Chris Goes Family Camping: Heron Lake

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Time for another hike…wait…that picture sure looks like I’m on a lake and wearing a life jacket. Clearly, these would be difficult hiking conditions. Lets call this one “Chris Goes Family Camping: Heron Lake.”  When we think of family camping trips, we generally think of kids and parents, campfires and smores. On my own, I’m ill equipped for such an outing, fortunately my best friend, Ryan, happens to be married to a wonderful lady and has two kids who are pretty darn great in their own right. Add all those ingredients, a lake, a few boats and a few afternoon thunderstorms and you have the making for some classic memories.

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Heron Lake State Park is located in northern New Mexico near the town of Tierra Amarilla and just a tiny bit north of El Vado Lake State Park.  My first trip to Heron Lake was perhaps 15 years ago. People were worried about how far down the lake was at that point. The small island in the lake that sports a weather station was rumored to be much taller than normal. Paddling around in a friends cedar strip custom canoe with viking dragon head and tail made for a grand time. We felt like we were the fastest boat on the lake (which is strictly no-wake) until we saw a sailing trimaran that easily dwarfed out little boat. Other large fishing boats slowly trolled the lake using what looked like deep sea fishing tackle, and that made us nervous about what was swimming around underneath us.

This visit to Heron Lake presented us with a very different picture. The small island with the weather station has grown very large and now has several smaller islands, sandbars really, to keep it company. From our campsite, what would have been a short distance to carry our boats to the lake turned into a half mile haul. On a short trip to Heron Lake RV and Marine, which has a small general store, we were told that the lake was down by 175 feet. If you visit the store and its friendly staff, try the banana bread, its pretty good and be sure to give Hazel, the very talkative grey cat, a good scratch behind the ears.

This trip was the kind of car camping I haven’t done for awhile. The last few years the bulk of my camping has been of the sort that requires carrying everything on my back for a day or more. This was that kind of glorious car camping that makes camping with kids so much fun. We took two vehicles, both loaded with camp chairs and all of the other comforts of car camping plus a canoe and a kayak.

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Upon arriving we were able to snag a campsite with a good view of the lake and not too far from the bathrooms and potable water. Getting camp set up was a little bit of an adventure. My friend’s teenage son decided to try out his camping hammock and his daughter got to have her own tent for the first time. My friends had their own tent while I opted to make use of my camper shell set up that quickly became nick named “Chris’s Man Cave”.

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The son took a long time to get his hammock set up, mostly due to trying to find a better, faster way to set it up without damaging the trees. Kinda proud of the kid for asking all the right questions! The daughter needed some help getting her tent up which was provided by her Dad while I started puzzling out our kitchen dining fly after realizing that the tarp I brought was much smaller than I thought it was.

As is often the case, our first evening in camp consisted mostly of trying to get camp set up before dark, and to beat the storm that was closing in on us. After getting camp set up, we decided that it would be a good idea to haul the boats down near the water so we didn’t have to do it in the morning. Our first trip with the canoe was a painful one…primarily because I was wearing sandals and we hadn’t yet figured out a route to the lake that didn’t involve wading through an acre of stickers. Our second trip with kayak was much more enjoyable after changing into my boots. One of the challenges, we encountered was the lack of hard shoreline. Actually my friends daughter discovered this challenge up to her knees in the form of thick lake mud. We finally found a spot that was a little more rock than mud and positioned the boats well above where we thought any lake swell could reach them.

The next morning, the young lady of the camp arose early and huffed and sighed while saying to herself “I sure am ready for breakfast, I’ve been up for hours!” just a bit louder than she normally would. I remember opening one eye and wondering “why is this child up before the sun and not making coffee?” The obvious answer is that she is 10 and not allowed to light the stove yet….also I doubt most 10 year olds wake up thinking about coffee. After a time, the grown folks in camp did in fact wake up, stumble out of tents and trucks, make coffee and feed the children who claimed to be starving.

