So after leaving Arizona, we spent some time in the beautiful state of New Mexico. We saw some awesome natural beauty and ate some delicious and spicy foods. In this post I will run through some of the highlights of our trip through New Mexico!
Our tour of New Mexico began with a day wandering through Carlsbad Caverns. While I prefer to be above ground and in wide open spaces, Steve has been wanting to explore these caves since childhood, so we knew we couldn’t miss them! The rock formations were incredible and the history and geology behind the caverns were really enjoyable to learn about.
Unfortunately, the experience of walking through Carlsbad Caverns left much to be desired. It felt more like tourist trap than a natural wonder. The first thing we noticed was that there was a cafe and gift shop built inside the cave right when you enter. Also, many of the rock structures were lit up with electric lights, which had long wires and extension cords clearly visible. While it was nice to be able to see the intricate geological formations lit up, I would have preferred to see them by lantern or flashlight. The electric lights and cords made the whole experience feel a bit less authentic.
The other downside to our visit were the massive crowds. We tried to take many photos, but large families and streams of visitors would pass by frequently, interrupting our shots. I imagined that inside the cave would feel eerie and spooky, but you really didn’t get more than a few seconds of silence before it was interrupted by yelling voices or cries. One caveat is that we only stayed one day and only saw the general cave area called the Big Room and did not stay for the smaller guided tours, since they were all full when we arrived. I imagine that these tours, since they are limited in numbers and explore deeper into the cave, would be a much more pleasant and natural experience. So my recommendation for Carlsbad Caverns is that you call ahead and book a small guided tour rather than just walking through the Big Room.
Oops, I said that I was going to be brief! I’ll try harder this time. Our next big stop in New Mexico was the famous town of Roswell. This was another place Steve had always dreamed of going since childhood so we couldn’t miss it. First of all, there are aliens everywhere: on signs, billboards, and store fronts.
Our one and only stop in Roswell was the International UFO Museum. This was a pretty extensive museum with tons of anecdotes, history, artwork, and photography relating to aliens and UFOs. The main focus of the museum, of course, is the supposed UFO crash landing outside of Roswell, NM. The exhibit covered the testimonies, legal documents, old newspaper clippings, and photographs from the supposed government cover-up of the UFO landing. I won’t get into more details, you will just have to visit and decide for yourself if you believe.
White Sands National Monument
After Roswell, we made our way over to White Sands National Monument. We stopped at the visitor center to ask about sleeping options in the area, and we were told that one of the ten backcountry camping permits had just been cancelled by someone who could no longer spend the night, so we jumped at the chance to camp among the dunes. We took our permit and drove down the road a few miles to the trailhead, where we followed the “trail” to our “campsite”. The “trail” is just a series of thin signposts spread out in the sand that you must follow. The “campsite” is just a signpost with the site number on it and text that says that you must camp within five feet of the post. We had site #1 and it was less than a mile walk from the parking lot, so the hike was not too terrible (though walking in sand is a little harder than walking on solid ground!).
Compared to other national parks and monuments that we have visited, White Sands had some pretty strict rules about spending the night. We were told that we must be at our campsite by sunset and that we were not to leave our site all night. At around 9pm, a park ranger with a bullhorn was calling for any stray hikers without camping permits to come back to their cars and leave the park immediately. They really meant business! When we asked the ranger about taking night photos, she reluctantly said we could climb the dune next to our campsite, but not to wander away. I thought that maybe the rangers were worried that hikers would wander too far and get lost in the dunes, but a few weeks later at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, we noted that the park was open 24 hours and there were no warnings or attempts to stop people from hiking at night, so that theory doesn’t fit. I think the real reason why they were so strict at White Sands is because that area is also used for military missile testing! We even received a pamphlet upon arrival showing photos of missiles with the warning not to touch any mysterious debris and to report them immediately to a park staff member!
Anyway, camping in the sand dunes was certainly a unique experience. After we arrived at our site, we watched a lovely pastel sunset over the dunes and enjoyed the peace and serenity of being one of only ten groups out in the dunes (in stark contrast to the hundreds of people swarming and sledding down the dunes earlier in the afternoon). It was a very chilly night of camping and we heard some strange growling and skittering noises in the night that we never identified, but the stars were dazzling over the sand dunes and the sunrise the next morning was mellow and beautiful.
Oh, and in case you were wondering how you go to the bathroom when you are not allowed to leave your designated campsite, the official rules are to pee on the sand and cover it up with a fresh layer of sand (yes, I felt like a cat doing this), and for going number two, you are supposed to walk 100 feet from campsite/trail and dig a 3-6 inch hole. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about the latter!
