A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

Like a mirage, dazzling white sand dunes shift and settle over the Chihuahuan Desert, covering 275 square miles—the largest gypsum dunefield in the world

Remember how fun it was to play in the sand as a kid? It’s still pretty fun, as it turns out. And the sandbox is a lot bigger at White Sands National Park, a system of rare white gypsum sand dunes intertwined with raised boardwalk trails and a single loop road. Sunset and sunrise are obviously the golden hours for photographers but any time is a good time for some sand-dune sledding, kite flying, and back-country camping.

Dune Life Nature Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. This region of glistening white dunes is in the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert within an “internally drained valley” called the Tularosa Basin.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park ranges in elevation from 3,890 feet to 4,116 feet above sea level. There are approximately 275 total square miles of dune fields here with 115 square miles (about 40 percent) located within White Sands National Park. The remainder is on military land that is not open to the public.

It was the midst of the Great Depression when President Herbert Hoover declared this swath of pale dunes a national monument. Now 87 years later, White Sands has been declared the United States’ 62nd national park. 

Interdune Boardwalk, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The history of the newly-minted White Sands National Park goes back far beyond these presidential decrees, however. A unique series of fossilized footprints known as the White Sands Trackway show that almost 12,000 years ago ancient humans were stalking giant sloths here, hunting varieties of megafauna that died out by the end of the Pleistocene. 

Playa Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was 2,000 years later that the enormous gypsum dunes for which the new national park was named began to form, the result of steady evaporation of what was once a vast inland sea and, later, a lake between the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains. Prevailing winds eventually swirled those white gypsum sands into dunes that cover about 275 square miles of the Land of Enchantment.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the time European settlers arrived in the 1800s, the area was well known to bands of Apache who lived in the Tularosa Basin and surrounding mountain ranges. Their descendants now live on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation between Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area and Lincoln National Forest. 

Dunes Life Nature Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Given its arid climate, the temperatures at White Sands vary greatly both throughout the seasons and within a single day. The most comfortable time to visit weather-wise is autumn (late September through October) when daytime temperatures reach the 80s with light winds and cooler evening temperatures in the 50s. Spring (March through May) can also be comfortable when the temperature varies from the 70s to the 40s. However, strong windstorms are somewhat common during these months.  

Interdune Boardwalk, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In summer and winter, you’ll be dealing with hot and cold extremes, so you just need to be extra prepared for both. Summer days average about 95 degrees, but can spike as high as 110. Evenings are comfortable in the 60s. 

The last place to fill up any water containers is the visitor center, so make sure you have enough with you when you enter White Sands. Bring one gallon of water per person per day. If it’s hot, you’ll probably drink it all, but don’t forget to hydrate even if it’s cool and you don’t feel as thirsty. 

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bright sun is intensified by the reflection off the snow-white sand. Make sure you have a hat (I recommend a Tilley with UV protection) and sunglasses, even for the little ones. 

And of course, never forget the sunscreen! Avoid the chemicals and use mineral-based sunscreens.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be prepared for the wind.  Strong windstorms are common February through May, but it can be windy any day of the year. When we visited in late February, it was mostly calm throughout the day, but the winds started picking up by mid-afternoon. 

Worth Pondering…

Life is not obvious here. It is implied, or twice removed, and must be read in signs or code. Ripple marks tell of the wind’s way with individual sand grains. Footprints, mounds, and burrows bespeak the presence of mice, pocket gophers, and foxes.

—Rose Houk and Michael Collier

The Mind-Blowing Enchantment of New Mexico: San Antonio & Bosque del Apache

Most enchanting places in New Mexico for your bucket list

The Land of Enchantment, the state motto of New Mexico, is certainly an apt description of a state with diverse landscape and population. This is a state in which the air is crisp, the water fresh, and the people warm and friendly. 

Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We begin in New Mexico’s largest city, Albuquerque. Albuquerque and its suburbs have a vibrant, growing population just shy of one million residents. It is a sprawling, picturesque city, with the stunning Sandia Mountains constraining it on the east, Petroglyph National Monument to the west and the Rio Grande River meandering through its center. 

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual event held in early October. This nine day celebration hosts over 500 balloons each year and is the largest hot air balloon festival in the world.

Plaza de Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Journey 50 miles north and you arrive in Santa Fe, a world renowned city with shops, historic churches, art galleries, restaurants, and inns. Well known for its artists, cowboys, and Native American influence, Santa Fe is a melting pot of culture and ideas.

Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The commuter rail system, the Rail Runner Express offers a convenient, comfortable, and affordable excursion from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.
Today’s journey takes us in the opposite direction. We’ll drive our motorhome about 100 miles south via I-25 to our first stop in the quaint little town of San Antonio, New Mexico. 

