Miles hiked: ~9 total?
The rain comes and goes a bit early in the night, but by morning it’s dry and clear, and we try to head out of camp early so we can reach the ranger station before the heat of the day sets in. We make quick work of the mile or so to the Rancherias West trailhead, where we stow our trekking poles and steel ourselves for three miles of road walking back to the car.
The first stretch of the road is not fun. Despite our best efforts, the heat is already here, and the landscape offers no shade. The combination of heat, continual uphill, and the mental drain of just looking ahead at endless pavement is a morale-killer [It’s wild to me to know that things that look like gentle undulations from a car are long slow slogs on foot. Yet another reminder of how hiking gives you such a different perspective on the world. -Cyn]. Finally we get a break from the uphill, shifting to more gently rolling road instead. There are very few cars, so I allow myself to gaze at the mountains to the north instead of the road ahead. At the Closed Canyon trailhead, our halfway point, we take a short water break and then keep at it. At last: back to our starting point, and our rental car, and we’re finished with this trail.
But our trip’s not over yet — we’ve got one more night to spend out here. We drive back along the Rio Grande to the park entrance, eager to get the rangers’ advice on a two-day loop. At the visitor center, we proudly check in as having successfully completed the Rancherias Loop. The ranger tell us that they’ve had a record number of hikers on that trail this year — like us, lots of folks who couldn’t hike in the national park came over here as their back-up plan. The three of us consult maps together: there are plenty of trails to cobble together on this eastern side of the park, and we finally decide on a 9-ish mile loop around the Contrabando Dome area. It’s well-marked on our paper map, and I’m able to find it as a GPS route on one of my hiking apps as well. Today is New Year’s Eve, and the ranger warns us that there will be a large group on a guided dayhike on part of this trail tomorrow morning, for the park’s annual New Year’s hike. But we’ll be on the backside of the loop then, so it shouldn’t disrupt our solitude.
Plans made and permit acquired, Cyn and I take advantage of the real bathrooms here. As I’m washing out the plastic Talenti jar I use to soak my food, a guy wearing dusty hiking clothes comes into the bathroom, looks at me, and grins. “Best cold-soak jar in the world!” he says, giving me a thumbs-up. Ah, hiker language.
I join Cyn at the picnic tables outside for lunch, where she concocts a new tortilla-based delicacy, and then we drive along the river once again, out to Contrabando trailhead. There’s another small hiking group that departs the trailhead at the same time, and it seems to be a beginners’ trip with a guide who is reminding everyone to stay hydrated. They soon branch off on a different part of the loop, and we hike north by ourselves on the Fresno Divide Trail, up a gentle hill and across a small ridgeline. The sky is cloudless, and we have huge sweeping views and (according to our paper map) some old ruins on our left for the first few miles.
There’s a climb near the junction for the Dome Trail, and at the top we see a big slab of a rock tower off-trail to our right. Halfway along our descent, I regret not climbing it. Cyn offers to wait while I backtrack to get up there, but I let it go. At the bottom, we begin to search for a campsite. We’ve seen some mountain bikers on this trail (the Dome Trail seems especially popular with cyclists), so I search diligently until I find a relatively flat space in the low, rocky hills, where we’ll be hidden from the trail’s sightline. It’s a truly awesome site, nestled next to the big cliffs with a huge view out to the south and east, but undetectable from the trail so it feels very secret and special [Also the ground here was so weird. It looked rocky and hard, but really it was rocky and spongy. Like those rubber surfaces they used for playgrounds. -Cyn]. We set up camp and have plenty of time just to snack and gaze at the sprawling landscape (and a few cyclists who zip by occasionally). I look up at that rock tower/plateau from earlier and decide to go back and climb it first thing tomorrow morning, to start 2019 off right.
We stay up to watch the early part of the sunset before settling into the tent. It’s still a cold evening, but unlike some previous nights, not unbearably so. Later, when the last little glow of sun finally disappears, I get out again and stand in the cold desert air, head thrown back to take in the most star-filled sky I’ve ever seen. It is magical. Cyn pokes her head out of the tent for a few minutes, but I stay out there, turning in slow circles to take it all in, thinking about this past year and wondering about the next one. I can’t imagine a better sensorial experience for New Year’s Eve.