Saturday, August 9, 2008

Signs of a Monsoon

Today was short hike to the Upper and Lower Falls in Bandelier National Monument (BNM), this time with some of the Girl Scouts from my daughter's troop. The falls trail is a nice, short, easy hike, about 5 miles round trip and a mere 615 ft elevation loss/gain. If you go all the way to the Rio Grande, it is closer to 700 ft elevation loss/gain. The trail route and profile are shown below.

As can be seen from the trail route above, we went to a point past the Lower Falls and turned around and went back. One can continue on to the Rio Grande, but the last time I did this a couple of years ago, the trail was hard to follow past the fence that is the boundary of BNM, and there was not much to see anyway.

The hike starts from the back country parking area just past the visitor center (drive over the small stone bridge over the Rio Frijoles and turn left). As we embarked on this hike, we wound up being intermingled with a large group of volunteers (or paid staff, not sure which) with tools to work on the trail. I soon discovered why. The trail more or less parallels the Rio Frijoles, from an elevated perspective. As I walked along, I could see clear signs of a fairly significant flood. This is a narrow canyon in many places, and with the monsoonal flow of moisture into New Mexico at this time of year, we get significant thunderstorms often dropping rain measured in inches in a few minutes. That creates flash floods and, in a canyon like this, a very powerful wall of water. We soon came to the first crossing of the Rio Frijoles, which should have been on a bridge.

However, as you can see from the above, the bridge was missing. My wife is crossing the Rio Frijoles after climbing down the steep embankment. You can see the rocks that supported the bridge on the other side. It turns out that on Monday, 7/28/2008, just such a cloud burst and took out this bridge and damaged the trail in several places. A little further along, more damage was evident.

Here, you can see the bridge intact, but torn away from its anchor crossing the Rio Frijoles. If you look carefully, you can see other signs of the torrent of water that went through here Monday. This bridge was still usable, so we crossed using it.

The Falls hike is a lovely hike, remaining near the Rio Frijoles and crossing it several times, passing through an open meadow, and then crossing a narrow pass right above the Upper Falls (which is pictured at the top of this blog entry). Below is the view when you top out in the narrow pass, right above the falls to the left. You cannot see the falls from this vantage point -- but you can hear them. You can also see the Rio Grande in the distance.

The falls themselves are pretty, particularly with good flow over them (like during spring ruin off, but I've never made it out here during that time). In the past when I have been here, the falls have been a trickle (and the lower falls invisible). Thanks to the rains, that was not the case this time.

A little further along, the Lower Falls comes into view. The trail is along a canyon wall, and is made up of loose shale. Hike carefully here as it is easy to loose your footing and take a tumble. You also need to watch for poison ivy and rattle snakes along this trail (more on both later).

I could not help but wonder what these falls looked like during the flash flood that took out the bridges. But I am glad I was not there to witness it.

We continued down the trail a little further, with the Girl Scouts, to a shaded area in a significantly washed out part of the trail and took a brief rest and turned around to head back. Poison ivy is quite common along this trail, and it can grow to impressive sizes here (and in the upper reaches of Frijoles as well). I took this photograph of poison ivy along this trail.

On the way back, we saw a young skink on the rocks along the trail. I've never seen one of these before.

After we climbed back past both lower and upper falls, a party descending into the canyon warned us of a rattle snake curled up in the rocks close to the trail. Sure enough, we saw him.

He was quite content curled up in the shade. He did not even rattle. Perhaps he had recently eaten and was resting digesting his food.

The photograph below was taken of us ascending out of the canyon near Upper Falls, not too far beyond where we saw the snake.

Oh yeah, we also saw some somewhat less exciting wildlife.

There are also interesting rock formations along this trail in several places. Below is an example, taken looking north right at the saddle above Upper falls.

