Las Cruces, New Mexico and the surrounding area
Camping beside an air force base: One you get west of the Mississippi, it becomes easier to find free campsites. There’s a lot more public land out this way, so we have made the most of the opportunities to camp for free. Once such opportunity was the night before visiting White Sands National Monument. The monument is located in the middle of the massive White Sands Missile Range (at 2,400 square kilometers it is the largest military installation in the United States), so we assumed that finding nearby campsites would be challenging. But, as luck would have it, just five minutes down the road from the national monument was Holloman Air Force Base which has a small piece of land open for public camping. While they’re weren’t any facilities to speak of, it was convenient and we got to watch some drones and fighter jets fly around above us.
White Sands National Monument: Similar to the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, White Sands protects a large field of sand dunes in southern New Mexico. While the dunes in White Sands are much smaller, they are also, as the name implies, remarkably white. This is because the dunes are formed by pure gypsum crystals – a very rare thing. Visitors can rent sand sleds and ride down the slopes or just hang out in the sun and that’s what 95% of them were doing on this busy day. We were very alone on our hike. Trudging several miles up and down dunes in the stifling heat, we were grateful we had opted not to climb the sand dunes in Colorado, as it is fairly tedious. Once we got away from the crowds, we really got a sense of what it could be like to be stranded and trudging across the desert. It was a “do it this one time” experience and Amalia loved the sun.
Water diversion: Definitely a miss. It’s sad how many rivers (98% of them) are dried up in this part of the country – and not for natural reasons. In northern New Mexico, we criss-crossed the Rio Grande several times. It was a similar size where it wrapped around Big Bend (which should be a red flag since that’s hundreds and hundreds of miles down river where it should be bigger). But, when we crossed the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, it just wasn’t there. The water had all be diverted for use by people, industry, and agriculture leaving behind a dry riverbed. Quite sad.
Bonus: Sabertooth in El Paso (a restaurant with some very interesting and delicious nachos), Coas Books in Las Cruces (a huge and epic used book store), High Desert Brewing Company in Las Cruces (yummy beer and something delicious we’d somehow not come across previously, green chili cheese fries).
Silver City, New Mexico and the surrounding area
Silver City: This is a pretty cool town in south-west New Mexico. We were running ahead of schedule and so needed somewhere to hang-out for a while and Silver City seemed like a good option – big enough that it would have everything we needed, but small enough that we could easily take trips out into the wilderness. Car camping in Silver City proved to by pretty sweet, as there were some nice, dark, quiet dead-end streets right downtown. There were several public bathrooms, though somehow we never actually used them. We enjoyed strolling the main street and its many shop, delicious green chili corn soup and coffee at the Curious Kumquat, beer at the Little Toad Creek Brewery, brunch at the Adobe Springs Café, laundry at Laundryland USA (which had excellent wifi), and coffee at several different excellent coffee shops.
City of Rocks State Park: When we asked the server at the Curious Kumquat what we should do in the Silver City area, she said we should drive down to City of Rocks State Park and that it was her favourite place in all of New Mexico. She was right, the park was amazing. Located in the middle of the desert, the park is made up of hundreds of rock formations just screaming to be explored and climbed. It was like a playground of rocks and was so cool to explore. Even better, most of the campsites were located up in the rock formations, making each of them unique and interesting. Our site was in a large curved curtain of rock that enclosed much of the space. The site across from us had a picnic table located in an rock alcove. The first night we found we had a very special neighbour. A large great horned owl perched on a rock just beside out campsite, snoozing, preening, and preparing for night. As it started to stretch its wings and hoot, we heard the answer of another owl elsewhere in the park. After running around the rocks for a bit, we found it’s mate, fortified in a nest in a high hollow in another rock formation. They chatted for much of the evening as the moon rose in the sky, and constellations took shape above us. Then, they began hunting as we settled into our tent. Another neat feature of the park is the planet walk, a hike that starts with a plaque representing the sun, and then moves from planet to planet at distances to scale with the actual solar system. The hike is a great way to get a better sense of the immense distance between the different planets.
Copper mines: This area of New Mexico is known for it’s open-pit copper mines – it’s an industry that brought a lot of people to the area. And while these monstrosities are devastating to the environment, they are something to behold in person. Huge terraced mountains and pits blanket the landscape as the earth is scraped up for the metal it contains. The scale and colour is astounding.
Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway: Silver City is positioned where the desert meets the mountains so, depending on which way you drive, you’ll end up in a completely different ecosystem. This byway took us up into Gila National Forest on a breathtaking, and sometimes heart-stopping, drive. As mentioned earlier, water is rare in these parts, appearing sometimes in dwindling creek beds. So, when we came across a small waterfall and then Lake Roberts, a lake in the middle of the woods created with human-built dam, we were pretty surprised. This being the most water we’ve seen in a while, we decided to spend the afternoon and night by the lake before heading on. Located at the end of the road is Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The dwellings were similar, but smaller in scale than those we saw at Bandalier National Monument, but the trail we took afterwards was the highlight. We hiked up a mountain valley, taking our shoes off several times to wade across a freezing cold mountain river, and finally arrived at the Lightfeather Hotsprings. The springs enter the river in several places including from an opening in the bank where a steamy cave marks the place where scalding hot water seeps out of the earth and mixes with the cold river water. Year after year, visitors have come here and used the rocks to regulate the flow of hot and cold water to create pools that are just the right temperature to lounge in.