Climbing 140 feet of wooden ladders with four kids at Bandalier National Park was quite an adventure, but so worth with. The ancient dwellings of the native people here were incredible to check out and learn about. Oh, and we ran, a lot! Trying to make it back to the visitor center before they closed to get the kid’s junior ranger badges. We camped at our first Army Corps of Engineers campground and really enjoyed it. Plus, we were able to attend the annual corn festival at San Felipe Pueblo and witness beautiful and powerful traditions of the native peoples in New Mexico.
In this episode we parked our RV just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico and took the opportunity to dress up a little and explore one of the oldest and most beautiful capital cities in the country. This whole region is filled with lovely adobe architecture and the capital is no exception. Join us as we find the oldest church in the country, the magnificent Cathedral Basilica, vibrant colors, and good food.
Hiking into the natural entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico is an awe inspiring adventure, something everyone must experience. Words cannot describe the magnificence and beauty of this subterranean world, it’s like stepping onto another planet! Join us in this video as we bypass the broken elevators and explore that underground world and then take a day off from exploring to relax and be creative at our campsite in our RV.
The Living Desert Zoo State Park in Carlsbad New Mexico is probably our favorite zoo ever. Most zoo’s tend to focus on animals from around the world making them all very similar, at the Living Desert it’s all about New Mexico’s native animals and plants. We also did some high altitude camping in the town of Cloudcroft, which meant we had to pull Shelbert (that’s our travel trailers name) up some steep inclines, but the wilderness campground with it’s evergreen trees and fresh mountain air was beautiful. We camped at Lake Brantley and actually really loved it, especially all the cotton tails and jack rabbits!
White Sands National Monument Visited April 18, 19, 2018
“Be here now”, I remind myself. “Listen, look, and feel.”I want to remember this place. It is magical and other-worldly. It is harsh and soft at the same time. It is cold and hot. It is ever changing and yet the same. It is the safest national park (you can hike around barefoot), yet still a dangerous desert. It is a place of contrast and extremes.
“There is literally no other place on earth like this,” I tell myself.
I lie back on the glittering white sand. Despite the shade of my ball cap and two pairs of sunglasses, the reflection of the sun on the bright sand makes my eyes ache, and I close them as much for relief as to be able to concentrate on what else I feel. The sand is soft, but there is a pile of it in the center of my back. I try to ignore the lump beneath me, to feel and listen to everything besides a little discomfort. I am lying on the top of a large sand dune about 30 feet tall. I’m not sure how long it is, maybe a few hundred feet? It merges into a series of dunes in this vast plain of white mounds. A few feet to my right is the slip-face of the dune- the cliff side, where the sand avalanches down once the dune reaches a certain height. I feel comfortable. The sand at the top of the dune is soft. It doesn’t feel dirty or gritty, but does leave your skin feeling a bit parched. There are no shells or sharp rocks, thorns or sticks to poke sensitive fingertips and feet. I bury my hands again and again in the white powder. A few grains remain stuck among the fine hairs on my arm when I lift it, attracted to the spray-on sunscreen. My feet dig down in a few inches. The sand is not hot on the surface, as the white color reflects light. My heels rest in the slightly damp coolness. At the bottom of the dune, the water table is just inches below the more solid surface. The grains of gypsum hold onto the water and solidify easily. As I dig down with my feet, I feel that the slightly moist sand is more firm. But the moisture doesn’t remain on my hands like it would if I held typical quartz sand in my hands. The gypsum crystals firm up with the moisture slightly, only to be broken down by my hands or the constant battering of other sand grains in the wind. The wind… It lifts up the top layers of sand and swirls over the dunes, obscuring footprints and creating lovely ripples. There was but a light breeze when we came for the guided sunset stroll last night, but today with wind is stronger. You can see the haze of sand moving a few inches over the surface of the dune. I am turned away from the wind to keep the sand out of my eyes, but it flicks and stings against my arms and the tops of my feet. It is not unpleasant now, but I wouldn’t want to be out here in stronger winds.
