Tag Archives: west

A four day weekend goes a ways out west

You can do a lot in a four day weekend in the west. We visited White Sands National Monument, Chiricahua National Monument, the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, and Petrified Forest National Park.

The pictures can say more than me. And I’m already a day late on this post! When I updated my operating system, my entire photo preview collection got eaten. Poor computer has been slaving around the clock since I discovered that yesterday. No data lost, but lots of work for compy and about 300 gigs of disc space that’s in limbo. Remember to back up your libraries!

National Monuments in New Mexico

Of the 117 designated national monuments in the United States, 14 of them are in New Mexico, second only to Arizona.  When I moved here in June, I dreamt of Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon and the mountains of Colorado. But I am learning what wonders my own state contains. All are 5 hours or less from Albuquerque, and 8 of them are among the 20 least visited national monuments in the country.

The national monuments here vary wildly. There’s anthropology at the Gila Cliff Dwellings in the mountainous southwest (discovered by a man shirking jury duty). There’s a 17th century Spanish Mission at Salinas Pueblo Missions in the eastern grasslands. There are miles of white gypsum dunes at White Sands, which also doubles as a bombing range.  There’s Petroglyph National Monument on the west of Albuquerque, with canyons full of ancient drawings.

The western landscape expands your vocabulary. You can see a slot canyon and hoodoos, or oddly-shaped rock columns 75 feet in height, at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks. In addition to the lava fields and caves of El Malpais, you can check out the tinajas, dents that hold water after rain and bloom sporadically with life, in the sandstone bluffs. Anywhere you find sandstone you might find tafoni, or small and intricate erosion patterns.

So I’m slowing traveling to the national monuments of New Mexico, camera in hand. I’ve visited Petroglyphs, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, and El Malpais.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks

Tent Rocks is named for its rocks that resemble tents, which tower 75 feet. The excellent “slot canyon trail” takes you through a slot canyon, by the hoodoos, and to a viewpoint overlooking the hoodoos; the viewpoint also provides panoramas of New Mexico scrub and the Valles Caldera. The other trail, the Cave Loop Trail, is an easy enough walk but not very interesting. Tent Rocks is a fairly small and recently established national monument. It’s easy to reach from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, with good quality roads.

If you visit Tent Rocks in the summer, get there early. We went in July and arrived at 9 AM and it was hot at the end. Other than the summer heat and rain, Tent Rocks is a great year-round destination. It is fairly popular and gets bus tours on summer weekends.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Sandstone hoodoos in Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Slot canyon.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais translates to “the bad country.” The park has two branches which follow lava fields, which you can see easily on the satellite image of the park. Highway 117 traces the eastern edge and features sandstone bluffs, the second-largest natural arch in New Mexico, and lava fields. Highway 53 traces the west and features volcanic caves and ice caves, although many of the best features are reached only by dirt road. This weekend, I visited the sights along highway 117.

The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook area is great. The light and bright sandstone really stands out against the black fields of lava below. To the north, you can see Mt. Taylor, an inactive volcano. Dents in the sandstone, tinajas, are common on the bluff tops. Though it hadn’t rained much before we went, some still contained water and one had ice at midday.

La Ventana arch, just off the road, is the next stop south. This time of year, the north-facing arch seemed to be in shadow all day. I plan to visit again in April or May, when the light might be better but before the crushing summer heat.

The last stop south is the Lava Falls Area, which features a 1 mile hike through Pahoehoe lava. This is smoother and easier underfoot than most of the lava in the park. The Lava Falls Area is only 3000 years old, extremely young in geological terms, and some of the youngest lava in the lower 48.

In mid November, crowds were no issue. We went on a nice November day and were quite comfortable, even with the altitude. In the Lava Falls Area, it was bordering on warm, with all that black stone everywhere. I suspect much of El Malpais would be unbearably hot in the summer. The dirt roads in the western part of the park are impassable with snow, so the best seasons for El Malpais are fall and late spring.

"A tinaja is a bedrock depression that fills with water during the summer monsoonal rains and when snowfall accumulates in the winter. These microhabitats spring to life when the baked-dry stone basins fill with seasonal water." -From the National Park Service El Malpais website. Sandstone Bluffs Overlook in El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico.

A tinaja in the sandstone bluffs, looking north to Mount Taylor. Below to the left are the lava fields.

