11-Oct-2003 -- The Lorencito Labyrinth Confluence - Attempt from the south
This elusive confluence in Lorencito Canyon yet remains unconquered. After driving over 350 miles and making three attempts to reach the confluence on one day, we realized that we were not going to be able to reach this most challenging of confluences on this day. The previous hunter actually got twice as close as we did as our closest approach was 8.02 miles. But the visit was not a failure because we completed valuable legwork that will make the confluence much more likely to be visited in the future - either by ourselves, or someone else who may use our information to make another attempt from the south. Below are a general description of the area, our three attempts, and information that we gathered that will allow the next visit not to repeat our unsuccessful moves.
The region: The mazelike arrangement of scores canyons, ridges and dead end roads and rail tracks of the Park Plateau truly justify the term "labyrinth. The boundaries of the plateau run roughly from west of Interstate 25 (although the highway crosses an edge of the plateau at Raton Pass), south to the ridges north of US 64 in New Mexico then west to the town of Ute Park and the eastern foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains back north into Colorado along the base of the mountains north to the Spanish Peaks (see Roland Penttila's attempt for a description) and then east back to the area by the Interstate. Unlike flat level plateaus, scores of long narrow canyons carve narrow ridges of sandstone, coal, and shale meaning there is very little flat land either on the top of ridges or bottomlands.
If as almost by design, canyons north of 37 degrees north (near the Colorado - New Mexico line) drain north to the Purgatory Rivers and other Arkansas tributaries in Colorado. The New Mexico drainages drain south into the Canadian River and its tributaries which eventually joins the Arkansas river in Oklahoma - giving hunters of 37N 105W a very different experience depending upon whether they are attempting from the Colorado or New Mexico sides. Roads follow either the ridges or canyons. From maps and the aerial photographs, it deceptively looks like there are dozens of different road combinations that provide access to the confluence, but this is not case. Most roads are gated and locked by the huge ranches that own this land. Some are gated right at the highways before you enter the plateau, but others reveal that they are dead ends only after long tedious journeys that end in locked gates leaving no choice but retreat. In short, maps only show possibilities that may or may not provide access to the interior of this area.
Attempt #1 - the Vermejo River from US 64. My friend Sherman Strobeck and I initially planned to conquer the confluence via Van Bremmer Canyon but never started because the two possible entrances from the highway were gated and locked at the highway, so we decided to head to the next possible canyon to the east. This route appeared promising because the maps showed a county road and a railroad-spur-to-nowhere entering the area from the town of Colfax, and then up through the town of Dawson where several route branched out into plateau in our desired direction of travel. Colfax no longer exists, but we did find Road A38 and a sign saying "Dawson Cemetery 5 miles." Immediately the road turned to dirt as it headed north, crossing the railroad tracks. Eventually we came to Dawson which was now nothing but the cemetery, one of New Mexico's ubiquitous Historic Markers and some old mine tailings. Our route was blocked by a locked gate and a new trespassing sign by the C & S Cattle Company of Cimarron NM.
Not giving up, we noticed an open trail a small distance back hoping that we could cut over to Van Bremmer Canyon or up the Vermejo River and complete our initial plan. The road crossed the railroad-spur-to-nowhere and creek a couple of times before going back toward the road where we saw the no trespassing sign and then on past a ranch house with a shooting range and number of cars with out-of-state license plates in front.
We continued past the house along the road for no more than a quarter mile before we saw a pickup truck following us. We pulled over while I grabbed my letter to land owners. A very unhappy older bearded man came over to Sherman's Ford Explorer.
"Do have permission to be here?" he gruffly asked.
"No, but we are trying to get up to the Colorado border near the Canadian River up here" I said as I handed him the letter and pointed to the confluence area on the road atlas.
"Didn't you see the signs at the gate", he growled as he shoved the letter back.
"We did, but since we came in another way, we did not know that they applied to this area." I replied. Then I asked, "Could you tell me if there is a way to get up to New Mexico Route 555 without having to go to Raton?"