I hear the wind. I hear the sand moving. I hear my children laughing and calling out instructions for their game of pretend. They are finished sledding down the slip-face of the dune for now. It is fun, riding down on brightly colored round waxed saucers, especially if you are a small, thin child. My husband and I found it slow going. The sand doesn’t compact like snow, and even on a steep slope with a well-waxed sled, an adult cannot really speed downhill in the sand. We still enjoy a few rides down the slope. The climb back up in the soft, avalanching sand proves to be exhausting, and perhaps not quite worth too many trips down. We adults rest at the top of the dune, and dig our hands and feet in like small children, while the real children fly over the sand, exploring, searching for tracks, disturbing the ripples, making drawings and piles, and seeing how deep they can dig into the coolness before their holes fill. When it is time to move on, we all run and leap over the edge of the final dune, multiple times. My son somersaults, until he realizes there is sand in his ears. We shake the sand out of our clothing, tired and parched, but reluctant to leave this unusual and fun place.
We are at White Sands National Monument, a 270 square mile desert composed of fine, bright white chrystaline gypsum sand dunes. There is only one other gypsum sand desert on our planet, and it is nowhere near the scale of White Sands. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact sequence of events and time periods that our guide described last night when we went on the sunset walking tour over the dunes, but the general explanation for the formation of the dunes goes something like this: millions of years ago there was a shallow sea over this area that evaporated mutliple times, leaving behind concentrated layers of gypsum, a type of calcium sulfite. The sea receded and later the region was uplifted- the mountain ranges were formed and the collapsed area in the center became what is now known as the Tularosa Basin. The gypsum layer was exposed by erosion, and rain and snowmelt carried dissolved gypsom down into the basin, which has no outlet. The water evaporated in the sun and wind, leaving behind concentrated gypsum in the form of selenite crystals. Prevailing winds towards the northeast break down the selenite crystals into finer and finer grains. The winds move the top 3 inches of the sand, piling it into dunes that eventually collapse and shift across the desert at an average of 39 feet per year.
Due to the unusual environmental conditions, not all of the animals that thrive in the Tularosa Basin call White Sands home. Rattlesnakes are rare in the dunes, because they have not adapted (or “evolved”), becoming whiter, as have some other creatures, and those that do come into the dunes would be more easily preyed upon by large birds. Crickets and Bleached Earless Lizards are two creatues that have genetically adapted to their white surroundings. Darker members became prey, and lighter ones lived to pass along their genetics, naturally breeding the pale-skinned camoflauging characteristic that enables the survival of the species. The Darkling Beetle, a type of stinkbug, is still quite black. (Do insects need to adapt to survive? It always seemed to me there is an overabundance that more than makes up for the vast numbers that do become prey.) I didn’t notice any pesky flies or mosquitos. There are also tarantulas and scorpions here at White Sands, but they, and most of the other creatures here are nocturnal, and we walk around with bare feet safely during the day and look for the tracks of those nighttime creatues. Coyotes, kit foxes, jackrabbits, bobcats, grasshopper mice (which stand up tall and give a fierce roar when they make a kill of a beetle or grasshopper!), the Bleached Earless Lizard, roadrunners, and owls make up the majority of the fauna here.
There are plants here, though, like the animals, not found in the same variety they are in the surrounding Chihuahan Desert of the basin. Cottonwood trees (I was so surprised to see a tree in the dunes!), Yuccas, Mormon Tea, Creosote, Rosemary Mint, a type of desert grass, and some other bushes whose names I don’t remember at the moment are some of the plants that grow here. Our guide described two types of plant growth: short and fast like the grasses that grow a couple feet tall on the interdunal flats, and quickly disperse their seeds before their stems are buried in the advancing dunes; and growing tall to live long: in particular the Soaproot Yucca and the Cottonwood trees. The Soaproot Yucca begins its life on the interdunal flats just as the grasses do; but as the sands begin to build around it, the Yucca is not buried, instead its root continues to grow up with the pile of sand beneath it. A Yucca at the top of the dune may be decades old, with a stem 30 feet tall reaching down to the water table beneath the dune, though it appear young and small.
