The PUP Chronicles, Part 3: Charred Hopes and Ponderosa Dreams

Over the next few months we spent 4 weekends in the Greater Ruidoso area, most of them camped out on the Fort Stanton mesa. Though there is little shade there versus the forested lower slopes of the Sierra Blancas to the west, the public lands of the mesa have the advantage of privacy; it is hardly difficult to find a remote spot to camp in the grasslands below the juniper-blanketed hills and ridges.

Though there are plenty of enjoyable trails nearby we spent as much time in the area scouting for property as we did hiking; thus our 4 weekends only included a handful of outdoor excursions. Our first weekend camped out on the mesa was one of our most notable since it included our first foray around the north side of the Capitan Mountains; here we made an attempt at hiking the North Base Trail, which is supposedly the most graduated of slopes to Capitan Peak. We had no objectives of reaching the actual peak – primarily hoping for a route relatively free of trip hazards that would simultaneously offer a nice view – but were surprised by the amount of scorched forest and deadfall from multiple recent fires on the area. Though the trail was difficult to traverse the topography revealed from the fires was exquisite luring us to continue up an intersecting forest road where we discovered a collection of seasonal shelters and a former resort. And so instead of the pristine wilderness we expected, we encountered the aftermath of numerous fires upon a collection of summer cabins.

Penetrating the ashes, we came upon much in the way of twisted metal – appliance and gutter primarily – punctuated by the regrowth of wildflower and native grass. The most striking remnants of fire however were the blackened rock chimneys, still-vertical and dominating among an obliterated landscape. All together, these features of past lives we found mesmerizing, causing us to wander in their midst for quite some time before descending.

Hiking in the Sierra Blanca Range over the next couple weekends was equally absorbing but fairly devoid of story: A few trips up the eastern canyons, examination of ravines cut into the tableland around the fort, a couple days spent wandering the trails of Cedar Creek, and a whole lotta elk spotting in town between mountains walks. Observing the elk as I write this in December I’m struck by the sleek coats and small offspring of the herds I photographed in June and July, but mostly I’m conscious of how representative these elk photos are here since their presence is a daily phenomenon in Lincoln County. As a disclaimer, all these photos were taken from the truck window — these town elk herds are not shy.

Anyway, we primarily chose walks in the foothills and mountains below Sierra Blanca Peak in those months, greatly appreciative of the greened-up undergrowth, vibrant wildflowers, and towering pines. For me it was all about the love for the ponderosas — hands down my favorite tree — which flourish here in the steep canyons and drainages, standing tall and thick with rainfall funneled form the canyon walls. The sheer number of mature trees, intoxicating in their odors of vanilla and caramel, were more than enough to keep me returning throughout the summer months even if we hadn’t had a secondary motive in camping here.