DAY ONE: Las Vegas New Mexico, Gallinas River Canyon, El Porvenir State Park, Sante Fe National Forest
We made Las Vegas, New Mexico (not Nevada) in two days, nothing unbearable other than two long days of steady driving (1400 miles). We checked-in at the KOA located on US 84 just off I 25. It was not crowded as the season winds down in September.
Bright and early Tuesday morning we headed for Las Vegas on the KLRs and took SR 65 north to Montezuma passing the New World College that looked like a castle sitting high on a mountain. We followed Gallinas River up the canyon (most roads in this area lead up into dead end canyons making it difficult to find a good loop route.) SR 65 was paved some 20 miles as it passed through the small community of Gallinas which is nothing more than a group of adobe homes and singlewides clustered between the road and river.
We followed SR 65 to fork at El Porvenir State Park entrance. Forest Road 261 led us into the small park and secluded campground more suited for hikers. We wouldn’t advise bringing an RV or trailer in here as the road was very narrow. Also be warned that the locals tend to hog the road – keep alert and stay to the right.
We backtracked to SR 65 and FR 263 (one map showed FR 251) west and continued deeper into the canyon. The road turned to gravel and then turned back to paved as we entered Santa Fe National Forest This road continues along Gallinas Creek, past Evergreen Valley Ranch, and dead ends at Tilted Rock Picnic Area at an elevation of about 8500 feet. SR 263/251 was unique in that the Canyon narrows and then opens up again as you near the end.
We backtracked to A16A a gravel road which took us on a very scenic climb to Johnson Mesa on FR 291 at 9700 feet. Please note that the USGS map we were using did not show this road. This road continued for another ½ mile and then came to a dead end. We then backtracked on FR 291 to A16A and took a right on A16A to Mineral Hill where we caught the paved road SR 283 back to Las Vegas. This was a very scenic route but did not pose any riding challenges. Overall a good way to start out our trip.
In the afternoon we took I 25 south and exited on SR 63 (part of the original Route 66) which follows the Pecos River up into the canyon. We passed thru the small town of Pecos which wasn’t more than a few businesses and homes. Continuing on SR 63 we found scenic views along the river and noted many properties blatantly marked “NO TRESPASSING” including the river itself in places. Further into the canyon the road began to climb and narrow. At Tererro we took a right and continued to climb to Cowles passing many camping areas on the river. After Cowles we followed a steep climb through a number of switchbacks and arrived at Jacks Creek Camping area. This is one of the prettiest mountain camping areas we have seen in our travels with views of the Santa Fe Mountains amid ash trees and their beautiful white bark. This was another dead end canyon route which ends at the Pecos Wilderness Area.
We made our way back into Las Vegas to pick up a few groceries. In the grocery parking lot we found Raymond the professional “chile roaster” busy at his profession. Nancy introduced herself and with a little flirting managed to snag a whole bag of fresh roasted chiles. We enjoyed these on just about everything we ate for the next few days.
DAY TWO: New Mexico Mineral Springs & Mud Baths at Oja Caliente, Tres Pedras & Carson National Forest, Brazos Peak
Wednesday, September 08, 2004 Nancy, searching the Internet, found an interesting place for us to visit in New Mexico. I had my doubts, but I’m always interested in new adventures so I acquiesced. Nancy wanted to visit a desert mineral spa called Ojo Caliente located some 50 miles north of Santa Fe. As we approached Ojo it seemed that we were leaving civilization. This place is way out there in the desert. The roads didn’t too great for cycling either …. lots of straight-aways and tumbleweeds.
We pulled into the spa/hotel/motel/RV site and it looked like something out of a Sam Peckenpaugh western. Not a lot of effort went into landscaping and fancy features. The place almost looked like an abandoned stagecoach stop. Anyway, we parked the RV and made our way into the hotel which was another trip back into the 19th century. The hotel was actually built in 1916 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. This should have been enough of a warning for us not to be surprised by the outward looks of the hotel.
At this point even Nancy was having doubts about staying here, but we decided to take a tour of the spas before hightailing it for the hills. The spa area was adjacent to the hotel/motel and we had to get a pass to enter. Once inside our attitudes began to change. This spa thing looked interesting, especially the mud bath. We headed back to the hotel and cecked in for a one night stay in the RV area. It wasn’t cheap at $45 a night, but that also included two spa fees for two days …. quite a bargain when you compute the daily fees at $16 a person.
