Exploring New Mexican Names: Mount Taylor

President Zachary Taylor never saw Mount Taylor nor set foot in New Mexico, but he made his mark on the modern state of New Mexico in a couple of ways. As a prominent general in the Mexican-American War, he helped bring most of the territory of New Mexico into the United States. And during his brief presidency, Taylor opposed Texas’ claims to the eastern half of New Mexico. Thanks in part to President Taylor, Burqueños live in New Mexico and not Texas.

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This is the first post in a series exploring New Mexican place names. This series explores New Mexican history, US history, and geology. If you have suggestions or feedback, I welcome your comments!

Looking west from the Albuquerque foothills, Mount Taylor is the most prominent feature in the western panorama. It was named in 1849 for then-President Zachary Taylor. The Navajo call it “Tsoodził” (don’t ask me to pronounce that), and the mountain is important in the beliefs of the Navajo and local pueblo peoples. The mountain is rich in uranium, and was a mine until 1990. In nearby Grants, you can visit a uranium mine museum. If you’re a masochist, consider the Mount Taylor Quadrathlon, featuring biking, running, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. 

Zachary Taylor was the second and last Whig to be elected to the presidency. Both he and William Henry Harrison were generals, and both died early in their presidential terms. Taylor was mostly apolitical; the presidency was his first elected office. He fought in the War of 1812, against the Black Hawk Indians in what is now Minnesota, and against the Seminoles in Florida. He was called “old rough and ready.” His daughter married future president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, but she died three months into the marriage.

Taylor came to national prominence during the Mexican-American War. This war eventually brought the territory of New Mexico into the union, and is detailed in Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War. Taylor won famous victories in the Battle of Monterrey and the Battle of Buena Vista. The war was initially popular, and Taylor became correspondingly popular after his victories. Taylor privately opposed the war from its beginning, calling an early troop movement “injudicious in policy and wicked in fact.”

Democratic president James K. Polk (1845-1849), who had almost single-handedly created the war, grew frustrated that Taylor, a whig, was getting credit for what Polk considered democratic achievements. Before the Battle of Buena Vista, Polk stripped Taylor of a portion of his troops, leaving Taylor and his troops more vulnerable to attack from the army of Mexican general Santa Anna. (Santa Anna was a busy boy in early Mexican history; he was president 11 nonconsecutive times, and he was the leader of the Mexican forces at the Battle of the Alamo in the Texas revolution.)

As time passed, the war grew unpopular, and so did Polk. After the invasion of Mexico City, the war stagnated, with US forces harassed by guerrilla warfare. US troops committed atrocities, such as the Agua Nueva Massacre. Polk wanted to annex all of Mexico, and some wealthy individuals in Mexico preferred this to the constant coups that plagued early Mexico. But would this territory permit slavery? And how would dreaded dark skinned Catholics be allowed to become citizens? Eventually, the upper one-third of Mexico’s territory was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (a treaty that Polk opposed, but grudgingly accepted).

Taylor never saw Mount Taylor nor set foot in New Mexico, as far as I can tell. But he made his mark on the modern state of New Mexico in a couple of ways. The Mexican-American War brought most of the territory of New Mexico into the United States. And during his brief presidency, Taylor opposed Texas’ claims to the eastern half of New Mexico. Thanks in part to President Taylor, I live in New Mexico and not Texas.

Taylor assumed the presidency in March of 1849. Perhaps Polk resented this, but not for long; he had the shortest retirement of any president, dying just three months after leaving office. In the 1800s, presidents took office on March 4th after the election. Because March 4th, 1849 fell on a Sunday, Taylor refused to be sworn in. This led to “President for a Day” David Rice Atchison, who is slightly famous in my home state of Missouri. Taylor lacked specific policies and history considers him to be in the worst 25% of presidents. On July 4th, 1850, President Taylor ate some fruit and milk at a Fourth of July celebration. He became ill and died on July 9th, leaving Vice President Millard Fillmore, who is rated even worse than Taylor, historically. Polk, incidentally, is rated 10th best president, a ranking I suspect the author of A Wicked War disagrees with.

Perhaps someday I will learn how to pronounce Tsoodził, what it means, and the names and meanings of Mount Taylor in the Puebloan languages. Until then, I suppose Old Rough and Ready will have to do. He seems like the sort of person one makes do with.

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Mount Taylor framed by an outcropping in the sandstone cliffs of El Malpais National Monument.

