Discovering the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, NM

We left the Alien-infested town of Roswell and continued our human trek northward, stopping at Cedar Crest, NM.  We had planned this stop close to Albuquerque so we could catch up on some mundane tasks such as haircuts and a grocery stock-up at Costco.  But we also had an issue with Betsy’s furnace and a recall on our Honda that had to be dealt with. Finally, I needed some time to catch up on my blogging chores, since our stop at Big Bend was so active that we hardly had a minute to sit down there.

Steve Lowe
The handyman at work on the furnace

In between all of the chores (we can’t remain still for long), we were able to explore the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway on Highway 14.  Our home base at the Turquoise Trail RV Park (Steve’s review here) was right at the south end of the Byway.

This Scenic Byway lies in the heart of central New Mexico, linking Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  We checked out the entire 50-mile-long trail along Highway 14 from Tijeras to Santa Fe. Along the way, we passed through the historic mining town of Cerillos and the cool little artsy town of Madrid.

Turquoise Trail
Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway

Quirky shops and restaurants lined the streets of Madrid, enticing us to come back for an excellent lunch (great suggestion, Hans!) and a better look around town when we moved Betsy up to Santa Fe a few days later.

Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway

Madrid, New Mexico

The Hollar
Stopped at the Hollar for lunch

We continued on to Cerillos, where the mining district is one of the oldest and most marked of the Old Spanish mineral developments in the Southwest.  We stopped here for some exercise and checked out the Jane Calvin Sanchez hiking trail at Cerillos State Park.

Following the trail for over two miles, we climbed several steep grades that really got our hearts pumping.  Old mining operations were quite evident as we passed several abandoned mine shafts displaying interpretive plaques.  We learned a bit of mining history while taking in some beautiful views of the endless New Mexico sky and surrounding mountains.

The old mine shafts are fenced off to keep people and critters from falling in
Plaques showed the history of mining here and facts about each hand-dug shaft
Cerillos State Park
We really are in the wild, wild west!

On another day we drove up to Sandia Peak, the highest in the Sandia Mountains. Towering at 10,678 ft., it dominates Albuquerque’s eastern skyline and from there we had panoramic views of Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley.  Right at the top we saw a “Steel Forest”, a major communications complex for the southwest since 1945.

Steel Forest of Sandia Crest Electronic Site
Sandia Crest’s Steel Forest communications site

Standing atop Sandia Crest, we were a mile above Albuquerque and two miles above sea level.  It was a clear day during our visit, allowing awesome views in every direction.

The city of Albuquerque and the Rio Grande lay before us
Sandai Mountains
Granite crags on the west side of the Sandia Mountains
Sandia Crest
Frequent and fierce winds up here cause “flagging” of the fir trees

While returning from a walk along the crest, we found some northward-facing spots still covered with snow, so of course I took advantage of a photo-op!

Sandia Crest

Springtime is the windy season here in New Mexico, and every big gust of wind brings clouds of dust with it.  That caused us to suffer with runny noses and watery eyes (not to mention a dusty car and RV) for a couple of weeks.  When the wind calmed down I took a break from my computer work and ventured around the RV park to see some of the flowering trees showing their buds (the park manager told us that spring begins on May 1st here).

Cedar Waxwing
This Cedar Waxwing enjoyed the flowering Apple Crabtree
House Finch
Who wouldn’t love watching a couple of Finches kissing?

And this cute Prairie Dog appeared from his dugout to say hello to me!


I hustled back to Betsy as the wind started blowing again.  As we were to soon find out, there was plenty more wind and dust waiting for us at Santa Fe.



Incredible Caverns – Carlsbad Cavern NP

Our drive on FM285 from Pecos, Texas to Carlsbad, New Mexico was the worst stretch of road we’ve ever driven, including even the worst that Alaska and Canada had to offer.  We urge folks with RV’s to avoid this filthy, dusty and dangerous road with no place to pull over.  Truck traffic is extremely heavy, and there are no attempts to repair the massive potholes – some stretching all the way across the road cannot be avoided.  We ran through one of them, and even though we had slowed down considerably we incurred irreparable damage to the tow bar receiver that held our bikes on their rack.

Once at our campground, Steve examined the damage and added up the costs for a new receiver and to get our under-maintained and underused  bikes repaired.  With a heavy heart I agreed that we would scrap the receiver and donate the bikes to Goodwill.  We may get new ones at some point, perhaps after we settle down a bit when our current journey ends 😦

It was a sad day for me. The only positive thing that came out of our stop in Pecos, TX was that I was pronounced A-OK by my doctor there, who happened to be from the Philippines. And I couldn’t help but smile when this cute little Scaled Quail trotted along next to our rig and posed for me.  Otherwise, we found Pecos to be a dusty and depressing little oil town that we were happy to leave after a single night at a noisy and dirty RV park.

