New Mexico National Parks and Monuments

Although New Mexico may have a mess of cons (see my first post on Albuquerque), it’s selection of outdoor wonders is a definite plus. There are a total of 13 different national parks and 58 national landmarks or monuments. By comparison, the last state I lived in (Illinois) had only one national park and two historic sites, both of which are historic homes of presidents (so not very thrilling unless you are a history buff). 

Most of these parks are in the far corners of the state, so I was only able to visit three officially during my time here. I’ve included a description, a review, and visit tips for each one below:

#1. Carlsbad Caverns, Southeast New Mexico
The natural entrance to the cave, also where the bats fly out at night.

The natural entrance to the cave, also where the bats fly out at night.

It was roughly 7:30 pm when the bats emerged, earlier than usual, at least so said the ranger. He had just started his informative address when the sputter of small black bodies began, sounding like a gentle misting rain as they fluttered into the preparatory whirl. Around, around, and out into the fading sky. Their sharp black figures become distant specks as more come to supplement the steady swarm. Against the sedimented rock that arches to form the cave’s entrance, the bats are a mirage of movement, barely discernible as they circulate out.

I had expected a thick, ominous cloud where are the bats would expel from the cave within minutes. Instead the patient, continuous stream was like a slowly voluminous leaking. Each bats rapid wing shifts combine together, fanning the buzz and aroma of their dank, musty hideout.

After spending several hours beneath the surface myself, wandering through the murky lighting and humid chill, I wondered if they feel refreshed upon exiting. Free of the tight quarters and clustered living, they now embraced the soft breeze of desert twilight. Perhaps it is like taking a cold shower after being in a sauna. Yet they also remained close to the extending ripple of those ahead and behind, wavering into the distance where their vast quantities dissipate into the arid expanse. Only a few departed from the group, darting off in their own direction, truly ready to be free.

This is the perfect way to end a day trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We hadn’t planned the trip very far in advance, so we didn’t know about the bat flight (which happens every night during the summer months) and had planned to drive back that night. We stayed in Roswell the night before, but that meant we had to do the four and a half hour drive back to Albuquerque all in the dark and didn’t arrive home till 2:00 AM. If you are visiting the park from further away I suggest driving out in the morning, allowing for three hours to wander through the caverns (or they also have guided tours which looked good), waiting for the bat flight, and then staying in Roswell (an hour and a half away from the park) for the night.

No matter how you arrange it, Carlsbad Caverns is a must-see in New Mexico.
Deep inside the caves, 750 ft. below the surface

Deep inside the caves, 750 ft. below the surface

#2. White Sands National Monument, Southern New Mexico

Driving south from Albuquerque, New Mexico continues to provide surprising landscapes that are anything other than your stereotypical desert. Through rolling hills of rural communities, to boulder fields of cacti among charcoaled volcanic rock, the scenery was just as beautiful as driving through Utah or Colorado.

We arrived at the park around 6 pm, deliberately coming in the evening to see the sunset and get at least some relief from the heat. The ranger at the visitor center informed us about the popular practice of sand sledding, so we quickly purchased one and headed out with renewed enthusiasm.
Sand Sled
The crystallite fields aren’t visible until you enter the park boundaries. Slowly the rubble of desert shrubs thins out as the sand consumes any vegetation and only pure white remains in cursive strokes across the skyline. Still air permeated with the sun’s descending rays, no wind was present amidst the hush. Although there were other visitors there, it took less than a minute to lose ourselves in the dunes, invisible to every other surrounding.

Amid miles of undulating dunes, the one I picked to sled down seemed mild–until the sand slipped me into a rushing plummet. The flimsy plastic beneath me rippled and the acceleration finally created a breeze against my flushed cheeks, allowing for time to pause in the exhale of gravity’s control. Slow motion falling is not only for the movies, it exists on the downhill of any moment where we relinquish control to the magnetic pull of matter to matter. For a brief second, we can remember our common composition, the atoms that hold us all together across a planet, turning us into sand-like particles. Dust is to dust.

The sunset was simply a cherry on top, a sundae which we consumed with care until that cherry had disappeared behind the mountains and our souls were satiated.
White Sands Sunset
Thus White Sands proved itself to be another must-see in New Mexico. I highly recommend sledding, and coming at sunset. They have a lot of great picnic tables if you want to bring dinner in to the park, which is what we did by stopping for sandwiches in the nearest city, Alamogordo.

#3. Petroglyphs National Monument, Albuquerque

Sadly this one truly is last and least. Although it is within convenient driving distance of the city, the petroglyphs left me wanting more. There is some interesting history to how they got there and why, but it leaves me wondering if graffiti will be a national monument five hundred years from now. The etched drawings are rudimentary, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear connection or story between them.

Two of the trails were closed, so we picked the Boca Negra Canyon trail, which we were told would have almost 200 petroglyphs to see in a short walk. The walk was short, but the petroglyphs weren’t prominent or impressive in number. The trail went in a loop over a steep and uneven rocky hill. Although you could see the Sandias in the distance, a housing development dominated the foreground and erased any sense of natural reservation.

I have heard that there are some interesting trails on the opposite side of the park where the small, dormant volcanos are. Due to time constraints I wasn’t able to check that out, but even so my sense of disenchantment with the first half of the park has hindered my hope for the rest of it.
Petroglyphs
If you have half an hour to spare and are interested in undecipherable doodles, then go ahead and see the petroglyphs. If not, this is one you can skip without remorse.

Tomorrow I leave bright and early to say goodbye to Albuquerque and drive back to California. Check back either tomorrow night, or Saturday depending on the drive, for my New Mexico farewell post.

Have you been to any national parks or monuments in New Mexico?

What did you think?
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