Yes, yes, I was supposed to snowshoe, only this time I decided to pull out my old classic Alpina cross-country skis, the ones, you know, without any edges and my cross-country skiing boots of the same brand (very warm and comfy by the way) and head out with my friends: Christa, Mark and George to the famous Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains Northwest of Santa Fe.
To get there from Santa Fe drive North on 285/84 and take a left to Los Alamos on a breath-taking ride on road 502. After you pass Los Alamos, take road 4, which will take you to the old Baca Ranch, since 2000 known as Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Here are the things you have to do while there at least once;
In the summer or fall you have to hike and see the feeding of huge elk herds.
In the winter you have to go snowshoeing or cross-country ski the caldera.
Christa, Mark, George and I had been talking about it for a while and we finally decided: Friday, February 24, was going to be the day!
We left Santa Fe at 9 am and reached the Valles Caldera Visitor Information Center at 10:30. After we purchased our passes, $10 per person, we were handed a map and general directions where to go. Valle Grande has endless acres and never-ending vistas. On its snowy base you can snowshoe or ski anywhere and forever for days. We decided to be realistic and chose a 6 miles long loop.
We went back to the car to get ready. I was looking at my snowshoes which I took “just in case” with me, along with skis, and I was still debating, but Christa quickly chose for me; “you are not going to snowshoe, are you?” “Of course not”, I answered. “We came here to cross-country ski “
I am a very bad cross-country skier and my friends did not exactly know about it. They probably thought, since I am on the Santa Fe Ski Racing Team, I could cross-country ski this almost flat caldera with no problems. Oh, they were so wrong!
After clipping into our equipment , I discovered that my poles were too long for me and I ended up using George’s downhill skiing poles. They worked.
Mark set up his Garmin watch, which immediately told us that we were standing at about 8200 feet above sea level. This watch later was going to tell us a lot about our trail and speed, or rather Mark’s speed, since it had been attached to his wrist.
It took about 15 minutes before I started falling down. That is when the first smooth descent occurred. I blamed it on snow conditions. It was a gorgeous, warm day and we skied in spring-like conditions. There were no formal trails and we hit softer then icy surfaces with little or no control. The easiest was going up the hill, my favorite part. Going down almost always ended with losing it on either side or with a classic face plant, at least for me. I stopped counting my falls when we crossed paths with some snowshoers sinking in the snow.
“How is it going?” I asked . “OK now, but it was really bad in the trees, where the snow was too deep. Must be easier on skis” They looked at us, envying our equipment.
“I am not sure” I replied. “We have encountered different types of difficulties”. We exchanged greetings and continued our loop.
Three and a half hours later, after we got back to our car, I was happy to take my skis off.
“We did 5.4 miles” announced Mark looking at his Garmin watch and he promised to provide more data after uploading it to his phone.
“Wasn’t that fun? “ Christa asked smiling.“Yes, it was” we all agreed.
“But, could you tell us your secret?” “ How did you manage to fall only once during the entire trip?” we all nagged Christa. But she just laughed.
- For all those who happen to be around the Los Alamos area during winter or summer, there are some interesting things to do.
Second, or maybe first: visit Bandelier National Monument. You will find great Native Americans ruins and cave dwellings there. Great family fun any time of the year. For those looking for some solitude, Bandelier offers great back-country trails. Part of the park was closed this fall due to some damage caused by the Conchas Fire in the summer of 2011. Look for details at http://www.nps.gov/band/index.htm .
Los Alamos is the home of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Driving into town, you will still see the towers from the times when Los Alamos was totally isolated from the rest of the world. Here the atomic bomb was created. You can learn more about the Manhattan Project by visiting the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos. It is a fascinating trip into the past as well as into the future. And it is free! Check it out at http://www.lanl.gov/museum/ .
And if you still have time and energy left, drive to nearby town of White Rock to see the amazing Rio Grande overlook.
You can take a short hike and go down to have a closer look. You will probably see some rock climbers hanging from the cliffs. This is a popular rock climbing area for climbers from Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Espanola. They train here all year around, weather permitting.
Did I mention hot-springs?
Those will be a subject of a totally different trip and story.