St. Vrain State Park had its beginnings in 1958 when the Colorado Department of Transportation bought some land around St. Vrain Creek to mine gravel needed for the construction of highways in the area. The mining projects left wide but relatively shallow holes in the ground, many of which filled in from the low water table of the St. Vrain. Over the years, more mining companies extracted more gravel, and now St. Vrain State Park has eight ponds and reservoirs, along with 87 campsites in eight different campgrounds. The state park is a popular destination for campers along Colorado’s Front Range; it’s just an hour’s drive from our former house in Denver. We camped there in our former trailer every April for a decade before becoming full-time RVers, and we returned to the shores of St. Vrain State Park in early May 2022.
In the two weeks we were at St. Vrain State Park, we saw 26 different species of birds, including five, like the tern and ibis, I’d never seen before at all. We don’t have immediate plans to return to the park, but I don’t doubt that we will go back sooner or later. It’s a great place to unwind, and, although it’s close to I-25, it provides plenty of opportunities to get to know a tremendous variety of our feathered friends.
The Goddard spent the fall and winter of 2021-2022 in New Mexico and then Arizona, and in the spring we headed back north to visit Colorado for a while. Spring is a great time to watch birds: they’re very active as they gather material for nests and later find food for their fledglings. Leaves on trees also begin to emerge as the weather warms up, which I was to discover makes photographing birds much more difficult than in the fall and winter.
Here are some birds we saw doing their spring thing in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.
Our campground in Holbrook was next to a residential area, which doesn’t happen very often because usually campgrounds are on the outskirts of towns. It gave us a chance to walk by houses and see birds perched in the trees.
Grants, New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Our next stop on our return north was Albuquerque, which Nancy and I really enjoy visiting. There’s a lot to see and do there, and plenty of great Mexican restaurants and grocery stores to enjoy.
Las Vegas, New Mexico
In mid-April we made our way to Las Vegas, which we had also stayed at the previous fall. It was incredibly windy during our stay there in the spring (and the area would be subjected to several wildfires shortly after we left), so we didn’t venture out much. I did take a few photos at the campground, though.
Lathrop State Park, near Walsenburg, Colorado
We returned to Colorado around the end of April, choosing to camp once again at one of our favorite state parks. Located west of Walsenburg in the southern part of the state, Lathrop State Park has two large lakes, good hiking trails, and incredible views of the Spanish Peaks and Blanca Peak, each of which still had snow. The park attracts an enormous number of permanent and migratory birds each year.
By the time we left Lathrop State Park on April 24, I’d seen 51 different species of birds in three different states in 2022. It had become obvious that being around water, whether it’s a river or a lake, greatly increases both the chance of seeing birds and the opportunity to see different species of birds. That would become even more clear at the next Colorado state park at which we’d camp.
In the early morning hours of March 9, 1916, a group of Mexican nationals under the direction of General Pancho Villa raided the U.S. Army’s Camp Furlong and the nearby town of Columbus, New Mexico. The town and camp were about three miles north of the Mexican border. Villa’s soldiers, called “Villistas,” were the first foreign forces to attempt a ground attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812.
The reasons for the raid are still under debate more than a century later (and it’s not certain that Villa himself participated directly in the attack), but Mexico was in the midst of a violent and drawn-out revolution at the time and Villa may have been attempting retribution for the United States declaring its support for another political faction within Mexico. Others think that Villa was simply seeking to take the U.S. Army’s supplies and weapons at Camp Furlong to aid in his fight against Mexican rival Venustiano Carranza.
Whatever the motive, the attack resulted in the deaths of 10 American civilians and eight U.S. soldiers, and about 80 Villistas. The town of Columbus was also burned. Within a week, a U.S. Army force commanded by General John J. Pershing entered Mexico to bring Villa and his followers to justice. This “punitive expedition” lasted until February 1917, when the U.S. forces returned north of the border without having captured Villa. However, nearly 200 Villistas and a small number of U.S. Army troops had been killed during the expedition’s battles. The U.S. Army had sent about 5,000 soldiers deep into Mexico in pursuit of Villa, and Camp Furlong was extensively developed to support the expedition. The Mexican general was assassinated, most likely by a Mexican political rival, in 1923.
In the late morning hours of December 26, 2021, Nancy and I arrived at Pancho Villa State Park in Columbus (present day population: around 1,600). The park, 30 miles south of where we were camping in Deming, New Mexico, is on the same ground as Camp Furlong, which had been decommissioned by 1923. The park was established in 1959.
Some may wonder, and Nancy and I believe rightly so, why there’s a New Mexico state park named after a person who attacked the United States. According to signage at the park, the New Mexico state legislature, in 1959, designated the park in Villa’s name “in recognition of the subsequent long continued friendly relations of the two countries.” Villa had, in turns, been both a friend and foe to the United States, and his story, as well as that of the Mexican Revolution in which he was a major participant, is a complex one. In any case, there’s much to be learned about U.S. history and Mexican history, and the relations between the two countries, at Pancho Villa State Park. Nancy and I had both heard of Pancho Villa prior to our visit to this state park, but our familiarity with him and his exploits ended with just knowing his name. The exhibits at the state park rectified that and encouraged us to learn more about the people involved on both sides of the border, and we enjoyed our visit quite a lot.