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After that, it was time to get out on the water! We packed up everything we’d need, checked to make sure that we had PFD’s that would actually fit everyone (the kids had grown a lot since the last time we were out!) and hauled everything down to the boats. After a quick talk about how to get into the canoe and a more detailed talk about boating safety, we were on the water and on  our way to the big island in the lake!

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After walking around the island with the kids for the morning, it was time to head back to camp for lunch before the afternoon storms rolled in. After lunch, the sky started to turn dark and the wind started to blow a lot harder than we had anticipated. We had pulled the boats up from the water, thinking that we could try to sneak in some more time on the water later in the afternoon. We talked it over, and decided that we may not have pulled the boats up far enough. Ryan and I put on our rain gear and headed out to accomplish two things. First, to pull the boats  up so they didn’t end up out in the lake, and second to just be out in the storm. Ryan and I grew up together working at a summer camp where we often would have to run out into thunderstorms to check on campers, so we get a little nostalgic when thunder starts rolling in. Ryan’s son, who did not put on rain gear, joined us. The wind had reached that point where it was fun to walk around in, but not yet quite strong enough to worry about.

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The wind was pushing the waves even higher than we’d thought it would and the back of the boats were floating where they had been high and dry before. I’ve spent a lot more time out on the water this summer and discovered that I’m actually a big fan of the lakes of New Mexico. If it weren’t for the approaching lightening, I would have stayed and watched the waves for a lot longer than I did.

IMG_1611Ryan’s son managed to find a large number of fishing lures. Side note: never ever walk around Heron Lake without some kind of shoes on! Not unless you are a fan of decorating your feet with rusty fish hooks.

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Before the storm hit us full force we made our way back to camp and waited it out in vehicles. After the rain had passed we made dinner and got a fire going so that we could have lots of coals for making cobbler in a dutch oven later. Normally, when I go camping I tend to avoid established campgrounds because I want some peace and solitude, which is often the exact opposite of what happens at a campground. This night however, was a great example of why it can occasionally be nice to camp near others. During dinner our neighbors stopped by to borrow a lighter so they could get their stove running. They were a really nice couple from Albuquerque, but their stove just wasn’t working that day. When the cobbler was ready we talked with the kids and decided that since we had waaay more cobbler than we were going to eat, that we should walk over and invite the neighbors over. They happily joined us and enjoyed a few servings of hot cobbler. It was one of those evenings that can remind you that despite the potential for noisy generators and the cry of “you ain’t campin if ya ain’t got yer music blastin!”, camping in an established campground with others can be a wonderful and memorable experience. We sat around the picnic table sharing stories and making new friends. Going camping with the family, any family, while not what many would consider a wilderness experience is still pretty wonderful. You can meet new people, help share the outdoors with kids and spend time with people who are important to you while free of the distractions that come with electrical outlets!

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Pecos Baldy Lake

Its been entirely too long since my last post. I have a small back log of hikes I’ll try to post, but between illnesses, injuries and other life goings on, I haven’t been able to spend as much time with a pack on as I’d like. Fortunately, I’m injury free for the moment, don’t seem to be sick, and while I don’t want to jinx anything, the life stuff seems be…not getting worse at least. At any rate, what better way to deal with life stuff than wearing a bit of the bottoms off your boots and adding another salt ring to your pack?

Over the Memorial Day weekend I decided to try a two-day trip I’d wanted to take for a few years now and pack up to Pecos Baldy Lake below East Pecos Baldy to the east. I was also keen to take a peek at Trail Riders Wall to the north. I should probably say a bit about why this wasn’t the smartest trip I’ve ever taken, but why I needed those few days and did the hike anyway. Although I do on occasion hike on my own, I tend to hike solo in areas I know and that while certainly not crowded (because then why would I hike? ) are certainly traveled on a regular basis. Hiking solo in areas I don’t know is something I almost always avoid. Good company can make a good hike great, and its always safer to hike with others. That being said, I did this one solo. Life stuff…lets just say that outside of work, this has been a less than enjoyable year. In fact, its been pretty brutal. Skipping a ton of details, the event that sort of sent me over an edge was the passing of my Dad. This was the end of his long struggle with Alzheimer’s.

