Life on the Road – May Part 1: New Mexico

Our travels and experiences through March and April were incredible but a little familiar – within our comfort zone. The beginning of May also marked the beginning of our adventure into unknown territory.

Winged Hoodoos in the Bisti Badlands

We came into New Mexico from Utah via the four corners – technically passing through Colorado, but I don’t really count it. At this time Colorado was still buried under the winter’s snow; not really conducive to hiking or mountain biking. We elected to skip it and leave Colorado for a future adventure. From the four corners we went into Farmington for some quick supplies before heading a short ways out of town to a Wilderness Area called the Bisti Badlands. Back on one of our hikes in Utah we met a couple from California that had a plethora of knowledge about the various desertscapes of the Southwest US; when we mentioned we were headed for Northwest New Mexico they strongly recommended we go to this relatively unknown little Wilderness Area. The couple photos that they showed us of the crazy rock formations to be found there had convinced us that it couldn’t be missed.

Collection of shots from our evening hike around the Bisti Badlands, complete with a wicked sunset!

We arrived at the badlands in the late afternoon, and took a short hike out to see some of the rock formations in the golden sunset light. Alex had done a bit of reading on the area and good places for photography, and we set out into the grey landscape with a set of GPS coordinates for a formation called the Alien Egg Factory. The name says it all, the rock formations were weathered stone eggs showing many layers, laid out in the open as if remains of some ancient alien creatures’ nest. We stayed out until the sun had disappeared, had a quick dinner, and went to bed with a very early alarm set. We awoke well before sunrise the next day, tossed on some hiking clothes, and made our way back out into the badlands to catch some of the other formations for sunrise. We stayed out for the better part of the morning, guiding ourselves through the pathless badlands by connecting the dots between GPS waypoints. Each of the rock formations we came upon were wilder than the last; small, delicate spires with oversized and precariously perched caps, entire logs of petrified wood that appeared to have fallen only the day before, with lichen growths still visible on the bark. The place was amazing and blissfully lonely, one of our favourite stops so far.

Petrified wood logs we found in the badlands. Check out the lichen that was also turned to stone! The big log is over 6′ long!

More hoodos of all shapes and sizes and colours on our morning walk!

Having seen our fill of the badlands, we made our way up and out of the desert into New Mexico’s mountains. That night we camped at around 2,700m, in amongst old growth pine and fir and in temperatures in the low single digits (Still Celsius, I haven’t given in) – a major departure in climate and landscape from our camp that very morning. The next day we attempted the hike to reach Trampas Lakes, starting basically from our campsite and climbing another 770m up into an alpine bowl. It proved to be too early in the season, we hit snow only a kilometer from the trailhead, and turned around after and hour or so of trudging through and postholing into thigh deep snow. Even though we didn’t reach our destination, our turn around point at around 3,200m was higher than all of our previous summits back home!

[LEFT] Camping with Ferris at 2700m! [RIGHT] Our attempted hike to Trampas Lakes – thwarted by too much snow!

Leaving behind Trampas Lakes, we spent the next few days visiting Santa Fe and Albuquerque. We enjoyed Santa Fe’s old-world charm in the little historic quarter, and their new-world art offerings in the Meow Wolf art installation/theme park. We stayed a night camped in town and walked/biked around town for some beers and excellent New Mexican food. Albuquerque was our largest city since saying goodbye to Vancouver, and we used our time there mostly for provisioning, laundry, and shopping – though we did have one of our favourite camp spots and a good bike ride just outside town in the Cibola National forest.

Santa Fe had art everywhere!

Warm evenings with cold beer in the hammoks!

From Albuquerque, we continued Southeast to the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces. The Organ Mountains are a group of jagged spires that poke up from the rather mellow surrounding desert, making for some very cool contrasts of geography and vegetation. We did an excellent hike up through the lower reaches of the mountains, climbing from earth laden with cacti and agave up into shallow pine forests clinging to the roots of the massive granite teeth that make up the mountain ridge.

Organ Mountains Desert Peaks from the Eastern side

After the Organ Mountains we continued on, visiting the nearby Whitesands National Monument on our way through to Carlsbad. We wanted to spend a night camped in the bone white sand dunes in the monument, but the forecast called for high winds which would make that rather unpleasant. Instead we settled for hiking the 2km “backcountry” loop through the region where we would have camped – in bare feet no less! The sand was cool and soft beneath our feet, and we enjoyed walking around and jumping off the dunes for a bit before getting on our way again. We spent that last night in New Mexico near Carlsbad, setting us up nicely to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park the next day.

White sand dunes as far as the eye can see!

We got up bright and early the next day and got into the park as it was opening. We had missed out on the most interesting guided tours through some of the more remote caves, which all had to be booked well in advance, but we could still do a self-guided tour down into and through the largest of the caves in the park. We hiked down through the natural entrance (there is elevator service into the main cavern), and walked the loop around the “Big Room”. The caverns and rock formations within them were mind blowing, some huge, others tiny, all unique and many thousands of years in the making. We walked slow, and took many pictures. I’d love to visit again to do one of the guided tours into the undeveloped and unlit caves, but even just walking the big room again would be worth the trip. Satisfied with our visit to the caves, we took the elevator back up out of the caverns and came out into a bright afternoon. We had a quick lunch at the park, then got behind the wheel again – next stop, Texas!

The National Park’s service put in a lot of effort to light the “Big Room” just enough for you to appreciate the amazing formations, but still maintain the mystery and subterranean feel. The lights were also carefully selected to show the natural colours of the calcite formations.

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