Travel through this dusty outpost between April and November and you might wonder why this wide spot along Interstate 10 is such a popular snowbird destination for RVers. But visit in January and you’ll quickly see why: it morphs into a non-stop social event for RVing snowbirds.
Dozens of inexpensive Quartzsite RV parks have room for seasonal guests and short-term visitors alike. Tens of thousands of snowbirds boondock at one of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designed visitor areas that surround Quartzsite. A long-term permit allows snowbirds to stay at a BLM-designated Long Term Visitor Area for $180 between September 15 and April 15 (a total of 7 months), or for any length of time between those two dates.
The LTVA short-visit permit ($40) allows the use of BLM-designated LTVAs for any 14-consecutive-day period from September 15th to April 15th The only caveat? You’ll go without hookups. The only “amenities” are beautiful desert sunsets with wide-open views of the surrounding area.
Quartzsite RV Show is the largest gathering of RVs and RVers on Earth. 2022 dates are January 22-30. Endless flea market shopping opportunities and RV club social events galore give you plenty to do.
Carlsbad, New Mexico
Not to be confused with the California city of the same name, Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico is a peaceful city along the Pecos River. This town is the gateway to Carlsbad Caverns National Park with more than 100 underground caves.
The park consists of a network of cave passages filled with stalagmites, stalactites, and other formations. The largest chamber, “The Big Room” is 8.2 acres and the largest accessible cave chamber in North America.
Most people like to explore at their own pace on the Self-Guided Tours, but if you prefer having a guide with more information, consider taking one of their ranger-led tours. You can enter the caves by hiking down the steep 1.25-mile Natural Entrance Trail, or by simply taking an elevator down into the caves.
Las Cruces is less than an hour from the Texas border in southeastern New Mexico. The town sits in the shadow of the Organ Mountains and is a short drive from the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
The Organ Mountains are a steep, angular mountain range with rocky spires that jut majestically above the Chihuahuan Desert floor to an elevation of 9,000 feet. This picturesque area of rocky peaks, narrow canyons, and open woodlands ranges from Chihuahuan Desert habitat to ponderosa pine in the highest elevations. Located adjacent to and on the east side of Las Cruces, this area provides opportunities for photography, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, camping, and wildlife viewing.
Dripping Springs Natural Area is also close to Las Cruces with easy hiking trails among huge rock spires. White Sands National Monument is less than an hour away with huge sand dunes that you can hike or sled down.
Step back in time and visit Old Mesilla, one of the oldest and most unique settlements of southern New Mexico. Pancho Villa and Billy the Kid walked the streets. The famous trial of Billy the Kid was held here. Today Mesilla is a part of living history. Great care has been given to preserving the original adobe buildings and the beautiful plaza. People from all over the world stop to experience the history, art, architecture, quaint shopping, and unique dining that Mesilla has to offer.
You’ll also want to stop and browse the town’s huge year-round Farmers and Crafts Market. Their famous downtown market includes over 300 local farmers, artists, bakers, and vendors selling fresh produce and handmade artisan goods.
One of the best parts of the RV lifestyle is the ability to simply follow warm weather wherever it may lead
While the pandemic increased the appeal of camping and outdoor recreation in the last 18 months, Google Trends data confirms that interest has in fact been growing rapidly for longer than that. Overall search interest in RVing was flat or on a slight decline for most of the 2000s and early 2010s. In more recent years, interest has grown rapidly, reaching an all-time high in 2020. Now, search interest in RVing during the offseason is comparable to peak season search interest from a decade ago.
This interest is also apparent across different demographic groups. The population of older Americans and Canadians—who have long been a major segment of the RV market—is growing as more Baby Boomers reach retirement age. But demand for RVs is also strong among Millennials and Gen Z, 49 percent of whom grew up with RVing and tend to be married, educated, and full-time working parents. Around two in five RV owners are aged 18 to 44, showing that camping and RVing have wide appeal.
While overall interest has increased, camping and outdoor recreational activities still follow seasonal patterns with most campers venturing outdoors during the summer months when temperatures are warmer. However, many states have excellent camping options year-round. Southern states from east to the west offer temperate winter climates, less precipitation, and ample natural attractions and parklands to entice outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
However, there is considerable variance across the Sunbelt states and within each state. For instance in Arizona expect freezing temperatures and snow in Flagstaff and sunny and warm temperatures in Phoenix, Yuma, and Tucson.
While there are many factors to consider when determining the best states for warm winter recreation, I selected average maximum temperature, average minimum temperature, average monthly precipitation, and the total land area allocated to parks and wildlife.
Weather statistics are long-term averages for December–February, sourced from NOAA, and land area statistics are from the USDA. In the event of a tie, the state with the higher average winter maximum temperature was ranked above.
While this model provided useful fodder for further discussion, it yielded both predictable and surprising results. It is no surprise that Florida, Arizona, Texas, and California ranked 1-4, but I had to wonder how North Carolina made the list while South Carolina and Mississippi did not.
As Anne Murray sings in the popular song, “Snowbird”:
“Spread your tiny wings and fly away
And take the snow back with you
Where it came from on that day
So, little snowbird, take me with you when you go
To that land of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow…”
Enthusiasts are drawn to their colorful culinary potential—or simply the thrill of the challenge
Grab a glistening, hot chile pepper—one jewel-toned beauty with a volcanic pedigree—and take the dare. Just know that once you pop that capsicum into your mouth, there is no turning back. No amount of water, beer, milk, or bread can fully put out the flame.
Of course, for every coughing and gasping amateur daredevil, there are dozens of die-hard chile-heads for whom the pain of eating hot peppers is all pleasure. The seared taste buds, watery eyes, and sinus-clearing fumes are part of the attraction, along with the hunt for evermore pungent pepper thrills.
Bringing the Heat
Humans have been eating peppers for at least 9,000 years. While archaeologists pinpoint the eastern coast of Mexico as the cradle of cultivation, there’s evidence that around the same time, indigenous peoples were harvesting and eating wild peppers from what is now the southwestern United States through Mexico and south to Peru.
Nobody knows exactly why humans crave the culinary drama of hot peppers, but scientists have come up with a few theories. The word addiction has been bandied about, in part because capsaicin, the substance that gives chiles their signature punch, causes pain followed by an immediate release of endorphins. Endorphins floating around the brain trigger a sense of euphoria. In addition, capsaicin releases chemicals that reduce the sensation of pain (which is why it is a popular ingredient in topical pain relievers).
In 1912, Parke-Davis Co. pharmacist Wilbur Scoville began exploring the capsaicin kick of different types of peppers. He wasn’t aiming for chile-head immortality but for a more efficient way to produce a capsaicin-laced liniment. He crushed chiles combined them with sugar water and had a panel of taste-testers take sips. Over time, Scoville diluted the chiles with more and more water until the tasters could no longer detect any heat in their cups. The pharmacist rated different chiles based on how much water was required to negate the capsaicin.
Scoville called his process the Scoville Organoleptic Test. Today, in his honor, pepper punch is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) arranged on the Scoville Scale. No taste-tester tongues were harmed in the ranking process. Now, SHUs are measured using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), a process that measures the heat-generating chemicals in chiles.
For context, pure capsaicin ranks at 15 to 16 million SHUs, and sweet bell peppers come in at 0. In between is the Carolina Reaper at 2.2 million, orange habaneros at 150,000 to 325,000, cayenne peppers at 30,000 to 50,000, and jalapeños at 2,500 to 8,000.
