Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Albuquerque, New Mexico: Unser Racing Museum

Auto racing fans know that the Unsers are the First Family of Racing. Consider that Al, Bobby and Al. Jr. have won a combined nine Indy 500s over the years. That's a record that might stand for a while.

The Unsers are from the Albuquerque area, and they decided to give something back to their community. The gift came in the form of a museum, that does a fine job of reviewing the careers of the racing family.

The car shown in the photo has some special significance. It was the one in which Al Senior won his fourth Indy 500. Only A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears join Al as four-time winners. There are many other cars around the museum, along with videos, kiosks, displays on engines and cars, and a kids section. I particularly liked the computer simulation of driving five laps at Indy - I got it up to 180 on the straightaway. A second building has some more cars by other drivers. The gift shop had a good selection of items, including some autographed items by family members.

Here's a video look around:


There's one added benefit to it - you might meet a legend. Al has been known to spend time there, particularly during Balloon Fiesta Week in October. If you drop in, you might have the chance to shake hand and pose for a photo with one of auto racing's all-time greats. Al was quite friendly during our visit, and still looks good at the age of 77 as of this writing.

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Albuquerque, New Mexico: Old Town

We visited four good-sized cities in New Mexico in a week. Three of them had plazas.

Albuquerque is the biggest of the cities, and has the biggest of the plazas.

This used to be the center of commerce, but then the railroad came through town around 1880 in a different spot. Business followed the choo-choo. The area went downhill for a while, but eventually became a trendy spot for artists, etc.

Now there are about 150 stores in the area surrounding the center square shown here. The Church of San Felipe de Neri dominates one side of the plaza. It's been around since 1783 - the year the Revolutionary War ended. Elsewhere, you can get the usual tourist items - shirts, jewelry, art galleries, etc. Some days there are musicians playing background noise for your visit.

Let's take a longer look around:


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Albuquerque, New Mexico: The Library

Who says eating and drinking aren't educational?

That's not the case at The Library Bar & Grill. It's located at 312 Central Ave. in the middle of downtown Albuquerque.

And take a look at those books. Even the Jolly Green Giant would have trouble handling volumes of that size. (Ho, ho, ho.) If you look carefully (click on the photo), you can see that the titles are puns - such as "Lord of the Onion Rings" and "The Wrath of Grapes."

You'd hope that they keep "Today in Buffalo Sports History" handy for reference, but that may be asking a lot.

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Tijeras, New Mexico: Musical Road

This is the type of tourist attraction that you'd probably only discover by reading Roadside America's web site. A big thank you goes to that group for this.

Because, how else would you hear music coming from a road?

You have to follow the instructions exactly right. The area in question is on Historic Route 66 east of Albuquerque. Get off of Interstate 40 at Exit 170, and then go east for about 3.5 miles. You'll see a two-part sign. The first says "Go exactly 45 mph," and the second one is shown above.

Then you must drive on the rumble strip that is close to the white line while sticking to the 45 mph guideline. We missed the strip the first couple of times, and heard a little noise on the third. But we persisted, turning around again and again. On Try Number Four, we heard the final few bars to "America the Beautiful." It only works when going east.

The New Mexico Highway Department teamed up with National Geographic for this stunt, which was installed two years ago. This video is a good way to experience it; the author notes that the second strip used to play the Nationwide theme, but thankfully does not any more.

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Albuquerque, New Mexico: Petroglyph National Monument

The hope of many writers and artists is for their actions to live as long as possible. In Albuquerque, that hope seems to be coming true.

It's the home of Petroglyph National Monument, one of the nation's best places to find drawings from American Natives and Spanish settlers. They date back between 400 and 700 years old, and are found throughout the park grounds. You can see up to 100 in a single hour in certain places.

This National Monument has a slightly odd layout, in that the Visitor Center is nowhere near the actual hiking trails. Visitors should stop at the center first to register (there's a small fee involved), find out about the park, and receive instructions. Be sure to stop and watch the 20-minute video on the place. Then they can go to three separate areas for their walks.

