Texas and New Mexico – April 2019

Texas and New Mexico – April 2019

It was a lot of driving, but the trip to western Texas and eastern New Mexico included some pretty spectacular places. Big Bend National Park, on the Rio Grande in Texas, was even better than I expected. And, Carlsbad Caverns National Park was the most beautiful cave park I’ve visited so far. The trip also included Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument and Guadalupe National Park in Texas and White Sands National Monument and Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico — all beautiful and interesting.

Big Bend

Santa Elena Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon Trail is a short trail along the Rio Grande, leading to the canyon.

The hiking at Big Bend was great! I camped two nights at Chisos Basin Campground (photo at the top of the post is from Chisos Basin.) The Chisos Mountains are the only mountain range in the U.S. that is entirely within a national park. Very nice campground as well as a beautiful setting. The Window Trail is accessible from the campground and is a moderate 5.6 mile hike, roundtrip. I started out at about 9 a.m., which seemed earlier than most people started hiking at Big Bend. I had the trail all to myself on the way out. On the way back, I met other hikers every 15 or 20 minutes. Not crowded and most of the hikers were camping.

Chisos Mountains
View along the way on the Window Trail

After stopping back at the campground for lunch, I drove the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (which was very scenic) to Santa Elena Canyon. There is access to the Rio Grande there, along with an overlook. The highlight was the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. It’s only a little over a mile and a half, round trip, but the trail climbs from river level up to a bluff. Nice overview of the river. Then, as the trail reaches the canyon, there are places where you can go back down to the river.

I saw only a couple kayaks on the river, but it looked like it would be a good place for people who enjoy water sports (so not me!). The cactuses were blooming, and it was just a really nice afternoon hike.

The temperature difference between Chisos Basin and the Rio Grande was significant. Of course, it’s the difference between the mountains and the desert. But, it was into the 90s along the Santa Elena Trail, which was 15 to 20 degrees warmer than when I was having lunch at the campground.

The next morning I hiked the Lost mine Trail. It’s about 2.4 miles up a mountain and the 2.4 miles back down the mountain. Good exercise, and a beautiful hike.

Rocks and mountains
View from near the top of the Lost Mine Trail

There is no mine accessible from the trail. There may or may not ever have been a mine somewhere in that area. The legend is that Native Americans hid access to the mine — which was never again found.

Again, I got started at about 9 a.m. I saw a couple hikers on the way out, but basically, I had the trail to myself. As I was enjoying the view from the top, more hikers arrived. And, I met more folks on the way down. Again, it certainly was not crowded.

After the Lost Mine Trail, I drove to the Rio Grande Village campground, where I stayed for a couple nights. While the nights had been cool at Chisos Basin, nights at the river were quite warm. And, the Chisos Basin campground was nicer — better maintained an better view. If I visit this park again, I’d just stay at Chisos Basin and drive to visit other parts of the park.

I did a nice hike from a trailhead near the campground — Daniels Ranch to Hot Springs Trail. It’s about  6 miles round trip, all along the Rio Grande. There are some ups and downs, going up and down river bluffs, making it an interesting hike. The big draw, though, is the hot springs.

Rio Grande Hot Springs
Those would be my Wisconsin winter feet at the hot springs

There is a parking area at the trailhead, and when I got there, mine was the only vehicle. As I got organized and ready to go, another hiker showed up. He had a fairly good sized backpack — for a relatively short hike. He said he had a folding kayak in the pack, and his plan was to hike to the springs, relax for a while and then float back down the river to the parking area.

Even with a kayak strapped to his back, he was a much faster hiker than me. So, by the time I got the springs, he was gone. (But, when I got back to the trailhead, his car was still there — apparently, it was a leisurely float back down the river.)

The springs are right on the river. The warm water is contained in a concrete structure that looks like it had been the foundation of a building. The hot spring water is clear, while the river water (behind the woman and children) is a grayish green. It was a cloudy morning, almost cool, so soaking for a while in the springs was very pleasant.

I think I was the only person of the 8 or 10 who were there who had hiked the trail. There is a road to a parking lot near the springs. From the parking lot, it’s about a half mile to and from the springs. It was a real nice hike, so I was happy I had enjoyed the stroll along the river.

It got kind of warm on the way back, so I opted to drive to some other areas near the campground and check out views of the river and desert areas. Lots of cactus flowers!

Guadalupe Mountains

cloud and mountain
Interesting cloud over the mountains

Guadalupe Mountain National Park is on the western border of Texas and very near Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. I had planned to spend two or three nights camping at Guadalupe, driving over to Carlsbad for a day trip since there is no camping at Carlsbad. But, the camping situation for me was a bit odd at Guadalupe. I usually park Uncle Gerald, the campervan, at a tent site since I don’t need hook-ups and since tent areas are usually fairly quiet. At Guadalupe, the campground host wouldn’t let me in the tent area because vehicles park in groups and then people walk a ways and set up tents. Staying in the vehicle wouldn’t work.

