It’s been a hot and exhausting five days since we left Grants, but the scenery has been absolutely outstanding!
Before we started hiking the CDT, I pictured New Mexico as being just like in the westerns, with huge desert plains and lofty mesas surrounded by towering cliffs. Well that’s what we’ve been hiking through for the past three days.
But to start at the beginning, there was a baking hot roadwalk out of Grants with five days of food and about 4 litres of water in each of our rucksacks. It was a relief to leave the road and start ascending on a small footpath winding its way up the rocky hillside – we knew the trail was taking us over Mount Taylor, at 11,300 feet the highest mountain on the trail so far, and we were hoping for a long, steady ascent. Before long we had left behind the scrubby desert filled with cacti and other hostile plants, followed dry grassy ridges with dotted trees, until by sunset we were up in our favourite vegetation zone, pine forest. Sleeping on a bed of pine needles is definitely one of comfiest options available!
The next day we were up at 5.30am to try to get to the top of the mountain before it got too hot. In fact we were on the shady side of the mountain, and it was really cold! After a steep final ascent on switchbacks, the view from the top was spectacular, with pinewoods all around and the desert a long way away and far below us.
After a pleasant descent through the pines, there then followed a long stretch on a hot dry track with not much in the way of views – these are a bit of a feature of the CDT! The most enjoyable walking was when we diverted off trail to fetch water from cattle troughs fed by springs. Water sources in desert areas always feel like special places, a magnet for humans and animals alike.
So after an afternoon and a morning of following the rough and stony track, it was a welcome change to drop into Los Indios Canyon to collect cold spring water from a pipe leading to a trough, then follow a really well maintained footpath winding through trees (thank you Back Country Horsemen of America, whoever you are, nice work on the footpath maintenance). After following this for a few miles, suddenly the land dropped away in front of us, and we got an amazing view of arroyos (dry stream beds), pointed peaks and flat topped mesas stretching away into the distance. After a steep and painful descent (I’d picked up more blisters during the monotonous walk on the rough track) we cowboy camped on the soft sand of an arroyo.
The next morning got off to a slow start when my back decided it was high time it gave me a bit more grief. Neil carried my food bag and half my water supply to help me along, and we managed to make good progress. Soon my back started to feel better, thanks to a good dose of ibuprofen and the distraction of amazing scenery! The path was a delight, taking us along the tops of cliffs, down into cattle grazing country then back up and along cliffs again. There were unreal pedestals of rocks perched on mud towers, and sedimentary rocks carved into odd shapes by the combined forces of sand and wind. By the time we laid out our mats and sleeping bags just below the top of a ridge, shortly before sunset, we were pretty tired after all the descents and ascents, but feeling that sections like this were what made all the hard and uninspiring sections on roads and rough tracks worthwhile.
In the morning we had only 3 miles to go to our next water source – Jones Canyon, which turned out to be a really lovely narrow canyon with a sandy floor, ending at a sandstone cliffs with a spring at the bottom. It was shady and cool, and wild roses were growing around the spring; on the cliff above, martins had built their mud nests below small overhangs. Much as we would have liked to stay there longer, the rancher had requested hikers not to loiter longer than necessary to avoid disturbing the cattle for whom it is also an important water source – and besides, we were heading into town and I (for one) was desperate for a shower after 5 dusty and sweaty days!
So on we went, a section in flat cattle country leading to a steep ascent, up into a moonscape of rock and mud formations. After winding around the base of the cliffs for some distance, the path turned steeply uphill, following a rugged and exposed route among boulders and over bedrock until we were amongst the pines on top of a mesa again.
From there it was a long and gentle descent down to desert level, where we met a tarmac road which took us into the small town of Cuba.
However, when we booked into a motel some unwelcome news greeted us – the next section of trail to Ghost Ranch is closed. The Department of Agriculture has deemed that after a prolonged drought, the risk of wildfire in the 1.6 million acre Santa Fe Forest is too great, so they have closed it to the public until further notice. The CDT Coalition has requested hikers not to walk around the closure on roads (60 miles on tarmac, uurgh) due to safety concerns on a narrow and busy highway. But the CDT Coalition has organised volunteers to shuttle hikers forward to Ghost Ranch, and we now have our places booked for tomorrow.
Which is not what we want at all – we wanted to hike every mile between Mexico and Canada, but can understand the need to conserve the forest, and the need for CDT hikers to be seen to comply with regulations so as not to mess up access in the future.
So there we have it – we’re skipping a 50 mile section. We may or may not be able to come back and do it later. But we have no choice. And for now, I’m glad of an extra day of rest in town.