Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On the Road to Tucson (4) Carlsbad & Las Cruces

February 26-27, 2008. Carlsbad Caverns National Park has to be the most impressive natural wonder that we've ever seen. We've been to a few caves, including Mammoth Cave, but none compare to the immense rooms and fantastic creations in Carlsbad. Words cannot adequately describe this awesome park. And neither can pictures but I did get a few decent ones.

Carlsbad is in southeast New Mexico within the Guadalupe Mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert. The cave was discovered in the late 1800's by a cowboy who saw bats emerge. He was intrigued and began exploring the cave. It was not formed by flowing water as Mammoth Cave was. It began forming 250 million years ago as a 400 mile long reef of a large sea composed of sponges, algae and seashells. As the sea retreated the reef was buried under salts and gypsum and cracks developed. A million years ago there was an uplift of the tectonic plate which allowed rain to seep down through the cracks. The stalactites and stalagmites began forming about 500,000 years ago from hydrogen sulfide mixing with water to form sulfuric acid which dissolved the limestone. The result was calcite hardening on the outside of the drips. It was amazing to think that the formations we were looking at formed so long ago. (From late March to October you can hear a talk about the bats and see them leave their cave at dusk. But right now they're still in warmer Mexico.)

We arrived in time to do a self-guided walk into the Big Room using the Natural Entrance. The cave is 56 degrees and the biggest room is 1075 feet tall. We spent about 2 hours down there! Here are pictures of the area outside the cave, the natural entrance and the long switchbacks down to the bottom. You can also take the elevator down which they make everyone take back up. (They were renovating the Visitor Center which was supposed to reopen in June.)

There are a number of different kinds of formations in the cave. I don't have a name for the first one but the next ones are drapery, straws, and popcorn.

Here are some interesting formations from the Big Room.

We took 2 guided tours. The first was the Left-hand Tunnel where we went in with candle lanterns. Here are some formations from that tunnel.

The tour of King's Palace was much more impressive with its huge rooms and interesting formations. Both guides gave pretty much the same general information. Some of these pictures may be from the Big Room since after the tour we spent another hour walking around and gawking at the formations.

February 28-29, 2008.
Las Cruces, New Mexico isn't all that far from the border of Mexico so here and there in northern Texas and around Las Cruces there are Border Patrol stops. At one the officer saw we were from Massachusetts, asked where, and told us he was from Gardner and his aunt lived in Northampton!

We went to a small Natural History Museum at a mall which was a really good children's museum. We also went to a museum at the New Mexico State University where there were interesting exhibits on the depression in that area and pottery. We walked around the gorgeous campus and found the theater that was having a production. The next night we enjoyed the play, "Reckless" by Craig Lucas. It was really, really enjoyable and well done by the students.

Dripping Springs was where we decided to hike. It was all uphill but had an interesting old mountain camp which was turned into a TB sanatorium in the early 1900's.

After reading an article in the USA Today we decided to check out White Sands National Monument. We are so glad we did. It was amazing. It's at about 4000' elevation. Imagine 275 total square miles of dunes, if you can. Only 115 square miles are actually located within White Sands National Monument, the rest are part of the White Sands Missile Range. There was a great Visitor Center with a short movie and displays. We learned that these sand dunes are like no other because the sand is made of gypsum. The simplified explanation is that gypsum leaches out of the mountains when it rains, dries up, crystallizes and gets blown away. This obviously has gone on for thousands of years. And every year the dunes move a few inches to the northeast (away from the missile range). Some have vegetation: yucca, small trees and shrubs and some are bare. It looked like huge snow drifts. One interesting thing is that because of all the blowing sand they actually have to use a snow plow on the roads!

Because of blowing sand and the heat, here is their unique set-up for picnic tables.

We decided to do the 4.5 mile round trip Alkali Flat Trail. (Finally, after 2 miles we reached the "flats.") It was only 75 degrees but felt like 85 with the reflection of the sand. Fortunately there wasn't blowing sand but there was a breeze. It was a hike unlike any other. We walked up and down sand dunes following stakes that were trail markers. In a few places we saw the top 2 inches of trail markers and then new ones they had put in! You can see how tall some of the dunes were. Here I am next to one. It was exhausting but really a very cool hike.

At one point we met a couple of retired teachers from London, Ontario (Brian and Bernie Legg). We started talking about retirement travel and found out that they rented a friend's condo in Ft. Myers every November-December. Not only that but it's in Heritage Palms where the Hurwitz's condo is. We exchanged emails and plan on reconnecting next winter.

Here's a typical scene from northern Texas and southern New Mexico, an oil rig.

Next adventure: March in Tucson, Arizona.

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