A Winter Scene in Summer: White Sands National Park

Time was running out to visit White Sands National Monument. The New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo and nearby pistachio farms took up most of our day. In a few hours, it would soon be dark.

When my wife and I were there in 2011, White Sands was a national monument. Only in January of this year was it made a national park, a designation it’s been trying to get since 1898. In recognition of its new park status, it seems appropriate now to recall our experience there.

There was the remote possibility that we wouldn’t have been able to enter the park. Military tests conducted in the White Sands Missile Range, which completely surrounds White Sands, would have closed off the park.

Going through this part of the Tularosa Basin was a disorienting experience, like being surrounded by snow fields, except the landscape was covered in white dunes composed of fine grains of gypsum.

When we arrived, it was still and quiet, ironic because the area was host to the Trinity site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. Wave patterns on the dunes indicated that winds blew only recently (top image). I stuck my hand into the sand. It was strangely cool to the touch. There was no sighting of animal life except for a darkling beetle that seemed like a perfect target for predators. At the visitor’s center, we signed up for the last ranger-led tour of the day.

The area has the largest gypsum dune field in the world, the ranger pointed out. White Sands preserves more than half of it. The particles come from ancient Lake Lucero to the southwest, a huge drainage basin where considerable amounts of hydrated calcium sulfate (gypsum) were deposited millions of years ago. Winds since have continued to break it apart and grind it up into ever finer grains.

The landscape is harsh where few plants grow. The alkaline, almost barren soil miraculously hasn’t prevented some to adapt.

The soaptree yucca is one of the few plants that survive in White Sands

To survive, the ranger explained, plants sink their roots quickly and deeply into the soil in search of water. One of these is the skunkbush sumac that can bind gypsum to its root system. When the surrounding sand is blown away by winds, what are sometimes left behind are curious mounds called pedestals.

Skunkbush sumac

The ranger tour lasted until almost dusk. If nothing else, it was an opportunity for golden hour photography.

Lengthening shadows cast interesting shapes on the sand

Exploring White Sands after sunset is more beautiful still. Like snow, the gypsum fields lighten the landscape well into twilight, a winter scene in summer.

The landscape glowed even after sunset, the San Andres mountain range on the horizon.

The park closed an hour after sunset. We could easily have spent many hours here, if not a full day.

City of Rocks State Park (Faywood, NM)

Our final night of camping on this road trip was spent at City of Rocks State Park, north of Deming in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert, a unique, surreally beautiful area where every campsite is nestled among huge boulders.

City of Rocks features a wide field of boulders created 35 million years ago when a volcanic eruption from the Emory Caldera rained down tuff that hardened and was eroded by wind and water over millions of years. Some of these rocks are 40 feet high and are quite beautiful, ignimbrites of pinks, blue-grays, and browns, and strewn over 1,200 acres in the middle of the Mimbres valley, an odd sight in an otherwise flat and featureless terrain. Some of these upright megaliths reminded me of Stonehenge, but mostly they are randomly scattered, sometimes forming lanes between them that suggest urban pathways. The park also includes an astronomical observatory (one of two in the New Mexico state park system) that has a 14″ telescope. Keeping with the astronomical theme, the various sections of the park, arranged in loops, are named after constellations.

At night, without light pollution, dark-night-sky viewing is possible. On the night of our stay, the skies were clear; we might’ve seen the Milky Way as we did at Chaco Canyon if it weren’t for a bright full moon. We heard coyotes howling overnight and in the early morning.

Among the many desert plants here, the ocotillo stood out as the most unusual, tall and cactus-like with near vertical stems branching at ground-level and spiny appendages all along them. For most of the year, they can appear to be dead, but we were fortunate to have seen them fully leafed out and topped with crimson flowers, a direct result of prior rains.

Too bad we were in a rush to get to the Grand Canyon. This is a campground worthy of a longer stay.

