In July of 2005 I planned a trip to El Paso, Texas, where my family now resides, and a several-days-long tour of some of the highlights of southwestern New Mexico - one of my favorite places to visit - along with a journey up and down the eastern side of Arizona, which was my first opportunity to see some of the spectacular sights of that state, which I had not yet had the chance to visit.

Along with my sister and brother-in-law, we set out from El Paso and drove west along NM Route 9, which parallels the US/Mexico border, to Columbus, New Mexico, and the Pancho Villa State Park, where the Mexican revolutionary general for whom the park is named, invaded the US in 1916, killing 14 soldiers and 10 civilians, seizing horses, mules, weapons, and ammunition, and then escaping back to Mexico. The raid led to a punitive expedition by US General John J. Pershing involving 10,000 troops that lasted into the following year and failed to find Pancho Villa. Columbus was just a village at the time, and today is a sleepy little border town of less than 2000 inhabitants, its main attractions being the state park and a little railroad museum.

The state park contains a few rapidly-decaying adobe remnants of the US Army's Camp Furlong, and a tiny little museum displaying artifacts from the military of the time and exhibits describing what happened there, but it is mainly a desert garden, and quite a nice one at that.

After lunch just across the border in Palomas, Mexico, at a place called the Pink Store, recommended by the caretaker of Pancho Villa State Park who kindly gave us some drink coupons, we headed north through Deming, New Mexico, toward the City of Rocks State Park, truly one of the weirdest sights one could hope to find in the middle of the desert. Located on a plain just south of the Gila National Forest, the City of Rocks is an enormous collection of volcanic rocks from a upheaval that occurred about 35 million years ago, which have since been eroded and sculpted into huge monoliths which are all seemingly and inexplicably collected together into a compact area of the desert. It is a strange place, but incredibly beautiful. You can wander throughout the monoliths almost as though you are in some sort of a maze, and it's so peaceful and otherworldly you almost feel as though you're on a different planet. That's a full-sized tree in the photo below, to give you some idea of the size of the rocks.

From the City of Rocks we continued northwest towards Silver City, New Mexico, winding our way past the Chino Copper Mine operated by the Phelps-Dodge company, probably better known as the Santa Rita mine, Santa Rita being the name of the town that this enormous open pit mine eventually swallowed, located about 15 miles east of Silver City. The mine actually started just after the turn of the nineteenth century, and was originally a shaft mine, ore being brought to the surface in bags by workers who used wooden ladders to get into and out of the mine. After about 100 years the easy to mine high-grade copper ore was just about mined out, but because of technological advances in extracting the copper from the lower grade ores remaining, it became profitable to begin open pit excavation. Today, after 100 more years of that, there is one mother of a hole in the ground, and it's still growing. On the left side of this photo, you can see a rust-colored storage tank about halfway down in the pit, and if you look there on the higher resolution linked photo, you can see beyond that a mining shovel at work, which is probably about 50 feet tall.

After spending the night in Silver City, we headed north into the Gila Wilderness, across the continental divide, towards the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. While the distance from Silver City to the cliff dwellings is only 44 miles, it takes at least two hours to get there along the only road, NM Route 15, a paved but very narrow road with no shoulders, no guardrails, precipitous drops of a thousand or more feet if you make a mistake, and more twists and turns than you can possibly imagine. I drove the route on a previous trip, and by the time we made it to the cliff dwellings I was sweating bullets despite the air-conditioning in the car. It was terrifying, but definitely worth the trip, this being my third to these spectacular ruins.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were occupied only briefly by the Mogollon people, experts think from only about the 1280s through the early 1300s, and no one seems to know exactly why they left. They situated themselves in some naturally protected caves in the cliff walls and built a little community of dwellings which remain remarkably intact to this day. There is evidence that they hunted the abundant wildlife of the area, and cultivated crops nearby along the Gila River.


