The Cloudcroft Constellation
US Highway 82 from Alamogordo to County Road 99 to State Highway 244 to US Highway 70 to State Highway 48 to County Road 532 (backtrack to US Highway 70 to Alamogordo)
The Constellation is the Alamogordo and Cloudcroft square loop with a sixty-four mile double-back hook. There is no other way for an Alamogordo, Cloudcroft and Ski Apache round-trip. The tail is too much though the twenty-four mile double back of County Road 532 between Alto and Ski Apache is unavoidable but beautifully forgiven.
Why did we have to see both Cloudcroft and Ski Apache? I’ve been to Ski Apache and Cloudcroft in my youth and life so many times my memory established Cloudcroft as a lot closer to Ski Apache, dismissing the presence of Ruidosa altogether. So when I planned the autumn 2012 trip to Ski Apache I looked for the road to Cloudcroft. And Further, as fall Aspens were a required view for the ride, I could only remember the groves near Cloudcroft…and forgetting the forests of Aspens nearer to Ski Apache. It was a memory verses map in the long run. I learnt since the Constellation there are plenty of my precious Aspen near Ski Apache and Cloudcroft is a long stretch from there. It is viable to visit both places lest you’re on a round trip from Alamogordo.
This trip had two Rocky Mountain goals-one was the autumn blazes of Aspens already mentioned. And Sierra Blanca, at 12,000 feet, is the highest mountain in the Old South and southern Rockies. It is less than two-thousand feet above Ski Apache. I am not a tree hugger but my soul has a sweet spot for Quaking Aspens. Porcelain trunks and leaves that shimmer green and gold are the color in colorful Colorado and enchantment in the Land of Enchantment. I actually don’t live very far from my be-fabled Aspens. I live just thirty miles from a mountain forest w/ groves in the Davis Mountains Nature Conservancy. However you need a 4×4 to get to the trail and its only open on certain Saturdays. There are other Texas Aspens in Big Bend and Guadalupe National Parks and the trails are more accessible. Yet, as priceless as the hikes are there is no road to yon Texas Populus tremuloides. The nearest roadside Aspen is in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. From Alamogordo of the desert to Cloudcroft in the clouds it is an amazing assent. US Highway 82 does not lollygag with getting a traveler from the gypsum White Sands to the gypsum white bark. The first groves are at the Lincoln National Forest Osha trail head (just below Cloudcroft).
The Aspens on the Osha trail are right on the beginning near the picnic and parking area. They were crisp and ultra-yellow with a crisp and blue aluminum autumn sky. Beyond the grove the Osha Trail goes by clearings of the last views of the distant desert floor- the White Sands National Monument and Missile Range are a white blur long below. It isn’t difficult to imagine the differences between Alamogordo and Cloudcroft, New Mexico when the former is home to national sand dunes and the latter a national forest.
We love to romp in the woods wherever forest is. And no treasure hunt is better than looking for the flaunts of gold in the evergreen treetops outside of Cloudcroft. Whether in groves or thickets Aspens lead exclusive and inclusive social lives. They are dens of white in dark forests and in fall, islands of gold in seas of green.
From Ruidosa on State Highway 48 County Road 532 is the highest road in the Sacramento Mountains. Winding up the faces of Lookout Mountain and Sierra Blanca a lot of the forest is burned by the 2011 forest fire. Yet, as many thousands of acres burned many more thousands live. In most places only the forest floor system was burned away. The brilliant specticale of so many Aspen columns rising from the blackness was one of my eyes’ finest hours. Before the entrance of Ski Apache is the Constellation’s high point- elevation, 10,050 ft. County Road 532 is arguably, at least not to me, the most beautiful area in southwest.
For most people the ski slopes at Ski Apache mean skiing. For me they mean a dream-to take a gondola to the top of the slopes, go over the summit of Lookout Mountain, 11,554 ft and just beyond, mount Sierra Blanca. It is the little hike my heart has been dying to beat on, to reach the top of the lower Rockies. On this trip the gondolas were closed. But at least we were still high enough to be surrounded by forested mountain hiking. The hunting trail skirted along the edges of pastures, woods, and Aspens. Below the path was a gorge cut by a creek newly born from its head water point maybe a little further up. I was humbled and enchanted that it might someday in its maturity be the Rio Grande. It was raised by gravity to become the Atlantic. I was stilled in moments of enjoyment-a trance of love and appreciation by the appearance of nature (only a hippy or holy roller might understand). Every light in the spirit was re-lit. My family and I walked through the mountain woods, each person enjoying their own state of minds there.
