#7 SOUTHERN NEW MEXICO (March/April 2013)

A Southeastern New Mexico Loop
In the previous piece, "#6 West Texas," I mentioned that a great winter get-away in the SW would be a hiking/sight seeing circuit that included the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas (on the border with New Mexico) and the New Mexican destinations of Carlsbad Caverns, Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, and White Sands. Below are our experiences with those southeastern New Mexican sights plus a stellar hiking venue farther north that stands alone: Albuquerque.

"Drip, drip, drip" was how it formed.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico (50 miles north of Guadalupe Mtns, TX; 575-785-2232)
Much of the drive from the Guadalupe Mountains, TX to Carlsbad Caverns parallels the 260 million year old Permian reef that was uplifted and later partially freed of its sediment overlay. Like the Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns is also a modern feature of the ancient reef but of course, its story isn't up in the peaks like at the Guadalupe Mtns but instead deep inside the earth. It was there that the caverns began forming millions of years ago in a way that began like most limestone caves around the world but with a special, SW twist.

We toured several grand caverns in Europe and the story was always the same. The story began with ancient limestone seabeds forming from calcium carbonate secreted by little sea creatures and calcite that precipitated out of the seawater. At some point, the sea dried up, then the reef was usually buried by sediment, and later it was uplifted by tectonic-driven forces. Rain water wormed its way through the sediment and limestone, slowly eroding the rock due to the mildly acidic solution of carbonic acid formed when ground water mixed with the carbon dioxide in the air. It's a very weak brew but with time on its side, the carbonic acid can literally destroy mountains from the inside out as it percolates down. Of course, partially destroyed mountains, as in caves, are much more fun than totally collapsed ones or those sudden sink holes that can be deadly.

A stunning monument to the slow process of column formation.
Two aspects of the cave-building story at Carlsbad differed from this textbook scenario we had memorized. Usually the rock-dissolving water travels deeper and deeper in most regions but at Carlsbad the level of the destructive acidic water stayed pretty constant over time. At Carlsbad, the uplifting, mountain building forces at work millions of years ago kept raising new layers of limestone into the acidified water and then the earth movement would halt for a protracted period of time. These new layers were subjected to the slow, steady chemical attack by the water table until the uplifting began again.

And at Carlsbad, it wasn't (and isn't) carbonic acid formed from rainwater gnawing away at the rocks but instead sulfuric acid. At Carlsbad, hydrogen sulfide laden water migrated upward from vast oil and gas fields to the south and the east and mixed with the existing water table to form sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid dissolved the calcium carbonate, especially along the faults and fractures that formed as the ancient reef rose, creating the caverns.

The cavern-forming combination of physical uplift and chemical erosion at Carlsbad occurred a few million years ago but the decoration of the resulting chambers began about a half million years ago, after the rooms were well formed. The stalactites, stalagmites, popcorn, soda straws, columns, draperies, flowstone, cave pearls, lily pads, brimstone dams, and other decorations each developed one drop at a time. These sometimes breathtaking formations did follow the classical story of cave building: ground water seeping down through the limestone bedrock, picking up carbon dioxide along the way, forming a weak solution of carbonic acid. The acidic water dissolved a little bit of limestone, holding it in solution while the water traveled deeper into the caverns. The carbon dioxide escaped from the water into the air once the drop moved into the cavity and the calcite mineral precipitated out of the water. The crystals accumulated into often distinctive forms depending upon a number of forces, including whether the drop was in free fall or rolled down an exiting structure.

Carlsbad Caverns unsuccessfully struggles to find top-ranking in any category among the limestone caverns of the world but it is nonetheless stunning. We burned up most of a day there doing all of the self-guided walks and 1 paid ranger guided tour 800' underground. Two aspects profoundly distinguished Carlsbad from the European counterparts we'd visited. One is that the presenters at Carlsbad mercifully declined to 'enhance' one's experience of the subterranean chambers with colored lights, which is a common practice in Europe. We deeply appreciated their restraint, leaving the loveliness of it all to our own imaginations and not 'helping' us with the garish color adornment. And often in Europe, one blasts through caves in a tourist train similar to a string of roller coaster cars. It does keep the lines down and the vandalism to a minimum, but it also is very rushed. At Carlsbad, you can pack your lunch and spend the entire day walking and sitting in the cavern. Holders of an annual or senior national park pass get in for free so one can drop-in often and for as long as you like, except that it's out in the middle of nowhere. We highly recommend a leisurely visit to Carlsbad Caverns and renting the audio guide.