Pepper growers continue to try to out-spice each other with new tongue-searing cultivars. At any given time, a new hybrid could explode to the top of the scale.
What are the mechanisms through which the human body responds to the varying degree of heat in chile peppers? As it turns out we didn’t know until very recently. In fact, in 1997, Dr. David Julius discovered the neural pathway that gets activated by capsaicin, causing spicy foods to feel “hot” when consumed.
And, on October 4, 2021, David Julius, a physiologist, and Ardem Patapoutian, a molecular biologist and neuroscientist, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The men were honored for their research into human sensory perception; each had, independently of the other, discovered mechanisms through which human bodies respond to touch and temperature.
The importance of the five senses cannot be understated. They are mediums through which we experience and understand the world around us, transforming external stimuli into electrical signals that our brain translate into the sensations of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. How exactly this transformation works out on a molecular level, however, was long unclear and still remains one of the most elusive questions in modern science.
Dr. Julius currently serves as the chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of California in San Francisco. In 1997, his team of researchers compiled a library of neural pathways that are activated by capsaicin, a compound that gives spicy foods like chile peppers their burning sensation when consumed. Along the way, Dr. Julius discovered TRPV1, the ion channel that acts as our primary capsaicin receptor.
In order to truly appreciate Dr. Julius’ discovery, a bit of context may be in order. Unless you build up a tolerance, eating spicy foods is painful. Peppers (and wasabi) give off a strange sensation that your mouth is on fire and for the longest time researchers simply couldn’t figure out why this was the case.
Dr. Julius answered this question by showing us that TRPV1 is responsible for keeping our bodies safe from high temperatures. The channel responds not only to capsaicin but also to temperatures that are greater than 110 degrees Fahrenheit. TRPV1 also acts up when we are injured or sunburned, causing damaged tissue to feel hot to the touch. In all cases, the channel transmits a signal that our brains turn into the sensation of heat.
A Matter of Taste
Chile aficionados know their way around the Scoville Scale but they also insist that chile varieties like grape varieties and wines have terroir. Put simply, terroir is a subtle turn of flavor based on the location where a pepper is grown. By this measure, a Hatch green chile from New Mexico will taste distinctly different from the same variety grown in California.
Likewise, different peppers carry different signature taste prints. Habaneros are known for their fruity, floral flavors; jalapeños tend to be herbaceous; Thai chiles have an earthy flavor; Tabasco peppers have a slightly smoky taste.
Experimenting with chiles of different pedigrees and forms—fresh, dried, crushed, powdered—could become a lifelong obsession. At what point does the chile overpower the food? What blends work together? What chile paste perfectly accentuates a stew, a kebab, barbecued ribs, or a block of tofu?
Of course, while you’re pondering, shopping, and cooking remember one thing: capsaicin, the thing that brings the truth-or-dare pleasure and pain to hot peppers has exactly no flavor. None! So if you’re expecting to add a sweet, tart, or vegetal aura to your food, start with a pepper you can actually taste before moving up the scale.
On Hot Pepper Sauces
Chile-heads love to sample and collect hot sauces for the flavor and potency of the specific elixirs as well as for the opportunity to grab a portable pepper fix. For most, the hot sauce hobby has the makings of a lifelong obsession simply because there are so, so many different commercially produced sauces to try.
Market researchers quantify the U.S. hot pepper sauce market at around $1.2 billion as of 2018 with the spicy condiment snaring more than $2.3 globally. At any given time, more than 100 major brands are vying for a share of that pie.
The invention of hot sauce is credited to the ancient Aztecs who cultivated chili peppers to add some flavor and nutritional value to their limited food choices. By the time the conquistadors arrived, the Aztecs were already mixing peppers, herbs, and water into sauces and serving them on ancient versions of the corn tortilla.
Fast forward several hundred years and hot sauces have spread from their birthplace in Central America to North America, Europe, Asia, and outer space. Walk into your average grocery store and you’ll be confronted with a dazzling array of hot sauce bottles filled with liquids in red, green, yellow, and orange. Different brands come with different types of peppers, ingredients, spice levels, and suggested food pairings—and not all are created equal.
Edmund McIlhenny, a banker from Avery Island, Louisiana, founded Tabasco in 1868. The recipe evolved over time. A soldier returning from Mexico in 1840 gave McIlhenny, a known gardener, seeds from wild peppers he had collected. McIlhenny planted the seeds and the peppers that grew became the basis for Tabasco sauce. McIlhenny named the unique Mexican pepper strain for the sauce which he had already named for a region in Mexico.
To this day, Tabasco is made from the McIlhenny family’s original recipe: Tabasco peppers, vinegar, and salt aged in oak barrels for up to three years. Tabasco peppers are handpicked when they turn a deep red, which apparently signifies optimal flavor and heat.
Tabasco has many competitors including regional hot sauces, sauces with international pedigrees, and sauces created for different cooking techniques. I’ve tried many of them including:
Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce which was engineered in New Iberia
Tapatío, a popular Mexico hot sauce with a guy with a sombrero on it that’s not actually a Mexican hot sauce but made in California
Cholula (Choe-loo-la), named for a 2,500-year-old city in Mexico but actually manufactured in Chapala in the Mexican state of Jalisco—not Cholula—and instantly identifiable by its signature wooden bottle cap
Crystal Hot Sauce, the best-selling Louisiana hot sauce that has been in New Orleans since 1923 and popular around the world
Frank’s Hot Sauce, a Louisiana-born sauce made from Cayenne red peppers, distilled vinegar, water, salt, and garlic powder
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.
If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in November
Winter has officially arrived in the northern states and Canada which means getting up and going home in the dark usually in the cold and blowing snow. It is snowbird season, time to head south until the sunlight finally peeps through again around March or April. Happily, San Antonio and other southern cities are basking in a mellow, pre-Christmas glow.
Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in August, September, and October. Also, check out my recommendations from November 2020.
Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, Georgia
Discover history, culture, and autumn beauty along Georgia’s scenic byways. The 41-mile loop of the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway is the only route in the state that’s also designated a National Scenic Byway. Coursing through the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the route traverses several state highways including SR-17/75, SR-180, and SR-348. Panoramic views are plentiful, none more spectacular than the one from Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest point at 4,784 feet. Visitors can still walk the roughly half-mile, uphill paved path to the observation tower at the summit.
Outdoor activities abound along the route, especially hiking. The Appalachian Trail crosses the byway in two spots, at Unicoi Gap and Hogpen Gap. Parking areas at each trailhead allow day visitors to take out-and-back hikes on the famed 2,190-mile trail connecting Georgia to Maine. Download an interactive map from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at appalachiantrail.org. Other short trails lead to cascading waterfalls such as Raven Cliff Falls, High Shoals Falls, and the impressive double cascade of Anna Ruby Falls.
Three state parks are on or near the byway. Anglers come to Smithgall Woods State Park to cast a line in the celebrated trout stream of Duke’s Creek. Take a trip through the treetops on the Unicoi Zipline and Aerial Adventure Tour at Unicoi State Park and Lodge. Vogel State Park, one of Georgia’s two original state parks, sits at the base of Blood Mountain near the byway and offers a great view of the mountain from its 20-acre lake with a beach. Accommodations at Vogel and Unicoi include cottages and RV campsites. Smithgall Woods has cottages but no individual campsites.
