Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mason's Fort

   I became intrigued with finding Fort Mason or Mason's Fort after seeing the place name in a more or less blank spot in a  New Mexico atlas. Oddly enough it wasn't on the BLM map of the area. There wasn't any reference to it on the USGS topo either. In the days before widespread GPS use it wasn't that easy to find either. My first attempt I did a lot of driving around western Dona Ana County, sometimes on some pretty doubtful roads, without finding anything but more roads and the occasional conglomeration of forlorn cattle. The second time my wife, my Cairn Terrier Bonnie, and I  did a lot driving as well. We  visited a couple large cattle tanks that were obviously replenished by prolific wells with trees, reeds and many birds, who may have been as surprised as we were to find water in this remote, dry, brushy rangeland west of Las Cruces.Finally, we found the road that led us to within a few hundred yards of our destination and parked where it dead ended near the steep banked arroyo called Mason's Draw. There were trucks parked there, but they belonged to javelina hunters we found out, not seekers of the obscure Fort Mason. We wandered the adobe walls and stone foundations, that were perched close enough to the draw that it seemed a good summer gullywasher would remove any idea that Mason's Fort ever existed. Mason's Fort was not a military installation. It was stage and water stop set up along the defunct,but still used, Butterfield Mail Route, in the second half of the nineteenth century. It's fun finding things so long forgotten and sought by so few.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Doña Ana Peak- Dona Ana Mountains

The first time  I was going to try this hike I parked about halfway down the access road, a very sandy, zero maintenance way off of Jornada Road.Figuring I had already pushed my luck far enough. I started off walking, meeting some friendly folks that were off to shoot guns who were bit puzzled by my choosing to walk around the desert. At the end of the road was an area where people camped, and drank beer( and probably shot guns as well), and a more or less vertical wall of rock. There was nowhere to go, and I searched the immediate vicinity diligently for some kind of passage but found none. The book I was using(once again) was Greg Magee's Hiking Guide to Dona Ana County. The maps were very small and not clearly printed(in the second edition).  I gave up. Later I noticed that the route he laid out required us to take little jog to the south  on the powerline service road and then proceed west again on another road for short ways . It was at the end of this road where the family and I would find a passage through the boulders up to the saddle that lies between Checkerboard Square Mountain and the slightly higher Dona Ana Peak. This route requires a bit of scrambling, and I believe at one point passing completely under some very large boulders. Once at the saddle it was just a matter of hiking( or crawling, as I remember we were on all fours at times) the very steep slope to the ridgeline between Doña Ana Peak and the slightly lower peak to the south. When we took breaks for air, we admired the skeletons of junipers. At a trough like depression(saddle) in the ridgeline we sat and enjoyed views of the Rio Grande Valley and the Robledo Mountains to the west. Turning around we could see miles of the Jornada del Muerto and San Andres Mountains, as well as the Organ Mountains.
      My step-son Alex and I continued on to the peak, while my step- daughter Jessica and my  wife waited. The peak area is very small. There was a cairn and there might have been a jar with notebook to sign as well.   The peak at 5,835 is a bit (55 feet) lower than Robledo Peak across the river, still we  had a great feeling of accomplishment at summiting our first desert mountain.
  Climbing Doña Ana Peak can also be accessed from north when the road past the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park is open.( Note: this road is now gated and locked not very far beyond the park, a better alternative may be using the powerline road from the south) This actually may be a bit easier than the route we took,but the  road getting there is in very poor condition.Note: there are 2  parallel roads off of Jornada Road that access the hike as I did it. They are past Mesa Middle School but before Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park. They are not particularly easy to spot and neither is in great shape. The second one has the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks sign. You will have to have high clearance and you might need 4WD for the sand.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Souse Springs to Las Uvas Spring Hike- Sierra de las Uvas

