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New Mexico

Las Vegas, New Mexico: The Old West At Its Best

las vegas new mexico plaza hotel

This is the continuation of stories from our epic New Mexico Road Trip. You can read previous stories here. Highlights I shared so far included the appropriately named white desert White Sands, trekking with llamas and the magnificent Carlsbad Caverns.

Bright lights, loud music, pool parties, gambling and people on vacation who are enjoying massive casinos, giant buffets and air-conditioned shopping malls. That’s what usually comes to mind when you think of Las Vegas. Las Vegas, New Mexico couldn’t be more different from its bigger cousin of the same name in Nevada.

las vegas bridge street at dusk new mexicoWe were driving up to Las Vegas from Roswell, a town I had mixed feelings about, and were stopping here primarily because it seemed like a convenient place to interrupt the long drive from Roswell to Albuquerque. Plus, I had read somewhere that it was a picturesque town with an old Wild West vibe, which is why I wanted to check it out. The hotel I had found, the Historic Plaza Hotel (full review here), looked promising, but apart from that we didn’t know what to expect.

las vegas new mexico plaza hotel and parkArriving at the hotel was already an experience in itself. Sitting on the North West end of the main town square, you can’t miss the grand building, easily the most impressive structure around here. We rolled up right to the hotel where we could park outside for free right on the square (gasp.. does that even still exist?!) and when we walked through the historic entrance doors it felt like we had stepped back straight into the late 19th century. I expected posh ladies in flowing satin dresses waiting in the lobby for their carriages to be loaded, sipping on a glass of champagne while their servants were loading up the luggage and getting the horses saddled.

las vegas new mexico plaza drugsWe didn’t spend much time in the hotel though – instead, we headed right back out to explore Las Vegas – what we had seen so far, was so much more charming than we’d expected. The town square, Plaza Park, was where the town had been founded in 1835, following the typical Spanish-colonial model. The green space is filled with leafy trees and wooden statues, all centered around a gazebo in the middle of the park where a Mexican mariachi band was playing live music.

Park Plaza Las Vegas New MexicoIt’s no wonder that Las Vegas is one of the most popular movie locations in the South West for any kind of old-fashioned Wild West movie. The entire town seemed like one big movie set! At the same time, it felt so unpretentious – and it is rare that you find yourself in a place that transports you back into another era in such a genuine way, without even trying (I am looking at you, Tombstone!).

las vegas new mexico bridge street housesWe found ourselves walking straight into Plaza Antiques, a quirky antiques and vintage store where we were greeted by two sleepy cats and the friendly owners who happily chatted with everyone in the store. I love this about small towns – people always show interest in visitors and enjoy conversing with strangers instead of feeling forced to make small talk.

Plaza Antiques Las Vegas New MexicoBeing in a store filled with so much memorabilia and delightful little trinkets while we had a car that allowed us to buy stuff and actually be able to transport it home was too tempting, however, so we left quickly and walked down to Bridge Street, a street that is lined by beautifully restored Italianate houses on both sides. It really couldn’t be any quainter – and the parked SUVs feel completely out of place. Again, horse carriages would have felt more fitting.

Las Vegas New Mexico Bridge StreetThe preservation of historic buildings in Las Vegas is part of the New Mexico Main Street program, an initiative founded by the state in 1985 to revive abandoned main streets and town centers throughout New Mexico, which focuses on bringing town squares and the surrounding streets back to live while preserving historic buildings, maintaining their original facades and architectural features.
las vegas new mexicoIt seems like everybody in Las Vegas knows each other, and the community spirit comes across in the Main Street Program in which the renovations are mainly done with the help of volunteers. Everybody comes together to help paint storefronts and clean up homes that are about to get restored.

las vegas new mexico murpheysThe program led to the creation of new shops and business around the Plaza Park and Bridge Street area but also the historic Railroad district. Independent little stores, galleries, cafés and restaurants have opened in the historic buildings, bringing them back to life, and we peeked into art studios, an independent book store, and an old-fashioned drug store.

Las Vegas New Mexico shops and galleriesLocated only 70 miles east of Santa Fe, you would think that more visitors make their way to this little town, but Las Vegas is overlooked by most New Mexico visitors – a true hidden gem, even though you can barely call it hidden. In the early to mid 19th century, the town became an important point along the Santa Fe Trail, a historic route between Missouri and New Mexico that transported people and goods before the railroad arrived in 1879.

las vegas trainThe arrival of the train line led to an even bigger growth and an influx of different cultures from the east coast. With those, new architectural styles came to Las Vegas, diversifying the design of the buildings around town greatly. While the town had originally been set up in classic New Mexico style, with small adobe homes and a big Indian influence, the late 19th century saw a wide range of architectural styles being added to the city-scape of Las Vegas: in some parts of town, Victorian houses dominate; in others you’ll see Queen Anne, Mission Revival and Italianate buildings. Most of these buildings are still intact today, and over 900 buildings here are now listed on the national Register of Historic Places!

las vegas new mexico bridge street housesWe let a free map that is handed out by the Visitor Center guide us; it outlines all of Las Vegas’ historic places and landmarks and different historic districts. In addition to the Park Plaza and Bridge Street District and the Railroad District, the Douglas/6th Street is a third historic district.

las vegas new mexico historic housesAround Carnegie Park we found many impressive Victorian buildings, some lovingly maintained by private residents, others housing B&Bs, and the beautiful neo-classical Carnegie Library in a lovely setting right in the middle of the park. You could see how well Las Vegas did at the turn of the 20th century – the little town even had an electric tram system back then.

