Sunday, August 17, 2008

El Morro National Monument

Your CDT hike may or may not include a stop at El Morro Nationa Monument depending on the route you choose. It is well worth a visit.

El Morro National Monument, a much-carved bluff in the high desert of western New Mexico.
Anasazi, with one layer of Spanish colonialism and another of American Manifest Destiny, all seen through the lens of National Park Service stewardship.

Don't think of it as a landscape. Think of it as the best guest ledger in the West, about 200 feet, top to bottom, and made of sandstone.
On it you can find handprints, stick-figure animals and signatures in fancy looping script -- more than 2,000 inscriptions, carved over seven centuries by overland travelers who stopped here to dull their thirst.
"Governor Don Juan de Oñate passed through here, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April, 1605," says one entry in Spanish.
"Miss A.F. Baley," says another, from 1858.
Still, you may not have heard of El Morro National Monument, a.k.a. Inscription Rock, because it's out of the way, even by rural New Mexico standards. South of Gallup, west of Grants. Just up the road from the Pueblo of Zuni, just down the road from the ancient cinders and lava tubes of El Malpais National Monument.

To reach it from Albuquerque, you drive 85 miles west on Interstate 40 to Grants, then take New Mexico 53 for 42 miles. On the way, you climb from the high desert and red rock to the even higher desert with its forests of ponderosa and pinyon pine. You cross the Continental Divide, surrounded by scrub that grows thick and green during the monsoons of July and August, and then a white-orange bluff rises abruptly from the plain, its base about 7,200 feet above sea level. This is El Morro, which translates, more or less, from Spanish as "the headland."
In landscape terms, it's a not a mesa but a cuesta, because it rises in a gradual slope at one end, then drops straight down at the other. Pine and juniper congregate on and around it. A pre-Columbian condo complex sits on top -- about a dozen rooms exposed among an estimated 875 that once held 1,000 residents in the 13th and 14th centuries.
But it's not those dwellings nor the shape of the rock that makes El Morro unique. It's the water and the names.

For hundreds of years, the pool of collected rainfall and snowmelt at the foot of this rock was the only reliable water supply for 30 miles around, maybe more. That made it a standard stopping point for anybody passing through, including the Anasazi of the 13th century, Spanish explorers of the 17th century and American settlers of the 19th century.
Oñate, New Mexico's first Spanish governor, left his mark after a visit to the Gulf of California. Miss Baley, the first woman to sign, was part of a wagon expedition from Missouri to California. There's a 4-inch-high swastika, left by native peoples centuries before the Nazis adopted it. And there's the flowery script of Mr. E. Pen. Long of Baltimore, an 1859 visitor whom you could call the John Hancock of El Morro.

In 1906, the federal government stepped in and banned further inscriptions. Until the 1930s, early rangers used pencils to darken a few of the oldest inscriptions. In their bid to protect the past-tense graffiti from the present-day variety, rangers have put up a couple of sandstone rocks in front of the visitor center to channel the energies of scratch-happy kids.
"Certainly all the other rocks in America do not, all together, hold so much of American history," wrote Charles F. Lummis, the champion of Western history who founded the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.
Visiting today, you browse the visitor center, then stroll a half-mile loop of the Inscription Trail, moving from petroglyph to signature. Hardier hikers continue up the Headland Trail, which adds 1.5 miles to the journey and climbs 200 feet to the Atsinna Pueblo on top of the rock.
I did the Headland Trail (also known as the Mesa Top Trail) with ranger Aleksu Hillerstrom, who pointed out a tree that had been struck by lightning a month before (that's common in summer) and helped me read between the inscription lines.
One Spanish explorer called himself a gentleman, but one of his contemporaries vigorously crossed out the word. An American in 1849 misspelled the word "inscription" and had to wedge the "r" in after the fact. (Copy editing in stone. Bummer.)
I wouldn't build an entire trip around El Morro, but if you're on the road anywhere between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, it's surely worth a few hours, perhaps an overnight.
You can spend the night at Grants (a town of about 9,000), but the summer temperatures are cooler and the scenery better up around El Morro. In summer, the park service opens nine primitive campsites at the monument. About a mile away on the highway, El Morro RV Park has about two-dozen hook-ups for $20 nightly, three cabins at $65 to $75, and a handful of tent sites for $10.
The neighboring Ancient Way Cafe offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the Inscription Rock Trading & Coffee Co. offers snacks and gifts, and the nonprofit Old School Gallery shows art.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

'Blitz' to test water at hundreds of locations in Rocky Mountain National Park

by Bill Scanlon
Bears will puzzle over what's going on in their park Tuesday when dozens of researchers and trained volunteers dip flasks into streams, lakes and wetlands on both sides of the Continental Divide.
The great Water Blitz isn't the latest ride at Water World, but an ambitious one-day odyssey to test water at hundreds of different locations at Rocky Mountain National Park.
"It's one of the first efforts of this kind on such a scale in the world," Judy Visty, research administrator at RMNP, said.
The idea is to circumvent the kind of problem researchers face when they test one stream on a sunny day, another the next day after a rain, a third the following day when the algae are photosynthesizing to beat the band.
This "snapshot in time" will capture the state of the water throughout the park and help scientists understand where extra nutrients are harming the ecosystem.
"The park is a natural lab, more pristine than the surrounding area," yet affected by fertilizers and pollution from the rest of Colorado, Visty said.
They're hoping to find some patterns that could explain why the massive beetle kill of lodgepole pines and other trees is so much larger than in past infestations.
As the lodgepole pines go, so do the sapsuckers and other birds that feed on their bounty.
Scientists want to learn more about the species of algae that have proliferated in lakes, multiplying ever since the 1950s with the explosion of nitrogen-based fertilizers.
"If we have nitrogen pollution arriving with precipitation, is it worse in some places than others?" Visty said. "How does it show up in the streams? We know it collects in precipitation, but what actually happens when it goes into the water?"
Researchers will be in charge of the veteran volunteers who, for this project, got hour-long training in water-sample-collection techniques.
"This is a citizen science project," Visty said. "It shows how citizens can make really tremendous contributions. Many pairs of helping hands allow scientists to investigate on a scale he or she could never dream of doing alone."

