They Don’t Call it “Big” Bend for Nothing

I woke up to my last day at Big Bend National Park very optimistically. The day felt endless and so I had no doubt I would be able to accomplish every single thing on my Big Bend list. In retrospect, this is hilarious because I had five hours to try and cross off sixty miles of driving and twelve miles of hiking. Plus, you know, enjoy the views. Good luck!

First item on the list was catch sunrise. I hadn’t slept all that well in the night, mainly because it was a bit too hot to ever really get comfortable. I was ready to get moving and all packed up. While doing this, a javelina wandered into our campsite! This certainly wasn’t on my checklist, but you can’t say no to meeting new friends. This little hog-like mammal was also my most exotic wild animal sighting to date!

Based on the incredible span of views, we had decided the day before that the Rio Grande Overlook would be our best (easy to reach) spot to watch sunrise. It required only a two minute walk and then you were at a hill that had unobscured three-sixty views. We could see the sun just starting to peak over the mountains, so all the plains were changing beautiful colors. As you’ve probably figured out by now, I love catching a sunrise in National Parks. You’re never disappointed.

Before the sun could rise too much, I knew we should get moving to start on our big hike of the day. It wouldn’t be as hot as the day before, but this was still Texas after all. It definitely wouldn’t be cold. We moved from the east side of the park to the middle, finally entering the Chisos Basin mountain area. We would be checking off one of the trails to a peak of about 7500 feet. The Lost Mine Trail.

This was a moderate level hike, not to steep all at once, but lots of switchbacks to reach the top. As always, elevation can get you if you rush too much or don’t remember to focus on your breathing. For me, this trip was right after a long two-week illness, so I was very much feeling the strain on my body. Luckily, this trail had lots of benches and amazing scenic stops. Anytime I needed a minute to pant, I also snapped a shot of the trail of the surrounding mountains.

As always on a trail like this, as soon as you reach the top, it’s all worth it. This peak had quite a few boulders to climb and get a little risky with. You can climb steep rock formations and slip between cracks if you were feeling like a daredevil. To be honest, I played it pretty safe, but both Austin and Jenna got great (slightly scary) shots at the top. I preferred relaxing and enjoying the insanely beautiful sights.

Making our way down, I realized it was noon already. Our end at Big Bend had come swiftly, leaving me with a list of only about seven other things I’d wanted to do. Even after spending a weekend there, I’d still only seen about half of the Park. But I’d also done so much!

On our scenic drive out of Big Bend, I started talking about coming back later in the fall or early spring of next year. There’s been a couple of trips previously where I knew I’d need to go back, but this was the first time I felt like I hadn’t done a majority of my list. Sure, I’d hiked three major trails, got into two different bodies of water, and seen exciting wildlife – but that just goes to explain how big Big Bend really is!

I can’t wait to see what else I can cross off next time!

Big Bend Brings the Heat

It’s finally time for me to share my trip to Big Bend! Being a Texan, this National Park has been on my list from the beginning! When planning my visit to Big Bend National Park, I knew I wanted as much time as possible to try and get as much done there as I could. I gave myself a three day weekend and researched as much as I could. I even highlighted a printout map for the first time!

We stayed in Alpine, TX for the night after a day of National Park sites and Marfa tourism, so we were ready to start bright and early. We grabbed our stamp at the nearby Fort Davis, checking out the replica of the general store and walking a bit of the grounds. Then it was straight on to Big Bend!

I knew the temperatures would be reaching a hundred by midday, so I planned one short hike in the morning and the rest of the day would be water activities. After checking out the Panther Junction Visitor Center and getting some more detailed trail information, it was time to rough it to the Balanced Rock trail.

To get to this trail was a six mile drive on a dirt road, with plenty of dips and bumps. My friend Austin drove a small rented car, so we definitely felt every jag and jostle. The drive was scenic, with lots of cacti and a big beautiful blue sky. This road was long enough that I even had time to crawl into the backseat to braid Jenna’s hair!

