City of Rocks State Park

Faywood, New Mexico – January 8, 2023

One day – I think it was a Tuesday but I could definitely be wrong – about 35 million years ago, a volcano began erupting in what is now southwestern New Mexico.

Somewhat later, on January 8, 2023, Nancy, Gunther and I visited City of Rocks State Park, located about 20 miles south of the caldera that produced the eruptions. The pumice and other rocks produced by the volcano’s eruptions 35 million years ago form the main feature of the state park, which also has a number of interconnected hiking trails, developed campsites, a botanic garden, and even an astronomical observatory.

We’d planned to visit he park, which is located halfway between Deming and Silver City, New Mexico, just a few miles east of U.S. Route 180, several times in 2021 and 2022 when we were camping in Deming and Silver City. However, the 35 mile-per-hour winds each of those days convinced us to find something else to do. The morning of January 8 was bright and calm, and we made the short trip to the state park. We’re all glad that we did.

You’ll find plenty of prickly pear cactus at City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico, along with a wide variety of other plants. In the background, a vehicle provides a sense of scale for the namesake rocks near the park’s visitor center.

The park, at an elevation of just over 5,200 feet, gets its name from several tall outcroppings of rock that have eroded over the past 35 million years into pinnacles and other formations, separated by lanes that resemble city streets between tall buildings.

Here we see an amateur geologist, with her professional dog, on one of the park’s trails. They appear to be in disagreement about which direction to proceed. The park has about five miles of trails, some of which wind directly through the rock formations. Many of the pinnacles are 40 feet tall.

Paths between the rocks can get pretty tight. During the main phase of the volcano’s eruption, more than 240 cubic miles – about twice the volume of Lake Erie – of pumice and ash were ejected. This eruption also resulted in the “Kneeling Nun” formation east of present-day Silver City, 20 miles to the north. The pointed mountain seen between the two rocks is Cookes Peak (elev. 8,408 feet), a significant landmark in southwestern New Mexico. The mountain is directly north of the city of Deming.

The volcanic eruption that formed the formations of City of Rocks likely lasted several years and was about a thousand times larger than the Mt. St. Helens event in Washington on May 18, 1980. The eruption blanketed this area in a deep layer of hot ash and pumice. As those volcanic materials cooled into a rock called tuff, it shrank somewhat and vertical cracks in the stone were created.

They still haven’t agreed on a direction in which to hike. The park has a huge variety of succulents, like the soaptree yucca at the left of the trail, as well as many grasses common to the southwestern United States.

Over the last several tens of millions of years, the erosive forces of nature – water, wind, and organic growth – broadened the small fissures between the rocks into larger and larger crevices until the natural pathways seen today were created.

Now they’re both headed the same direction. The amateur geologist is standing in a crevice that is a conduit for water flowing through the rock formation. It’s that water, which carries abrasives like sand, that helped carve the rocks into the shapes we see today. Other contributors to the erosion include wind, which can also carry sand, as well as plant (and non-plant) life and the cycle of freezing and thawing water.

Many different groups of native Americans have lived in, or at least passed through, the area now known as City of Rocks. About 12,000 years ago, the last of the Ice Age glaciers were retreating and large mammals like mammoths and mastodons roamed this region. It’s likely that Paleoindians, like Clovis or Folsom peoples, hunted the large animals. Between 8,000 and 1,000 years ago, small bands of the Desert Archaic culture lived in the area and, toward then end of that era, began to build pit houses. Finally, the Mimbres culture occupied the area between the years 200 and 1150 AD. In addition to hunting animals and gathering food from plants, the Mimbres cultivated crops like beans, squash, and maize. They also built one-story above-ground dwellings.

Do you like lichen as much as I’m likin’ this lichen? There are about 20,000 known species of lichen in the world, and at least four of them can be seen in this photograph. Lichen, which is plant-like but not an actual plant, contributes slowly but significantly to the erosion of rocks by chemically degrading the stones’ minerals. The scientists estimate that between 6-8 percent of the earth’s land surface is covered by lichen. Actual plants, like succulents, grasses and shrubs, also contribute to erosion by their seeds finding purchase in small crevices in the rock and then, as the plants mature, the growing roots of the organism can cause further fracturing of the minerals.

Getting up-close and personal with the rocks allows one to see some pretty fascinating natural patterns caused by erosion. I sure hope that whoever dropped those keys comes back by to pick them up! (Just kidding – they’re mine. Still need to go back and pick them up.)

Because the park is 25 miles from the nearest city of any size, it’s a popular site for stargazing at night. This structure is an astronomical observatory located near the main campground in the park. The roof slides back onto the supports in the back to reveal the telescope. It was not in operation during our visit (as you can see, it was daylight), but the park does host regular star parties during which the observatory is open and other amateur astronomers bring their own telescopes to share views of the night skies.

This magnificent succulent specimen, about 20 yards off the trail, is desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri). I didn’t want to get off the trail to take a closer picture, so this will have to do. The fronds of desert spoon were used by native Americans to weave baskets and mats, and its inner core can be fermented into an alcoholic drink, similar to tequila, called sotol. It is found in southern New Mexico and Arizona, as well as parts of Texas and Mexico. The plants themselves grow to about 5 feet tall, but the flowering spike can soar 16 feet into the air.

Here’s another interesting succulent found along the trail. This long-spined, purplish prickly pear is called long-spined purplish prickly pear (really) (Opuntia macrocentra). It, too, is found in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, along with Mexico. Like other prickly pears, the fruit of this cactus is edible and is enjoyed by animals and humans alike.

But it wasn’t simply succulents we saw – we also spied several species of sparrows! Here’s a chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) perched in some mesquite. We’ve enjoyed seeing plenty of these pretty little birds in southern New Mexico this winter.

While most of the pictures in this posting were taken with the camera on my phone, I used my digital camera to take this photo of Cookes Peak. The tall spindly shrub in the lower left corner is ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), which can grow to more than 30 feet in height. It is native to the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts in the United States and Mexico. Native Americans used different parts of the plant to address a variety of ailments, and ocotillo can also be planted to serve as a natural fence.

A short spur off the main trail took us to the top of a 300-foot hill that provided a tremendous 360-degree view of the area. In this photo, the rock formations of City of Rocks are in the midground (the white streaks above the center of the photograph are campers’ recreational vehicles parked amongst the rocks, and the light brown building to the left of the RVs is the park’s visitor center). The tallest mountains on the left horizon are the Cobre Mountains, 16 miles away, and the Pinos Altos range, 30 miles in the distance, is just to the right of the Cobre Mountains.

This eye-catching grass is cane bluestem (Bothriochloa barbinodis), a valuable forage for ranchers but one of the first grasses to disappear if a pasture is overgrazed. The seed heads catch the sun in such a way as to look absolutely illuminated from within.

When we walk by a creosote bush (lower left), I like to rub my fingers on the leaves – they smell just like the air outside after a rainstorm. Along with seemingly every other plant, Native Americans found many medicinal uses for creosote. In the background is Table Mountain, the tallest point in City of Rocks State Park. The distinct layers of rock seen on the mountain’s slopes are due to different volcanic ashflows more than 30 million years ago..

If you plan to visit City of Rocks State Park, you’ll want to do make plans to do so soon-ish. The erosional forces that created the cracks between the rocks continue to degrade the stones even today (I mean, you saw all the lichen), and in several million years the whole area will just be flat.

Nancy and I definitely enjoyed our time in the park – it was a lovely day, with highs in the low 60s and very calm breezes, and the 4-mile hike gave all of us some great views and good exercise (Monday, January 9, was a day of relaxation and recuperation for Gunther). We plan to take the Goddard to the park in the next few years for some actual camping – it has more than 40 developed sites – and it has some other trails that we haven’t yet enjoyed.

Strataca

May 30, 2022 – Hutchinson, Kansas

In addition to the Cosmosphere, a world-class space science museum, the city of Hutchinson, Kansas, features another prominent attraction: the only salt mine in the country that’s open to the public. Have I got your attention yet? Read on!

Formerly known as the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, Strataca is owned by the Hutchinson Salt Company, which began operations in 1923 as the Carey Salt Company. Nancy and I visited Strataca in late May 2022.

The salt extracted from the mine is not the type that you’ll find in your kitchen salt shaker. There are a number of impurities in the mineral, which makes it ideal for managing icy roads and for feeding livestock.

Strataca’s story begins, as do all of the good ones, in the late part of the Paleozoic Era, known as the Permian Period, about 275 million years ago. Kansas, along with much of the rest of present-day North America, was covered by a vast inland sea. The waters eventually receded, leaving behind an immense deposit of salt that, over tens of millions of years, was covered with layers of shale and other sediments like sand, gypsum, and silt. That 275-million-year-old deposit of salt is now 650 feet below the Kansas prairie.

The museum has been at this location on the east side of Hutchinson since 1986. Of the 15 salt mines in the United States, Strataca (née the Kansas Underground Salt Museum; the name was changed in 2013) is the only one that is open for visitor tours. I’m trying to remember to take pictures of the exteriors of the museums we see; it seems that the American flags are flying at half-mast more often than not. We visited Strataca on Memorial Day.

A double-deck elevator takes two sets of up to 15 people each on a four-minute trip 650 feet down into the bowels of the earth. (It’s not really the bowels of the earth; the top crust of the earth, which makes up about 1% of the radius of our planet, has an average thickness of nine to 12 miles. In other words, the 650-foot elevator ride takes visitors down about 1% of 1% of the earth’s radius. Still, the elevator ride is pretty neat!)

Excavating the shaft for this visitor elevator was no mean feat. In addition to penetrating hundreds of feet of sedimentary rocks, the shaft also had to descend through part of the Ogallala Aquifer – one of the world’s largest natural underground reservoirs. The aquifer is about 130 feet thick at the site of the museum. To construct the shaft, engineers used liquid nitrogen to freeze the area of the aquifer immediately surrounding the planned shaft, then excavated the ice and replaced it with a concrete liner. The process was completed in 15-foot increments, and took just over a year between March 2004 and March 2005.

Upon exiting the elevator, visitors enter a large chamber filled with interesting exhibits that tell the wondrous story of sodium chloride (NaCl). As you can see, every visitor has to wear a hard hat. I jostled my way to get a blue one. The temperature in the mine year-round is 68 degrees Fahrenheit, with a relative humidity of 45%.

Let’s go back topside for a moment. This map, located in the museum’s visitor center, shows the extent of the mine (in yellow) with the rest of the city of Hutchinson to the west (left). The 1.5-square-mile mine is immense; if each of the excavated areas was lined up in a straight line, the chamber would extend for 150 miles. Pillars of solid rock salt, 40 feet square, are left to separate each chamber and support the upper level of salt.

Okay, back down into the bowels of the earth 650 feet below the surface. Here’s a closeup of the salt deposit. As you can see, it’s quite different from the Morton’s that’s in your kitchen cabinet. The sodium chloride is mixed with a number of other minerals, including shale and sulfur compounds, which is why it’s primarily used to de-ice roadways.