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail Needs Work

Trail that traces the Rockies' backbone through Colorado still is far from complete more than 30 years after its start

By Scott WilloughbyThe Denver Post

You would never know from the smiling faces and feel-good vibes emanating from the hardy folks entrusted with keeping the fractured spine aligned, but after 30 years of rehab there's no denying the diagnosis. The Continental Divide Trail could use a little love.
Not familiar with the CDT? Join the club.
Despite more than 30 years in the making, the so-called "King of Trails" remains third in line to the throne occupied by its more popular cousins to the east (the Appalachian Trail) and west (the Pacific Crest) when it comes to hiking empires. Although all are recognized by Congress as a result of the National Trails System Act of 1968, the 3,100-mile CDT running right down the spine of the Rocky Mountains through Colorado remains a full 1,000 miles away from fulfilling its destiny. "The trail is actually the longest north-to-south in the U.S., but there are a thousand miles of it that we haven't actually completed, that are either missing or are on roads," said Teresa Martinez, director of field operations for the Pine-based Continental Divide Trail Alliance (CDTA). "It's supposed to be kind of 'the people's trail system,' owned and maintained by the public for future generations. But people are often unaware that it even exists."
The notion of a hiking trail spanning the backbone of America would seem like a natural to many Coloradans. And indeed it did to David Maceyka of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain Trail Association, who joined Appalachian Trail founder Brenton Mackaye and members of the Colorado Mountain Club in walking a segment of the proposed CDT through Colorado back in 1966.
The so-called "Blue Can Trail" that Maceyka hiked and marked (with blue cans) for the Forest Service to locate and approve between Empire and Rocky Mountain National Park became the first leg of what now spans some 800 miles of CDT through Colorado and the impetus behind the National Trails System Act. Congress
A hiker encounters lingering snow on the Continental Divide Trail, which some call the nation's "King of Trails." ultimately voted to include a trail spanning the length of the Divide from Canada to Mexico among the National Scenic Trail system in 1978, identifying a 50-mile wide corridor on either side of the Divide to locate its final route. Problem is, Congress didn't allocate any actual land (beyond 1,900 miles of existing trails and primitive roads) or any money to the cause, leaving the trail to find its own way.
"One reason the Act was written the way it was is their belief in volunteerism, through that public engagement and empowering and ownership of this trail system, that money would not be as critical because you'd have these volunteers and that support system to work with the (federal) agencies to accomplish great things," said Martinez, a former trail program manager for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. "With the CDT, the organization is preceding the cause in many ways. A lot of clubs have embraced the trail, but they're not organized solely as trail clubs that maintain and manage and advocate for the CDT. That's where the CDTA has been really strong in providing that volunteer component."
Minimal coordination among agencies and nearly nonexistent public involvement for almost two decades ultimately led to the 1995 creation of the CDTA, whose 3,000 members remain devoted to the completion, maintenance and protection of the trail 30 years after its nascence.
CDTA officials estimate that 70 percent of the often stunning trail spanning five states, 20 wilderness areas, three national parks and 25 national forests is usable today. The estimated cost to complete a scenic trail away from motorized routes is another $27 million. The return, according to some, is priceless.
"I feel sorry for people who don't ever get to see this," said Ken Thompson, who made the trip from Lawrence, Mich., to attend last weekend's annual Trailfest celebration of the CDT in Buena Vista.
Thompson and his wife, Kim, were hiking a new segment of the CDT above 12,200-foot Cottonwood Pass to fulfill the wish of his recently deceased farming partner, Ray Miller, who donated 10 percent of his estate to the CDTA after through-hiking the trail years ago.
"He wanted me to come here with him for years," Thompson said. "Now I can see why."
Hundreds of others took part in the CDTA's annual awareness event, which included guided hikes as both a showcase and a recruiting effort for the trail. While the remoteness of the CDT provides a memorable experience that is increasingly sought and difficult to find, it also speaks to the physical challenges trail managers face in fulfilling their vision.
"That elevation and exposure factor is a challenge that something like the AT doesn't have, but it's also the beauty of it," Martinez said. "That's why our volunteers are so uniquely special, because they buy into that hook, line and sinker — game on."
And not surprisingly, Colorado leads the CDTA's volunteer efforts with roughly half of the 900 annual trail builders hailing from the state with the highest concentration of tall peaks in the nation. Some 43 projects are in the works trailwide this summer. Still, of the 800 miles of the Divide Trail passing through Colorado, 225 remain to be completed or rerouted.
Completed or not, the CDTA has set a goal of 2018 to at least have the entire trail mapped out, away from roads and closer to the original vision of a truly scenic national trail.
"Will it ever be done? I think that's up to the American public to determine," Martinez said. "I think there will always be something to be done. It's a legacy project that engages every single one of our citizens and it will depend upon every generation to make sure that it continues to exist.
"A trail is a living organism. The public can be a part of that life. But it's a lot of work."
Get involved: The Pine-based Continental Divide Trail Alliance offers volunteer opportunities spanning from half a day to five days with levels of difficulty ranging from family-friendly to full-blown backpacking. Find out more by visiting or calling 303-838-3760 or 800-909-CDTA.