*from the Tularosa Basin overlook on US Highway 82. The living mascot of Smokey Bear was a scorched cub rescued from a fire in the Lincoln National Forest in 1950. In 2011 mountain and valley sides in the same national forest and surrounding area burned above Ruidosa to the tree-line. Yet, like the Aspen many of the high evergreens were more benefited than hurt. The ultra bright of green, wild whites, and ghost black burns blazed the scenery before night fell. Months after the fire life here is larger. We left the land to the dark and ice that would surely still the newly creeks till morning.
We headed down vowing to come back to hike higher.
I love the Rocky Mountains! They’re a steady purpose in a purpose driven commitment to live in awe of Earth. I cannot define the love or relate it to another kind. Only it is a habitat that encourages my spirit to live another thousand years and explore every day. I was eight Weeks old when I first experienced the Rockies by my mom, dad, sister, and I being turned around by the slippery slope of Wolf Creek Pass in southern Colorado. I was sixteen when I first loved the Rockies whilst traveling with my brother and dad in southeast Wyoming and Colorado. Dad was dismayed that I felt so close to geography outside of the unparalleled nature of Texas geography. I comforted the old Texan reminding him that all the highest parts of the Rockies in New Mexico, Colorado, and a southern tip of Wyoming were all once a part of Texas. For nine years of independence and five years of statehood (1836-1850) my favorite mountains were the heart of Santa Fe County in our favorite state Texas. Further, I’ve studied that the Franklin Mountains in El Paso on the western tip of the state are the true extreme southern end of the Rockies. My soul is with Texas the beautiful but my heart of the Rockies goes to Raton Pass and Cheyenne.
The Confederate Rockies
I cannot give out enough expression to declare my fondness toward Lincoln National Forest for the preserved and shared beauty. In fact the United States especially south in West Texas could do better with more places like it. Nevertheless its namesake is unfortunate and clad in gross irony. In spite of being established as the most beloved character in American history President Lincoln levied a war against the South from the Potomac to the Colorado River. The Confederate States Territory of Arizona included modern-day Arizona and New Mexico below the thirty-four degree line. It was the western extremity of the President’s campaign to capitulate the Confederacy. The Territory only saw some minor skirmishes between the hostile and defending forces. By the end of 1862 it was succeed by US forces. Yet, today we suffer not only the negligence of the truth but are raised to love the name of a leader sick to reverse the destiny of a new nation. What else should we expect for a victorious martyr? If England had defeated the Colonies in the English American War perhaps this beautiful place would have been called King George National Forest. Regardless of the outcome of wars no place this beautiful should be named after rulers that killed their own people just to maintain national authority over colonies or states wanting to go free. When the Territory of Arizona seceded on March 28, 1861 Sierra Blanca became the highest point in the Confederate States of America.
A forgotten name from the former Territory of Arizona was torn by torture and died because of the name that most Americans would readily name another national forest for. Private Joseph Wills from Company G 1st Arizona Cavalry is one boy of over six-thousand others piled in the largest mass grave in North America. Located in Oakwoods Cemetery in South Chicago,Illinois, Private Joseph’s name, along with my great great uncle William Jackson Tims, is remembered on the Confederate mound monument. To die in Chicago for Confederate veterans meant a long suffering and long end. The logistical strength of the government gave Camp Douglas no excuse why its inmates endured the same devastated outcome as prisoners from Andersonville. The Lincoln administration was as much responsible for the morbid malice at Camp Douglas as the commandant and guards there. I do not believe that the memory of President Lincoln should be censured or blasted off of Mount Rushmore. Nevertheless I can think of some homeboys like Private Joseph Wills I’d rather see such a beautiful old place preserved in memory of.
We gain very fast and very extreme elevation up US Highway 82 along a fault gorge. At the pull-out you can see the vast distant White Sands before Cloudcroft-and exposed shelf layer geology. The footage further includes State Highway 244 and County Roads 99 and 532 high in the New Mexican Sacramento Mountains- an unwinding and unyielding forum of Fur and Aspen.
The charred forest and a steely dusk light met the white forest magically. There is an eternal spell over the large Aspen woods below Ski Apache on majestic County Road 532. We secondly hiked higher-the headwaters creek and trail at Ski Apache 10,000 feet high and 2,000 feet below Sierra Blanca’s summit. Under the dying crest of light we discovered enchanted forests of Rocky Mountains’ likeness.