Friday, May 3, 2013

The Traveler at Home: Wild Rivers

View from Big Arsenic Springs trailhead
In spite of much recent hullaballoo over the creation of the new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, the old Wild Rivers Recreation Area hasn't bothered to change any signs to the new name, nor was the visitor's center open on Wednesday.

Derek, his white shepherd Sophie, and I drove from Taos up to Questa and turned onto the Wild River's road just a couple miles north. I had never been there before, though I've driven past the turn-off many times on my way to Colorado.

The Wild Rivers name refers to the Rio Grande and the Red River. The recreation area also encompasses some springs that cascade down the volcanic cliffs. The new National Monument contains all of the former Wild Rivers land and extends down the Rio Grande to Pilar and north to the Colorado border.

La Junta, the confluence of rivers
We drove out to the overlook and looked down into the deep canyon where the reddish brown Red River joins the Rio Grande. The clear blue waters of the Rio Grande come from melting snows in the Colorado Rockies. They meet in a long V shaped canyon where the Red River permanently colors the Colorado for the rest of its journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

From that plateau, we hiked down the Little Arsenic Springs trail on a series of steep switch-backs, dropping 780 feet in less than a mile. Derek is more than a foot taller than I, with most of his height in long legs. In ten minutes he was down off the cliff and on level ground.

I have an almost debilitating fear of heights which I constantly fight by doing things just like this. With a walking stick for balance, I carefully stepped down the switchbacks at a snail's pace. Sophie kept coming back up to check on me; having her people separated made her very nervous.

The wide Colorado River canyon features a number of flat shelves. Each one is an old river floor created during the last million years or so. As the climate warmed up, there was less ice to melt and therefore less water in the river. It cut down through each floor to reach a new level. Now it is several floors down and still cutting through the hard basalt rock laid down by nearby volcanos. The cones of those volcanos dot the broad plateau on which Taos and Questa sit.

From the trail, about half way down, the stair step plateaus

At the very bottom of the canyon where the river is just a few feet lower than the trail, we walked on sand for about a third of a mile to the Little Arsenic Springs. Pouring out of cracks in the basalt, high up on the cliff, is a gush of fresh water. It cascades over boulders into the Rio Grande. In small pools and level areas, a plant that resembles water cress grows, along with cat tails and Mormon tea.

Derek proposed following the trail over to Big Arsenic Springs. I felt too ill prepared to tackle that hike. I had no jacket and the weather was changing with a strong wind. I hadn't brought my little pack with emergency gear like a space blanket, flashlight, gloves, etc, and I was wearing Teva sandals without socks. He had been over there before but I really had no idea how long the entire hike would take once we got back up to the top. We would still have to walk a long ways to get back to his truck.

Trail at the bottom of the canyon, where tall
Ponderosas grow
So we decided, and I know it's never a good idea to do this, to split up. I would take the keys and easily make it back to the truck before he and Sophie could get to the top. I would drive over to the other trailhead and wait for them.

The best laid plans......

On my way back, I enjoyed the very cool breezes, took many opportunities to look at the few spring flowers and insects, and to take more pictures. Then a voice said HELLO. I almost jumped out of my skin.

Coming down the trail above me was a young man with a pack and fishing pole. We chatted a bit. Mike was on a cross country trip from Chicago. An interesting fellow, he and friends had traveled the world already, and he was trying to figure out what to do next. A long road trip seemed like a good idea, much more interesting than getting a job and putting down roots. But, he lamented the lack of money in such a life, hence he had been camping the whole way.

He asked if the truck up on the mesa was mine and I told him no, I would be driving it over to pick up Derek at the other trail head.

The blue Rio Grande 
Meanwhile, Derek had decided to do a shortcut across a boulder field. With his long legs he could climb over the rocks, but Sophie had trouble. She put her paws up but would not even try to jump onto a boulder that was taller than she was. Derek had to lift her and sometimes carry her. Finally he gave up, recrossed the part of the boulder field they'd come through, and hiked up the trail we'd both come down. They were pretty exhausted when Mike met them. He told Derek that he knew I would be at the other trailhead. Derek nodded. So Mike put his jeep keys into Derek's hand and said, "Take my jeep over to meet her, just put it back in the same spot and leave the keys under the right tire." What a guy!

Back at the Big Arsenic Springs trailhead, Derek and Sophie were nowhere to be seen. I even hiked down the trail for a ways to look over the cliff at the switchbacks. Nobody was down there. I was just getting into the truck to go check out the other trailheads when a little black jeep with a man and a white dog came roaring up.

I followed Derek as he returned the jeep and left a thank-you note with twenty bucks for that generous and incredibly trusting young man. I'm not sure I would have given a complete stranger the keys to my vehicle with all my food, camping gear, and phone!!

A small herd of deer wandered by while I waited. They
sure do melt into the scenery with that buff coloring.

Nice colorful formation on the trail

For a map of the new National Monument, go to this webpage: DelNorte

A 3-D map of  northern New Mexico
 in the patio of the visitor's center

Close-up of the confluence of the two rivers