Victorian Houses in Las Vegas New Mexicolas vegas new mexico libraryWhile the town boomed when the railroad put it on the map for the important East-West trade, its glory faded just as quickly when rail travel for both goods and people was replaced by interstate highways and travelers would bypass Las Vegas on the I-25 just south of it.

las vegas new mexico murpheysAs little as the façade of the town might have changed over the past one hundred years, behind the scenes a lot is happening with new businesses like the Old Town Drafthouse micro-brewery or art galleries arriving and after the successful renovation of the Historic Plaza Hotel, the once grand but now abandoned Castañeda Hotel near the train station will also be restored and open its doors again soon. Once the hotel reopens its door, the surrounding historic railroad district will also benefit from it and hopefully see more independent bakeries, cafes and galleries open their doors here.

las vegas new mexico railway districtlas vegas new mexico amtrak train stationIf you happen to be in the area, make sure to stop in this little town. No matter if you plan a New Mexico road trip or travel across the country, you won’t regret visiting Las Vegas. At just over 15,000 inhabitants, the town is tiny. You can easily take in most of the town in half a day – stroll around the historic districts, have a meal in the Rialto or Charlie’s Spic & Span Cafe or enjoy a drink in Byroon T.’s Saloon (see below for details).

las vegas new mexico adobe house

Travel Information Las Vegas

Where to sleep in Las Vegas New Mexico

Staying at the Historic Plaza Hotel was a fantastic experience, and we found a great deal on Booking.com ($89 for a double room).

las vegas plaza hotel new mexico

Where to Eat & Drink in Las Vegas, New Mexico

Charlie’s Spic & Span Bakery & Café is the happening place in Las Vegas – you can get anything here from sopapillas and classic New Mexican fare to good coffee and baked goods.

For a drink, head to Byron T.’s Saloon inside the Plaza Hotel. It offers the perfect Wild West experience and you can mingle with both other visitors and locals.

The Old Town Drafthouse on Bridge Street is a microbrewery that makes an excellent pale ale.

Right next door is the Rialto, a classic New Mexican restaurant (sadly for us, very meat-focused, but everybody kept recommending it us, so it must be good).

las vegas new mexico cowgirl mural

What to do in Las Vegas, New Mexico

Head to the Visitors Center for the free Las Vegas map and visitors brochure and visit the historic homes and districts. Stroll down Bridge Street and take in the beautiful architecture, and pop into the shops along the street.

las vegas new mexico bridge street and plazaThe City of Las Vegas Museum & Rough Rider Memorial on Grand Avenue (open Tuesday – Saturdays from 10am to 4pm /10am to 4pm on Sundays May – September) is free and has exhibits on the local history, the city’s famous residents and the Santa Fe Trail.

Las Vegas New Mexico

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Polaroid of the week: White Sands, New Mexico

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polaroid of the week usa new mexico 2016 white sandsFor my road trip from Tucson to Austin I was stoked about the two stops me and my passenger would make along the way: Big Bend National Park in Texas for the Santa Elena Canyon hike, and White Sands in New Mexico, which I had already visited during my New Mexico road trip a few years ago, and which I loved. That shouldn’t come as a surprise – White Sands is a desert after all, and as many of you know I love deserts. White Sands with its bright white dunes is truly special, something I’ve never seen anywhere in the world (not even on photos of deserts around the world, but tell me if you know of any other white deserts so that I can add them to my travel wish list!).

I was excited to go on another hike in White Sands – and this time in a bit cooler weather (last time I came here it was over 100°F /38°C and we actually had to turn around before finishing the trail). Even though dune after dune might seem repetitive, no dune is like the other, and every time you climb up a dune, you have yet another sweeping view ahead of you. Most of the desert is unvegetated, but there are some desert flowers in White Sands which remind you of the fact that what you are walking on used to be the bottom of a massive lake covering 1,600 square miles during the last ice age. The contrast between the bright blue skies and the white sand makes for some great photo opps, and I ended up with over 600 photos of my day at White Sands, even though it was my second time there!

It was, however, my first sunset – something I really wanted to photograph. We watched the sun go down behind the mountains from the top of a dune, slowly coloring the white sand in a soft glowing pink, and quickly leaving us feeling cold. It might be over 100°F during the day, but the desert sure gets cold at night. We ran back through the dunes to the parking lot, now understanding why so many people get lost here, despite the posts that stick out of the sand in regular intervals to mark several ‘trails’ in the dunefield. In the dark, we could barely make out the posts (which are already hard to spot in bright daylight sometimes) and got a bit nervous if we were following the right direction. In the end, we made it back to the parking lot though and finished our day in White Sands with a picnic in one of the futuristic picnic areas.

I felt lucky that I got to visit this remote place not only one, but two times – and I wouldn’t mind returning for a third visit.

For more photos of White Sands, check out my photo essay: New Mexico’s White Desert: The bright and beautiful White Sands

 

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Llama trekking to the Rio Grande | New Mexico

dani and jess llamas new mexico

**Too lazy to read about our llama trek? Scroll down to the bottom for the video!**

I had been relaxing after our gourmet picnic lunch down by the Rio Grande when I realized I hadn’t seen Dani in a while. I ran back to the clearing where we had tied up the llamas, figuring she would be petting or feeding them, but they were all chomping hungrily at the leaves after our trek down to the river. No humans were in sight.

llama trekking new mexico

Maybe she had gone to take pictures, I thought, so I followed the thin dirt trail away from our little lunch spot down river and ran into the other couple that was llama trekking with us out here in the Carson National Forest.

