Carlsbad National Park

Last summer the boys took their Dad to see the “big trees” in northern California.  Dad enjoyed it so much that I planned another adventure for Christmas.  Because of other commitments, this adventure involved a lot of miles on the highways.  On Sunday we traveled from Albuquerque to Burleson, TX to drop off the kids with their cousins and pick up Dad.  Monday Dad and I drove to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Tuesday we visited the cave, Wednesday we drove back to Burleson, and Thursday was the drive back to Albuquerque to be home for Christmas.

Ocotillo is a common plant in the Chihuahuan desert.

The weather cooperated,  the roads were clear; we had blue skies the whole distance, despite having snow the Friday before the trip.  On the East Mountain they got 2 feet of snow and I-40 was closed.  Fortunately by Sunday morning the snow was gone.

(As always, you can click on any photo in this blog to enlarge it.)

Road Trip Tech

The adventure at Carlsbad Caverns was enjoyed by myself and my Dad. We will continue to have adventures as long as we are both able.

A long road trip like this, with the better part of four days spent driving, goes better with the right technology along.  On this trip I tried out a new GPS navigator, listened to audio books, and experimented taking photos in the dark.

Garmin Nuvi 1350 GPS

Cholla cactus was blooming just in time for Christmas.

Garmin’s Nuvi line are automotive GPS units, designed for road trips as opposed to off-road use like most of their handheld cousins.  I had been using the Nuvi about town, but this was the longest road trip so far.  The Nuvi 1350 performed like a champ.  We were going to Ennis, TX first to drop off Abigail and Richard with their cousins.  (They did not want to see the cave.)  I had never been this route, usually going straight to Burleson.  The route to Ennis involved a number of exits and road changes in Fort Worth.  I almost missed one turn, but due to the Nuvi’s lane predictor I was in the correct lane to make the exit.  I’ve gotten lost in Fort Worth before, even when I know where I’m going, so making all the right turns on an unfamiliar route was great!


Prickly Pear is a very common type of cactus in the Chihuahuan Desert.

We like to listen to audio books when traveling.  I had loaded up the MP3 files into my iPhone before departure.  The car setup is a mild Rube Goldberg production: Bluetooth from the iPhone to the Jabra hands-free device, then FM to the car radio, which plays the audio over the car stereo.  The Trailblazer has a nice Bose sound system, but it does not have an aux input so we have to go through the FM.  The FM spectrum in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is completely used up.  Eventually we were not able to find even one clear channel for the Jabra to use.  At one point we counted 16 radio towers visible simultaneously!

One of the more famous stalagmites in the Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns is the "Rock of Ages".

Fortunately Albuquerque is not so congested, and the system worked great on the open road.  If you live in or near a large city like Dallas-Fort Worth I would not recommend any hands-free device that plays over the car radio using FM.  It may be impossible to find a clear channel to use for the hands-free function.  Even on the road, it was necessary to change channels frequently, as it was often the case that the single FM station in a small town was broadcasting on the frequency we had chosen for the Jabra!

The Lion's Tail is a long formation that hangs from the ceiling of the Big Room over the path. There are several of these very unusual stalactites in this location.

The Jabra is primarily designed as a hands-free device for a mobile phone.  It clips to the sun visor and has its own speaker so it is not necessary to use the car audio system.

Manual Lens

Carlsbad Caverns is known for the many different types of formations found in the cave. Here tall, thin stalagmites seem to be reaching for the sky they will never see.

For the visit to Carlsbad I needed a fast lens to be able to shoot in the cave without a flash.  The park service has done a fantastic job with lighting the formations, but a flash will wash out the subtle colors and textures.  Also, the cave is so large that a flash will not illuminate the larger areas.  My old SLR was Ricky, a Ricoh XR7 that used Pentax K-mount lenses; Ricky passed away when his electronics failed, but I had kept his lenses and they fit Penny.  Ricky’s prime lens is a Rikkenon 50 mm f1.4.  With that lens I was able to practically shoot pictures in the dark!  (I did not even have a flash for many years.)

Curtains of stalactite formations beckon the visitor to come see ever more amazing sights.

