Feeling the Heat at Navajo Dam

We have a commitment in Pagosa Springs, Colorado beginning on June 9, so we filled the week after our Durango stay by making a quick visit to northern New Mexico in the vicinity of the Navajo Dam project. For what seems like the very first time in 2019, we had truly warm weather, with daytime temperatures reaching into the 80s. I wore shorts for a whole week! It’s the little things that amaze and delight us, apparently.

Navajo Lake State Park

This was our first foray into New Mexico, and of course it was our first stay at a New Mexico state park. Navajo Lake State Park borders Navajo Lake, a large reservoir in the Upper Colorado River water management system, and the San Juan River, and has multiple campgrounds. We stayed at the Cottonwood Campground along the river below the dam. The river is an ideal habitat for trout (and regularly stocked) and both the lake and river are important regional attractions for fishing enthusiasts. The surrounding environment is desert scrub, like much of the Four Corners area, but the San Juan River makes for a rich riparian habitat full of cottonwood trees and many other forms of plant and animal life.


Balanced rock in the middle of the San Juan River

Our first impression of New Mexico State Parks is they are extremely affordable. It’s pretty exciting to pay just $14/night for a spot with electric and water hookups, and that bargain price drops to an incredible $4 per night for holders of the New Mexico annual park pass ($225 for out of state residents). The contrast with neighboring Colorado, (in)famous for its expensive state parks, is interesting.

Since we were staying in a low-cost area — and, frankly, because there’s not all that much to do in the immediate vicinity for those of us who don’t fish — we took time to focus on some maintenance work and were able to check quite a few items off our task list. Various parts of the interior and exterior of the Airstream have been washed, degunked, and/or lubricated. Our tire pressure is at the proper levels on both the truck and the trailer. We researched and firmed up details for several planned stops later in the year. We ventured out to Farmington one day for much-needed haircuts. Obviously, it’s nothing but nonstop glamor here on the road.

Ken ensures the chairs don’t escape from our site

When not “working” we managed to find a few nearby spots to explore. The Simon Canyon Ruin Trail was short (less than 1 mile each way) but had interesting terrain on the hike up the canyon and ended at a Navajo structure dating to the 18th century perched on top of a large rock. We also checked out the San Juan River Trail, which shares a trailhead with the Simon Canyon Ruin Trail. It would have made for a nice riverside stroll, except that it was so overgrown that we gave up about halfway down the trail. Nonetheless, we enjoyed getting out to see the flora and fauna of the desert.



Speaking of fauna, our tree-filled campground had plenty of birds to drive me crazy (they never sit still long enough for photos and identifying them is hard when they are on the wing) including plenty of hummingbirds. One of the things we’ve really enjoyed about this winter in the desert is frequent hummingbird encounters. At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in January the blooming ocotillo in our site was the perfect hummingbird attracter, but we had frequent hummingbird interactions during our entire desert sojourn, even within the urban confines of Tucson. We particularly notice them because the tiny buzzers always seem to find their way to our panoramic rear window, which is where our main eating and seating area is located.

A fake flower on the back of our rig.

During our stay at Navajo Lake, we had the opportunity to observe the hummingbirds more closely. Since our windows were open (hello, warmth!) we could hear the tiny lawnmower sound of hummingbirds approaching and had frequent visits from black-chinned hummingbirds with their distinctive purple throats. Well positioned to watch the birds in action, we finally realized what’s going on. Each bird that approaches our back window spends a little time hovering around the knobs on our bike rack. Upon closer examination, one sees that they are colored red and have a scalloped, almost petal-like appearance. Oops. So for all the months that we’ve been in the desert this winter, delighting in the appearance of hummingbirds just outside our main window, we’ve actually been tantalizing the poor hungry creatures with frustrating plastic facsimiles of their beloved red flowers mounted on the back end of our trailer.

Guess who feels like a complete heel now??

For our next desert visit, we will be getting a small hummingbird feeder to hang off our rear awning so visitors led astray by our bike rack can be rewarded with some yummy sugar water.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Since we are in the southwest, we know we were never far from an archaeological site. In addition to the 250-year-old Navajo structure in Simon Canyon, we also visited a much older remnant of Ancient Puebloans at the Aztec Ruins National Monument. Despite the name, the site has nothing to do with Aztecs. Instead, it is the northern-most outpost of the Chaco Culture that was centered in Chaco Canyon 75 miles to the south. Like the main site at Chaco Canyon, Aztec Ruins is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



The name of the site accurately portrays the situation on the ground: this pueblo is a ruin. But it was originally quite a large facility, with over 400 rooms made of expertly-crafted stones and masonry. The building even sports a sharp-looking racing stripe made of green stone that runs along the perimeter of the main building. The rear wall of the complex aligns perfectly with the path of the sun across the sky on the summer solstice, and we were once again left in awe of the astronomical prowess of pre-modern people. The one part of the complex that is in nearly perfect shape is the Great Kiva, which was reconstructed in the 1930s under the supervision of the main archeologist to excavate the site. Although today the NPS frowns on such reconstructions of historic sites, it was interesting to see an example of what an enormous kiva (ceremonial room) would have looked and felt like to the original users.

