Onward to New Mexico

Travel is still the most intense mode of learning.

~Kevin Kelly

After leaving Arkansas, we headed toward Palo Duro State Park in the panhandle of Texas. We had learned of this canyon from a couple camped near us at Natchez Trace State Park in TN (they were moving from TX to KY and had brought their pet dogs and birds with them and had a separate outdoor enclosure at the campsite for their birds, so, naturally, i had to ask some questions). They said Palo Duro was a beautiful canyon worthy of a visit. It’s a long drive from AR so we spent a night at a forgettable state park in Oklahoma (our first couple of state park visits really made me appreciate even more the beautiful and well-maintained state parks back in North Carolina). Melissa steered us toward a couple more wildlife refuges and we once again, had some great birds (including more Scissor-tailed Flycatchers) at Sequoyah NWR in OK.

A Dicksissel singing by the roadside (click photos to enlarge)
A male Indigo Bunting with some lingering molt splotchiness
This refuge provided us with another round of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers near the road. This is a male (note the bright side colors and very long tail).
Another quick shot of one in flight (he dove to the ground for an insect).

I’m beginning to think I understand Texans a bit more now after visiting the exhibits at Palo Duro (they are really proud of Texas, and everything is better there). This canyon is deemed the second largest canyon in the United States (only Grand Canyon is bigger they say). After visiting and googling a bit, I think it is the second longest canyon at about 120 miles (you don’t sense that when you visit for as short a time as we did). It certainly is beautiful, and you can actually drive from the rim down to the floor of the canyon in the park. With threatening weather, we snagged an Airbnb on the rim of the canyon just outside the park entrance (a tiny house in an RV Park, this seems to be a trend). The next morning, you could barely see into the canyon due to clouds, wind, and rain, so we headed out with the general thought of heading to some national parks we have never seen – Bryce, Zion, and Capitol Reef.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

We took in two more wildlife refuges without much detour – Buffalo Lake and Las Vegas NWRs. And though the weather was iffy (a mix of sun and clouds and very gusty winds), we managed a few interesting species, including two new ones for us, Lark Buntings and Bullock’s Orioles.

Though we were some distance away in our truck, this Great Horned Owl wasn’t thrilled at our presence
A new species for us, a male Bullock’s Oriole. They were abundant in the scattered groves of Cottonwoods.
Another new species, the Lark Bunting, was seen in small flocks along the fence line

I should mention that we really had no specific itinerary as we went along, other than looking for national forests with what looked like decent dispersed camping, and then hitting some sights along the way, especially areas that had interesting hikes. We usually planned each day no more than one day ahead and often made decisions on the fly, based on what Melissa was finding as she worked her navigation mojo. That is how we ended up heading toward Bandelier National Monument. She saw it was in the general direction we were headed and the images online looked interesting. Plus, the online information mentioned there were Abert’s Squirrels there, and we both really wanted to see one of those tufted-eared rodents (unfortunately, we never saw one).

Looking out at the remaining structures of the village of Tyuonyi of the Ancestral Pueblo people at Bandelier National Monument

We visited the main archeological sites along the Pueblo Loop Trail and then did a side trip to the Alcove House. The village site is down on the valley floor but there are hand dug cavates (cave dwellings) on the face of the cliffs above with stone steps leading to several for easy viewing. The creek is one of the few permanent sources of water in the region, so I can see why the Ancestral Pueblo chose this site – a strip of green in an otherwise parched landscape.

View from below of the Alcove House, an ancient dwelling for an estimated 25 Ancient Pueblo people, high above the floor of Frijoles Canyon
Melissa on one of the four ladders and numerous stone steps used to climb the 140 feet up to the Alcove House

Nearby is Valles Caldera National Preserve, and the online images reminded us of another caldera we love – Yellowstone. So, naturally, we had to head in that direction. We arrived late in the day and saw that this NPS unit has some different rules from the usual park – hunting of elk and turkey is allowed (elk were reintroduced into New Mexico here in the mid-1900’s and this area now has the second largest elk herd in the state), the hours are shorter than most parks, and, as it turned out, they were opening the back country roads to 35 vehicles (first come-first serve) the next morning for the season. So, we went in to the office to get some information, and while were talking to a volunteer, a park vehicle drove up, and out gets a ranger we knew from Yellowstone (she had given our museum groups programs at Old Faithful for several years). She had just started here at Valles Caldera, so it was great catching up and getting a few insider tips.

Our campsite among the boulders in Santa Fe National Forest

Melissa always feels the stress of trying to find just the right campsite – ideally on or near water, high elevation, scenic views, and maybe a combination of meadows and forest. But, even though she researches the maps and satellite images, and looks for online reviews of various areas, you often can’t tell what it is really like until you drive down a potentially bumpy road and see for yourself. We had picked one site that looked good and was on the edge of a steep gorge, but as we stood along what looked like a hiking trail at the edge of the rim, two dirt bikes blasted through the site. Turns out the path was a designated dirt bike trail, so we decided to look elsewhere for a campsite. We finally came upon a forested site surrounded by huge boulders. There were several fire rings, indicating this was a popular spot, so we settled in for the evening.

