Saturday, December 30, 2017

Lake Lucero in White Sands National Monument

Many people visit White Sands National Monument, but to see firsthand where the white sand comes from you need to plan ahead to get on a Lake Lucero Tour.
These sparkling gypsum crystals (called selenite) are the source of sand that forms the dunes of White Sands National Monument.

My parents and I planned our trip so we would visit during one of the times the reservation-only Lake Lucero Tours are offered. You can only go here on a tour.
Those mountains provided the source of the gypsum.
Water (rain) dissolves gypsum in the surrounding mountains and carries it down to the basin where it gets concentrated. As water evaporates the crystals form. The white sands are the broken up crystals that have been blown by the wind, which form the largest gypsum dunefeld in the world.

The white sands in a wind-swept dune after the particles have been broken up.
The large crystals formed thousands of years ago when a lake the size of Rhode Island filled this basin. It’s fun to imagine that these crystals formed when this place was much wetter and lush and there were mammoths, camels, and saber-tooth tigers roaming about leaving behind footprints that can be seen today.

But crystal formation is also an ongoing process that has been going on for thousands of years. Water that flows down into the playa is still saturated with more gypsum and more crystals form beneath the ground or during monsoon season. Though the crystals that form today tend to be smaller than the ancient crystals.

It didn’t feel right to me that we could freely walk across the crystals and feel them crunching beneath our feet. But the ranger assured us that it’s OK because they just erode away very quickly anyway and they are constantly being exposed due to erosion. Still, we were told not to collect any crystals.

What surprised me the most was that the crystals are made out of the same material as crystals in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky (which is where I spent last summer). Both are gypsum, which is also what makes up drywall. They differ in shape and the crystals are called different things (selenite at White Sands, gypsum flowers at Mammoth Cave) so I think there must be something else different about them (any geologists out there?).
Gypsum flowers in Mammoth Cave (photo from last summer)
Gypsum (selenite) at White Sands. It is amber in color due to organic matter, but turns white as it weathers.
Because of what I'd learned at Mammoth Cave, I was surprised to see gypsum at all on the surface. It is a mineral that dissolves easily in water. At Mammoth Cave, the Woodland people would collect gypsum from the cave. We don’t know how they used it because when they brought it out to the surface, it dissolved and got carried away by the rain and didn’t leave traces behind. 

But in New Mexico, with the now arid climate, gypsum exists on the surface because it pools in the basin and also there is limited rain so we get to see the crystals on the surface before they get eroded into sand or dissolved. How cool that the conditions are “just right” for this to happen.
So much sparkle
The environments at Mammoth Cave and White Sands are strikingly different— a dry, dark cave in Kentucky and the extreme brightness of southern New Mexico. But the shimmering amazing sparkle of the crystals in both places evokes a similar sense of awe. Like being transported to glitter-filled world.

More Information

Get tickets by phone or on one month in advance. Apparently the April or November tours have better chances that there will be water in the lake so tend to have more birds, butterflies, and flowers than we saw in December.
Don't forget to stop by the visitor center to do their Junior Ranger program.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Not those White Mountains, Not that Crest Trail

To be honest I didn’t research this area much before I went. The book “Day Hikes and Nature Walks of the Las Cruses Area” called Three Rivers Trail the “prettiest canyons in New Mexico” and “alpine meadows” which was enough.
My parents drop me off at the trailhead at Three Rivers Campground. It's the second week of winter vacation. Last night Dad went to bed at 7 PM after our hike together. I sense they might welcome a break from hiking with me.
A google search (after the fact) doesn't reveal much about the White Mountain Wilderness of New Mexico anyway. The White Mountains of New Hampshire pop up. Also the White Mountains Wilderness of California. So when I started up the Three Rivers Trail, I didn't have any preconceived notions of what I would find or what it would look like.
I certainly didn't expect all this water.
Having no expectations is a good tactic for happiness. On trails and in life. It makes it feel like stumbling upon beauty and discovering everything for yourself. Wonder is heightened when you don’t know what the view will be like when you first peer over the saddle for the first time, or when your feet meet a soft carpet of pine needles and you didn’t even know there would be pine up here.
The rock formations and waterfalls are impressive, but not TOO dramatic. Not enough to draw crowds. At least not in the middle of winter.
But I’d rather have a quiet, wild-feeling place than the crowds standing in line to take instagram-worthy, trending hashtag selfies anyway.

The most amazing parts of this place cannot be captured in photos. The gurgling sound of the desert stream plunging over boulders. The frenzied chirping of songbirds and the chortling of wild turkeys before they take off in a flash.
Birds, like this hairy woodpecker, around every corner.
Massive trees line the canyon and I spend a lot of time standing around gawking, looking upward. The first aspen I come to towers gracefully overhead and I pull out my camera.

