On the Road – New Mexico Edition

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I had hoped to take off from Ouray early Thursday morning, initially, but I had to stick around through the late afternoon to see the doctor and see whether I could get my stitches removed or not. She would do it for free versus having to pay another doctor somewhere to remove them if it wasn’t ready. Problem was I was supposed to be in Sierra Vista, Arizona to see my relatives by Sunday, so my time “exploring” New Mexico was slightly constrained.

I did indeed get my stitches out, thankfully. If you ever need stitches, don’t hesitate to see Dr. Shirley Olson at Ouray Family Medicine on the north side of town. She was great. I also had to pay a lousy traffic ticket before leaving town–don’t ever pass on the left in town! Even if the car ahead of you is virtually stopped in the middle of the road… As the officer pulled me over, the driver who caused the problem even hollared to the cop “Sorry, that was my fault!” But of course he still gave me a $100 dollar ticket. My last days in Ouray weren’t exactly the highlight of my stay.

I drove out of town, heading south, and bid the town I spent the last two months in farewell. I was going to miss it!

Up and over the Million Dollar Highway, past the sleepy ski town of Silverton, Colorado, and ascending up and over Coal Bank Pass. Leaving behind the jagged, powdery wonderland of the San Juans for the flatter and more desolate land to the south.

Mesa Verde National Park

I broke west for a detour to Mesa Verde National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which protects a tremendous number of well preserved archaeological sites of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples. The park sits high on an elevated plateau–mesa verde is Spanish for green table–where the Anasazi inhabited the area between 600 and 1300 CE.

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The cliff dwellings are the primary attraction and they are built under large outcroppings and right into the side of the walls. It is quite an amazing sight to see.

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I arrived shortly before dusk, which did not allow sufficient time to truly explore the park, but I got to see some of the main historical attractions and got a feel for the place.

It was a cold, quiet evening in the park.

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Mesa Verde National Park is an amazing national treasure, another one of Theodore Roosevelt’s protected areas, and one that absolutely warrants a visit if you are in the Four Corners area. See the Wikipedia page on Mesa Verde for further information.

Tribal Lands

After sundown I continued to the southwest. Through the little town of Cortez, Colorado and into tribal land. I stopped at the Ute Mountain Casino for a decent Native American buffet dinner, complete with fry bread and all. The Ute Mountain Casino is the largest casino in the Four Corners area and it was absolutely packed on Thursday night. It’s seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. Where did all these people come from? I mean, Farmington, NM is the largest town in the area, about an hour away and only has a population of 45,000. Like most casinos I’ve been to, it’s your typical depressing affair. Lots of older folks, chain smoking, and playing the slots.

The tribal history of the area is a complex and interesting affair. Chief Ouray, where the town and the county obviously got their name, was the chief of the Uncompahgre band of the Utes. The Ute Mountain Tribe is made up of other bands of Utes however. Ouray’s tribe, despite his travelling to Washington DC to negotiate their staying in Colorado, was ultimately moved to Northeastern Utah. The state name of Utah is also derived from the original Ute inhabitants of the area.

I then headed south, over the border to New Mexico, and now within the Navajo Nation–the largest Indian reservation by far in the United States, nearly the size of West Virginia. In my working days in Washington DC, I also handled tribal issues, a complex and extremely interesting topic if there ever was one. Our Nation’s history with this land’s first inhabitants is obviously troubling. And numerous issues today exist from the ramifications of the politically “good ideas” of the eighteen and nineteen hundreds.

Ship Rock, New Mexico

I drove through the poor and impoverished town of Shiprock, New Mexico, deeper south into the barren landscape surrounding Ship Rock, that famous climbing icon of the Four Corners and an important spiritual, mythological, and traditional site of the Navajo Peoples. The formation would obviously appeal to a climber. It rises sharply 1,500 feet out of the surrounding flatland and looks like a rock with wings. The first ascent route is featured in the 50 Classic Climbs of North America book; however, climbing has been banned by the Navajo Nation since the 1970s. See Mountain Project for climbing history details.

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I had no intention of climbing, I just wanted to see this thing–and I also just needed to find a quiet place to car camp for the night. In the dark of night I drove down the desolate roads toward the silhouette in the distance. Eventually I found a gap in the cattle fencing along the side of the road and off-roaded about 20 minutes down the bumpy, dusty path to the base of Ship Rock where I slept in the back of my truck. I was later told that this was probably also against the Navajo Nation regulations and probably shouldn’t have been done. But I was careful and respectful; taking only photos, and leaving absolutely nothing.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Friday morning I headed out from my Ship Rock truck bivy and went on to Farmington, New Mexico. Passing through this stretch of land was quite depressing. There is a deep and entrenched poverty in these parts. The unemployment level overall throughout the Navajo Nation is around 42 percent, with nearly half the population living below the poverty level. I have never seen so many people hitchhiking alongside the road as I have throughout this area.