So I had to go the RV camping area — which was an asphalt parking lot with outlines for “camp sites” painted on the asphalt. Not awful but not ideal. Not terribly noisy but not quiet.

I did some hiking, but the big draw is to hike to the top of Guadalupe Peak, the highest mountain in Texas. It didn’t appeal to me all that much, particularly since the surrounding land didn’t look like it’d provide a great view from the peak.

One night at Guadalupe and then I moved to a private campground at Whites City, just outside Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was okay. And, it was very near Carlsbad.

Carlsbad Caverns

Stalactites — cave decorations formed by water dripping from the ceiling

I had made a reservation for a cave tour at Carlsbad, but I got there the day before my reservation. So, I did the self-guided tour. It’s the only cave park where there has been a self-guided option. It’s a mile and a quarter circular tour of the Big Room, which is over an 8 acre room. It was spectacular! And, it was so nice to be able to wander around at my own pace. No hurry, and plenty of time to take photos. Plus, there’s a snack bar. Another first. Of course, I had to have a snack.

Oddly enough, I met someone I used to work with in Madison at Carlsbad. Always fun to see someone from Wisconsin, and even better to re-meet someone.

more cave decorations
Another formation at Carlsbad

I thought about skipping the guided tour the next day since I doubted I could see anything that equaled the Big Room self-guided tour. But, I had paid for it (not a lot — $8 I think) and I didn’t have a reason to rush home. The dogs love staying with the sitter, and I was pretty confident they weren’t missing me.

So, I did the King’s Palace Tour. The ranger leading the tour, Mark, was great. He’s a “caver” or cave explorer, so he had some real world stories to share. And, he explained the early exploration of the cave by Jim White. It was an interesting mix of history and geology.

The formations or cave decorations on the King’s Palace tour were even more spectacular than what I had seen the day before. I was very glad I did the tour.

The tour starts at the snack bar area (which years ago had been a complete restaurant). Since I had taken the hour-long walk down the switchbacks to the natural entrance, descending 750 feet, the day before, I just took the elevator down to that area. The King’s Palace tour descends to the deepest portion of the cavern at 830 feet below the desert surface. Even though you can take an elevator down to the starting point, the tour does require climbing and then descending an eight-story-high hill.

Both the Big Room and the King’s Palace tours are all on paved walkways. There’s no crawling through tight spaces involved. There are other tours that do require hard hats and knee pads for crawling around. Not for me, but I did see some folks starting out on one of those tours. I was as glad I wasn’t doing that as I was glad that I did do the King’s Palace tour!

cave decorations
More from Carlsbad

If you’re going to do one of the guided tours, making a reservation is really a good idea. I was there kind of early in the season, before the bats return and make the dramatic flights exiting the caverns at night, which increases the number of tourists. Even so, people trying to buy tickets when they arrived were very disappointed. No tickets were available for several days.

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

From Carlsbad, I drove to Three Rivers Petrolyph Site, a Bureau of Land Management property near Tularosa, New Mexico. Basically, I was looking for a campground relatively near White Sands National Monument, and Three Rivers has a campground.

This place was a pleasant surprise. There are over 21,000 petroglyphs (rock carvings) at Three Rivers. That’s quite impressive since it’s a relatively small site. There is a trail, about a mile round trip, with 11 petroglyphs marked. You can, and I did, hike beyond the end of the trail, sort of wandering around off-trail. Not much to be seen there, but it there are mountains off in the distance so it was just kind of nice to be looking around.

According to the brochure, the petroglyphs were made by a group of prehistoric Native Americans that archeologists call the Jornada Moglollon who lived in the area about 1000 years ago. The archeologists are not sure why the petroglyphs were made and what they mean. Some believe the petroglyphs are picture writing. With so many in such a small area, they may relate a story, an idea or directions to travelers.

Overall, Three Rivers is an interesting and pretty area. The campground was nice — and the bathroom was one of the cleanest I’ve seen on my various camping adventures. Maybe that’s because the volunteers staffing the site this year are from Chilton, Wisconsin — hard-working Midwesterners volunteering in the desert!

One of the petroglyphs at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

White Sands

white sands
The sands are REALLY white at White Sands National Monument

It was a cloudy and kind of drizzly day when I was at White Sands. It was kind of chilly. But, the sands are so white, I kept thinking of snow. And I was cold — even though it wasn’t really all that cold!

van and sands
Uncle Gerald, the white campervan, at White Sands

There are some trails in the National Monument. Or you can just climb up a dune and wander around in the sand. That’s what I opted to do. Don’t know if it was because there was a little drizzle or because these are gypsum sands, but the sand wasn’t terribly “slippery.” It was fairly easy to get up and down the dunes and wander around.

The sands are impressive — haven’t seen anything like it any place else, since everything is so very white. And, the surrounding mountains are beautiful. Overall, it was a nice last visit for the Texas and New Mexico trip.

(Haven’t mentioned the first stop on the trip — Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument. Check out a post under the Trail Folks tab about the tour and tour guide at Alibates.)

Cloudy day at White Sands
White sands, mountains and clouds