Nature Nearby: Albuquerque’s Carlito Springs

Amidst the many natural wonders of a state like New Mexico, it can be easy to overlook local gems like Carlito Springs. Located just 20 minutes east of downtown Albuquerque, Carlito Springs feels more like the Appalachian Mountains than the southwest. It’s a place with quirky New Mexico history, lush foliage, and inspiring landscaping.

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The History

Carlito Springs was first settled in 1882 by Civil War veteran Horace Whitcomb while he looked for gold. In 1930, it was bought by Carl Magee, editor of the Albuquerque Tribune and patent-holder for the parking meter. He named it “Carlito” for his son, Carl Jr., who died in a plane crash. (This link contains an excellent and more detailed history.)

Of course tuberculosis, America’s deadliest disease at the time, played a role in Carlito’s history. In 1910, 3000 of Albuquerque’s 13,000 residents were people seeking treatment in the dry, high air. Today, Lovelace and Presbyterian Hospitals, two of the largest systems in the city, remain from the tuberculosis treatment days. Magee’s wife was tubercular. The property was used as a sanitorium before Magee’s purchase.

Magee’s daughter married a Sandia atomic scientist, and many of the features of the property date from that time. The pair won many ribbons at the New Mexico State Fair as “master gardeners,” and planted flowers and fruit trees on the property. Today, architect Baker Morrow calls Carlito springs “one of the most amazing landscapes in the southwest.” The property has several cabins, as well as the springs, several highly manicured fishing pools (no longer stocked), fruit trees and flowers. If you’re an engineering nerd like me, you can check out the rusty vintage concrete pourer, which I suppose was used to craft the lovely railings around the ponds.

Carlito Springs was only permanently opened to the public in August of 2014. Because the property is on the steep banks of Tijeras canyon, substantial work went into building the trails that lead to this historic property. They did a great job, and Carlito Springs is a great Albuquerque attraction.

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The Hike

The hiking loop is about 2.4 miles, with about 400 feet of elevation change. From the parking lot, take the fork left for the most direct route to the cabins and ponds. This is the steepest section of the loop; it follows the springs up the side of the canyon, but it is cool and shady. The trails is good quality, without many rocks or roots to impede footing. The last few hundred feet before the cabins are switchbacks.

On the first leg of the hike, mind the poison ivy which grows near the trail. In May, there was quite a bit of it, neon green and inviting, but the trail is wide enough that it’s easy to avoid. By the cabins and on the second part of the loop, I didn’t see any.

To the left of the cabins (if you are facing them), you can follow a small spur which leads to a view of the valley. It’s a steep walk and you get the view later anyways; when I do the hike again I will skip this spur.

To the right of the cabins (again, as you face them) the loop continues. Just past the largest building, you will find the cement mixer, some various old rusted implements, and a port-o-potty. By the cement mixer, you can look into Tijeras Canyon, this time without the extra vertical effort. It’s a pretty enough view, besides the mining facility (which I omitted from my image).

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The final leg of the loop is sunny and gently sloping. Here, you see red soil and cacti rather than water and poison ivy. In May, the sun was pleasant, but this south-facing trail could be hot later in summer. We had this portion of the trail to ourselves.

May was a great time for this hike. Up by the cabins, peonies and columbines bloomed. Later in the hike, cacti bloomed. We read about wildlife sightings such as bears and deer at Carlito, but on a busy Saturday, we had no encounters.


Extras

Carlito Springs is only a couple of miles from the famous “singing road” portion of Route 66. You can take Route 66 (Central Ave) from Albuquerque, or you can overshoot the Carlito Springs turn and u-turn. The singing portion is only eastbound. It’s silly, but entertaining.

Albuquerque Driving Trips: To Carlsbad and places in between

A four day driving trip itinerary from Albuquerque to Carlsbad Caverns and back, visiting several sites in the Sacramento Mountains and Tularosa Basin, such as White Sands, Ski Apache, Ruidoso, and BLM sites. Photos of the highlights.

The cliffnotes

Summary: Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the only national park in the state of New Mexico. It is in the far southeast part of the state so a visit requires some travel time. The fastest route from Albuquerque is 4½ hours, but features fewer tourist attractions. On this trip, we went through the Sacramento Mountains at Ruidoso (east) and Cloudcroft (west). This let us visit Ski Apache in Ruidoso and White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo. We left after lunch on Thursday, and returned home around 5 on Sunday.

