Forks Campground, New Mexico

On July 24th we left Saddle Campground and headed west towards the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument. We had determined to stay in Scorpion Campground, a very unappealing campground inside the national monument, but found a pleasant alternative on our way called Forks Campground. We were excited for the adventures ahead, but the late date in July and heading west meant our trip was nearing its conclusion.

We had heard that sliding down the dunes at the White Sands National Monument on snow sleds was fun. Surprisingly, we didn’t happen to bring our sleds with us on our July vacation. We stopped in Alamogordo, New Mexico and believe it or not the Walmart there carries snow discs all year round for nuts like us. We purchased three and headed to White Sands.

We arrived at the dunes about 11am and the day was hot already, about 90 degrees. However, the sand here is made of gypsum rather than silica and stays cool to the touch in spite of the temperature and sunlight. The sand packs well, but is soft to the touch. We had fun sliding down the hills, watching the dog dig holes and simply taking in the views. If I were to do this again I would arrive at 8am or 9am and enjoy the cooler hours. We have also heard the sunsets are stunning.

From White Sands we continued west towards the cliff dwellings. We drove to Silver City, New Mexico and then headed north through Pinos Altos. The road from there to the campground was crazy. It was 16 miles of reasonably steep, but amazingly twisty road. Signs indicate that the road is for two way traffic, but too narrow for a center line. The signs indicating an upcoming switchback were u-turn signs. There were several switchbacks where we had to take the entire road and hope there was no oncoming traffic. We came around one of these and there was a Prius with two women in the front seats and they looked scared to death. We later learned that approaching more from the east is a much easier drive, but not nearly as fun.

After the road became wider, straighter, and flatter we found Forks Campground. It’s a big rather primitive free campground where each site has a fire pit, but no table. It was completely deserted and perfect for us, and much better than where we were headed. We took a pull-through spot near, but above the river with a great view of the cliffs to the east.

We setup camp and then headed north towards the Gila Hot Springs Campground. This is a private campground with only a few sites and poor access for any trailer over about 20′. However, for $5 a person you can soak in the hot spring water. The owners have created three natural looking pools on the shore of the river that they pump hot spring water into. Some of the pools have sunshades over them, while others have clear views of the night sky. The pools were clean, clear and about 102 degrees or so. These were a fun discovery!

The next morning we again travelled north, but this time to the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument. We looked through the visitors center and then took the short hike to the cliff dwellings. The volunteers at the dwellings were informative and fun to talk to. Our son was excited that they knew something about the local lizards that he caught on the way up the trail.

After our hike wetook a drive in search of diesel for our truck. We ended up having to drive one hour down the canyon before we found a station. By this time the 36 gallon tank was nearly empty. We put just over 35 gallons in the tank and were thankful we didn’t wait any longer. We were low on fuel when we started up the canyon the night before, but decided to take a chance. Bad idea! Lesson learned, before heading up the last stretch of road before camping, GET FUEL!

With the truck full of fuel we headed back to camp. We filled our water toys, tube, etc. and head down to the river. The river was wonderfully warm and had great pools to play in. We floated down baby rapids and had a great afternoon.

After dinner that evening we made a fun discovery. We were sitting out under the stars and for some reason I turned on my flashlight and pointed it upwards. This attracted insects into the cone of light which in turn attracted bats. It was very fun to see bats in flight, up close, feeding and illuminated. I’m looking forward to trying this on future trips.

The next morning we awoke, packed, ate breakfast and headed south and then west to the Sedona, Arizona area. While we had many great experiences on this trip, I think the Gila National Forest area was my favorite because it had points of interest, a nice campground, the weather was great and there were no crowds anywhere. I’d love to come back to this area.

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Saddle Campground, New Mexico

On July 23, 2017 we arrived at Saddle Campground near Cloudcroft, New Mexico. This was one of our few one night stays, but we wanted to get back to high altitude, where it is cooler, and begin our journey west towards home. We didn’t have mixed feelings about turning towards home, we simply wanted to keep traveling.

While heading up towards Cloudcroft, road signs repeatedly warned us about steep canyon roads and the difficulty they pose for trucks. Our experience was that New Mexico over warns motorists, but I guess it is better to be safe than sorry.

Saddle Campground is at 9000 feet and when we pulled in a thunderstorm was brewing. We leveled the trailer and left it connected to the truck. I always use the front trailer jack to lift the truck and trailer to simplify the sway bar connection, but I had never done it to level the trailer for an overnight stay with the truck attached. It seemed to work great with no noticeable degradation to the jack.