“Have you seen Dani,” I asked.

“Shhhh,” they warned. “She’s that way.”

Intrigued, I continued the way they had come and found Dani not ten feet from a family of big horn sheep munching their way past her through the long grasses of the Carson National Forest.bighorn sheep rio grande gorge“I saw Picchu (one of our four llamas) staring off into the distance,” Dani explained in a whisper.

“I followed his gaze and saw the sheep on the boulders. None of the llamas seemed scared, so I snuck them over here to get some photos.”bighorn sheep rio grande gorgeShe’s a brave one, Dani is. If I saw a group of unfamiliar animals with giant horns I’d likely not go near them, at least not without Stuart, our guide and owner of Wild Earth Llama Adventures. But because Dani could sense that they didn’t pose a threat, she was able to spend a while almost completely alone with the herd of sheep, taking photos with the nothing more than the bright sun burning down and the sound of the Rio Grande rushing by in the distance.bighorn sheep rio grande gorgeWhen we returned to the llamas, Stuart explained that he had been part of the crew that helped reintroduce bighorn sheep into the area and had yet to see them in this area for himself. He was so excited to catch a glimpse of them with us that day.llama trek new mexico stuartThat’s the thing about Stuart Wilde. From the minute we met him earlier that morning, you could just feel his connection to this area and how much he belongs out here. You would never guess that this gentle wilderness expert, forager and rescuer of llamas had been born and raised in New York City!rio grande gorge new mexicoWhat Stuart and the Wilde family do to save the llamas is a truly incredible story. Throughout the southwest, people get their hands on llamas for a variety of reasons. But, as Stuart explained, llamas are not the cuddly, cute pets that some people might expect. By the time Wild Earth is called in to come rescue them, the llamas are often in need of a shearing, medical care and socialization with both people and the other llamas. The trekking itself requires 16 llamas at most, but there are close to 40 llamas at the ranch at any time – a serious challenge but one Stuart handles with grace and positivity.llama trekking new mexicoThat’s part of what makes the trekking with him so special. The day hike we did can be done faster and essentially for free without trekking with llamas. But there are so many incredible moments we would have missed out on. For one, spending the day out there in the wilderness with an actual wilderness expert brought the whole forest to life for us. Stuart was plucking fresh herbs and mint for us to try and had me grab a couple handfuls of fresh cress from the bottom of a little babbling brook to put on our sandwiches at our picnic (a huge, all organic spread he sets up right down by the water).jess and dani rio grande new mexicoPlus, we hung out with llamas all day – a fascinating experience! At first, it felt a little intimidating to be leading these strangely graceful long-necked animals by a rope down such a steep mountain. We had to practice how to lead them and get to know their personalities.llama trek new mexicoMy guy, Diego, was brave and also liked to go to the bathroom a lot. K2 and Picchu stopped all the time just to look around and one of our llamas actually turned into a runner and got loose for a quick second before Stuart got him back over and tied up to his tree during lunch. By the end of the day, leading these llamas around seemed almost like second nature.llama trek new mexico jessOverall, we learned that llamas are actually fairly slow walkers despite their agility and they are very easy to lead – even for kids! Contrary to rumors, llamas don’t actually spit at people, either. They only tend to spit at other llamas and only in high-pressure situations. They are very soft, but not cuddly. And despite being slower-paced, llamas are excellent trekking partners because of the amount of weight they can carry. Our llamas only carried our backpacks, water and the lunch materials in their saddle bags for the day trek, but Stuart brings groups out on overnight adventures when the llamas carry tents, days’ worth of food and other gear.llama trek new mexicoThe trek itself, down into gorge, was nothing but a walk in the (national) park for them. This is a 60-mile long, 1,000ft deep canyon carved out by the Rio Grande and the mile-long path up and down is a series of steep switchbacks that pile up on top of each other so that once you make it down to the bottom, there is basically a massive wall of rock on either side of the river. Giant boulders are scattered from there to the riverbank; they are so massive in size it is hard to imagine how loudly these huge rocks must have thundered through the valley as they tumbled down years ago. It was up on a pile of giant boulders where we met those bighorn sheep.llama and rio grande gorgeBefore hiking our way back up that steep, steep path, Stuart brought us over to another cluster of boulders and we spent nearly an hour crawling around looking at incredibly well-preserved petroglyphs.

Just like with the llamas and the native plants, Stuart is also an expert in the local history between the Native Americans and the white settlers in the area. He explained the meanings of the different petroglyphs and because we were way out in the open in New Mexico, we could experience these historical treasures right there, in their natural habitat, allowing us to get a real sense of what life out here must have been like a few hundred years before.rio grande gorge petroglyphs new mexicoI had been dreading the climb back up the path, but because our llama friends are a pokey bunch and our fellow trekkers needed a much slower pace, the climb ended up being much easier than the two of us expected. Before we started the hour-long drive back to Taos, we all gathered around the truck and let the llamas nibble food out of our hands with their big, funny lips and then we led them one by one onto the back of the truck.llama new mexicoLlama trekking near Taos was hands down one of the best experiences we had during our New Mexico road trip, and by far our best experience ever with llamas. No matter where we traveled in South America, there was no opportunity to spend such quality time with llamas like we did right there in the US. If you plan on spending any time in Taos or even in Santa Fe, drive over and do at least a day hike with Stuart and Wild Earth Llama Adventures. There is seriously nothing quite like it!llama rio grande gorge