The year 2023 will mark a century of mining by the Hutchinson Salt Company (formerly Carey Salt). It mines in the room and pillar process. This involves excavating, with the use of explosives, large chambers alternating with square pillars, measuring 40 square feet, that support the upper level of the mine. The process results in something of a checkerboard pattern, if it could be viewed from above. The mine’s chambers are very large, ranging from 2,500 to 15,000 square feet in size, with ceiling heights of 11 to 17 feet. The room and pillar method differs from traditional precious metal mining, in which miners follow the vein of gold or silver ore, for instance (unless it’s more cost-efficient to simply take an entire mountain apart, which seems to be happening more often).

Strataca has retained a lot of Carey Salt’s equipment from the early days of the mine (I’m guessing partly because it would cost time and money to return them to the surface, but it’s still fun to see the specialized equipment). The machinery is fairly well-preserved, considering the relatively high humidity; the salt can’t be good for metal parts, though. This machine was used to cut long slits at the bottom of a salt wall; when explosives in the wall were detonated, the slit ensured that the salt fragments fell forward into the chamber.

The excavation takes place in much the same way today, but using modernized equipment. The rock salt fragments are transported via conveyors to crushers, then taken to the surface using large buckets on a hoist. When operating at capacity, the skip, or mine elevator, can carry four tons of salt to the surface every three minutes. The skip is also used to transport miners into and out of the operation. Miners formerly used a rail system to move about the operation underground, but have since started using old junk cars that have been modified to run on bio-diesel fuel. Developed almost entirely from old cooking oil, the burning of bio-diesel doesn’t leave particles suspended in the environment. There are many instances of several generations of Hutchinson families being employed by the mine.

This was an interesting exhibit; it’s essentially a waste dump site. Early in the mine’s history, employees would leave their empty food packaging underground because it was more cost-effective to use the skip to transport either rock salt or miners. The salty environment, well away from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, has preserved the trash remarkably well; a lot of the sandwich wrappers and empty drink cups look like they were tossed aside last week instead of in the 1950s.

Nancy and I went on a couple of different guided tram rides through the mine. We got to see chambers that were excavated decades ago, using earlier mining methods. The mining company has placed a number of environmental sensors throughout the operation, which provide early detection of any possible shifting of the rock salt walls. The Mine Safety and Health Administration, which oversees operations in U.S. mines, considers this salt mine one of the safest in the world.

Nancy really enjoys being underground. I mean, really. She’d been looking forward to visiting the Hutchinson salt mine for a number of years, and we both had a great time. Luckily for us, our underground adventures were only beginning – we’d be able to descend into the bowels of the earth natural caves at two U.S. national parks in the months to come. Multiple times at each cave, even!

A salt mine might seem like something of a “so what?” kind of experience. But it’s the salt that comes from this mine, and others like it, that keep our roads safe to drive in wet and freezing weather. We’re glad we went, and, combined with the Cosmosphere, Strataca makes an excellent reason to visit Hutchinson.

The Cosmosphere

Hutchinson, Kansas – May 28, 2022

Hutchinson, Kansas, seems to be an unlikely place for a world-class museum devoted to space exploration. The state’s main economic driver, by far, is agriculture: Kansas ranks in the top 10 states in the country for revenue from beef cattle, corn, hay, hogs, soybeans, sunflowers, and wheat (40 percent of all the winter wheat grown in the United States comes from Kansas).

However, the Sunflower State’s motto is “ad astra per aspera,” which, as you’ll recall from your Latin learnin’, means “To the stars through difficulties.” The motto is more a recognition that the state succeeded despite struggles with Black slavery, relationships with Native Americans reluctant to give away their homelands, and the U.S. Civil War than a resolution to actually travel to space, but I think it’s inspiring nonetheless.

Nancy and I visited the Cosmosphere in late May 2022.

This is a reproduction of the Bell X-1, the jet in which USAF Captain Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier (Mach 1, or about 700 mph) on October 14, 1947. The original X-1, Glamorous Glennis, is on display at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Fittingly, the original X-1 is next to the Spirit of St. Louis, in which Charles Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight. The X-Plane program, of which the X-1 was the first craft, began in 1946 as a means of developing aerodynamics, engines, and other factors of high-speed and high-altitude flight. (The idea that the sound barrier was broken the year after the program’s start is, to me, kind of mind-boggling). The breaking of the sound barrier with a straight-wing aircraft came as a surprise to many aerospace experts, who believed that a swept-wing design was necessary for supersonic flight. X-1 flights ended in 1958, and by then the jet had flown at speeds approaching 1,000 mph and at altitudes close to 72,000 feet. In 24 years of testing, more than 40 X-Plane pilots were killed in expanding mankind’s knowledge of aeronautics. The experiments showed, however, that it was possible to break Earth’s gravitational pull and leave the planet’s atmosphere. They helped develop today’s vehicles that soar through our skies and the space around us. (Incidentally, and while it wasn’t necessarily built for speed, the Spirit of St. Louis had a top speed of 133 mph in 1927 – only 20 years before Yeager’s historic flight.)

The Cosmosphere (which is, again, smack-dab in the middle of Kansas) is home to the largest combined collection of U.S. and Russian spaceflight artifacts in the world. Numbering more than 13,000 pieces, the Cosmosphere’s collection is second to only the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum for U.S. artifacts and is second only to Moscow for its number of Russian artifacts.

The Cosmosphere’s significant 1997 expansion gave it space to display one of the 20 surviving Lockheed SR-71 Blackbirds. The SR-71 first entered service as a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft in 1966. The aircraft had a top speed of 2,200 mph (Mach 3.3) with a service ceiling of 85,000 feet, or about 16 miles (the scientists have determined that Earth’s atmosphere ends, and space begins, at about 62 miles above the planet). Lockheed built a total of 32 SR-71s; 12 were lost in accidents but none were destroyed by enemy aircraft (if an oncoming missile was detected, the Blackbird pilot simply went faster). The SR-71 (this particular model has Air Force serial number 61-7961) makes for a really impressive exhibit, but it’s difficult to get a photograph of the entire craft. This was the second SR-71 we’d seen in just two months, we saw AF model 61-7951 at Tucson’s Pima Air & Space Museum in March; most of the other 18 surviving Blackbirds are also on display at aircraft museums and Air Force bases around the country (one is in England)

Given Kansas’s agrarian economy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Cosmosphere started as a planetarium, with a used projector and rented folding chairs, in the Poultry Building on the Kansas State Fairgrounds in 1962. It was one of the first public planetariums in the country. Four years later, the planetarium moved to the campus of Hutchinson Community College. In 1980, the Cosmosphere was expanded to a 35,000-square-foot facility, which included one of the country’s first IMAX® Dome Theaters and a three-level exhibit gallery (my first and only other visit to the Cosmosphere occurred sometime in the mid-1980s, while visiting family in Kansas). The Cosmosphere tripled its size in 1997, becoming an impressive 105,000-square-foot facility with room for educational events and other programs.

If you thought that the Moon looked a little smaller after the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in July 1969, it’s likely because Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin brought back some rocks when they returned to Earth. On exhibit in the lobby of the Cosmosphere, this is one of the few Moon rocks on public display in the world. Armstrong and Aldrin collected this rock during a three-hour walk in the Sea of Tranquility on June 20, 1969. Its mineral composition is basalt, which is an igneous rock formed from rapidly cooling volcanic lava. It weighs just under 5 ounces – it used to be bigger but the scientists cut it in to smaller pieces in order to study it – and the same scientists say that it’s 3.84 billion years old.

The German V-2 Rocket

The Cosmosphere has several large independent exhibits that tell the story of how the space race developed. One of these exhibits focuses on the development of the Vergetlungswaffe 2 (“retaliation weapon 2”), the V-2 rocket, and it’s simply an outstanding experience, with interesting displays of original hardware and plenty of explanatory panels.

It’s safe to say that putting mankind in space, beginning with launching manned rockets into the sky in the early 1960s, progressing to the Apollo missions to the Moon that started in 1969, and continuing with programs like Skylab (1970s), the space shuttles (1980s), and the present-day International Space Station, started with weaponry development during the buildup to World War II. Simply put, many of the other rockets exhibited in the Cosmosphere wouldn’t have been possible without the development of the V-2.

The V-2 rocket on display at the Cosmosphere was discovered in an abandoned warehouse in Huntsville, Alabama. It was acquired by the museum in 1989 and restored by SpaceWorks, a division of the Cosmosphere. The project took several years and restored the rocket to how it would have looked in the period of 1942-1943. The seated figure near the front of the rocket represents a Jewish prisoner; many thousands of Jews were forced to work on the hazardous rockets.

The Nazis sunk incredible financial resources into the development of the V-2, believing it would turn the tide of World War II because of its ability to strike opposing targets from more than 200 miles away. The V-2 was developed by a team led by Dr. Wernher von Braun, a brilliant rocketry scientist whose early work was influenced heavily by the tests performed by Dr. Robert Goddard (early in his career, von Braun corresponded with Goddard regarding the latter’s experiments). Von Braun was very interested in sending mankind to space, and saw the V-2 program as a way to further his research into rocketry. His interest in space exploration almost led to his execution by German officials, who believed von Braun wasn’t sufficiently focused on creating a weapon of destruction and instead wanted to create a way to travel to the stars. Only the doctor’s relationship with a Nazi official who had Hitler’s ear saved his life.

The V-2 was the first long-range guided ballistic missile. Between September 1944 and March 1945, Germany launched more than 3,200 of the rockets at targets in England, Belgium, and other areas in western Europe. The rockets were fired from mobile launch pads, which made it extremely difficult for Allied forces to find and destroy the launch sites. A V-2 firing battery consisted of 152 self-propelled vehicles, 70 trailers, and more than 500 men. Each battery could fire up to nine missiles per day.

A V-2 rocket stood more than 46 feet tall, weighed 27,000 pounds and flew 50 miles into the sky, but the engine was just over five feet long and weighed just over one ton. Incredibly, that engine created 56,600 pounds of thrust while burning 33 gallons of alcohol and liquid oxygen every second.

The rocket carried a one-ton payload of high explosives to the edge of space, 250,000 feet above the earth, more than 200 miles to its target. When it began its return to earth, the V-2 reached speeds of 3,500 miles per hour – faster than the sound that it created, which meant that it exploded on the ground before the thunderous roar of its descent could be heard. Latter-day research has shown that a V-2 explosion created a crater 66 feet wide and 26 feet deep, displacing about 3,000 tons of material. From launch, the V-2 took only 4 minutes to reach its target (for reference, the width of the state of Colorado is a little less than 400 miles, or about twice the distance that a V-2 traveled).

V-2 attacks killed more than 1,700 Belgians in Antwerp, and injured 4,500 more. In London, more than 2,700 civilians were killed by the rockets, with an additional 6,523 injured. As horrid as those numbers are, it’s estimated that development of the V-2 cost the lives of as many as 20,000 people in Germany – most of them Jewish prisoners who died either from overwork or from accidental explosions.

