Saturday, April 26, 2008

Shrine of the Stone Lions

See more photographs of this hike at my gallery on this hike.

I have lived here for more than 20 years and have never hiked out to the fairly well known Stone Lions in Bandelier National Monument. I don't know why. However, last Friday (4/26/2008) was my day to change that.

I have hiked many times in various places in Bandelier, and I plan to have several blog entries as I go along about those hikes. So this won't be my only Bandelier National Monument (abbreviated BNM from now on) entry, that's for sure, since it is just minutes from my backyard.

The Hike
The round trip distance for this hike from the visitor center is about 13 miles. I did this as a day hike, as many do. However, some also do an overnighter in the back country which makes this an easier hike and also allows for exploration of other areas past Alamo Canyon. Some of the information out there in books or the web will warn you that is is a hard day hike, a real grind, and so on. It is strenuous due to the traverse of Alamo Canyon, but doable. Below is the full map of the hike I did.

The hike profile (one way, from the visitor center to the stone lions) is below. I will talk more about the ascents and descents as I get there. As with most of my descriptions, it will be a running narrative with photos from the beginning of the hike.
I started off at about 8:30am. I did not note the temperature, but it was chilly and I wore a fleece jacket which I did not discard until I got to the stone lions. As usual, I carried my camera backpack with lenses, tripod, water, and so on. As I often do in BNM, I started this hike climbing immediately out of Frijoles Canyon near the visitor center (GPS: N35 46.739 W106 16.326). This section climbs approximately 467 ft in about 0.63 miles. So it is a nice warm up. Frijoles (Spanish for beans) Canyon is the main canyon in BNM where most everyone goes. This is where the visitor center is, and easy walks on paved trails to various archaeological sites. There are two trails that lead to the south rim of the canyon in this area. One is the direct ascent route and the other is a more gradual pack trail ascent west of the direct route. I prefer the direct ascent. It climbs away from the other visitors quickly and the views from the rim are nice. I did use the pack trail on the return, however. Easier on the feet and knees after long hike.

The sign at the trailhead stated that Yapashi Pueblo was 5.2 miles ahead. Yapashi is en route to the stone lions from this direction. None of the newer signs in BNM even mention the stone lions. Only the older very weathered signs do and, even then, don't tell you where they are. They just give general directional information.

Once on top of Frijoles Canyon, there are some nice and unique views of the ruins below that few that visit Bandelier enjoy.

There are several places along the rim to view the ruins and canyon walls below along this section of the hike.

After about 0.3 miles after ascending to the south rim of Frijoles, you encounter Frijolito ruins (GPS: N35 46.779 W106 16.607). This is an unexcavated area that looks like little more than out of place mounts of dirt.
Once past these ruins, the trail shys away from the canyon edge, so you lose sight down into the canyon at this point. As I continued along, I noticed that the NPS is doing a lot of clearing of bug kill pine and pinon trees in this area. As I have mentioned before, the desert southwest went through several years of drought and that, combined with a serious infestation of bark beetles, killed 90-98% of the pinon and pine trees in this entire area. I live on a little over 4 acres of land which used to be filled with pine, juniper, and pinon. The only trees left living in my yard are juniper trees. The only surviving pine and pinon trees are the ones right next to my house that I kept watered. I could not water the hundreds elsewhere on my property. This >90% mortality rate was seen all over the southwest. Juniper is about the only thing that survived, and is certainly the only living tree type along this portion of the trail.

Boundary peak as seen from the south rim of Frijoles Canyon.

About 0.7 miles after Frijolito ruins, you come to the pack trail back to the visitor's center (GPS: N35 47.143 W106 17.191). This is the other way you can get to the top of Frijoles in this area, but it misses the views I mentioned above. I took this trail back to the visitor's center on my return, however. It is a more gradual descent. Just beyond this point (GPS: N35 47.170 W106 17.215, labeled "trail fork" on the map above), you come to a fork in the trail. Here, you can continue along the rim of Frjoles to upper crossing, or head to mid-Alamo Canyon and Yapashi Pueblo (and the Stone Lions).