The unexpected good: Ruidoso was great! It’s like a little Colorado resort in southern New Mexico. We loved our lodging and the food. The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site near Tularosa had vivid petroglyphs with stunning backdrops. And the weather in late February was a great balance; the ski resort got some snow shortly before our arrival, the Tularosa Basin wasn’t too hot or cold, and road quality was good.

The bad: 15 hours of driving in four days was a lot, even on the easy roads of New Mexico. Ideally, we would have stayed another night in Carlsbad but (1) the hotels are pricy, and (2) the elevators at the national park are offline until summer 2016. Going up and down the natural route was too tiring to do more than once. Lastly, the drive from Artesia to Cloudcroft at sunset was beautiful but not very fun. We had too many close calls with deer. They are on the move at sunset, and the driver is blinded by the sun going west.

Places visited (click the links to jump to the sections)

Duration: 3 nights, 15 hours total driving time

  • Night 1; Thursday, February 25th: The Sitzmark Chalet Inn in Ruidoso, NM
  • Night 2; Friday, February 26th: Carlsbad, NM
  • Night 3; Saturday, February 27th: Alamogordo, NM

The route

Click here for the interactive Google map with the above destinations to make your own changes!

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Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument—Gran Quivira Ruins

Salinas Pueblo Missions are a different kind of ruins than Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde—they are the ruins of both ancient native life and the intersection of that life with Europe in the 1600s. The Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument contains sites of three Franciscan missions on the New Mexican frontier. These sites were abandoned in the late 1600s and weren’t rediscovered again until the 1800s; they are artifacts of ancient native life, the Catholic effort to convert the Pueblo, and interactions of the New Mexican government, the Catholic presence, and the Pueblo Indians. Gran Quivira has been a national monument since 1909.

As you may have guessed, ruins that the world forgot for 150 years are fairly remote. The Gran Quivira Ruins are an hour and a half from Albuquerque, beyond the Manzano Mountains. But if you’re heading to Ruidoso, the visit adds only half an hour.

Gran Quivira is a stark place. There are no trees, and you can see for miles. We were there at midday, and you can see from the photos  below that the light is harsh. I suspect summer at Gran Quivira would be oppressive.

In the ruins, I felt that I stood at the memorial to a tragic intersection. The park ranger told us that local Indians still consider the site sacred, and visit from time to time. The remains of a village and kivas, Pueblo religious structures, sit side-by-side with two large Franciscan churches. The village contains several hidden kivas as well; as the Franciscans stayed longer, they grew less tolerant of the native practices. The title of this excellent (but long) report on the site says a lot: “In the Midst of a Loneliness.” Gran Quivira, remnant of contact between two worlds, is very, very lonely.

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Ski Apache near Ruidoso

I am a rookie skier, but I’m trying to learn since New Mexico has such wonderful mountains. We stayed in Ruidoso and went skiing at Ski Apache in the morning. The drive was slow and winding but what views! Ski Apache is on the second highest peak of the Sacramento Mountains, next to the highest peak, Sierra Blanca. We got to be good friends of Sierra Blanca by the end of our trip. We took the gondola to the top of the mountain to look west. From the top of Ski Apache we saw White Sands National Monument and the black lava of Valley of Fires.

Though we were in Ruidoso for less than 24 hours, I was charmed and I want to go back. Our hotel, the Sitzmark Chalet Inn, was an adorable and affordable little ski chalet complete with a fireplace. We had an awesome meal at Grill Caliente (amongst other things, their salsa was delicious). When it gets hot in Albuquerque, I will remember Ruidoso.

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The main feature of the trip! Alas, the elevator was broken, which added over a mile each way to our journey. I was happy on the way down, but less excited when it was time to climb. I was carrying many pounds of camera equipment, and grateful for the subterranean climate. The elevators should be repaired by summer, from what we were told.

The caves are awesome. Of course they were. We spent a whole day in the caves, and I want to go back already. Parts of the cave close at 3:30, so with the elevators offline, it’s important to start early. There are guided tours to additional areas. They don’t allow tripods, so I didn’t get to see them this trip.

I gained an appreciation for the fragility of the cave ecosystem. As we descended the trail, dozens of boy scouts lay on the floor, dabbing it with paint brushes. They were removing lint—the hair, skin cells, and other debris we leave as we go about our business, but is bad for a cave’s health. You also can’t bring food into the cave for this reason. We walked the asphalt path from the entrance and through the great room. I imagined what damage that must have caused to the environment and what a cave expert might tell me. But what’s done is done, and I was very happy to explore this subterranean wonder.

