Forest Service ranger cabins get new life

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The Carson National Forest that surrounds Taos is home to many tantalizing reminders of early Taos history. The mountains near the Taos Ski Valley holds ruins of gold mines, mills and old cabins. Many of their stories are lost as the structures deteriorate and return to the earth. A few of these historical structures are being preserved for the future.

Some of the mountain cabins were built by early Forest Service crews. This summer with the aid of volunteers, the Forest Service is undertaking major repairs to two structures: the Hondo Cabin, along the Rio Hondo on the Taos Ski Valley Road and the Baldy Cabin in the Latir Wilderness near Heart Lake.

"Both cabins were used by the early forest guards and rangers, and later by trail crews and Civilian Conservation Corps, while building the trails and grazing allotment fences that are all historic and from earlier days," said Carrie Leven, archeologist with the Questa District of the Carson National Forest.

Hondo Cabin

The Hondo Cabin was built over 100 years ago around 1913 by Forest Service rangers. It was known as the South Fork Ranger station, named after a mine and mill that were located across the Rio Hondo and high up on the hillside.

"The Hondo Cabin was at one time the gateway to the high country, until the highway was built all the way to Twining, now called Taos Ski Valley, in the mid-1950s. Before that, the only access was the old miners' toll road built by William Fraser and the Forest Road used to get to the grazing allotments in upper Hondo. The New Mexico State Highway Department was granted a 99-foot right-of-way for State Road 150 in 1966. They constructed the highway all the way to Twining, as TSV was first being built up as a ski area," said Leven.

In looking at old maps and notes, she discovered that the Hondo Cabin was part of a larger recreation area called "Manzanita Forest Camp C Recreation area," that was designated in 1955. The Manzanita Canyon Trailhead is located nearby across the highway. The other campgrounds along the river and up near the Ski Valley were also established in 1955.

The five-acre Hondo Cabin site includes an old corral that is still used by the grazing permitees who take their cattle to the high country every summer. There is a platform that overlooks the Rio Hondo. According to Leven, the platform may have been part of the early fire look-out system or served some role in connection to the higher lookouts on Gold Hill and Deer Creek Trail.

The cabin itself is in good shape and everything is still within ¼ inch of level more than 100 years after its construction. The original ceiling of white-washed latillas in a herringbone design supported by vigas is still beautiful and the plank floor has held up well. When the loft was opened up again after many years of non-use, forest service signs from the 1950s and 1960s were found.

Although the cabin has been maintained overtime, a need for a more major repair effort had become evident. The original stone porch had begun to sink into the ground and the roof was in need of new shingles. In mid-August, a group of volunteers joined the Carson National Forest staff to make some improvements at the Hondo Cabin. "We have been partnering with National Smokejumper Association to repair and maintain the cabins for the past two years. This has included a new coat of paint, fire prevention enhancements such as trimming around the buildings, replacing the shingles in kind, and repairing some of the outbuildings. The NSA are retired folks who worked as Forest Service Smokejumpers in earlier days. They perform a lot of volunteer work for the Carson and the Santa Fe National Forests and around the nation, mostly trail maintenance in wilderness areas," said Leven.

One of the volunteers, Jeff Hanford, is a stone mason who is repairing the old stone porch. He is also a member of the Santa Fe Chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen - a group that works with the NSA to pack in supplies via horse for more remote projects.

Baldy Cabin

At the end of this month, the horsemen group will help the NSA volunteers pack in supplies and tools to the more remote Baldy Cabin located in the Latir Wilderness above Questa. The horsemen will take the group in, more than five miles and then come pick them up a week later.

While at the Baldy Cabin, the volunteers will repair the structure and replace the roof with some metal panels. Mike Overby of the NSA coordinates projects for New Mexico and lives here part time. He has been working on trails projects for the last 18 years. Overby says the group is mostly former smoker jumpers with some additional volunteers. Crediting the Backcountry Horsemen for making the more remote projects possible, he said, "They are very helpful; we make a pretty good team."

Stretching resources

The National Smokejumper Association volunteers will also be replacing a bridge this year in the Santa Barbara area near Peñasco and working on trails in the San Pedro Parks Wilderness near Cuba, N.M. Leven says that the association approached the forest service and offered to provide volunteer services. The two groups consulted together and looked at what was needed and the type of volunteer work that the NSA had done in the past, including wilderness trail maintenance and restoration of forest service buildings.

"Volunteers and partners who provide labor, funding through grants and fundraising, materials and supplies, equipment and operators, packers and livestock are crucial to accomplishing the mission of the forest service on a local, regional, and national level. With their services are we able to move towards sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of the forest for present and future generations," said Leven. In addition to work on the cabins this year, volunteers are helping with the installation of signs and trail maintenance on nearby trails in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Area.

The NSA is a non-profit organization. Former smokejumpers and others can join in order to be part of these volunteer projects. The group has raised money through events like Oktoberfest in Red River and through grants from the Chevron Questa Mine and the Taos Ski Valley. They rely on discounts and donations like those made by Alpine Lumber in Angel Fire to make materials more affordable. They welcome individual donations. For more information visit www.smokejumpers.com.

The future

There may be a chance to see the restored Hondo Cabin up close in coming years. The forest service is exploring the idea of offering the cabin for rent to the public and perhaps adding some camping spots nearby, giving new life to the historic cabin.

"A long-range vision for the Hondo cabin site is to return it to use in the sustainable recreation program, perhaps through a reservation system for a group site with tent camping that would include replacing an existing outhouse facility. Another idea is to utilize the cabin for housing personnel who can oversee the nearby campgrounds, or as a base camp for crews and packers working in the wilderness areas," says Leven.

For more information call the Questa Ranger District of the Carson National Forest at (575) 586-0520 or visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/carson.

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