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Christmas day in 1887, this little hamlet in southern New Mexico was the birth place of its most noteworthy resident, the legendary hotelier, Conrad Hilton. Along with his brothers and sisters, Conrad grew up helping his father in the five-room hotel where rates were $1 per day. Their first Hilton Hotel burned to the ground with only the grand mahogany bar spared from the devastation.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, this original mahogany antique can be seen in the Owl Bar and Café in San Antonio. This historic café vies with its neighbor, the Buckhorn Bar, for the “best green chili cheeseburger in the world.”

The Owl is an interesting place to stop for lunch. Walk in the door and you’ll step back into time. Your eyes are first drawn to Hilton’s original bar and then to the walls packed with memorabilia and collectable décor distinctly southwestern.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can’t help but note the dollar bills covering the restaurant’s walls. This is an Owl tradition which encourages visitors to write messages, or their names on dollar bills, then find an available space and tack them up. The cash is gathered annually and given to charity. Over the years, patrons have donated over $20,000.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio is gateway to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a ten minute drive south on SR-1S. Bosque del Apache stands out as one of the country’s most accessible and popular national wildlife preserves providing a seasonal home, November through March, for up to 12,000 sandhill cranes, 32,000 snow geese, nearly 40,000 ducks.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The visitor center is staffed with friendly, knowledgeable volunteers who provide maps and firsthand information on what’s happening at the refuge. Displays introduce you to much of the wildlife that call the refuge home. The gift and nature store offers field guides and gifts to make your visit enlightened and memorable.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to reserve time for the twelve-mile auto loop through the refuge. This loop is divided into north and south halves. Time spent will depend on how often and how long you stop at the many viewing areas. The south loop has more deep water ponds, which draw an abundance of diving birds. Both loops afford you opportunity to spot a wide array of wildlife.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The enchantment of New Mexico and many critters of the Bosque can be enjoyed any time of year. However, if your visit is from October through March, be sure to take warm clothes as the temperatures can blend with the New Mexico winds to drive a chill straight to the bone.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And there’s no better time or way to appreciate all that the 57,000-acre refuge has to offer than attending the annual Festival of the Cranes, a virtual event in 2020 (November 19-21). Registration required. It’s a glorious pageant of nature celebrating the annual migration of birds as they head south for the winter.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Kiva RV Park and Horse Motel (Bernardo); Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park (San Antonio)

Note: Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park closed for several years but has reopened under the same management.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

The Absolutely Most Amazing Winter Road Trips

Historically, winter RV trips are not the norm—but this year has been anything but normal

At a time when many industries are experiencing record lows and astronomical budget cuts, recreational vehicle sales are up—and not just by a little bit. Year-end totals for 2020 are predicted to hover around 425,000 units—nearly a 5 percent gain from 2019. And, 2021 predictions are looking even brighter with most estimates creeping near a 20 percent increase over 2020.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pandemic has introduced a new audience to the world of RVs, once the province of the baby boomer generation. Younger folks are driving the trend, gravitating toward smaller camper vans and vehicles under 30 feet in length. The new buyers don’t often have experience, either.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the first time we’re seeing people buy the products sight unseen. They’re paying for the vehicle online, getting it delivered to their home, and getting out there for the first time in their lives.

But there is another significant difference, too: Buyers are interested in extending the travel season. According to a 2020 impact survey conducted by Thor Industries, nearly 50 percent of respondents said they were still planning trips in October and November, a clear indication that consumers are eager to make up for lost time.

Blanco State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter road trips are possible, as long as travelers take the necessary precautions. Plan ahead when looking for places to camp since many designated campgrounds close for the winter. This means many travelers will boondock or camp off-the-grid without connections to power or water sources. If you’ll be adventuring in extremely cold conditions, consider adding additional insulation to holding tank areas and running your thermostat higher to keep the vehicle warmer and avoid frozen water lines. It’s a good idea to take a cold-weather practice run to understand the capabilities of your new RV.

Santa Fe, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get you started in planning a winter journey, check out the five winter RV road trip destinations listed below. Each highlights natural beauty and ample opportunities to get outside for some fresh—and potentially brisk—air.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Five, Southern Utah

Named as such by the state of Utah, the Big Five are the five national parks spread throughout the southern half of the state: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands. Each park boasts a unique look at the state’s famed geologic formations and scenery ranging from Angel’s Landing (a popular hike in Zion) to the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth’s surface in Capitol Reef. For RVers, this stretch of canyon country is a perfect winter journey thanks to the smaller crowds and ephemeral views of dazzling snow on red sandstone.

White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

New Mexico tends to be a drive-through state for many RV travelers, and that is a shame. RVers should spend a week in Santa Fe before directing their rig toward Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, the winter home of 12,000 sandhill cranes, 32,000 snow geese, and nearly 40,000 ducks. Continue south to White Sands National Park, the newest addition to the National Park Service’s lineup after its re-designation from a national monument in late 2019. Tucked away toward the southern border of the state shared with Texas, it is easy to see why White Sands is dubbed “like no place else on Earth.” Stark-white gypsum sand dunes fill a 275-square-mile region that amounts to a veritable (and socially distant) playground for those willing to explore.