The symbol shown above is quite common. Our guess is that it's a sign of life - the longer the swirl, the longer the life. But to a certain extent, we're still guessing what these people from the past were trying to say.

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Taos, New Mexico: San Francisco de Asis Church

The roads to and from Taos to Santa Fe are said to essentially end in the same place - the well-known San Francisco de Asis Church. It is located where the Low Road and the High Road more or less meet (it's a couple of blocks south of the intersection on Route 68).

This adobe structure dates back to the 1700s, and is considered one of the most beautiful buildings of its type in the country. No wonder it is a National Landmark.

One tip - the church is set back from the road a bit, so look for a parking lot on the east side of the road. The front entrance is on the other side of the building. And bring a camera.

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Taos, New Mexico: Kit Carson Home and Museum

Kit Carson is one of those figures from the Old West who is relatively famous, but many probably don't know why. In real life, he was (according to the brochure of the building shown here) a trapper, scout, rancher, Army officer, courier and U.S. Indian agent.

Carson lived in Taos for more than two decades (1843 to 1866), and his home has been a memorial for more than a century. The place became a museum in the 1950s, and became a national landmark in 1966.

There are plenty of photos and other items about Carson's life here, and you can buy some books to find out what all the fuss was about. It's across the street from the Taos Plaza in the "historic district," which is only a couple of blocks long.

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Taos, New Mexico: Taos Plaza

When visiting Taos, a visit to Taos Plaza is almost required. It's been the center of the city for more than 300 years.

The Spanish first set up buildings on this plaza when they arrived. The place has evolved into a center of commerce. The four sides have stores that sell the usual tourist items - shirts, crafts, jewelry, etc. There's also some restaurants around, and the Hotel La Fonda looks over it all.

There is parking there, but it fills up quickly. So you might want to get there before 10 a.m. in order to grab a space, or just plan on making a small walk.

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Rio Grande Gorge State Park, New Mexico

Parts of north central New Mexico are flat. Really flat. Pancakes should be so flat.

That makes it surprising when east-west drivers suddenly come across a canyon that's 1,300 feet across. It's a spectacular site too - another part of the land chiseled out by the Rio Grande over the centuries.

A nice bridge goes over the chasm. Not only does that allow traffic to sail over it, but it is a great stop for tourists as well. They can stop on either side of the canyon and park, although the west side is the one with rest rooms and some Native vendors. That way, the tourists can walk to the middle of the bridge on a sidewalk, look down and see what it looks like. And it looks spectacular from 650 feet above the water.

Come to think of it, it looks good from a drone's-eye view too:


My friend fell out of a raft in this part of the river during a trip. I'm glad he didn't wind up in the Gulf of Mexico, like the river.

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Pilar, New Mexico: Rio Grande Gorge

There are two ways to go from Santa Fe to Taos - the Low Road and the High Road. Most people seem to prefer the High Road. Yet the Low Road deserves more attention, in part because of a short cut that few probably know about.

Yes, there's a story there.

We were driving along Route 68 when we hit some construction, which slowed up our travel. As we crawled along, we came to the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center, run by the National Park Service. Those are always worth a stop.

While there, we told the ranger we were headed to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, located almost due north. She said we should take a short cut - as long as we didn't mind driving on a dirt road for a couple of miles along the way. We were game.

A quick left soon after leaving the visitor center put us on Route 570, when we realized we were now driving right along the gorge - as opposed to relatively close to it on the main road. Wow. It was fabulous, and unexpected. There were a couple of campgrounds on the road, and other places to stop and take in the scenery. We even stopped and put our hands in the Rio Grande; it was rather cold. The dirt road left the car a little dusty, but it was well worth it.

As usual, it's tough to capture it all with a single photograph. The one displayed here will have to do. But there's always a video:

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Los Alamos, New Mexico: Main Gate

Los Alamos wasn't even a town before World War II. All that was up the hill was a boys' camp.