Llama trekking in New Mexico – The details:

rio grande gorge hike new mexico
Check out the video of our day with the llamas here:

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Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico: A majestic cave experience

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico: A majestic cave experience

The road ahead of us cut a straight line into the barren desert landscape of southern New Mexico, and looking at what was laying in front of us, I couldn’t see yet how we’d reach some of the biggest caves in the world within the next 15 minutes.

new mexico highwayFinally we turned off the highway, which, had we followed it further, would have led us straight to the Texan border only 18 miles down the road. Instead of the straight road through flat no-man’s-land, the road we were on now was sloping around mountains and hills into the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, making it more likely for a cave to be somewhere around here.

carlsbad caverns driveI am still not sure how this cave was discovered out here in the middle of nowhere, and it was in fact a completely random discovery by a teenager, Jim White, who was a cowboy herding cattle in the area back then, and who continued to explore the caves in-depth over the next few years.

carlsbad caverns new mexicoWhen reaching the visitor center, we learn that there are actually two ways to get down to the cave chambers: the lazy one would be taking the elevator (first cave we’ve ever been to that has an elevator!!) and arrive at the caves within a minute. The other one would be hiking down into the cave through the natural entrance and experience them the way Jim White found them in 1898.

carlsbad caverns new mexicoOf course we opted for the hike. I still remember the small, nondescript sign along the path to the entrance that read ‘Strenuous hike ahead. Exhaustion and weak knees common.’ … and not thinking much of it.

carlsbad caverns natural entrance new mexicoOnce we reached the ‘Big Room’, 750ft (230meters) deeper and 1.5 hours later, there was another sign for people who wanted to leave the caves the way we had come. This one read:

Warning!

Warning!

 The natural entrance way is strenuous! It climbs 800ft (240 meters) in 1.25 miles (2km). Allow one hour to hike to the surface.

 If you have problems with knees, back, heart, breathing or diabetes, then you should use the elevator. You must wear appropriate footwear, have good physical health, and a can-do attitude.

carlsbad cavernsWhen we finally got to that sign, I wondered why this exact sign hadn’t been on the other side of the trail, too. To be honest, we had no idea what a hike we had gotten ourselves into when we entered the cave – and certainly didn’t expect it to last 90 minutes!

carlsbad caverns new mexicoIt was definitely worth it though – it felt just as adventurous as it must have been for Jim White and others before him who had found the caves (if you ignore the paved path and handrails). The trail was barely lit, adding a mystic atmosphere to the various chambers we passed on our way down.

carlsbad cavernsThe few lights that lit the way created spooky shadows around the stalactites and stalagmites surrounding us, and the narrow cemented path that went deeper and deeper into the caves went right underneath huge stalactites several times.

New Mexico Carlsbad CavernsWhen we finally reached the famous Big Room, we couldn’t believe how big it actually was! After our 90-minutes hike to get there, it took us another hour to follow the walkways around the cave.. one hour to walk around just one chamber of the cave!

carlsbad caverns stalagtitesThis room is also known as the ‘Hall of the Giants’, not only for its superlative sizes (4,000 feet / 1,220 m) long, 625 feet / 191 m wide, and 255 feet / 78 m high at the highest point), but also for its giant stalactite and stalagmite formations, such as the ‘chandelier’.

carlsbad caverns new mexicoThe Big Room is actually the 7th biggest cave chamber in the world, and 3rd largest in all of North America.

carlsbad cavernsIn total, there are around 120 caves in the National Park, most of which can be visited on either guided or self-guided tours. The illustrative names of the chambers, like ‘The King’s Palace’, the ‘Hall of the White Giant’, ‘Spider Cave’ or ‘Green Lake Room’ date back to Jim White, who named almost all of the famous rooms.

carlsbad cavernsMost of the formations inside the caves were already growing during the last ice age when there were still pine trees growing in the area, instead of the desert that you find there today.

carlsbad caverns rock formationThese formations also still carry the names that were given to them by their discoverer Jim White – descriptive names such as the Iceberg Rock, Totem Pole, Witch’s Finger, Giant Dome, Bottomless Pit, Fairyland, Temple of the Sun, and Rock of Ages.

New Mexico Carlsbad CavernsDuring the strenuous hike down, we didn’t notice that the temperature had dropped significantly, but as soon as we reached the Big Room, where walking was easier, the difference in temperatures couldn’t be ignored anymore: we had started at 90°F (32°C) outside, and were walking around in a chilly 56°F (13°C) now!

New Mexico Carlsbad CavernsNow we were glad that we had brought our jackets. By the time we reached the elevator to head back up, I was so cold that I couldn’t wait to see natural light again and feel the warming sun rays on my skin.

We have seen several other caves on our travels so far, but none had been anywhere near as impressive as Carlsbad Caverns were.

carlsbad caverns new mexico

The bat flight

We actually ended up driving down to Carlsbad Caverns twice from Carlsbad: once to visit the caves and once to witness the bat flight, when thousands of Mexican free-tail bats come out of the caverns to hunt for bugs.

The bat flight usually occurs at sunset and can be experienced every night from mid-May through September (check what time sunset is) from the amphitheater near the natural cave entrance. Prior to the bat flight, there is a short talk by one of the park rangers about the bats, their habits and their history in the caves.

The bat flight program at sunset is free. Photography or filming is not allowed at all.

