We had spent almost three months in Texas, and it was time to leave Kerrville and the Texas Hill Country and head for New Mexico. We headed west on I10. Not too far off I10 in west Texas is Davis Mountains State Park where we stayed back in February. We liked the stark beauty of the area and the remote, peaceful feeling of the park, so we stopped again on our way back west .
Our visit started out daja vu. We got our favorite campsite, but as we started setting up, we once again had a hydraulic jack problem...just like last time back in February on this very same (not very level) campsite. Last time, one of the jacks wouldn't extend. This time, none of the jacks would extend. Although the last repair couldn't be made until we reached Mission, Paul was able complete this fix himself with the company over-nighting the part to us. This fix was still under warranty, too. :)
Paul was sick the whole week we were there. However, he didn't have to go to work, could nap when he wanted, and had the beautiful Davis Mountains for a view. Things could have been worse. :) We decided to skip traveling to Big Bend National Park this trip and stay put for the week.
When Paul was feeling better, we headed about 35 miles north to Balmorhea State Park. The campground consists of pull-through sites with 50 amp, back-in sites with 30 amp, and tent sites with water only. We opted for a 30 amp back-in site because we thought the views and privacy were better than the pull-throughs.
Balmorhea State Park is built around San Solomon Springs. Water for the spring comes from an underground aquifer and flows at the rate of about a million gallons an hour. Native Americans and early settlers used the springs for crops and irrigation. In the 1930's, the CCC built the state park which includes a 77,000 square foot swimming pool which is popular with scuba divers. The end where the spring is located (to the right and to the rear in the photo below) is 20' deep.
Today the area also includes a reconstructed desert wetlands and a canal which are the home to several species of endangered fish. From the wetlands and canal, the water flows to irrigation canals and to Balmorhea Lake.
After a relaxing few days at Balmorhea, we headed northwest to Carlsbad, New Mexico. We had spent almost three months exploring Texas, and there's still much more to see! However, after 8 1/2 months and about 12,000 miles on the road, we finally have been able to travel in a way that is not only leisurely, but also more economical. Spending at least one week in a location, particularly a private campground, enables us to take advantage of a weekly rate. Traveling no more than 4 hours between stopovers (and often less) we find the pace of travel, exploration, and life in general is more relaxing. We're starting to get the hang of this retirement thing. :)
Our stay at Brantley Lake State Park was our first experience with the New Mexico State Park System. Brantley Lake is along the Pecos River just north of Carlsbad and at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. The sites are widely spaced, although some of the parking pads are short and could only be used by tenters. All sites have covered picnic tables. There are 3 sites with sewer hook-up.
South of Carlsbad is Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The park contains over 33,000 acres of rugged, Guadalupe Mountain wilderness. This is the view from the back side of the mountain where the Visitor Center is located.
There are approximately 100 caves in the park, but most are closed to the general public and some are being preserved for research. The world-famous Carlsbad Caverns, however, are open for tours. There are ranger-guided and self-guided tours from either the natural entrance or from the bottom of a 750 foot elevator. Because of Margery's knees, we opted to ride the elevator and take the shorter, Big Room Tour. The Big Room covers an estimated 600,000 square feet and is the largest known natural limestone chamber in the Western Hemisphere. It is 25 stories high at the highest point. The Big Room tour is about 1.3 miles and takes about an hour and a half. The trekking poles really help Margery walk, and she did really well. However, she was happy to get to the end. She was done! :)
Lighting is low-key and was done by theatrical lighting professionals. Although the lighting sometimes takes on different hues in photographs, it is all done in natural colors. Stalagmites tower up to 60 feet from the floor and stalactites - some massive, some broadly conical, some delicately slender - hang from the ceiling. Sometimes stalagmites and stalactites meet to form a continuous column from floor to ceiling. There are even delicate stalactites called soda straws that are actually slender, hollow tubes. With a little imagination, you can see different shapes in the formations, and we had fun pointing them out to each other. See for more of the interesting formations at Carlsbad Caverns.
Paul was looking forward to visiting Roswell, NM, about 60 miles north of where we were staying to find out what all the UFO hoopla was about. On July 4, 1947, something crashed in the desert near Roswell. There has been much controversy over exactly what it was that crashed. The official government position is that it was a top-secret weather balloon, but credible reports indicated it might have been something else. The UFO Museum and Research Center presents information about the so-called Roswell Incident with copies of newspaper articles, government statements, and affidavits from local citizens. The rancher who was the first to find the 300 yard wide by ¾ mile long debris field claims to have collected some of the debris including unusually lightweight metal pieces - some of them which had strange violet-colored markings. A local nurse even claims to have seen the bodies of several of the aliens. The museum presents both sides of the story and more or less allows the visitors to draw their own conclusions. Frankly, we could not reach a conclusion one way or the other, but we found it to be very interesting.
Our next “port of call” was Alamogordo, NM, where we stayed at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park located at the base of the Sacramento Mountains. The park provided spectacular views of the mountains to the east...