The next day at White Sands we had a really wonderful and spontaneous visit from my cousins (one of whom was at the Fort Bliss military base in El Paso waiting to be deployed overseas and the other who was visiting). We spent the morning hiking the Alkali Flat trail, where we finally saw some untouched sand dunes that weren’t covered in thousands of footprints and sledding trails. I really enjoyed walking barefoot in the dunes. The sand is made of gypsum, which is extremely soft and also doesn’t get hot, even in summer in the desert sun. After wandering through the dunes, we stopped in Las Cruces for a delicious authentic New Mexican lunch and said farewell to my dear cousins.
The Very Large Array (VLA)
Steve and I are both total science geeks (we were both Physics majors in college) so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out the Very Large Array. About an hour off of the main highway near Socorro, New Mexico, in the middle of the desert, you find an incredible center of science and discovery! There are 27 giant movable radio antennae arranged in a Y-shape (which can be spread out or compacted together) that receive radio waves from deep space. We put our phones in airplane mode, so as to not interfere with the incoming signals, and took the self guided tour. We learned about all of the incredible astronomical discoveries made with help from data captured from the VLA and were able to walk up to one of the working dishes to examine it up close. For science nerds, this is a must-see location in New Mexico!
We continued north through the state and had a lovely visit with one of Steve’s friends in Albuquerque. He brought us to an exceptional spot for a delicious (and spicy!) dinner at El Patio (I had incredible Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas) and then to a fantastic brewery, Bosque Brewing Co., where Steve and I sampled a little of everything!
San Antonio Hot Springs
We then departed Albuquerque and continued north to the Jemez Springs area to spend the day at the highly recommended San Antonio Hot Springs. It was a five-mile hike each way, since the road was closed for the winter, to the beautiful and secluded hot springs. The water was crystal clear with a comfortably hot temperature. There was a fountain of hot spring water constantly pouring into the top pool and successively cooler pools moving down the hillside. It was a perfect spot for a relaxing soak! This is a clothing-optional hot spring, we quickly discovered, and full of really wonderful people all enjoying the peace and quiet of being tucked away in the forest. We spent a few hours at the hot spring and then made the five-mile hike back to our car and continued on to the Santa Fe area.
As always, before visiting hot springs be sure to do your research. Make sure you are going to legitimate springs with safe water (some hot springs are NOT suitable for swimming and have dangerous acidity). Check the water temperature before you go in, read and follow ALL posted signs, and be careful not to put your head under the water due to the possibility of deadly amoeba in the hot water. Also, make sure to leave no trace and pack out EVERYTHING that you pack in, including food and toilet paper. Also be sure to follow rules about going to the bathroom – you don’t want to be close to the water if you have to go.
Bandelier National Monument
We spent a day exploring Bandelier National Monument, a beautiful area full of pueblo ruins and spectacular cave dwellings. We did a self guided tour, stopping along the way to read from the guide book about each of the unique structures we were seeing. We climbed ladders to peek into caves found in the porous walls of volcanic rock, searched the rock faces for pictographs and petroglyphs, and tried to imagine what life must have been like hundreds of years ago in this river canyon.
We also continued an extra half mile to climb 140 feet of ladders to Alcove House. This was a cool spot, but it was a bit tricky climbing single file ladders with people trying to get both up and down while also dealing with strong gusts of winds blowing sand and dust into our eyes and mouths. The kiva at the top along with views from the giant cave were pretty incredible.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks
Our final adventure in New Mexico was the highly recommended Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. This was a very unique area with otherworldly volcanic rock formations and a winding, narrow slot canyon. We made the hike to the top and enjoyed the many unique views along the away. It was a slow process of hiking and trying to take photographs, as many other visitors were also trying to get through the narrow canyons. Overall this was a very interesting and beautiful place that I highly recommend.
Taos, NM and hidden hot springs
Before leaving New Mexico we stopped in the small city of Taos. We did not really enjoy this area and we found that it was not very friendly toward van dwellers. For example, there was a sign in the local McDonald’s saying that brushing teeth and changing clothes were not allowed. I would post a photo of this sign, but I got yelled at since apparently photography was prohibited in the McDonald’s (there was also a sign about this). We also got yelled at by someone at the rest area near the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge for trying to make coffee at a picnic table and for dusting out some dirt from the van onto the pavement.
We tried to make the most of our visit to Taos by enjoying a spontaneous Pink Floyd cover band and some yummy tacos and beers at the Taos Mesa Brewing. We also had a strange adventure to some hidden local hot springs, which required precariously parking on a back forest road and walking through deep mud to a now-closed hot springs resort just past private property. After a day in this area, we were quite ready to leave and move on to new states and new adventures.
We are now in Utah and I can’t wait to share these new adventures with you all! Please let me know if you have any recommendations of what to see and do in Utah! (You can do that by commenting on this blog post, emailing me at email@example.com, or DMing me on Instagram @carrieoutdoors).
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more “thoughts from the road” coming soon!