City of Rocks State Park
Faywood, NM

Carlsbad Caverns National Park (NM)

Neither of us has ever been to Carlsbad Caverns. We set aside three whole days to explore it since its remoteness in the southeast corner of New Mexico makes it unlikely we’d ever have an opportunity to return. This remoteness is the reason that, although its wonders are many, far fewer visitors show up than at the more popular national parks. It is located in an almost featureless desert, indistinguishable from much of west Texas, but possessing oil deposits underground that supports much of the local economy. You’re more likely to hear a Texas drawl here than not.

The Big Room, Kings Palace, Queen’s Chamber, Papoose Room and others, “rooms” all named by the 16-year-old Jim White who purportedly first discovered the caves, are wondrous to behold. The word cavernous seems to describe The Big Room aptly, an immense chamber big enough to hold six football fields. An almost level, paved walkway allows everyone to enjoy The Big Room. For those so inclined, there are slightly to much-more-strenuous ranger-guided tours that vary from mild climbing, scrambling (sometimes on rocks that seemed coated with candle wax), rope climbing and going through claustrophobic tunnels barely large enough to squeeze through.

Millions of years ago, at a time when the area was more tropical than at present, an ancient reef was transfigured when hydrogen sulfide gas rose from the oil deposits below and mixed with the oxygen in the water from above. The resulting sulfuric acid carved out the caverns in limestone. The decorations we see today—stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, popcorn and the rest (collectively called speleotherms)—are the result of the “normal” process of deposition built up over time by calcium-rich droplets of water. Artfully designed by a Hollywood lighting director many years ago, the major rooms are beautifully illuminated by artificial lights, effects that Jim White never saw that he would likely denounce as removing the “mystery of the caves.” Our favorite tour was the Kings Palace which showcases rooms so elaborately embellished with cave decorations that the word opulence comes to mind.

These typify the speleotherms in Carlsbad

These typify the speleotherms in Carlsbad

The other attraction here are the Mexican free-tail bats that fly out from the so-called Natural Entrance about an hour before sunset. The Park Service has installed some high-tech equipment within the cave that can detect when the bats are ready to emerge; it translates the bats’ echolocation sounds to frequencies that humans can hear. At first, over the amphitheater’s PA system, there was a single click or pop; within seconds, there were so many clicks that it sounded like microwave popcorn. Shortly thereafter, the bats emerged in waves, rather than all at once. No photography (nor turning on of electronic equipment of any kind) was allowed during the bat flight. They disturb the bats as they fly out. The park ranger told us that the more impressive sight is the bats’ return an hour before sunrise, when they swoop back (literally dive bomb) into the cave at about 25 mph or more. On the morning of our departure, we rose early and got to the amphitheater when it was still dark. Try as we might, we couldn’t see the bats, even silhouetted against a lightening sky. But we did hear zipping sounds in the air around us, like bullets whizzing by, which we could only assume were the bats returning so fast that we couldn’t see them. A thickening fog also likely obscured our vision somewhat.

Bats fly in and out of the Natural Entrance

Bats fly in and out of the Natural Entrance

The video below from YouTube shows a much larger swarm emerging from the cave than we witnessed. Bat populations ebb and swell, depending on the season.

The closest town with full amenities is Carlsbad City, some 25 miles away from the park entrance. However, right at the intersection of the park road with Highway 62/180, there is a Rodeway Inn and a few services, including an RV park, gas station, convenience store and restaurant. It’s called White’s City, where we chose to stay, only about 6 miles from the visitors center. It’s much more convenient, but which seems to be on most travel sources’ lists of not-recommended places to stay. Our own experience here was not ideal, but not terrible either. Eating at the same restaurant for breakfast and dinner quickly got old.

New Mexican Pistachios

We were surprised to learn that New Mexico grows quite a lot of pistachios. One normally associates the nut with California.

