Category Archives: New Mexico

White Sands National Monument!

Our last fun stop (we spent a night in Phoenix right before arriving in LA, but just so that we wouldn’t have an insane driving day) was in a place that neither of us had ever heard of before beginning this trip. As you can probably tell by reading these posts, we rushed the Southern route of the country way more than we did the beginning, partly because we needed to get back to LA for various reasons, but also we figured anything close to LA (Joshua Tree, Bryce, Arches) is easy enough to do on a weekend trip from LA where we will most likely end up once the travel bug is out of our systems. That being said, we changed our itinerary for this route a handful of times, and we were kind of searching for something unique to do in between Carlsbad Cavern and LA. The 1000 Places to See Before You Die (US and Canada edition) came through once again (thanks again Janice and Gareth for the thoughtful gift!) and I discovered White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo, New Mexico.


We drove in from Guadalupe and stayed at the Days Inn in Alamogordo. This felt like one of the shadier hotels we visited, as the check-in area had a window with one of those glass/plastic barriers where people just slide the money in through the opening on the bottom. Not to mention the guys hanging outside our door with drinks in paper bags. However, the price was right, and the food options around were plentiful, albeit mostly fast food (and your pick of fast food, pretty much everything save In N Out). We got some Burger King, and it was delicious. I so rarely eat it that I forget, but I’ll admit it, a Whopper Jr. makes for a tasty meal!

Be aware if you visit White Sands that the road leading in (I believe Highway 70) is closed frequently as it lies in the middle of a government missile testing area. You have to call or check the website in advance to find out if it’s going to be open. Also be aware that you should not pick up hitchhikers, just in case you miss the signs that advise against it due to the detention facilities in the area.

The next morning we headed over to the dunes (the “monument” itself opens at 8am, though the visitor center that we recommend visiting doesn’t open until 9am). They had a nice orientation video that we enjoyed, and through which we learned (among other crazy facts) that we were about to enter the largest gypsum dunes in the world. They’re formed because the rain and snowmelt from the mountains rich in gypsum collect in the basin and leave gypsum crystals as the water evaporates. The wind scatters and breaks the crystals down until it forms a fine white sand.

We also stopped at the visitor center and bought a sled and some wax to make it go super fast :). The annual park pass bought us entry (normally $3 a person, such a steal… I think more people should know about this place!). Entering this place with the top down felt pretty spectacular. It looks like you’re in a winter wonderland, as you start going to a road that exists solely because they use a snowplow to clear out a path.

::snow - err - sand plow::
::snow – err – sand plow::

The scenery is just other-wordly beautiful here. The sand dunes have that beautiful ripple effect from the wind, and it’s a perfect snow-white in color. There are big mountains backing the landscape. I was literally jumping for joy with excitement. The sledding was super fun, though Alan for some reason couldn’t get going very fast. He definitely got into the fun, jumping off the hills into the soft soft sand at the top. It’s much more difficult to ascent, as it fills your tracks as fast as quicksand. I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking on how awesome this place is.

We even saw a guy with a camel… and a film crew. What? I think he was trying to get people to find Christ, so we avoided him.


People always ask “what’s been the best part? the highlight?” And it was so hard to answer for most of the trip. We saw a lot of beautiful places, and had tons of fun, but we couldn’t pick one thing as a highlight. Then we went here. And this question is much easier for me to answer now. I thought this place was the bees knees. It was totally unexpected, practically unplanned, massively little-kid type fun (just look at us jumping at sledding), stunningly beautiful, and very different than other places. So, this was the highlight of the trip for me.

We hit our second border patrol stop on our way out of New Mexico. We also passed through a number of areas that have signs and flashing lights warning of dust storms and low or zero visibility. Scary. Also, I’m pretty sure in New Mexico the signs advised to not stop in traffic lines during a dust storm blackout, though in Arizona I could swear it said to come to a complete stop in case of blackout. What are we supposed to do!? Anyway, I’m just glad we didn’t experience one of those storms. I’ve driven through some rain and snowstorms with no visibility and that is scary ish.

::gorgeous mountains continue for much of the drive::
::gorgeous mountains continue for much of the drive::

Oh, but most exciting of all – there was a DUNKS in New Mexico! Are they coming to Cali at long last to answer my prayers and dreams!?! Say it’s so, Dunks. Tell me it’s for real!

White Sands National Monument

This is a magical place in southeast New Mexico where gypsum dunes backed by southwestern-looking mountains give an otherworldly feel.

After Carlsbad and Guadalupe earlier in the day we skirted El Paso and then drove north on highway 54 with good mountain views.  There are various military installations around here, including the White Sands Missile Testing Area which forces the closure of the Monument and roads periodically, so be sure to investigate.

