Four Corners, Part 2 (Hikes)

The vast empty spaces of the Southwest offered great scenery with with long distances between stops. That didn’t bother me. I liked driving and enjoyed the view. We found plenty to do along the way too, mostly outdoors. Every place worth a detour also included a signature hike of some sort. Even the most crowded parks seemed quiet when we took trails bypassed by more sedentary tourists. Unfortunately my lungs, long acclimated to life barely above sea-level, struggled with altitudes that sometimes topped ten thousand feet. I felt short of breath at times although I bounced back like a pro by the end of the trip.

Agua Fria Peak

Angel Fire Resort

The first hike might have been the most strenuous even though it took us directionally downhill. We began the morning by riding the chairlift up Agua Fria Peak (map) at the Angel Fire Resort in northern New Mexico. From there, we hiked all the way down the mountain, a distance of four miles plus change (6.5 kilometres). We were warned to stay on the trail and avoid ski runs because mountain bikers used them during the summer. I didn’t really want to get clipped by a bicycle under momentum so I followed that advice.

The trail began at an elevation of 10,600 feet (3,230 metres) and descended all the way to the valley below. That was high enough to make me feel a little woozy although at least we were heading downhill. Forests of pine and aspen provided plenty of shade, and a bit of protection when the brief daily summer "monsoon" rumbled across the hills. Highlights included amazing mountaintop views, the aerial acrobatics of mountain bikers on adjacent trails and a wildlife encounter with a grouse of some type.

Tsankawi Ruins Trail

Bandelier National Monument

Most people going to Bandelier National Monument only see the main unit. We went there too although we also stopped at the lesser-known Tsankawi unit a few miles further north. Tsankawi could only be approached on foot using a 1.5 mile loop trail. Paleo-Indians lived in a village on the top of the mesa there, probably until the fifteenth century (map). They chose their location wisely. They could spot adversaries from a long distance away and defend their high ground.

Volcanic ash blanketed this entire area millions of years ago leaving a soft layer that became a rock called Tuff. As my son liked to say, tuff wasn’t tough. People stepped upon the tuff for hundreds of years and carved paths into the stone with their feet. Little walkways climbed over and covered the mesa, the same walkways used by modern visitors today. It felt soft and strange; not quite rocky although not quite spongy either. My hiking boots picked up a distinct gray dusty tinge from the climb.

Pre-Columbian inhabitants of Tsankawi also carved into the tuff itself. They created myriad places to stash their wares in addition to the pueblo they built atop the mesa. We barely saw another person as we hiked the loop and examined evidence of this vanished settlement.

Pueblo Alto Trail

Chaco Culture

Our most remote hike took place at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Its secluded location pretty much defined "middle of nowhere." I guessed the several miles of dirt and gravel road leading into the park scared away most people. In a sense that seemed unfortunate because a lot of folks missed out on something pretty amazing. Nonetheless, it offered us a full day away from crowds, and even more so once we hit the trail.

I first traveled to Chaco twenty five years ago and I remembered being impressed by the hike atop the mesa above its signature ruins. My return trip showed that I needed to follow the Pueblo Alto Trail to get there. Unlike that earlier trip, we didn’t have enough time to hike the entire trail so we turned around at the Pueblo Bonito overlook (map), a two mile out-and-back. Officially this was considered a "backcountry" hike that required registration at the trailhead.

Two miles sounded easy enough in theory although I’d forgotten how the trail made it up to the top of the mesa. The photograph above looks like a sheer cliff. However, a fissure cut vertically through the middle. Hikers had to reach the base of the fissure on a steep path, then wriggle uphill through a narrow passageway until reaching daylight. The original inhabitants used this same path for several hundred years. We weren’t used to such acrobatics and it seemed a little scary. There weren’t any safety devices, just climbers versus rock. The whole family managed to make it to the top without incident and we followed the trail along the cliff to view some great ruins from an elevated perspective.

Petroglyph Point Trail

Mesa Verde

Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde National Park seemed like opposite bookends. Few people visited Chaco and hordes visited Mesa Verde. I’m sure the nice paved road to Mesa Verde made all the difference. Even tour buses could drive easily into the depths of the park. We arrived too late in the day to get tickets to any of the major sites, though. We had to satisfy ourselves with glimpses from a distance at viewing platforms on the opposite cliff. However, our mobility and willingness to get away from the beaten path took us places far away from the crowds. This revealed some remarkable archaeological sites.

We selected the Spruce Tree House trail. This one led beneath the mesa rim, into some of the protected shelves where the original inhabitants built their homes. It terminated at Petroglyph Point (map), and the largest array of petroglyphs anywhere in the park. Only hikers willing to move beyond normal park amenities could ever see them. From there, the trail climbed up the mesa and continued along the tabletop to complete the loop. The whole affair lasted about 2.4 miles, some of it rather strenuous.