"No you have to go to Raton, besides that Vermejo Park, they won't let you on. We have an elk hunt going on. You have to leave. Get the Hell off this land."
With wide open eyes and thumping hearts we said OK and turned around. 26.6 miles from the confluence point - a pretty pathetic attempt. He followed. As we approached the turnoff where we entered the property, we honked and pointed toward the locked gate. We steered back toward the gate and pulled up to it. We expected him to get up and unlock it. He just sat there. After an uncomfortable minute or two, I got out, walked up the gate and examined it. It sure looked locked to me. I shrugged my shoulders and got back in the Sherman's vehicle. Our unfriendly host got up and opened the gate. We drove through and did not look back. While there was a second turnoff that might have lead toward Van Bremmer Canyon off the trail we took before, we decided that it was wise to take the man's advice and not reenter this land. Back we went to route 64 for another approach.
Attempt #2 - NM 555 from Raton. Driving northeast on US 64, we hoped that we could find a short cut over to NM 555 since we were already well east of the confluence. The maps showed another road to the town of Kohler along with another railroad-spur-to-nowhere that ended at that town. Again all routes in that direction were gated and locked so we resigned ourselves to going all the way to Raton and then heading west.
Maps show that NM555 is literally a forty mile highway-to-nowhere that ends where the railroad-spur-to-nowhere that we saw in the previous attempt ends. It leaves Raton near the south exit of Interstate 25 and heads west along the Canadian River, Potato Canyon and then straddles a ridge that separates the Canadian River on the north from the drainages of the Vermejo River on the south. It is a surprisingly well maintained paved highway for New Mexico standards with wide shoulders and no potholes. As we were driving it, we kept asking ourselves, "Why is this road here?" since no towns or other roads branch off of it. It is literally a dead end.
Not more than a couple of miles out of Raton, we started seeing the signs at every locked gate saying, "Vermejo Park Ranch, No Trespassing" Since we were still thirty miles away and we learned from our previous attempt that the land near the confluence was on this ranch, we realized that this property must be huge - and it is. According to the Vermejo Park Ranch website, the total acreage of the ranch lies at 588,000 acres (about three-quarters the size of Rhode Island). Media mogul Ted Turner owns the property which is one of the largest privately held acreages in the United States. He removed all cattle from the ranch when he purchased it in 1996 for $80 million and now raises buffalo on it in addition to other native game in an attempt to restore the land to a pre-Columbian condition.
Every gate we passed was locked and signed with until we reached our turnoff at N36d 56m and W104d 53.2m where the highway leaves the ridge and jogs sharply south. We could not believe our good fortune - here was an open road exactly where we wanted it to be. But our elation quickly turned to disappoint entered the turn off only to find another gate. This one however was different. Instead of the no trespassing signs place by the ranch, the sign read El Paso Energy with instruction for personnel, and this gate had an office trailer and which was manned.
We pulled up to the gatehouse and a pleasant man in his twenties or early thirties came out. We explained our goal and showed him our land owner letter. While he was friendly, he made it clear that he did not have the authority to allow us through the gate. Permission would have to be granted by the El Paso Energy back in Raton. He gave us contact information. We thanked him and left. This time we were just over 8 miles from the confluence were recognizing that our chances of reaching it were rather bleak.
We decided to continue to the end of highway 555 both in the slight hope that we may find some way to get back to confluence and also out of curiosity as to what actually lay at the end of this mysterious highway-to-nowhere. While traveling, the GPS showed that we got within 8.02 miles of the confluence - our closest pass of the day - as we descended down York Canyon nearing the end. All gates leading toward the confluence were signed and locked.