Verde Valley near Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Verde Valley, Arizona

Located in the ‘heart’ of Arizona, the Verde Valley is ideally situated above the heat of the desert and below the cold of Arizona’s high country. The beautiful red rocks of Sedona, the quirkiness of an old mining town (Jerome), and the mysteries of stone (Montezuma Castle) left by those who once thrived here but have now vanished. Down the hill from Jerome is Clarkdale, an old copper mining company town now best known for the Verde Canyon Wilderness Train that takes you on a four hour tour of the stunning Verde River Canyon. You’ll find all this and more in the Verde Valley, 90 miles north of Phoenix.

Chattahoochee National Forest along Brasstown Bald Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northeast Georgia Mountains

Northeast Georgia Mountains’ picturesque beauty, countryside, tumbling waterfalls, and gentle-mountains provide an escape away from the bustling city. One of the oldest mountain chains that end in Georgia is the Blue Ridge. Tucked in Chattahoochee National Forest, Blue Ridge offers excellent hiking, scenic drives, and farm-fresh produce. Brasstown Bald, the highest point in the Blue Ridge Mountains is known to display the season’s first fall colors. Hike to the top for a panoramic 360-degree view and witness the four states from the visitor center. With sublime views and lush forests, Brasstown Bald offers a secluded retreat.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Hill Country

Characterized by tall, rugged hills of limestone and granite, Texas-sized ranches, and refreshing swimming holes, the Hill Country is an outdoor retreat like no other. Get inspired to relax, explore, and enjoy the great outdoors. Settled by Germans and Eastern Europeans, the Texas Hill Country has a culture all its own. Storybook farms and ranches dot the countryside, and you may even still hear folks speaking German in Fredericksburg, Boerne, and New Braunfels. You’ll also find some of the best barbecue in Texas, antique shops on old-fashioned main streets and celebrations with roots in the Old World.

Worth Pondering…

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

―T.S. Eliot

Should We Be Taking UFO Sightings More Seriously?

There is very compelling evidence that we may not be alone

In April, military officials released footage of three Navy videos that they say show “unidentified aerial phenomena” or in layman’s terms, unidentified flying objects (UFOs). The videos which were released previously by a private company show the objects which were not identified flying quickly through the air. They were recorded by infrared cameras.

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights

The videos were published by the New York Times in 2017. Two had been recorded in 2015: the other was captured in 2004. One person is heard on a clip saying that an object could be a drone.

From 2007 to 2012, the Pentagon had studied UFO encounters but was stopped because other programs needed funding. But the former head of the program said: “There is very compelling evidence that we may not be alone.”

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights

“These aircraft—we’ll call them aircraft—are displaying characteristics that are not currently within the US inventory or in any foreign inventory that we are aware of,” Luis Elizondo said in 2017.

These physics-defying aerial phenomena elevated the UFO conversation from Bigfoot Reddit forums to Bloomberg opinion columns. Here are a few prominent people saying we should take UFO sightings more seriously: 

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights

1. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Twitter: “The U.S. needs to take a serious, scientific look at this and any potential national security implications. The American people deserve to be informed.”

2. Economist Tyler Cowen for Bloomberg: “Humanity has a long history of being caught unawares by outside arrivals, and so we should pay more attention to that bias in ourselves.”  He cited the “technologically superior” Spanish invasion of the Aztec empire as an example. 

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights

3. Political scientist Alexander Wendt to Vox: “Whether it’s alien life, who knows? It’s a plausible explanation. My point is that we should be agnostic about this and simply study it scientifically. Let’s do the science and then we can talk about what we found.” The overarching argument: Strange phenomena should be investigated, whether the end goal is to protect ourselves from cone-headed extraterrestrials or just to learn something new.

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights

+ If you want to learn something new…here are a few of the UFO sightings taken seriously by the U.S. government. Mysterious lights. Sinister saucers. Alien abductions.

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights

Between 1947 and 1969, at the height of the Cold War, more than 12,000 UFO sightings were reported to Project Blue Book, a small, top-secret Air Force team. Their mission? Scientifically investigate the incidents and determine whether any posed a national security threat.

> Here is one of their most fascinating cases along with the latest on alien abduction insurance.

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights

The Roswell ‘UFO’ Incident

In the summer of 1947, a rancher discovered unidentifiable debris in his sheep pasture outside Roswell, New Mexico. Although officials from the local Air Force base asserted that it was a crashed weather balloon, many people believed it was the remains of an extraterrestrial flying saucer; a series of secret “dummy drops” in New Mexico during the 1950s heightened their suspicions. Nearly 50 years after the story of the mysterious debris broke the U.S. military issued a report linking the incident to a top-secret atomic espionage project called Project Mogul. Still, many people continue to embrace the UFO theory and hundreds of curiosity seekers visit Roswell and the crash site every year.