In its time, the V-2 was a defenseless weapon – when everything worked. Fortunately, the rocket involved incredibly complex engineering and everything rarely worked. While the Nazis continually refined the engineering to improve the weapon’s efficiency, the V-2’s development came too late in the war to have the kind of impact the Nazis expected. By war’s end, the development of the V-2 (and its predecessor, the V-1) cost Germany the equivalent of $3 billion – roughly twice the amount of money that the United States poured into the Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bomb.

World War II is ripe for “what-if” scenarios, and the V-2 development is a good one. Considering that the V-2 had an insignificant impact on the war’s outcome, compared to the carnage that occurred otherwise, the money and manpower that it cost could have been allocated to the production of more fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles. If the Germans had better control of the skies over western Europe in 1944, the Allied invasion on D-Day may not have been possible and the slow but steady encirclement of Berlin by Allied and Russian forces wouldn’t have happened.

The exhibit at the Cosmosphere does point out, however, that if the invasion at Normandy hadn’t been possible, Berlin – rather than Hiroshima – may have been the first target of the atomic bomb.

In the immediate aftermath of Germany’s capitulation, both U.S. and Russian forces were on the hunt for von Braun and his team of rocketeers. Both sides wanted the expertise and equipment, but von Braun surrendered to the United States and he and his colleagues were brought to this country. The V-2 was examined and led to the development of the Cold War’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and, in the interest of science, the rockets that would carry mankind into space beginning in the 1960s.

I’ve struggled – a lot – with how to write about this particular blog posting; it’s one reason I haven’t posted anything for several months, and I considered leaving all of the V-2 material out of it. However, I think it’s important to not shy away from the fact that humans can be horrible to one another. I’ve read a lot about German’s leading up to and including World War II, trying to understand why humans can be horrible. I’ve also read extensively about Wernher von Braun, trying to understand why he contributed his considerable scientific intellect to the development of a terrible weapon that killed thousands upon thousands of innocent people, either in targeted cities or in forced labor. Von Braun was absolutely furious that the Russians were first into space, first with a dog and then with a man, but he lived to see the results of the Apollo program that sent the first men to walk on the moon – using technology that von Braun helped develop while he worked at NASA. I’ve come to the conclusion (and it’s open for revision) that von Braun really did want to expand the science of rocketry – to send mankind into space – and he was able to do that. I’m a big proponent of many facets of space exploration, but I need to be more cognizant that much of that research has come at horrific costs.

There are a great many other fine exhibits (of which I took a lot of photos that seem to have disappeared into the ether; that’s probably okay because this posting would be even longer than it is) at the Cosmosphere, and it’s well worth a visit when you’re in central Kansas. I think I’ve written about this before, that museums like the Cosmosphere are a great opportunity to stretch one’s mind. Even if museums don’t have all of the answers, and, perhaps particularly if they sometimes don’t, it’s never a bad thing to learn.

White Sands National Park

Alamogordo, New Mexico – November 24, 2022

(Editor’s note: alert readers may note that I haven’t posted any updates on this blog for several months. We did lots of things between visiting the Barbed Wire Museum in May and White Sands National Park in November, but I’m going to post this now and fill in the months in between.)

On Thanksgiving Day, Gunther and Nancy and I went to White Sands National Park. It’s near the town of Alamogordo (Spanish for “fat cottonwood”), New Mexico, where we camping for a week. We were a bit surprised at the number of people who’d also chosen to visit the park on Thanksgiving, but, judging from the languages and accents we heard, we think a lot of them were tourists from Japan.

White Sands was first declared a national monument in 1933 and was re-designated as a national park in 2019. Nancy and I visited the then-monument during a trek through New Mexico in 2015, but were happy to share the experience again with Gunther. White Sands is the most-visited of the two national parks in New Mexico; a typical year sees 600,000 people stroll, slide, stumble, and tumble down its dunes. During the last two years, the pandemic increased that visitation to more than 700,000 visitors annually. (Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the state’s other national park, receives about 440,000 visitors each year. Two of those were Nancy and me; more to come on that.)

White Sands National Park is on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, which encompasses about 175,000 square miles. This desert, the largest in North America, stretches 1,200 miles from Alamogordo southward well into Mexico.

We took a walk on the park’s Interdune Boardwalk, which provides a lot of introductory information about the park’s ecosystems, and then hiked a two-mile loop in the dunes themselves along a marked trail where backcountry camping is permitted. There’s not a path in the dunes; the wind would scour away any trail in the sand within a couple of days. Instead, the route is marked with tall posts.

That’s a grass known as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) in the foreground. Little bluestem is very common throughout the Great Plains and the intermountain west, and can survive in the desert here at White Sands National Park because the water table is typically only two or three feet below the surface. While on our hike, we noticed that the sand between the dunes was actually pretty wet. The Tularosa Basin, which includes the town of Alamogordo as well as the national park and White Sands Missile Range, is bordered by the Sacramento Mountains on the east (in the background of this photo) and by the San Andres and Oscuro mountain ranges on the west. The Tularosa Basin is about one-third larger than the state of Connecticut.

Some more rather staggering numbers regarding White Sands National Park: the sand has an average depth of about 30 feet, some of the dunes are 60 feet high, and the scientists figure that the dunefield contains about 4.5 billion tons of sand.

This photo, taken from the passenger seat of the Goddard’s six-wheeled towing unit, shows not snow, but sand. White Sands National Park features the largest gypsum dunefield in the world: at 275 square miles, it’s so big that it can be seen from space. (Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado measures about 30 square miles and contains several different minerals.) Only about 40 percent of the White Sands dunefield is in the national park; the rest is in the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), which surrounds the park, and is strictly off-limits to the public. WSMR has an area of 3,200 square miles and is the largest military installation in the United States (it’s 32% bigger than Kit Carson County in eastern Colorado). The national park is occasionally closed to visitors because of missile testing on the range. The world’s first atomic bomb, Trinity, was detonated on the northern edge of the missile range on July 16, 1945, as a test prior to the United States releasing atomic bombs in Japan to bring World War II to an end.

Here we see a visitor to White Sands National Park and her ill-behaved dog (it’s Nancy and Gunther) on the Interdune Boardwalk, a short elevated trail with many exhibits along the way. A good variety of desert plants, including shrubs, grasses, and cacti and succulents, thrive in some parts of the dunes.

The sand is remarkably white, and remarkably fine – most of the grains are smaller than crystals of table salt or sugar. Where did all of the sand come from? The answer lies, as many do, with the fact that this part of the planet was covered by a vast inland sea during the Permian Period (about 300-250 million years ago). The waters eventually evaporated away and left immense deposits of gypsum (also known as the mineral calcium sulfate) in the former seabed. Tectonic activity then uplifted the mountain ranges on either side of today’s Tularosa Basin. Over tens of millions of years, rain slowly dissolved the gypsum deposits in the mountains and ancient rivers carried the minerals to today’s White Sands National Park. The dunefield is relatively new, geologically speaking: it’s only 10,000 years old.

Gypsum has a number of beneficial uses for humans: it’s the prime component of drywall, which is used in building construction, plaster of Paris, and toothpaste. It’s also found in all kinds of food, including canned vegetables, white flour, ice cream, and in the production of both beer and wine; people ingest almost 30 pounds of gypsum during their lifetimes.

The mineral’s usefulness led to the designation of White Sands as a national monument in order to protect the area, and its plants and animal ecosystems, from commercial development.

Soaptree yucca (Yucca elata) is a really interesting desert succulent. Native Americans had more than 100 uses for the plant, including as a source of food, fibers for the manufacture of textiles, and true to its name, soap. The stem of the soaptree yucca, which grows underneath the sand, can be many times longer than the height of the plant above ground. As sand moves and threatens to cover the plant, the soaptree yucca continues to elongate its stem so that the plant’s photosynthesizing leaves stay above ground.

The seed pods of soaptree yucca (shown here in their dried form at the end of November) had many uses for Native Americans, and they’re also important to the desert ecosystem. The park is home to 800 different animal species, 650 of which are moths. Thirty-five of the moth species are found only at White Sands. Several different types of moths are responsible for pollinating the soaptree yucca, and they also lay their eggs in the flower pods.

One thing the scientists don’t know is why Gunther enjoys running on the sand so much. He did this at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, and he’s done it on beaches at reservoirs and lakes. He’s kind of a nut.

The wind carves the sand on the dunes into all kinds of interesting patterns of ripples, shifting nearly imperceptibly but constantly with every gust. I included the footprint in this crop of the photo to provide some scale; who knows who left it, and how many thousands of years has it been imprinted in the sand? (I left it, about five seconds before taking this photo.)

Here was a fun little surprise: I wasn’t expecting to find rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosus) in the desert sand, but here it is. We planted several of these at our home in Denver, and they were hosts to hundreds and hundreds of bees, along with lots of butterflies, during their late summer blooms. Rabbitbrush’s pollen is important source of food for butterflies during their migration. Native Americans used the yellow pollen to dye textiles, and they used other parts of the plants to make baskets and arrow shafts.

We saw a few invertebrate species of animals, including some beetles, but we didn’t see any mammals during our hike in the dunes. The park is home to American badgers, coyotes, black-tailed jackrabbits, desert cottontails, bobcats, and several different rodents. Most of the larger animals beat the heat by being nocturnal: staying in their burrows until nightfall. I think some kind of bird left the tracks on the left, and I’m fairly certain the photo on the right shows tracks from a northern Chihuahuan desert wolf. (I’m just kidding with you right now; they’re Gunther’s.)

The northern Chihuahuan desert wolf Gunther stopped running around long enough for me to take this picture on our two-mile hike on the dunes. The lower areas between the dunes provide a sheltered and well-watered place for plants to grow. The black dot at the top of the dune on the left side of the photo is another hiker.

White Sands National Park is an incredible treasure. A short hike up a 60-foot sand dune rewards one with a wonderful view of mountains, sky, and … more sand dunes. Nancy and I wondered, while on the two-mile hike, what it would be like to camp on the dunes. It would probably be an eerie experience — quiet except for the wind and occasional coyote yip. The stars would be beyond beautiful at night, though – something to consider for another trip to the park.

Kansas Barbed Wire Museum

May 26, 2022 – LaCrosse, Kansas

It’s bold to call a town the Barbed Wire Capital of the WorldTM, but that is indeed what La Crosse, Kansas does. The designation came about because of another of La Crosse’s claims to fame: it’s the home of the Post Rock Museum. But before we get into post rocks, let’s go back to barbed wire (if you really want to read about post rocks, scroll down to the bottom of this post but you’re going to miss out on the truly exciting barbed wire content). In the early 1960s, volunteers at the Post Rock Museum noticed that a large number of visitors took special notice of the small barbed wire exhibit.

La Crosse, Kansas (founded 1876, current population of 1,266 people), is the Barbed Wire Capital of the WorldTM and is home to the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum and the Post Rock Museum (note the structures holding up this sign; read on for more information on those).