Sandstone formations at Sandstone Bluffs Overlook in El Malpais

Lava Falls Area at El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico.

Lava Falls Area at El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico. The lava here has several textures, but my favorite is this ropy, viscous one.

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument is on the west side of Albuquerque. I realize only now that I didn’t bring my DSLR camera on this trip, but the picture below shows even a cell phone can capture the petroglyphs well. There are three sites in Petroglyph, all easy to reach. The most popular site, Boca Negra, requires some uphill hiking. The two canyons supposedly require less. Like El Malpais, the rock is black and volcanic (though older), and it gets hot in the summer.

In Petroglyphs, you can visit the Three Sisters volcanoes on the western mesa. These three cinder cones are remarkably small, but due to their position atop the mesa are visible from the whole city. Hiking the Three Sisters is still on my to-do list, but I suspect the views back toward the city and the Sandia Mountains are pretty great.

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Petroglyph at Boca Negra site

Getting Lost in the Devil’s Garden

The sun was falling on the primitive trail of Devil’s Garden in Arches National Park in Utah. The sandy trail was damp from heavy rain the day before, but the sky was bright and blue above. The last traces of golden hour set the massive red rocks around us aflame. We could turn back and repeat the scrambling and climbing that brought us to our current place or we could go forward on the loop, which looked sandy and tame. We had read that the primitive trail was a 3.5 mile loop– we thought from the trailhead. Rather, it was from the main trail. So when we chose to keep going on the easy-looking sand, it was for several more miles than we bargained for.

The sun dimmed, and the sand yielded to climbing and rock scrambles. Arches rock is sandstone called slickrock. At Arches National Park, people crawl and climb over every arch and rock fin. It can be a challenge to photograph an arch without including some neon-clad idiot. So normally slickrock isn’t slick. But the rain-damped sand stuck to our shoes and acted as a lubricant, like sand on a shuffleboard table. We chose the sandy path because the rocky path to this point had been a challenge. And with even less chance of turning back, we were facing it again.

At one point, we slid down a 10 foot slope into some branches at the bottom. If you missed the branches, your slide would be longer and steeper. There were other shorter slides. It was like nature’s playground.

Then we came to a point where you must cross a ledge above a drop off. By ledge, I mean a slight bowing in the side of a rock fin. Twilight was setting in. My husband scooted across and warned me that the ledge was slick. I sat down and scooted, my camera bag bulging over the drop, skewing my center of balance. I inched along. My foot slipped. I darted forward, not at all steady. I was across the ledge. I looked back. If I had slipped, I would have slid rather than fallen, but down a 20 foot, 60 degree incline with prickly trees at the bottom. I imagined myself trapped in back country with a twisted ankle and no food and water for a night. It seemed less like a playground then.

Night fell. Thankfully, it was a clear night with a bright moon; our only other lights were the flashlights on our iPhones. There were more scrambles, though none as bad as the ledge. The trail was marked with small piles of rocks.

At one point, we missed a pile marking. We turned down a canyon. It was easy and first, and covered with footprints, a good sign. But it grew narrower and rockier, and the footsteps disappeared. I slipped and banged my camera bag. Yesterday, I discovered that I dislodged the front glass piece on my favorite lens with that jolt. Humph.

The canyon ahead was even narrower, and we wondered when we last saw a rock pile. We back-tracked. At the entrance to the canyon, we saw the rock pile. We had been lost, but we were back. Unfortunately, the marker lay beyond a massive puddle. At least in back country Arches, we were pretty confident that there wasn’t much living in that red muddy murk. The puddle was surrounded by steep rock–we hoped it wasn’t too deep, opaque as it was. Tree branches poked up from the water. We hoped they were sitting on the bottom rather than floating, but it was hard to tell. We tried to scoot around the periphery. My husband slipped. The water was up to his knees. We waded through, grateful it was that shallow.

Finally, the trail settled down, and we walked through a grassy prairie. The stars came out; the milky way stretched over red rocks and prairie. Here and there, a shooting star flashed. We walked stiffly back to the main trail. Then we drove to Moab and got sushi, a bit more sandy than usual, our shoes still squishing with water. It was a victory meal.

It was a good adventure. We didn’t slip or fall and the pictures turned out beautifully. Next time I’ll be more careful reading the distance markings, though, and respect slickrock after rain. The rest of my shots from that day are on Flickr. Other than my pitfalls, mostly caused by my lack of caution, I’d highly recommend this hike. I felt very wild and saw such beautiful things.

