The Nature Journal

Above Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, journaling

Although I’ve kept a written journal for many years, after I moved to Santa Fe, a friend introduced me to what is usually called nature journaling. A nature journal is a kind of sketchbook and written journal. It’s a place for you to record observations made during your outings, or your travels, with drawings and sketches, and hand-written notes. Generally, the drawings dominate. Some people love hasty sketches made spontaneously in the field, in a cheap notebook, while others make lavish, multi-media illustrations that run over the pages of their hand-bound books, and make the entire journal a work of art. No two nature journals are, or ever will be, the same. If you begin to keep one, you will be creating something utterly and uniquely yours.

I have to say this has been one of the most enriching and rewarding activities I’ve ever undertaken. And I admit I was resistant at first, for the same reason you’re probably feeling right now: I didn’t like the way I drew. Quite a few early attempts were discarded, journal and all, in a childish dissatisfaction. I even tried adding drawings to my written journal, where they lost themselves in the verbiage. But as it says in “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain“, if you can sign your name, you can draw. It’s true. You have to learn to draw what you see and not what you think you see. You have to learn what to exclude, as well. With just a little perseverance you’ll be on your way.

The materials you’ll need are few and inexpensive and easily tucked into a day pack: a plain bound notebook, a pen with ink that doesn’t smear, and a tin of 12 colored pencils and a sharpener are all I ever carry.

My journal is a blend of nature observations, travel notes, sketches, including hand-drawn maps, and some feeble attempts at “artful” page compositions, geared to my trips and outings. My friend’s journal includes these elements, but with a seasonal continuity and a strong sense of composition. It’s all good.

The opening pages of “Summer” in Scott J’s journal

Many of Scott’s pages are devoted to “traditional” nature journal subjects, ranging from things seen on nearby hikes to the changes occurring right outside the window:

Even a bird’s nest, tossed into the driveway by the wind, can become a work of art:

A vacation becomes an excuse for pages of drawings:

We both love to draw what are often called “event maps”. These annotated, hand-drawn maps are an attractive way to telescope a day’s activities and observation all in one multidimensional place. It’s interesting to notice how one’s observations overlap – or don’t – with another’s. Following are two event maps of the same area, made during the same visit, at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico:

Scott J’s Chaco event map

Scott R’s Chaco event map

Many of my recent event maps have taken on a look like this:

A day’s hike to Puerto Nambe, all captured on a page

The need to figure out just what that attractive flower or odd lizard is named, which means poring through guidebooks later, has led to a vast improvement in my knowledge of local natural history. (This need has also filled shelves with natural history guides) I’ve completely worn out Robert Ivey’s comprehensive “Flowering Plants of New Mexico”. My rock identification skills, submerged under years of corporate knowledge, have resurfaced as well. I love to include cross-sections of the local geology, drawn from various sources; these help me put the regional natural history in context:

Everyone has their own particular interests, of course. But no matter what catches your eyes, you’ll discover that you are starting to see in a different way than you did before. You will start seeing like an artist. And you’ll be creating a record of your life’s experiences that is much more satisfying than a simple photo album or written journal, as important as those things can be. I have a stack of written journals 4 feet high that I never open – they might as well be sediment accumulating on a dark seafloor. There are no guideposts in that mass of scrawls. But I look through my nature journals with pleasure all the time. They quickly answer every question like “when did we go there?” or “when did the peaches ripen?” with visual cues to guide you. And as the years go by, these colorful records will be there to remind you of all the wonderful things you really have been doing in your life.

Scott J. sketching on Raven’s Ridge, far above Santa Fe

There are many websites devoted to nature journaling. Here are a few to get you on your way:

http://www.cathyjohnson.info/natural.html

http://ireneehret.com/nature_journals.php

http://margaretherrick.com/

The Snow Forest

Hiking in the snow forest

Hiking in the snow forest

We know that many of you out there are celebrating the imminent arrival of warm weather with a spring break getaway. While we are very much looking forward to springtime here in Santa Fe, far above us in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, some 2000 to 3000 feet higher up, the thick stands of Engelmann spruce are reveling in the snow.

