Saturday, July 11, 2009

San Miguel Fire Update: Visible Flames

The San Miguel fire has been slowly progressing. It is now to the point that I can see the flames from my house as it crawls up toward the Boundary Peak area and towards the Dome Fire of 1996. The photograph above was taken from my backyard with a 500mm lens on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera. The fire observation tower is visible at the top of Boundary Peak, as are some flames of course.

The two images below were taken from the same location with a 1.4x multiplier on the 500mm lens...hence at 700mm.

Finally, the image below is with a 2x multiplier from the same location, hence 1,000mm. ISO was 3200 here due to the reduction of light coming through the optics and the setting sun.

The fire itself is advancing toward the Dome Fire mentioned above (and if you look closely burned trees from that fire are visible on the ridge above the current fire) and the La Mesa Fire of 1977. More information on the fire is available here.

I took the image below just now (9:30pm MDT). It is a bulb exposure (9sec), f4.0, ISO400, at 160mm. It gives a better idea for what has burned and which areas are more active. Also taken from my backyard, but in a different location than the previous photographs.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Smoke on the Horizon

As everyone in this area can now see, there is a small wildfire burning within the Bandelier National Monument border. The above picture was taken this evening from the Frijoles overlook. Bandelier has posted information on this fire and will keep it up to date. The short story is that this is a lightning caused fire that is being managed as a controlled burn.

I thought I smelled smoke Thursday night and saw a light smoke plume from my house on Friday. Turns out the fire started Thursday sometime. We had a bunch of rain here which did not completely put it out, as became more obvious today with a much larger plume of smoke visible to all.

The fire is burning near the San Miguel ruins. The map below shows where those are in relation to other landmarks in the area (look toward the bottom of the image). It is somewhere between 3-4 miles from Alamo Canyon for those that know where that is.

For those interested, follow the links above to keep up with the latest. It is something like 13 miles from the Los Alamos townsite, about 8 miles from the White Rock townsite, and has eyes on. The ranger I talked with said they were happy where lightning stuck, because the area it is burning needs it.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Potential Change in Valles Caldera Management Approach

Senators Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman have written to the National Parks Service Director, asking the agency to access the potential to include the Valles Grande National Preserve in the National Parks System. The park has been managed by a self-governing corporation directed by an independent board of directors. Stories can be found here (Santa Fe New Mexican) and here (, which has a collection of stories).

To me, the current management model was one borne of political compromise to appease a broad set of interest groups all with a different personal interest in the Valles. The charter has been nearly impossible, as all of these (at times) mutually-exclusive interests seek satisfaction: hunting, grazing, recreation, science, preservation. As is usually the case with politically compromised solutions involving committees of people trying to manage something this complex, little progress is made after the initial conditions are agreed upon. In my opinion, that is what has happened here.

I am pleased that the Valles Caldera is as open as it is now, and I am not suggesting that individuals involved in its management are doing a poor job. Under the circumstances, it is probably the best they can do given the compromises and competing interests. I am not in a position to judge them or their actions. However, I do know a poor use of public land when I see one, and this is an obvious example. The potential for this area is incredible, rivaling that of some of our most beautiful National Parks -- many of which I have visited personally and know quite well.

So, I am pleased that our two Senators are asking for an examination of this issue. I am under no allusions that my complaints about how this is currently managed are going to magically disappear if the NPS is managing it because I suspect that any change in management will occur with the same political compromise baggage. However, I hope that the experience of NPS managing lands combined with public pressure for access will build a better management model over time.

In my opinion, the focus of NPS management should be all about access. Access, access, access. Do away with reservation-only hiking! Or at least greatly minimize it to what it is now. Perhaps it is needed during hunting season or something, I don't know, but make this a convienient place visit. Not a chore. Provide significantly opened up access to the public in much the same way other national parks are managed, including Bandelier which is directly physically connected. I would also like to see work connecting trails from Los Alamos county to this area, all of which are blocked now. There is no real work to do here in many cases other than remove the man made barriers that block these connections at present. I want to be able to drive up and hike. Not just the few trails around the perimeter, but those in the back country as well. There is no reason I should not be able to simply show up and hike. Roads already exist, so mountain biking should also be allowed as it is in some other national parks in the country with similar roads already in place. At a minimum I should be able to show up and hike up those roads to reach the other trailheads rather than be forced to ride in a van and schedule my hike accordingly.

I would also like to see this be a resource with information on the NPS website, just like other national parks, with the same quality, consistency, and information. It would help draw people to the area and help the local economy. If the trails were connected from some of the excellent hiking trails in Los Alamos county, it would be a great way to advertise the area with this as a real connection, not an invented one that requires a 25 minute drive and pre-scheduling activities.

I do worry that NPS staffing limitations and whatever initial processes they would have to go through (e.g. NEPA) before they could take it over would actually restrict access more than it is now, at least initially. So the transition would have to be manged such that this does not happen, and also such that there is a tangible opening up of access right away in this transition to build public trust and give the NPS an initial win. The focused intent here should be on public access under the NPS umbrella of resource protection. I have never liked the current management model and have stayed away as a result, with the exception of the trails near the outer boundaries where I can just show up and hike on my schedule. I know many other people with this same view. I hope this study is a sign that this will all change in a relatively short period of time, and not get caught in the political compromise and special interest cycles. That would only serve to provide the same type of access we have now under a different management umbrella.

I plan to write these two Senators about this issue, and support the management change with the caveat of focusing on more public access. If you are moved to do the same, you can email Senator Bingaman and Senator Udall and Representative Ben Lujan.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Guaje Canyon Hike Update

I promised to post a GPS trail with topo map once I got the proper maps installed for the Guaje Canyon hike I took last weekend. The maps came today and I installed them. The trail I took is shown on the map below.

