Friday, June 6, 2014

Piedras Marcadas, Petroglyphs National Monument, Albuquerque, NM

Distance: 1.5 miles round trip (2.4 km)
Elevation: 5,200 - 5,280 feet (1,585 - 1,610 m)
Difficulty: Easy
Time of Year: September - May (avoid heat of summer)

Piedras Maracas canyon is the northernmost section of Petroglyphs National Monument, located on the northwestern suburbs of Alburquerque, New Mexico. The national monument was created in 1990 to protect some 24,000 images carved into the volcanic rocks of a 200,000 year old lava flow by the ancestral Puebloan peoples of the Rio Grande Valley. The rapidly expanding suburbs of Albuquerque were threatening to these cultural treasures with vandalism, being demolished for subdivisions, and otherwise being tarnished without proper management. While some of the petroglyphs date back to more than 3000 years, the majority of them are considered of the Rio Grande Style of the 15th century, after many of the Puebloan groups of the southwest abandoned their cliff dwellings during a mega-drought and migrated to the Rio Grande Valley.

Sandia Mountain is visible across the Rio Grande Valley from the top of the mesa

Petroglyphs National Monument contains a number of different sites to visit. Piedras Marcadas is the furthest north site and can be tricky to find with the various housing developments of the area making for a maze of partially constructed roads and subdivisions. It is best to start at the National Park Service Visitor Center to get oriented and then ask for a map and directions to the site. To get to the visitor center, take the Unser Blvd Exit (#154) off of I-40 and drive north 3 miles to Western Trail. Turn left and follow it west until the road ends right at the visitor center.

Piedras Marcadas canyon starts at a small parking area right next to a housing development. The trail starts on a sidewalk paralleling the wall at the edge of the backyards of homes. But, soon it heads off into the undeveloped canyon, with volcanic walls rising about 100 feet above the sandy bottom. In spring, there will be fields of purple phacelia flowers, with white evening primroses mixed in. It won't take long to see the first petroglyphs on the rocks above. The main route is a wide sandy trail, but numerous side routes branch off to see large petroglyphs on the boulders above.

The view down Piedras Marcadas canyon with the "volcanoes" visible in the far distance

Follow the contour of the rocks. Virtually all petroglyphs are located on south or southwest facing slopes. No reason to search the north-facing slopes. The reason for this is hypothesized to be that during the summer most people were working on tending their fields of corn, squash, and beans along the banks of the Rio Grande. But, in winter, outside of cultivation season, they would have a lot of time available to work on other crafts, as well as, to work on the tedious task of carving images into the rocks. As it can be chilly in this region at 5,000 feet in winter, the south-facing slopes get more of the winter sun, thus melting any ice that may be present or otherwise just being a lot more comfortable working conditions.

Evening primrose in bloom

Continue contouring the rocks and then head through a gap into a large sandy expanse. As you continue toward the back of the canyon, there is a distinct side trail that branches right. At the end of this route is a cove in the rocks containing numerous interesting petroglyphs.

A kokopelli along with other symbols

After spending an hour or so exploring the petroglyphs, just return following the main route across the sandy bottom back to the parking area.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Boca Negra, Petroglyphs National Monument, Albuquerque, NM

Distance: 1 mile (1.5 km)
Elevation: 5,190 - 5,300 feet (1,582 - 1,616 m)
Difficulty: Easy
Time of Year: Anytime

View of Boca Negra canyon from the top of Mesa Point

Petroglyphs National Monument is a small unit of the National Park Service located just on the western outskirts of the city of Albuquerque. It is home to some 24,000+ images carved into the volcanic rocks of a 200,000 year old lava flow by the ancestral Puebloan peoples. It is the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the United States. Although petroglyphs have been found that date back as far as 3000 years old, the vast majority of them come from the "Rio Grande Style" dating to the 15th century. This was a period when Puebloan peoples across the southwest had abandoned their sites and migrated to the Rio Grande Valley for the consistent water sources.

A those seals? If so, how did they know about them in New Mexico?

While its convenience to Albuquerque makes it a cultural and ecological treasure for the residents of this largest city of New Mexico, as well as, an economic boost to the city through tourism, it is also highly threatened by the rapid expansion of Albuquerque's suburbs. The park is surrounded by housing developments and roads have even been carved right through the park approved by congressional action. Whether these cultural artifacts of the Rio Grande Puebloan peoples can be protected from vandalism, urbanization, and pollution over the long-term will remain to be seen.

