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!

Hidden Sites, Continued Culture, and Old Earthworks

Our second day in New Orleans started with picking up Jenna from the Greyhound Station and rain. Lots of rain. We picked a breakfast spot that wasn’t too far from the French Quarter, called Ruby Slipper. It was okay, which for the three foodies with me meant bad. The other unfortunate part of breakfast was getting a full stomach and then rushing off to our first stop: jazz yoga at the Jazz National Historic Park.

I definitely had thought this would be an easygoing, mostly empty class, but arriving only a minute or so late we found it was pretty full for a rainy morning in the middle of the French Quarter. We were full, wearing denim, but ready and willing. For the most part. Jazz yoga was a great concept because it basically just meant yoga with live piano accompaniment. After yoga, we got our stamps and headed to the nearby market.

This market was a tourism mecca, full of souvenirs and overpriced accessories, so even though it was fun to browse – it was not really my style. There was nothing any of us really needed or wanted, so we walked out into the rain to get to the actual stores along the street. We peeked in a vampire fashion boutique, a candy shop offering free samples of pralines, and finally arrived at the other site: Jean Lafitte National Historic Park.

This visitor center was in the French Quarter so gave us a lot of information about the culture, the food, and how New Orleans was founded. Unless you were looking, you might completely miss these two NPS sites hidden in the corners of NOLA!

On our way back the the car, my brother (literally) sniffed out some crawfish, the only location that had it since the season wouldn’t start for another two weeks. I’m not a big fish fan, but we stopped so my three fellow travelers could tackle 1.5 pounds of fresh crawfish. And if you think that ruined my appetite, you’re wrong, because after lunch I made them drive out of the main city area for my favorite – local homemade ice cream! As an aside, we stopped near the St Louis Cemetery No.1 which is famous for it’s above-ground graves, but we willing to shell out for an actual tour. Maybe one day!

We stopped at the Creole Creamery, where I got a scoop of Black & Gold Crunch. This was a fancier “cookies and cream” flavor and was so good! This shop was cool because you could get mini scoops and a little “sampler” style ice cream dish of different flavors. Luckily, everyone ended up glad I dragged them out there and it was conveniently near a market where we could pick up some pregaming supplies for our Bourbon night out! (My Bourbon St night out is detailed here: Bourbon Street Fun.)

The next morning we had one final National Park site to grab on our way out of Louisiana. Funnily enough, on the way to this site, we actually drove through Mississippi to get more of a direct route (because of the boot shape of LA). For some reason, I had no idea we would even be entering Mississippi let alone in it long enough to look up some National Park sites. There was one, Vicksburg, that was only ten minutes out of the way. We hadn’t planned on it, but we sure weren’t going to say no to starting a new NPS region! The Vicksburg National Military Park had the normal “decorative” canons and a drive heading to an old cemetery – and I’ve mentioned how much I’m just not into battles and war history. Sorry, Dad.

After four-ish hours in Mississippi we were back in Louisiana and arrived at a wet Poverty Point National Monument. This site was a state park also, but more importantly, my first UNESCO World Heritage Site. So the final site for my Southwest National Park region journey was actually important in many different ways! This area of land is a protected prehistoric earthwork, with a system of hills and ridges. My guess was some kind of irragation (mainly because it was currently so soaked while touring it), but the truth is they don’t really know why the mounds were built. Historians guess a settlement or some kind of religious gathering spot.

My brother and Gabby stayed in the warmth of the car while Jenna and I climbed up the main mound. The weather was pretty gloomy but it was a beautiful bit of land. And at the top we talked about how with this we had gathered all of the Southwest region stamps in our National Parks Passport. Wow! Then we were frozen, so we hurried down the hill, back to the car and got on the road to good ol’ Texas.