The Southwest Regon of the National Parks System (Finished!)

Wow.

I did it!

As you know from the previous blog, I have officially been to every National Parks site in the Southwest Region, which is Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In only a little more than a year! What’s exciting about this is that I’ve been blogging and picture-taking from the beginning, so I remember so much about these 41 sites! Today I’m talking about my favorites – and even a couple that I need to go back to check out! So even if you’re not on a journey to see all the National Parks, these are places that should be on your travel bucket list no matter what.

White Sands National Monument
I kind of can’t talk about the National Parks without talking about White Sands. It was my first site and where my passport stamp collecting journey began! This place is so beautiful; it looked like being in another land. I hadn’t really known what to expect but what little expectations I had were exceeded.  The hike was too hot but the sand sledding was so fun! This was a terrific first start and introduction to my love for New Mexico.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
I had only been to baby caves in the Austin area, so I was blown away by the enormity of these caverns! I even made it out a second time to check out these bats, but will admittedly say their “sunset flight” is not super exciting. Luckily, my first time was spent exploring the Main Room with no crowd. This was another site that felt like another world – and the surprise of every turn is what makes it one of my favorites!

Big Bend National Park
Well, hello, Texas! I can’t wait to go back because even with a three day weekend and a highlighted map and plan, I only made it to half of this massive area. Being from Dallas, I’ll always have a soft spot for Texas, but the nature is known to be mostly plains. With Big Bend, I was introduced to a whole new side of the great Lone Star state. The canyons and cliffs are so pretty – and the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River is an added bonus site to this one.

El Malpais National Monument
I had looked up very little for this guy, leaving time in the schedule for whatever we could get up to – and I’m glad I did! Allowing myself the time here meant we got to go on an incredible hike to the Big Skylight, which first led us across ancient volcanic rock. Besides being one of the harder hikes I’ve yet to go on (because of terrain and then ascending into the cavern), it was a surprise wonder. Hiking down the big boulders into the cave we spotted the skylight early, but it just got more and more other-worldly as we went. This place was magical.

Buffalo National River
Arkansas turned out to be a nature-lover’s travel getaway! Fall was beautiful driving in through the Ozark Mountains and discovering every color of tree, but the hikes were a blast! Easy but long – offering stops for incredible views. It’s definitely on my list to head back to in the warmer months and explore more of the actual river.

Bandelier National Monument
The trees here taught me the true beauty of New Mexico and how it’s not just dry and empty land. I arrived here pretty late in the evening, and I know I didn’t even scratch the surface of what all this site has to offer. But just driving in and walking around was enough to feel like I had entered into a magical forest. This might just be number one on my list of parks to revisit.

Big Thicket National Preserve
The rain had ruined our day of hiking adventures here, so I’d definitely like to head back and explore more of this massive land area. This is also another area where I’ll have to head back in the warmer months because they have an awesome spot for kayaking. I also have it on my list to try and find some of their carnivorous plants in person!

So, all that to say, it’s been such a blast collecting all the Southwest region passport stamps – but I’m not done yet! I want to keep exploring and finding every opportunity for new experiences. Not only do I want to check out all these ones again, I have many more regions to complete in my National Park journey!

Timing is Everything

There are a ton of National Park spots in New Mexico (basically double the amount in Texas). Not having a lot of vacation to burn, I decided to try my hand at a jam-packed weekend trip that included eight Parks. We left at midnight after our last work day and raced the sun for 48 hours, making it back home only hours before it was time for work again. Spoiler alert: we got all 8 spots!

Our first sunrise found us at Capulin Volcano National Monument. Though it’s been inactive for quite a long time, it was still pretty majestic as we made our approach. The trail was easygoing and led us straight into the middle of my first volcano!

It was amazing to stretch my legs after driving for so long, and I was glad to be treated to such a beautiful sight first thing. At the rim of the volcano, it was super windy and cold, but also offered another great view of the landscape. I almost didn’t want to leave, but I’m a stickler for a schedule (and I didn’t want to miss anything else planned for the day).

Next up was Fort Union, and while not the biggest fan of forts and battle sites, the fact that the Santa Fe Trail crosses right through it was cool to me. The buildings still standing after so many years were impressive too, especially since they were made with adobe. Also I ran into a snake right on the trail! Very cool any time I run into the wild.

Back to the car it was, and then on our way to Los Alamos, which is home to one of the major Manhattan Project sites. This park is also run by the Department of Energy. I went in thinking this wasn’t of much interest to me since massive destructive weapons aren’t really my thing, but the old Park ranger was delightful. He told us the town was built to house the scientists and their families who were apart of the Manhattan Project.

He pointed at a little empty field outside the window of the visitor center and told us that’s where the original site was. We would pass the new scientific building on our way to the next Park, Bandelier National Monument. We passed the National Laboratory responsible for working on the next rover being sent to Mars and cancer cures.

Immediately past security checkpoint gates, I was driving into the woods. The road was secluded, empty, and gorgeous. It was such a nice scenic woods drive, with just a little bit of drizzle to give the end of our day a dreamy feel. We didn’t have much time at Bandelier, but the trails couldn’t allow dogs anyway. The drive alone – funny considering we’d spent hours driving this far – felt completely worth it.

On our way out of the Monument, we spotted several deer in the trees too! There were the most is ever seen out in the wild, and were weirdly close to the road. The sun was setting and we idled on the side to watch a family of deer lazily pick their way through the woods. Then Jenna’s dog, Florence, started barking like crazy after spotting them and they fled. It was great!

It was a tough goal, but this trip taught me a lot on how to plan an efficient road trip (for the first time I put gas and food stops into the schedule). I also learned that no matter how much beforehand research I do, it’s hard to really know what will catch my interest when I’m there. Some of the places I’d planned to spend little time at, I’d wished I had longer and vice versa.

As always in life, it seems there’s never enough time to see and do it all! I’m glad to be using my own time wisely!