October 13-14, 2010 – Oliver Lee Mem. SP, Sunspot National Observatory and White Sands Nat. Monument
We drove from Santa Fe south on I-25 to US 380 East to US 70/54 south to Alamogordo (Fat Cottonwood), NM. We passed through the Valles de Fuego NP area which is an area of lava flow in the valley. It was really interesting to all of a sudden come upon a lava flow of broken crust with every available space filled with cactus, ocotillo, soapstone yucca and other desert plants. Other than that, the terrain is desert. We had lunch at what was supposed to be Elsie’s burgers but actually was Willie’s place where I had the best red chili of my life. Bob had a good green chili burger there and according to the waitress, her father (Willie no doubt) makes all of the chili and salsa.
When we hit the Tularosa valley, we came upon orchards of pecan and pistachio trees with vineyards interspersed among the trees. First time we had seen nut trees. Needless to say, we are now the proud owners of roasted pistachios, lemon-lime roasted pistachios and pistachio brittle. Of course, there will be none left by the time we return home. Sorry guys….
We stayed at Oliver Reed Memorial State Park about 14 miles south of Alamogordo. What an awesome place!!! It is located in Dog Canyon which has a perennial stream; a rarity in these mountains. The canyon itself is a riparian zone with cottonwoods, willows and other water loving plants including wild orchids (didn’t see any) and other blooming things. The campground was located above the canyon and the water so was a transition zone between the stark, dry desert and the riparian area. To quote the group America, “the heat was hot and the ground was dry but the air was full of sound”. For the first time since we have been in the desert southwest, the air was filled with the sound of insects like bees and flies and locusts not to mention birds. We saw or rather Dixie flushed out, a covey of quail and also saw some sparrows and a cactus wren. I also saw a silver cardinal but didn’t get a photo. The only bad thing was the threat of snakes – rattlesnakes. They are mostly nocturnal and it was really warm during the day but still, we did not venture into wilderness or off any trail. I’d definitely like to come back here to spend time hiking the trails and exploring the area.
The day after we arrived, we had a day of extremes. In the morning, we drove to the National Solar Observatory at Sunspot on the top of Sacramento Peak in the Sacramento mountains. The road up was the best part. As soon as we started climbing up the mountains, from the pull-outs we could see White Sands in the distance. Once we went through a tunnel and crested the south facing slope, the terrain changed dramatically to moist conifer and aspen forests and it was about 25 degrees cooler – about 60 not 86. The aspens were buttercup yellow in ripples of color among the pines.
The observatory itself was disappointing. You couldn’t view the sun through the telescope; not even through a small one. The exhibits in the visitor’s center were interesting but frankly, way too technical with explanations that would have required an hour just to figure out the concept being explained. The descriptions of the how the sun’s location affects various environments was a little clearer to me although some of you guys probably could have understood the technical aspects of how the telescope equipment works. The location was beautiful though right on top of the mountain.
To the other extreme was White Sands National Monument – down the mountain and south of Alamogordo; our second stop. We got there in time to hike the nature trail and to take a sunset stroll with a park ranger in bare feet, no less. I also did the mile in bare feet and the white gypsum sand felt like cool flour. Dixie was allowed to go as well and she was incredibly well behaved. The ranger had a lot of good information about the ecology of the white sands area but was really annoying because she spoke to the group of us like we were second graders. Bob and I both found her very annoying with her intellectually insulting questions like: “And why aren’t we going to be talking about birds such as sea gulls today?” Please!!!!!
However, we did see an example of why trees such as cottonwoods can grow on the dunes – a hole originally dug by the park service but enlarged by foxes and filled with water from the water table only two feet below the surface of the sand. And the sunset was magnificent!