Friday, April 11, 2014

Mind Games: Water in the Desert (Part 1)

In a far away land, there is a place where giant sand castles rise out of the desert. In the distance, Grand-Canyon-esque landscapes carve through terra cotta colored earth and winding escarpments run endlessly towards the horizon. A massive reservoir in the distance is hard to distinguish from a mirage in the desert – reality is distorted as a diverse array of landscapes come into and out of focus while standing atop a wind-carved ledge in the sky. The immeasurable scale of everything truly tricks your eyes and the overwhelming sense of being smaller than an ant is unimaginable.

Giant rocks appear perfectly balanced and carefully placed on sandy vertical ledges dropping hundreds of feet below. A reservoir in the distance is the only water visible in a 360 degree view from the top.
Stripes of exposed layers of sediment form bands that I assume are a geologist's dream (top photo). What appear to be upside down sugar cones with a scoop of coffee-colored ice cream on the tip of the cone somehow hang on the edge of an eroded sandy cliff. These"upside down ice cream cones" appear to defy gravity both from afar (top photo) and overhead (bottom photo).
I promise this place does not only exist in Dr. Seuss books. It can also be found at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, located 55 miles northeast of Albuquerque, NM on the Pajarito Plateau. Kasha-Katuwe means white cliffs in the traditional Keresan language, so it's easy to see where the park got its name. Despite the fact that it looks like a giant sand castle contest, the unbelievable rock formations are actually made up of volcanic sediments that have been subject to wind and water erosion over the past 6-7 million years. The Jemez volcanic field eruptions left behind about 1,000 feet of pumice, ash, and tuff that have since been shaped into the funky formations at the park. 
Winding our way through the wind and water carved trail. 
If you are observant and patient, you can sometimes spot an "apache tear." These are small, rounded pieces of obsidian (black volcanic glass) formed if water is not present during the cooling of obsidian lava. Legend has it that the tears of the wives and families of fallen Apache warriors turned to stone when the warriors ran off the edge of mountains to escape the US cavalry during a battle in the 1870s in what is now Arizona.
It’s absolutely amazing that anything can grow here; trees survive against what appears to be all odds - the ground is literally disappearing below their roots. To make matters worse, the park website warns that "during inclement weather…lighting may strike the ridges." Doesn't sound like an ideal habitat! Manzanita shrubs (evergreens with red bark) cling impossibly to the vertical walls of the canyons, and at other times of year, Indian paintbrush, Apache plume, rabbitbrush, and desert marigold bloom. Ponderosa pine and piƱon-juniper woodlands dominate the ecosystems near the steep cliffs.

Growing here does not look easy - the ground is literally disappearing as it erodes from beneath these trees!
Bright New Mexican sun on a cloudless day.
Boulder caps (the flat rock covering the feature to the right) protect the softer pumice below. But once the cap rocks are gone (as seen on the pointy tents in the middle of the photo), tents start disintegrating. Tents at the park range from only a few feet to almost 100 feet tall! 

6,760 feet above sea level. From this point of view,
you can see an incredible diversity of ecosystems.
One of the most amazing things about this other world is its proximity to a diverse array of strikingly different ecosystems. At the end of the Canyon Trail, there is 630-foot practically vertical climb to the top, where you look out and feel dwarfed by the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, and Sandia Mountains that surround the Rio Grande Valley.

And not far from Tent Rocks, hidden in the high altitude woods off of winding mountainous roads, pools of steaming water abound. These high-altitude hot springs absolutely blew my mind and completely changed how I picture New Mexico. And to a Florida girl, high altitude hot springs sounds like one giant oxymoron - aren't springs entrances to underground caves that are 72 degrees (aka not hot) year round? Mind games!

Although the actual landscape surrounding the springs looks like a northern temperate forest, finding these springs is actually pretty similar to finding water in a desert. To start, there are no signs or designated parks like there are for many of the more popular springs in Florida. For two of the springs we found, trails originate at little scenic overlooks alongside roads with no shoulder and breathtaking views. Using blogs and some other dated, random websites and guidebooks, we pieced together where we thought we may be able to find a few springs and set out on an adventure from Albuquerque to Jemez, NM and beyond.

Jemez Springs is a tourist destination where people come to go to “natural” hot springs, many of which have been made into not-so-natural private indoor pools/spas confined within the walls of hotels – not what we were looking for. Venturing through Jemez Springs, we found ourselves on winding roads, unnamed dirt roads, and very quickly completely out of cell service – this let us know that we were headed in the right direction…

First stop: Gilman Tunnels
We stopped on the tiny, barely 2-lane road to take in the breathtaking array of colors. If your'e afraid of heights, don't drive down this road - and if you do, close your eyes, or hold your breath or something - there's no shoulder and not a whole lot of room for error.
I came across this spot on - obviously I was in the desert Googling where to find the closest water. On that website, it said there were 3 swimming holes just off the side of a forest access road - and turns out, the drive down the access road was the best part!
One of the few sections of the road with guard rails. The thin road runs along the Guadalupe River - the drop off to the river is perhaps a bit too close for comfort in many places! 
One of the two Gilman Tunnels, which are old railway tunnels blasted through the mountains to move timber. The road dead ends shortly after the tunnel where it turns into a huge state forest.
One of the swimming holes as seen from the road - not sure that the websites I had found mentioned that it is fed by snowmelt from the nearby mountains - if you swam here during this time of year, it would definitely fall under the "polar plunge" category!
Staring longingly at one of the freezing swimming holes in the Guadalupe River - can't swim here, but we did find water! On the right track!
The water was icy but swiftly flowing and beautiful. I balanced myself (and camera) on a rock in the middle of the river to take this picture - the flat rock made a nice tripod for a long exposure shot of the river.
Second Stop: Soda Dam & Hot Spring
We stopped shortly before Soda Dam on Route 4 because we weren't sure if we had accidentally passed it, but upon seeing this monstrosity just off the side of the road, we realized it's impossible to miss! Rocks draped over other rocks like a tablecloth form a natural dam in the Jemez River.

