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.

White Sands National Monument (NM)


We ended the day by visiting White Sands National Monument. Here is an eerie landscape of enormous white sand dunes that seems more appropriate in a beach setting. Surrounding the monument is the White Sands Missile Range, the largest U.S. military installation, which had a significant history during World War II and the space program. It was here at the Trinity site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. The monument is actually a part of the missile range and is subject to closure when military tests are being conducted.

We took a ranger-led informational tour that ended in a brilliant sunset against dramatic clouds. The sand dunes here are spectacular and improbable.

The whiteness of the sand almost looks like snow

The whiteness of the sand almost looks like snow


The sand is composed of finely ground hydrated calcium sulfate, more commonly known as gypsum, that was blown in from ancient Lake Lucero, a vast drainage basin where dissolved minerals from sedimentary layers in the nearby San Andres and Sacramento Mountains collected, with no natural outlet. Water evaporated rapidly, leaving behind soft, large gypsum crystals (selenite) that wind eventually broke apart and tumbled into ever smaller grains that formed the dunes. This process continues to this day. Unlike sand, gypsum doesn’t absorb heat so it stays cool even in summer.

Some plants can get a foothold despite the shifting sands

Some plants can get a foothold despite the shifting sands


As the sun set behind the San Andres Mountains, the white sands kept the landscape visible even as it got dark (top photo). We could easily have spent another whole day here.
White Sands after sunset

White Sands after sunset

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.