The closest town to the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway is Helen, the small Bavarian-themed town with an array of shopping, dining, and lodging options.
The San Antonio River Walk
The San Antonio River Walk boasts sightseeing, shopping, dining, and incredibly rich history. This world-renowned 15-mile waterway has been setting the standard for river walks internationally for decades. Visit La Villita Historic Arts Village, a community and home to nearly 30 shops and galleries selling locally made jewelry, pottery, folk art, textiles, and other handcrafted items by local artists. Plus, in the midst of these tree-lined walkways and plazas, enjoy a savory culinary experience at the area restaurants with options ranging from traditional Mexican flavors to steakhouse favorites. Or step into Casa Rio which is the oldest restaurant on the banks of the River Walk.
Next, visit the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) to learn about the city’s rich cultural heritage. (SAMA) takes you around the world and through five thousand years of art in a complex of buildings that once housed the Lone Star Brewery. SAMA is renowned for the most comprehensive ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art collection in the southern United States.
Finally, trek to visit the four historic missions at the San Antonio’s Missions National Historical Park. Along with the Alamo, the park was named the first World Heritage Site in Texas by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science, and Culture (UNESCO) and includes the city’s four southernmost Spanish colonial missions—Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada. In the 18th century, Spanish priests established these five Catholic missions along the San Antonio River. The missions are walled compounds encompassing a church and buildings where the priests and local Native Americans lived.
As an RVer who loves visiting new areas and returning to favorite haunts, I’ve often asked my favorite areas to explore. It’s always interesting to see the confusion on the faces of the questioners when my response is New Mexico.
“But isn’t that just aliens and, like, the desert?”
If you’re into alien stuff and the desert, you’ll certainly find them here. But you’ll also find so much more. New Mexico is incredibly diverse. While visiting the Land of Enchantment, I’ve camped in the desert, hiked up huge white sand dunes, and down into deep caverns. I’ve explored diverse craft and farmer’s markets and wandered through some of the most amazing art installations and galleries. New Mexico is where I’ve eaten the best meals, explored pecan and pistachio farms, and watched the most epic sunsets of my life. I’ve met incredibly talented artists along the way and visited historic churches and pueblos.
What I’m saying is: New Mexico is special. It’s quirky and mystical and down to earth all at once. It’s full of adventure and relaxation and history. It’s also the home to one of the newest designated National Park—White Sands—a truly otherworldly experience. Need more reasons to visit?
Sequoia National Park is home to two notable natural wonders: Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,505 feet above sea level, and the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world by volume. Both are impressive sights!
Kings Canyon National Park to the north of Sequoia is also home to giant trees including the largest remaining grove on the planet at Redwood Canyon. The landscape in Kings Canyon rivals that of Yosemite with towering granite canyon walls, lush meadows, and the picturesque King River that flows throughout the park.
While both parks together make up a whopping 865,964 acres, over 90 percent of that land is designated wilderness with no roads or vehicle access. There are numerous opportunities for incredible overnight backpacking trips in the backcountry, though, if you want to plan for that on your California road trip.
In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey played a guy who unknowingly stars in a reality show, set in an impossibly idyllic beach town. That’s Seaside, and it required very little effort to make Truman’s hometown seem like a paradise of pastel-colored houses and dreamlike beaches. It’s worth a stop if you want to squeal with delight while strolling through town and stopping at landmarks like the famous white post office. When the post office was built just over 30 years ago, it was only the second civic building in Seaside and was established o create the perception that the community was “real” at a time when Seaside and surrounding communities were just beginning to emerge.
One of the coolest features of Seaside is Airstream Row. A group of restaurants—like Crepes du Soleil and Frost Bites—set up shop in Airstreams along 30A, lending a little funk to the picturesque scenery. If you prefer to sit down with a grand view of the water, grab a table at Bud & Alley’s which serves classic Gulf fare like grilled head-on shrimp and seafood gumbo.
There are more than cute eateries and buildings in Seaside. Sundog Books is an absolute must: an independent bookstore that’s been open for 30 years. If you need a beach read, or just want to support a cool local business, this is a worthy stop.
Lots of Nuts Inside
Two of the largest pistachio tree grooves in New Mexico, PistachioLand and Eagle Ranch are destinations that can be enjoyed by all ages. Located in the Tularosa Basin outside of Alamogordo they are easy day trips from Las Cruces and can be combined with a visit to White Sands National Park. With an average of 287 days of sunshine, outdoor activities abound throughout the area.
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.
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, 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.
Eagle Ranch is the home of New Mexico’s largest producing pistachio groves with approximately 13,000 trees. Wines were added to the product line in 2002. The main store, on the ranch in Alamogordo, offers farm tours that showcase how pistachios are grown and processed. A second store is conveniently located in the historic village of Mesilla.
St. Mary’s, Georgia
Many folks pass through St. Mary’s on their way to Cumberland Island. But this seaside gem is more than just a place to kill a few hours between ferries. Shops and eateries cluster around the picturesque waterfront. (Swing by Lang’s Marina Restaurant for mouthwatering crab cakes.) The St. Mary’s Submarine Museum entices visitors with an extensive collection of memorabilia and photographs. And you’d probably be surprised to learn this postcard-worthy port can lay claim to the oldest continuously operating church in Georgia.
Kemah Boardwalk, Kemah, Texas
Kemah is a city on Galveston Bay and a place I think doesn’t get enough hype. Many people pass right by, heading for the island. But, only 20 miles from downtown Houston right on the bay sits Kemah Boardwalk with entertainment galore for the whole family. It offers an amusement park with fun and exciting rides, waterfront dining, festivals, and seaside shows. Shopping and dining are a huge part of the boardwalk.
We went on a cool day in November to walk around the bay and noticed that some rides and attractions were not operating plus it was a bit chilly but we were still entertained by the sights, sounds, and dining options. There are also other dining alternatives in the nearby Kemah Lighthouse District. Kemah Boardwalk is open year-round.
Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona
Although Montezuma Castle National Monument is a small site, its history runs deep. Located in the Verde Valley 25 miles south of Sedona, it was established in 1906 to preserve Indigenous American culture. The compact site almost feels like a diorama of an ancient village built by the Sinagua people who inhabited the valley as far back as 650. A short pathway lined with sycamores and catclaw mimosa trees leads to the limestone cliff where a 20-room building peeks out from above.
Built by the Sinagua people around 1050, the castle is a well-preserved example of architectural ingenuity. The placement of rooms on the south-facing cliff helps regulate summer and winter temperatures. Its elevated location provides protection from Beaver Creek’s annual flooding, plus it functions as a lookout.
Drive 11 miles north to see the Montezuma Well which is part of the national monument. Along with the limestone sinkhole, cliff dwellings and irrigation channels are characteristic of the prehistoric people who have lived in the area dating back to 11,000. The water in the well which is 386 feet across has high levels of arsenic and other chemicals but it still supports endemic species such as water scorpions, snails, mud turtles, and leeches.
Tehama Trail, California
The Tehama Trail is a surprisingly fertile area—a prime place for farms and ranches. Many invite visitors to stop in and buy fresh produce, artisanal olive oils, and other local food products.
