Tucson, AZ to Clayton, NM | Hiking Round Mountain in Globe | Camping in El Morro National Monument | Hiking in El Malpais National Monument | Finishing New Mexico Counties | December 5-6, 2021
After saying our last goodbyes to Mitch & Emily, we left Tucson early Sunday morning heading North on AZ-77. Today’s drive would only be about 6 hours and would feature highways we knew and loved through gorgeous Arizona scenery. While leaving, we drove past our old street and the place where we first met Charlotte — we have nothing but happy memories from this place! After leaving the city, the roads were nearly empty and we sat in silence and enjoyed every part of this drive.
We made our first stop in Globe a few hours later, and got out to go for a three mile loop hike around Round Mountain Park. It was sunny and warm, but not too hot for a walk. Curtis found a few letterboxes and we enjoyed the surrounding views and the sunshine.
After that, we began driving Northeast on US-60, and eventually drove through the Salt River Canyon. We had always enjoyed this drive, but I had forgotten how great the views were. After that, we continued up to Show Low, and then took AZ-61 through St. Johns and on to the New Mexico border.
Our plan was to end the day with hiking in El Morro National Monument and then camp there, but our plan was thwarted once again by the winter hours for National Park sites. We arrived right at the cut off for hiking the one-mile loop trail, and it wouldn’t open until after 9AM the next morning which was much later than we would have liked on a full driving day. And the main attraction of this site, a large prominent cliff with the names and ‘graffiti’ of centuries of travelers, was only accessible via that trail. We would have to pass on this hike for this trip, but thankfully we were still able to camp here. They have a nice, free, first come-first served campground, and once again we were the only ones camping here for the evening, for some reason. We had such a nice night there, so we’ll save this idea for another trip to the Southwest and next time actually make time to go for the hike.
We managed to stay warm enough overnight, and awoke on Monday morning and packed up the car, only to turn it on and find the thermometer reading 17 degrees. That was probably close to the lowest temperature we’ve dealt with while camping — but who knows how cold it actually is throughout the night.
We continued East, crossing over the Continental Divide, and entering into El Malpais National Monument. El Malpais in Spanish means ‘the badlands’, but unlike the other badlands we’ve seen this year in Nebraska and the Dakota’s, these badlands weren’t broken erosion plains, but a volcanic cinder field and lava flows of a fairly large fault region along the divide.
One of the prime things to see in the area is the Bandera Cinder Cone and Ice Caves, as well as lava tubes throughout the park. But Bandera and the ice caves are privately administered and were closed for season (plus they don’t allow dogs) and the lava tubes were also undergoing a management review, and off limits for the time being. But dogs are allowed to go hiking, so we naturally took advantage.
We stopped shortly after crossing the divide at the El Calderon nature trail and followed the trail out into the cinder fields. We passed the mouths of several lava tubes and could definitely tell and trace out some lava flows, though it wasn’t as stark and barren as Mauna Loa. At the end of the trail we climbed to the top of a small cinder cone – El Calderon – and enjoyed the views of the taller cones and mesas surrounding this odd location. Who knew there were volcanos in New Mexico?! I guess it makes sense on some level.
We had the option to make a larger loop of the trail, and even pick up the Continental Divide Trail for a mile, but opted to hurry back to the car. While our final destination for the day was only 6 hours away, our chosen route to nab the remaining three counties in New Mexico added an extra 2 hours. But of course, that didn’t stop us from grabbing our NPS stamps in Grants, NM once we hit the interstate.
Once on I-40 we drove straight East into Albuquerque then took I-25 North for a couple miles before getting off again and heading back into the mountains. Our route took us through several of the Pueblos on the upper Rio Grande – particularly the Jemez Pueblo. Almost every pueblo was closed to visitors because of Covid – but that didn’t prevent the views from being any less beautiful. We followed NM-4 up the Jemez River which quickly became a beautiful red rock canyon. At the top of the canyon we found ourselves on the edge of a wide Caldera Valley that makes up the Valles Caldera National Preserve, another NPS site. We considered stopping, but time was not on our side today – we like to call these scenic drives ‘samplers’ so that we know where to go the next time we visit an area.
We eventually came to the check point for Los Alamos, New Mexico’s smallest county and a potential post military place of employment. We didn’t stop to see any of the historic sites, but just kept rolling along back into the Rio Grande Valley. We followed NM-68 North following the Rio Grande which eventually becomes constrained by a pretty narrow canyon and offers opportunity for kayaking or rafting. Again, to think we dismissed New Mexico so quickly while living in AZ.
This route got us our last two counties of Rio Arriba and Taos, making New Mexico our seventh complete county state. In Taos we picked up US-64 heading East over two mountain ranges and featuring views of Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest peak. We wouldn’t be getting that one this trip – the campgrounds in this area were all closed for the season!
Our original plan had us ending the night near Raton, NM so that we could visit Capulin Volcano Wednesday morning. But as before, the trails and things to see wouldn’t open until later than we would have liked, and we already had a fairly big hike and much more driving planned. So we pressed on passed sunset and continued driving almost completely to the Oklahoma border before stopping at Clayton Lake State Park. To no one’s surprise, we were the only campers out that night and we quickly set up camp and had our dinner before snuggling down for another cold night…that is until the wind picked up.
Our site selection probably wasn’t the best, and our tent has an unnecessarily large cross section, and so we found ourselves exposed to pretty gusty winds and by 10PM they were only getting worse. We decided that it was only a matter of time before the tent stakes would come undone or something would pop out of place, and then the only thing holding down the tent would be us. So it was a case of getting out of the tent now when we were ready, or later when we weren’t. Curtis left the tent and emptied the back of the Subaru of all our gear and threw it in the front seats (except the kayak, which was heavy enough to sit outside – we got a lot of use out of that this trip…). Then we carried all the bedding to the back of the Subaru where Charlotte and I made our makeshift beds while Curtis went back and wrestled a tent to the ground. Surprisingly, nothing was broken or lost during the move, and the car was probably just as warm and a fraction as loud. It was a pretty abrupt ending to our camping adventures for the year, but it’s nice to know the Subaru is a nice alternative when we need to car camp!