Lumis Canyon

About 1.2 miles past the fork in the trail and the above sign, you encounter Lumis canyon, one of the 4 canyons you must traverse en route to the lions. Lumis, at least at this upper end, is a small canyon as can be seen in the map detail. Although small, it is a pretty canyon. I have never seen water in this canyon, but there are clear signs that water is found there in the right conditions. I suspect only after significant rainfall during the monsoonal season or in early spring during snow melt.

Here are a couple of pictures of Lumis.

In the Lumis area, I also encountered a small group of female mule deer, a common sight in these parts.

Finally, while hiking out of Lumis, I heard the most remarkable bird singing. It sounded like a plaintive cry. It started high and crescendoed down in pitch and volume, and would start over again. Almost like an echo.

Alamo Canyon
Leaving Lumis Canyon, you break out into a meadow. This shows signs of beetle infestation, but not all of the pine trees have died as seen below. Boundary Peak can be seen in this image, and Alamo Canyon lies dead ahead.
As you approach the north rim of Alamo Canyon, the view opens up. In the image below, you can clearly see the expansive valley beyond Pajarito Plateau, to Sandia Peak to the south. Sharp eyes will be able to see Cochiti Pueblo on the right side of the image, and Cochiti lake and dam in the center.
The image above was taken near the beginning of the ascent into Alamo Canyon from the north side (GPS: N35 45.974 W106 18.180). Alamo is the hardest part of this hike. The map shows the segment of the hike from rim to rim. Alamo is a beautiful and deep canyon. Even if you don't want to descend into and then out of it to see the sights beyond, it is worth the approximate 4 mile journey from the visitor center to the north rim just to see it.

This image was taken on the north rim, looking toward lower Alamo Canyon (approximately south east). If you look closely, you can see the trail leading to the south rim of the canyon in the image below. This is a slightly more gradual ascent than the one to the north rim.

This image was taken from the same spot, but looking north west, toward upper Alamo Canyon.

This is partway down the descent from the north rim.

The bottom of Alamo is not dry until later in the spring or early summer, depending on snowpack conditions. At this time of year, there is running water in the bottom. However, later on in the year, don't count on it. Be sure to bring plenty of your own water with you.

As you can see, Alamo also has tent rock formations in several places, although they are not as large and impressive as those at Tent Rocks National Monument, which is near the Cochiti Pueblo.

After descending from the north rim, you walk through the bottom of the canyon, crossing the stream twice, then you ascend to the south rim (GPS: N35 45.517 W106 17.990). This ascent is an elevation gain of about 458 ft in about 0.43 miles. From there, you hike toward Yapashi Pueblo, crossing one more small canyon en route.

The south side of Alamo is noticeably more desert like. There are no pine trees to speak of (except for the occasional small pine tree that was beetle killed), more cactus, and not much grass. It made me wonder why anyone would have settled here given the lack of natural resources, including water.

Before reaching Yapashi, another fork in the trail is encountered (labeled "Trail Fork 2" in the above map, GPS: N35 45.489 W106 18.481). Here you will find a newer sign that points the direction for Yapashi, or back to the visitor's center. However, another trail leads to the south east and an older sign reads "lower alamo trail." This takes you to lower Alamo and eventually back to Frijoles, emerging near the rim of that canyon near the
Frijolito ruins.

Yapashi Pueblo
Yapashi Pueblo (GPS: N35 45.686 W106 18.932) is another unexcavated site, this time of an entire pueblo with fallen walls covered in dirt and, interestingly enough, Cane Cholla Cacti. You see these cactus plants periodically along the way, but this is the largest concentration that I saw. I don't know why this was so prevalent in this particular area. Perhaps these people gathered them to use them for various things, thus leaving more seeds in this area to grow once the walls fell. I arrived at the Yapishi site at about 11:30am.

As I stood there among the ruins of this long gone pueblo, I could not help but view the Cane Cholla cactus as ghosts of the past inhabitants. Silent guardians of a civilization past.

I am looking forward to an overnighter in this area some time so I can get dawn and dusk images, with perhaps some clouds in the sky for an even greater effect.

Just a short jaunt (about 0.5 miles) west of Yapashi are the stone lions.

