Black Mesa SP, OK, to Natural Bridges NM, UT

Black Mesa State Park to Sugarite Canyon State Park, Raton, NM

Wednesday, June 28, 2006 … 144 Camper Miles – Total 3,210

Clear, sunny, gorgeous, low 70s, breezy.

This morning we got an early start, heading west, and crossed into New Mexico at 10:16. In so doing, we gained/lost? another hour, making us two hours later than the east coast. Have to watch those evening calls to family back home!

As we drove we noticed an especially volcano-like mountain ahead of us. Sure enough it was Capulin volcano and is a self-named National Monument! Well, we couldn’t pass up a chance like that. We drove in, stopped at the Visitor Center and unhitched the camper for the drive up to the crater rim. (Trailers are NOT allowed on the steep, narrow road to the top with good reason.)

Capulin Crater Panorama
Sandy Poses on Capulin Rim Trail

Once there, we took the short, steep path into the crater and then did the 1.2 mile trail around the rim. The rim trail hits a maximum elevation of 8,182 feet and the view is pretty spectacular. Even novices like us can easily make out other nearby volcanoes, see the ripples in the flats below left by cooling lava and understand how the adjoining mesas started out as valleys filled with cooling lava. This place is worth the stop.

We arrived in Raton, NM, in the early afternoon and did a quick exploration of the area. Lunch was a Chinese buffet (Sandy won’t soon do another one.), a stop to stock up on groceries and the obligatory stop at the very nice visitor center which offered free WiFi so we could do our e-mail.

Mule Deer Near Entrance to Sugarite Canyon SP
Bill Finally Bags a Turkey Shot in Sugarite Canyon

A five-mile drive got us to nearby Sugarite Canyon State Park where we intended to stay for a couple of days. Rain threatened but didn’t happen. It is extremely dry in this area. They’d had almost no precipitation since early last fall and the park intended to close one of their campgrounds on July 3 for fear of fire. The campground is up the park’s namesake canyon and they are afraid they couldn’t evacuate the campground in case of a fire. We set up in the other campground in a very pleasant site.

Late that afternoon we set out to head up Little Horse Trail to the top of the mesa for a look at the canyon.

Looking Over Sugarite Canyon from Rim

As we entered the trailhead, Sandy was pretty certain she saw a bear disappear into the woods ahead of us. What to do? We decided to carry on, talking loudly as we climbed to give any large, furry creatures fair warning that we were on our way and hoping that they would stay out of our way. Happily, they did. At the top, the mesa flattened out into a meadow. It was very pretty and really windy. The view out over the canyon from the mesa’s edge was lovely. Heading back down the steep incline we noticed a pile of scat. Was it from a bear. Bill took a picture of the droppings and had our suspicions confirmed when we returned to our campsite.

Stir-fried veggies was our dinner that evening. During the evening it cooled down so much that we had to break out the comforter that we hadn’t used for weeks!

Sugarite Canyon State Park to Durango, CO

Thursday, June 29, 2006 … 8 Camper Miles – Total 3,218

Partly sunny, occasional showers, cooler down to mid 80s

Bill went to town for coffee in the morning and scouted a place for an oil change for the car. On the way back to the campground he came across a cattle drive headed up the road, complete with horseback wranglers and a couple of hundred cows and calves. For about a mile he threaded his way carefully through the herd to the park entrance.

Back at camp, he looked over the trailer axle situation and decided that it was definitely getting worse … too bad to proceed to Moriarty, NM, where he’d arranged for the new axle to be shipped and to have it installed. We decided, instead, to leave the camper in Raton and visit our friends, Fred and Tanya Richter, at Natural Bridges National Monument. Afterwards, we’d pick up the new axle, return to Raton, have it installed and pick up on our journey. Returning to town, he got an oil change for the car and scouted out local commercial campgrounds, settling on Summerlan RV Park who would store our camper inexpensively and do the axle installation when we carried it up from Moriarity. Back at Sugarite, we packed up, drove CAREFULLY to Summerlan and parked the rig.

Descending West Side of Continental Divide

We headed north and began crossing southern Colorado on US-160. Along the way, we crossed the continental divide while traveling through Wolf Creek Pass. An overlook on the westward side provided a spectacular view of rocky outcroppings overlooking the valley below. Later, while both gazing at scenery as Bill drove, we nearly hit an animal crossing the road, probably a big mule deer or, possibly, an elk. Whew! We were also impressed with the huge irrigation systems used to grow crops in this arid region.

Fred and Tanya don’t have a personal phone in Natural Bridges NM and cell phones don’t work there so it’s tough to communicate. We had a standing invitation to stay with them but a call to the business phone at the park finally established that they were on the road during a couple of days off. So, we decided to stay overnight in Durango.

This is a very pretty town with a nicely gentrified downtown that succeeds in combining a vibrant downtown with an older, western town feel. We got a room at the Siesta Inn at the north end of town. It had a traditional courtyard setup, was clean and reasonably priced considering it was a holiday weekend. It is apparently favored by backpackers as we saw several working on their gear that evening. We had supper at Serious Barbeque a couple of doors away … good stuff!

Durango to Natural Bridges National Monument, Lake Powell, UT

Friday, June 30, 2006 … 0 Camper Miles – Total 3,218

Partly sunny, scattered showers, mid 80s to 90.

Sandy started her day with a walk along the Animas River Path, starting downtown and working her way to the end, near our motel. Meanwhile, Bill got his cappuccino, headed to a car wash to get the worst of the cow dung (remember the cattle drive?) from the car and did some writing. We needed to do laundry so we headed downtown to the perfect strip mall. This tiny mall was next to the downtown area and had a large, clean laundromat (with free WiFi), a health food store and a wine store all adjacent to each other! What more could we ask? After taking care of all our chores we checked out the steam train ride to Silverton. This is a ride that Bill’s known about for years and we’ll try to fit it in when we return in a few weeks. We picked up a few additional groceries at Wal Mart and were on our way.

A few miles from Durango is Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde features spectacular cliff dwellings that we wanted to see. The drive into the park and the big show is more than 20 miles, far more than we could do and still get to Natural Bridges by nightfall. But the campground is near the entrance so we decided to drive up the road to check that out. We were afraid it would be impossible to get campsites without reservations. What we found is that is true, sort of. If you want a campsite with electricity and water you are out of luck. But, most of the campsites are of the “primitive” type and are nearly deserted. We’ll be able to get a campsite there anytime we want without any reservation. That’s fine with us and we plan to stop and camp there on our return.

We continued our western journey, driving through many miles of deserted country. The last, 40-mile leg was from Blanding to Natural Bridges NM. This is arid country, criss-crossed with canyons. There is an especially striking moment during the drive when you drive through a huge cut through solid, red rock to emerge into a canyon bordered by Comb Ridge. This west-facing, nearly vertical ridge is probably about 100 miles long and has natural cuts at regular intervals making it appear comb-like. It was illuminated by a late afternoon sun and was a spectacular, classic Utah view. It is really hard for us to get used to the sudden scenery changes. They are just amazing. One minute you are driving through a flat desert and the next you are descending into an amazing canyon!

View of Comb Ridge Nearing Natural Bridges

Finally, we arrived at Natural Bridges NM. Just moments it turns out, after Richters arrived from a 3-day camping trip. One of the other staff had left a “warning” note on their front door that we were coming and they’d just read it as we arrived. It turned out that we were within minutes of each other in both Durango and Blanding. Their house turned out to be a modern, spacious, two-bedroom rancher that accommodated us in unaccustomed luxury!

We caught up with what was going on over a simple dinner of sandwiches, salad and fruit.