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Monument Valley looks like the Red Planet, not our blue one.

Monument Valley looks like the Red Planet, not our blue one.

I’ve always felt like visiting the U.S. Southwest was like visiting an alien world, but I had no idea just how alien until a recent visit to New Mexico and Arizona.

When people think of the southwest, what often comes to mind are images of Native American pueblos, cacti and maybe the iconic landscape of western movies, like monument valley with its signature ‘mitten’ buttes rising out of the red plain. While these wind-carved hoodoos and buttes are definitely suggestive of a Martian landscape more than a Terran one, it was when we did a 2-week driving tour of New Mexico and Arizona that we really got a glimpse of just how strange this area of the States truly is.

Take White Sands National Monument, for example. Although I was fully expecting to see desert landscapes, especially having been to this area before, I didn’t expect a sparkling white desert.

When I first found photos of it online, I made it my mission to find out exactly where it was, and White Sands became the must-see destination for us to visit in New Mexico. And once you see it for yourself, you’ll understand why: this national park lays claim to the world’s largest dunefield of pure white gypsum ‘sand’ – 275 square miles, in fact, of windswept, undulating waves of the stuff that moves and shifts daily, courtesy of the winds sweeping across them from the adjacent hills.

Even the park’s picnic area looks like it belongs on another world. And as you watch kids sliding down the dunes on their ‘flying saucer’ sleds, it really does start to resemble an interplanetary playground where life as we know it doesn’t exist.

Even the picnic area looks like something out of Star Wars

Even the picnic area looks like something out of Star Wars

Kids can borrow saucers from the Park's Visitor Centre to slide down the dunes.

Kids can borrow saucers from the Park’s Visitor Centre to slide down the dunes.

It’s probably because of this apparent barrenness that White Sands was chosen as the location for the first atomic bomb detonation on July 16, 1945, now known as Trinity Site, ‘Trinity’ being the original code name assigned to it by Robert Oppenheimer. And although they haven’t blown up any nuclear weapons there since, the White Sands Missile Range, located just beside the national park, is still very much in operation.

But there is life here, in many forms, despite what looks like a blank and empty canvas. Tough desert flora, and equally hardy fauna make it their home, and a hike near the entrance of the park will reveal just how alive this strange place is.

Speaking of life forms, or at least the intergalactic search for new ones, another surprise that awaited us in New Mexico was the VLA – or Very Large Array. Here, a massive installation of giant radio telescopes are laid out in a Y-shaped formation on a flat plateau 50 miles from Socorro, New Mexico.

Very Large Array Photo: wikispaces

Very Large Array Photo: wikispaces

Put in place to gather information to help explore radio galaxies, quasars, pulsars, supernovas, and other astronomical bits and bobs, these enormous telescopes are pretty impressive.

Giant radio telescopes at the VLA move along railroad tracks and turn in unison to follow signals.

Giant radio telescopes at the VLA move along railroad tracks and turn in unison to follow signals.

But who’s fooling who with all this talk of quasars? We know they are really there to pick up the next call from E.T.

It’s probably no coincidence, then, that this massive communication installation is located only 164 miles from Roswell, New Mexico, which many believe was the site of other extraterrestrial activity in 1947, known as the Roswell Incident. (And assuming the speed of the average UFO, the two locations are practically around the corner from one another.)

It seems this part of the world is something of a target for visitors from outer space. Literally, a target, if you travel to Meteor Crater in Arizona and see the bullseye left after a ‘visit’ from a meteorite. While not imaginative in its name, Meteor Crater stirs the imagination when you see the sheer size of it. Two and a half miles across, the massive depression was formed 50,000 years ago, when an asteroid travelling at 26,000 miles per hour crashed into the surface, rocking the entire American Southwest.

It’s definitely worth the detour from Winslow to check it out, because like the Eagles’ song, this crater near Winslow, Arizona, is ‘such a fine sight to see’.

However you define alien, there’s no denying that Arizona and New Mexico offer their fair share of otherworldly oddities. But if these strange and unusual attractions aren’t enough for you, there’s always Area 51 in Nevada. (a mere 215 miles from Las Vegas – as the UFO flies.)

TIP: White Sands National Monument is often closed for missile testing, so if you are planning a visit, be sure to check the schedule on the Park’s website.

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