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!

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!