Texas and New Mexico High Mileage Road Trip: 3 National Parks in 3 Days

Panoramic View of Big Bend NP in Texas.

Panoramic View of Big Bend NP in Texas.

TX & NM NATIONAL PARKS In Two Parts

Part 1 (October, 2018)

Carlsbad Canyon NM.

Carlsbad Canyon NM.

Getting personal here…a few weeks ago, I found out that my job was eliminated.  This filled me with a minor panic and a million questions.  How would I find what’s next for me?  Would I be patient enough to figure that out?  Would I be willing to take a risk on the ideas that have been rolling around in my mind for years?  Some deep-thinking stuff and I just wanted to escape to noodle on it all.  I figured time in the outdoors makes everything better, so I started to research where I might be able to get away.  

The lonesome Prada on the way to Guadalupe Mountains NP.

The lonesome Prada on the way to Guadalupe Mountains NP.

Southwestern Texas ended up being the winner for a couple of reasons: 

  1. It could be done fairly inexpensively (so practical!)

  2. The wide-open spaces of the national parks down there would definitely be a change of scenery from Ohio.    

  3. Maybe the trails would inspire some life-changing revelations.  If not, I’d at least score a few new passport stamps.  


Small victories and big adventures were ahead…

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK

After a quick overnight in El Paso, Big Bend was our first stop.  The five-six hour drive to the park is pretty desolate, with the exception of the arty town of Marfa (known for Beyonce photos, a random Prada shop & ghost lights). When we arrived at the park, the ranger told us that the hike that I really wanted to do – Lost Mine – was closed.  About 30 black bears had taken up residence in area of the trail to fatten up before heading to Mexico for the winter.  I was bummed for us, but I was pretty happy thinking about the bears feasting without any people bothering them.  

As an alternative, the Santa Elena Canyon trail was recommended and did not disappoint.  A quick two-mile, RT trail had us cross the Rio Grande (!!!), then up & down a short climb into a pretty river canyon.  It was a perfect hike for the 90-degree afternoon.   We ended the day at the Sotol Vista Overlook, catching the orange & pink desert skies at sunset.  

Prior to our trip, I started to notice that the forecast was going to change pretty dramatically with a cold front.  Sure enough, the 90-degree weather changed to 35 overnight.  We had packed gear for the cold, but didn’t expect the crazy wind.  That changed our Big Bend exploration one more time.  Day Two turned into short walking bursts & driving tours.  We made our way to visit Chisos Basin’s Visitor Center, the Boquillas Canyon, and the Fossil Discovery Exhibit.  

Of the three, the Fossil Discovery Exhibit was the standout.  What I learned was Big Bend was basically underwater over 100 million years ago & is terribly fossil-rich.  Like fossils of over 1000 species.  Some of my favorites found at Big Bend include Deinosuchus riograndensis (a 35-foot long giant alligator) and Quetzalcoatlus northropi (a flying reptile with a 35-foot wingspan).   I started to think about what fossils hadn’t been discovered yet, still in the park.   All of this kinda blew my mind.  Clearly we just scratched the surface at this park and we left knowing that there was plenty to come back to some day.   

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend.

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend.

CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK

Carlsbad Caverns is just 30 minutes north of Guadalupe Mountains, in New Mexico, protecting a cave system over 100 miles long.  We descended over a mile through the Natural Entrance, which we learned is also the site of massive bat exits evenings throughout April – October.  We didn’t see any bats in the cave but I’m hopeful there’s still a ton hanging out there, avoiding the white nose epidemic.  

The self-guided walk down is filled with stalactites, stalagmites & all other formations, which appeared to be the inspiration for Alien, Predator & Jabba the Hut.  Once we got to the bottom, we hooked into the Big Room Trail, which had another 1.2 miles worth of underground goodness.  My only disappointment was the Snack Bar.  The Visitor Center above ground had pictures of a fully operating lunchroom that was underground, complete with fancy NPS dishes.  The rangers mentioned that we could grab a snack underground and I had visions of this lunchroom.  Sadly it was just a drink stand with some lonely Gatorades & waters.  Way to tease us, NPS!

Smith Spring, Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Smith Spring, Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We spent more time at Carlsbad Caverns than I expected so by the time we got to Guadalupe Mountains, I realized we missed our window to tackle McKitrick Canyon which is supposed to be one of their best trails.  The visitor center ranger suggested Smith Spring for its shorter distance & frequent wildlife sightings.  The trail was a steady but easy incline and on a sunny day would have lovely views of Guadalupe Peak (we only saw the base with a bunch of clouds around it).  Smith Spring itself was pretty destination with some trickling water, with the leaves just started to change color.   This was the last hike of our visit and during those 2 short miles, I was already thinking about coming back.   

Sotol Vista, Big Bend.

Sotol Vista, Big Bend.

Part 2 (November 2018)

I wrote the first part of this blog a month ago & wasn’t quite sure how to wrap it up.  I figured I’d find some pithy way to share some life lessons, since I started the blog by putting all my personal jazz out there.  But there wasn’t an easy way to wrap it up.  I hadn’t had any lightning bolt ideas about life out there in the desert.  I’m still grappling with some of those big questions I was asking.  

What I can say in re-reading Part 1 was man, there is some crazy in trying to tackle three national parks in three days. Good gravy - we logged over 700 miles getting from place to place!  National Parks should be savored & we barely had a taste of each one.  So for anyone thinking about doing this itinerary in the future, please slow your shit down and give yourself more time. And maybe that’s my big life lesson right there.   Boom.  

What’s the most miles you have put on a road trip in recent memory? Comment below!
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Because Adventure Travel Feeds the Soul,
Rita V and the Hashtag 59 Team

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