Friday, September 30, 2016

new mexico: around santa fe

Harry's is a great spot

After leaving the inn at 7:45 a.m., we had another terrific breakfast at Harry's Roadhouse, a breakfast-lunch-and-dinner place that seemed to be serving an equal number of locals and tourists.  H had a well-stuffed breakfast burrito with green chile while I went with chilaquiles verde with over-medium fried eggs. Mmmmmmm!

Base elevation of 10,350 feet

Hiking was on the agenda for the day so we headed into the mountains, driving up to Ski Santa Fe through the Hyde Memorial State Park.  A lot of the resort had been roped off for "filming" so we couldn't walk around much.  Instead, we got our hiking stuff on and headed off into the Pecos Wilderness Area with a goal of Nambe Lake off the Winsor Trail.  It was cool (51 F at 9:45 a.m., per my notes) and overcast but the rain held off until just after our 6.87 mile roundtrip hike, which was fortunate.

This is where it got steep

Here's a description of the trail:  up, down, steep up, lake, steep down, up, down.  The portion of the Winsor Trail we walked was broad and had pretty good footing, not too rocky, passing through pines, aspens and lichen-draped evergreens.  Once we turned off the main trail towards the lake, it got very steep and very rocky for the duration, following the lake's outlet as it cascaded over the rocks.

Cloud ceiling was low at this point

The lake itself is fairly small, located in a steep-walled cirque.  We heard (but did not see) pikas and marmots calling warnings at our approach; we heard (but did not see) other hikers above us on the ridge.  Although there were lots of vehicles parked at the trailhead, we really didn't encounter many other folks, just fourteen hikers and three dogs, most as we were on our way back.

H by the lake

It was just starting to sprinkle as we downed our post-hike beers.  That was encouragement enough to move on so we drove to the other side of the mountains to the Pecos National Historical Park to check out the ancestral ruins there.  Unfortunately, it was just 45 minutes until closing so we rushed through it; although the entry to the park was free, there was a charge for the self-guided tour brochure, which we were unable to get because of some chatty retirees monopolizing the park ranger's time, so we didn't really have any information about what we were looking at.  (We felt like we got the gist of it, however, having seen so many ruins already.)

Obligatory entrance sign photo

There are a couple of below-ground restored kivas that visitors are allowed to climb down into, so we could get a sense of just how dark it must have been in there.  In addition to the ancestral Puebloan buildings, there are also Spanish ruins: the foundation of the first Franciscan church, built in 1621 and then destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt; and some of the walls of the second, constructed after the Reconquest (1692).   Research at the park is ongoing as well:  there was a group of twenty-somethings clearing brush from old walls and a scientist-type walking around taking measurements with a very fancy GPS system.

There are two fully excavated kivas on the grounds
but the others are mostly filled in, like this

When the park closed, we headed back to Santa Fe.  The afternoon thunderstorms had really moved in at this point and by the time we got back to the room, it was downpouring.  We waited out the weather and when the clouds had moved on, we went out to find dinner.  My first thought was well-reviewed local favorite Tomasita's but when we got there, it was packed full with at least fifty people waiting ahead of us (you couldn't even get into the bar).

The remains of the second grand church at Pecos NHP

Undaunted, we continued into the trendy Railyard area and ended up at the Second Street Brewery.  A couple seats at the bar later, we were happily downing IPAs and English milds, a green chile stuffed burger, green chile chicken stews and street-style tacos.  It was an eclectic mix of folks in the joint, made perhaps even moreso because it was the Geeks Who Drink-sponsored trivia night.  We stayed long enough to hear the first three rounds of play, then headed home in the light rain.

Second Street Brewery, Railyard location

Thursday, September 29, 2016

new mexico: taos to santa fe

After another fabulous Casa Benavides breakfast, we were on the road at 8:15 a.m., pausing only for a few stops around town for photographs, gas, beer and ice.  We decided to take the long way between towns because, as H said, "Only we could take eight hours to do [what would normally only be] a seventy mile journey."

