Road trip: New Mexico Edition

March 14-March 29

Wrapping up our third and final shift of the week at work, we had been making plans to visit some national parks with our eight days off. Initially considering a trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas, we reconsidered, as it would add two full days of driving just to get there and back. So we settled on a stop in Santa Fe for 4 nights, and the next 4 were spent visiting Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, and White Sands National Parks. Charley would be spending the week back in Phoenix with my cousin and her family, as the national parks don’t treat dogs like humans (like we do), and thus they are forbidden.

Our route to Santa Fe took us up through Payson and to the Mogollon Rim, which we drove up and on to, and continued northeast for 7 hours or so until we reached our destination.

We’d spend the next handful of days getting the lay of the land, checking out a couple regions in the Santa Fe area, as well as the city itself- vibrant and charming in its old town, southwest turquoise vibe.

On day 1 we went west from Santa Fe about an hour, climbing up the slope of the Valles Caldera, a great basin created by an eruption a million years ago, with the strength of 600 Mt St Helens events. The basin created what seemed like a wild animal’s dream landscape, with ample grasses and wetlands, tall pines for shade, and plenty of remote areas to avoid human interaction. From across the vast expanse we could make out hundreds of elk grazing beneath the treeline, mere dots in the distance. With the binoculars, they came into focus and more detail, and they looked to be enjoying themselves.

We stayed for a handful of minutes, trying to process the enormity of the meadow, before moving along.

Jamie had scoped out some hot springs nearby in the Caldera wilderness, and we arrived at the trailhead to find only one other car, a pleasant surprise. The springs were less than a mile hike into the rising mountainside. We hopped in for twenty minutes or so and enjoyed the soak and surroundings.

The greater Santa Fe region, as you can imagine, is home to plenty of Native American history, in addition to beautiful outdoor landscapes. We made a few stop-offs on the way back to town, including at Bandelier National Monument. We toured the cliffside ruins of civilizations passed, their petroglyphs and other anthropologic wonders. There were quite a few folks doing the same, so we didn’t spend too much time in any crowds and moved along rather quickly. We decided another stop at a spot less frequented was of more value, so we did a couple mile hike along a cliff-area full of caves and adobe dwellings.

**Tasty tid-bit: Santa Fe is the highest elevation capital in the US, sitting at about 7,200 feet above sea level. It’s also the oldest state capital in the US (according to Wikipedia).

After a day out in nature, it was time to reel it back in and get acquainted with Santa Fe. As I mentioned before, it wasn’t on our original itinerary, but I’m so glad we added it.

It was said to us in one of the shops while in town, that the three big art-scene areas in the US are New York, LA, and…Santa Fe. The first two make sense- large metropolitan areas with a huge market. Santa Fe is home to less than 100,000 people and is quite removed from any highly populated locations. Yet it thrives in the art world. The city seemed to be an art gallery all in itself. So a walk through Santa Fe was like a free admission museum.

We walked past grand cathedrals and old churches originally adobe-made hundreds of years ago. The oldest standing church structure in the US, San Miguel Chapel, sits in Santa Fe, initially constructed in 1610 (4th photo in slide show below). When we’d stirred our hunger and thirst a bit, we made our way into a few brewpubs and wineries.

The following morning, with temps around 40F, we drove up to the Dale Ball Trail network in the foothills and had a nice trail run to start the day. The views over Santa Fe and back into the mountains provided a wonderful backdrop to stop and take in from time to time.

Jamie had booked us a pottery class around lunchtime, so after washing up and grabbing a late breakfast, we walked over to Paseo Pottery. Everything in town is pretty walkable, which made our experience more immersive than driving from point to point.

News flash: pottery making is not easy. Or it is, and I am just very, very bad at it. I ruined a few pieces before finally making something resembling a cup (also something resembling an item a young grade-schooler would make). But we had a good time playing with clay, so that’s ok.

That afternoon, with temperatures warming to their daily high in the 50’s, we walked the town, specifically the Canyon Rd district, with its various art installations and cute shops to stop in.

Santa Fe is really quite progressive of an area, made to seem even more so by the stark contrast with the surrounding communities of New Mexico. It was unexpected, as was the stringent mask protocols and contact tracing still in place in the city. But of course we were happy to oblige, as we’ve seen at work what the disregard for precautions can cause.

Later that day, Jamie booked snowshoes for the following morning. We’d be heading up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for a little backcountry exploring.