The highway ended at the large York Canyon Mine operated by Pittsburg & Midway Coal Mining Co. owned by Chevron Corporation. The miners enter and leave the property via the highway, while the coal exits the property through the train tracks going south through Vermejo Canyon and the route that we attempted earlier in the day. A sign welcomed us to the property and told us to turn on our lights if we wished to follow the road to the Vermejo Park Ranch gate - three miles ahead. We followed the Vermejo Park signs with arrows in some hope that this would lead us to a place where we could enter the ranch and get permission to pursue the confluence. Again we passed gated side roads that we would have tried if they had been open. Then we reached the end - another automated gate. We took down information and turned around for the trip back to Raton and then back west on US 64. All options from this side were complete. Turning around we saw a sign that mockingly read, "We hoped you enjoyed your visit to beautiful Vermejo Park Ranch." No surprise exits appeared on the return trip and we figured that our attempts to reach the confluence were complete.
Attempt #3: Ponil Creek from Cimarron. As we returned back west on US 64 Sherman and I agreed to one more attempt on the confluence. This time we would leave from Cimarron and take the westernmost possible route from US 64. After gassing up in Cimarron (which has cheaper gas than Raton or Taos), we headed up NM 204 just east of town. NM 204 crosses heads northwest toward national forest land so we had hopes that forest roads would get us far enough north where we could then head east to the confluence. This canyon road heads through the Boy Scouts of America's Philmont Scout Ranch and up to the Barker Wildlife Management Area.
Upon entering this road, it was clear that the wildlife and boy scouts do not get the same quality of road that the state provides to Chevron Oil and Ted Turner farther north. This state road is dirt. We followed it up the canyon past a few ranches before entering the Philmont Scout Ranch. Here we saw many building and structures of their Ponil camp lining the road. This property is another huge ranch, although at 127,395 acres, it is not even a quarter the size of the Vermejo Park Ranch.
Most notable on the route was the extensive forest fire damage from the 92,500 acre Ponil Fire which burned much of the southwest corner of the Park Plateau during the severe drought of 2002. Snags of burnt trees lined the road and climbed the canyon walls for miles either in solidly burned out areas or in patches. Huge stacks of straw bales were stacked along the road presumably for reforestation efforts. Firefighters had done a marvelous job in protecting the historic structures of the scout ranch.
The road up North Ponil creek looked promising on the map, but like so many others we had seen on our quest, it was gated. After we passed it, we realized that even if the road ahead was open, it was too late in the day to make the confluence before dark. I told Sherman that we could continue as far as he liked, but that we could turn around whenever he chose. At this point we were in four wheel drive which is what Sherman really wanted to do - for all the miles we had driven in barren territory, only a small portion of our first attempt required four wheel drive. We were enjoying the exploring so we continued on knowing that we would not claim our confluence trophy today. Seeing the wild turkeys, pronghorn antelope and spectacular fall scenery was reward enough.
We left Philmont Scout Ranch and entered the Barker Wildlife Area. Signs told us to stay on the road and gave hunters and specific instructions regarding the use of the property. As we crossed Ponil creek we noticed that we were not the only ones making this trip today since there were fresh tire tracks coming out of the water after each stream crossing. After a total of eleven miles we came to upon a familiar site - a locked gate. All possible routes were blocked in our challenging maze. Our journey was over 23.8 miles away from 37N 105W.
At the road end, we saw our fellow travelers who we know were ahead of us - a gentleman who appeared in his sixties and his wife. He introduced himself as Rob Linson and said that he was scouting out the area for a future elk hunt. After some casual conversation, he told us that he was from Raton, and that he and his wife had lived there their entire lives. He had trekked over all of the roads of the plateau and knew them like the back of his hand. At this time I know that we had struck a goldmine of information about this region and if anyone know how to get to 37N 105W, it was him.
Rob took an interest in our project as we showed him our letter to land owners and maps of our routes and ultimate goal. He told us of two routes that could take us into the heart of the plateau. One of them was off of US highway 64 just a couple of miles to the east of the entrance of road that we now on it. It went up Cerrososo Canyon to the west of the confluence. The other involved taking a pass over the Sangre de Cristos on the west. He confirmed that the land on the New Mexico side closest to the confluence was Vermejo Park Ranch land.
"How easy is it to get permission to enter the Vermejo Park Ranch?" we asked.