Out of the corner of my eye, a flash. I spin around and duck at the same time.
Golden eagle.
All the thoughts stream through my brain at once. Lightening fast reptilian brain impulses. It's coming for me! It’s going to carry me off with those razor sharp talons! Small mammalian ancestors have thought these very thoughts.

I imagine I can feel the rush of air as it soars over my head. It is an experience I know I will remember for the rest of my life. The definition of wild.

Only miles up the trail do I wonder, what was it doing near the stream? Was there a carcass? Why did it fly so close to me?
Snowy north-facing slopes. But thankfully this trail sticks to the sunny side as it switchbacks up to the saddle.
I was so pumped on my fight or flight response up I didn’t even realize that I fly by the last water source. Will I regret going past the perfectly good, sheltered (and warmer!) campsites to go high to camp at the crest of the mountains? It is the end of December, after all!
After cresting the saddle near White Horse Hill.
There is sunset beauty in all directions. No regrets! I dash around and gaze in wonder. The white gypsum sands of White Sands National Monument reflecting the pink glow of the sunset.
More changing colors.
Oh why didn't I find a campsite before it got so dark? But I do find a spot in in the shelter of large trees, with views all around. The wind howls for a bit, but it's not as cold as it could be. And I am snug.
The next morning, I follow the Crest Trail southward. No, not THAT Crest Trail.
I climb up and over the rise of a hill, there are large figures covering the far slope.
They hear me and start moving in a massive wave. I'm in a nature documentary. I feel bad to have disturbed them but I'm glad they are skittish because, honestly, I'm scared of them.
Along the Crest Trail.
Long switchbacks down to Bonita Spring, which is dry. I'm glad I got water at the piped spring at the base of Elk Point.
Dropping off the crest, down the Dry Canyon Trail.
Blow-downs are plentiful and the trail is hard to follow. But I enjoy route-finding and know I just need to get down the slope and follow the canyon.
 Dry Canyon surprises me by having a spring and flowing water. More birds and big trees. Around another corner, in dense oak and pine, another sight. A carcass of an elk. Massive. How did it die? Did it get away from a hunter? Fall prey to a mountain lion? I move away as quickly just in case the later is true.
 This place just seems so wild. Full of life and death and a richness that is hard to describe.

Back at the trailhead, my parents meet me just as I walk into the parking lot. They always seem to know when to arrive. 

"Next year, do you want to spend a week up there?" my dad asks.

"Absolutely!" I reply.

More Information

"Day Hikes and Nature Walks in the Las Cruces - El Paso Area" by Greg Magee

Three Rivers Trail

Crest Trail - information and trail status in a pdf

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Chiricahua National Monument

“I’ve got it! Let’s do all the trails!” I announce to Jan as I'm pouring over maps of Chiricahua National Monument.

We don’t really. But we cover most of the trails as we learn about the history and unique geology of this off-the-beaten path place in southeastern Arizona.
Chiricahua National Monument contains incredible rock formations. A massive volcano 27 million years ago deposited layers of ash and pumice that formed the rhyolite. Over time weathering gave rise to wildly shaped columns and pinnacles.
The first stop is the Visitor Center to pick up a Junior Ranger book. It will provide hours of entertainment during the 12 hours of darkness spent huddled in our tents.
We also learn that there is a FREE hiker shuttle. Perfect since it will allow us to hike from the top of Echo Canyon, over the Hailstone Trail, around the Mushroom Rock and Balanced Rock Trails, add side trips to Inspiration Point and Heart of Rocks, and come out the Lower Rhyolite Trail back to the Visitor Center near the campground. No personal vehicle required!

After getting our campsite, my parents drop us off at the Natural Bridges Trailhead (they decide to head back to town to get a hotel). The interpretive sign promises a dense stand of Apache pine trees along the trail. I'm been confused about how to identify them and hope this will help.
It looks like ponderosa pine to me but the needles of apache pine are longer.
On the roadwalk from the Natural Bridge trailhead back to the campground, I chase a butterfly but only get a lousy photo.
My butterfly buddy says this is an American Snout. Maybe if you squint you will agree? I'd only seen one before in Kentucky. The caterpillars feed on netleaf hackberries, which are a small tree found along streams.
On the walk from the campground to Faraway Ranch, I pull out my Junior Ranger book and start learning the trees along Bonita Canyon.
The biggest Alligator Juniper I’ve ever met.
One of the activities in the junior ranger book is a scavenger hunt at Faraway Ranch. Jan helps find everything on the list.
It takes us a while to locate the inscriptions made by the Buffalo Soldiers here on these stones. We learn they were stationed in Bonita Canyon in 1885-6 to fight the Apache. The stones were originally part of a monument to President Garfield that were later re-purposed to build Faraway Ranch’s fireplace.
The sun goes down early. I'm glad I have my junior ranger book to keep me busy with the word search and bird-related crossword puzzle.
The next morning, Mexican Jays squawk loudly and another bird flies high up into a tree.
What could this be? An exciting tropical bird?
I discover in my birding app that Mexican jays are often followed by northern flickers in winter. Ah ha! Apparently flickers take advantage of the jay’s alarm calls to warn against predators. So while I never do spot an elegant trogon, the good thing about being an inexperienced birder is that everything is new and exciting so I don't need to find something rare to be satisfied.