It was a beautiful day for an adventure, with daytime temps in the 30-40’s, but plenty of sun and not much wind, save for the exposed peak. We only ran into two other couples along the route, trekking up three miles and about half a mile of elevation gain. The altitude got to us both, feeling a bit lightheaded and short of breath at times. Deception Peak is right around 12,300ft, and it felt like it. Checking my watch, my pulse ox was 88% as we made our way up the trail. We took frequent breaks along the way, enjoying the quiet and stillness of the pine forests.

“Is this the trail?”

A phrase repeated over and over as we made our way up and down the mountain. With animal tracks and offshoots in every direction, we’d have to reassess the route quite frequently. Even with a GPS watch and offline AllTrails loaded up on my phone, constant awareness was essential to staying the route.

Our time in Santa Fe was thoroughly enjoyable. The weather was great, the folks were kind, and the vibe was on point. But it was time to move along, as southern NM was calling our names. We’d head down to Carlsbad Caverns National Park the following morning to explore the US’s largest cave network. At about 4,000 ft long and 255 high at its highest point, the Cave was otherworldly. Stalagmites popped up from the cave floor, as stalactites attempted to meet them in the middle from the ceiling. We couldn’t stop thinking about the original explorers of these cave networks. It must have been terrifying to drop into utter darkness, with no light except candles, and no map of where to go. Yet they did it anyway, in the spirit of exploration and progress.

During Covid, the Caverns have a reservation system and only allow a set amount of folks to enter per hour. It turned out to be a blessing, as the cave was less crowded and more quiet for our walkthrough. Getting good photos of the scale of the cave, as well as its details, proved to be difficult. But we gave it shot (pun intended).

We spent the night in Carlsbad, NM that evening. We drove west, past the Caverns, the following morning. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is just over the border of NM into Texas, and is along the same chain of mountains that houses the Caverns. The whole area used to be part of the Delaware Basin, an inland sea, during the Permian period, some 250-300 million years ago. The Guadalupe Mountains are exposed reef area from that time period.

The Guadalupe Mountains were impressive in their size. But most impressive was the winds. Persistent gusts of 30-40 mph followed us as we hiked up to the Devil’s Hall, a narrow pass deep in a canyon and set back from the Park’s entrance. Initially we had hoped to hike to Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas at 8,750 feet. Winds gusts of 70-80mph cancelled that plan. Keep in mind, temps at the Park visitor center were maybe 40F. We spent a few hours hiking in the more wind-protected canyon instead.

We ended up back in Carlsbad at the hotel earlier than expected, due to our change in hiking plans. We found a spot to have dinner, the Lucky Bull, and called it an early night. The next day would be spent heading northwest into Lincoln National Forest, on our way to White Sands National Park for the afternoon.

The drive from Santa Fe to Carlsbad was ugly. Windy, barren, arid, and riddled with plastic bags and other wind-blown litter.

The drive from Carlsbad to White Sands was much more enjoyable. Initially, heading northwest, we passed familiar areas of sad old towns whose fate would be a ghost town, either in 10 years or 30. But as we continued, and climbed upward from about 3000 feet, things got more interesting. We entered Lincoln National Forest at around 5-6000 feet above sea level, and the vegetation started to change from thirsty to well-nourished pines. The climb continued, and eventually we found ourselves at 9000ft up, arriving in Cloudcroft, NM, arguably the highest elevation town in the state. Timing was perfect, so we made a stop for lunch and a hike in this high alpine area, and were rewarded with views of our eventual destination, White Sands, in the distance. Making a stop at Noisy Water Winery, we had a quick tasting and walked the shops before heading down off the mountain.

We didn’t want to be at White Sands for too long during the day. It’s windy, and completely sun-exposed, so we timed it so we’d arrive there around 3pm, and stay until just after sunset. The sunset was blocked by some late-afternoon clouds that rolled in, but our time spent there was still great.

We’d been to the Great Sand Dune National Park in Colorado, so this was our second run-in with some pretty bizarre dune landscape. In comparison, these dunes were smaller (some of them in Colorado were nearly 800 feet high), but more expansive. The fine gypsum dust wasn’t as bothersome to walk in as the sand in Colorado, either.

After dark, we drove the last couple hours to Deming, NM, where we’d rest our heads for the night before the last day of driving back home to Phoenix.

We hit many spots on our tour of New Mexico. We’d have to say our favorite spot was Santa Fe, with its recreational opportunities and the city’s vibrant setting. But the whole trip brought fun, wonder, and adventure. About all we could ask for.

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