New Mexico and Four Corners, 2005

Taos Pueblo

The Trip

After the successful but exhausting Kilimanjaro trip in September 2005 and the subsequent achievement of running a Half Marathon in early November (not in any public event but on a county trail), we embarked on this physically relaxing (but automotively monstrous, in excess of 2000 miles) trip through several regions of New Mexico. After several days of touring sandy desert, missile range, international border, underground caves, historical monuments, ancient surviving settlements, a river gorge, snowy mountain passes, we eventually reached the point known as Four Corners, where New Mexico borders with three other states. We decided to extend the theme of the tour to include the Four Corners region as well to whet our appetite for its delights which are plenty.


Day 1, Nov. 23

Starting from the center in Albuquerque, moving southwest through White Sands National Monument to the border city of El Paso, Texas

petroglyphs, vast desert, mountains that resemble a musical instrument, a missile range and a border city
Day 2, Nov. 24 Getting within walking distance of El Paso's sister Mexican city of Juarez, heading east to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, re-entering New Mexico to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park An International Border, a lonely straight road open to the sky, mountains and massive halls in underground caves
Day 3, Nov. 25 Santa Fe (State capital) and its nearby Native American Ruins of Pecos National Historical Park and Bandelier National Monument The adobe themed capital city, historic churches, Native American ruins
Day 4, Nov. 26 The northeast corner: Capulin Volcanic National Monument, Taos Pueblo - the oldest surviving community in the USA, Rio Grande Gorge. Crossing the Continental Divide west A long extinct volcano and its surrounding lava flow fields, vistas of the snow capped Rockies, the swift Pronghorn Antelope, the living museum that is Taos Pueblo, a deep rift in the earth's surface in the form of a River Gorge, high mountain passes exceeding 10000 ft., a ride through a snow storm in the dark
Day 5, Nov. 27 Four Corners Monument. Out of New Mexico for the day to explore Monument Valley, Utah's Goosenecks State Park; the exhilarating Moki Dugway, the Muley Point vista, Natural Bridges National Monument Geographical splendor in the form of a movie set that stretches for acres, rivers with no sense of purpose, a steep drive up a mesa cliff on an unpaved road with harrowing switchbacks (hairpin bends), bridges carved by flowing water
Day 6, Nov. 28 Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, re-entering New Mexico to finish up in Albuquerque after crossing back over the Continental Divide on the interstate. Back home Native American Cliff dwelling ruins, Old Town Albuquerque

Much of New Mexico is designated as Native American reservations and an exploration of the state does feature several opportunities to encounter them by visiting national parks and monuments or by visiting areas that are managed by the native peoples themselves. The lack of a written history does make for a lot of speculation but adds a mysterious aura to the people. The relatively recent histories of the Spanish conquistadores and the Civil War adds to the complexity. Geographically, the state is south of the Rockies but is nevertheless full of geographical features in the form of deserts, high snow-capped mountain peaks and passes, river gorges and volcanic fields. New Mexico is also a quarter member of the Four Corners area (sharing the honor with Arizona to its left, Colorado right above and Utah diagonally across) that is an endless source of exciting geographical features.

Day 1: November, 23, 2005 : Albuquerque, NM to El Paso, TX

Flying into Albuquerque: After a rough night flying into Albuquerque via Las Vegas (with a nightmarish walk between the two gates through a lot of construction) and arriving at about 3 am in the morning, we tried to catch a couple of hours sleep in the airport before day break and the opening of the rental car counter in the morning. Fell for the tempting upgrade offer to a Jeep Liberty 4 wheel drive (mindful of the potential problems that a drive through Monument Valley's unpaved roads could pose a low clearance vehicle)

Valley of Fires: Drove south in the early morning light on I-25 to Socorro. After breakfast there, veered east on Hwy 380 towards Carrizozo where the scenic section of the trip began. We first stopped at the Valley of Fires, a region scorched by red-hot rivers of lava some 1500 years ago.

Three Rivers Petroglyphs: Turning south on Rte. 54 towards Alamogordo, we stopped briefly for a walk through a large collection of rock etchings (petroglyphs), carved centuries ago by the Jornada Mogollon Indians. The display includes depictions of symbolic figures, sun bursts, masks, rattlesnakes etc. Surrounding the vast emptiness is the grand panorama of the 10000+ foot peak Sierra Blanca on the east; the San Andres Mountains on the west and a hint of white sand towards the south. Which is where we headed next after stopping briefly at Alamogordo for some caffeine.