In response to that interest, in 1966 a group of La Crosse businesspeople formed the Kansas Barbed Wire Collectors Association. As with any association, it conducted an annual event: the first Barbed Wire Swap and Sell Convention occurred at the Rush County Fairgrounds in May of the following year. More than 2,000 barbed wire collectors and enthusiasts attended the show. La Crosse has since hosted the event each year (the 2022 festival was May 5-7) and that’s one way you get to be called the Barbed Wire Capital of the WorldTM.

This signage is posted prominently on the museum’s exterior. I’ve spent most of my professional career working for nonprofit associations, and I’m still continually surprised at the truth of the statement, “There’s an association for everything.”

Another way is to develop a museum. The first building that housed the Kansas Barbed Wire Collectors Association’s collection of barbed wire and associated materials was a small structure on Main Street in La Crosse. The museum was dedicated on April 30, 1971; the day included a parade as well as appearances and remarks from various local and state dignitaries. The 500-square-foot building was home to displays of 500 types of barbed wire, tools, and other artifacts, the majority of which came from the collections of two Kansas men, Leo Schugart of Hoisington and Don Wigington of Quinter.

If you’re researching barbed wire, sooner or later you’ll be making your way to La Crosse, Kansas. If you’re hungry after studying barbed wire, be sure to visit the JCT 4 Diner, located on the north end of town (the museum is on the south end) and order the chicken-fried steak. Come to think of it, I wonder if there’s a chicken-fried steak museum.

Alas, less than two decades passed before the museum had outgrown the Main Street building. The La Cross chamber of commerce commenced a fundraising campaign to construct a new building, measuring 5,400 square feet, in the town’s Grass Park. The new facility, built in a year, was dedicated on May 4, 1991. The Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, which is owned and operated by the Kansas Barbed Wire Collectors Association, is also home to the Antique Barbed Wire Society’s Historical Research Center as well as its Hall of Fame. The museum welcomes visitors from around the globe each year.

Two of those visitors this year were Nancy and me, in late May. Nancy, recognizing my enthusiasm for barbed wire exhibits during our travels (we’ve seen an impressive number of exhibits in city museums in New Mexico and Arizona), surprised me with an early birthday gift of a visit to the museum. At the time, we were camping in Hays, Kansas, which is located about 25 miles due north of La Crosse. For those unclear or simply unaware of where Hays is, it’s about 160 miles east of the eastern border with Colorado, conveniently located in the north-central part of Kansas on Interstate 70.

The biggest part of the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum is its immense collection of barbed wire varieties, displayed in case behind Plexiglass. (Forgive the glare from the overhead lighting in this photo, but the Plexiglass is probably what you want between barbed wire and you.) I neglected to count, but I would imagine there are a couple of dozen cases (I’m not kidding) like this one. The museum’s collection contains more than 2,400 varieties of barbed wire mostly from the American West of the late 19th century, but also contemporary styles and those from around the world.

You might be asking yourself: “Why is there a museum dedicated to barbed wire?” It’s a fair question, I suppose, and for the answer we must go back to the formation of the North American continent and its place on the earth. Imagine a vertical line hugging the eastern borders of North and South Dakota, continuing south near the eastern border of Nebraska, and then across the eastern thirds of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. That line is the 98th Meridian, meaning that it’s 98 degrees (out of the globe’s 360 degrees) west of the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, England (all meridian lines extend north and south to the poles of the earth). The 98th Meridian is significant because most all of the land in the United States west of that line (with the exception of the Pacific northwest and the west coast) gets less (and some get much less) than about 20 inches of precipitation each year, and everywhere east of that line receives more than 20 inches. To compare five cities in which we’ve recently been:

CityMeridianAnnual inches of precipitation
Tucson, Arizona 111th10.6
Denver, Colorado105th14.3
Hays, Kansas99th (one degree west of the 98th)23.8 (plus an additional 13.9 inches of snow)
Memphis, Tennessee90th53.7
Detroit, Michigan83rd34 (plus an additional 33 inches of snow)

There are altitude-based and other geographic exceptions to the annual precipitation amounts, of course: a mountain town in Colorado such as Ouray, in the San Juans, can receive 20 or 24 inches of rain and almost 12 feet of snow each year. The point is, there are some places in the United States that are better suited to growing moisture-dependent crops such as, say, corn than others.

In the last year of being on the road, Nancy and I have experienced single-event rainstorms in Arkansas and Indiana that would have provided a third of Denver’s annual precipitation. That arid nature of the western United States results in different types of flora (such as buffalograss and saguaro cacti) and fauna (such as desert bighorn sheep and horned lizards), and, to get back to the subject of barbed wire, much fewer trees.

East of the 98th Meridian, trees are pretty common thanks to the arable soils and relatively high levels of precipitation. Because of their ready availability, trees provide wood with which to build fences to contain livestock and protect crops. However, in the high plains of the west, most trees grow naturally only along waterways like year-round rivers or seasonal creek beds; many of those trees, like cottonwoods and mesquite, are not anything with which you’d want to build a house or even construct a livestock fence.

Each of the mounted varieties of barbed wire is accompanied by signage denoting the name of the variety (Ox Pen Wire, Vosburgh Cast Iron Plate, and Scutt’s Early Clip, among others here), along with the U.S. patent number and date of patent, as well as the museum’s unique collection identification number. There are, again, 2,400 varieties of barbed wire on display at the museum, as well as vintage examples of all of the tools used to build and maintain the fencing. Certain people take this sort of thing very seriously, and I’m glad that they do. We all have our personal hobbies and interests, right?

While it doesn’t support any real kind of tree growth, the Great Plains does have a great variety of other plants. The native grasses of the prairies west of the 98th Meridian developed deep-growing roots in order to reach reserves of moisture in the soil. In addition to keeping the soil from blowing away during wind events, the grasses wouldn’t turn over easily with farm implements developed for eastern croplands. Further, those native plants had evolved to need much less moisture to survive than did crops such as wheat and especially corn that grew readily in the eastern United States.

The museum has a cabinet devoted to barbed wire with historical significance, which I found very interesting. Many of this blog’s readers with Kansas roots will remember the tornado that nearly completely destroyed the town of Greensburg, Kansas, on May 4, 2007. One can read the history of this artifact on the signage below the artifact. Greensburg is about 70 miles due south of La Crosse.

Some of the earliest expeditions by the U.S. Army into what is known today as the Great Plains showed that the land probably wasn’t fit for much at all. In an 1810 journal recounting his adventures in the U.S. West, First Lieutenant Zebulon Pike wrote “these vast plains of the western hemisphere may become in time (as) equally celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa.” Major Stephen H. Long, who traveled more than 26,000 miles in five expeditions across the West, in 1820 called the area “a great desert,” which later led to the term “the Great American Desert.” The plains area from present-day Nebraska south to Oklahoma was, according to Long, “unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people dependent on agriculture.”

This display, mounted high in the rafters of the museum, was one of the exhibits in the museum’s first building and brought to the new facility. It is a nest built by crows almost entirely of wire, much of which is of the barbed variety. The nest was found in Greeley County, Kansas, which is along the border with Colorado in the far west part of the state. In the exhibit, the wires are real; the crows are not but they give a sense of scale to the 72-pound display. Nests like these are found in the arms of utility poles and on windmill towers.

The passage of time shows that both Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long were wrong* about the prospects of people living in the High Plains. However, it took unimaginable hard labor, perseverance, and technological breakthroughs, in addition to that passage of time, to prove them incorrect. In 1820, the entire United States had a population of less than 10 million. Today, more than 14.5 million people live in the states of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. The Front Range of Colorado, which stretches from Pueblo in the south to Fort Collins in the north, has a population of more than 5 million people alone [and the Front Range also has views of two of Colorado’s most prominent mountains, Pikes Peak (elev. 14,115 feet) and Longs Peak (elev. 14,259 feet); I don’t know why the names don’t have possessive apostrophes, but these namesakes show that you can get mountains named after you even if you’re wrong].

*Actually, I don’t know that Pike and Long were entirely wrong. At least along the Front Range, that population of 5 million people is largely possible only by water being brought from somewhere else: snow runoff in western Colorado rivers that’s diverted under the Continental Divide to the Front Range, and water being pulled from the underground Denver Basin aquifer through wells. States downstream from Colorado are making increased (and, to this point, entirely legal) demands for Colorado’s western slope water, and the Denver Basin took tens of thousands of years to fill but is now being further depleted every year. Many farms in eastern Colorado and western Kansas and other parts of the area irrigate their corn (the crop doesn’t have much of a chance of success in the Great Plains without irrigation) with a lot of water pulled from the Ogallala Aquifer, which is being similarly and rapidly depleted, without a possibility of being refilled on a human timescale.

But I digress. Back to barbed wire. The 98th Meridian, then, served as a kind of barrier to westward expansion of the United States during and after the U.S. Civil War. The native grasslands were too tough to efficiently plow for use as cropland, and there was no guarantee that there would be enough precipitation to help crops survive even if their seeds could be planted. Add to that the fact that there was very little lumber for building or burning, and it was a land most inhospitable for development.

I haven’t played chess in quite a long while, but I still found this chessboard and piece display a lot of fun. Each type of piece is made from a different variety of barbed wire, identified by a nearby placard (ex., the two kings are made from Wing Staple Barb, patented in 1878; the four knights are Merrill’s “Twirl,” patented in 1874; the 16 pawns are made from Glidden’s “Oval,” patented in 1876).

What was the land, which supported at the time only a number of nomadic Native American tribes that hunted immense herds of bison and other native animals, good for? Well, some folks decided it could support cattle. Between 1866 (the year after the Civil War ended) and 1880, nearly 5 million head of cattle were driven from Texas north into Kansas and beyond for transport by railcars back east.

Barbed wire is also very effective at limiting the movement of people. This section of wire, along with the fragments of concrete, was taken from the Berlin Wall after that structure fell due to extraordinary social revolutions in late-1980s eastern Europe. The wall, for which construction began in 1961, separated the countries of East Germany and West Germany for nearly 30 years, until November 30, 1989. The museum devotes a lot of display space to exhibits of other barbed wire used for human containment, such as concertina wire, providing welcome food for thought beyond the wire’s use for livestock and crop fencing.

Along the way, some cattle were sold to ranchers in Texas, as well as present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, and other states. Those cattle helped establish ranches that, in a few cases, are still around today. The Homestead Act, signed into law in 1862, brought droves of people to the west with the intent of acquiring free land upon which they could build homes and develop farms. Moreover, the railroads, in addition to transporting cattle east, brought more people from the eastern United States to the west where public sentiment thought it increasingly likely that livings, if not fortunes, could be made – despite the treeless aspect of the plains.

Those eastern sentiments, such as putting up fences to protect their crops and livestock, conflicted with the open range rights that the cattlemen enjoyed. However, the plains still weren’t any good at providing trees with which one could make fences. Until farmers could cost-effectively keep free-range cattle from tromping their crops and their own livestock from wandering away into the vast expanse of the plains, there was no way for livings to be made. That changed on November 24, 1874, when Joseph Glidden was awarded a patent for barbed wire.

