Our first stop in Colorado is Alamosa, the nearest town to the Great Sand Dunes. The area is in a huge, almost totally flat valley. When you look closer you’ll see that what seems flat is really low dunes, held in place by the vegatation. The valley is ringed by the San Luis Mountains on the west and the Rockies on the east. The prevailing winds come from the west blowing sand and grit from the San Luis mountains across the valley floor, but is then diverted north and back to the west by the tall mountains. Any sand and grit that blows all the way across the valley is deposited in one area by the winds, forming the dunes. The dunes are held in this one small area of the valley by these winds.
It is estimated that the dunes are over 300 feet deep (below what we see as the surface, and the tallest dune rises over 750 feet high. It is also estimated that the dunes are over 440,000 years old.
Two rivers run down from the peaks of the eastern mountains and help form the boundary of the dunes. The one on the south is shallow and wide, and can be crossed by visitors to the sand dunes. This time of year the deepest part was about 2 inches, barely covering the toes. But the sand is deep and smooth.
We crossed the stream and walked around on the dunes. We didn’t hike up any – we are at over 8,000 feet and walking in sand is hard enough, but add a 40 degree upslope and it’s almost impossible!
We drove from Santa Fe to the very northeast section of N.M. to see another volcano. As we drove into the Capulin area it started turning very green…so different from the rest of New Mexico! We learned that it’s the wettest year in this area in a long time.
The weather was interesting…every day it was clear with blue skies and warmed up fast, hitting the 80s by noon. But, at between 3-3:30 every afternoon the sky would cloud up and it would rain. It would RAIN! Huge raindrops, some hail, lots of thunder and lightning! After a couple of hours of that it would clear up and you could see stars at night.
Capulin volcano is a fairly recent cinder cone – about 65,000 years old. The region is all volcanic, with activity from 1-3 million years ago that shaped mesas and ridges to recent activity in the area about 30,000 years ago.
A cinder cone is formed when ash and gasses along with chunks of lava spout out of a crack in the earth’s crust. Over time the ash and gasses and chunks build up the land from being flat to being a round cone. Usually it’s concave in the center and often it’s lower on one side and higher on the other because the prevailing winds will push the ash and gasses as they spurt out. Capulin volcano is a very prime example of this type of volcano.
A unique feature of this volcano is that you can drive to the low side of the rim and hike up and around the whole rim! We did that hike – at 8,000 feet and very steep sections of about 45 degrees, we took it slowly but it was well worth it!
The 360 degree views from the rim area are fabulous and show how the whole area is volcanic.
We saw some deer that live in the cinder cone (they leave often to get water etc. but are in the cone almost every day); and we saw lots of antelope as we drove through the area. We were driving down a narrow road from a mesa into a valley and got stopped by a cattledrive; the cowboys (and cowgirl) were expert at getting the cattle into one lane so we could pass.
During our stay in Santa Fe we drove up to Taos. It’s a quaint town but the real attraction in this area is the Rio Grande Gorge! At this point in the river’s travel to the Gulf, it goes through a wide flat plain with volcanos dotted around the edges. The plain is very flat, and unless you look closely you won’t see the gorge! As you drive up to the gorge and the very high bridge that crosses it you see how deep and steep it is! On the bridge there are call boxes to suicide hotlines – sadly I guess that some people decide to end it all by jumping off the bridge onto the rocks 250 feet below.
But the gorge is very awesome. Deep and steep all through the plain near Taos, then as the land develops into rolling hills the gorge isn’t as steep. We drove across the bridge, stopping at the rest area right on one side to take pictures and see the vendors selling jewelry and pottery. Fairly close to all the traffic and noise were two mountain sheep grazing on the hillside! A vendor told us they are always nearby, often crossing the hiway and jumping the fences to get to the land on either side of the hiway.
Then we took a side road, parts of it dirt and VERY STEEP with switchbacks going right down into the gorge. At the bottom it crossed the river and there was a parking area and boat ramp where lots of people start rafting trips down the Rio Grande. We saw many people launching their kayaks and inflatable boats We saw one guy run up to the bridge and jump into the water about 25 feet below!
Just outside of Santa Fe is a little town nestled in steep canyons – Los Alamos. Before WWII it wasn’t a town at all, just some ranches and a boys school. During WWII our country decided we needed to develop an atomic bomb, in large part because we were pretty sure Germany was developing this technology. We had several scientists that had escaped from Germany and knew what was being developed there.
So, the little town was built in secret and scientists from all over the country and from our allies were whisked away in secret to live at Los Alamos and develop nuclear fission before Germany could do it. Many families came with the scientists and all lived in secret – their address was a P.O. Box in Santa Fe, their mail was heavily censored, and they could not travel under their own name but instead used aliases if they had to travel for any reason. There was a woman who ran the office in Santa Fe that managed mail, supplies, anything the folks in Los Alamos needed.
The bomb was designed and a test version was created and set off in the desert near White Sands. It was successful, and a few weeks later Fat Man and Little Boy (the two bombs detonated over Japan) were sent out to end the war!
On a personal note, Jeff’s mother had a cousin who worked on the Manhattan Project and disappeared during the war, coming to Los Alamos. His name was Paul Olum and he was a math genius. Some of his papers are still used today as the basis for certain types of calculations. Here’s his ID picture from the Manhattan Project, which we found in a museum in Los Alamos about the Manhattan Project:
Over 1 million years ago a volcano near Santa Fe erupted, and the core collapsed creating a huge caldera. This was a super volcano and the caldera is huge! Up to about 50,000 years ago there were magma ‘leaks’ that caused several dome-shaped hills within the caldera, separating the caldera into several areas.