After plugging in the RV we put on our swim suits and headed for the spas. There was a number options to choose from. You could soak in the steaming iron, soda, or arsenic pools, swim in the chilly mineral water swimming pool, get warmed up in the steam room or sauna, coat yourself with mud then dry in the sun, and drink from the healing Lithia water spring. For an extra fee you could get special treatments; the dry blanket wrap, massage therapy, aquatic massage, hot stone massage, paraffin treatments, moisturizing masks, eye zone treatment, hot oil hair treatment, dry body brush, and a myriad of other weird sounding herbal stuff. Frankly I don’t like anyone putting their hands all over me (except Nancy) and some of this stuff was a bit pricey, so we opted for the poor man’s visit and had a blast.
Our favorite was the mud patio. You dip your hands into a bowl of runny mud and apply to all parts of the body. Then sit in the sun and let the mud dry. You skin really tightens as the mud dries. Then take a dip in the cleansing pool to wash it all off. We of course tried all the spas and must say that it felt good. Don’t know about all those healing promises though. Guess you’d have to do this quite often to get the curative effects.
After a couple of hours of rejuvenating, we decided to take a cycle ride. We headed out on the KLRs on US 285 to Tres Piedras, some 40 miles distant. Nothing here but a straight desert road with gigantic, high speed whoop-dee-doos. At Tres Piedras we headed west on US 64 which immediately began to climb with high speed sweepers into the Tusas Mountains and Carson National Forest. We saw numerous forest service roads both left and right that were tempting to try, but we wanted to check out the paved road first. We took some pictures Brazos Peak, a huge rock face with a 2000 foot vertical drop. We then back-tracked east and rode through the Hopewell Lake Campground, an excellent facility with no hookups.
We headed south on the gravel Forest Road 91B and encountered several hapless elk hunters attempting to bag one with bow and arrow. FR 91B offered a wide variety of backwoods vistas ranging from long distance mountain views to thickly wooded hillsides. The road was rutted in spots but dry. In wet weather this road would definitely be tricky. We are using DOT combo knobbies (60 street/40 off) on the bikes which make these various types of road surfaces fairly easy to negotiate.
Along this route we encountered several groups of free ranging cows just standing in the middle of the road. We had to coax a few to move as we approached. Ron was a little concerned about a charging bull. The further south we traveled the more rocky the road became until it eventually intersected with FR 42. We did not see FR 712 which according to the map was supposed to intersect before FR 42. We followed FR 42 south past Canon Plaza to Vallecitos. Be warned, the maps show this stretch as paved and it is not. We then continued south on paved SR 111 to La Medera and finally Oja Caliente.
We passed several ranches out in the middle of no-where along these forest routes. The scenic ranches looked beautiful, but it was a long way to a place where you could even buy a cold drink.
After some pretty rough riding we were ready for the spas again. We drew several bottles of magical lithia water from the spring. Ron said the lithia water tasted like Alka Seltzer water, but he drank it hoping for some curative effects from the hot chilies we had been consuming. We first headed for the 107 degree arsenic pool believed to help relieve arthritis, stomach ulcers and skin conditions and then spent several hours jumping from bath to bath. Our other favorite was the iron spring with the warm water bubbling up with the pebbles lining the floor of the spring. We even had a late afternoon mud experience.
Our thoughts about NM: This looked like one of the poorest states we ever been in. Gas up when you can, it’s a long way between modern gas stations – same goes for groceries. We wonder where these people shop for food. Everybody was so friendly. There can be a language barrier if you do not know “un pequito” Spanish. Many ornately decorated catholic churches dot the roadsides. It seems that everyone here has a fence ranging from sticks tied together, to barbed wire, to welded medal pipe, to expense custom jobs. We have never seen so many fences. Even the RV area at Oja is fenced in. We wondered what kind of deadly animals these people are so worried about. Not much care in landscaping of homes here either. People tend to let nature take its course and “do” the yard for them. Not many lawnmowers sold in these parts. We really liked the varied rustic adobe structures which are predominate.
