Road Scholar 14382

I've driven through Santa Fe and Taos on trips to Colorado back in the 1980's and '90s and only passed through Albuquerque so the visit there is essentially "all new." I've been to Carlsbad before, most recently in 2003, but that was 10 years ago. We don't visit Santa Fe or Taos, but I'll visit there on the "Routes of the Old West" trip in September. It's going to be another "cold weather" trip but not like the Gray Danube trip. Average temperatures in Albuquerque and Alamogordo: 36 - 68F but only 0.64" of rain. Carlsbad averages 5-10F higher.

Day 1, Sunday, March 17 - Arrival / Orientation
I planned for a nice StuporShuttle pickup about 8:45 since I booked a reasonable time departure for my flight on an upsized commuter jet (larger than originally listed), but with the major budget cuts affecting the Security screening, I'll go at 8:10 AM and would have arrived at the airport about 2 - 2 ½ hours early if we hadn't made a very long wait for a no-show passenger. Sunday morning early wasn't TOO crowded.

United UA 3580Houston - Albuquerque11:20A - 12:40P2:20

It's only a short, but bumpy, flight to Albuquerque but somehow I managed a no-charge upgrade to Economy Plus. The weather forecast is for a high of 68 and a low tonight of 39. Supposedly we couldn't check into the hotel until 3, but the room was ready when I got there. There is a junk-food place across the street for a cheap lunch. It is a nice hotel but a bit of a maze to find our way around.

Registration is in the hotel lobby between 4:00 and 5:30. Dinner is from 6 - 7 in the hotel. Since its Saint Patrick's Day, I wonder if they will serve "Corned Beef and Cabbage" for dinner. No, we had to settle for fajitas. They didn't even have "green chili" salsa! After dinner, we have the Program dis-orientation and introductions in the hotel meeting room from 7:00-8:30. There are 16 participants; our leaders are Ray Kriese and Kirt Kempter. Our driver is Dick Sandlin who often leads tours himself. Lodging: MCM Elegante - 2 nights (D)

Day 2, Monday, March 18 - City Mini-Tour and Sandia Tram
Breakfast is in the hotel from 6 - 8. The morning is devoted to classes starting at 8:30 about the geology in the Albuquerque area (mountains and surrounding high desert areas), about history of the area, how plant and animal life have developed and adapted within geological regions, and how human life, from early Native Americans to present day occupants in and around the city have adapted to the geology and climate. Kirt's two geology lectures (plate tectonics and volcanoes) were very good. Very cool weather this morning; only up to 60 as a high so our afternoon excursion to a very windy mountain top will definitely be on the "chilly" side.

Lunch (lasagna) was in the hotel from 12:15 - 1:15. After lunch, we depart at 1:30 to enjoy a short city tour of the city of Albuquerque (whatever we can see on the way to the Sandia Tram) then arrive at the Sandia Tram (2:30 visit scheduled) where we ascend to the top of Sandia Peak and will supposedly be able to see for miles and miles (weather dependent). Our view didn't quite show us the incredibly diverse variety of geology in the immediate area. When we board the tram, we ascend 4,000 feet in about 15 minutes, gliding along the western face of the rugged granite-faced Sandia Mountains, eroded into spires, cliffs and pinnacles. The hardy pines, fir and spruce growing there are home to many different birds and other animals. We didn't see an eagle, a mule deer or a black bear as we look out the glass walls of the (up to 55 passengers) cable car into the deep canyons.

At the peak, the weather, according to a display, was 33F with 35-40mph wind gusts which made for a very "cool" visit. From the top, we see (doubtful!) 11,000 square miles of the Land of Enchantment. To the west is a volcano field; to the north are other volcanic necks and plugs, to the northwest, Redondo Peak in the Jemez Mountains rises from a caldera known as Valle Grande, a volcanic crater reported to be the largest in the world. To the east lies the heavily wooded back side of the Sandias, and on the far horizon, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the city of Santa Fe. Farther to the south, the Estancia Valley and the Manzano Mountains frame the view. The summit is 10,378 feet in elevation (in thin, cold air) and gives an overview of an incredible amount of very haze-shrouded geology.