Of course, the older f1.4 lens is completely manual.  I expected to have to focus manually, but I expected the camera to recognize the aperture setting on the lens.  However, the camera does not stop down the lens when shooting, so all photos are taken at f1.4 regardless of the aperture setting on the lens.  This is not a problem underground, where the lighting is dim enough that the lens has to be completely open, but could be an issue if I am shooting in brighter light and want more depth of field.  I’m still learning about all the features of Penny, my Pentax K20D whom I adopted off eBay, and there may be a way to get Penny to recognize the aperture setting on the Rikkenon lens.  I tried one shot with the built-in flash, but it came out all white, so either I can’t use flash with this manual lens, or I haven’t learned how to set it up.

The Big Room contains several massive stalagmites.

On my last visit to Carlsbad I used Ricky with his f1.4 lens and 400 speed film.  I hand held the camera.  Not the best, I know, but the slides turned out pretty well.  This time I brought a tripod.  I think it did help, but it was inconvenient to set up in the pathway.  With the fast lens and anti-shake technology, most of the pictures come out just find hand held.  Pentax incorporates their anti-shake in the camera body, not in the lens.  This gives even my old manual lenses anti-shake capability.

A more serious issue is that Penny lacks a split image focusing screen.  In the dim light I found it difficult to manually focus.  I found myself estimating the distance, setting it on the focus dial, and then bracketing the shot.  Fortunately on a DSLR I can see the results immediately, and it’s no problem to throw away the bad shots.  Can you imagine doing this with a film camera?  I wouldn’t even know the images were out of focus until I had paid for the developing!  I can see that the next improvement to Penny is going to be a split image focusing screen.  Maybe she’ll get a nice gift for her Adoption Day this summer!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Our day at the Caverns was split into three segments.  On the way in to the cave we took a short self-guided tour to an Indian shelter.  The big attraction was the Big Room in the cavern itself.  On the way out we took a side road through a Walnut Canyon.

The Indian Shelter

An interpretive trail led down to an alcove used by American Indians as a shelter from the hot sun.

An interpretive trail led down from the main road to an alcove that had in the past  been used by American Indians as a shelter during the day.  It is oriented in such a way as to provide shade from the hot sun during the day.  Interpretive signs along the short trail identified plants common to the Chihuahuan Desert.

This seasonal stream collects water from raistorms and channels it to a pool. The pool would have provided Native American people a pleasant diversion on hot summer days.

The Big Room

The Park Service uses various types of light sources to bring out the natural colors of the rocks. No colored lights are used.

We took our time on the self-guided Big Room tour.  I set up the tripod several times to take photos.  At the half-way point we took the shortcut back so Dad could use the restroom.  Then we walked back to see the far half of the Big Room.  All this walking got Dad tired out, and he was making liberal use of any benches along the path.  I noticed several park rangers were taking an interest in us, asking how we were doing.  I wondered why they were so concerned.  Though Dad was stopping to rest often, he did not look in distress, at least not to me.  The last ranger to ask about us let me know that we had been reported to be touching the cave formations, something that was strictly forbidden.  Either it was a case of mistaken identity, misinterpretation of actions, or maybe Dad had touched a stalagmite while I was taking pictures.  We got a polite warning to keep our hands to ourselves – no touching of rock is permitted in the cave.

Walnut Canyon Road descends down to the canyon floor, where we found evidence of recent flood activity. We could see debris left by water, but the arroyo was dry. The main entrance road to Carlsbad Canyon NP is on top of the hill in the background.

The Park Service has done a fantastic job with the lighting in the cave.  Lights are indirect and use a variety of bulbs.  Each type of light has its own “color temperature” due to the materials that emit the light.  The Park Service has matched incandescent, fluorescent, and mercury vapor lights to the minerals in the cave to bring out the natural colors.  Though you can see various colors in the rocks, no colored lights were used.  The color temperature of the light source brings out the natural color within the rock.

Walnut Canyon Drive

We did not take any tours of the other rooms in the cave.  Dad was pretty tired after walking around the Big Room.  Instead, we took a driving tour of Walnut Canyon.  I was hoping to see some wildlife, but the sun was still high in the sky and the birds were under cover.

Barbary Sheep are native to North Africa. They have been introduced to the American Southwest as a game species.

While Blaze is an SUV, he does not have 4-wheel drive, and was a little worried about driving to the bottom of Walnut Canyon.  Blaze handled the descent with aplomb, but while we were stopped on a slope scanning the brush for birds, Blaze’s low fuel warning light came on.  No problem, this is probably due to all the fuel flowing to the forward part of the fuel tank, away from the sensor.  Except that once level again, the fuel gauge continued to show “empty” and the low fuel warning stayed on.