What Really Happened at Roswell? Click here, for the rest of the story…

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights

Alien Abduction Insurance Policy

Did you know you can purchase alien abduction insurance? Seriously! According to a Geico blog post, a London-based firm has sold over 30,000 policies throughout Europe. Like other insurance, alien abduction policies can be used to cover medical or psychiatric care, lost wages, or additional damages caused by an alien abduction. But, contrary to many life insurance policies, these insurance claims can be filed if abductees are considered missing and never return.

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights

If you’re a believer and alien abductions are a concern, you might be interested in learning more about this. However, you should consider that filing a claim will require proof of the occurrence. This would likely include providing specific information about the aliens and spacecraft involved, a detailed description about the incident, passing a lie detector test, providing video footage and alien signatures, and including statements from a third-party witness. Also, coverage will only include a single abduction so if you have “frequent flier miles” on alien spacecraft, you won’t benefit from a policy.

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights

$10,000,000.00 ALIEN ABDUCTION INSURANCE

The “Perfect Policy for Anyone Who Thinks They Have Everything Covered

You can’t be turned down regardless of your Age or Frequent Flyer Status. Only if you don’t …*

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights

Worth Pondering…

Don’t Leave Earth…Without It

What Really Happened at Roswell?

The Roswell UFO Incident

One morning around Independence Day 1947, about 75 miles from the town of Roswell, New Mexico, a rancher named Mac Brazel found something unusual in his sheep pasture: a mess of metallic sticks held together with tape; chunks of plastic and foil reflectors; and scraps of a heavy, glossy, paper-like material.

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unable to identify the strange objects, Brazel called Roswell’s sheriff. The sheriff, in turn, called officials at the nearby Roswell Army Air Force base. Soldiers fanned out across Brazel’s field, gathering the mysterious debris and whisking it away in armored trucks.

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On July 8, “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region” was the top story in the Roswell Daily Record. But was it true? On July 9, an Air Force official clarified the paper’s report: The alleged “flying saucer,” he said, was only a crashed weather balloon. However, to anyone who had seen the debris (or the newspaper photographs of it), it was clear that whatever this thing was, it was no weather balloon. Some people believed—and still believe—that the crashed vehicle had not come from Earth at all. They argued that the debris in Brazel’s field must have come from an alien spaceship.

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It turned out that the Army knew more about Brazel’s “flying saucer” than it let on. Since World War II, a group of geophysicists and oceanographers from Columbia University, New York University, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod had been working on a top-secret atomic espionage project at New Mexico’s Alamogordo Air Field that they called Project Mogul.

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Project Mogul used sturdy high-altitude balloons to carry low-frequency sound sensors into the tropopause, a faraway part of the Earth’s atmosphere that acts as a sound channel. In this part of the atmosphere, sound waves can travel for thousands of miles without interference, much like under the ocean. The scientists believed that if they sent microphones into this sound channel, they would be able to eavesdrop on nuclear tests as far away as the Soviet Union.

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the U.S. military, the debris in Brazel’s field outside Roswell actually belonged to Project Mogul. It was the remains of a 700-foot-long string of neoprene balloons, radar reflectors (for tracking), and sonic equipment that the scientists had launched from the Alamogordo base in June and that had, evidently, crashed in early July 1947.

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because the project was highly classified, no one at the Roswell Army Air Field even knew that it existed and they had no idea what to make of the objects Brazel had found. (In fact, some officials on the base were worried that the wreckage had come from a Russian spy plane or satellite—information that they were understandably reluctant to share with the public.)

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The “weather balloon” story, flimsy though it was, was the simplest and most plausible explanation they could come up with on short notice. Meanwhile, to protect the scientists’ secret project, no one at Alamogordo could step in and clear up the confusion.

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, many people continue to believe that the government and the military are covering up the truth about alien landings at and around Roswell. In 1994, the Pentagon declassified most of its files on Project Mogul and the dummy drops and the federal General Accounting Office produced a report (“Report of Air Force Research Regarding the Roswell Incident”) designed to debunk these rumors. Nevertheless, there are still people who subscribe to the UFO theory and hundreds of thousands of curiosity seekers visit Roswell and the crash site every year hoping to find out the truth for themselves.

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell was organized to inform the public about what has come to be known as “The Roswell Incident” and other unexplained phenomena related to UFO research.

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every July, the UFO Museum celebrates the famous Roswell Crash of 1947 by hosting several guest speakers who give lectures to thousands of people over the course of three days. During those three days, the Museum sees on average 12,000 visitors from all over the globe.

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic brings concern for near-future events. The safety and well-being of our employees, speakers, visitors, and community remain a top priority. With all of that being said, the decision was made to cancel the 2020 UFOlogist Invasion. Although it was a difficult decision, it was the responsible one, according to the website.

International UFO Museum & Research Center at Roswell exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We hope to see you all at the 2021 UFOlogist Invasion.

