Archive for March, 2005

near Roosevelt, Ariz.
Visited: March 23, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 174 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Cliffside near the Cliff DwellingsWHAT IS IT?
Secluded 13th, 14th and 15th-century Salado Indian cliff dwellings perched high in the rugged Upper Sonoran Desert mountains and overlooking the Tonto Valley.

BEAUTY (8/10)
A beautiful blue sky, towering Saguaro cacti, organ pipe cacti, a cool high altitude setting, rocky mountainsides and vibrant wildflowers give the Tonto NM cliff dwellings a stunning setting. The tucked-away ancient homes are an added bonus to the lovely Arizona environ.

The Tonto Basin has supported people for the last 7,000 years. Nomadic tribes are thought to have used the basin as hunting and camping grounds. Archeologists date the first permanent settlement here to 100 to 600 C.E. (Common Era, apparently the new way to say B.C.).

Hohokam lived in pit house villages in the Basin for a few hundred years before leaving the area. The culture, which then emerged and built the dwellings preserved at the Site, is known as the Salado, named after the nearby Salt River.

Archeologists believe the Salado were farmers and chose the Tonto Basin as their home because of the fertile soil in the river valley. The cliffs offered protection from the elements and perhaps other people. Like many other people of the Southwest, the Salado abandoned their cliff dwellings and moved away around 1400. There are several theories but no real explanation offered for their departure.

Today the Tonto NM overlooks Theodore Roosevelt Lake, Arizona’s oldest man-made reservoir.

CROWDS (8/10)
It was a busy day at the Site. The parking lot was full and families were everywhere. Is it spring break? The number of visitors did not negatively affect our visit. The trail was long enough to accommodate everyone. Children would inevitably reach the top first and yell down to the elders in their group to hurry. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement of their discovery.

Michael in the RuinThe park video was on a continuous loop in a small room at the start of the trail. Visitors would slip in, find a seat and watch what remained of the video. The video would end, someone would get up and restart the tape and people would stay up until the point at which they entered. New people would slip in and the cycle continued.

It must be spring break; all of the visitors were in incredibly good moods. One young woman even came up to Gab and complimented her on a photo she had taken of a bird we were trying to identify. Happiness is so infectious.

Tonto NM is not close to Phoenix, despite its apparent proximity on the road atlas. We have to start remembering how big the states are out west. The Park is 120 miles from Phoenix via paved road. You can cut some distance by taking unpaved Route 88 from Apache Springs, but you won’t save much time.

To get to the Site, take U.S. Route 60 east from Phoenix for about 90 miles until you reach the sprawl of the Miami-Claypool copper mining facility. Turn left (northwest) onto Arizona Route 88. Tonto NM’s VC is 30 miles ahead and on your left.

Once you get to the Visitor Center, you need to hike up the hillside to get to the Lower Cliff Dwellings. The distance is about a ½ mile, the change in altitude is about 350 feet. Hikes to the Upper Cliff Dwellings must be done with a Ranger. A few tours leave every week from November to April but are limited to 15 people. Make your plans ahead of time, spots fill quickly.

Looking for places to hike in Arizona? An explanation of the geography of Arizona? Instructions on how to cook like an Arizonan? You have come to the right place.

Lower Cliff DwellingsCOSTS (3/5)
Entry is $3 per person, free with the National Parks pass.

One Ranger welcomed visitors and collected entrance fees at the Visitor Center. One Student Conservation Association worker was stationed at the top of the trail at the entrance of the lower cliff dwelling. We would have preferred a Ranger closer to the actual site but the SCA staff was trying hard to answer as many questions as she could. When we returned to the VC, another Ranger was in the greeting position.

The video is new and a very helpful introduction and explanation of the Salado people. There is a lot of stop action photography, a technique we have gotten used to in southwestern Park Site videos.

FUN (8/10)
The hike up the mountain was great. Little placards identify much of the plant life but you are on your own with the birds. Every step up provided a different more dramatic vista of the valley below and the cliff dwellings above. Most importantly, you get to walk through the cliff dwellings. No DO NOT GO ANY FURTHER sign stops you from closely examining the 750-year old rooms and masonry. We had a great time.

Cholla CactiWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (6/10)
There are a lot of cliff dwellings in the Arizona/New Mexico area of the Southwest. You should see at least one. Most of the cliff dwelling National Park Sites are in the wide expanses of the four corners region. A trip there requires a vacation onto itself.

