New Hiking Route: Ancho Rapids to Lower Water Canyon (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Fri, 10 May 2024

New Hiking Route: Ancho Rapids to Lower Water Canyon

[Panorama of the Rio Grande from the River Trail just north of Ancho Rapids] Can you follow Lower Water Canyon (in the DOE open space lands south of White Rock, NM) all the way to the Rio Grande?

In the decade we've lived here, we've heard that question and asked it ourselves, and have heard a few anecdotal reports. You can follow it down most of the way, but there's a pour-off near the end that you won't want to do without a rope. Or there was a pour-off fifteen years ago that wasn't that big a deal, but it's changed since then and isn't passable now. Or ... well, anyway, the story kept changing depending on who we asked, and nobody seemed to have tried it in many years.

Now I've done it. It's a beautiful hike, and right now there's an abundance of wildflowers in bloom along the canyon.

Preliminary Scouting

Last year, a few of us tried heading down Water Canyon arroyo (despite the name, there's almost never running water). We made it to within about 800 feet from the river, where the arroyo abruptly ended in a sheer cliff. I'm not good at estimating heights; it's maybe 300-500 feet? But we scouted around and found a route we thought would work, though with a storm threatening, we felt we'd better scurry back up rather than trying to hike to the river.

This week we finally managed to return and complete the loop.

We led it as the regular weekly hike for our hiking group, making clear in the hike announcement that it was about 9 miles, including lots of climbing and rock scrambling and some route finding. We expected maybe four people, but nine showed up (though one of them was only there for the first part of the hike; his dog, though quite an able hiker, would have had a lot of trouble with the rock scrambling).

Ancho Rapids and the River Trail

We started at Gate 4A, the Lion Cave trailhead, and took the connector over to the Powerline Point trail. We had to keep stopping to admire the wildflowers along the trail: lots of Hooker's evening primrose, some of the scarlet globemallow that's been so pretty all around White Rock this year (I don't know why it's called scarlet: it looks orange to me), and a few paintbrush, which really are scarlet.

[Hooker's evening primrose: showy yellow flowers with four petals] [Scarlet globemallow (not actually scarlet, small orange flowers)] [Paintbrush, a flower that really is scarlet]

We also saw a few wallflower (not pictured), verbena and beaked milkvetch, [Verbena: small pink 5-petaled flowers with white in the center] [beaked milkvetch, small purple snapdragon-like flowers and grey-green leaves]

plus a broad-leaf yucca in flower, and one spectacular claret cup cactus. [broad-leaf yucca in bloom, showing a spike of white flowers rising from the center of spiky yucca leaves] [claret cup cactus in bloom, with showy scarlet flowers
 sprouting from rounded cactus]

[Hikers descend the Ancho Rapids trail; behind them we see the towering cliff from which they just descended] We turned down the Ancho Rapids Trail, a steep, gravelly descent down to the Rio, with magnificent views that you mostly can't look at because you're being too careful where to place your feet. The trail comes down from the notch in the cliff you can see in the photo.

On the other hand, while looking at your feet you can admire the wildflowers. [sidebells penstemon: trumpet-shaped violet flowers with interiors that are white streaked with a darker purple] Peggy said she saw a four-o-clock blooming; I missed it (though there were a lot of four-o-clocks that were not yet blooming), but I did see quite a few sidebells penstemon.

There was much more water than usual in the spring above Ancho Rapids, and some unexpected flowers there, like chocolate flower, which is supposed to be common but I rarely see it. It's said to smell like chocolate, but apparently when they've been out in the sun for a while, like this one, the smell is pretty subtle. [A dog plays in the water at Ancho Springs] [Chocolate flower: a yellow daisy with a brown center. Sometimes they smell like chocolate.]

We turned left on the River Trail and made our way up-river, dazzled by the unusual abundance of sego lilies and lots more sidebells penstemon, as well as the more expected Fendler's cliffbush and Apache plume (I have a hard time telling those two apart), a few more claret cups and one early prickly pear.

[Hikers walk along the River Trail above the muddy Rio Grande] [two sego lilies: graceful white trumpet-shaped flowers with centers patterned in yellow and maroon]

[Just above the muddy Rio Grande, Tamarisk (saltbush) is in bloom, with subtle pink coloring the tips of the plant. On the other side of the river, a juniper-studded slope leads up to a sheer basalt cliff.] There was one tamarisk in bloom down by the river, reminding us that they were originally brought to the US as an ornamental plant before anyone realized how invasive they were along southwestern rivers, or how they killed other plants by concentrating salt in their leaves, then dropping the leaves to make the surrounding soil too salty for other plants, hence their alternate name, saltbush.

