Tag Archives: New Mexico

Fort Union National Monument

Overview

Fort Union was a military outpost on the historic Santa Fe Trail first constructed in 1851.  An earthwork fortification was built during the Civil War before Confederate troops were pushed back into Texas after a nearby battle in early 1862 (see Pecos National Historical Park).  At its peak, 1,666 soldiers were stationed here, making it the largest fort in the southwest U.S.  This expansive post was abandoned in 1891 and officially became a National Monument in 1954.

Highlights

Museum, film, adobe ruins, wagon ruts on the Santa Fe National Historic Trail

Must-Do Activity

Fort Union was not the most popular place to be stationed in the 1800s, especially for the military wives who bemoaned the constant winds and frequent dust storms.  That said; expect it to be windy during your visit.  The adobe walls here are smoothed by years of erosion and appear to be melting back into the prairie soil from which their bricks were formed in the 1860s.  If you line it up right, you can take a neat photograph where all the window frames are in a row.

Best Trail

Wagon ruts can be seen at Fort Union since it was located on the 1,200-mile Santa Fe National Historic Trail (like Fort Larned in Kansas and Bent’s Old Fort in Colorado).  Since there was no stockade around the fort, walking to all of its ruins covers quite a distance (like Fort Laramie in Wyoming).

Instagram-worthy Photo

The smooth adobe walls make a great backdrop for a wagon that looks like it needs a fresh coat of paint before it hits the Santa Fe Trail again.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/foun/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The fort is not far off Interstate 25, but the last portion of the drive is a graded dirt road, as is the parking lot.

Camping

Storrie Lake State Park is 33 miles from Fort Union and there is also free camping in the summer at Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge located just off Interstate 25.

Related Sites

Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site (Colorado)

Fort Larned National Historic Site (Kansas)

Pecos National Historical Park (New Mexico)

Explore More – When did Spain grant Mexico its independence, opening up commerce with the United States and starting the Santa Fe Trail?

Update to Our Guidebook: A Park to Yourself

Since White Sands National Monument was upgraded to the 62nd National Park on December 20, 2019, we decided to update our guidebook to the parks.  If you already bought your copy on Amazon, please find the new page 308 posted below.  White Sands is one of our favorite of the many National Park Service units in New Mexico.  You can read more about the park on this blog

White Sands

New Mexico

148,558 acres

Established 2019

603,008 visitors in 2018

Dunes composed of gypsum make a great destination for snow sledding year round, especially when the sand is wet.  Gypsum readily dissolves in water, but here it forms dunes because no river drains the Tularosa Basin.  Follow markers on the five-mile roundtrip Alkali Flat Trail that goes up and down dunes and provides views of the San Andres Mountains.  Most of the wildlife here is nocturnal, but during the day you may spot bleached earless lizards that evolved to camouflage in the gypsum.  The white dunes take on the colors of the sunset if you attend the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll or backpack camp.  There is no campground and only ten backcountry campsites, and their availability is dependent upon whether the military is conducting missile tests overnight, so call ahead or check the schedule online.  Oliver Lee Memorial State Park offers a full service campground in a beautiful setting south of Alamogordo, New Mexico.

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Overview

Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico is the most spectacular cave in the United States (and #1 on our Top 10 List).  Exploring the Big Room at your own pace is a great option, but you can add to your experience with guided tours of off-limits sections.  The King’s Palace Tour is short but scenic; and Left Hand Tunnel was historically used for movies.  Lower Cave Tour requires the use of ropes and ladders to access unlit portions of the cave.  Slaughter Canyon Cave tour requires an extra hour drive, but visits some astonishing formations.  “Wild caving” tours include Spider Cave and the Hall of the White Giant. 

Highlights

Big Room, Walnut Canyon Desert Drive, Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area, Bat Flight Program

Must-Do Activity

To enjoy the evening Bat Flight Program (where cameras are prohibited) you must come during the warmer months.  Brazilian free-tailed bats migrate to the cave from the south and around sunset exit from the Natural Entrance in clockwise circling swarms.  You will swear there are like a “Brazilian” of them, but the actual number is closer to 500,000.  For an experience you will hear more than see, come back before sunrise as the bats zip by your head down into the cave for their day’s rest.