The plants within this microclimate are essential to the survival of the animals here. The mice obtain all the moisture they need from the leaves and seeds of these plants, or the insects they eat. Foxes, rabbits, mice and tarantulas need burrows to escape the desert heat and cold, to rest and raise their young in. They cannot build burrows in the soft, ever-shifting sand. That is where the large plants come in. The roots of the Rosemary mint, Creosote, and other large bushy plants pull up the moisture from the water table, which cools and solidifies the gypsum sand around the plant’s root mass. The sand becomes quite firm and dense, which allows burrowing animals to dig their homes. The firm sand that forms around the plants creates what is called a pedestal. The pedestals can become quite large, and are almost comical in appearance- a tall column of rooty earth with a cap of stems and twigs and small leaves that reminded me of a well-used nappy wig. The burrows within theses pedestals provide a comfortable home for the small desert creatures, at 30 degrees cooler than the scorching sunny daytime temperatures and 30 degrees warmer than the frigid winter nights. As you walk the rippled dunes, making prints of your own, you will see tiny tracks of lizards, with the line left by the tale dragging between the feet; the tire tread looking track of the Darkling Beetle; the very round hopping prints of the mice; the diminutive dog-like prints of the kit fox, all circling out from and back again to the bushes and pedestals that provide homes and food. I looked long and hard, but did not identify tarantula tracks.
I am most amazed by the Soaproot Yucca, which we have seen at all but the highest elevations (8,000-9,000 feet) along our route from southern California through Arizona and New Mexico. The Yucca plants were very important to Native Americans. The young, tender shoots could be eaten like asparagus. As the name suggests, parts of the plant could be used to make soap. The fibers of the tough spear-like leaves were woven into nets that the natives used to trap rabbits. The root was also roasted and eaten. Mature, tall, densly compacted wooden stems were cut down and used as walking sticks. And finally the lovely cream colored flowers were tasty to eat. I do not know if the seeds or dried seed pods were utilized by natives, but I am still impressed if they were not. While I have learned facts about the Yucca at the different parks we have visited, our guide’s statement that the flowers were edible and delicious was new knowledge. I have truly enjoyed learning about the desert and the adaptations of the plants and animals, and survival methods of the native peoples. It is truly amazing.
The sunset last night proved to be lovely. While the visibility was not great in general, there was not too much haze in the western sky to obscure the setting sun or a tinge of pink along the mountainous horizon. While any visit to nature can be magical, just enjoying the beauty and novelty around, I find that my enjoyment is much increased by the presence of a knowledgable guide. The guided sunset stroll was humorous and enlightening, and our children found some playmates to race across the dunes with while Justin and I stood listening, watching, and capturing the sunset.
An evening and a morning didn’t seem like long enough to spend at White Sands National Monument. Their visitor’s center and gift shop are wonderful, and the introductory video in the visitor’s center is very well done. If you ever have reason to traverse southern New Mexico, you must stop and allow yourself to be enchanted by the crystalline white dunes, as we have been.
White Sands is also quite convenient to visit, as it is right off the main highway between Las Cruces and Alamogordo. While you are in the area, you can also check out the Space History Museum in Alamogordo.
We came to the Gila Wilderness in search of ancient cliff dwellings and were pleasantly surprised with so much more.
We camped at the beautiful Lake Roberts campground in our RV, it had electricity and water hookups. It had been a few weeks since we’d stayed at a campground and not just an RV park and we were all happy for the change. As nice as RV parks can be (or not :-o) with their heated pools, hot showers, and laundry facilities, they just don’t compare to a wilderness campground with fresh mountain air, lots of trees, and soft earthen ground.
We love exploring ancient cultures and learning how people used to live. The Gila Cliff Dwellings was a great place to do both. These naturally formed caves are not only positioned just perfectly to provide shelter and safety but are also located just above a year round natural creek. It’s very remote, but beautiful, and because of the temperature differences between the canyons and the cliff top it has varied and abundant wildlife and plant life.
The last people to occupy the cliff dwellings were the Mogollon from around 1280 – 1300 AD. They are the ones who built the visible walls and structures we see today. It’s estimated that about 40-60 people lived in this community. They ate berries, hunted game, farmed corn, and harvest wild plants like Yucca. No one really knows why they left the cliff dwellings after only 20-30 years, as they had no written language, but their legacy lives on 700 years later in the walls and artifacts they left behind.
