The Rio Chama Canyon (Mis)Adventure – Part One

I’d been planning on a camping trip to Utah’s Canyon Country after the wedding in the hopes of getting out into red-rock country. There is something I find fascinating about this beautiful but desolate area and I was looking forward to the warmth, photo opportunities, and no responsibilities. However, in the end we opted out of the long drive and decided to try something a little closer to home. A little research on the Internet turned up a similar area in the Santa Fe National Forest. Located in north central New Mexico, the Rio Chama Canyon became our destination for an extended Memorial Day weekend.

The forecast was a bit dubious but we headed out and worked our way south through high winds and rain arriving at the Coyote Ranger station a few minutes before they closed. We snagged a map of the area and located a nice lookout point on the map at the end of a 4WD forest road that promised extraordinary views of the canyon and river. It took another hour to get there but the view did not disappoint. The only problem was the stinking weather! The winds were still kicking up and it was hinting that it might snow. We decided that setting up camp on the exposed lookout was not the best idea and retreated back into the forest where we pitched the tent among a bunch a small trees.

Misadventure #1: I forgot to pack the sleeping mats. Doh! Rhonda came to the rescue and created a comfortable bed out of the materials we had on hand.

The wind died down and I made a nice campfire but after supper the big old fat snowflakes started coming down. It was pretty but we didn’t linger too long after such a long travel day. We crawled into the tent and quickly realized we should have brought our winter bags. The down blanket and vests we always bring saved the day, er…night, and we managed to stay warm. At least for awhile. I woke up in the middle of the night wondering why the dog was sleeping on my legs. It wasn’t the dog. One side of the tent had caved in due to the weight of the snow and was soaking my sleeping bag in the process! Arrghh! I beat the snow off and the tent popped back up where it belonged. I managed to get back to sleep but it kept on snowing.

We woke up to a good 4-6 inches of snow. So much for the warm SW desert. It really was beautiful though and we managed to keep our attitudes in check. I scooped the snow off the table, heated up some water and made myself a cup of Kauai coffee. Ha! I contemplated making a snowman in front of the table and making it look like he was cooking up some coffee.

Then it started snowing again. It became apparent that we could not stay up this high. We had taken our old tent which was very roomy but not so waterproof anymore and it was obvious that conditions were not exactly improving. We were not sure where we were going to go but we definitely needed to get out of where we were or be prepared to hunker down and wait it out. And with our stuff already being pretty well soaked that seemed like a bad idea. So we packed it up and managed to drive down out of the mountains even as the winds were picking up again and the road was getting rather difficult to pick out. Thus ended misadventure #2.

We stopped back into the Ranger station and the Ranger told us she had lived there for 30 years and never seen it snow after May 15th! We had her check the weather forecast and it did not look like the weather was going to clear until Saturday. This was a bit ironic since we had left sunny 70 degree weather back in the Springs to drive south for warmer weather. We decided to head back north and look for another place to hang out for the weekend. The map gave us two choices for heading back north and we chose the one that went past some Indian cliff ruins. Thus began misadventure #3.

We picked up Hwy 112 and by the time we got to the Indian ruins it was raining again. Getting to the ruins required hiking in so we skipped that. A few miles down the road Hwy 112 became an unpaved road with this ominous sign road_sign.jpg which actually turned out to be true. We didn’t really think that much about it though figuring it was just a gravel road. But no, it was essentially mud. We wallowed our way forward for about three miles and progress was very slow as you could only go around 10-15 miles per hour. We headed into a downhill section with an “s” curve and saw a big truck stuck on a side road that branched off. I don’t know if it was a change in the crown of the road or what but suddenly we got sucked down into the ditch, gunned it, popped out and almost got back into the traveled portion of the road but not quite.

I can kick myself for not getting a picture of this. It would have been a great picture and it’s hard to describe. As I said we were going downhill. It’s common in this part of the country to divert the ditch off into the field, canyon, or whatever every so often so that water doesn’t pick up too much speed and erode the ditch. Needless to say it was equally successful at diverting a Jeep. We found ourselves with the right wheels firmly in the ditch, leaning at a 45 degree angle, and heading out into a small meadow. (Sigh)

I decided to walk over and see how the other guy was doing. He was pretty well buried but still working at getting out. We chatted for a minute and comparing notes realized we were so far out that neither of us had any cell service either. After watching him for a minute I decided I might as well go back to the Jeep and at least try and get out. I put the Jeep into 4WD-Low and amazingly was able to work my way back out. It took a little horsing around but out she came and I managed to get her turned around in the process headed back the way we came. Going back the other way was going to really change our plans but tackling another 13 miles of this muddy road just didn’t sound too smart. The other guy got himself unstuck about the same time and we both decided it made better sense to head back. We followed each other out and I stopped when we got back to the highway and took this picture.

So back we go (wave as we go by the Ranger station again) and all that mud up in the wheels hardens up and throws the wheel balance off. The Jeep starts driving like an apple truck. Need to find a car wash. We end up all the way back down in Espanola before we find a car wash and get most of the mud hosed off. By now its late afternoon. We need to make a command decision…go home or tough it out. We decide to tough it out and go back to the Rio Chama Canyon but this time try the bottom of the canyon which has a designated camping area and is a good thousand feet lower in elevation. Meanwhile, find a laundromat and get our gear dried out. We hang out in the laundromat and watch several ugly storm fronts move through the area we plan on heading towards.

With the gear all dry and some food in the tummy we head back up Hwy 84 to Forest Road 151 and drive nine or ten miles to the end where the primitive campground is. It has stopped raining and the clouds are breaking up. We pitch the tent and get camp established. It’s been quite a few years since we last camped in an established campground with neighbors and it feels a bit odd. Fortunately, no one seems to be intent on having a beer fest and playing loud music. The setting sun allows for a brief photo opportunity but the clouds start building up again and as darkness arrives so does the rain. We pile into the tent and discover water pooling in one corner. ARRGGHHH!. One of the rain fly tabs did not get staked out. We fix the problem, getting cold and wet in the process, and settle in for another night of cold, damp, camping. This is so not what we had in mind for the weekend.

Morning dawned cloudy and dreary but finally by mid-morning started clearing and the sun quickly dried things out. And it felt SOOOOO good just sitting and soaking up the warmth. Actually, it’s looking pretty good for a hike this afternoon…..(to be continued)

2 thoughts on “The Rio Chama Canyon (Mis)Adventure – Part One

  1. What amazing adventures you guys had! I can imagine the frustration of going from one misadventure to another, but it’s neat to see that you kept up your humor. 🙂 Matt, you sure are a good storyteller. This was very interesting to read! 🙂

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