After exploring the ruins, you have to get out again, and the only way out is the only way in, NM Route 15. We made it to the junction with NM Route 35 and headed southeast towards San Lorenzo where it meets with NM Route 152, stopping in San Lorenzo to have lunch at a place where flocks of hummingbirds flitted about at feeders just outside the windows. From there it was another twisting and turning route eastward along NM Route 152 through the Black Range Mountains, heavily forested and extremely rugged terrain that makes you wonder how people had the determination to actually build a road through it. At 8200 feet you reach Emory Pass where there is a scenic overlook that is not to be missed. You can look down nearby on the road you will take winding through the mountains, and further in the distance to the east you can see the vast expanse of the Tularosa Basin, almost fully occupied by the White Sands Missile Range, and the mountains on the other side of that, some 120 miles away.

Back on the road again, still heading east to meet up with Interstate 25, you pass through the ghost towns of Kingston and Hillsboro, each now little tourist traps worth a look if you have the time. Once out of the mountains it is still quite a way to the Interstate, but once there we headed north toward Socorro, New Mexico where we planned to spend the night. On the way we passed by Truth or Consequences, the town named after an old TV game show; the Elephant Butte Reservoir, formed by a dam in the Rio Grande; and somewhere out to the east, Trinity Site, where the world's first nuclear weapon was successfully tested in 1945. Socorro, New Mexico, is the home of New Mexico Tech University, and the administrative offices of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Very Large Array (NRAO-VLA), where we were headed the following day.

The  NRAO-VLA is located about 50 miles west of Socorro astride US Route 60, on the Plains of San Agustin, a large and relatively flat plain surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides. I have always been a fan of big science, and it doesn't get much bigger than this. The VLA is actually a series of 27 radio telescope dishes, laid out in a Y-shaped pattern in the San Agustin plain. Each one of the individual dish antennas measures 82 feet in diameter, and there are nine of them to each leg of the Y-shaped configuration. The antennas are mounted onto concrete pillars for each of several different configurations of the entire array, yet can be picked up and moved via rail tracks that extend the entire 13 mile length of each segment of the Y-shaped configuration.

The whole array is kind of like a giant zoom lens of radio telescopes that all act as one enormous lens by their signals being combined electronically. Periodically throughout the year, the individual dishes are either spread out to a maximum diameter of 22 miles, or brought closer together in various stages to a minimum of about a half-mile diameter. Obviously, when they're all spread out to the maximum diameter, they're very far apart, and you're not going to see very many of them clearly, so the best times to visit this facility are when the telescope dishes are in a more compact configuration, the timing of which you can determine by visiting their web site.

We happened to be very lucky in our timing, because when we visited, the telescope antennas were in their next-to-smallest configuration, and we could see the entire array from the center of the array, close to where the visitor center is located. I managed to frame 13 of them in one shot, seen below, all listening intently to the same location somewhere in the universe. And no, they're not listening for aliens, as you might think from the feature film "Contact" in which the array was featured in the Hollywood adaptation of Carl Sagan's book. Rather, they're doing the serious grunt work of basic scientific research into the nature of the universe. And the only people here are the telescope operators and the maintenance people who take care of this remarkable facility. If you're an investigating scientist and your observation proposal is accepted, you don't have to be here - your data will be sent to you via the internet.

The NRAO-VLA  was constructed a year ahead of schedule in 1980 at a cost to the American taxpayers of only $78.6 million over a period of eight years. I would say that we got an incredible bargain, especially considering that currently, an apparently useless war in Iraq is costing us $177 million each and every day. I know the kinds of things I'd much rather be spending my tax dollars on.

There is also abundant wildlife in the area, and we saw jackrabbits and antelope while we were visiting. From the NRAO-VLA site we continued west along US Route 60, crossing the continental divide once again at a little place called Pie Town, New Mexico, elevation 7,776 feet, so called because a World War I veteran by the name of Clyde Norman settled there in the 1920s and liked to bake pies and sell them. The town slogan is "It's all downhill from here," and pies are still a part of the local economy, as you might expect. We didn't stop to sample any of them, though, due to the amount of ground we still had to cover that day.

We crossed the New Mexico/Arizona border, and at Eager connected with US Route 191 which we took north to St. Johns, Arizona, where we stopped for lunch at a local Mexican restaurant. From St. Johns we headed west again on US Route 180 to the southern end of the Petrified Forest National Park, arriving just in time for the hottest part of the day. It was 106 degrees, but, as they say, it's a dry heat! Seriously, if you go to the desert in the middle of summer, dress for it - loose, light-colored cotton clothes, and perhaps the most essential item of clothing, a wide-brimmed sun hat. Put on lots of sunscreen, wear your sunglasses, and drink lots of water. If you do all that, it's really quite bearable.

