Four Corners, Part 1 (Orientation)

Our family visits a different part of the United States every summer. This year we decided to travel through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. We made it as far west as the Four Corners monument although we we spent only a few moments in Utah and Arizona. We toured through parts of Utah back in 2011. Arizona will need to wait for another day.

The embedded map showed our approximate route. We began our adventure at the Denver International Airport where we landed and rented a car. From there we drove down to Angel Fire, a ski resort town in New Mexico where I have family. That offered a nice base for a return trip to Taos, a place I last visited in 2013 during the Dust Bowl adventure. The next swing included a series of National Park properties: Pecos National Historical Park; Bandelier National Monument; Chaco Culture National Historical Park; and Mesa Verde National Park. We also spent time in towns along the way including Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Durango. Then we drove back to Denver.

We packed a lot of activities into those ten days. From mountains to desert, from cold to warm, from historic to modern, we tried a little of just about everything. I didn’t capture many new counties on this trip though, for a couple of reasons. First, the immense size of counties out there made it difficult, although each capture covered a lot of territory on the map too. Second, I’d been to several of the places before. This was more about visiting friends and family, and showing the kids places I loved seeing during an epic road trip I took a quarter century earlier. Even so, I still found time for a few county captures, some under interesting circumstances

Pecos Subterfuge

Pecos National Historical Park

The path from Angel Fire to Santa Fe, New Mexico would ordinarily go through Taos and enter Santa Fe from the north. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to capture a couple of new counties by traveling along the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then looping back to Santa Fe from the south. That inefficient route led directly past Pecos National Historical Park. I used the park as my excuse. We enjoyed Pecos — and I’ll talk about that some more in a future article — although the actual reason focused squarely on the new counties, Mora and San Miguel.

The park fell within San Miguel and the photograph above gave a nice overview of its terrain. Each afternoon the "monsoon" rains of summer covered the plains. Mora County looked similar, maybe a little greener, with an economy seemingly based on ranching. I didn’t see a lot of wealth in sparsely-populated Mora. At one point we drove through its county seat, also called Mora, and the speed limit dropped down to 15 miles per hour (24 kph). You better believe I didn’t go a single mile per hour over that limit. It seemed like one of those places where speeding tickets probably funded the few public services that existed out there. I admit I had no evidence of that and perhaps I’ve made an unfair assessment. I didn’t risk it either.

Let’s Make Sure at Los Alamos

Bradbury Science Museum

I’d marked New Mexico’s smallest county, Los Alamos, as one I’d visited previously. Los Alamos made my tally many years ago during that previously-referenced epic road trip. However, I’ve since doubted that I actually captured it. No major roads between popular destinations cut through there. That was by design. Los Alamos served as the secret hideaway for scientists designing atomic bombs during World War 2. Nobody was supposed to travel to Los Alamos without a specific reason to be there. The county, established formally in 1949, covered barely a hundred square miles (250 square km). I simply couldn’t see how I’d crossed its borders on that earlier trip. Why had I concluded otherwise so many years ago? This time I made sure to record my visit photographically for the sake of accuracy and completeness. It didn’t "count" as a new capture even if that might have actually been the case.

Giving William McKinley His Due

Chaco Culture

My exceedingly brief visit to McKinley County, New Mexico probably set a record for my most absurd county capture ever. It also became another exceedingly rare example of a "walk only" county like my recent visit to Cass County, Michigan. McKinley happened during my trip to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Nothing was easy about getting to Chaco Canyon. The National Park Service recommended the northern route that involved about 16 miles of mostly decent dirt and gravel roads. I took that route. Visitors could also approach from the south with about 20 miles of "at your own risk" dirt roads. The southern route, if I’d been more adventurous, would have brought me through McKinley County.

However, I noticed that I could head south from the Visitors Center, go a couple of miles along the southern dirt path, and reach McKinley. I decided to touch McKenly at its closest point, where the road ran directly along the county line. I simply needed to stop the car and touch a point of land just beyond the roadside (map). A barbed wire fence ran along there too, so I put my foot between the strands of wire. Then I gently patted the ground with my foot. County captured.

Colorado Backcountry

Durango, Colorado

Actually I captured most of my new counties on a single day. We drove from Durango to Denver using the default route. We had some friends to visit in Denver so I didn’t want to go out of the way. Even so, that brought me through Archuleta, Mineral, Rio Grande, Saguache, Chaffee, and Park Counties for the first time. Driving through Saguache offered particularly remarkable scenery. Much of the county sat in humongous bowl surrounded by mountains on all sides. Amazingly flat, filled with fertile fields, and yet the wide plain sat at an elevation of something like 8,000 feet (2,400 metres). Park County also offered a little entertainment, if only as the setting of the South Park cartoon. That included a drive through Fairplay, the inspiration for the quiet mountain town where Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman lived.