Engelmann spruce and a similar tree, the subalpine fir, make up what Audrey DeLelly Benedict aptly calls, in her recent book, “The Naturalist’s Guide to the Southern Rockies”, the Snow Forest. These trees form nearly pure stands above 9000 feet elevation up to timberline in the Southern Rocky Mountains, and they are happily adapted to their short, cool, rainy summers, and the two to five feet of snow that fall each long winter. I’ve only ever found the Engelmann spruce in the mountains above Santa Fe. Our neighbors in Colorado enjoy a mix of spruce and true fir.

Englemann spruce poking through winter aspen, and darkening the ridge

Engelmann spruce poking through winter aspen and darkening the ridge

Dense, dark, and a little mysterious on a summer hike – I always associate the mutter of thunder with a walk through these trees – the spruce forest takes on an entirely different quality in winter. Thick layers of white hide the tangle of downed trees on the forest floor and reflect light up into the somber thicket. Festoons of snow trapped in the branches brighten the entire woods.

Looking up

Looking up

Why not break out the snowshoes and make the half-hour drive up to the parking lot at Ski Santa Fe. Here you can have a walk down the Rio En Medio Trail, which meets the parking area on the western side of the lot. The elevation here is 10,300 feet, right in the middle of the subalpine zone, and the spruce trees crowd right up to the asphalt.

A patriarch in the forest, snug in blanketing snow

A patriarch in the forest, snug in blanketing snow

This is a tree made for snow. I can’t help but offer this long quotation from a delightful book A Natural History of Western Trees. Mr. Peattie captures the enchantment of the snow forest in evocative words:

“The most dramatic tree of your first trip in the Rockies will almost certainly be the Engelmann Spruce. Your memories of it will be linked with the towering Grand Tetons, the long, forested valleys of the Yellowstone, the breath-taking beauty of Lake Louise, the park-like spaciousness, the exciting dry air, of Rocky Mountain National Park. And the meeting with a bear, glimpses of bounding deer, the insolence of crested jays, the racket of nutcrackers, the chill of high mountain lakes, the plop of a diving beaver, the delicious taste of camp food cooked in appetite-sauce, and mountain meadows glorious with larkspur, columbine, and lupine – all these are part of your composite recollections of the realms where this fine Spruce grows. But you would not recall it as distinct from other trees had it not an inherent personality of its own. Fifty and 100 feet and more tall, it is, in dense forests, slender as a church spire, and its numbers are legion. So it comes crowding down to the edge of the meadow where your tent is pitched, to the rocks surrounding the little lake that mirrors its lance-like forms upside down. And when the late mountain light begins to leave the summer sky, there is something spirit-like about the enveloping hosts of the Engelmanns. Always a dark tree, the Spruce’s outlines are now inky, and it’s night silence makes the sounds of an owl, or of an old moose plashing somewhere across the lake, mysterious and magnified in portent.”

And so it is. Come see us and find out for yourself.

November Snow

November Snow

November Snow

The Forest Service sign at Aspen Vista, changed out for winter

Nearly ever year, sometime around the end of October, Santa Fe gets its first little snowfall to let us know that winter is on its way. This year the reminder came a little earlier, the week before Halloween, and the more turbulent conditions up in the mountains put a quick end to the colorful aspen leaves. We had wonderful autumn weather here in town, but this week a storm swept through, and as far as the highlands are concerned, winter is officially here.

Once the sun came back out I had a drive and a short walk along the Aspen Vista Trail, about a 25 minute drive from downtown Santa Fe. The county is good about keeping the road clear:

The road to Ski Santa Fe, at the Aspen Vista Trailhead

I had a short walk, in dazzling light, along with a few other fellow travelers:

This could be you!

The vivid blue of the alpine sky never fails to seduce me:

Aspen stretching toward the light

Ski Santa Fe is only a few more minutes drive from here, and at this rate there should be some skiing by Thanksgiving. Many of their lifts reach up the Tesuque Peak, which was liberally frosted by the storm:

Tesuque Peak above Santa Fe

Ski Taos is even further along. Taos is beautiful in the winter, and it makes a great day trip from Santa Fe when you’re making your stay with us:

Sacred Taos Mountain, wreathed in clouds, shining over Taos

So start sorting though your warm fleeces and limbering up your knees for a glorious winter vacation in the Southern Rockies! We’ll keep your home base snug and warm for you:

Home at the Inn on the Alameda

Welcome back to better days!

