Carlsbad Caverns, Aliens, and Assorted Sights in Southeastern New Mexico

Caverns, Aliens, and Waterfalls…..

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Another summer week, another road trip….

Four friends decide they need a little excitement in their summer.  What do they do?  Pile into a “full size” car (how a certain rental car agency defines their soup cans) and head south into the sun (and heat).  Now, our group of four (my hiking and road trip adventure posse) had done some planning after Christa saw on tv that beautiful waterfalls exist in New Mexico.  Who knew?

Sitting Bull Falls is roughly 5 hours from Albuquerque, but it’s in close enough proximity to Carlsbad Caverns National Park and to the UFO Museum in Roswell to make an entertaining road trip…so we went.

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Smokey Bear

Loaded up with a cooler full of water, a bag full of snacks, Amy’s road trip CD’s (and ok, maybe a few bottles of wine), we headed out early, deciding that if we were going to road trip, we might as well do it up right.  Stop #1: The Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan.  I’m sure most of you know the story of Smokey Bear (and it is Smokey Bear, not Smokey the Bear), but I bet many of you didn’t know that little Smokey came from New Mexico.  An orphaned cub, he was found after a forest fire in the area in 1979, after which he became the ambassador for forest fire awareness.  Smokey lived out most of his days at the National Zoo in Washington DC, but was returned to be laid to rest in his native Capitan, NM.  You can visit Smokey’s grave and take some time wandering through a nice little museum with lots of pictures and information…and the sheet music to the Smokey Bear song which Jen had been singing to us prior to arriving in Capitan. She was a Brownie after all and it is a catchy little tune.  Admission is $2.  That gets you access to all the exhibits and a clean restroom!

About 30 minutes down the road, you’ll arrive at Stop #2:  the now sleepy little town of Lincoln.  Not much goes on in Lincoln these days, but if you are a western history buff, you’ll know that the town was made famous by a very violent period of history in New Mexico and that some serious poo with Billy the Kid went down in this little town. Lincoln is fairly quiet on a weekday in the middle of June.  You will need to purchase tickets if you want to go inside any of the buildings or you can do as we did….hum Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory, wonder about what happened to the cast of Young Guns, and check out the very interesting historic buildings still left standing in Lincoln.

It’s hot in southern New Mexico. Triple digit, full sun hot…and there’s not much in the way of food or drink in Lincoln on a Tuesday, so we jumped back in the soup can and headed out for Roswell to find some lunch before making our way to Carlsbad Caverns for the evening.  We’ll come back to Roswell in a bit because it too has some interesting things to see, but for now, I’m going to recommend a yummy, local lunch place, Big D’s Downtown Dive.  Big D’s has an assortment of excellent salads, sandwiches, and burgers.  They also have amazing garlic fries with fresh, finely chopped, garlicky garlic.  We all had some, thank God, because while they are amazingly tasty, they are not breath friendly.

It’s probably about 105 degrees at this point in our trip.  The soup can has no window tint, but it does, thankfully, have a functioning air conditioner.  90 miles to Carlsbad Caverns and the caverns never sounded so good – they stay at 56 degrees F year round. As we make our way to this amazing National Park (yep! your National Parks Pass is good here), we start wondering about how, exactly, Jim White discovered the caverns as a teenager in 1898 (give or take a year or two).  Was he just walking around when he discovered a big hole? And was brave enough to crawl into complete and utter darkness? Not worried about his personal safety or about plunging through the ground to his death?  We quickly decide it makes sense that a teenaged boy discovered this place and also determine that our group of four will never discover a massive cavern as we’re all far too concerned with things like heat, safety, being in the dark, finding spiders, and/or plunging to our deaths.

There are two ways into Carlsbad Caverns: elevators or hiking trail.  If you are physically able, I’d recommend walking down into the cavern via the hiking trail because it gives you a sense of how massive Carlsbad Caverns is.  (If you elevator in, don’t worry!  You still have a chance to see much of Carlsbad’s splendor and many parts of the cavern are wheelchair accessible).  The trail into the caverns descends over 800 feet in just over a mile.  Your shins will feel this the next day.  (IF you are absolutely insane, you can also hike back out this way.  The rest of us take the elevators up). Once you make it to the bottom of the cavern, you have the opportunity to walk all or some of a loop where you can marvel at the insides of this cave.  I’ve been to the Caverns more than once and it never gets old. I’m going to post a few photos here, but let me say that photos simply do not do justice to the beauty you will see here.  They just don’t.

