Thursday, May 30, 2024

New Mexico Spring Shakedown - May 2024

Super Short Spring Shakedown

May 8 - 10, 2024

Remember to click any photo for a larger version.

Intending to visit the deep outback of Utah before it gets hot, I needed to check all camper systems were functioning properly. Thus a short trip was on the menu. I'd been building a home made "barn door" star tracker which needed a test, too, so a visit to a location with dark skies was in order. I remembered seeing a spot on the map called "Cosmic Campground" in southwestern New Mexico which sounded just right.

Wednesday, May 8th

Google stated that it would take only about 4 hours to reach Cosmic Campground, north of Glennwood, NM. I figured it would take my rig a little longer. Looking at the satellite map of the campground it looked pretty baren and open, so I didn't want to arrive too early in the day and have to just sit around waiting for full dark. Even leaving mid-day would get me there too early. I looked for somewhere interesting to stop along the way and decided a hike at Lava Falls in El Malpais National Monument would suit as it was along one of the routes to take. I'd been there before, but a second look would be good.

Lava Falls

I headed out Interstate 40—what a dreadful stretch between Albuquerque and Grants! I was very relieved to turn off on NM-117 and drive into El Malpais. Such a crazy place with the topsy-turvy lava flows. I've written about this place several times; look in the right-hand column for a link to those other postings.

The turn off the highway to the trailhead is well marked and I proceeded down a good dirt road only about a mile to the parking area. The wind was blowing and it was a bit cool, but not a bad afternoon for a short hike. The trail is listed as a one mile loop. 

Typical scene

"Trail" is a grand term for the route across the lava. One has to follow the cairns which are made from the same lava, so if a cairn gets knocked over it essentially disappears. About a quarter of a mile in I had no idea where I was supposed to go. No need to panic I just walked along a ridge enjoying the views. I was pleasantly surprised that some of the cacti were starting to bloom.

At first I thought this lava gravel was being added to the cracks to make the trail safer.
Later I realized this was all a natural process.

Tenacious life.

In a while I came across a couple who were on their way out. I'd apparently cut across the loop. I followed the cairns in the direction from which they came and found the far point in the loop after a little while.

An interesting dome structure.

The "end" of the loop. I guess this is part of the "falls" in Lava Falls.

I didn't take the extension of the loop as I was tired of the chilly wind, but I did last time and recommend it. I continued in this "reverse" direction around and back (only getting lost one more time. LOL) I figure I walked a figure '9', but it was all good when I got back to the truck.


South of El Malpais is open plains and it was indeed plain. I followed 117 then left on NM-36. I passed through some hills and arrived at Quemado where I topped up the tank. It was nearing the half full/empty mark. From there I took NM-32 south though the Gallo Mountains and Apache National Forest. This is a very pretty section as the highway climbs up into the green forest with mountains on either side. There is also a dramatic canyon which you wind through on the way south. Sorry, I didn't think to stop and take photos.

At Apache Creek I turned west on NM-12, passed through the town of Reserve, then left on US-180 for about 16 miles to the turn-off to the campground. Fortunately the junction is well marked. I didn't know what to expect. The National Forest Service website for Cosmic Campground listed its "Usage" as "Light." I wondered if there would be anyone there or not.

Cosmic Campground

I got my first clue when I turned off the highway and saw two or three RV/camping trailers disperse camped just off the road. As I drove along I was delighted that this was no barren desert, but a beautiful piñon juniper forest blanketing an area of rolling hills. When I drove over the hill where I got my first glimpse of the small campground I was chagrinned to see it was packed with cars, trucks, and large camping trailers. I drove around the short loop road and did not see a single open site. Not at all what I expected. I parked by the vault toilet and walked back to where I'd seen a woman sitting in a camp chair beside her car.

I asked her if all these people were there for the dark skies. She didn't know, but said she was. We chatted for a couple of minutes. I mentioned I'd intended to camp and try out my home made star tracker, but there were no open sites. She said she'd walked along the dirt road that continued past the campground earlier in the day and that there were many nice dispersed sites along that way. I'd noticed the road when looking at the satellite map, but thought it just lead to an old corral and cattle tank. She said next time she'd not stay in the campground itself with the trailers and generators, but find a spot along that road.

I took that nice lady's advice. I passed the first few sites as they were still close to the campground. I found a beautiful, level site at the top of a knoll. There was even a small tree that might block the westerly wind. I was hoping the wind would die down by nightfall and it did.

