In the relative distances of the Southwest, the 360-mile drive to Las Cruces was a mere hop, skip and jump from where we were camped on the western fringe of Big Bend. By mid-afternoon, after an uneventful drive through long, empty stretches of desolation, mountain peaks once again appeared through the distant haze and as we entered the town of Las Cruces the scenery had begun to pique our interest.
Lying in the heart of the Mesilla Valley, Las Cruces (the second largest city in New Mexico with a population of just over 100,000), is ringed with several groups of mountains. It is however, the Organ Mountains to the east, with their distinctive profile of jagged “needles”, that dominate the city. And when the setting sun gives them that occasional warm glow, then you’ll know what’s so special about Las Cruces’ attributes.
Our 3-day stay wouldn’t be enough time for all the activities we’d planned to do. First up were the necessities—food supplies and clean clothes and linens. After 8 days of basically primitive camping, a re-stocked refrigerator and clean sheets wouldn’t be taken for granted. Secondly was the big attraction just a short drive north of the city. A day spent at White Sands National Monument would add another notch to my list of national parks and monuments bagged. When the necessities of life were wrapped up, we headed out!
To get there you must cover a whole lot of flat, empty land. All owned by our federal government and the largest employer in the town of Las Cruces, the national monument is pretty much surrounded and overwhelmed by the White Sands Missile Range and Testing Grounds. Nevertheless, the scenery doesn’t begin to change until just a few miles from the monument’s entrance gate. That’s when you notice the muddy-colored dirt has changed to a dazzling white (more so when the sun is out), and mountains begin to take shape on the horizon. White Sands National Monument contains about half of all this type of sand within its boundaries.
White Sands almost became a national park as far back as 1898. A grass-root group in El Paso had proposed the creation of “Mescalero” (named after a group of native Apache living in the area around 1850) National Park. It was not successful when it was discovered that the local group saw the proposed area as a great place for a game hunting preserve. Conflicting with the conservation policy held by the Department of the Interior, their plan was not successful. In 1921 the owner of a large. local ranch who also happened to be the U.S. Secretary of the Interior at the time, promoted the idea of the area being designated a national park, an “All-Year National Park”, usable year-round. This idea did not succeed, due to many difficulties. Later, an insurance agent from a nearby town was influenced by these proposals and mobilized support for the park’s creation by emphasizing the economic benefits. Due to his “taking up the banner”, the park was created as a national monument under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906, made official by President Herbert Hoover in the early days of January 1933.
White Sands National Monument is a wonderfully unique place. The white sand dunes that make up the park are thousands of years old, made up of a substance rarely found in sand—gypsum. Gypsum is water soluble, meaning that rain usually dissolves it, eventually carrying it to the sea. However, since the monument is located in the Tularosa Basin and is surrounded by mountains, there is nowhere for the rain water to take the gypsum. The water dissolves and leaves the gypsum behind, creating fields of white sand dunes.
The trick is to arrive at the monument early in the day. The incentive is to find pristine sand . . . after the winds have made patterns and before the visitors have left their tracks all around. With few designated trails, people are allowed to proceed where they wish. By the end of each day, a myriad of footprints can be seen running hither and yon.
The white sands dunefield is an active, dynamic dunefield. Slowly but relentlessly the sand, driven by strong southwest winds, covers everything in its path. The dunes move from west to east as much as 30 feet per year.
Walking through the dunes is an unforgettable experience; often there are no other footprints ahead, just wind-created ripples and occasional lizard tracks. When daylight begins to fade after a sunny day, the sands take on a reddish-pink hue, and the surface patterns become more pronounced as the shadows lengthen. An overwhelming sense of peace and stillness descends, and when the sun finally dips below the distant San Andres Mountains, for a few minutes the land is bathed in a mysterious light, as the sands themselves seem to glow while the horizon on all sides becomes dark.
These ethereal dunes are one of the earth’s natural wonders. The experience you’ll have here can be unforgettable, leaving an indelible image in your mind’s eye. White Sands is a exquisite example of why New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment.
To make the most out of this place from a photographic standpoint, try reading this tutorial for some great suggestions.
The secret to getting the most out of White Sands National Monument is to be here at the golden hours, either just before sunrise or around sunset times. As the colors in the sky take on their most colorful hues, the dazzling white sands capture some of that color. It is simply the most magical time here at the monument.
And then, too soon (we never did make it in to those Organ Mountains!), we were back on the road. Next stop, Oro Valley . . . a small town on the northwest side of Tucson. A major destination on our winter excursion two years ago, this area had plenty to offer and wasn’t easily forgotten . . . not the least of which were two good friends, Mike and Barbie Tupper.
Not that I care to divulge the scoops on one of our favorite campgrounds, but if you can keep it “under your hats”, Catalina State Park has a lot going for it if you’re lucky enough to snag a camping site. Located in the shadow of the towering Catalina Mountains, the park has great hiking trails (some leading up to the higher peaks), fabulous views, good shopping options (Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Best Buy) just across the street, great grocery stores and restaurants only 5-15 minutes away) and the piece de resistance (IMHO) a dedicated paved bike trail awaits at the entrance to the park, connecting you up with miles and miles of wonderful biking opportunities. It’s really by far the best camping option you’ll find for miles and miles, the only campground we’ve found in this part of Tucson. And, as if we weren’t already joyous to be starting a full two-week stay here, our first evening in camp put on a real welcoming show!
