Saturday, November 15, 2008

Apache Springs Trail

This past Veteran's Day I went on a short hike on the Apache Springs trail in Bandelier National Monument. This hike will take you into the upper part of Frijoles Canyon (about 3 miles up the canyon from Upper Crossing). From there, you can hike to Upper Crossing and then either continue to the visitor center, hike out of the canyon to the Ponderosa Camground to the north, or hike out of the canyon to the south and head toward Alamo Canyon or other points south of Upper Crossing. See my Long Slog in the Heat post for more information on the Upper Crossing area.

Today, I just had time to hike to the Frijoles descent. I had never gone down this trail, and I wanted to see what the view of Frijoles was from here. The trail map of the route I took appears below.

The elevation gain/loss was only about 400 ft along this route. The trail head is along State Road 4 inside Los Alamos County (GPS: N35 50.018 W106 22.627).

Shortly after the trail head, the trail drops into a small but lovely meadow. I saw a lot of elk tracks and scat in this area, which is not surprising of course.

After climbing out of the meadow, I encountered a little snow along the trail. As an avid snowboarder, I can only hope this is a positive sign for excellent snow this winter.

You know I must be desperate for snow if I stopped to take that picture. I would encounter more snow as you will see below.

At this point, the trail veers sharply to the right (GPS: N35 49.794 W106 22.643, marked on the trail map above). You are actually walking along a faint dirt road here. There was a very active woodpecker in this area as well. You also get a good view of some of the damage done by the Cerro Grande fire while on this part of the trail.
After making the sharp turn, the trail parallels state road 4 for a while and the road is audible in this area. Occasionally it is also visible in the distance.

As I was walking along, I caught the unmistakable odor of a skunk in the area. I looked carefully, but saw no skunk. Soon afterward, I encountered tracks in the snow. As I examined them carefully, there is no doubt that these were the tracks of my friend the skunk.

One of my favorite things about hiking in a dusting of snow like this is the other tracks you see, such as the mule deer track below.

As I continued to walk along, I saw a pair of doe mule deer feeding on the fall grass in the area. I also encountered an odd fenced in area around a grove of aspen trees. There were two other such fenced in spots in this area, not sure why.

Eventually, you come to a wilderness sign which is not far from Apache Springs.

The trail views deteriorate here, as you are walking through a forest. Still nice of course, but lacking expansive views. The image below was taken at this sign, and is the last open view until you descend part way into Frijoles.

Shortly thereafter, I came to a sign for Apache Springs (GPS: N35 49.478 W106 23.424).

From the trail above, I could see the sign (and warning that the water was non-potable), and some sort of concrete structure below. There was no obvious route to the springs from here, as evidenced by the erosion caused by people descending directly to the sign below from this point in the trail. This was not my destination, so I did not attempt to find a route. However, if you go up the trail a little further, you can double back down the draw to the sign pretty easily. This would be preferable to prevent further erosion damage in the area.

Past this area, you hike up through the bottom of a small canyon, which was dusted with snow on this trip.

After hiking out of this little canyon, you eventually come to the begining of the descent into Frijoles Canyon (GPS: N35 49.520 W106 24.409). If you descend a little ways into the canyon, the view opens up nicely.

Here you can see part of Boundary Peak, as well as the Sandias in the background.

There are some interesting rock formations in the canyon as well.

Because I was short on time, I turned around and returned to the trail head at this point. This turned out to be a nice, short (4.9 mile) hike in Bandelier. Sometime I will have someone drop me off there and I will hike all the way down Frijoles to the visitor center. For more images from this hike, see my photography gallery for this hike.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Valle Grande Trail

Today I went on the short Valle Grande Trail hike. This is one of two hikes in the Valles Caldera preserve that are "spontaneous" hikes, meaning you just show up and hike. You know. Like most of the hikes you ever do. The rest of the hikes require reservations and a van ride to trail heads elsewhere in the park.

