On the Road to San Gregorio

Based on the title one might think that this blog post is about a Clint Eastwood, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie. I don’t think they did any ‘road’ movies together but it might have been interesting. Throw in Dorothy Lamour, maybe? Might have been a hit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been hanging around the house for a few days not feeling my best so I decided to get out and spend my Saturday on a day trip. My route went northwest to Cuba, NM, and then over the Jemez Mountains to San Gregorio Lake at the San Pedro Parks wilderness trail head and then on  to Fenton Lake, Jemez Springs, Jemez Pueblo, and San Ysidro on my way home. This was a new route for me…a big 150 mile loop. I knew it would be scenic but the Autumn colors mixed with the rugged geology of the area made it outstanding. There are parts of the world where you can stand in one place and take great photographs in any direction — New Mexico is such a place.

Cuba, NM, is a village about 60 miles northwest of I-25 at Bernalillo NM. I’ve been wanting to go there for a while but never had the chance. This big loop of a drive had Cuba as its first stop. On the way you pass the Zia Pueblo. The Zias created the familiar sun sign that is the symbol for New Mexico and is featured on the state flag. The Zias have a pretty large reservation but from what I can see from the road it doesn’t look too promising as far as agriculture goes. They more than made up for it in scenery.

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As you head west on US 550 toward Cuba you will see the imposing rock of Cabezon Peak off to the south. Cabezon — which means “head” is an old volcanic plug. The area is full of volcanic relics and is known as the Puerco River volcanic field. Indian legend (Navajo?) relates that a mythical giant was killed and the peak is where his head rolled after he died. Jill and I climbed up the shoulder of Cabezon last Fall but we don’t have the skill to make the vertical climb to the top.

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A short stretch of the route passes through the western portion of the Jemez Pueblo lands. Most of the Jemez Pueblo is located over on the Jemez River…stay tuned, we will get there.

The Puerco River valley is mostly dry but there are numerous Indian pueblo ruins scattered through the area and most are unexplored and unexcavated. The locations are kept confidential to deter pot hunters. The river carries water during the monsoon season and probably some runoff in the spring but it has been dry most of the times I’ve seen it. There is a little vegetation along the river but not much of a wooded bosque  as you would find on larger streams. With the size of the valley, it must have carried more water sometime in the past.

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Cuba is a small place but it is big enough for a small McDonalds and a Subway and a few restaurants and bars. I seems to be doing pretty good as a ranching and tourist location. One of the entry points to Chaco Canyon National Park is nearby and the Jemez Mountains are to the east and north so there will be fisherman and hunters using the town as a base.  In Cuba I turned on to Rt. 126 which leads up into and over the Jemez Mountains and eventually links up to Rt. 4. Cuba is at about 6800 feet and the climb was maybe another 1500 feet up into the mountains.

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This is ranch country and the ranchers move their cattle herds up and down the mountain slopes with the seasons. Cattle grazing is allowed in parts of  the national forest and even in the wilderness areas. As I was heading up into the mountains I rounded a curve and encountered a herd of cattle being driven down out of the mountains. There were about a half-dozen “cowboys” trying to keep them organized. I just pulled over to let the pass by.

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I turned off on Forest Road 70 heading toward San Gregorio Reservoir and the San Pedro Parks Wilderness. The Aspen trees were past their prime color in most spots but were still going strong in some of the more protected spots. I don’t see many Aspens since I live at a lower elevation, only about 5400 feet, and there doesn’t seem to be too many on the Sandia Mountains unless they are tucked away back in the canyons.

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In another week or ten days the Aspens will lose their leaves and snow will begin to pile up starting  in November. The snow stays about waist deep until early May. There has already been snow visible up on the Sangre de Cristo range by Santa Fe.

San Gregorio Lake is a man-made reservoir well up in the mountains at about 9400 feet. It is on the edge of the San Pedro Parks Wilderness area and is frequented by fisherman and hikers. I’m not fit enough to hike the trail to the lake (right now) but I’m planning on a return trip next year. The San Pedro Parks area is about 40,000 acres of wilderness and mostly at 10,000 feet of elevation. The area is relatively flat with rounded mountain tops. It is known for its many grassy meadow areas or “parks” and the many small streams that provide fishing for the Rio Grande Cut-throat trout. This part of the Jemez Mountains is very seductive. The forest areas are open and park-like so you are tempted to wander a little and can get disoriented or turned around.  The mountains are volcanic in origin and there are a number of peculiar rocky outcrops and anomalies that need to be explored. There are also bear and elk in the mountains as well as mountain lions. All I saw on this trip were squirrels.

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I’ve written before about the Jemez Mountains. They are one of my favorite places and offer a lot to see and do and they are really only about a half-hour drive from home. I can see them in the distance. I kept running into road work on today’s trip. This is mid-October so I really doubt that they will get all of it finished before the snows start to shut down some of the roads. Highway 126 is impassable after heavy snows but I don’t think close the road in winter since there are a few ranches and some homes up in the high country. I guess they just hunker down until a snow plow can get through. Highway 126 is paved…part of the way…and then it goes from a well maintained gravel road to a seldom maintained gravel road to a rutted dirt/gravel road. Some of the construction was on the higher stretches of gravel road…it looks like they are trying to relocate the right of way in a few areas.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Highway 126 goes past a state fish hatchery and then past Fenton Lake State Park on the way to the village of La Cueva and the junction with highway 4.  Fenton Lake offers camping and picnicking and fishing. It was pretty busy when I was there since it was a Saturday. The lake is located just at the edge of the 2010 Rio Fire burn area and the nearby hills are covered with dead trees from that forest fire (just one of many). Surprisingly, scattered through the ghost of the old pine forest are clumps of Aspen trees. I would have thought that they would have been destroyed but they seem to be survivors up on the mountain slopes.

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After Fenton Lake it is almost all downhill to Hwy 4 and the Jemez River canyon…almost. There are a few turnouts where you can see the mountains stretching off in the distance. The route down Hwy 4 closely follows the Jemez River and passes Battleship Rock and some other sites. The Jemez Mission is worth the visit. The village of Jemez Springs offers a spa experience if you can get to a bath-house but there are a few wild hot springs up in the hills that are well used. Jemez Springs is a pretty place and there are galleries and restaurants for visitors.  There was a lot of road construction in the middle of the town which made the usual congestion much worse.

Once  I was past Jemez Springs, the route continues along the river through the Jemez Pueblo and then on to San Ysidro. This is “red rock” country and the Jemez valley is beautiful with the changing colors of the cottonwood trees along the river. The area around the Jemez Pueblo was especially pretty.  My camera was running out of batteries so I only got a few pictures but there were cars pulled off the road with people taking pictures. My usual interest in this part of the road is related to trout fishing but it was exceptionally pretty today. The river was running muddy because of the road construction upstream.

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At San Ysidro I closed the loop on my trip through the mountains and it was only about a twenty minute drive back home.

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