White Sands National Monument: At the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert lies the mountain-ringed valley, the Tularosa Basin (which includes the Valley of Fires and the Three Rivers Petroglyphs regions mentioned above). Rising from the heart of the basin are the glistening white sands of New Mexico. Great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of desert to create the world's largest gypsum dune field. The White Sands National Monument preserves a major portion of this gypsum dune field with the plants and animals that have successfully adapted to this environment. We spent a good portion of the afternoon driving through the 8-mile long Dunes road and climbed up a dune.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

White Sands Missile Range
: WSMR is a rocket range almost 3,200 square miles in area, the largest military installation in the United States. Heading south on Hwy 70, we stopped at the missile range for a close look at the models on display which included the Patriot missile that was used to bust the scud missiles during the Gulf War.

El Paso: After all this excitement we finally stopped for the night at El Paso, Texas with the city of Juarez (Ciudad Juarez) lying across the international border with Mexico, separated by the Rio Grande. Darkness had set in and our curiosity about life in Mexico was countered by a friendly local who advised us against crossing over during Thanksgiving Weekend. Never mind crime, you'll have to stand in a long line to get back into the US due to the holiday sales! We even managed to get stopped by a police officer waving a flashlight at us, only to realize that our headlights were off. We got away with it by truthfully confessing that it was a rental car whose controls we had not got used to.

Day 2: November 24, 2005: El Paso, TX to Las Vegas, NM

El Paso: Situated on the border of two nations and three states, El Paso lies in the Chihuahuan Desert 3,762 feet above sea level and is split down the middle by the Franklin Mountains. The Rio Grande (river) flows along El Paso's southern boundary separating Texas from Mexico. The city is the fourth largest in the state of Texas with over 700,000 people. Just across the border is Juarez which is home to 1.7 million people. The two downtown areas are within walking distance which makes for a combined international city of over 2 million people.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park
: 110 miles east of El Paso is the Pine Springs Visitor Center at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The distinctive profile of the mountains can be seen well ahead of arriving at the visitor center from Hwy 180 east of El Paso. The highway is quite lonely and the surrounding country is wide open making the sight of the remote mountains very dramatic. As the highway nears the park, it bends north before reaching the visitor center.

Guadalupe Mountains, Texas

We did not plan any activity in the park (the only exploration that might have interested us is the 8.4 mile round trip hike to the top of Guadalupe Peak (8749 ft.) , the tallest peak in all of Texas). However, we were content with just the scenic views and after a brief stop at the visitor center, we sped further on the highway to make it back into New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park (a distance of 45 miles) before it closed for the day. It being Thanksgiving Day, we were also anxious about finding food for the night as it is one of the few days of the year where one will find it challenging to find food in America (Christmas Eve and New Years Eve being the others).

Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Away from the desert and mountains, beneath the earth's surface, is a different world. It is the realm of gigantic subterranean chambers, fantastic cave formations and extraordinary features. Visitors can experience the cave through a pair of self-guided tours and a ranger-guided tour. We had time to do the self-guided Big Room Route which is recommended for the first time visitor. It is a one-mile long underground stroll around the perimeter of the largest room in the cave. It takes 1.5 hours to finish and passes many large features including the Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Rock of Ages and Painted Grotto. The 8.2 acre Big Room is highly decorated and immense. Access to the room is via an elevator from the visitor center. The other tours are the Natural Entrance Tour is more adventurous and more authentic as it attempts to take the visitor through the natural entrance to the cave and requires a descent of 750 feet following steep and narrow trails. Highlights along this route include Bat Cave, Devil's Spring etc. The evening flight of the bats of Carlsbad Cavern is a natural phenomenon that can be viewed at dusk from the outdoor amphitheater at the cave's natural entrance. The Mexican free-tailed bats exit the cave at dusk to feed on night-flying insects before returning back to the cave at dawn to sleep. This phenomenon occurs from early Spring through October. They spend the winter in Mexico.

The Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Day 3: November 25, 2005: Las Vegas, NM to Raton, NM (Pecos, Santa Fe, Bandelier)

Pecos National Historical Park: A relatively small park whose main purpose is to preserve the 12,000 year history of the ancient pueblo of Pecos as well as the more recent histories of the Santa Fe Trail, the Glorieta Pass Civil War Battle and Spanish Missions. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains lie to the north with their perennially snow-capped 13000 ft. peaks; the Glorieta Mesa lies due south. The vast expanse of the Great Plains lie to the east and to the west lies the Rio Grande Valley. Between the mountains and the mesa is the 30 mile corridor carved by streams born in the Sangre de Cristo that has been used as passageway (Glorieta Pass) by humans. As the portal between the east and the west, the upper Pecos Valley has served as meeting ground for many cultures.