Glidden (January 18, 1813 – October 9, 1906) was an Illinois farmer (I’m writing this blog posting at Kankakee River State Park in Illinois, about 90 miles southeast of Glidden’s farmstead in DeKalb) who developed one of the first methods of mass-producing barbed wire using a coffee mill to create the preliminary experimental barbs. With another twisted wire keeping the barbs in place, Glidden developed “The Winner,” which he considered his best design effort and for which he received the U.S. patent. The development was an immediate success and quickly found its way west, where, since much less wood was needed to build fences, it ended the open range era of the American west and it turned the Great Plains into innumerable pastures. When he died in 1906, Glidden was one of the richest men in America.

Today, drive along any road – multi-lane paved Interstate highway or dusty gravel byway – in the West and you’ll likely see galvanized steel barbed wire fencing that can stretch for miles on into the horizon. It’s cheap, durable, and relatively simple to install, without the use of much wood (except where there isn’t any wood; see below).

Joseph Glidden may get the majority of the praise for popularizing barbed wire, but there were others before and after him who produced it.

Glidden’s “The Winner” wasn’t the only barbed wire design, and many before and many after him developed their own styles that they thought would work better in certain situations or environments. Those hundreds of other barbed wire designs, all with the intent of keeping animals in (or out) of a certain area, kept and continue to help keep Americans and the world fed and clothed for generations – and that’s the reason there’s a Kansas Barbed Wire Museum.

What to Do When There’s No Wood

Prior to the coming of the railroads to the west in the late 19th century, vast tracts of lands in the west couldn’t be fenced because there were no trees with which to provide wooden posts and rails. Even after the continent was crossed and after barbed wire was easily available, wood was still scarce and therefore best reserved for building living and work structures.

But spools of barbed wire can’t be used to build a fence without some sort of solid material used for a post, so what do you do? In the case of central Kansas, you use readily available material: rocks. Present-day Kansas, like much of the rest of America, was once under a great inland sea. Over millions of years, organic material from recently departed marine creatures fell to the sea bottom, and over further millions of years was compacted into a rock called limestone.

La Crosse’s original claim to fame was the Post Rock Museum, inside which are exhibits detailing the techniques and tools used to extract limestone used for fenceposts and other construction needs (such as for the Post Rock Museum itself and many other buildings in the area). The Post Rock Museum now shares the limelight with the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum; happily, the two are about 20 feet apart from each other.

The inland sea eventually drained away and, millions of years later, left present-day Kansas relatively dry and treeless under buffalograss-covered topsoil. Needing materials which which to build fenceposts, early settlers resorted to extracting the limestone rocks from just under the area’s topsoil. The area in which the limestone rests covers a 200-mile-long swath of Kansas land stretching southwest from the north-central border with Nebraska to about the location of Dodge City (a town, like many others in Kansas, that was made possible by the cattle trails of the late 19th century) in the southern part of the state. The swath measures in width from 10 to 60 miles wide. Farmers and people who specialized in quarrying post rocks would spend a day extracting about 25 posts, each of which could weigh between 200 and 450 pounds, from the ground.

This example of a post rock fence is adjacent to the Post Rock Museum, which originally had a relatively small display of barbed wire artifacts in addition to its primary focus of exhibits about extracting the posts from the ground. The popularity of the barbed wire display led to the establishment of the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, now located directly next to the Post Rock Museum. See also the photos of post rocks used in the sign supports for the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum and the Antique Barbed Wire Society’s Historical Research Center at the top of this post – kind of brings it full-circle, don’t you think?

Because of their strength and stability, post rocks were needed only every 30 feet or so to support a barbed wire fence. Today, with the ready availability of steel and treated wood posts, post rocks aren’t nearly as high in demand. But in their heyday, from the mid 1880s to 1920s, post rocks were found in 40,000 miles of fencing in that swath of central Kansas – and, because of their durability (they’re rocks), many are still in use.

Back to Barbed Wire

Barbed wire, at first glance, may not seem like a significant development. But without it, the expansion of Anglo-Europeans westward across the 98th Meridian would have been, at best, substantially delayed. Beyond the economics and geographic expansion, barbed wire had huge cultural impacts as well: because it disrupted the migration of bison herds, barbed wire also led to the displacement of dozens of Native American tribes that had considered the region their homeland for many generations. Barbed wire, with a solid assist from the railroads, is what made the Anglo-European development of the Great Plains possible.

Spring Birds of the American Southwest

March and April, 2022

The Goddard spent the fall and winter of 2021-2022 in New Mexico and then Arizona, and in the spring we headed back north to visit Colorado for a while. Spring is a great time to watch birds: they’re very active as they gather material for nests and later find food for their fledglings. Leaves on trees also begin to emerge as the weather warms up, which I was to discover makes photographing birds much more difficult than in the fall and winter.

Here are some birds we saw doing their spring thing in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Holbrook, Arizona

Our campground in Holbrook was next to a residential area, which doesn’t happen very often because usually campgrounds are on the outskirts of towns. It gave us a chance to walk by houses and see birds perched in the trees.

This female house finch was busy gathering materials for a nest at our campground in Hollbrook. Finches have really pretty songs, and they’re enjoyable to listen to in the morning. House finches are an interesting story: they’re native to the American southwest and Mexico, but profiteers captured some finches in the 1940s and attempted to sell them as “Hollywood finches” to bird enthusiasts in New York City. Rather than face prosecution for violating a federal law regarding migratory birds, the people released the finches into the wild and the birds established themselves on the U.S. east coast. In the ensuing years, they’ve moved both east (from the southwest) and west (from the east coast) to be found across nearly the entire country.
Here is the mate of the house finch, watching the sunrise the same morning. I’m sure he later helped build the nest, too. The reddish coloration of male house finches changes with the seasons and is dependent on the birds’ diets; as you’ll see, some male house finches are redder than others. For their size, finches have some powerful beaks.
This is a very common bird, the house sparrow, but it’s a very pretty one all the same. Mornings are a great time to take photographs of birds because the sun is low in the sky to provide dramatic lighting, and the birds themselves are fairly active.

Grants, New Mexico

The campground at which we stayed in Grants, New Mexico, at the end of March had an adjacent walking trail that wound through a lava field. A relatively recent volcanic eruption, perhaps only 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, produced the black basaltic rock that is everywhere around Grants. The campground’s trail attracted a lot of birds that perched on the trees and shrubs within the lava field, including this female white-crowned sparrow that was singing a pretty song one morning. It was the fifth species of sparrow I’d seen during our stays in New Mexico and Arizona. We really enjoyed this trail, which also provided great views of the surrounding mountains. A national monument, El Malpais (Spanish for “the badlands”) is very near Grants, and we look forward to visiting it in the future.
Here’s the other male house finch I alluded to earlier. Dunno what he’s eating to get all of that red coloration, but he’s definitely the reddest finch I’ve ever seen. This was in the campground at Grants; I have a bunch of photos of different birds perched on different types of water valves at campgrounds, for some reason.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Our next stop on our return north was Albuquerque, which Nancy and I really enjoy visiting. There’s a lot to see and do there, and plenty of great Mexican restaurants and grocery stores to enjoy.

We returned to Albuquerque’s excellent Botanic Garden at the city’s BioPark, which also has a zoo and aquarium situated along the Rio Grande near downtown. In early April the garden had thousands of blooming bulbs, including daffodils, tulips, crocus, and others, as well as a lot of neat birds. This is a male white-crowned sparrow; compare him to the pretty female white-crowned sparrow from the Grants lava field, two photos above. This guy was hunting for bugs on one of the garden’s trails.
We watched this mountain bluebird bring a grub to its nest in a tree near the Botanic Garden’s farmstead exhibit. I really like the hue of blue, which contrasts nicely with their rusty chests, on these birds.
Gunther and I went for a walk on a trail along the Rio Grande bosque one afternoon and I heard this fellow singing in a cottonwood tree. I couldn’t tell what kind of bird it was at the time because it was so far away, but I got a couple of photos with my telephoto lens. I was a little surprised to see, after looking at it on my laptop, that it’s a spotted towhee. I’d never seen one in a tree before; I’ve only seen them on the ground, scratching through leaves while looking for bugs. (Of course, the next day we went to the city’s Botanic Garden and we saw another spotted towhee there, in a tree.) Spotted towhees are really pretty birds – they’ve got a lot of patterns and colors going on.
On that same walk we saw several wood ducks, including this very striking drake, swimming in a canal adjacent to the Rio Grande. I’d never seen wood ducks prior to our first stop in Albuquerque last November. They’re just incredibly beautiful birds (and the hens are quite pretty as well).

Las Vegas, New Mexico

In mid-April we made our way to Las Vegas, which we had also stayed at the previous fall. It was incredibly windy during our stay there in the spring (and the area would be subjected to several wildfires shortly after we left), so we didn’t venture out much. I did take a few photos at the campground, though.

This is a western bluebird, perched on a power line and watching me as I watched it. This is the same species from the cottonwood tree in the Albuquerque Botanic Garden. I’m writing this post while camping in central Arkansas, and I kind of miss those clear blue skies of New Mexico and Arizona. We sure don’t miss the wind, though.
Writing about blue skies: this mountain bluebird nearly disappears into them. We’ve seen this species in Colorado several times, including at the cabin near Eleven Mile Reservoir. You can see that the wind was blowing: look at the feathers on his chest.

Lathrop State Park, near Walsenburg, Colorado

We returned to Colorado around the end of April, choosing to camp once again at one of our favorite state parks. Located west of Walsenburg in the southern part of the state, Lathrop State Park has two large lakes, good hiking trails, and incredible views of the Spanish Peaks and Blanca Peak, each of which still had snow. The park attracts an enormous number of permanent and migratory birds each year.

We’d seen a couple of American robins, our first of the spring, at the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, but I couldn’t get any good photos. There were plenty of robins at Lathrop. I’ve learned to recognize their calls, which are really distinctive once you’ve heard them enough.
I hiked through the cactus and brush (you’ll notice that most of these songbirds at Lathrop are perched on juniper) north of our campsite one morning and took this photo. I had no idea what kind of bird it was until I looked it up: it’s a tufted titmouse, at the very northern edge of its range in southern Colorado. I’d never heard of them, let alone seen one before. Neat-looking bird, although you don’t see many species, outside of bluebirds and blackbirds, that are all one color.
Here’s another new bird to me, from the same morning hike: it’s a Bewick’s wren. I couldn’t get on the other side of it to take advantage of the morning sun, but I kind of like this backlit effect anyway. I’d never seen too many species of wrens before we started full-timing in the Goddard; I’ve since seen several, and they’re very attractive little birds.
This is a cropped photo taken with a telephoto lens from a long, long way from this bird, but I’d never seen one before. This is a pied-billed grebe swimming on one of the park’s lakes, and it spent more time submerged than swimming on the surface. I saw eight bird species at Lathrop State Park that I hadn’t yet seen in 2022, and three of them (the last three pictured) were species I’d never seen at all.
There were lots and lots of chipping sparrows at Lathrop. I’m not sure if there were more of these or if there were more American robins at the park (and there were a lot of blackbilled magpies, too). Very pretty calls from these little birds.

