Saturday 08 Mar – Left our nice quiet site and set up off back up the mountain to the Carlsbad Caverns. The wind was blowing a howling gale and was quite cold by the time we got back up the mountain. Our trip into the caves was amazing – these caves are really massive – to enter this one we had to walk down 800ft of winding path until we finally reached the bottom. We had an audio guide with us so as we went down there were various points of interest to listen and look at. The entrance into the cave was via it’s huge natural entrance over 90ft high and 40 ft wide and it is inside this entrance that hundreds of thousands of bats roost in the summer (they were elsewhere when we visited!) and each evening they leave this roost to devour insects in the surrounding farmland – I seem to think I have seen this on a tv doco. It took us about an hour to meander down the path and finally arrive at the “Big Room” – a huge 8 acre room with a 255ft high ceiling.
Although the stalactites and mites were not as spectacular as some we have seen – this lack was made up for by the sheer size of everything and also a huge variety of different formations. These caves were discovered by a young fellow in the 1860’s and how he got down that 800ft, which would have been incredibly steep and difficult terrain, was an act of extreme bravery and then you had to find your way back! Anyway he was successful and made many hundreds of trips in and was able to memorise all the specific landmarks so that he didn’t get lost. He was a guide for the early tourists – the first formal way down was a wooden staircase and in the early 30’s a lift shaft was blasted through the rocks which led the way for far greater numbers. Several more lift shafts have been added and we were able to take advantage of this and our trip back up to the surface only took 1 minute.
The wind was still blowing a gale as we departed back down the mountain and on to our camp for the night at Brantley State Park. For a small fee we got our campsite, lovely free hot showers and were able to dump our waste and fill up with fresh water. This region that we travelled through had loads of small oil wells with “nodding donkeys” visible every few hundred feet. Carlsbad had a large oil refinery and the town itself was quite unattractive.
Sunday 09 March – Today was the start of our mountain climbing session. From the relatively low altitude of our camp we climbed up on the most scenic road we have been on yet via Artesia and then Cloudcroft which the name suggests is up in the clouds – at 8250 there was still snow on the side of the road. It is very much a winter playground up here, with lodges and cabins, tracks for skiing and snowmobiles. It was a very pretty spot. The road up and down from here was really nice – wide although quite steep in places with pine trees and even a running stream. As we descended the mountain we came down into the town of Alamagordo where we had hoped to get our propane tank filled but couldn’t find anywhere open.
Leaving Alamagordo we descended to the White Sands Missile Range basin – no testing today but they do test quite frequently. Also a huge military base here, with land both sides of the road a “No-Go” area as it is defence land. Out the other side of the basin the road rose up again to our campsite perched high up on the side of the Organ Mountains. A very steep one way (fortunately) road had to be negotiated to get there but the views were magnificent.
Organ Mountains – our campsite was half way up this mountain
Monday 10 March – Our inverter failed again a couple of days ago, so today’s task was to go back down past Las Cruces to the Camping World store. This meant hitting the Interstate highway and although the traffic isn’t too heavy there are loads of trucks and it is not as peaceful as the smaller roads. With yet another replacement inverter in hand, decided to take advantage of Walmart in Las Cruces and that is always a mistake. The quick stop for supplies ended up being a couple of hours as we got some hardware bits and pieces so that Bob could remount the inverter and as our trusty wee camera had also given up the ghost decided to get a replacement one there. Finally with all our requirements met it was northbound again for us and another pleasant campground at Caballo Lake. This lake is a dammed area of the Rio Grande and it is obvious when you see all the irrigation going on on this plateau why the river doesn’t have much flow downstream. For our $8 we had a primitive site (no power or water hookups) but we did get access to the lovely hot showers and again could have dumped our waste water. Bob managed to put his DIY skills to the test and regigged the inverter mounting. Once we were connected again – a lovely surprise awaited us – an email from Bob’s son Shaun in Saudi announcing that he was a grandfather again – this time to an 8lb9oz granddaughter – Azaria Ann Hayton.
Tuesday 11 March – Another lovely scenic drive today through tiny settlements of Hillsboro and Hanover before arriving at Silver City. Stopped for fuel and then made our way to the old part of town – walked around a bit – quite a few antique shops and arty shops. Visited the small museum which had a nice display of ghost towns in the region. It was then back on the road and up to a pretty little settlement of Glenwood and a little free campsite just out of the village. Our guidebook said that there was an eclectic array of little restaurants to choose from but on closer inspection they didn’t look terribly appealing so settled for dining “Chez-nous”. The other attraction that we were saving for the morning was the catwalk hike into the canyon.