This is Joe, the proud owner of the Inn on the Alameda. What has this past year been like? Well, kinda like waiting for Christmas, Chanukah, your birthday, and the 4th of July all rolled into one. You can add to it waiting for the bell to ring at the end of Algebra 3...

read more

The Nature Journal

Although I’ve kept a written journal for many years, after I moved to Santa Fe, a friend introduced me to what is usually called nature journaling. A nature journal is a kind of sketchbook and written journal. It’s a place for you to record observations made during...

read more

The Forest Service sign at Aspen Vista, changed out for winter

Nearly ever year, sometime around the end of October, Santa Fe gets its first little snowfall to let us know that winter is on its way. This year the reminder came a little earlier, the weekend before Halloween, and the more turbulent conditions up in the mountains put a quick end to the colorful aspen leaves. We had a week’s respite of wonderful weather here in town, but by last weekend another storm swept through, and as far as the highlands are concerned, winter is officially here.

Once the sun came back out I had a drive and a short walk along the Aspen Vista Trail, about a 25 minute drive from downtown Santa Fe. The county is good about keeping the road clear:

The road to Ski Santa Fe, at the Aspen Vista Trailhead

I had a short walk, in dazzling light, along with a few other fellow travelers:

This could be you!

The vivid blue of the alpine sky never fails to seduce me:

Aspen stretching toward the light

Ski Santa Fe is only a few more minutes drive from here, and at this rate there should be some skiing by Thanksgiving. Many of their lifts reach up the Tesuque Peak, which was liberally frosted by the storm:

Tesuque Peak above Santa Fe

Ski Taos is even further along. Taos is beautiful in the winter, and it makes a great day trip from Santa Fe when you’re making your stay with us:

Sacred Taos Mountain, wreathed in clouds, shining over Taos

So start sorting though your warm fleeces and limbering up your knees for a glorious winter vacation in the Southern Rockies! We’ll keep your home base snug and warm for you:

Home at the Inn on the Alameda

The Zen Forest

The Zen Forest

The Zen Forest

The Winsor Trail is Santa Fe’s gateway into the Pecos Wilderness from the west.
Its most popular trailhead is near the western end of the large parking area of Ski Santa Fe, at an elevation of 10,240 feet. On the map for which I’ve provided a link, the portion of the trail from the parking area to its intersection with the Nambe Lake Trail is shown, a walk of about 2.5 miles one way. There is a relentless elevation gain of 760 feet in about a mile, to reach the crest of Raven’s Ridge and the entrance to the Pecos Wilderness, so be prepared – this is the price everyone must pay to enjoy this beautiful walk.

Dogs on leashes, mountain bikes, and livestock are allowed on the Winsor Trail. You can hike this trail year round, but it is snow covered in the winter and snowshoes or cross-country skis might be necessary. Thunderstorms are very frequent in the summer and you’ll want to bring at least some light rain gear, because the showers are chilling. Lightning and hypothermia are dangers once you get above tree line.

The Winsor Trail, the local hiker’s route into the magnificent Pecos Wilderness east of Santa Fe, is beautiful from end to end, but there is a short section that passes through a grove of trees with such a remarkable quality of light and peace that I call it the “Zen Forest”.  And since you can reach this place after only a two mile walk from the parking area at Ski Santa Fe, it makes an ideal destination for a day hike during your visit with us.

A walk in the “Zen Forest” along the Winsor Trail above Santa Fe

I’m not sure exactly what accounts for the appeal of this stretch of aspen.

The mature trees, tall and widely spaced, let in a generous amount of the radiant northern light. The dark spruces are widely spaced as well, and hang their dark boughs down in a manner admired by the Arts and Crafts printmakers, contrasting beautifully with the bright upright aspen. Huge boulders and outcroppings of white stone emerge from the forest floor in sculptural forms, nestled in a sea of bright green heath and wildflowers. At any moment in this forest, you expect to hear the sound of temple bells, or catch a glimpse of a forest hermit reclining in the shadows.

