Al likes to make the first travel day in the motor home a bit on the short side, so we planned to stop at Springerville, AZ, as we made our way across US60 into New Mexico. The elevation difference between Springerville and Apache Junction is around 6000 feet. This alone is quite a slog in our underpowered RV, but of course you don’t gain all the elevation at once. Instead you go up five hundred feet, lose three hundred, go up seven hundred, lose four hundred, ad infinitum until you finally get on top of the Mogollon Rim. Fortunately, it’s all pretty great scenery, but the mental effort of urging the rig up those steep grades can be pretty exhausting.
Arizona at an elevation of 6500+ is a whole different world from our low desert. There is a band of Ponderosa pine at the edge of the Mogollon Rim, but as you continue to the northeast the landscape becomes a vast rolling grassland that seems to stretch away forever, pale gray green studded with rock outcroppings and the occasional abrupt hill. Angry clouds had obscured portions of the sky ever since we had crested the Rim but we had been fortunate to miss the worst of the cloudbursts.
The RV parks at Springerville were not what we had in mind, so Al was easily persuaded to continue on into New Mexico to the BLM campground at Datil Well where we had stopped a few years earlier. What Datil Well lacked in amenities (flush toilets, running water, electricity) it more than made up for in the size and beauty of the campsite. Even the outhouses were spotless and actually had TP. With Al’s Golden Age Pass, the overnight fee was a whopping $2.50. It had been a longer day than planned but with a great reward at the end.
We should have known that at an elevation of 7500 feet it would be cool overnight but neither one of us quite expected 33 degrees outside and 42 inside. Fortunately I had brought a long-sleeved flannel nightie and Al had his extra blanket. In the morning, the propane furnace brought the interior heat up quite nicely. Breakfast was at the café in “town” where the “for sale” sign on the gas station/store/café did not bode well for our next visit. When we got back into the car, Al asked if I knew what they did to the toast to get it so thin in the middle. I just laughed and told him that what the café served was “real American bread,” not that healthy whole-grain stuff I normally feed him.
Back at the campsite, we hauled out our chairs and watched the birds and the clouds, which were building already, white puffies forming as we watched against the improbably blue sky that results from the combination of elevation and lack of air pollution. It was so nice that we agreed to stay another day. We went for a short hike (on which I almost stepped on a 4-inch horned toad,) sat around some more, read a couple of magazine articles, walked around the campground loop, sat around some more, etc. Perfect. In a fit of guilt, we paid the whole $5 for the second overnight instead of taking our discount.
List of birds seen from my camp chair: Ash-throated fly-catcher; another flycatcher, possible olive-sided; small fly-catcher, possible Hammond’s; tanager pair, probably hepatic; mourning dove; probable ringed turtle-dove; white-winged dove; hummingbird, probable broad-tailed; western bluebird; raven; Bewick’s wren; hairy woodpecker; mockingbird (who sang all night long too); chipping sparrow; violet-green swallow; pinon jay; white-breasted nuthatch; Say’s phoebe
US60 from Datil Well to I-25 offered more of the same rolling grasslands and rocky ridges with the exception of passing by the always awesome Very Large Array Radio Astronomy Site, which sprawls across the dramatically-named Plain of San Augustin. You come over the hill and all of a sudden you’re seeing something out of a science fiction movie. Literally, since the Jodie Foster film “Contact” was partially filmed here. There is an informative visitor center and the tamest pronghorn I’ve ever encountered graze peacefully along the access road and under the radio dishes. The wind almost always blows here and if it’s coming from the wrong direction, sometimes you can’t get in the main door to the visitor center.
The highway generally trends downward going east from our starting point so driving the rig didn’t require nearly as much effort as it had the first day. Near the bottom of the grade is the picturesque town of Magdalena with a few cafes and art galleries. Ninety years ago Magdalena was an important railhead, where stock was driven from the Springerville area to be transported to market by railcars. There were watering holes about every ten miles along the route from Springerville to Magdalena, one of which being Datil Well where we had camped. The old stockpens still survive a couple of blocks off the main drag and the lady in the library will be happy to open the Caboose Museum if you want to look at artifacts of Magdalena’s earlier years. The rails have been largely removed, but the rail bed can still be seen as you continue downslope toward Socorro and I-25.
