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.

Ocotillo Tangle


The American Southwest has its share of hardy plants that evolved to survive punishingly dry and hot conditions. The ocotillo is as spiny as any cactus, although it isn’t one itself. They sort of look like tall dead sticks splaying out from the ground, but they produce beautiful red blossoms after a rain. Look closely at the base and you’ll see a tangle of spiky stems that dare you to stick your hand inside. The photo above was taken at Joshua Tree National Park.

After a rain, red flowers blossom from ocotillo plants. This specimen was photographed at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California.

Treasures of Dinosaur National Monument


People are fascinated with dinosaurs. I’m one of them. Like for most people, it all started out when I was a kid. I learned all I could about T-Rex, triceratops, stegosaurus, brontosaurus, diplodocus. When Life magazine published its groundbreaking illustrations that appeared in an early 1950s issue, they grabbed my attention from the start. With time, my interest waned, but never went extinct.

For the longest time, I wanted to go to Dinosaur National Monument, but because of its location in Utah’s remote northeast corner, I could never fit in a visit as part of a logical Southwest itinerary, in 2008 or 2011. Neither was the monument a part of the plans my wife and I made to visit Glacier (in Montana) and Grand Teton (in Wyoming) national parks last month. But, as we were about to leave Jackson, Wyoming, a week remaining to get back home to the Seattle area, I studied a map and realized we could drop in on DNM with time to spare.

The monument features a treasure trove of in situ fossilized dinosaur bones, approximately 1,500 of them, in the Dinosaur Quarry. Never completely excavated, the fossils were left in place partially exposed along a hillside, called the Wall of Bones, that is now completely enclosed in a modern, air-conditioned building where visitors can admire specimens up close.

Dinosaur Quarry (aka Carnegie Quarry)

Without trained eyes, it’s impossible to tell what you’re looking at. The exhibit is a jumble of bones embedded in an 80-foot wall of bedrock. Interpretive panels and publications help. The disorder immediately suggests some sort of catastrophe entombed the animals, maybe suddenly. The current theory is that raging waters swept many down to a river bed where they got covered by sand and mud, which later lithified. Considering the size of the park, 200,000 acres spread over two states (Utah and Colorado), I got the feeling that many more of these fossil mother lodes have yet to be discovered. Amazingly, the monument already has some 800 paleontological sites.

The specimens here are Mesozoic era, lodged in a depositional layer known as the Morrison Formation, about 150 million years old and characterized by very colorful rock strata. The nastiest dinosaur unearthed was allosaurus; the biggest were sauropods, like diplodocus and recently discovered abydosaurus. Studies have shown that they and other creatures lived in a moderate savanna environment with several rivers, but this is hardly the case now. If they were to awaken this minute, the animals would not recognize where nature (geological forces) has put them today, thousands of feet higher in conditions they would find inhospitable.

Reassembled Allosaurus in front of an artist’s concept

Embedded dinosaur skull

The fossils are what attract visitors but Dinosaur National Monument is important in another respect. It has a significant number of Fremont culture petroglyphs, which I hadn’t realized until I got here. After visiting the quarry, we hopped in the car to go see them.

Rock carvings for public viewing are found in five areas of the park. Many more sites are not publicized to protect them from vandalism. It’s a sad state of affairs that this is necessary. The pre-Columbian Fremont peoples, who for a thousand years inhabited parts of what are now Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Colorado, used vertical rock faces, particularly those stained by desert varnish, as their palette on which they chiseled representational figures of humans and animals, and abstract designs. Their culture disappeared around 1200 CE suddenly and mysteriously.

Petroglyphs, Dinosaur Quarry

Petroglyphs, Cub Creek site

Petroglyphs of lizards

As if dinosaurs and rock carvings weren’t enough, DNM also has another noteworthy distinction. Of all lands under National Park Service jurisdiction, it contains the most complete geologic record, spanning 1.2 billion years. All the rock layers known to science except three are represented here. I was amazed at the stratigraphic variety even in the small section of the park we visited. More dramatic than that, many layers were contorted, folded, broken or tilted. Continental drift and the upheaval that caused the creation of the Rockies, known as the Laramide orogeny, did a number on the landscape.

