A Quick Trip to White Sands National Monument: Go Early, Hike in Late…

Last week, I decided to take a couple of days and visit White Sands National Monument.  I’ve lived in New Mexico for almost three years and decided it was time.  There is no excuse not to take advantage of a National Monument or Park when it’s in your backyard.

From what I’d read and heard, WSNM is a spectacular location for exploring and stargazing. During the day, the dunes are beautiful – stark white, with very little relief as far as color or texture go.  There is sparse vegetation, mostly consisting of salt-loving shrubs growing in the low areas between the dunes.   The occasional yucca manages to find a foothold, even on the dune tops.  At night, there is very little light pollution, making for perfect stargazing conditions.

I opted for a “backpacking” trip – hiking into one of the ten available back-country sites.  My plan was to go in a bit after mid-day, set up my campsite, explore a bit and relax under my shade/tarp until evening.

Permits are issued on a first come, first served basis.  You must walk in to get one.  There are also days when you can’t hike or camp: the missile test range is next door, and if they are testing, there’s no hiking or camping.  Call ahead.

I drove down to the visitor’s center, walked in at 11:00 am, and had my choice of campsites.  From there I drove to the trailhead parking lot, located the start of the dune-field trail, and began my hike in.  So far, so good.  The backcountry area is actually quite small.  The trail is a 4-mile loop, with the 10 campsites branching off of it like spokes on a wheel.  Each site is situated in the bottom of a low-lying flat area, behind a sand dune.  There is no camping allowed on the dunes themselves.  You’d think these low areas would be ideal locations for camping…  One suggestion: if you are using a tent that requires staking out, bring tent stakes and a hammer.  There are no rocks naturally occurring in the dune field and the gypsum hardpan is basically cement.  Pushing in the tent stake will only result in a bruised palm and a very weak stake placement.  I learned this lesson the hard way.

After setting up my tent and tarp/shade, as securely as possible, I did some exploring.  The Monument website recommends taking a fully charged cell phone, map, compass, and GPS.  They also state that often-times GPS coverage is iffy, and your phone likely won’t work.  Best to brush up on your map and compass skills.  I can see how easily it would be to become lost in the dunes.  The wind quickly erases your tracks, and the landscape is starkly white and barren.  In bright light, the terrain appears to flatten out and you can become disoriented.  The backcountry camping area has Carsonite posts marking the trail, these are set on high areas, making it easier to keep track of your location.  The other areas in the monument are not as well marked, so hikers be aware.

After lunch, I took advantage of my shade, listened to a lecture on Greek Mythology and napped.  It’s a great place to just hang out.  I didn’t have any bugs, no crowds of people, and only one military drone.  There are a lot of jet fly-overs, as the monument is located adjacent to an Air Force base, but I knew this going in.  The jets were nothing compared to the wind that came on around 5:00 pm.

I’d been checking the weather for a few days leading up to my trip, trying to average out the forecasts from NOAA, the Weather Channel, and AccuWeather.  NONE of them predicted tent-flattening, tarp-flying, sand-blasting microbursts.  If I’d had some sort of hammer-like device, I might’ve been okay, but without one I could not reset any of my tent stakes.  I packed up my tent and tarp, and in the process discovered that my sleeping bag was full of gypsum.  I packed that up too.  After sitting in a ball for 30 minutes, waiting to see what happened, I came to the conclusion that setting up a stove and preparing dinner in this was not going to happen.  Of course, that is when I decided that I was getting hungry.  At around 5:30 I stood up and took a look around.  A small wall of dust was building and heading my way, reminiscent of the 1930’s dust bowl photos my grandparents used to show me.  Enough.  I packed the rest of my stuff, put my shoes back on (you can run around barefoot as much as you want – no cactus) and hiked back to the car. 

As I was heading out, I passed several people hiking into their sites.  They looked about as excited for the wind as I was.  I now know how I’ll approach this when I go back.  Yes, despite my failed attempt, I am going to try again.  The place is just too amazing not to.  First: go in early to get your campsite, then go do something else until late afternoon.  Take a tent peg hammer.  Don’t hike in too early – it’s hot in the sun; there is no water, so you must carry it in; the wind will pick up in the early evening, making it difficult to prepare dinner.  You can minimize your exposure by going in later, after you’ve had dinner, for example.  Or, go in the Fall, when the wind isn’t such a problem.

Backcountry permits cost $3, the landscape is surreal, and the light reflecting off the gypsum is brilliant! Take a good pair of sunglasses, some sunscreen, and a wide-brimmed hat.  You can also buy a sled at the visitor’s center – the kids playing in the parking lot dunes seemed to enjoy them.

 

Alleviate the Disadvantages of Fuel Canisters with this Simple Device | Gear Institute

The advantages of isobutane canister stove fuel makes it extremely popular in the backcountry: clean burning, no spills, and ease of use. The major drawbacks of canister fuel revolve around the inability to transfer fuel between canisters, resulting in partially used canisters piling up, and forcing us to carry multiple partially used canisters to avoid wasting fuel. On top of that, we often end up paying more per unit of fuel, as the cost is disproportionally higher in smaller canisters.