What happened?  Did a fuel line break during the descent to the bottom of Walnut Canyon?  Were we to be stranded off the main road where help would not be passing by?  An external reconnaissance found no evidence of a fuel leak, so we carried on.  Eventually, after 20-30 minutes, the fuel gauge returned to a normal reading and the fuel light went off.

Barbary sheep are normally difficult to see, but this herd was grazing on the slope next to the road and seemed in no hurry to leave.

Coming up out of Walnut Canyon, we took the main entrance road back to the exit from Carlsbad Canyon NP.  On the mountain slope next to the road we saw a herd of Barbary Sheep contentedly grazing.  I quickly stopped and snapped some photos, afraid they would leave at any moment.  The Barbary Sheep paid no attention to us, so I grabbed Ricky’s other lens, a Sakar 80-250 zoom, installed it onto Penny, and got some good close shots.

Roadside Markers and Signs

I like to learn about the history of the countryside I travel through.  Roadside markers are a good way to do this.  Here’s a selection of the markers found near Hobbs, NM on this road trip adventure.

We stayed two nights in a hotel in Carlsbad, NM. The faint odor of hydrocarbons permeated the air, due to the large number of oil and gas well in the area.

There is not much in Hobbs except for large numbers of shops catering to all the services needed on the oil fields. But with a sign like this you won't miss the town.

Hobbs is a hub for the oil and gas industry in southern New Mexico.

The section of US 180 passing through Hobbs is dedicated to Kenneth Towle, a NM highway commissioner hailing from Hobbs.

On the way from Hobbs to Carlsbad, we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets ever.

While traveling through Texas, we stopped at signs commemorating events in the Texas War of Independence and the days of the railroad barons.

36 of Dawson's company were killed by artillery during the Battle of Salado Creek, in which 210 Texans repelled an invasion by 1600 Mexican troops on September 17, 1842.

300,000 acres were awarded to the wrong railroad company in 1873. It took 17 years for the error to be resolved, and caused much distress to the people who had bought land from the railroad that did not legally own the land.

Road to Bandelier

Thursday, November 11, 2010.  It was Veterans Day and the National Park Service would be waiving entrance fees.  I ran across this item late on Wednesday and immediately decided to take the next day off for an adventure at Bandelier National Monument.  It meant staying late at the office to get ahead on Thursday’s work, but every adventure has its price.

I missed the turn onto Road 289 without noticing any discrepancy until the pavement stopped and I found myself at the entrance to Dixon Apple Farm. Though a dirt road, it did not look so bad.

This adventure yielded a bonus — two adventures for the price of one.  The planned adventure was a day of exploring Bandelier.  The second, unplanned adventure was getting to the destination.  It happened like this …

Over breakfast I looked up suggested hikes at Bandelier in my hiking guide.  The book also provided directions on how to get to Bandelier from Albuquerque.  There are two suggested routes: on NM4 through Jemez, and I-25 through Santa Fe.  The Santa Fe route was a little further, but I selected it because the Interstate should be faster than the winding 2-lane road through the Jemez mountains.  Distance was a little over 100 miles.

The Dixon Apple Farm is located in Canyon del Norte at about 6000 foot elevation. I noticed an irrigation pump beside a pond (to the right of this photo). At the end of the road is the Tent Rocks Ranch.

I dropped Richard off at school and took off for Bandelier.  On the way I got to thinking . . . the route would take me through Santa Fe to Pojoaque and off on a road with which I was not familiar.  I had lent my Garmin Nuvi GPS to Sandia View Academy as they were going to an acrobatics meet in Tennessee, but I had my iPhone and called up a routing to help make the correct turns.  Imagine my surprise when it told me to get off at the next exit and take a side road past Cochiti Lake.  Distance was 32 miles.  I had been to Cochiti Lake before.  Sure, the road was just two lanes, but the shorter distance would more than make up for the speed limit of 55 vs. 75 on I-25.

This is the entrance to Road 289. Note the marker on the post to the right. It's no wonder I missed my turn!

There were clues that this would be an adventure.  The iPhone said the time to travel 32 miles would be 1 hour 18 minutes “with traffic”.  Also, the hiking guide said the distance Albuquerque to Bandelier was 41 miles in a straight line, but there was no way to get there, hence the 100+ mile routing.  I did not remember seeing any roads on the atlas, but I was not looking for any.  The clues went right past me as I took the exit.

