March 18, 2015

Exploring the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico

Still shaking sand all the way out of Colorado, we were pretty excited to finally get to New Mexico and find some (hopefully) warmer weather. Our first stop was Santa Fe, where we checked into our base camp, the Santa Fe International Hostel. The hostel is a really friendly place where you can stay in same-sex dorms or rent private rooms with up to five beds inside! We chose the private room route so we didn't have to split up for a very reasonable price.

We had two main goals in Santa Fe: eat chile relleños everyday and check out the Jemez Mountain region. You might remember the story about how Nessa and I nearly got stranded in the woods here at night while looking for hot springs a few Septembers ago. Despite the brush with disaster, I just had to give it another chance! (Spoiler alert: We found them this time!)

On a sunny and moderately warm day in January, we headed off into the mountains to first check out Bandelier National Monument, an Ancestral Pueblo archeological site protecting the impressive canyon homes of the native peoples of the land. If you are thinking "cliff dwellings", than you are on the right page.

Once we took the windy, pine and snow speckled road into the Cañon De Los Frijoles, we grabbed a guide book for a buck and hit the trails along the canyon walls towards the noteworthy Alcove House. The trail, albeit leisurely, is an awesome way to explore the dwellings, sometimes reaching three stories high and accessible by ladders. There are also a lot of friendly rangers walking about to make sure you didn't pass by any petroglyphs without noticing.

The pinkish canyon walls of the Frijole Canyon are made of a volcanic ash called tuff that was deposited from the eruption of the adjacent Valles Caldera over one million years ago. The Ancestral Pueblo people were able to carve homes into the soft tuff and use the harder pieces as bricks. 

See the turkey?

At the end of the trail is the Alcove House, which you can reach by climbing 140 feet into the air on a few narrow ladders. The ladders are very sturdy and I wouldn't hurry to say that the climb was all that scary, but then again, I definitely didn't look down - a steady hand over hand was the perfect method for me.

The whole Jemez Mountain region was formed from volcanic activity triggered by an intracontinental rift (not associated with any fault lines) which also affords the area its many hot and warm springs. And I wasn't just about to give up on those elusive Spence Hot Springs!

Finding the Spence Hot Springs this time was a breeze and not at all as challenging as it should have been for me and Nessa last time! And yes, there is even a sign to the springs on the path and a bridge!

Now I wish I could rave about what a thermal paradise the pools are, but fresh from a few days at the paradisaical Orient Land Trust Hot Springs, these heavily used yet poorly respected pools didn't have the same spark that the might have had if I had found them during an adventure with Nessa.

The best thing about the pools is the spectacular view and the fact that the warm spring is fed from the mouth of a small cave - just the right size to squeeze into and maximize the warmth. Otherwise, the layers of soggy trash that surrounds the whole area kind of kills the vibe. Considering how easy it is to reach from the main road, that is not totally surprising, but still a bummer for someone trying to enjoy nature. Although I certainly was able to get a little relaxing in!

We looped around south of the mountains and back into Santa Fe in time for chile relleños and a little bit of dancing before resting up for more New Mexican adventures.

March 16, 2015

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Southern Colorado had a two for one special - Orient Land Trust Hot Springs and Great Sand Dunes National Park!

You know anything with the suffix "national park" will pique my interest, but I had also read a few interesting things about the Dunes like that you could ride a sled down them so we made sure to budget a good day to explore the area.

And wow - it wasn't until I actually laid eyes on the dunes that I realized that I had never seen anything like it before. If it weren't for the abutting Sangre De Cristo Mountains pocked with friendly evergreens, one might think they were in the middle of a desert, which I guess once you are standing atop a 700 foot pile of sand overlooking 19,000 acres of dunefield, you pretty much are.

The dunes here are the largest in North America, rising about 750 feet from the floor of the San Luis Valley. The wind is the architect in this special case; after the glaciers that formed the valley melted, westerly winds picked up loose particles and began piling them up against the wall of the mountain. This process continues today. Sand is still moved across the valley floor to the dunes, making them bigger, and changing their shape daily.