The trail links together nearly two dozen vineyards, orchards, grass-fed beef ranchers, and other specialty meat producers. Hop onto the route at any point but the driving tour technically begins in Corning, a town known for olives. Stop by the iconic Olive Pit for samples of traditional olives, or try more exotic options, like herb-and-garlic-cheese-stuffed Sicilian olives. Head over to Lucero Olive Oil to sample artisanal olive oils and vinegar and shop for gifts.
Continue along the trail to sample and buy heirloom tomatoes, juice-down-your-chin peaches and plums, and berries as well as fresh pies and honey. Swing by New Clairvaux Vineyard in tiny Vina, just south of Redding where Trappist monks invite you to sample their Barbera, Pinot Grigio, and other varietals in a large tasting room on the monastery grounds.
Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Established in 1939 to protect migrating waterfowl, Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 350 species of birds. Tens of thousands of Snow Geese and Sandhill Crane winter in the refuge as well as Ross’s Geese and many species of duck. Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge host a Festival of the Cranes in November (weekend before Thanksgiving) that includes events, classes, and even a photography contest. A 12-mile auto tour and numerous hiking trails are the primary means of exploring the refuge.
Step back in time and discover a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House community
Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof. Search for the fingerprints of ancient workers in the mortar. Listen for an echo of ritual drums in the reconstructed Great Kiva.
Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called “great houses,” each with a “great kiva”—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. Excavation of the West Ruin in the 1900s uncovered thousands of well-preserved artifacts that provide a glimpse into the life of Ancestral Pueblo people connecting people of the past with people and traditions of today.
Many Southwestern American Indians today maintain deep spiritual ties with this ancestral site. Visitors today can learn about these remarkable people and their descendants and connect with the monument’s timeless landscape and stories. A short trail winds through this massive site offering an intimate experience. Along the way, visitors will discover original roofs, plaster walls, a reed mat left by the inhabitants, intriguing T-shaped doorways, and north-facing corner doors. The trail culminates with the reconstructed great kiva, a building that inherently inspires contemplation, wonder, and an ancient sense of sacredness.
A summer visit to the ruins is sure to be a hot one with temperatures ranging from 80 degrees to 100 degrees—and on some days reaching over 100. Fall brings pleasant days and crisp nights, while winter temperatures range between 20 degrees and 50 degrees with cold nights reaching 0. The most unpredictable season is spring with windy, cold, wet, or warm and dry weather.
See Earl’s house! The visitor center started as the home of pioneering archeologist Earl Morris. Here you receive an orientation to the archeological site and pick up a trail guide. See beautiful 900-year old artifacts in the museum. Watch the 15-minute video, Aztec Ruins: Footprints of the Past to hear diverse perspectives from Pueblo people, Navajo tribal members, and archeologists. The Visitor Center is open whenever the park is open except during after-hours outdoors programs (example: moon tours and solstice observations).
Explore the Aztec Ruins with a self-guided visitor trail. The half-mile trail winds through an ancestral Pueblo Great House, a reconstructed great kiva, and through original rooms with intact timber roofs. Help preserve the ruins—and stay safe—by remaining on the trail. Ranger-guided East Ruin Tours and Full Moon Walks are offered monthly from June through August and are weather-dependent.
Once you’ve visited the ruins, meander to the Animas River via a segment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail or peruse museum exhibits and 900-year old artifacts. The Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk are both located inside the historic picnic area. Park staff and volunteers grow traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds. If you’re planning a summer visit, take a tour and see the wild plants that sustained folks in the Southwest for thousands of years.
Wildlife in the Park
Surprisingly, the park supports a wide variety of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. The riparian and pinon-juniper woodland areas, patches of abandoned farmlands, orchards, and desert scrubs all provide a habitat for 28 documented mammal species, at least 70 bird species, three amphibians, and 10 reptiles.
As surrounding residential developments expand, the ruins have become an increasingly important haven for species of concern despite the park’s relatively small size.
Aztec West Self-Guided Trail
Explore the ancestral Pueblo “Great House” that was the social, economic, and political center of the region after Chaco. A self-guided half-mile walk winds through original rooms. Along the way discover skillful stone masonry, remarkably well-preserved wood roofing, and original mortar in some walls. The interpretive trail guide combines modern archeological findings with traditional Native American perspectives. Enter the ceremonial Great Kiva. This awesome semi-subterranean structure over 40 feet in diameter is the oldest and largest reconstructed building of its kind.
Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk
The Heritage Garden and the Native Plants Walk are both inside the shady and historic picnic area. Traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds are grown by park staff and volunteers. Tours are offered in the summer. The Native Plants Walk is located on the west side of the picnic area near the parking lot. Take a quick stroll and see the wild plants that people in the Southwest have relied on for thousands of years.
Old Spanish National Historic Trail to Downtown Aztec
The Old Spanish Trail was the first recorded trade caravan from Santa Fe west to Los Angeles. The first journey was led by Antonio Armijo in 1829 and it was so difficult the traders never took that exact same route again. Since it is difficult to find the trail on the ground today no one can say with certainty how close the caravan actually came to Aztec Ruins. Today you can follow the nationally designated trail from the picnic area over the bridge across the Animas River (0.5 miles) and into historic downtown Aztec (1.5 miles) for shopping and dining.
Size: 318 acres
Date Established: January 24, 1923
Location: Northwestern New Mexico, 14 miles northeast of Farmington
Park Elevation: 5,600 feet
Park Entrance Fee: As of May 1, 2018, this is a fee-free park
Park Operating Hours: Daily 9:00 am-5:00 pm Mountain Time; closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.
Parking: RV and bus parking available
Weather Conditions: Summer high temperatures range from 80-100 degrees; Fall usually pleasant with mild days and crisp nights; Winter daytime temperatures range from 20-50 degrees with cold nights that can reach 0 degrees, snow is periodic but accumulations are typically only 1-2 inches; Spring is can be windy, cold, and wet, or still, warm, and dry.
Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223
What’s old collapses, times change, and new life blossoms in the ruins.
Green chile season is heating up in New Mexico where the fiery peppers are an indispensable part of the local cuisine—and daily life
Hatch chiles grown today (in fact all New Mexican chile peppers) owe their genetic base from cultivars (cultivated variety) first developed by horticulturist Fabián Garcia at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now known as the New Mexico State University (NMSU). Starting in 1894, Fabián Garcia crossed several local pod types with the goal of improving them for the region. He sought larger, smoother peppers that were better for canning.
Following many years of crossing and growing, he released a variety called New Mexico No. 9 in 1913. All New Mexican chile peppers owe their genetic base to these peppers. Today, chile pepper studies continue at the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico, founded by Paul Bosland in order to study New Mexican peppers and others from around the world.
Hatch Chile Fever
To pay homage to the grandmother of all New Mexican chile peppers, consider a visit to Hatch, a small agricultural village in southern New Mexico known as the “Chile Capital of the World.” The oh-so-flavorful Hatch pepper is named after Hatch Valley where the bulk of Hatch peppers are grown. This is thanks to the river valley’s combination of nutrient-rich soil, intense sunlight, and cool desert nights.
Unlike other peppers, Hatch comes in different seed varieties that cover the full spectrum of heat levels. Typically, the mild to medium-hot varieties are more readily available. Then, there is red vs. green peppers. For those that didn’t know, red peppers are the same but have simply been left on the plant longer to ripen.
