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


Bandelier National Monument (NM)

The Las Conchas Fire of 2011 was the largest in New Mexico history. It eventually burned 150,000 acres and threatened Los Alamos, home of the Los Alamos National Lab. We in the West have become accustomed, almost inured to hearing about forest fires like this. Every year, their ranges, frequencies and intensities seem to grow, a possible consequence of global warming.

Little did we know that the Las Conchas Fire caused the closure until a few days ago of Bandelier National Monument, where we were headed. The fire began in June and burned much of the monument as well as acreage around it, though the ancient ruins and visitors center were thankfully spared. Heroic effort was expended by park staff and the Los Alamos fire department to save artifacts and protect the ruins and the park offices. Fortunately, the fire was contained and did no further damage. Most of the watersheds had been destroyed. One of the rangers told us that a recent storm caused a 15-foot wall of water to roar down the canyon, leaving mud and debris in its wake.

As we approached Bandelier, there were signs along the road that no vehicles would be allowed entry in the park. Only shuttles from White Rock would take visitors back and forth. We parked our car in town and took the free transportation. Along the way, we got to view the spectacular Frijoles Canyon. On arrival at the visitors center, we were surprised to learn that the park had only been open for three days. We considered ourselves lucky that we hadn’t come all this way, only to be turned back.

Much of the park is still closed (and will remain so indefinitely until vegetation grows back), but the main loop through the ancient ruins had been re-opened. The large-scale, traditionally circular ruins of Tyuonyi are impressive enough, but the network of altered caves (cavates), carved into the soft volcanic tuff cliffs that tower over the canyon, is unique among ancient Puebloan dwellings. The natural gas pockets left behind when the tuff rained down and hardened were enlarged by ancient humans, many of them interconnected by passageways, and possibly used for habitation or storage. They reminded me of the underground network of rooms, also carved out of tuff (tufa), in Orvieto, Italy. Ladders are provided for park visitors to climb into a few of them, some of which were tall enough for the ancient Puebloans to stand up in. Hiking paths beyond the main loop were closed because of the fire.

Our next stop was Los Alamos.

Tuff cliffs

Tuff cliffs

Tuff spires with Tyuonyi ruins in the background

Tuff spires with Tyuonyi ruins in the background

Ladder to room

Ladder to room

Entering a room

Entering a room

Tyuonyi ruins

Tyuonyi ruins

Lava Central: El Malpais National Monument (NM)

Lava, lava, everywhere. New Mexico might as well be called the Volcano State for all the young, exposed and hardened lava flows that are virtually everywhere. I had always thought that Oregon and Washington laid claim to the largest lava flows ever to have happened on the continent, but New Mexico is not lacking in that regard. One of the best ways to get a close look is the Acoma-Zuni Trail, part of El Malpais National Monument.

Hiking on the lava flows of Acoma-Zuni Trail is a formidable challenge. First of all, it’s a treacherous and strenuous walk over jagged lava rock. More importantly, over its 7.5-mile distance, you could easily get lost if not for the many cairns that have been erected over the landscape. It’s a wonder how ancient Puebloans navigated between Zuni and Acoma for over a thousand years. Aside from memorizing the landscape or using cairns, how did they do it without modern-day footwear? Our ambition today was to do a little exploring of the landscape, venturing only about a half mile in before returning to the parking spot. The trail is part of a vast volcanic field in New Mexico, formed over a period of 100,000 years. The trailheads are located along Highways 53 and 117 at either end. The latest eruption occurred only 3,000 years ago during what is called the McCartys lava flow, the youngest in the state. Much of the national monument and the conservation area around it showcase the volcanic field, including El Calderon, the monument’s most prominent cinder cone; rugged lava flows and tubes; and many other spatter and cinder cones, all surrounded by massive sandstone pillars and mesas.

From the eastern trailhead (Highway 117), the first half mile was quite easy—a sandy footpath past piñon pines. Eventually, we reached the rugged lava field, relatively young geologically speaking at 3,000 years old. Without our durable hiking boots, any other kind of footwear would have gotten shredded in no time. The terrain is very uneven, requiring much climbing up and down. Following park brochure advice, once we reached one cairn, we looked for the next before continuing on. The lava flows were very impressive, especially the pahoehoe kind with its ripply patterns.

