Thursday, August 19, 2010

Canero Guard Station a Welcome Respite from Hectic Summer Tourist Season

There’s a reason much of southern Colorado might feel like home to many New Mexicans.

Maybe it’s because so many of the same Spanish settlers who colonized New Mexico went on to do the same in places like the San Luis Valley, where a Spanish/Mexican land grant fueled much of the area’s development.

Taking a drive across our northern border today reveals many of the familiar scenes related to Hispanic settlement of the region, including iconic churches, a farming and ranching culture and weathered faces peering out from under straw hats.

But one might be surprised to discover that the first Anglos to settle in the valley were Mormons who established the town of Manassa, birthplace of the great heavyweight fighter Jack Dempsey, and also hometown of current Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar.

And the area’s agricultural base has drawn many Amish and Mennonite farmers who now can be seen traveling by horse-drawn carriage along back roads or frequenting the town market, clad in their distinctive, handmade clothing.

Bordered on the west by the San Juan Mountains and towns like Antonito and Del Norte, the valley extends east to the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the oldest town in the state, San Luis, founded by New Mexican settlers from the Taos and Mora areas in 1851.

To the north one will find the funky little town of Saguache and one of the state’s easiest mountain passes to cross at Poncha Pass. To the south the valley flows just across the state line into northern New Mexico before fading to high country desert around Tres Piedras.

The primary route north through the center of the San Luis Valley is U.S. 285 while the main east and west highway is U.S. 160.

While traveling through the area one might be interested to know that many of the valley’s farms produce much of the barley used to brew Coors beer. It is also home to the headwaters of the Rio Grande, whose waters nourish New Mexico, and, it is the location of one of the largest, solar powered, electric power plants in the country.

It’s also where the National Forest Service maintains a number of remote cabins for rent where visitors can relax in simple comfort while enjoying the vast array of recreational activities found here.

For more info and reservations go to and check under cabins/lookouts in Colorado.

A recent stay at the Carnero Guard Station in the Rio Grande National Forest revealed a secluded two- room cabin featuring propane heat and lights, hardwood floors, comfortable bunk beds, and a fire ring and picnic table in the front yard.

The surrounding forest is dotted with rolling hills and pastures highlighted by amazing volcanic rock formations.

Guests at the guard station are just a short drive from Penitente Canyon, where rock climbers now flock to once what was a spiritual hideaway of the secretive religious brotherhood.

Visitors to the cabin will find numerous forest roads to explore with many leading to intriguing places where wildlife can be seen, fish caught and relaxation found.

The uniqueness of the area is its lack of highly popular and heavily used recreational sites, which allows visitors to enjoy a greater degree of solitude even during the peak of the summer tourist season.

Those using the cabin as a base can make any number of day trips to local attractions like the town of Saguache where while visiting the historic downtown district one might catch Saguach Cresent Editor and Publisher, Dean Coombs, putting out what is perhaps the last newspaper in the country produced by a Linotype, hot lead, printing machine.

Saguache even features a theatre where visitors can catch a movie over the weekends as well as a fine town park in which one can lounge on the grass in the shade of many towering trees.

Day trips in the area could include a visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park with perhaps an evening in a pool at any of three hot springs resorts found nearby. There’s an alligator farm and UFO watchtower to be investigated and a church in San Luis where bronze sculptures depicting Christ’s Stations of the Cross lead up a hillside to a church with twin spires.

Back in the woods, fishing can be found on any number of small creeks running through the forest, but the best might be had just off Highway 114 on the drive over to Gunnison.

Flowing through a canyon, Cochetopa Creek, holds wild brown and brook trout and anglers can stop at any number of roadside pullouts to bust through the streamside brush and fish for them.

Continuing down the road, anglers will find fishing available, with permission, on private ranches, such as Kreuger’s, which is stocked with fish by the state.

Kreuger’s Ranch features almost idyllic water flowing through scenic pastures with plenty of ox bows, undercut banks and good cover for fish. The ranch offers cabin rentals and RV parking too.

And maybe the best part of a visit to the San Luis Valley might be a stop at the no-name, burger joint on the outskirts of Antonito that features green, chile, cheeseburgers that rival anything found in New Mexico.

