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Southwest Adventure

Exploring the Tularosa Basin & Guadalupe Mountains

Story by Ben Schneider April 28th, 2014

the lonely road

Many a tumbleweed bounce along the desolate expanses that we drove on this trip between each of our destinations. Shells of towns such as Oro Grande, NM are the norm here; now nearly empty except for a half-stocked convenience store with a couple gas pumps. This area is not very hospitable to the hearty plants and animals that have managed to adapt, much less humans. But everyone we encountered was welcoming and friendly, perhaps just happy to see another smiling face out in the middle of the desert.

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White sands national monument

You can easily see White Sands from the air flying into El Paso. It’s vast. 275 square miles-vast. The largest gypsum dunefield in the world. The process by which this anomaly occurred is fascinating. Just the right combination of elements must exist for something of this nature to happen. What I gathered from the film at the visitor’s center and Ranger Greg, who led our sunset hike, is this: gypsum from the neighboring mountains flows down into the basin with water when it rains. The water evaporates and forms selenite crystals which eventually break up. Then enters the other major player; the wind. Once the wind reaches a certain speed, it starts pushing the crystals. They continue to break up into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually going from the size of corn flakes to tiny grains of sand.
And that’s how this enormous dunefield was formed.

The sand is white and incredibly soft; much different from the darker, more coarse sand that I grew up with in the Midwest. Being out on the dune absolutely requires sunglasses. It is as blinding, if not more so, as snow. The wind was at work the day we were there, continuing to move and shape the dunes as we romped, hiked and played.

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white sands:take two

We were informed that White Sands was a different place later in the day, so after dinner and a rest back at the motel, we set out again for a ranger-led sunset hike. The wind had calmed significantly and the late day sun cast a slightly rosy glow over the sand as the shadows grew longer and more blue. Ranger Greg spoke extensively about the history and formation of the dunes and also about the unique ecosystem created in this otherworldly realm.

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As our hike ended, we found ourselves perched atop one of the higher dunes, with Ranger Greg bidding us farewell and subtly reminding everyone that the park closed at 8pm. We were left to gaze at a beautiful sunset…and, to our surprise, a spectacular moonrise; the same moon that would later eclipse early the following morning.

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New Mexico Museum of space history

A great deal of Alamogordo’s background lies in its rich history of aerospace and military development. This museum has it all if you’re a space exploration buff. There’s a hall of fame (from Galileo to Chuck Yeager) displayed throughout the museum and a number of rare pieces from NASA missions, as well as many other aeronautic curiosities which the staff will be more than happy to explain to you in great detail.
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Three rivers petroglyphs

The Jornada Mogollon people carved into the rocks here over 600 years ago. While some of the drawings are clearly of the plant and animal life they may have seen in the landscape around them, some of the petroglyphs are a little harder to decipher. There are apparently over 20,000 petroglyphs to find at this site. We saw just a handful of those, but the air of mystery and peacefulness made this a special visit.


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valley of fires

North of Alamogordo and Three Rivers is yet another unique geological site, the Carrizozo Malpais, also known as the Valley of Fires. There has not been an active lava flow here in about 1,500 years, but what was left behind is truly amazing. Miles upon miles of black rock;, rippled and cracked, and piled upon itself. It is host to its own unique ecosystem, starkly different from its white sand neighbor to the south.

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The drive from Carrizozo to Roswell was the longest of our trip, but probably the most picturesque, rolling through the mountainous region of the Lincoln National Forest, through quaint little towns (such as Lincoln, once home to Billy the Kid), and then back into the great empty expanse with just the occasional cattle ranch or oil rig. We eventually pulled into Carlsbad at dusk and settled in for a nice dinner and a night of well-deserved rest.

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living desert zoo & park

This park was perfect for an easy stroll on what we might refer to as our “rest” day. It offered a chance to get up close to some desert plants and catch a glimpse of the area’s somewhat elusive critters, the roadrunner and javelina. Mountain lion, elk, as well as various birds and reptiles reside here, all rescued. Perched atop a large hillside near Carlsbad, Living Desert is a sleepy park, with more than a few empty exhibits, but definitely worth a stop. Probably the hottest day of our trip, we finished out the afternoon with a picnic on the Pecos River.

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carlsbad caverns national park

I’ll admit, I was prepared to be unimpressed by this park. I knew it was popular and I was excited to see some caves, but I couldn’t understand what the draw was. About halfway through our trek of the Big Room, I understood very well that this place is quite simply…amazing. The scale of these caverns is hard to describe. We arrived just in time for our ranger-led tour of the King’s Palace, descending 750 feet in one minute via the park’s elevator system (there is also a natural entrance should you decide to hike down as early explorers, such a Jim White, did back in the day.) After our orientation with Ranger Ellen, we descended another 80 feet down into the caverns. There’s so much to see here just in the portion of the park that is self-guided. Many more worlds exist in the ‘lower’ caverns and there are still more sections of caves yet to be discovered.

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As shown on the map, you could fit a number of 747s within this space. What it doesn’t show is how many of those planes you could stack on top of one another to reach up to the epically enormous ceilings of these caverns.

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guadalupe mountains national park

This was the last major stop on our journey and we had just an afternoon to enjoy this expansive park. It proved a bit big for our family, but I’m sure it’s a hikers paradise. Over 80 miles of trails are available here, including the trek to the highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak. That hike alone takes 6-8 hours. We opted for a couple of shorter hikes, one into McKittrick Canyon and another to the old pinery. In between we had a nice picnic with spectacular vistas of Guadalupe and Hunters Peak laid out before us. You don’t often think of mountains when you think of Texas, but they’re there, and they are quite glorious.

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Footnote: There you have it…6 days, 475 miles on the road. Photos taken with a Canon G11 and iPhone 4S.