To be honest, we weren’t too impressed with the bat flight – next time, I would plan my visit different and hike down into the caves in the afternoon and just stay for the bat flight instead of driving down there twice from Carlsbad.

carlsbad caverns bat flight amphitheater

Carlsbad Caverns: The Details

  • Carlsbad Caverns are about 18 miles (29 km) south of Carlsbad – the drive will take 35 to 40 minutes depending on where in Carlsbad you’re staying.
  • Admission is $10 per person, additional fees apply to ranger-led tours.
  • If you are interested in learning more about cave geology, history, formations, etc., we recommend renting an audio headset at the entrance.
  • The hike through the natural entrance takes appr. 1 hr 15 mins.
  • Duration: We spent three hours in total at the caves

More information can be found on the official NPS website.

New Mexico Carlsbad Caverns

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New Mexico’s White Desert: The Bright and Beautiful White Sands

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It didn’t happen gradually, but all of a sudden. The paved road we had been following for the last 30 minutes was walled by tall, hilly sand dunes, as far as the eye could see. White Sands, New Mexico.

White Sands New Mexico streetIt was somewhat surreal, since we had been driving through the barren desert of Southern New Mexico for a while without even seeing any sand dunes yet, and within a couple of minutes, we were surrounded by them completely.

White Sands New Mexico sand dunesThe further we drove into the dunes, the less we could see of the road, and at some point it was covered in sand completely. We were driving through a sand desert.

White Sands New Mexico sandy streetNew Mexico’s Sand Dunes were one of the things we were most excited about when we planned our New Mexico road trip – you might have seen them in music videos like Boyz II Men’s Water Runs Dry or P. Diddy’s Best Friend – and while sand dunes are certainly not uncommon, there are only very few that are bright white.

White Sands New Mexico sand duneTogether with the azure blue New Mexico skies, the constellation of just white and blue as far as the eye can see is incredibly beautiful.

White Sands New MexicoThe dunes sit at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert in the Tularosa Basin, a mountain-ringed valley. In total, they comprise of an area of 710-km² (275-mi²), and we learned from our visitors brochure that they had actually all been part of a massive lake during the last ice age.

White Sands New Mexico waterAfter the lake dried out, it left a large area of selenite (gypsum in crystalline form) on the surface, which were broken into sand-size grains over thousands of years through erosion and weathering. The winds that blow over the basin eventually formed the sand dunes.

White Sands New Mexico white dunesDepending on wind and weather, they actually change their shapes all the time.

White Sands New Mexico flowersThis is why it is nearly impossible for any plants to grow in White Sands New Mexico – if the plants are not very resistant and fast-growing, they get blown over by the moving sand quickly and don’t survive.

White Sands New Mexico dry flowersHence, you don’t see any plants in the middle part of the dunes – only sand.

White Sands New Mexico jess hikingTowards the edges, there are some plants and flowers, but they are likely to get covered in sand sooner or later, as the dunes change their shapes and the sand moves further.

White Sands New Mexico yellow flowersThere is just as little wildlife as there is flora and fauna – it is barely impossible for anything to survive in this dry, sandy environment.

White Sands New Mexico dunesApparently, there are some mammals, such as foxes, coyotes, rabbits, rats and mice, and several kinds of lizards, but the only sign of life we saw was a lonely black little beetle.

White Sands New Mexico beetleWe loved how empty the dunes felt – even though there were quite a few other cars in the park with us, once we hit one of the hiking trails that led away from the street into the dunes, it felt like we were the only ones in White Sands.

White Sands New Mexico dani hikingWe had planned to hike the Alkali Flat Trail (4.5 mile / 7.2 km round-trip), the longest possible hike in White Sands. By the time we reached the trail head though, it was close to noon and the desert sun was burning down on us with over 100 °F / 38 °C.
White Sands New MexicoWe had already done two hikes under similar conditions through Arizona’s desertscape before heading to New Mexico though, so we still set off on the hike, ignoring the hot, relentless sun.

White Sands New Mexico jessWe followed the posts with orange tape that marked the trail and after five minutes, we were encircled by white sand dunes, there were no people, and we couldn’t see the street anymore.

White Sands New MexicoThe further we walked into the dunes, the quieter it got. It got to a point where the tranquility felt almost spooky.

White Sands New Mexico sandWe saw how easy it was to get lost in those dunes – a horrible thought considering the heat and that there was absolutely no shade – if you didn’t look for the trail markers. In fact, several hikers have gone lost in White Sands, overestimating their ability to walk without water or underestimating the heat.

White Sands New Mexico sand dunesAt the 1.5 mile marker, we made the decision to turn around. The hike through the sand was beautiful, the peace and quiet was relaxing, and the solitude felt liberating, but the burning heat had finally defeated us. We knew that we didn’t have enough water to fully enjoy the hike, so we headed back to the car.

White Sands New Mexico daniLooking around us, it was easy to think that we were walking through a huge snow field – had it not been so hot that sweat was dripping off our forehead constantly.White Sands New Mexico jess layingThe vastness of the dunes was simply stunning.

White Sands New Mexico panoramaWe returned to the parking area where there is also a huge picnic area with silver-roofed futuristic-looking picnic tables – the only shaded areas in the dunes!

White Sands New Mexico picnic areaMany of the sand dunes are tall enough to enjoy a ride down on a sled or even a sand board. Sadly, we had missed our chance to pick up a sled at the visitor center, but it was fun to watch other visitors boarding and sledding down the dunes.

White Sands New Mexico sleddingIf you’re planning to sled down the dunes, don’t forget to stop at the visitor center BEFORE entering the park!