One of the few state or national parks where one is encouraged to bring home natural souvenirs, Rockhound State Park is located about 7 miles southeast of Deming, N.M., along the western flank of the Little Florida Mountains. Nancy and I learned, prior to coming to Deming, that Florida in the case of the mountain range is pronounced “flor-EE-duh,” in the Spanish way, much like the Arkansas River is the “ar-CAN-zus” River in Kansas. The Little Florida Mountains are adjacent to the Florida Mountains, separated by a valley. Rockhound a fairly small park, with only about 1.5 miles of hiking trails in the main part of the park. However, it has great views not only of the Floridas but of the open desert to the west, and you can take home up to 15 pounds of rocks! The park has plenty of rocks for the taking, including jasper, rhyolite, and perlite, and geodes – round rocks that have a solid or partially filled (usually with quartz) cavity – can be found as well. The campground in the park has 29 sites.
I believe there’s a state park in Arkansas (pr. ARR-kan-saw) that allows visitors to take home any diamonds they find, but I think Rockhound is the only other park that encourages its visitors to bring away mineral resources. I brought two specimens back to the Goddard.
We weren’t in the part of the park that featured geodes just laying around, but we saw some really pretty rocks nonetheless and enjoyed a pleasant hike with Gunther. The views, too, were just beautiful, especially looking to the open spaces of the desert to the west. We also brought home two specimens to add to the Goddard’s growing gem and mineral collection, which now numbers two.
We camped at Caballo Lake State Park in mid-November, enjoying a quiet stay in one of the smaller campgrounds at the park. The reservoir is on the Rio Grande River, about 160 miles south of Albuquerque. We were fortunate to be camping next to a very nice retired couple; he worked for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), which includes the state’s parks, and retired as the superintendent of one of the parks about 15 years ago. They both provided a lot of information about New Mexico state parks in particular and things to do in the state in general.
Caballo is the Spanish word for “horse,” and the Caballo Mountains for which the lake is named are said to resemble the head of a horse. I don’t see it, but they were really, really beautiful anyway, especially at sunset.
The Caballo Mountains are complex because of their geologic history: the oldest granite layers (at the bottom, naturally) date to more than 2 billion years ago during the Proterozoic Eon. That is the time period for which we have the earliest fossil records for life on Earth. The higher sandstone, limestone, and dolomite layers are from the Paleozoic Era, about 500 to 250 million years ago, when this region of New Mexico, and much of the present-day West, was covered by a vast inland tropical sea.
We took a day trip to Elephant Butte Lake State Park, the largest state park in New Mexico and located about 20 miles north of Caballo Lake, and Truth or Consequences, near Elephant Butte, on Saturday, Nov. 20. One of the buttes around the reservoir is said to look like an elephant; we didn’t see that, either. Elephant Butte Dam was built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and opened in 1916 as the biggest dam of its type in the world. Both Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs are now severely depleted of water because of low water in the Rio Grande and its tributaries upstream, but that missing water is especially noticeable at Elephant Butte.
There were hundreds if not thousands of sandhill cranes flying over the lake while we were at Caballo, and it was a lot of fun to listen to their calls.
Nancy and I took a long lunch break to enjoy a hike above the Lathrop State Park campground. The Hogback Trail is a loop providing incredible views of the Spanish Peaks, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, and the area to the north of the park including Pikes Peak (14,115 feet).
The famed photographer William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), whose images chronicled the American Civil War as well as the growth of the American West (his famous photograph of Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross, along with other images of the areas around present-day Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, convinced many people in the east that they needed to travel west), visited the area that is now Lathrop State Park in the 1880s. A short spur hike from the Hogback Trail takes one to the spot where Jackson took the photograph below; I took the one below that one about 120 years later (with the only lens and camera that I had on the hike, so it’s not a great match). Still, a pretty neat experience from a historical perspective.
We’re starting off in Colorado’s first state park, which opened in 1962. The state now has 42 parks across Colorado, and a new one, including the area around Sweetwater Lake in Gypsum, was just announced earlier this month.
Named after Harold Lathrop, the first director of Colorado’s Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation (now Colorado Parks & Wildlife), the park has two large (for Colorado) lakes that attract a huge variety of migratory birds throughout the year. On a walk around one of the lakes, Ken saw two birds he’d never seen before: a western grebe (which had just happened to catch an early supper) and a juvenile snow goose.
Lathrop State Park is about an hour’s drive east of Great Sand Dunes National Park. On Sunday, Oct. 24, we took Gunther on a visit to the dunes, which are the tallest in North America – some are 750 feet tall.