I started a fire so we could cook brats for dinner before the heavy rain came. We cooked and ate watching lightning and listening to the thunder rumble its way up the mountains and through the canyons. Not much rain fell and we enjoyed a nice cool evening. The campground was sparsely populated and the sites were reasonably well spaced. There were plenty of trees for shade and beauty. Our site was a pull through that had a nice table and fire ring just down the hill. It seemed like a great place with much to offer in the area. We plan to return someday.

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Carlsbad RV Park and Campground, New Mexico

On July 20, 2017 we arrived at Carlsbad RV Park and Campground in Carlsbad, New Meexico. We arrived in time to check-in, park, hookup, and cook dinner. It seems funny calling parking with 100 other RVs hooked up to utilities camping, but it’s as close to camping as it comes near Carlsbad Caverns.

While the RV park sort of setting is not my idea of a great camping experience, the Carlsbad RV Park and Campground was clean, the staff was helpful and friendly, the pool was refreshing, the dog run was acceptable, and the park was quiet. It made for a good base of operations to see what we came here to see, the caves.

The next morning we rose early and left the trailer at about 7:30am to get to Carlsbad Caverns early enough to make our reserved cave tour at 8:15. While in Colorado we made reservations for a tour of King’s Palace. We would have loved to tour other parts of the cave, but other reservable tours were full. In addition, several of the other more strenuous tours require participants to be 12 years old or older. We’ll come back.

When we arrived at the park I took a look at my watch and was very unhappy that we had missed our tour time due to a time zone change. My phone confirmed the time. We went into the visitors center to see what could be done. It turns out that while we were in New Mexico we were up high on a plateau overlooking Texas to the south. My phone, and therefore my watch were getting their time information from a Texas cell tower broadcasting central time. We were early and happy!

From within the visitors center we took the elevator down about 800 feet and joined our tour group. The tour of King’s Palace was about 1.5 hours long, was interesting and quite beautiful. These caves were formed differently than others we’ve been in and learning about the process was interesting.

After our tour of King’s Palace we took the self guided tour of The Big Room. It was easy to get to because it’s simply another path leading out from the cafeteria / gift shop area 800 feet below the surface. The Big Room is well named, it is huge having an area equal to that of 14 football fields. The trail around the room is smooth, easily traversed and has many signs yielding information. The decorations are quite spectacular and when you take into account the sheer number of them, it is quite amazing. The trip around The Big Room took us about 1.5 hours, but that included several stops for pictures and to admire the handy work of God.

After our tour of The Big Room, we got in the five minute line for the elevator back to the surface. We were glad to have done this early in the morning because evidently later in the day the wait for an elevator can be as long as two hours.

At the surface we shopped at the gift shop and headed back to Carlsbad for lunch at Angie’s Mexican Restaurant and a peaceful afternoon.

On July 22nd we returned to Carlsbad Caverns and hiked down the Natural Entrance. We had been told that this is difficult, hot and a tough hike. It took us just 50 minutes and was none of the above. It was easy, but frankly less interesting than the other two tours. It was fun and worth doing, but not as decorated as the other parts of the cave. As you continue down you make the transition from full sunlight, to a partially lit area to complete darkness. Amazing to think that someone long ago found this entrance and struggled through the darkness to map a considerable amount of the known cave.

If we had this to do over again we would do things a bit differently. We would reserve more guided tours, but we would also do what we did in a different order. We would enter the Natural Entrance at 8:30 when it opens and walk down for the King’s Palace tour at 10am. After the King’s Palace tour we would walk around The Big Room and take the elevator back to the surface. This would give you a great sense of the cave in one day. It also allows you to enjoy the Natural Entrance without comparing it to other more spectacular parts of the cave. In addition, the guided tour before The Big Room would help you appreciate it even more.

At dusk we sat in the amphitheater and watched the bats emerge from the cave. It is interesting how they come out and circle in the entrance as they climb. When they reach the top of this “bat vortex” the leaders head south while more bats join the vortex at the bottom. This continues for 30-45 minutes until they’re all gone. Nice experience.

On Sunday July 23rd we attended the Carlsbad Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was nice to worship with the saints in Carlsbad. After church we hooked up the trailer and headed north to Roswell, New Mexico to see the International UFO Museum and Research Center. We knew we were nearing the museum when we saw aliens. 