View of the suburbs from Mesa Point, with Sandia Mountain in the distance

Petroglyphs National Monument is made up of several individual visitation sites. Any visit should begin at the National Park Service Visitor Center located at the end of Western Trail. To get there from I-40, take the Unser Blvd exit number 154, drive north 3 miles to Western Trail. Turn left and follow it west until you reach the visitor center. At the visitor center, you can get the specific directions to the various sites in the park, including Boca Negra, featured here.

Boca Negra, which means "black mouth" in Spanish, is an amphitheater of black volcanic rock surrounding a sandy bottom. It is where a large sand dune blocked the flow of lava from the eruptions about 200,000 years ago and forced the lava to curl around it. Later, the dune eroded away, leaving this bowl-shaped area. There are three main sites here, all within short walks from each other. The entrance fee is $1 on weekdays, $2 on weekends, and free with an Interagency Pass.

A flycatcher was nesting near the petroglyphs

Start by taking the short trail up the steep slope of Mesa Point. Immediately, there are dozens of petroglyphs on the route to the top. These include depictions of faces, people, animals, stars, and other geometric designs. From the top, you get an expansive view across the landscape, including the Rio Grande valley across to Sandia Mountain to the west and across the lava flows to the volcanoes to the east.

The variety of faces at these petroglyphs are amazing

After descending back down, follow the boardwalk past the picnic sites to the "Macaw site". There is a petroglyph just past the ramada of what appears to be a macaw, as well as, a yucca pod just above it. You might be thinking, what is a macaw doing here? Some tribes have claimed it is actually a mourning dove. But, archaeologists state that the Puebloan people's were trading with tribes from hundreds or thousands of miles away and macaw feathers from the tropical regions have been found in sites in the United States. Thus, it is plausible that this petroglyph reflects such a trading event.

The macaw (at lower left) and yucca pod (upper right)
One thing you will notice is that virtually all petroglyphs are found on south or southwest facing sites. It is hypothesized that they chose these sites because they would get the low winter sun (thus melting off the snow or being generally warmer) at a time of year when there were no crops to raise to stay busy with, so they had lots of time on their hands to work on these carving process.

Continuing around the amphitheater takes you to another site with numerous petroglyphs, most of these of people, stars, and geometric designs. This is called "cliff base". In total, there are more than 200 petroglyphs visible at this site. In my next post, I'll refer to another site within the 7700 acre national monument with hundreds of petroglyphs called Piedras Marcadas.

I liked to call this one of the "fat Italian".
I have never seen one with a long nose like this before

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Pine Creek Box Canyon, Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

Distance: 4.8 miles one way to Deep Creek (7.7 km) or 8.8 miles (14.7 km) to upper trailhead
Elevation:  6,410 - 7,040 feet (at Deep Creek) or 7740 feet (upper trailhead)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy (to Deep Creek) to Moderate (to upper trailhead)
Time of Year: March - November (Be prepared for ice in early spring and heat in summer)

Located just north of the small town of Escalante, UT is a beautiful box canyon with 1000-2000 feet sheer-walled sandstone cliffs that rivals Zion National Park, but without the crowds. Under the shade of large pines, with the cool flow of a small creek, Pine Creek Box Canyon in the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness is a great escape from the rigors of urban life and a great alternative to the massive crowds that are loving our national parks to death.

You can do this canyon as an out-and-back trail by heading up from the lower trailhead to the confluence with Deep Creek (9.6 miles roundtrip) or as a one-way trip to the upper trailhead (8.8 miles one-way), but you will need a car shuttle back down the road to the lower trailhead. Either way, to access the lower trailhead, head east out of the town of Escalante on UT-12 and turn left on the road 300 E. Follow this road past the elementary school and when you see a Y in the road, hang right. Follow this road up past farmers fields until it turns dirt. Look for a sign and turn right. The 0.3 mile access road to the trailhead is washed out, so park at the road closed sign and walk about 0.2 miles to the trail register and into the canyon.

The first creek crossing near the trailhead
The trail is obvious along the whole route, but there are countless crossings of the small Pine Creek. In the vast majority of cases, it is easy to rock-hop across the creek without getting your boots wet. But, during high flows or if ice covers the rocks in the winter/early spring, there may be instances where you have to step in the water. So, be prepared. But, I managed to do the entire route without getting wet with just one large jump needed on a section without stones to walk across.

The trail starts out in a forest of Ponderosa pines and riparian trees such as cottonwoods, alders, and willows. The Ponderosa pines can survive this low due to the shade of the high canyon walls and the moisture in the soil associated with the creek. Douglas firs appear in scattered clumps, especially further upstream. There are even Englemann spruces scattered along the creek some 2,000 feet below their normal elevations of this region, as their cones wash downstream and the find the right microclimate to survive.