The park actually encompasses two primary features of interest. On the southern side is the so-called petrified forest, but don't expect to see anything like a forest. The trees that make up this forest all fell millions of years ago, and their wood was replaced by colorful deposits of various minerals, turning them, basically, into solid rock, and there is an enormous amount of it scattered about this desert landscape. Just inside the southern entrance to the park is a large visitor center with many exhibits, and you can pick up a free map of the park to help guide you through.

The photo below shows a close-up of the end of one of the tremendous petrified logs, so you can get an idea of how varied their coloration truly is, as a result of the different minerals that eventually replaced the original wood.

It is strictly forbidden to take any samples of petrified wood from within the park, but there is still quite a bit of it on private lands outside of the park, and the owners of these lands have made it into a commercial venture. There are stores just outside the park which sell petrified wood in many different sizes and forms collected from these private lands. You can buy anything from a little piece for a couple of dollars, to a finely polished slab suitable for a table top, which can set you back a few thousand dollars. The photo below shows some of the giant logs in a more contextual reference, as you can expect to see them within the park, and is just a small portion of one of the great fields of specimens that the park features.

As you make your way northward within the park, there are many different places to pull off the main road and do some hiking within the fields of petrified logs on the well-maintained trail system. About midway in the park are a little group of mountains known as the teepees, which give you a glimpse of the type of geologic strata that you can see in much greater detail and coloration just a little further north.

Continuing north on the park road, you eventually cross over Interstate 40 and into the Painted Desert portion of the park, which lies at the southeastern edge of this magnificent frontier, and offers some truly spectacular views of the desolate and colorful landscape along a loop drive that contains several lookout points where you can park and attempt to take it all in. The loop eventually ends at the northern entrance to the park, where there is another well-equipped visitor center with restrooms, a restaurant, and gift shop.

Wilderness hiking is permitted within the park, and primitive camping is allowed with a permit, but if you decide to do either one, I wouldn't advise it during the heat of the summer, although we did spot a couple of hardy souls - or perhaps I should say, fool-hardy - hiking deep within the scorching landscape. The altitude averages about 5,600 feet, so unless you're accustomed to it, strenuous activity can be potentially dangerous, especially considering the weight in water that you will absolutely have to be carrying with you just to survive.

From the park, we headed west along Interstate 40 to Holbrook, Arizona, where we had planned to stay the night, and I did my best to tackle a giant chicken-fried steak dinner - hold the cream gravy, please - at a place that seemed to be a popular local hangout. The following morning we headed back east, retracing our route along Interstate 40, until we reached the junction with US Route 191 and headed north into the Navajo Nation towards Chinle, Arizona. The Navajo Nation encompasses an area of about one-sixth the entire state of Arizona in its northeastern corner, and continues beyond that into New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah.

The drive from Interstate 40 northward towards Chinle takes you through some of the vastest expanse of desert high-country that I have had a chance to witness. If you're normally an urban-dweller, you will be astounded by the sheer volume of the landscape that you can see from the road, and even if you're already somewhat accustomed to traveling in this part of the world, you will still be mightily impressed. Our destination for this leg of the trip was the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, located just east of Chinle, and operated by the Navajo Nation in cooperation with the National Park Service.

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d'SHAY) is a labyrinthine series of canyons comprised of Canyon de Chelly itself, and Canyon del Muerto to its north, and has been inhabited for about 5,000 years. It was formed by 2 million years of the erosion of the Defiance Plateau, and was the site of the infamous eviction of the Navajo people from their native land, beginning  in 1863 by the US military, under the command of Colonel Kit Carson, which resulted in the so-called Long Walk in which the Navajo people were forcibly displaced 300 miles to the east, to Fort Sumner in the New Mexico territory. There they remained in despicable conditions until 1868 when they were finally allowed to return to their land. The whole episode was entirely senseless, but the Navajo people began to rebuild their lives, and were eventually ceded the large parcel of land now known as the Navajo Nation.

