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Acknowledging the Good - Our Time Outdoors in 2020

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

January 9th, 2020

Climbing ladders to cliff dwellings
On my way up the ladders to Alcove House at Bandelier National Monument

I’m confident that 2020 will be a year to remember, for the most obvious reasons. The pandemic and the resulting effects on the economy and our daily lives is more than enough to want to relegate 2020 to the past--to put it behind us and never look back.

Tragic as it was, Stacia and I, like many others, learned to adapt. We traded eating out and happy hours for after-work hikes and weekend adventures in the wilderness. When camping plans fell through because of COVID-19 restrictions on state parks and national forests, we made new reservations and took our chances with first-come first-serve campgrounds. As parks started opening back up, we enjoyed them cautiously, getting out early and maintaining a safe distance from others.

In many ways we’re lucky. Our jobs were or quickly became work-from-home, we’re youngish with relatively good immune systems (though I experienced a period of terrifying uncertainty about how COVID-19 might affect me with Ankylosing Spondylitis), and we already enjoyed life outdoors. Many many others were not so fortunate.

Despite everything we wish to forget about 2020, or better yet everything we need to learn from, it’s also worth acknowledging the good buried within the ugly. Like the serotinous cones of the lodgepole pine that depend on the otherwise devastating effects of wildfires to open and release its seeds, several positive moments sprouted from the desolation of this past year. Here are some of my memorable outdoor adventures from 2020.

East Fork Jemez River waterfall

Trails Through Volcanic Ash-flow Tuff

One of our favorite spots to explore this summer was up in the Jemez Mountains. Only an hour and thirty minutes from Albuquerque and you come to a lush, mountainous environment shaped by volcanic eruptions between 14 million and 40,000 years ago. After spending a few hours in this jaw-droppingly stunning landscape along the East Fork Jemez River in early June, we returned again in July and again in August.

In July, we decided to explore the western portion of the trail and take a set of switchbacks and stairs down to a popular spot along the river: the East Fork Box Canyon. Here, the river carved a series of waterfalls and pools into the volcanic tuff, which rose thirty feet above the shallow river bottom. Unfortunately, we could not get close to the waterfalls or wade in the pools because of the crowds of people also enjoying this little oasis in a region known for its dry, desert landscapes. We were still in the middle of a pandemic and would not take our chances, even if others were willing to do so.

sunset at Great Sand Dunes National Park

National Park Sunsets

A quick glance back at my outdoor goals for 2020 shows just how disruptive the pandemic really was. Nevertheless, I was able to fulfill one of those goals: a trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.

sun setting over the sand dunes

While this trip did not live up to my expectations, I did learn several things: (1) hiking sand dunes is especially hard on my hips with Ankylosing Spondylitis; (2) National Park camping is not peaceful (really a confirmation of my suspicions after a night at Great Smoky Mountains National Park back in 2014); and (3) sunsets over the sand dunes made the entire trip worth-while. National Park number seven down, fifty-five to go!

Rockhounding in a Desert Wilderness

Not far from Albuquerque is the Ojito Wilderness Area, known for several discoveries of dinosaur fossils as well as one particular trail that winds through creamsicle-colored sandstone hoodoo formations. A true wilderness area, Ojito has no maintained trails (the hoodoo trail seems to be formed by use) but over 11,000 acres to roam. Stacia and I spent many mornings and evenings out at Ojito, wandering around the rock formations, climbing colorful badland hillsides, and scanning the sandy, basalt-speckled ground before us for rocks.

Though we're amateur rockhounders, we still enjoyed searching for pieces of agates, multi-colored chunks of jasper, quartz crystals, and the occasional geode. This is not a hobby for the summer, however. With little shade and no water to be found, this desert landscape becomes especially oppressive in the summer, to the point where we stopped visiting the area after late May/early June.

Big kiva view at Bandelier National Monument

Ancestral Puebloan History at Bandelier National Monument

With a move to Colorado becoming imminent, I decided that we were going to visit somewhere epic for my birthday weekend in September. With Stacia swamped with her graduate coursework, I knew we couldn’t depart for an entire weekend. Instead, I planned an early morning hike at Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Alcove house ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings
A view up at Alcove House in Bandelier National Monument

We arrived at the visitor’s center parking lot that Saturday morning to find only a handful of visitors out that early. With few people around, we embarked on the pueblo loop trail, which stretches through the big kiva, up and around some cliff dwellings (several of these are open for visitors to climb into and explore), and alongside the long house. We then decided to proceed to alcove house, which requires a 140 foot climb up wooden ladders secured to the walls of frijoles canyon (definitely not for those with a fear of heights!). Without a doubt, that climb was worth the sore quad muscles we suffered later!

Frozen eleven mile canyon reservoir

December Winter Wonderland

Much of our fall was spent packing up and moving from New Mexico to Colorado. Nearly the entire month of October was lost, and that lack of outdoor time was wearing on me. We resumed our explorations in December, and one of my favorite hikes was at Eleven Mile State Park. It was 18 degrees out when we hit the trailhead, a thick layer of ice on the reservoir, and dozens of pop-up shelters stood scattered across the lake full of ice fishers.

Thirtynine mile volcanic field mountains

We remained on land, following a trail around the northeastern edge of the lake that wound through a backcountry camping area. The trail through the camping area led us to some silent, secluded coves, rocky outcrops with views of the Thirtynine Mile volcanic field to the south, and around various massive boulders full of face-like shapes. We only managed about 2 miles on this chilly December morning, not due to the cold but because this was our fourth consecutive hike. Luckily the quality of the adventure is rarely measured in miles!

Looking Forward

We made the best of a complicated and trying year, to be sure. While most of our plans fell through (two camping trips were canceled by New Mexico State Parks and any ideas of traveling too far out-of-state were out of the question), we took advantage of open spaces, state parks, wilderness areas, and National Parks and Monuments as they opened up over the summer. All in all, 2020 may have been our most active year outdoors.

I feel like 2020 was also a cautionary tale when it comes to planning adventures. I was on-top of securing national and state park campsites during the early months of 2020, only to have most of those plans canceled. With that said, if you don’t get your sites secured early in most national and state parks, you’ll be out-of-luck come summertime. I will continue to make those plans, but maybe not announce my big plans until they’re on the books!


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