Worth Pondering…

Well, at least my mom knows what species I am.

Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 caves—formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone leaving behind caverns of all sizes

The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches, underneath the Guadalupe Mountains, lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

High ancient sea ledges, deep rocky canyons, flowering cactus, and desert wildlife are the treasures above the ground in the Chihuahuan Desert. Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the formations—or speleothems—found inside Carlsbad Cavern today were active and growing during the last ice age when instead of a desert above the cave, there were pine forests. Water molded this underworld four to six million years ago. Some 250 million years ago, the region lay underneath the inland arm of an ancient sea. Near the shore grew a limestone reef. By the time the sea withdrew, the reef stood hundreds of feet high, later to be buried under thousands of feet of soil.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some 15 to 20 million years ago, the ground uplifted. Naturally occurring sulfuric acid seeped into cracks in the limestone, gradually enlarging them to form a honeycomb of chambers. Millions of years passed before the cave decoration began. Then, drop by drop, limestone-laden moisture created an extraordinary variety of formations—some six stories tall; others tiny and delicate.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave scientists have explored more than 30 miles of passageways of the main cavern of Carlsbad, and investigation continues. Visitors may tour three of these miles on a paved trail. Slaughter Canyon Cave provides the hardy an opportunity to play caver, albeit with a guide. The park has more than a hundred other caves open primarily to specialists.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One full day allows you time to tour the main cavern and take a nature walk or a drive before watching the bats fly at sunset. For a second day’s activity, reserve space on a tour of Slaughter Canyon Cave, if you’re ready for a more rugged caving experience.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the Visitor Center, select either the Natural Entrance Tour or the Big Room Tour (both are 1.25-mile walks). Try the first unless you have walking, breathing, or heart problems. It starts at the natural entrance and is mostly downhill, except for one stretch where you climb 83 feet; an elevator whisks you back to ground level. The Natural Entrance Tour is more intimate and may be less crowded than the Big Room.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cave climate is cool and averages about 56°F year-round. You may want to bring a light jacket or sweater. Comfortable, rubber-soled shoes with good traction are appropriate.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park was first designated a National Monument in 1923. It became a National Park in 1930. Carlsbad Caverns was also designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Some visitors think the park’s most spectacular sight is the one seen at the cave’s mouth. More than a quarter million Brazilian (Mexican) free-tailed bats summer in a section of the cave, and around sunset they spiral up from the entrance to hunt for insects.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nightly exodus led to the discovery of the cave in modern times. Around the turn of the 20th century, miners began to excavate bat guano—a potent fertilizer—for shipment to the citrus groves of southern California. One of the guano miners, James Larkin White, became the first to explore and publicize the caverns beyond Bat Cave.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main cavern gets crowded, especially in summer and on major holiday weekends. Either spring or fall, when the desert’s in bloom, is an excellent time to go. You’ll see the bats fly from April or mid-May through October.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park above ground looming south to Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is off US 62/180, 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad and 164 miles east of El Paso, Texas. For the visitor center, turn west at Whites City and drive seven miles.

Worth Pondering…

The beauty, the weirdness, the grandeur … absolved my mind of all thoughts of a world above. I forgot time, place and distance.

—Jim White

Wake Up In New Mexico

Adventure waits at every corner. Native American culture abounds. National and state treasures are easy to find. And history is created every day.

D. H. Lawrence, writing in 1928, pretty much summed it up: “The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul.”

The Land of Enchantment, the state motto of New Mexico, is certainly an apt description of a state with diverse landscape and population. This is a state in which the air is crisp, the water fresh, and the people warm and friendly. 

Rio Grande River north of Albuquerque near Bernalillo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The desert scenery here is absolutely breathtaking. The red rock cliffs and sprawling mesas make a drive through New Mexico seem a lot shorter than the 375 miles I-40 travels through the state. Northern New Mexico also boasts the mountains of Taos, and gives that part of the state a look more Colorado than Arizona.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico’s National Parks and Monuments offer a wide variety of outdoor and educational experiences. There are dormant volcanoes, ancient lava flows, ice caves, fossil sites, archeological digs, and unique geology just waiting to be explored.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park is one of the most distinct—and arresting—pieces of earth in the lower 48. Stretching 275 square miles, the majestic white dunes here aren’t composed of your typical beach sand but rather from gypsum crystals left behind from a nearby dried-out lake bed. The result looks more like a white-sand version of the Sahara desert than New Mexico; you half expect to see camels waltzing by.