If you are vacationing in the Phoenix area, you have two choices, Tonto NM and Montezuma Castle NM. Here are the major differences.

Tonto NM is a longer drive, a scenic 120 miles from Phoenix on a winding highway. Montezuma Castle NM is a 90-mile straight shot up Interstate 17.

You must hike uphill for a ½ mile to get to Tonto NM. Montezuma Castle NM is located a few feet from the parking lot.

You can hike into the Tonto NM lower cliff dwelling and pass through all of its tiny rooms. You can only stare at the Montezuma Castle.

The scenery around Tonto NM is breathtaking high desert forest. Saguaro cacti line the steep, jagged mountain cliffs and birds fly all around. You are in the middle of nowhere, Arizona copper country.

Montezuma Castle NM’s scenery is unremarkable. However, the Site is near the massive red rocks and upscale shopping of Sedona, Arizona. Everybody loves Sedona.

We preferred Tonto NM to Montezuma Castle NM. Your decision might not be the same.

TOTAL 55/80


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southeastern Arizona
Visited: March 9, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 168 of 353
NPS Website

Cochise Vista
An unexpectedly soaring high altitude “sky island” oasis, the remnants of a 27 million-year old violent volcanic eruption. The result is towering narrow hoodoo rock pinnacles surrounded by mountains in a land that holds an incredible variant of animal and plant species.

BEAUTY (9/10)
How did we not know about Chiricahua, a place of unique and awe-inspiring beauty? The Park’s remarkable fields of rhyolite hoodoos are very similar to the iconic reddish orange rock towers of Bryce Canyon NP in Utah. Chiricahua’s hoodoos are grey and composed of a different rock; rhyolite is volcanic ash particles, superheated and fused together.

Multi-colored lichen, infinite shades of yellow, green and orange cover Chiricahua’s hoodoos. What do they look like? How active is your imagination?

Chiricahua NM is also located at an ecological crossroads, holding migrating Rocky Mountain species from the north, Chihuahuan Desert species from the east, Sierra Madrean species from the south and Sonoran Desert species from the west. The rock pillars are not the only show.

The Chiricahua Apaches lived in and around the area. They believed the “standing up rocks” to be a sacred place. We agree with this assessment; Chiricahua feels like a special place.

The large mountain to the northeast of the park is called Cochise Head; it does resemble the profile of a man lying done. The elusive Cochise never allowed himself to be photographed or painted; the rock is his only earthly representation.

Look OverheadCROWDS (8/10)
Chiricahua NM does not get the same amount of publicity as the red hoodoos down the road. The location is remote. Rock climbing and bouldering are prohibited which might thin the crowds as well. The roar of RV generators is not omnipresent; there are not throngs of people on the trails.

There were, however, enough to fill the small campground. All of our camping neighbors were friendly and polite, as were the three older couples who took the hikers shuttle with us in the morning.

We encountered the same couple a few times on the trail, sometimes birding, sometimes resting. They are the ones who suggested Madera Canyon, world class birding area, as a future stop. (Without their recommendation, we may have missed seeing two migrating species of hummingbirds whose narrow route takes them through the Canyon.)

One would expect a location as beautiful as Chiricahua NM to be overrun with hikers, photographers, outdoor enthusiasts. Instead we felt as if we had stumbled across a forgotten treasure.

The down side is that Chiricahua NM is about 120 miles from the nearest city, Tucson, Arizona; it is about 45 miles from the Willcox exits of Interstate 10.The plus side is that the road through the park is entirely paved and that it takes you to many picturesque overlooks if you are not the hiking type.

If you wish to hike into the hoodoos, a 3.5-mile loop travels around Echo Canyon. Do not miss the wonderful 7-mile hike that travels from Massai Point down to the Visitor Center. This trail passes through the most spectacular and famous of the Park’s rock formations. The hike is mostly downhill.

The Park Service offers a free shuttle at 8:30 a.m. from the Visitor Center to Massai Point that allows you to enjoy the hike with your car waiting for you at the bottom.

Books on Apache history and culture, biographies of Geronimo, Cochise and various cowboys of the Wild West and a dozen titles from the children’s Mysteries in Our National Parks series are available here. The National Park chocolate animal crackers that we bought while waiting for the shuttle were much tastier than expected.

