Snow storms, hot springs, ranch life and ancient pueblos in New Mexico

New Mexico was a state that we hadn’t visited before so we were pretty excited to see what it was like. A mix of Hispanic, Native Americans and Anglos call the state home so it’s full of culture, friendly vibes and good food. Not only that but a lot of the locals were real life cowboys and girls. Kids wore genuine leather cowboy boots and could probably lasso a calf better than an Englishman could neck a pint.

One thing we really wanted to experience in New Mexico was the natural hot springs so we drove along a winding road through a forested valley searching out the best spots. We arrived at the first one straight after breakfast and we had the place to ourselves. A short walk down to a stream and then back up the other side of the valley led us to two handmade rock pools, one layered above the other like the most perfect infinity pool. The location was incredible with the hot springs basically on the edge of the mountain with a view across steeply forested slopes. The only thing that wasn’t ideal was the temperature. Apparently over the past few years this spring in particular has really lost it’s heat. I didn’t exactly have that ‘aaaah’ sensation of relaxation as I sunk my body into the water, in fact it felt more like second hand bath water. Craig decided to venture into a creepy as hell cave at the back of the pool where the water was coming in from. He said it was much warmer but he wanted a torch to see what his surroundings were – I told him it was probably best not to know.

We headed off to check out another spring a few miles away. It involved a much longer walk but it was so nice to be back in the mountains and surrounded by forest after a few weeks being desert dwellers. We passed some pretty little birds who flew from tree to tree every time I was about to click the shutter on my camera. We never expected mountain birds to have so much colour and these little ones looked like they belonged in the Amazon with their multicoloured feathers.

When we arrived at the springs we found four pools trickling from one into the other down the valley. The water was much clearer and warmer than our morning dip and it had a nice gravel bottom but there was still some algae that floated up as we stepped in. The sun was shining so we spent awhile soaking and enjoying the sound of tweeting birds. Sadly there was also a flaw to this pool and that was fish – tiny fish that kept trying to nibble us. Even though I could clearly see where they were moving I hated the feeling of them touching me so I spent most of my time waving my hands underwater to keep them away.

That afternoon we headed to Valles Caldera National Preserve. We didn’t really know what the park had to offer but it was on our route and our national park pass gave us free entry. Turns out the park sits on an extinct super volcano comparable to Yellowstone but without the activity of the volcano the scenery was pretty dull in comparison with just a giant caldera covered in grassland and forest. We did a short walk until it began pouring with rain and then we watched a coyote battling the rough weather in search of prairie dogs who popped their heads out of underground tunnels like they were trying to wind the coyote up.

We asked about free camping at the visitor centre and the guy gave us a detailed National Forest map and recommended a road not far away. He said it was a dirt road but any car could manage it, even our 2 wheel drive van. The beginning section was pretty rough but we were warned about that so we persevered through, waiting for the potholes and washboarding to end but it only got worse, the road was horrendous! Not only was it qualifiable as a 4×4 track but it also needed a high clearance vehicle. Thankfully Ruby has the highest clearance of all our van-homes but even still I was wincing as we went over steep bumps, expecting her undercarriage to scrape or for us to get wedged on the bumps and pivot like a seesaw. The road was climbing up a mountain and as we approached almost 3000m elevation the rain quickly turned into snow. So with a snowstorm on our hands it only seemed applicable to turn around a bend and find half the road covered in a huge slab of snow leftover from winter. There was barely enough space for us to move around the edge so Craig had to run out and access the situation. It was a bit of a disaster and we wanted out, but the only way out was to continue until the road widened and we could do a ten point turn. We finally had space to do so as we entered the national forest which is where we’d planned on camping but the road turned to squishy mud and we were fed up. To say we were relieved to turn around and head back down the road would be an understatement.

We ended up just camping in a pullout along the main road and even at a much lower altitude we woke to a few centimetres of fresh snow. It seemed like the strangest thing to experience in New Mexico but I guess a lot of people don’t realise that the Rocky Mountains start (or finish depending which way you look at it) in New Mexico so it’s not all hot deserts and sunshine like we presumed.