El Moro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover an oasis in the desert at El Morro National Monument. The natural watering hole is tucked at the base of colorful sandstone cliffs. Walk the Inscription Trail to see thousands of inscriptions that bear witness to the visitors who sought refreshment there throughout the centuries.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And we’d be remiss to leave out Carlsbad Caverns, a massive system of 119 known caves beneath its surface. Carlsbad Caverns are truly enormous; Will Rogers called the cave system “the Grand Canyon with a roof over it.” The most popular route through the cave is the Big Room (the largest single cave chamber in North America) which consists of a well-lit concrete path that will take you an hour or more to complete.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico is home to some of the oldest, continuously inhabited communities in North America. The Pueblos of Taos, Acoma, and Zuni have existed for countless lifetimes. Places like Chaco Canyon and Aztec were developed and populated thousands of years before Europeans arrived to America’s shores. 

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico’s cities are incomparable bastions of history, culture, and art. Santa Fe was called the Dancing Ground of the Sun by early Native American inhabitants and dubbed The City Different by town fathers at the turn of the 20th century. By any name, Santa Fe is one of the world’s top award-winning and most beloved destinations—four centuries of history and legend, ancient and modern cultures, visual and performing arts, and expansive culinary delights. 

Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re like us and many RVers, you love exploring America’s vast and varied culinary landscape during your travels. And I’m not talking fast food. If I could eat in only three states for the rest of my life, New Mexico would be in this select group.

Red chile field in Mesilla Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No adventure in New Mexico is complete until you have experienced the cuisine. If you’ve never had New Mexican food, then prep your taste buds now! At the center of it all is the chile in both red and green varieties which is used in everything from enchiladas to wine and ice cream.

Chiles at Las Cruces Farmers and Craft Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiles are the soul of New Mexican cooking which blends Native American and Hispanic influences into a cuisine unto itself. Chile comes in two varieties: red or green. Which one you will prefer is up to your palate. (Note: New Mexicans use the spelling chile, not chili, to mean the plant and the green or red sauce they make from it.)

La Posta in Historic Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chile is the New Mexico’s largest agricultural crop. Across the state chile is consumed at every meal, is celebrated in songs and at festivals, and is the subject of the Official New Mexico State Question, Red or Green?, estimated to be uttered over 200,000 times a day in the state.

Mural at La Posta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument

A petroglyph is an image on stone, created by removing part of the surface of the rock by pecking, carving, etching, or abrading with a tool or harder stone

Greetings on day 1,999 of lockdown! Oh, wait, that’s not correct. It just feels that way.

Just remember, this isn’t forever, but you have to know what’s out there before you can step back into the world of RV travel. Today we keep the fire going as we head to the Land of Enchantment.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Standing amid a jumble of basalt boulders, I paused after pulling myself up a steep climb of coffee-colored rock. We’re hiking appropriately named Boca Negra Canyon of the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, and so far the rock art hasn’t exactly been jumping out at me. But as I pause to rest and finally consider the beauty of the canyon, petroglyphs begin to emerge before me.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Round faces, turtles and birds, brands and crosses, and lightning bolt-like patterns appear plain as day where I was looking on the fly just moments before. Sometimes you cover more ground and observe more beauty when standing still.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These images are inseparable from the greater cultural landscape, from the spirits of the people who created them, and from all who appreciate them today.

While it may be tempting to reach out your hand, don’t touch! Oils from your skin can permanently damage the petroglyphs.

Petroglyph National Monument and Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jointly managed by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument comprises 7,236 acres of a volcanic basalt escarpment created by ancient lava flows along 17 miles of Albuquerque’s west escarpment, known as the West Mesa. The monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources, including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites, and an estimated 25,000 images carved into these dark rock outcroppings.

Petroglyph National Monument and Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 150,000 year ago lava seeped from an enormous fissure here, covering the landscape like a prehistoric parking lot. Over time, cooling and erosion cracked the hardened lava. In many areas the ripples of once-hot lava can be seen in rock fragments.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By pecking the flat basalt, ancient artists found they could chisel away the dark desert varnish that had coated the rock and expose lighter rock beneath, creating a contrast that is still striking today. Basalt has a high iron content, and the rocks’ dark interior is basically rust. Creating a petroglyph was no small undertaking, as it took considerable time to etch the rock.

The National Park Service Las Imagenes Visitor Center and book store is located off Unser Boulevard at Western Trail. We began our visit here with a brief orientation to the monument and checked the schedule for ranger guided tours and special events before lacing up our hiking boots and hitting the trail at Boca Negra Canyon, a 70-acre section of the monument. Each trail offers a diverse view of the cultural and natural landscape within the monument.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located two miles north of the visitor center on Unser Boulevard, Boca Negra Canyon provides quick and easy access to three partly paved self-guiding trails where you can view 200 petroglyphs.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is the most popular section of the monument, and is the only fully-developed area with restroom facilities, shade, and a drinking fountain. A nominal parking fee is charged by the City of Albuquerque.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mostly, the national monument’s expanse of open space is undeveloped save for interpretative signs and facilities along the few developed trails at Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon, and the volcano’s trails. Otherwise, silence and isolation are yours just minutes from New Mexico’s largest city.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located one mile south of the visitor center on Unser Boulevard, Rinconada Canyon is one of the few places, where at the end of the trail you can be out of sight of the city.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 2½-mile round-trip sandy trail follows the base of the escarpment where you can view more than 800 petroglyphs. This trail area has no water, so bring your own. You are advised to stop at the visitor center for an orientation and map before hiking this trail.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The northernmost area of the monument, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, means “canyon of marked rocks”. Piedras Marcadas is home to the densest concentration of petroglyphs along the monument’s 17-mile escarpment, with an estimated 5,000 images. This area may be entered from a small parking lot west of Golf Course Road.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This trail area has no water, so bring your own. You are advised to stop at the visitor center for an orientation and map before hiking this trail.

