American Locations 24 – White Sands

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Early the next morning our 2-vehicle caravan drove north from Carlsbad on Hwy 285. This was arid desert until we reached Brantley Lake State Park, where the Pecos River is dammed. Besides the disorienting sight of people boating and water skiing in the middle of the desert, farmland supported by this water flourished. We saw a lot of pecan groves. This greenbelt extended north all the way to Artesia. Here is a statue on a street corner in Artesia. You see these all over the southwest. They are very proud of their heritage.

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My wife and I debated going a little farther north on Hwy 285 to Roswell, but didn’t. It might have been fun to see the aliens, but you can only choose to do so much with your time. So we turned west at Artesia on Hwy 82. The first half of this drive was flat arid grazing land. But in the distance we could see mountains looming. Soon the drive became funner. As I’ve stated before, I love a good drive. And going up from the flat desert floor into the mountains is a treat. We were winding back and forth while steadily gaining elevation as the mountains grew higher and higher. This picture, which you can tell was taken through the front windshield (by my wife, I had both hands firmly on the wheel), shows we were starting to see snow.

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We even passed a ski resort, Cloudcroft. But the best part of the drive had been saved for last. What goes up must come down, and boy did we, quickly. As the highway descends back down to the desert floor it does so very rapidly. We came down fast, whipping through kickback after kickback, with an extremely distracting view before us for miles and miles to the horizon. It was an exhilarating drive. Once we reached the desert floor we were in Alamogordo. We turned south on Hwy 52, then southwest on Hwy 74, which took us past Holloman Air Force Base to White Sands National Monument. Our first stop was the visitor center parking lot to eat lunch in the motor home.

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After lunch we explored the visitor center the fun began. Dunes Drive takes you quite a ways into the dune field. Here is a Wikipedia entry for anyone whose only knowledge of White Sands is that it shares the same name as the nearby site of the first atomic bomb tests:

White Sands National Monument is a U.S. National Monument located in the state of New Mexico on the north side of Route 70 about 16 miles (26 km) southwest of Alamogordo in western Otero County and northeastern Doña Ana County. The monument is situated at an elevation of 4,235 feet (1,291 m) in the mountain-ringed Tularosa Basin and comprises the southern part of a 275 sq mi (710 km2) field of white sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals. The gypsum dune field is the largest of its kind on Earth. Unlike dunes made of quartz-based sand crystals, the gypsum does not readily convert the sun’s energy into heat and thus can be walked upon safely with bare feet, even in the hottest summer months.

 There are numerous places to pull over, with boardwalks that take you out into the dunes. I’ll start with one of my wife and her sister.

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The road is paved, but covered with sand. As you can tell with this picture, the park regularly plows the sand just like northerners plow snow off their streets. So it is passable for any vehicle.

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There are several parking lots where you can get out of your vehicle and roam through the dunes.

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See the children with snow sleds? They are sledding down the sand.

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I like this picnic table. The park has made an effort to keep blowing sand out of your food.

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It was even better getting away from the parking lot and roaming through the dunes. The walking was difficult but fun.

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There were marked trails to follow if you want. I imagine it would be easy to get lost in the dunes if you got out of sight of the road or parking lots.

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You are allowed to hike into the park and camp in the dunes, as long as you register. That would be fun. I’m sure White Sands is a different world at night. It is quite a sight to see.

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We stayed until the park closed and they made us leave. Then my wife’s sister and her husband headed back to Denver, while my wife and I continued on our trip.

 

The next location is Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, New Mexico

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American Locations 23 – Carlsbad Caverns

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Carlsbad Cavern National Park, New Mexico 

When we left Guadalupe Mountains National Park we drove north on Hwy 62 out of Texas into New Mexico to Carlsbad, where set up in a private campground. My wife’s sister and her husband drove from Denver to join us there, and the next day we headed for Sitting Bull Falls. That was how I managed to leave my camera behind, we traveled together in their car. After a pleasant drive on narrow twisting back roads through the desert, which I got to enjoy more since I wasn’t driving, it was a short steep hike up to the top of the falls.

After, we drove south from Carlsbad on Hwy 62 and into Carlsbad Cavern National Park at the Whites City entrance. Once in the park it was a scenic drive that twists through the desert and up a mountain. Since I wasn’t driving we didn’t stop to take any pictures. Once we reached the visitor center and parked we could appreciate how high we were and admire the vista of miles of surrounding desert in all directions.

I had been here once before as a teenager with my parents. In the evening we had seated ourselves in the amphitheater at the natural entrance to watch the bats emerge and fly off into the night. It was quite a spectacle. Minutes before you saw the first bat you could smell them. Their odor grew stronger as they neared the entrance. Then you could hear them, the chirping and the beating of thousands of wings. Finally, they began emerging. They spiraled up before you as more and more emerged from the cave. The bats flying up out of the cave became so numerous they merged into a dark broiling column of black. They continued this for at least ten minutes. There were that many bats it took that long for all of them to exit the cave. At some high altitude above the cave entrance they broke from their spiral and flew off in one direction, like a black cloud spreading out into the night. It was quite impressive.

So I was anticipating this when we arrived. That was the reason we had waited until the afternoon to tour the cave, so we could stay after the tour to see the bats at dusk. But I learned in the visitor center we were there at the wrong time of the year, the bats weren’t in the cave at this time. Also, it was so late in the day tours were no longer going in via the natural entrance, we would have to take the elevator directly down. So I was bummed on two accounts, not seeing the bats and not walking into the cave. The natural entrance is quite impressive, also.

But I did get to see some bats. There is a statue in the visitor center symbolizing the bats emerging from the ground.

