White Sands and Great Dunes

It’s a rainy day in southwest Colorado, so we’ve settled inside a mellow coffee shop (Spruce Tree Espresso) to warm up and recover from three days of hiking. As I’m still finding sand every time I step into the car, it’s a perfect time to recount our adventures within and between two great parks: White Sands National Monument (New Mexico), and Great Sand Dunes National Park (Colorado).

White Sands, New Mexico
White Sands, New Mexico

…But first, after Carlsbad Caverns we made a little side trip to the Guadalupe Mountains, which contain the highest peak in Texas (not difficult to achieve, actually). We didn’t hike to the peak because we were sore from the day before, but we went along an interesting trail called “Devil’s Hall”, which seemed like an absurd designation until we reached the end.

Guadalupe Mountains, Texas
Guadalupe Mountains, Texas
Devil's Hall, Guadalupe Mountains
Devil’s Hall, Guadalupe Mountains
Where have you led us, Satan?
Where have you led us, Satan?

Anyway…We did escape with our lives, and started heading up to the Alamogordo KOA so that we would be able to visit White Sands in the morning. The drive through Lincoln National Forest (birthplace of Smokey Bear!) and the cozy town of Cloudcroft was so beautiful that we later returned for a short hike on the Osha Trail. White Sands was a surreal, peaceful experience, although we only stayed for a couple hours because of the heat and the somewhat static views.

The Edge of the Dunes
The Edge of the Dunes
White Sands with the San Andres Mountains in the background
White Sands and the San Andres Mountains

A large area surrounding the park comprises the White Sands Missile Range, where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945. The facility only offers tours twice a year, though, so we missed our chance to see it up close.

Our next stop in New Mexico was its largest city, Albuquerque. We were a bit burnt out at this point and didn’t really do any sight-seeing…besides the inside of a Barnes & Noble…but the Sandia Mountains are a beautiful backdrop to the city, and we were very tempted to hike to one of the peaks!

We also passed through Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, and spent some time walking around the Plaza, known as “the Heart of Santa Fe”. The square has a rich history, including being found at both the end of the Santa Fe Trail and the El Camino Real (the Spanish Royal Road). Here we stopped to admire the Palace of the Governors (the oldest public building in the U.S.) and the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. Almost all of the buildings in Santa Fe are made in a traditional adobe style, which is pretty cool!

Cathedral Basilica of Francis of Assisi
Cathedral Basilica of Francis of Assisi

At my request, we also stopped by the Jean Cocteau Cinema, which is owned by George R.R. Martin (author of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and one of the coolest people ever). Unfortunately, the place was closed for Labor Day, so we couldn’t actually watch a movie or a…Game of Thrones Burlesque Show, which is really a thing.

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Jean Cocteau Cinema

I still feel a bit bad about this, but there is a TON of cool stuff (natural and historical-wise) in the surrounding area of Santa Fe that we missed, but we were starting to worry about time and priorities…so we left the city and drove straight up to Alamosa, Colorado, only stopping for one short hike on the Dale Ball Trail in the Santa Fe foothills.

We ended up hanging around the Alamosa KOA (which is 1/2 hour from the Great Sand Dunes) for two days just acclimating to the high altitude. We also had to get used to the cycle of hot days and freezing nights, which is very different from New Mexico!

When we finally got over to Great Sand Dunes National Park, we were stunned. The dunes seemed almost as tall as the Sangre de Cristo mountains surrounding them, and it took us over an hour to climb to the highest one. We also made one of the best financial decisions of our collective life: we rented sandboards!

Matthew with his sandboard
Matthew with his sandboard

I ended up freaking out and just using mine as a sled, but that was definitely just as cool and did not at all make me lame, Matt.

Look how small the people are!
Look how small the people are!
The view from High Dune
The view from High Dune

We climbed to High Dune, which is about 700 feet tall and provides a great view of the entire park. The hike was one of the most difficult I’ve attempted, as it feels very like trying to climb a vertical beach. Still, the view was worth it, and we sandboarded/sledded all the way down. In summary, both dunefields were beautiful and worth visiting, but the Great Sand Dunes were by far more giant, majestic, and fun!

That’s all for now (although now we’re all the way in Moab, Utah…)! I miss you all, especially this one…

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TLDR: Go Visit Carlsbad Caverns!