Source: Alleviate the Disadvantages of Fuel Canisters with this Simple Device | Gear Institute

Trump aims attack at national monuments: 20 at risk | Wilderness.org

Trump aims attack at national monuments: 20 at risk President Trump is ordering a “review” of about half of all national monuments designated since the beginning of 1996, a sweeping action that is intended to shrink boundaries and reduce protections. The executive order will put more than 20 national monuments in the crosshairs, ranging from rare wildlife habitat to Native American archaeological ruins, stretching from Maine to California to Pacific islands. Photo: California Coastal National Monument. C

Source: Trump aims attack at national monuments: 20 at risk | Wilderness.org

Trump To Sign Executive Order That Could Shrink National Monuments : NPR

President Trump is expected to sign an executive order Wednesday that could end up shrinking — or even nullifying — some large federal national monuments on protected public lands, as established since the Clinton administration.The move is largely seen as a response by the new administration to two controversial, sweeping national monument designations made late in the Obama administration: the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah considered sacred to Native American tribes and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada near the Bundy Ranch, site of the 2014 armed standoff over cattle grazing on public land.

Source: Trump To Sign Executive Order That Could Shrink National Monuments : NPR

Frack and ruin: Archaeologists fear drilling could obliterate Chaco connections – : Art

There is nothing to see but the cracked yellow earth, wiry bunch grass, and saltbush. Nothing, that is, until a practiced eye begins spotting a scattering of tiny black and red potsherds. Their presence here, 16 miles north of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, along with their linear arrangement, as if they were used to mark a road, are part of a chain of clues that have been leading archaeologists farther and farther away from Chaco in their efforts to explain what Chaco was.

Source: Frack and ruin: Archaeologists fear drilling could obliterate Chaco connections – : Art

Is Instagram Ruining the Great Outdoors? | Outside Online

The great outdoors is all over social media. On Instagram, the hashtag #nature has been used more than 20 million times. Attach a geotag to your photo of last weekend’s campsite, and your followers can tramp to the exact same spot. Some nature lovers worry about the downside to this: Is Instagram funneling hordes of people to places that can’t handle this crush of admirers? Are those filtered, perfectly tinted pics sending a message that people can always go where they want, when they want, and how they wa

Source: Is Instagram Ruining the Great Outdoors? | Outside Online

The death of backpacking? (The death of backpacking?) — High Country News

Great essay in The High Country News.  I am not giving up.  An experience I recently had in the Grand Canyon gives me hope.  I took an extra layover day, at Indian Gardens, during my Tonto Tour in March.  I wanted a rest day to just relax, eat, borrow a book from the little “library” there and enjoy being in the canyon.  A young family was camping in the space next to me – three young kids and their parents.  No iPads, iPods, Gameboys, whining, complaining, boredom.  Those kids were having the time of their lives and clearly enjoyed backpacking.  I hope their parents continue immersing them in wilderness-time.  Those kids are our hope for the future of wild places.

The adrenalized relationship with the natural world is also an experience of human conquest – the peak-bagger’s pathology. Ironically, it’s not much different from the benighted mindset of corporate accountancy: How many cliffs base-jumped? How many extreme trails conquered? Faster, more. And always the adrenalin payoff Casimiro perceives – not dissimilar to the monetary payoff chased by capitalists.

Source: The death of backpacking? (The death of backpacking?) — High Country News

Mesa Verde National Park

Managed by the National Park Service, Mesa Verde is situated on top of Chapin Mesa in southwest Colorado, just thirty miles from Cortez on Hwy 160. The road to the park, and all interior roads open to the public, are paved.

What You Can See

There are over 4,000 known archeological sites in Mesa Verde National Park, ranging from Basketmaker II mesa top farm/village sites to Pueblo III cliff dwellings. Only a small percentage of the sites in the park have been excavated. Several of the spectacular cliff dwellings are accessible to the public via guided ranger tours. Stop by the visitors center on the way into the park to pick up a map and reserve a place on a tour. There are also several self-guided trails leading visitors to villages, pithouses and irrigation features.

Tips for Your Visit

Plan for two days to see both sides of the park. There are two main “loops” with plenty to see and do. There is a camp ground in the park, as well as a lodge and assorted dining facilities. If you plan to stay in the lodge or campground, make reservations early. They fill up quickly. There is a fee to enter the park, this varies depending on when you plan to visit. The pass is good for 7 days.

Grand Gulch In Bears Ears National Monument

Grand Gulch, part of the newly established Bears Ears National Monument, is a remote canyon system located south and west of Blanding, UT. Numerous sites dating from the Archaic period to PIII can be found here, as well as some of the finest examples of ancient rock art in the Southwest.

Backpacking in Lower Grand Gulch
Getting There

Located on State Route 261, the Kane Gulch Ranger Station is 4 miles south of US Hwy 95 at the upper entry point into Grand Gulch, visitors to the area need to stop by here and register with the ranger and pay the day use fee, or overnight fee if you are backpacking in the canyon. As the name implies, this is a non-developed, primitive recreation area. Access into the canyon is by foot travel, although horse/pack animal access is allowed in certain portions of the canyon. The trails in and out of the canyon can range from steep, slightly technical scrambles to long, flat sand washes with everything in between.