Wed -12 March – After a leisurely start to the day, our first disappointment was that the Catwalk was closed (in 2011 they had very bad wildfires through the region followed by a viscous storm which created bad flash floods and wiped out the catwalk) and then the cafe which was going to be our treat for the day (we were looking forward to a nice breakfast) was also closed (even though the sign outside open from 6-10am every day). We were there just a bit before 10 but the door was closed. Not a good start to our day!! Another shop was advertising coffee but it turned out to be just a thermos pot for customers perusing the store called “Udder Delights” selling soaps and lotions made from goats milk. Bought a nice bar of soap to try out. Were told that the next village of Alma had somewhere we could get breakfast so on we went. Lovely little cafe with friendly people and we both got hearty breakfasts of eggs, bacon, hash browns as well as toast and jam.
We called in first at Alpine for a coffee and snack – this was a real old fashioned diner complete with the counter to dine at. We had a choice to make here, would we take the quick way to Clifton of about 20 miles or take the much longer route designated as a State Scenic Byway? We opted for the latter (bad choice!!). The road as far as Alpine (which was very pretty – Alpine meadows with mountains around) but once we hit the Scenic Byway the first sign we saw was “Winding Road for 60 miles!!). This would have to be about the longest 60 miles we have ever done. The road for the most part was narrow and for all of the 60 miles we just went up and down between 7,000 and 9,000 ft. We came up into the snowline several times and then about one third of the way up this road was a sign “All vehicles over 40feet – turn back” – not a good omen as from here on the road was much worse. When the speed limit changes from 40mph down to 25mph you know you are in for a tough time. It is even more demoralising when the next sign says “winding road for 11 miles – 10mph”. Needless to say it was a very, very long day – I was driving as I really don’t like being a passenger when there is a dropoff of several thousand feet right beside you so poor Bob had to contend with me driving well over the yellow lines (only saw about 3 cars for the whole 60 miles) and crawling down at a snail’s pace. The steepness of the roads meant that you had to be in first or else you might have ended up with failing brakes. While our side of the road was against the mountain it wasn’t anywhere near as bad, but as soon as it switched it was very hairy. I mentioned before about there being no extra piece of tarseal beyond the white line, well it was particularly so on this road – in places it seemed that were was not much more than a foot from the white line to the edge of the precipce – so I can be excused for not wanting to be close to it. Bob was fairly quiet on the way down. Finally after nearly 4 hours we made it through the chains of mountains crossed back into Arizona and another time change before arriving at Morenci – a huge copper mine – it makes Waihi look like infinitesimal.
Morenci is a porphyry copper open pit mine and processing facility located at Morenci in Greenlee County, southeast Arizona. Morenci is one of North America’s largest producer of copper and one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. It is one of the world’s largest producers of copper cathode from SX/EW. Its operations pioneered the use of GPS system technology and computer-controlled dispatching in its haul trucks, shovels and other heavy equipment. It encompasses approximately 21826 hectares comprising 19, 263 hectares of patented mining claims and other fee lands, 2,393 hectares of unpatented mining claims, and 170 hectares of land held by state or federal permits, easements and rights-of-way. For those of you who are technically minded – have a look at their website.
It was mindblowing coming through this area – the state highway goes right though the middle of the mining operations and the little trucks we could see way off in the distance could actually carry 300 tons worth of ore. This site is up fairly high and as we came down the last mountain into Safford the whole vista in front of us was a thick brown fog – we couldn’t see any of the distant mountains and probably only about 40 miles ahead. We were sure it must have been the dust from the mining operation but it was so widespread. Coming down from the mine site was like being on a racing track – the cars and utes were pouring out of the mine and in a tearing hurry to be home so weren’t too impressed at being stuck behind an RV doing the speed limit. On arriving in Safford (we have been full circle and 1590 miles later returned to our BLM spot) were informed that the pollution was dust – coming up from the Arizona Dust Bowl. It was awful, and apparently had been a lot worse the day before.
We joined a couple of big rigs at the BLM site and spent a very pleasant evening, around a warm campfire talking with new found friends from Michigan which made a very nice way to end our not so great drive. Next time Sally the Garmin tells us that it is going to take 4 hours to go 80 miles we will regroup and probably decide that it isn’t such a great idea!