It’s all Gypsum and Aliens in New Mexico

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Spent a week uncovering UFO sightings, White Sands and Bottomless Lakes around southern New Mexico.

I’m going to start off by resisting making any “New Mexico/Old Mexico” jokes since that’s all we heard when we told people we were no longer in Mexico, but in New Mexico. I’m sure the residents are tired of hearing them but more importantly, Wikipedia is telling me that New Mexico was actually named over 200 years before modern-day Mexico was established…who woulda thunk it!? Anyway, we were on the I-10 for the beginning of this drive before veering off to head toward Silver City. It was crazy to see how many abandoned shops, motels and gas stations there were. It had an eerie feeling similar to those towns along Route 66, where the surviving businesses are relying on highway traffic just to stay afloat. Speaking of highway traffic, we saw so many warnings for dust storms and what to do if you’re caught in one that we know they’re not messing around. Luckily we didn’t encounter anything but they seem pretty crazy dangerous. We’ve got the 5 steps on lock if we ever do though.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Sign
Gotta love being welcomed by dancing chili peppers

Our first night in New Mexico was spent camping in the Gila National Forest, just south of Silver City. The spot was right by the trailhead to the Continental Divide (that we definitely did not hike) so all you active folks can add that to your bucket list. With a cold morning breaking the 6600 ft. elevation, we got back on the road and drove into Silver City. Now, it was Monday at this point, which normally seems like a business as usual kinda day, but not for this town. Chock full of artist studios and showrooms, this quirky little place appeared to be more of a weekend hotspot. Most signs in the windows showed shops being open Saturday and Sunday and then usually another random weekday. It was a drag that we couldn’t visit many places but it was still a cool place to walk around and peek in the windows. At one point, there was even a priest, a biker and a cowboy chatting in front of an herb store – there has to be a joke in there somewhere… Despite the sleepy demeanor, Silver City has lots of colourful buildings and street art that bring the town to life. Billy the Kid seemed to be a popular motif, as New Mexico was his stomping ground. If we ever pass through again, we’ll make sure it’s on a weekend to catch all the action.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Silver City
Lots of really cool buildings in Silver City. Most just admirable from the street since everything was closed!

From there, we headed east to Las Cruces. Before settling in for the work week, we explored the old Mesilla area a little bit. It had a really cool atmosphere filled with pueblo-style houses and skinny streets that didn’t make you feel like you were in America. The old timey feel was quickly lost when we ventured back into modern America’s love for box stores and supercenters. Can’t deny that stepping into a Walmart and being able to find pretty much anything you’ve ever known to exist is convenient, but I’d still take the character and history of Mesilla over the rest of Las Cruces any day.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Mesilla
Stopped at this cute little spot in Mesilla for a beer…or two

We stepped up our game and stayed at a boujie RV Park for the work week as some sort of a treat I guess? This place had a hot tub that could easily fit 20+ people and they even collected your trash at the curb (the staff, not the hot tub…that would be quite an invention though), but unfortunately what comes with fancy amenities are the fancy-ass people that own million dollar RVs. As bad of a wrap as RV Parks get from most van people, we’ve had such a wicked time meeting people in them and sharing stories. We see it for its sense of community but driving an ‘84 into a jungle of brand spanking new rigs created some sort of a separation. Maybe we were just taking it too personally but people wouldn’t even wave back when we walked or drove by. Granted there were a few times where I didn’t have my contacts in but I’m not so blind that I wouldn’t see an arm even slightly move up. That’s all I’m askin for!! Just a little gesture to acknowledge I exist instead of these elitist travellers just blankly staring. We, of course, didn’t let that ruin our time and just carried on being our dirtbag selves ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but full disclosure: the staff was lovely, it was just the crowd that sucked. We also got our first rainfall since being in Calgary, which was really refreshing and smelled oh so good.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Las Cruces RV
You get a cheaper rate if you park along the highway, sold! Keep those fancy people away!

Anxious to go back into non-judgmental nature (not bitter at all), we drove into the Organ Mountains to camp at Aguirre Springs the following night. This place was sick! You take this skinny little winding road into the mountains and pretty much at any given point, you can’t see where your next turn is going to lead. Even when we initially entered the park area, we had no idea where we’d be camping since it just appeared to be heavily forested with jagged mountains popping out of the top. There was something magical about this place that made it feel like a Disney movie; the sun glimmered on all the plants while tiny birds chirped away and butterflies perched on rocks. It was a magical drive that we were happy to make again when we realized we had driven the whole loop and were closing in on the exit, haha. We don’t usually pay for camping on non-work days but this beautiful park was only $3.50 since we have an annual parks pass (best investment btw) and was nicer than a lot of campgrounds we’ve paid $30+ for in Canada. With it being an actual campground comes a couple rules like having to arrive before the gate closes and…yea, that was pretty much it. It’s also all designated sites, not the usual dispersed camping, but each one had a covered picnic table gazebo thing, multiple fire rings, a cooking grill and there were bathrooms nearby. I sound like I work for the park but this was just such an awesome spot that if you’re ever in the area, you should check it out. It’s definitely not great for bigger rigs since the gravel parking pad section of the sites are pretty small but there are lots of cool spots for smaller campers and tents. Being so high up also made for a real big night sky and a view of the town of White Sands, which just looked like a small illuminated square from up there.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Aguirre Springs
How neat is this little set-up? Plenty of space for multiple campfires, dining and parking. Take all your friends down to New Mexico and do it up!