Light and aspen

And the fragrance here is heavenly. In summer the air is drowsy with the balsamic scent of spruce needles, warming in the sun. In spring the powerful life-force of the tasseling aspen adds its note.

And in fall, with the yellow leaves swirling down against an alpine blue sky and collecting on the stones, there arises the subtle fragrance of oriental lilies, faint but unmistakable, distilled somehow from the aspen leaves as they participate in the Eternal Return.

It’s hard for me to tell you exactly when you’ve reached the Zen Forest. Not too long after you’ve left the dense spruce thickets along the slow descent from the saddle at Raven’s Ridge, the trail begins to turn to the right, and aspen begin to replace the dark evergreens.

Forest Service bridge over the Rio Nambe

These trees grow larger, the light magnifies, and presently you’ll reach a spruce whose branches sweep toward the trail, forcing adults to genuflect ever so slightly. You’ve entered the grove. By the time you reach the rustic little bridge over the Rio Nambe, you’ve left it.

Wildflowers are abundant here. In spite of the high elevation, some of these forest dwellers have an almost tropical luxuriance:

Golden Banner

A spray of Corn Lily near the Rio Nambe

The clean white boulders that crop out in the Zen Forest add to the grove’s luminosity. A closer look at these rocks reveals complex patterns that hint at turbulent past lives.

Without leaving the thread of our story too far, I just want to mention that these are truly remarkable rocks. They are called migmatites, and they represent metamorphic rocks that have been subjected to geologic conditions so extreme that the rocks began to partially fuse, bleeding white granitic melt and contorting into fascinating marble-like patterns.

Ancient metamorphic rock on the forest floor

When you reach the cheerful Rio Nambe and leave the Zen Forest, you will catch views of Santa Fe Baldy shouldering its great massif skyward, to the north.

Santa Fe Baldy, looking north from a clearing near the Rio Nambe

This might even be your destination, if you are in good shape and you’ve left the trailhead early enough, on a cool summer’s morning. You’d be about a third of the way there, with a climb to a rocky summit at 12,622 feet still facing you. But you might be content instead to sit quietly by the stream and take in the peace of the forest, and then make your way back home, blessed by your brief sojourn among the aspen of the Zen Forest.

Heading home

A Rocky Mountain iris in a meadow near the Winsor trailhead

Getting there: The parking area at Ski Santa Fe is approximately 16 miles from the Santa Fe Plaza, at the very end of NM 475. From the Inn on the Alameda, you turn north on Paseo de Peralta, and then turn right at the light at the intersection of Paseo with Hyde Park Road. A second right at the next light, which is Artist Road, or NM 475, puts you on your way. The Winsor Trail trailhead is clearly marked at the northwestern corner of the parking area, and the Forest Service maintains some pit toilets and picnic facilities there. It would not hurt to bring a trail map if this is your first walk on the Winsor Trail. You can download the PDF from the link I provided above, or purchase a map at the Travel Bug right next door to the Inn.

Welcome back to better days!

This is Joe, the proud owner of the Inn on the Alameda. What has this past year been like? Well, kinda like waiting for Christmas, Chanukah, your birthday, and the 4th of July all rolled into one. You can add to it waiting for the bell to ring at the end of Algebra 3...

read more

The Nature Journal

Although I’ve kept a written journal for many years, after I moved to Santa Fe, a friend introduced me to what is usually called nature journaling. A nature journal is a kind of sketchbook and written journal. It’s a place for you to record observations made during...

read more

The Acceleration Into Summer

The Acceleration Into Summer

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Cerrillos Hills State Park has a number of trails, all of which you can see on the maps found on the website cerrilloshills.org. There is little shade in the park and your exposure to the sun is high, so be prepared with hats, water, and sunblock. Pets are welcome on leashes. Broken Saddle Riding Company uses many of the park’s trails for escorted horse rides. Since this is a State Park, there is a $5 day use fee, payable at the parking area near the entrance of the park. There are no camping facilities.

Apache Plume in full headdress in the Cerrillos Hills

We are moving rapidly into summer, here in the Southern Rockies, and the natural world is bursting with activity. My favorite change can be seen from here in Santa Fe, looking up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east: the grey expanses of aspen high on the mountains are donning their bright yellow-green coat, with the usual suddenness that never fails to impress me. It’s a look as soft as the fuzz on an elk’s new antler, and as welcome as summer itself.