If you’ve never had a loved one afflicted with Alzheimer’s, you’re lucky. It’s a terrible thing. **Yes, I’ll get back to the hiking stuff in a second but this relates to this hike….and its my blog…so there.** I don’t have a lot of great memories of time with my Dad. Good memories to be sure, but not many great ones. My Dad in many ways waited until I was grown to get to know me, and to let me get to know him. It was about then that the disease started to do its damage and took my old man away before I had a chance to know him as well as I’d have liked to. Many of my great memories of Dad come from the two trips we made to Philmont Scout Ranch for summer backpacking. I think that’s why, despite not being in the best frame of mind (as in distracted and not always thinking clearly) I felt the need to throw the pack on and go spend a night in the mountains near a lake. I needed to connect to those memories in a little stronger way than I could from my couch.

There are a lot of ways to end up at Pecos Baldy Lake, but for this trip, I elected to take the most direct, and shortest route at around 7 ½ miles each way and an elevation gain of 2600 feet. The trailhead is at the Wilderness Parking area of the Jacks Creek Campground. Parking is $2/day and you’ll likely get to see horses since they are in the adjacent parking area…and horses are cool. If you’ve never driven up Pecos Canyon its well worth the trip even if you don’t intend to get out of the car. There are multiple campgrounds, fishing and lots of trailheads leading into the Pecos Wilderness. Jacks Creek is the last established campground and indeed the literal end of the road in Pecos Canyon. Jacks Creek, while still below tree line, feels much higher up than it actually is and has some amazing views. It also, in my admittedly limited experience, tends to be less crowded than much of Pecos Canyon, parts of which can be bumper-to-bumper campers on some weekends. Now before you run off to take a stroll up there, there is, at the moment (May 31, 2013) a fire burning across the lower Pecos Canyon near the community of Tres Lagunas that has the entire area shut down.

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Starting out on Trail 25 from Jacks Creek you’ll be on the steepest part of the hike right off the bat. The trail steadily climbs a ridge to the south of Round Mountain. After roughly 1 ½ miles you top out the ridge, cross to the other side and continue up at a much gentler incline to the intersection of Trail 257 in the grassland below the peak of Round Mountain. Trail 257 branches to the left (west) and almost immediately takes you into some wonderful stands of aspen trees and purple mountain iris that had just started to open.

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Trail 257 crosses Jacks Creek…yes, there is an actual creek by that name, not just a camp ground, not long after you pass below the peak of Round Mountain to the east. This is one of two actual creek crossings, the other being higher up and very close to Pecos Baldy Lake. By this point you are well over half way up to the lake and if you’ve been hydrating well, it’s a good chance to filter some more water into your bottles. Incidentally, Jacks Creek does flow down by the camp ground which shares its name…and it’s probably not a terrible idea to check it down low to see if its running before starting out.  If you are looking for a shorter hike or back packing trip, there are some great spots to camp in this area. At this point, Trail 257 merges with Trail 259 for a ways as it heads north along Jacks Creek.

PecosLakeHike2PecosLakeHike4  Farther up the trail will fork with Trail 259 heading east. Stay on 257 which heads north.  This will be the last point at which the trail is really close to the creek until the final crossing near the end of the hike.

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The trail will become steeper here as you make the last big push up towards the lake. This is where my recent lack of activity took hold and I had to stop more than I’m used to. The good thing about this was that it allowed me to spend more time just looking at the forest while considering the hot spot on my foot. There were still significant mounds of snow dotting the shady areas of the forest that looked like they had been sculpted by wind and sun working together. In spots the trail was covered in hard packed snow while in others it had turned to slop from the runoff.  Everywhere it was apparent that Spring was reluctant to give way to summer.

