Travelling across the desert to Shiprock and Mesa Verde

Having finished up with visiting Bandalier, we were headed to Taos. It was not a long drive, but one with impressive scenery. Rounding a bend in the road, we were suddenly faced with the Rio Grande Gorge, cutting a great swathe through the plains.

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The endless road stretched for miles ahead of us into the mountains and it was pretty damn cold. Arriving in Taos, we encountered clearly gritted roads for the first time and the night time temperature was estimated to drop to around -10. We stopped off before supplies before deciding to head to the Rio Grande bridge, as this was apparently the best thing to see in Taos. Just outside of the town is this impressive structure the spans the Rio Grande river. We stopped to get Steve out, as despite the very chilly weather this was too good to miss, with the sun just setting in the mountains behind.

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Now it was time to find a camp spot, we decided to drive a short distance down the road to Tres Peidras that has free camping behind the rangers office. As we got closer, there was a sign saying the road was shut, but we only needed to go half a mile so we skirted around and continued, now in the dark. We got to the turning into the campsite, which was only really visible as being a break in the trees, the track itself was under what looked like several feet of snow. Deciding that this wasn’t for us, we turned back. Pulled over at the side of the road we decided to drive back to the bridge and stop in the rest area. There were other options but several of them mentioned being exposed and windy or being down a bad dirt road, neither of which we fancied in the current conditions.

We set up in the car park at the bridge, which was at least nice and level and free of snow. The only downside was the windy, it was a strong wind and bitterly cold. We ended up duct taping our pop top windows shut as the wind kept blowing them open. Still, we have our Wallas, now operating perfectly as long as you put it in the right mode, so it’s fine inside.

The problem came when we checked the antifreeze. As I have mentioned before, we have had a slow coolant leak for the whole time. I haven’t sorted it because it’s incredibly hard to get to, requiring dropping the radiator which really needs a ramp to do. Therefore, we had been topping up our system with water, which isn’t ideal either. In view of the colder weather we were hitting I had bought some more antifreeze and started to put that in, but I had a feeling that we didn’t have enough in the system for a really cold night. We picked up a cheap tester in Walmart, which confirmed the system was only protected down to -6, with the forecast for tonight being lower I knew we had to do something about it. This led to us both being outside in the freezing dark, bleeding a load of the old coolant out to replace it with neat antifreeze. It was a very cold experience, but at the end we had managed to lower the freezing point to -33, which meant I could go to sleep and not worry about whether or not the engine would start in the morning. Wrapped up in several layers, we called it a night.

We awoke to it gently snowing and about -7, so we were pretty happy that we had spent the time the night before sorting the antifreeze. It was Aimee’s first time in the snow, she wasn’t too sure about it initially. While I continued to walk the cat and a guy diligently cleared snow off all the paths, Lee sorted out the van in preparation to leave. We headed back the same way that we had driven the night before, which was cool because it gave me a chance to photograph some of these eco houses that are built on the top edge of the gorge. The majority of them sunk into the ground for insulation and built using bright colours and organic shapes. Visually they remind me of Gaudi’s architecture, although it seems a bit odd seeing similar building out here covered in snow.

We reached the crossroads from the previous night were the sat nat was still adamant that we should go down the closed road. Turning the other way, we kept going, our destination was Shiprock, a place named after the large rock formation in the desert that looks like a sinking ship. It was a long drive, but we needed to get some miles in if we were to be on track for hitting Vegas on Christmas Eve. I was feeling pretty rough so Lee did the driving. The scenery was incredible on the way, canyons, deserts and rolling red rock hills and some beautiful lakes as far as the eye can see.

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Shiprock is visible several hours before you actually reach it, which gives an illusion that you’re nearly there when you’re really not. A great towering rock, looms out of the desert by itself, and you can kind of see why it’s awesome structure is sacred to the native American people.

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We were now really hitting the desert, so we though it would be easy to camp. What we didn’t take into account is that this is the Navajo reservation, and therefore it’s not that easy to just wild camp. We made it into the town of Shiprock thinking we would either stay in a Walmart or similar if there was one (which there wasn’t) or a bar car park (there are no bars). This left us with using our variety of apps to find somewhere or just dumping it at the side of the highway. While we sat in the petrol station and deliberated, the sun was setting and we realised that we were going to miss a gorgeous opportunity to get some photographs at sunset if we didn’t get a move on. Having admired the nearby peacocks. P1010603So, with no plan at all of where to stay, we drove down closer to the rock itself to get some nice pictures.P1010617

As I have always found when photographing impressive landscapes, as good (or ok in my case) as your photos may be, they will never compare to the reality of seeing something first hand. A little 2D picture on your phone or laptop, can’t express seeing miles and miles of snow covered mountains, red deserts or canyons. Nevertheless, I took plenty of photos.

It was going to be another chilly night and with not too many options for camping the closest thing we found was someone who said they had found a pull off on a dirt road and that not only had a local person assured them they could park there, but that it also had some great views of Shiprock. This was still a 45-minute drive from Shiprock, but it was the closest thing that looked like it would be any good. As we turned down the final section of dirt road I heard an ominous clattering that sounded like a loose shock absorber, and we crept slowly the last few miles to our destination. This turned out the be a small parking space next an out of use nodding donkey which is apparently the start of a hiking trail. Ready to call it a night we pitched up and set about keeping warm.

The morning light definitely did deliver some good views of the rock, and I only wish we had more time out here as we both would have liked to have hiked around the area and possibly got a picture without cables in it.

