Diablo Canyon

Heading up towards the Northern edge of New Mexico we decided to check out what our camping options were around Santa Fe. As usual we try to focus on National Forest areas as it is regularly free and beautiful. Our second choice is BLM land. It’s also mid-week (Wednesday) which is when we try to arrive at new spots so as to beat the weekend crowds if they exist and claim the best spot for ourselves. We’re selfish that way. We stopped in at the local inter-agency office and, as we always do, asked their personal opinions about cool and/or interesting camping spots in the area. Armed with a couple of nearby suggestions we headed off to see which would meet our needs. We first headed into the Santa Fe National Forest towards a spot we were told was beautiful, quiet and uncrowded. Unfortunately as soon as we began to get near we saw “No Shooting” signs but, inexplicably, heard more than a few firearms being used nearby. As we crested the top of a small hill we could see several groups of cars in multiple locations all with people, guns in hand, firing at something or another. Soon after the aim of the group directly below us got uncomfortably poor as we saw and heard rounds impacting too close to us for comfort. I mean, there we are in a bright white (alright…dirty white) Tacoma stopped at the top of the hill, in direct line of sight with the idiots, on a legal Forest Service Road with “No Shooting” signs in abundance and they alter their direction of fire to come close to us. Seriously, W.T.F? Sadly, as Willow, I and our Tacoma are not bullet proof nor did I want to go to the hassle of dragging out my carbine and then having to explain to the authorities why and how a group of morons were all shot to death (“I have no idea what you are talking about officer”) we decided to just remove ourselves from the field of fire and find another spot. We’ve done that before.

So…where to next? I remembered that the freecampsites.net website had mentioned a place called “Diablo something or another” with a pretty good review score and so we quickly looked that up (10 miles away) and headed in that direction. After a few miles on a kind of crappy, washboard dirt road (Old Buckman Road) we finally arrived.

The campground and recreation area is situated about half way between Santa Fe and Los Alamos.

red pin on a map marking Diablo Canyon
Red Pin Marks The Spot

The area hosts many interesting hiking possibilities and numerous rock climbing routes, many with pre-existing anchors fitted on the walls. There were two other vehicles in the campground and so we found a spot equidistant between the two of them and set up camp. We had all of an hour before darkness began to descend and so prepared a quick meal, fed my furry eating/pooping machine and settled in for the night just as the sunset worked its way gloriously behind the wide open entrance of Diablo Canyon itself.

We knew it was going to be a bit on the cold(er) side and so had prepared by wearing a couple of extra layers, pulling out an extra blanket for my Princess and getting out the sleeping bag for me as an extra top layer. The next morning we were quite happy that we had been proactive. I woke up a little past 5:30am (because at my age the bladder becomes insistent and the bladder gets what the bladder wants) and took a look at our weather station.

temperature gauge showing -2 C inside the camper shell
Outside It Is 5 Degrees Colder
Frost From Condensation Lines The Window Frames
Frost From Condensation Lines The Window Frames
Frost From Condensation Lines The Window Frames 2
And Another Cool View

Happily, under our layers we were both snug as a bug in a rug as my departed Grand Pa used to say. Of course that makes getting out of such a blissful cocoon all the more difficult but, you know…coffee. While my little snoring Princess stayed put I crawled out, added one more layer and went into our tent to indulge in the Morning Coffee Ritual. I had to grab hold of the propane coupling with my bare hand to de-ice it before it would begin to flow to my stove since the sub-zero temp along with the compressed gas combined to freeze that choke point solid for a few minutes. Totally worth it once the joy juice was in my vacuum insulated Klean Kanteen Tumbler though.

There are pluses and minuses with the Klean Kanteen. One the one hand it keeps my morning drug delivery system (coffee) nice and warm for a good long time. The bad thing about it being so well insulated though is that it doesn’t allow any heat through to warm my hands up. Talk about a first world problem. Whatareyougonnado?

I checked on Miss Fuzzy Butt who was still unwilling to grace the frosty morning with her presence and so left her in peace and sat and enjoyed the morning sunrise.

sunrise partial panorama
Partial Panorama, Click For A Larger Version

Once the coffee was finished and she heard me clanking around while cleaning up she decided it was now time to join the living and pushed her way out of the camper shell and trotted off to perform her morning rituals. By the time she returned everything had been situated, her breakfast was waiting in her food bowl and the frozen water in her water bowl had been thawed on the stove. What Service!

There was a bit of “Déjà vu” like I had seen this place before and then I come to find that is has been featured in movies such as The Missing (Get It On Amazon), 3:10 to Yuma (Buy It On Amazon), and Cowboys and Aliens (Own It On Amazon). So now that we are in such a strikingly beautiful spot we decided to take the hike into the canyon itself and check it out. The little map down on the announcement board in the parking area seemed to show that if we just kept heading down the canyon we would eventually end up at the Rio Grande River. It only looked like a couple of miles each way and so we decided that we would attempt it.