Looking at Rocks
COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $5 per person, free with the National Parks Pass. The lovely Bonita Canyon campground has 22 spots available on a first-come, first-served basis. Sites are an affordable $12. There are few other overnight options nearby. Backcountry camping is not allowed. Plan accordingly, campground sites can fill up in the early spring high season.

The Student Conservation Association is active at Chiricahua NM. We saw at least 3 different SCA volunteers. But they complimented rather than took the place of Rangers, who were also present at the Visitor Center each time we stopped by. With the exception of a surly campground host, Chiricahua NM appears to be run by an all female staff.

The Site’s aging museum is dedicated to the Civilian Conservation Corps which improved the Monuments roads and blazed the trails that are still in use today. The museum displays personal effects of CCC members and an overview of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Tree Army next to photographs of the workers and inhabitants of this ecological four corners.

Chiricahua NM distributes a free newspaper which details each of the Site’s trails, their difficulty and accessibility. Its articles are fun as well as informative and supplement the VC’s older displays.

There is a short self-starting video narrated by hometown legend Rex Allen, Sr. in a warm corner of the museum. The couches are comfy – a little too comfy. We nearly dozed back to sleep as the Singing Cowboy’s warm voice told us about the natural beauty and wildlife inhabitants of Chiricahua in every season and altitude.

There are no Ranger-led walks into the rocks but there are guided tours of Faraway Ranch and Stafford Cabin, former homestead of Swedish immigrants whose daughter and husband were the first to promote the “Wonderland of Rocks.”

Alligator?FUN (8/10)
Some of the “standing up rocks” have names. Most don’t, leaving room for comments like this one: “Look! It’s a sick alligator wrapped in a blanket with a hot water bottle on his head!” Laugh, but look closely at the photo and tell us if you don’t see a resemblance.

Chiricahua NM is a hidden gem. When we left Fort Bowie NM and drove into Chiricahua NM, all we were hoping for was a place to pitch our tent. What we found was a sky island filled with intriguing shapes, peaceful trails, friendly Rangers, and a campground so clean and comfortable we were contemplating another night’s stay, even though temperatures dropped to the 30s at night.

The plusses of Chiricahua NM outweigh its remote location: There is an NPS historical site less than an hour away. Four ecosystems converge inside the Monument’s boundaries. Did we mention the FREE shuttle to the trailhead at Massai Point?

TOTAL 55/80

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near Willcox, Ariz.
Visited: March 9, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 167 of 353
NPS Website

Fort Bowie Ruins

Ruins of a large adobe U.S. Military Fort. Construction began on Fort Apache in 1862 with the purpose of protecting travelers from the hostile Chiricahua Apaches. The Fort became obsolete just 24 years later when the last Apache warrior, Geronimo, surrendered on these grounds.

BEAUTY (5/10)
Fort Bowie NHS is located in the stark, shadeless and rugged Arizona high desert. The 5,000 foot altitude creates a wide variation of temperature extremes. Shrub trees line the surrounding lands, not tall enough to be mountains but too large to be hills.

This is the landscape of the American western, nearby is Tombstone, Arizona, the site of the O.K. Corral. Only the land is more foreboding than its Hollywood body double and not as picturesque as the orange pinnacles of John Ford’s Monument Valley. This is a fearsome and inhospitable place.

The Fort Bowie ruins resemble a rusted adobe cemetery. Short remnants of the walls rise in an organized symmetrical fashion, looking like headstones and reminding one of its contentious past. None of the buildings have been reconstructed, nothing is as it once was.

Apache Spring runs near the ruins of Fort Bowie. This rare fresh water source in arid southeastern Arizona was vital to the Apaches during the thousands of years they inhabited the land. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Indians successfully repelled Spanish conquistadores from the area.

By the mid-19th century, American pioneers were drawn to the area and the spring. The Apaches had co-existed with American pioneers largely because the land was too barren to inhabit. The Butterfield Overland Mail Route encountered few problems during its 1858-1861 operation. Nevertheless, tensions were high; there were rumors of gold. Then the Bascom Affair changed everything.

An Unfortunate PennsylvanianIn January, 1861 a rogue band of Apaches raided the livestock of Arizona settler John Ward. Ward wrongly accused Apache leader Cochise of the crime. In February, under the guise of friendly negotiation, the U.S. Military lured Cochise into their camp and proceeded to hold him hostage until he released Ward’s stolen animals.

Cochise felt insulted, denied any involvement and dramatically escaped imprisonment, slashing his way through the tent encampment and riding through the army’s soldiers. 25 years of war ensued, necessitating the construction of Fort Bowie.