P1010620Out camping spot with shiprock in the background. It’s always going to be a compromise between doing lots of things a bit or doing only a few things in more detail. We try to get the balance right so that we don’t feel like we are just rushing through places, on the other hand there is so much to see! We wanted to send Steve up around Shiprock, and get some more pictures in the daylight so we drove back up in that direction. At first we parked off the road and tried to send Steve out, but he didn’t have much battery so we decided to drive further and bit closer and then try again while he charged. We ended up in pretty much the same spot as the night before and flew him out towards the formation. As we watched from the controller, he had travelled 2km away from us, but was still nowhere near! From our position it looked like it was right there, a 20-minute walk, but actually the scale must have been far greater than it looked as it was still several miles away. Nevertheless, it’s always cool to get another perspective.

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We decided to move on, this time north towards Cortez and Mesa Verde in Colorado. Not actually that far from where we were, it was only around an hour further North. Lee had identified a camp spot right opposite the entrance to the national park and we set about making our way there. Stopping off briefly in civilisation in Cortez for supplies, we headed just out of the town to find our spot. It turned out this was down a dirt track that was fairly snowy. However, we had found it in daylight, and it was an uphill slope so at least if we lost our grip we could roll back out. Not having all that much faith in our torquey, rear wheel drive, open diff set up I tentatively set off. Screen Shot 2020-01-07 at 08.43.36.pngSurprisingly, we did ok and the more major concern was trying to find a flat site. It had clearly been muddy here recently with great trenches carved into the road by previous cars, this wasn’t such a problem but the same was true of the camping pitches and it didn’t look great. Lee went out to scout out if it was worth continuing and on his return he said there was a flat spot a bit further up which we made it to for the night.

In retrospect, this was the coldest night we have ever spent in Ruby. The outside temperature went down to -14c and all of our windows iced up on the inside despite having the Wallas on full blast. I went to bed with the blanket, the duvet, and three jumpers on, and this was just about good enough. In the morning I had to pull the pillows off the side of the pop top as they were stuck on with ice. We were ready to set off and have a look at Mesa Verde, but it turns out that the ground which had been incredibly muddy not long ago, was not quite as hard as you think. Consequently, when we had parked up the night before the van had sunk a couple of inches, and then the ground had frozen. This meant we were now stuck, one of the rear wheels slipping. It took us a little while to dig out around the wheels a bit, and the we managed to rock ourselves out of the hole and we were off, making it down the rest of the track with no more problems.

Mesa Verde was only a mile down the road, and in no time we were at the visitor centre. We went inside thinking this was where it all started off, but on speaking to the lady behind the desk she explained that this was more of a drive thru experience. Half a mile up the road was the booth where you would have to pay entry and then it was 20 miles further to the cliff dwellings. Due to the weather some of it was shut, but there were two loops we could still drive around and look at various views and houses.

After a small interlude where I tightened up a leaking jubilee, we set off. The guy at the pay booth told us that there were large sections of ice on the road and that it was recommended that we had snow rated tyres. Our tyres are actually rated for mud and snow, but I’m sure we would have gone regardless. The roads were indeed quite icy and hilly, but Ruby managed them all and the views were incredible. Screen Shot 2020-01-07 at 08.42.24

Slowly we wound our way to the museum at the end, and the first of the dwellings. After looking around the museum, went out the back to find the trail down to spruce tree house. Unfortunately, this was closed due to a rock fall, but you could still get good views of it across the gorge.

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Next was to complete the Mesa top loop, and we hopped back in the van and set off. There are several stops on this driving loop. Every few hundred yards, you pull over at the road side and follow a short walk to look at whatever kind of dwelling or view there is. We stopped off at all of the points and saw a variety of pit houses, cliff dwellings and amazing views of the canyon.

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This particular building is called square tower house.

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There are evidence of these pit building all around the site too.

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Here at Sun Point view there are hundreds of houses all down the sides of the canyon walls buried into the rock.

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The Sun Temple is right at the end of the Mesa Top loop.

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Some pretty good icicles here.

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Having completed our tour, we set back off on the road out. It had been a warm sunny day so far, and a lot of the ice had melted which made driving a bit less hairy. There were still a few patches that required a slow and careful approach, downhill hairpins covered in ice, but it wasn’t as bad as earlier. We got stopped for a while as we waited for a snow plough to clear a section of road and there are worse views to have while you wait!

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P1010658We stopped off at two of the viewpoints on the way back for some fantastic views out from this 8,500ft peak. The first point offered these views of the desert.

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We stopped a couple of time and flew Steve out to get some shots of us driving which will shortly be appearing on our Youtube channel.  Towards the end of the road, the last viewing point is also fantastic. Panoramic photos are the only things that come close to doing it justice.

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Feeling like we had seen a pretty good selection of what this place has to offer, we were happy to move on. Still heading west, and slightly south, our next touristy stop was going to be Four Corners Monument. We identified a free campsite that was only a mile away, and starting winding our way towards it. Clearing the mountains we were back into the desert again.P1010674P1010672

Campsite is a somewhat generous term for what was here, this was clearly private property that someone had cobbled together a picnic bench and a flat space for a campsite. Not that this bothers me, having spent many a night in Walmart or the paid campsites that I always think are grossly overpriced, I will take a simple, free setup any day. There were a couple of signs that eluded to this being a legit free spot, so we were happy enough to set up camp and let Aimee out to explore. Having arrived quite early, there was a bit of time for us to catch up on our blogs, especially Lee who is famously 2 weeks behind at any given point. Tomorrow we would head to Four Corners Monument before continuing on towards Valley of the Gods.

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