We arrived a bit behind schedule, and it seemed we wouldn’t be escaping the heat as much as I’d hoped. We were in high-ninety zone, but luckily this was only a short hike with very slight elevation. The whole thing would take us about an hour.

Reaching the top, after many encounters with cute green lizards, I was already impressed by the views. I couldn’t believe we were still in Texas! And the massive balanced boulder was cool too, obviously. It had been a hot hike, but up at the top the breeze was really nice.

Our next stop was the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River! We drove to an overlook, snapped a few pictures, but then were ready to get in the water. There were a couple of small trails into the river, so we pulled away to have more privacy for our swim. After stepping through a bit of mud and over river pebbles, we made it in the water. It was perfectly cool even though it wasn’t as deep as I would’ve liked. It was more sitting than swimming, but still really fun!

Now that we were all a bit more refreshed, we headed to set up camp. Austin had bragged a bit too much, so we made him set up the tent blindfolded (ha). Unfortunately, he did it easily and now forever has bragging rights to setting up a tent while blind. We set out a blanket in our little meadow, made an easy no-fire dinner of sandwiches (PB&J!) and cracked open our Big Bend Brewery beers. Ah, what a life.

We relaxed in the shade, drinking and playing card games while we waited for night. Our next water activity involved a hot spring. Since the spring is naturally 105 year-round, we knew a night hike would be the only way to chance getting in and not burning alive instantly.

Of course, there’s no pictures from the springs seeing as it was almost midnight, but let me just tell you the stars were amazing. The spring was a crudely built brick structure around a natural bed, right on the edge of the Rio Grande. The water was super hot, but so relaxing with the surroundings after a day of working my muscles.

My time at Big Bend was running out fast, but sitting there surrounded by the galaxy, I couldn’t be all that mad about it. I’d already seen and done some incredible things. I knew no matter what else I could accomplish the next day – I would be planning another trip to Big Bend!

Start Your Summer, Find Your Peace

I had a heavy wedding season this spring, so I had to halt all traveling for too long. I was so excited to finally get back outdoors and start checking off more National Park sites! Not only that, but resume driving the beautiful countryside from sun up to sun down.

After a bit of a nap after work, Jenna and I were headed off around midnight. Making great, time we arrived at our first stop, Carlsbad Caverns right as it opened! I had done a bit of cave exploration in Georgetown, TX, but I had no idea how big Carlsbad would prove to be! We didn’t think we had time to do the entire Big Room Trail and the whole descent walk, so we took the first elevator down.

It shot us quickly almost 700 feet down, which seemed great. Later I found out the descent walk is completely worth it. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff we missed, but a part of me is glad I got to do the entirety of the Big Room. Besides I need to go back anyway to see the bats, which missed us this time!

We were the first to step off the elevator and we headed straight for the start of the trail. Everything was so massive! It was like having the whole cavern all to ourselves. In the entire loop, which took more than an hour, we only ran into one person. We explored the cave, checking out the stalagmites and stalactites and other natural formations. There were also lots of pools and even one “bottomless pit.”

It was finally time to head to our next stop, the Guadalupe Mountains. I’ve spent the least amount of time in this west part of Texas, so the drive was incredible. It’s all plains until you spot the Guadalupe Mountains. It makes for a terrific scenic drive.

The highest peak in Texas is a part of this range of mountains, the Guadalupe Peak. There was no time this day and I wouldn’t prefer the insanely hot weather, but I have definitely put this on my bucket list. One day I will hike to the top of Texas’ highest point.

Continuing down the National Parks Highway, we were headed to the very tip of Texas – El Paso. El Paso is one of the only well-known cities in Texas I had never been to. We spent some time driving through the town, which of course shared similarities to Mexico, seeing as it is a border city.

Our final National Park site of the day was the Chamizal National Memorial. This site commemorates the peaceful settlement of the Chamizal dispute. Because of its purpose, the whole visitor center was focused on the idea of peace and diversity. Besides learning about this dispute and the cultures involved, it celebrates all cultures and the ideal of the “melting pot” that is America.

