White Sands National Monument
We drive out of our little valley with one main destination for the day: White Sands National Monument. Not only because it is one of the most popular National Park Service sites, but with Christmas coming up, this should be the best place for fake snow pictures on our route! The drive there is interesting as we cross through military zones and the National Monument can even be closed for a few hours at a time for missile practice done here. Luckily for us this is not planned for today, but as we arrive at the visitor center it turns out it is closed while this was not planned. Moreover, there is no opportunity to stamp our passports!
Thankfully the store IS open, so we are able to buy sleds there, and at the gate the rangers hand out JR booklets and badges, which takes some of the frustration away. The park has many white dunes, created by gypsum which once wet actually stays in place very well. You can feel that the sand is not as hot as other dunes we have visited, and once you dig a few inches down it gets moist and even colder. There is a great nature trail set up, explaining about the animals living here and how they survive. After this and a loop drive over the actual sand, we park the RV at another loop which has backcountry camping spots on them. Interesting for hikers, but we of course are in search of the perfect dune to slide from, so we make the round sledding multiple dunes.
While we are visiting the park, clouds gather in this enormous valley between mountain ranges and the wind starts to seriously pick up. Not being fully prepared for a lot of cold, we call it a day and head back to the RV for a lunch in the warmth of the van. After a pitstop in Alamogordo for some final shoppings, we drive on into ‘Billy the Kid’-country, where we find ourselves a nice small valley to park and sleep on Christmas Eve.
Christmas in Mountainair
We wake up to blue skies and a light wind, after a very windy night. Of course the Xmas breakfast consists of pancakes, with apple and cinnamon this time for an extra festive touch! As nothing is open we have a relaxed day ahead of us with a drive through the sierra landscape towards Mountainair. In Capitan, on the way, we have a quick stop at the historical park for Smokey the Bear. For all non-Americans; Smokey is the mascot of the wildfire prevention – a bear with a broad bare chest and pants on telling you wherever you are what the fire risk is. Turns out Smokey was a real bear, a cub that came out of the woods of Capitan burned, and was nursed back to health, becoming the poster animal for wildfire impacts. He grew up in a Washington zoo, but was buried back here in his ‘hometown’, and the park commemorates his life and gives a good explanation about fire prevention.
We have booked a campsite in Mountainair to do some much needed laundry, update our family and friends and give the boys the opportunity to binge on Christmas movies up in their bunkbed. As the evening sets, we all take a hot shower and get back to the RV all clean and refreshed so we can start with our 3-course Christmas dinner. The boys help Sven to prepare and serve the meal, a delicious mix of soup – expertly poured out of the can -, potatoes/broccoli/chicken, and ice cream for dessert. With 6 months behind us we reminisce about the highlights and look forward to our next big jump – South America! As the grandparents are also coming out to join us there the boys are incredibly excited and our countdown calendar is a great way to keep track of what is to come.
Pueblo Missions & Pecos National Park
After Christmas day, where of course everything was closed, we do a double whammy today as we make our way up north. In Mountainair is the visitor center for Salinas Pueblo Missions, 3 sites in the surrounding area which have ruins of the pueblos that were built there hundreds of years ago. It’s movie tells the story of the area and how the Spaniards had made their way to ‘new Mexico’ in search of gold and silver. Disappointed with the spills, they left their looting endeavors, but left behind Franciscan missionaries with the ambition to convert the natives living here. We visited 2 of the 3 sites, walking around the grounds and soaking up the area with the snowed mountains in the background.
100 miles further north, we visit Pecos National Historic Park, another pueblo with a similar story and again beautiful mountainous surroundings. Here the visitor center elaborates more about the Revolt of 1680, when the natives were tired of the suppression by the missionaries and violently took back their homes and way of living. The cool thing about this site is that the location is at an important pass where many of the things we have encountered on our journey come together; The Santa Fe trail – which we followed through Colorado and Kansas, The Pecos River – which ends in Amistad lake, and the old Route 66. A very cool way to see all these highlights find their place.
Cool in a very literal sense, as we are getting closer to snow and ice as we are at the same level of Santa Fe. After concluding our visit to Pecos we drive up highway 63 to find ourselves a forest spot for the night. The drive up was incredibly windy today (thankfully in our backs, which has given us a record mileage on the tank of gas) so the main goal was to find a secluded place. The road has many free spots to pull into, and the first one we try even has some snow on the ground and ice on the stream next to it! With very little propane left – and not propane fillers open this Boxing Day – we hope we survive the night :-).