Actually had a fair number of expert trails for such a tiny place

Our route took us through the forested hills and canyons of the Carson National Forest, where we stopped at the adorable Sipapu Ski Area:  marketed as the first NM ski mountain to open and the last to close (if you can find it, that is), both H and I were instantly enamored with it.  Then as we continued south, we consulted the gazetteer and started taking trips up little side roads that wound narrower and twistier before fading out entirely in someone's dooryard.  We were pretty much looking to see what we could find: farms, old cemeteries, adobe ruins, elk crossings.

Out where the deer and the antelope play

After spotting it on the map, we pulled in at the Fort Union National Monument, which holds the ruins of three forts (log construction, begun in 1851; an earthen fort built in 1861; and the impressive stone and adobe construct still visible, put up in 1863 and finally abandoned in 1891), built to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. Over 150 years later, the ruts of the Santa Fe Trail are still there, testament to the thousands of people who traveled it.  This is a very interesting and well-presented site, with a self-guided tour winding in and around the remains of the fort.

The low spot where I'm standing is where the
Santa Fe Trail is, perpendicular to those paths

While the rules of this national monument explicitly prohibits any reconstructions of the buildings, it allows for repairs and there were many workers out there, propping up leaning walls and slathering period-specific adobe, mud and plaster on the stonework.  Critters in the immediate area included pronghorns, turkey vultures and a tiny baby rattlesnake, curled up on a stone wall near where the guys were working.  Other than that, we mostly had the whole place to ourselves.

Jail house - built to last

From there we continued to Santa Fe, skirting enormous, lightning-filled thunderstorms: our weather had definitely changed from the clear blue skies at the start of our week.  We checked into the Guadalupe Inn, got cleaned up and headed to the historic Plaza, armed with a street map on which the inn's clerk had helpfully circled points of interest.

Mechanics corral

We walked around the Plaza, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and the surrounding neighborhoods, crossing over the dry-as-a-bone Santa Fe River several times.  For dinner, we ended up at the Blue Corn Cafe & Brewery: IPAs and ambers, a burrito for H and tamales with "Christmas" (both red and green) chile for me.  This was a newish place, close to the Plaza and so with a slightly touristy feel, although there were definitely some locals at the bar with us.  The food and beers were decent - but we noted that we had yet to find a brew that matched the Kaktus Brewery's IPA from our first day in New Mexico.

Not as fancy as the Chacoans, even made with better tools

It was full dark and raining as we headed back to the inn.  This was not keeping folks from going out, however, and we noted a couple of busy, fun-looking bars and restaurants as we passed, just keeping our options open for the next night out.

Our room at Guadalupe Inn: cool and very quiet

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

new mexico: around taos

Let me tell you about the amazing breakfasts at Casa Benavides: coffee, juice, homemade muffins, the most incredible chewy homemade granola with peaches and yogurt, and your choice of pancakes, waffles or a baked egg dish served with red or green chile and homemade tortillas.  All included with your room.  Wow.  Absolutely delicious.  (They also have afternoon tea with a variety of homemade cookies and dessert bars.)

Taos looked SO steep (I mean, not right here)

After calorie-loading, we drove up to Taos Ski Valley.  The canyon up there looked a lot like Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons at home so the drive felt familiar.  The resort's base area is a mix of old chalet-style and new buildings; there was a huge construction project going on so we didn't get to walk around there much, plus it's shoulder season and everything was closed except for an espresso stand.

Bold jays

We followed the signs to the Williams Lake/Wheeler Peak trail head up a crazy-steep dirt road, which is apparently open in the winter although we don't see how you could possibly get up there with any snow on the road if you weren't in a snowcat.  Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain in New Mexico at 13,161 feet of elevation but we were just going up to the lake at 11,022 feet.  Perhaps next time we'll tackle Wheeler.

And pikas that let us get within ten feet of them

The path was rocky where it followed an old road but smoothed out further on, wide and obviously well-traveled.  There were a fair number of small critters: Canada jays, marmots, chipmunks, chickadees, ground squirrels and the bravest pikas we've ever seen.  There were some other hikers out there and we spotted some up above us, heading for Wheeler.  It ended up being a 4.7 mile out-and-back, taking 2.5 hours including standing around looking at stuff.