Initially, soldiers coming from the west to fight in the Civil War needed protection. After the Civil War ended, the U.S. Military poured more resources into controlling the West and removing the Native Americans. The Apaches finally surrendered in 1886 and were moved to a reservation. The Apaches were the last Indian tribe to surrender in the southern United States.

Fort Bowie NHS marks a surrender and American military triumph just as significant as those finalized at Appomattox, Fort Laramie and San Jacinto. The British surrender at Yorktown is, of course, the most significant domestic American victory.

The Park site, however, does not characterize Geronimo’s surrender at Fort Bowie as the end game in a bloody domestic war, one that solidified American control and facilitated territorial settlement and ownership. Instead, Fort Bowie NHS tells stories of skirmishes and frontier military life. It downplays the Site’s significance and the serious and vital consequences of the Apache Wars in our nation’s history.

CROWDS (6/10)
The ruins of Fort Bowie, as well as the Visitor Center, are a mile and a half hike from the Site’s parking lot. As a result, few people visit the Site and even less actually make it to the trail’s end. We arrived on a busy, beautiful and mild holiday weekend. The Site had a relatively large crowd, about 50 people.

This Site is much more inaccessible than the Rand McNally lets on. Fort Bowie NHS’s parking lot is located just off Apache Pass Road. Most of Apache Pass Road is unpaved.

From the north, the parking lot is 12 miles south of Interstate 10, the Bowie exit. We were warned that this portion of dirt road is especially treacherous. We avoided it. Instead, exit Interstate 10 at Willcox, drove 22 miles southeast along Arizona Route 186 and then 6 miles northeast (on unpaved Apache Pass Road) to the parking lot.

We say parking lot because no road leads to either Fort Bowie NHS or its Visitor Center. The Site is accessed by 1½ mile path that moves up a slight incline. There is little shade along the way, making the trail a bit unappealing in the 110º summer heat.

Fort Bowie NHS’s book titles tend toward the esoteric. Nearly all of its 60+ historical books relate directly to the incidents that happened in this specific southeastern Arizona area. Geronimo, Mangas Coloradas, Cochise and military officers who served here are the subjects of many of the titles. The books do not even stray to explain the cowboy lore of nearby Tombstone.

The specificity of the Site’s selection is understandable and appreciated given that whatever you buy you have to lug back out.

The Road InCOSTS (4/5)
Fort Bowie is 100%, absolutely, sure as the sky is blue free.

Be patient. There are no Rangers at the trailhead or posted along the trail to explain the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, the Stage Coach station ruins, the Apache Pass Battle Site, the frontier cemetery or the ruins of the first Fort Bowie.

There is a Ranger at the Visitor Center, which lies at the end of the trail. Save your questions and exercise your memory skills. We pulled the Ranger out of his office to ask questions but at other times he was standing on the Visitor Center’s front porch.

Pick up the park pamphlet in the parking lot and read it well. It is your only introduction to the Fort. Assorted exhibit panels line places in the trail where action occurred. There is no film at the Visitor Center and no Ranger talks. The small Museum displays original memorabilia but does not delve into any in depth historical discussion or analysis. The dearth of educational opportunity may be commensurate with the Site’s small crowds but Fort Bowie’s events and their players deserve better.

FUN (3/10)
Fort Bowie NHS was more bothersome than fun. The history is interesting, but the Park refuses to reach any definitive conclusions. Cochise, Mangas Coloradas and Geronimo are all wildly fascinating characters in American history but the Site only superficially examines them.

The extreme summer heat and the harsh winters make a visit hard to fit in. We happened on a perfect day in early March, but had to bypass the Site last November because it was too cold. The Site is 120 miles east of Tucson, making it day trip-able for only a small number. The hike was nice but we would have appreciated more info on what we were walking past.

Fort Bowie NHS is very close to Chiricahua NM. If you are visiting its astounding rock pillars, you might want to come to Fort Bowie to take a history-related day hike. If you are chasing the memory of the Wild West in nearby Tombstone, a trip to Fort Bowie NHS would provide a good historical context.

Before you drive miles down a dirt road, ask yourself: “Are the ruins of a western fort worth the trouble of a three-mile round trip hike?”