Tilted rock layers laid bare through erosion

I don’t know if I’ll ever come back here. It’s not for the lack of significance, spectacle or things to do, but for the same reason that I hadn’t come before. I was glad— overwhelmed actually when it comes right down to it—that I finally did visit. It’s worth a stop at least once even if you think paleontology, anthropology or geology holds no particular interest for you.

The Great Idleberry Pie in Brigham City


The idleberry pie ranks as one of America’s great pies. It’s served deliciously warm at Idle Isle Cafe in Brigham City, Utah, a dessert for which I’d deliberately hold back on the main course to make room for it. A la mode, with scoops of their excellent vanilla ice cream, it serves henceforth as a reason to make a detour here every time I drive through the Salt Lake City area.

And what is idleberry exactly? Originally created as a combination of blueberry, blackberry and boysenberry, our waitress a few days ago said it’s a mixture of blueberries and marionberries. If the recipe did change, it hasn’t missed a beat since I had it last six years ago.

The cafe is not a one pony show either. It has been dishing up comfort foods to locals daily ever since the Idle Cafe, originally opened in 1921 to sell ice cream and candy, became a full-service restaurant.

But, it’s their side orders that deserve special mention. Their homemade rolls, fresh out of the oven, are a yeasty masterpiece, especially slathered with butter and the cafe’s incomparable apricot jam. No one makes better rolls, period.

Idle Isle Cafe’s rolls

And think twice before skipping the french fries, which you might inadvisedly do for health-related reasons. They’re so perfectly made and addictive that it took all my will power not to polish them off to make room for THAT PIE. 

French fries

Idle Isle Cafe
24 S Main St
Brigham City, UT 84302
435.734.2468

Antica Forma: Neapolitan Magic in Vernal (Utah)


What do dinosaurs, pizza and Israel have it common?

Trick question. The city of Vernal is close to Dinosaur National Monument, located in the little visited corner of northeastern Utah, the state with the most bang for the National Park Service buck. The monument has 1,500 dinosaur bone fossils on display in situ, making it a destination for paleontologists and tourists. Vernal also attracted the talents of chef Israel Hernandez, who learned the art of Neapolitan pizza-making in New York City under the tutelage of masters Don Antonio Starita, a third-generation pizzaiolo from Naples, and Roberto Caporuscio (Keste Pizza & Vino). In 2015, Hernandez even won third place in the USA Caputo Cup, the pizza world’s annual cook-off. Somehow, he was lured out of NYC to open Antica Forma (with a business partner Jody), a Neapolitan pizzeria in Vernal (population 10,000).

To have such a place in town, let alone a few blocks from the motel, was totally unexpected for me and my wife. A quick look at TripAdvisor and Yelp made me aware of it.

We started off with an arugula salad mixed with house-grown grape tomatoes, micro-planed Parmesan and a balsamic vinaigrette glaze. Excellent.

Fresca salad

The pistacchio pizza impressed us with its masterful crust, thin, chewy, crispy on the outside, nicely blistered in spots. This is a hallmark of an excellent dough, likely “00” flour, and mastery over a blisteringly hot pizza oven. The pistachio pesto was a sleight of hand; it was hard to tell the ground nuts from the finely ground Italian sausage. A cream sauce with house-made mozzarella cheese, basil and EVOO completed the delicious surprise (top image).

We were ready to pay the bill when the waitress mentioned that one of the dessert specials was peach pie. Fond memories of Marie Callendar danced in our heads. What arrived was a fresh peach pie with the lightest, barely sweet glaze, topped with whipped cream. And, oh, that crust—so incredibly light. The desserts, it turns out, is made by Jody, the business partner. He also makes gelati. The waitress encouraged us to try the banana cream pie the next time we come back. Come back? Now, that’s a thought.

Fresh peach pie

Our return. How could we not enjoy one last meal here? For the second night in a row, we ate at Antica Forma.

Salad: the Primavera—baby mixed greens, candied pecans, sliced Granny Smith apples, shredded Havarti, roasted tomato vinaigrette. Very good.