Abo Canyon, northeast of Socorro, is one of those iconic names in the history of New Mexico Railroading and Al had recently read about the BNSF Railroad construction project to double-track the line through the canyon. We had hoped to find a safe place to leave the motor home while we investigated, but instead we had to drive the whole rig up the road 30 miles. Fortunately the portion of the road shared with the big rock trucks supporting the construction was minimal. Of course we couldn’t get anywhere close to the project, but the distant view was quite impressive although I found the canyon itself a bit disappointing. Guess your perspective changes when you’re punching a rail line through the countryside. Turning around to return to I-25, Al followed the rail line along the Belen cut-off, which is another historic route without much visual interest for the motorist. This route did, however, allow us to see that the rock trucks on the highway were transporting material from the upper part of the canyon where blasting was necessary to widen the roadbed down to the western mouth of the canyon where the same material was being used as fill. Pretty efficient. But you still have to be a dedicated rail-fan to appreciate it.
Everytime we go through Albuquerque there seems to be road construction and this time was no different. Our goal for the day was to get to Las Vegas (New Mexico, of course) where our Santa Fe Trail exploration could begin in earnest. Another piece of rail-fanning, however, as we met the RoadRunner Express on its new line between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, much of which runs right up the median of the freeway. Adding this commuter rail option was significantly cheaper than adding another lane to I-25 and the paint job on the locomotive and cars is just plain fun even if you’re not a rail-fan.
When the original Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe company brought rail lines to this area, the plan was to run the mainline to Santa Fe. However, reality set in when the engineers tried to figure out how to get the line up the hill to Santa Fe. The ended up running the mainline to the south of the city and the closest it gets is the town of Lamy, which is just a few miles south of I-25. A spur line was eventually built to Santa Fe, but the mainline still runs through Lamy and Al had read about the depot restoration there. Amtrak had just pulled out when we finally reached Lamy, down ever narrowing roads, and it was amazing to see how many people had apparently gotten off the train there. The town isn’t much and if truth be told, neither is the station, but for a few minutes a day, it’s a happening place.
East of Santa Fe the freeway goes up over Glorieta Pass, the last big obstacle to the wagon trains on the Santa Fe Trail. It was also the site of a three-day Civil War battle in which Confederate troops from Texas hoped to cut off the rest of the West from the Union. Although the Texans lost that war, they continue to invade New Mexico and southern Colorado to this day, although mostly for recreational purposes.
One of the things that always fascinates me about New Mexico is the elevations. Glorieta Pass may be at roughly 7200 feet but the“downhill” to Las Vegas loses only about 700 feet, still leaving you pretty high in the air. Right before you get to Las Vegas, the highway and the railroad pass through a notch in a rocky ridge called El Puerto del Sud and boom, you are out of the mountains, with nothing but the High Plains to see all the way to the horizon. With an average elevation of over 6000 almost to the Oklahoma border, no wonder they’re called the “high” plains. Once we were back in the plains, we saw pronghorn everywhere. I’ve never seen so many. Assuming that the ones along the freeway represented the average density in the entire area, there are a lot of pronghorn in New Mexico. They are notoriously shy, but apparently are comfortable with the steadily moving traffic. Many of them would lie down just on the other side of the fence and chewing their cuds, seemingly gaze at the traffic. Maybe that’s their idea of entertainment. Which is fine as long as they stay on their side of the fence, which isn’t high enough to stop an agile sheep much less a pronghorn.
Las Vegas, New Mexico, is one of those numerous towns that at one time was “one of the three largest settlements west of the Mississippi”, yadda yadda. It was an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail and later was, like almost every other western plains settlement, a railroad town. Amtrak stops twice a day at the nicely restored depot which sits next to an unrestored but still-magnificent Harvey House hotel. The rail yard, however, is full of intermodal rail cars (the kind that carry containers to and from China) and this was only the first such storage area we would see on our trip, a telling commentary on the slow economy when just a few years ago the railroads couldn’t make cars fast enough and trains ran nose-to-tail from Long Beach across America.
Here's a shot of some box-cars stored on a siding. They had great graffiti and made a better photo than those boring old inter-modals.
The original downtown plaza still exists in pretty good condition and a major renovation of the Plaza Hotel has just been completed. From the roof of one of the buildings in the plaza was made the announcement that New Mexico was being annexed to the United States and would no longer be a part of Mexico.