On the main building is a massive mural depicting all different cultures and peoples. It’s big and colorful and super interesting. It’s got JFK and Obama, Native Americans and Spaniards, and lots of different ages and races of every people that has made up part of American history.

Even though all three of these stops were very different, they represent the sort of things I’m discovering on my National Park journey. There’s natural wonders, and scenic views, but also the concepts brought to the world by man. We strive to seek out not only the physical attributes of this land but the meaning we make of it too!

Bad Luck Fixed by a Drive to the Coast

My only “real” knowledge of Portland, Oregon before this trip was the tv series Portlandia, which seems not too far off in retrospect. This trip was mainly for my travel buddy Jenna, who’s birthday was the following Wednesday. Her Oregon wishlist included lots of nature highlights, so that would be our main goal the first day.

However, we had to fly in Thursday night and I got to admit, our trip didn’t get off to a great start. Our flight had been delayed by three hours and so when we finally made it to check into our Airbnb around one in the morning, we discovered we’d been given the wrong code and our host was unreachable. We were tired and cold and on the phone with Airbnb support for quite a while. Not the greatest introduction to Portland.

They ended up giving us an old code that luckily worked, and we were more than ready to shake off our bad luck the next morning. However, the bus we’d planned was nowhere to be found. I took out my perfect schedule, and knew we would have to rearrange some things. When your transportation plan is derailed when traveling, it’s time to be flexible.

Originally, the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (which is actually in Washington) was a “if we have time” item, but now it was within ten minutes of the car we would be renting. We lyfted there, and I was secretly glad to be crossing off a new National Park stamp and be checking off a whole new state. We arrived as soon as it opened and it looked very much like the little town John Smith establishes in Pocahontas. They even had a volunteer blacksmith that we spent some time chatting with!

We enjoyed the tall trees and open field, and I was reminded of the Park ranger, who pretty much said she was glad we were visiting but as a true Oregonite, wanted only visitors. Next we got our car, headed back over the state line, and checked out one of the top Portland tourist destinations: Multnomah Falls.

We walked up as close as we could get, and it was still pretty amazing since I’d never seen such a high waterfall (especially not on the side of a small mountain), but our bad luck would strike again. The Falls were cut off from the main entry because of mudslides, so we were only allowed a far off look. While still impressive, I couldn’t help but be bummed we wouldn’t be able to get closer.

On the way to lunch, we changed up our plan again to stop at The Grotto. We wanted to get rid of the last of our bad juju, so we headed to this Christian alcove which was full of pretty trails and one of the tallest, rickety elevators you’ve never seen on the side of a hill. There were lots of famous saint statues and a beautiful meditation building with a great view of Portland.

It was starting to drizzle when we headed to Bye Bye, a vegan restaurant in the heart of Portland. Optimistic about the nature left to see, I chowed down on a vegan grilled cheese and guacamole. Let me pause to say, I loved all the food in Portland! I could probably write a whole post on just the stuff I ate – and I just might!

We were headed to the coast in our rental car from a new app Turo, and I was really enjoying the drive. Oregon had equal parts farming and woods, so the mini roadtrip was pretty great. I love a good drive, and even though it was a bit rainy, that just added to the enchantment of seeing new things. I entered the winding roads of Ecola Park, and couldn’t imagine that we would soon pop out through the woods and be on the coast. But we did.

There was only thick forest, until suddenly the sky appeared and I parked at the top of a cliff overlooking a magnificent site. It felt like I was in a different country, one where tales of dragons and magic had been based in. It’s hard to describe the beauty. And even though I have amazing pictures, it still doesn’t really do it justice.

From Ecola, we headed south a bit, driving through the adorable coastal village, making our way to Haystack Rock. We enjoyed the beach, the massive rocks, the scenery, the ocean, everything was magic.

I fell into the water right near the end, but was having such a great time, I didn’t even mind. It was cold, but driving back I only felt happy. It had been such a great day by the end.