By the time we left Lathrop State Park on April 24, I’d seen 51 different species of birds in three different states in 2022. It had become obvious that being around water, whether it’s a river or a lake, greatly increases both the chance of seeing birds and the opportunity to see different species of birds. That would become even more clear at the next Colorado state park at which we’d camp.

Petrified Forest National Park, Day 2

Near Holbrook, Arizona – March 26, 2022

We made our first visit to Petrified Forest National Park on March 25, 2022, restricting our time to only the northern, smaller section of the park. That part doesn’t have much in the way of petrified wood, but it has plenty of awe-inspiring views. We returned the next day, with Gunther, to experience the southern side, and we did see some fossilized wood. And how!

Petrified Forest National Park, which measures about 350 square miles, receives about 600,000 visitors per year. That number, while impressive, makes it just the third-most-visited national park in Arizona, following Saguaro National Park in Tucson (1 million visitors per year; Nancy and I were two of those people a couple of weeks earlier) and the most-visited park in all the land, Grand Canyon National Park (4.5 million). Incidentally, Rocky Mountain National Park in north-central Colorado is just behind Grand Canyon, at 4.4 million visitors per year. If you’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park in the last 20 years and felt a bit cramped, it’s probably due to 4.4 million other people visiting a park measuring 415 square miles.

Wind and water erosion in the northern Arizona desert does some interesting things to rocks, like resting the one on the right side against the one on the left.

But we’re here to talk about rocks. A piece of petrified wood isn’t really wood any longer: it no longer contains any organic material and it is most definitely a rock. The process of petrification takes several important factors, including a tree, water, sediment, and time. Lots and lots of time.

Many of the rocks at Petrified Forest National Park represent trees that were quite large when they were living, about 220 million years ago. Here we see a park visitor with her dog observing a massive rock. (It’s Nancy, with Gunther, who appears ready to return home to The Goddard but we’d only been at the park for about 30 minutes at this point.)

Let’s start at the beginning. The scientists believe that the trees in Petrified Forest National Park were alive between 210 and 227 million years ago. At that time, the Late Triassic Period, the current area of the park was just north of the equator – in fact, it was close to where Costa Rica is today. The land was much different then: covered with forests of immense trees as well as large rivers and other wetlands. Huge amphibians and early dinosaurs roamed the forests and dwelled in the rivers. (Although there were many dinosaur species in the ensuing years, famous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops wouldn’t appear until the Late Cretaceous Period, almost 160 million years later.)

There’s still a lot of detail from the former trees to be seen in their petrified logs. While it appears that the logs have been cut with a chainsaw to achieve those smooth sides, they’ve simply cracked along the crystalline structure of the quartz. That usually happens because of erosional processes: either geologic uplift over millions of years, or supporting materials below the log being removed through relatively quick wind or water action.

Many of these coniferous trees (there are nine species identified in the park; all are now extinct) grew to be enormous: some may have grown to 200 feet in height. When the trees died they lost their branches and bark, then eventually toppled over after being undercut by a river. If the tree fell into the river, it may have eventually been covered in sediment being carried by the waterway. This relatively rapid burial is critical to later petrification: the water sealed the dead tree away from both oxygen and bacteria, which helped prevent decay. That delay gave time for silicic acid in the rivers to percolate throughout the tree. This process chemically altered the wood into a mineral called opal that still retained the tree’s fine features, like the grain of the wood, or indications of where branches once sprouted from the trunk.

This is one of the biggest, if not longest, pieces of fossilized wood in Petrified Forest National Park. “Old Faithful” is 35 feet long and weighs about 44 tons. It’s also one of the relatively few logs that retained part of its root structure, which measures 10 feet across today, during the petrification process. In 1962, lightning struck and fractured this log. The National Park Service used mortar to reattach the pieces and added the retaining wall seen near the base of the former tree – a process that, in the name of resource management, the NPS would probably not undertake today. Old Faithful is located just west of the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center near the park’s southern entrance.
Here we see a park visitor with her faithful dog, standing next to the base of Old Faithful. (It’s Nancy, again, with Gunther, again; the dog appears to have perked up somewhat.)
While perhaps not quite as spectacular as the views we enjoyed in the northern part of the park the day before, there were still great vistas to enjoy on the Giant Logs Trail near the visitor center. One can see erosional forces still at work on the rocks at right.

Converting the wood into opal took only a few thousand years. Further layers of sedimentation over millions upon millions of years would cover the logs with tons upon tons of soil and rock. This process recrystallized the logs, converting the opal into quartz and a few other minerals. Over many other ensuing millions of years, erosion and geologic upheaval brought the logs back to the surface of the earth to once again see the light of day – this time as petrified wood.

Now that you know the factors involved in creating petrified wood, can you name the states in our country that contain it? The answer is below – keep on scrollin’!

The silicic acid in ancient waterways percolated through fallen logs, converting the trees’ organic material into opal. This closeup photo shows that the minerals retained the features of the trees, such as the grain of the wood.

The visitor center at the southern end of the park, which is part of the original monument created in 1906 (it was made a national park in 1962), contains some interesting fossils of both trees and animals. The fossilized remains of many amphibians and some dinosaurs dating to the time that the trees were alive have been discovered in the park (and the process for creating animal fossils is much the same as that used to create petrified wood). The museum also exhibits some handwritten letters: apparently, some visitors over the years were unable to withstand the temptation (and federal law) to leave the petrified wood where it lay within the park. Upon their return home with a fossilized wood souvenir, some of them inexplicably fell into bad fortune, such as personal or business relationship issues, and returned the rocks via mail, with an apologetic letter, to the national park.

Some of the many trails within the southern part of the park feature these helpful fossilized logs to help keep hikers on the path. Walking beside them gives an idea of just how tall these trees were.

After going to the visitor center and museum, and walking the Giant Logs Trail behind the building, we decided to go on a longer walk to see some more rocks. The Long Logs Trail, located a short distance from the visitor center, is so named because some of the petrified wood is more than 180 feet in length.

We saw this horned lark while on the Long Logs Trail. It had a very pretty song. We had never seen one before, and were happy to watch and listen to it for a while. (I write “we,” but Gunther couldn’t possibly have cared less.)
More than 1,200 archeological sites, indicating prior human habitation as long as 12,000 years ago, have been found in the park. The Native Americans arrived first as nomadic cultures, then over the centuries began to occupy the area on a seasonal basis. Eventually, the cultures lived in what is now the park year-round. A short spur from the Long Logs Trail leads to Agate House, a building that was reconstructed by the NPS to represent an actual seven-room dwelling built by ancient Native Americans, using the only construction material available, petrified wood, about a thousand years ago. Although centuries of weathering caused the original structure to collapse, park service staff used the same rocks to rebuild the house.
Realizing it’s a reconstruction, Agate House is still very pretty and was probably fairly resistant to the elements when it was first built.

About the states that contain petrified wood: were you able to name them? If you named all 50, you’re correct. Although each U.S. state contain some amount of petrified wood, northern Arizona is able to display one of the largest concentrations in the nation because of the geologic upheaval processes that brought the logs to the surface of the earth.

This particular log caught my eye because of the many colors it features. It’s simply spectacular. The different mineral composition within the petrified wood contributes to the varied coloration. The rocks can contain natural quartz, which is nearly clear and translucent, as well as varying amounts of iron, copper, manganese, and chromium, all responsible for the reds, yellows, purples, and greens. I would never take any rocks from Petrified Forest National Park. It would have meant that someone else wouldn’t have been able to see this one. However, if I was going to take a rock home, this would have been the one. But we have a weight limit, for towing safety purposes. on The Goddard. Also, I like my luck the way it is.

Petrified Forest National Park, Day 1

Near Holbrook, Arizona – March 25, 2022

Progressing east and west, Interstate 40 divides Petrified Forest National Park into northern and southern sections. The interstate generally follows the path of historic U.S. Route 66, which connected the midwestern United States to the country’s west coast in the first half of the 20th century. Although Route 66 stretched more than 2,200 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, Petrified Forest is the only national park with former segments of the historic highway within its boundaries. The area south of the interstate, much larger in size than the northern part, contains most of the petrified wood specimens in the park. The northern area, however, boasts incredible roadside vistas of the Painted Desert and a sizable national wilderness area. Nancy and I visited the northern part of the park in late March. Gunther stayed with Rusty in the Goddard, but Nancy and I would enjoy the dog’s company when we returned to the park the following day.

We briefly stopped in at the northern visitor center, which was undergoing significant renovation at the time, then proceeded to drive along a route that included a number of overlooks of Petrified Forest National Park.

I decided to use my 14mm wide-angle lens for taking pictures the day we visited the Painted Desert. I got it a couple of years ago to primarily take pictures of the night sky but thought its properties would help capture the feeling of the vast open landscapes of Petrified Forest National Park. There is a disadvantage to using this lens, though: it’s not automatic, so the aperture, ISO, and other settings all must be set manually. I’m no good at any of that. Many of the photos I took were over- or under-exposed, and I had to make manual adjustments using a couple of pieces of photo editing software.

One gets a different perspective of time and distance when visiting this part of Petrified Forest National Park. The different colors in the gullies in the center of the photograph represent 200 million years of sediment being laid down by rivers and then being eroded by later rivers, and the rock formation on the horizon at left, Pilot Rock, is nearly seven miles away. The horizon in the center is much further – perhaps a hundred miles.
This view of a deep basin formed from erosion is from one of the first overlooks on a road that goes through the Painted Desert. One can see for, literally, a hundred miles to the horizon. They’re not visible in this photo, but we could see many, many tractor-trailers traversing Interstate 40 on the other side of this huge basin. Sharp-eyed viewers will, however, note a distinct lack of petrified wood in this view; that’s because most of the petrified logs are well south of this part of the park.

Petrified Forest National Park contains only a small part of the Painted Desert, which stretches across almost 8,000 square miles of northeastern Arizona. The colorful rocks, primarily mudstone and sandstone, of this region are called the Chinle Formation. Deposited from 227 to 205 million years ago during the Late Triassic Period while most of the land area on Earth was on the single supercontinent Pangaea, the rocks have been buried, lifted, and eroded during Pangaea’s breakup and shift into today’s major continents.

There are still living trees to be found in Petrified Forest National Park, but they’re nothing like the towering conifers that grew 200 million years ago when the area was located at about present-day Costa Rica. The park’s overlooks are built on a layer of basaltic rock that was ejected from volcanic eruptions only between 16 and five million years ago, forming a protective layer that is much more resistant to erosion than the sedimentary layers of rock below.

During the Late Triassic Period, the land comprising Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park was located just north of the equator and supported a much different environment (different enough, for example, to support a forest of 180-foot-tall trees that would later become petrified). As Pangaea divided, the land mass migrated north and the land itself underwent massive changes.