This is a fun, easy, hike and highly recommended. It has large sections that are exposed, and can be quite hot and miserable in the summer so take plenty of water. This is also a very popular hike, so the trail can be crowded. Today it was crowded with hard working folks working to repair the trail and keep it in good shape. So thanks to those folks who work hard to ensure the trail is there for all to enjoy. To see more images from this hike, see my companion photography gallery.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Long Slog in the Heat

OK, actually I went on the Frijoles Canyon and Rim Trail hike on Friday in Bandelier National Monument (BNM). At the time I wrote this, there was still a statement on the BNM web page that says the trail is closed between upper crossing and Alcove House due to flash flooding that occurred in the spring. It is not. The NPS repaired this trail and it is open, they have just not updated their web page.

As with my other posts to this blog, more photographs are available. For this hike in particular or for this entire blog in general.

A brief description of this trail is that it climbs out of Frijoles Canyon near the Visitor's Center, follows the south rim of the canyon for about 7 miles, drops to the bottom of the canyon at upper crossing, then returns to the Visitor's Center in the bottom of the canyon. When all was said and done, it was a 13.9 mile round trip from my car parked at the Visitor's Center.

So why do I call this a slog? I knew it would be a hot day, but I thought I would start early and get to upper crossing before it got too bad, then have a pleasant stroll in the canyon where there would be more shade on the way back, in the heat of the day. I left at 9:15am and by the time I was about 1/3 of the way to Upper Crossing, it was already approaching 90F. I did not leave as early as I intended. Mistake #1. It warmed more quickly than I had anticipated. Mistake #2. Despite hiking a lot over the years, I neglected to pack sufficient water for this hike (!). Mistake #3. Additionally, I also forgot to pack a sufficient snack for this hike. Mistake #4. These errors, combined with a somewhat monotonous trail at times, combined to make this feel a bit like a slog. But I did get to practice my water conservation skills.

That is the way hiking goes enough whining! It still beats all day in an office any time. On with the hike description and commentary.

The map for the full hike is shown below.

The hike does climb 1,416 feet, but it does so in 6.4 miles, so it is a gradual climb. The hike profile is shown below.

The climb out of Frijoles is the same one I have done dozens of times, and described in the Shrine of the Stone Lions entry. I wondered what would be new on this particular occasion as I climbed out. These guys, for one.

These Turkey Buzzards (as I grew up calling them) were my companions for the climb out of Frijoles and for about a half mile after that. Clearly the thermals in the morning in this area were just right for their morning glide. Turkey Vultures may not be the most attractive and majestic bird out there, but they are a common sight around here and there is something peaceful in their silent glide.

I also saw a good bit of coyote scat on the climb out, with berries and fur from an unfortunate mouse or pica in the mix.

As I have mentioned in other posts, there is a nice view from the top of the south Frijoles rim which many miss as they stay on the main trail near the visitor center. Pity.

From the top, you also get a bird's eye view of the Visitor Center.

As I hiked along the top of the south rim, I noted that there were many animal tracks in the sand. Sand made by washes from the various rainstorms we have been getting. I noted mule deer, coyote, fox, and human tracks.

At the trail fork sign (GPS: N35 47.171 W106 17.217, same fork as taken to the Stone Lions), I continued on toward upper crossing. Here the trail veers away from the Frijoles rim and plods along through an open area. After a couple of miles or so, the trail enters a small draw where there are more trees and shade (GPS: N35 47.445 W106 17.941). A little further along, the trail returns to the south rim of Frijoles where there are better views (GPS: N35 47.692 W106 18.318).

Frijoles Canyon looking west.

Frijoles Canyon looking east, back toward the Visitor Center.

Until this point, there is not much for scenery along this part of the trail. Other than some pretty wild flowers now and then. At times along the rim, the flowers were nearly as tall as I am.

This type of vegetation would become more prevalent as I approached the mountains of course, due to the increase in moisture, runoff, and improved soil. The acorns were also out on much of the scrub oak in the area.

At about the halfway point or so along the south rim, I encountered an odd looking hill that looks suspiciously like an unexcavated ruin(GPS: N35 47.936 W106 19.288). Of course I don't know if it is, but it just looked out of place to me. There were a couple of others in this area as well.

After more walking, another trail fork is encountered (GPS: N35 48.140 W106 20.594). Here one can head to the south east to Yapashi (see my Stone Lions hike entry) and Capulin Canyon, or continue due west approaching the descent into Frijoles and the upper crossing. I continued west.