Oh, boy. I feel like this blog is never going to catch up with me. There’s just never enough time, or enough service! In an effort to brings things into the present day, I’m going to have to speed through some bits – but that’s okay, because up until now (we’re in New Mexico) everything has felt a little too familiar.¬† One of the reasons that Matthew and I were excited for this trip was because we wanted to feel out of our element, and it wasn’t until we arrived in Carlsbad that we began feeling uncomfortable (in a good way!). The first inkling of this was a run-in with two black widow spiders…but I’m getting ahead of myself!

After hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, our plan had been to head up to Nashville for a couple days, and visit Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The trip was pretty out of the way for our general route, and we ultimately decided that neither of us had even the slightest interest in country music, and we’d both be willing to sacrifice the cave. Instead, onward to Atlanta – for the sole purpose of seeing whale sharks!

We did get sidetracked for a few days of camping at Lake Lanier in Georgia, which was beautiful even though we had to fight off yellow jackets every time we had a meal…

When we finally got to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, we were happy to discover that we practically had it to ourselves since it was a weekday morning. We took our time visiting the otters, beluga whales, penguins, leafy seadragons, and an albino alligator, and we saved the whale sharks for last. The whale sharks are kept in the largest tank in the western hemisphere, along with a couple of gorgeous manta rays.

Albino Alligator
Albino Alligator
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Watching Whale Sharks
Matt the Whale Sharks
Matt with the Whale Sharks

After that we got the hell out of Atlanta.

We didn’t really care about much between Georgia and Texas, as we were always planning on spending the bulk of our trip exploring the West. We drove right through Alabama and Mississippi, and spent less than 24 hours in New Orleans. It didn’t take long to realize that the French Quarter wasn’t exactly our scene, although it was an amusing place to walk around. We had some drinks at Attiki bar, went to a free comedy show at the House of Blues, which featured both hilariously funny and embarrassingly bad acts, and ended the night by floating through the “debauchery” of Bourbon Street to get back to our hotel. It was pretty cool to find out that President Obama was there (it was the 10th anniversary of Katrina) although we didn’t know until we had already left…

Jackson Square, New Orleans
Jackson Square, New Orleans

The drive to San Antonio, Texas, was a long one, and I made the mistake of demanding that we stop at Whataburger because you’re supposed to, or something. The woman behind the counter seemed to be speaking in a foreign language (“mustard all the way”?) and the burger itself was pretty disgusting. I felt gross for days. Sorry, Texas!

San Antonio itself was a pretty cute city, although it did seem a bit quiet (sometimes a good thing!)…Also, they have the best KOA! We have been to five of them previously, so I am obviously an expert. The staff is incredibly friendly, bathrooms are right by the tents, and their pool is constantly the perfect temperature. Anyway, we visited four Spanish missions, including the Alamo, but my personal favorite was the Mission San Juan.

Mission San Juan, San Antonio
Mission San Juan, San Antonio
Matthew at Mission San Juan
Matthew at Mission San Juan

We also took some time to traverse the San Antonio River Walk, which is lined with restaurants, shops, cypress trees, flowers…and even contains the Arneson River Theater, with the seats on one side of the river and the stage on the other. The adorable village right behind the theater, La Villita, is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and is mainly occupied by art galleries and restaurants.

San Antonio River Walk
San Antonio River Walk
San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio
San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio
Arneson River Theater
Arneson River Theater

When we were finally able to say goodbye to the pool, and the lovely Barnes & Noble nearby, we left for Austin.

We actually only spent about 2 hours in Austin, as we realized we were getting impatient to see mountains again. So, we walked around Zilker Park, had lunch at Counter Culture, and were on our way. It seemed like a pretty cool city though, maybe one day we’ll return! We ended up driving to the Fredericksburg KOA to settle down for the night, after an hour of trying to escape the highway hellscape that surrounds Austin.

Lady Bird Lake, Austin
Lady Bird Lake, Austin
Zilker Park, Austin
Zilker Park, Austin

Fredericksburg looked cool too, but we had priorities! We woke up, had breakfast at the City Cafe, and left for Carlsbad, New Mexico, where we stayed at yet another great KOA. We arrived pretty late in the evening, and almost immediately discovered three huge spiders at our tent site, two of which were black widows. I feel bad saying that they were done away with, but what would you have done? ūüė¶

We spent the next half hour or so just wandering around, marveling at all the strange insects that we had never seen before. Enlightened (and a little bit frightened) we went to bed, and had barely closed our eyes when a long howl erupted right outside of our tent. What commenced could only be what I assume was a skirmish between two furious, yelping packs of coyotes. I nearly chickened out and decided to sleep in the car, but they quieted down pretty quickly. New Mexico is most definitely a wild place!