The dry desert environment here is particularly good for preserving wood and fabrics, and Aztec Ruins was an archaeological treasure trove of biodegradable artifacts. The museum displays quite a few bits of fabric, baskets, and shoes made from plant fibers such as cotton, yucca, and willows, which are typically impossible to find in 900-year-old sites. The ruin itself contains several sections of intact interior ceilings, and these were sampled extensively to help determine the exact age of the structure. Yet again our visit to the Tree Ring Lab at UA in Tucson has paid off by helping us understand exactly how the timber borings were used to come up with very specific construction dates, but the museum also had a pretty good explanation of the process of dendrochronology.



Next, we head back to Colorado for a two-week stay in the small town of Pagosa Springs, where we will be volunteering 4 days each week with Habitat for Humanity as part of the Care-A-Vanners program. This time we are really saying goodbye to the desert until next fall, since we plan to be in the mountains of Colorado through Labor Day.



10 thoughts on “Feeling the Heat at Navajo Dam”

  1. The colors in the flora and fauna of the desert are amazingly brilliant. They certainly stand out from the otherwise muted colors of the desert environment. I especially love that lizard, what an unusual color. It seems more appropriate for a marine environment.
    Great photographs again!

    • That lizard is the collared lizard, and only the males have the bright colors. The females are more muted, similar to many bird species. It’s fun seeing all these interesting new plants and animals! But we will be glad to be among the trees this summer, since it’s getting pretty warm in the desert.

  2. Oh, I laughed at your story of the hummingbirds attracted to the red handles on your bike rack! A few years ago I was sitting in the hummingbird aviary at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, and a hummer flew up and stuck its bill into the red cap of my water bottle. I wish I had managed to get a photo of it!

    Speaking of photos, your photo of the collared lizard is fantastic. Aren’t they the most gorgeous little reptiles? They look like jewels.

    I have really come to appreciate those days when there are not a lot of outside attractions vying for my attention. Sometimes we’ve just gotta get mundane stuff done!

    • The hummingbird story is funny, but we really do feel like jerks! Once we realized what was going on, every time a hummer came by and lingered around the bike rack our hearts dropped a little. 🙁 But we will do better the next time we are in the desert!

      I loved seeing the collared lizards, but I am a little irritated that (like with many birds) the males are so much more colorful. The ladies deserve attention, too, but they are just a lot less eye catching so those photos don’t make it onto the blog.

  3. No one understands your excitement about wearing shorts for a whole week or finding reasonably priced state parks as much as this girl right here! It really is the little things, but those little things add up quick and can bring unbridled joy or boundless frustration to those of us living this life.

    Anyway, glad to see things are looking up, even if you are, apparently, a hummingbird tormentor.

    • It truly is the little things sometimes (or all of the time) — which I have to confront when the highlights from the week that I want to record on the blog turn out to be things like wearing season-appropriate clothing. But it’s certainly better than complaining about post-Memorial Day snow like the prior week!

      In any case we can’t let people think that full time RVing is nothing but great times, because then the few remaining people in North America without RVs will hit the road too and there will never again be an available campsite anywhere, in any season. No, indeed. There is torture of innocent small birds involved.

      • Ha… funny story: They just announced a new television series coming to The Discovery Network all about fulltime RVers. So, rest assured, the number of people competing for our coveted campsites is about to increase exponentially.

        And no, I’m not kidding. I wish I was.

        I’ve heard boating is fun….

  4. I agree, the lizard pic is fabulous! Unlike birds, I’ve noticed lizards seem to like having their pictures taken. If you’re feeling bad about the colorful males, you’ll be soothed to know that many of the whiptails are female-only. No boys ever!😁

    Navajo is one NM SP we’ve not been to yet, but as you know, we also love the cost-effectiveness of them. The lack of activities is both a blessing and a bummer depending on the day!

    I was all prepared to “yell” at you to get a hummy feeder, but I see that you are. Hooray! Not only will you love watching more of their antics, you’re going to get some fabulous up-close photos of them.

    We were just watching that new RV show last night, and unfortunately, it is like all the others that show people shopping for them, not actually RVing. Boooooring! There is room out there for a reality RV show. Hmmmmm…

    • Too bad the new RV show isn’t breaking new ground, I guess — I would be entertained by all the stories of drama that normally get built into reality TV. There are certainly plenty of “eventful” developments in the daily lives of any full-time RVers that would make for humorous and/or cringe-worthy TV.

      Yes, yes, I know. We will get a hummingbird feeder. We will have one before we are back in New Mexico in the fall! We are already looking forward to the tranquility of NM state parks we will be visiting in October and early November!

      I was pretty surprised by how close I was able to get to this particular lizard. Either he likes being a star, or just thought that sitting still was a good defense strategy when a tall mammal with a weird little beeping electronic box was looming over him.


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