The Shrine of the Stone Lions
There seems to be little information out there about this shrine (GPS: N35 45.921 W106 19.310), its origin, or even its precise location. I don't know why, but I suspect this is a mechanism for protecting it to a certain degree. This is a shrine still in use by some local Native Americans, and nothing should be disturbed at this site. Please respect it and the people that use it.
I would speculate that the stone lions were carved by the original inhabitants of the area as part of a hunting ritual. Evidence of some use is present today. I found pottery shards, obsidian pieces, turquoise pieces, and even a piece of sea shell someone had left on or near the lions when I visited.
The shell (on top of the right lion) looked like part of a common mussel shell. Since New Mexico is over 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean, I don't know what the story is with that "artifact." It obviously meant something to someone.

As can be seen in the photograph opening this entire blog entry, the stone lions are surrounded by a ring of rocks with one entrance. I don't know if these rocks were added by the carvers of the lions or not. It is quite a striking shrine, however.

The lions point about 120 degrees to the east/south east. The lions are of course quite eroded, but you can still make them out fairly well. The lion on the left has a more defined face than the one on the right. From behind, you can see their tails quite well.
I sat here for a while in the silence and had a snack, and thought about the long-dead civilization that had created this site. I wondered if someday someone would wander around the remains of our civilization and ponder the people that used to live there. Nothing is permanent, no matter how permanent it may seem. Surely these inhabitants thought their civilization would endure forever too, right? What about looking at this in the small? What to the ruins of our own little civilizations say about us? Past relationships, jobs, organizations, teams, projects, and so on. What lessons do we learn from them?

The Return

The shrine itself is right at the "triangle," a confluence of the trails in the area. This sign points out one can hike to the painted cave, dome lookout to the south, upper crossing to the north. These hikes will have to wait for another day.

Obviously, the main feature of the return hike is the descent and ascent of Alamo Canyon. The ascent to the north rim of Alamo is a steep climb, rising 578 ft in 0.67 miles. The steepest portion rises 515 ft in 0.35 miles. This is a very hot hike in the summer. At the time of year I went, it was comfortable. But be sure to take plenty of water.

I arrived at the north rim of Alamo at about 1:50pm, and I stopped there for a quiet rest, enjoying the view of the canyon. I particularly enjoyed the sound of rushing air as the canyon swallows would whoosh by at high speed. They would dart by me, rapidly changing direction before impact with me or the canyon walls. Amazing. After a while, it seemed that they were playing a game of chicken with me. At times, they sounded like rubber bands flying past my ears. If you can imagine that.

I sat there for a while. I noticed that I started thinking about heading back and making "good time" getting back and so on. Why? That is not the point. This is not a race. I forced myself to sit quietly for a while longer. It was nice to hear the sound of the wind whistling through the canyon, and the sound of the bubbling stream some 580 ft below me. I looked down on a raven flying high about the canyon floor. I am home.

I reluctantly left the north canyon rim. I retraced my steps all the way back to the pack trail on the south Frijoles Canyon rim (GPS:
N35 47.143 W106 17.191) where I descended into Frijoles and returned to the visitor center. I got back to my car at about 3:30pm. So with the photography, note taking and so on, it was a 7 hour day hike.

Normally I see no one on this hike. At least not to Alamo, which is as far as I had gone in the past. This time I passed someone ascending to the north rim as I was descending it (a solo male, like me). Then I passed a couple descending the south rim as I was ascending. Finally, on my way back, I passed another couple heading back to toward the visitor center after Lumis. This is by far the most people I have seen on this hike. I also passed more mule deer on my way back, again past Lumis. Probably the same group I saw in the morning, just more of them.

This was a very enjoyable way to spend a day. For more photographs of this hike, see my gallery.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mortandad Canyon

For more photographs from this area, see my photo gallery from this hike.
Cavate and petroglyphs in Mortandad Canyon

Mortandad Canyon starts inside one of the main technical areas of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) at an elevation of about 7,420 feet in the western part of the Pajarito Plateau. It heads approximately east on LANL property, petering out a couple of miles west of the boundary between LANL and San Ildefonso Pueblo. I hike a couple of miles down this canyon occasionally at lunch time since I work in the TA-3 area of LANL. These little lunchtime hikes do not reach the sites discussed here, however, as they are on the opposite end of the canyon (the eastern terminus of the canyon, essentially). The canyon drains onto Pueblo property, and into the Rio Grande basin generally, and is therefore subject to sampling of wildlife and water on a regular basis by LANL, looking for contamination from LANL legacy operations.

