Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument, NM
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM
Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument, NM
We stayed at the Aguirre Springs campground, the only established campground of the national monument. It is situated below the Organ Mountains and the Rabbit Ear peaks and above the military town of White Sands. At dawn the bugle can be heard from the valley below. The campground itself was pretty nice. There were a lot of open camping spots, but a few on the edges had enough trees to give some privacy. Most of them had pretty good views of the valley below and/or the jagged peaks above. The worse ones were situated downwind of the smelliest pit toilets I've experienced. They must have been dug incorrectly or they aren't digesting properly, but for the relatively low amount of traffic they have, they shouldn't be that awful smelling. I thought the better campsites were on the second loop that gave great 360 views and were away from the stinkiest privies.
From the campground, there are two trails - Pine Tree Loop and Baylor Pass. We hiked the Pine Tree Loop trail twice. The trail took us up towards the mountains through oak, mahogany, alligator juniper, and ponderosa. There were a couple of small seeps/creeks with water. Cottonwoods grew along one of the creeks, but there was surprisingly little bird active around it. No matter the time of day the Bewick's Wrens and Spotted Towhees were always calling. Plumbeous Vireos, Acorn Woodpeckers, White-throated Swifts, and Steller's Jays occasionally added their voices to the mix. Tree Lizards and New Mexico Whiptails scattered through the litter upon our approach. We didn't hike the entire trail to Baylor Pass, but it was a fairly level trail that headed north at the base of the mountains. The pass itself looked pretty low, so the trail might have been fairly easy. We drove around to the other side of the mountains when we were headed to the Dripping Springs Natural Area. The other end of the trailhead started in a cow pasture. Not much of a spectacular ending or beginning on that side of the mountains.
The Dripping Springs Natural Area is situated on the opposite side of the mountains to the campground. We stopped by the visitor center to check out the hikes and maybe gain a little information about the rest of the national monument. From the visitor center, we hiked to Dripping Springs and the ruins of a TB sanatorium and a resort (seems like an odd combo to have right next to each other). Along the way, we saw a small flock of Scaled Quail on the canyon wall and a large mixed flock of Chipping, Black-throated, and Black-chinned Sparrows working the recently burnt fields. Among the creosote and ocotillo behind the visitor center and the trail up to Fillmore Canyon, we listened to the rolling chortle of a Cactus Wren and were dazzled by the red flashes of a male Pyrrhuloxia.
We made an attempt to explore the other parts of the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument. From Las Cruces, we attempted to access the Dona Ana Mountains, which turns out isn't very accessible by car. We ended up at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park, which had a good view of the mountain. It was hot by the time we arrived at the park, so there wasn't much wildlife activity, save for a Greater Earless Lizard and a few Turkey Vultures. There was a network of paths with signs explaining the ecology of the desert. It might have been more interesting at a cooler time. We also stopped at the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument. I had misgivings after reading that all the tracks had been removed and displayed at a museum, and now the national monument is mostly for ORV use. I'd had good reason to be hesitant. There was one hiking trail that followed a ridge up through scrub, creosote, and agave - it gave great views of the "trackway," which looked more like an open mining pit. In the flats below stretched miles of the greenest farmland in stark contrast to the brown and gray of the desert. Farmlands around Las Cruces thrived off the waters Rio Grande. We didn't visit the other parcels of the national monument because they sounded just as bleak as the other places we visited. The Organ Mountains is really the highlight of the national monument - made more obvious by the established campground and visitor center of that area.
We enjoyed two nights at the Dog Canyon campground in relative peace and quiet - there were only a couple of other RV and tent campers during our stay. There was some bird activity around the campground - mainly the ever present Canyon Towhees mewing and squeaking in the brush. Near the Nature Trail we observed Broad-tailed Hummingbird males exhibiting their aggression toward each other by hovering mere inches over each the other's head while pumping his tail. They repeatedly displayed this aggression several times (over at least 2 days) and it looked like at least 3 males were involved. Cassin’s Kingbirds called from the grassy hills above the campground and Turkey Vultures grunted from their roosts in the canyon. As the evening set in, Common Poorwills and a lone Lesser Nighthawk called into the cooling night's air.
In the morning, we hiked up trail, following Dog Canyon toward Lost Peak. The canyon was busy with bird calls from Plumbeous and Warbling Vireos, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Cassin's Finch, Grace's and Virgina's Warblers, Hepatic and Western Tanagers, Ash-throated Flycatchers and Black-throated Sparrows. Among the oaks, ponderosa, and Texas madrone these birds were busy seeking out food or a mate or starting a family. The trail eventually crawled up out of the canyon and up towards the ridge. Bird life dropped off significantly save for an Eastern Meadowlark and a few Mountain Chickadees. We scrambled up to the peak, where we started following the Manzanita Ridge along an unmaintained trail marked by cairns. It was slow going along the rocky and grassy wind-swept ridge. We enjoyed the views of the canyons and washes below and tree covered mountains beyond. Butterflies flitted among the few blooming wildflowers and the occasional Black-chinned Sparrow could be heard trilling. Slithering through the grass was a striped whipsnake. The ridge trail eventually hooked up with the Bush Mountain Trail, where we looped back down toward the campground.