In the morning we drove down to one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen: Carlsbad Caverns. We had both been to Luray Caverns in Virginia before, but there was just no comparison. These caves were enormous! We walked down the natural entrance (there is an elevator that takes you straight down, but what fun is that?) which takes about an hour and a half, and I expected to run into a Balrog around each corner. When we finally arrived at the bottom (750 feet down), there was a cafe, souvenirs, and pristine bathrooms. What a world we live in…

“Whale’s Mouth” in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

We first took a ranger-guided tour through the King’s Palace, which was blocked to the general public because visitors had been throwing apples at the stalactites to break off pieces to take home with them – seriously? What is wrong with people? The ranger took us into one room where he told us a story about the mythical “hodag” right before turning off all the lights. He then told us to wave a hand in front of our faces, and many of us thought that we saw it, even though he explained that our brains were just confused and creating an illusion. Pretty cool!

When we were done with our tour, we explored the Big Room, which is 8.2 acres in size, and the largest cave chamber by volume in North America. I couldn’t really capture any pictures that accurately represented this place – you’ll have to go yourself!

Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns

After we had hiked around the caverns for a few hours, we reemerged on the surface beneath the sun and walked along a nature trail in the desert hills above the caverns. As dusk approached, we found seats at the amphitheater facing the cave entrance and waited for the nightly exodus of hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats.

Nature Trail in the Chihuahuan Desert
Nature Trail in the Chihuahuan Desert
Carlsbad Caverns Amphitheater
Carlsbad Caverns Amphitheater

We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the actual flight, but it was one of the coolest things I have ever seen! We didn’t even stay until the end because they were still pouring out of the cave by the thousands after 45 minutes. Without question, our day at the caverns was one of the best we had had since we left New Jersey.

Stay tuned for¬†the Guadalupe Mountains and the White Sands National Monument…I’m almost caught up!

Blue Ridge Parkway, Part 2!

Apologies for the late update: My excuses range from heat exhaustion to lack of wifi, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m writing now, in an air-conditioned library in San Antonio, Texas!

The last place I had mentioned us visiting was Asheville, North Carolina, which is apparently touted as the “Portland of the South”. I don’t deny a similar cultural vibe, yet something felt off. Maybe it was because the “hippyness” of the area seemed almost too literal, like we were walking through a giant East-meets-West store. Anyway, we didn’t stay too long, because we were eager to see more mountains! Our last stop before bee-lining for the Great Smokies was to Mount Mitchell State Park, home of the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River. Yes, it’s even taller than Mount Washington…although you can drive to the top of both of them. And you can see for miles when you get to the observation deck…

Mount Mitchell
Mount Mitchell

See?

It looked nothing like the bonsai tree replica we had seen at the Arboretum in Asheville.

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Unsatisfied, we decided to hike along the ridge to the next-highest peak east of the Mississippi, Mount Craig.

Mount Craig
Mount Craig

This hike, called the Deep Gap trail, felt almost like a fairy tale. The path looked like the sort of thing you’d take to reach an elven prophet, or something.

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Although when we got to the top, it was pretty¬†much the same thing…

Matthew at Mt. Craig
Matthew at Mt. Craig
Me at Mt. Craig
Me at Mt. Craig

We decided to wait it out and get some reading done (I was reading Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, which I highly recommend!) and this is how we were rewarded:

View from Mt. Craig
View from Mt. Craig

At this point we were worried we were going to burn ourselves out before even getting to the Great Smoky Mountains, so we drove over to Tennessee to a town we knew absolutely nothing about, Gatlinburg. This mountain resort town was not at all the kind of place we were expecting to find right next to an ocean of wilderness, but we did have a good time walking around and seeing all the old-timey rides and museums. Ripley’s-believe-it-or-not seems to own half the town! Dolly Parton actually owns a good deal of the attractions in the next town over, Pigeon Forge, where we stayed at a KOA for a few days. If it weren’t for the fact that we still had lots of traveling ahead of us, we could have spent hundreds of dollars on oddities like lumberjack feuds, indoor skydiving, and a goat-themed roller coaster. Instead, we just walked around and laughed at stuff.