As you can see, while not overly private with bushy vegetation, the sites are nicely spread out for an open, spacious feel. With 140 sites to choose from between two separate loops, the pads are all paved and have both back-ins and pull-throughs. No wonder it’s such a popular place (make your reservations ASAP).
From every site you’ll have some view of the Catalinas—so in-your-face, they dominate the view—but those sites on the outside loop will give you the best sight, as well as easy access to some trails. Late afternoon had us preparing for the show . . . a fairly predictable and reliable event. As shadows lengthened and warm afternoon temperatures cooled, we’d light up our propane firepit, add some extra layers of clothing and settle in for the nightly event. It never ceased to amaze us.
The greater Tucson area has much to offer from a diversity of venues. Literally, there’s something for everyone. For us, it’s all about nature and the outdoors and being active. When weather is never a hindrance to such pastimes, you’ll easily fill each day to the brim. Having friends that share the same interests, we never lacked for things to do. In fact, two weeks was not enough time and much was left undone. Well, that’s one way to guarantee a return visit.
The occasional morning bird walks in the park were always on Chris’ list of must-dos. Mike, who also had a mutual interest, always joined in, returning with some fabulous bird photos. A real pro when it comes to capturing birds in their natural settings, Mike has accumulated a huge portfolio of bird images.
If you’d care to sit back a few minutes to take a gander at more of his great bird portraits, check out his Flickr account here.
Trails in the park were as good as they come—and most convenient to boot. But just down the road, a short drive away, was the little-known Linda Vista Trail. Climbing the lower flanks of the Catalinas, the desert scenery just never got boring.
A fine afternoon to be enjoyed with good friends!
The Tucson area is just packed with interesting places and all kinds of activities to do. Winter days are usually mild and invariably sunny—what more could you ask when heading out to explore? True, it’s a Snowbird Hotspot, but generally people spread around to all the various attractions and crowds don’t seem to gather. Maybe the Sonoran Desert Museum would be an exception to that statement.
Go early . . . stay all day . . . take your time . . . it really is one of the best venues in all of Tucson. The term “museum” might be misleading—this is no boring, indoor activity. 85% of everything this museum offers will be experienced out-of-doors. Paths to follow, desert gardens to explore, wildlife living within very natural enclosures and live animal presentations are the main features of this place. Two good restaurants to choose from will help to restore your energy and prolong your visit. But if you do come, in all certainty PLEASE—don’t forget to attend the Raptor Free Flight!! Talk about a wild bird encounter—this show will give you a thrill (besides teaching you some interesting facts about birds of prey). Undoubtedly, the stars of this presentation have to be the Harris’s Hawks. Magnificent creatures that will fly and soar and swoop and dive and pose for your pleasure in their native desert habitat. Two shows a day—if you come, make sure to attend!
Once again, it’s Mike’s photos that captured these great birds.
If you haven’t had your fill of wildlife and such, the Tucson Zoo at Reid Park is a fine place to spend an afternoon or longer. Not an overwhelmingly huge place to explore, it is smartly divided into 3 or 4 sections, making it easy to navigate through. There’s plenty of information provided about each of the individual animals, and plenty of opportunities to capture some pretty good candid photos. Mix that in with a sunny day that just feels great to be outdoors, and you’ve got yourself another perfect excursion.
Yet again, Mike took all these photos.
And then you can cross another good day off of your time in Tucson.
Many more days filled our time here around Oro Valley. If a trip to this area is in your future, you won’t go wrong spending some time in these places I’ve mentioned.
You should already know once arriving in Tucson, you’re in the land of the saguaro. But that knowledge really hits home when you make a visit to Saguaro National Park. Separated into two distinct districts, one east and the other west of Tucson, they each have their own personalities. But the common denominator remains the saguaro . . . and this park is the place to learn all about it.
Famous for their incredibly large stature, these dignified members of the cacti family cover hillsides, rocky terrain, mountain peaks . . . stretching out as far as the eye can see. At least they do in this awesome national park. A visit here should be a requisite for anyone staying for any length of time in southwest Arizona.
Just 25 miles or so north of Oro Valley you’ll find the small, but very worthwhile Oracle State Park. For 75 years a ranching family owned the property that now comprises the park, handed over to the state in 1976. Thanks to the Kannally family, this gorgeous plot of land lying on the north side of the Catalina Mountains offers more open spaces to explore and enjoy.
If you care to learn about the family’s life here in a remote desert area, their home, built between 1929 and 1933, is open for free tours. It’s a delightful mix of Mediterranean and Moorish styles surrounded by inviting terraced gardens lovingly kept up by local volunteers.
A good ending to your time spent here is to hike a couple of their trails. After a great lunch at the Patio Cafe in the nearby town of Oracle (highly recommended), you’ll be inclined as we were, to walk off all those calories on a wind-swept hilly trail that led through a maze of bouldered mounds. Good views . . . interesting formations . . . great exercise!
And another superb outing comes to an end.
for capturing the essence of that day!
All good things too soon end . . . and so it was with us. With more unexplored territory before us, more trails and places yet to find, it was time to hit that lonesome highway. So move on we must (and interestingly, on one overcast, uncharacteristically cloudy day). But something is telling us, we’ll be dropping in again.
Thanks, Barbie and Mike,
for sharing great times
and some good eating too!
Mindy & Chris