DAY THREE: Taos NM
Thursday, September 09, 2004: We spent the morning getting our monies worth at the spas of Oja Caliente and RVed to Taos, New Mexico. Our destination was Columbine National Forest Campground in Carson National Forest on SR 38, just a few miles east of Questa and we hoped away from civilization. We stopped in Questa to fill up the RV with gas and grabbed some home-made burritos at the family owned gas station and deli. We couldn’t understand the cook very well, so we just told her we wanted something “bueno” and didn’t mind if it was “caliente”. We came away with two wonderful tasting burritos, but we still are not sure what was in them. We lucked out finding a beautiful campground in the canyon along Columbine Creek. Many of the other Forest Service campgrounds were closed and some were deserted. Others didn’t look quite as nice. The private RV resorts didn’t exactly look invited either.
Today we decided to take the FZ1 on a two-up ride around the Taos Mountains. From the campground we headed east on SR 38 passing through the ski resort town of Red River and then took the dead end SR 578 to Wheeler Peak Village where we found one of the nicer communities in the mountains.
Backtracking to SR 38 we continued eastward passing thru Elizabethtown not bothering to stop at the Elizabethtown Museum which looked like a garage next to a single-wide. We continued to the intersection of US 64 at Eagles Nest. This town was in a huge grazing valley with a lake surrounded by mountains and RV parks. Looks like they got plenty of snow as we saw a number of snowmobiles.
We then followed 64 west towards Agua Fria, praying for some good twisties. We found them in the next 21 miles of US 64 on the way to Taos. Not exactly the Dragon, but some good lefts and rights and minimal traffic. It was a real surprise and a welcomed change to the normal high speed sweepers we had encountered all day. Stopping in Taos we parked on the Town square. We did the usual tourist thing looking through the shops and buying pins and T-shirts. It looked like an active small town square as several bands were setting-up to play for the night.
Leaving Taos we continued on US 64 west. By the way, the roads are not very well marked in this area. We decided to take a quick ride out SR 150 to Taos Ski Valley. We found it between seasons and not many people around other than construction workers preparing for the winter season. The road had nice twisties as it climbed into the mountain canyon. We backtracked and took a shortcut from Valdez to Arroyo Hondo. We then caught SR 522 to Questa and SR 38 back to the camp.
This was about a 4 hour trip including stops and did have some interesting sections.
DAY FOUR: First day of riding around Ouray Colordao: Road tour including SR62, Placerville, SR145 San Juan Valley, Naturita, SR141 Dolores River, Gateway, SR141 Grand Junction, Black Canyon
First day at Ouray Colorado: The next stop was the small town of Ouray located in the Uncompahgre National Forest on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies. This was Ron’s first trip into the Rockies and he found it quite different than the forested peaks of the Smokies. Here it was only early September and there was snow on the mountain tops.
These steep and twisty mountain roads proved to be no challenge for us even in the RV. We did have to admit that it was a bit more scenic than North Carolina where because of the trees you only get a peak at the view every few miles. The drop-offs were also a lot more dramatic. No railings or trees to stop your 500 foot plunge. This makes the ride a little more exciting for some people. We don’t plan on going off the side, so it’s no big deal to us.
The roads became even more scenic and precipitous as we neared the small tourist town of Ouray. We had reservations at the KOA and were glad that we did …. they were packed even as the season waned. The whole place was crowded with Jeeps making us feel somewhat out of place. We’d have to check into this Jeep thing, a plan that would come back to haunt me when we got home.
The first day we decided to explore some 350 freaking miles of roads that we had read about on the internet. Riders had posted glowing reports extolling the virtues of these roads. Let us tell you, 350 miles in a day on a KLR is not exactly fun, even if you are on some great roads …. and we were still looking for them after 350 miles.
We headed north on US 550 to Ridgeway then west on SR 62 slowly climbing on beautiful sweepers with alpine views in the distance. The scenery was awesome but the roads just didn’t quite do it for us. Road surfaces were rough probably because of severe winter conditions and snow plow activities, lots of heaves and cracks. At Placerville we took SR 145 west thru the San Juan Valley. We found a few good miles of tight twisties before climbing out onto a high plateau with straight-aways all the way to Naturita. The straights continued on SR 141 until we descended into Uravan and followed the Dolores River. There were some spectacular canyon views along this route skirting the Utah border all the way to Gateway and we had the road to ourselves so we opened up the KLRs. As we approached Whitewater SR 141 turned into sweepers with some spectacular views into the valley northwards toward Grand Junction. So where are all these titillating twisties?