TOTAL 35/80

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near Alamogordo, N.Mex.
Visited: March 6, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 166 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

 Snow or Sand?WHAT IS IT?
The world’s largest gypsum dune field. In other words, nearly 200,000 acres of impossibly white sand dunes that rise to heights as tall as 60 feet.

BEAUTY (9/10)
The dunes are so white that the sky’s reflection becomes purple. Your mind wants to believe that you are looking at rolling hills of snow. The roads are covered in white sand and you expect the car to skid. I am driving on ice, right? But the skidding never happens.

You look around and kids are sledding down these hills, screaming in fun. You even convince yourself that the temperature is colder that it really is. Why am I wearing a sweater, it is 65 degrees and I am hiking. Distances are obscured and the sky is unbelievably huge.

Where am I again? White Sands NM. What a place.

The White Sands NM mentions nothing of historical importance on its brochure, in its introductory video or in its museum exhibits which technically may be the case. Nonetheless, White Sands NM’s borders lay entirely within the White Sands Missile Range. More than half of the sand dunes extend outside the National Monument and into the NO PUBLIC ACCESS zone.

The brochure states that the Missile Range is still used as “an important testing site for experimental weaponry and space technology”. Missile testing prohibits park access for a few hours once or twice every week.

The pamphlet does not refer to the Trinity Site, located within the Missile Range but far to the north of the Monument. The Trinity Site is where the first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945. It is a short listed UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most life-altering places on Earth. The U.S. Army opens the site for tours twice a year in early April and October. Last October 2,039 people attended the open house – 1,661 people and 40 dogs (2 cats) via Stallion Gate and 126 cars in Alamogordo caravan.

Look Out BelowCROWDS (8/10)
Back to the fun. Imagine if you had found the perfect snow sledding hill. OK, now imagine if there were 100 of those hills and they were right next to picnic benches and a parking lot. Once you decide on your hill, you climb to the top and see everyone else on top of their own private hill sledding down and having a great time. One family was even playing a game a tackle football on top of a sand dune.

The scene at the Visitor Center (before sledding) was even funnier. Two crowded rooms of adults and children were going through the motions, either watching the film or looking at the exhibits. Everybody young and old had the same look, I WANT TO GO SLEDDING. And sled we did.

The White Sands NM entrance is 54 miles northeast of Las Cruces, New Mexico just off U.S. Route 70. The area is understandably desolate; the White Sands Missile Range completely surrounds the Monument and covers nearly the entire length of Route 70 from Las Cruces to Alamogordo.

An 8-mile Dunes Drive takes you into the White Sands and ends in a loop with numerous picnic benches. You can hike anywhere into and around the dunes. Remember the way you traveled because the dunes all look the same.

The wheelchair accessible Interdune Boardwalk Trail was closed for repairs during our visit.

The White Sands NM lack of an historical conscience is slightly redeemed by its bookstore. Nearly 50 books are on sale detailing the developed of the Atomic Bomb and/or how it has affected local history. They range from Martin Cruz Smith’s popular fiction, Stallion Gate to Richard Rhodes Pulitzer Prize-winning standard, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. The bookstore also had a Women’s History Month (March) Table which highlighted books lauding the achievements of New Mexican women.

Picnic and PavementThere is a separate concessionaire across the hall from the NPS store that sells a plethora of interestingly designed White Sands NM clothing. If you have forgotten to bring a sled, this Store has round multi-hued saucers on sale for about $12.

COSTS (3/5)
Entrance is $3 per adult, free with the National Parks Pass.

There was one Ranger stationed behind the desk at the crowded Visitor Center. So many people had questions that a line had formed. She looked like she needed some help.

The introductory video was unbearable; it spent over half of its 18 minutes going over park regulations in a slow, new agey amazed female voice. The film had no historical and little educational value. Its purpose was to tell you what to do at the Park and it never mentioned sledding! The theater was stuffed with 30+ people all eager to leave. We all knew what was at White Sands and why we were there. Save yourself the frustration and skip the video. Your kids will thank you.

Mission ’66-era museum exhibits explaining the formation of the dunes are located in a small room next to the bookstore. We found it hard to concentrate on the panels. A daily Ranger Dune Walk leaves just before sunset at 5:00 p.m.

FUN (8/10)
Thank you Everett. Just before we left El Paso, our host extraordinaire asked us where we were heading. White Sands we answered. Then take this. Seemingly from out of nowhere, Ev handed us a purple flying saucer sled. You will need it.

