7 Wonders of New Mexico

by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, May 12, 2011

Part of the Weekly Alibi's 7 Wonders of New Mexico Summer Guide. Read the whole thing here.


Natural Wonders

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

nps.gov/cave/index.htm

We can tell you all kinds of amazing tidbits about Carlsbad Caverns, like how the limestone rock that encases the network of more than 110 caves is teeming with fossils of ocean plants and animals from a time that predates dinosaurs. Or how scientists studying extremophiles—referred to commonly as “super bugs,” they’re microorganisms that exist against all odds in brutal conditions—in one of said caves are using the microbes to try to find a cure for cancer. Or how if you go at dusk, you can sit in an outdoor amphitheater and watch about half a million bats fly out of the caves for their nightly hunting. But possibly the best thing about the caverns is just how astoundingly beautiful they are. Wandering through the myriad underground rooms, speckled and stretched with stalactites and stalagmites millions of years old, is like being ushered into a dark fairy-tale castle.

White Sands National Monument

nps.gov/whsa/index.htm

Two hundred and seventy-five square miles of pure white gypsum. Emerging from the Tularosa Basin like some mythical land, it’s the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Much of it belongs to the military, which runs White Sands Missile Range on its sloping hills, but 115 square miles of it is open to the public for beachy frolicking.

Otero Mesa

oteromesa.org

This sprawling grassland is a slice of the Chihuahuan Desert, southeast of Alamogordo and west of Carlsbad. One of the last and largest grasslands left in the United States, it’s a petroglyph-covered ecological epicenter, home to more than 200 kinds of migratory songbirds and more than 1,000 native wildlife species, including bald eagles. It’s also perched atop the Salt Basin Aquifer, thought to be the largest unspoiled water source in the state. Most importantly, it’s mother-frakking gorgeous.

 

Wet Wonders

Blue Hole

santarosanm.org

New Mexico’s generally a dry state. Like, really dry. But in Santa Rosa, which is just two hours directly east of Albuquerque on I-40, you can finally make use of all that scuba gear. The town holds Blue Hole, a remarkably clear natural pool that’s 80 feet deep with a constant water temperature of 64 degrees. It’s a scuba oasis. There are half a dozen other lakes in the area, too, with fishing, water-skiing and boating, but Blue Hole’s the one you want.

Jemez

jemezsprings.org

All true New Mexicans know the Jemez Mountains, between Albuquerque and Los Alamos, have some of the best camping spots around. Not only are they sprinkled with verdant valleys and gurgling streams, they also hold Soda Dam, a natural barricade to the Jemez River that froths and bubbles like a carbonated drink and creates multicolored swirls on the surrounding rock. And guess what? You can swim in it. The dam is less than a mile away from the small town of Jemez Springs, which has a handful of other hot springs, some of which are utilized by spas. If you still have it in you after all that soaking, Battleship Rock isn’t far away, just a little more than 5 miles south of the Jemez Ranger Station on Highway 4. The 200-foot-tall behemoth, naturally molded from volcanic ash, towers over a picnic area. Hiking and fishing aren’t far off. Don’t try climbing old Battleship, though, and beware of poison ivy.

 

Ancient Wonders

Sandia Man

bit.ly/sandiaman

No one’s actually seen Sandia Man—we just think we know where the 30,000-year-old guy used to live: in a cave in the Sandia mountains. Although there’s no direct evidence of his presence in the cave (i.e., his bones), elephant, camel, sloth, horse and bison remains all coalesce there, along with fire residue, suggesting our man used a roaring flame to cook his dinner. 

Acoma Pueblo

puebloofacoma.org

It’s the oldest continuously inhabited community this side of Colombia. Perched on a 367-foot sandstone mesa, it overlooks a monolith-pierced valley. The nearly 900-year-old Sky City, only 70 miles west of Albuquerque, is renowned for its art and culture, although it doesn’t have running water, electricity or a sewer system.

Chaco Canyon

nps.gov/chcu/index.htm

In the northwestern recesses of New Mexico sit the thousand-year-old fragments of an extinguished culture. From 850 to 1250 A.D., this corner of the San Juan Basin was an economic hub, punctuated with colossal stone buildings tiered with hundreds of rooms. The remnants of those structures remain, and more than 4,000 archaeological sites have been recorded in the area. Go for a hike among the ruins and maybe you’ll discover another one.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

nps.gov/azru/index.htm

Despite the name, these aren’t ruins left by the Aztec people; they’re from 11th to 13th century Anasazis, a mistake made by early explorers. You can feel like an explorer, too, and wander through a 700-yard walk that takes you through ancient rooms, where you’ll see some of the original roofing beams and find fingerprints etched into the old stucco walls.