The view after all that twilight struggle, a hand-held star shot. A pretty delightful reward.

The view after all that twilight struggle, a hand-held star shot. A pretty delightful reward.

Fins of red rock. Later we got a little lost amongst all those massive parallel slabs.

Fins of red rock. Later we got a little lost amongst all those massive parallel slabs.

Amongst the red fins.

Amongst the red fins.

Partition Arch in Devil's Garden.

Partition Arch in Devil’s Garden.

The red rock fins and the La Sal Mountains. Though I didn't love the night hike, I'm so glad for the gorgeous golden hour shots I got.

The red rock fins and the La Sal Mountains. Though I didn’t love the night hike, I’m so glad for the gorgeous golden hour shots I got.

Double O Arch, just before we went off onto the primitive trail. I'm so glad I got to see it in such a beautiful state.

Double O Arch, just before we went off onto the primitive trail. I’m so glad I got to see it in such a beautiful state.

Golden hour play!

Golden hour play!

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is between  Santa Fe and Albuquerque. It’s only about a 3 mile hike, with only 600 feet in elevation rise. If you want to visit Tent Rocks, arrive early, before the heat and the tour groups, and bring lots of water.

At Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, you hike through a limestone slot canyon. Up above, there are formations of the most unusual shapes– some are like tents, some are like upraised fists, and some are like petrified dunes. It[s a testament to the power of wind and water in the west. My sorest muscle after this hike was my neck– from craning at all the great scenery.

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Welcome to the west

I’m back online as of this week, after driving across 10 states in a compact car with my husband and two cats. I come to you now from the west, and it’s hot! This week I will get back to my regular schedule of posting writing prompts on Thursdays and regular posts on Mondays.

For the last month, I’ve been packing, unpacking, driving, assembling furniture, and creating spreadsheets of the dimensions of my furniture. I’ve been struggling all day to come up with a good topic for today’s post;  my brain is still in moving mode, uncreative but good at spatial organization. But as with writing prompts, the key to getting back into things is to start. So with this post I’m starting!

Some brief thoughts on the west:

  • Low humidity is nice. Yesterday the high was 102, but I went on a two-hour bike ride from 10-12 and did not evaporate. The humidity is 9% right now.
  • Hooray for southwestern cuisine. Charlottesville was big on the locovore movement, but that’s more about ingredients than combinations. St. Louis has its lovely paste cheese and transcendent toasted ravioli, but these are specific dishes. Here we have words for food that I have to look up: calabacitas, fideos, sopapilla, adovada, posole… Here there is an entirely different kind of food rather than a few different dishes.
  • I’m back in the land of gridded roads! Charlottesville has a handful of through streets. Windy, narrow through streets. For a town of its size, the traffic is insane. If you choose to bike, you can choose between 45 mph rural country highways with no shoulder or bike lanes placed thoughtfully between moving cars and parked cars on said over-crowded urban streets. My bike gathered cobwebs in Charlottesville.
  • Western mountains are neat. Yes, Charlottesville had mountains. Ancient, sanded mountains covered with forests. Here we have big craggy mountains. Mountains that make hikers go missing, mountains of extinct volcanos.
  • Things seem close, but they aren’t, but they kind of are. Charlottesville is 2.5 hours from DC, and 6 hours from NYC. That drive to NYC is 6 hours of eastern aggression hell. Thank goodness for the train. Here, all the cities are 6 hours away at least. But that’s 6 hours of calm, flat road. I’m looking forward to exploring the west.

Photography in the American West

This week I visited Moab, Utah. I stand-up (and fall-down) paddled on the Colorado River during a thunderstorm, I hiked in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and I stargazed. Most of all, I ravenously took pictures.

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Delicate Arch from across a gorge in Arches National Park

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Landscape Arch in Arches National Park

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National ParkMesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

Green River overlook in Canyonlands National Park

Green River overlook in Canyonlands National Park

Milky Way over the red rocks in the Colorado River valley

Milky Way over the red rocks in the Colorado River valley

The Colorado River valley

The Colorado River valley

Park Avenue in Arches National Park

The Gossips in Arches National Park

The Gossips in Arches National Park
Arches National Park

Arches National Park