One must visit the museum if you’re driving through Roswell, but I wouldn’t go out of my way again to see it. In fact, I wouldn’t cross the road to see it even if I found myself in Roswell again. The name alone is a stretch, but after you enter and pay your fine for being dumb enough to enter you’ll see nothing more than what you’ve seen on TV, in the movies or on the cover of the National Enquirer.

Having not been abducted by aliens we decided to drive west from Roswell towards Cloudcroft, New Mexico. We figured a trip back to 9000 feet would be cool and refreshing.

Along our path we came across the Tom and Pam Runyan Ranch. This is simply a family run petting zoo, fish farm and market on the side of the road. We stopped and petted animals, admired the huge trout in the ponds and bought a few edibles. I think we would have fished in their ponds, but you had to keep what you catch and we were on the road. It was everything I could do to keep my wife from grabbing those beautiful big trout. This was a beautiful spot that made the pain of the UFO museum fade and made the remainder of the day better.

We continued west towards Cloudcroft and arrived at Saddle Campground in the late afternoon. We had time to get settled in and then watched a thunderstorm blow through. It was cool enough to wear a light jacket and that was awesome!

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Agua Piedra Campground, New Mexico

On July 18, 2017 we left South Meadows Campground at about 8:30 in the morning and headed south to Agua Piedra Campground, located in northern New Mexico. This stretch took us about 4.5 hours.

The Agua Piedra Campground is located off of Highway 518. You enter the campground by crossing over a small bridge that crosses the Pueblo Rio. There are three main areas for camping. The first area is where the camp host and administrator, whatever that is, camp and was quite full of RVs parked pretty close together. The next portion of the campground is made up of two loops, A and B. Loop A is closer to the Agua Piedra Creek and is reasonable for RVs. Loop B is up a fairly steep hill, the sites have small pull-ins, and is best for tent campers. We chose site 25 in loop A because it was large enough, easy to back the trailer into and away from others. The site was right on the creek and had a very nice fire pit and table setup. There was also a water spigot just to the east of our site.

My wife and I setup the trailer, got our son comfortably situated and went fishing. On the Agua Piedra Creek my wife caught several two inch fish, but all I caught was some shrubs, bushes, tree limbs, etc. She nearly always out fishes me! We followed the creek down to its confluence with the Pueblo Rio and then walked up this larger stream. There were many beautiful holes and we each caught several reasonable fish.

The next morning we arose and travelled to New Mexico River Adventures near Dixon, New Mexico on Highway 68. There were quite a few people at the meeting place, but the three of us ended up on a raft with our guide, Cody, and a former guide, Karen, along for the ride. Cody was great and Karen was crazy in a fun way. The river wasn’t high, but the rapids were still fun and just the right size for our skill level. The Rio Grande was warm and comfortable to swim in. We’re use to cold Utah rivers and were pleasantly surprised when we were invited to swim and found it surprisingly enjoyable despite its color.

Along the way we stopped on the shore and had a snack / lunch consisting of watermelon, chips, salsa and Oreos. The salsa was great and the chips really hit the spot.

While we’re away from the trailer on adventures like river rafting, visiting national parks, etc. we put our dog, Leo, in a kennel in the trailer. We ensure the day will be cool, open windows, etc. to keep him comfortable and safe . While he’s not a big fan of being caged up, we figure its better than returning to find screens torn, furniture ruined or doors scratched. He seems to do just fine.

After our river rafting experience we returned to the campground, our son watched movies in the trailer and we went fishing on the Pueblo Rio from the campground bridge upstream. We caught many Rainbow Trout between 12 and 14 inches in length. We were using our Euro Nymphing rods and some olive green colored nymphs. It was great fun.

The next morning we travelled to Taos, New Mexico. Everything in the town is constructed and decorated to look like a pueblo. This includes small stores, houses, churches, etc. Even the large Smith’s grocery store follows the style. It actually all works well because they strictly keep to the look. It’s clearly a tourist sort of shopping mecca, but was fun.

Our primary purpose for visiting Taos was to see and explore the Taos Pueblo. The Taos Pueblo is an area of Taos where the original Taos Pueblo people settled and where they still live in much the same way they did more than a thousand years ago. Some of the Pueblos are over 1100 years old and people still live in them. They don’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, but because of cell service they have Internet connectivity. While we were there they were performing maintenance on the church. They were simply mixing the local dirt with water to make mud, included some straw, and smeared it over the existing structure where there were cracks. It was interesting watching their technique. From the appearance of the dirt street in the vicinity, the mud they put on the buildings regularly erodes away with rain and wind.