-Pine Springs/Frijole Ranch/McKittrick Canyon
While staying at the Pine Springs campground, we repeated much of what we had done in the past - birded the Frijole Ranch and hiked up to the Devil's Hall, to the Bowl, to Manzanita and Smith Springs, and up McKittrick Canyon. All hikes were wonderful and accented by the beauty of the canyons, mountains, oaks, alligator junipers, sotol, agave, madrone, and blooming beargrass and claret cup cacti. Despite the heat of the day that we hiked McKittrick Canyon, Summer and Western Tanagers, Gray Vireos, Black Phoebes and Rufous-crowned Sparrows were seen along the trail. Tadpoles swam in the slow moving waters of the creek, while mated damselflies rested on the rocks above. Frijole Ranch was a little slow in the birding department, the most active birds around the ranch were the family of Acorn Woodpeckers that would call loudly and give chase. Occasionally Summer Tanagers and Scott's Orioles would stop in for a drink, but overall it was pretty slow when we visited. The hike up the Tejas trail to the Bowl was as we remembered it - a long climb up the mountain on a gradual incline and switchbacks. Only the view below and fossils underfoot were distractions from the slow climb. In the bowl, there were a mix of birds - Western Bluebird, White-breasted Nuthatch, Black-headed Grosbeak, Hairy Woodpecker, and lots and lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers.
As much as I enjoy the Pine Springs area and it's convenient location to Carlsbad Caverns. It maybe a while before we return. The campground and highway has picked up the pace and the charm of feeling alone in the desert is long lost. Even the lights on the nighttime horizon told of new towns or more natural gas plants. Dog Canyon is the better choice for a more desert, deserted feeling.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
I admit - Rattlesnake Springs was something I was very much looking forward to returning to on this trip. This oasis is a great bird magnet both for resident and migrant birds. The cottonwoods were busy with Summer Tanagers chasing each other, Vermillion Flycatchers sporting their magnificent red crests, and creosote were hoping with Yellow-rumped, Wilson's and Lucy's Warblers. The Wild Turkeys were busy in the morning strutting in the lawn and showing off to each other. Other gems found among the birds were a male Painted Bunting, a Blue Grosbeak and an Indigo Bunting. Broad-winged, Swainson's, and Cooper's Hawks were the raptors we spotted in the area. Deep in a thicket a pair of bobcats were yowling loudly. A large bull snake lay calmly in the shade of the adobe house. Early morning was always the best, as by 11AM the activity dropped off significantly.
- The Caverns
We stayed the evening for the bat flight program, something we missed on our last visit, but had seen during the first visit. It was slightly different than the first time we visited. The ranger still held a 1 hour educational program about the bats. While he made it clear we needed to turn of our electronics, he also admitted that it wasn't the frequencies of powering electronics that scared the bats. Rather it was the flashes, beeps, and noises that the electronics emitted that would scare them. Rather than telling people to put things on silence, it is easier and clearer to tell people there to turn everything off. Also he seemed less concern about people leaving during the program and about people talking (as he ended up talking to tourists) when the bats were leaving the cave. One nice thing about how this ranger ran the program was that he didn't kick everyone out at 8 PM, so were able to stay later to watch the bats flow out under the dying light.
The bat program was definitely the highlight of our visit to Carlsbad Cavern. In the evening, the Cave Swallows were busy diving into the caves to their nests and shooting out into daylight to seek more food. They zipped by click and chirping away, oblivious to the tourists gathered below. While the ranger was giving his bat schpeel, I noticed a ring-tailed cat scampering on the boulders right above the cave entrance. It popped in and out a view for a few minutes, pausing out in the open for a good long while. Then of course once it was dark enough, a slow trickle of bats started coming out of the cave. They flew over the audience and toward their nightly hunt of moths. More and more of the Brazilian free-tailed bats poured out in a steady stream. We finally left when it became to dark to see their exit.
Though this trip was badly needed as an escape from work and the hum-drum of city life, we were left sadly somewhat unsatisfied. Perhaps it was because we had visited these places (or places very close to it) before, some of the charm had worn off because of the crowds or because the newness had become too familiar (though seeing the ring-tailed cat and the Scaled Quails were highlights of the trip). Or perhaps it was because we never felt completely unplugged and isolated from people (perhaps we should have spent more time at Dog Canyon). It was definitely nice to get back to nature, to hike, and to have some great times together, but I still look forward to the next trip and the next opportunity too see new things.