But the geography was a key reason why the United States government chose to pick that area as the headquarters for its research for the atomic bomb. There was only one road into town, and that same road took you out of town. That made it extremely easy to keep it secure.

Anyone who made the drive had to pass through security. A replica of the gate stands in a park along the entrance to the area. It opened in 2016 as part of ScienceFest - which seems like an appropriate festival for a place like Los Alamos.

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Los Alamos, New Mexico: Manhattan Project National Historical Park

Welcome to America's newest national park. It's so new that you could call it a work in progress.

The Manhattan Project National Historical Park is split into three places - Colorado, Washington and Tennessee. All three had a role in the development of the atomic bomb, one of the most important scientific and military discoveries in history. It is called the Manhattan Project because work first started in New York City.

Los Alamos was where the research took place, as some of the world's great scientists took part in a race to develop that first bomb - knowing that the winner of the race might win World War II, or at least end it quickly enough to save many lives.

The top top figures in the effort were J. Robert Oppenheimer, heading the science part, and Brigadier General Leslie Groves, who handled the military end of it. It proved to be a good combination.That's why they are honored in this little park in Los Alamos.

Some of the houses and buildings that were used in that effort are now available to be seen by the public. The area had been a camp for boys before the war, but was taken over for the top-secret project. There is a visitor center nearby, and it has maps of the attractions that can be seen. (Others are still behind the walls of the National Laboratory near by.) A history museum is in one of those now-open buildings.

Some of the other buildings are displayed in this video:


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Los Alamos, New Mexico: Bradbury Science Center

Los Alamos is a relatively little town in the hills of New Mexico. It's also one of the smartest towns in America - thanks to the National Laboratory that's located there. It is best known as the place where scientists figured out a way to create an atomic bomb during World War II.

You'd expect such a place to have a science museum, and Los Alamos indeed has one. The Bradbury Science Center is considered the best such museum in the state when it comes to atomic energy.

The biggest attraction in the place comes right away. Replicas of the two bombs - Fat Man and Little Boy 0 are right by the lobby as you enter. It's part of the room devoted to defense, which includes safeguards, science and a theater that shows a movie about the lab. The other rooms are devoted to research, history, and a film on the Manhattan Project. It is all well done, and not exactly dumbed down either. Interestingly, there's a "public forum" area in which people can offer different views concerning the subjects raised in the museum, which is a nice touch.

There is a small gift area, which sells such items as a toy Einstein and shirts with the National Laboratory logo on it. If you have any interest in the subject of atomic energy - and most people who come here probably do - this should be an early stop of your visit.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

White Rock, New Mexico: Overlook Park

Sometimes you just get lucky while traveling.

We had stayed in White Rock, a "suburb" of Los Alamos, one night on a vacation. We started a morning drive to Los Alamos when my companion suggested we stop at "Overlook Park," which was marked by a sign. We didn't know anything about it, but we knew we were in the mountains, and the views were often fabulous.

Fine. I took a quick right and a left, and followed the signs to the park. When I found it, I drove past a couple of baseball fields to a parking lot. Then it was a short walk to the overlook.

And our mouths opened wide.

The overlook is more or less at the end of a ridge. There is a canyon to the left, a canyon to the right, and a valley to the front. In other words. it's about 300 degrees of views of the area. The Rio Grande cut some of the land up, and a volcano did the rest. The effect inspires awe. I could only think of the Grand Canyon as having something similar. We're talking world-class stuff here.

Be sure to keep an eye on those road signs. You might discover something special. 

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Valles Caldera National Preserve, Colorado

Walk on this grassy trail in New Mexico, and you are walking on history. Explosive history.

That's because you are standing in the middle of a volcano. It's a rather odd feeling to do so, provided you know the history of the area.

It seems that once upon a time, that meadow was the middle of a super-volcano - more than 13 miles wide in spots. More than a million years ago, it blew in gigantic fashion, changing the topography of the area for many miles. Everyone seemed to have a different idea of the amount of material that was discharged by the boom, but they all agree that it was much, much bigger than the 1980 explosion at Mount St. Helens.