We took a guided tour, enjoyed learning about their unwritten language, enjoyed some of their food and bought a few souvenirs. Our son purchased a dreamcatcher and asked for a picture of it with its creator. It is now proudly displayed in his room and stretches from nearly the ceiling to the floor.

After Taos we headed back up the canyon to our trailer. We put everything away, hooked up the trailer and left at about 12:30 for our next stop, Carlsbad, New Mexico. As we headed to Carlsbad we saw a scene that seemed to repeat each time we headed to a new location. In the direction we needed to travel there was a thunderstorm on the horizon. The weather was quite good for most of our trip, but it was as if we were guided, we simply had to follow the dark clouds.

As we drove south through New Mexico I started to realize there was absolutely nothing to see between Las Vegas, New Mexico and Carlsbad. It is amazingly flat, arid, and boring.

We arrived at the Carlsbad RV Park and Campground at about 7pm. We pulled in, hooked up to the utilities, and started the AC. We didn’t turn the AC off until we left three days later. We were excited to visit Carlsbad Cavern National Park.

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5 States, 31 Nights, and 4200 Miles

On June 29th, 2017 our family of three hitched up our trailer and took off on an adventure. We travelled to 5 states, camped for 31 nights and put 4200 miles of road behind us. My wife and I thought it was great and our 11 year old son thought it was “good”. However, I view a “good” rating from him as a positive sign. It means he liked many of our activities and likes us, both good things!

We travelled to Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. We learned a few things along the way:

  1. We’re glad we didn’t select a trailer larger than the one we did, 27′. Small trailers have fewer campground limitations, they’re easier to pull up steep mountain passes with tight switchbacks, and into and out of tight gas stations. When we buy another trailer, we’ll purchase the smallest one we can be comfortable in.
  2. We love having a solar panel on our trailer and are now glad we purchased only one. When the sun is out, the one panel fully recharges the batteries by early afternoon. For fall or winter camping another panel would be nice, but the cost of a second panel is equivalent to the cost of a generator, which is mandatory even in the summer when you might experience multiple days of cloud cover. One solar panel means you’ll seldom need the generator, but when you do you have one.
  3. While camping in a trailer you have several scarce resources: electricity, propane, fresh water, and limited holding tank capacity. With a solar panel and backup generator electricity is not very scarce. In the summer propane seems to last forever. Our trailer has two 30 pound tanks that hold 7 gallons of propane each. In 31 days of camping we went through both bottles. We have an 80 gallon fresh water tank and it lasts three of us nearly a week. Our experience has been that the gray water holding tank is the most limited resource. Nearly all of the fresh water we use goes straight down the sink and shower drains and fills this 40 gallon tank in 4 or 5 days. We could of course be more conservative, but …
  4. We chose to purchase two 2kW Honda generators that can be connected in parallel to generate enough power to run everything in the trailer, including the air conditioner.  One of these generators is sufficient to run everything but the AC and we never used both on our adventure. We did connect one of them periodically to watch a movie or play a video game on the large TV. The generator was quiet enough that we locked it to the front of the trailer and it never bothered us inside. While we chose the Honda, I later found that Costco offers a very similar Yamaha generator for half the price; I should have looked!
  5. We’re glad we chose a trailer over a 5th wheel because I really utilized the bed of our truck for extra water, fuel for the generators, firewood, etc. I’m sure we would have loved a 5th wheel, but any fear we had about towing a trailer has dissipated.

When we left we had some trepidation about traveling in New Mexico and Arizona in July. However, both states have significant mountains and associated national forests. We stayed above 5000′ in elevation nearly all of the time and enjoyed reasonable temperatures, seldom if ever exceeding 80 degrees. The one exception was our three day stay in Carlsbad, New Mexico. While there we chose to stay at the Carlsbad RV Park and Campground, and while this isn’t our idea of camping, the facilities were clean, the staff was friendly and helpful, the pool was simple and refreshing, and most importantly we had electric hookups that allowed us to run the AC nearly 24 hours a day.

Our adventure was amazingly fun and relaxing. As we headed home on the last day we passed the I-70 East ramp and I just wanted to take it and continue our summer fun. The next few posts will describe each of the places we camped and the fun things we found to do there.