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!

When to Judge a Book by its Cover; Hikes Based on Pictures

The three of us (well, four, counting Florence the dog) left our airbnb pretty early so we could get on the road. We stopped at an independent coffee shop in Santa Fe, called Betterday, for a little caffeine kick. Then we were catching the sunrise from the windows of my car. Even better, since we were driving past Albuquerque, we caught a sky full of air balloons from afar.  It was great up close watching them launch the day before, but it was also great seeing them all laid out across the big blue sky.

After an easy drive, we arrived at El Malpais National Monument. Besides seeing that they had caves, and incorrectly assuming their use online of the word “tubes” meant there was tubing – I knew nothing. It would turn out these tubes were more like cavern passageways. The word ‘malpais’ actually comes from a Spanish term for ‘badlands’ because a lot of the park is covered in volcanic rock.

We headed to the visitor center and talked to the ranger there. His help along with the pictures posted on the walls helped us decide on our hikes for the day. Seriously, we looked at the cool pictures and said, “that one!” Side note: I use the National Park website constantly, and if they had all the trails with times, difficulties, and pictures, etc. listed it would be so, so helpful. (Send them an email on my behalf, thanks!)

First stop was the Ventana Arch, which was a little bit out of the way driving wise, but the three of us had such great memories of Arches National Park, that we decided where there’s an arch, there we’ll be. The hike was a super easy flat one, maybe twenty minutes. The arch was awesome. It’s always so incredible to see what nature can do.

From there, we headed in the car down a long stretch of bumpy dirt road to head to our next destination: the Big Skylight Cave. This was one of the most popular images found at the visitor center so we definitely wanted to check this one out. We’d gotten a permit to access these “tubes” (a set of 4, including the Big Skylight). Because of an epidemic of white nose syndrome among the bats of the US, we had to be very careful to clean our shoes on the way in (and out) of our hiking trail.

Our hike was fun, though I’ll be honest the lava rocks were not my favorite to hike on. The whole path was marked with cairns, basically small rock towers, to show us our path, which was fun because it was basically a wide open space of varying sizes of lava rocks and no real path to follow. Then we reached the the top of the cave and we were already impressed. It was like looking into a big, beautiful crater, with an arch to the left and a big tunnel with a skylight to the right.

Warning: we did not have the appropriate gear to attempt this “tubing” adventure. They recommended helmets, gloves, and headlamps. I hadn’t even put on my good hiking boots. But when greeted with this amazing sight, I knew I had to get down in there. Just, very very carefully.

It was a bit of work getting down the cliff, finding the path with little red metal divets, and trying to scale the thing without slipping. Then we were down there, making our way across big boulders to get further into the cave. Every step was cautious, but mostly we were slow going just looking around in the hunt. The skylight was a big hole at the top of the cave, allowing a beautiful stream of light, but also hitting the rocks below enough to create a lush moss growth.

The day had been perfect above, a little crisp but perfect for a lightweight long sleeve shirt, but the deeper into the cavern we went, the colder it got. Without headlamps, we didn’t venture too much further (plus you know, we had a schedule to keep). It was absolutely breathtaking though.

We eventually made our way back up, which actually seemed easier, and hiked back to the car. I was feeling pretty great because of the whole experience, so as we headed to our next destination I was in high spirits. We were out in the middle of nowhere with little reception, but we passed one kitschy little town and the art sculptures made us slow down. Then, lo and behold, a coffee shop was right off the little highway calling our name.

On the side of the colorful building was Inscription Rock Trading coffee, and inside was a miriade of New Mexican delights. Handmade jewelry and bags, a whole herb wall, and in the back a little bar area with all sorts of coffee drinks. The intriguing art outside had stopped us, and it was the cherry on top of our recent adventure!