 

Religious Wonders

Loretto Chapel Staircase

lorettochapel.com

The lore surrounding the spiraling staircase inside this storied Santa Fe church goes something like this: When it was built in the late 1800s, carpenters couldn’t figure out a way to build stairs to the overhead loft without taking up most of the chapel’s space. Their intended solution was a ladder. The sisters of the chapel prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, about the dilemma. On the ninth day of prayer, a man rode up to the church on a donkey with a toolbox in hand. He built the circular staircase and left without payment. The sisters searched for the man, going so far as to run an ad in the local paper. When he still didn’t return, they decided it was St. Joseph himself who erected the staircase, which has no visible means of support and no nails—only wooden pegs.

 

Sci-Fi Wonders

The VLA

www.vla.nrao.edu

At first glance, the Very Large Array just looks like a bunch of giant satellite dishes. But at 82-feet wide apiece, the 27 radio towers that make up this massive radio astronomy system 50 miles west of Socorro work together to create the resolution of an antenna a staggering 22 miles across. Why is that unbelievably awesome? Because it allows astronomers from around the world to study galaxies deep in space; to explore the lingering signal leftover from the Big Bang; to probe black holes; to chip away at the truth about the history of the universe and the nature of life. And it’s just off U.S. Highway 60. 

Spaceport America

spaceportamerica.com

Want to ride in a spaceship? If you’ve got $200,000, you’ll soon be able to launch yourself beyond our atmosphere from Spaceport America, just 45 miles north of Las Cruces. Commercial spaceflight may just be a few years away, and it’s evidenced in the 2-mile-long runway completed last year.

 

Roadside Wonders

Tinkertown Museum

tinkertown.com

Nestled in the Sandias off the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, Tinkertown resides in the sweet, old country heart of pure Americana. Carved wooden puppets and figurines great and small occupy the winding, 22-room space by the thousands. Ross Ward, the craftsman behind this small army of dolls, spent 40 years whittling them into life. Fiddlers, pipe smokers, angels, devils and circus performers can be found among them, along with walls constructed from more than 50,000 glass bottles, a 35-foot antique wooden sailboat that survived a 10-year voyage around the world, and a curious and creative amalgamation of old-timey memorabilia.

Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano

icecaves.com

It sounds like the kind of place you’d expect to find an abominable snowman, and you might be right. Tucked into part of a collapsed lava tube in Grants, the Ice Cave’s temperature, despite its access to a pocket of sunlight, never rises above 31 degrees. The results are glistening, blue-green layers of never-melting ice stuck mysteriously in the desert. Not far off is Bandera Volcano, one of the best examples of an erupted volcano in the country, 800 feet deep. Its final blast came 10,000 years ago, so it’s safe, if not a little acrophobic, to walk up to its edge.

 

Underwhelming Wonders

Camel Rock

roadsideamerica.com/tip/3848

It’s a big rock—or, really, a collection of rocks—that kinda looks like a camel, and that’s pretty much it. You’ll find it on the Frontage Road outside Santa Fe in Tesuque, across from Camel Rock Casino. You can make up for the lack of excitement with poker chips and slots. 

The Four Corners

explorefourcorners.com

New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona all meet at one point due to Congress deciding long ago that it would define these boundaries with the stroke of a line instead of through latitude and longitude, like it normally did. We won’t tell you any more, because it’s boring, and honestly, so is the Four Corners itself. When you arrive at your destination, you’re greeted by a stone plaque on the ground marking the borders of each state. If you want to get wild, you can place each of your feet and hands in a different state. 

 

Weird Wonders

Toilet Rock

explorenm.com/camping/CityOfRocks

It’s just what it sounds like—a giant rock that looks like a toilet. Of course, you’ll find it at City of Rocks State Park, which is an extremely cool sea of oddly shaped mounds of volcanic ash situated next to a campground outside Silver City. Some of those mounds are 40 feet tall. Toilet Rock isn’t the only recognizable shape around, though; the field of protruding boulders certainly has a more ... adult vibe.