Williams Lake

After our hike, we kept an eye on the cloudy skies and decided to go around the Enchanted Circle, a scenic drive that loops around all the Taos area ski resorts.  First stop was Red River Ski Area, a wonderful throwback where the whole town is the resort, with lifts right off the main street.  It looked tiny and very old fashioned.  It looked great.

Established 1959

We continued around the Enchanted Circle, over a very high mountain pass and then through a beautiful wide open valley to Eagle Nest.  At that point we weren't far from Cimarron, which is where the Philmont Scout Ranch is located.  Established in 1939, it is truly an impressive operation, encompassing 137,000 acres.  H had been a camper there many years ago so we drove out there.  It wasn't in session but you could tell that it probably hadn't changed much from when he was there, once upon a time.

Campers' meeting area

Our last stop was Angel Fire Resort, a bigger mountain than Red River, and a world-class mountain biking facility.  Strangely, it didn't seem to have a base lodge so we weren't such how much of a locals' mountain it is - it seemed like it was more for destination skiers as opposed to daytrippers.  We returned to Taos on County Route 64, another narrow, winding canyon road that climbed and dropped quickly.

Pretty long chair at Angel Fire

There was a Mexican place I had intended for our dinner that night but as we were walking there, we spied Eske's Brewpub (which had also been on my list of possibles).  For us, when in doubt, go to a brewpub.  Eske's is a half-block from the main street through Taos and, as such, gets scarcely any tourist business.  We sat outside on the large patio, patting the local dogs as they cruised through, looking for bellyrubs.  H had a couple American pale ales and I had first an English pale ale and then a local hard cider; the beers were not quite as good as some we'd had earlier in the trip.  H's dinner was a burrito smothered in green chile and I had a fantastic bowl of green chile stew, fairly spicy and with lots of chunky vegetables.  It was definitely a weird little place, very local, but being able to sit outside with decent beers and good food made it a good choice for us.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

new mexico: aztec to taos

Up and at 'em the next day as we were moving on from Aztec - but not before we stopped in at Aztec Ruins National Monument, right there in the middle of town.  The ancestral Puebloan people who constructed the settlement there were a little later than the Chacoans, building and residing in the complex from the late 1000s until the late 1200s.  The architecture and engineering was very similar to Chaco but there were some flourishes that set it apart, like a decorative band of green stones built into the walls of some of the buildings.

Basically right in the middle of town

More of those structurally-complex corner windows

We explored there for about an hour and a half, walking through lower level rooms still with their original ceilings, climbing down into the reconstructed kiva.  The site is pretty expansive, with the fully excavated West Ruin, with over 500 rooms, as well as the partially excavated, and less (or not at all) accessible to the public, tri-wall sites, mounds and East Ruin.

Original ceilings

The decorative stripes are unusual and not found at Chaco

We had studied our gazetteer closely to figure out how best and most scenic-ly to get from Aztec to Taos, our next stop.  We didn't study it quite closely enough for the first bit of road, however, which ended up being several miles of rather rough dirt and shot-to-pieces signs (County Route 585, for the record, with sightings of a jackrabbit and some desert cottontails).  After that, however, it was smooth sailing.  We were pretty close to the Colorado border so we took a detour up there, following an old narrow gauge railroad from Chama, NM, up over Cumbres Pass, and pausing to admire the views and wet our whistles a bit.

That river is way the way down there

After that scenic interlude, we headed back south, driving through the Jicarilla Apache reservation, over the impressive Rio Grande Gorge bridge and past the truly bizarre Earthship Biotecture compound (fully sustainable, off-grid, science fiction-meets-fantasy-meets green building homes just outside Taos, some available for rent).  

Excellent place to stay in Taos

We checked into our home for the next two nights, Casa Benavides - a wooden floored and ceilinged room (with a truly tiny bathroom) in a former trading post, located within easy walking distance from the Taos Plaza.  Taos was busier than we expected; it is an old town, mostly adobe with a heavy Spanish influence, with narrow streets and heavy "rush hour" traffic on the main drag, and scores of restaurants, art galleries and knickknack shops.  The current town was established in 1615 but the neighboring Taos Pueblo predates it, built between 1000 and 1450.