In preparing Hatch Valley’s famous peppers, a 40-pound burlap sack of green chiles is dropped into a gas-fired roaster. The flames roar as chiles tumble in the rotating wire cage and the thick, sharp scent permeates throughout the area. First, it’s high heat, then low!
These chiles are the centerpiece of the meal which is itself the pinnacle of New Mexico cuisine, a distinctive craft in which the Land of Enchantment takes such pride. The state has made chiles the “Official State Food” and designated “Red or Green?” the “official state question” referring to which kind of chile diners prefer on their enchiladas.
The harvest begins most years in late July and extends into October. Labor Day weekend heralds the annual Hatch Chile Festival, a celebration of their world-famous crop. Despite the town’s tiny size, Hatch swells to more than 30,000 people during the two-day festival. The event features chile ristra contests, artisan and food booths, and a carnival. This year marks 50 years since the festival’s inception. The pandemic thwarted last year’s celebration making the 2021 gathering extra-special.
For first-time visitors, it’s not a stretch to think the hot chiles the farmers grow in these fertile fields are hazardous (a sentiment first-time chile tasters often feel today). But I quickly grew to love the chiles and can’t imagine daily life without the fiery and tasty peppers.
Chiles of the World
Those first chiles were what are called landrace varieties, a term referring to crop types that people develop by saving seeds and adapting them to their specific growing area. Chiles and chile seeds were no doubt traded up and down the Rio Grande Valley for centuries among indigenous peoples, then Hispanic settlers. The distinctive chiles so familiar today date back to the early 20th century.
In the world, there are literally thousands of chile types. They originated in Mesoamerica and spread rapidly across the globe after Christopher Columbus brought New World foods back to Europe. In Africa, southern Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, backyard growers did their own breeding, just as New Mexico growers did.
Of those thousands of chile types, the ones that form the backbone of Hatch pepper production are called—surprise—“New Mexican pod” varieties and the original types have been supplemented often with new cultivars developed at New Mexico State.
Chile farming today is vastly different from a century ago. Most of the fields have buried drip irrigation that feeds steady moisture to the plant roots. A six-year rotation schedule fends off soil-borne diseases; when they aren’t growing chiles, Hatch farmers produce alfalfa, onions, and cotton, among other crops.
The Hatch Chile Association has obtained a federal-type certificate and a trademark for chiles grown there. But there’s more than one kind of “Hatch chile” ranging from modern mild types to older, hotter varieties. Charger (hybrid Anaheim) chiles, a medium-hot favorite grown to be used green, can range from 500 to 3500 on the Scoville scale (which extends past 1 million for ghost peppers and such); Big Jims are milder, Anaheim-like; Sandias are hotter and grown for ripening; Lumbres is hotter still, and the list goes on.
And if the list of thousands of chile varieties, all with different shapes, colors, flavors, and levels of heat, isn’t complex enough, consider that all of those chile types produce fruits that vary from plant to plant—sometimes from pod to pod on the same plant.
Get to know the many varieties of Hatch chile peppers. Following are some of the most popular developed for and grown in the Hatch area.
NuMex Big Jim: This giant chili pepper was introduced by NMSU in the 1970s as a cross between a few different types of local chiles and a Peruvian chile. They measure 10-12 inches and mature to red but are usually harvested and used when green. The peppers have actually been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest chile ever grown. Big Jim chili peppers are about as hot as a milder jalapeno pepper (Scoville Heat Units: 2,500-3,000 SHU), so you’ll get a bit of heat, but not very much, depending on your heat tolerance and preference.
NuMex Sandia: Another hybrid chili pepper developed by the NMSU, the Sandia grows to 6-7 inches and is similar to the Anaheim pepper. They start green and ripen to red but are often used while green. Like so many other peppers from this region, the red ones can be dried to make decorative ristras. They are also great for roasting, making chiles Rellenos, or for use in salsas. Slightly hotter than a jalapeno (Scoville Heat Units: 5,000-7,000 SHU), it adds quite a kick to dishes and salsa but not overwhelming heat.
NuMex Joe E. Parker: This New Mexico variety was named after Mr. Joe E. Parker, a graduate of NMSU’s College of Agriculture and Home Economics who helped to evaluate this selection of chile. It originally came from one plant selected from a field of open-pollinated New Mexico 6-4 peppers. The chiles grow to about 8 inches in length and 1.8 inches in width and can be used either in their green or red stage. Although similar to the New Mexico 6-4 in flavor and heat (Scoville Heat Units: 1,500-3,000 SHU), green color, and size, it is generally preferable to the New Mexico 6-4 because of its higher chile yield, its thicker walls, and its ability to continue to produce red chiles after the initial green fruit harvest. The NuMex Joe E. Parker can be a great chile for canning whole and is excellent for chiles Rellenos or for grilling or roasting due to its thicker walls.
NuMex Heritage 6-4: The New Mexico 6-4 Heritage chile pepper was developed around 1998 from a seed bank of the original New Mexico 6-4. The original NM 6-4 which was released in 1957 had “run out” meaning that after so many years of commercial growing, it had lost much of its flavor and aroma and had increased its variability in heat levels, maturity date, and yield. Dr. Paul Bosland along with NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute and Biad Chili used seeds from the original NM 6-4 that had been frozen in a storage lab to create the new line of chile. Dr. Bosland grew the peppers for three years perfecting the line by selecting for more flavor and improved yield. The result was a chile (Scoville Heat Units: 3,000-5,000 SHU) with five times more flavor and aroma than the original and the flavor is even stronger and richer when it’s roasted. They grow to 5-8 inches in length.
Barker Extra Hot: The Barker’s Hot chili pepper is an extra-hot chile (SCOVILLE HEAT UNITS: 15,000-30,000 SHU), the hottest of the Anaheim/New Mexico variety and it has great flavor. They grow to 5-7 inches in length and can be used just as you would use an Anaheim with an extra punch. This variety originally comes from a selection of native New Mexican chiles so it naturally grows well in very hot, dry climates. The peppers ripen from green to red with the red fruits growing hotter than the green ones. The fruits have thin skins making them great for roasting, frying whole, canning, or stuffing. They also make deliciously hot salsa.
How Hot is Hot?
Talk about heat! The 7 Pot Douglah is an extremely hot pepper (SCOVILLE HEAT UNITS: 923,889 – 1,853,986 SHU) from Trinidad. Its skin is notably dark chocolate brown and somewhat pimpled. It starts off green but matures to a rich brown. It is one of the Hottest Peppers in the World. Aside from the color, it looks very much like other superhot chili peppers, roughly habanero shaped, about two inches long. The hottest 7 Pot Douglas is about 232 times hotter than the hottest jalapeno pepper and more than 5 times a very hot habanero pepper.
Hooked on the Heat
My introduction to green chile came long ago at a variety of restaurants in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and Mesilla. My palate sizzled with capsaicin. Endorphins fizzed in my veins like butter. It was the start of a lifelong love affair and chiles have been a constant in my diet ever since. Once you get hooked, you can’t get unhooked. It’s an addiction, but it’s a good one.
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.
As the end of August approaches, remember to repeat your late summer prayer before bed. The prayer goes something like, “September is just as nice as August and in many ways even better.”
There is nothing quite like a summer road trip. The freedom of setting out in a fully-stocked recreational vehicle with only a loose itinerary and nothing but the winding road and endless possibilities is, frankly, close to unbeatable. It offers a chance to live in the now while reminding us that this moment is at once fleeting and eternal.
