Sometimes you arrive at a different sort of reality. Or so it seems. As my posts go, this one might be a little odd.
I have been out roaming and enjoying our spring weather. Part of that is cabin fever from my solitary confinement during this pandemic. I made it through okay and feel a bit liberated after my vaccinations have taken hold. My wanderlust took me back to my favorite mountains — the volcanic relic of the Jemez Mountains. The mountains piled up during three successive massive eruptions and subsequent collapses of a super volcano about 1.1 million years ago. The Valles Caldera is the obvious evidence of the last collapse. The pyroclastic flows and tons of volcanic ash and ejected basalt and rhyolite piled up into the impressive Jemez Mountains, a true “Sky Island” of green surrounded by desert.
I have been up into the mountains many times. They are about a 30-40 minute drive from Albuquerque — which is an interesting trip in itself. The mountains are rugged but not impossible to explore. The weather changes rapidly and there is a frequent danger of forest fires from lightning strikes or careless campers. There are still hot springs in places and some fumaroles in the caldera. Most of the mountain slopes on the southern flanks show barren spots with exposed tuff – consolidated volcanic ash.
The tuff is like a cement pavement — absolutely solid in most places. The surface becomes scaly and pock marked on some vertical surfaces. I took Forest Road 10 up through Paliza Canyon. It is the accessed by the road that goes through the village of Ponderosa New Mexico. You are on the right track if you pass the (NFS) Paliza Family Campground. Continue up FR 10 from there. You will climb into the mountains and after a short distance you will be tempted to pull over and explore a barren section of tuff outcrops and eroded forms, mostly on the left. I was tempted to do so, and did.
The risk is two-fold. First, there are lumber trucks on the road that may not expect to see your car so find a safe place to pull over. Secondly, the “pavement” of the outcrop is sloping toward a narrow ravine and can be slick if you are not wearing proper shoes. I had the benefit of a hiking stick and I would recommend it. This would be an opportunity to get up close and personal with tuff if you have not encountered it before. It is not like granite or limestone. It is technically an igneous rock laid down as a sedimentary rock. It is like a gritty sandstone. You will see a lot of pock marked surfaces, possibly from pockets of super-heated gases. I noticed Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, and Gambel Oak growing around the edge of the outcrop.
The volcanic ash that forms tuff is super heated to as much as 1300 degrees and is emitting gases and steam as it accumulates and, of course, igniting anything that it lands on.
Pock marks and cavities in the tuff formations.
Continue climbing higher into the mountains on the forest road you will see interesting stone cliffs and palisades on the higher slopes. You eventually come to a small marker on the right next to the road that says “no motorized vehicles” and an inconspicuous worn path leading up a small slope and away from the road. There is sort of a pull off if your car is small enough. Sight lines are pretty good for passing traffic — if there is any. There should be a sign saying take water and wear sturdy high-top shoes or boots…but there isn’t. The marker can be easily missed if you are gawking at the scenery.
Once you are off the road and on the trail you will wonder what the big deal is about. There are nice views off to the distance and a few odd boulders. The trail starts reasonably flat but then heads steeply down There isn’t much to see from the top. The trail forward can be slippery due to its loose surface and after heading down a distance of a couple hundred feet you start to see what the big deal is. There are things out there. Many things.
There are several different types of strange formations arrayed across the hillside. At first you don’t know exactly what you are looking at. Then you think you are in the ruins of some ancient man-made shrine or structure. It looks something like a ruined Stonehenge or a broken down Roman temple. Only after a few minutes do you grasp the fact that this is a natural rock formation created by eons of wind and water erosion.
Goblins — some of these things look like goblins or what we might think of as trolls or goblins from kids’ books. They seem to have bizarre facial features — almost like a Picasso painting. Strange but still discernable. The body shape is also oddly familiar. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of them on the exposed slope. They remind you of the Easter Island statues all staring off into the distance.
This is getting a bit creepy. That one just turned his head — or did he.
Of course, you want a closer look — if you are brave enough and sure footed. The way down to the level of the goblins is mostly unmarked and a slope of loose, unconsolidated volcanic ash grit. You can see tracks where others went down. Why are there no tracks leading back up? Heading down, the grit gets into your shoes and you slide with every step. You start to think about those ant lion traps you used to see as a kid where the ant wandered into the sand funnel and could not get out — and is devoured by the ant lion. Again you wonder — Why no tracks leading out? You realize that once you start down the slope there is no easy way back up the loose grit. You stop and sink to your ankles.. That goblin is still looking at you. You descend going from a tree to a rock to another tree. It is steeper than it looks. Finally you are down and see that there are plenty of foot prints and little trails among the goblins. Up close you see they are made of natural stone — not carved by a prankster but eroded over eons.
Looking around you start to see columns – like from a Roman temple or some sort of stone circle or Stonehenge..
Fairy Chimneys — the common term for these columns seems to be Fairy Chimneys. I guess the Fairies live underground. The forms rise straight up, vertically and purposefully out of the ground. Only a few have fallen over and they seem pretty sturdy and stable if left alone.
They, too, seem to be frozen in a march down the slope.
Some seem to have strange goblin heads. Some look like totem poles. For a while it seems like you are in a different reality or on a different planet.
After a exploring a while you start to wonder how to get back to the car. There is no apparent trail out of the Goblin Colony. There are a couple trails that lead back to the bottom of the slope but it is a long and difficult scramble up the steep and unstable gravelly incline. There are a few trees to grab and brace yourself against. You catch your breath. This is a high elevation bushwhacking climb up a treacherous slope. You are close to 8000 feet of elevation. You see encouraging marks where others have struggled up the same way. Eventually you make it back to the trail — your pulse is racing. You catch your breath and rest a minute. The trail back to the car is easier.
Back in your car and resting with the AC on you think about your adventure. Will people believe this? It isn’t really well known or in the guidebooks. From here, you can turn around and head back down the mountain if you are done or it is late. If you still have some adventure left in you, you can continue up the hill a bit and follow the curving route to an interesting overlook. It is best to pull off the road as the place is on a sharp curve. You are on top of one of those impressive palisades that you saw from a distance while driving up. The view goes back down Paliza Canyon toward Ponderosa. There is a nice breeze and it’s shaded and you notice some people have camped up there. This would be a special place at night with a starry sky or a full moon. There are hawks soaring at eye level just out of reach on the thermals.
Now you can turn around — or if you are still willing, you can follow the forest road all the way over to where it meets highway 4. At the highway, turning right will take you past the caldera, to Los Alamos, and Bandelier National Monument. To the left you will head toward Jemez Falls, Soda Dam, and then to the village of Jemez Springs (cold beer and food) and eventually back out of the mountains, past Jemez Pueblo to the way you came in. Jemez Springs has galleries, hot springs, and overnight spa accommodations if that sounds good. There is also an old ruined Spanish mission and pueblo dating to 1621.
This has been a little more of a travelogue than I usually do but after being cooped up for over a year it seems that many of us are looking for a chance to get out and explore a little. Now, I may have made the route seem a little tougher than it is. I’m 72 so a younger person might not find the going as difficult but be cautious. On a very hot day it might be worse. I was there in mid May. Rumor has it that there might be a several mile long hiking trail from Paliza Family Campground. I have not camped there but it looks well maintained.
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The Home Place — 2021