We walked around for a while, checking out Kit Carson's house and grave, cruising the Taos Plaza and sort of following a self-guided tour I had printed off the internet.  When our stomachs started growling, we found ourselves at the Taos Ale House and bellied right up to the bar.  We had NM micro India black ales, a burger each (green chile cheeseburger for me and a BBQ bacon cheeseburger for H) and shared an order of green chile cheese fries and succulent house-made pickles.  The green chile was milder than what I'd had in Aztec but those cheese fries were so good - we practically inhaled our food.

Pretty local place even on the main street

Good beers and food, a friendly bartender and a chatty local next to us, and when we walked back to the inn, the crowds had cleared out and we had the place to ourselves.  We had one more beer on the porch in front of our room, listening to the raucous crickets and thinking that we'd had another good day and a pleasant introduction to Taos.

Window detail, Kit Carson House

Monday, September 26, 2016

new mexico: chaco culture national historical park

The Chaco Culture National Historical Park was the real impetus behind this trip.  H had wanted to go there for years; I didn't know about it until recently, but after watching a Robert Redford-narrated video about the Chacoan ruins, I too very much wanted to go.  Built in a desert canyon, miles from a reliable water source or any known trade route, the Chaco pueblos are a marvel of architecture and engineering.

Some shade in the desert

Built only with stone tools, with the supportive vigas (large beams) carried by hand from mountains over fifty miles away, these complex, sophisticated pueblos were not only elegant and complicated communities, they were astronomically aligned with the solstices, along sightlines over nine miles apart.  The largest Chacoan pueblo had four stories, over 600 rooms and 40 kivas, so these places were not inconsequential, but because the people had no written language (and because researchers have found no midden heaps or burial sites), almost nothing is known about them.

Hungo Pavi wall

Chetro Ketl

These remarkable structures were built in stages between the mid 800s and the early 1100s, with roads connecting Chaco with around 200 other great houses in the area.  And then, just barely after these pueblos would have been completed, the people left, dispersing throughout the Four Corners area.

Pueblo Bonito - look how straight the walls are still

We got up Sunday morning for a 6:45 a.m. departure, heading back southeast on 550 after fueling up with gas, water and caffeinated beverages.  We turned off the highway in Nageezi, then headed in towards the park: 7.8 miles (ten minutes) on a chip-and-seal/paved road, then 8.2 miles (sixteen minutes) on a "good" gravel road, and then an excruciating 4.3 miles (26 minutes!) on a rutted, washboarded dirt road.

Series of doorways in Pueblo Bonito

While at the visitors' center, we learned about needing permits for any hikes (free, located at trailheads) and a complimentary guided tour of Pueblo Bonito at 10 a.m.  That gave us just enough time to walk through the first two sites on the park's (blessedly paved) loop road: Hungo Pavi and Chetro Ketl.

Looking at an upper story window

We met the tour group at the Pueblo Bonito and while there were initially eight of us with an estimated tour time of 1.5 hours, more and more people piled on until there were nearly 30.  That was too many people for us - and clearly they wouldn't finish the tour in an hour and a half at that pace - so we slipped away, following the self-guided tour through the interior of Pueblo Bonito.  This massive complex was mindblowingly engineered, with the 1,000 year old vigas still evident in the sleek stone masonry.

Latillas (small) and vigas (large)

After filling out our permit, we did the Pueblo Alto hike, parking at the Pueblo del Arroyo trail head and checking out the Kin Kletzo ruins near the trail.  The loop was 5.4 miles (2 hrs. 45 min.), climbing up to the mesa and meandering through the desert and around the arroyo rim.  There were several overlooks along the rim - of Kin Kletzo, Pueblo Bonito and, later, Chetro Ketl - as well as interesting natural features like pecked basinsfossilized shrimp burrows and fossilized clam shells.