A small example of an amazing form of decoration called "drapery".
After leaving the Guadalupe Mtns and Carlsbad Caverns area, we drove over the Cloudcroft Pass to find another pair of gems on 2 different sides of the town of Alamogordo: a hike at a state park and a walk in gypsum sand dunes. Only later did we learn that the Cloudcroft Pass area is also a popular hiking destination (after ski season).

Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, New Mexico (about 15 miles from Alamogordo)
The Oliver Lee Memorial State Park was one of the those sweet little finds that Bill works so hard to discover both here and overseas. A search for hiking trails in southern New Mexico brought up "Trail #106," or Dog Canyon National Recreation Trail, which began at the state park's visitor center. A 44 site campground with showers and some partial hook-ups was yet another attraction of the park so we were off in a flash for a 2 night stay.

Trail #106 was better than average hike in Chihuahuan Desert terrain. The trail follows an 'escarpment' (the slope of a canyon) at the western base of the Sacramento Mountains. The deep canyon afforded dramatic panoramas from the cliffs and the significant elevation gradient resulted in a changing mix of vegetation to keep it interesting--from cacti to conifers.

Being on Trail 106 had me concluding that, in our own way, we'd become "peak baggers." We declined the label when it was dismissively hurled us at while on Mt Lassen last year. A lounging hiker released his insult as we rushed to the summit--it wasn't that we were doing multiple peaks in a day, it was that we were worried about not getting down before dark. But even though we don't go for the highest peaks in the world or the country, we did find ourselves going for the highest peaks in the neighborhood when in the SW because there weren't many and none were very high. Most of the peaks in the region are under 9,000'.

Bill climbed to the top of this cottonwood tree.
Steep trails with 3,000-4,000' gain are our ideal outdoor gym these days. Our core muscle work the last 7 months that has emphasized the hip/buttock muscles to protect our knees has also done wonders for our hiking endurance. In addition, our common outings are creeping up from 3-4 hour events to 6-8 hour efforts, with the mileage often going over 10. Trail 106 was a good event for us at 11 miles round trip and 3,800' elevation gain which we did in 7 hours. Like on our other hikes in Texas and southern New Mexico, the gravely trail surface was too rough for barefooting or wearing our 3mm thick running flips but fine for our new favorite hiking sandals. The last big pitch however was a zinger: 1000' gain in 8/10 of a mile on what was often a narrow mule track. That difficult segment explained why most of the hikers we saw were using trekking poles or were turning around before this stretch of trail. We'll certainly drop-in to repeat the hike when we are in the area. The Park is only about a 15 mile drive from Alamogordo, so it is a convenient day hike from there was well.

White Sands National Monument, NM (near Alamogordo; 575-479-6124)
We know we are a bit odd but what I don't know is if you have to be a bit odd to love this place. It's not big, there isn't a lot there, and it's out of the way for what you get, but I had a great time at the White Sands National Monument. The novelty is the soft, bright-white sand that collectively makes the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Gypsum sand is relatively rare because gypsum is water soluble, so gypsum dunes are all the more exotic. And better yet, these gypsum dunes are nicely packaged with some pleasing views, a few marked walks, and an informative visitor's center.

The roots of the cottonwood are below the level of this ravine.
Luckily for us, White Sands was our last stop in the Chihuahuan Desert and the Permian Reef area because the Monument literature only told part of the story about how the gypsum dunes came to be--we had learned the missing piece while at Carlsbad Caverns. The story told at the Monument begins in the nearby uplifted mountains where the gypsum layers dissolve in the rain and snow. The dissolved mineral travels in water down to the Tularosa Basin in which the dunes are situated. Normally the dissolved gypsum would continue on to the sea, but there is no outlet for the Basin, so it is trapped. Selenite is formed as the water evaporates and the gypsum crystalizes. The selenite crystals can be as much as 3' long but are broken down by alternating periods of freezing and thawing. Drying and movement from the wind causes the crystals to break into smaller and smaller bits until they are reduced to sand. Humidity from the underlying water table keeps the gypsum from blowing away (without dissolving it) and hence, this unusual gypsum dune area persists.