By the time Columbus set foot in the Americas, Pecos Pueblo had grown into one of the largest and most powerful city states in northern New Mexico, consisting of some two thousand prosperous people. The formidable Pecos Pueblans prided themselves on their superiority over other cultures and built the pueblos to impress this fact on visitors. Pecos was a major center of trade between the Pecos and the Apache and this continued long after Europeans arrived.

Pecos National Historical Park

When Spanish conquistadores first stood outside its walls, Pecos was a pueblo in its prime. But neither its prosperity and its power could save it from the decline that began with the arrival of Coronado in 1540. The inevitable historical progression - uneasy contracts between the natives and Europeans, greed and mistrust, religious conversion, famine, European diseases, colonists etc. etc. By 1838, fewer than 30 members of the pueblo remained. These last survivors migrated into the mountains across the Rio Grande to Jemez Pueblo, where their descendents live today.

Santa Fe: Literally, "holy faith" in Spanish. The capital of the state of New Mexico has a distinctive look about it resulting from an early goal of the city government to enforce a unified building style - the Spanish Pueblo Revival - with its earth toned adobe colored exteriors. Even the parking lots look like special structures and not the forgettable constructions you would see elsewhere. The city's historic sites include the St. Francis Cathedral, Loretto Chapel, San Miguel Mission, the Palace of the Governors, Plaza, the State Capitol and what is claimed as the oldest surviving building in the US.

At right is a painting of the Santa Fe school depicting Christ on the Cross.

Bandelier National Monument: 48 miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico is Bandelier, an ancient home of Anasazi (a term that is now considered disrespectful and is being replaced with Ancestral Puebloans), Bandelier abounds in mystery. The tribe vanished without any hints as to why. Arriving in this area in the 12th century, carving dwellings into the cliffs of tuff (ash and volcanic particles), they were farmers who raised corn, beans and squash. The community flourished and population grew to the thousands. About 1550, they abandoned the site, never to return. Their trails still survive some steep and equipped with ladders lead through the ruins of their bygone civilization.

Tyuonyi, Bandelier NM

The site consists of cliff dwellings - some of which requires climbing several ladders, an intriguing and intricate building Tyuonyi whose size and layout can only appreciated from a height. The Tyuonyi contained 400 rooms with 3 stories in height in its heydays. While the monument is 33,750 acres, it only contains 3 miles of public road. The most obvious thing for a visitor who intents to spend a short hour in the monument is to walk the nature trail and visit the Cliff Dwellings and Tyuonyi.

Day 4: November 26, 2005: Raton, NM to Farmington, NM (Capulin, Taos, Rio Grande Gorge, Continental Divide)

Capulin Volcanic National Monument: Capulin's eruption is said to have occurred several tens of thousands of years ago, but its history has been recreated by scientists using the model of a similar cinder cone that was created in 1943 when Paricutin erupted in central Mexico. Capulin is at the edge of the Great Plains about 60 miles east of the southern end of the Rocky Mountains. It lies near the center of the Raton-Clayton volcanic field, a diverse landscape of volcanic domes, cones and lava flows. Igneous and sedimentary rocks are both found in the region and were created by vastly different geologic processes.

It is said on a clear day that you can see deep into the neighboring states of Oklahoma and Colorado. We had one such winter day and while there are no geographic features to distinguish Oklahoma from New Mexico, it was easy enough to spot Colorado through its signature snowcapped Rocky Mountains. We undertook the short hour's drive east of Raton early in the morning stopping by the road to take a closer look at a group of Pronghorn Antelope. Highway 64/87 leads to the volcano and a well paved road takes one directly to the top of the cone (8182 feet) which is 1300 feet above the surrounding plains. There is not much to see in the crater as it is overgrown with vegetation, but the views of the surrounding lands is breathtaking. Capulin Mountain is immediately surrounded by a series of lava flows whose rippled surface can be clearly seen. The lava flows cover a region of 15.7 square miles and are dotted with Lava Mounds which were created when the cooled lava crusts broke up and spewed the lava flowing underneath.

Wheeler Peak and the Enchanted Circle: The Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway follows a high mountain route through Carson National Forest, circling Wheeler Peak (pictured right), New Mexico's highest mountain at 13,161 feet. Apart from its mountainous vistas and alpine adventures, it also has a literary connection - at San Cristobal Road is the D. H. Lawrence Shrine, where the English author wrote in the 1920s. Lawrence's ashes were returned here when he died, and the shrine is open daily. We did not visit the shrine during our trip.