He was so right. Without a sled, White Sands NM just is not the same. Sure, the dunes are cool to look at but who does not like skimming down a steep hill at tremendous speed? We did our share of sledding until Michael decided to go down the highest dune. About three quarters of the way down, he lost control of his purple vehicle and somersaulted at least three times. He does not remember the details. Gab does. Picture Michael with cartoon stars circling his head, trying to stand and shake the sand out of his clothes, ears, hair. “I’m worse for wear.” Sand is not nearly as forgiving as snow. We had a great time.

Gentle DuneWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
Sledding in March in southern New Mexico without feeling cold, what could be better? White Sands NM is a beautiful and supernatural place. If you are traveling to Carlsbad Caverns, you should try to visit the white dune field as well.

TOTAL 52/80

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near Carlsbad, N.Mex.
Visited: March 5, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 165 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Rock of AgesWHAT IS IT?
Your idealized image of a subterranean wonderland. Carlsbad Caverns is the cave by which all others are judged. You may know it as the place where the classic science fiction film, Journey to the Center of the Earth was filmed.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Overwhelming and dramatic. The Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance is a giant imposing gaping hole that descends straight down into blackness. FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed all of the Caves pathways, including one that dives 200 feet down from the Natural Entrance to the Bat Cave and winds back and forth over dozens of switchbacks.

The CCC boys also built an amphitheater at the Natural Entrance where, from spring to October, tourists enjoy the evening flight of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats leaving their daytime home to hunt insects.

The hike down from the Natural Entrance enhances the amazing Carlsbad Caverns experience. Unlike other caves, the descent is on foot rather than in an elevator. You are able to gather a sense of your depth. The cave even seems more real; you have not been transported to another place via machine, you have walked there yourself, 829 feet below surface elevation.

The breathtaking formations, stalactites, stalagmites, popcorn, flowstone, soda straws and draperies appear in astounding abundance. In other caves, Rangers shine flashlights around corners to point out rare shapes. At Carlsbad, these same rare formations are everywhere. Every step down through the Main Corridor is stunning and unbelievable but still does not prepare you for the grandeur of the Caverns famous Big Room.

The Big Room goes on forever in all directions. There is no claustrophobia at Carlsbad Caverns. The vistas are horizontal as well as vertical. The Big Room is 8.2 acres, well lit with a winding paved passageway. It takes at least an hour and a half to walk through its supernatural features.

Explorers have named notable formations the Caveman, the Temple of the Sun and the Rock of Ages. Countless more are left unnamed and free to your own imaginative skills. Every turn at Carlsbad is unimaginable and incredible.

Natural EntranceHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10)
An area resident, Jim White, then a teenager, discovered Carlsbad Caverns at the turn of century. Even though White led small groups of tourists through the Cave, it did not become an attraction until pictures were published in 1915. Isolation and skepticism protected it from the throngs until National Geographic ran a 1923 story announcing it as a new Wonder of the World, akin to Yellowstone and Yosemite. Congress declared it a National Park in 1930 and its discoverer, Jim White, became its first chief Park Ranger.

CROWDS (8/10)
Elementary school aged girls, their parents, retired RVers, Harley riders, skate boarding teens, Japanese tour buses and spring breaking college students all felt the same astonishment and the same giddiness. Everyone is here and excited. It is a great atmosphere.

Despite the immensity of the Cave, things could get crowded in the summer. Even though we arrived 10 minutes after the Park opened, tours of the King’s Palace were already sold out. We got the last spot on the Left Hand Tunnel tour. If you want to take a guided tour, make your reservations ahead of time. Do not be disappointed.

Carlsbad Caverns NP is located in southeastern New Mexico, not near any population centers. In fact, it is 18 miles from the small town of Carlsbad, N.Mex. The closest city is El Paso, 150 miles to the west. The Caverns are a destination location.

Nonetheless, the paths around the Big Room are paved and wheelchair accessible, an amazing feat for a subterranean wonderland. If you do not want to walk down the strenuous Natural Entrance, an elevator will drop you off at the underground lunchroom and picnic area located near the Big Room passageway.

You have to love a place that has shelves dedicated to all things bat. Stuffed bats, bat identification books, bat T-shirts, bat-crossing signs and more.

There are two stores in the small Visitor Center area, one handles books (great selection) and the other sells an incredible array of mementos.

A third concessionaire is in the Cave itself and sells T-shirts, hats and lunchtime snacks. You can send postcards from here marked with a stamp reading sent from 755 feet underground.