We arrived at the dunes on a clear and chilly day, still warm and pliable from two days in the hot springs. With our intentions set on sledding, we were immediately disappointed to learn that, despite several internet resources telling me otherwise, sleds were not for rent at the Visitors Center within the park and that we would have to drive 40 miles out of the way to a satellite Visitors Center in Alamosa to get them - and then drive back. Nah. So we hiked.

From the first step into the soft, shifting sands, we knew we were in for a challenge. Climbing nearly 750 feet in elevation in sand that forever sank away from us took nearly two hours. And it certainly didn't help that because the dunes shapes are flexible and constantly changing there are no obvious  trails. We were advised to stay on the ridge lines to make walking easier, but we didn't always follow that advice and would more often than not end up scrambling (hopelessly) up sheer, crumbling dune faces and cursing ourselves for making the journey harder on ourselves that necessary!

After busting our glutes into smithereens, we eventually made it to the top of a tall dune ridge, but the chilly winds whipping stinging sand all around us quickly inspired us to turn around.

The best part? After the slow, painful climb up, the reckless running, tumbling, and jumping our way back down the soft, pliable sands almost made up for the fact that we never got to try it on a sled!

And I was no doubt shaking sand out of my hair for days!

March 10, 2015

Sunset at the OLT Hot Springs

At the Orient Land Trust Hot Springs on our second night, we headed up to the Top Ponds to watch the sunset. Although, when you combine freezing temperatures with the slanting of an orange sun over steaming hot springs - well,as you can see, it kind of turns into a brilliant, billowing, enveloping haze. 

Not that I'm complaining.

Because the walk to the top ponds is a bit over 1/4 mile on an icy slope, we headed towards more level ponds before losing all of the light. And of course we were treated to another dimming of the day in true Colorado splendor as we raced our rapidly freezing clothes to a warmer destination. We spent the rest of the night watching the scimitar moon sail over head and getting pruny in our natural bath.

In the morning we head to sandier reaches, the Great Sand Dunes National Park!

March 2, 2015

OMG! OLT Hot Springs

As soon as we escaped from the freezing air into the steamy hot spring, we began scheming on how we could stay here forever. We began listing people who needed to drop everything and come here right now. Imagine this: a thermal paradise at 9,000 feet elevation, perched against the piercing Sangre De Cristo Mountains lording over valley below and the distant San Juans. Yup, such is life in the Valley View Hot Springs at the Orient Land Trust in south central Colorado!

Wait, back up! First, our mad dash from Denver, tired from nights bent over arcade games and schmoozing at speakeasies, in the sudden onset snow storm, of course. The challenges of a winter road trip keep unfolding like an onion - and so do the perks!

Like a blizzard through Bighorn Canyon flecked with its namesake sheep spewing us into the San Luis Valley as the sun breaks through the clouds to greet us. We maneuver the car to a hasty stop to soak it all in. Somewhere, 60 miles along the chasm awaits our destination - and a private cabin booked for two nights! - but as we stand between the veils of two monstrous ranges being impaled with frozen wind, we don't quite know what to expect at this proclaimed "naturist community".

So headfirst into the snow we went, the setting sun throwing us into the shade of the squall before we took a left turn up into the mountains, dreaming of raising our core temps above freezing. Before long we had climbed up above the weather and were stopped at a boom gate next to the check in building. We find our cabin with just enough time to take in the beautiful sunset. This place already feels close enough to heaven and we haven't even seen any of the pools yet!

Okay, okay, no need to hold you in suspense. We quickly stripped (naturism here means "clothing optional", if you catch my drift), bundled our nakedness up in something that passed for pool cover and skipped into the steaming night with excitement. Although the short walk through the 0 degree temperatures was a bit rough, we eagerly entered the sauna (which had a spring inside!) before racing off to the pools.

For the next 36 hours, we soaked in the myriad pools throughout the area like happy, plump chia seeds. From the cascading "top ponds", to the breathtaking views at the "meadow pond", and of course the very impressive heated swimming pool, we basked in the steamy glow of 96 degree water in ten degree days! Pure bliss.

Have you soaked it all in?!