A young spruce (left) finds the right microclimate next to the creek to survive 2000 feet below its relatives

The trail is mostly in the shade, especially useful in the summer heat, but there are openings that allow views up the steep vertical cliffs, but rarely are there panoramic views up or downstream. But, there are a number of talus slopes that connect to the solid slickrock above that you can scramble up to get those amazing views.

Really, you can turn back at any point or continue all the way up to the top. As you reach the upper stretches of the canyon, the forest transitions from one dominated by Ponderosa pine to one dominated by Douglas fir and Englemann spruce. With the winter being warmer and drier than normal, we did this hike in March with no snow on the ground and only a little ice on the creek. Other years, this might be too early.

Some morning ice on the creek

Later, this creek bed will be lush and green with deciduous foliage. Just be on the lookout for poison ivy on slopes and right along the stream bed. Remember, "leaves of three-let it be". The confluence with Deep Creek, which is really inappropriately named as it is a tiny little creek, is a good place to turn around as a goal. 
The view back down the canyon after 3 miles

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Casner Canyon, Coconino NF, Sedona, AZ

Distance: 6.0 miles roundtrip (9.7 km)
Elevation: 4,450 - 5,950 feet (1,356 - 1,814 m)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: September - May (if you go in summer, get a very early start to avoid extreme heat)

Casner Canyon is probably the only hike in the Sedona Red Rocks area where you can have the trail all to yourself. That is probably because there is no large parking area and sign to make it obvious and you need to wade across Oak Creek in order to access it. But, what it lacks in human presence, it makes up for in spectacular views across the Sedona area and out all the way to the Verde Valley and Mingus Mountain. We've now done nearly every hike in the Sedona area worth doing, but this was basically the only one where we never saw another soul on the trail.

Crossing Oak Creek to access the trail on the otherside

To access Casner Canyon, you need to find the place to park, which can be tricky. Due to the high demand for parking, views and photographers, and other hiking options in the area, I recommend getting a very early start so you can find a spot along the side of the road to park. Just north of Grasshopper Point (which charges $8 for parking) and just south of the Indian Gardens Cafe and Market and the visitor center on AZ-89A, there is a pull out on the westside of the road. It is located about a 100 feet north of where some powerlines cross the road. Directly across from this pullout is a closed gate and a small sign for Casner Canyon. If this area is full of cars, try to find some other spot nearby or be willing to pay to park at Grasshopper Point and then walk the Allen's Bend Trail north to the Casner Canyon Trail.

The first views of the red rock after climbing out of Casner Canyon

Once on the Casner Canyon Trail, it descends to the stream bed of Oak Creek and then you will need to wade across the creek (usually calf to knee deep) to the cairns marking the trail on the otherside. In winter the water will be chilly, in summer refreshing, but crowded. Have some sandals and hiking sticks to get across. The trail then follows intermittent Casner Creek a short ways before ascending up the slope above the creek bed itself into open grasslands.

Approaching the rim

The trail will climb up onto a grassy openings on the south-facing slope which gets a lot of sun. In winter, that means stripping off the jacket you wore below in the shadows. In summer, this could mean oppressive heat, so be prepared. The trail is easy to follow as it climbs up the canyon, with ever increasing views of the red rock cliffs of Sedona and Mingus Mountain across the Verde Valley beyond. The trail will go through some dense thickets of scrub oak and thorny vegetation, so be prepared to get scratched legs if you are wearing shorts. Having those convertible pants might be a good idea. The trail will continue climbing until entering a narrow notch near the top of the canyon and passing a dry or frozen waterfall near columnar basalts.

Enjoying the view of Mingus Mountain from the rim

Once out on the rim top, the trail will be marked with large cairns to guide the way. The vegetation turns to pinyon-juniper woodland, with many small cacti and grasses. Once on the rim, the trail turns south to head toward Schnebly Hill Road, the infamously rough road the "Pink Jeeps" like to take tourists up to impress them. You don't need to go all the way to the road to enjoy the beauty of the area.

The pinyon-juniper grasslands on the rim top

Once you cross the intermittent creek bed that is Casner Creek on the rim top, go cross-country to the right to the peninsula of rock that juts out on the rim. In about 10 minutes you will arrive at the end of this cliff face with stunning views across the whole area and can see the Casner Canyon Trail way down below that you climbed up. Be aware than in winter, melting snow can make this section muddy, so you may be jumping from rock-to-rock to avoid sinking in the mud between them. Don't be surprised to see cattle in the spring or fall up here.

The view down from the rim's edge

Once you have had your fill of scenic views, return the way you came, descend down the canyon, cross the creek, and then you are back in the heart of civilization with the hoards of tourists visiting Sedona.

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