We were stoked to make some breakfast the next morning and head to the White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo. This place doubles as a missile range and has got all kinds of neighbouring military “stuff” that seemed like complete juxtaposition to this tranquil and picturesque place. As the name would imply, the sand is snow white and is that way because of its gypsum content. So why not make a ton of drywall? No! These sandy dunes are protected and are open for tourists to drive amongst and climb. We were a little unsure about how driving would be after the Quartzsite Quicksand Incident, but a friend told us that 4wd wasn’t necessary since there’s a hard, sand packed road that goes through the park and you’re not even allowed to drive on the sand dunes anyway. You can pretty much pull over anywhere and climb up a soft, sandy dune to get an awesome vantage point of the rolling hills that look uncannily like snow banks. Like snow, the sand was almost blindingly white from the sun’s glow (albedo effect whaddup) and people were even sliding down it on crazy carpets and toboggans. Basically this was all the fun of snow but minus the cold and wetness, beauty! This place was extremely cool and absolutely worth all of the sand that we shook off of our clothes for days after.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico White Sands
Just a lone speck in endless white sand

One thing these big open areas with lots of military presence create is…mystery. That was cheesy but for real, what’s going on at all these top-secret places that often just show up as blank areas on a map? Something the government doesn’t want us to know about and one of those things is ALIENS! Being in New Mexico, it was just a given that we were gonna go to Roswell. We knew it was going to be a little silly but that’s just part of the fun. However, our first bizarre experience began on the drive. Now, I’m not talking supernatural-bizarre, but we had no idea that our route would take us through the mountains and back into snow! Going from white sand desert to snow-covered spruce trees in a matter of hours was pretty trippy. I suppose we just didn’t look much into it, but neither of us had any idea that New Mexico was home to any skiing destinations at all. I’m now learning that the Ski Apache is, in fact, the southernmost ski destination in North America. As we ascended into Ruidoso, it became clear that it was a booming tourist town amongst the Sierra Blanca. When we were leaving White Sands, we saw a mountain that looked snow-capped but we dismissed it as just being some sky-high gypsum. Turns out it was the Sierra Blanca Peak and it was indeed, icy cold snow.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Organ Mountains
Oops! Didn’t take a photo of the snow. Here’s a shot of the Organ Mountains instead

We were dreading having to bundle up to socialize with some aliens but thankfully, the elevation returned to normal New Mexican heights and the warmer temperatures that come with it. We were greeted with a bunch of car dealerships and billboards for Italian restaurants when entering Roswell, but soon caught of glimpse of what we were lookin’ for, the UFO Museum. We went in with corny expectations and it delivered. Very info heavy but had its fair share of alien replicas (or were they just taxidermied?!?) and stories of sightings from around the globe. For those unaware of why Roswell is significant in the alien world, here is the ultra abridged story: a UFO reportedly crashed just outside of Roswell in 1947 and the man who reported it was threatened by the military to change his claim and everyone involved was sworn to secrecy when the evidence was replaced by a weather balloon. The museum had allegedly original transcripts and signed affidavits, which were the most interesting part to us. Make of it what you wish, but it’s still a fun/spooky/hilarious place to check out.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Roswell
Re-creation or taxidermy?!?!?!

To get away from all that hustle and bustle of alien town, we camped the night at Bottomless Lakes State Park. Being a state park, there was a small fee ($10 for primitive camping and $14 if you want hookups) but it was worth it for how beautiful the grounds were. After talking to the camp host, we opted to get away from the Lea Lake area, where all of the RVs and hookups are (even wifi), and find a more secluded spot by Pasture Lake. There are designated camping areas with picnic tables, garbage cans and vault toilets. We were the only ones amongst the large rocky cliffs that made for some nice quiet camping. The only thing making noise were the animals (raccoons I’d assume) rummaging through the garbage can devouring the mess left behind by whoever had stayed at this spot before us. The garbage cans were uncovered and these people left a bunch of celery and whipped cream for whatever reason and it was all over our site by morning. We collected as much as we could but it makes me wonder what kind of a weird party these folks were having. In any case, I’m sure the raccoons are well fed around here if that’s the norm.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Bottomless Lakes
Got a nice little spot all to ourselves

The following day we were able to explore the grounds a little bit more and take in how cool these little lakes are. They call them “bottomless” because they’re so full of vegetation that they take on rich turquoisey-green hues and appear to be very deep. They’re all sinkholes that aren’t connected to any rivers or streams and formed as a result of limestone caves collapsing – similar to the cenotes found around Mexico (shout out to anyone who’s ever done the Yucatán excursion to Ik Kil lol). One lake in particular, Mirror Lake, reminded me a lot of Emerald Lake in Yoho, BC. This lake was exceptionally cool because it was composed of two connected sinkholes, one with fresh water, which had a bunch of game fish, and one with salt water, which couldn’t support these fishies. They’re about 40’ deep but look like they go on forever.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Mirror Lake
Really hard to capture the colour of the water here but it was super rich and saturated, similar to lakes in BC and Alberta

All in all, New Mexico definitely surprised us in many ways. Their state slogan is “Land of Enchantment” so we’re ready to be enchanted again when we go through Albuquerque on our way back west and join in on the Breaking Bad tourism that has caused homeowners to build barricading fences around their houses (it was just one, but still).

  1. Joe (Park Ranger at Bottomless Lake is a Liar, I was told as we completed our duty in Alaska to call Joe about a month before arriving, well that is when his lie’s almost ruined our travel’s, He’s skating on Discrimination, just because he wanted to work us like slaves, I told him I could handle the campgrounds, on our emails he was ecstatic about us coming, but I couldn’t walk the trails and upkeep them, because of my hips, well when I called him a month ahead he would have a host site open, well that was a LIE!!! Sorry SOB ! New Mexico State Parke can Kiss My Butt !!!

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