After a quick trip to the Burger King on US 50 near Grand Junction, we headed south to Delta which on the boring 4-lane with Nancy fighting sleep. This is normal for Nancy on boring roads, so I have to keep a close eye on her. Then we headed east on SR 92, another boring road, all the way to Crawford. Thank goodness for quick stops and a couple of Red Bulls.
Our hopes were aroused as we saw some distant mountains and found a few sweepers. The curves tightened a little as we entered the Black Canyon which had some awesome views and corners with 500 foot drop-offs with no railings that were a bit intimidating. Don’t think I’d put a knee down here.
We then took US 50 west on high speed downhill sweepers with passing zones that made the traffic easy to zip around. Then level straights into Montrose. We then took US 550 south through Ridgeway and back to our RV in Ouray.
Total distance 340 miles. Time 9.5 hours. Good riding for maybe 1.5 hours. Roads are better back home, but then we are rather spoiled.
DAY FIVE: Second day of riding around Ouray Colordao: Offroading Imogene Pass, Ophir Pass, Telluride
Second day at Ouray Colorado: Today we planned to tackled some of the tougher mountain pass tracks that Ouray is so famous for. You can buy “Survivor” pins for each of these passes.
We started out on the Camp Bird Road leading to Imogene Pass and then over into the ski resort of Telluride. It was drizzling but the skies were clearing. We took 361 (Camp Bird Road) up Canyon Creek with some scenic views of the deep canyon and distant peaks. About 1.6 miles past the Camp Bird turn-off at 10,600 feet elevation we took a left, crossed Sneffels Creek and headed south on Imogene Pass Road (there is a sign here). The road became rockier and we encountered several creek crossings to a little past Upper Camp Bird. Here the road covered with loose rock began to climb drastically. We met some dirt bike riders coming down from the high pass. They advised that there was packed snow at the pass and some difficult riding ahead.
Saddened we backtracked to US 550 and had a good ride on pavement heading south toward Silverton. Some great twisties here with no railings and shear drop offs of 500 feet or more. Once again we remarked that it was not the place for knee dragging. Unlike our North Carolina roads, it is easy to pass other vehicles and make good time. The DOT gives you a lot of passing zones even if they are much shorter than what you find in other areas.
On the way toward Ophir Pass Trail we stopped and took a quick look at the entrance to Engineer Pass. It was a super steep rocky climb made even more difficult by the rain. We decided to go farther south and take the easier Ophir Pass Road to the west towards Telluride. Ophir was an easy climb to the pass at 11,789 feet and then a moderate rocky downhill section which narrowed to one vehicle only. On the way down we encountered several vehicles and had to carefully negotiate passage. Fairly high up to our amazement we encountered a couple on a cruiser. This was no place for them as the road was covered with loose rock and steepening if they continued east. They also had to get around one pickup-mounted camper that was stopped in the tightest spot to resecure their gear. After telling them not to proceed we continued on just shaking our heads.
Entereing the tree line we were escorted part of the way by a wayward sheep making its way back home to the small residential community of Ophir. Made up of small moderately constructed homes on small lots the place had a rather bohemian feel. Here the road became paved.
We continued westward through Ophir Loop and took a right on SR 145, a paved route to the tourist town of Telluride where food and gas are on the expensive side (they don’t even post the gas prices). We had a pizza on the back deck of Jacks Bar with a view of Bridal Veil Falls and the ski runs. After lunch we walked main street and noticed everyone, including shops, seemed to have a dog or two … and they were all well behaved!!
We decided to attack Imogene Pass from the Telluride side to see how far we could get. The beginning of the climb passes several hillside residences on Tomboy Road. This climb was realtively easy but we did encounter some loose rocks and steep switchbacks. As we climbed higher the road leveled and narrowed There were sheer drop offs and beautiful views of the valley below. We tried to make it to the pass but had to turn back at the ruins of Tomboy Mine when we encountered loose, fist sized rock that was extremely difficult to negotiate. On the way down we were passed by a group of dirt bikers and we were wishing we had our KTMs.