Scaled Quail
Scaled Quail striking a pose

Our spirits rose at our first stop in New Mexico, at Carlsbad.  Like most other folks traveling through, our main goal was to explore the Carlsbad Caverns.  We had missed them the last time we were in the area in February 2013, due to dangerous winds on the pass that we would have had to drive over from Alamogordo to the caverns.

Those of you who have been following us since 2012 know that we love to explore natural underground wonders.  For new readers who are interested in our previous cave adventures, check out the links below.  Caves and caverns usually share some common features, yet each of them has their own unique formations.  Here are the caves and caverns we explored while in these areas:

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns in the Chihuahuan Desert are one of the largest, deepest and most decorated caverns in the world.  There are about 118 caves with over 180 total miles of known passages and rooms.  There were eight tours available when we were there, and we chose three; the Natural Entrance 1.25 mi. self-guided route, the Big Room 1.25 mi. self-guided route and the one-mile King’s Palace guided tour.

At the mouth of the natural opening is the Bat Amphitheater, where an outflight of a large colony of Brazilian Free-tailed bats can be observed in the evenings during the months of May-October.  Steve loves watching bats and is already thinking of coming back here just to see these spectacular outflights.

Bat Amphitheater
Bat Amphitheater, where “Bat Flight” programs are held

But before we could even go inside, a Park Ranger thoroughly cleaned our shoes.  We had visited other caves in the east where the White Nose Syndrome has killed millions of bats. Even though we weren’t sure whether we had worn these shoes in any of those caves, we didn’t want to take any chances.  Plus, we had a nice chat with the ranger and our shoes looked fantastic when he was done!

Finally, we were off to the huge cavern opening.

Natural Entrance, Carlsbad Caverns
Looking up at the natural opening, which leads to the caves 750 ft. below

The natural entrance route is a paved downhill hike of about 800 ft. for 1.25 miles in semi-darkness.  But in 1898, Jim White entered this cave for the first time using a ladder of sticks and wire, and I thanked him for paving the way for us to see the splendor below.

Along the way were several plaques describing things around us, but what really caught our attention was a huge boulder in the center of the descending walkway.  It turned out to be a 200,000-ton iceberg rock that fell down from the cave wall.  We walked around it and tried to imagine how it would have sounded and felt when this colossus broke loose.  Since I could not capture its enormity, here’s a snapshot of the plaque about it:

Ice Rock

At the end of this strenuous route and at 800 ft. below the surface, we had our first experience of seeing an underground rest area/restrooms/cafe and gift shop.  That’s how huge it is here.  It’s also where the elevator stops for those in wheelchairs or who don’t want to make the hike down.

We took a break and waited for our next tour, which was the guided King’s Palace tour.

Gift Shop
Underground gift shop

Imagine yourself in an ornately decorated King’s palace, or a Queen’s bedroom.  Those are the names given to two of the huge caverns we saw during this one-mile walk.  A total of four naturally-decorated chambers with a fabulous variety of cave decorations unfolded before us.

From this tour we learned about the history of the caverns, and it really made us think about and appreciate more the wonders of the cavern and its past.  We were given plenty of time to snap pictures, but of the many I took in the darkness of this tour, only a couple came out good enough to share.  One of them is of an ancient bat, entombed in calcite on the floor of the cavern:

Ancient Bat
Skeleton of a bat, thousands of years old
Kings Palace
An endless variety of gorgeous formations awaited us around every turn

After taking another break we tackled the enormous Big Room.  Now this chamber is really something, and the incredible variety of formations we saw here blew our minds.  The chamber is really a massive natural limestone cave chamber which is larger than six football fields and could house the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Pause for a moment and imagine that!

Hall of Giants, Carlsbad Caverns
These are the largest speleothems in the room – the giant column on the right is 62 ft tall
Graphical description of cave deposit formations

The walk around this chamber is about 1.25 miles long and could take hours for someone marveling at the unending collection of dramatic and gigantic cave formations. Stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, and columns were just a few of the wonders we saw.  It’s so much bigger and unlike anything else we’ve seen that the whole experience seemed quite surreal.

Again, due to the low lighting I managed to capture only a few of the many amazing formations on this tour, some with the help of other visitors who had brought spotlights with them.