With just a week left before Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer 2021, there’s just enough time to hit the road for one last hurrah. Here are ten road trips I recommend for travel this time of year.
Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway, South Dakota
Some of the most incredible roads anywhere make up the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. Mix in America’s most patriotic monument along the way and you have a never-to-be-forgotten road trip. This byway winds around spiraling “pig-tail” shaped bridges, through six rock tunnels, among towering granite pinnacles, and over pristine, pine-clad mountains. Highlights include Harney Peak, Sylvan Lake, the Needle’s Eye, and Cathedral Spires rock formations. Forming a figure-eight route, the byway travels through Custer State Park, the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, near Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and the Black Elk National Wilderness Area. Highways 16A, 244, 89, and 87 combine to create the route.
If you could choose just one road to explore in Utah’s red-rock country, make it Scenic Byway 12. It connects the hoodoo-filled wonder that is Bryce Canyon National Park with the monumental geology of Capitol Reef National Park and in between, it runs through the even wilder, 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. That means diversions galore including Escalante Petrified Forest State Park and the partially paved Cottonwood Canyon which runs through both Grand Staircase (don’t miss Grosvenor Arch) and Kodachrome Basin with its cylindrical stone “sand pipes.” On the north side of 12, divert to Hell’s Backbone Scenic Byway—44 miles of red-rock wonders on gravel. Cool outdoorsy towns pop up just when you need a coffee or a burger: namely, Escalante, Boulder (famous for organic chow at Hells’ Backbone Grill), and Torrey. Bonus suggestion: Red Canyon has Bryce’s beauty without its people.
Are you ready for a day (or two or three) at the beach? Why not spend it at Padre Island National Seashore near Corpus Christi, the longest stretch of an undeveloped barrier island in the world. In addition to its 70 miles of protected coastline, other important ecosystems abound including a rare coastal prairie, a complex and dynamic dune system, tidal flats teeming with life, and the Laguna Madre, one of the few hypersaline lagoons in the world. It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for over 380 bird species. It also has a rich history, including the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554. Many people come to the National Seashore to experience the beauty of nature in isolation. One way to do this is to travel down-island into the park’s most remote areas which are accessible with a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle.
If you’re looking for a loop without a single boring mile that connects hot springs, historic towns, ancient history, and geologic wonders, you’ve come to the right place. New Mexico has undoubtedly won the landscape lottery enjoying incredibly diverse and dramatic views yet only a fraction of the visitation that Utah and Colorado attract each year. Start in either Albuquerque or Santa Fe and work your way through the cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument, the sweeping views of Valles Caldera, and the lava fields of Malpais National Monument. Take care not to lose your way among the sparkling gypsum dunes of White Sands National Park—stay at a private campground near the town of Alamogordo—so you can find your way to Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces. From there, visit Historic Mesilla before heading to the village of Hatch, the Chile Capital of the world, for their annual Chile Festival (September 4-5, 2021).
Starting on the outskirts of Lake Charles and ending at the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road is a network of scenic byways where you’ll find more than 400 bird species, alligators galore, and 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches. Also called “America’s Outback,” the Creole Nature Trail takes road trippers through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana’s backroads. You’ll pass through small fishing villages, National Wildlife Refuges to reach the little-visited Holly and Cameron beaches. Take a side trip down to Sabine Lake or drive onto a ferry that takes visitors across Calcasieu Pass.
Journey through Hallowed Ground National Scenic Byway, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland
Any route that connects Gettysburg to Jefferson’s Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier is so deeply steeped in history that beauty is a bonus. The two go nicely together here, though, as the corridor leads to battlefields—Manassas, Antietam, and Harpers Ferry, among many—as well as woodsy parks like Gambrill State Park in Maryland and Bull Run Mountains Nature Preserve in Virginia. One day you might be tubing on the Potomac or rafting the Shenandoah; another day doffing your cap in respect at Gettysburg then exploring any of a dozen historic towns. Warrenton, Virginia, alone has 300 historical sites. Try the pumpkin fritters at Farnsworth House in Gettysburg as you count the more than 100 bullet holes that riddle the Civil War–period building.
Moab/Bears Ears Loop, Utah
Utah is best known for the national parks stretching across its southern edge but just beyond those crowds, you’ll find empty roads and quiet lands with stunning rock formations that defy belief. In the southeastern corner of the state in the Bears Ears region, you can spend a lifetime learning about the Indigenous peoples who have long lived in and cared for these landscapes. From Moab, head south toward Bears Ears where large swathes of BLM land stretch across Cedar Mesa. At Natural Bridges National Monument, you can hike past cliff dwellings built by Ancestral Pueblo people. Spend a day in the nearby Valley of the Gods where a 17-mile unpaved road offers striking red desert views without a person in sight. Continue onward to Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation and visit the mind-boggling river bends of Goosenecks State Park—a recently-certified Dark Sky park.
What the Blue Ridge Parkway doesn’t have: billboards, commercial trucks, or development. What it does have: hundreds of miles of mountain and forest views as it winds smoothly and slowly (max speed is 45) between the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks. And countless opportunities to hike (369 miles of mountain trails), witness waterfalls, and camp in any of eight campgrounds! Because the road was built for scenic touring, its dozens of overlooks and picnic areas are strategically placed for maximum inspiration. Also along the way is Mount Mitchell, highest in the East (6,684 feet), Whitewater Falls (411 feet), highest in the East, and Linville Gorge, deepest in the East.
San Juan Skyway, Colorado
The mountain scenery is relentlessly stunning and there’s everything to do along the way (bike, hike, fish, camp, explore native ruins, and mining history). The aptly named San Juan Skyway ascends multiple passes higher than 10,000 feet as it loops through the San Juan Range while fourteeners loom overhead. The route links iconic mountain-sports towns like Telluride, Durango, and Dolores, the latter perched between the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park and the vast Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. The stretch between Silverton and Ouray is known as the Million Dollar Highway honoring the gold ore extracted thereabouts as well as the cost of building such a canyon-clinging ribbon of road.
Amish Country Byway, Ohio
The 160-mile Amish Country Byway boasts views of natural vistas along winding curves and over rolling hills. In addition, this charming country byway offers visitors a fine selection of Amish country cooking as well as sites featuring the culture and history of the Amish people. Celebrate the lifestyle of a place and people who defy modern conveniences while enjoying the simple pleasures of farm life and country living. The Amish Country Byway forms a spider-web of 13 state and federal routes throughout Holmes County, the largest Amish settlement in the world. US Route 62 bisects the county from the southwest to northeast corners, traveling through Millersburg. The Amish Country Byway offers experiences that many visitors enjoy over and over again.
We know that in September, we will wander through the warm winds of summer’s wreckage. We will welcome summer’s ghost.
From national parks and monuments to one of the top-rated farmer’s markets in the country, Las Cruces offers a world filled with natural wonder, endless sunshine, and historic proportions of fun
From the rugged mountains to the giant forests to the vast desert, New Mexico truly is the Land of Enchantment and home to an exceptional variety of activities throughout the state.
Las Cruces, the second-largest city in New Mexico behind Albuquerque, is home to just over 100,000 people thanks in part to hosting New Mexico State University. That gives the city a unique southwestern culture. However, the surrounding area offers numerous popular attractions all within easy driving distance. White Sands National Park is less than an hour away with huge sand dunes that you can hike or sled down.
