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 Eight

In part eight of our Winter 2016 adventure, we drove up to the Chisos Mountain Range, the only mountain range contained entirely within a national park. It covers 40 square miles and the highest peak is Emory at 7,825 feet above sea level. For more information about this section of the park, see the Big Bend National Park overview in Part Five.

Desert landscape with Chisos Mountain Range
Chisos Mountain Range

Our truck made it up the steep, twisty road to the Chisos Basin Trailhead without a problem. There are five hikes of varying lengths to choose from.

Sign of Chisos Basin Trailheads

We selected the shortest since we had not prepared for a half-day or longer trek and added on the Window View Trail.

Chisos Montain trail view
Are you coming?
Chisos Mountain trail view
Where did the trail go?
Juniper with half moon
Half moon over junipers
Fin-like protrusions on side of mountain
A fortress of fins
Window view of Chihuahuan desert
Window view of Chihuahuan desert
Chisos Basin Campround and Window View
Chisos Basin campground

After the whirlwind of travel and sightseeing, we took a day off to catch up on washing chores and left the following day for Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. We drove north on Texas Hwy 285 and found a roadside stop with picnic tables along the way, so we stopped to eat our lunch.

Woman sitting at oversized picnic table
Eating lunch at a Texas-size picnic table

I felt like a little kid again, dangling my feet off the bench seat. I guess it’s true what Texans say about their state: Everything is bigger in Texas.

We have oil wells in California, with lazy pumps and arms that rock up and down, so I had never seen flaring before. It kind of scared me when I saw these oil wells dotted across the desert with plumes of flames. Did we drive into a dystopian movie set by mistake?

Oil well with flaring
Flaring oil well

Apparently, production flaring is used to get rid of unwanted petroleum gas with the idea that it is better to burn it off than to release it into the environment. The lesser of two evils, I guess. Oil production rigs with flare stacks spread out across the desert for as far as we could see and all the way into Carlsbad, New Mexico. I don’t think I took a deep breath from the time we entered the oil field until we saw Carlsbad disappear in our rearview mirror.

At Carlsbad KOA we enjoyed the birds flitting around, especially the doves. The smell of the gas burn offs was not to our liking though.

Two doves sitting on wood structure
Doves on duty

All that gas burning off sure made for a colorful sunset.

Orange and yellow sunset with clouds
Sky fire
Sunset with clouds and trees
Texas sunset

We enjoyed our time at Big Bend National Park and would love to return someday. A canoe trip down the Rio Grande, hikes, photo tour in Terlingua, and poking around the surrounding area are top on our list of things to do when we venture to the park next time.

Next up, we visit the Carlsbad Caverns before working our way back home. Until then, stay safe.

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

Westside of Big Bend National Park

For more information about this section of the park, see the Big Bend National Park overview in Part Five.

As we enter the Santa Elena Canyon where the Rio Grande meanders through high cliffs, I wonder how such a calm flow of water had carved out the space between the blocks of rock that rise 1,500 feet overhead.

Birdseye view of Rio Grande River and people on the shore
Yoga anyone?

It is the sand and salt in the water that has filed away the limestone, cutting deeper and deeper over millions of years, leaving the ancient limestone formations exposed.

Man standing along the Rio Grande River in the Santa Elena Canyon
Steep rock cliffs along Santa Elena Canyon trail

Of course, I’m sure thunderstorms and flash floods, which can occur any time beginning in May and running through September, sped up the carving process. Visitors should monitor weather forecasts during those months so they can avoid any danger. The water may look calm now, but I understand the weather can turn in a matter of minutes in Texas.

Canoes on river in Santa Elena Canyon
Floatin’ down the lazy river

Sign up for a half day or multi-day rafting tour on the river with one of the several tour groups. I knew there was another reason we need to travel back to Big Bend.

River and cliffs in Santa Elena Canyon
Rio Grande River reflection

Cerro Castellan contains several layers of lava flows and volcanic tuff, or ash deposits, with layers of gravel and clay. The same lava flow that created Cerro Castellan also created the south rim of the Chisos Mountains.

Cerro Castellan Peak
Cerro Castellan

We had seen plenty of places throughout the park where white rock was piled up and couldn’t tell whether it was something natural or something built up from the mining operations.

Road with desert with white mounds Tuff Canyon
Mounds of tuff along the road

We found our answer at Tuff Canyon when we read the information signs. The white stuff is tuff, which formed when a volcanic eruption forced ash through a vent and eventually consolidated into solid rock. The soft rock has been used since ancient times for construction. Some of the Moai statues on Easter Island are constructed from tuff. Visitors will find a couple trails that lead to overlooks of the canyon.

Tuff canyon from rim
Tuff Canyon

Mule Ears Peaks top out at 3,881 feet above sea level in the Chisos Mountains.

Man sitting on bench and Mule Ears Peaks
Mule Ears Peak. Are we having fun yet?
Woman sitting on bench and Mule Ears Peaks
Ha, ha, Jon.

Goat Mountain is one of many volcanic domes formed during Big Ben’s ancient geological history. The top portion is composed of silica-rich lava, the band of yellow is pyroclastic flow deposits, and the bottom portion is older volcanic rock.

Goat Mountain and desert
Goat Mountain

We stretched our legs on the Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail, which follows a dry wash full of flood debris, sand, and cobbles.

Yucca plant in bloom
Yucca in bloom

The hard lava that caps the mesa top prevented the torrents of water from carving out a stream here. Instead, the floodwaters from Javelina Wash rushed over the side, carving out the cliff.

Man at Burro Mesa Pour Off
Pour Off

The dark-rock Fins of Fire are called dikes and are found throughout the park for miles. They provide evidence of the molten rock that lies quiet under the desert surface. When they are all lined up in a row, they remind of spikes on a dinosaur back.

Fins of fire or dikes
Fins of Fire

The Chisos Mountains were also formed through a series of volcanic activity that shaped the peaks.

Chisos Mountain Range
Chisos Mountain Range

Next week’s post will feature the Chisos Mountains and Basin. Until then, stay safe.