Thankfully for us, the volcano is now dormant. It is a giant meadow that has been the home to wildlife for centuries. The area used to be in private hands, but now it is part of the National Park Service. There are said to be 5,000 elk in the park boundaries, as well as other animals. Valles hosts some hunting and fishing during the season. It also has plenty of dirt roads for those who want to explore the area, as well as a marathon race (!), cross country skiing and some lodging.

Since the photo doesn't do the place justice, let's go to the video tape:


It takes a little work to get to a place like this, but the chance to walk on a volcano doesn't come very often. Just watch out for the elk droppings that are on the ground as you hike.

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Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

Frijoles Canyon was formed more than a million years ago by a huge volcanic eruption. It's a difficult place to get in and out of, even today, but people have been doing it for centuries.

One group of Natives spent many, many years there before leaving. As you can imagine, not many people dropped by for a visit after that - so the signs of the civilization were left intact.

That makes it an interesting place to visit today.

Some of the population lived near the river, and much of the work was done down there. But the living quarters eventually moved up the small hill to rocks located on one side of the canyon. When the residents discovered that the rock was relatively soft, they chiseled out homes. The cave dwellings are still around for our inspection. Sometimes the Natives used the caves for storage, as they built living space directly in front of it. Visitors can enter a couple of the spaces, as long as they don't mind climbing up some ladders.

Most people walk through the canyon on the Main Loop Paved Trail. It's a little more than a mile, and covers the highlights of the area. But it's a big area, with plenty of hiking trails (70 miles) throughout the region. You can see petroglyphs, interesting plant varieties, waterfalls and wildlife if you wander off the most beaten path.

It's a rule in National Parks - guided tours are the way to see the area if the schedule permits. Our guide certainly knew a lot about the area and its history.

Some basic information: the park is closed off to passenger cars in the summer. Shuttle buses go from White Rock to the main visitors center whenever the park is open. There is a snack bar on the grounds, which is helpful.

Much more to see, of course, than what I can show you here:


The place reminded me of Mesa Verde in Colorado, which isn't that far away as these things go. In fact, they may share some members of family trees - those in Mesa Verde moved out due to drought. The canyon itself is beautiful, so it is worth a visit just for the scenery. But you might learn a few things during your walk.

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Tesuque, New Mexico: Camel Rock

New Mexico has all sorts of interesting rock formations, and this is one of the most famous. Camel Rock, well, looks like a camel, particularly when viewed from the side.

But there's a bit of a problem with this. Earlier in 2017, the camel lost its mouth. In other words, the part of the rock that formed the bottom of the "mouth" fell away. It still looks like a camel, but it's not like it used to be. Now comes the debate on whether to fix it.

The road that goes north out of Santa Fe (Route 84/285) hosts the attraction. It's across the street from the Camel Rock Casino, and only takes seconds to visit. It is interesting to consider what it may look like in future visits.

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Santa Fe, New Mexico: State Capitol

By now, you've figured out that the capital of New Mexico is Santa Fe. I would bet many of those east of the Mississippi guess that it is Albuquerque. Biggest city, state university, etc.

Santa Fe historically has always been the capital of the region, dating back to the Spanish colony days. So the tradition continues to this day. What's more, New Mexico has one of the most unique capitol buildings in the country.

For starters, it doesn't look like an office building. It looks like an art gallery. The place has artwork on all of the walls. The effect is striking, and making it a pleasure to walk around.

There are the usual big rooms for the branches of government, but they fit in to the overall architecture nicely. There is no central dome, like most capitals, but there is a nice atrium in the middle of the building. It's shown here. Even the Governor's office was different and nice. There's a nice room of artwork in the reception area, with the pieces frequently changed.

Here's a video of "the Roundhouse":


The place was rather empty during our visit. Does anyone work in October? At least the people at the Governor's office were extremely friendly and helpful when we showed up. The Governor, though, wasn't around.

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Santa Fe, New Mexico: San Miguel Mission

File this one under antiques.