The state has the largest pistachio growing area in the country, though not by volume. The San Joaquin Valley of California enjoys that distinction. Arizona also grows it. Hot and dry conditions are required for optimal growth. In Alamogordo, there are two farm outlets along the main highway where we sampled pistachio products and local wines. The staff at Eagle Ranch Farm was by far the friendlier and eager to explain pistachio farming, roasting and packaging. Male trees are needed to pollinate female trees and, unlike most other deciduous trees, depend on wind to spread pollen. Surprisingly, immature nuts on the female tree are pinkish and turn green when ready. The swelling nutmeats are responsible for splitting the shells rather than a roasting or mechanical process.

Pink when immature, pistachios turn green as they ripen

Pink when immature, pistachios turn green as they ripen

To add their distinctive mark, New Mexican producers market their pistachios with chile flavors, both green and red.

Hatch (NM), Chile Capital of the World

As we neared Las Cruces, the Mesilla valley came into view. Here is where the famous Hatch chiles are grown. No journey along I-25 in this area would be complete without a stopover at the “chile capital of the world.” The Hatch chiles are prized for their flavor and heat, a pronouncement that many New Mexicans will defend over what are known as Anaheim chiles elsewhere.

In my trip planning a few months ago, all indications were that the chile harvest would be done by the time we were in the area. So, we made no specific plan to stop here. But, we decided to at the last minute. We were so glad we did because some chile roasting was still in progress while many local stands were assembling colorful ristras.

Ristra assembly

Ristra assembly

When we arrived in Hatch, Gilly’s New Mexican Chile Company was the first stand we come upon outside of town. Chile fields lay just to the east. Roasters were still in operation and the divine smell of roasted chiles permeated the air here and in town. You can’t help but be drawn in by the charismatic Gilly, who will talk to you about chiles and the products he makes from them—ristras, dried and ground chiles, salsas, and red enchilada sauce—and will call you Rufus and Penelope, regardless of your actual names. His salsas pack lots of flavor and varying amounts of heat, depending on the cultivar.

Gilly's roadside operation

Gilly’s roadside operation

Almost all the red chiles in Hatch are dried in the sun on metal roofs. The process takes about three weeks, give or take, depending on rainfall. Other chiles are roasted over an open flame in rotating wire cages, releasing a distinctive chile aroma and particulates that permeate the air. Chile workers frequently get irritated lungs from breathing the fumes. There are several chile operations along I-185 and I-154.

Chile roaster

Chile roaster

Camping at Leasburg Dam State Park (Las Cruces, NM)

The wind and rain clouds were rolling in over Las Cruces as we arrived in the late afternoon. Though we’d already canceled camp sites on this trip because of weather, we decided to pitch camp anyway and hope for the best. After dinner, we headed straight to our next camping site at Leasburg Dam State Park, outside Las Cruces.

Each campsite has a concrete pad so we had no problem setting up. As we were going to be here for a single night, we attached the tent to the back of the Subaru, extending the living space and making it considerably easier to get to things if the weather got bad.

Our tent conveniently straps to the back of the car

Our tent conveniently straps to the back of the car

The attached tent extends the living space

The attached tent extends the living space

That night, a hellacious storm dumped rain with heavy wind. It was so gusty that the tent made flapping noises all night. Furthermore, thunder boomed overhead and lightning crackled and lit up the tent. But the topper was the train that was some distance away but sounded as if the tracks were right next to our tent, an illusion of the night air. The conductor also saw fit to toot the whistle every time the train roared by. It was by far the most restless sleep we ever had camping.

The following morning, all was quiet though ominous storm clouds still hovered overhead. It was nonetheless a spectacular canopy just as the sun was rising.

Cloud cover the morning after a thunderstorm

Cloud cover the morning after a thunderstorm

In the morning, we packed up our wet tent and, based on a weather prediction of more rain, decided to cancel the reservation we had for the next two nights at a campsite in Alamogordo.

Dinner at Mary and Tito’s (Albuquerque, NM)

After a day at the balloon fiesta, we were ready for dinner. Close to our hotel was the legendary Mary and Tito’s, purveyor of what many foodies regard as one of the best places to have New Mexican food and a 2010 winner of the James Beard “America’s Classic” award. The accolades don’t stop there as food critics throughout New Mexico have showered heaps of praise.