After our hike around (we spent about 2 1/2 hours in the caverns – there’s THAT much to see), we decided to hang around to watch the bat flight. Carlsbad Caverns is home to some 500,000 (or so) Brazilian free-tailed bats.  The bats fly out of the cavern every evening at dusk to go eat insects.  You can have a seat in the amphitheater and watch them fly out of the caverns en masse.  It’s a pretty impressive sight. (You cannot take photos of the bats so you’ll have to take my word for it.)

After a night’s rest in Artesia (about 40 miles from Carlsbad with much cheaper lodging), we got up early to head down to Sitting Bull Falls – the original destination for our trip. On the approach to Sitting Bull Falls, you’re going to be thinking that there is no way a waterfall could ever spring up from the dry, flat, desolate land that you’re driving over.  In fact, at about the halfway point, you’ll consider turning back thinking that you must have made a wrong turn somewhere.  After passing lots of sand and cactus and a few free range cattle, you’ll see the landscape start to change, and after time, tucked away in a rock canyon…voilà! Sitting Bull Falls.

Sitting Bull Falls is a National Forest site so that means two things: your

Sitting Bull Falls
Sitting Bull Falls

parks pass is good here and there are clean restrooms.  Don’t forget your bathing suit as you can swim in the pool at the falls.  On a hot day, you will think of nothing else but jumping into that water. The hike from the parking lot to the falls is about a five minute walk on a paved trail.  You’ll pass over a rocky surface at the end of the trail to get into the pool itself. The water is supremely clear and it’s cold.  I mean it’s really cold.  The water temperature reminded me of the feel of water in the rivers of Montana..you know, snow runoff.  After taking a few photos, we stripped down to bathing suits and got right in…well, I got right in.  Brrrr….The other girls took a minute or two to adjust to the bone chilling temperature, but once we were all in, the water felt incredibly refreshing.

Out of the falls, we dried off almost immediately, jumped back in the car, and headed

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Sculptures in Artesia

back up the road to Artesia. While Artesia doesn’t have the draw that Carlsbad or Roswell (more coming on that) do, there are quite a few art installations downtown that are worth checking out, including a series of larger than life sculptures depicting the history and people in Artesia.

Our second road trip night was spent in Roswell.  Roswell, New Mexico is famous for….aliens and UFOs.  You heard me. Aliens. And UFOs.

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Aliens in Roswell

In 1947, a flying disc reportedly crashed just outside of Roswell.  Since 1947, the town of Roswell is crazy for all things extraterrestrial.  If you haven’t been to Roswell, it’s kind of a trip.  In many ways, Roswell is a typical small American town.  But in other ways it’s incredibly eclectic, in an alien focused kind of way. The downtown lamp posts are in the shape of alien heads, mannequins in store windows are alien and not human, and there is an alien of some sort in every parking lot and on every sign in town.  Roswell is also home to the International UFO Museum and Research Center.

The UFO Museum has grown a bit over the years.  Here you’ll find some exhibits showing what happened at the 1947 crash, information on the people that were first upon the alien crash scene, alien and UFO art, tales from people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, and so on.  Some new things have popped up here since my last visit, like this UFO complete with aliens, but most of the actual research and abduction stories are still the same which leads me to believe that aliens became bored with abducting us humans in about 1982…

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International UFO Museum and Research Center

Still, with a Groupon going on right now, this museum is worth a stop for a little fun.  You’ll be amazed at how many people from around the world stop by here on a monthly basis. So take a look around, take your photo with an alien and upon exiting the museum, buy an alien souvenir.  I mean, who doesn’t need an alien beer coozy?!

Ode on a Summer Road Trip

What is it about jumping in the car, rolling down the windows and turning up the radio that’s so appealing? If it’s faster and more convenient to fly, why is the summer road trip still so good?

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Tired of being in airports for the last 10 weeks or so, I decided to change things up and drive to my next two destinations for work meetings.  Now, the drive from Albuquerque to West Texas isn’t terribly exciting, but as I began packing I found myself longing for the days of the good old summer road trip.

What is it about jumping in the car, rolling down the windows and turning up the radio  that’s so appealing?  If it’s faster and more convenient to fly, why is the summer road trip still so good?

Is it the memories of childhood road trips?  Hours in the car, antagonizing (or being antagonized by) my kid brother?  Was it the novelty of stopping to eat along the way? Or, because my mother was a teacher, stopping to see the historic sites?  The latter I’ve become increasingly thankful for.  As an adult, I appreciate the fact that I have seen far more of the country than many other people my age because of my mom’s insistence that we learn something along the way.  (Truthfully, the stops probably also gave her some reprieve).  Or is it remembering the impromptu trips I took with friends when we were old enough to head out and explore on our own?  Jumping in the car for a weekend, heading wherever the wind takes you was a fantastic luxury of my 20s that I perhaps didn’t appreciate as much as I should have.

Maybe it’s a combination of all these things, but as I made my 4+ hour drive today, I began to think that it’s the opportunity, alone in a car, to quietly address and resolve the many thoughts rattling around my brain on any given day.  Time to be alone and clear your mind while just focusing on the road going by, letting thoughts come and go.  Thoughts like: “Why in the world does the town of Wagon Wheel, New Mexico have a U-Haul rental?”  (At last count, there were about 350 people in the area surrounding this little town).

photostudio_1494197940047There is a lot of open road between Albuquerque and Lubbock, Texas, but every now and again, driving an old stretch of Route 66, you come upon remnants of homes, gas stations, businesses that were once part of thriving communities before the latest Interstates were developed.  I found myself wondering about the people that lived in these little communities and the handful of people that still eke out their living in towns were little remains.  What happened to the owners of these now dilapidated buildings and abandoned homes?  Where did they go?  Why didn’t the houses pass on to other owners?  I really wonder about the homes that are still full of stuff…

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There are mysteries along Route 66.  One of the most mystifying is the disappearance and probable murder of two couples traveling through the town of Vaughn, New Mexico back in 1935.  The baffling story is still a mystery 82 years later.  (You can read about it here.) I drove through several sites today and found my brain wondering what secrets those old buildings might still hold…. I may never know, but pulled over at the side of the road to get a closer look.

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Lest you think there are only old ruins along the roads, you will find a few curiosities that aren’t so…serious.  Like this giant cowboy on the side of Highway 60 before crossing the Texas border.

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The popular Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, where, the story goes, an eccentric millionaire buried Cadillacs in the ground. Why? I don’t know. (Mind the million empty spray paint cans on the ground).

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Who knows what I’ll find on my return trip, but I plan relish the sound of my voice singing along with a much too loud radio and to enjoy the feel of wind through my hair (even though that means my hair will get tangled).  Let’s go on a road trip – it’ll be an adventure.

El Malpais and El Morro National Monuments

I think most of us are this way: we look at the unusual and beautiful things in our home states as places just to take family visiting from out of town.

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I think most of us are like this:  We forget about the really amazing sights in our own state…simply because they are in the place where we live our day to day lives.  The interesting and beautiful become places you take visiting family from out of town.  I’m trying to be better about visiting the places I overlook simply because they’ve always been there.

Recently, with best friend in tow, I set out to visit two (that’s right TWO) national monuments here in New Mexico.  About 90 miles from Albuquerque lies the National Monument of El Malpais.  I’ve hiked here before and was happy to return.  It’s a bit dry this spring, but despite the lack of green there are some gorgeous vistas to view in El Malpais.  This is another one of those places where all levels of hikers can find a trail to their liking.  There are lava caves (get your caving permit at the Visitor Center), lava trenches, and trails that scale the sides of a volcanic caldera. If you geek out on lava, this is an unusual place where you can see two separate kinds of lava flows in one area.

 

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El Malpais

We took the 3.8 mile trek to the top of the caldera and that trail comes complete with some butt-busting incline toward the top of the trail.  The parks service has inserted some wooden “stairs” that lead you to the top of the caldera.  (You will definitely feel the need to stretch when you’re done!)

From El Malpais, make the easy 20 mile drive over to El Morro.  Now, I’m not gonna lie, I always thought El Morro was just a big rock.  That maybe explains why I hadn’t been there until now.  There are really big rocks, yes, but the really big rocks contain some really interesting New Mexico history.

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El Morrow

See, El Morro for years was the only place for miles around to get clean drinking water, so people stopped along this sandstone bluff to get water, to camp….and to carve their names into the rock.  It seems that humans have never been able to resist carving their initials into inanimate objects.

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The water at El Morro

We took the Inscription Trail that runs right along the bluff.  Here you get a good look at the  more than 2,000 signatures and Petroglyphs.  The carvings encompass a rich history of ancestral Puebloans, Spanish, and American travelers.  The Army, wagon trains, the railroad, and even the first Colonial Governor of New Mexico chiseled their names here.  Some of these fellas were incredibly handy with a chisel.  Check out the photo of Mr. Long’s signature.  How in the hell did he do THAT with a chisel?!

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National Parks and National Monuments are in every state. Look around you to see what you’ve been overlooking.  And, while you’re at it, get you a National Parks Pass.  At $85/year, mine has paid for itself several times over.  If you’re a Senior, you can get your pass for $10 for a lifetime.  That’s a bargain!

Now, if hiking gets you hungry, do yourself a favor and stop at the 66 Pit Stop just outside of Albuquerque for a Laguna Burger.  This gas station (yep, it’s a gas station) serves up green chile cheeseburgers and other yummies.  The burgers are award winning and they are delicious.  For all of you out of towners not used to our New Mexican chile (and it’s chile not chili), you might order yours on the side…it’s got a kick!

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Laguna Burger

 

Hiking in the land of O’Keeffe

Northern New Mexico’s stark landscapes are so stunning. It’s easy to see how a Midwestern girl named O’Keeffe fell in love with this place.

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Ever need a quiet day to yourself?  Yeah, me too.  Today was one of those days, so I called into work on a “mental health day,” and headed out to find a place to hike.

“God told me if I painted that mountain enough, I could have it.” ~ Georgia O’Keeffe

I found myself driving through the landscapes of northern New Mexico, eventually stopping at Ghost Ranch, just outside of Abiquiu. The stark landscapes here are so stunning that a Midwestern girl could fall in love with the magic of the high deserts of New Mexico. That’s happened more than once. With me, of course, but also with a gal we’ve all come to know as one of the most prolific American artists of her time, Georgia O’Keeffe.

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View from Box Canyon Trail

O’Keeffe, a Wisconsin girl, started visiting northern New Mexico in 1929 and found peace and inspiration here. (I get it, Georgia).  O’Keeffe’s history with this part of New Mexico is interwoven with the history of Ghost Ranch. The Ranch is now owned by the Presbyterian Church, but all are welcome to wander the grounds, to hike, to reflect, and even to buy a little something at the trading post.

Ghost Ranch is open daily from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM and is mostly quiet, depending on the event calendar (there are tours, guided trail hikes, art workshops, etc.).

 

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Chimney Rock

I took on the Chimney Rock Trail today.  It’s a 3 mile round trip hike, but the trail does get steep in spots as you move from 6,500 feet to 7,100 feet. Great views all around, I set off up the trail, my quiet reflection interrupted only once by a pair of grumbling wives whose husbands had scampered quickly up the trail leaving them behind – struggling.  I suppose, I’d grumble too.  I find it’s best when hiking (if you’re not solo), to hike with a group that has similar hiking abilities.  I usually hike as part of a foursome.  We have similar abilities and goals when it comes to hiking and we have one very important rule: You can call for a rest (or a fat kid break as my somewhat out-of-shape self lovingly calls it) whenever you need it and no one else in the group will give you a hard time.  You know…sometimes you need a break to stop and breathe, to get a drink of water, or to put your head down and reflect upon why you thought you could hike this trail/distance/elevation/whatever.  When you’re ready, the group moves forward until the next hiker calls for a break. The wives on that trail needed my foursome today, but I digress.

Walkers and hikers of all abilities can find a trail at Ghost Ranch.  There’s quite a range: short and flat, long and flat, short and steep, and long and steep.  You get the idea.  The Ranch itself also has some interesting historic buildings, a yurt (a yurt!), and several other quiet spots where you can sit and enjoy the scenery if you’re not a hiker.

If you’ve got time, head down the road and check out the quirky little town of Abiquiu itself.  Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio are adjacent to the Abiquiu Inn (a fabulous place to stay!) and can be toured. You can check it out here: O’Keeffe Museum

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