If You Go:

From Santa Fe, head north on U.S. 84/285 through Espanola and follow to where the route splits at the turnoff to Ojo Caliente and Antonito.
Follow U.S. 285 north through La Jara and Monte Vista towards Saguache. 
After passing through the turnoff to Center watch for the La Garita turnoff at Road G. Follow to Forest Road 41G, about 17 miles to the cabin. Gas, beer, groceries, food and the cabin key can be picked up at the La Garita Trading Post.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Ghost Ranch's Piedra Lumbre Visitor Center Worth Stopping For

The Piedra Lumbre Visitor Center off U.S 84 near Abiquiu Lake provides travelers of this wonderfully remote, incredibly picturesque, stretch of blacktop, a unique opportunity to stop and learn more about the land they’re passing through.

“We’re isolated,” says Ghost Ranch’s Director of Museums, Cheryl Muceus. “But there’s plenty to see and do once you get here.”

Operated by the nearby Presbyterian Church’s Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center, the visitor center features two informative and interesting museums, a fabulous gift shop and jaw-dropping views of the backcountry that inspired renowned artist, Georgia O’Keeffe.

The facility was formerly operated by the Forest Service as a living museum featuring wildlife too injured to be returned to the wild. The operation was forced to close in July 1999 after animal rights activists complained about the conditions.

The Forest Service then hoped to reopen the facility as a visitor center to cater to outdoor recreational enthusiasts and others traveling northward to Chama and Colorado.

However those plans never materialized and it remained closed until 2005 when Ghost Ranch stepped in to reopen the facility under a lease with the Forest Service.

Ghost Ranch operates and maintains the facility and its exhibits and pays a nominal leasing fee to the Forest Service for its conditional use.

“But we would like to obtain the property either through an exchange or outright purchase someday,” Muceus said.

Ghost Ranch could then make facility improvements and program changes that would better suit its needs in educating travelers and directing them to its other operations at its nearby 21,000 acre education and retreat center.

This cabin found off the entrance road to Ghost Ranch was used in the filming of the 1991 movie "City Slickers". 
The Ghost Ranch features paleontology and anthropology museums, spiritual and other educational programs, housing and related services and all sorts of activities. For more information see its website at 

In the meantime, though, the Piedra Lumbre, or shining rock, visitor center provides travelers with a welcome stop on the long, lonely road to Chama and beyond.

Visitors will find a well-stocked, unique gift shop featuring among other things a great selection of postcards featuring local scenery and landmarks. There’s also what seems to be the entire collection of Nevada Barr and Tony Hillerman novels, as well as other books and items available for sale.

The store also features cold soft drinks, ice cream and some snacks too.

Entering the grounds, visitors will find a nicely done rendition of a traditional, northern New Mexico, adobe building, the Gateway Museum, featuring vigas, latillas and a comfortable, aspen-shaded courtyard to rest in.

Inside are displays and exhibits dedicated to local Indian cultures, local sheepherding and weaving and the Spanish land grants that once dominated the area.

In another building, the Pack House, visitors will find more information about the original founder of the living museum from whom the Forest Service had obtained it, Arthur Pack.

It was Pack who sold O’Keeffe a summer home on the ranch from which she drew much of her artistic inspiration. The artist also established a winter home in the village of Abiquiu and later moved into Santa Fe where she died at the age of 99.

Here in the Pack House one will also find a great selection of preserved insects and other regional wildlife including skulls, furs and displays. There’s an informational display about the beavers that were once prevalent throughout the area, another about the life of aspens, a wildflower exhibit and displays dedicated to the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad and the mining industry, too.

The visitor centers grounds are also the site of the smallest National Forest in the country, the Beaver National Forest surrounded by an oasis of aspens on this high desert property. 

But it may be the surrounding scenery around the visitor center that truly captures one’s attention, as soaring vistas and cloud-studded skies draws one’s eye to the horizon.

One can make a short climb up to an elevated, observation deck on the grounds to take in the surrounding view while inside there is a display of prints dedicated to O’Keeffe.

A binder on hand contains pictures of the surrounding countryside and O’Keeffe’s work that shows how the scenery of the valley inspired many of her works.

Visitors to the area will also find nearby other interesting stopping points such as Echo Amphitheatre, Abiquiu Lake, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert and the Perdenal, the flat topped mountain that overlooks the entire area. 

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