New Mexico is trapped between the “Great” Arizona, the “Friendship” Texas and south of the “Centennial” Colorado. New Mexico, one of the southwestern States is often left out by tourists visiting the western United States. It is a pity because New Mexico is total ! The motto of the state is even “Land of Enchantment” (or Tierra de Encato). It is a land of extremes and contrasts: a broad desert plateau surmounted by high mountains. This less-known State offers a variety of astonishing landscapes: rose colored deserts, high snow-capped peaks, broken mesas, meadows, forests and plateaus. Despite the arid image of New Mexico, the State pulls together a little of just about everything you can see in the United States. New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet at the Four Corners in the northwestern corner of New Mexico. The state offers a rich culture drawn from the different peoples who have fought on its territory… Mexicans, Spaniards, Indians and Native Americans have left behind architecture and traditions. As French journalist and novelist, Joseph Kessel wrote in his 1955 novel “The Valley of Rubies“: “Great voyages have the wonder that their enchantment begins before the departure. You open an atlas and begin to dream over the maps, rolling your tongue around the splendid names of towns you’ve never been to…” Tent Rocks, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, White Sands, Roswell… I just need to close my eyes and as if by magic, I am already there !
The Tularosa Basin lies north of the Chihuahua desert between the Sacramento Mountains to the east and San Andres and Oscura Mountains to the west. It covers about 6,500 square miles, and at its center is a peculiar site, a field of white sand dunes. This natural wonder was designated a National Monument in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover. Formerly territory of the Mescalero Apaches, the White Sands National Monument has an interesting, if not surprising, feature: it is composed of gypsum crystals. It is the largest gypsum field of its kind on Earth. Looking like giant, sparkling white waves, the sparkling white gypsum dunes extend over 275 square miles. The sand, pushed by south-west winds, forms bright dunes that change constantly in shape: they grow, rise up and then lower, but always progressing inexorably… There are four forms of dunes: dome dunes, barchan dunes (crescent shaped), transverse dunes and the parabolic dunes. Whatever their shapes, these dunes are renewed indefinitely, they move tirelessly, and if they encounter the slightest obstacle on their path, they bury it or flow around it like water. Slowly, these billions of grains of sand cover everything in their path ! Mineral gypsum, which is soluble in water, is very rarely found in the form of sand. Unlike dunes made of quartz-based sand crystals, the gypsum does not convert the sun’s energy into heat. You can walk bare foot even during the hottest summer days. The Tularosa basin is an endorheic basin. No water flow out of it. It traps water and gypsum as well as the other sediment. Rain and snow falls on the surrounding mountains. The San Andres rise to 8,965 feet and the Sacramento to 9,695 feet above sea level. The water flows down dissolving the gypsum and leaving a deposit on the surface…
Cruising along Dunes Drive, the only road that runs through the park, visitors from the visitor center to the east into the heart of the dunes to the west. The 8-mile scenic Dunes Drive is surrounded by a surreal landscape that looks as if the road has been freshly cleared by a snow plow. This dreamlike sensation is strengthened by the sight of joyful children and adults tirelessly sledding on the soft white dunes… sleds can be rented at the Visitor Center. We do not just look at the dunes, we “ride” them ! Hiking through the dunes is an excellent way to explore the splendor of the park and to find yourself alone in the immensity of white sand. The park includes many trails such as Playa Trail, Dune Life Trail, Alkali Flat Trail, allowing you to go up and down and then then up and down the dunes… you lose not only a sense of distance but also of time. The dunes encircle us like so many impenetrable barriers. We see the mountains in the background, sometimes a bush, sometimes a flower… The silence is total and yet a small wind from the west seems to blow words or tunes like Under the same sun by Scorpions, The End by Pink Floyd, Best Friend by Puff Daddy or Sara Evans’s I could not ask for more… The wind can easily, in just a few minutes cover your footsteps… If you lose yourself in this blue and white immensity, you may be rescued by a hero from a movie shooting in the area. Perhaps “Lucky Lucke” or “Optimus Prime“… But fortunately, the trails are well marked with sticks! However, exploring this moon-like landscape requires following a few safety tips, including bringing a lot of water. In this unique environment, severe weather (high heat, aridity) and ever-changing dunes (between a few inches and several feet per year), the flora and fauna have adapted to survive. As Albert Einstein said, “The only source of knowledge is experience”… Here, for example, lizards, locusts and mice have adopted a white camouflage ! The Rangers offer a sunset tour every evening to explain the nightlife of the park to visitors. The fauna is mostly active in the evening or at night. Hiking under the glow of the full moon is a chance to enjoy the peace and serenity of this magical environment and to experience what residents of the park, rabbit, deer, great roadrunner, rattlesnake, tarantula and fox, find in this environment. The flora is well-adapted to this arid environment: yuccas grow fast and are therefore able to survive the movement of the dunes while the “squawbush” or “skunkbush sumac” collects the sand around its roots so as to always remain always perched on a pedestal.
Change of scenery… another place, another landscape this time just 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe: the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. Kasha-Katuwe means “white cliffs” in the Pueblo language Keresan, which is still spoken in the Pueblo community of Cochiti. On the trail that leads to the site, the arid plateau abounds with many plants, cacti and flowers such as Fallugia paradoxa (Apache Plume), Castilleja (Indian paintbrush) and Polanisia dodecandra. All these colorful flowers have adapted to the arid environment. In this amazing profusion of colors we discover with wonder the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, one of the most beautiful places in the world. The site was established as a National Monument by President Bill Clinton in January 2001. The park is located on the Pajarito Plateau at 6,400 feet above sea level. The most prominent feature of this site is the presence of rock towers whose pointed tops resemble a tent. Hence the name “tent rocks”. The area owes its geological shape mainly to layers of volcanic rock and ash deposited by pyroclastic flow from a volcanic eruption in the Jemez volcanic field some 6 to 7 million years ago. Rocks and ashes overlap in a formation 985 feet thick. Over time weathering and erosion of these layers have created canyons, tent rocks, and slot canyons. The tent rocks are fairy chimneys of soft pumice and tuff, surmounted by lava caprocks.
The 1.2 mile-Canyon Trail begins in a Slot Canyon and passes through a succession of narrow passages where striated rocks of various height create surreal landscapes. The cliff has different strata with shades of pink, white and sand. The canyon bends to the right and then to the left, giving no sign of what is hidden behind the next bend… Suddenly, there appears a field of hoodoos ! It looks like if a giant pastry chef made meringues, now forever solidified. Some chimneys have kept their mineral headdress, others have lost it thus forming pyramids. Continuing the trail, after a few minutes of climbing we reach a plateau offering a lookout point with a 360 degree panorama view over the mesas and pink and white cliffs. The Jemez Mountains stand in the distance. Enchanting !