Willow with the opening to Diable Canyon in her background
“Hurry Up Dad, There Are Places To Sniff And Things To Chase”

We starting by walking past the fence and into the sand of the wash before entering the high-walled, shadowed canyon to beheld the signs of some interesting geological forces at work.

partial panorama of some of the geological features inside Diablo Canyon
Partial Panorama. Click For A Larger Version.

Here is where I put on my Republican politician hat when I say “I’m not a scientist (geologist in this case) but I have an opinion on this subject and you should hear it.” Ha, sometimes I crack myself up. What we were looking at seemed to be columnar basalt that just wasn’t able to form just right oh those many millions of years ago.

Either that or else it used to be all regimented and pretty like what you see at Devil’s Postpile National Monument and then later geological forces moved things around and cracked and warped the area into what we see these days. Across from our campsite the view of the scar in the cliff face there offers interesting clues into the timeline and geological forces at work in the area.

Cliff face showing Sedimentary Layers Topped With Igneous Rock
Sedimentary Layers Topped With Igneous Rock

Seeing that makes me thing that eons ago this area was under water and those layers built up and were compacted into sandstone. Then, eventually the seas lowered and forces began to push up. Even later volcanic forces belched their molten material on top of the raised sedimentary layers which gets us those completely different types of rock on top of one another. Again, I’m not a geologist so if you are and I am incorrect please feel free to correct me in the comments for this post.

As we got deeper into the canyon we were met with the insistent yapping of a couple of small dogs who were seemingly claiming the area as their own and wanting Willow The Invader to beat a hasty retreat. They were actually both quite nice once we made it clear to them that we’re just passing through and had no plans to assault their rock climbing humans. A few of the treats that I always carry with me helped that process along.

Rock Climbers On A Wall
Rock Climber Being Belayed On A Wall, Their Little Dogs At The Base

Once past the rock climbers we quickly came to the spot where the canyon walls opened up into the wide, dry river bed whose vista looked down and out for dozens of miles. At this time of the year it is dry but boy do we want to come back sometime during the summer monsoon season and see what this area is like with raging waters slamming through the canyon. In the shade of the steep canyon walls it seemed like it was below 50 degrees F but when we came out onto the open flood plain the sun beat down a bit viciously and so I made repeated adjustments to my path so I could end up walking in the shade next to the tall alluvial walls that lined one side of the wash.

Willow Looking Magnificent AF
Willow Looking Magnificent AF
The View Back towards diablo canyon
This Is The View Back The Way We Had Just Come

The going was not hard but not easy either as the sand of the river bed was dry and deep and so for much of the time it was semi-difficult slogging. Whatever the length that my hike ended up being it certainly paled in comparison to what Willow achieved as she was trotting and running around from interesting scent to interesting scent with frequent full tilt rushes after some little critter that decided to make a run for it. Happily her hunts were unsuccessful.

Something, At Some Point Ate A Multi-colored ball and Then Puked It Up
Something, At Some Point Found That Multi-Colored Ball Fuzz Was Undigestible

After a couple of hours, right about the time I was getting ready to turn back, we eventually came across the Rio Grande which was still in shade and had patches covered in ice. That didn’t deter Miss Willow though and in she went in but just deep enough so that she could get a drink and not freeze her dainty tummy in the frigid water.

Willow on the bank of the Rio Grande river
Down At The Rio Grande

Once her thirst was taken care of we turned around and began the hike back towards camp. It ended up being a longer hike than either of us were planning on or wanting. We did eventually make it back though and both celebrated in our own way; me with a frosty and lovely local IPA and Willow with a full-blown, tongue-out blop nap.

Willow zonked out after our big hike
Dead To The World

After the IPA and a nap it was time for dinner, catching up on some reading and then another night of below freezing weather.

That was Thursday. Friday was spent recovering from Thursday. This entails lounging around camp, doing a bit of work on the Tacoma, repeatedly adjusting our little solar suitcase to remain optimally pointed at the sun and then deciding to make a nuisance of ourselves and walk over to meet the one set of remaining neighbors and their pets. Happily they were friendly folks and appreciated my bribe of a dog treat for their stick-obsessed dog Scout and some well-placed head scratches for their brave kitty Gracie. We found that they are on an adventure much like we are but are doing it in the plush extravagance that is their Blue Turtle RV. We spent Saturday night at their campfire shooting the breeze and then met them at a sports bar in Santa Fe on Sunday to watch the Atlanta Falcons and their epic fail against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Amy and Andy also have a blog showcasing their diverse travels with stories and snippets of the vandwelling lifestyle. While perusing their site we have picked up some interesting and valuable information as well as places that we have added to our “To Do” list. You should check it and their adventures out at Blue Turtle Crossing.