Carlsbad InteriorCOSTS (2/5)
The Entrance Fee is $6, age 16 and over, and $3 for ages 6 to 15. This charge is to get into the Cave, itself, and is good for the self-guided passages down the Natural Entrance and around the Big Room. This fee is waved if you have a National Parks Pass.

Ranger-led tours of the Caverns take you to areas not covered by the self-guided tours and cost an additional fee. The King’s Palace Tour cost $8 per person. Five other, wilder Cave tours range from $7 to $20 per person and require reservations. Check for the tour schedule before you come.

Two rangers led our lantern tour which was limited to 15 people. We saw several Rangers wandering the cavernous Visitor Center before and after their tours. AND we saw no fewer than five Rangers in the caves posted strategically along the self-guided route to assist with any and all questions about the Caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns offers several guided tours daily. They range from a Ranger-led stroll through Kings Palace to a lantern-lit exploration of Left Hand Tunnel to a series of wild cave tours that will dirty your knees and test your tendency towards claustrophobia. There is something for everyone; however, most tours limit the number of participants. The arrival of a tour bus could significantly reduce your options.

Reservations are highly recommended, especially in the summer.

We chose to see Left Hand Tunnel the old fashioned way – by candlelight. We paid $7 for a two hour tour of a lesser known portion of the park.

FUN (10/10)
“Whoa! Over there!”
“Hey! Look at that!”
“Oh my gosh, check it out!”
“Wow! Wow! Wow!”

This isn’t a transcription of a couple of 5 year olds running through the Caverns; these are the phrases that Gab kept saying over and over again as we descended down the Natural Entrance and through the Main Corridor. And that’s before we even saw the Big Room.

Every corner held a giant formation, a new and strange shape or colonies of delicate crystals. Our oohs and ahhs did not cease the entire morning. They combined and joined with everyone else’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed, smiling stares as we slowly glided along, entranced by the wonders of water and rocks.

Another Spooky InteriorWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
This is the cave by which all others are compared. Every cave tour that we have taken has mentioned the Caverns, either as a point of comparison or a disclaimer; “If you were expecting rooms like Carlsbad’s (formations like Carlsbad’s, bats like Carlsbad’s…) you might be a little disappointed; things are a little different here…” And then the Ranger will go on to discuss the special features and superlatives (longest, largest, oldest, etc.) that relates to the cave being toured.

Carlsbad and Mammoth Cave NP in Kentucky are the only American caves to be named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Tellingly, the NPS brochure that highlights the World Heritage Sites mistakenly labels a shot of Carlsbad’s entrance as Mammoth Cave thus removing any photographic representation of the Kentucky Park from the pamphlet. Even the proofreader sees Carlsbad as the one and only cave.

Carlsbad Caverns NP boasts the nation’s deepest limestone cave, the fourth longest cave and one of the world’s largest underground chambers.

Carlsbad Caverns is the granddaddy of all caves and a must-see American attraction. A road trip through New Mexico is incomplete without a stop here.

TOTAL 63/80

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near Pine Springs, Texas
Visited: March 4, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 164 of 353
NPS Website

Beautiful Trail
A National Park, suited especially for hikers, which includes the highest peak in Texas. During the Permian age, the area was underwater and the Guadalupe Mountains are actually the remnants of a non-coral reef.

BEAUTY (7/10)
The exposed reef that is the Guadalupe Mountains certainly has an imposing quality. The bald rock face of the El Capitan peak and the soaring Guadalupe Peak rise vertically in a dramatic way. The hikes to the “Top of Texas” will take you from the high desert into the forest. The Park reminds the visitor that the show comes in fall, when the autumn colors light up the maple, walnut, ash and sumac trees of the McKittrick Canyon.

The ruins of a geologist’s cabin remain in McKittrick Canyon. Mescalero Apaches hunted and probably lived in the area. Not much here captures the historical imagination.

CROWDS (8/10)
Hiking is your only option at the Park. As a result, a more determined and outdoorsy set travels here. Everyone is very friendly and sharing the same experience.

We really enjoyed the terrific $8 per night campground despite the sub-40º evening temperatures. Not only were the sites charming and spacious but they were designated tent only. No RV’s, pop-up car tents or even vans were allowed in; they were segregated into their own campground, which amounted to a nearby parking lot.