So I will digress for a moment to go on a small rant. I have never liked how this park is managed and it is no surprise to me that they don't make much money. This is a beautiful area, but it is ridiculously hard to enjoy. There are only two trails that one can simply hike on without going through through a reservation and van pooling process, neither of which are great hikes (although the Coyote Call trail is much better than Valles Grande trail, but that is because you can climb to an elevated position to clearly overview Valles Grande to the west and the entire Rio Grande Valley to the east -- I will blog about this hike sometime in the future). They could be great hikes, and in this 89,000 acre park there are many hiking possibilities that are unfortunately unavailable to the public. Maybe someday the National Parks Service will take it over and perhaps that will improve matters. I don't know. Enough ranting, I guess. Despite what I consider to be a poor management and access process, this is a beautiful area worthy of exploration. I have not yet attempted to go on one of the reservation hikes, but I will someday as they are probably superior hikes. Despite the fact that I prefer solitude which you don't typically get in a van full of other hikers.

The Valles Grande hike is a very short 1 mile out and 1 mile back hike, leaving from State Road 4 just outside the boundary of Bandelier National Monument (at the top of the area of SR4 known as the "chute" for those from this area). Most of the hike is rather boring, through the forest with little in the way of views. It drops down to close to the floor of the valley, and offers no views of the valley until you are near the end of the hike. The trail is surprisingly rocky, so despite the short distance, a good pair of hiking shoes is recommended (preferably with ankle support). The trail map is shown below. I did not include a profile because this is a short hike which descends only 200 ft in 1 mile.
The view of the valley is beautiful, but frankly only slightly different from the view along the roadway a mile or so from the trail head. The difference is that this trail takes you down to more of a view level with the valley floor than elevated along the road. However, this trail offers the possibility of seeing elk closer than one might from the road. There were probably O(100) elk in the valley today that I could see through binoculars (too far for my 500mm lens). However, on some mornings there is a good chance they would be closer to the end of this trail. It would be worth hiking this trail at night or in the early morning and sit down there and listen to the elk bugle.

The map above marks the apparent end of the trail, but I wandered around a little bit as it was not precisely obvious where the trail ended. It is disappointing that the trail did not go farther, as it would be easy to construct the trail to continue to the north around the rim of the valley and offer different views unobtainable from the road (and perhaps even connect to trails in Los Alamos County). See rant above. The photograph below was taken at the turn around point in my wanderings after the apparent end of the trail.

This valley is a wetland which wildlife use. Cattle are also run here during the summer.

The Valles Grande is certainly one of the most beautiful areas in New Mexico and I highly recommend a visit there. It is a short drive from my backyard. For more photographs from this hike, including a panoramic of the Valles Grande, see my gallery for this hike.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tsankawi: The "Other" Bandelier

On Friday I went for the short loop hike in Tsankawi (pronounced "San-Ka-Wee), which is part of Bandelier National Monument. I mostly did this because there was a prescribed burn going on in Frijoles Canyon, and I was not precisely sure which trails were open. But I knew Tsankawi was, and I had not been there in at least 18 years.

I call Tsankawi the "other" Bandelier because it is a separate unit from the main part of the park, which is some 12 miles from the visitor center in the bottom of Frijoles Canyon. It is located near the busy intersection of State Road 4 and East Jemez Road (East Jemez Road is one of the four routes into Los Alamos County). There are no services at this site, which is essentially just a trail head. There are restrooms there (port-a-potties) and a fee station to purchase an entrance fee to Bandelier that you need to post on your dash (same entry fee will get you into the main Bandelier unit as well; you can also use your national parks pass here). Cars parked there without a displayed pass or receipt will be ticketed as the NPS does patrol this area. On the left side of the trail right after you enter here, there is also a self-guided trail map that is worth picking up before you start out (be sure to drop 0.50 into the slot if you take a trail map/guide).

Tsankawi is an interesting short loop trail that passes through the unexcavated Tsankawi Pueblo ruins, and also passes by numerous petroglyphs and cavates. I have mentioned cavates in this blog before, of course, but in brief, a cavate is a combination of the words "cave" (which is a natural hollow) and "excavate." Therefore, a cavate is a small area carved out of the side of the tuff-encrusted cliffs in this part of the country by ancient inhabitants to protect them from the harsh (summer or winter) elements on the tops of the mesas. This is not a particularly quiet trail until you get up onto the mesa, and then drop back behind the mesa away from the nearby roadways. This can be a popular trail since it is right next to the main road, is short and easy...but it is also true that it is not that well known since it is so far removed from the visitors center.

The image below shows the map of the trail that I walked.

The total distance was 1.9 miles with a tiny elevation gain of 173 ft (trail head starts at 6531 ft elevation).