I was shocked when we had to pass through a border patrol road block.  I never realized I could be stopped and my car searched when I was not trying to cross the border.  We encountered this again on the 10 Freeway driving back to Los Angeles.  Each time, the officers looked at us, asked if we are US citizens and then said go ahead.  I have often lamented my pale skin because I cannot blend in as much while traveling.  Some have that “Mediterranean” look where they might be from South America or Europe or the Middle East…not me.  But at these border patrol stops I was mighty happy to be pale whitey.

Visitors to White Sands usually stay in Las Cruces or Alamogordo, we chose the latter which is closer to the Monument.  It is packed with chains.  Our Days Inn was another hotel lacking internal hallways, and had some pretty shady characters with bloodshot eyes hanging about.  Nobody showed any disrespect, and I admired Jenni for being willing to stay places like this with no complaints.

Thursday was another cool, crystal clear day.  Shortly after leaving the hotel we passed a sign warning not to pick up hitchhikers because there are detention facilities in the area.  Jenni wanted to try anyway but I held firm.  We stopped in at the visitor center for information and a great orientation video.

These are the largest gypsum dunes in the world.  Some of the nearby mountains are rich in gypsum and the rain and snow melt dissolves it into water that flows into this basin which creates a lake.  The water then evaporates leaving behind big, soft crystals which the wind scatters and breaks down until it is fine, powdery gypsum.

In the desert there is much fascinating flora and fauna, often not visible to the casual observer.  For instance, the video told us that after rains brine shrimp can emerge and lay eggs which might lie dormant as long as 100 years before hatching with new water.

Jenni was thrilled at the opportunity to sled on the dunes so we bought a sled at the gift shop and a little wax.  Even though it was 45 degrees out we just had to drop Sven’s top.  It feels like a winter wonderland, with the paved road turning to sand necessitating plows.  It took great restraint not to pull an EB in the wide-open parking lots.

We walked in a bit on the Alkali Flats Trail for some sledding and ski-jump practice.  Jenni was giddy.  Then over at the backcountry camping parking area we walked up on the dunes and Jenni found a million dollar bill plastered with Jesus praise.  Odd, we thought.  Then we saw an older man with a camel, a pair of dogs and some film makers.

It turns out he spreads the million dollar bills all around and they were making some kind of documentary.  I find it a little strange to both proselytize and litter in a national monument, but what do I know.

If you get the chance, I recommend spending at least a couple hours in this unique and stunning environment.

Practical Info

The Days Inn at Alamogordo was fine but a little dodgy.  There are nicer hotels up the road.  If you are coming from the west, you would probably want to stay at Las Cruces.

The sled at the visitor center cost $17 and then you can return it for $5 back.  The refund is priced brilliantly, just like wedding rentals.  Ranger-led walks take place around sunset but we were long gone before then.

Entrance to the dunes is $3/person and our National Parks pass worked.  Of course you should bring water, sunglasses and perhaps a compass if you want to get too far off the road.

November 6-7, 2013 (Wednesday-Thursday)

Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Park

After Franklin we headed up towards Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. We went through some pretty middle-of-nowhere stretches of road to get there. We stayed at the Rodeway Inn at White’s City, which may be the only hotel in town. We woke up to a sunny but cold day, with temperatures in the 40s, and picked up fixings for PB&J at the little grocery store (if you can call it that) before heading over to the caverns.

There are several tours offered at Carlsbad Caverns, though we opted to explore by ourselves and learn about the formations by reading the informational placards placed throughout the walkways. For the more adventurous you can even do tours in the complete darkness that require you to crawl around army-style. I was tempted, but one of the caves was called Spider Cave, so I figured they weren’t for me. We took the elevator down, planning to walk back out (most tourists do this the other way, as it’s a steep 750 foot climb out, but we wanted the exercise). Once underground, you emerge into a gigantic room with a one and a quarter mile long path on which you can explore a massive display of stalagmites, stalactites, columns, soda straws, draperies, and popcorn in constant 56° temperatures and 99% humidity.

We took our time exploring as the caverns are really quite a spectacular sight and unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It’s easy to forget you’re nearly a thousand feet below the ground. Also impressive there is a cafeteria and full-blown restroom facility down there. The walk out was a quick ascent and you definitely work up a sweat if you walk it as briskly as we did (not to mention the humidity).

One of the biggest draws of Carlsbad Caverns is the viewing of the Mexican free tail bats that live in the caves from March to October. Each night at sunset they leave the cave in a mass exodus to eat (up to half their bodyweight in a night) and mate, a process visitors can watch from an amphitheater built at the cave’s natural entrance. We had fingers crossed they’d be late to leave for the winter, but unfortunately the bats stopped coming out just a few days before our arrival. On the plus side, it meant to we could do the caverns in the morning and head over to Guadalupe Mountains in the afternoon without worrying about sticking around for sunset at Carlsbad.