Pahoehoe lava flow

After a certain point, we decided to go back and “retrace” our steps. This was harder than it sounds because nothing looked familiar. We just pointed ourselves in the opposite direction and eventually found the original dirt trail that led back to the car.

Not far from the Zuni-Acoma Trail stands the largest natural arch in New Mexico, La Ventana. A short trail leads up to this natural feature, but you can only look at it from a distance at trail’s end. In contrast to the young lava flows, the towering sandstone cliffs, of which La Ventana is a part, are 200 millions years old.


El Morro National Monument (NM): Graffiti Memorialized?

As we drove east along Hwy 53 past Gallup toward El Malpais, the terrain was pretty unremarkable with little to pique our interest until a massive mesa came into view. Travelers in previous centuries surely would have been drawn to it. The area has been made into El Morro National Monument for reasons explained below.

It’s easy to assume that graffiti in modern urban settings is a contemporary form of expression or blight, depending on your point-of-view. But archaeologists have been quick to point out that defacing has been going on for a very long time, as early as ancient Egypt. “I wuz here” is expressed in many tongues—scribbled, gouged, etched or spray-painted on any flat surface. What is unusual is for a national monument to be created to preserve it. This is not entirely true, of course, because the real importance of El Morro rock to history is the deep pool of water at its base that weary travelers have used as a reliable source for drinking water through the centuries.

After a drink of water, apparently bewitched by a potion befitting a writer’s muse, the temptation must have been too great to memorialize oneself on the sheer, vertical sandstone wall in the middle of nowhere in Cibola County, New Mexico, with inscriptions scratched out by the hands of ancient Indians, Spanish conquistadores and American cavalry and settlers who passed through. There are a staggering 2,000 engravings, which is the reason the bluff is called Inscription Rock. Ah yes, INSCRIPTION, a euphemism for graffiti, if there ever was one. It’s ironic that no contemporary contributor is allowed to deface said wall (as of 1903 when the park was established), lest they raise the hackles of rangers for scrawling GRAFFITI on the Zuni sandstone monument. The Park Service nowadays does all it can to preserve these inscriptions for posterity, which would actually be quite funny if at least one of them had something untoward to say, like “your mother wears combat boots.” I’m being sarcastic, of course, blathering from an era that would write something like that in the first place.

The historical significance of these inscriptions is quite remarkable really. It’s as if all the souls who have passed through signed your yearbook so that you can at some point in the future look back and wonder who they were. The oldest ones are ancient Puebloan petroglyphs, notably one of a herd of bighorn sheep. Such artwork is found throughout the southwest.


The Spaniards who came afterward, in the 17th-19th centuries, they who conquered and subjugated the native peoples, simply recorded their names, dates of passage and occasionally, the purpose of their missions. The oldest was chiseled in 1605. Another, written by General de Vargas, simply states: “Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692.”

The American inscriptions are those of the cavalry and settlers in the nineteenth century, who simply left behind their names and passage dates, including some that were carved out in exquisite script. All these are to be found in a half-mile loop that begins at the visitor center.


No visitor, it seems, is particularly interested in the waterhole anymore.

El Morro waterhole

El Morro waterhole

Since we arrived in the late afternoon after having visited the Zuni pueblo, we only had time for the inscription trail before the park would close for the day. For that reason, we weren’t able to take the trail to the top of the mesa where Ancestral Puebloan ruins are to be found.

Sunset Crater Volcanic National Monument (AZ)

If a volcano were erupting in my backyard, spewing lava and ash, I might be tempted to move away. This is precisely what the ancient Puebloan peoples did when Sunset Volcano erupted in the 11th century. It has done so several times since then in a span of 50 years. The monument is a grim reminder that an eruption is likely again.

Sunset is no longer active. What remains is an almost perfect cinder cone, a thousand feet high, surrounded by enormous lava fields, which comprise the national monument. Sunset is only one of many volcanoes in proximity north of Flagstaff that is known as the San Francisco volcanic field. There is no longer a trail to the volcano rim, but one does wind through the lava field (called the Lava Flow Trail). Vegetation struggles to grow back, including stands of Ponderosa pines, a few of which have grotesquely twisted trunks from severe lack of water and high winds. Walking through any lava field is like a stroll through an alien landscape. Fortunately, the trail is developed and well-maintained.