Without going into too much detail, I’ll share what I saw that afternoon as I was out on “bucket patrol”. As I returned to the truck, walking between two of the boulders, something moved on the ground. It was a very impressive (and totally harmless) Bull Snake about 6 feet in length. I admired its beautiful color and pattern and took a quick video clip as it went on its way.

On our way to this location, we had passed a trailhead along the main road that looked promising, so we headed back down for a look. Being a weekday, it was not very crowded, so we hiked in and we were so glad we did. Las Conchas Trail is an absolutely gorgeous hike along the East Fork of the Jemez River with fantastic rock outcrops and a mix of meadows and conifers all along its length. Elevation here is about 8400 ft but the hike is an easy 4 mile (out and back) stroll with plenty of natural beauty to observe.

Las Conchas Trail, a truly beautiful hike
Small waterfall at the end of the Las Conchas Trail
Rocky Mountain Iris along the trail

The water is crystal clear and allowed us some great fish watching. At a few points along the trail we saw groups of these fish (I believe they are Rio Grande Suckers) in what is probably spawning behavior. Groups of smaller ones (presumably males) in an area, sometimes moving gravel in the stream bottom, and then converging on a larger individual when it would come into the picture (I guess that is a female). We sat at one spot and watched them for about 20 minutes as they glided back and forth in the creek.

The next morning we were in line at the gate of Valles Caldera to secure one of the back country road passes. Most of the people in line were fishermen, although I was later amazed at how tiny the creeks were that these folks were trying to catch trout in. This is one of the newest NPS units, having been officially turned over to the Federal Government in 2014. The terrain reminded us of parts of Yellowstone with vast mountain meadows and conifers. The landscape was shaped by a massive volcanic eruption about 1.25 million years ago followed by a collapse of the volcano (the caldera). Like Yellowstone, early people were drawn to this area for the abundant wildlife and obsidian which was used and widely traded for projectile points and other tools. The land was granted to private ranchers in the late 1800’s and for decades was an active cattle and sheep ranch and used for logging, hunting, geothermal energy exploration, and more. Preserve managers are now working to restore the natural processes n this unique ecosystem.

The view from the entrance of Valles Caldera National Preserve
This is part of the historic cabin district at the preserve. One of the cabins was used in the filming of Longmire, one of our favorite TV shows. This was the sheriff’s cabin in the show.
One of hundreds of Gunnison Prairie Dogs we saw at Valles Caldera
I stopped the truck to ID and take a quick photo of this Swainson’s Hawk
Suddenly, another hawk flew into the scene…
…and mated with the first one! The time stamp on my images showed that the mating only took 20 seconds before the male flew away.
A small herd of Elk leaving the meadow at Valles Caldera
We had to remove all our gear and wipe down the back of the truck after spending all day on the dusty back country roads of Valles Caldera

After spending a couple of days in the high mountains, we packed up and headed into the dry desert environments of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a vast and amazing land that offer such a different take on the West. The beauty and strange (to us) landscapes of Arizona and Utah await…

Sunset at our campsite in Cottonwood Canyon at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

8 thoughts on “Onward to New Mexico

  1. We’ve never met, but I know of your work at the Museum and the Garden. I used to be the director of the NC Natural Heritage Program and was always too busy there to join any of your guided trips. Friends like Alvin and Jan have described them to us and they sounded wonderful.

    My husband Sam and I traveled in Utah in 2019 and I have a few recommendations of places we especially enjoyed. Hope that’s ok and hope you’re still in the area.

    Please research or ignore as you wish. I enjoy your postings and hope you continue to have a wonderful trip. Linda Pearsall

    Red Canyon visitor center and trail in Dixie NF.

    Grand Parade trail and Angel Paradise trail at Kodachrome canyon SP.

    Petrified Forest SP. Beautiful drive to Boulder, Utah. Be sure to eat at Devils Backbone Grill. Drive the stunning Burr Trail through red rock canyon, which is almost beside the restaurant. This is one of the best drives in the area. Pick almost any hike in the National Forest on Boulder Mtn, then drive to Capital Reef.

    Arches NP is beautiful but crowded so try to get their early or stay late. There are rustic BLM camp sites along the river but that means along the road as well. Canyonlands NP is almost deserted by comparison.

    Edge of Cedars SP has an excellent museum and an ancient publeo ruin, Mules Ears ruin is on the way to Natural Bridge NM. Got an A&W root beer float for lunch.

    Hovenweep National Historic Site

    Sent from my cell phone 919-210-9718

    >

    • Hi Linda: Good to hear from you. We have been back now a couple of weeks (it just takes me awhile to go through al the images and catch up on things here at home). As you will see in the next post, we actually did do many of the things you suggested (thanks for all the ideas). And, on our next visit, we will try to take in some of the ones we missed. Arches and Zion were just too crowded so we did not go there, but we did love the Boulder, UT, area and that drive down Burr Trail Road (amazing). It was an awesome trip, but we returned in time to avoid the terrible heat wave and even more crowds. Looking forward to our next one. We should get together some tome and exchange favorite places to visit.

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