As near as I can tell, the word "mortandad" is a Spanish word that translates to great mortality implying a number of victims. I don't know how the canyon got its interesting name. However, the canyon contains a number of very interesting cavates with petroglyphs in them from ancient inhabitants of this area. Because this land lies within the LANL boundary, and is completely fenced off, these caves are protected (more so than the Red Dot trail petroglyphs, which are open to the general public year round). Occasionally, the laboratory opens the fence allowing controlled access to Mortandad Canyon area over a weekend. The lab stations employees at the sites to watch over them (and to give informative talks about them), and the public can hike to the sites and examine what is there.

In May, 2007, the laboratory did just that -- opened the area for public access for a brief period of time. Despite being here for more than 20 years, this was the first time I entered this area, which is only minutes from my house. The hike is sort and easy. There is a very small climb at the beginning, but the canyon at this end is broad and shallow. I did not have a GPS with me, but I would estimate the round trip distance of the hike to be about 2 miles.

Mortandad Canyon, looking east.

Another view of the Canyon, with a bark beetle destroyed pine tree on the left.

There are a number of cavates in the canyon, some with petroglyphs, some without.

View of the canyon from inside a cavate (this one contained no petroglyphs).

The cavates containing petroglyphs, and accessible on foot, are protected by a large steel cage bolted to the rock and locked. The five images below are shot through that cage with a flash (there is a large enough hole in the cage to insert a camera, so the cage itself does not appear).

As you can see, the petroglyphs here are quite stunning, with lots of detail that has been preserved extremely well. Being inside a cavate, they are not exposed to the harsh sun and other element and are also inside the perimeter of LANL which offers protection from humans.

The cavate and petroglyph in the image below (and at the top of this blog entry) is not protected by a cage because it is impossible to reach on foot. I took this image with a 70-200mm zoom lens.

In addition to the ancient artifacts, the canyon has a number of interesting rock formations as well.

Natural Arch

Interesting formations

Mortandad canyon is a very interesting little jewel in my backyard.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Red Dot and Blue Dot Trails in White Rock

To see more of my photography from this area, see this gallery.

The Red Dot trail head can be found along Pierda Loop in White Rock. It is a well marked trail head in the middle of a housing development. The trail drops more than 800 ft into White Rock Canyon, through which the Rio Grande runs. Along the trail you can see petroglyphs, springs, a water fall, and the Rio Grande river. The trail connects with the Blue Dot trail which starts at the White Rock Overlook end. See the wikipedia entry for White Rock for more information.

I've hiked this trail many times, but the hike on 4/11/2008 is described here.

Trail Options and What I Did
One can easily start at the Overlook end and hike down to the river and hook up with the Red Dot trail and hike out on the Pierda Loop end, or start on the Pierda Loop end and hike down the Red Dot trail, connect with the blue dot trail by the river, and return to the Overlook end. Unfortunately, either of these routes either require a shuttle car at one end or the other, or one must either walk through White Rock or retrace the same trail (ascent and descent) to return to your vehicle. The distance between the Red Dot trail head along Pierda Loop and the Blue Dot trail head at Overlook is approximately 6 miles or so through town (i.e., not along the trail). If you cannot drop a car at one end and have someone drop you off at the opposite trail head, one option is to place a bike at one end and a car at the other.

In my case, neither was an option on this particular day. So I hiked down the Red Dot trail, crossed to the Blue Dot trail, then hiked along the Blue Dot trail until the Overlook was in sight. Then I turned around and re-traced my steps to the Red Dot trail, out of the canyon, and to my car. More on that below.

The ascent/descent on the Red Dot trail is much stepper, rockier, and more difficult to find than the Blue Dot trail, on which people on horseback are occasionally seen. First time hikers may wish to start on the Overlook end (Blue Dot) and hike to the falls from there, and return the same way. However, the views are a bit better from the Red Dot Trail end, and the trip to the falls shorter (but steeper).