Nestled under the sharp landscape of the Organ Mountains to the east, the Mesilla Valley is situated along the banks of the Rio Grande River where some of the nation’s spiciest and scrumptious chilis are grown a few miles north of Las Cruces in the town of Hatch, which calls itself the Chile Capital of the World.
The Hatch Valley Chile Festival takes place in early September (September 4-5, 2021) and visitors can taste delicacies that range from hot to scalding to molten lava. For a fun souvenir, pick up a chile ristra which is rumored to bring extra good health when hung outside a house—or RV.
Las Cruces has a rich history with American Indian tribes and Spanish conquistadors claiming the area as their own. Billy the Kid, a famous American outlaw, was sentenced to death just outside of the city in a town called Old Mesilla. The courtroom and jail that held him are still standing.
A quaint little community, Old Mesilla is home to dozens of art galleries and souvenir stores. The town square is the site of the very last stop on the Butterfield stagecoach line. In fact, the building that served weary travelers back then is still standing. Today, La Posta de Mesilla is a 10,000-square-foot restaurant that serves authentic Mexican food.
Las Cruces is home to some of the largest dairy farms in America where they’re milking thousands of cows twice a day. If agriculture is of interest to you, be sure to check out the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum. The 47-acre site consists of 24,000-square feet of exhibit space including a working farm where people can see cows being milked and a blacksmith tending to his duties.
Not only is New Mexico State University a vibrant educational center with a plethora of ongoing cultural, social, and athletic events, it is home to the Zuhl Collection, which is a part art gallery and part natural history museum. Sponsored by Herb and Joan Zuhl, New York business people who made their living collecting fossils, minerals, and rocks, they retired to New Mexico and donated more than 2,000 of their best exhibits to the university.
The weekly Farmers & Crafts Market has been rated one of the best outdoor markets in the U.S. Held every Saturday and Wednesday morning on Main Street in downtown Las Cruces, the market has over 300 vendors who gather to offer fresh local produce, honey, herbs, spices, arts and crafts and much more.
While touring historic downtown Las Cruces, be sure to stop in the Amaro Winery. Established just a few years ago, it has become a favorite stop among wine connoisseurs. All the grapes are grown in the fertile lands of southern New Mexico. The same soil that produces mouth-watering chilis also nurtures fine wine.
Las Cruces’ neighbor to the south, historic El Paso, Texas, is just 45 minutes south and features its own assortment of fun activities including a casino, museums, historic monuments, and zoo. It’s a fun and scenic day trip, especially the scenic route that goes around the southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains for fabulous views of El Paso and neighboring Juarez, Mexico.
Another scenic route is the Woodrow Bean Transmountain Road that connects east El Paso to the west. In nearby Franklin Mountains State Park, visitors can enjoy breathtaking scenic views aboard the Wyler Aerial Tramway, an enclosed gondola that makes a four-minute trip to Ranger Peak. There, you’ll have an eagle’s view of 7,000 square miles of land that encompasses three states and two nations.
I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had. It certainly changed me forever. In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the world gave way to the new.
The floor is literally lava—and it gets fewer than 150,000 visitors a year
Your dreams of a Canadian Rockies road trip this summer just went poof! On Friday, Canada extended restrictions on nonessential travel across the US border until July 22. Those restrictions have been in place since March 2020 when countries across the globe shut down international travel to curb the spread of COVID.
Many are, in a word, frustrated
The US and Canada’s economies are more intertwined than CatDog (animated TV series that follows the life of a conjoined cat and dog). And while goods can be shuttled between the two countries, the tourism and services industries on both sides of the border are feeling the pinch. Lawmakers and businesses in both the US and Canada have lashed out at the Canadian government for what they say is putting politics over science.
“The complete lockdown we’ve experienced is not consistent with science and it’s very, very bad for our economy,” said US Rep. Chris Jacobs of New York.
“We need to open the border for fully vaccinated travelers immediately,” Harley Finkelstein, the president of Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify, tweeted.
About those vaccinations…to keep the virus at bay, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the border would stay mostly closed until 75 percent of the population has received the first dose and 20 percent have been fully vaccinated. As of yesterday, 65 percent had received the first dose and nearly 17 percent had been fully vaxxed, per the COVID-19 Tracker Canada project.
Big picture: Canadian and American businesses that rely on cross-border traffic are getting FOMO (Fear of missing out) as other countries open up to international travelers. Yesterday, the European Council recommended that EU countries gradually lift restrictions on non-essential travel from 14 countries including the US.
Canadian Snowbirds: This decision muddies the water for travel to Sunbelt states this winter. Will these restrictions be lifted in time or is it another winter hibernating in the Great White North?
And now onto the “Land of Fire & Ice”…
Contrary to popular belief, Iceland isn’t the only “Land of Fire and Ice” (and the other one isn’t in the Game of Thrones universe, either). In this case, we’re looking at the very real American Southwest state of New Mexico.
West of Albuquerque, a barren volcanic landscape dominates the shrubby desert terrain so desolate and raw it was once considered a possible detonation site for the atomic bomb. This is El Malpaís—literally, “the badlands.”
Not quite 4,000 years ago, one of the largest basalt lava flows on record inundated New Mexico. Today, the aptly named El Malpaís National Monument and the adjoining El Malpaís National Conservation Area comprise nearly 400,000 acres of basalt fields, lava tubes, sinkholes, cinder cones, and steam-explosion craters. Where the lava didn’t touch, you’ll find sandstone arches, cliffs, canyons, and some of the oldest Douglas firs in the Southwest.
The scene is reminiscent of Hawaii’s Big Island. In fact, what you’ll see here is sometimes referred to as “Hawaiian-style volcanism,” and you’ll hear Hawaiian terms thrown around—for example, pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy), a word for ropey, slow-cooling lava, the same dark stuff you’ll see beneath your feet.
For centuries people have lived around and sometimes in the lava country. Ancient Indigenous peoples crossed the lava flows with trail cairns and related to the landscape with stories and ceremonies. Spanish empire builders detoured around it and gave it the name used today. Homesteaders settled along its edges and tried to make the desert bloom. The stories of all these people are preserved in the trail cairns, petroglyphs, wall remnants, and other fragments that remain in the backcountry.
The “Land of Fire” moniker should be obvious by now, but what about the ice? Wander inside a lava tube and you’ll quickly understand: the tubes trap cold air, forming underground ice caves. The ice has been forming for thousands of years and can be many feet thick. Despite being in the high desert the caves rarely rise above freezing.
But it’s the caves’ human history that might be the most fascinating. These caves have been used as a shelter, storage, and for other uses by people in modern times on back to Indigenous cultures. Soot stains in the caves point to Ancestral Puebloans melting ice during periods of drought.
What to do in El Malpaís
Hitting the trails is the big thing to do in El Malpaís. Both Big Tubes and El Calderon have great trails but the Narrows Rim Trail in El Malpaís National Conservation Area is can’t-miss: The 4.5-mile trek follows the edge of the most recent lava flow where the streams of blazing-hot magma met 500-foot sandstone cliffs. This is an amazing trail with incredible views. It is rough and there’s not a lot of shade so make sure to bring lots of water, sunscreen, and maybe a snack. Also, check the weather before you go.
