The Very Large Array, or VLA as it is commonly known, is an amazing sight, and one not to be missed if you are anywhere near this part of New Mexico, in my opinion! The huge radio telescopes, 27 of them, rise majestically out of the huge, otherwise almost empty, Plains of San Augustin like visitors from another world altogether. But these are not visitors from another world, but searchers for such a world.
These massive dishes (25 m/82 feet in diameter, and weighing 230 tons) are antennae, arranged in a Y formation and set on equally massive tracks that allow them to be bunched fairly close together (just a kilometre apart) or spread out over 36 kilometres. I don’t pretend to fully understand the science, but the broad principle is that by combining the signals picked up from several antennae scientists can map radio sources from across the universe.
Quite apart from their scientific significance I also found the dishes rather beautiful, and incredibly photogenic. The self-guided tour is well worth doing, as it allows you to get really close to one of the dishes and also teaches you all you ever wanted to know (possibly more!) about radio astronomy. The tour is free, although you are invited to make a small donation for the accompanying leaflet. You start in the Visitor Centre, where a short video explains the principles of radio astronomy and the workings of the VLA. Other exhibits cover some of the same ground but also expand on the explanations, and there are some beautiful images of outer space made with the telescopes.
But for us the main attractions lay outside, so we quickly headed out of the back door, collecting one of the leaflets to guide us. The walking tour covers about half a mile I would say, and is clearly signposted. There are a number of stops along the way, with information about each in the leaflet, but the main highlight for most will be arriving right at the base of one of the antennae and getting a powerful sense of its huge size. If you are lucky, as we were, it will adjust its position while you are there, turning to point towards some new, unseen and distant object.
From here you loop round to arrive at the main research building, where a terrace allows you a general view of the whole array. Photo 2 was taken from here – open it up to see how tiny the people appear next to the dish. Back at the Visitor Centre you can shop for souvenirs (we just bought a couple of postcards) and revisit any of the exhibits that have taken on fresh relevance after your walk. Note that there are only limited refreshments available here, from a vending machine, although there are good bathroom facilities.
On your way back to the road you can detour (signposted) to see the Antenna Assembly Building and (sometimes) one of the transporters used to move these massive dishes. We also found it worthwhile to stop at the point where Highway 52 crosses the railroad, as there are good distant views of the VLA (see photo four) and of the railroad stretching into the distance across the plains.
Directions:50 miles west of Socorro on U.S. Highway 60. From U.S. 60, turn South on NM 52, then West on the VLA access road, which is well signposted, as is the Visitor Centre
If you are going to drive to the VLA (see next tip) from Socorro (and I strongly recommend that you do), then you will pass through Magdalena. But please don’t just pass through – stop and explore for a short while at least. There’s nothing in particular to see but the handful of old buildings scattered along the highway are a photographer’s dream!
Although it is a sleepy place today, like many in the state Magdalena was once a bustling town. A spur of the Santa Fe Railroad terminated here, to serve mines and ranches in the surrounding area. Lead, zinc, and silver miners would ship their ore out from Magdalena, and ranchers throughout western New Mexico and eastern Arizona drove their cattle here. These miners and ranchers bought their supplies from the many mercantile establishments in the town and stayed at its several hotels. During its most prosperous years, 1884-1925, many fine buildings and houses were built in Magdalena, and several can still be seen.
My first two photos show the former Bank of Magdalena on the corner of North Main Street and US 60. This commercial building was built between 1908 and 1913 and has ornamental brickwork in its arches and along the cornice of the parapets. The old signs, and the website below, suggest that it has also served as a café but when we were there in September 2011 it appeared to be in use as the offices of the local newspaper.
Photo four is of another brick building, the Ilfeld Warehouse in North Main Street, built in 1913 in the Mission Revival Style. Charles Ilfeld owned one of the largest mercantile companies in New Mexico, having begun his career supplying general merchandise from his store in Las Vegas, NM, during the 1870's. As he expanded, Magdalena became a central warehouse serving ranchers and small businesses across southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Mercantile outlets such as this were essential to ranchers because they were allowed to buy supplies against receipts from the sale of cattle and sheep each year.
In photo five you can see an old box car from the Santa Fe Railroad which is now on permanent display at the old Santa Fe Depot in North Main Street. The old (1915) railroad building is listed on the National Register and now serves as the Village Hall and Library. It was perhaps unsurprisingly closed on our Sunday morning visit, as was the small Box Car Museum also on the site.
Directions: On Highway 60 about 27 miles west of Socorro on Highway 60
A little to the south of Socorro lies one of the most interesting bird-watching venue in New Mexico, considered worth a visit even if you're not a "serious" birder – which neither of us is. For a short while in late October/early November it becomes a focus for birding enthusiasts as tens of thousands of birds, including sandhill cranes, geese and ducks, descend on the refuge and settle into their winter home. Their arrival is met with a festival, the annual Festival of the Cranes, on the weekend before Thanksgiving. We were in Socorro a couple of months earlier than this, but thought that the refuge would still be worth a visit as there would be bound to be some birds whatever the time of year. We were, with a few exceptions, wrong!
We were a little surprised on arrival in the parking lot by the visitor centre to see only one other car but we figured that other visitors would be out exploring the loop drive. So we went inside, had a helpful chat with the ranger on duty who showed us on a map which roads through the refuge were open and explained that at this time of year (late September) we would be too early to see the large migrations but should see heron, cormorants and other birds out on the lagoon at the end of the loop drive. That sounded promising, so we headed out that way and were quite excited to see a large heron (I think a Great Blue) from the car as we approached, although it flew off before I could get a photo. So we parked up and followed a path that led out across the lagoon on a rather noisy metal footbridge. We got a good close up look at the turtles that live here year round, and a more distant view of some cormorants drying their wings in characteristic pose, but otherwise it was pretty deserted, and sadly the heron never returned. Maybe a more patient birding enthusiast would have lingered longer but we decided that we would rather cut our losses and left to explore downtown Socorro instead.
Entry was $5 for the car plus passengers – good value if you can time your visit better than we did. Once in the refuge you can drive the unpaved 12 mile loop road or one of two shorter sections: the 7 mile Marsh Loop or 7.5 mile Farm Loop. We took the former as it was reputed to be better for viewing waterfowl on the wetlands in summer. The loop drive is open for driving one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset daily.
Directions: From the north, e.g. Socorro, take I-25 south to San Antonio exit 139, then route 380 east .5 mile, then State Highway 1 south 8 miles to refuge
I was greatly shocked that Magdalena does not have its own page on VT. However, if you're coming to Socorro, you're probably going to the VLA, and thus through Magdalena.
This is a beautiful little town that absolutely typifies life in this part of New Mexico. Although it has a beautiful, Spanish-sounding name, it's actually looks more like a old Western town.
The central part of Magdalena is a collection of small buildings and roadside businesses clustered along the highway. Behind this, the town only extends a few hundred feet before trailing off into the plains.
The cemetary turned out to be the highlight for me, although I was on a cemetary kick when I came and actually spent some time here.
There's a couple of those small town restaurants in Magdalena, the kind that you see in movies but so rarely come across, where old men sit around all day drinking coffee and talking about the weather, and the waitresses know the first names of just about everyone who comes in.
When I was here once, I was planning to go into the mountains and needed to fill a jug of water for the night. Being such a small town, Magdalena lacks those coin-operated water dispensers. I had asked at a gas station if there was, by chance, one of these in town, and was immediately offered the sink in the back. This sort of genuine kindness and trusting of dirty, unshaven young white boys like myself always impresses me, and has thus left a good impression of Magdalena in my mind.
This and Roswell pretty much makes New Mexico the center of extraterrestrial happenings in the US. Sitting south of US hgwy. 60 in the high desert it is known simply as the VLA (Very Large Array). The more official name is the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Until you get up near one of the individual dishes you can't grasp the scale. The dishes are wheeled out on railroad tracks and stand about 10 stories high. I love time lapse photography and I could not help but think of a radio image of the sky moving over these probes in time lapse. Why do I place surreal images into my mind? Because they are beautiful images to create. New Mexico is the place for that. The VLA is about 30 miles west of Socorro on US hgwy. 60.
Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Gran Quivira is one of the New Mexico ruin sites that combine Anasazi or Pueblo ruins with Spanish mission ruins. Although they were built centuries apart, they were both built using the same local materials. None of the New Mexico monument sites are overrun with tourists, here you still have time to contemplate what life was like in this place hundreds of years ago.
My successful self portrait. I messes up about 4 other attempts to set the camera timer and run to pose. Unfortuneately the VLA in the background is to fuzzy to see.