Onward we went and back into Texas to check out Guadalupe Mountains National Park. There are several entrances to the park, which are not super close to one another, and we were torn on which one to use. We ended up using the Pine Springs entrance and stopped at the visitors center. Having not enough time to do the entire 8.4 mile, 3,000 foot elevation gain hike to the peak, we decided to do the first few miles of it up to this spot the ranger had recommended where you get a view of a canyon on each side. Much of the elevation gain was in the first few miles anyway, so it was a great workout with rewarding views.

Our annual pass saved us $10 each at Carlsbad and $5 each at Guadalupe.

On the drive out we stopped to snap some photos of the mountains, and the views were great, which further solidified our position on being happy we entered the park through Pine Springs.  In fact, the views were pretty stunning for miles, which was welcome entertainment since there are no services for a 130 mile stretch of highway. I’d love to spend a day with someone from Dell City, TX… see what they do all day, for a living, for fun. 130 miles of no gas, food. It’s got to be such a different life. Anyone? Know anyone there?

We stopped for gas in El Paso which seemed like a rough place. We eventually made it back into New Mexico. It was on this drive that we got stopped by Border Patrol for this first time on our trip. I had no idea they stop people who aren’t actually crossing the border. Pretty serious I guess, there were even canines!

Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and West Texas

Carlsbad Caverns are most impressive with a many-football-fields size huge space loaded with eerie stalactites, stalagmites and other formations 750 feet below the earth’s surface.  It is hard not to use the word “cavernous” when describing the features!  Guadalupe Mountains National Park is beautiful and home to the highest point in Texas at…8,750’!!  Had you asked me before this trip to guess Texas’ max elevation, I would have aimed far lower.

On the drive from Austin we passed a handful of wineries before Fredericksburg and saw many signs for peaches.  Fredericksburg itself had a nice-looking Main Street where I grabbed tasty iced coffee at Java Ranch.  That was about as exciting as it got.  There is hardly anything from here to Fort Stockton where we got gas, after which we passed Pecos which lays claim to the first rodeo.  This is oil and gas territory and we saw countless rigs lit up at night.

Route 720 connecting over to the National Parks Highway was a little gnarly at night but we made it safely to our hotel located at the turnoff to Carlsbad Caverns, and picked up an hour on the time change.

We awoke Wednesday to clear skies and crisp 40-something degree air.  The Caverns visitor center is seven miles up a winding road.  Various tours (in the main caverns and further afield) are offered but we decided to take the elevator 750 feet down for a self-guided walk around the Big Room.

The formations and general enormity are really something.  The temperature down there is in the mid 50s all year long.  I think the loop is about 1.25 miles which we leisurely completed in about an hour and quarter.  To see more and sweat a bit we walked back up which took 35 minutes.

One of the special attractions are the Mexican free-tail bats that swarm out of the cave at sunset to hunt for insects etc.  We heard they can consume half their body weight in a single night!  Sadly we just missed them as they are usually present only from March to October.  It might be worth scheduling your trip during these months to catch this spectacle.

While there are some other activities, it seems to me that one day at the Caverns would be sufficient.  MAKE SURE you have enough gas and water because we passed a sign stating it would be 130 miles until the next available services.

We continued down the road to Guadalupe National Park.  There are a few different entrances and areas with different features; we struggled between McKittrick or Dog Canyons.  The canyons are known for foliage around this time.  In the end, we kept it simple and went to the main entrance at Pine Springs.  Were it earlier in the day we would have tried to hike to the top of Gaudalupe Peak, but it gets dark out pretty early so instead we took the trail part of the way to a lovely view point and then headed back.

We passed a few people on the trail in the span of a couple hours…a delightful experience!  Air pollution is often a problem in the summer but we had clear views with 60 degrees and a nice breeze.  These mountains long ago were a marine reef when the area was an inland sea.

Our drive from here was beautiful and really felt like the middle of nowhere.  Doing 85 with the top down through the high desert listening to Marriage Of Figaro was sublime.

We skirted El Paso as we were heading back north to stay in Alamogordo before visiting White Sands National Monument.  I think we did not miss much and that El Paso is probably a moderately scary place.  At the gas station I had to lift a plastic cover to access the credit card slot, presumably to keep out all the sand and dirt that blows around.

Seeing relatively remote places like Guadalupe and western Texas is one of my favorite things about a round-the-US drive.  Tomorrow it got even better…

Practical Info

We stayed at the Rodeway Inn in Whites City, New Mexico, which seemed to be about the only place really close to the park entrance.  It was adequate, with a large room but poor WiFi.  There are far more options in the town of Carlsbad but that is about 20 miles further away.  Bring supplies or buy them in Carlsbad as services are very sparse in this area.

If we had more time we would have liked to check out Marfa, Texas as well as Big Bend National Park.

November 5-6, 2013 (Tuesday-Wednesday)