Canyon de Chelly is far lesser known than the Grand Canyon to the west, but in many ways is a much nicer place to visit. It's certainly not nearly as big or deep, but the scenery is utterly breathtaking, and its relatively lesser-known status means that far fewer people visit, making it ideal for those who choose the path less traveled to revel in the wonder of nature. There are no crowds here. A couple of canyon-rim drives trace the path of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto, and there are many points at which to pull off the road and park for taking in the spectacular vistas. The canyons deepen from the mouth near Chinle to a depth of over 1,000 feet at their eastern ends, and the walls of the canyons are sheer cliffs down to a fertile river plain below where Navajo farms are still located, growing crops and raising sheep. The photo below shows the area at which the two canyons join together, and was taken from the Junction Overlook on the south rim drive.

As you can see, it was a very clear day as we began, but July is when the desert monsoon season begins, and afternoon thunderstorms can rapidly develop. One of our next stops along the south rim drive was the White House Overlook, so named after the ruins visible in the center of the next photograph, and is the only place within Canyon de Chelly that visitors can hike down into the canyon without being accompanied by an official Navajo guide. You can inquire about and hire a guide at the visitor center. The trek to the ruins at the bottom of the canyon is a 1-1/4 mile hike each way, and the trail, though well-marked and maintained, is steep and treacherous in places, with loose stones that can potentially ruin your day, so wear appropriate footwear and take it slowly and carefully, and if it's summertime, take plenty of water with you. The dark colored paint-spill effect on the cliffs just to the right of the ruins is created from water leeching the various minerals from the rock, draining down the side of the cliff and depositing them on its surface.

On the way down I took the following photograph which clearly shows the effects of erosion on the sandstone that makes up the cliff walls. You can see where over a period of millions of years water has swirled around and created an escape tunnel in the rock to make its way to the valley below.

Once you make it to the bottom of the canyon on the White House trail, you pass by a small and very traditional Navajo farm, and it's important to note that if you make this journey, you should remember at all times that you are a guest of the Navajo people who's home you are visiting, and you should respect their privacy. Stay on the trail at all times, and don't take pictures of the people who live here without first asking their permission. The Navajo are very friendly folks, and recognize that tourism is an important part of their economy, so you being here is important to them, but show them the respect that they deserve and they will respond in kind.

At the bottom on the canyon, the rocky cliffs give way to a very sandy soil, and suddenly you feel as though you are walking on a beach, which is somewhat disorienting after the steep descent. In fact, during the wet season, there are actually places on the canyon floor where quicksand can be a danger to hikers - all the more reason to have an experienced Navajo guide with you who knows places to avoid. But during our visit it was bone-dry, so we made our way across the canyon floor towards the White House Ruins.

The White House Ruins were constructed by an ancient Pueblo civilization about 1,000 years ago and are named because of the walls of the upper portion which are covered in a white-colored plaster, better seen in the following photograph, especially in the pair of walls partially hidden by those in front.

My brother-in-law kept saying at each of our stops along the south rim drive that, "It just can't get any better than this," referring to the spectacular things we were seeing, and I had to keep reminding him that, "You haven't seen anything yet," knowing what was in store for us at the final stop on the south rim, based on the advance research that I had done, that being the incomparable Spider Rock Overlook. A summer monsoon thunderstorm was beginning to blow across the canyon just as we arrived at the Spider Rock Overlook, so we took safe refuge in the car and waited it out. When it had passed, we took the short, paved trail down to the overlook and were justifiably astounded by what we saw below. The twin spires of the Spider Rock formation rise 800 feet from the bottom of the canyon, and you are looking down at them from the overlook from 200 feet above their tops. 

As we stood at the overlook, the skies were beginning to clear from the passing thunderstorm, and the combinations of light and shadow on the scene below were constantly changing almost as though we were under the influence of hallucinogenic substances, which we were not. It was absolutely magical, and we were the only people there to witness the spectacle aside from another friendly traveler who was there with his young nephew. Try having an experience like that at the Grand Canyon at the height of the tourist season - I dare you. The five of us watched this scene for the better part of an hour, during which time I was mainly straddled over the guardrail looking through the viewfinder of my camera, waiting for the perfect shot to appear. I think I finally got it in the photograph below, which could well be the best photograph I have ever taken thus far in my life.