It felt great to get outdoors. The kids didn’t even complain. Much.

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

Connecticut Extremes: Humidity and Humility

The Extreme Connecticut Geo-Tour began a day early for me with a seven-hour drive from the Washington, DC area to a hotel in Avon, CT that I used as my home base. I timed the drive well, managing to avoid various rush hours along a nefarious traffic corridor. I shot an email to Steve of Connecticut Museum Quest, our geo-guide and master of all useful Connecticut Trivia, to let him know I’d arrived safely. I would be ready to go the next morning.

View Extreme Connecticut Geography Tour in a larger map

Steve reminded me that it was early afternoon and that, oh by the way, the Southwick Jog was a straight-shot north from my hotel maybe ten miles. I really should go out and see it in person. And there was a brewpub right by it too. That preempted my preconceived plans for the remainder of the day: sitting by the hotel pool and taking a nap.

Massachusetts Southwick Jog

The Jog was an easy capture and it removed any possible pressure for the remainder of the trip. Now I had at least one geo-oddity under my belt no matter how the adventure unfolded the following day.

I do realize that the Southwick Jog is part Massachusetts — I thought I’d mention it before someone else points it out — however it should belong to Connecticut. It will return to Connecticut some day when justice is finally served and then Massachusetts will slide into the sea without a nub to hold it into place.

Northernmost Point in Connecticut

I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve that night and 5:00 am couldn’t come quickly enough. I met Steve in the hotel parking lot. We were joined a minute later by our fellow adventurer, Scott from The Scenic Drive and we began.

We drove to Connecticut’s northwestern corner, stopping as close as possible to the northernmost point of the state. A casual viewer might consider the border between Connecticut and Massachusetts as a straight line (except for the Southwick Jog). Logically, any point along that border would be "northernmost" by definition. Things are never that simple. Borders, especially old borders established and surveyed during colonial times, display small margins of error. Courts have generally upheld these old boundaries too. They’ve become accepted official boundaries over time even with their minor mistakes.

Thus, the border between Connecticut and Massachusetts wanders a tiny bit north and a tiny bit south here-and-there as it forms an approximately straight line. The marker that strays the farthest north is known as Angle Bound #196 (map). That was our goal and we achieved it. Photographic proof is provided above. I won’t bother go into detail about the route we took other than to say that none of us felt comfortable trespassing on private property (unnecessarily as it turns out). Steve described all of that much better than I could ever hope to achieve.

The temperature never cooled down much overnight and dawn broke with stifling heat and humidity. I dripped with sweat even after that easy hike through the woods. It would set a tone for things to come.

View Larger Map

This little northwest corner was filled with other geo-oddity goodies. Steve drove up Mt. Washington Road and parked at a small turnout just north of Connecticut’s border with Massachusetts. This served as a trailhead for Mount Frissell, and our hike would last about five miles round-trip.

Steve and Scott are both experienced hikers and climbed the steep hills like mountain goats. I made a huge tactical mistake — trying to keep up with them. The extreme humidity sapped my power and I started sucking air badly. I couldn’t keep up with them and it was pointless to try. I felt like an extra in a bad World War II movie, "I’m done for it boys, leave me behind and finish the mission. Tell the family I love them. Arggg…"

Actually all I had to do was slow down, way down, like turtle speed, and keep moving. Steve and Scott didn’t rub it in too much and we all accomplished our geography goal.

We made it to the summit of Mt. Frissell and then we walked downhill, yes downhill, to the Connecticut highpoint. Take a look at the map. Most of Mt. Frissell including the summit falls within Massachusetts. The Connecticut highpoint takes place on the state border on Frissell’s southwest shoulder. Some states mark their highpoints with large obelisks. Connecticut? They’ve a four-inch metal rod. Way to underwhelm me, Connecticut. The hike nearly drowned me in my own sweat and this was the best you could do?

From there it was only a stone’s throw to the Connecticut-Massachusetts-New York (CTMANY) Tripoint, perhaps a five minute walk away. You’ll also probably want to check Steve’s account on this portion of the adventure. I don’t remember much of that stop other than swatting at flies and wishing I could catch a cool mountain breeze that never materialized.

I was kicking myself in the tail all the way back from the tripoint to the car. We had only a single set time during the entire trip that could not be changed — a 2:00 ferry ride to the southernmost point. That was also the most important oddity I wanted to reach all day. I was pissed that my lack of hiking speed might likely prevent a ferry ride later, as I recovered in an air-conditioned car chugging Gatorade.

Steve said everything would be fine, but would it?

Other articles in this series: