Winter 2016 Adventure – Big Bend National Park or Bust Part Ten

Albuquerque, New Mexico

We pondered optional routes for our trip home and noticed Albuquerque was but a four-hour drive from Carlsbad. A perfect place to stop as we made our way home.

A few miles outside of Roswell, the highway turned bumpy for no apparent reason. There was no sign of buckling or wavy pavement that would cause the truck to shake the way it did. Jon pulled over when it was safe to check things out.

White Volkswagen Beetle with Eyelashes
Spotted in Old Town Albuquerque

My sweet husband walked around the rig, and a few seconds later a string of profanities assaulted my ears. My stomach nose-dived. He tapped on the window. When I opened the door, he said, “!@#%&*. The right rear tire is separating. !@#%&*. We won’t make it to Albuquerque without it blowing out.”

The thought of unhooking the fifth wheel on the side of the road and changing out a tire didn’t sound like a safe plan. “I’ll call AAA.” I grabbed my phone. “Great, no cell service.”

Driving at a slow speed, our five-hour drive just lengthened to six or seven, if we were lucky. U.S. Route 285 turned even lonelier as we crept along with no cell service for miles and miles. We limped into Albuquerque North/Bernalillo KOA around 4:30 p.m., on a Saturday. The tire stores had already closed, so we called AAA to remove the bad tire and put on the spare. Purcell, the same group who adjusted the tire in Yuma, had a store in Albuquerque. All we had to do was wait until Monday.

Sandia Peak Tramway

Not to waste a perfectly good Saturday, we looked for something to do. Why would a height-leery person like me choose a ride on the Sandia Peak Tramway? Was I in the mood to prove something? Conquer my fear?

Hand holding tickets
Tickets to ride

When we arrived, I looked up at the tower on top of the mountain and said, “That doesn’t look so bad, let’s do it.”

Tram cable tower atop a rocky cliff
Are we there yet?

We boarded the tram car, curious to see what was at the top. The car crept closer to the tower, only I didn’t see any platform for getting off. The tram didn’t slow down. It crested the top of the mountain. Then I realized my mistake.

Mountainous canyon with tram suspended from cable
Photo taken from second tower. Holy moly, that’s a long way down.

What lay ahead was a vast canyon, the Domingo Baca Canyon to be exact, and a tram car suspended in mid-air on the other cable inched toward us.

I prayed we would arrive safe and sound with fingers gripping to white-knuckle strength as if that would save me during a disastrous 900 foot (274 meters) drop to the canyon floor.

Sandia Peak landing tower
Whew! We made it.

At the top, we walked with shaky legs to the restaurant for a cup of hot chocolate and a chance to warm up and settle our nerves.

View of evergreen trees, snow, valley below
View from restaurant window

Then we ventured outside to have a look around. On the backside of the mountain stands a ski lift. The snow and freezing temperatures kept us from exploring the three trails.

Red ski lift with valley below and cloudy skies
Sandia Peak ski lift

The Sandia Peak Tramway began operations on May 7, 1966. The two tram cars work together by pulling each other with one car ascending and the other descending. I’m sure there are mechanics involved as well. The Sandia Peak Tramway earns the title as the longest aerial tram in the Americas. The span between the first tower and the second tower is the third-longest span in the world.

Rain clouds, mountains and valley
View south

As of the day before publication of this post, the tram was back in service with COVID-19 safety precautions in place and ticket purchases only online. It might be best to check their website for current conditions, restrictions, and operation days and times.

View of valley and airstrip
View west
Sandie Peak Tramway landing
I came, I saw, I conquered

Although the adventure was super scary, I’m glad I rode the tram to the top. The descent wasn’t quite as bad as the ascent, but still a white-knuckler and we survived.

Old Town Albuquerque

After we recovered from our death-defying adventure, we drove to Old Town Albuquerque for a quick look around the historic village, which was founded in 1706 by New Mexico Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdes. Visitors will find an assortment of art galleries, stores selling clothing and accessories, gifts and souvenirs, jewelry and antiques, and a variety of specialty stores and museums. After dropping a few bucks on purchases, head to one of the many restaurants, or check-in at a hotel or bed-and-breakfast for a rest.

Old downtown building and street scene
Romero Street Gallery

The San Felipe de Neri Church has stood for over 225 years. The first building built in 1718-19 collapsed in 1792. Several additions and renovations have occurred since 1793 and the building is currently undergoing a multi-project refurbishment.

San Felipe de Neri Church, spires, and crosses
San Felipe de Neri Church
Building with archways and clock
San Felipe de Neri Church wing
Book and gift store signs on building
Book stores survive
Artists and vendors on sideway selling their wares
Street vendors and artists display their wares for sale
Out door restaurant seating
Hacienda Del Rio Cantina
Street scene of old town
Chiles for the picking

We’ve had New Mexico on our travel list since 2016. In 2017, we had other locations at the top of our list. After two trips cut short in 2018 and 2019, we figured 2020 was the year we would finally spend a month exploring.

So far this year, a nasty little bug called COVID-19 has curtailed our plans again. Perhaps this fall will see us venturing out on the road again. Wishful thinking? Most likely, but I need something to look forward to besides endless days walking around my backyard.

When we do get back to New Mexico, will I take another ride on the Sandia Peak Tramway? Maybe it won’t be as scary as the first time. And I might just enjoy the journey—dangling from a cable over a canyon 900 feet from the ground—as much as the destination.

In closing, I present this photo of a New Mexico sky.

Blue skies with puffy white clouds and desert foreground
New Mexico Dreaming

Up next we continue with our 2016 Winter Tour when we arrive in Holbrook, Arizona, to visit the Petrified Forest National Park.

Stay safe

Winter 2016 Adventure – Big Bend National Park or Bust Part Nine

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

There we were all bundled up and ready to explore Carlsbad Caverns on March 4, 2016.

Two people sitting near Carlsbad Caverns National Park sign
Temperature inside the cave is 56ºF (13ºC) so dress warm

The day we arrived, the elevator was out of commission. That meant we had to descend into the cave on foot with an elevation change of 800 feet. We had no qualms about descending. The worry came when we assessed our ability to make it out without assistance. We discussed the pros and cons of our fitness level for a few minutes, then agreed, “We can do this.”

Wispy clouds, blue sky, rock cliffs and cave entrance
Trail to the Natural Entrance

As we walked down the path without a care in the world, people of a younger generation passed us headed for the top. Their heaving breaths, red faces, and plodding pace had us second-guessing whether we made the right decision. There was the cave, there we were, so onward we trekked.

Switchback path to cave entrance
Down, down, down we go

Carlsbad was designated a national monument on October 25, 1923, became a national park on May 14, 1930, and earned a World Heritage Site designation in December 1995. The park has 120 known caves with new ones added as exploration continues.

Rock formations at cave entrance
What do you see on the cliff? Is that ET?

The largest cave in the park that’s been surveyed is Lechuguilla Cave. It is only open to research and exploration activities. However, there are five ranger-guided tours offered for an additional fee. As of this post’s publication date, the tours have been suspended, so check the website to get updated information.

Bacon stalactites on cave wall
Bacon stalactites

We started at the Natural Entrance Trail, and then took the Big Room Trail, which is the largest accessible cave chamber in North America, measuring 8.2 acres.

Pond inside a cave
Water in the cave

Both trails are 1.25 miles and are open to anyone who prefers exploring on their own. The paved paths are easy to navigate and portions of the Big Room Trail are accessible to people with walkers and wheelchairs.

Ribbon of stalactites and stalagmites inside a cave
Stalagmites and stalactites

At the visitor center the usual movie theater, restrooms, drinking fountain, and exhibits are available as are a gift shop, restaurant, and even a kennel. And visitors short on cash will find ATMs.

Stalagmite formation looks like snow and icicles
Spotlights make it easier to see the formations

A limited snack bar and merchandise sales area are at the base of the elevators inside the cave.

Snack and merchandise counter inside cave
Snack stop and merchandise counter near the elevators

Individuals eager for back country trails and overnight camping will enjoy the 50 miles of trails above ground.

Stalagmite formations
Abominable snowman and white seal?

Carlsbad Cave, which measures 30 miles, is one of over 300 limestone caves in a fossil reef created by an island sea some 265 million years ago. The first to discover the entrance to the cave is in dispute, but some believe that Jim White, a 16-year-old in 1898, was the first to enter and name many of the rooms and formations.

Totem pole stalagmite
Totem pole of broccoli-looking trees

Archeological evidence shows the Clovis culture, prehistoric Paleoamericans, lived in the area 13,000 years ago. Is it possible this prehistoric culture, the Native Americans, or the Spanish explorers that followed also discovered the cave?

Green algae inside a cave
Algae grows in the dark zones near the artificial lights

We must confess our climb out of the cave along switchbacks and steep ramps was a challenge. A slow steady pace with a few stops to catch our breath was the trick, and we even passed a few groups of people on the way. Soon we spotted light streaming from above and celebrated our achievement.

View of cave entrance from inside
I think I can. I think I can. I know I can.

On our way out of the park, we stopped at a turnout. A short trail with information signs took us to an overhang that looked like it had been used as a shelter.

Algerita shrub with green leaves and yellow flowers and sign
Mother nature’s medicine cabinet

The main attraction was the Barbary sheep grazing and moving along the cliffside and hiding behind bushes while a ram watched over the family.

Many standing next to an overhang
Jon next to an overhang

The Barbary sheep (aoudad) are not native to New Mexico; they came from North Africa in the early 1900s for placement in zoos.

Barbary sheep on cliff
Barbary sheep grazing on the cliff

Joe McKnight obtained surplus zoo stock for his game ranch in Picacho, New Mexico. Wild, free-ranging populations were brought into the state and proliferated over the years.

Barbary sheep on cliff
Love the fringe

The first sighting of the sheep in Carlsbad Cavern National Park occurred in 1959. Although the park service would like to rid the Carlsbad of the herd and reestablish the native bighorn sheep, funds have not been sufficient to complete the project.

Barbary sheep standing sentry
The sentry keeps his family safe.

I have mixed feelings about removing the Barbary sheep. They have adapted well to the dry conditions in the southwest and have been there for sixty-one years. On the other hand, they establish their territory and prevent the native bighorn sheep from surviving. At what point does an invasive species become native? That question is miles away from this humble blog post being able to provide an answer.

Wispy white clouds against blue sky, rolling golden hills and S-curve road
I wonder how many caves are under those hills.

Besides the sheep, the most popular mammal sighting in the park is bats. There is even an amphitheater (which is closed due to the virus) where visitors can watch the bats outflight each evening from spring through fall. They are also visible from the visitor center parking lot, and a ranger-presented Bat Flight Program is broadcast over vehicle radios.

Next up we limp into Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a paw about to burst.

Stay safe

Winter 2016 Adventure – Big Bend National Park or Bust Part Four

We continue our Winter 2016 Tour with a stop in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Fans of old western towns, we selected Old Mesilla, New Mexico, for a bit of sightseeing.

Mesilla, New Mexico

Mesilla was established in 1848 by the Mexican government after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded to the United States the northern portions of what is now New Mexico. The town became a haven for Mexican citizens who did not want to be part of the United States.

Just five years later the US purchased the southern portions of New Mexico and Arizona under the Gadsden Purchase Agreement. On November 18, 1854, the US held an official flag-raising ceremony claiming Mesilla and the surrounding area as part of the United States.

Basilica of San Albino stands watch over the Mesilla Plaza. Established in 1851 as an adobe church by the Mexican government, the current building was dedicated on April 12, 1908, atop the adobe’s foundation. The church bells date back to the early 1870s. In 2008, San Albino was granted minor basilica status.

Basilica of San Albino
Basilica of San Albino

At the crossroads of Butterfield Stagecoach and Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, Mesilla became the center of the area until 1881 when the Santa Fe Railway chose Las Cruces as the train route.

Decorative objects in front of store
Colorful displays outside stores invite shoppers in to browse

To demonstrate how valuable the routes and train stops were to the early western towns, compare the population between Mesilla and Las Cruces today. Las Cruces has an estimated population of 100,000 while the city of Mesilla is around 2,200. The Mesilla townsfolk may like their city just the way it is since tourists come from all over to enjoy the festivals and soak up the history.

Billy the Kid Gift Shop
At the location of this gift shop, a judge sentenced Billy the Kid to hang. Although he escaped, he was later captured and killed.

From 1861 to 1862, Mesilla served as the capital of the Confederated Territory of Arizona until 1865 when the Volunteers of the California Column recaptured the town, and it became the headquarters for the military district of Arizona.

The town’s cantinas and festivals during the Wild West era attracted lawmen and lawless alike including Pat Garrett, who killed William H. Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid, and Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the Mexican general who commanded the northern division of the Constitutionalist Army.

The Mesilla Plaza was named as a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and the original bandstand was built in the 1970s.

Mesilla, Texas bandstand in plaza
Mesilla bandstand

Structural issues required the demolition of the bandstand in October 2013, and it was ready for use at the Cinco de Mayo celebration in May 2014. The plaque honors the Butterfield Overland Trail—a precursor to the Pony Express—and the stage line that connected St. Louis to San Francisco from 1858 to 1861.

When in New Mexico, one must sample New Mexican cuisine. What better place for hungry travelers to stumble into but Peppers Café & Bar for entrees and margaritas.

Peppers New Mexican Cafe and Bar sign
Great food and margaritas at Peppers

This historic building that houses Peppers has a reputation for being haunted. We arrived in between dinner and lunch, so they allowed us to wander around the place and peek into the various private rooms on the chance a ghost or two may appear. They must come out only at night.

Restaurant setting with red table cloths and palms
This bright and cheery room belies what lurks in dark corners and beyond the doorways
Stained glass panel
Kaleidoscope of color in a stain glass panel

Does this room remind anyone of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland or Magic Kingdom? I could almost see the gossamer ghosts floating around the room, the statue head speaking spooky words, and the men in the paintings watching our every move.

Victorian-style dining room
Are those eyes spying on me?

Mesilla Book Center has been in business since 1966. Besides books about New Mexico and the Southwest, they sell jewelry, gifts, souvenirs, and Native American kachinas.

Outside of bookstore with adobe walls with blue trimmed windows and door.
Support your local independent book store

The Thunderbird de la Mesilla building is the oldest brick structure in New Mexico. Some might say the building harbored bad luck in its early years. Augustin Maurin started construction in 1860, using burned bricks from his own kiln. Augustin met an untimely death when robbers murdered him in 1866. Cesar Maurin, Augustin’s heir, arrived from France to claim the property and died two years later of natural causes. Pedro Duhalde, a former Mesilla saloon keeper, took over the building, and robbers murdered him too.

Historical red-brick building with turquoise window and door frames
Thunderbird de la Mesilla

Tiburcio Frietze is listed as the current owner on the building’s plaque. Sadly, he passed away on January 1, 2020. The building was used as a general store, residence, saloon, and town hall. Today it is a gift shop selling jewelry, carvings, textiles, pottery, religious symbols, and various sundry items.

Entering Texas

The next day we continued on Interstate 10 through El Paso and transitioned onto US Route 90. Our son-in-law told us about the Prada store out in the middle of nowhere, so we stayed alert as we neared Valentine.

Prada Marfa art installation
Prada Marfa by artists Elmgreen and Dragset

There it was on the right side of the road filled with shoes and purses from the 2005 fall collection, the same year the structure was established. Keep your credit card in your pocket because shopping is not possible.

Locks attached to wire fence
Love locks on a fence behind the Prada Marfa store

The building is a permanent land-art project commissioned by nonprofit organizations Art Production Fund and Ballroom Marfa. There are no clerks in the store, and the door never opens.

We had picked out the Lost Alaskan in Alpine, Texas, to stay for the night until we saw the banner advertising the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. With no luck getting a spot in Alpine, we drove on to MacMillen RV Park in Fort Davis, Texas. It didn’t look like much when we drove in, but it was only for one night, and they had a high rating for the best bathrooms ever.

Chevrolet truck and Cougar fifth wheel
MacMillen RV Park, Fort Davis, Texas

Hooray, we finally made it to Texas and only 380 miles before we arrive at Big Bend National Park.

Fort Davis National Historic Site

While we were in the neighborhood, we had to check out Fort Davis National Historic Site, an Indian Wars’ and frontier military post from 1854 to 1891.

Fort Davis National Historic Site sign
Fort Davis National Historic Site

The fort protected emigrants, mail coaches, and freight wagons on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and the Chihuahua Trail.

Barracks at Fort Davis National Historic Site
First stop on the docent tour was the barracks

Between the summers of 1866 and 1867, 885 enlisted African-American men of the Ninth Cavalry, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt, arrived at the abandoned Fort Davis post.

Commanders house at Fort Davis National Historic Site
Docent on site at the Commander’s house

The Ninth was responsible for constructing the new post and protecting travelers and the mail on the San Antonio-El Paso Road from Comanche and Apache Indians. In September 1975, the Ninth transferred to New Mexico, and various other cavalry and infantry companies occupied the fort over the years.

Officer housing at Fort Davis National Historic Site
Another view of the housing

I love it when we’re poking around and something pops up that we learned at another location. This time it was camels.

View of hills and old buildings at Fort Davis National Historic Site
Building waiting for renovations

Ten days earlier while we were in Quartzsite, we came across a monument to Hi Jolly, an Army camel driver from Syrian and Greek parentage who was hired to test out camels in the southwest desert. Apparently, the camels traveled through Fort Davis on their way to Arizona in 1857. Hi Jolly most likely had arrived at the fort with his brigade of drivers and camels.

Buildings and hills at Fort Davis National Historic Site
The house on the left was the commander’s home
View of hiking trails at Fort Davis National Historic Site
Hiking trails are available in the park
Graffiti on wall
Not too recent graffiti
Hospital building at Fort Davis National Historic Site
The hospital
Rear of officer housing at Fort Davis National Historic Site
Officer housing
View of hills at Fort Davis Historic Site
Back of officer housing
View of from porches at Fort Davis National Historic Site
All I need is a rocking chair and a glass of iced tea

That wraps up the fourth installment of our Winter 2016 Adventure. We finally arrive in Terlingua, Texas, and Big Bend National Park in the next post. Thanks for sticking with us these past weeks.

Stay safe.

Last Day in Silver City, New Mexico, then on to City of Rocks State Park

Whitewater Canyon Catwalk National Recreation Trail

A scenic drive to Whitewater Canyon Catwalk National Recreation seemed the perfect diversion on our last day in Silver City. An hour and a half on US 180 dropped us into a narrow canyon where Geronimo and his band of Apache warriors hid from Army soldiers in the 1800s. Butch Cassidy also found the canyon as a good hiding place from Pinkerton detectives and miners tried their luck digging for silver and gold. Today visitors come to the canyon to escape the heat, swim in the creek, and hike along the catwalk.

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Whitewater Canyon Catwalk National Recreation Trail Picnic Area

When John T. Graham constructed a mill at the mouth of the Whitewater Canyon in 1893 to serve the silver and gold mines further up the canyon, a town was born. Water in the creek did not always provide a constant supply for the mill and the town.

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Graham Mill Remnants

This need spurred the construction of a 4-inch water pipeline attached to the canyon walls above Whitewater Creek and stretching three miles into the canyon. Four years later an 18-inch pipeline was installed to provide more water, but required constant repair. The pipeline earned its name as the Catwalk due to repairmen, loaded down with tools, performing balancing acts atop the pipeline as they navigated their way to repair a breach.

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Start of Catwalk Trail

After the mill closed in 1913, the brick, wood, and metal used in constructing the buildings were removed and scrapped, and the residents left town, leaving only remnants of the mill’s foundation.

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Metal Walking Trail Attached to the Cliffs

The area returned to a natural state until 1930 when the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt the catwalk, which hikers used until 1961. At that time, the Forest Service constructed the steel walkways. Fires, floods, and landslides have caused damage through the years requiring extensive repairs.

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Look Below at Whitewater Creek

The structure currently runs a span of .5 miles where a bridge once stood allowing hikers to continue up the canyon. Always wanting to know what is beyond the next bend or over the next rise, we stood on one side of Whitewater Creek looking for a way across to the other side. It wasn’t happening without getting wet, so we gave it a pass.

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Not Quite the End of the Line if you Don’t Mind Wet Feet

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A Look Under the Metal Structure

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A Cleat From the Original Water Pipe

We admired the tall sycamores that lined the creek as we made our way back to the picnic area where we enjoyed our lunch in the shade. The creek gurgled a few feet away, squirrels scurried from bush to bush and climbed into the trees, and several types of birds called out to each other. Crowds can grow thick during the summer and on weekends, but we encountered little traffic while there. Rocks and leaves in Whitewater Creek produced a colorful scene to play with abstract photography.

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My Attempt at Abstract Photography

On our drive to and from Whitewater, we passed through another town with the same name as one in the Bay Area. Pleasanton, New Mexico, with a current population of around 100, was founded in 1882 by Mormons.

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Pleasanton, New Mexico

Anglers might want to take a cutoff to Bill Evans Dam where they can try their luck. The Dodge Corporation constructed the dam in 1969 to capture water for use in their mining operation near Tyrone, New Mexico.

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Bill Evans Dam Reservoir

Be sure to make a stop at the Aldo Leopold Vista. It is a great place to take in the wide open expanse of the Gila National Forest. Leopold is considered by some as the father of wildlife conservation in the United States and a proponent for the American wilderness movement of the early 1900s.

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Gila National Forest

City of Rocks

We had one last stop to make before leaving New Mexico and entering Arizona. The short 45-minute drive from Silver City to City of Rocks afforded us an opportunity to grab a spot for the night in the State Park.

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Jon with the City Of Rocks Sign

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City of Rock Visitor Center, Restrooms, and Showers

Obviously, all of the full hookup sites were either occupied or reserved, but we managed to find a space for our rig nestled among the boulders.

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Campsite at City of Rocks

Volcanic eruption and erosion during the past 34.9 million years sculpted the rock columns that reach a height of 40 feet and the paths and lanes that resemble city streets. The unique formations of the “city” reminded me of the Jumbo Rocks in Joshua Tree National Park.

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View from Hydra Trail

The park contains a total of 7.5 miles of hiking and biking trails. Besides camping and hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, birding, and of course photography opportunities make this park a great place to spend a day or a few nights. Campers will find 64 campsites to choose from, some are reserve only while others are first to come gets to camp. Restrooms and showers are available at the visitor center for campers. Vault toilets are also located throughout the campground.

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Parking Area Near Visitor Center

The botanical garden includes information signs with the names of the different cactus plants. We took the Hydra Trail nearby then cut off on the vault 3 spur trail back to our campground.

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Nice Barrel Cactus Specimen

Like naming clouds in the sky we entertained ourselves by making up names for the rock formations as we scrambled over and through the boulders on the Planet Walk Trail.

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Bear Rock Formation

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Heart Rock

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Split Rock

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Balance Rock

We had seen signs for an observatory that is located in the group camping area. Unfortunately, they weren’t offering any night time sky programs during our stay.

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Gene and Elizabeth Simon Observatory at City of Rocks

I tried making some nighttime photos. Obviously, I didn’t get the settings right because none of the photos turned out. The next morning, though, dawned with a beautiful sunrise.

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Sunrise at City of Rocks

With my shoes on my feet, a jacket over my pajamas, beanie on my head, and camera in hand I was ready to greet the light.

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City of Rocks Visitor Center and Windmill at Sunrise

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City of Rocks on Planet Walk Trail

After a quick breakfast, we stretched our legs on the Hydra trail on the east side of the campground looping around Pegasus campground before hopping in the truck for our four-hour drive to Tucson, Arizona.

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Site 16 Spur Trail

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Hardpack under the Creekbed Gravel was Like Concrete

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On one of the Streets through the City

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Close Up of the Beautiful Colors in the Rock

It is always nice when a bird is kind enough to pose for a wildlife photo.

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One Little Birdy Sitting in a Tree

Even though the campground filled up for the night, it didn’t feel crowded or noisy. We’ll consider stopping at City of Rocks State Park the next time we are driving through New Mexico on Interstate 10. The half-hour drive north of Deming will be worth it to spend time among the boulders and away from the freeway noise.

We’ll be taking a digital holiday for a week or so, but we plan to be back with our next post on June 21, 2018.

Safe Travels