On the Road, Again: Southern New Mexico Loop

Waldo Canyon Road, Cerrillos, New Mexico

Road tripping doesn’t always mean lighting out for a distant coast. Regional road trips never get as much credit as they should. You can see a lot in a one or two day loop around your home state!

On Friday, I awoke to a rare, dreary rainy, windy day in Cerrillos and decided to postpone my local hiking plans and hit the road south for a mini-road trip to White Sands National Monument. White Sands is one of the driest places in the country, so I figured it wouldn’t be raining there.

Heading south from Moriarty on New Mexico’s scenic and empty back roads, we passed through several ghost towns, including Cedarvale, where we stopped to poke around the ruins of the Cedarvale Schoolhouse.

Cedarvale Classroom Roof Collapse

After passing through the slightly bigger towns of Corona and Carrizozo, we turned west towards the White Mountains to visit the Three Rivers Petroglyphs. Here, more than 21,000 individual petroglyphs were chipped into a ridge of dark rocks between 900 and 1400 AD by the Jornada Mogollon people.

Three Rivers Petroglyphs

The glyphs include animals like big horned sheep, rabbits, scorpions, lizards and birds, but not horses, indicating they were created before the Spanish reimported equines to the New World. Handprints, footprints, human figures and faces are also featured, along with geometric patterns and abstract line drawings.

Hand print self portrait

It’s always tempting to wonder what petroglyphs mean: are they sacred symbols, messages, warnings, or simply doodles? Left high on a ridge overlooking the Tularosa Basin and the foothills of the White Mountains, this is a strategic place for a lookout. Maybe the carvings were left by bored watchmen or perhaps this was a sacred place. There’s nobody to ask: the Jornada Mogollon people left no known modern descendants.

We spent an hour hiking along the ridge, spotting petroglyphs and watching a snow storm descend on the aptly named White Mountains. Then we headed south again with the goal of reaching White Sands National Monument at least an hour before sunset, the cutoff time for securing a backcountry camping permit.

Backpacking to our campsite

Intersecting Dunes

White Sands is deceptively named. The stark white dunes are not made of sand, but of tiny crystals of gypsum. Gypsum is rarely found in this form because it readily dissolves in water, but the northern Chihuahuan desert and the Tularosa Basin are so dry, this 275-square mile area has evolved into the world’s largest gypsum dune field.

The gypsum comes from the surrounding San Andreas and Sacramento Mountains, which are naturally rich in the mineral calcium sulfate. When rain falls in the landlocked Tularosa Basin, it dissolves the minerals as it trickles down into the basin, where it is trapped. Evaporation of the mineral-rich surface water leaves behind large crystals of gypsum known as selenite, which get reduced to sand-fine particles by the wind and blown into huge white dunes.

White "Sand" at sunset

The only overnight accommodations in White Sands is primitive backcountry camping, first come, first served. The ten sites are spaced well apart, about a mile from the trailhead. We backpacked out to our site (#4- highly recommended) just in time for sunset and got up for sunrise, fulfilling Road Tripping rules #1, #6 and #7: Hike every day, camp out and see as many sunsets and sunrises as possible.

The boys at sunset

Dawn D.O.G.

We hiked out the next morning, intending to head into the Gila Mountains, but my normally trusty Subaru “The Raven” had other plans. As we were heading out of the park, I heard that sound every driver dreads: rhythmic thumping from one of the back tires. A flat!

Very important road tripping tip: always carry an inflated spare, a good jack, all the tools you need and, of course, know how to get the job done! I have AAA, but I’d much rather save my roadside assistance miles for real emergencies.

When we pulled off the busted tire it was clear we didn’t just need a patch. The whole sidewall had blown apart. We got the spare on and I looked to the Adventure Atlas for a Plan B: limp into the closest major city for a new tire.

That tire was toast.

Four new tires: $$$$. Getting back on the road: Priceless!

Apparently, when you have a car with All Wheel Drive, you can’t just replace one tire. I had to get four! *!%&*@! Oh well. The Raven was due. When it comes to road trip disasters, it can always be worse!

We headed out of Las Cruces by 1 pm, determined to make it to the Very Large Array by sunset. This time the Raven didn’t let me down. We even had time to stop in Truth or Consequences for lunch at the delicious Happy Belly Deli (Road tripping rule #5- Always eat local!)

Walking Tour!

The Very Large Array is the most powerful, versatile and widely used radio telescope in the world. Data from the 27 individual dishes combines together as if it were one gigantic dish 22 miles across! The immense size means the VLA can see further and with greater resolution than any other telescope in the world.

The 27 antennas, each with a dish the size of a baseball diamond, sit along 3 arms of rail road tracks in the shape of a “Y”. The first time I visited the VLA, several years ago, the antennae were arranged in the A formation, spaced miles apart to study a small region of the sky. This time they were in the D formation, close together, to cover a wider area. Yes, it seems like it would be the other way around, but the small visitor center, open from 8am to dusk, had some great displays and information on radio astronomy and I took notes!

VLA "A" formation

Projects at the VLA include studying the evolution of the universe, looking at the surface of the sun and other stars and studying properties of other galaxies far, far away. Despite the VLA’s starring role in the movie Contact, these dishes are not used in SETI: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

After watching a 10-minute video on the VLA and radio astronomy and perusing the very informative displays at the visitor center, we got the dogs and walked out to the dishes. It never ceases to amaze me that you can walk right up to these enormous 200-ton scientific instruments. As we stood watching the sunset over the San Agustin Valley, the dish above us started to hum and move, so slowly it was almost imperceptible. Together, we turned, seeing more of the sky.

Check back for an upcoming post on winter road tripping and camping! I’m already scheming for my next southern New Mexico road trip to Lincoln, Roswell, Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe National Park!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
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