Worth Pondering…

Each of these rocks is alive, keeper of a message left by the ancestors…There are spirits, guardians; there is medicine…

—William F. Weahkee, Pueblo Elder

Chile Peppers 101

From sweet bell peppers to spicy jalapeños and the super hot Trinidad Scorpion, chile peppers are popular around the world

Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

New Mexicans today like their ancestors revere the fiery chile cultivated centuries ago in Pueblo and Hispano communities up and down the Rio Grande from Taos to Vado.

Chile peppers in Mesilla Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The varieties consumed today trace their lineage to an heirloom variety, the 6-4, bred in 1894 by Fabian Garcia at Las Cruces’ New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, known today as New Mexico State University (NMSU). His pepper rated 1,786 Scoville Heat Units. Today’s most popular chile varieties—Rio Grande, Sandia, and Big Jim—clock in at from 2,500 to 10,000 Scoville Heat Units.

Dried chile peppers in Las Cruces Craft and Farmers Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chile shares the State Vegetable honor with frijoles (pinto beans). The State Question, often heard at restaurants when customers order a dish that includes chile is: “Red or Green?” 

Flame-roasted green chile is typically spicier than dried, rehydrated, and ground red chile. In addition to traditional green and red chile Mexican dishes, chile-infused foods run the gamut from green chile chicken wontons and green chile chocolate bars to green chile wine and green chile milk shakes.

Dried chile peppers in Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps the most revered among chile-loving New Mexicans is the green chile cheeseburger which has been elevated to superstar status in the Land of Enchantment. In 2009, the state’s tourism department initiated the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. Each year, chefs compete to see who wins the state’s Best Chile Cheeseburger crown.

Chile peppers in Mesilla Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to Las Cruces can enjoy cheeseburgers adorned with chopped or “slabs” of green chile grown locally as well as revered chiles from sacred ground zero in Hatch some 33 miles north.

Dried chile peppers in Las Cruces Craft and Farmers Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From sweet bell peppers to spicy jalapeños and the super hot Trinidad Scorpion, chile peppers are popular around the world for their various shapes, sizes, colors, and heat levels. According to New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute that popularity goes back thousands of years.

Chile peppers have chemical compounds called capsaicinoids. When humans or other mammals eat or even touch capsaicinoids it sends a sensation to the brain that the pepper is hot. In addition to food purposes, capsaicin is used in pain relief patches to relieve muscle aches and pains.

McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, chile peppers are used in a wide variety of cuisine depending on the heat level produced. The bell pepper, or the sweet pepper, has no heat at all. Those can be used fresh in salads or cooked in various dishes. Mild to hot chile peppers include poblanos, New Mexico chile pepper varieties, and jalapeños. Those can be eaten fresh, dried, or cooked and used in traditional Mexican dishes and salsas.

Chile peppers in Mesilla Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Further up the heat scale are tabascos and similar peppers used in hot sauces. Habaneros and chiltepins are considered very hot. Anything above one million Scoville Heat Units including the Bhut Jolokia and the Trinidad Scorpion are considered super hot.

Dried chile peppers in Las Cruces Craft and Farmers Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“There’s a lot of people out there who love that burn,” Danise Coon, a senior research specialist at the Chile Pepper Institute said. “We can make sauces out of those kinds of peppers but they really are incredibly hot. The good news, every one of those is edible. As long as it’s a true capsicum, it’s edible. Even if it’s an ornamental chile pepper, it’s edible.”

Louisiana hot sauce © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chile peppers tend to be rich in vitamins A and C and have other nutritional values as well. The purple pigment present in some peppers is produced by anthocyanin, an antioxidant that can help prevent cell damage in the body. Red chile peppers are rich in carotenoids and is considered good for eye health.

Dried chile peppers in Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A green chile pepper compared to a red chile pepper isn’t going to be as sweet,” Coon said. “Once you get into the red stage, it’s going to produce more sugar so it’s going to be a little sweeter.”

