Our dash across 1-70 was a Rocky Mountain High buzzkill. Colorado is massively populated. The ski towns are packed with condominium complexes and the parks are overrun with people from the Denver metro center. J.D.’s 1970s version is now a nostalgic sing-a-long.
After three wicked cold nights in Aurora, we looked for any destination that was within 400 miles and kind of toward Florida with forecasted night temps of 45 or better and winds less than 15 mph. All signs pointed to somewhere near the corner where New Mexico meets Texas and Oklahoma.
As snow capped peaks and bumper-to-bumper traffic became a distant backdrop, grassland fields bigger than Massachusetts filled our expanse as we crossed into New Mexico, The Land of Enchantment, which might just be our favorite state. We’ve experienced the decorated Carlsbad Caverns and peaks of White Sand Dunes; the badlands on the Continental Divide and the ski valleys above Taos. We’ve rafted the Taos Box and soaked in the hot springs of Ojo Caliente; biked every inch of Albuquerque and visited the aliens in Roswell. We ate Hatch chili burritos in Hatch and feasted on Cinco de Mayo tacos in Alamogordo. We got Spanish culture and the mystery of Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. We’d seen 85% of New Mexico terrain until we hit the grasslands.
Turning off of our nemesis, I-25, we stumbled on the Capulin Volcano National Monument. The most important part of the Capulin Volcano National Monument is the requirement to pay your $20 entrance fee. Multiple signs helped us remember that this was a FEE area, even the Welcome sign to the visitor center instructed us to have ID in hand and FEE ready We, like most retired travelers, have the annual America the Beautiful Pass, so no additional fee was required. Nevertheless, we extracted our ID’s from our wallet, holding them out as we entered.
The 60,000 year old, which is really young in volcano-years, cinder cone volcano provides an awesome view point for the beauty of northeastern New Mexico. It was a terrific lunch venue in the already warmer New Mexico air. National Monuments can be lightly discovered gems. This one was more of a meh, which is probably why the hard push was on to collect the fee before you really knew what you were getting.
Clayton Lake is 12 miles outside a boarded up town where you can only get gas, what Dollar General sells and weed. The architecture is begging for revitalization. You can tell the town once had a vibrant personality but somehow devolved into a place you just get what you need and go. Twelve miles off the main drag and through the yellow grasslands hides Clayton Lake State Park, home to waterfront camping, dark starry sky, trophy bass fishing and dinosaur tracks.
A hundred million years ago, dinosaurs walked on sandy shores between the Gulf of Mexico and Canada. We found this out when we put an earthen dam across the Cimarron River to create Clayton Lake. The series of sort-of recognizable impressions in the rock have given paleontologists tons of material to speculate on what the dinosaurs might have been thinking and doing. Reading the numerous placards and looking at the bumpy rock, we were suitably impressed with their vivid imaginations.
Camping at Clayton Lake is pure heaven. There are three of us campers here. At one end of the lake is an Earth Roamer contraption wondering why the roads have to be paved. In the electric zone, a family of half a dozen small children in a Partridge Family bus are instagramming SweetSweetBusLife. We’re dying to know what it is but have no internet. As for us tenters, we hold down The Cove. Natural rock formations provide a variety of back yard seating options for waterfront dining, while the sturdy pavilion at the site houses the kitchen. Occasionally, a fisherman or two will roll into the park in their regular cab pick-up to go after one of the trophy fish that we constantly see leaping in the lake like breaching whales.
We enjoy the solitude, weather, and natural beauty so much that our overnight stay became two. We would extend further but the only thing left to eat are the condiments in the Dometic. Sheri still could probably work her magic and make that work, but the last Wee Heavy Scotch Ale, a gift from our visit in Aurora, is also running out and there is nothing she can do about that.