OUTDOORS: Unique landscape of the Four Corners offers diverse hiking opportunities
FARMINGTON — Opportunities for hiking in the Four Corners are "virtually unlimited," according to JD Tanner, the former director of recreation at San Juan College's Health and Human Performance Center.
"You can hike the New Mexico high plains desert, the next day the Colorado mountains and the next day, the Utah canyons," said Tanner, who is now director of the Touch of Nature Environmental Center at Southern Illinois University in Makanda, Ill.
Earlier this year, he and his wife, Emily Ressler-Tanner, published their fifth Falcon Guide, "Hiking the Four Corners." The book can be checked out at the Farmington Public Library and can also be purchased online.
"New Mexico and the Four Corners area has the best weather. Most any day can be a hiking day. I think we really take for granted just how many great hikes there are to do ... within 30 minutes of Farmington," said Rebecca Knack, a friend of the Tanners and a former music teacher at Esperanza Elementary School in Farmington.
Knack's take is "get out and find some of these great places in Farmington's backyard."
Much of the Four Corners is made up of the San Juan Mountains and the Colorado Plateau, an area that spans more than 130,00 square miles and houses the most National Park Service units in the country, according to the Tanners' book.
The plateau also includes at least 306 arches in and around Aztec, according to Ed Kotyk, the city of Aztec's projects manager. Kotyk has collected information and photos on many of the arches and has posted them at aztecnm.com.
The Tanners' hiking guide features two hikes in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area, another of Kotyk's favorite spots.
"I have hiked the Bisti Wilderness numerous times, and each adventure, there is always something new to discover," Kotyk said.
The guide's New Mexico section also highlights the popular Anasazi Arch trail outside Aztec. While the book features simple maps for the trails, Aztec's arches are so widespread and numerous — and mostly accessible by oil field roads — that Kotyk's catalog on the city of Aztec website offers a more comprehensive guide for the area with in-depth maps, descriptions and a rating system for hikes.
Last month, Aztec teachers Dave and Jean Porter, who are part of Aztec Trails and Open Space, explored one of the areas listed on the city's website, Caballo Canyon east of Aztec off N.M. Highway 173.
The couple accompanied two other hikers to about a dozen arches on June 12, shortly after heavy rains hit the area. Despite their concerns about the dirt access roads washing out, the hikers safely reached their destination. Still, many local hiking experts suggest high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles to access some of the more remote trails in the Four Corners.
The Porters often hike in the summer, frequently heading north of Durango to visit the mountains. Jean Porter said the couple's best advice is "just get out there and explore."
The Tanners' guide also mentions several hikes in Colorado's Durango and nearby Mancos. Not listed in the guide is a mountain hike in La Plata Canyon, west of Durango, which comes highly recommended by Jake McBride, a recent graduate of San Juan College's Outdoor Leadership, Education, and Recreation program.
His advice for hikers is to "appreciate the different landscapes" and "maintain a sense of adventure."
Still, in their guide, the Tanners stress the importance of planning for outdoor trips, noting that, "It's been said that failing to plan is planning to fail."
All local experts agree that preparedness is a key aspect of hiking. While most hikers understand the need for sun protection and hydration, the Tanners also suggest speaking with locals — land managers and staff, as well as fellow hikers — to keep up to date on trail conditions, weather changes, flash flooding and human factors, like hunting season and wildlife encounters. Another issue for tourists can be elevation changes.
Outside of the hiking guide, both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service have information online. The San Juan Public Lands Center west of Durango houses both agencies, and, inside the building, Alan Peterson and Patti Brady run a bookstore and gift shop. The center offers a plethora of maps and guides, a display of animal skulls and brochures on the geology, cultural history and flora and fauna of the San Juan Mountains and Colorado Plateau.
Whether in the mountains or on the plateau, local experts agree the Four Corners offers an array of hiking opportunities. McBride referred to the area as a "gem."
"We have so much in our area that others only see in magazine and on the Internet," he said.
Virginia A. Jones covers the outdoors for The Daily Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.