The south rim drive of Canyon de Chelly was the only one we had the time to take, due to the necessity of maintaining our schedule, so after a very late lunch in Chinle we headed south again along US Route 191, out of the Navajo Nation, and continued south back to St. Johns where we spent the night. The following day, we continued south through Eager, Arizona, and into the Apache National Forest, still on US Route 191. Our route through this national forest started out looking as though it was going to be a rather mundane but scenic trek along well-maintained roads that didn't seem too treacherous. Along the way, we stopped at a turnoff just to stretch our legs, and while we were there I managed to spot a very cooperative horned lizard who posed for me. My camera lens was only about two inches from him when I took this photograph.

The further south we got into the Apache National Forest, the more treacherous the road became, eventually becoming almost as frightening as the infamous route from Silver City, New Mexico to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Almost but not quite, and we finally emerged at the southern end of Apache National Forest and almost immediately into another fine product of the Phelps-Dodge Company, this time the Morenci Mine, another open-pit copper mine, which almost dwarves the Santa Rita mine we had seen in New Mexico. Unlike the Santa Rita mine, the Morenci mine has grown so huge that you actually have to drive through it - or at least a portion of its current western edge - and Phelps-Dodge was again kind enough to provide another "scenic" overlook into their operation, which is startling in its enormity. Some of the electric shovels they use to extract ore from the pit can grab 100 tons in one bite, and dump it into the bed of a hauler whose tires are 15 feet tall.

Continuing south on US Route 191 we eventually met up with Interstate 10 and took that west to Willcox, Arizona, then southeast on Arizona Route 186 to the Chiricahua National Monument, arriving there just an hour or two before sunset. A very helpful ranger at the entrance station gave us a map of the park, and tips on the best way to enjoy the brief time we had there before darkness set in. We took her advice and drove along the Bonita Canyon Drive to its end at Massai Point, where there is a short trail that affords some dramatic views of the main attraction at Chiricahua, the thousands of rhyolite spires in the canyons below. The spires are the result of the weathering of volcanic rock from the Turkey Creek eruptions that occurred 27 million years ago, and they are a weird and fascinating sight to behold.

From Massai Point we retraced our route along the Bonita Canyon Drive to the parking area at the Sugarloaf trailhead as the sun grew lower in the sky. It's a one-mile hike to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, altitude 7,310 feet at the top, so we had to hurry along in order to make it back down before sunset. The view from the top was worth it, despite the brief time we were able to remain at the summit, and we were treated to a 360-degree panorama of the entire park, with shadows rapidly deepening in the valleys and canyons below. There is a fabulous view of Cochise Head, 2 miles to the northeast, a craggy peak of 8,113 feet, seen in the photograph below.

We made it back down to the parking area just in time to witness one of the most dramatic sunsets I have ever seen, and stood there watching it, snapping off dozens of images, until the sun completely disappeared below the horizon.

It was completely dark by the time we left, and driving back to Willcox, there were thousands of rabbits coming out for the night and crossing the road in front of us, so we took it slow to avoid hitting any of them, but we made it back to Willcox in time to have some pizza at one of the only local places still open. The following morning we headed back towards El Paso, first along Interstate 10, then, once inside New Mexico, down to NM Route 9 along the border, stopping for lunch once again in Palomas, Mexico at the Pink Store.

This was a fabulous trip and one I highly recommend if you're planning to visit the area. The most crowded place we visited was the Petrified Forest National Park, but even there the crowds weren't bad, probably because it's a more popular attraction during the cooler times of the year. At nearly every other place we visited, there weren't any crowds to speak of at all, which is what I like when trying to get away from it all. I would recommend taking this trip somewhat more leisurely than we did, if you have the time - we did the whole thing in six days and five nights, but you could easily stretch it out into a two-week adventure and have more time to fully enjoy the sights.

These destinations are just a tiny sampling of what the American Southwest has to offer, and it has become my favorite destination. New Mexico has long been a place I enjoy visiting, ever since my first trip there in 1972, and while this trip was my first opportunity to see a small part of Arizona, we only scratched the surface of what is available there. I hope to see much more of these American treasures in the years to come.


Copyright 2017 by Rich Lauver - Baltimore - Maryland - USA