Volcanos and mountains
Capulin Volcano: As soon as we entered New Mexico, mountains began to rise before us. But our first stop wasn’t just any mountain, it was a volcano. Capulin volcano is an impressive (and inactive) cinder cone volcano. There are several trails at the bottom, but the main feature is the trail around the rim and down into the mouth of the volcano. To get there you drive a spiraling road up and around the steep ascent. The drive is not for the faint of heart – nor is the mile-long hike around the rim – as the drop-offs are steep. The wind was also strong as it ripped the trail map right out of Ben’s hands and pulled it out into the open air above the plains below.
The Highway of Legends and the Spanish Peaks: As you would expect, the mountains got even bigger when we entered Colorado. We had intended to spend the night at a National Forest campsite, but after digging ourselves out of a snowdrift on the dirt road, we settled for a quiet pull-off. When we woke up in the morning, we looked up to find the snow-capped Spanish Peaks towering above us. It was a spectacular and beautiful sight to wake-up to. We spent the first hour that morning driving the breath-taking Highway of Legends as it wound its way alongside the peaks.
Great Sand Dunes National Park: Nestled in the corner of a Colorado mountain plateau are the biggest sand dunes we’ve ever seen in person (and probably in North America). As you approach, they appear to be large hills, but the closer you get, the more impressive these 800-foot tall sand dunes get … and the more out of place they seem. Through a peculiar set of conditions that require two colliding wind-systems that drop sand in a specific corner of the plateau, a barrier of mountains that collects the sand and blows it further, and a river that pulls that sand out of the mountains and back down to the plateau floor, these dunes have grown through the ages. There is a lot to do here. You can hike around the dunes to your heart’s content (you could spend days – though there is no water or anything else other than piles of sand). You can rent sand sleds, spend more than an hour hiking to the top and then slide down. In the summer, when the river beside the dunes in flowing, you can play in the water and ride an inner tube down the lazy river. Of course, you can also hike around the surrounding mountainside to check out the view. We chose to do the latter, as it was more appealing to spend hours hiking the wilderness instead of hours trudging through the sand. Maybe next time.
Rio Grande Del Norte: This is a sprawling national monument that covers the lands surrounding the northern Rio Grande where it enters New Mexico from Colorado. We were having trouble finding it according to the directions we found online, but, luckily, it found us. As we were approaching the town of Taos, all of a sudden there were cars pulled over at the side of the road. We immediately pulled over to see what the fuss was … and then we saw the Rio Grande Canyon. Small compared to the Grand Canyon (which we’ll see soon), but that didn’t make it any less impressive. Continuing south to Santa Fe, the highway actually descends into the canyon, following the river. It was a beautiful drive. Surprise canyons are the best.
Bandelier National Monument: Northwest of Santa Fe, Bandelier was our first (but likely not last) experience exploring the fascinating housing that Indigenous Pueblo peoples dug out of the sides of canyon walls hundreds of years ago. Along the main trail, we were able to climb into several caves in which people used to live, as well as a up into a large communal gathering space more than 100-feet above the canyon floor. We also got to see the remains of a giant pueblo – a single large structure similar in scale to a horizontal apartment building with upwards of 400 rooms. After lunch, we took a hike down the canyon in the opposite direction to a magnificent waterfall, as the canyon river accelerated its descent towards the Rio Grande which we could see in the distance.
Northern New Mexico
Taos Mesa Brewing: Another surprise discovery. Shortly after passing over the canyon (for the first time), we passed what looked like an airplane hanger, but appeared to be a brewery. After a couple of u-turns, we found the short but very bumpy road to the brewery, and stopped for some beer. They had quite a few beers on tap, and the four we tried were all delicious. Turns out, we also arrived just in time for open mic, and let me say, the host was fantastic. An apparent master of the electric guitar, he build complex arrangements by recording short pieces of music and layering them on top of each other. It was a treat to watch.
Taos: Taos is a pretty funky city. Definitely a tourist destination, but lots of cool bars and shops and is perfect for an afternoon of walking around. The challenge for cities like this, is that they’re really aimed at people looking to spend a bit of money as an expression of their vacationing spirit. Our spirits were frustrated by this, and resisted the urge. Taos is also just half-an-hour from the Taos Ski area, which is close to where we camped that night.
Santa Fe: Although some enjoy the quaint size and tourist focus of Taos, Santa Fe was more our speed. We spent a day wandering around the old city and enjoying many of the sites, including the Georgia O’Keefe museum, a delicious (though somewhat pricey) lunch at Café Pasqual’s, the San Miguel Mission (the oldest church in the contiguous USA – apparently there’s an older one in Puerto Rico), and the Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse.
The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts: Our favourite museum/gallery of the trip so far. The artwork was really interesting, beautiful, and diverse. There were several exhibits on display, including one showing the work of three generations of Inuit women (grandmother, mother, and daughter).
Bonus: Elevation Coffee (because the server complimented Ben’s hat), El Gamal (not this ElGamal, but a yummy little middle-eastern restaurant in town), Blue Heron Brewing (on the highway between Taos and Santa Fe, we bought a growler with the hopes we’ll be able to re-use it eventually).