Friday, September 28, 2018

Southwest Road Trip: Day Hiking Southern Colorado and New Mexico

Fall is a splendid time to hit the road here in the western U.S. Here are a few easy hikes from a recent road trip to southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. 

After a couple days driving steadily south and east from Seattle, we arrived in the southwestern corner of Colorado on a clear, warm evening. We'd already covered 1,230 miles and half dozen coffee/tea breaks by the time we pulled the camper van into Mesa Verde National Park for the night. 

While we didn't explore the park on this trip, I did witness a shooting star streaking overhead when I got up briefly in the middle of the night. Far from a large metropolitan area, the night sky was especially brilliant with stars.

Our main destination was Pagosa Springs, about a hour east of Durango and flanked on the west, north, and east by the dramatic and lovely San Juan Mountains.

Drought-related early fall colors, view toward San Juan range.
From our base there, we plotted a few hikes in the mountains over the next couple days. 

Fourmile Creek, Colorado
Since we were hiking at much higher elevations than normal (8,000 to 9,000 feet, while I live about 350 feet above sea level), we decided to warm up on a relatively easy hike with only about 1,000 feet of gain.

Pagosa Springs is already over 7,000 feet high, so the scenic 15-mile drive over mostly gravel roads to the Fourmile Creek trailhead at about 8,500 feet was easy. We passed through pastoral valleys fringed by aspen trees just starting to turn gold.

Once on the trail, which meandered up a narrowing valley to some sparse late-season waterfalls, the only others we saw in several hours of hiking were three men on horseback and two other hikers.

This late in the season, not much of a waterfall.

For us Seattleites used to sharing popular trails with many others, the solitude was a welcome balm. We hiked 3.25 miles and a few switchbacks past the first two waterfalls. Overall we hiked 6.5 miles, with an elevation gain of about 1,100 feet over a mild grade.

Continental Divide Trail at Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado
After two days acclimating at over 7,000 feet, the next day we started hiking at 10,896 feet in elevation. We drove about 20 miles from Pagosa Springs through another bucolic valley up to Wolf Creek Pass and then headed south on the "CDT" above a downhill ski area.

Despite the higher elevation, with an easy pace and not-very-steep trail we easily hiked up the ridge and scrambled to the top of a talus-covered knob called Alberta Peak at just under 12,000 feet. The strong, gusty wind on the exposed ridge pictured below, though, made the ridge walk a little challenging.

Alberta Peak is in the foreground on the right.

Descending Alberta Peak

What stood out on this beautiful hike was the vast stretches of dead forest around the pass. We noticed the same thing on the Fourmile Creek hike at higher elevations. These forests haven't been lost to fire (yet) but rather pine beetles due to many years of drought conditions. A Colorado native told me recently this actually started happening in the 1970s.

Regardless, this was a perfect, moderate hike for us lowlanders. We covered 4.8 miles round trip, with about 1,100 feet in elevation gain. 

Continental Divide Trail, Cumbres Pass, Colorado
After three nights in Pagosa Springs, we hit the road southward for New Mexico, Taos-bound. Our hosts George and Isabelle recommended that we take a detour from the sleepy town of Chama in northern New Mexico back up into Colorado to Cumbres Pass.

While I won't really call this a hike, we did walk for about 90 minutes north and back on the CDT from the pass, which is also the destination of a historic old railroad.

At just over 10,000 feet, we gained about 800 feet as we walked gradually upward before turning around just below the ridgetop. It was less dramatic topography than the day before. But nonetheless, it was still a lovely hour and a half stretching our legs.

Williams Lake, New Mexico
On another bluebird day, we set off from the trailhead above Taos Ski Valley bundled up against the morning chill above 10,000 feet. Williams Lake is a popular destination, and crowds on the trail a bit later in the day were more like what we see near Seattle and Portland.

