There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills!

I stayed way past my limit in Cloudcroft. Even with confirmation from the Ranger that the Forest Service was taking a bit of a “who’s counting?” approach during COVID, coupled with the fact that I did move around a bit, I didn’t want to wear out my welcome.

I had hoped I could stay long enough to see the large stand of aspens at the top of the hill in my favorite meadow turn gold. It was my favorite hiking destination, as it was behind a hiker’s gate restricting vehicular traffic, and with the exception of Labor Day when they opened the gate, I rarely saw anyone up there. The wild horses from the Mescalero Reservation came to the meadow to graze. That meadow with those tall aspen trees was just the kind of “therapeutic” I needed to get me through these crazy COVID times.

In the middle of that meadow was a thick stand of aspens. I went to the aspen stand at least a couple of times a week hoping for signs of color change. I thought maybe I could wait it out. But nighttime temps were dropping down into the low 30’s. As we know, it’s not the cold that brings about the change of color as much as it is length of day, as photosynthetic activity decreases as the days get shorter. The amount of daylight signals the leaves to cease producing food in the form of chlorophyll. In other words, I was running out of heat much faster than the aspen leaves were running out of food. It was time for me to drop down in elevation a bit, and continue my planned counter-clockwise tour of New Mexico.

The 16 mile winding drive up through the national forest to the Santa Fe Ski Area is a gorgeous drive.

There comes a point along the winding road up when the side of the mountain covered in golden aspens hits you in the eye like a big lemon pie! I literally gasped when I first caught glimpse of it.

Thankfully, there are pull-outs where leaf-peepers like me can safely pull over and take it all in.

This was the gold I’d been mining for since I left the evergreen forests of Cloudcroft.

I was surprised to learn some aspens can turn red. I’d never seen a red aspen before this. I googled it, and I learned yellow and orange leaf colors are due to xanthophyll and carotene pigments. Reds are caused by anthocyanins, something genetically present in only a few aspen stands.

I love how this artist was inspired to create on the side of the highway. Were it not for COVID, I would have stopped and asked if I could have a look.

This mountainside with its hodge-podge of colors reminds me of a tapestry.

I don’t know what it is about that intense golden color of the trees. Whether it is the higher altitude aspens or the mighty cottonwoods that flank the riverbanks, I can’t seem to get enough. It’s like gorging on liquid sunshine, and I want to drink it in until I am giddy with intoxication. Especially in the halcyon days of late autumn when the sky turns cobalt blue, it brings to mind my favorite poem, “October’s Bright Blue Weather,” by Helen Hunt Jackson. It’s the only poem I ever memorized, and when looking up through these dainty quaking teardrop aspen leaves against the intense blue sky, I often feel compelled to stop to recite a few lines. 😉

About 3/4 of the way up to the Santa Fe Ski Area is the Aspen Vista picnic area.

At the Aspen Vista Picnic Area is a trail. While it’s just a forest service road, the scenery along the way is stunning enough that I could be walking on asphalt for all I care.

The trail goes for six miles, and offers the opportunity to be immersed in the aspens.

The views also open up to admire the entire golden hillside. (Does this photo appear blurry to you? It’s not my camera, it’s WordPress.)

It’s pretty crowded at first, but after about the first mile, the level path begins to ascend, and the number of people becomes inversely proportional to the feet of elevation gain.

“No, that’s okay. You go first! I’ll just wait until you are across.”

In doing research online to find the best location for fall color in New Mexico, Santa Fe’s Aspen View was mentioned repeatedly as a place not to be missed. I needed to go to Santa Fe anyway, as the Winnie needed some work, and there is a diesel mechanic there I have used before and trust, Hal Burns Truck and Equipment Supply.

The thing I don’t like about Hal Burns is that they don’t take appointments, but rather operate “first come, first served.” Conversely, the thing I DO like is that they will allow us RV full timers to stay on the lot at night waiting our turn, even offering hookups after business hours. The lot is gated, but those who stay overnight are given access. RV parks in Santa Fe are expensive, costing $40 to $50 per night, with few low cost state or federal options close to town. So avoiding the high cost of hookups I don’t need helps take the sting out of the repair bill.

After being boondocked in the forest for close to two months, I had a list of errands to complete while in town, not the least of which was to visit the Aspen Vista. Having “free parking” made waiting for my turn in the repair bay seem like a bonus as I traveled up the winding road to drink in the liquid sunshine.

The upper part of the Aspen Vista trail is approaching 10,000 feet. Good thing I’ve been living at 9,000 in Cloudcroft, or I really would be huffing and puffing! Especially since everyone on this trail is wearing a mask!

Walking through the stand, the tops of the aspens are golden, but so are the smaller saplings down below, giving the impression of a reflection.

The hike up from Aspen Vista crosses a couple of small but noisy streams good for therapeutic contemplation and poetry recitation. This one makes me think of Robert Frosts’ “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

More orange-red aspens. I am delighted by the variation in color.

Note the ski runs.  Ski Santa Fe, located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is just 16 miles from historic Santa Fe. I skied here once long ago on a fam trip with my team from work.

With a base area elevation of 10,350 feet, Ski Santa Fe is among the highest ski areas in the continental United States.

Moving from the forest of Cloudcroft to the city of Santa Fe was an interesting social study. With Cloudcroft being only 100 miles from Texas, it’s really more Texan than New Mexican, with two times more Texas license plates seen around town. The top restaurants all serve up Texas Barbecue as a mainstay on the menu. It’s a tRump town, with weekend MAGA protesters waiving tRump flags along both sides of the highway, while wearing gun holsters on their hips. Even though there are giant poster-board signs on the front doors of the Allsups, the main store and only gas station in town warning that masks are required for entry, I felt lucky if one out of three customers were masked. While the cashiers wore them, they did so beneath their noses, just enough to keep from being reported.

