Monday, July 24, 2006

Santa Fe NM - May 2006 part 5

Of the four hikes that we took on this New Mexico trip (Tent Rocks, Tsankawi, Valles Caldera, and the Falls Trail at Bandelier National Monument), the latter is by far the most difficult walk. And, as its name indicates, one of its major attractions is the falling waters.

The complete trek is about a five mile out-and-back (as opposed to a loop) from the visitor parking lot to the banks of the Rio Grande but, as with any such trail, the turnaround point can be anywhere along the route. This one provides at least three logical places to turn back: the end of the trail head (about one half mile), the Upper Falls (one and one half miles beyond and three hundred fifty feet below the trail head - three times that distance on the way back up), and the Lower Falls (approximately one quarter mile further still) - so depending upon time constraints, energy levels, or whatever, you can feel satisfied without overextending yourself.

Mars and I have hiked this trail numerous times by ourselves, every time but once out to the river. Last year we brought Sandy to New Mexico and Bandelier for the first time and walked to the end of the trail head having spent the morning walking on Bandelier's shorter, more accessible Ruins Trail. Energy levels and a time constraint caused by construction on the road into/out of the park that shut it down in mid afternoon dictated our plans that day.

This year there was no roadwork and we came specifically to hike the Falls Trail so there wasn't any preliminary event to tire us out before we started. Still it promised to be sunny and quite warm, high eighties, so neither Mars nor I felt the need to push ourselves or Sandy much beyond the falls in order to get our money's worth out of this hike. (Full disclosure - admission was free on Sandy's National Park Service Golden Age Passport which she acquired last year on our visit here.)

Besides, seeing a waterfall in the high desert should be enough of a breathtaking experience for one hike - especially on this drought-filled trip.

While we were out there the Santa Fe newspaper reported that the year-to-date rainfall had gone up from 1.44 to 1.46 inches. By contrast, at home in Connecticut during those same two weeks we acquired about four and one half inches of additional precipitation according to our own front yard rain gauge.

(And it just continues. Today's Santa Fe New Mexican reported the total rain for 2006 was 4.72 inches. Our son who lives there now talks about rainfall in durations of time rather than accumulated amounts - "We had two minutes of rain last night." Back home Mars and I played golf yesterday on a course that had been subjected to many, many minutes of heavy rainstorms the night before. There are no ponds or other such hazards but Mars did have to use our telescoping ball retriever to de-submerge her ball from the several inches of "casual water" in the middle of one of the fairways.)

Because of the amount of personal hydration that is required in the high desert just to maintain normal equilibrium - never mind hiking and such - ninety-nine plus percent of the water that we had seen in New Mexico was in plastic containers or ice-filled glasses.

So, armed with our bottles of water the three of us set out onto the Falls Trail, our hydration goal being to gradually deplete our h2o supply, emptying it completely on our last steps off of the trail.

The source of the water on the Falls Trail is the El Rito de los Frijoles ("Little River of the Beans") which, like the feet of the Anasazi at Tsankawi and the desert winds in Cochiti, has made its own mark on the Tuff Rock canyon walls of Bandelier. (As at Tsankawi and Tent Rocks, this stone is also a byproduct of the Valles Caldera volcano). The trail begins with a moderate up-and-downhill walk along the top edge of the Frijoles Canyon - another pine and oak tree dominated scene that could be in New England except for the white New Mexican rocks visible on the other side of the chasm.

You can hear the river before you see it. Still having been conditioned by the relentless dryness it just doesn't sink in that the background noise is actually rapidly moving water. Even though I know to listen for it I still mistake its sound for that of an overhead airplane which, when it turns out not to be there, redirects my attention to the base of the canyon and the barely visible river.

The falls are even more startling. The first time that Mars and I took this Trail I, as frequently happens, was totally unaware that there was an actual waterfall to be found. When Mars pointed it out to me ("Why do you think they call it the Falls Trail?") I set my mind to expect something maybe a little larger than a homemade water accent in a backyard goldfish garden.

Well, it isn't Niagara but certainly it is worthy of being the center point of a Hudson River style landscape.

Like the river that is its source you hear the falls before you see them - if you listen carefully. And even if you've heard them, turning the corner on the descent into Frijoles Canyon and suddenly seeing the falls is startling. Mars and I had expressed amazement the first and every subsequent time that we've seen them and Sandy who on her one previous trip to New Mexico had expressed "Oh my!" and "Isn't that beautiful!" several times a day was moved to say the same at the suddenly appearing cascade.

After all, this is a waterfall in the depths of the desert!

This particular cataract is a sixty feet high, thick, continuous braid of fast moving water framed rectangularly by gray basalt rock that was also deposited in the canyon by the ancient volcano. And since in the New Mexico desert trees follow the water, green vegetation returns at the base of the falls where the water levels out for its further journey along the hiking trail and out into the Rio Grande.

After a respectful pause we continued on down the trail to its lowest point, sat in the shade and ate the sandwiches which we had made up for us at a grocery store in White Rock. Then, after Mars and I checked that our water bottles were half gone, we headed back up the switch backing trail.

My earlier comment about the length of the trip back was understated by at least a factor of three. The sun had brightened, the air temperature had increased, and gravity had inexplicably gotten stronger. We found ourselves stopping at nearly every spot of shade for a quick breath of air and sip of water. As a result our last view of the falls was somewhat diminished by our inability to lose ourselves in its rapture while we were consciously forcing whatever oxygen we could find into our quivering lungs.

And then we were back. Mars and I drained our water bottles as we stepped off of the trail. Sandy, who didn't quite buy into our hydration campaign, still had about one third of her liquid left.

A waterfall in the desert is such a magnificent anomaly that, if you do ever take this trek, be sure to soak in as much of it as you can on the way down into the canyon. Even the most magical miracle of nature can quickly lose its luster when it is drowned out by the gasps and groans of an air-starved observer.

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