Lava Flow Trail is an easy loop

Contorted Ponderosa pine

Apache Plume

Wupatki National Monument (AZ)

An hour north of Flagstaff lies Wupatki National Monument. From Page, it was a leisurely hour and a half drive to the entrance. There are some 800 ruins within the monument, a staggering number even if you expected a large settlement. Only a few are open to the public. The largest and most impressive, Wupatki Pueblo, is close to the visitors’ center and easily accessible by a short paved path. There are over 100 rooms in the structure, constructed of flat Moenkopi sandstone rocks that have a characteristic reddish color.

There is even a large “ball court” that anthropologists feel suggest an influence from ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.

Ball court

There are curious “blowholes” throughout Wupatki whose ancient uses remain a mystery. Scientists explain that they are openings (or “cracks”) in the surface to underground sandstone chambers, possibly caused by earthquakes or shifting, that suck air in or blow it out, depending on outside temperatures. You could say that the earth is breathing.

Wupatki is linked to Sunset Crater by a loop road off Highway 89. It is generally thought that the ancients were driven from the Sunset Crater area, some 2,000 feet higher in elevation and therefore more verdant, when the crater exploded in the 11th century, and forced to settle in the more inhospitable Wupatki area to the north.

Rainbow Bridge National Monument (Utah)

The last time we were in Page back in 2008, we decided against visiting Rainbow Bridge because it seemed pricey just to look at a natural bridge, even if a spectacular one. Ever since, I wondered if we’d missed an opportunity, not knowing if we’d ever return to Page. As luck would have it, we did come back, and this time we were going to go, as much to see this natural wonder as take the cruise on beautiful Lake Powell.

It is easily accessible by boat tours on Lake Powell. Although the monument itself is located in Utah, the tour’s starting point is Page in Arizona. Tours also originate from Bullfrog Marina in the northeastern part of the lake in Utah. We took the half-day cruise from Page.

It took two hours to reach Rainbow Bridge. Once we got near, the boat slowed down and maneuvered into a small canyon, one of countless others along the lakeshore. It’s an entirely different sensation to move through these canyons on boat instead of on foot. The burnt orange walls glide past.

Side canyon

Because the water level of Lake Powell has been receding, what used to be just a short walk to the monument’s base from the boat landing now is about a mile away. In one sense, it’s more dramatic when the entire span of Rainbow Bridge suddenly appears as you round the final bend in the hiking trail.

Rainbow Bridge
At the monument site itself, there was a very entertaining park ranger who had no end of fascinating stories and facts to tell. We could’ve listened to him for hours. Imagine a natural rock bridge almost as high as the Empire State Building. Imagine too that it is the largest natural bridge in the world, standing at 290 feet tall and 275 feet across. This is Rainbow Bridge.

Rainbow Bridge

The story of its creation is the part of the story of the entire Colorado Plateau. Here, a stream undercut a fin of Navajo sandstone and started the process of bridge-building through water erosion. Eventually, like all such bridges, Rainbow will collapse as other bridges are being created.

The weather had been overcast almost the entire day, with forecasts of heavy rains. As we were returning to the boat from the monument, an epic rainstorm opened up. All around us were deafening claps of thunder and bright flashes of lightning. The rain was so heavy that we got to experience something rarely seen on tours, ephemeral waterfalls by the dozens, cascading down the sandstone mesa tops, some so voluminous that they were spewing out like hydrants and some so choked with red earth that they were rusty in color.

While we were away from the campsite, that same rainstorm practically blew our tent away. Luckily for us, a neighbor was good enough to re-stake everything and gather our camp chairs that had blown away. We learned from another couple at dinner that their 4WD slot canyon tour was visited by a tremendous hailstorm that covered the ground in several inches of white.

The tour lasted about 5 hours in total. A long day, to be sure, but worth the experience of the monument and the thrilling storm afterward.