Finally the visitor center opens and I get sworn in as an official Junior Ranger. At 9 AM, an SCA drives us in the park van to the trailhead at Echo Canyon.
Once we get beyond a half mile down the trail, we don't see anyone until we are within a mile of the visitor center.
Jan takes her lunch break on a high perch at Inspiration Point.
I joke with Jan that this is an imposter balanced rock because, coming from Arches, we've got the *real* balanced rock. Though to be honest, this one has a narrower neck, so is perhaps even more spectacular.
In our only patch of sunlight on the otherwise shady Echo Canyon Trail, we take another rest break.
Wow an ANT!
According to the natural history guide, the Chiricahuas have over 135 species of ants. What incredible diversity! I'd been looking hard for ants for the past four days and laughing with Jan about how I couldn't find something as pedestrian as an ant.
Then, Jan spots this bug. Which turns out to be a redcoat seed bug.
“Two wildlife species!” declares Jan.

I agree wholeheartedly that insects count as wildlife.

My parents meet us coming down the Lower Rhyolite Canyon. They spent the day on the park road and were impressed with all the viewpoints and interpretive signs.

Overall, Chiricahua is one of my new favorite places for the surprising botanical (and zoologic!) diversity and unique geology.

More Information

For a different take on our visit to Chiricahua, read Jan's blog post.

Chiricahua National Monument is located in southeastern Arizona.  There is no entrance fee for the park. There was a $12 fee for the campground but the price is going up next year.

Sign up for the free hiker shuttle the day before and pick up your Junior Ranger Book at the Visitor Center.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Not-so-famous Arches

Two months ago this parking area echoed with excited 2nd graders. Now it is eerily silent in the predawn bitingly cold air.
Not the real balanced rock. But less people out this way.
This week, one of the second graders ran up to me excitedly and gave me a hug, “When are we going on another field trip, Ranger Joan?” She remembers like it was yesterday.

I love that the kids remember me and their field trip so well. That’s what makes being a ranger worthwhile— this positive impression. A seasonal job isn’t easy. I’ve been laid off of my park job for a month and won’t be rehired until January. I’m only working my other part time job in the meantime. More time for hiking but less income. Tradeoffs.

I decide to come back here to check out an area of the park I’ve never explored. Visible on the skyline but past the “4WD only” warning sign. I leave my car and set out on foot down the sandy road. At this early hour, no traffic.

Finally, a fish-shaped sign reads “Eye of the Whale Arch.”
The sun is just coming up and makes the sandstone glow.
Peering through, deciding to find a way up there.
That’s the only marked arch in this playground of Entrada fins. Seeing others requires routefinding and following the leave no trace practice of restricting travel to slickrock and washes while avoiding dunes and cryptobiotic soil crust.
Following washes full of animal tracks.
Washes are good place to start exploring since you can find them on a map. Follow the blue lines. Sometimes they lead to pouroffs but not always.
Some arches are hidden ribbons of rock. But see that light pouring underneith?
It only needs to be three feet in one direction to qualify as an arch.
There are over 2000 arches here but seeing a new one for the first time still takes my breath away.
A small detour. Just a few miles away is the Willow Springs dinosaur tracksite. So I hike out the 4WD road again and this time there is traffic in the form of a single jeep.
165 million years ago, a three-toed, meat-eating therapod walked across the tidal-flats along the shallow sea that was here at that time.
Returning back the way I came. Then up a wash. Relief at getting off the road again since it was so "crowded". Then, at the slickrock, climbing up. There are dropoffs. Continuing anyway despite a fear of heights. Fear is just a feeling, right?
Scaling boulders. Pack waiting down below.
Peeking up for a view of this arch.
Wiggling up a crack between the fins.
Feeling the warmth of the soft light radiating off the rock, making the winter less biting.
Because at the top of a fin, its expansive and quiet and for once it's not cold.
Up here.
Roadwalking can be done past dark. So I stay out later to watch the sunset.
This spot was surprising. Hard to believe that something in plain site of a busy landmark could offer such solitude and beauty. And have so few human footprints.