What You Can See

Besides the incredible scenery of the canyon itself, several archaeological sites including Jail House Ruin, Perfect Kiva and Junction Ruin, as well as dozens of granaries and rock art too numerous to count are all located in Grand Gulch, many within day-hiking range from the BLM Ranger station at Kane Gulch.

Surrounding Grand Gulch, Cedar Mesa offers beautiful hiking, primitive car camping (in established sites) and opportunities to explore numerous mesa top sites.

Tips for Your Visit
Take only pictures

Transportation on Cedar Mesa can be an adventure in itself. The roads leading off of State route 261 consist of unimproved dirt roads, most requiring at least an all-wheel drive vehicle. Low clearance, 2-wheel drive cars may not get you where you want to go here. Keep in mind that the character of any one of the Cedar Mesa roads can change dramatically after one rain storm. Washouts, sandy areas and arroyo cutting are all part of the adventure.

Slick rock campsites – Leave No Trace

The ranger station has a good collection of books and maps for sale, focusing on the Grand Gulch/Cedar Mesa area. The rangers will also have information regarding which archaeological sites are open and accessible to the public. In addition, they have current water conditions and weather forecasts. Both are very important for anybody planning on venturing below the canyon rims. For more information on visiting archaeologically sensitive areas, check this link out.

 

Hera’s first backpacking trip

Ready to hit the trail

We rescued Hera, a cute Blue Heeler with not so cute issues, about 3 years ago.  Last summer, I decided that I’d like to try backpacking with her.  She’s a fearful dog so, while she is obedient 90% of the time, we always walk her on-leash.  Keeping her on a leash is our choice and not up for discussion.  That said, she’s very happy to carry a little backpack for day hikes.  She loves hiking!  I chose a 3-day hike to do that wouldn’t involve any technical/difficult scrambling or climbing, would have plenty of water and would be less popular with the masses – ie., not Lake Catherine.

For this adventure, I’d take my lightweight, 2-person tent (not enough room for myself and the dog in the Seedhouse).  She’s always done well in our big car-camping tent, so I didn’t forsee any problems.  Other than the bigger tent, and a bearproof canister for food, my kit would pretty much be the same that I always carry.  Hera would carry her little backpack, and in addition to the snacks she usually carries, she’d have a little, lightweight bedroll, some extra kibble and her collapsible food bowl.  We packed up, left details about our route and when we’d be home and headed out.  Once at the trailhead, I strapped her into her backpack, and me into mine and we started out.  Ten steps from the truck a loud clap of thunder announced that weather was over the ridge, and we might have some precipitation.  The trail wouldn’t take us anywhere exposed or up high, so I decided to continue on.  About 1/4 mile in, it started to hail – little, tiny hailstones.  I learned that Hera doesn’t like hail.

What is this devilry?

She actually managed to slip out of her backpack at one point, and just laid down in the trail.  We ducked under a large boulder and let the hail pass.  Once she was back into her pack, and it had quit hailing we continued on.

 

Lunchtime came and I chose a little meadow area, near a creek to stop and eat.  She wasn’t sure about eating out in a meadow.  The kibble was completely unappetizing so, I offered her a sausage snack.  That was apparently adequate trail food.  We kept going, passed through a fairly heavy rain squall, hiked up and out of a fog bank, and managed to make about 9 miles.  She was a trooper.  I chose a nice campsite, overlooking a meadow complete with a little trout stream, and some elk.

Elk watching

I got her dried off, set up the tent, hung the bear canister and we settled in for the evening.  I’m not sure she was having much fun.  From the look on her face, she was skeptical.  After dinner, we took a walk down to the creek where she saw her first free-swimming fish.  She was more than happy to crawl into the tent for the night.  I was quite pleased with the results of her first day out, and she didn’t snore at all.

Where is this place and when do we go home?

The next day we packed up for a day-hike.  No backpack for her! I carried my little summit pack with our food and my water.  We did a nice loop hike, exploring several large meadows and low ridge tops.  I don’t think she was much impressed with the scenery, but LOVED rolling in the fresh grass – we don’t have any at home.

Grass!

Back to camp for our last evening.  Unfortunately, the mosquitoes discovered our location and took a special interest in Hera.  I sprayed my bandana with Ben’s and laid that across her while I ate dinner.  It seemed to help.

Tents are just big, soft-sided doghouses

We slept in, and after breakfast and one last walk down to our trout stream, packed up and started hiking out.  We had good weather for the return trip and made good time.  There were even several bovines near the trailhead for Hera’s entertainment.  She loves cows, it’s in her genes.  As much as I would have enjoyed watching her scatter them, I kept her on leash.

We got back to the truck, ditched our packs and headed home.  I did stop at a drive-thru for a burger and fries.  Hera loves drive-thrus.  She knows that those people mean food, and are somehow ok.  She’s never once tried to keep them at bay.

Ready for a cheeseburger