The map below shows the route I took, along with some way points along the way which I will describe below.

Description of Hike
The hike starts from Pierda Loop and quickly leads to a beautiful overlook of White Rock Canyon.

The Rio Grande River is some 890 ft below. As can be seen from the picture above, this is a desert climate. However, the hike actually has quite a bit of water. More so than is apparent when you set out.

From this point overlooking the canyon (GPS: N35 48.585 W106 12.043), the hike very rapidly descends toward the river. The hike profile is shown below.

You will eventually drop 898 feet in about 0.9 miles, but the most rapid drop (and ascent on return) is in the first 0.62 miles, where you drop 770 feet. It is short, but steep (see profile above). The trail is difficult to follow in places, and is marked by red spray painted dots on the rocks along the way (hence the name of the trail).

As can be seen from the photograph, there is no shade along this portion of the trail. Bring plenty of water. This is a very hot hike in the summer. The time of year I went it was quite pleasant (in fact, it snowed about 2 inches that night!).

The following photographs were taken along the stretch of the hike prior to the falls.

The Waterfall
The waterfall (GPS: N35 48.143 W106 11.722) is small, but beautiful and quite unexpected (if you ignore the sound of rushing water as you approach the falls from behind). The water falls approximately 7 feet and, as can be seen from the pictures below, it is a dual falls.

The Rio Grande lies a few hundred feet to the south east of this water fall.

The Rio Grande
There are several "trails" at the bottom of the canyon. The most obvious one will lead you to the river bank. The image below shows the route from the falls that I took to the Rio Grande. The labeled "fork" in the trail is actually a junction. You pass that junction to get to the river. You take the junction to transition to the blue dot trail. More on this below.
Once at the river bank, you can enjoy the view of the Rio Grande, a muddy river at this point in its journey. Do not attempt to drink water out of this river, even treated. You can drink the water from the springs along the creek on this trail with suitable treatment and filtering, but not from the Rio Grande itself.

From here, I retraced my steps to the fork in the trail, at which time I took the fork and crossed the stream and continued along the now blue dot trail toward the east (in the map image above, it is up and then to the right). The upper loop on the trail leading back to the waterfall is the path I took on my return, after I turned around. As I said, there are several crisscrossing trails in this area.

The Petroglyphs
There are numerous petroglyphs along this trail, in particular on the walls of the canyon. Many miss these due to the need to carefully watch footing during the steep ascent or descent. There is one area in particular near the river that has multiple petroglphys that you can walk right up to. This is marked on the map above (GPS: N35 48.392 W106 11.408). Some pictures follow. If you look at the map image at the top of this blog entry, you will see a loop to these petroglyphs. This is not a marked trail and, in fact, is not a trail at all. It is just the path I took to get there.

Unfortunately, some of these rocks now have combinations of people trying to make their own petroglyphs on these rocks as well as those of the genuine, ancient, variety. Careful study of the rocks will indicate which is which. I leave it to the viewer to discern this for themselves. These artifacts are not within the boundary of the nearby Bandelier National Monument, so do not have formal protection from the National Parks Service. Too bad, because some of these are quite interesting. I have only indicated with GPS coordinates those pictured above which are mingled with the graffiti. I leave it to the hiker to discover the many others along the trail on their own.

Finally, along the bottom of the canyon are many dead and dried up millipedes this time of year. Soon, this area will be crawling with new millipedes. Something to consider when camping in the area (there are several campsites at the bottom of the canyon). The dead one below is approximately 4 inches long, about average. When they are alive, they are a brown color.
Rattle snakes are also common, but I spotted none on this hike.

Turn Around and Ascent
Below I repeated the map image of the entire hike that appeared at the top of this blog entry. The red marker indicates my turn around point.

The blue dot trail follows along the bottom of the canyon, coming near the Rio Grande in several places, and eventually ascends to the top of the canyon and emerges at Overlook Park in White Rock. Once I could see the Overlook area from the trail, I turned around and retraced my steps (with some other loops taken, such as the one near the falls).

The ascent of Red Dot takes scrambling and trail finding skills.

Round trip for this hike was about 5 miles.