Tag Archives: New Mexico

Carson National Forest

Carson National Forest

New Mexico

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region

1,490,468 acres (1,391,674 federal/ 98,794 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/carson

Overview

Carson National Forest is spread across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that run 200 miles from northern New Mexico into southern Colorado’s Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.  In 1982, the Pennzoil Corporation donated the Valle Vidal Unit (about 100,000 acres) to the Forest Service.  A decade earlier, the Taos Pueblo successfully lobbied to return sacred Blue Lake to the tribe and remove it from Carson National Forest. 

Highlights

Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, Wheeler Peak, Clayton Pass, Vista Grande, Brazos Ridge Overlook, Canjilon Lakes, Lobo Peak, Echo Amphitheater, Cabresto Lake, Pot Creek Cultural Site, Amole Canyon, Devisadero Loop Trail, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, Columbine-Twining National Recreation Trail

Must-Do Activity

The National Forest contains New Mexico’s highest point (13,161-foot Wheeler Peak) near Taos Ski Valley, one of several ski resorts found here.  The gravel parking lot fills up early on summer weekends, as those looking to summit want to finish before afternoon thunderstorms.  If a 14-mile roundtrip hike with 3,771 feet of elevation gain sounds too strenuous, there are plenty of other trails around Taos Ski Valley listed below.

Best Trail

There is an extensive trail system that spiders out from Taos Ski Valley, including several that follow canyon streams and access small mountain lakes.  We recommend the Bull of the Woods Trail if you want to avoid the crowds summiting Wheeler Peak.  Other hiking options in the area include Williams Lake, Long Canyon, Lobo Peak, and Goose Lake.

Watchable Wildlife

Mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep are large ungulates found in Carson National Forest.  Its carnivores include black bears, coyotes, red foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions.  The National Forest’s lakes and 400 miles of rivers and streams are mostly stocked with native trout species.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Alpine views abound on the hike up to 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

State Highway 150 is paved to Taos Ski Valley except for the very end, which is a good gravel road (as is FR 597 north of Red River).

Camping

There are many great places to camp in Carson National Forest, with notable areas being Elephant Rock Campground, Hopewell Lake Campground, and several campgrounds around the Canjilon Lakes.  We set up a dispersed camp near a high mountain pass on FR 597 above the town of Red River in the summer.

Wilderness Areas

Chama River Canyon Wilderness (also in Santa Fe National Forest)

Cruces Basin Wilderness

Latir Peak Wilderness

Pecos Wilderness (also in Santa Fe National Forest)

Wheeler Peak Wilderness

Related Sites

Pecos National Historical Park (New Mexico)

Bandelier National Monument (New Mexico)

Fort Union National Monument (New Mexico)

Nearest National Park

Great Sand Dunes

Conifer Tree Species

Engelmann spruce, limber pine, Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine, two-needle pinyon pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, white fir, subalpine fir

Flowering Tree Species

Gambel oak, quaking aspen, bigtooth maple, boxelder, New Mexico locust, Fremont cottonwood, netleaf hackberry

Explore More – Who was the U.S. President that pushed through Congress the Taos Pueblo appeal to return Blue Lake?

Learn more about Carson and the 154 other National Forests in our new guidebook Out in the Woods

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El Malpais National Monument

Overview

Navajo legend states that during a battle on Mount Taylor, the Twin Gods struck off a giant’s head which became Cabezon Peak, its blood flowing southward, coagulating into the Malpais.  Meaning “the badland” in Spanish, this National Monument contains lava tubes and ice caves among its 114,000 rugged acres.  Easily accessible from Interstate 40, it does not take long before you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere watching beautiful patterns of cloud shadows drift slowly across the landscape.

Highlights

El Calderon lava tubes, Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, Zuni-Acoma Trail, La Ventana Natural Arch

Must-Do Activity

Be sure to take a hike to truly appreciate these lava flows, the most recent of which inundated agricultural fields of the Acoma people as recently as the 1400s.  Carefully stepping across the jagged rocks, we wondered if another cinder cone may be forthcoming to the region.  Geologists suggest that the volcanic activity in this area has ceased indefinitely, yet some of the eruptions here go back over a million years, making us wonder if it is only a temporary lull.  Be careful during the monsoon season, when giant cumulostratus clouds form in the wide-open blue sky foretelling afternoon thunderstorms. 

Best Trail

Lava tube caves are a major attraction to the park (and are sometimes closed), but before entering you must pick up a free permit to ensure you do not spread white-nosed bat syndrome.  El Calderon Area is easier to access than the rough road to Big Tubes Area, and in a 3.8-mile loop passes a cinder cone and bat cave, then enters a lava tube.  The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and difficult 7.5-mile Zuni-Acoma Trail also traverse this mostly shadeless environment.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Take the short hike back to stand below towering La Ventana Natural Arch and enjoy the aroma of juniper wafting through the desert air.  It is technically in the Bureau of Land Management’s El Malpais National Conservation Area, not the neighboring National Monument run by the National Park Service.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/elma/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Most trailheads are off paved roads, but some roads in El Malpais National Monument require four-wheel drive (especially when wet), so check at a visitor center before setting out.

Camping

There are no developed campgrounds, but primitive camping is allowed on back roads and in the surrounding Cibola National Forest.  On Interstate 40, Bluewater Lake State Park has full RV hookups.  There is also a small campground located west down Highway 53 in El Morro National Monument.

Related Sites

Petroglyph National Monument (New Mexico)

Lava Beds National Monument (California)

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (Arizona)

Explore More – Privately owned and open for tourists, what makes nearby Bandera Crater special?