We had little time to explore Carlsbad. But it’s nearly in Texas, and that inspired thoughts of barbecue. We went to Red Chimney Bar-B-Que and had some awesome brisket. Even on a busy Friday night, we ate well and quickly. Pecans are a local crop in the southeastern part of the state, so I got some pecan pie to go and had it from breakfast in the morning.

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White Sands National Monument

I first visited White Sands in the fall; I loved it so much I wanted to visit again on this trip. That meant driving from Artesia through Cloudcroft to Alamogordo. It was a beautiful drive, but on the east side of the range we saw more deer than cars. We drove west at sunset and dusk, which in retrospect wasn’t a good idea.

I recently moved west, and White Sands is delightfully western to me. It’s a national monument nestled into a missile range. Sometimes it’s closed when they are testing missiles! The whole thing is made of gypsum, the same stuff that makes drywall. Gypsum dunes aren’t very common because gypsum is soluble. But the Tularosa Basin that hold White Sands, Three Rivers petroglyphs, and Valley of Fires is nearly devoid of water. So it has dunes of gypsum that are so snow white they stay cool under the hottest sun. In the visitor’s center, you can buy sleds and slide down the dunes like snow too. (The air doesn’t stay cool, so visitors should bring lots of water. There is no water within the park. We have a 5 gallon jug we leave in the car on every trip in case of emergencies. It’s less than $20 on Amazon.)

White Sands is like visiting an alien world. NASA tests Mars equipment at White Sands. The dunes at White Sands have been used to model the gypsum dunes on Mars. At White Sands, you walk in whiteness between two mountain ranges. Despite the austerity, signs of life are everywhere. There are roadrunner tracks, beetle tracks, and more. During the day, though, you see little but the remnants.

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Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

After a few hours at White Sands, wind blew up some dust and haze. We left early and looked online for some other attractions along our route. We found the Bureau of Land Management’s Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. Since Albuquerque has wonderful petroglyph in Petroglyphs National Monument, we wondered if it would be worth it, but the reviews were encouraging.

Three Rivers is just north of Tularosa, so we stopped in at the Casa de Sueños restaurant. They are fast, cheap, and delicious. It was our second visit, every bit as good as the first one. On weekdays, they have a nice lunch buffet.

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site was definitely worth it. It’s only a paved mile or two off US 54. As with White Sands, the San Andres Mountains in the west and the Sacramento Mountains in the east provide dramatic backdrops. With a National Parks Pass, Three Rivers is free, and without it, it’s still cheap. It even has RV hookups and plumbed bathrooms. Three Rivers has 21,000 petroglyphs, and you enjoy them under Ski Apache’s Sierra Blanca. Albuquerque’s petroglyphs provide an interesting juxtaposition between city and ancient. Three River’s petroglyphs seem at home in the untamed west.

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Valley of Fires

We weren’t done yet with the Tularosa Basin. Next was the Valley of Fires, a long patch of lava just west of Carrizozo. Carrizozo is the county seat of Lincoln County, which may sound familiar if you are a western enthusiast. Billy the Kid is the famous outlaw of the Lincoln County War. The area is littered with historical markers for murders and battles associated with the war. Carrizozo was also the first town downwind of the Trinity nuclear test.

Valley of Fires is a lava flow north of White Sands. What a strange valley the Tularosa Basin is—stark white in the south, black in the north,containing  a missile testing site and rimmed by mountains and nearly devoid of water. The Valley of Fires flow is the second youngest lava site in the state, second to the El Malpais National Monument flow. It has a maintained walking path, which is nice because lava is tough to walk on. To the west, we got one more beautiful view of Sierra Blanca. The recreation area has toilets and picnic areas and more RV hookups. Be aware that a parks’ pass only halves admission.

We drove west out of the Tularosa Basin and past the turnoff for the Trinity Testing Site, which is only open one day a year (April 2, 2016, this year). The testing site is in the Jornada del Muerto (trans: route of the dead man) desert in the western part of the White Sands Missile Range. Then we were back in the Rio Grande Valley, and our vacation was over.

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The Grand Recap

We crossed the Sacramento Mountains to and from Carlsbad Caverns. For a four day trip, this added more driving than ideal; it would have been better to go the quick route one way and only meander for one leg. The drive from Carlsbad to Alamogordo was especially challenging and should not be done at sunset.

But everything we visited was awesome. The weather in late winter was comfortable for hiking, let us ski, and let us enjoy snowy vistas of Sierra Blanca. There is a lot to do in the southeastern part of the state, and we just skimmed the surface on this trip.