I know based on previous travels that things are bound to go wrong. When you leave your safe, predictable home, you invite something different into your life. It’s sometimes good and sometimes bad, but overall I’ve found the journey worth it.

Deep in the Heart, Close to Home

Waking up well rested in San Antonio, I was ready for a day of exploration. Seeing old friends the night before had been nice, but I was ready to get to some new places and see a side of Texas I hadn’t before.

It was rainy when we headed to the San Antonio Missions. I was surprised to find out that four of the five Spanish missions had been moved all into the San Antonio area for better conservation. I was even more surprised to find the National Park site so busy! The visitor center was packed. The site seemed to be busy not only because of the National Park denotation, but also as a local Texan highlight. The shop was full of fun Texan gifts!

We got our stamps and listened to a bit of the history in the visitor center and then decided it was time to visit the biggest one (that was also the closest), the San Jose Mission. It was crazy how good the building was keeping up, and how beautiful the architecture was. There were people lighting candles and praying in the attached chapel, which was kind of great considering people had been doing just that in this very spot for hundreds of years.

It started to really pour and knowing we’d already seen the “best” mission, we decided it was time to move on. On our way out, we took the scenic drive to see what we could of all the rain-obscured missions. It seemed like a great route to bike, so I hope I’ll be back one day to explore more!

For now though, it was time to head to our last National Park site for our weekend, Lyndon B. Johnson National State Park, where the former president’s boyhood home still stood. At the visitor center, we read a bit about the history of the president and “Ladybird” Johnson. (I’ll always love her for her wildflower initiative, which to this day spurs communities to plant thousands of wildflowers all over Texas.)

The home was familiar in the way all old Southern homes are to me, so not too interesting in my opinion. There was an old double swing that was still in use though. The whole area was somewhat humbling, imagining a small boy growing up in a somewhat farm lifestyle, going on to become the president of our country.

Our final pit stop was Austin to see some friends before heading home. Funnily enough, this was another Dallas friend who happened to be in Austin the same weekend. It was weird how many familiar faces we were seeing during our travels this weekend. It made it feel like we didn’t really escape into the culture. I’ll never regret time spent with good friends, but I have to admit I might like the more remote trips than ones like these that feel more like home.

Familiar Friends in New Places

Looking at my National Park map, I realized there were still a few sites scattered through central Texas that would require a drive through San Antonio and Austin. The weekend trip would give me an opportunity to finally explore the landscape I’d heard of called “Hill Country.”

I drove this first leg of the trip early on a Friday morning and I have to say, I already wanted to drive it again as I was literally driving it. There were so many cute towns with chic antique shops and interesting coffee shops; there were so many colorful murals and friendly town slogan signs. These fun towns were separated by beautiful plains where the sunrise was easy to catch and the road seemed infinite (in a great way).

Our first stop was Amistad National Recreation Area. By the time we arrived, it had become a bit cloudy. It wasn’t too cold, but still too early in the season to really enjoy the water. Instead we explored the rocky shore and took a little hike along the ridge of the reservoir. When we got tired, we looked across to the Rio Grande River, which separated Texas from Mexico. After about a four hour drive, we were only yards away from a different country.

After a bit of nature exploration, it was time to head to San Antonio. I wasn’t sure we’d have time, but I was really hoping to get into town in time to check out The Alamo. I’d only been once before with my parents when I was pretty small. Side note: The Alamo giftshop is where I got my first rock pouch and is responsible for my low grade obsession with rocks and crystals.

Growing up in Texas my whole life, I of course knew the history of the Alamo (how could I ever forget) and had even drawn the mission quite a few times for work projects. But it’s been years since my Texas history. It was great “reconnecting” to my Texan roots and walking around such a well preserved part of our history. As typical with most Texans, I have a lot of pride in my state.