It was nice to be walking through a healthy forest, unlike what we saw in Colorado. While this trail ascends a little over 1,000 feet in just under 2 miles, the grade is very mild. (If you want steep and challenging, take the cutoff to Wheeler Peak just before Williams Lake for 2,000 feet more of climbing talus up the highest peak in New Mexico.)

We reached a rise above the lovely alpine lake (see the photo at the top of this post) and parked in the sunshine, where we warmed up quickly. While Dave and Steve hung out and talked, I wandered down to the lakeshore to shoot the rocks against the mirror-like lake surface.

By the time I returned to the sunny meadow overlooking the lake, the temps had warmed up significantly. From hat, gloves, and jacket, I stripped down to a short-sleeved shirt and rolled up my pant legs. (Later in the afternoon it was over 90 degrees down in Taos; too hot for this heat wimp.)

Between the aggressive chipmunks and "camp robbers" (Clark's nuthatch), the wildlife was well accustomed to hikers and sneaking into packs.

If I stay really still, maybe you won't notice me?
As we headed down, many people were hiking up. I was glad, as usual, we got an earlier start.

After Hike Eats
On the way back to Taos, we stopped in the village of Arroyo Seco for lunch at the Taos Cow. This spot is popular for their ice cream, but I had a really tasty gyros wrap sandwich. In 2003 I spent several days in Arroyo Seco at the Snowmansion Hostel, so it was good to be back in this laid back place.

So I'm back in the Northwest now, with fall colors in the Cascades at their prime. I hope to get up and get some shots to share with you soon!

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 

In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

10 Years of Pacific Northwest Seasons: Still Standing

A few days ago was Pacific Northwest Seasons' 10th anniversary, which is pretty ancient for a blog. Of course I'm 10 years older too, and let's just leave it at that.

A lot has changed here in the Northwest in the last decade too. With climate change our glaciers are receding and disappearing, wildfire season is longer and more intense, our local orcas are seriously at risk of extinction, and the population has mushroomed. 

But it's not all doom and gloom.

Generally I've focused on inspiring others to get out and enjoy the beauty all around us here, through outdoors activities such as hikes and road trips. (With a goal of inspiring everyone to do their part to help protect the environment.)

I also sneak in random posts about whatever interests me (for example, my favorite local hummus), environmental issues that concern me (like Olympic Peninsula salmon habitat restoration), and volcano spotting while flying over the region.

 In the last 10 years, social media has happened in a big way. All those enticing shots on Instagram have drawn more and more people to our no-longer-secret places. It's often crowded on formerly quiet but now super popular trails and getaway destinations.

I've blogged about these changes over the last few years. (Another link here on this topic.) I still struggle with the explosive growth and traffic on our trails. I don't name or blog about all the hikes and places I go anymore.

For Pacific NW Seasons' 5th anniversary, I wrote a more inspired post about developing a sense of place where one lives. Today I'm more jaded and weary with the changes here, such as low-rise, charming small businesses and homes being displaced by big, boxy multi-story developments.

But it is what it is, and change is a constant. Really, I'm grateful to be here to witness the passing years in a region deep in my bones, where some of my ancestors arrived 150 years ago and settled in what was then a relatively untamed place.

If you've visited before, you probably know that I rarely feature face shots or photos of myself. But in honor of 10 years here, I'll give up some shots through the years. Here I am when I first started blogging:

Just kidding. :) That's 4- or 5-year-old me somewhere in the Oregon Cascades. 

2010, Joseph, Oregon
2013, Mt. Pilchuck, Washington

2015, Broken Group, Vancouver Island, BC

2015, Shilshole Bay, Seattle
2017, Third Burroughs, Mt. Rainier National Park

And from early 2018, a few sweet turns at Crystal Mountain (below).

2007, Bhutan
I hope those of you who have "stopped by" Pacific Northwest Seasons just once or many times over the years have enjoyed coming along with me. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts and/or reflections in a comment below about our changing region, how that has affected you and how you get out, what you enjoy or would like to see more of here at Pacific NW Seasons, or anything else.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 

In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.