But where the gypsum in the nearby mountains originated from is a more ancient story. Back 260 million years ago in the Permian times, the primitive algae, sponges, and fusilinids secreted calcium carbonate which collected into massive reefs, like coral reefs, though there was little coral at that time. Millions of years later, some of the calcium carbonate deposited in the reefs was transformed into gypsum, or hydrous calcium sulfate, when hydrogen sulfide gas from underlying gas and oil fields bubbled up towards the surface. (Chunks of gypsum are also evident inside Carlsbad Caverns.) About 70 million years ago parts of the Permian reef, including the Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns, was uplifted. Then about 10 million years ago the uplifted dome in the White Sands area collapsed, forming the Tularosa Basin. The surrounding mountains that remained became the current source for the gypsum.

New gypsum still makes its way to the Tularosa Basin and the dunes in the Basin are constantly on the move, burying plants that don't adapt. We were stunned to stand on the top of a dune and to look right into the crown of a giant cottonwood tree. The sand keeps piling up around the tree, threatening to kill it. But as long as the tree can outgrow the dune and keep enough leaves in the sun, it can survive. Eventually, the dunes will start retreating, effectively digging out the tree. Some plants such as yuccas collapse and die when the 'digging out' process by the wind begins because the plant cannot support the weight of its own, now gangly, structure.

Water has a number of special stories at White Sands. One story is that the nearby seasonal Lake Lucero and the high ground water keep the dune field moist so it doesn't blow away. Another of its stories is about ancient water: water on the eastern edge of the White Sands dunes is younger and has a lower salinity than the water on the western edge. Additionally, the water inside a dune may be 50 years old whereas the water at its base may be 6,000 years old. And 2' deep water table areas in the dunes support more plant life than areas where the water is only a few inches down from the surface.

That's some tailgate party for the local kids.
The ancient history of the gypsum dunes and its water was fascinating, as was the more modern story of plants and animals adapting to the white, dry environment, but the real fun was tromping in them. Bill guided us to the 5 mile loop trail in the dunes that could only safely be undertaken if the winds were under about 12 mph. The rule was to turn back if you couldn't see the next trail marker because it was too easy to get lost in white-out conditions. There weren't many making the trek on the day we went and amazingly, most were shod in their sturdy hiking boots, but of course our feet had a blast going bare in the cool, soft sand.

Clearly most people don't come to White Sands for the long distance hike but to simply play in the "snow." The forest service sells sleds and rents sleds and people bring their own. Large family groups set up sun shelters at the juncture of the dunes and the parking lots so the parents can sit in folding lounge chairs while the kids sled down the short slopes and scramble back up them--over and over again. The Monument is about 15 miles from Alamogordo and the farthest reaches of the dunes drive is another 8 miles, making gypsum dune sledding an easy outing for the area's residents. Can you imagine the horror of these kids when they get a little older and discover that this ordinary play for them is unavailable just about anywhere else in the world?

Should you visit White Sands and have a nagging feeling that you've seen it before, you probably have in a movie, music video or in a TV commercial. One area of the park is set aside for commercial filming projects and 90% of US made vehicles have been photo'ed or filmed at White Sands.

Albuquerque, NM
Could Albuquerque be one of the top places for hikers to live in the US? We had to wonder. Bill repeatedly said "The hiking here is so good that I'd consider moving to Albuquerque." And indeed, we spoke with a woman who had done just that a year earlier: she moved to Albuquerque from Maryland because of the ready opportunity to bike and hike year round. And when Bill commented to our RV park hostess there that the hiking was great in the area she responded with "Yes, that's what everyone says". The Sandia Mountains forming the immediate backdrop to Albuquerque were the focus of our attention but both women were quick to tell Bill about the same favorite hike near Santa Fe (Tent Rocks).

Hiking on one of the granite-grit trails of Albuquerque's Sandias.
The hiking from Albuquerque is challenging because all of the trail heads are at 6,000' or higher and several summit at around 10,000'. But the real thrills come from the number and the variety of trails. Some of the Sandia routes are mostly in desert wash settings, others climb into thin conifer forests and a number of trails do both. Some paths have very uniform surfaces of a roll-y granite grit, others constantly vary from dirt to gravel to rocks. The south facing slopes can be hiked almost year round because most snow will melt within a few days of falling however there are ski slopes on the north side.

Albuquerque is a bit higher and farther north than the previously described string of southeastern New Mexican venues and so the weather can be more harsh though it is still a candidate for an early spring hiker's get-away. We had 8 lovely days the first week plus in April and then on the 9th we were hit with a storm that had been brewing in the Gulf of Alaska. We opted to skip hiking and go for a city bike ride and were pelted with intermittent, light snow flurries and then continuous rain. Snow was sticking on most of the mountains except at the very base. The overnight temperatures for the next 2 nights were forecast to be near freezing. We kept checking the weather in Santa Fe because it was our next destination and the foul weather highs and lows were running about 10 degrees lower, making Santa Fe a poorer choice for a winter hiking get-away.