The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT), not far from Junction Cave and Xenolith Cave, also winds through here. The trailheads along CR 42 provide access to the 3,100 miles long CDT that follows the continental divide from Mexico to Canada. This section of the trail winds among the Chain of Craters and passes through piñon, juniper, ponderosa pine, and a variety of shrubs and grasses. Pack in plenty of water as there are no reliable sources of water in the area. Keep an eye on the weather, County Road 42 is a dirt road and is impassable when wet.
You’ll also want to explore the iconic La Ventana Natural Arch, New Mexico’s second tallest arch. This is a world-class arch! It faces southwest so the lighting can be even more spectacular before sunrise and afternoon in the fall, winter, and spring.
Curious how the arch formed? Thinking freeze-thaw? You’re getting warm. It’s from the daily temperature swings of over 50 degrees on the rock’s surface throughout the year. The sandstone expands in the day and cracks apart from the still cool rock hidden behind. The rock at the base and in the center was under the greatest load stress and cracked then failed first. Over time this created an arc that grew from the base as more rock failed and collapsed.
For a real experience, in contrast, visit the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano, “The Land of Fire and Ice,” right on the Continental Divide. Walkthrough the twisted old-growth juniper, fir, and Ponderosa pine trees over the ancient lava trails down into the cave and into a dormant volcano. The Ice Cave, an underground “icebox” is found within a twisting lava tube system formed by the Bandera’s ancient explosion. Take a walk around the 20,000-year-old dormant Bandera Volcano and view one of the best examples of a volcanic eruption in the country.
How to prepare for a visit to El Malpaís
Before you head into El Malpaís be sure to grab a bike helmet, gloves, knee pads, and a headlamp if you’re looking to go underground. You can nab a permit from either El Malpaís Visitor Center or El Morro Visitor Center and go caving on your own. (Note: The caves are currently closed to the public due to COVID; check the monument’s website for updates.)
But before you ramble off into the volcanic fields and lava tubes, know what you’re in for. Many visitors arrive ill-prepared. They look at a topo map and don’t see much elevation change on the lava fields. Those hard, uneven surfaces can be strenuous to hike on. Sturdy, well-cushioned hiking boots can be more important than ever on lava.
Bring lots of drinking water. Remember that El Malpaís is in a high desert and natural water sources are scarce. Hikers should plan ahead and carry the water they need especially when hiking through open land.
I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had. It certainly changed me forever….The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning sunshine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend….In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the world gave way to the new.
New Mexico is a truly unique place with gorgeous landscapes ranging from white sand deserts to snow topped mountains
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.
There isn’t a single amazing thing about New Mexico. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.
Santa Fe is one of the top destinations in the American Southwest. A city that embraces its natural environment, Santa Fe is a city whose beautiful adobe architecture blends with the high desert landscape. A city that is, at the same time, one of America’s great art and culinary capitals. Santa Fe draws those who love art, natural beauty, and those who wish to relax.
As the heart of the city and the place where Santa Fe was founded, the Plaza is the city’s most historic area. Surrounded by museums, historic buildings, restaurants, hotels, galleries, and endless shopping, the Plaza is the place to start understanding Santa Fe.
Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind. Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).
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.
Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico, offers museums, theaters, historical sites, wonderful food, golf courses, bird watching, hiking, and gracious hospitality. Located in southern New Mexico less than an hour from the Texas border, Las Cruces enjoys warm weather and 320 days of sunshine per year. Las Cruces offers visitors a wide range of outdoor activities such as golfing, biking, hiking, and tennis, as well as a diverse assortment of museums, shopping, and festivals. The weekly Farmers & Crafts Market has been rated one of the best outdoor markets in the U.S. Held every Saturday and Wednesday mornings on Main Street in downtown Las Cruces, the market has over 300 vendors who gather to offer fresh local produce, honey, herbs, spices, arts and crafts and much more.
Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country. At the base of the bluff—often called Inscription Rock—on sheltered smooth slabs of stone, are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.
Established in 1939 to protect migrating waterfowl, Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 350 species of birds. Tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill crane winter in the refuge as well as Ross’s Geese and many species of duck. Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge host a Festival of the Cranes in November (weekend before Thanksgiving) that includes events, classes, and even a photography contest. A 12-mile auto tour and numerous hiking trails are the primary means of exploring the refuge.
Step back in time and visit Old Mesilla, one of the oldest and most unique settlements of southern New Mexico. Pancho Villa and Billy the Kid walked the streets. The famous trial of Billy the Kid was held here. Today Mesilla is a part of living history. Great care has been given to preserve the original adobe buildings and the beautiful plaza. People from all over the world stop to experience the history, art, architecture, quaint shopping, and unique dining that Mesilla has to offer.
Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park
Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park is a beautiful refuge 1.5 miles from historic Mesilla. Over 900 acres of land including Rio Grande wetlands and part of the Chihuahuan Desert with an education building for nature study. Visitors have opportunity to view wildlife in natural surroundings while strolling one of the self-guided nature trails. Mesilla Valley Bosque is an Audubon designated IBA (Important Birding Area).
The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. 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. In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape. La Ventana Natural Arch is easily accessible. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder
Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Located where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Southern Plains, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the more biologically significant wetland areas of the Pecos River watershed system. Established in 1937 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds, the refuge plays a crucial role in the conservation of wetlands in the desert. More than 100 species of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonates) have been documented on the Refuge.
In 1598, Don Juan de Onate led 500 colonists through the remote and unfamiliar country now known as New Mexico. The route Onate followed became El Camino Real, “the royal road.”
The byway begins just north of Las Cruces, in Fort Selden, built in the mid-1800s to protect local settlers and travelers on El Camino Real and continues to cross 90 miles of flat but waterless and dangerous desert, the Jornada del Muerto (“journey of the dead man”) before reaching Socorro. The road then heads north to Albuquerque and Santa Fe reaching its end at San Juan Pueblo, the first capital of New Mexico and the end of Don Juan de Onate’s journey.
Just two trails (and an elevator) exist for hikers hoping to explore Carlsbad Caverns on their own. The Big Room Trail, the largest single chamber by volume in North America can be accessed via a 1.25-mile trail or a .6-mile shortcut. The relatively flat terrain weaves through a series of curious hanging stalactites and passes through park gems like the Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome.
Elephant Butte Lake State Park
Elephant Butte Lake State Park is just over an hour north of Las Cruces bordering the Rio Grande. As New Mexico’s largest state park, there are plenty of outdoor activities for everyone. Fishing, boating, kayaking, and jet skiing are all commonplace at Elephant Butte Lake. For less water-based activities you can enjoy the 15 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails around the lake. Camping is allowed, including along the beach.
Roswell is a great trip if you want that out-of-this-world vacation without the hassle of kitting out your RV for spaceflight every time you want to leave the Milky Way Galaxy. This desert town promises a unique getaway unlike any other—on this planet, at least. The city had been around since the mid-19th century, but it only got its claim to fame in 1947 when a UFO allegedly crash-landed nearby in what became known as the “Roswell Incident.” While the truth is still out there the town has embraced its notoriety with enthusiasm from the one-of-a-kind UFO-centric McDonald’s to alien-themed playgrounds and buses. And if you’re not into exploring the outer limits, you’re still in luck here. The town also boasts a thriving arts scene, beautiful nature areas, and deep ties to the history of the Wild West.
If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.