We approached the ticket counter to ask about guided cave tours—sold out. But the park ranger said we could do the self-guided tour. We could take the elevator or the Natural Entrance. “But you’ll take the Natural Entrance. Nothing’s wrong with you. You’ll do it.” “Um…ok” I responded to the park ranger as he caught me eyeing the elevator down to the caves. (I mean, they have built them for a reason, yes?)
The Natural Entrance trail is 1.25 miles long and takes you 750 feet below ground—if that doesn’t mean much, let me give you one word to sum it up: STEEP! Also dark, and slippery in places. This trail has warning signs! Before you even start!
But that gruff old ranger was on to something—the Natural Entrance trail is breathtaking (ha!), and without walking down those steep switchbacks, I don’t think I would have appreciated just how deep underground we went. You can see the trail disappear into the darkness way below you, and then when you finally reach that spot, you discover it disappears into another abyss. Do you see the handrails in the photos below? Try to follow them down, down, down along the trail.
These aren’t the best photos we’ve ever taken (it’s really dark down there!), but hopefully they give you an idea of the scale of these caverns. They are massive!
The Natural Entrance trail takes you through lots of different caves, until finally opening up at The Big Room—which is about 8 acres! There’s a mile-long loop trail inside that takes you past all sorts of stalactites, stalagmites, shallow pools, columns, curtains, and bottomless pits.
This place is so large, there’s even a gift shop and cafeteria—underground!
Do you have the Fraggle Rock theme song stuck in your head now, or is that just me?
If you’re driving from ABQ to Carlsbad, Roswell is a fun stop. A visit to the UFO Museum is a must! The art museum also had good exhibits, including Goddard’s rocket lab. And you can’t beat the slogan at the tourist info center: “visitors” welcome!
When we mentioned our plans to visit the VLA, our Airbnb host recommended we end the day with a trip to Bosque del Apache for the sunset fly-in. Every evening, thousands of geese and birds fly to a patch of land in the park to settle down for the night. Perhaps you’re thinking what I was…”hmm, what is so special about this?” But it was actually a really impressive thing to watch! There were tens of thousands of birds, and when one small group got worked up, it set off a chain reaction and suddenly there was a riot of honking and flapping.
Curious how loud thousands of birds can be? Check out our short video on Instagram!
About two hours south of Albuquerque, in the middle of nowhere, sits the Very Large Array. But it turns out that the middle of nowhere is perfect for an array of radio telescopes that spans 22 miles wide in its widest formation. There’s also little chance of interference from radio and tv broadcasts, wifi, and cell signals.
We took a guided tour of the VLA, which allowed us to visit the control center and chat with a telescope operator. We also walked the path of the (very nice) self-guided tour. There are a few exhibits and several placards explaining the history and the science of the VLA.
We were lucky to visit when the VLA was in a hybrid formation. We got to see most of the telescopes clustered together, and watch them rotate in unison. And we also got to see a couple on the far end of one of the arms, which gave us a good sense of the immense scale of the VLA. (We saw these on the drive in/out, about 10 minutes from the main site!)
Does the VLA look familiar? Maybe you remember it from the movie Contact, with Jodie Foster! Scenes from Independence Day, The Arrival, and Terminator Salvation were also filmed here. Check out our movie of the VLA (a hyperlapse telescope rotation) on Instagram!
On the outskirts of Albuquerque is the Petroglyph National Monument. There are a few hiking trails, all a short drive from the visitor center. The park ranger we spoke with recommended the Piedras Marcadas Canyon Trail. It’s a relatively easy walk, but be prepared to leave with shoes full of sand!
The park ranger gave us a map with a short list of petroglyphs to look for at marked stops along the trail. We paused for several minutes at stop one, but couldn’t find the mark! We improved our scouting skills further along the trail, and spotted lots of markings on the basalt rocks.
A couple of Jack Rabbits were chasing each other near the trail. Can you spot one in the photo below?
These tall, cone-like rock formations are called “hoodoos” and are the product of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. The different bands of color seen in the rocks are different types of ash and volcanic rock deposits.
There are two trails at the park: the Cave Loop and the Slot Canyon Trail. We started with the Slot Canyon Trail, and it was amazing! At some points, the canyon closes in on the trail and the walls are just shoulder-width apart!
We got to duck under a huge boulder and scramble up some big rock piles.
After walking through the canyon, the trail starts climbing a steep hill. When you get to the top, you can walk along to the very tip of the mesa and see for miles all around.
Walking back through the slot canyon is just as fun. We got lapped by a couple of groups because we stopped so often to look around and take photos!
The Cave Loop trail is a nice walk and there are plenty of tent rocks to see along the way. And of course, the cave! It’s a bit high up in the wall, so you can’t go inside, but it was still pretty neat.
We posted a short timelapse video of the canyon on Instagram. Check it out! >
On the drive to Alamogordo, we passed a sign for a Space Murals Museum—on the NASA Road exit. How could we pass that up?!
This place is worth a stop. Besides the beautiful murals and rocket shells outside, the museum is jam-packed with artifacts, photos, patches, models, etc, collected by a local man over the years.
Down the road is the White Sands Missile Range. A lot of research and testing in the early days of the space program was conducted at White Sands. And in the early 80s, the space shuttle landed at the airstrip here. (“Not White Plains! White Sands!” #spacecamp #jinxandmaxfriendsforever)
The rocket and aircraft garden and museum are both free. Maybe try to visit when there’s not a crazy storm coming down from the mountains.
On the other side of town is the New Mexico Museum of Space History. They also have a rocket garden, and the museum is large and full of neat exhibits. And there’s a great view of Alamogordo from up there!
This is a fun museum. There are planetarium shows and a few hands-on areas. One was a small platform that you stand on to feel the rumble of a rocket launch. It was loud! There was also a simulator for landing the space shuttle. Nailed it!
And last but not least…