On the drive from Farmington to Albuquerque is also the northern access point for Chaco Canyon. The park entrance is only 21 miles from the turn off, but the going is extremely rough. At least 13 miles of it is bumpy, windy, dusty, dirt roads. Portions of which feature some of the worst washboarded roads I’d ever been on. The washboarded roads would shake and gyrate my truck so violently I thought it would send pieces flying off. Indeed, there were ornamental hubcaps strewn allover the road side due to this. Expect to travel slowly–it’s probably about an hour drive.

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Chaco Canyon is another historical remnant of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples and was a major cultural center between 900 and 1150 CE. The concentration and quality of the pueblo sites is remarkable. I explored Chetro Ketl on my own before joining one of the free Park Service led tours of Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the ruins. Our tour guide did a good job providing an overview of the history of the area, the rediscovery of the ruins, and the ensuing drama with Richard Wetherill. Indeed, Richard Wetherill, who had a homestead on the site, and the actions of him and his men at the time led to the establishment of the Antiquities Act which vested the President with the authority to establish National Monuments. President Roosevelt subsequently used the Act to protect Chaco Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Mount Olympus, Devil’s Tower and numerous other areas of important historical and natural history.

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Following the guided tour I took a short but scenic hike up onto the bluff overlooking Pueblo Bonito for an outstanding overview of the large complex. I would’ve liked to have hiked further into the upper reaches, up to Pueblo Alto, perhaps, but my time was running a little short that day, and my former Ouray roommate was expecting me in Albuquerque that evening where I could crash on their couch.

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The City of Breaking Bad

It was strange to be back in a big city like Albuquerque again. I marveled at all of the shopping and stores that I hadn’t seen in quite some time. I visited REI to take care of a few things and had an amazing dinner at Ezra’s Place, located in a bowling alley. It came well recommended, and it did not disappoint.

The next day I took a little self-guided Breaking Bad tour (you can look up locations and addresses on the internet), where I got to see Walter White’s house and a few other notable attractions from the show. I’d just recently caught up on the latest season of the show and it was kind of fun, if corny, checking it out.

White Sands National Monument

After messing around for most of the morning, I drove south toward Alamogordo and my intended destination of White Sands National Monument.

After getting off the freeway the drive to Alamogordo is long and quite unexceptional. Exceptional perhaps only for it’s long and desolate stretches where the road seemingly stretches off past the horizon and into infinity.

I had initially hoped to go “backcountry” camping in White Sands–they have a handful of designated sites located a short walk from the parking area–but they require a permit from the visitor’s center and I arrived just after it closed. That was a disappointment, but I was still able to enjoy the gorgeous scenery just before sunset.

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It is a truly magnificent and beautiful landscape–rolling white sand dunes surround you.

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Glowing yellow and orange in the setting sun.

Pushing on toward Arizona

After the sun set I headed toward Las Cruces, New Mexico. I was starving at this point and eager to get some food. I could have cooked up some camp food at my truck, but people told me I absolutely had to get some Mexican food with the green chili sauce while I was there. I hit up Yelp and Foursquare to find somewhere good in this sleepy town and it led me to La Nueva Casita Cafe–a quiet little hole in the wall type of place on a dark and mostly residential street.

The food was phenomenal. The green chili sauce was so good! I got a sampling of different items, on a packed full of food, and it was all surprisingly cheap. Even though I’m usually trying to be cheap and save my money while on the road, I think it is still important to splurge on things like this to experience the local food and culture, or else why bother travelling anywhere in the first place?

I spent another evening in a Wal-Mart parking lot, this time in Deming, New Mexico. It’s not exactly my favorite place to camp, but it’s a safe and reliable place to do so when you are on the road. This particular Wal-Mart was packed with RV’ers and campers–more than I had seen thus far. Granted my other Wal-Mart camping experience was when it was 12 degrees out in Boise. No wonder the snowbirds fly south to the American Southwest every winter with their RV’s and motorhomes.

The following morning I continued the long and desolate drive to my Aunt and Uncle’s house in Sierra Vista, Arizona, and on to the next leg of my trip…

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Head Writer and Adventurer at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West, and then across all of Central America and South America. When he isn't on the move, you can find him living as an expat in Colombia. He is also the author of the best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget that will help you travel more for less. Follow the adventures on social media or read more.

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