Nine (possibly ten) new county captures didn’t seem like a lot from a numerical perspective. Nonetheless, we covered quite a bit of territory and had a great time doing it.

Articles in the Four Corners Series:

  1. Orientation
  2. Hikes
  3. Towns
  4. Native Americans
  5. Breweries
  6. Reflections

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

12 Replies to “Four Corners, Part 1 (Orientation)”

  1. Sounds like fun! I’m in a similar boat to you – I haven’t made it to Los Alamos, but my only remaining norther NM counties are Mora and Harding – those are not convenient to reach! I also nabbed Valencia this summer by taking a nice 2 mile detour south of I-40 on my way out west. I also added Archuleta, CO this summer. Looking forward to the rest of this series!

  2. Did you keep the foot-only status of San Juan County, Utah? From the map it looks like you did, but it’s hard to say.

    (Also, for some reason I thought the Park County town was Fairview, and in fact vaguely recall having made a pun that involved Fairplay not being its name – but apparently it really is Fairplay.)

  3. I live in Denver and took a similar route at about the same time and picked up my last county for Colorado (Hinsdale County). I also finished all of Northern New Mexico (just have southWestern NM left). We went to a lot of the same sights, just interesting to know that we were probably nearby a lot of the time.

    1. Sorry I missed you. We were the family of four with two boys (aged 15 and 11) in the rented red Toyota Corolla with California plates. Maybe you saw us and never even knew it!

  4. Back in the summer of 2000, I visited Los Alamos a few times since my girlfriend at the time had gotten a summer job at the lab doing… some sort of physics stuff with magnets. I’m sure she explained it to me, but I’ve forgotten. The important part was that I actually got to visit the lab, and it was kind of a trip to think that just a few decades prior, the mere existence of this place was need-to-know. This was also the summer that wildfires raged through parts of the town. I actually went hiking through part of the burned area mere weeks later. That was an eerie experience.

    A spur-of-the-moment drive west of the lab and through the Jemez Mountains during one of my summer visits took us through the Valles Caldera, a beautifully green expanse that had once been the inside of a volcano. Closer to the town of Jemez Springs was the Soda Dam, a massive mineral formation in the middle of a river alongside the road. These were quite memorable attractions that I figured were a little more “off the beaten path” than what most visitors to New Mexico would ever see.

  5. What are your personal rules about how to count a county as visited? Would you count it if, like a touchdown, you just crossed the plane of the end zone? Was McKinley county here your first non-weight-bearing foot-only county?

    1. Essentially, I would agree with the touchdown rule. It’s a bit more complicated than that for me personally and I went into some detail awhile ago in It Counts but It’s Pitiful. The good news is there’s no officially sanctioned County Counter Rules Committee, so whatever anyone thinks are the rules, those are the rules that count. I hadn’t considered the non-weight-bearing aspect of McKinley but you’re absolutely right. That makes my visit even more pathetic! Yes, that would also make it my one and only non-weight-bearing foot-only county. I suspect that will change since I-40 runs through McKinley and I’m likely to be out there again someday.

    2. My usual rule for county counting is that I have to actually _be_ in the county. However, I have recently modified the rule. I took a cruise from Seattle to the Alaska panhandle earlier this summer. I cruised by counties in Washington and British Columbia and Alaska. I used GPS and the Mob Rule site to be sure of things. I could see all of them but binoculars helped. I rode a bus and train and got the Yukon Territory (it’s one county equivalent FYI). If I could see it, I counted it. That policy got me over 1000 counties in the USA and 24 in Canada.

      At the end of the cruise, I could clearly see Mt. Ranier. Also, I have flown right by it a couple of times. I normally don’t count flyovers as county acquisitions. However, three sightings of a big thing like is good enough for me. Add Pierce county, WA to my list.

      On a different cruise, I was a mile or two away from Key West. However, it was too windy for our big ship to go into the channel dredged in the coral. We could get wedged in and that’s no good. I could clearly see the attractions on land and had full bars on my phone. I do count Monroe county, Florida.

      County counters get to make up their own rules. I have had a huge amount of fun taking special drives (and cruises) to collect more counties. That’s what is important.

      1. Haha. A few years ago, when we ended up at Vistula Spit on a vacation, either my phone or my mom’s (don’t recall exactly) got an automated message saying “Welcome to Poland!”

        I have never otherwise been to Poland; my mom might have (I don’t know much about her travels in the 1990s), but I don’t think she had either.

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