But once I got to Santa Fe, a markedly more “blue” part of New Mexico, being the State Capital people were even wearing masks to walk their dogs outdoors. I was amazed at the difference! I saw a few people wearing them driving when they were the only ones in the car! While I am a big proponent of wearing the mask in public, I must admit I am not accustomed to wearing one on a hiking trail. But had I gone without, I would have been the only one.

So masked up, I huffed and puffed my way up the mountain, grateful for an excuse to stop often to catch my breath and bask in the brilliance. Grateful for the distraction and relief from COVID confinement.  Grateful for the glorious golden glow, and grateful for the clean mountain air, albeit a bit thin. 😉  Gold in them thar hills, indeed!

The road to the ski area passes through Hyde Memorial State Park. All state parks are closed to out of state visitors due to COVID, but it otherwise looks like a lovely campground.

There may be gold in those hills, but there’s a ribbon of red hot fire in that sky!

Nothing like a southwestern sunset!

17 thoughts on “There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills!

  1. Your title caught my attention right away with your title! I love aspens at all times of the year but you are right , there is nothing like the color, sounds and smell of aspens in the fall. Glad to see you hit the peak and were able to experience them!

  2. Beautiful fall colors! We found that in San Diego and Bend, OR there was a lot of mask wearing on the beach or trails. I discovered that wearing a bandana as a face covering was so much easier than a mask while hiking. You can pull it up or down quickly with one hand!

  3. Hi Suzanne…
    I loved the photo of the woman painting on the roadside. I’m not sure I could have resisted the urge to stop. I’m so envious of artists who can capture a view like that…landscape painting eludes me!
    And I’m also envious that you crossed paths with that tarantula. I know they’re here in the desert but I’ve never seen one “in the wild”.
    If you head this way be sure to let me know. We went from temps near 100 to 60’s and 70’s for a few days. Looks like 80’s and beautiful AZ fall/winter weather (what season is it anyway??) is here for awhile.

  4. You had enough aspen photos that I came to appreciate the golden mountains. Being a north eastern native and resident I have been conditioned to the multi hued colors, but mother nature is a great artist and your pictures convinced me that the New Mexican mountains as beautiful as they are wear the golden mantel well. We only passed through New Mexico on our last trip, but after a stop in pie town we took 7 days to pass through with stops in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos. What a wonderful time we had wt the last two, and the entire drive.
    We would have enjoyed seeing the Tarantula. but would have needed a 300mm lens to take the picture. Thanks for another great blog.

  5. I have been wondering where you were. My sister lives in Edgewood (eastern side of the Sandia’s and she said on Sunday the 25th it was 56* in her yard, and the next morning it was 16* , expected to stay there and lots of snow to boot! I know Santa Fe was getting snow also, so where are you now? I love aspens too and am very surprised about the red/orange! Don’t think I’ve ever noticed that before. Learn something new every day……thanks for the lovely distraction. I have really been missing the southwest!

  6. Goodness that area is beautiful! I actually made it to NM 2 weekends ago, but was only there for 14 hours and that included an overnight stay. We hadn’t booked a room because who’s going to be staying in Maxwell, NM, right? Wrong. They were down to 60% capacity, so we were scrambling for a bit. Got up, drove the Maxwell NWR, got the bird and headed home. Sorry we couldn’t hook up. *Next time* 🙂
    This was after the day before of driving 12 hours straight to the Chiricahua Mountains near Portal for another bird. Got it so my friend and I were happy birders! We saw some lovely fall colors on our trip, too!

  7. Stunning, restful & peaceful – thank you for shearing your wonderful photography and commentary – a very enjoyable.& special distraction in these challenging times.
    I was sorry to read the activism in Cloudcroft…..

  8. You certainly found what you’d been waiting for. Those trees are glorious. I even like them more on a grey/blue day when they seem to make their own light. just shining out. Thank you.

  9. Nothing like the aspen at higher elevations in the fall. We had our first fall experience last year in Colorado. So many golden trees (and a few orange, my favorite) blanketing every hillside. It was an amazing experience. We were planning to spend Sept/Oct in New Mexico this year. But….! So, hopefully, next fall. I hope we have the same luck and catch the colors like you. What a fantastic experience. I so enjoyed your photos. Just gorgeous.

  10. I have to ask, with several days in Santa Fe, did you make it to Tia Sophias or the Horseman Havens Cafe?
    Beautiful pictures! Nothing like being in an aspen grove when the wind starts blowing and the leaves begin falling like giant golden snowflakes! Even better if its sunny and you are stretched out on warm grass soaking it all in!

  11. “Photographs and Memories”

    Yay! The photos in this post flood my memory bank of that same drive (and hike, though I was one of the ones who turned back 🙂 ) two years ago this month. I can’t recall any other mountain road I’ve taken in this country where I stopped at nearly every pull off on the way back down for yet more photos. It’s so sweet to remember those vast views of golden aspens quaking in the breeze that lovely October day. Blue and yellow is such a pretty color combination! Thank you for the memories. 🙂

  12. I guess comparing the two is like comparing children, but aspens in the high mountains are certainly ip there with fall on New England. For me, it’s not just the aspens, it’s the contrast with the dark green pines, the deep blue sky, and most of all the sunshine like honey.

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