We then took a run south on SR 145 to Rico thinking that there was a way back over to US 550. This is a great section of roads with both sweepers and tight corners in spots. We learned that this was the long way back and would take several hours. We backtracked north on SR 145 to Placerville and then east on SR 62 to Ridgeway. We returned to Ouray on US 550 south.
DAY SIX: Third day of riding around Ouray Colordao: Offroading Alpine Loop, Cinnamon Pass, Sliverton, Hurrican Pass, California Pass, Lake San Cristobol, Lake City
Third day at Ouray Colorado: After failing to get over some of the more challenging passes yesterday, we decided to try crossing Cinnamon Pass today. Even though it is one of the higher passes it is far from the hardest according to Wells’ book Guide to Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails. By the way, this book is a must before heading out onto the mountain backroads. One word of warning for bikers ….. a moderate jeep trail can be most difficult for dual sports.
We left Ouray taking US 550 south into Silverton. This is a good motorcycle road with both tight twisties and some good sweepers. We stopped on Main street in Silverton to pick-up the always needed trinkets. Then we headed north on the improved gravel road SR 110A into the mountains. We saw a sign and one ski lift for Silverton Mountain, a rather unique winter ski resort which advertises “fresh uncut lines in a world of chop and bump fields .. mind blowing terrain”. This extreme skiing with a guide is for expert and advanced skiers/snowboarders only. There are lots of trees, rocky chutes, and 55 degree slopes. See more at SilvertonMountain.com We also saw strange man made things on top of a few mountains too, possibly old mining ruins which are quite common in the area.
The road stayed improved and followed northward Cement Creek which was red with iron or other minerals (cinnamon color). At a major intersection called Gladstone on the USGS map there was some sort of mining plant (Gold King Mine). Here, at 10,453 feet elevation, we headed up a narrow steep road to the left that was labeled “Hurricane, Corkscrew, California Pass”. We were looking for Cinnamon Pass, but it was not signed here. We met an open tour van with half a dozen frozen tourists huddled together with hair a-blowing and looking like they’d rather be back at the motel. The driver/tour guide indicated that we were on the right road and gunned the van downhill toward Silverton.
The road leveled out and then began to climb again with some loose rocks but nothing too difficult for us to get over. You only had a hard time when you stopped on a steep grade. Suddenly we were at Hurricane Pass, elevation 12,470 feet, with spots of snow all around us. It was windy, cool, and clear. Nancy was thrilled to finally make it to a real Colorado mountain top.
We then headed down and came to one sharp, muddy, steep switch back, but amazingly we both made the sharp turn and climb easily. We then climbed to California Pass where about a dozen jeeps driven by senior citizens were inconsiderately blocking the small parking area and the road. Somehow we found a level parking spot amongst the jeeps, took one quick picture, grabbed a swig of drink, and hurried to get in front of the caravan descending to Animas Junction.
At Animas Junction there were ruins of a fairly good sized mining town and the intersection for Cinnamon and Engineer passes. Engineer heads out north from here and Cinnamon heads east. We took a sharp switchback and climbed to Cinnamon Pass, elevation 12,640 feet, where we met another dual sport rider from Minnesota. This guy was some kind of ironman having ridden his KTM all the way.
From here the road descended with a series of very sharp steep switchbacks which had to be taken carefully and slowly. The road then became forested and finally followed the scenic deep Gunnison River Valley to Lake San Cristobal. This crystal blue mountain lake was formed naturally when the narrow valley was plugged by a large landslide centuries ago.
We had lunch at Poker Annies in Lake City and took a quick excursion on paved SR 149 south through Slumgullion Pass with some 11 miles of decent twisties. Heading back north we made a quick stop for a shot of espresso in the historic district of Lake City just a block west of the main drag. Take time to check out this old western town.
We then headed north on SR 149 and took a high speed (70 mph) well-maintained gravel short cut CR 26 for 15.4 miles which brought us to US 52 for a fast and windy trip back to Montrose and south on US 550 to Ouray.
DAY SEVEN: Four wheeled jeep adventure on the roads a little too rough for us on the dual sports. This was FUN !!