 I devised this hike after a friend told me about visiting these places( by truck) this summer. Friday night  I put some waypoints in my handheld Garmin and  Saturday morning off we went( Seamus the Scottie and I).The road to Souse Springs is off NM 26  directly across from the Hatch Fairgrounds. It is navigable by 2WD passenger cars  all the way to the springs in dry conditions. I took my high clearance truck but it wasn't really necessary. I had to open and close one gate just after going under the railroad overpass. Souse Springs is on private property. Please be respectful if you go. There is corral, a trailer with a lawn and pruned mesquite trees. Cows and horses wander about. The spring has been contained with concrete and iron cover. Water gushes from a three inch pipe and is also piped several hundred feet downstream to three concrete troughs at an improvised picnic area.The area looked a little raw in winter. I'm sure it's much prettier in a funky kind of way when the many large trees have leaves and  the brush has greened up a bit.A short way further down the road is an old stone house and area big enough to park. This hike was entirely cross country and pretty rough walking. We were saved at times by relatively flat and clear corridors along the mesa tops.These paths follow the contours of the hillsides and occur at semi- regular intervals. They almost look man-made, as if someone had built little check dams many years ago, but I believe they are an erosional feature. The paths are easily seen on Google Earth so I know I wasn't just imagining things.UPDATE: these are a man made feature,apparently built by CCC workers.
 We went down and up, up and down, crossing several arroyos. This is a part of the desert that rarely sees human or canine footprints, I thought, and wouldn't it be nice it there were a trail through all this creosote,  rocks, and mesquite.It was rather hot in this shadeless terrain so we drank and rested twice in the first mile and a half. At the waypointed nameless arroyo we turned south from west.A short while after resting in the shade of an undercut bend,we climbed out of the arroyo just before a dry waterfall with several large junipers.We emerged onto a large gently sloping basin with views of  a northeast facing, long, high ridge whose steep slope stays in shadow throughout the day in these winter months.
        One thing I'm learning about cross country hiking in the desert is that you have look for a point in the curves of an arroyo to bring you down gently.When I forget this, I am frequently end up standing  on a sharp cut bank that is just too high to jump down.Well,  we made it to the road which was my second to last waypoint ( after searching for a crossing)and now only had a quarter mile to Las Uvas Spring. The GPS said straight south. I had my doubts. It just didn't feel right,but I obeyed. I got to where the GPS was saying the spring should be.There was only one problem- it wasn't there.
      I decided to head west, all the while looking up at the cliffs for some indicators of a spring which is little harder in the winter time. I had walked over a small ridge onto a flat when I saw some green that wasn't a yucca or juniper and  cluster of brown vine that I surmised to be dormant wild grape. I had found the spring.  I climbed up to the base of the cliffs and then down to a short passage way that was almost  completely shaded by the vines.  A small cave contains the water. I didn't shine my flashlight in there so I can't say how deep the water was or how extensive the cave. I did fill up bottles. Seamus wasn't that interested in the water, which worried me a little.He was more curious about investigating the tunnel through the vines. Later, he drank the water with no ill effects. I would have purified it had I remembered the batteries for my Steripen.
       I  ate lunch back down on the flat against a boulder that had several grinding mortar holes in it. It was comfort to sit and think of the people so far removed from my experience who sat and ate at this spot so long ago. We did some looking around and then headed back pretty much the way we came. I would recommend visiting these sites, but not necessarily the hike I made.  It was very rough and there was little to make it interesting along the way, except perhaps the abundant chalcedony and occasional agate that littered the ground. The best scenery doesn't start until more than 2 miles in.My hike was a little over seven miles round trip. Elevation net gain  was only about 400 feet but there is a lot of up and down. Note: The topo and BLM maps are wrong. The spring is about a quarter mile to the west of where it is indicated.
Second Important Note:Though not posted at this time both Uvas Spring and Souse Springs are on private property.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Robledo Peak, Lookout Mountain- Robledo Mountains

On top of Lookout Mountain. Robledo Peak in background.
 January seems like a good time to write about these hikes. The two times we've hiked to Robledo Peak were both in January. The hike we made to Lookout Mountain( the other obvious high point of the range a mile or so to north of Robledo Peak)  was in late December, 2000.  It was our first longer excursion in the range and we were using Greg Magee's Hiking Guide to Dona Ana County for our directions. I'm grateful to Greg for introducing me to so many  places to explore near my home,but this hike of his is just overlong. Starting out off of Faulkner Canyon  we had hiked  up an arroyo, trudged across a  long mesa for close to three miles  and the real climbing hadn't even begun yet. We used the road to the top of Lookout Mountain to begin to go up,but then decided that going cross country would be more direct. We  slowly walked among the stunted junipers that grew along the ridge,battling the wind all the way to the top. On the summit is a tin shack and  what are believed to be the remains of a heliograph station built back when nearby Fort Selden was an active military installation back in the 1880's. We tried to cut our distance for the hike back and descended more or less straight down the northwest side of the mountain, got back onto the mesa, and then into the arroyo and finally back to truck as night fell. My wife's knee was totaled and it was a very painful return trip for her
 When I wanted to hike Robledo Peak( the Robledo's high point at 5,890 feet) I drove  most of the way on the road that took us all way back to the arroyo that runs between the two peaks.This is a side road that takes off to the southeast  a short ways after the Faulkner Canyon Road goes around a dry waterfall.An old windmill used to indicate the turn-off. It may be still there. This side road is pretty rough in spots. I remember my old 2WD Isuzu Rodeo had some trouble with one steep pitch,but it got us there. Both times we parked up on the mesa rather than make the very steep descent into the arroyo where the road continues for another  mile or so before ascending to Lookout Peak. At the mouth of second side canyon coming in from the south we followed some vehicle tracks which  ended shortly as the walls closed in, and the number of boulders increased. We kept a southeast bearing and eventually encountered a very useful use trail that took us all the way up to a saddle with views of the entire southern portion of the  Robledos.
  The first time we climbed the peak, we ventured way too far to the northeast, trying to find an easy way around,before having to turn south back towards the peak. The second time we just went straight east from the saddle, which was steeper,but shorter and less  sketchy. There was glass jar in a cairn with a sign-in notebook. We read the  entries( I really enjoy this aspect of climbing less significant peaks-seeing how often they're climbed, when and by who) and signed in ourselves. From our car this hike is a little less that four miles round trip- considerably less than the 11 plus miles we slogged when doing the trek to Lookout Peak. I've collected some nice calcite specimens on the way to Robledo Peak, which is  composed of Permian era sedimentary rocks. The reddish looking  Lookout Mountain is an igneous intrusion. The views of the Rio Grande Valley from either peak are tremendous. These trips epitomized the lonely and remote beauty of desert mountains. I'm always glad to remember these hikes. I hope these mountains stay wild.  Just writing about them makes me want to get back out there again.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Baylor Pass Trail, Baylor Peak- Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument

 I have hiked the Baylor Pass Trail many times.  Once, I hiked the entire trail from the west side( Baylor Canyon Road trailhead) over to the east side( Aguirre Springs trailhead). I was with a group of exchange students from Germany, and wouldn't you know it, after never having seen  a snake on this trail, we encounter a rattler about 10 paces  down the path from the parking lot. Most of the time I just do one leg or the other to the pass and turn around. This is good trail,but is probably my least favorite in the Organs. It could be the long steady  climb from the west side gets a little bit boring, with the scenery not up the high standards of the rest of the Organs. The east side has good views of the Rabbit Ears peaks and is also much shorter, so it doesn't have time to get boring,but it's limited and stunted vegetation make it much less interesting than the Pine Tree trail.
     The one time I climbed Baylor Peak, I started on the Aguirre Springs side ( to conserve energy). Once I reached the pass I started heading north, uphill, and then very, very steeply northeast toward an "arm" that extends out south from the peak. Once on the narrow ridge of this arm I headed north again to the peak. This route circumvents the  large gulley extending southwest off the peak. This was back in the early 2000's, but I  remember a bit of dicey scramble to get to the peak. The drop-offs to the east made quite an impression on me, so I avoided looking at them, as I  worried about tumbling down the  very steep slope to the west,  and made a quick  four point push to the top. On  the small,but flat peak I ate my lunch, and contemplated the very narrow and rocky ridgeline of the mountain as it extends north toward Saint Augustine Pass. It would not make for pleasant or easy hiking.There was no sign -in  jar on the summit, although there may be one now. I don't even recall a cairn- so it's my guess that very few people care about making this summit. The way back down seemed to take forever, because of the extreme pitch of the hill side, the abundant prickly desert plants, and the slippery, uneven footing all of which made me choose every step with care. When I finally made it to the reasonably open terrain close to the pass, I  think I started running.
   My favorite time  hiking the trail was making our way perhaps half way up the west leg on a  bright  Christmas Day when there was at least a foot of snow on the ground.
    There is almost no shade on the west side, and certainly no water( on the east side, the canyons coming down from the Rabbit Ears sometimes have a trickle), so think twice about the  season before you bring your dog, and bring enough water for the both of you.Pick up after him/her as well, the last time  I was out here the first few hundred yards from the Baylor Canyon parking lot were abundantly festooned with dog excrement. The pass is always, always very windy, even when either approach seems calm, so eat your lunch lower down. It's not really a place to linger.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Rabbit Ears Canyon,Plateau- Organ Mountains

The last time I hiked into the Rabbit Ears Canyon I was given the rare sight of running water flowing over the bare granite and falling between giant boulders. That was back in August, 2008. I don't know if it's flowed again since, but in my several trips before that I had never seen a drop. The first time I hiked into the canyon I was using Greg Magee's directions( in his Dayhikes in Dona Ana County) for the climb to Rabbit Ears Plateau, which is actually the high point of a series of peaks that lie directly west across the canyon from the (three) Rabbit Ears( North, South and Middle).
     The trail starts out a short ways south of the Baylor Canyon trailhead using the rough road that ascends first to the stone building at Minehouse Spring and then continues to the old Hayner flourite mine.Over the old tailings dump is where the foot trail begins, initially passing( very narrowly) over the open mine shaft( I wouldn't want to be coming through this section in the dark). The trail is easy to follow as it sidehills north towards and then east onto slopes along the mouth of the canyon.Once in the canyon the trail fades fast, and continuing requires  scrambling up,over, around and through the boulders. Eventually a large rock slide is reached as the canyon opens up a bit.
     My first time, I was little nervous about traversing over this section,but there is not much slope and I believe the slide has been stabilized for a long time.At this point the canyon makes a  sharp turn south and becomes very, very  steep. Much of the walking is over bare rock,which in the winter months stays ice covered as very little sun gets into this very narrow north-south running section of the canyon. That first time I made it to the small saddle that lies between Rabbit Ears Plateau and the main Rabbit Ears.You may end up on all fours just before this point like I did. I started up toward the summit, but turned back before reaching it. Oddly enough there was another hiker that day who was  little ahead of me- who must have gone on to make it- although I never saw him coming back down. On a subsequent trip I did make it to the top with a Sierra Club group. There are many beautiful, mature ponderosa pines growing along the rocky ridge. Views to the massive Rabbit Ears peaks are fantastic.This isn't an easy hike,but like other sojourns in the high regions of the Organs it will give a close up look at a place very few people visit and the sense of accomplishment  that comes with an adventure in, despite the closeness of Las Cruces and El Paso, one of wildest desert ranges in the west.