North of Las Vegas about 30 miles is the Fort Union historical site, part of the National Parks system. This is where the different branches of the Santa Fe Trail generally converged and the federal government felt it necessary to establish a military presence because of continued Indian raids. Driving along the narrow winding access road, I was startled to see a northern harrier (marsh hawk) swoop down on a red-tailed hawk that must have just killed something yummy for lunch. The fort itself is now only a ruin, but an extensive one, with adobe walls of various height and condition spreading over a large area. The fort sits in lonely isolation in the middle of the grassy plain with gusts sweeping across the flat land periodically, the ever present squall clouds visible for miles. The ruins are large enough that even with a full (albeit small) parking lot, there is plenty of quiet to hear the rock wren singing from atop an adobe wall and to enjoy butterflies in various oranges and yellows cruising the low-growing wildflowers along the gravel paths. A thoughtfully-placed bench sits at the edge of a grass-filled swale that is identified as part of the original Santa Fe Trail and it is possible to sit there in silence, gazing at the far horizon, wondering about what motivates men to make the long, arduous, hazardous journey. The answer, of course, is that if you got your goods to Santa Fe, you returned home with bags of silver. I found it amusing that the park brochure comments that the Fort was built away from the “that sink of vice and extravagance” known as Santa Fe. Sounds like nothing has changed in the last couple of hundred years.
From Las Vegas to Trinidad, CO, the Santa Fe Trail followed pretty much the same path as I-25 does today and ruts can be seen in many places along the freeway. Think about how hard it would be to get a wagon down over a steep river bank and then up the other side. Where water for the stock, oxen or horses, could be found. Ten miles a day was good progress. And you didn’t want to get caught too early or too late in the season because the weather can turn in an instant. Which we found as we came back from a recon trip over the pass and found a swath of white where hail had fallen across the valley just north of Las Vegas, blanketing the landscape under or 4 inches of white stuff. Snowplows were out on the freeway. Welcome to the high country.
After a couple of days of exploring the Las Vegas area, our we moved less than 100 miles to Cimarron, the home of the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. Our elder son Alfred had been part of a group of scouts that traveled from Bellingham, Washington, to hike on the ranch about 24 years ago. Today, about 20,000 hikers (Scouts and their accompanying adults) pass through the camp each year. The logistics are staggering. That’s 350 hikers starting out each and every day during the season, which had not quite started when we visited. From a nearby ridge we got a good overview of the headquarters area and the rows of large walled tents in which campers spent their first and last nights at the ranch. The staff in the gift shop were chatty and informative and there is a small museum as well as a room filled with the personal library of Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founders of scouting in this country and a well-known naturalist of his day. On our second day we drove the loop trip styled by the New Mexico tourism marketers as “The Enchanted Loop” which essentially goes around Mt. Wheeler, the highest point in the state. The best scenery was undoubtedly from Cimarron up the river canyon full of fly fishermen with Texas plates and then the part of the loop from Eagle Nest up to Red River. The rest including Taos can easily be skipped. Our campground was mostly seasonal sites with no one in attendance, tucked in among the cottonwood trees along a creek. Yellow warbler, Brewer’s blackbird, hooded oriole, lots of robins.
From Cimarron we forged north the 42 miles to Raton where the wind was seriously blowing, as in gusts to 40. Again, the Santa Fe Trail and railroading history converged. Raton Pass, on the Colorado-NM state line was an important route for the trail and later a subject of dispute among dueling railroads over who would build in the narrow right of way. Today, I-25 lifts you the extra 1500 feet or so it takes to go over the pass so easily that even our motorhome hardly noticed it. If you slow down and think in terms of hauling a heavy freight wagon, though, things look a lot different. The railroad goes through a tunnel which tells you something about the grade through the pass.
There was a street fair going on in town, which was OK since we really wanted to be a block over along the rail line. More cars in storage and the burned out shell of the old train station although there is a newer one a block or so away that serves Amtrak. The historic El Portal hotel, now apartments, apparently also suffered a fire fairly recently but it appeared to have been largely restored. At least it looked good from the outside.
We took a drive west of Raton trying to find an old coal camp, but all we found were great views of the Sangre de Cristo range.
On our second day in Raton we drove northeast up to Sugarite Canyon to see if there were any signs of the intensive coal mining activity from the early railroad days. About a zillion fishermen thronged around the visitor center waiting their turn to have their catch weighed for the annual fishing derby; we found out later that first prize was a boat and motor. Nice drive but the steep hills were so heavily overgrown with shrubs and small trees that we spotted only one possible tailing pile. As everywhere else in the state between about 6000 and 7000 feet, the New Mexico Locust trees were in full bloom, lining the roadsides as if planted for some beatification effort, a successful one if so.