The campsites are widely spaced and surrounded by Chihuahuan Desert vegetation. We were blessed to arrive with spring in full swing with wild flowers, ocotillo, agaves, and cacti in bloom. See Photo Album 017: Caverns to Nuts in New Mexico for photos of the beautiful desert plants.
The main reason for going to Alamogordo was to visit White Sands National Monument. The white sand dunes cover 275 square
miles, but only a portion of that is the national monument. Most of the
remainder is White Sands Missle Range, which is the birthplace of
The white sand is actually gypsum, which is a mineral used to make plaster and drywall. Gypsum is contained in the limestone layers in the surrounding mountains and is soluble in water over time. High in the mountains, rain slowly dissolves some of the gypsum. The dissolved gypsum is normally carried by rivers to the ocean, but gypsum that finds its way to the Tularosa Basin is trapped because no rivers drain the basin. During the wet season, water carrying the dissolved gypsum collects in low spots and shallow lakes, the largest of which is Lake Lucero. As the water evaporates, the gypsum forms crystals called selenite. The wind breaks off the soft crystals, and they begin their tumble across the desert becoming grains of sand. The tumbling also produces the scratches on the surface of the grains which changes the appearance from clear to white. Because of the arid conditions in the basin, the gypsum does not re-dissolve.
The sand dunes move across the desert like waves on the ocean in ultra slow motion. In areas where the dunes move rapidly (the dunes can move up to 40 feet a year!) there is no vegetation. The moving sand simply smothers anything that tries to grow. These areas reminded us of giant snow drifts. In fact, they have to plow the roads to keep them open. The photo below shows Margery hiking up a sand dune. Her trekking poles make it look like she is cross-country skiing.
In areas where the dunes are moving slowly and in between the dunes, there is vegetation. Those areas reminded us of the North Carolina shore where we visited last fall. Imagine the blue of the mountains in the distance in the photo below is ocean.
Although there are 60 varieties of plants that live in the dune field, most are found in the areas between the dunes. Only eight varieties of plants have adapted in ways to allow them to survive in the moving sand. The Rio Grande Cottonwood can survive partially buried in the sand. The Soaptree Yucca can grow its main stem rapidly in order to keep its leaves above the level of the sand. However, after the dune passes, the stem will collapse under its own weight and the plant usually dies. Other plants such as the Skunkbush Sumac and the Rosemary Mint grow dense masses of roots that hang onto a clump of sand. The plant will be left standing on a sand pedestal like the one in the photo below.
The route from Carlsbad to Alamogordo takes you across the Sacramento Mountains and through the village of Cloudcroft. Unfortunately we missed Cloudcroft on our way into Alamogordo because our computer mapping software took us on a supposedly shorter route. Then, because we missed a turn, we ended up going 50 miles out of our way through the Lincoln National Forest. However, when we checked later to see where we went wrong, we found missing the turn was actually a blessing because the computer route would have probably been too steep and narrow to safely travel in our motor home.
Anyway, Cloudcroft looked like a quaint mountain village from a brochure we had picked up so after visiting White Sands we decided to take the 15-mile trip back up into the mountains to visit Cloudcroft. In the 4,600’ climb (8,600’ above sea level) up the mountain, the temperature fell from 82 degrees to 48 degrees! Cloudcroft was indeed quaint...
...but since we were dressed
in shorts, we didn’t stay very long. We did, however, experience some
spectacular views coming back down the mountain. The white streak far in the
distance in the photo below is White Sands.
We had passed several pistachio farms on our way into Alamogordo, but we decided to visit Eagle Ranch Pistachio Grove because they offered daily tours. Pistachios are native to the Middle East - Iran,Turkey and Afghanistan. In the U.S. they are grown primarily in California, but in 1974 Eagle Ranch Pistachio Grove was started in the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico. The climate and altitude are the same as in Iran and Turkey. Today, Eagle Ranch has 12,000 pistachio trees. The photo below is a view of part of their grove.
When the nuts are ripe, the epicarp will turn light tan, and the hard shell underneath will split. Pistachios do not have to be roasted for the shells to open. After initial cleaning to remove the epicarp, the nuts are put into cold storage to be processed later as needed. This makes the tour particularly interesting, because you never know what operations you’ll see. The processes include sorting, flavoring, roasting, and packaging. Eagle Ranch sells flavored (green chili, red chili, lemon-lime, and cinnamon), salted, unsalted, shelled, and in-the-shell pistachios. They are the best pistachios we have ever tasted.
We’re not big on visiting gift shops since we downsized to the motor home, but the Eagle Ranch gift shop was particularly nice. While we waited for the tour to begin, we were able to view a video of the pistachio processing. In addition to samples of all their pistachio products and selective gift items which were not your usual souvenir fare, they also offered wine tasting. This summer they plan to build a winery next to their vineyard, which is down the road.
Pistachios seem to be an ideal crop. They do not require a lot of space to process or store and they are harvested all at one time and held in cold storage to be processed as needed. Pistachios don’t need a lot of water and tolerate saline water found in many desert locations. If we ever wanted to start a business (which we don’t), we would want to do it the Eagle Ranch way.
We enjoyed our time in Alamogordo but headed further west looking forward to our next stop, Silver City.