But wait, we get ahead of ourselves a bit. After our relaxing Friday which included meeting the Blue Turtle crew for the first time we found ourselves rejuvenated enough to want to check out the top side of the canyon and so we took a several hour hike on Saturday up to and across spots where we were able to look down upon our path of two days before. We headed out to the right side of the canyon mouth and around the cliff there. We intermittently came across (and then immediately lost) what passed for a “trail” which zig-zagged up the rock strewn gulch in the general direction we wanted to go. We found a wall along the side of the path the creek would take during the wet season that we playfully equated to the animal version of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

small animal dens in the side of a creek wall
Critter Condo

Just across the creek bed from that was a juniper bush completely full of little blue birds flitting about and causing a friendly ruckus. We frankly think they were eating berries that had fermented and were getting blotto bird blitzed drunk and having a bird party.

Willow looking back at the bush full of little blue birds making a racket
Birds In The Bush Drawing Willow’s Attention

Leaving the birds in peace to their drunken pursuits we continued on up the boulder-strewn gulch and eventually made it to the top where we found a small, primitive shelter.

view of the shelter from the side
From The Side
looking inside the shelter
Looking Inside It Is Bigger Than It Seems. My 5′-10″ Self Could Lay Down Inside It.

We know it was not a fire pit as there was no sign of ash or burnt wood. It did seem like it would make a pretty adequate shelter from the wind and next time we visit Diablo Canyon (which we are sure to do) I am tempted to bring my Bivy Sack up here for a night.

The view out and around the valley from that vantage point was quite spectacular even on this somewhat hazy day.

Panorama. Click For A Larger View
Panorama. Click For A Larger View

As we stood there looking out a group of coyotes down somewhere on the left side of the above picture started up with a prolonged call-and-response song that got Willow’s ears pricked up. We turned from the gorgeous vista and started across the top of that mesa towards the cliffs that line the canyon entrance. The ground we were walking on was hard, crunchy pumice but which sat upon a multi-inch thick layer of softer ground and so each step was like walking on crunchy but soft grass and left noticeable inch-deep foot prints as we went.

shoeprint in soft pumice ground cover
Taking Only Pictures, Leaving Only Footprints…Alright, Shoeprints

Walking close to the edge of the cliff we could see that cars were beginning to stream into the campground and the parking lot was filling up fast. We hoped it was with day use people and not campers. We got lucky and that was indeed the case.

looking down on our campsite from the cliff above
Our Tacoma And Tent Can Be Seen On The Left Of The Parking Area As Cars Enter The Campground
Willow at the edge of a cliff looking out over our campground way down below
My Brave Black Dog On The Precipice

Eventually we came to an area where you could see some of the rock anchors waiting for the next climbers to make use of them and we could hear climbers down below beginning the process up getting up to where we were but doing it the hard way.

looking down a cliff face at rock anchors
Rock Anchors Awaiting Climbers
a view Looking Back Down Our Path To The River Two Days Before from the cliff above
The View Down Towards Our Path To The River Two Days Before
Willow on a precarious perch overlooking the campground way down below
Another Photo Of Willow Being Brave So Daddy Can Take An Interesting Pic

Our mission accomplished we turned back and headed towards camp picking up what we could of the surprisingly meager amount of litter in the area. With years of anecdotal evidence we have come to believe that, in general, it’s the fat, lazy people who litter – if you can make it up here you are neither fat nor lazy or a litterer.

Back down at camp we could see (and were happy about it) that the vast majority of the cars that we saw arriving earlier were part of a group taking part in what was obviously an entry-level class in outdoor rescue methods. They were all over along the base of the cliff that we had just gone around and up across the top of and were practicing team roping drills moving a rescue basket up and down the steep hillside.

Rescue Class To The Right Of This Photo At The Base Of The Cliff
Rescue Class To The Right Of This Photo At The Base Of The Cliff

Good for them as that is a very useful knowledge base and skill set to have under your belt. The rest of the cars had brought people who were rock climbing in the canyon and others taking the hike (or a portion of it) that we did a couple of days before.

Willow Taking Another Well Deserved Dirt Nap
Willow Taking Another Well Deserved Dirt Nap After The Day’s Hike

Later that night we had that nice fireside hangout with the Blue Turtle crew and then the next day Willow and I packed up and headed out into Santa Fe to find a hotel so we could make ourselves publicly presentable before the Super Bowl began.

Really, except for the lack of any usable AT&T signal (but when is that not the case) this was a nice place to spend a few days of free, dispersed camping. Next time we will arrive earlier in the week though so as to enjoy a few more days without the weekend crowds. Not a big deal, just a fine tuning. We got in a couple of good, long hikes, met some nice people and their animals and had some good practice in dealing with cold weather camping. Our four weeks spent in New Mexico was not nearly enough and just barely scratched the surface of all the places we wanted to visit. This of course means we will be back in the near future and will plan on once again taking advantage of Diablo Canyon and its beautiful surroundings as well.

One thought on “Diablo Canyon

  1. Great trip report. I really want to get out to New Mexico for some hiking.

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