The rain persisted the following day as we made our way to Ghost Ranch. The scenery was rather unexpected when we arrived with walls and pinnacles stained like a sunset. The ranch is a retreat these days, offering accommodation, dining, horse rides and hiking trails. It’s also full of history so there were two museums on site where we learnt about the ranch and asked the vital question ‘why ‘ghost’ ranch? and was it haunted?’ Well apparently in the olden days cattle rustlers used the area to hide their stolen goods and gave the area its name to scare people off and avoid them snooping around. Also we were told about one of the first owners of the ranch (for some absurd reason) decided to put the deeds of the ranch down on a poker bet and he lost the place. The new owner signed the ranch over to his wife which was rare for a women to own property in those days.

We mainly came to the ranch for the scenery so we set off on a hike to Chimney Rock. After a full night of rain the clay pathway was a mess to walk along so our shoes quickly picked up all the mud and clay they could hold and within a few steps we had heavy slabs that spread around our soles. We got a view of chimney rock early on but it wasn’t very impressive until the hike ended at an overlook right beside the rock. It was massive up close, a huge pinnacle shooting out the ground and it was the most amazing golden yellow colour – it literally looked like honeycomb. Below the rock was a rippled red floor with a meandering stream and creases from all the water seeping and eroding through the sandstone.

The next day we headed to Taos, passing lovely adobe buildings as we entered the town. They were all the same style and blended in perfectly with the desert surroundings. We stopped for our first meal out in America (I figured Taco Bell didn’t count?) as we heard New Mexican food was really tasty. I ordered some sort of monster vegetarian burrito which was stuffed silly with so many goodies including a deep fried chilli pepper filled with cheese and then the whole thing was slathered in a cheese sauce. When I only had a few mouthfuls left the waiter complimented my effort and I realised how bad it was that I’d eaten most of it – so I gave Craig the final two bites to make myself feel less guilty.

Before we walked around the town we detoured to Taos Pueblo which is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. Native Americans built the village, amongst others in New Mexico, and have lived in the pueblo for over 1000 years. Around 150 people call it home today and the houses are passed down the generations.

There were two main clusters of adobe homes almost piled up like Lego blocks. Every year they re-coat the houses with mud which glitters in the sun. A stream cut through the middle of the village and snow-capped mountains rose behind. In the center of the village was a pretty church which had an unexpected colourful interior with lots of pink decorations and statues.

Dogs were roaming through the village and sleeping on doorsteps and the smell of fried bread wafted out the houses. Certain areas were closed to public but most houses had open doors and were selling handmade crafts. It felt a bit too touristy, paying $15 to enter the village and then having souvenirs smothered in our faces. There was a lot of beautiful turquoise jewellery which was way out of my budget which was a shame.

By the late afternoon we were back in Taos town and I was surprised at how funky the place was. There were so many art shops and the overall vibe of the town was very arty and hippy with buskers strumming guitars and shops selling crystals. The shops did become a bit repetitive after awhile as they all sold the same Indian crafts but some shops were lovely and unique still, especially an antique western shop with vintage cowboy goods.

After a long day walking around town we headed back to the countryside to the Rio Grande Gorge. We drove across a bridge that spanned the deep gorge and big horn sheep hung out on the steep edges below us. The car park had more people with tables out selling crafts and I was kind of over it after a full day…but ya know, it’s rude not to look. We ended up chatting to a really jolly young chap who’s truck was parked behind his stall and covered in red mud so we said “I guess you’ve been off-roading” to which he replied “nah that’s from my driveway”. He was a rockhounder and had a lovely collection of rocks and gems he’d found, shaped and polished himself. Beside the rocks were a couple photos of him standing beside giant boulders riddled with gems that he’d found. We were very interested in his story and he didn’t even want to sell us anything, he actually got out some maps to point out good areas for rock hounding so we could find our own gems. I didn’t want to buy anything but I liked his story and the rocks were so pretty so now I have a shiny green piece of copper ore to wear around my neck.

We finished our time in New Mexico in a forested mountain valley where we did an early morning walk. As we finished up and drove back to the main road a group of female big horn sheep blocked our way. They were cute, especially the young ones amongst the group, but when it comes to big horn sheep it’s all about the rams and their huge spiralled horns. There was about a dozen males hanging out on the steep cliffs so they stole our attention. It’s not really the time of year for them to fight but they were clearly enjoying winding each other up. One guy kept affectionately resting his head atop another one who was just trying to relax. It looked so choreographed and then a third ram joined in, posing like pros – albeit while subtly poking one another in the ribs using their horns.

Colorado was in sight across the border and albeit New Mexico had mountains and less crowds, the big snow capped peaks were calling us so we had to go.

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