I could have titled this post for the park in which we stayed or for the places we hiked, but because in Spanish alamo = cottonwood and gordo = fat — Fat Cottonwood! — there was really no other choice.
We had to take our chances on finding a spot at this park since all the reservation-only spaces were taken. Our luck held out, and we snagged the last water/electric site that was large enough for us. There would have been room for us to dry camp, but with the springtime heat in full swing, being without the ability to run the air conditioner if needed was something we wanted to avoid.
In reading reviews for this park, I’d seen someone mention that if you wanted to see cacti blooming, this was a good place to do it in May. How right they were!
So many kinds, our heads were on a swivel. We could barely walk two feet at a time without wanting to stop and take a picture of every single blossom.
There were only three trail options within the park, and we started with the most difficult one first, the Dog Canyon Trail.
The trail began at the Visitor Center and immediately climbed steeply for the first .6 miles.
It leveled off into what is called the First Bench, a section of much-needed flatness for .4 miles that offered views of the campground below, Holloman AFB, and even White Sands.
The climb began again for another 2 miles but at a less severe gain until it reached the Second Bench, an even longer and greener flat section.
At 2.9 miles were the rocky remnants of the Fairchild line cabin, and the area was the perfect place to stop for lunch under the shade of some massive alligator junipers and fat cottonwoods (!) beside the stream. This was where we, and most hikers, turned around although it is possible to continue on. We’d been told the trail would become even steeper and rockier and the views wouldn’t improve all that much, so we weren’t tempted to go any further.
The second trail was the short nature trail that also began at the VC.
It dipped down to the water then resurfaced into the open and traveled around to the stone ruins of Frenchy’s cabin.
It was not a particularly interesting trail, but there were pretty yellow columbine down by the water (as well as poison ivy.)
The third park trail was the road to Oliver Lee’s old ranch house. There are ranger-led tours a few times per week, but for our first visit, we walked down on our own, which was around 2.5 miles roundtrip.
I kind of liked the ruined look better, even though it wasn’t authentic adobe.
On another day, we again walked down the road, this time to meet up with the guided tour and have a look inside the ranch house. Only I had brought my camera, and I didn’t take pictures inside, but we again met a friend on the walk down. We’re so lucky to run into so many friends!
The weather turned cooler with a few passing rain showers for our last few days, but that wasn’t a bad thing at all.
Less than 16 miles outside of Fat Cottonwood stretches a wide sea of pearly gypsum sand. The beautifully stark contrast between the bright, alabaster sand and the cerulean blue sky has made it the backdrop for many a motion picture. A BBC documentary called them “dunes that should not exist” because gypsum sand is rare since it dissolves rapidly in water. The arid climate in New Mexico, however, means this place is unique to the world.
Spring in New Mexico is a gusty business, and we watched the wind forecast carefully to select a day on which blowing sand would not be a danger or annoyance. Park warnings advise that if the temperature is predicted to exceed 85F, hiking here is pretty bad idea. To that end, we arrived promptly at 0700. The gate opened ‘promptly’ at 0712 or so.
There are a handful of hikes in the park, and we hightailed it to the far end for the 5-mile Alkali Flat Trail. (“Flat” not being a trail descriptor.)
The dune trails are designated with color-coded markers that are hiked point-to-point. Walking on the crests of the dunes or across the flat sections in between is relatively easy. Walking up the dunes? Hilariously painful. The pale hills mock even experienced hikers, pushing them backwards one step for every two they take forward.
Much of the place looks like an uninhabited wasteland, but there is life out there. The sand was crisscrossed everywhere we looked by the symmetrical tracks of lizards, one of which we even saw briefly.
Many people walk and hike barefoot because this sand doesn’t get hot, but
Walking (skiing) down the dunes is much easier than going up, and the park even sells saucers so folks can go sledding. We didn’t.
When we arrived back at the car two and a half hours later, it was only 70F, but we could see why they discourage hiking here in hotter temps. 70 felt hot.
We stopped at the Visitors Center on the way out so I could get a cool drink — a phrase I said repeatedly because I like to say “cool drink.”
Alamogordo sits on the valley floor and because of that it experiences the stereotypically higher southwest temps. A 45-minute drive away takes you up to between 7-9000′ and a whole different climate zone in the area of Cloudcroft.
Our first trip up into the mountains was to hike the Upper Karr Canyon Trail. We took a too-early turn and ended up driving a long portion of rough forest service road that, although it ended up at the same place the paved roads would’ve taken us, it left us (mostly me) a bit irritated.
The area was beautifully blanketed with grass and pines. While our route was relatively flat, the altitude upped the difficulty more than we (mostly me) expected, as we hadn’t been at appreciable altitude for awhile.
It was a nostalgic change of pace, reminding us of our old stomping grounds. We had hoped for a 5+ mile hike, but our route ended at a private property fence sooner than the maps and trail descriptions had indicated. Although this trip was a bit of a bust, we made plans to re-visit.
And re-visit we did to hike the Willie White Trail.
and that’s about as pretty as it got for 10 miles.
Oh sure, it started nicely. Easy grade, nice footing, open field views, perfect weather.
Then right after someone nearly got trapped in the fence, the trail entered the trees, where there were no more views, and it became foot-achingly rocky. We were also at 9000′ and for the first half of the hike, it felt like I could’ve closed my eyes and fallen asleep walking. Much of the second half was better physically (still hurt-foot) but there was nothing of note to see. We didn’t even take any pictures in the woods. At one point, TBG gestured to the surrounding trees, exclaiming, “This? This is boring!”
We kept at it, though, spurred on by visions of wild game burgers and cherry cider. Once we emerged from the trees, things prettied up again for the last couple of miles.
Our third and final foray up to Cloudcroft was to the Little Apache Trail.
Although a shortie at only 3 miles total, this trail was fun, seeing as it was not a rocky foot-buster, and it was mostly level because it doubles as a cross-country ski route.
We didn’t espy any critters, but we had a chance to scope out some good USFS camping options for the future and a nice drive through the cute downtown of Cloudcroft.
One More Thing…
We meet the most interesting people living the way we do, and Rusty was no exception.
A frank, funny, fellow full-time RVer, Rusty hosts his own YouTube vlog on which he highlights the folks he encounters in his travels and showcases their various RVs. Completely unedited and narrated in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, his videos are as oddly captivating as the man himself.
He made a video of us! See it and more of his stuff here –> Rusty78609
You’re not going to believe this, but about five years ago, he volunteered at the same place we’re headed to, and he had our sides splitting with tales of his summer there. Thanks for the laughs, advice, and the video shout-out, Rusty! Keep it between the lines!