My campsite in the late evening.

I set up my photo equipment before it got dark. I noticed I had a strong cell signal so called my step-mom to check in while waiting for it to get dark outside.

Barn Door Tracker on my tripod. The camera attaches to the ball-head on top,
but it's not there now as I'm using it to take this photo.

It's hard not to have an appreciation of the night sky when camping in the outback as often as I have. I do confess, though I enjoy the beauty of the stars and the Milky Way, I never learned more than a few of the most popular constellations. Oh, I could often spot Venus, Mars or Jupiter, but that's about it.

I was able to calibrate the alignment of the tracker before the trip, but the mechanical parts were not working well enough to take clean, sharp images. Still I was enjoying the excuse to be at this lovely location. I went though the motions of taking sequences of stars and looked up at the sky trying to learn the names of the brighter stars. I'd brought my spotting scope to look at planets after my photo session, but discovered none were visible this night. Oh, well.

The Little Dipper—"It's full of stars." See paragraph below for details.

This is an image from the astrophotography processing software I'm trying to learn. There is a technique of "stretching" which is supposed to make image from your camera sensor look more like your eye sees the sky. I have not mastered this technique so my photo is too "flat", meaning the stars are all a similar brightness. Consequently, it would be impossible for you, the viewer, to determine the stars in Ursa Minor from the photo. So, I added a dim outline during post-processing as an aid.

Thursday, May 9th

Cosmic Campground (continued)

It was a beautiful, sunny morning so I sat out in my chair enjoying the view with my coffee. An older gentleman (who, honestly, might be younger than I am) came walking briskly up the road. I wished him a good morning and he stopped to chat. He was staying in a trailer in campground—no interest in the dark sky, just enjoying a free campsite in lovely New Mexico. He'd been there a few days and mentioned there were a few nice trails to hike in the area.

Morning view looking back toward Cosmic Campground, where you can see the white trailers.
Most of Whiterocks Mountain is in NM, but the back part is in Arizona.

I thought I'd walk up the road, myself, a little later in the morning, but in the meantime strolled around my site and found lots of blooming wildflowers. I found more flowers when I did hike up the road along with nice views.

The road past my campsite winds around the hills and up to a ridge.

As they say "LichenSubscribe."

Tufted Evening Primrose

Some sort of daisy. I wasn't able to narrow it down.

You can see this Phacelia plant all over the dry areas of NM.

Common dandelions are pretty when not in your lawn.

I wasn't aware of seeing Golden Desert-Trumpet before. It was all around the area.

Spreading Fleabane or Purple Aster, if you prefer.

Beautiful bouquet!

Desert Dandelion doesn't look much like ordinary dandelion, IMHO.

More of the flashy Golden Desert-Trumpets

And another beautiful roadside bouquet!

I enjoyed a lazy afternoon. When I was planning the trip and thought this was going to be a barren area, I had tentatively planned to revisit The Catwalk near Glenwood, then find a new campsite at another location. This area is so nice I decided to stay here another night

Where I spent much of my day.

I set up my camera and star tracker before it got dark. I took more star sequences pointing at different parts of the sky. As I had the night before I also took sequences of calibration photos, but I won't get into the technicalities here. I also knew this was more an exercise of learning the procedures and the processes without expecting much in the way of results (which was indeed the case once I reviewed the photos at home.)

As it was getting dark I photographed this "toenail" moon.

Friday, May 10th

Cosmic Campground (continued)

Started the day with a reprise of the previous day: enjoying coffee and the view from my camp chair; walking up the road and photographing the wildflowers. This had been a wonderful location to camp and enjoy the lovely countryside. I feel comfortable in recommending this area. There are a number of very nice dispersed campsites along the road both before and after the official campground.

The road makes for a dandy hiking trail.

Yellow Evening Primrose

New Mexico Thistle

It was then time to break camp and head back home. The shakedown had been a success and pretty much all systems were fully functional. The only issue was that the camper batteries no longer seem to hold as much charge as they have aged. Regular readers will know I obsess over this aspect which has become more critical since I've had to use a CPAP machine overnight the last several years. (Spoiler: when I got back to town I purchased a third AGM battery to place in parallel with the other two. This should give me a comfortable margin for cloudy days or for fall camping when the days are shorter.)


I returned home initially following the route I drove coming down, but rather than face I-40 I stayed on US-60 until Socorro. I refilled the tank there and headed up the freeway for home.