Sunspot Scenic Byway

The faraway nearby is close at hand on the Sunspot Scenic Byway, a short sweet sprig of asphalt through deep dark woodlands offering occasional peeks at dunes, deserts and sprawling mountains beyond. Earth-shaking as these vistas are, the Sunspot Highway’s sphere of view doesn’t stop at the mere horizon but expands to galaxies, nebulae and solar systems of the final frontier. Two national telescope observatories at the byway’s terminus offer tours and exhibits to the earthbound public, while a consortium of scientists explores the heavens from its 9,200-foot elevation.

The 15-mile road begins two miles south of Cloudcroft off N.M. 130, where the Cloudcroft Ranger District of the Lincoln National Forest (505- 682-2551) provides maps and information. The town of Cloudcroft is named for the poufy clouds that frequently hug its forested hillsides. The byway officially is designated N.M. 6563 – the light wavelength in Angstroms used by scientists to locate active areas on the Sun.

At Haynes Canyon Vista, mere mortals may locate distant Earth landmarks bearing such gruff desert rat monikers as Hardscrabble and Little Burro Mountains, Oscura and San Andres Peaks – and the shimmering radiance of White Sands. As the road zigzags along the front rim of the Sacramento Mountains through pine, aspen and fir forests, similar lookouts provide a peek at the dramatic spectacle some 5,000 feet below as well as access to numerous hiking trails. The 13.5-mile Rim Trail, a National Recreational Trail, parallels a portion of the byway with spectacular views of the Tularosa Basin some 5000 feet below.

Surrounded by mountains, the Tularosa Basin encompasses 275 square miles of crystal white sand waves that lap up everything in their path as they are driven relentlessly by southwesterly winds. This ocean of sand, White Sands, was born itself of a shallow sea that covered the area 250 million years ago. Gypsum deposited beneath the sea turned to stone and shattered into sand crystals from the force of the headlong wind. The dunes of White Sands are an immense, luminous mirage as seen from the heady heights of the Sunspot Byway and are home to both a missile range and a national monument (505-479-6124) – on clear days, one may glimpse the newly-constructed space shuttle landing port.

Traveling backward in time, an old railroad grade from the 1900s parallels sections of the Sunspot Byway and some remnant wooden trestles may be visible. The Bluff Springs trail offers an easy hike along abandoned grades of the old Cloudcroft logging trail.

Back to the future at the end of the Sunspot Byway, the Sunspot Visitor Center and Museum (505-434-7190) first opened in July 1997 as collaboration among the National Solar Observatory/Sacramento Peak, Apache Point Observatory and the U.S. Forest Service. Sacramento Peak boasts some of the darkest, clearest skies in the country – at the opposite end of the road and climatic spectrum from misty Cloudcroft. Outside the museum’s interactive exhibits, visitors are greeted by the Armillary Sphere and Sundial – a five-foot diameter bronze sculpture showing the relationship between Earth and sky in Sunspot.

At Apache Point Observatory (505-437-6822), access to the telescopes and buildings is restricted but visitors are welcome to stroll the grounds. The desert skies of the Sacramento Mountains offer low humidity, low dust and very dark, transparent skies for observing the galaxies and nebulae of deep space. Scientists operate these telescopes by remote control via the Internet from aircraft, satellite links and even the South Pole.

The National Solar Observatory telescopes are designed for Sun watchers.

The Vacuum Tower contains a 329-foot-long tube with the air removed, so images of the Sun won’t shimmer the way White Sands does. The visible tower soars 136 feet overhead but most of the structure dives 228 feet below ground.

The Big Dome holds two main telescopes: one allows astronomers to study the Sun’s corona by creating an artificial eclipse with a disk blocking the brilliant Sun. The other telescope observes transient solar events like flares that eject particles which can reach Earth, causing the Aurora Borealis and disrupting some radio communications.

Stars are made up mostly of the hydrogen wavelength of 6563 Angstroms. Using this wavelength, scientists may observe the Sun’s atmosphere at cloud level and see clouds as well as sunspots, which one solar observer claims to resemble little black dots or eye pupils – complete with eyelashes.

Rumor has it the Observatory ordered the Grain Bin Dome from a Sears catalog back in 1950, when it was the first telescope dome built in Sunspot. Sunspot residents now use it at night to watch the stars and Moon.

Byway visitors may continue on the paved highway to the small ranching community of Timburon or head back to Cloudcroft to continue space exploration at the Space Museum in Alamogordo. En route, visit two of 58 wooden railroad trestles dating from the mid-19th century on the Cloud Climbing Rail Trail off U.S. 82. Cloudcroft once could be reached only by a locomotive that hauled passengers and freight 6,000 scary feet up a precipitous canyon. The remnant S curve trestles spanning the canyon are an impressive link in our perpetual human quest to bring the faraway nearby.