Titanic Museum, Pigeon Forge
Titanic Museum, Pigeon Forge
Biblical Times Dinner Theater, Pigeon Forge
Biblical Times Dinner Theater, Pigeon Forge
Duck Dynasty Santa at the Christmas Place, Pigeon Forge
Duck Dynasty Santa at the Christmas Place, Pigeon Forge
Goats on a roof in front of Hatfield & McCoy, Pigeon Forge
Goats on a roof in front of Hatfield & McCoy, Pigeon Forge
A charming street in Gatlinburg
A charming street in Gatlinburg
Symphony Park in Gatlinburg
Symphony Park in Gatlinburg

Alright, alright, let’s get to the hiking! The Great Smoky Mountains were probably the most beautiful ones I have seen so far, although the White Mountains in New Hampshire came close. Just look at them!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as seen from the parking lot at Clingman's Dome
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as seen from the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome

We started out slow by hiking to Laurel Falls, which was a popular enough trail for it to feel like you were walking through a mall where everyone felt they had to greet each other. Which was kind of nice. I had been a bit nervous about bears, as this park is known for having a greater concentration of black bears than any other area, and they aren’t lying. We (and twenty other people) spotted a mother and 3 cubs after walking for less than ten minutes along the trail. I don’t have pictures because they were kind of hiding, but they were sooo adorable! Yet we didn’t see any other bears after that. The waterfall itself wasn’t actually that impressive, I don’t think I even took a picture of it…

The hike to Laurel Falls
The hike to Laurel Falls

We also drove to a parking lot where you could hike up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park, in about 15 minutes. Which is so worth the view:

View from Clingman's Dome
View from Clingman’s Dome

They never get old!

The A.T. goes right through here, so we decided to take a short hike along it. Along the way, I found a bear spray canister which had been partly used and left in the grass, so I took it with us to show to a ranger. They were¬†very grateful – apparently a little boy had found it earlier and sprayed himself in the face with it accidentally, and the parents had just left it there! Some residue was still on the outside of the container, which ended up all over my hands and face. So yeah, I’ll never do that again.

Along the A.T.
Along the A.T.

My favorite hike that we did at the park was called “Chimney Tops”. They looked exactly how they sound, and we had to leave our backpacks at the bottom to basically rock climb up to the view.

Chimney Tops
Chimney Tops

We definitely wanted to get more hiking done than we did, but my legs were beginning to feel like cornstalks and the views were all starting to kind of run together. I would love to return there someday and finish what we started!

In the interest of my own sanity, I’m going to take a break to go for a swim. Stay tuned to hear about our multifarious adventures between Blue Ridge and Texas, because the South sure is a hoot! Well, not really. It was kind of boring.

Blue Ridge Parkway

As promised to several friends & family members, I’ve set up this blog to recount some of the whimsical adventures that Matthew and I (Melsey – coined by the Abbott/Cooper clan) are sure to experience during our extended road trip through the United States. I miss you all already and wish that we could have packed at least one of you into the back of the car, but that would have compromised the space we had saved for our bongo drums. Anyway – enjoy!

After a grueling process of last-minute paperwork, packing, and car trouble (not to mention weeks of purging our possessions) we finally jumped on 78W on Thursday afternoon and got the hell out of New Jersey. Since then we have…

Visited the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia (we almost drove past it, until Matt got curious and found out that you can drive your own golf cart between exhibits)…

1700s West Africa
1700s West Africa
Matt demanding attention in the 'Man Cave'
Matt demanding attention in the ‘Man Cave’
1600s England
1600s England

Hiked up to an amazing view of the George Washington National Forest – and watched a group of men write “Will You Marry Me?” with chalk on the cliff face (Aww!)…

Humpback Rocks, Northern End of the Blue Ridge Parkway
Humpback Rocks, Northern End of the Blue Ridge Parkway

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Climbed up to an amazing 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains…

Spy Rock, Montebello (Part of the Appalachian Trail)
Spy Rock, Montebello (Part of the Appalachian Trail)

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And settled down for a few days in Asheville, where we attended Vegan Fest (Matthew was over the moon), walked around a beautiful downtown shopping area, and drank coffee on a double decker bus. I also got to freak out a little bit when I found out that the Hunger Games movies were filmed in the surrounding parks! We’ll see if we have time to visit any of the specific locations, although I’m the only one enthusiastic about the idea.

Double D's Coffee & Desserts, Asheville, North Carolina
Double D’s Coffee & Desserts, Asheville, North Carolina
Top Level of Double D's
Top Level of Double D’s

Hopefully I’ll have time to go into more details next time, but for now this will have to do. We’re off to go biking around the North Carolina Arboretum today – love you all!

Kelsey