March 28, 2021
A strong cold breeze and bright full moon kept us up a lot during the night. We’d hoped to arrive at nearby White Sands National Park by sunrise for the most interesting light and shadows on the dunes, but after not having a great night’s sleep we were moving a little too slowly to get there quite that early.
We did manage to leave our perch at 7:15 am and were at the park by 7:45—a bit past sunrise. Our early arrival meant few other visitors had arrived yet. At the entrance, there was only one car in front of us.
The road into the park was paved for a couple of miles, then turned into sand. White sand, just like the dunes that surrounded us. It looked like we were driving on a fresh coating of snow on a plowed road. In fact, it had been plowed–the sand drifts so much in the wind that the road has to be plowed regularly.
It wasn’t long before we were surrounded by dunes that were 20-30 feet high and looked like they were made of sugar. We drove to almost the end of the road, parked in an empty lot and decided to hold off on breakfast until after we explored the dunes. It was chilly and breezy but the sun shone brightly. We bundled up in layers and headed out.
The Backcountry Trail quickly situated us in the heart of the vast dunes. The trail was marked by orange markers, each within distant sight of the next and without them it would be very easy to get lost with nothing but miles of white sand everywhere. At a few low spots along the loop trail there were marked backpacking campsites, but no one was camping.
We enjoyed going up, down, and over the dunes. Eventually, we peeled off layers as the sun rose higher. There were no restrictions on going off-trail and we could have wandered for hours in the dunes if we’d wanted to.
Eventually, we rounded the loop back to the truck and made breakfast at the lone picnic table in the now much more crowded parking lot. We may have missed the sunrise over the dunes but we were so glad to have come ahead of the crowds.
Before getting back in the truck, we emptied what seemed like buckets of sand from our shoes. Unlike beach sand, this stuff was made of soft gypsum left behind when an ancient sea evaporated. It had a cool silky feel to it, rather than the gritty feel of most sand.
As we headed back down the sandy road, we saw families sledding down the dunes on discs bought at the visitor center. It seemed a lot of work to trudge up a dune only to slowly slide a few dozen feet but they clearly were enjoying it.
We had an almost 4-hour drive to reach our next destination, Albuquerque. But it wasn’t even noon yet, so we decided to take the drive at a slow pace, stopping at any points of interest along the way.
About a half hour later, the World’s Largest Pistachio appeared along the side of the road next to a quirky store that sold everything pistachio. Sure, it was kitschy but how could we not make a quick stop? A bag of surprisingly delicious pistachio brittle sweetened the rest of the drive.
Not long after the pistachio stop, we saw a sign for a turnoff to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site located on BLM land. We weren’t sure what we’d find, but the detour was only a couple of miles so we decided to explore. We expected the road to be dirt, but it was surprisingly good asphalt, yet with almost no traffic and only a couple of cars in the parking lot.
It turned out we’d stumbled upon a gem. There were over 20,000 petroglyphs in the area and most were clustered on one rocky hill.
Hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of petroglyphs were visible by hiking up a short but steep trail and climbing around the large piles of boulders into which they were carved. We called out to each other like little kids as we found more and more intricate carvings, both of us keeping watch for sunning rattlesnakes.
Both the quantity and quality of the petroglyphs were astounding. As a bonus, there were only a handful of other visitors, and they didn’t climb up into the boulders as far as we did, so we had this archeological treasure mostly to ourselves.
We wondered how this place remained so off the radar. Perhaps it was the remote location? If we hadn’t been in the let’s-stop-anywhere-potentially-interesting mindset, we could easily have passed it by ourselves.
By mid-afternoon we were back on the road. It was an interesting drive through the desert with tall snow-covered mountains in the distance. We made good time with the 75-mph speed limit and I was glad gas was a dollar a gallon cheaper than in California. Soon the Sandia Mountains came into view and, eventually, Albuquerque, where tonight would be a hotel night.
We’d been to Albuquerque once before on our trip moving to California three years earlier and were eager to see it again. We’d remembered it as a funky town with a hip vibe, particularly in the area around the University of New Mexico. We’ve even considered it as a potential place to live, though the cold winters and high crime rates have given us pause.
Albuquerque is surrounded by mountains and there’s an effort to blend the town with its environment–there’s widespread use of turquoise and orange-sand colors that match the desert-scape and the sky.
By early evening, we arrived at our hotel where we used fewer points than expected and Susan’s status got us an upgrade to a one-bedroom suite in a brand-new hotel. We threw the ice packs in the freezer, took long showers and then headed to old town Albuquerque, only five minutes away
We walked around the old town square and admired the adobe buildings. We even stumbled upon a Breaking Bad store–Albuquerque was the setting for the show. Unfortunately, the store was closed. It was a Sunday evening and pretty much everything was closed, with just one restaurant open. That made our dining choice easy. Covid restrictions limited dining to outside service and food was served in Styrofoam boxes with plastic utensils. But the New Mexican style food was delicious and the setting under large trees was lovely.
After the short drive back to the hotel, we collapsed into a comfortable bed, very much in need of a good night’s sleep.