"They are very friendly and would probably take interest in the project. I don't think that you would have any trouble getting permission. The guy that you need to talk to is John … something or another… You've got my curiosity up, I think that I might have to find that place myself sometime."
I wrote my email address and phone on the letter to land owners. I asked him to contact me if he wanted a partner to ride with him or if he had other information that I would find helpful as I handed it to him. He indicated that he would not be confluence hunting for a while because Elk hunting season was more important to him right now.
We continued to talk about route options and people he know who might have information. We concluded our talk. He got in his truck and headed back out as did we. About half way back down the canyon we stopped to watch a very large flock of wild turkeys on both sides of the road. In addition to an Elk Hunter, Rob is also quite a photographer and we could tell that he and his wife were enjoying the show that these beautiful large birds were putting on as much as we were.
At the junction of US highway 64 Rob turned east to go back to Raton, and we followed. Even though we needed to go west, we wanted to head east to see if we could find the Cerrososo Canyon road. As we approached a slight bend in the highway, Rob pulled over and motioned the entrance of the road to the left. We also pulled over and honked and waved thanks. To our left was a very well graded road with a sign that said "Caution, Heavy Truck Traffic next 25 miles". The road headed exactly in the direction that we needed to go.
"How could we have missed this?" I asked. "We have looked at every turnoff between here and Raton."
"I only wish that we had met this guy at 11:00 this morning, not 4:00 at night" Sherman replied.
We both laughed as Sherman turned around and headed west, hopefully to be in Taos before sundown. We both could not wait until the next time we would have the opportunity to continue our quest. This next time we would be armed with better information, we would have a much better chance to claim the elusive Lorencito Labyrinth Confluence.
Tips for future visits: The trip was a success in that we found accomplished a great deal of the legwork needed to conquer this confluence. While it is tempting to keep my leads secret in hope to be the first to visit and document the elusive point, we want to see the confluence reached, and if someone else is able to use the information below, we will consider that we had an important part in helping them and contributing to their success. I wish to give special thanks to Rob Linson for much of this information. If anyone gets to the confluence before I do, I hope that it is him.
Since it appears that the New Mexico land closest to the Confluence is in Vermejo Park Ranch, having their permission in advance would be most beneficial in gaining access. Per their website, below is the contact information:
David Vackar - General Manager
Jim Baker - Wildlife Manager
John Sakelaris - Guest Services Manager
Vermejo Park Ranch
P.O. Drawer E
Raton, NM 87740
Telephone (505) 445-3097
Fax (505) 445-0545
Here are other contact sources for information:
El Paso Energy has an office on Raton. We were given a phone of 445-6767. Use this number, or visit their office to attempt to get permission to enter the gate off of NM 555.
John Silver, Purgatory Valley Construction in Trinidad. John is the contracter responsible for laying the gas pipelines for El Paso Energy. If anyone knows if you can get to the confluence from the work site off of route 555 it is he.
George Yaksich can be contacted at the Yaksich Funeral Home in Raton. He was the manager of the mine and knows just about everyone in Raton - living and dead. If he does not know how to get to the area of the confluence, he can tell you who does and how to contact them. He is a relative of Mrs. Linson.
NM 555 probably is the easiest way to approach the confluence from New Mexico. Not only is it the closest open road to the confluence, but it provides the most direct access to the Vermejo Park Ranch. We had not thought of using the intercom shown in the picture of the main ranch gate (duh). If we had, we might be posting our visit as a success rather than incomplete.
Cerrososo Road provides access to the area immediately to the west of the confluence and even connects to roads that lead up into Colorado. The junction with US 64 lies at 36 degrees 32.2 minutes North and 104 degrees 50.2 minutes west. You can't miss it - or maybe you can because we sure did. We advise contacting Vermejo Park before trying this route as it is unknown if they can or will open gates if you approach from this direction.
The best route from west of the Sangre de Cristos appears to leave Costilla (near the Colorado state line), head through Amalia and over the Sangre de Cristos through a pass via Forest Road 1450. This will connect to the same roads accessible via Cerrososo Road.
We look forward to seeing this confluence successfully completed.