Soda Dam, a natural dam on the Jemez River along Route 4.
Water from the Jemez River runs falls through the small opening in the dam. Apparently minerals from the spring built up over time to form the dam.
My dad had hurt his foot, so he hobbled over to the ledge to watch the Jemez River rush by on its way to the dam, which is just out of view on the right.
Across the street from the dam, I spotted my first ever hot spring! But, just as we like to do with many natural ecosystems, humans have totally altered this natural wonder. Just barely out of view in the photo below, a cement retaining wall runs directly through the spring, forming a barrier along Route 4.

It would have been weird to see people bathing in this spring because the road literally cuts right through the middle of it. Apparently building too close to (and in this case directly in) springs isn't unique to Florida. I'm also not sure anyone would want to take a nice relaxing bath in this spring… crazy-colored algae and yellowish water didn't look too enticing… I'll take a rain check for the next one on the list!
Despite the fact that this one didn't make the cut for swimming, I was absolutely fascinated by this new and unique little ecosystem. Water trickling its way from the sizzling and spurting spring vent allowed some funky algae to grow in its path. Up close with no reference to scale, this braided formation of algae looked like a dendritic river network as seen from a plane.
Wait, I thought you could dive in spring vents?! Apparently not in hot springs… This is one of the two tiny vents feeding the hot spring - it was sputtering and gurgling as it spat water out of the small rock crevice.
Third time's a charm: Spence Hot Springs
Our next set of directions had us heading north again on Route 4 looking for a small parking area somewhere between mile markers 24 and 25. The website said to "Park in this lot, where you will see a small sign that says Parking sunrise to sunset-No nudity." Many other sources also mentioned that the rules outlined in this sign are often not observed. But, given that it was the off-season and I was determined to swim in a hot spring, we took our chances.
We guessed that the small  trail connected to the parking lot led to the spring. The trail had countless switch-backs and wove down the steep cliff towards a small river.  
Crossing the river.
After going over this bridge, we walked up a steep mountain with a landscape reminiscent of a temperate New England forest. The hike was only about 15 minutes each way, but the high altitude meant that the air was thin and took your breath away easily. Part way up the steep incline, we avoided a few muddy but slippery piles of snow and ice, which had me questioning whether or not it was really swimming season. But, only a minute later, we started seeing water flowing down the rocks  connecting pools of water with abundant plant life - a sure sign of nearby springs!
Found it! There were a few people getting out of the spring as we arrived as well as  4 people sitting in another part of the spring (all wearing bathing suits and obeying the no nudity rule that is apparently often broken), but I had a large part to myself! Touching the water for the first time,  my brain had a hard time registering the fact that it was hot. I kept sticking my toes in the water and trying to figure out why everything was backwards - cold air and hot water!? Like Dorothy realizing she's no longer in Kansas, I too had a hard time adjusting to the non-Floridan springs!
But getting used to the warm water wasn't very difficult as I slipped in smiling.  It felt exactly like a hot tub except that there was some slimy algae on the rocks and huge boulders made up the sides of the natural pool. And of course it wasn't long until I squeezed myself into a little cave where the spring vent was releasing a trickle of steamy water. I took this this photo while sitting in the half wet/half dry cave - the spring vent is way in the back.
It was a blast to share springs adventures with my parents - we were actually out in New Mexico to watch my sister run at NCAAs, but this was a perfect chance to squeeze in our first family vacation in many years. This is my mom at the entrance of the cavern.
Relaxing in the cavern.
A gorgeous view from the main spring pool. If somebody dropped me here, I would guess I was in the mountains of New Hampshire or Vermont.
A view of the empty bottom pool from just outside the cavern in the upper pool. In the background, other spring enthusiasts make their way back down the trail after a warm dip in the water.

 After a soak in Spence, my trip was officially complete - I went to what I had previously naively assumed was a desert and found water, so the trip was a success. But this water spewing out of small cracks in rocks of the arid southwest was both fascinating and perplexing at the same time - basking in the hot springs and seeing the disappointing trickle of muddy water somehow called the Rio Grande made me wonder how Albuquerque quenches the thirst of almost 1 million people in the metropolitan area. Perhaps there is something missing from this story, which may be more similar to Florida than I originally thought…

(stay tuned for Mind Games: Water in the Desert, Part 2 coming soon!)


  1. these (as well as an earlier account from the air) are a magnificent depiction of our diverse landscape. breathtaking now, and certainly more so as you experienced it ... great work!

  2. Aw thank you so much, Tracy!! I was absolutely in awe from the second I took off from Gainesville… it was fun to re-live the trip as I wrote this :)