Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Las Cruces and Carlsbad Caverns

Our penultimate stop in New Mexico was in the town of Las Cruces (The Crosses) a peculiar name for a town! The story behind the name - a battle between Apache  and Spanish explorers ended with just one survivor a young boy after which other Spanish explorers  placed a lot of crosses on the battle ground, then founded the town and called it Las Cruces. The center of town has been modernized, it looks very nice but was deserted when we went to Main Street on our first night to have dinner and attend a concert in a renovated old theatre; dinner was good but the concert was not! Admission was free and we were happy to see the really excellent renovation to the inside of the theatre.

The following day we took a long trip over the Sacramento mountains into the Tularosa Valley to visit White Sands National Monument a vast area 275sq. miles of dazzling white gypsum dunes. Gypsum is usually associated with sheetrock and other building products; it is not mined and commercially sold from White Sands as it is federal property. There’s an 8 mile road one can take into the dunes from the visitor center which has some nice exhibits and a video explaining how gypsum rock is melted by rain in the nearby mountains, forms into crystals in the shallow lakes on the valley floor, then when these dry up the crystals are broken up by the wind and ground down into fine sand as it tumbles along the dunes. White Sands Missile Range surrounds the National Monument, after WWII it was used to test rockets captured from Germany; to this day it is used for testing experimental weapons and space technology resulting in periodic closures on US 70 for about two hours each time. The Trinity Site which is located at the north end of the valley was where the first atomic bomb was test exploded.
From White Sands National Monument we went to Alamogordo on the summit of the San Andres mountains (on the east side of the Tularosa valley) to visit The Rocket and Space Museum which may have been worth the trip had we not already visited the Kennedy Space Center 3 times in all. While there we went to the IMAX and ended up keeping our eyes closed during most of the movie about an air race held in Reno, NV each year - far too much fast high flying footage! We drove back in a rain storm (much welcomed by the people) along the valley over the Sacramento Mountains which are high and spiky into The Mesilla Valley to Las Cruces.

Our final stop in New Mexico was Carlsbad to visit Carlsbad Caverns. We had heard of these caverns from many, many people and had very high expectations; these were surpassed so much so that we hiking up the 750ft trail and, down after lunch, then returned the following day to hike both down and up; oh our aching legs! The caverns are enormous and give one the feeling of Jonah in the whales belly; we were certainly in the earth’s belly. First off we signed up for a guided tour of The Kings Palace and in order to be on time we took the elevator down 750ft (30 stories) – took all of one minute! The Kings Palace tour takes one down to 830ft the tour through highly decorated scenic chambers with speleothems (a new word for us meaning cave formations/decorations) helictites You +1'd this publicly. Undo(a helictite is a speleothem found in limestone caves that changes its axis from the vertical at one or more stages during its growth), draperies, columns and soda straws, we had a young guide who answered all questions and was very informative. One of her stories told of two animals who have adapted to living in the cavern - the stick ant and the cricket; the ant lays its eggs in a pool and after a while they float to the surface, when the cricket drinks from the pool it ingests the eggs. The eggs incubate inside the cricket and when the time arrives for the eggs to hatch the cricket gets a very thirsty feeling and heads to a pool to drink, drinks, explodes and all the little ants crawl out – amazing, right? 
After the tour we walked up the steep 750ft mile long climb to the natural entrance, passing bats and starlings on the way; we had lunch and then walked back down to visit the Big Room which is a must. The Big Room is huge with enormous caverns at every turn, it contains a 200,000-ton boulder that fell from the cave ceiling thousands of years ago and hope it will be thousands more before it moves again; the hike is one mile around the Big Room which includes Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, Buddha and Temple of the Sun to name but a few of the formations that one passes, we kept looking in the many pools for dead crickets, we think we saw one!  Then we walked back up the long 750ft ascent mile again. Tom keeps thinking that Adele wants to kill him and collect her inheritance!

While waiting to view the Bat flight we had a snack. The Bat flight is a mass exodus at dusk of anywhere between 300,000 and 1,800,000 Mexican free tailed bats (very small bats) that fly from the cave first in an anticlockwise spiral and then head off into the night (travelling up to 60 miles round trip) to eat moths and other insects.  We sat in an amphitheater to watch the bats – after an hour they were still pouring out! This was almost as good as the visiting the caves and only happens during the summer as the bats migrate to Mexico for the winter.
As the temperature was over 90F the next day we went back to the caverns and hiked down, around the big room and then back up again; the temperature in the caverns is a constant 57F (14C). While underground we missed a big storm which only lasted 10 minutes but dumped an inch of rain accompanied by 75 mph winds.  Carlsbad Caverns is a very enjoyable place to visit.

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