Returning to the entrance to the canyon, we turned east to head up over Johnson Mesa. Just as the road started its narrow, winding way up the lush west shoulder of the mesa we were met by two 18-wheelers, empty stock trucks. Up on top, the wind blew and nothing taller than a small sagebrush grew, but there was grass, lots of grass, and lots of really nice cattle clustered near stock loading pens. We deduced that this was summer range and the stock was just now being moved to the high country. All of the ranch houses we saw were obviously abandoned and there was no more traffic, just meadowlarks and swallows swooping across the road. It was such an idyllic scene that I almost hated leave it and go down the east side, but Al refused to turn around and make the journey in reverse. South of Folsom we drove to the top of Capulin Volcano, one of those improbable roads built by hand in the days when tourist attractions were less hectic than they are now. Capulin is one of several volcanic cones stretched along a fault line and it rises to about 1800 feet above the plains, giving a great view.
Leaving Raton, we had thoughts of doing something in the Trinidad, Colorado, area, but alas there was major major road construction in town and after struggling with the poor detour signage (hard to make U-turns in a motorhome towing a vehicle), we finally made it back onto the freeway with Al vowing to find a different way home. It’s downhill from Trinidad to Lake Pueblo, just outside the city of Pueblo, CO, which was significantly warmer at an elevation of around 4600 feet. The lake is, of course, a reservoir and must have a lot of fish in it to judge by the number of boats launched on the two weekdays we spent there. The sites are nice enough with trees at many of them and we managed to find one with view of the lake. However, the wind blows here too. The fact that the picnic tables at each campsite were sheltered by a wind screen should have been a clue. The wind chill factor and the fact that there was no good place to set out chairs up out of the wind made it less than desirable to spend much time just hanging out at the campsite. On the other hand, we were here to make the two major Colorado train rides that we hadn’t taken, not to sit around camp.
Wild flowers carpeted the ground in the state park and there were a lot of birds around the campsite including scaled quail and cliff swallows, white pelican, cormorant, great blue heron, red-winged blackbird, magpie, western kingbird, raven, Bullock’s oriole, red-shafted flicker, lesser goldfinch etc.
One of the “features” of the park is the large number of prairie dogs. I got out of the car near one “town” to photograph some wildflowers and the sentinels immediately whistled and everyone dived into their holes. All you could see was the tips of little noses poking out to see if the coast was clear yet.
Canon City is about 30 miles west of Lake Pueblo and we had reservations on the 9:30 trip through the Royal Gorge. Interestingly enough, there is no good way for the operators of this tourist route to change the number of cars in the consist, so regardless of the payload, they run the same train on each excursion. The locomotive at the “front” end is a nicely painted diesel. There are several coach cars, a bar car, a snack car, a couple of open cars and a couple of observation cars, the kind with the bubble on top. On our trip, there was a grand total of five for the observation car, hardly surprising considering that it’s a $25 extra charge over coach. There were just enough people to fill one coach car, but since everybody spent most of the trip standing in the open car, crowding wasn’t a big problem.
Before the passengers were loaded, we had had to wait for a freight train to pass by. The excursion train shares the track with a train that serves a quarry and shuttles gondola cars to a nearby cement plant. The rails quickly enter the narrow canyon and run along the Arkansas River as it winds its way through the gorge. About halfway through the trip, you can look up and see the “famous Royal Gorge Bridge”, another of those tourist traps from yesteryear, although this one has been updated with some modern touches such as an inclined railway to bring passengers the 1800 feet down to the river from the bridge high above and a tram that takes you across the river at bridge level.
There were numerous rafts and squirt boats out on the river and every one waved to us.
When we got to the end of the line, the locomotive crew walked the length of the train and got into the smaller diesel at what had been the tail end of the train and off we went back to the station. On the return trip, a helicopter buzzed us, flying not more than 100 feet above the river.
I finally had to take a load off my feet and was surprised that inside the coach car several people were actually sleeping. Guess I’m too cheap to pay all that money and doze through it.
By now, the weather was starting to look iffy and the forecast for the next few days was for further deterioration. We could still see the tops of Pikes Peak so after calling to verify that there would be space on the afternoon run, we headed toward Manitou Springs to ride the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. In retrospect, we should have done that one in the morning, but oh well.
