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! 

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Don said...

If you didn’t traynthe Taos Cow ice cream then you need to come back and try it. It’s the best!

jill said...

Hey Don, we didn't! Yes, definitely want to come back. I love it down there.

Lainey Piland said...

Gorgeous shots, Jill! Those blue skies are amazing!

It must have been so sad to see all the dying trees... I'm fearful our own forests here in WA will start looking like that in the coming decades.

Rabbits' Guy said...

Ah that old song "Wolf Creek Pass, way up on the great divide. Comin' on down the other side... tra la la "

It is sure pretty thee this time of year

jill said...

Hi Lainey, yea, I'm with you on that, already happening, sadly. Now I always notice dead trees when I go hiking/driving in the mountains. :(

Rabbit's Guy! Not familiar with that song, will have to look it up, and indeed gorgeous this time of year! Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Best time of the year, sun but not too warm and fewer people on the trail. As always, your photos are lovely. Mary lou