Road 289 looked like it would qualify as an adventure. The TrailBlazer is a high clearance vehicle so it should handle the road, but it is only 2WD. The road climbs 3000 feet up the cliffs and mountain seen in the distance.

It was just me and one other car, 55 mph all the way to Cochiti Lake, where, for some reason, there is a golf course at which he turned off.  I kept on going until the road ended.  Well, it did not actually end, but the pavement did, there was a gate, and there was a sign that the next 3 miles were on private property.  Well, OK, I reasoned that the public road would pick up again after the 3 miles.  There seemed to be no other way to go.

The photo at the top of this post shows the road up Cerro Balitas. While the road was ascending 3000 feet, often there was a steep drop on one side or the other.

It was a rough dirt road for half a mile or so, then portions were surfaced with asphalt.  Apple orchards in the canyon belonged to the Dixon Apple Farm.  I kept on going until the road dead-ended at the Tent Rocks Ranch.  A glance at the iPhone map showed I had strayed slightly off the marked track.  In front of me was an open gate and a two-track that  seemed to be headed in the right direction to join up with my road again.  I could try it — but I was not really sure where that 2-track went, and it was private property.  Reluctantly I turned around.

I had attributed the discrepancy between my GPS position and the marked route to imprecision in the online map.  Now I expanded the scale as I backtracked and looked for the point of divergence.  The map and GPS position was accurate, leading me to the turnoff I had missed.  It looked like a pasture road — just a gate (open) in the fence with a 2-track beyond.  “Well, Blaze, shall we try it?”, I asked my trusty steed.  “I may not have have 4-wheel drive, but that doesn’t scare me!”, he replied.  So we were off.

From the top of Cerro Balitas one can see the Tent Rocks Ranch below, at the end of the Dixon Apple Farm road. Yes, the two roads nearly meet horizontally, but the are 500 feet apart in elevation.

At first it was just a rough road, with spectacular scenery.  Some of that scenery was worrying me, though.  I refer to the vertical cliffs that appeared to be directly in our path.  Sure enough, the road started to ascend.  Before long we were hugging the side of the mountain on the left, trying to stay as far from the drop on the right as possible.  I won’t say I suffer from Acrophobia, but standing on the edge of a cliff gives me an uncomfortable feeling.  (I don’t like roller coasters, either!)

In the distance is Cochiti Lake, where this adventure started.

I had no fear that Blaze had enough power to climb the cliffs.  I had two other worries.  First was the Blaze would bottom out on a high rise rock or a deep rut.  That fear was unfounded.  Blaze is a high-clearance TrailBlazer after all, and handled rocks and ruts with ease.  The other concern was that the rear tires would lose traction on a steep section with loose sand or gravel and I would have to back down the mountain on a narrow road with no place to turn around.  (I was not going to go fast to build up momentum, not with a cliff a couple feet away!)  Fortunately this did not happen either.  Four wheel drive would have provided more peace of mind.

Along the road is the trailhead for the Dome Trail 118. Turkey Springs Trail is 2 miles ahead, and St. Peter's Dome is 6 miles ahead.

At last the cliffs were conquered.  Though the road continued to ascend, it was not as steep.  I was still on the route presented on the iPhone.  It directed me onto another forest road, this one was full of rocks and looked like it had never been graded.  A truck was coming the other way, and as we carefully maneuvered past each other I asked the driver whether this road would take me to Bandelier.  “Almost”, he replied.  “It stops at the edge of the wilderness area, and you’ll have to hike about 0.8 miles.”

“Can I get to the Visitor Center?”

“No.  70% of Bandelier is Wilderness Area.  You’ll have to go back to NM 4 if you want to drive in.”

Just before the intersection of Road 289 with NM 4, is a horse corral, within the national forest. While I was passing by, an RV drove up with a picup truck towing a horse trailer following.

Once I found a place to turn around, the drive up to NM 4 was not bad, barely qualifying for part of the adventure.  At least NM4 was paved, though it did curve around a lot.  Bandelier visitor center was reached without any noteworthy events, and Part 2 of the days’ adventures was ready to begin.

Adventure Maps

Road to Bandelier at EveryTrail
EveryTrail – Find the best Hiking in New Mexico

Road 289 has over 3000 feet elevation change between Cochiti Lake and NM 4.