Very Large Array (VLA)

Very Large Array (VLA)

Aug 17

Sign at the Very Large Array, photo by Tyler Anderson

One angle of tourism and culture that many visitors to New Mexico don’t expect is the place that our state has in the history of science. New Mexico is the birthplace of the atomic age, and hosts a vast industry in energy development. Our deserts are proverbial goldmines for geologists and fossil hunters.  We even have a Spaceport!  And our high altitude, clean air, and low humidity make New Mexico a prime location from which to turn our gaze away from the land and explore the stars.  One of the world’s largest radio observatories, the Very Large Array (VLA), is located just west of Socorro on the Plains of Saint Agustin.  It is a wonderful and unusual day trip, and not only for the astronomically-minded.

Drive times:

  • From Albuquerque: About 2 hours and 15 minutes
  • From Santa Fe: About 3 hours and 15 minutes
  • From Las Cruces: About 3 hours and 20 minutes

Information/support on site: There is a visitor center at the VLA, with a small museum that explains the site and the technologies. Watch for the fun little gift shop selling books, maps, star charts, and science-related toys for all ages.  There is technical staff working on site, but they are not there to service visitors, though you may run into a friendly person glad to answer a question or two.  Guided tours are available on the first Saturday of each month between 11am and 3pm.

Difficulty of walks/hikes: Easy. Some paths are paved, otherwise dirt and gravel roads/paths.

Food: You could pack a lunch or find lunch at one of the several restaurants in Socorro.

Cost: Free

Whether you are a regular stargazer or not, the VLA is a wild and wonderful place to visit.  Its location is pleasingly remote, the views are dramatic and fascinating, and the scope of the installation is mind blowing.

Giant Radio Telescopes at the VLA, photo by Tyler Anderson

As always, the road there and back is a big part of the enjoyment of the daytrip.  The drive along the Rio Grande Valley veers from lush and beautiful farmland to harsh and extreme desert.  Take Exit 150 at the north end of Socorro and continue onto California St, which is the main drag of the town.  Socorro itself is a quirky town, and vintage sign enthusiasts should keep their eyes open as they cruise the strip.  There is definitely a mid-century touch that I find gratifying.  If you plan on going for lunch in town, there are several restaurants along California St, or you can take a right on Manzaneres Ave. to land you at the old town Plaza.

If you are skipping lunch and heading straight for the VLA, go right (west) on Spring St, and then veer left (south-west) on US-60. Follow the highway out of town and up into the canyon.  The views in the canyon and beyond, passing around the north end of North Baldy Peak toward Magdalena, are beautiful.  There are a few places to pull off for a good photograph or two, if you would like.  Once you pass through the town of Magdalena and shoot through several miles of rocky hills, you will find yourself on the Plains of Saint Agustin, a rather desolate bowl stuffed with sage and wildflowers and ringed by mountains.  Out there on the plains, you will start to see big, white…things. Welcome to the VLA.

Watch for the turn on your left, onto NM-52, and then a right turn to approach the installation itself. By the time you take that last right turn, you will understand why it is called the Very Large Array. Each radio telescope dish is 82 feet in diameter; each  unit weighs 230 tons. And there are 27 of these monsters aligned on three radial train-track arms that each stretch 13 miles across the desert in a Y-formation.

The visitor center is right there at the parking lot.  Definitely take 15 minutes to have a look inside and take in the exhibits, which are interesting and very understandable.  Then, unless you are there on a first Saturday of the month between 11 and 3 and get plugged into a guided tour, pop out the door and go have a look.

Access is generously limited, you won’t simply have the run of the place.  And no, you cannot climb the telescopes, even though you will probably really want to!  There is plenty of space to walk about in several directions. You will have good opportunities to get right up under a unit or two, and there are many great photo opportunities. Make sure you head over and look (from the appropriate distance) into the gigantic cube-shaped hangar, where they do maintenance on the telescopes; and hopefully you can get a good look at the absolutely huge red locomotive that is used to relocate the units  into various arrangements across a 16-month cycle.

Spend a few minutes and think about the amazing things that this vast installation achieves. Or, if you are a sci-fi movie buff, think back to scenes in 2010Contact, or Terminator: Salvation, with those giant dishes.  You are standing in that very place.

The road home has a couple of options.  You can return by way of Socorro, the way you came.  No harm in that, and depending on time and weather it may be the best choice.  However, if you have the time and the inclination, you can take the long road through Pie Town and past El Malpais National Monument. (Note: this route is fascinating, but takes twice as long, about 4 hours!)  Pie Town is a dot on the map with a Wild West flair.  UFO seekers may also know the name for reported sightings and a possible crash.  It has the odd distinction of being a village that revolves around its pie shops, just like the name says.  Be aware, hours/days are limited.  Check out http://www.pietown.com/ before you make your decision based solely on pie.  But if you can indeed stop in for a slice pie at one of the shops, it’s just the sugary shot in the arm you’ll need to finish off your daytrip in style and good humor.

Roadside Sign in Pie Town, New Mexico photo by Tyler Anderson

After Pie Town, continue west to Quemado (which means “burned” in Spanish), and then head north on NM-36.  Watch for the junction with NM-117 and turn right (west).  This will take you across some serious New Mexican desert, and then along the edge of the volcanic Malpais (which means “badlands” in Spanish; you get a feel for the beautiful extremity of the areas through which you are traveling). The road is sandwiched between the stark lava flows of this National Monmument, on your left, and towering sandstone cliffs on your right.  The drive is gorgeous, kinda lazy, and perfect for the rock hounds and scenic byway enthusiasts in the family. NM-117 will lead back to I-40, which you will take east back to Albuquerque.

Resources:

Map from Albuquerque to VLA: http://goo.gl/maps/tYjr

Map from VLA to Albuquerque via Pie Town: http://goo.gl/maps/68NM

Map from Las Cruces to VLA: http://goo.gl/maps/wuuo

Very Large Array Website: http://www.vla.nrao.edu/

Pie Town Website: http://www.pietown.com/

 

Tyler Anderson is an Albuquerque native and lifelong resident. He has travelled throughout his life, from Anchorage to Palenque, from Ankara to Hilo, and to many, many places in between. His heart is always in New Mexico, though. He and his partner of nearly 20 years regularly point the car down the road, to see where in their beloved state they will end up next. Tyler writes on travel, architectural history, and American fraternalism.

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