It was time for dinner and a bit of San Antonio nightlife exploration! My friend Gian was in town the same night for Army training, so even though we’d seen him the day before back home, we met up for a familiar face in a new town. I’d already spent a lot of time exploring the infamous Riverwalk on a bachelorette party a year or so before, so we wanted to check out what other scenes San Antonio had to offer. We headed for Pearl District and some of the new downtown bars.

My oldest friend Molly had recently moved to San Antonio, so I also invited her out for a drink to catchup. It was great, but also so weird to see faces from home out on my travels. Something about meeting these friends made it feel like we were just in a different part of Dallas. Even though the cities felt very different to me, it also didn’t feel quite like my usual escapism.

We took a long walk back to our car, checking out the tourists stumbling from bar to bar, and watching hordes of people making their way along the riverwalk. After a long day of rediscovering and celebrating my Texan roots, I was already ready to get back home. I love basically all of Texas, but the other cities just don’t compare to Dallas. I was born there and I think it’ll always feel like home. I think seeing old friends just made me long for my hometown.

Honestly, when I travel I don’t want the familiar. I want new experiences, I want to meet new people, and I want to become a part of the local culture. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great seeing old friends! But I think in the future, I’ll have to invite them to join my travels instead of pausing them to catchup.

Long Glance at the Edge of the World

Canyonlands National Park is very big. We put ourselves on a time crunch through Arches because we weren’t sure we’d make it to The Canyonlands visitor center before it closed. From tip to tip, it would take about three hours to cross. And we’d never even heard of it before this!

The best place to start seemed to head for the section called “Island in the Sky” because it was the north edge we were closest to and a few other sections were closed for the winter season. Plus, Island in the Sky is a pretty cool name, so we figured we’d be in for a treat.

Surprisingly, it turned out every section of Canyonlands had its own visitor center, so after about an hour’s drive, we had our stamp and could stop stressing about making it through the whole drive in time. Now, we could relax and enjoy the Park at our leisure. Directly across from the Island center there was a lookout where we decided to sit for a bit. It was the biggest canyon I’ve ever seen.

On a ridiculous side note, this was also the Park where I made my first friend. Well, maybe just got my first obsession. In the parking lot I’d spotted the biggest crow I’d ever seen in my life! He was large and very vocal. I wanted to take him home with me. (Ha!) Instead, I filled my phone with at least a hundred pictures of him. I guess I sort of have him forever now?

Driving a bit further into the Park, we decided to check out the Mesa Arch trail because it was average difficultly and we’d already spent the whole morning hiking. Plus, we were really into all the natural arches Utah was showing us. It was a very easy hike, not strenuous or long at all. The path was lined the traditional way with stones stacked upon each other. We only ran into one family on their way out from the trail and then had the place to ourselves!

Even after starting with a great big canyon view, I was still awestruck by the sight of another massive canyon, but this time at its edge was a nature-made arch. There was something about these views which made me and my friends pretty quiet. Normally a pretty chatty person, I kept to myself at this Park and just stared out at the lands and colors for awhile without saying anything. It was extremely peaceful and humbling.

Tired from our day of hiking and fast approaching sunset, we decided to head back to Moab to grab dinner and explore the little adventure town. It’s so funny to me how every new town I go to, I can imagine the life I’d make there. I don’t know if it’s my wandering heart, but I often feel like I could be happy anywhere. The highlights of Moab were great beer, cute boutiques full of handmade goods, an adorable independent bookshop, and great coffee. What’s not to be happy about?

Walking lazily around the main strip, I could tell there was a certain sadness in the group that this was our last night, but also I could tell we were so tired from our adventures that we were all a bit ready to be back in our own beds. We stayed in an (Airbnb) cabin at the edge of Colorado for the night, knowing we had a full day of driving left to get back home.

I was glad though, thinking over all the new sights I’d seen. Honestly, I’d never given Utah much thought before. Now, I couldn’t wait to plan another trip out there. There was so much variance to the landscape from Monument Valley to Arches to Canyonlands, I knew I’d only scratched the surface of what Utah had to offer. All in all, this was a great last trip for the year of 2017, the first year I embarked on this National Park journey.