Taos: Taos Pueblo (picture at top of page) is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the USA. The Native legends and oral history trace their existence back to the beginning of evolution of man and all of creation (this text, taken from World Heritage brochure interestingly combines evolution and creation in a single sentence without contradiction). The Pueblo consists of two main structures Hlaauma (North House) and Hlaukkwima (South House). What looks like a monolithic building are actually individual homes built side by side and in layers with common walls and no connecting doorways. The Pueblo is mostly unchanged since the days of the Spanish conquistadores. The exception is the introduction of doorways. The buildings are made entirely of adobe (earth, straw and water mixed). The roofs are supported by large timbers (vigas). The exteriors are plastered annually with adobe. There is a restriction of no electricity or running water within the sacred village.

The town of Taos (a short drive from the Pueblo) has lured artists over the years due to its picture-perfect adobe architecture and surrounding snowy peaks. The Taos Plaza is a legacy of the Spaniards, who came in the 1600s looking for gold and eventually stayed to colonize the valley and convert the Puebloans. The last was not met with much success. However, they left behind the imposing structure of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi (pic left). The unconverted Puebloans still live in Taos Pueblo (as mentioned above).

Rio Grande Gorge: The Rio Grande river coming down from the Rockies cuts right across New Mexico north-south before eventually forming the border with Mexico. The cantilever truss bridge on Hwy 64 that crosses the river (10 miles northwest of Taos) offers the spectacular scenery of a gorge that is 650 feet deep. The bridge spans 1280 feet. The bridge has appeared in several films (incl. Natural Born Killers). The bridge is also the site of numerous suicides.
Rio Grande Gorge, New Mexico

Snow at High Point: After crossing the bridge, Hwy 64 climbs sharply to over 10000 feet enroute to Chama, NM. There was considerable amount of snow on the road at this elevation and the scenery was magnificent. We could also see the gathering of snow laden clouds which were looking for a suitable spot to dump. Our plans for the evening were flexible. We planned to get as close as possible to the Four Corners monument. However, if snow threatened, we would have stopped for the night at Chama. We had heard of Chama in the context of the Cumbres-Toltec Scenic Railroad which is a recreation train ride that passes several mountain passes over 10000 feet high and crosses the Colorado-New Mexico border several times. That will have to wait for another day as it requires considerable planning if one were to undertake a one-way trip on the railroad.

Continental Divide: After dinner at Chama, we decided to continue west to Farmington. We still had to cross the Continental Divide (7800 ft.). While not as high as 10000 ft., we were hit by snow fall that dramatically reduced visibility on the road at night. We did manage to cross over to the other side and we were on better traction once we reached lower elevations.

Day 5: November 27, 2005: Farmington, NM to Cortez, CO (Four Corners, Monument Valley, Goosenecks State Park-Utah, Moki Dugway, Muley Point, Natural Bridges)

Shiprock, New Mexico - near Four Corners

Four Corners Monument:
The only spot in the US where four states intersect at one one point: Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. A great reminder of how a natural landscape can make a mockery of man-made divisions. The original marker erected in 1912 was a cement pad, but has since been redone in granite and brass. The visitor center is open year round and features a demonstration center with Navajo artisans. Navajo vendors sell handmade jewelry, crafts and traditional Navajo foods.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park: Even those who have never heard of Monument Valley have probably seen it in John Ford films (Stagecoach, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande). The 30,000 acre park can be explored on a scenic 17-mile road that is accessible to most vehicles (only those with a low clearance could find it difficult). The vast table land is interrupted by stunning rock formations which can be seen as you approach the park on Highway 163 from Arizona. And you continue to see them as you leave the park and head north towards Mexican Hat, UT.

Monument Valley

Goosenecks State Park, Utah: Four miles off Utah Highway 261 near Mexican Hat, you can look into a 1,000-foot-deep chasm carved through the Pennsylvanian Hermosa Formation by the silt-laden San Juan River. The river meanders back and forth, flowing for more than five miles while progressing only one linear mile toward the Colorado River and Lake Powell. The stretch of Hwy 163 (called Trail of the Ancients in honor of the vanished Anasazis) cuts across Monument Valley (offering a close up view of formations like Saddleback, Stagecoach etc. for those in such a hurry (to what? get to work? here?) that they could not visit the Monument Valley park) at the Utah-Arizona border.

San Juan River Goosenecks

Moki Dugway: Three miles of narrow, unpaved switchbacks that ascend 1000 ft via grades up to 10 percent. As you drive north on Rte. 161, the Cedar Mesa stands unmoving in front of you and you get no indication of how you are going to proceed beyond. The Moki Dugway is one way out of there.