Primavera salad

Pizza: the Funghi—tomato sauce, house-made mozzarella, minced mushrooms, basil, EVOO. The same superb crust, a fresh tomato sauce. Excellent.

Funghi pizza

Our waitress last night informed us that Antica Forma will be opening a branch in Moab (in February 2018). Edward Abbey fans, rejoice.

Antica Forma Pizzeria
251 E Main St
Vernal, UT 84078
435.374.4138

South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon (AZ)


It’s been over 30 years since we’d been to the Grand Canyon, much too long to stay away from perhaps Earth’s greatest geologic wonder. We made a last-minute decision to come here, only three days before, after we altered our itinerary to go back home in order to avoid dust storms in central Arizona. Granted, spending only a day and a half doesn’t nearly do the canyon justice, but based on the short stay, we vowed to come back and stay longer. For our sakes, it will have to be before another 30 years go by.

The crowds are as big as ever. Though the worst time of year for congestion are the peak summer months, even now in October there are hordes of people. It is a destination site for people from all over the world.

Ooh Ah Point, South Kaibab Trail

Ooh Ah Point, South Kaibab Trail

All we had time for was one good hike. We took a half-day hike down the South Kaibab Trail as far as Cedar Ridge, about 1.7 miles from the rim. Although the temperature was only 70 degrees, at high altitude it felt more intense, especially on the climb back up to the trailhead. We could only imagine how much more of a gasser it would be in the summer when temperatures soar to around 90-100 degrees. It turns out that the South Kaibab Trail is the shortest distance to Phantom Ranch down by the Colorado River. For some reason, most people take the Bright Angel Trail, so we suspect that track may be more gradual.

Cedar Ridge overlook

Cedar Ridge overlook

The canyon is such a wonderful laboratory for studying the earth’s geologic history. All the sandstone layers that are laid bare reach as far back as 2 billion years.

Ancient juniper

Ancient juniper

It still is a cause for wonder how the Grand Canyon came to be. The Colorado River is the current candidate for sculpting the immense canyons. And yet, when you marvel at the gaping chasm before you, estimated to have been carved out over “only” 6 million years, you still have to wonder if there was something else, some shattering event that gave it a push-start, as yet undiscovered by scientists. There are rogue geologists who believe the canyon is much older, a result of two ancient rivers that predated the current Colorado.

The climb back to the rim

The climb back to the rim

Meteor Crater (AZ)


Fifty thousand years ago, a meteor slammed into what is now Arizona. The size of the meteor is estimated to have been 50m across and released energy equal to a 10-megaton bomb. Today, the crater is about 550 feet deep and 2.5 miles in circumference.

We visited the impact site, called Meteor Crater, scientifically known as Barringer Crater and located southwest of Winslow. It is considered to be the finest preserved impact site in the world, most others having been eroded by time and weather. The crater is on privately-owned land. There are observation points along the northern end where there is also an interesting museum. Holsinger Meteorite, the largest discovered fragment of the meteor and weighing half a ton, is on display.

Holsinger meteorite

Though not the largest crater on Earth by far, it was humbling to survey the result of the impact. What animal life existed at the time, dominated by large mammals, was obviously obliterated. It is thought that no humans lived in the area concurrently.

The Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon trained here. There is a scaled model of an astronaut holding the flag in the center of the crater.

Stahmann Farms (La Mesa, NM) – CLOSED


Pecan tree-lined road between Stahmann Farms

Along Highway 28 south of Las Cruces stretch miles and miles of pecan trees. The groves alongside the road seem to provide a beautiful arched gateway to the Stahmann Farms store. The farm, nestled among cotton fields, now numbers 4,000 acres and 96,000 trees. There are no guided tours here but the country store shows a video of the operation on request. Many gift boxes of nuts in various preparations can be purchased, including red chile-dusted pecans, a delicious treat. It was odd to find Bubbies’ mochi ice creams for sale, but what better ice cream to buy here than their signature pecan caramel.

Pecan caramel ice cream

Stahmann Farms (**closed as of May 2012**)
22500 S Hwy 28
LA Mesa, NM
575.526.2453

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
575.536.2800
 

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.