Best Trail

For your first visit, we recommend taking the self-guided trail from the Natural Entrance down a steep, paved passage into the heart of the cave, since you can always ride the elevators back up to the surface.  After being surrounded by the natural cave formations, it was a bit jarring to come upon a modern restroom and cafeteria 775 feet underground. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

Nothing can prepare you for the immensity of the Big Room, which is big enough to fit eight football fields with a ceiling that rises up to 255 feet.  It defies belief that this cavity could have formed naturally.  Perhaps the best part of this section of cave is that you can take as much time as you like admiring the formations.  For the best photographs, we recommend using a tripod.

Peak Season

Summer, though it can be hot outside the 56°F cave.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

No entrance fee, but there is a charge for each guided cave tour.

Road Conditions

Main entrance road is paved, but Walnut Canyon Desert Drive and much of the route to Slaughter Canyon Cave are not.

Camping

There are no campgrounds within the park, but there is a private campground near the park entrance in Whites City, New Mexico.  Just down the highway in Texas, the National Park Service offers camping at Pine Springs within Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  Free permits are required for backcountry camping, with Rattlesnake Canyon off Walnut Canyon Desert Drive being a popular destination.

This design we created to celebrate Carlsbad Caverns National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – Historically, what was mined from the Natural Entrance and Slaughter Canyon Cave?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Overview

This interesting National Monument protects three separate Spanish missions that date to the 1600s, though its main visitor center in Mountainair, New Mexico is not next to any of them.  Their location near salt flats led to the name Salinas and contributed to the pueblos’ abandonment when a major drought struck in the 1670s.

Highlights

Gran Quivira, Quarai, Abó, film at main visitor center

Must-Do Activity

Gran Quivira has the remains of two churches (the second unfinished at the time of abandonment) and the most significantly excavated pueblo ruins (with kivas) of the three sites.

Best Trail

Each of the three pueblos has a paved walkway that leads through its ruins that leaves from the parking lot and past its contact station staffed by a National Park Service employee. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

The church at Quarai is the most complete of the three sites and its red walls photograph well at sunset.

Peak Season

Spring and Fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/sapu/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

Manzano Mountains State Park has a seasonal campground 15 miles north of Mountainair, New Mexico.

Explore More – Other than the major drought in the 1670s, what other factors contributed to the abandonment of these pueblos?

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Overview

These expansive ruins built in the desert between AD850-1150 represent the best collection of Ancestral Puebloan architecture in the southwest U.S.  Over 400 miles of historic roads led to this ceremonial center.  Its multiple great houses were first protected in 1907 and can take days to explore fully. 

Highlights

Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, petroglyphs, supernova pictograph

Must-Do Activity

Walking through the short doorways inside D-shaped Pueblo Bonito, you can admire the intricacy of the walls that have stood over 1,000 years.  So much effort was put into building monumental structures in this challenging locale, then it was mysteriously abandoned, making this remarkable park is an awesome place to ponder human civilization, past and future.

Best Trail

A free backcountry permit is required to hike all trails in the park.  Our favorite passes Kin Kletso and Casa Chiquita 3 miles one-way to a unique pictograph that may depict a supernova that occurred in AD1054.

Instagram-worthy Photo

While mostly made of mud bricks, the wood used in the structures had to be carried over 50 miles from the nearest forests to reach this spot.  An estimated 200,000 trees were moved over 300 years of construction without the use of pack animals or wheels.

Peak Season

Summer, though it can be hot with no shade.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/chcu/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All access roads to the park are dirt, with the recommended entry route via County Roads 7900 and 7950, 21 miles west of Highway 550.  The roads from the south are more difficult, especially when wet.

Camping

The small Gallo Campground lies within the park, but we recommend the free campground in Angel Peak Recreation Area run by the Bureau of Land Management east of Highway 550.

Explore More – Why do visitors strive to arrive for the summer and winter solstices each year?