This trail fork is approximately 5 miles from where I started, but it seemed much longer than that when I did it. The trail was noticeably less traveled at this fork. The more popular route is clearly toward Yapashi here. However, being much closer to the Jemez Mountain range now, more geologic features come into view and the scenery is more interesting.

This image of a pair of tent rocks next to the Jemez Mountains was taken shortly before the descent into Frijoles at another trail fork (GPS: N35 48.260 W106 21.098).

At this fork you follow the sign to the Ponderosa Campground, which is actually on the other side of Frijoles Canyon near State Road 4. It is a 30+ person campsite. But since our aim is the upper crossing of Frijoles, this is the direction to head. I also noted another interesting sign in this area:

This is a well-weathered sign. I do not know if there is any longer such a thing as the "Wednesday Hiking Group" from Los Alamos any longer, but I suspect perhaps there may be.

It is here that, as you follow the sign to the Ponderosa Campground, you start a gradual decent into the canyon. Views are limited here. Below is an image taken near this trail fork before the descent, looking due east down Frijoles Canyon (toward the visitor center, some 7 miles away).

The descent into Frijoles from here is somewhat uneventful. The gradual descent turns into a steeper one as you move along the edge of the canyon. The biggest issue was the growth on the trail. The plants and wildflowers were in many places grown completely over the trail and taller than I was, severely obscuring my view of where to place my feet. In a couple of places, I had to move with extreme caution to ensure my feet were properly place on the trail invisible to me beneath the leaves of the growing plants. There were few (actually, I think there were only two) switchbacks in the trail descending into the canyon.

I finally arrived at the upper crossing of Frijoles Canyon at about 1:00pm (GPS: N35 48.903 W106 21.668).

I was pretty hot and tired by this point, but knew the hike would be cooler in the canyon returning to the visitor center.

Just past this fork, heading east toward the Visitor Center, I encountered "camping area F." This would be a good place to camp to stage hikes into the Dome Wilderness, or to move on to Yapashi, the Painted Cave, or Boundary Peak. More on that later.

The canyon itself is quite lovely, very green and lush. In fact, despite being in a desert, there were times that the growth reminded me just a little bit of the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park in Washington State. OK, it is a bit of a stretch, but it really did remind me of the Hoh at times. Maybe it was my dehydrated, delirious state of mind.

I noticed signs of more foot traffic in this area, probably hikers coming down from Ponderosa or other connecting trails. Here are some of the scenes from along this section of the hike.

This is also the section where the flash flooding problem was that I referenced at the begining of this post. However, the trail was in good shape and bridges re-built when I hiked it.

I also encountered a deer in this area, rather surprised to see me I should think.

The only other wildlife I saw on the entire hike were turkey vultures, another mule deer on the south rim of Frijoles, and various small mammals. I did see what looked like a grey hawk of some sort in the bottom of Frijoles, but I did not get a photograph.

The trail back to the Visitor Center crosses the Rio Frijoles many times. I counted the crossings from upper crossing to the Alcove House (the usual turn around point for people that venture from the Visitor Center to explore the ruins in the area). By my count, the trail crossed this stream 29 times. Three were bridged, two were dry (little tributaries of the stream that were not running any longer), and the rest required rock hopping or walking through the stream. It was very pleasant. I soaked my hat in the stream at many crossings to cool my head.

I saw not a soul on this entire 13.9 mile journey (until I got back to the main ruins area of the park, about a mile or so from the Visitor Center). Part of the problem might have been the statement on the web page about the trail being closed, or it could have simply been that people had more sense than I did to try this on such a hot day. Whatever the case, I did indeed have the entire day to myself. Knowing what I know now, I would not repeat this same hike again. There are too many areas where there is not much to see. However, the hike up the bottom of Frijoles is nice and would make a good place to camp and stage other hikes. One could also start at Ponderosa (but you can't park there unless you are camping there) and hike down and out of Frijoles and head off to other parts of the park. I would recommend those routes instead (or to even start on the Dome side, which is in the Santa Fe National Forest). There are a number of possibilities here I will try in the future.