Manitou Springs is a “cute little town”, obviously set up as a tourist attraction itself. The streets got narrower and narrower as we followed the signs to the cog railway and I wondered how they handled summertime crowds. There were several hummingbird feeders hung up around the building and while we waited several broad-tailed hummingbirds entertained us. Our assigned seating was in the row nearest the door which meant that we were also nearest the delightful tour conductor. She pointed out numerous points of interest as the train glided up through massive boulder fields and aspen groves. By the time that we broke out above the treeline, visibility had gone down and snowflakes were drifting by. At the ticket office I had asked about the temperature at the top and was told it was 23 degrees with a wind chill of about 13 degrees. We had brought our warmest jackets and many of the other passengers had brought hats and gloves as well, but it was surprising to see the number who had not even a sweater, many of whom were in shorts and flip-flops. It was not only cold but windy as we took advantage of our near-the-door seating to head inside to the restrooms ahead of the crowd. In the stall, I found myself a bit dizzy and thought, oh, oh, here comes the altitude sickness. I’d never been at 14,000 plus unpressurized feet before, not even in our own airplane. However, the feeling quickly passed and all I had to worry about was freezing to death in the wind and sleet. The clouds and showers swirled around and provided peekaboo views in all directions if one had the patience and the fortitude to wait for the quickly-shifting clearings.
One of the coolest things about the trip down was seeing how the floor of the car tilted sharply. I guess on the ride up we were too close to the front to appreciate it. Our conductress had said the slope was as steep as 25% in places and that wasn’t hard to believe. Another thing that caught my attention on the return trip was how much money the other passengers had spent in the gift shop/snack bar at the top of the mountain. The family of five across the aisle had started up the hill with a bagful of snacks bought at the depot and while up at the top had bought each of the three children a stuffed animal with a Pikes Peak logo on its butt, hot chocolates or coffee all around, nachos, and other miscellaneous goodies. I figured this was at least a $200 dollar day outing for them. Yikes! Good thing these two tight-fisted folks aren’t raising kids these days.
The day had turned out a lot longer than we had planned but I was vindicated the next morning. Clouds covered the entire sky and only the lower hills were visible. The weather forecast was for thunderstorms and that’s just not good tourist weather. Meanwhile, it was the nicest June in 90 years back home.
Al had picked up a brochure about a loop trip out of Trinidad so we considered checking out Trinidad Lake State Park, but the detour signage in town tripped us up once again and we continued south to the KOA at Raton, only about 20 miles down the road. After plugging in the rig, we went back north yet again over Raton Pass to check out the town of Cokedale, CO, just a few miles outside of Trinidad. The clouds commenced to thicken, just as forecast and as I exited the freeway in Trinidad, following that blasted detour sign, the rain started to fall. Not a gentle shower but a downpour that quickly had the road covered with an inch of water and took visibility down to nil with the windshield wipers madly swishing away. I had to pull over a couple of times, once when the rain turned to hail. Fortunately before the speed limit increased, the rain had diminished and the traffic lightened up so the rest of the seven miles to Cokedale weren’t too stressful. Cokedale was a coal mining camp and its claim to fame is that it’s the only one that remains an occupied community and it has been designated a historical area. There is a walking tour, which we did not take, and we felt highly conspicuous driving slowly along the unpaved streets in town. One of the historical features about Cokedale was the large number of coke ovens, used to process the coal into a more efficient form of fuel. At one point there were supposed to have been more than 350 coke ovens, Interestingly enough, the walking tour brochure only mentioned the coke ovens briefly, vaguely saying that they were “nearby.” Returning to the main road we continued along the loop trip for a few miles, but it started raining again, so I turned around. Coming back to the Cokedale intersection, voila, there were the coke ovens, on the other side of the highway fill, apparently on private property. Of course it was raining, but we were able to pull over and take some photos.
The trip home was marked mostly by the wind, which seems to blow constantly in the high country and by the usual heavy traffic on I-40, which didn’t get slowed too badly by the intermittent construction. At least one sign told us this was our stimulus money at work, which made me feel much better instantly, of course.
We spent the night at Red Rock Park near Gallup but couldn’t enjoy the setting with the wind blowing so hard. White throated swifts didn’t seem to mind, but we felt sorry for the campers who were in tents. Red Rock park is in a setting that rivals Sedona for scenic values.
By the way, my unofficial bird count for the trip was 45. Pretty good for not even going out of my way but it would have been nice to get a new one.