imagine their gunmen watching from the hoodoos and mesas, or parties on horseback emerging around every corner.

A full parking lot at the trailhead slowed the pace of new arrivals coming up the trail. For long stretches I had no company but birds and lizards. The day heated up considerably since I started but finishing at 10 a.m. saved me from any heat-related complications. I emptied my water pack on the home stretch to the trailhead  and chugged straight from the chilled gallon in my trunk. The almost-constant winds had left me quite grungy, bare skin coated with red dust.

I finished the loop trail, where remarkably few travelers ventured – it seemed everyone had designs on the Lighthouse trail like me. The scenery was no less magnificent further into the canyon. Were I not burnt from my hike, I would have taken on more trails. When I made my reservation, Palo Duro was day-use only. After I made my hotel reservation, they reopened the campgrounds. It would have been a spectacular spot for camping, with almost no light pollution and nature on all sides.

I contemplated coming back later in the day, even if I knew that would not happen. Instead, I snapped a few last pictures when swinging through the canyon, ascended its steep road and wound back to the plains that did their best to hide any traces of Palo Duro.