We favor Albuquerque as an early spring destination because snake season comes later there than at some of our winter destinations. Heading into the mountains or north, or both like with Albuquerque, lengthens our "snake-free hiking season" in the sun-drenched SW. Cold nights are a good marker for those hoping to not encounter a rattler on the trails. But when dealing with snakes it's always a numbers game because even a sunny day in December can coax a smaller snake out of its south facing rock den to sun itself but the odds of an encounter are much lower than once the overnight temperatures become more moderate.

One aspect that makes Albuquerque worth the gamble if you are on the fence about venues is the air quality. As soon as we were approaching Albuquerque, we both started raving about the brilliant blue skies. The air was so clear, the sky so vibrantly blue. It was a good reminder that the air quality where we had come from wasn't as high. For example Guadalupe gets hit with air pollution from central Mexico, LA, and the local petro industry. And even when it and the other southern reaches aren't contending with the human-generated crud, the wind whips up the dust. Yes, we could see a haze off in the distance from the peaks of the Sandia's at Albuquerque but when we looked up, the sky was always glorious.

Catching a Cacher
One of the things I didn't know that I needed to know as an informed hiker is what it looks like when you catch a geocacher in the act. I was alone on an 8 mile round trip hike in the Sandia's above Albuquerque with my antenna out because I didn't know how safe I was as a solo woman on this particular trail. I'd counted the number of cars at the trailhead and had been keeping track of how many car occupants were accounted for when I noticed a fit looking woman a bit older than myself a little off the trail. She looked like she'd been caught in the act, but I didn't know doing what. My best story was that her husband was peeing in the bushes somewhere and I'd startled the sentry. But she had no pack on and had something in her hand and my story didn't quite fit with her affect. She seemed perfectly harmless and I decided she was probably a birder but still wondered what was up with her.

Ten minutes later we bumped into each other as I was beginning my descent after reaching my turn around point at the pass. The predictable conversation ensued about my inappropriate footwear and she eventually revealed she was a geocacher. She went on in search of her next cache, I started down in search of my perfect picnic spot. A half hour later as we were both starting down for the day, our paths crossed again. Sue and I walked together for close to 2 hours and I concluded that she was absolutely crazed about geocaching.

I learned that the reason she looked so uncomfortable when I first spotted her with her GPS unit in hand was that I had spied her at the cache, which meant she had blundered as a geocacher. It seemed like it bordered on paranoia, but apparently the code among geocacher's is to be discrete, to avoid being spotted at the cache lest some non-cacher will wonder what you are up to and disturb the trophy. It looked like the strategy backfired to me because being discrete where she was had set off alarm bells in me. Had she been at all scary looking, I'd have seriously wondered what she was doing and would have considered reporting her in case some mischief was later discovered in the area.

Cacher's are so concerned about being spotted that they feel obliged to wear inconspicuous clothing. When I was sharing what we had learned about buying water proof jackets over the years, she recoiled at the thought of owning a bright color, which of course as cyclists we had sought out for safety on the road. She finally decided that if the best jacket for meeting her needs only came in a bright color that she could wear it if she took it off once near the cache (even in the rain). Again, it was important not to be seen near the find.

I started gathering that Sue did a lot of geocaching and when I pressed further, she could count on 1 hand the number of days that she had't visited a cache over the last 5 years and how many of those had been intentional day's off. On this day, Sue had stopped at a cache she'd previously located near a freeway so that she'd have at least 1 for the day's tally in case she couldn't locate the 2 she was after on our trail. Lucky Sue, she found both of them on the trails and so had 3 finds for the day.

Technically a lizard, this horned toad was one of the safer critters to encounter in the woods.
Sue had been to Portland, knew that she'd scored 3 caches there, but didn't have a clue if she'd been in town or on Mt Hood--all she recalled was the count. She knew the other numbers too: 12,000 going on 13,000 cacher's in New Mexico; 7,000 of them in Albuquerque; and she figured she'd met all but 200 of the 7,000 locals. She'd geocached in 31 states. Sue carries a sleeping bag and cooler in the back of her Subaru wagon should she be out later than expected caching--that way she can sleep in her car and continue the pursuit in the morning.