White Sands New Mexico sand boarder

How to visit White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands, New Mexico is a 30 minute drive from Alamogordo. We stayed at the Suburban Extended Stay Hotel, for which we found a great rate ($49 per double room per night) on Booking.com, and which we found clean and comfortable (the room had a kitchenette and free wifi and the hotel is close to all restaurants and supermarkets).

Before you go, check on the White Sands National Park website if the park is open at all – when there are missile testings (which happen up to twice a week at certain times throughout the year), the park stays closed (usually only for a couple of hours though).

A car is absolutely essential to visit White Sands, the National Park is not served by public transportation.

White Sands New Mexico carAdmission is $25 per car, and valid for seven consecutive days. Tip: You could go one day for sunset and come back the next morning for a hike.

There are guided sunset walks at 6pm. Look out for the meeting point inside the National Park, near one of the parking lots.

If you want to sled down the dunes, the gift shop in the visitor center lends sleds for a fee of $7 (you pay $10 but get $3 back if you return the sled). Make sure to stop there BEFORE you enter the park. The best place for sledding are the dunes near the picnic area (they’re the steepest ones).

The easiest way to see the dunes is by following the 8-mile scenic drive through the National Parks. There are several hiking paths (ranging from the short 0.2mile /0.3km Playa Trail to the more challenging 4.5mile /7.2 km Alkali Flat Trail)  throughout the park and enough parking available.

Dani running in White SandsMake sure to bring sturdy shoes, enough water, sun screen and sun glasses – it is extremely bright. A hat would also be recommendable, especially if you’re planning to visit around noon and/or going for a longer hike.

You are not allowed to enter the Missile Range that is located in White Sands, but there is a ranger-led hike to Lake Lucero in the Missile Range once a month ($3 per person). You can check the schedule for the tours and make your reservation here.

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White Sands New Mexico

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Roswell, New Mexico: The town with an identity crisis

Roswell, New Mexico: Town with an identity crisis

When we were planning our New Mexico road trip, it was clear that we could not NOT go to Roswell, the tiny town in the middle of nowhere that suddenly raised to fame in 1947 when a UFO crashed here… apparently. But more on that later.

roswell new mexico 1947Even though we’re no UFO proponents and not sure how we felt about the UFO conspiracies surrounding Roswell, we wanted to see the place and learn more about the crash. And when we discovered that Roswell was half-way between Carlsbad Caverns and our next stop Las Vegas (New Mexico, not Nevada) anyway, there was no question that we’d spend a night here.

roswell new mexico alienFrom the minute we drove into Roswell it appeared that the town was all about the famous UFO crash. Bright green aliens were staring at us from car dealerships, fast food restaurants, doughnut shops and garages. The local Roswell radio station advertised with aliens, McDonald’s built a custom-made space-themed branch here, and even a local tattoo parlor used an alien as their mascot.

Aliens in Roswell New MexicoAnd we hadn’t even reached the main street yet, where we’d encounter more ‘alien-ness’: An alien-themed Mexican restaurant, alien-shaped street lights, ‘UFO parking only’ signs in the car parks, even a loan shark who advertised with aliens (!) and of course a number of alien and UFO related souvenir shops.

Aliens in Roswell New MexicoWe had to visit Roswell’s small airport to add a second driver to our rental (because it turned out that Jess’ license had expired, leaving me, the foreigner, driving 2,000 miles across New Mexico and finally all the way to Chicago!) where we found ourselves greeted by several aliens as well – even our rental company’s desk had several aliens to welcome us.

Airport Roswell New MexicoOf course there’s also alien beer in Roswell (actually a neat souvenir, you can pick it up in any of the large supermarkets but note that alcohol is not sold on Sundays).

roswell new mexico alien beerAt first sight, everything here seems to be about the funny-looking creatures that put this otherwise uninteresting place on the world map nearly 70 years ago. Main Street, the thoroughfare through the town, is also home to the UFO Museum and International Research Center and the Alien Zone. It is around this stretch of the street where most tourists gather – families, Harley bikers, UFO conspiracists or just curious road trippers like us.

roswell new mexico ufo museumWe headed to the UFO Museum and International Research Center first, eager to learn more about the UFO crash – or The Roswell UFO Incident as it is officially referred to – and the conspiracies around it. Had there really been a UFO crash at all? Were people abducted by aliens? Were aliens taken into captivity to research their bodies? According to the UFO Museum: yes, yes and yes.

roswell new mexico ufo museum displayBut it also became quickly evident that the second part of the museum’s name ‘International Research Center’, (and the museum itself) is way less significant than it sounds. Instead of a sleek, informative museum, we found a place that seemingly has not been updated in any way since the 1980s (except for the addition of poster of the TV show ‘Roswell’, which aired in the late 90s). The exhibits range from childish to ridiculous – as if a bunch of fourth-graders had provided the displays for the museum.

roswell new mexico ufo museum incident timelineWe now also realized why the lady at the entrance had pointed out that the $5 ticket was valid for multiple entries throughout the day: There was so much reading material on the walls, from old newspaper articles to printed interviews with eye witnesses, that it took a while to read through all the info and some folks might want to go and get a coffee in between. The saddest aspect of the museum was that you didn’t even need to visit it to learn all the facts they presented – there was nothing here that you couldn’t find on the internet, and it actually felt like we paid $5 to read the Wikipedia entry on the Roswell UFO incident and could’ve found better information on Roswell-related websites.

roswell new mexico ufo museum displayWhen a cheap light show started around some aliens that were displayed in the center of the museum, we couldn’t take any of it serious anymore:

We left disappointed and went to the Alien Zone just a few minutes down the road, which was supposed to more interesting with actual aliens, and the option to play with them! Okay, ‘real’ aliens might take it a step too far. Look for yourself:

Alien Zone New MexicoWhile the Alien Zone was definitely more fun than the UFO Museum, the place still felt utterly outdated. In the gift shop area, where you buy your ticket for the Alien Zone ($3 per person), they were still selling UFO magazines from 2002, and some of the souvenirs seemed to be from the 1990s. The yellowed postcards certainly had been laying in the store for many years.