One struggle we’ve run into is having too much to see and do. We may camp in a certain area so we’re close to the “main” attraction, but often the campground that we’re staying in is beautiful too and deserving of a day to explore. So we took a day to rest up a little and hike around Lake Roberts. It was an easy hike about 1.5 miles but full of adventures. Ransom got some fishing in (didn’t catch anything), and we saw lots of wildlife (Bald Eagle, Osprey, Bullfrog, Deer, and ton’s of little swallows). Our campsite also backed up to a nice open field which allowed the kids to run around and play games.
On our final day in the Gila Wilderness we decided to take a long two hour drive to The Catwalks. Just for the record two hours for a day trip is a little too long for us. But the Catwalks were pretty incredible. Originally created as just a water pipe running downstream to power the local mill, the CCC upgraded the narrow precarious wooden walkway to something more family friendly. Originally called the Catwalk because you had to have cat like skills to walk it. The engineering is pretty incredible and consists of almost a mile of catwalks anchored into the sheer granite cliff about thirty feet above the water. If you’re ever in the area, it’s a really fun and easy hike.
Our time in the Gila Wilderness was a great experience and nice introduction to New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.
We’re RV’ing in southern Arizona visiting Patagonia in search of hummingbirds at the Paton House and taking a day trip to Tombstone searching for epic gunfights and sarsaparilla!
Patagonia is known for having over 14 different variety of hummingbirds migrate through each year, and we love hummingbirds! So, I knew this had to be a stop along our South West travels. We explored the quaint town of Patagonia, and really enjoyed the different climate. After traveling through the desert for weeks we were really excited to see trees! Sadly, it wasn’t quite hummingbird season yet so we only saw a few hummingbirds, but the hike and other birds were enjoyable.
After Patagonia we took a day trip to the old west town of Tombstone to try to catch a gun fight. It’s a neat old town, and 100% tourist trap, so expect to pay for just about everything. They were supposed to have a special gunfight on the street, but sadly, we missed that by an hour and showed up for the fashion show instead! And to top things off all the ice cream shops close by 4pm. We did manage to get some sarsaparilla to enjoy though.
Our favorite RV friendly campground so far is in Mesa, Arizona! Plus we discover dinosaurs and the worlds largest pipe organ at a pizza shop!
We took a slight detour into Mesa to visit some friends, because friends are always worth a detour, and while there we went exploring.
First off, the Usery Mountain Recreation Area is our favorite campground so far. Lots of big sites to fit all size RV’s, lots of space between the sites, nature trails galore, and don’t get me going about the bathrooms and showers. Oh, those showers! Luxurious hot water!
We took an afternoon to explore the Arizona Natural History museum and weren’t disappointed. We expected it to be a lot smaller than it was, but it kept going and going. This is a great museum and we could have spend all day exploring and learning.
After the museum we were hungry and happened to co e across the Organ Stop Pizza restaurant. Oh my goodness! They have the worlds largest Wurlitzer pipe organ and they play show tunes throughout your meal. This was a really fun place to eat, it’s loud, it’s casual, and oh so entertaining. We had a blast!
The hikes at Organ Pipe Cactus Monument are not for the faint of heart. We parked our RV just outside the park at Coyote Howls RV Resort and drove in for a nice easy hike that ended up being a long scramble up some rough and rocky terrain on a hot day. But the views, oh the views are amazing! On the way out of the park there’s a quaint little town called Ajo that’s got some great prickly pear lemonade and sandwiches. It’s the perfect little town for a quick jaunt on your way out of the isolated Organ Pipe Monument.
We try out our first Harvest Host free RV camping spot and get stuck in the sand! Our stay at From The Farm in Yuma, AZ, was delicious, gorgeous, and hot. The cabbage leaf tacos, fresh from the field, we’re delicious and the ice cream cones were a refreshingly cool treat.
We camped just outside of one of the working fields in a dusty patch and ended up getting our tires stuck in the sand. After a quiet and beautiful evening we dug out of the sand and headed off deeper into the heart of Arizona.