PecosLakeHike7 When you finally leave the trees you’ll be at the last crossing of Jacks Creek. I like to filter my water from moving sources if possible, so I chose to stop and refill here instead of the lake. From the creek crossing you are only a short walk from the Pecos Baldy Lake and the east face of East Pecos Baldy. Looking off to your right as you walk towards East Pecos Baldy will reveal occasional glimpses of Trail Riders Wall. The trees are smaller in this area and there are significant open patches of grass, so fining a good campsite shouldn’t be a problem. Keep in mind that camping in the actual lake basin is not allowed. Given the small size of the lake basin and the abundance of good campsites in the immediate area, this isn’t nearly as disappointing as it may sound.

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Remember that fire I mentioned earlier? Before heading out on any hike or backpacking trip, you should check to see what the local fire danger conditions are and know what the restrictions allow or don’t allow. Santa Fe National Forest where I was hiking was under Stage I restrictions at the time. The short version of Stage I means that camp stoves are alright to use so long as you use them in an area that has been cleared of all flammable material. Also, no campfires outside of approved containers in established campgrounds. Just for the sake of clarity, “established campgrounds means an area designated and developed by an agency like the Forest Service or National Park Service, not a flat area in the back country with a ring or two of singed rocks that have been used as a fire pit. I’m not a fan of camp fires when I’m back packing anyway. Properly extinguishing a fire and cleaning up afterwards takes a lot of time and effort. The method of throwing a cup of water on a mass of smoldering coals and then walking away is asking for trouble. For the last several years, in New Mexico at least, I feel that its also just too big of a risk in the back country due to our ongoing drought. For this trip I decided to cold camp and leave my stove at home.  Best to just not take any risk. As always I had fire making materials with me for emergencies, but heating up coffee in the morning doesn’t qualify.

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Although it’s a fair distance from any parking lot, Pecos Baldy Lake does see a lot of foot traffic and several trails intersect here, including the Skyline Trail. A walk down to the lake in the morning with breakfast and a camera make it easy to see why this is such a popular spot. The lake is in a great setting, flanked by trees on two sides and the east face of East Pecos Baldy on another. Of course, there’s also the “Oh look, water!” factor that any dry state seems to cultivate. My thought for this trip originally had been to camp at the lake, and then possibly hike the peak and part of Trail Riders Wall. It didn’t take long for me to decide that for this trip, the peaks were best admired from a distance. Both East Pecos Baldy and Trial Riders Wall looked to still be snow packed and as I didn’t bring spikes or gaiters, I felt that the possibility of putting myself in a dangerous situation was just a little to great, especially as a solo hiker. Returning to check off those peaks is certainly on the to-do list for this summer…assuming the forests stay open.

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I returned by the same route in reverse, taking more time to stop and look around as I knew I’d make much better time heading downhill. The Pecos is beautiful territory that I need to spend more time exploring. Only two things seemed less than idyllic  on this trip, and no big surprise, they were people generated. Here are two suggestions for hikers while in the backcountry. First, trail etiquette.  When two groups of hikers meet on a narrow trail, the group coming down hill should yield to the group going uphill. If you are hiking downhill and need to stop, all it takes to get moving again is one step and the wonder that is gravity has you on your way. If you are heading uphill, you are fighting gravity and getting your momentum going again is no fun.  Second, and this is a huge pet peeve for me, leave your music at home. Or, if you simply cannot go for a few days without your tunes, please use headphones. I passed a group that I could hear for a ¼ mile in each direction because one person had speakers on his pack and was blaring music for all to hear. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that one of the reasons I like to hike is to get away from stereos and cell phones and all the other distractions of modern society. I want to spend an hour sitting on a rock, feeling the earth turn and listening to the wind. Folks, I hope you find a good rock soon so you can do the same. Be safe out there!

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