Tabasco hot sauce © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fun Chile Facts

  • One fresh, medium-sized green chile pod has as much Vitamin C as six oranges.
  • One teaspoon of dried red chile powder has the daily requirements of Vitamin A.
  • Hot chile peppers burn calories by triggering a thermodynamic burn in the body which speeds up the metabolism.
  • Teas and lozenges are made with chile peppers for the treatment of a sore throat.
  • The Capsaicinoids (the chemical that make chile peppers hot) are used in muscle patches for sore and aching muscles.
  • Wild chiles are easily spread by birds because birds do not have the receptors in their mouths to feel the heat.
  • Born somewhere in the Amazon where the borders of Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil merge peppers were one of the first cultivated plants in the Western Hemisphere. Chile pepper remnants found at a pre-agricultural site in Peru are evidence that the pepper was the first spice used anywhere on Earth.
Tabasco hot sauce © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Delectable chile-con-carne… composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile—a compound full of singular saver and a fiery zest.

—O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss

World’s Largest Pistachio Nut

This is one really big nut

As the world comes to a standstill as we try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus), we encourage all of you to hunker down right now, too. In the meantime, we’ll keep posting articles to help you navigate the state of RV travel as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it’s safe to get back on the road again.

One of the largest pistachio tree grooves in New Mexico, PistachioLand is a destination that can be enjoyed by all ages. Located in the Tularosa Basin outside of Alamogordo it’s an easy day trips from Las Cruces and can be combined with a visit to White Sands National Park.  

McGinn’s Pistachioland Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tularosa Basin has the perfect climate for growing pistachios, pecans, and grapes.  There are numerous wineries and nut farms where you can enjoy delicious wine and nut tastings and beautiful views of the Sacramento Mountains.

McGinn’s Pistachioland Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

PistachioLand is the home of the World’s Largest Pistachio, Pistachio Tree Ranch, McGinn’s Country Store, and Arena Blanca Winery. Experience their motorized farm tour, take your photo with the World’s Largest Pistachio, shop inside their country store for farm grown and hand crafted goodies, sit on the porch with views of the mountains, try their free samples at the pistachio bar, enjoy the wine tasting room, and grab a sweet treat in PistachioLand ice cream parlor. There is so much to see and experience at McGinn’s PistachioLand.

McGinn’s Pistachioland Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The World’s Largest Pistachio was built in honor of PistachioLand’s founder, Thomas McGinn. After his passing in 2008, his son, Timothy McGinn erected the 30 foot sculpture in memory of his father. Tim wanted everyone who passed by PistachioLand to take note of what his dad created, a 111-acre pistachio orchard and vineyard started from bare desert land in 1980. From the first trees planted to today, PistachioLand now is home to over 12,000 pistachio trees and 14 acres of wine grapes. 

McGinn’s Pistachioland Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A bronze plaque at the base of the nut states that, “Tom dreamed big, expected big, and accomplished big things. He would have said the monument is not big enough!”

The pistachio probably originated in Central Asia where large stands of wild trees are found in areas known today as Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Evidence indicates that fruits of the tree have been eaten for over 8,000 years. The first commercial plantings in these countries were most likely started from seeds collected from the best wild trees.

McGinn’s Pistachioland Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tree was introduced into Mediterranean Europe at about the beginning of the Christian era. The elevation and climate in the Tularosa Basin is almost identical to the pistachio producing areas of Iran and Turkey.

The scientific name for the pistachio is Pistacia vera L. It is a member of the Anacardiaceae family which contains such widely known plants as the cashew, mango, sumach, and poison ivy.

The pistachio nut is one of the most popular tree nuts in the world and is valued globally for its nutritional value, health and sensory attributes, and economic importance.

McGinn’s Pistachioland Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pistachio nuts are relatively low in sugar (approximately 10 percent) and high in protein (20 percent) and oil (50 percent) contents. The oil is 90 percent unsaturated fatty acids, 70 percent of which is oleic acid and 20 percent the more desirable linoleic acid.

McGinn’s Pistachioland Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pistachio trees grow in dry climates and can reach up to 39 feet in height. In the spring, the trees develop grape-like clusters of green colored fruits, known as drupes, which gradually harden and turn red.

Within the fruit is a green and purple seed which is the edible part of the fruit. As the fruits ripen, the shell hardens and splits open with a pop exposing the seed within. The fruits are picked, hulled, dried, and often roasted before being sold.

Because pistachios are the seed of a drupe, they are not a true botanical nut. In fact, they’re the edible seed of the pistachio tree fruit. However, in the culinary world pistachios are treated as nuts and they’re also classified as a tree nut allergen.

It is a deciduous tree requiring approximately 1,000 hours of temperature at or below 45 degrees in order to grow normally after its winter dormancy. Pistachio nut trees are generally suited for areas where summers are long, hot, and dry and the winters are moderately cold. A native desert tree, it does not tolerate high humidity in the growing season.

McGinn’s Pistachioland Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A large percentage of pistachios are marketed in the shell for eating-out-of-the-hand snack food. Pistachios are a rich source of essential nutrients, fiber, and protein. Low in saturated fat and cholesterol free, increasing numbers of people are discovering how enjoyable this delicious nut can be.

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life. —Georgia O’Keeffe