Always interested in local snake stories, I asked Sue if she'd encountered any venomous snakes. "Oh yes" was the reflexive reply, almost as in 'too many to count'. She stalled a bit on coming up with her snake tally by recounting the 6 encounters with bears. Three encounters were over in the next mountain cluster, 3 here in the Sandia's where we were, with 2 being indirect sightings based on trees shaking. She assumed that only bears could have made the trees shake as they did, so those 2 events were included in the count. "Many more snakes than bears" was what I had to settle for, most of which were discovered as she was about to step on them. There was one exception in the snake report, the 6' long one way off that prematurely rattled and hissed. I hadn't seen any warning about mountain lions but she said that they did inhabit the Sandia's though she'd never seen one before and then we made some nervous jokes about how they always attack from behind. (Hiking alone as we both had been doing is ill-advised in mountain lion territory).

That settled it: I concluded that Sue and geocachers were nuts. When I shared my stories of Sue with Bill that evening, he shook his head in disapproval. "I used to think geocaching was intriguing but they go off trail and stick their hands in holes, neither of which you should do in snake country."

The next day I was again hiking alone because Bill's big toe skin split hadn't healed well and by noon I was grumbling because someone had stuffed their disposable coffee cup in the trunk of a juniper tree at my picnic spot. I cursed their laziness and disregard for the environment as I contemplated extracting it and hauling the garbage out with me. Reminded of Bill's comment about not putting one's hand in holes in the desert, I decided that since I was alone it was best not to take the chance on a venomous critter cohabiting with the garbage. It was well secured with a rock, so at least it wouldn't blow around. Only later did it dawn on me that I'd probably stumbled upon a geocache because it was oddly hidden but at the same time, it was conspicuous.

Sand Season, Wind Season, & Allergy Season
In February we bumped into Sand Season at the Imperial Sand Dunes, CA where the dune buggy crowd was having a major event. We arrived in Texas in March only to discover that we were in the peak of Wind Season, which can run from December to April with March and maybe April being the worst months. Winds fluctuated from being intermittent to fierce for days, with gusts commonly being in the 50-60 mph range. Later, in southern New Mexico town of Artesia, we were advised that the locals were getting worn down by a wind season that had been bad since January. Outside of nearby Alamogordo at the Oliver Lee park, we were told that the prior night's beating we endured was "the worst we've seen in our 13 years here" (lucky us).

Artesia's bronze of a 1950's oil derrick was symbolic of the source of my asthma - industrial soot.
We were stoically coping with Wind Season until it overlapped with Allergy Season, which brought me to my knees. In hindsight, I understood that the strong winds were briefly and intermittently bringing the oil refinery soot from Artesia to the Guadalupe Mountains campsite, giving me a couple of brief bouts of asthma. I was mystified: I can go years without experiencing appreciable asthma, which typically occurs in polluted cities in the heat of August. When we got to Artesia, I still didn't understand the source, but I knew I was at the epicenter. I was so miserable with breathing difficulties that I could barely sit up. After overnighting there, we left and over the course of the day I improved. At Alamogordo, on the other side of an 8,700' mountain pass, I was told it was the invisible soot that had been nailing me--they knew all about it.

In addition to the soot triggered asthma, my hay fever that hadn't bothered me for years slammed me. My eyes and nose were streaming despite taking 3 different medications. Online searching revealed that one of my 2 susceptibilities, tree pollens, was raging. I was baffled as to how there could be enough trees in the desert for their pollen to find me, but I felt like a pollen magnet. I assumed it was those 50-60 mph winds that changed direction several times a day that were giving me multiple shots at each irritating little particle and amplified the effect of the few trees. And indeed, the streaming of my mucus membranes were pretty effective wind gauges. After about 4 days of high pollen alerts, even Bill's nose began running.

A few days later when Bill clearly also got nailed by a cold, I realized that I too had had it, which explained why my asthma and hay fever were so severe. The hay fever symptoms were augmented by the cold and a cold virus always makes me susceptible to asthma. Yikes. If you come to the area in the spring, bring your allergy med's just in case. (We also hit several days of extremely high tree pollen counts when in Albuquerque 10 days later.)

Heading North
After completing our wonderful discovery tour of hiking in southeastern New Mexico and west Texas, it was time for us to begin our slow journey north and home. We were at about the half way point of our 4 month trip, so there was still plenty of time for more play. Bill had one eye on hiking in Colorado and the other eye on the weather: cold air masses sinking down from the arctic were still bringing snow to the Rockies and he wondered whether we'd make it to Colorado this season or not. Hiking venues in central and northern New Mexico around Santa Fe and Bandelier would give us more time to size up the situation before making a go/no go decision about Colorado.