Atomic bombs and rocky climbs
Thankfully we had enough propane for the night AND for coffee in the morning, so we drive off our little forest nook and on to Santa Fe to fill up on gas and propane. Then on to our first hike of the day in Bandelier National Monument; Tsankawi Trail. A very cool 1,5 mile loop across the rocky ridges, where some parts can only be reached by climbing big wooden ladders, and other parts are ridges cut out of the soft stone. The views across the mountains are absolutely beautiful, and the cold in the sky is nipping at our noses, but the exercise keeps us warm enough. A vast range of petroglyphs along the trail and the ruins at the tip of the ridge make ancient times come alive.
After this nice warm up we drive on to Los Alamos; a small town with a modest ski area uphill. This is however not what it is known for, as it was actually built up as a military highly confidential base where the atomic bomb that hit Japan in WWII was developed here. Together with 2 other sites in the US (Hanford WA and Oak Ridge TN) the research and development of nuclear weapons was a speedy exercise, and all three are today a National Park Service managed Historical Site. The town is much bigger and open today, but the surroundings are still military zones, which we even have to exit through with an actual security control in place (they even checked the inside of the RV).
Driving out, we continue on to the visitor center of the other site nearby; Bandelier National Monument. The area is quite large, but the key feature of the park are the cliff dwellings and a very large round pueblo ruin in the middle of the canyon valley. A 2,5 mile hike brings us to Alcove House, a cliff dwelling high up in the mountain wall which we can actually climb into through 4 long wooden ladders, just like the ancient pueblos did. Along the way back, a path has been created along all the other cliff dwellings where some can be visited through ladders again.
All in all the day has been full of scrambling, climbing and exploring, and comes to an end 12 miles up the road in a pull out in the forest. As we have plenty of propane we happily run the radiator to keep us warm, while the boys pull out their sleds to create a small downhill on a patch of snow still left around.
No Valles, but plenty of Petroglyphs!
We wake up to a slither of fresh snow around us, always enough excite the boys to pull out their sleds AGAIN and continue the sliding they did the day before. The plan is to go to Valles Caldera, a National Park site that contains a supervolcano and its landscapes. As we drive up the pass, the snow becomes more persistent, and arriving at the entry to the park we get to a point where we have to cancel the plan all together. The road in is a 2-mile gravel downhill that is too much of a risk not to pull out of (even with our ford 450 superduty), so we have to give Valles Caldera a pass and continue on through the stunning landscape that is now being covered in white :-(.
As we do so, we drive south towards Albuquerque, the biggest city of New Mexico, nicely spread out in a valley that is covered in petroglyphs. So it is no surprise that the National Park Service got their hands on it, and the Petroglyph National Monument is established in multiple parts of the city. We pick up some information at the Visitor Center first, where we do not only have a Junior Ranger booklet, but also a SENIOR one for the parents! Finally some redemption for the kids, mom and dad have to do the work as well! And they are very strict it turns out, so it takes some crunch time before badges and pins are traded between the parties.
We hike the Piedras Marcadas Canyon, a site with a loop that is covered in over 400 petroglyphs. Funnily we have visited many sites across the US with some petroglyphs here and there, so being bombarded with them is a great experience. It is like playing cloud shape games “what do you think that is?”… From faces with gifts on their heads to coffee beans, we have been very creative on our round. We have chosen to sleep at a new concept we are trying “Boondockers Welcome”. An extension of the Harvest Host, these are private people with space on their property to host people for free! Right in the middle of Albuquerque we stay with Peter and Darlene, the kindest people with a lovely home.
Hit the road!
After saying our goodbyes, we have a long drive ahead of us to get a headstart on our southbound journey. Part of the trip is along the Interstate, so the going is fast, but then there are 2 options; a 50 mile detour taking highways, or a straight shot over the Emory Pass! Time wise there is no difference really, but the challenge of a mountain pass is always fun! So we decided to do the windy road over the Emory pass, see a little bit of snow on the side but the road itself is in great shape, and continue on to Silver City. With a great Boondockers Welcome stay behind us, we are going to do it all again here with another gracious host; Bob.
He is an absolute star and lives on a beautiful property up on the hill… as the sun sets we continue to be mesmerised by our journey so far and baffled by the fact the calendar year is almost over! With one more year of travel ahead of us, we are gearing up for South America, but first one more week in Arizona!
Next week: SA week! Southeast Arizona and South America prep