Steve seemed to particularly enjoy this unusual feature
Lions Tail
Looking up toward the ceiling we spotted two “Lions Tails” made of stalactite and “popcorn”
Chinese Theater
This area was called the Chinese Theater
Totem Pole Stalagmite
Totem Pole Stalagmite at 38 ft.

The wonders we saw underground at Carlsbad Caverns can not be captured in photos, you have to go there and experience it yourself.  Because of its high ceilings, I think claustrophobia would not be an issue for most folks, and the path and formations were backlighted beautifully to lead the way.

These are the “baddest” caverns we’ve seen in the U.S., and we highly recommend them to anyone traveling in the area.

Brantley Lake State Park

On another day, we drove to nearby Brantley Lake State Park to do even more hiking.  We followed a trail from the Visitor’s Center to the park’s campground, an easy 3-mile round-trip trek.


As you can see, I couldn’t stop myself from touching the tiny and beautiful wildflowers along the route 🙂



On our final night here at the Carlsbad KOA, (Steve’s review here) the moon was full and I thought the windmill in the foreground was a nice feature to add:





Of Space and Missiles – Alamogordo, NM

New Mexico Hatch ChilesContinuing on our eastbound adventure, the first two stops in the “Land Of Enchantment”  (the moniker for New Mexico) led us to Las Cruces and Alamogordo. Right after the “Welcome to New Mexico” sign, we noticed several bright yellow warnings along the road advising of  high winds and the dust that comes with it.  And about that wind and dust?  Yes, we experienced it!  We were forced to cancel our upcoming stop at Carlsbad because of high wind warnings with gusts up to 60 mph, not at all recommended for large vehicles.  Bummer – we’ll have to visit the Carlsbad Caverns on our next trip through the area.


Before the winds and dust descended on Alamogordo, we managed to check out the area and some good attractions.

The White Sands Missile Range Museum reminded us of the momentous events of 1945 and how a bomb ended World War II.  The museum includes indoor and outdoor displays including “Missile Park”, which displays more than 50 rockets and missiles tested at the range.  The most significant relic is the V-2 rocket,  a captured German device which led to an array of experiments and paved the way for American manned space exploration.  Inside the museum are displays and exhibits tracing the origin of American missile and space activities and how the atomic age began.  There are also displays of the prehistoric cultures and the Old West found in southern New Mexico.

The museum is inside an Army Installation which is also used by the Navy and Air Force.  The White Sands Missile Range occupies 3200 sq. miles of southern New Mexico.  The range was established on July 9, 1945 to test emerging rocket technologies.  The missile range continues to test everything from the latest Department of Defense missiles to automobile hardware, satellite components and medical instruments.

The New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo is a great place to learn about  the origins of our nation’s space exploration program.  It also pays homage to men and women who have furthered humanity’s exploration of space.  The museum is tucked into the hills and was chosen to be the site of this museum due to the area’s involvement in the evolution of the space age.  We walked through five floors of displays and exhibits showing how New Mexico is the home to many space pioneers and developments that made space travel possible.

New Mexico Museum of Space History
New Mexico Museum of Space History

The Sonic Wind No 1 was used by Dr. John Paul Stapp, who rode the rocket sled to a speed of 632 miles per hour, then was decelerated at 30g’s.  Ouch!  The test was designed to measure human response to sudden deceleration.

Sonic Wind No 1
Sonic Wind No 1, the actual sled that Dr. Stapp rode

Another display is the Daisy Track which was another sled track used to study the human body’s tolerance to G-Forces.

The museum also houses a great IMAX/planetarium building.  We were in awe as we watched the IMAX movie detailing the Hubble Space Telescope’s legacy.  It also gave an amazing, inspiring look at the Milky Way galaxy and other images from the heart of the Orion Nebula, all the way to the edge of the observable universe.  Viewing it made us feel really, really small in this huge universe!

In Las Cruces we went into Mexican Food frenzy.  Steve’s former co-worker Will, who used to live in Las Cruces, urged us to try two Mexican restaurants while there.  We normally don’t eat mexican food two days in a row, but we had to try these highly recommended establishments.  Besides, it was my birthday!  What a fitting celebration, a Mexican Food orgy with lots of leftovers for future lunches.

La Posta is the original post (or station) that remained standing on the Butterfield Trail, and was eventually converted into a restaurant.  The food and service were five star – especially my Chile Margarita!

The other restaurant was a hole in the wall called Nellie’s Cafe.  This is really home cooked delicious mexican food!