Muley Point: The reward for negotiating the Moki Dugway is the spectacular view of the surrounding Valley of the Gods, the Goosenecks and as much of the Four Corners region as the eye can see. Muley Point is reached by a spur road off the highway that dead-ends at a point close to the cliff's edge.

Natural Bridges National Monument: The monument required us to head further west on Hwy 95 and was the last stop for the day before retracing our way back east on Hwy 95 all the way across Utah and into Colorado. Three natural bridges (Sipapu, Kachina, Owachomo) can be visited on a half hour driving tour. We reached there late in the afternoon and only had a half hour. But the rapidly falling temperatures forced us to cut down our time in the park to the barest minimum.

Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges NM

The natural bridges are formed by goosenecking rivers that eventually break through a thin separating wall. Both sides are eroded by the raging waters and percolation eventually causing a breakthrough as the river takes a shorter course. The hole is enlarged over time resulting in a natural bridge. The key differentiator between natural bridges and arches is that bridges are formed by moving water and arches by frost and seeping moisture. However, natural bridges are enlarged through frost and seeping moisture once they form.

Day 6 (Final): November 28, 2005: Cortez, CO to Albuquerque, NM (Mesa Verde National Park, Old town Albuquerque)

Mesa Verde National Park: About 550 AD, a group of people living in the Four Corners area chose the Mesa Verde heights for their home. For more than 700 years, their descendants lived and flourished there, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, within the late 1200s, within the span of one or two generations, they left their homes and moved away.

Mesa Verde National Park, which occupies part of a large plateau rising high above the Montezuma and Mancos Valleys, preserves a spectacular reminder of this 1,000 year-old culture. These people used to be called Anasazi (meaning Ancient Enemies) and are now referred to by the more neutral Ancestral Puebloans. These cliff-dwelling people shaped pots, harvested corn and stored it for winter, passed their stories or chanting prayers from the depths of ceremonial kivas. The dwellings were first discovered in 1888 when two ranchers, Richard Wetherill and Charlie Manson, set off in a snowstorm in search of cattle that had strayed away and stumbled instead upon the perfectly preserved Cliff Palace - a large dwelling that housed more than 200 people. The next day, they found Spruce Tree house (naming it for the tree that grew beside the ruin) and Square Tower House, the tallest structure in the park. The majority of the cliff dwellings were tucked into alcoves facing south-southwest to let in low winter sun but not the searing overhead rays of summer. They range in size to single room structures to structures containing hundreds of rooms.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

Old Town Albuquerque: Old Town is the heart of Albuquerque's heritage. The first families settled near the banks of Rio Grande in 1706. Albuquerque was a colonial farming village and a military outpost along the Camino Real between Chihuahua and Santa Fe. The village formed in the traditional Spanish pattern of a central plaza surrounded by a church, homes and government buildings. Much of the architecture is Pueblo-Spanish, or adobe.

Elevation Profile

  • Capulin Volcano (~8200 ft.) is the first spike at left
  • After returning to Raton and heading west to Cimarron, the route crosses the scenic Bobcat Pass (~9500 ft) and the ski resort town of Red River, NM and descends to 7000 ft. at Taos
  • Beyond Taos and the Rio Grande Gorge, the route climbs steeply to the highest point on this trip (10000+ ft.) where we saw a significant amount of snow on the road, descending to Chama, NM
  • Further west is the Continental Divide crossing (~7800 ft.) where we actually got a lot of snow dumped on us as we drove through to the lower elevations of Bloomfield and Farmington, NM (~5000 ft.)
  • The next morning, we explored the Four Corners area and Monument Valley which stayed in the 5000 ft. range before turning north into SW Utah. The Moqi Dugway unpaved road climbs steeply to 7000+ ft and a short detour west on Hwy 95 took us to Natural Bridges. We turned back east of Hwy 95 to cross the dramatic Butler Wash (~4900 ft.) before climbing up on the other side of the Wash to Monticello, UT (~7000 ft.) and finally resting at Cortez, CO (~6000 ft.)
  • The final day started with a dramatic climb up past 8500 ft. in Mesa Verde National Park (with two spikes) before descending down to 5000 ft. at Shiprock, NM.
  • The last leg of the tour crossed the Continental Divide back east on I-40 to Albuquerque, NM.

  • The Photos

    The photo album can be accessed here.



    The Videos

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    Trip Tracks

    The Google Earth file can be accessed here.

    View 2005-11 New Mexico-Four Corners in a larger map

    Photos and Text: Malini Kaushik and Venkatesh