Red columbines along the Winsor Trail above Santa Fe

The alchemy of change is strong up there among the leafing aspen, and this is that brief moment of transition when the fairies appear in the forest. By which I mean, the fairy flowers; those two species that seem the most fairy-like of all our woodland flowers here – the diminutive Red Columbine, and the elusive Calypso Orchid.

A flower like this, bright red, with nectaries perched well up into tubes, is naturally pollinated by hummingbirds, and you can hear the flying jewels chattering under the forest canopy and whirring about. The complexity of this flower is fascinating:

Hummingbird’s view of a columbine

Even more intriguing are the ephemeral Calypso orchids, or fairy slippers. After finding just one of these, years ago, along the Bear Wallow Trail, I have been searching in vain for another look. Our wet winter must have been the key to my luck this year, because I found an entire cluster of these beauties:

Calypso bulbosa along the Winsor Trail

This orchid has a surprisingly sweet fragrance, although I have to warn you that you’ll have to put your head practically on the forest floor to enjoy it.

Meanwhile, here below, in the more arid hills, a tougher set of flowers is showing off its resiliency. Our newest State Park, the Cerrillos Hills State Park, south of Santa Fe, has been offering a variety of nature walks including a Wildflower Walk.

There were splashes of color everywhere:

Paintbrush growing among the rocks

Verbena

This was a very pleasant way to spend part of a Sunday afternoon.

You can keep track of activities like these by visiting the New Mexico State Parks website. And if you prefer to explore on your own, local bookstores like the Travel Bug, Collected Works, or the Nature Center at the Randall Davey Audubon Center have good selections of guidebooks, from the most basic pamphlets, to tomes only a botanist could love.

Getting There: Cerrillos Hills State Park is about 25 miles south of Santa Fe, just a couple of miles off of Highway 14, the famous “Turquoise Trail” that connects Santa Fe to the eastern outskirts of Albuquerque. Turn into the scenic little village of Cerrillos, and then turn right at the sleeping dog – er, first stop sign, and follow the dirt road past the railroad tracks and Broken Saddle Riding Company to the park. Be sure and bring $5 to pay the day use fee.

Welcome back to better days!

This is Joe, the proud owner of the Inn on the Alameda. What has this past year been like? Well, kinda like waiting for Christmas, Chanukah, your birthday, and the 4th of July all rolled into one. You can add to it waiting for the bell to ring at the end of Algebra 3...

read more

The Nature Journal

Although I’ve kept a written journal for many years, after I moved to Santa Fe, a friend introduced me to what is usually called nature journaling. A nature journal is a kind of sketchbook and written journal. It’s a place for you to record observations made during...

read more
Ghost Ranch and the Rim Vista Trail

Ghost Ranch and the Rim Vista Trail

GHOST RANCH AND THE RIM VISTA TRAIL

Colorado Plateau scenery from the Rim Vista Trail

Colorado Plateau scenery from the Rim Vista Trail

One of the most rewarding day trips you can make during your visit to Santa Fe is an excursion up to the village of Abiquiu and beyond, past Georgia O’Keeffe’s house (where you might want to pre-arrange a tour) and into Ghost Ranch, where you are always welcome to stop at the Presbyterian Retreat Center and stretch your legs, or even have a picnic, surrounded by the spectacular pastel cliffs that drew Ms. O’Keeffe into their embrace for so many years:

The Mesozoic section towering over Ghost Ranch

The Mesozoic section towering over Ghost Ranch

You might even drive a little ways beyond and visit Echo Amphitheater hollowed into the cliffs, or – if the weather’s fine – brave the 13 miles of rough dirt road skirting the Chama River and have a look at the haunting Christ in the Desert Monastery, isolated and spiritually charged, waiting silently for you in its own little Zion.

Or you can be a masochist and hike the Rim Vista Trail.

Only 2.3 miles to the rim!

Only 2.3 miles to the rim!