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Overview

Archaeological evidence suggests indigenous farmers lived around the Gila River dating back thousands of years, but the cliff dwellings were only briefly inhabited between AD 1270 and 1300.  After their initial discovery by Anglo-American settlers in 1878 heavy looting occurred, prompting President Theodore Roosevelt to establish Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907.  It is not an easy part of the country to access, but offers two incredibly scenic drives through the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico.  Plan to spend at least a couple days in the area, maybe hiking or backpacking to some hot springs.

Highlights

Museum, film, ruins, scenic views, hot springs in area

Must-Do Activity

The Gila Visitor Center is jointly managed for the 533-acre National Monument and 558,000-acre Gila Wilderness (which in 1924 became the world’s first designated Wilderness).  From the National Park Service (NPS) contact station located just down the road, a one-mile loop trail climbs 180 feet to a well-preserved collection of cliff dwellings.  If you find that you enjoy climbing ladders up to cliff dwellings, then check out Bandelier National Monument and Balcony House at Mesa Verde National Park.

Best Trail

The trailhead also provides access to the Gila Wilderness, so watch for backpackers on the road and black bears along the West Fork Gila River.  Lightfeather Hot Springs is less than one mile from a different trailhead located closer to the Gila Visitor Center.

Instagram-worthy Photo

There are about 40 rooms in the cliff dwelling ruins, which housed approximately ten families.  The south-facing cliff dwellings received the sun in the winter and shade in the summer.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/gicl/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The access roads are paved, but narrow and curvy, especially Highway 15 that heads north from Silver City, New Mexico.

Camping

Upper and Lower Scorpion Campgrounds are located just outside the National Monument boundaries in Gila National Forest.  No permits are necessary to backpack in the Gila Wilderness.

Related Sites

Montezuma Castle National Monument (Arizona)

Fort Bowie National Historic Site (Arizona)

Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona)

Explore More – The people who built the cliff dwellings were part of what culture, with pottery designs unique to the Tularosa phase (AD 1100 to 1300)?

Petroglyph National Monument

Overview

Bordered by the suburban neighborhoods of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument is a nice place to take a walk and enjoy some intricate artwork.  The petroglyphs were chipped into the patina of volcanic rocks in a long-populated region of the Rio Grande Valley.  Some of these images may be up to 3,000 years old, with most believed to be carved between AD 1400 and 1700.  A few were added by Hispanic settlers and explorers through the 1800s, but the National Park Service (NPS) politely requests no aspiring artists add any more.

Highlights

Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon Trail, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, Volcanoes Day Use Area

Must-Do Activity

There are multiple areas of this National Monument established in 1990, some literally in Albuquerque residents’ backyards.  At Boca Negra Canyon, you will find interesting depictions of humans, snakes, and even parrots from Central America, as well as many puzzling illustrations.  Use your imagination to try to guess what the original carver was trying to display. 

Best Trail

Volcanoes Day Use Area offers loop trails around three volcanic cones on the West Mesa with incredible views of the Sandia Mountains and Rio Grande Valley (but no petroglyphs).

Instagram-worthy Photo

Rinconada Canyon Trail is 1.25 miles one-way and starts at a small NPS parking lot in suburban Albuquerque and accesses an area with thousands of petroglyphs.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/petr/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads are paved, but be prepared for stoplights, especially on the main connecting road Unser Boulevard.

Camping

There are private campgrounds around Albuquerque, New Mexico, or you can look for options in the Cibola and Santa Fe National Forests.

Related Sites

Pecos National Historical Park (New Mexico)

El Morro National Monument (New Mexico)

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument (New Mexico)

Explore More – How many petroglyphs are estimated to be protected within this National Monument?

Boca Negra Canyon contains thousands of petroglyphs and fascinating volcanic rock formations.

Some petroglyphs are more difficult to interpret.  I think this one depicts a yucca fruit.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Overview

Aztec, New Mexico is home to the incredible Ancestral Puebloan ruins of a three-story, 400-room ancient apartment building near the Animas River.  Only partially excavated, Aztec Ruins National Monument has a variety of rock walls that display a change in building styles over the centuries.  Similar to Montezuma Castle National Monument in Arizona, Aztec was named for the Central Mexican culture mistakenly believed by earlier archaeologists to have had influence in this region.

Highlights

Museum, film, reconstructed great kiva, ruins

Must-Do Activity

Aztec Ruins National Monument boasts a great kiva that was rebuilt to appear as it may have 800 years ago.  We especially recommend a visit before or after seeing the extensive ceremonial structures at nearby Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  Reconstruction is not appropriate at all National Park Service (NPS) sites, but here it helps the past come alive.  It is easy to imagine costumed dancers coming down the stairs into the smoky kiva to celebrate a religious ritual. 

Best Trail

The half-mile self-guided trail leads through ruins where wooden roofs have been partially reconstructed.  Aztec Ruins also has the same T-shaped doorways you may have seen at Mesa Verde National Park and Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Darker stripes in the walls were decorative, and evidence of several architectural styles are evident at this site.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/azru/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There is an NPS campground at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, but we recommend the free campground in Angel Peak Recreation Area run by the Bureau of Land Management east of Highway 550.

Related Sites

Chaco Culture National Historical Park (New Mexico)

Pecos National Historical Park (New Mexico)

Bandelier National Monument (New Mexico)

Explore More – How far away from Aztec were the nearest Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine, and aspen trees used in the original roof construction?