Tag Archives: New Mexico

White Sands National Monument

This is a magical place in southeast New Mexico where gypsum dunes backed by southwestern-looking mountains give an otherworldly feel.

After Carlsbad and Guadalupe earlier in the day we skirted El Paso and then drove north on highway 54 with good mountain views.  There are various military installations around here, including the White Sands Missile Testing Area which forces the closure of the Monument and roads periodically, so be sure to investigate.

I was shocked when we had to pass through a border patrol road block.  I never realized I could be stopped and my car searched when I was not trying to cross the border.  We encountered this again on the 10 Freeway driving back to Los Angeles.  Each time, the officers looked at us, asked if we are US citizens and then said go ahead.  I have often lamented my pale skin because I cannot blend in as much while traveling.  Some have that “Mediterranean” look where they might be from South America or Europe or the Middle East…not me.  But at these border patrol stops I was mighty happy to be pale whitey.

Visitors to White Sands usually stay in Las Cruces or Alamogordo, we chose the latter which is closer to the Monument.  It is packed with chains.  Our Days Inn was another hotel lacking internal hallways, and had some pretty shady characters with bloodshot eyes hanging about.  Nobody showed any disrespect, and I admired Jenni for being willing to stay places like this with no complaints.

Thursday was another cool, crystal clear day.  Shortly after leaving the hotel we passed a sign warning not to pick up hitchhikers because there are detention facilities in the area.  Jenni wanted to try anyway but I held firm.  We stopped in at the visitor center for information and a great orientation video.

These are the largest gypsum dunes in the world.  Some of the nearby mountains are rich in gypsum and the rain and snow melt dissolves it into water that flows into this basin which creates a lake.  The water then evaporates leaving behind big, soft crystals which the wind scatters and breaks down until it is fine, powdery gypsum.

In the desert there is much fascinating flora and fauna, often not visible to the casual observer.  For instance, the video told us that after rains brine shrimp can emerge and lay eggs which might lie dormant as long as 100 years before hatching with new water.

Jenni was thrilled at the opportunity to sled on the dunes so we bought a sled at the gift shop and a little wax.  Even though it was 45 degrees out we just had to drop Sven’s top.  It feels like a winter wonderland, with the paved road turning to sand necessitating plows.  It took great restraint not to pull an EB in the wide-open parking lots.

We walked in a bit on the Alkali Flats Trail for some sledding and ski-jump practice.  Jenni was giddy.  Then over at the backcountry camping parking area we walked up on the dunes and Jenni found a million dollar bill plastered with Jesus praise.  Odd, we thought.  Then we saw an older man with a camel, a pair of dogs and some film makers.

It turns out he spreads the million dollar bills all around and they were making some kind of documentary.  I find it a little strange to both proselytize and litter in a national monument, but what do I know.

If you get the chance, I recommend spending at least a couple hours in this unique and stunning environment.

Practical Info

The Days Inn at Alamogordo was fine but a little dodgy.  There are nicer hotels up the road.  If you are coming from the west, you would probably want to stay at Las Cruces.

The sled at the visitor center cost $17 and then you can return it for $5 back.  The refund is priced brilliantly, just like wedding rentals.  Ranger-led walks take place around sunset but we were long gone before then.

Entrance to the dunes is $3/person and our National Parks pass worked.  Of course you should bring water, sunglasses and perhaps a compass if you want to get too far off the road.

November 6-7, 2013 (Wednesday-Thursday)

Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and West Texas

Carlsbad Caverns are most impressive with a many-football-fields size huge space loaded with eerie stalactites, stalagmites and other formations 750 feet below the earth’s surface.  It is hard not to use the word “cavernous” when describing the features!  Guadalupe Mountains National Park is beautiful and home to the highest point in Texas at…8,750’!!  Had you asked me before this trip to guess Texas’ max elevation, I would have aimed far lower.

On the drive from Austin we passed a handful of wineries before Fredericksburg and saw many signs for peaches.  Fredericksburg itself had a nice-looking Main Street where I grabbed tasty iced coffee at Java Ranch.  That was about as exciting as it got.  There is hardly anything from here to Fort Stockton where we got gas, after which we passed Pecos which lays claim to the first rodeo.  This is oil and gas territory and we saw countless rigs lit up at night.

Route 720 connecting over to the National Parks Highway was a little gnarly at night but we made it safely to our hotel located at the turnoff to Carlsbad Caverns, and picked up an hour on the time change.

We awoke Wednesday to clear skies and crisp 40-something degree air.  The Caverns visitor center is seven miles up a winding road.  Various tours (in the main caverns and further afield) are offered but we decided to take the elevator 750 feet down for a self-guided walk around the Big Room.

The formations and general enormity are really something.  The temperature down there is in the mid 50s all year long.  I think the loop is about 1.25 miles which we leisurely completed in about an hour and quarter.  To see more and sweat a bit we walked back up which took 35 minutes.

One of the special attractions are the Mexican free-tail bats that swarm out of the cave at sunset to hunt for insects etc.  We heard they can consume half their body weight in a single night!  Sadly we just missed them as they are usually present only from March to October.  It might be worth scheduling your trip during these months to catch this spectacle.

While there are some other activities, it seems to me that one day at the Caverns would be sufficient.  MAKE SURE you have enough gas and water because we passed a sign stating it would be 130 miles until the next available services.

We continued down the road to Guadalupe National Park.  There are a few different entrances and areas with different features; we struggled between McKittrick or Dog Canyons.  The canyons are known for foliage around this time.  In the end, we kept it simple and went to the main entrance at Pine Springs.  Were it earlier in the day we would have tried to hike to the top of Gaudalupe Peak, but it gets dark out pretty early so instead we took the trail part of the way to a lovely view point and then headed back.

We passed a few people on the trail in the span of a couple hours…a delightful experience!  Air pollution is often a problem in the summer but we had clear views with 60 degrees and a nice breeze.  These mountains long ago were a marine reef when the area was an inland sea.

Our drive from here was beautiful and really felt like the middle of nowhere.  Doing 85 with the top down through the high desert listening to Marriage Of Figaro was sublime.

We skirted El Paso as we were heading back north to stay in Alamogordo before visiting White Sands National Monument.  I think we did not miss much and that El Paso is probably a moderately scary place.  At the gas station I had to lift a plastic cover to access the credit card slot, presumably to keep out all the sand and dirt that blows around.

Seeing relatively remote places like Guadalupe and western Texas is one of my favorite things about a round-the-US drive.  Tomorrow it got even better…

Practical Info

We stayed at the Rodeway Inn in Whites City, New Mexico, which seemed to be about the only place really close to the park entrance.  It was adequate, with a large room but poor WiFi.  There are far more options in the town of Carlsbad but that is about 20 miles further away.  Bring supplies or buy them in Carlsbad as services are very sparse in this area.

If we had more time we would have liked to check out Marfa, Texas as well as Big Bend National Park.

November 5-6, 2013 (Tuesday-Wednesday)