You can’t help but notice a dramatic change in the landscape as you leave the Rio Grande in the town of Espanola and drive up the Chama River toward Ghost Ranch. Not far beyond Abiquiu mounting tablelands of red rock replace the buff colored hills of the Rio Grande Valley on your horizon, and soon you are climbing up a narrow cut of the river to enter a new world: the “Piedra Lumbre” – the Luminous Stone – a bright vista of warmly glowing hills guarded by the cliffs of Ghost Ranch to the north, and the iconic blue Cerro Pedernal – Ms. O’Keeffe’s touchstone (and personal possession, if God kept His promise) – to the south. And in a sense you have entered a new world: you’ve made an abrupt transition from the sere rift valley that guides the Rio Grande southward, into the colorful mesas and buttes of the vast Colorado Plateau.

For years a friend of mine had noticed an intriguing entry in local Sierra Club’s book of day hikes, called the Rim Vista Trail, and on this past Sunday, eager for an outing, convinced me to make the hike with him. It promised great views of Ghost Ranch, and that, together with the weather being fine and the lure of New Mexico’s best breakfast burritos, sold by Bode’s, in Abiquiu, for a late breakfast on the way, was more than enough to pull me along.

I’m not sure I can recommend this trail for your first experience of O’Keeffe Country. For one thing, it is a relentlessly uphill trek, on a stony, ankle-twisting trail churned by cattle and elk. You gain at least 1700 feet of elevation and there isn’t much shade. In fact, the cruelty of our 2005 drought and ensuing explosion of pine bark beetle is strongly evident along the way:

Drought stricken pinon forest

Drought stricken pinon forest

A magnificent 40 foot pinon pine survives

A magnificent 40 foot pinon pine survives

We estimated that between 85% to 90% of the pinon pines had been killed here! Only an ecologist could take pleasure in this sad scene. And yet he or she would no doubt note the young and healthy new saplings emerging everywhere beneath the tough twisted junipers, bringing a new cycle of life to the land.

Unaccountably, a few old survivors still held their heads high:

The trail follows an ancient landslide of arid hills, covered mostly in juniper now, which allows you to avoid the impossibly steep cliffs of the Entrada Sandstone (which form such a prominent and colorful component of the landscape here) and gain some elevation on the mesa. Eventually you reach the base of another set of sandstone cliffs and begin an angled climb to the rim, to receive your reward:

Ghost Ranch from the Rim Vista, looking east

Ghost Ranch from the Rim Vista, looking east

The trees are healthier up on this mesa, and it’s a great place to shed your pack, eat a snack, and do a little nature journaling:

Sketching on the mesa. Those are the San Juan Mountains in the distance.

Sketching on the mesa. Those are the San Juan Mountains in the distance.

These ledges are formed by the Dakota Sandstone, one of the most important sandstone “bookmarks”, as I think of them, in the pages of the geologic record of the Rocky Mountain States. The ancient sands, nearly 100 million years old – well within the Cretaceous Period, the age of dinosaurs – are river-laid at the bottom and beach-like at the top, and they mark a major reorganization of the tectonics of western North America, and indeed, of the entire planet. The Jurassic stomping grounds of the dinosaurs went under the waves for the last time, to be buried ultimately by the thick grey marine muds of the Mancos Shale. These rocks wouldn’t see the sun again until the Rockies shouldered their way up, 30 to 40 million years later.

A choir of locoweed cheers the trail

A choir of locoweed cheers the trail

The Cretaceous Period, by the way, was a time during which flowering plants gained dominance over more primitive (yet very much still with us) spore-bearing plants. Infinitely adaptable, we enjoy them today, even in the most unpromising environments:

So be sure to include a day trip to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch when you come to visit us here in Santa Fe. I think you can safely skip the Rim Vista Trail – there’s more than enough to see and do with more gentle walks. But I’m not kidding about those breakfast burritos.

Book Your Next Stay at Inn on the Alameda

Welcome back to better days!

This is Joe, the proud owner of the Inn on the Alameda. What has this past year been like? Well, kinda like waiting for Christmas, Chanukah, your birthday, and the 4th of July all rolled into one. You can add to it waiting for the bell to ring at the end of Algebra 3...

read more

The Nature Journal

Although I’ve kept a written journal for many years, after I moved to Santa Fe, a friend introduced me to what is usually called nature journaling. A nature journal is a kind of sketchbook and written journal. It’s a place for you to record observations made during...

read more
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