Roswell New MexicoWe felt that both the museum and the Alien Zone, along with all the souvenir shops, could use some fresh paint, but we are not sure if Roswell still wants to push the UFO-related tourism. Sure, that’s what made the town famous and brought in hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars, made people stop and spend money here who would’ve just passed through had Roswell not been the place of the alleged UFO crash. However, nobody who was working in one of the alien-related establishments seemed overly enthusiastic or proud to be there, and it didn’t seem like any of the Roswell residents who were NOT working on Main Street would ever come down here.

Alien Zone Roswell New MexicoWe left the Main Street to see what else Roswell New Mexico had to offer, but came to realize quickly that there is not much beyond the ‘alien zone’. Just venturing a couple of blocks away from Main Street we saw many empty houses and closed-up shops, streets and sidewalks in need of repair and buildings where the paint was peeling off.

roswell new mexico empty buildingIt seemed that the historic center would be completely dead if the Roswell UFO Incident wasn’t still attracting tourists from all over the world.

roswell new mexico rundown streetThe town had tried to expand their tourist attractions several times – in the 1990s, the Anderson Museum Of Contemporary Art opened its doors, and is regularly named as one of the best contemporary art museums in the South West, but if you decide to head there when passing through Roswell, you will barely encounter another visitor (even though it’s free!).

roswell new mexico ufo & alien stuffIn the early 2000s, the Pecos Flavors Winery opened on Main Street in midst of the alien madness, in an effort to promote wines and beers produced in New Mexico and to bring a higher-class establishment to the area. They don’t produce any wines themselves or brew their own beer, but the winery has a large variety of wines and micro-brews from all of New Mexico, many of which are of a surprisingly good quality (even though the state isn’t particularly known for either one!). While you’re trying some wine or beer here (I can vouch for the Alien Amber Ale, despite the cheesy name), you can also pick up New Mexico-made products such as chiles, pecans, pistachios, cheeses and even coffee!

roswell new mexico alien zone hqRoswell beyond the historic center is actually a pretty little town, with some gorgeous historic southern houses in a quaint setting.

Houses in Roswell New MexicoIt felt like people here were ready to move away from the UFO crash that made the city famous, especially since none of the witnesses of the incident are alive anymore. That nobody makes the effort to update the museum or the old alien puppets in the Alien Zone is another sign that Roswell’s residents don’t really care about the UFO conspiracies, but they also don’t really seem to know how to develop and brand their town differently. It felt like the town was in an identity crisis – trying to let go off the past, but uncertain in what direction to head.

Roswell New mexicoI hope that Roswell, New Mexico will be able to reinvent itself, because, quite frankly, the antiquated UFO Research Center won’t cut it much longer.

Roswell New Mexico all about aliensroswell new mexico aliensRoswell New Mexico Aliens everywhere

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Where to stay in… Las Vegas, New Mexico: The Historic Plaza Hotel

hotel tip of the week

It was love at first sight with the Historic Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, even before we arrived there. As soon as I had decided to include Las Vegas in our New Mexico road trip itinerary, I looked up hotel options for the little town in northern New Mexico, and when the Historic Plaza Hotel popped up in list of hotels, it caught my attention immediately.

las vegas historic plaza hotel I felt like the hotel was straight out of the 19th century – what a change to all the Comfort Inns and Econo Lodges that usually showed up in my searches. Staying anywhere else was not even an option; I had a feeling that the Plaza Hotel would be just the right place to rest our heads during our time in Las Vegas.

It turned out that the gorgeous Italianate-style red brick building looked beautiful in pictures, but was even more impressive in reality. It thrones majestically over the historic Park Plaza, now in addition made up by two buildings: the original Plaza Hotel, plus the adjoining Ilfeld Building, both lovingly renovated and well maintained.

las vegas historic plaza hotel and parkAs soon as you enter the building, the grand entrance hall evokes fantasies about the scenes that must have happened here over one hundred years ago, when the hall must have been filled with wealthy ladies on the way to their cattle farms or horse ranches. Instead of cars, horse carriages would have lined the green central square, and the entourage of the ranch owners would have rushed in and out of the hotel with all the suitcases, boxes and other luggage they were traveling with.

Stepping into the hotel almost felt like stepping onto a movie set – with the exception that this place really exists! The building was constructed in 1882, when Las Vegas was a booming transportation hub thanks to its strategic location on the newly built East West train line. One hundred years later, the entire building was renovated and modernized, without losing any of the original features or the character of the building.

las vegas historic plaza hotel After extending the hotel by adding the Ilfeld Building next door, it now houses 66 guest rooms plus 5 suites. Thick, soft carpets absorb the noise of the hurrying steps up and down the stairs, and antique furniture lines the hallways, maintaining the Old West feel of the hotel.

