Five things to do instead of skiing during New Mexico’s worst drought ever
I am probably the only person in the United States who was disappointed by snowfall totals this winter. Specifically in New Mexico, where we made plans for a sunny ski trip in February (see here for more) . When we arrived, the snowfall total from January to mid-February at Taos Ski Valley was a skimpy (by mountain standards) 39 inches. By contrast, average annual snowfall at TSV is 305 inches. So we did a quick turnaround in our minds, from ski trip to road trip. Here’s a sampler of the fun.
1. Visit Taos Pueblo
Taos Pueblo, home of the Taos Pueblo people, is one of the few UNESCO World Heritage historic/cultural sites that is also a living, breathing community, although the winter population drops in the Pueblo drops to about 100 people. (Many more dwell in modern homes on the surrounding tribal land).
Although the Pueblo welcomes visitors and everyone we met was friendly and hospitable, the Pueblo people guard their heritage. Visitors are welcome at rituals and ceremonies, but absolutely no photos are allowed during these events. Brochures and other materials remind visitors not to interrupt ceremonies with questions or comments.
Today the Pueblo is striving for a balance between cultural tourism and community preservation, but for most of their history, what the Pueblo people most wanted was to be left alone. Although not warriors by tradition, they were definitely willing to fight for the right to self-government.
The Pueblo people were conquered by the Spanish around 1615, but revolted twice, in 1640, and then again during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt that spread through all of New Mexico’s pueblo communities. They held off the Spanish for 16 years before being defeated in 1696. Later, in the 1770s, repeated attacks on the pueblo by the Comanche led the Pueblo people to seek Spanish protection. The Comanches also scared the hell out of the Spanish and prevented expansion of their empire, but Spanish soldiers were able to protect Taos, a small island of Spain in a vast land ruled by the Comanche. Lots of history happening out here in the West while the American Revolution was heating up in Boston.
2. Check out the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge formerly known as New Mexico’s Bridge-to-Nowhere
Just a few miles outside of Taos, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge spans a narrow canyon carved by the river. When the three-span steel continuous-deck-truss structure was completed in 1965, the feds ran out of funds to build a road, so until the 1970s, when U.S. Route 64 was rerouted through Taos, the bridge was called the Bridge to Nowhere.
The bridge definitely goes somewhere today–Route 64 ends at the Four Corners of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah–but we didn’t follow that road. We did take in the amazing views and hiked for a mile or so on the West Rim Trail that hugs the gorge for nine miles (18 miles RT). It was great to be out hiking in the scrubland in mild temperatures.
3. Soak in natural hot springs
After our hike along the Gorge, we used a combination of local directions and iPhone GPS (never to be completely trusted in rural areas) to navigate our way on a rough dirt road to the John Dunn Bridge and the Black Rock Hot Springs.
Although not that far from the homes of Arroyo Hondo, the bottom of the Gorge felt very isolated and a little bit spooky. I reminded myself that these hot springs are well-known to locals and likely to be populated by mellow bathers rather than Deliverance-style killers.
We did run into a few naked people, but they weren’t carrying spears, and were quite friendly and polite. After they finished their soak (the pool was pretty full of people), we took our turn and enjoyed sitting in the 97 degree water while the Rio Grande flowed past us on its way to the Mexican-American border. Eventually, a local mom and her four-year-old daughter joined us, thus quelling any lingering notions that a drug-addled maniac was about to burst forth from behind a rock.
Memories of Charles Manson mingled with those from the movie Easy Rider to fuel my paranoia. The scene in which Dennis Hopper and Peter Hopper go skinny dipping with two girls from a hippie commune was filmed at nearby Stagecoach Springs Hot Springs (also called Manby Hot Springs). Although nothing chilling occurs in that particular scene, the audience senses impending danger as the two men continue on their journey. Fortunately, from our hot spring pool, we had a clear view of the trail to the parking spot and would at least spot the killers before they sprang upon us.
The commercial hot springs at Ojo Caliente also looked tempting and everyone recommended them, but we decided against more driving on a hot springs quest and opted for soaking in the hot tub at our rental. Something to leave for the next visit.
4. Hike Devisadero Peak in the “off-season”
“Devisadero” means “lookout point” or place. The Pueblo Indians once used the great views from the peak to stand guard against Apache raiders.
During the spring, summer, and fall, hikers and mountain bikers pack the trail, but only a few hardy hikers, bundled up in jackets, hats, and mittens, were out on the 40 degree-ish morning that we climbed the mountain. We had the 8,304-foot summit to ourselves. It wasn’t really warm enough for shorts, but my son dons them whenever the temps top 40, hence his nickname, “The Seal.”
5. Find your way to Tent Rocks National Monument.
On our last weekend in New Mexico, a late-arriving email tip sent me to the map to look for Tent Rocks National Monument. I am soooo glad we found this surreal place, which had me looking for Hobbits and wondering if a dragon might slither around a corner.
At Tent Rocks, we hiked along a sandy trail that led past hoodoos with rocks balanced on their points; slot canyons with walls that rose hundreds of feet; and an ancient cave where someone camped out hundreds of years ago. Eventually we climbed to a high plateau for great views.
Tent Rocks is another “middle-of-nowhere” place, but only about 40 miles from Albuquerque, so it was quite busy with hikers of all stripes and ages when we visited. Be sure to bring water on your trip (or fill up at the gas station/sub shop/store in the tiny town of Cochiti Lake), as no water is available at Tent Rocks.
Okay, my subtitle reads “five things to do,” but I need to highlight one more item for the list: Relax.
Lounge around at the rental. Watch sunsets. Read books. Surf on the internet and read more about the Southwest in Travels with The Blond Coyote, by New Mexico-based Mary Caperton Morton,who travels all over the United States living in a tiny TearDrop trailer.
Plan your next trip. Forget the skis, remember the sunscreen. Rinse, and repeat.
Sources and resources
Directions to natural hot springs in the Taos vicinity.
Trail maps for Deviserado Peak
More info on Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument (Take note: no dogs allowed).