The caldera is at 8,500 feet and the surrounding peaks are up to 11,000 feet. There are grassy meadows in between the dome-shaped hills, and is home to the largest herd of elk in the state. There are also bears, cougars and coyotes in the caldera along with thousands of prairie dogs.
Ranchers used to live in the caldera and there used to be a lot of snow in the caldera…up to 5-6 feet that would last all winter. Now there’s little snow and it doesn’t last more than a week.
While in the Santa Fe area visited another ancient Pueblo dwelling area, this one encompassing both cliff dwellings and a pueblo walled area similar to Chaco Canyon. The cliffs are composed of “tuff” which is heavily compressed volcanic ash from the Valles caldera, a supervolcano that erupted over 1 million years ago in the area.
The canyon is very pleasant with a stream that runs year-round and lots of trees. This of course means lots of wildlife and the ability to plant and harvest fields in the canyon. The pueblo dwelling containing over a hundred rooms and several large kivas is on a level area above the stream flood area and near to the cliff caves that were enlarged by the ancient Puebloans to make dwellings. The cliff dwellings had some walled rooms built in front of them creating quite a large living and storage area.
We did one of the hikes that took us through the pueblo and up to some of the cliff dwellings. There are many more areas showing where the ancient people lived…but we were at over 7,000 ft and we felt one hike was enough!
We learned an interesting fact while here – we had thought this was an Anasazi site but we were told Anasazi translates to “ancient enemy” in the Navajo language and was incorrect to describe the people who lived here and elsewhere in the Southwest as they were never enemies but instead share common ancesters So, that term is no longer used and instead the term ancient puebloans is used to described the people and sites in this region.
While in Farmington, NM we had to drive to the “Four Corners” – the spot where four states meet. It’s on Navajo land and is administered by the Navajo nation and because of this it’s less developed as you might think. There are vendors booths circling the “spot” which is a medallion in the ground. We joined a line of people waiting to take a picture standing on the spot – Jeff took a picture of his foot on the spot! Here’s a couple of pictures:
We’re staying in Farmington, NM for a few days to see a few geographic items. First is Shiprock – the most prominent geological feature of northwest New Mexico. It is awe-inspiring! It is a plug of volcanic lava that formed about 27 million years ago. The lava did not erupt through the earth but instead got plugged up and cooled and formed inside what was probably a hill. Over time the hill eroded leaving the lava plug standing exposed. In this Shiprock is similar to the Devils Tower as they were both formed when lava didn’t erupt through the earth but cooled/formed in vertical shafts inside the earth which later eroded away leaving it exposed.
In addition to the large vertical thrust of Shiprock peak, there is a rift in the earth alongside the peak where lava tried to erupt through the earth but didn’t. This has left a vertical wall of lava that is miles long. We were able to climb up the hillside to the top and peer over … on the west side of the lava wall the wind has eroded much more of the hillside, leaving a much steeper wall on the west side than on the east. In some places the lava wall is so thin that there are chunks missing giving the wall a lacey appearance.
I was much more impressed with the lava wall, called the dyke. I could imagine the lava rising through the crack in the earth trying to break through the top layers but unable to and then cooling and hardening in place.
The ancient Puebloan people say that the peak was formed when a giant eagle landed and turned to stone. From some angles the peak does look like an eagle that has landed, with his wings folded back and sticking up behind it’s head.
While in Farmington we visited the Aztec Ruins. They are NOT really Aztec; when settlers discovered the site in the late 1800s they thought it was an Aztec site and named it. The nearby town is also called Aztec so the name stuck. This is another example of another ancient Puebloan great house, similar to the Chaco Canyon great houses.
This great house was extensively excavated and the large kiva reconstructed in the 1920s-1930s by Lewis Morgan, who grew up in the area and became an archeologist. He took great care to not disturb items found inside the structures and there are many examples of pottery, weaving, etc. that were found. He reconstructed the kiva using modern technology but keeping it as close to the original as he could, including the colors based on remnants that he found. Using modern technology (for the 1920s) it took over 7 months to build the kiva.
One item unique to this site is that the outside walls had bands of dark green stones where the rest of the stones are light gray. It is not known why this was done.
In the northwest part of New Mexico is “The land of fire and ice” – the Bandero Volcano and Ice Cave. This is a privately owned piece of land that contains BOTH a volcano that erupted about 10,000 years ago spewing out lava in all directions as well as a lava tube containing an ice lake!
The volcano was very interesting. We hiked up into the blown out caldera where we took pictures showing the crater. The lava flows all around the trail were interesting, chunks of rocks just strewn around and some huge formations where lava bubbled up.
The ice cave was really cool – literally! The cave is an old lava tube that was blocked up not too far into the cave, and water poured into the cave and froze. The lava keeps the cave so well insulated that the frozen ice has never melted, simply growing new ice on the top as more water flows in. Now, the ice is about 20 feet deep and the ice at the bottom is 3,400 years old! The temperatur on the ice never goes above 31 degrees! It was a very warm day when we were there, probably mid 80s when we descended the 70 steps into the cave and every step got colder and colder. It was okay to stand on the viewing platform for a few minutes and then I started to really feel it. Most people only stay down there for 10-15 minutes, the owners told me. The owners are descendents of the Mexican family that discovered the place in the late 1800s and opened a trading post at the site. They were able to offer travelers through the area cold beer that they kept cold using ice from the cave. What a novelty at the time!
The trails to both the volcano and cave start from the trading post/visitors center and while the trip up to the volcan takes about an hour (you’re at 8,000ft so you go slow!) the ice cave is only about 10 minutes from the center. Easy to see both fire and ice at the same time!