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We took the elevator down and began our tour.

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This is not a guided tour. You are on your own to ramble around a huge open cavern. But an audio tour is offered, which I actually prefer. You can roam at your own pace, yet not miss out on any relevant information. In this picture you can see several well-placed lights and their snaking cords.

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When Carlsbad Caverns was first opened Hollywood lighting experts were brought out to install lighting that would elevate the creepiness of this alien landscape. In fact, several science fiction movies from the fifties and sixties were filmed here. That’s why everything in the Cavern looks so shadowy. It is intentional, it’s the effect that was striven for.

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But with such dim lighting many of the formations are too difficult to see clearly. And I had already been recently spoiled by the Caverns of Sonora, whose astounding crystalline formations made these appear pedestrian. And the poor lighting didn’t help.

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But it is still an impressive place.

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I especially enjoyed this formation, the lighting succeeds here. Doesn’t this formation appear to be a monster with a gaping mouth full of saber-like teeth?

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Other monsters lurking in the shadows?

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This one feels like I am already inside the monster’s mouth and looking out.

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We weren’t entirely left on our own. Rangers were present all around the caverns to keep an eye on us and to answer any questions. So we continued roaming.

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Since we had arrived so late we were among the last to leave. Which meant there was a huge mob at the elevator waiting to go back up to the visitor center. And we couldn’t roam around waiting for the line to shorten. Rangers were cutting off the lights behind them as they ushered people to the waiting area. Nobody wanted to walk around in the dark with all those monsters lurking in the cavern. Besides, it was closing time and the rangers were wanting to go home. It wasn’t a long wait. The elevator could only hold so many people, but it was fast and got everyone up and out in a timely fashion. We drove out of the park and back to our campground in Carlsbad.

 

The next location is White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

American Locations 22 – Guadalupe Mountains 2

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

I took 2 and a half hikes on my own far up into the mountains. On the first one I hiked about half-way through the desert to El Capitan. It was a day-long hike, and I wanted to do more than just a single hike, so I quit once I came within sight of it and returned to the campground.

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The second hike I took at daybreak on the second day to Devil’s Hall. I got to see a nice sunrise over the Texas flatlands.

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The rising sun gave a soft glow to everything it touched.

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The trail descended into a dry creek bed.

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The dry creek bed led to Devils’ Staircase. It should have been named Devil’s Ladder. I don’t know if you can tell how steep it is from the photos, but I had to scale it like climbing a ladder.

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Once on top, it was a short walk to Devil’s Hall.

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Devil’s Hall was a canyon so narrow you could spread your arms out and touch both sides.

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The trail continued beyond Devil’s Hall, but I turned back. Instead of backtracking on the trail to the campground, I took a side trail which connected to the trail going to the summit of Guadalupe Peak, which at 8,751 feet is the highest mountain in Texas. This was my half-hike. So I started climbing. Notice how small the campground appears in the center of the photo.

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The only problem was this trail was little-used, and so was in poor condition. It was extremely narrow and steep.

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I startled something. I saw 2 large dark forms move quickly through the brush down the hill away from me. It was so rugged and they were so fast I didn’t get a good look. They seemed too big and made too much noise to be deer. They could have been mountain lions, but they seemed to be a dark color. Maybe boars? Later a park ranger told me boars were rare, but they had been spotted.

I reached the juncture of this connecting trail to the Guadalupe Peak trail.

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By this time I was worn out, and a little spooked by whatever I had encountered. So I began my descent to the campground.

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I spent the rest of the day lounging around the campsite pleasurably exhausted.

 

The next location is Carlsbad Cavern, New Mexico

American Locations 21 – Guadalupe Mountains

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

After completing the tour of McDonald Observatory, we drove north on Hwy 180. The first part of this drive was interesting, as we wound up and down and around mountains. Then the road leveled out and we came to Interstate 10. Driving west on I-10, we passed through the most desolate part of our trip. There is absolutely nothing along the interstate through this part of west Texas. There is a train track that runs alongside the road, but we never saw a train running on it. The desert landscape is littered with small abandoned and collapsing buildings. So once this area had been populated, but what we saw that day could have been a moonscape for all the signs of life present.

We continued west on I-10 until we came to Van Horn. We headed north on Hwy 90, then shortly continued north on Rte 54. Along this route we passed one ranch after another, this being a much more inhabited countryside than what we had just passed through. Also, we caught up with an unusual motor home. I have seen many vehicles transformed into motor homes, but this motor home had previously been a garbage truck. It couldn’t have been practical, as those are heavy and can’t get very good gas millage. My wife wanted a picture of it, but I never did. But there was no mistaking it, the thing had originally been a garbage truck.

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El Capitan greets visitor to Guadalupe Mountains National Park arriving from the south. The tall mountain started coming into view when we were about 20 miles away. The surrounding countryside is so flat it and the other mountains seem to rise up out of nowhere.

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The campground wasn’t anything more than a paved parking lot. But it was situated at the foot of Guadalupe Peak, the tallest mountain in the park. Also, all the best hiking trails originate here.

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And the view made it worthwhile.

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We were so far out in the middle of nowhere, and the wildlife was so tame, we could get up close and personal.

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The first hike my wife and I embarked on was from the campground to the visitor center. It also led to what had been a stop on a stage coach line. Of which only one wall remained standing.

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It was a nice walk through the desert.

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We took another hike that went up into the mountains.

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We also walked around the ruins of an old farm.

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After a day spent touring an observatory, driving, then hiking in the desert and the mountains, we returned to our campsite to crash.

The next location is Guadalupe Mountains 2