I stepped out of the car into the unseasonably warm sun. The shhhh of the breeze moving through the branches of piñon pine and juniper trees dominated the soundscape. Nearby a male bluebird blended into the sky as it flitted from one tree to another. Spring was rearing her head.
I hoisted my daypack and started hiking up Forest Service Road 660, which bisects the remnants of the ancient Summer Coon Volcano. The road was marked closed with a moveable barrier that looked like an oversized sawhorse. The closure is just temporary in order to protect taxpayers’ investment in the road during mud season. Tracks from several vehicles could be plainly seen in the road skirting around the barrier.
The road was bone dry as I hiked up the steady incline towards a low ridge line. Maybe the closure was no longer needed. Then, as I crested the ridge, I saw a melting snowdrift in the shade of a tree with tire tracks running through it. Unlike the vehicles that had driven the road, I was able to walk across the high side of the drift without leaving tracks in the muddy low end.
The warm breeze blew steady at probably five to 10 miles per hour. Not bad. Off to the north, rugged Eagle Mountain and the sheer cliff face of Eagle Rock rose up from along the edge of the caldera.
About one mile up the road, I took the road heading north towards the Natural Arch. The road dipped down off a hill to a low spot that was still a little damp. Multiple deep ruts were cut into the roadbed – some were a foot deep. I’m not sure what the maintenance schedule is for this road, but there is a good chance this torn up section won’t get fixed this year. The Rio Grande National Forest receives a fixed amount of funding annually to put towards road maintenance and it doesn’t allow the Forest to work on every road every year.
Some people find it challenging to change plans once they have made a decision. We see this all the time on the national forest. Some will have a destination in mind and nothing is going to deter them regardless of the resource damage they may cause. This happens in the spring when the roadbeds are saturated from melting snow and sometimes in the summer during the monsoons.
For example, many visitors just can’t resist trying to drive to Wheeler Geologic Area on the 4x4 road regardless of how much it has rained. These folks create deep ruts in the road and often go around mud holes tearing up wet meadows. Every year people get stuck on that road requiring someone to have to pull them out, which causes even more damage.
It’s not just a motorized vehicle issue; hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders also need to consider the condition of a trail before traveling it. I recently saw a post on Facebook by an individual who rode his mountain bike on a trail at Penitente. The photograph clearly showed his tire tracks going through soft snow and mud creating ruts that may funnel water from melting snow or rain down the trail creating even deeper ruts.
Obviously, for a variety of reasons, one cannot always avoid traveling across muddy sections of roads and trails. What I’m suggesting is that people use good judgement and know when they shouldn’t proceed, especially in the spring when soils can be deeply saturated. It can be frustrating, but sometimes it is best to just turn around. I admit that I made some bad decisions in my younger years, but now I turn around rather than press on when things get ugly.
I heard a caw and looked up to see two pitch black ravens zoom overhead flying with the wind. Luckily, I was able to stay on dry ground on this spring hike.
Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.