The way points and other information are discussed in the post describing the hike from June 13, 2009 (below).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Guaje Canyon Hike

Yes, I am still alive.

Now that winter is over and our new horse is settled in I finally had time to go for a new hike today and write about it, albeit briefly, here.

Today I decided to try trails closer to the Los Alamos townsite than the White Rock townsite (which is actually where I live). Ironically, all winter long I went to the Pajarito Ski Area to snowboard, but I've never hiked on the trails in that area. Today was the day to change that.

This hike starts from the Pajarito Ski Area parking lot (park across from the Aspen lift). The trailhead (GPS:N35 53.759, W106 23.580) is easy to find, just down the hill and to the right from the parking lot. For a variety of reasons, I do not have topo maps for this area on my GPS at this time. I will rectify that shortly. Once I do, I will post the hike route on the topomap here (as with other hikes). However, for now, I will just put the hike profile below.
As you can see, this is not a particularly difficult hike. Starting elevation is 9,150 ft, and it maxes out at 9,679 ft about 4.2 miles in, a rise of only 529 ft.

The trial heads down an old road, which eventually connects to Pipeline road which takes you into the Los Alamos townsite. However, the road is closed to traffic. There are several forks in the trail in which one can take various cross country ski trails up to the Canada Bonito, or you can stay on the road/trail which is the traditional Canada Bonito trail route. The first of these forks is encountered soon after you start the hike, and climb up a short rise (GPS: N35 53.912 W106 23.279). I think most people tend to take the cross country ski trail route, so I chose to remain on the road figuring I would encounter fewer people and the views looked a bit more promising to me. A good view of the Los Alamos townsite is available from here.

In addition, a good view of the Pajarito Ski Area is also available.

Here, the Lone Spruce, Bunny, and Aspen lifts are visible as are the runs Daisy May, West Mushroom, Lumberyard, Bunny 1&2, and Aspen.

Wildflowers were also in bloom all along the entire hike. Due to the early rains this year, there were a plethora. Normally, June is hot, dry, and windy.

The wild iris, pictured immediately above, is one of my favorites. They were quite abundant all along this trail.

Before long (about 2 miles in), the Canada Bonito (Spanish for "beautiful glade") comes into view (GPS: N35 54.570 W106.23.512).

This area is named appropriately. It is a beautiful glade, reaching high up on the mountain behind it.

At the end of this glade, the trail makes a sharp right turn. You can see the Valles Caldera Preserve boundary from here, but of course there is no route to that wonderful resource from this trail! I have complained on my blog before about how the preserve is managed. Having it completely inaccessible from this trail is stupid beyond belief. What a waste.

As you hike through the glade, you pass the last cross country ski trail fork that connects to the road (which is actually a single track through the Canada Bonito).

After leaving the glade, you climb out and over a saddle and back down, where you encounter the trail head for the Canada Bonito trail on the Pipeline Road side (GPS: N35 55.380 W106 23.636). There is a minimal view of part of the Valles preserve from this area. I also encountered an odd chain link fence and army green gate here, but it was unmarked. I suspected it was a road that lead into the Valles preserve, and so therefore would be blocked down below. However, curiosity got the better of me so down the road I went (it is a simple matter to walk around the gate; it seemed to be present to prevent vehicular traffic). Sure enough, about a half mile or so down the road (and about a 300 ft elevation loss) another gate is encountered with "no tresspassing" signs plastered about. Figures. Another missed opportunity to connect the unique and beautiful Valles Grande with other well known trails in the area. Pity.

Hiking a bit further from the trail head at Pipeline Road, another trail fork is encountered. I believe this is the connection of the Canada Bonito trail with the Guaje Ridge/Guaje Canyon trail and Pipeline Road (GPS: N35 55.456 W106 23.543). I took the left fork here to maintain some closeness to the Valles area. A little further down the trail was a good view of the north western portion of the Valles Grande (GPS: N35 55.487 W106 23.537).

Just a little further is yet another fork in the trail, right staying on Pipeline Road/Guaje Ridge and the left heading toward Guaje Canyon, which was my destination. The sign indicates the canyon is 2 miles ahead, which turned out to be pretty accurate.

By far the best views of the northwest portion of the Valles Grande on this trail lie about 0.5 miles beyond this point (GPS: 35 56.141 W106 23.755). It is in this area where the image at the top of this blog post was taken, as well as the ones below. On the way back, I perched on one of the rocks on at the top of the cliff and had a snack.

From here, the hike to the Guaje Canyon overlook is a nice stroll through the woods, with limited views. However, at the end of the trail (or where I turned around anyway), the overview of the canyon is nice.

Note here you can see a mix of burned areas due to the Cerro Grande fire, and areas that were not burned. By the way, I could not find a good translation for "guaje." As near as I can tell, it refers to a gourd in some way (a native squash in the area).

It is possible to descend into the canyon from this area, but I decided not to attempt it today. It is a necessary step, however, to reach the Caballo trail (caballo means "horse" in Spanish).

The Caballo mountain summit (pictured above) is 10,496 ft, but is not accessible as it is on Santa Clara Pueblo land. However, the Caballo trail takes you to the base of the meadow in the above picture, some 2,000 ft above the floor of Guaje canyon. This is a hike for another day.

I plan to do more hiking in this area, which I have not explored previously. This was a nice warm up hike for the season, coming late into the season unfortunately.

Additional photographs from this hike can be found in my photo gallery ( I will post the photographs within a couple hours or so after posting this blog entry (it takes longer to process and upload higher resolution photographs).