The San Miguel Mission is the oldest church in the continental United States.

The structure was built around 1610 or so, so it's been operating for about four centuries. Mass is still held on Sundays here.

The adobe walls are still intact, although some work has been done on the structure over the years. A bell now found inside the church was said to be cast in Spain in 1396. There are even some paintings from the 1600s in the building.

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Santa Fe, New Mexico: Loretto Chapel

The first question is: What's keeping that staircase up? There's no second question, really.

Welcome to the Loretto Chapel in downtown Santa Fe, a quick and easy yet interesting stop on any walking tour.

It seems that when the church was built in 1878, someone realized there was no good way to get up to the second floor. After praying to the patron saint of carpenters for several days, someone showed up on the front door and said he'd be willing to do it.

During the next several months, our mystery workers put together the staircase. There's no supporting structure; it's not even nailed together. The pieces were carved out in order to fit precisely together. To add to the story, the wood is of a type that is not normally found anywhere near New Mexico.

When it was finished, the carpenter left without asking for money. He didn't even leave his name. But the sign outside calls it "Miraculous Stairway." They may have a point. The railings were added a few years after construction to make it safer for people who use it.

The Chapel is a museum now, so the stairs are the main attraction. Very nice.

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Santa Fe, New Mexico: Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

A church has been on the grounds for most of the past 400 years or so, but it has had a couple of changes over the years.

The first version lasted from 1610 to 1630, when it was replaced by a building that was destroyed by a Native revolt in 1680. The church was rebuilt in 1714 and named after St. Francis of Assisi. A cathedral went up on the spot in 1887, and someone from that time period would recognize it now.

The big attraction of the facility is shown here. It has a statue of the Virgin Mary that dates back to 1625 - the oldest such depiction in the United States.

The building became a Basilica in 2005. That's a cathedral that is something of an historical landmark in the history of the Church.

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Santa Fe, New Mexico: 109 East Palace

This little courtyard in the historical section of Santa Fe has some good-sized history attached to it.

During World War II, the United States was in the process of setting up the laboratories that would work on atomic weapon development. The town for that work was started from scratch, and eventually became known as Los Alamos.

When people "checked in" to work at the lab, they did so right here. That means a virtual who's who of atomic research visited here to fill out forms and have a photograph taken on their way to Los Alamos.

You can find a plaque honoring this area's small part in the road to the atomic bomb and victory over the Japanese on the back wall of this area. In the meantime, the area certainly is a colorful place of business now.

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Santa Fe, New Mexico: Palace of the Governors

Here's a building that has served the public for more than four centuries. In other words, it was serving as the capital of Spanish New Mexico ten years before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth.

The Palace of the Governors is indeed a special place. The inside is occupied by a history museum, with more than 15,000 objects filling up the space. They date back to the building's origin. As you could imagine, there's a lot to see.

On the outside, registered vendors sell crafts, jewelry, etc. I believe candidates have to fill out some paperwork and be approved to get a spot on the sidewalk, which is located on the plaza in Santa Fe. Since it is the center of tourism for the city, those spots are coveted.

The Palace is the center of any tour of Santa Fe. The historic district is going to be a little upscale for some tastes, as it concentrates on artwork and jewelry stores. Think Yuppy Heaven. But it certain has charm. Here's a look around the city:

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Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico

When traveling, we always like to check the National Park Service website for the full list of attractions. No matter what they are and whether they are famous or not, they probably are worth a stop.

Such is the case for the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rock National Monument in New Mexico. If you've heard of it and you don't live relatively close to it, you know your national parks.

The monument is located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, a handful of miles west of Interstate 25. Most of the land within the 4,645 acres is pretty typical of the region. But after paying a fee at the entry point and driving five miles to a trailhead, you can see what the fuss is about.

Those rocks really do look like tents, and there are a bunch of them.