After a brief stop at the hotel, we head out to what is supposed to be an excellent dinner is at El Pinto Restaurant from 6:00 - 7:30. Oops, make that an extremely, totally unacceptably ultra slow service restaurnat such that we didn't leave until a bit after 8:30 … and the food was very dry and not hot. Definitely NOT recommended. Ray says that he will be recommending that RS doesn't go there again. He will be recommending that they just schedule going back to the hotel for dinner. (BLD)

Day 3, Tuesday, March 19 - Petroglyph National Monument at Boca Negra / Valley of Fires
Breakfast is in the hotel from 6 - 8. Each (hotel) departure morning, we have to take our luggage out to the coach about 15-20 minutes before we are scheduled to leave; today that means about 7:40. We depart to a much warmer climate and head for Petroglyph National Monument at Boca Negra at 8:00. There we see what are thought to be the oldest paintings in the new world. Images created in the rock centuries ago are found primarily in concentrations along the east- and south-facing slopes of West Mesa. The petroglyphs include animals, insects, and geometric designs. We weren't there long enough and had time for only a short walk seeing maybe only a dozen petroglyphs.

Afterwards, we continue to Valley of Fires Recreation Area with a stop in Socorro, NM to pick up boxed lunches (the first of three ham sandwiches - which turned out to be *much* better than I had expected) at El Camino Restaurant between 9:30 and 10:00. Eventually, an hour after noon, we have that boxed lunch at "Valley of Fires" recreation area.

Valley of Fires Recreation Area is located adjacent to the Malpais Lava Flow. Approximately 5,000 years ago, Little Black Peak erupted and flowed 44 miles into the Tularosa Basin, filling the basin with molten rock. The resulting lava flow is four to six miles wide, 160 feet thick and covers 125 square miles. The lava flow is considered to be one of the youngest lava flows in the continental United States. From a distance, "Valley of Fires" appears as barren rock, but when we walk through the nature trail there are many varieties of flowers, cactus, trees and bushes typical of the Chihuahuan Desert. Animals living there include bats, roadrunners, quail, cottontails, mule deer, barberry sheep, and lizards. It's also a virtual birdwatcher's paradise with great horned owls, burrowing owls, buzzards, hawks, and gnat catchers but we didn't see much of any wildlife. There is a very nice approximately one-mile paved walk around the area. The only "problem" is a major change in elevation - walking down a long way to see anything up close, then a very steep climb back up to the parking area.

We depart around 2:30 for Alamogordo. Check into our hotel (an older "Best Western" but it's nice enough), then leave at 5:15 PM for dinner at Pepper's Grill (good) from 5:30 - 7:00. Ray shows a short DVD presentation on White Sands after we get back to the hotel, but the sound quality on their equipment is very poor, and has lots of "interference." Lodging: Best Western Desert Aire Hotel (BLD)

Day 4, Wednesday, March 20 - White Sands National Monument
We have a light Continental Breakfast at the hotel, then get our luggage out and board the bus by 8:30. Pick up more boxed lunches at Our Country Kitchen at 8:45. We have a discussion of the area on board the bus about the geologic history of the Alamogordo area.BR>
At 9:15, we arrive at White Sands National Monument to explore the area. I haven't been here since a family trip back in 1950. Lying at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert is a mountain-ringed valley called the Tularosa Basin. Rising from the heart of this basin is White Sands, one of the world's great natural wonders. Here, great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of desert and have created the world's largest gypsum dune field. The brilliant white dunes are ever-changing: growing, cresting, then slumping, but always advancing. Within the extremely harsh environment of the dune field, even plants and animals adapted to desert conditions struggle to survive. Only a few species of plants grow rapidly enough to survive burial by the moving dunes. Several types of small animals have evolved with a white coloration that camouflages them in the gypsum sand.