After a short walk, you encounter the first ladder (GPS: N35 51.677 W106 13.243, pictured at the top of this blog entry). There are three ladders like this on this trail. If you do the loop, one of them is optional as you will see in a moment. On the way to this ladder, I noted several signs of fall.

This first ladder brings up you to the next level of the mesa, but not to the top yet. A short distance beyond the ladder you encounter a fork in the trail (GPS: N35 51.693 W106 13.176). Bear left here and hike up the well worn path in the tuff.
Many areas of the trial along this loop look like this. This is at "trail marker 4" if you use the trail guide picked up at the trail head, but marker 4 is missing on the trail itself.

Once the short climb levels off, you encounter your first petroglyph on the left. It is a well-worn one, a bit difficult to see. In the image below, I adjusted light levels to make it easier to discern.

This is at "trail marker 6" in the trail guide and, right around the corner from this point, you encounter another fork in the trail.
Here you can use a ladder to get the top of the mesa or go up the trail carved into the tuff on the left. Of course I chose the tuff route. Either way, this is the last climb on this trail and it is quite short.

At the top of the mesa, the view is expansive. Pictured below is what is referred to as "The Y" around here, because the roadway coming up from the valley to the east splits into two here, one going up main hill road into the Los Alamos Townsite, and one going to the south into White Rock (also in Los Alamos County).

This entire area is well known for its rock formations and mesas, which are quite unique.

Below is a view toward the west, directly toward Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Los Alamos townsite. The Jemez Mountains serve as the backdrop.

In the image below, one can see Boundary Peak in Bandelier in the distance (see my Cerro Grande and Stone Lions blog entries for more on Boundary Peak).

As you continue on the mesa tops, excellent views abound. To the north west of the mesa, one can see "Duchess Castle." I don't know why it has this name.

This is the remains of a building constructed in 1918 by Madame Vera von Blumenthal and Rose Dungan, which was a home and pottery-making school. There are no trails down to this area.

Shortly beyond this, you arrive at the ruins of Tsankawi.

This is an unexcavated ruin. If you look around, you will see pottery shards on the ground. In some cases, someone piled them on rocks by the trail so you can see them easily.

This pile was found along the trail a little ways past the sign (GPS:N35 51.727 W106 12.915).

Here are some I found just looking around the area, probably unearthed by monsoon rains. If you see any laying around, just leave them where they are.

Here is another pile that someone made near the trail.

If you look closely, you will notice something else on the rocks with the pottery.

As I said, Tsankawi is a completely unexcavated ruin and, as such, looks essentially like a pile of rocks covered with dirt.

This is a very dry area and, as I noted in my Stone Lions blog entry, it must have been difficult to dry farm and survive here. Remarkably, the entire ruin contains 275 ground floors and was one or two stories high. The trail passes over and directly through this ruin and, just before you encounter the other side of the mesa (east side, where you climb down a ladder), you pass by a couple of flat buried stones.

This is a "trail marker 14," and is believed to be part of the remains of an old reservoir. Because it was so dry here, any moisture was a blessing. It is believed that this area served as a small reservoir that would trap rainwater and snow melt off of the roofs of the Tsankawi village immediately uphill to the west.

Shortly after this area is the descent off of the east side of the mesa. Once down the ladder, there are a large number of cavates in the area.

This image shows the ladder on the right used to climb down off of the mesa top. The trail is also visible heading off to the south.

I went inside a cavate just to the north east of the ladder.

Right next to it were some carvings in the side of the tuff cliff, probably part of a roof or other structure for storage.

Many other cavates are visible from here, as are the ancient paths to reach them.

These are below the cavate I was standing in, and I did not climb down to them as they are not on the trail. However, these are.

For more images from this hike, refer to my photography gallery for this hike.

As you continue along the side of the mesa in this area, you can see multiple petroglyphs. Particularly near "trail marker 18" (GPS: N35 51.608 W106 12.840).

Finally, the only wildlife I saw on this trail on this day were lizards (and ground squirrels/chipmunks). The one pictured above, and the one below.

This fellow is growing back his tail which was undoubtedly lost when a bird of prey or some other predator tried to grab him for a quick snack by his tail.

This is a very easy hike with some very interesting geologic and archeological features. A nice area in my backyard.

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.