Fortunately in New Mexico they don't seem to have taken the stranglehold they achieved in Utah and Arizona; there aren't many of them along this part of the Rio Grande.

[The rock formation across the Rio from the turn-off to the Water Canyon pouroff] I was keeping an eye on the track I'd saved last year when we'd gotten to the pour-off, and when we got to what looked like the easiest approach, we turned left and made our way up the hillside to a saddle where we could look down and see the pour-off.

There's a prominent rock formation just across the river from where we left the trail (pictured at left), which would make it easy to find the turn when hiking without GPS.

[A hiker views the pour-off - a steep cliff - near the mouth of Water Canyon. The vertical face of the cliff is the normal black of basalt, but the basalt on top of the pour-off has been worn to where it's smooth and almost white ] We'd made the connection, and celebrated with lunch on the cliff's edge, where the basalt has been worn smooth and white. None of us was sure why it looks so white; the vertical face of the cliff is the normal basalt black.

[Map of hiking route: Powerline Point to Ancho Rapids to River Trail to Lower Water Canyon to Lion Cave] Aside: if you view this route on OpenStreetMap, you can see a trail that goes left off Powerline Point and down to the pour-off, making seemingly a much shorter loop than our Ancho Rapids loop. Don't be fooled: take note of the contour lines this trail crosses. This is a rocky scramble down the side of a rubbly basalt cliff. I've been about halfway down, but some of the sections have significant exposure, more than I'm comfortable with.

Up Water Canyon

A few of us had already done the Water Canyon ascent last year, and knew what was coming: a lot of semi-technical scrambles up small pour-offs. We didn't know how many since last year we'd been in a hurry to beat a threatening storm, maybe as many as 50. We decided to count them as we went (which of course involved some value judgements, like how much of a step up it needed to be to count).

Although it's a tough hike, it's very rewarding. The scenery is great in this part of lower Water Canyon. The cliff walls keep changing, from basalt cliffs to tuff walls to river deposits to weird basalt bubbles and a short section of pumice hoodoos.

[A curious ring formation in black and brown colored basalt, probably showing where a bubble formed while the lava was cooling] [a curiously complex rock face, with what looks like many thin sedimentary layers that have been tilted and faulted — only this is in volcanic rock ] [Multicolored tuff and basalt rocks, including a hoodoo with a tent of tuff supporting a large basalt boulder] [A hiker walks next to a pair of 'tent rocks' formed of tuff. They're about 3-4 times the hiker's size.] [A tall cliff, with complex sides: basalt above, layers of tuff and layers of stream-deposited cobbles]

We also saw a dragon skeleton (okay, it was actually an elk but it didn't look very elk-like if you didn't see the legs with hooves lying nearby) and the mud nest of some sort of insect, maybe wasps?

[What looks like a dragon skeleton (but it's really an elk)] [Mud nest for some insect, built on the underside of an overhanging rock]

[A hiker scrambles up a 6-foot tall pile of boulders, with another hiker waiting to ascend and two others already on top] Some of the scrambles are a bit tricky, and we had to scout around to find the best route, especially for those of us who are stature-challenged. But there's nothing that requires climbing equipment, or even a boost from below or hand from above. Still, we were glad Maile (the dog) hadn't come on this part of the hike.

[Hikers stand at the top of a pour-off fifteen or twenty feet high, of basalt that has been worn into smooth and complex curves] In places, especially higher up the canyon, the basalt has been worn into smooth curves, like something you might see on the edge of a glacier. (Californians: a great place to see the same sort of formation is Fossil Falls, a little-known BLM campground off highway 395.)

We were all happy, but bushed, by the time we finally got out of Water canyon and trudged back to the cars via Lion Cave (normally one of my favorite local trails).

OsmAnd says we did 8.88 miles, with 1489 feet of climbing (PyTopo gives slightly smaller numbers for the same track), in just over 7 hours.

And the step-ups? We counted 136.

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[ 12:42 May 10, 2024    More hikes | permalink to this entry | ]

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