13-Nov-2016 -- As I had just arrived in New Mexico for a series of visits to 4 universities and 2 schools, and as the occasion was the week of GIS Day (www.gisday.com), an annual celebration of geospatial technologies and applications, a confluence visit seemed like the ideal starting point. I drove from the Albuquerque airport north on I-25 to Bernalillo, where I took US 550 to the north-northwest. It was a beautiful day and I was on a section of road I had not ever traveled on, a definite treat for a geographer. Today I would pay a bit of a price for loving the landscape so much, but I did not know it at the time.
I passed by some magnificent bluffs, volcanic peaks, lava flows, sandstone cliffs, and forests along the way. As I neared the town of Cuba (population 740), I scanned the horizon to the west. I had an idea that for an extra challenge, I should try to visit the confluence from the west, and descend to the confluence down the cliff from the mesa above?--instead of ascending from the easier route from the east where the valley was? I stopped the car along the road leading to the easier way: Should I take the challenge? The cliffs were lined up along the entire western horizon and looked awfully formidable. Would there be a way to descend them? Thinking "nothing ventured, nothing gained," I decided to go for it, and turned around.
After driving through the town of Cuba, I drove north up onto the mesa on US 550 to US Forest Road 88 that I had investigated on the satellite imagery ahead of time. After finding it and turning south onto it, I slowed and reconsidered my options. The road was in worse condition than I thought it would be, with very deep ruts worn by a series of trucks after a recent rainstorm. But after finding that if I straddled them just right in the rental car, I could proceed. After 15 minutes, I decided to stop when the road conditions became too rocky and narrow: It was a good thing, too, because, as I found on my hike, conditions even further deteriorated not 50 meters down the road. I set off with the GPS reading 2.33 miles to the point in a straight line (though traveling in a straight line I knew would be impossible). I brought water, sunblock, and layers, but sadly neglected to bring along my gloves from the vehicle, which I would regret later and for the next three weeks.
After hiking along the four-wheel drive trail for about 25 minutes, through the piñon-juniper forest, and seeing someone off to the west cutting trees with a power saw, I descended what looked like a major gully that led north-northeast. I was able to descend at least 150 feet in a series of short ledges along about 1/3 mile, but it ended with another 150 feet straight down. I refused to be daunted. I retraced part of my steps and headed south along the rim of the cliffline, with amazing views but I was careful not to get too close. What growing up in the pinon-juniper sandstone country of western Colorado taught me, among other things, was that there was almost always a way down these cliffs, if one chose one's route carefully. The careful part was not only to make sure one didn't slip on the sandy rocks, but that one did not get too low without a way back up. Here, it would be a very long way from the valley floor all the way back up US 550 - probably a four hour hike. At last I found a route that led me about 75 feet below the rim. It was a decision making moment - could I make it back up the slide-down-rock point below me? I marked the spot with a gnarled branch of piñon and decided to continue.
Now my task, once descended to the base of the cliff, was to proceed due south. Yes, I was at the base but this part of the "floor" of the valley entailed walking across the 45 degree slope. I was doing OK and stepping carefully when suddenly I went head over heels. Fortunately nothing major, but I could sense that some major bruises would be on my legs. My zoom out button on my GPS came out and was nowhere to be found. Proceeding even more gingerly now, I was treated to magnificent views as I proceeded south. I thought that with only 0.3 miles to go, that the rest would be fairly easy compared to what I had just been through. Not so! My straight line route to the confluence descended a steep gully, straight up the other side, and over into another basin. Geologically it was fascinating, with one gully completely made up of mudstone and shale, with no vegetation, with caves where water would disappear into the earth, and the next, where the confluence lies, made up entirely of sandstone and lined with piñon and juniper and shrubs.
I found the point midway down this gully, in a low spot but still with a good southerly view in particular. I saw no birds here though there had been some soaring on the cliff top; it was a clear afternoon, temperature about 60 F, with a moderate breeze. A beautiful day in late autumn in New Mexico--indeed, ideal confluence conditions. Unfortunately I was bruised and my hands were cut in many places. I should have taken a picture of the cliff from below, but by this point I was quite sore and had to make a decision: Could I make it back up over the cliff or should I walk into Cuba and try to find someone who could take me back to the forest service road? I decided the latter entailed too much hiking and that I should go back the way I came--but not exactly. I hiked up to the west, to the base of the cliff, and then due north, to avoid some of the up-and-down that had "upended" me awhile ago. I was starting to doubt, even though I had my GPS, my bearings when I at last saw my carefully placed "marker" branch of piñon! Ascending was easier, and I paused at the cliff top to take a few videos and photos.
I thought it would be easy from here, but the forest turned me around a bit, and now was one of those times where I was glad I could see my former trek through here on the GPS, even though the zoom out key was missing. I was now a bit weary, only walking at 3 mph, up that final stretch of trail. I was seldom happier to see the vehicle still parked where I left it. I drove back down the muddy road, back to Cuba, and then: I had one more adventure, heading east on State Highway 126 through the forest to the partly-gravel Highway 4 into the forest, to another place I had never before seen - the Valles Calderas. And that still wasn't all, because descending into the Pojoaque Pueblo an hour later, I was treated to the SuperMoon rising before me. A beautiful sight to cap a beautiful day before I arrived in Santa Fe for my first school visit (after bandaging my fingers).
As the week progressed, and after making this video, I tried to decide about the westward approach. It is, indeed, doable. I think that if I had taken it a bit slower, and worn gloves, and not fallen, it would have been a lot more pleasant. If you decide to do this, and are not afraid of heights, definitely wear gloves, use a marker like I did, and take very good care.