I ordered the carne adovada, one of M & T’s signature dishes. It was extremely good (☆☆☆½), tender and flavorful chunks of pork, served Christmas-style. Both red and green chile sauces were excellent. There is something unique about the red sauce, spicy and full of chile flavor and glowing an almost unnatural red.

Carne adovada plate

Carne adovada plate

My wife’s chicken flautas were also real good (☆☆☆). Both were served with rice and refried beans. The beans were lardy, the only way to make them.

Chicken flautas plate

Chicken flautas plate

The corn tortillas we’ve had in the SW are slightly thinner than what we get in the NW, which also makes everyone’s tortilla chips lighter. Throughout our trip, we’ve noticed that rice seems to be an afterthought. Some of them have been mushy, M & T’s a little undercooked.

Mary & Tito’s Cafe
2711 4th Street, NW
Albuquerque, NM 87107

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

It was fortuitous that the grandest balloon festival in the world would be staged while we were touring the Southwest, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. I made sure that we would be in Albuquerque when it happened, which required my juggling our itinerary somewhat to accommodate the event. We always wanted to experience it, so it was without question going to be a destination.

Though the weak economy reduced the number of entries by about 300, so we were told, the festival still showcased hundreds of balloons from all over the world. It’s appropriate I suppose that, in this land with its long history of Catholicism, the morning event is named Mass Ascension. In the evening, during the night glow event, balloons are tethered but still enthrall when the burners are ignited to light up the interiors of the balloons.

As with any event of this size and popularity, the Balloon Fiesta has become ever more commercialized. Event merchandise and food booths lined one side of the field in what seemed like an infinite stretch. Rather than charging admission for an entire day, there are two separate admissions—one for the morning and one for the afternoon/evening. There is a lot of encouragement to take shuttles ($20/person per event) to and from various park-and-rides throughout the city to ease traffic congestion at the site itself. This, it undoubtedly did because there were thousands of event-goers. There were scores of buses shuttling event-goers back and forth throughout the day and evening. With the crowds, getting to and from the buses was a major hassle, which along with the cost, led to our decision only to attend the morning event.

For sheer spectacle and whimsy, everyone should attend this event at least once. There are balloon festivals throughout the country (and the world), but the Albuquerque event is in a class by itself.

Bún at Saigon Restaurant (Albuquerque, NM)

Pork and shrimp bun

Pork and shrimp bún

For dinner, we headed over to Saigon Restaurant and ordered bún (☆☆½). It would have been a very good version if the noodles had been drained adequately after being removed from hot water. The result was a pool of water at the bottom of the bowl that diluted the nuoc cham that we like to pour over the noodles. This was a grievous oversight in our opinion that disproves the idea that it’s impossible to screw up a bún. Too bad because the pork slices were lean, flavorful and tender and the shrimp was good, too. The devil is in the details.

Saigon Restaurant
6001 San Mateo Boulevard Northeast D4
Albuquerque, NM 87109

Lunch at Bobcat Bite (Santa Fe, NM)

I was on a quest for the great green chile cheeseburger in New Mexico. Blake’s Lotaburger is pretty good, even if it is a fast-food chain, but the patty was thin. 5 Star Burgers fell short, primarily because the beef was too lean and therefore pebbly in texture.  A great burger starts with ground beef that is around 85-percent lean so that the fat bastes the meat as it cooks. It also has to be seasoned well or the beef will lack dimension, and reasonably charred, not burned to the point of being bitter. New Mexicans add their unique twist by offering chopped green chiles (preferably Hatch). Bobcat Bite serves a fantastic cheeseburger (☆☆☆☆), using choice ground chuck and sirloin. It is all that a great burger should be. We wound up splitting an order because the sandwich is generously portioned.

The name derives from a time when the diner used to feed bobcats that came down from the hills. Bobcat Bite will be a destination diner anytime we’re in Santa Fe.

Bobcat Bite
418 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, NM 87505