Pueblo Bonito from hike overlook

Perfectly circular

Both Pueblo Alto and New Alto were located up on the mesa, with 360-degree views; the newer pueblo still has walls standing but the older one is just foundation outlines and mounds.  We continued around the arroyo rim, stopping to be duly impressed at the Jackson Stairway that the Chacoans had hacked out of the cliff face, before climbing through a narrow crack to make our way down a level for the return.

Jackson Stairway, right up the cliff face

At this point, we were starting to get pretty hot - there is absolutely no shade out there in Chaco Canyon - so we hightailed it back to the car, passing several other hikers on their way up to the overlooks.  (There were more people at CCNHP than we expected but certainly far, far fewer than more accessible national parks and monuments.)  As we enjoyed our post-hike beers back at the car, we chatted with some folks - including one kid from Falmouth, Maine, who had recently moved to Santa Fe.  It truly is a small world, even in the most desolate corners.

Cretaceous clams

On the way down

After so many hours in the New Mexican sun, we didn't have much excitement for what was left of the day.  We drove back to the motel, managing to not jar loose any fillings on that terrible dirt road out of the park, got cleaned up, found some dinner and went to bed early.

Kin Kletzo from above

Chetro Ketl from above

Sunday, September 25, 2016

new mexico: abq to aztec

For the last several years, we've tried to get away on or about our wedding anniversary, exploring places like eastern and southern Utah, Jackson Hole and Sun Valley.  This year was our fifteenth anniversary and so we decided to go a little further afield to northern New Mexico.  We flew to Albuquerque (hereinafter referred to as "ABQ") and rented a car; we'd first thought to drive but from SLC that would be a 10+ hour voyage, whereas it was just a 1.5 hour flight.  With a morning flight, we were on the road, heading out of ABQ by noon.

You can also get a tour of the brewing tanks,
chicken coop and beehives, if you want 

On our way out of town, we spied a highway sign for Kaktus Brewing Company in Bernalillo.  Determined to sample as many local brews as practical, we finally found our way to this tiny, hidden and very funky brewery.  It was like drinking in your buddy's garage, hidden away off a narrow road behind a trailer park, but the young bartender was friendly (telling us that Kaktus had an ABQ location as well, which we filed away for future reference) and the Rocky Raccoon IPA was wonderful: lightly hopped with floral overtones and very drinkable.

Perched above the San Juan River

Thus refreshed, and armed with our New Mexico gazetteer and car GPS, we drove west/northwest on 550 for about 2.5 hours.  To be honest, there's a whole lot of nothing but wide open desert between ABQ and Aztec, New Mexico, a small town not far from the Four Corners area.  We checked into the decidedly local Step Back Inn, into a quiet, big room, with lots of great antiques and old school wallpaper.  The room rates are good but there is no wifi (if that's what is important to you) and scarcely any outlets for plugging in various things.

Navajo Lake - the most water we'd see all week

It was the town's Founders' Day celebration and we found an antique truck show at a park down by the river.  Next we tried the Aztec Ruins National Monument (right in town) but it was closed for the day.  Not discouraged, we headed out of town towards Navajo Lake State Park, pausing at the lovely old Our Lady of Guadalupe church just below the lake.  We drove up the earthen dam (dedicated in 1962) to check out the lake.  I hadn't thought it would be so big but there were a bunch of houseboats and motorboats enjoying the early evening.  Below the dam, we could see lots of fishermen and people floating on the San Juan River.

The Step Back Inn

In order to make a loop, we drove across the narrow dam and then through a pretty canyon on a twisting road (County Route 539), heading back to town as the sun set in our faces.  We did have some difficulty finding a non-chain place to eat but finally located Dad's Diner.  I had a spicy green chile cheeseburger, H had a Southwest-style chili burger and we each had chocolate shakes for dessert: the green chile made me sweat but the shake gave me goosebumps so it all evened out.  On the way back to the motel, we stopped at a grocery store for provisions - beer and ice (because we had had the foresight to pack a soft-sided cooler in our luggage) - and then called it a night, gearing up for the next day in the desert.