Cliff Dwellings

After a restocking of our ice chest in Gallup, we began the drive through the grasslands and monuments of northern New Mexico. While not as dramatic Monument Valley just west, the formations are similarly sheer and steep. Shiprock peak was the pinnacle of these, rising 1700 feet from the flatlands. A small detour and we arrived at Four Corners monument, the location were the borders of four states (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) meet. More touristy than anything, with it our current loop bearing its name, we thought it was worth the detour.

After getting back on the main highway, we made our way to Cortez, CO. Here, we stopped at the town’s visitor center where we bought tour tickets for the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. With the visitor center in the park as the only other place where tickets can be purchased, we thought the Cortez stop would let us pick our times before they sold out. We got tours for Balcony House and Cliff Palace for te next day.

After driving the windy road into the park, we stopped at 8000 feet elevation to check in at Far View Lodge. We then decided to check out the museum and short walk to the Spruce Tree House dwelling near the museum. A drive back near sunset, we saw deer, many with their antlers coming in.

We got an early start on day 2 in Mesa Verde with a guided tour of Balcony House. The ascent of a 30 foot ladder led into the 2 kiva dwelling. Much of the site was original, and we could see where the water spring came in and how remodeling 800 years ago showed the expansion of the complex. Before the next guided tour, we did the easy Soda Canyon Overlook trail to see Balcony House from a distance. A light rainstorm started to move in. We we arrived to Cliff Palace, we saw why it was not only the largest, but most popular site. Unlike Balcony House, we were not able to see much of Cliff Palace other than the front facade. A larger thunder storm moved in and we had to cut the tour short.

After a few hours of strong rain and lightning, the sky cleared and we decided to try the strenuous 2.8 mile Petroglyphs hike. Twisting along the mesa ledge and through sandstone boulders, we saw smaller buildings and amazing petroglyphs. The hike was well worth the adventure and views.

Though we recommend the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad our the loop page, we decided to do the alternative of two days in Mesa Verde. As such, we are going to do the drive from Durango to Silverton through the San Juan mountains to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park tomorrow.

Gila and Petrified Forest

We stayed closer to our Four Corners route on day 4 than we had in day 3. We skipped Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, knowing we would see better sites at Mesa Verde, and drove from historic Silver City towards Gila National Forest. The drive offered rolling arid grassland hills and dramatic mountain peaks. About halfway through the forest, we stopped off at the Catwalk hike. A 1.1 mile trip, the trail consists of suspension walkways built by the CCC in the 20s and 30s. The first half of the trail is very accessible. The second half-mile is a little more strenuous, but offers some fun waterfall views. While not the most dramatic scenes of the trip, the hike breaks up a rather long driving day.

From Gila, we drove into Arizona and to the southern entrance of Petrified Forest National Park. The first stop was the Rainbow Forest where we saw petrified logs from 225 million years ago, predating the dinosaurs. We did the short trail for Crystal Forest and the spectacular Blue Mesa trail. The reds, yellows, and blacks of the wood stood out dramatically against the blues and purples of the mesa badlands.

With sunset approaching and park closing, we made a couple of quick pull-offs to overlook the Painted Desert on the north side of the park. The historic Desert Inn was already closed for the night, so we made our way to our hotel in Holbrook. Knowing that the park closed at 7pm, we probably should have stayed in Gallup, 45 miles down the next day’s route, instead of having to back-track from Holbrook. The next stop was our two nights in Mesa Verde National Park.

White Sands and Missile Range

While looking at the drive time for today and tomorrow, we decided we needed to trim some of the sights from our itinerary. As such, we skipped Guadalupe National Park and El Paso. Many of the spectacular vistas in Guadalupe Mountains required a three hour hike, time that we didn’t have today. Instead, we drove northwest towards Almagorda through Lincoln National Forest.

We arrived at White Sands National Monument with full intention of sliding down the gypsum sand dunes. But inside the visitor center, we found that they rent sleds for that exact purpose. With sleds in tow, we found a steep slope and began our runs. As exciting as it was, the 100+ degree heat and bright sun reflection off the bright white sand kept the stay short.

On the way out of the surrounding White Sands Missile Range, we stopped by the museum, where missiles from the 50s and 60s were on display. We continued on to Silver City and had dinner in historic downtown. Gila National Forest and Petrified Forest National Park tomorrow.

Four Corners Loop Underway

We are wrapping up day 2 of the Four Corners loop, staying the night in Carlsbad, NM.

Day 1 didn’t start off great with a long delay and eventual change to a new airplane while connecting in Dallas. But, we finally arrived in Albuquerque and made our way down to the Old Town district for dinner. In the square, a live band played music while onlookers danced and enjoyed the cool desert evening. We ate at a small Mexican restaurant called La Hacienda. The food was above average, but the sopaipillas were phenomenal.

After dinner, we started driving to Roswell, as we were hoping to make Day 2 a little less driving. We received a dramatic lightning show in the distance along the way. A quiet night in Roswell, a we awoke refreshed after a tough flying day and ready to start the New Mexico part of our tour. To keep the morning light, we stopped by the International UFO Museum and Research Center.

We continued on to the Guadalupe Mountains and into Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Much of the yuca and plants along the route were scorched, but we didn’t have time to investigate, as we had 2pm reservations for the Kings Palace guided tour. General admission to the caverns is $6 per person, but the National Park Annual Pass covers that fee. As we have many parks along the route, we bought the Annual Pass since it will be less than the total fees for all of the parks along the loop. The Kings Palace guided tour is an additional $8 per person and is not covered by the Annual Pass.  The guided tours sell out quickly, so we had made our reservation online 6 weeks before our trip.

We met our ranger for the guided tour and he gave us the background about the unique way the caves were formed. Unlike most caves that are formed by flowing water, Carlsbad Caverns was formed by sulfuric acid rising from the petroleum buried deep below the mountainous landscape. We saw stalagtites, draperies, and soda straw formations along three main rooms on the one mile-1.5 hour tour. The rarely seen formations and expert insight truly make this guided tour worth the money and time.

Once we were sent along our way for our self-guided portion of our subterranean hike, we made our way to the Big Room, a 1.4 mile loop which is covered by general admission. This is the largest area of the cave and is seen by more than 500,000 tourists annually. The large formations and strategically placed lighting make for a breath-taking, yet accessible scene. The Chandelier was one of the most dramatic sights, along with other aptly named fixtures, like Lion’s Tail. We were quite impressed and sad to leave the caverns after nearly 3 hours underground. We were able to get some fantastic low-light photographs, which hopefully we can upload tomorrow.

Near dusk, we headed down to the natural cave entrance, where we heard a brief program from the ranger. At around 7:30pm, the Mexican freetail bats began to make their nightly flight from deep within the cave. In all, nearly 350,000 bats leave the cave in around 1 hour, some flying less than 10 feet above our heads. Though they didn’t come out as the giant swarm described in the guide books, it was still quite a sight.

I am finishing up my Roswell Alien Amber Ale from Sierra Blanca Brewing Company in Moriarty, NM and preparing for our drive to White Sands National Monument tomorrow.

Four Corners Loop

In less than two weeks, we embark on our fourth 10 day loop trip. This year finds us going on the Four Corners loop. The highlights for our upcoming trip include:

  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • White Sands National Monument
  • Petrified Forest National Park
  • Mesa Verde National Park
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
  • Pikes Peak
  • and Sante Fe

We leave for our first stop, Albuquerque, on Friday August 26. Check back to the blog for posts from the different stops and feel free to suggest places to eat or visit along the way.