The NPS brochure says a volcanic eruption formed them millions of years ago, and that's good enough for me. Some of the rocks are 90 feet tall. The Cave Loop Trail gives you an up-close look at the tent rocks as well as the while cliffs, and it's easy to navigate. The more athletic types can add another mile to the hike, with a route that heads steeply into the mountains. It's a 3.5-mile drive from this trailhead to the Veterans Memorial Scenic Overlook, with views of canyons, mountains and wilderness.

The entry fee for vehicles is only $5. Bring your own drinking water - a must when hiking at this altitude. With that out of the way, let's go for a hike:

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Albuquerque, New Mexico: Balloon Fiesta

Definition of a tragedy: Only using one photograph to illustrate a story about the annual Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque.

I took about 30 photos during my visit. Almost all of them are great - credit the fiesta, and not me.

Our first clue that the Fiesta was something special came when we were making travel arrangements to go to New Mexico in October. Why was it so tough to get a hotel room on the weekend? Oh, the Fiesta was taking place. Eventually, we found a room and made some plans to go on our first full day in Albuquerque.

Thankfully, we received some helpful tips on the event the night before from a pair of friendly tourists who had gone Monday morning. The Fiesta is held on the northeast corner of the area, just off Interstate 25 (there are signs, as you'd expect). The starting point looks something like a state fairgrounds, except there's a grassy field for launches that is about the size of 12 football fields combined. When the weather is right, the balloons start to inflate and rise shortly before dawn (7 a.m. in this case). Visitors can get up quite close to the balloon crews as they set up for launch.

You don't want to miss the Mass Ascension. A few hundred balloons go up within the space of an hour, all with unique shapes and bright colors. It's almost overwhelming, and very thrilling. Soon the sky is filled with balloons, sort of like everyone at the Macy's parade had dropped the ropes ... times 30. Visitors can go along for a ride by making reservations in advance. Just be warned that it's pricey, depending on how long you want to ride.

The launch field is lined on one side with vendors. There's plenty of food available as well as some items for sale. Interestingly, the official store of the Fiesta seemed to be the only one selling t-shirts - which were a little expensive and a little thin. Keep in mind that every store in Albuquerque sells t-shirts and sweatshirts in October, so you might do better elsewhere. At one end is a balloon museum, which has gotten good reviews from visitors.

I guess the place is really mobbed on weekends, to the point where bus service to the area starts at 4:30 a.m. from parking lots. On a Tuesday, we got there at 6:30 a.m., which worked out perfectly. There is an afternoon session as well each day, although my guess is that the morning ascension is more spectacular. You can buy tickets to both in advance; parking is $15.

This is the largest balloon festival in the world, and it's a wonderful and unique experience - the highlight of our New Mexico trip. Here's more images of the 2017 edition:

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Albuquerque, New Mexico: Sandia Peak Aerial Tram

The best introduction to Albuquerque is to take the Sandia Peak Aerial Tram shortly after arrival. After all, you get to see the whole region (11,000 square miles on a clear day) all at once ... and have a great ride along the way.

The interesting part is that the ride up might be even better than the stay at the top.

 From the bottom, a mere 6,559 feet above sea level, the line looks close to impossibly steep. In other words, you probably wouldn't want to hike it. It takes about 15 minutes to go up 3,819 feet at 12 mph, passing over all sorts of interesting rock formations. The tram passes over the site of a 1955 plane crash, which is why one area is called TWA Canyon. You might even see some unusual birds and animals along the way.

Passengers arrive at 10,378 feet. Keep in mind that the temperature drops several degrees along the way, so dress accordingly. You can take all the time you want to look around. There is the top of a ski slope on the other side of the mountain crest, which looks like a good-sized challenge. A restaurant is scheduled to reopen in 2018.

Two trams go at the same time to keep things balanced, so they leave every 15 minutes. We went down at dusk, so we saw the sun set as we began going down. Then at the bottom, we had dinner while watching the lights of the city and the valley flicker on at dusk.

It's $25 for adults, as of 2017, with some discounts for the usual categories available. Expect some lines at peak tourist times, like the balloon fiesta. And expect to be more than satisfied when you are done.

One picture really doesn't do the place justice. So let's go for a ride. 

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