Southwest Guide: New Mexico
Explore the world’s largest gypsum dune field, go underground in caving's hot spot, drive the Wild West along a new scenic byway, and more.
Explore the Off-Limits Backcountry of Great Sand Dunes
Biologists have called the isolated ecosystem an inland Galápagos. But visitors can tell White Sands National Monument is unique just by looking at it. Picture stepping into a Georgia O’Keefe painting: From within the 275-square-mile (712-square-kilometer) dune field, one can see only monochromatic paper-white dunes, the rich cobalt of the Southwest sky, and the mountains in the distance.
In 2009, the monument debuted a new way to experience this giant beach. Enroll in one- to three-day field seminars covering topics like photography, watercolors, human history, and evolutionary biology, the latter of which shows visitors why this place is a Darwinian dream. (Hint: The 25-plus endemic species, many white in color, have something to do with it.) In 2010, the seminars will expand to include programs on writing, astronomy, and geology. The theory, of course, is learning by doing, which means plenty of hiking through the ever evolving landscape and a rare perk: access to remote, closed-to-the-public areas of the world’s largest gypsum dune field.
Get Going: One- to three-day courses, $55-$175, www.nps.gov/whsa
DIY Potential: High. That is, if you’re friends with a team of anthropologists, historians, and astronomers.
Go Underground in Caving’s New Hot Spot
Spelunkers are still mapping Fort Stanton Cave. Think about that: They have no idea where the cavern—or its marquee feature, the calcite Snowy River—starts or ends. Local conservation group Ecoservants leads exploratory cave tours through the 11-mile-plus (18-kilometer-plus) series of underground passageways in the newly designated Fort Stanton–Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area. On the four-hour trip, cavers crawl through a 640-foot (195-meter) passageway, squeeze through a tight hole, and emerge into the colorful Lake Room. Along the way, they spot century-old inscriptions etched by Fort Stanton soldiers, hundreds of yellow-orange stalactites and stalagmites, and rare blue “cave velvet.” It also pays to stick around for a while: the conservation area has some 25,000 aboveground acres (10,117 hectares), including more than 70 miles (113 kilometers) of mountain biking and hiking trails that range from easy to scare-your-socks-off.
Camp at the Horse Trails Parking Lot campground and trailhead, where the Bureau of Land Management stocks detailed trail maps, then go off exploring the tangled web of paths in the morning. The Buffalo Soldiers, Billy the Kid, and Colonel Kit Carson—stationed at nearby historic Fort Stanton—trotted many of the trails. Nowadays, elk, deer, antelopes, and mountain lions still roam, and the views of the 50-mile-long (80-kilometer-long) Sierra Blanca range and the blue-hued Capitan Mountains look much the same.
Go Guided: For camping, contact the BLM, www.blm.gov/nm.
DIY Potential: High. No guides required, but you’ll need to convince the BLM that you won’t kill yourself.
Drive the Wild West Along a New Scenic Byway
The Wild West is not dead, it’s hiding out in northeastern New Mexico, where, late last year, the new national scenic byway was born. The Dry Cimarron Scenic Byway traverses 215 miles (346 kilometers) of wild prairies and perfect cinder-cone volcanoes on lonely highways paved only in the last 30 years.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Start in the frozen-in-time cowboy town of Raton, then take three days to motor through sleepy, historic Folsom (pop. 77), along the Dry Cimarron River, and south to the frontier outpost of Clayton. What lies beyond the car windows easily lures drivers from the wheel. Sugarite Canyon State Park, an Eden of thick forests and wildflower meadows, has some of the best lake trout fishing in New Mexico. At Capulin Volcano National Monument, the strenuous two-mile Boca Trail offers hikers a glimpse of the volcano’s lava flows, and at Clayton Lake State Park, a migratory stopover, visitors can spot birds and inspect 500 dinosaur tracks.
What makes this open landscape so compelling, however, is that it invites improvisation. It’s the power of possibility that impelled pioneers to travel the Santa Fe Trail, which crosses the byway, and to build the frontier churches and cabins that still stand at this intersection of prairie and mountains.
Get Going: For maps and directions, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov or www.newmexico.org.
DIY Potential: High