First we have another excellent lecture by Kirt on the Ice Age and how it affected the area. The coach takes us to the far end of the road so we can see the dunes with a minimum of vegetation. There is a nice walking path (only a few places with soft sand) and we take that in for a short distance. There, at one of the larger dunes, we can climb up to the top to get the visual impact of the very large area of white sand. Also, the National Parks shop rents round plastic disks/"sleds" for the more adventurous to use to slide down the side of the steeper dunes - much like on a snow sled. See the pictures below.

Click to enlarge

We have our boxed lunch (Ham sandwich #2; not quite as good as yesterday, but still very nice) at the monument. At 12:45, travel on to Carlsbad. We make a couple of rest stops, and Kirt points out various geological features of the landscape. Check in our hotel around 4:45.

Dinner is from 5:30 - 7 at the Trinity Hotel Restaurant (decent but not fantastic). We select from a limited number of menu options on the "Tour Group Specials: menu. After dinner it's back to the hotel. Lodging: Days Inn Carlsbad - 3 nights (BLD)

Day 5, Thursday, March 21 - Carlsbad Caverns / (NO) Living Desert State Park
Breakfast is in the hotel dining area. We depart for Carlsbad Caverns with arrival at 8:30 am. There will be a brief orientation to the Caverns followed by a walk through the caverns after many of us just take the elevator down rather than walk the mile-plus through the natural entrance. The Caverns, as well as numerous other caves, exist within a Permian-age fossil reef. The Civilian Conservation Corps built many of the structures in the park, and today, the caverns, with their incredible formations of limestone, are highly accessible to tourists. We walk through the Caverns without a Park Ranger - just the audio wands with recorded information for various points along the way.

After the guided part of the tour, we are on our own for further exploration and can do our lunch (limited selections - their "steam table" was broken so several choices were deleted) whenever we wish; it is in the newly remodeled cafeteria at the Caverns.

We take the elevator up from the Big Room, have lunch, and then go back down into the Caverns to continue our visit. After the walk through the Caverns, we return to ground level via elevator to and explore the Visitors' Center at the Caverns - and spend some money in the gift shop to support the CCNP.

I just realized last night: on the Road Scholar web site when I signed up for the tour, we were originally scheduled to leave at 1:30 to visit the Living Desert State Park, but that part of our tour was cancelled. Grumble, grumble, growl and gritch. This would have been one of my highlight visits.

Instead we just stay at the Caverns until about 3 then head back to the hotel. Dinner (we had to choose our entrée yesterday) is at the Red Chimney Pit Barbecue from 5-6. We had definitely the best dinner and far-and-away the best service. Very highly recommended. I wish we were eating there again tomorrow night. (BLD)

Day 6, Friday, March 22 - Guadalupe Mountains NP
Again it's just a Continental Breakfast in the hotel from 6 - 8. Pick up our Box lunches at 8:15 then leave for the Guadalupe Mountains National Park at 8:30. It's quite a drive (about 1 ½ hours) to get to the park - well over into Texas getting there about 10 (MDT). It's a nice drive but occasionally somewhat "boring" with so much desolate scenery.

This park contains the southern end of the Guadalupe Mountains, an isolated range surrounded in all directions by desert. The mountains are part of an ancient fossilized reef which also includes the Carlsbad Caverns - a huge limestone formation. The high country has much exposed rock with fossils, and a climate typical of lands much further north, with pine, fir and aspen trees and animals such as elk, mountain lions, and even black bears but all we see is a couple of ravens.

After a stop for a good look at El Capitan, we have a nice ranger presentation in the Visitor's Center then drive on to Frijoles Ranch for lunch: our boxed lunch (another Ham sandwich, #3, rated #3 also) at an extremely windy picnic area, then continue exploring with a nice short walk from the ranch house. When we return from the walk, a ranger has opened the house and we get to explore it and the adjacent "school house." For me, this has been the best day of the trip.