The different colors seen in the Painted Desert are quite impressive. Large river systems flowed through this area hundreds of millions of years ago, depositing many layers of gravel, silt, and sand. The different colors of the layers are created by varying mineral content of the soils, which have been exposed through geologic movement as well as water and wind erosion.

The Chinle Formation is itself divided into five members: Mesa Redondo, Blue Mesa, Sonsela, Petrified Forest, and Owl Rock. Each member represents a transition of the land from wet to dry environments over millions of years: the Mesa Redondo, the oldest layer and therefore the one underlying the rest of the formation, consists of red sandstone originally laid down 226 million years ago, and the youngest, Owl Rock, includes pink and orange mudstone at the top of the formation that was deposited 207 million years ago.

Here we see a visitor to Petrified Forest National Park (it’s Nancy) contemplate more than 200 million years of geologic change that resulted in these magnificent views.

Older rock formations in the Painted Desert are at the bottom of the geologic column, and the layers of rock grow younger in age as the elevation increases. The colors of these rocks come from the iron they contain. Drier climates allow the minerals to become exposed to oxygen, causing the iron to rust and develop distinctive red, brown, and orange colors. When the climate is wet, moisture essentially covers the sediments and prevents their oxidation. Those layers are colored blue, gray, and purple.

I think a lot of people might underestimate just how wide-open the American West can be. This picture, taken from the Pintado Point overlook at the national park, gives an idea of how far one can see in the northern Arizona desert. For instance, Turkey Track Butte is nearly 23 miles away from this viewpoint but is still distinctly visible. Behind the butte, the San Francisco Peaks are barely discernable, but they’re more than a hundred miles away. Pilot Rock is the highest point in the park, and Lithodendren Wash is a seasonal stream.

Nancy and I took a short hike along the rim of the basin, and one of the highlights of that walk was a stop at the Painted Desert Inn, which was originally built as a respite for travelers on Route 66. The highway passed just a short distance south of the building, and a spur road brought visitors to the inn for refreshments.

Records are unclear regarding exactly when the building was first constructed, but descendants of the original owner say he built it in the late teens of the 20th century. The Painted Desert Inn had several owners during the course of its life as a place of rest for Route 66 travelers, but the U.S. government bought the building and four surrounding square miles of land in 1936. Petrified Forest National Monument had been established 30 years earlier, and the area became a national park in 1962.

The interior of the Painted Desert Inn now serves as a visitor center for the Painted Desert as well as a museum with artifacts from the inn’s heyday. It’s all very impressive and you’re going to have to take my word on that because none of the pictures I took inside turned out.

Despite my photographic foibles, we really enjoyed this first visit to Petrified Forest National Park. I grew up on the eastern plains of Colorado, and I know long, uninterrupted distances. They are nothing compared to what can be seen in northeastern Arizona.

We’d see more of the park, and a little bit of actual fossilized wood, the next day. (Actually, we’d see a lot of fossilized wood. So. Much. Fossilized. Wood.)

Tuzigoot National Monument

March 19, 2022 – Clarkdale, Arizona

We enjoyed a one-week stay in Camp Verde, Arizona, in mid-March of 2022, which allowed easy access to two National Park Service (NPS) sites. The first was Montezuma Castle National Monument, a cliff dwelling on which construction began a thousand years ago and which we visited on a couple of consecutive weekday late afternoons. The second was Tuzigoot National Monument, another ancient Native American dwelling site located about 20 miles northwest of Camp Verde. Tuzigoot was declared a national monument on July 25, 1939. Nancy and I visited the monument on a pleasant but overcast Saturday in mid-March.

Look closely at the top of the tower: that’s a group of about a dozen people. Tuzigoot is a big place.

Like the nearby Montezuma Castle, the Sinagua Native Americans began construction on Tuzigoot pueblo about a thousand years ago. Also like Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot is misnamed: it’s a corruption of the Tonto Apache phrase “Tú Digiz,” which means “crooked water” and refers to a bend in the nearby Verde River. The pueblo, located on a hilltop with 360-degree views for miles around the area, featured 110 rooms.

The proximity to Montezuma Castle, and to other pueblo communities like those in New Mexico’s Aztec Ruins National Monument and Bandelier National Monument, as well as Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, points to the fact that the residents traveled frequently between the dwellings and traded ideas and goods with each other. Again, much like the other pueblos in the area, the dwellings were abandoned beginning in the 1300s most likely due to a variety of reasons (depletion of natural resources, climate change, possible threats from other native cultures) rather than just one. Also, the Hopi, who count themselves among the Sinagua culture’s descendants, believe their forebears were naturally nomadic and didn’t like to stay in one place for too long.

The Tuzigoot National Monument experience begins with the site’s visitor center, which is itself a historic structure (although not as historic as the pueblo, since the visitor center dates only to 1936). The visitor center was built as a museum by local Clarkdale residents, who also helped professional archeologists with the initial excavation of the Tuzigoot pueblo. The center contains actual artifacts – not reproductions – that were found during the site’s excavation in the 1930s.

Here we see a Tuzigoot visitor (it’s Nancy), freshly armed with knowledge gained from the visitor center as well as a pair of binoculars, ready to begin her 1/3-mile trek to the pueblo. The center is a really cool building, both on the inside and the outside.

The visitor center is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a collection of 3,158 objects, not all of which are on display. The collection includes ollas (large pottery pieces serving as bowls or baskets), woven baskets, projectile points, and jewelry.

The visitor center has an extensive collection of artifacts from the Tuzigoot pueblo as well as from other ancient communities. Men and women from Clarkdale logged more than 34,000 hours excavating and conserving more than 150 pieces of pottery. These pieces, acquired back in the day by trading with natives from neighboring pueblos, date from the years 800 to 1375.
I really enjoyed these twig figures that represent mammals – they date from 4,000 to 2,000 years ago, but you probably read that. They’re each about four to six inches wide.
This example of a reconstructed wall from the pueblo shows how thick the structures were. That NPS flyer, placed helpfully by a visitor (me), is 8.25 inches wide. As anyone who’s ever built a pueblo knows, thick walls make for good insulation. Summer temperatures in the Verde Valley reach into the 90s, and wintertime lows commonly dip into the 30s.
We were happy to have some excellent birdwatching opportunities at Tuzigoot. This lesser goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) was singing a happy tune just outside the monument’s visitor center. These may be the smallest finches in the world: males generally range from 3.5 to 4 inches long and weigh between a quarter ounce and four-tenths of an ounce. Much of their diet consists of dandelion seeds.
The visitor center also has a nice native plant collection. This is a specimen of ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), which translates to “stay far, far away” in Spanish (not really). Although it looks like a cactus, it’s genetically related more closely to tea and blueberries (really). Ocotillo can grow up to 30 feet tall and is sometimes planted as a living fence.
Desertbroom (Baccharis sarothroides) is a flowering shrub native to the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Tea made from steeping the twigs helps alleviate pain from sore muscles. The plant is rich in compounds that reduce cholesterol and serve as an antioxidant. However, there’s also evidence showing that ingesting the compounds has its share of negative side effects so don’t go drinking that tea just yet.

The Tuzigoot site was first described by Anglo-Americans in the 1850s but wasn’t professionally excavated for nearly a century after that. Following the departure of the Sinagua, centuries of neglect, along with countless rain- and snowstorms, freezing temperatures, and the desert heat, left the pueblo in severe disrepair. The site was first excavated in the early 1930s and Portland cement was used to stabilize the rocks. Unfortunately, that material can, over time, damage the original rocks used in the buildings. In the late 1990s, researchers began to replace the Portland cement with mortar that is a better match with the bonding materials that were used a thousand years ago during initial construction.

This is from the top of the highest tower in the pueblo, looking southeast. The trees just on the other side of the meadow indicate where the Verde River flows. A couple of visitors to the left of the fence on the right side of the image provide a sense of scale. The pueblo was built on a hill that’s 120 feet higher than the surrounding terrain.
Nancy and I are fond of pointing out signs like this, which are necessary for exactly one reason.
This rock wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) was also happily singing, but on the rocks of the pueblo. They are also a very small bird, about 5-6 inches long and weighing half an ounce. Rock wrens are known for laying down a pathway of small stones outside their nests, which are located in rock crevices or in tree stumps.
Tuzigoot visitors are allowed to enter some of the rooms. This one allows access, via a steep set of stairs, to the top of the tower shown in the first photograph. The ceiling shows the viga-and-latilla (large logs crossed with perpendicular smaller logs) ceiling that also served as the supporting floor for the upper story.
Looking southwest from the high tower of Tuzigoot, the town of Jerome, Arizona, is visible from the top of the pueblo. Five centuries after the Sinagua left Tuzigoot, Jerome was founded at this location because of the nearby hill featuring a large capital letter “J.” I’m just kidding with you right now: the town was founded there because of the presence of immense amounts of copper underneath it. The copper mines have since played out. In 1930, Jerome had a population of close to 5,000 people and it now has around 500 residents. Also note the snow on the nearby mountains; Jerome is about 100 miles north of Phoenix and lies at an elevation of about 5,000 feet.

The 190-mile-long Verde River, which flows to the north and east of the Tuzigoot pueblo, drains an area of almost 6,200 square miles. The Verde flows just a few feet from where our campsite was in Camp Verde, which derives its name from the river. It eventually empties into the Salt River east of Phoenix, which in turn flows into the Gila River west of the city. A nice trail leads north from the Tuzigoot visitor center to a natural area called Tavasci Marsh (named after the family that once owned a dairy there). About 10,000 years ago the marsh was part of the river but it has since been separated through erosion and other geological forces to become a separate, but connected, wetland. There were, hundreds of years ago, many marshes in the Verde Valley. They’ve since been drained for human development and pasturelands, and today marshes are very rare in Arizona. The trail is a half-mile walk to an observation deck that overlooks the marsh, and there are more opportunities for birdwatching and plant appreciation.

I really like this plant, which we’d also seen at Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona. It’s desert Christmas cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis), and its pretty red berries were used by Native Americans to create an intoxicating beverage.
Sparrows aren’t generally thought of as especially attractive birds (I disagree), but the black-throated sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) is definitely an exception. These desert natives are 4.5 to 5.5 inches long and weigh about half an ounce. Black-throated sparrows are extremely well-adapted to their desert habitat (they’re also known as desert sparrows in the southwest); while they get a lot of their moisture from water sources during wet times, during dry periods they derive almost all of their necessary moisture from eating insects. This handsome sparrow was hanging out near the trail to Tavasci Marsh.
It wouldn’t be a visit to a Sonoran Desert site without seeing the strawberry hedgehog cactus. They just have ridiculously long thorns compared to their body size.
This is Tavasci Marsh, one of the few remaining wetlands of its type in Arizona. Nearly 245 species of birds have been documented in this riparian area and the marsh attracts plenty of other wildlife – none of which happened to be visiting during our time overlooking the area, but that’s totally alright because we saw plenty of other birds on the trails during our visit.