Fourth “Jeep” day at Ouray Colorado: We wanted to explore some of the tougher passes so we rented a jeep for a full day at $130. We picked-up the Jeep Wrangler late afternoon so we’d have it first thing in the morning for an early start. You have to prove that you have insurance, so we had to call our agent for verification.
We headed right for one of the toughest, Imogene Pass over the highest mountain in the area to Telluride. We had attempted to cross this pass from each direction on our KLRs, getting us to within a few miles of the top on each side before we met impassable sections of road. We had heard that there was snow at the top and had been told it might be difficult, if not impossible, even in the jeep.
Our first impression as we hit the rough sections of road was that the jeep was much slower going than the KLRs. It was a very rough ride and shook us up quite well. As we got to the higher elevations – past the tree line – the road did smooth out but there were a few difficult rock climbs where we scraped bottom.
Near the top we ran into the snow and attempted to 4-wheel through it. Twice we had to back up and try again – not the easiest thing to do when you are on a steep incline with a 1300 foot drop off the side of the narrow path. Finally we decided to take a short detour where other traffic had left its mark and made it around the slick snow pack. We were then confronted with a long steep climb which appeared to be similar snow pack. We had come this far and hesitantly decided to continue. Surprisingly we had little difficulty the rest of the way to the top.
We looked down at the descending path into Telluride and noted a long section of snow pack still in the early morning shade and wondered if we could safely negotiate the steep downhill section. About that time we saw another vehicle climbing from Telluride and waited until he advised that the road was passable. After a few miles we arrived at Tomboy where we had turned around the day before on the KLRs. Had it not been for the short section of grapefruit sized gravel on the steep incline, we probably could have made it on the cycles to the pass. We continued down into Telluride and took SR 149 south to take the easy way back to US 550 via Ophir Pass.
Now we were eager to explore Engineer Pass and found the first quarter mile so rocky and rough that we were sure the rest of the trail would be easy. But this was not to be so. We climbed mile after mile and encountered a relentless challenge of rocky road. The highlight of the first part of Engineer was the narrow pass along a sheer cliff drop off hundreds of feet into the river canyon below. We were glad that we didn’t meet much traffic on Engineer. We were passed by a Toyota pickup that must have been a regular the way he made such good time. We were also passed by several dirt bikers. We were able to stay ahead of a mountain biker though.
Finally we reached the upper levels and the Alpine tundra signs where travel became much easier. The main difficulties at higher elevations were the steep narrow roads where you did not want to meet another vehicle. On these sections the uphill vehicle has the right-of-way, so if you’re the one headed downhill you’ll have to back-up. Again backing up at this elevation and steep grade can be a bit intimidating. We knew the trail was getting easier when we started to see bone-stock SUVs coming from the other direction. One even had kayaks packed on top.. We hoped they were not going to attempt to descend the part of Engineer we had just climbed – there was no way a stock SUV would make it down that road. We found that we could have easily negotiated the roadway from Animas Forks to Engineer Pass Overlook on the KLRs.
As we made the final assault to the overlook at Engineer Mountain at over 13,000 feet, the wind was gusting upwards of 30 mph and temps had dropped some 20 degrees. We then backtracked down and continued to the ghost town of Animas Junction, where we had been the day before on the KLRs. We retraced some 10 miles over California and Hurricane Passes to the turnoff for Corkscrew Pass.
This road was much smoother than others we had been on during the day, but it was steep and narrow – going straight up and coming straight down. The descent also featured several sharp switchbacks as we once again left the bare mountain into the forest. The next three miles down to US 550 were easy. Corkscrew Pass access from US 550 is near mile marker 86 and at the Ironton Park turnoff. It is not marked Corkscrew Pass until you go thru the park and find the back road. We probably could have managed this road with the KLRs, but it would have required some serious concentration on the steep switchbacks..
Afterword……Renting the Jeep was great fun, but it did prove to be expensive. No, the $130 day was well worth the money. It was when we got home that the expense came. Nancy had to have a Jeep. We traded-in her Focus hatchback (which I never liked anyway) and brought home a new Rocky Mountain Special Edition Jeep to commemorate our trip out west. Now we wonder why we didn’t buy one long before.