At 3, leave to return to the hotel for a very brief rest period from 4:15 - 5 when we leave for, sadly not the BBQ place, but the No Whiner Diner where we have dinner from 5 - 7. We are told that this restaurant is fun and the food is good - it's one of Carlsbad residents' favorite restaurants. We have an extensive number of options from which to choose. It turned out to be very much like a "home cooking" place; very nice but not special. Then its back to the hotel to repack, and then "crash and burn." Essentially, the trip is over now. There's nothing of real interest scheduled tomorrow, (BLD)

Day 7, Saturday, March 23 - Carlsbad - Roswell - Albuquerque
After a Continental Breakfast is in the hotel from 7-8, we must have our luggage at the bus no later than 8:10 for an 8:30 departure to *much cooler* Albuquerque at 8:30. We travel through Roswell and visit either the Roswell Museum and Art Center or the UFO Museum from 10:00 until 11:30. I chose the UFO Museum which turned out to be very interesting - a great choice.

At 11:30, we leave for our lunch from 11:45 to 12:45 at Roswell's Golden Corral Restaurant. Then continue to Albuquerque with only a couple of "rest stops." At least, that was the plan. The weather shortly after we left Roswell was 35F with 60-65 mph wind. One of the rest stops was cancelled due to wind and blowing dusst. Total travel time is about 5 hours. Videos will be shown on the bus. Arrive back in Albuquerque about 4:30 to check in to the Elegante Maze Hotel.

Dinner is from 6 - 7:30 in the hotel. (I wonder why, at least to me, the final dinner is "always" the worst meal of the trip. Certainly the dinner tonight qualifies for that description. After dinner we have closing comments from participants, and group leader (Ray) end the evening. With an early dinner/meeting, there is plenty of time to figure out how to get everything (back) into my luggage. Lodging: MCM Elegante Maze Hotel (BLD)

Day 8, Sunday, March 24 - Breakfast then departure
The usual buffet breakfast is in the hotel dining room between 6 and 9. I even have time to eat it since I booked a 1PM flight. Departure from the hotel is with their 10AM shuttle - it's free. The incoming flight was from Chicago and had been delayed about 25 minutes by snow which put everything 25 minutes later. (B)

United UA 5171Albuquerque - Houston1:34P - 4:35P2:01

With a 4:35PM arrival, I finally made it home at 6:15.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge

Sandia Tram
Local cars
White Sands
Valley of Fires
Carlsbad Caverns
Guadalupe NP

1: Kirt's lectures
2: Guadalupe NP
3. Valley of Fires
4: UFO Museum
5: BBQ dinner in Carlsbad

1. Not visiting the Living Desert Museum
2. Not enough time to see more petroglyphs
3: Dinner at El Patio
4. Temps and wind at Sandia and also on the way back to Albuquerque

Days 1 - 2: Albuquerque: MCM Elegante; 2020 Menaul NE; Albuquerque, NM 87107; phone: 505-884-2511. Large hotel with mid-town location. Room amenities: Free Wi-Fi. Restaurant on premises. RATING: #1

Day 3: Alamogordo: Best Western Desert Aire Hotel; 1021 S. White Sands Boulevard; Alamogordo, NM 88310; phone: 505-437-2110. Room amenities: Cable TV, telephones. Restaurant in hotel, easy access, Southwestern decor. Free Wi-Fi. RATING: #2

Days 4 - 6: Carlsbad: Days Inn Carlsbad; 3910 National Park Highway, Carlsbad, NM. phone: 575-887-7800. Room amenities: Cable TV, refrigerators, microwave, Restaurant on premises, guest laundry, complimentary newspaper, free Wi-Fi. RATING: #3.

Day 7: Albuquerque: MCM Elegante again.

#1 Red Chimney Pit BBQ (EXCELLENT!!)
#2 Golden Corral (Good, as usual)
#3 No Whiner Diner ("home cooking, nice menu, nice but not special)
#4 Carlsbad Caverns (limited but good)
#5 Trinity House (Italian - limited menu, only fair)
#6 Pepper's Grill (limited menu, not that good)
#1000 El Pinto (awful!!)