Tuzigoot National Monument is a fine example of the diversity of ancient Native American pueblos. As conserved by the National Park Service, the monument is a great opportunity to not only learn about its former residents, but to also see some great natural attractions.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

March 14 & 15, 2022 – Near Camp Verde, Arizona

Having nothing at all to do with Montezuma, the early 16th-century emperor of the Aztecs (known now as Moctezuma II), nor a castle in any sense of the word, Montezuma Castle National Monument is still a very rewarding site to visit.

It was very convenient to visit Montezuma Castle in the late afternoons after the workday ended, but the shadows weren’t conducive to good photos. However, we really appreciated our two visits to the monument.

Because access to enter the actual structures is limited to those who really need to go in them, the park also focuses a lot on native species of flora found in the region and provides a lot of interpretive signage next to examples of plants to explain how the plants were used by the occupants of the dwellings. As an (extremely) amateur botanist, this was fine by me.

This pretty shrub is four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens), named for the four-winged bracts on its berries. Everything on the plant – the leaves, fruits, seeds, and young shoots – is edible. The ashes from burned saltbush leaves make a type of baking soda which fortifies baked goods; the leaves can also be used to relieve pain from insect stings.

We were able to make a couple of late weekday visits to fully explore this monument, which is located just a few miles north of our campground in Camp Verde, Arizona. It was also the first opportunity for Gunther to earn a B.A.R.K. Ranger certification (more on that later).

Montezuma Castle includes a 20-room structure, as well as several smaller dwellings on the same cliff face. The area was established as a national monument on Dec. 8, 1906.

The structures in the monument were built by the Sinagua, Native Americans who migrated to this area about 1,400 years ago and began building the cliff dwellings about a thousand years ago – hundreds of years before Moctezuma II was born. The current name of the monument, Montezuma Castle, comes from European Americans who in the mid-1800s were extremely interested in the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures of present-day Central America and wanted to bestow exotic names on nearly everything they found.

Creosote bush (Larrea tridendata) is one of the oldest species of plants on the planet. Some stands of the bush grow in the same location for thousands of years. Its leaves definitely have an earthy smell like you’d experience after a rainshower. Native Americans used parts of the plant to treat a variety of ailments ranging from infections and toothaches to nausea and sprains.

The cliff dwellings are built in Verde Formation limestone, a relatively soft sedimentary rock. Over millions of years, the erosional forces of water and wind have had their way with the limestone to carve many holes into the rock. The erosional holes that are enlarged by humans into structures are called cavates by archeologists. At Montezuma Castle, most cavates extend about 10 feet into the cliff. By closing up naturally open spaces, and building exterior and interior walls with masonry, the Sinagua were able to construct secure housing for their culture.

This collection of 20 rooms belonged to multiple Sinagua families, very similar to today’s apartment buildings.

The Sinagua built and occupied the dwellings between the years 1100 and 1425, leaving the residences about 70 years before Columbus set sail. Montezuma Castle was at the crossroads of a Native American trading network that stretched from the coast of present-day California to eastern New Mexico, and from Utah into Mexico. That central location provided the Sinagua with many resources that weren’t available in the Verde Valley:

  • Obsidian, used for projectile points, came from the San Francisco Mountains north of the castle
  • Wild game and plants were taken from the Mogollon Rim, located east of the structure
  • Strong trading relationships with the Hohokam culture, in present-day southern Arizona, provided much more than was available in the Verde Valley

Contrary, perhaps, to popular opinion, because of that trading network the Sinagua had an awareness of their world that stretched for thousands of square miles.

Where the Sinagua went, and why, after about the year 1425 is still up for debate, but most researchers believe the exodus was due to at least one of three factors: drought, depletion of food resources, and threats from newly arrived cultures.

The Hopi culture, which may be descended partially from the Sinagua, believe this structure wasn’t meant to be the final home of their ancestors. When a culture stays too long in one place, the Hopi believe, environmental disasters and societal collapses remind them of their migratory nature – and they move on. The Zuni and other Puebloan groups are also said to be descended from the Sinagua.

The Apache name for catclaw acacia, ch’ill gohigise, means “a bush that scratches you.” The long and sharp thorns of catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii) are best avoided, but ancient peoples relies on many different parts of the bush for food and the branches are used to make furniture and drumsticks. The honey made from this tree’s blossoms is especially prized for its delicate nature. This specimen is growing directly in front of the dwellings; there’s an doorway visible behind the bush (and accessible only by ladder). We first saw catclaw acacia in late February 2022, when we visited Fort Bowie National Historic Site in southeast Arizona.

Between 1991 and 1994, an inventory of the plants and animals at this national monument was taken by a team of researchers from Northern Arizona University and the United States Geological Survey. That research resulted in the cataloging of 784 species of plants and animals in this 859-acre (less than 1.5 square miles) site; only 11 percent were non-native species.

A level and paved trail passes in front of the five-story castle, allowing visitors to see different perspectives especially as the sunlight changed. The Sinagua made improvements and additions to the castle over a 300-year period beginning around the year 1130.
In the American Southwest, plants with protective thorns – well beyond species of cacti – are very, very common. The catclaw mimosa (Mimosa aculeaticarpa) has the nickname “wait-a-minute bush” because it catches unwary hikers’ clothing. Catclaw mimosa is a genetic cousin of the catclaw acacia, and honeybees also seek out this acacia’s blossoms for their nectar.

Looters of the 19th century took many of the contents of the structures, and today the ruins are open only to scientists for research, inspection, and maintenance. This is in contrast to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southwestern New Mexico, in which visitors are allowed to enter the structures. Part of that policy us is perhaps due to proximity. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is one of those places you have to want to get to, since it’s nearly a two-hour drive from the closest large city; Montezuma Castle is just a couple of miles off Interstate 17 in central Arizona. About 350,000 people visit Montezuma Castle each year; Gila Cliff Dwellings gets about 42,000 visitors annually.

The modern structure at the bottom of the photograph is a kind of amphitheater in which U.S. national park rangers provide talks about the history and culture of Montezuma Castle. I wish we could have seen the castle with better lighting; as always, I blame the sun.
In autumn, the netleaf hackberry (Celtis laevigata) produces berries with high levels of calcium. The leaves are used to treat digestive disorders, and the bark of the tree can be woven into sandals.

Montezuma Castle National Monument was established by the administration of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. During his administration (1901-1909), five national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, and 51 bird sanctuaries. In all, Roosevelt authorized a total of 230 million acres (almost 360,000 square miles) for the enjoyment of future generations like ours.

Reaching up to 120 feet high, Arizona sycamores (Platanus wrightii) are some of the state’s largest trees. When seasoned properly, the logs stay structurally sound for hundreds of years: there are Arizona sycamore beams inside Montezuma Castle still supporting roofs, 700 years after they were first placed.

We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife while at the monument (Nancy and I were both surprised at the number of late-day visitors each day, but that was probably due to the monument’s easy access from the Interstate); however the habitat’s diversity (holes in cliffs to dry meadows to riparian areas) supports all kinds of bats, foxes, mice, owls, songbirds, snakes, lizards, and turtles.

These partially reconstructed ruins are just a few steps down the trail from the vantage point underneath the castle. Smaller cliff dwelling structures were located above these rooms.

Being open only to researchers is also due to the fact that ladders must be used to access the cliffside ruins: the buildings were definitely at least partially planned with defense in mind. Additionally most of the cliff faces south, which allows the dwellings to be warm in the winters and cool in the summers. The elevated location also protects the dwellings from occasional flooding of Beaver Creek, which flows beneath the cliffs.

Oneseed juniper (Juniperus monosperma — hey: I can figure out that Latin!) provided the Sinagua with wood for cooking, heat, and light, as well as shelter. The branches are also boiled for treating stomach disorders. When we’re hiking, Nancy and I really enjoy finding juniper berries — they smell really, really good. I love the character of this juniper’s trunk.
This is Beaver Creek, which flows a few hundred feet south of the main cliff dwellings at Montezuma Castle. Residents of the cliff dwellings dug ditches to transport water for irrigating corn, beans, squash, and cotton crops that were planted on land by the creek. The large tree on the far bank of Beaver Creek is an Arizona sycamore.
Providing food and shade, the Arizona walnut tree (Juglans major) was named ch’il nehe (“nuts you pound”) by the Apache. The thick husks of the walnuts were also ground to produce cloth, hair dye, and paint.
Here we see a monument visitor and her dog (it is Nancy with Gunther) passing underneath the branches of a western soapberry (Sapindus saponaria) tree. The tree produces small yellow berries, but the fruit is harmful when eaten. Despite their toxicity (and true to the tree’s name), the berries are used to make soap for laundry, shampoo, and general bathing. You can also see an interpretive sign next to the tree; that signage adjacent to the plants and trees is where I got most of the background information for this posting.
This is a view of Beaver Creek looking to the southwest. A few dwellings, much smaller than the main one we first encountered, were built in the cliffs on the right side of the photo. The creek was prone to flooding in spring, which was one reason the dwellings were built high on the cliffs.
Here’s a plant that should be familiar to many: the prickly pear cactus, in particular the Engelmann’s variety (Opuntia phaeacantha). This most common of Arizona’s prickly pears is still widely eaten throughout the southwest (after removing the spines). The pads, called nopalitos in Spanish, can be steamed, fried, pickled, or roasted. The fruits after flowering, too, are edible and are used to make jelly as well as to create red dye. This specimen was just outside the visitor center at Montezuma Castle National Monument.
Un cactus más para ti: the desert Christmas cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis). In December of each year, this cactus produces a bright-red fruit which is crushed and made into jam. We saw some of these plants at Saguaro National Park near Tucson and would see additional specimens of desert Christmas cactus in a few days, at Tuzigoot National Monument.

The National Park Service has a pretty nifty program in which dogs can earn their B.A.R.K. Ranger certification in certain parks and monuments. Gunther knows, and you should too, that B.A.R.K. Rangers:

  • Bag your poop. Always have your humans bag and dispose of your waste properly.
  • Always wear a leash. When in the park, always wear a leash (6 feet or less) and don’t let your humans leave you unattended.
  • Respect wildlife. Don’t harass or harm wildlife by making noise or chasing them.
  • Know where you can go. B.A.R.K. rangers are permitted in parking lots, campgrounds, picnic areas, roads, and designated trails.
Park Ranger Stephanie greets the newest B.A.R.K. Ranger, Gunther, at the Montezuma Castle National Monument Visitor Center and congratulates him on his many achievements.
Here’s Gunther relaxing in the Goddard with his certification (the inside is signed by Ranger Stephanie). Good job, Gunther!

The B.A.R.K. Ranger program is really clever: it keeps dogs out of hot vehicles while their owners visit national parks and monuments, while encouraging those owners to be responsible for their pet. Since that great day at Montezuma Castle, Gunther has also earned B.A.R.K. Ranger certification at Petrified Forest National Park, also in Arizona, and Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico. Look for future blog postings about those visits and more, and look for Gunther on the trails!

Website Built with WordPress.com.

Up ↑