Las Vegas New Mexico Historic Plaza HotelWhile the room is clean and comfortable, it is nothing extraordinary, but the hotel is doing a good job by keeping up the southwestern atmosphere here, too, with wooden furniture and a wash basin in vintage look. The bedside tables are covered in True West cowboy magazine, the matching read for our stay here. The bedroom might feel a little bit antiquated, the bathroom, however, is modernized and shiny.

Las Vegas New Mexico Historic Plaza Hotel RoomThe building itself hasn’t lost anything of the grand aura it must have emitted when it opened its doors in the late 19th century, with the Victorian dining room still in use, and the adjoining Ilfeld Building offering a ballroom that is often used for weddings and other receptions.

las vegas historic plaza hotel The hotel bar, Byron T.’s is designed in Western style, and you wouldn’t be surprised if some of the notorious figures that were known to have spent time in Las Vegas would step through the wooden swinging saloon doors at any time – outlaws that included Jesse James, Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid. What I also loved was that the locals use Byron T.’s as their hangout, too – it is not just made for tourists!

historic plaza hotel las vegas chile rellenoThe Landmark Grill is the main restaurant though which had a decent selection of New Mexican dishes, all at an affordable price (ranging from $7 to $27). We even found two different vegetarian dishes on the menu (including a spinach salad with cranberries and walnuts) and the Stuffed Green Chile was the best I had had on our road trip thus far.

The Landmark Grill is also where breakfast is served in the mornings, included in the room rates. Instead of a typical mediocre road trip motel breakfast buffet, you get to order a full hot breakfast a la carte – both the Berry Waffles and the Huevos Rancheros lived up to our expectations.

historic plaza hotel las vegas berry wafflesShould I ever return to Las Vegas, there’d be no other place for me to stay. The Historic Plaza Hotel Las Vegas adds to the entire Old West experience and with its perfect location right in the center of town, I wouldn’t even consider one of the typical chain hotels – which weren’t even cheaper than the Historic Plaza Hotel.

historic plaza hotel las vegas

Details: The Historic Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas

Location: 230 Plaza, NM 87701
Price: Double rooms start at $89 for a standard room
Digital Nomad Friendly: Yes
Amenities: Free breakfast; complimentary wi-fi; saloon bar and restaurant onsite, free parking on the plaza, coffee maker in the room.

Tip: We found an amazing bargain deal for the Historic Plaza Hotel on Booking.com!
Las Vegas New Mexico Historic Plaza Hotel1

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Polaroid of the week: Alien Zone in Roswell, New Mexico

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week new mexico alienWe have seen so many beautiful natural sights on our New Mexico road trip, like the White Sand dunes, the Gila Wilderness and Cliff Dwellings and Carlsbad Caverns. These are all way out in the wide open spaces of southern New Mexico, so it was exciting to pass through the ‘city’ of Roswell on our way to Las Vegas (the one in New Mexico, not Nevada). We spent our time here finding out more about the alleged UFO crash which put this small New Mexican town in the global spotlight in 1947.

Roswell is alien-crazy, a Mecca for the hundreds of thousands of believers who come from all over the world each year. Although the mystery surrounding the incident is well-documented at the International UFO Museum and Research Center, anything unnerving about it is eased by the cartoonish green men used by local businesses to attract customers – everywhere from fast food chains to pawn shops.

We have our own theories about what happened in Roswell and will be sharing those in an article in a bit. For now, let’s just say we had a lot of fun hanging out with aliens in the Alien Zone shop and ‘alien testing facility’ on Main Street, where we played table foosball, had a beer and hung out with some new friends.

Follow along on Facebook with our Photo of the Day, or at #2girls1chevy on Twitter and Instagram, where we’ve got photos and videos of the fun little things that make the essence of a great road trip!

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Polaroid of the week: Meet Diego, the llama

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polaroid of the week New Mexico Diego llama trekMeet Diego, the llama! When we stopped in Taos, we had the opportunity to go on a llama trek with him and three of his friends, who had names after more famous mountain peaks like K2 and Picchu.

Together with another couple and our guide, llama rescuer and expert Stuart, we trekked down into the Rio Grande Gorge, descending 800 feet from the rim to the bottom of the gorge, where we picnicked near a fresh water spring before exploring some ancient petroglyphs.

Spending the day with the llamas was one of the highlights of our New Mexico road trip, and we couldn’t have been luckier with the weather on our trek – bright blue skies, sun and summer temperatures made this the perfect day to get to know this part of northern Mexico. The Rio Grande gorge is sixty miles long and absolutely packed with a rich, fascinating history. Stuart taught us about flora, fauna and history and fed us a gourmet picnic on top of it.  With the llamas carrying our bags, drinks and food, we didn’t have to worry about a thing…other than leading these graceful creatures up and down the gorge. Diego was the most entertaining one of the bunch, doing a lot of this and smiling for my camera all day long. We will share more pictures of our hike here with you soon!

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Polaroid of the week: Adobe home in Santa Fe, New Mexico

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polaroid of the week new mexico santa fe homeOne thing we couldn’t get enough of in New Mexico were the gorgeous adobe homes, especially around Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos. Adobe is made of just sand, water, clay and straw, and yet some of these homes and buildings are easily over 400 years old, which is why architects often consider the homes as architectural miracles. This form of construction has been used for several thousand years by people indigenous to the Americas, including the native American Indians that inhabited the pueblos around new Mexico and the Southwest.

Aesthetically, adobe homes are really the symbol of the Southwest, the earth tones fitting perfectly into the desert scenery and punctuated by bright colorful flowers, vases, tiles and window frames.

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