The Guadalupe Mountains NP is located 99 miles east of El Paso, Texas along U.S. Route 62/180. There are no driving tours through the National Park. The only way to experience the Park is by hiking into it.

A decent set of Texas geology, nature books and titles about the nearby National Park Sites. You can purchase wooden hiking sticks here too.

About To Be Eaten COSTS (3/5)
Entrance is $3 per person or free with the National Parks Pass.

There were a few very helpful volunteers at both the Visitor Center and the McKittrick Canyon trailhead. On our return back along the McKittrick Canon trail, we ran into a Ranger and a volunteer. They both answered our many reef-related questions. We still cannot get our heads around the notion that we are looking at the remnants of a non-coral reef. In fact, we still are not sure what a non-coral reef is. Geology is difficult for us.

The Visitor Center Museum utilizes a touch screen computer that is supposed to make up for the lack of Ranger help. It doesn’t. Geology is not something we can comprehend with graphs, charts, confusing words and text explanations. Our knowledge of the Capitan Reef and the formation of the Guadalupe Mountains is entirely superficial.

The non-geology part of the Museum is the old fun standby: stuffed fauna in a faux natural setting. The wild turkey, coyote, golden eagle and many others are representative of the local wildlife. There are touch-me tables, comfortable couches and even an insect collection. We actually enjoyed our time at the Museum.

FUN (8/10)
Though not as dramatic or grand (or warm) as Big Bend NP, its larger NPS neighbor to the south, Guadalupe Mountains NP invited us in and charmed us, made us feel welcome, like the park was just for us. After days of trying to squeeze between mammoth RVs, like we were the ones inconveniencing everyone by taking up a whole campsite with our puny tent, we took devilish delight at seeing the machines relegated to the parking lot.

We arrived at the Park around lunchtime, walked into the Visitor Center and were immediately presented with a set of hiking options. “If you’re feeling up to it, now would be a great time to see McKittrick Canyon. Gates close at 4, though.”

The Top of Texas
The trailhead for the Canyon lies 7 miles north of the VC on US62 and 4 miles further down a park road. We set our watches to make sure we were back to the Altima before the gates were locked and off we went.

The scenery was green, the hike uneventful other than the large mule deer we scared near the Hunter Line Shack. We spent most of the walk trying to understand the geography of the Guadalupe Mountains and plotting what we would have for dinner back at our beautiful campsite. It was a wonderfully pleasant afternoon.

With rain in the forecast for the next few days, we didn’t feel too bad skipping Guadalupe Peak, opting instead for the dryer innards of Carlsbad Caverns NP. But if you are looking for a great place to pitch your tent or have any desire to make it to the “Top of Texas,” Guadalupe Mountains NP is the place to be.

TOTAL 45/80

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southwestern Texas
Visited: February 28, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 162 and 163 of 353
NPS Website

Before Sunset
The southwestern part of Texas where its Mexican border, the Rio Grande, takes a sharp U-Turn. The impossibly rugged area consists of desert, mountainous sky islands and lush wildflowers. Big Bend NP is a world-renowned bird watching location.

BEAUTY (9/10)
The scenery of Big Bend NP has come to represent Texas. It is big, rugged and diverse and takes front page on all the state’s tourist brochures and in its peoples’ imaginations. Ironically, it looks like nothing else in Texas or in the United States. Big Bend is its own place and own world.

Most of Big Bend NP is a surprisingly green desert whose dusty browns are peppered with prickly pear cacti, the red blooms of the ocotillo and scrub brush. Striking blue bonnets and desert marigolds flank the roadsides, sometimes accompanied by the purples and oranges of more exotic wildflowers.

From all directions, the Chisos Mountains sky island looms in the distance. These imposing rock pinnacles stand thousands of feet higher than the desert below. Here the ecosystems change dramatically, the air gets colder and damper, the trees turn taller and thicker and a new set of fauna appears. A trail leads to the top of Emory Peak, at 7,825 feet it is the second highest point in Texas. The Rio Grande and the Chihuahuan Desert sit far below, now just an abstract concept in a different reality.

The Rio Grande is not nearly as grande or bravo as you might have imagined. The United States and Mexico’s physical border meekly moves, never stretching any wider than 30 yards across. Reeds spring up along the river’s banks while its flow changes in time, exposing a sandy rock base. The water brings wildlife and people from both sides of the border but only the birds and animals can legally cross. Portions of the river have cut steep canyons that incessantly echo the descending call of canyon wren, the most remarkable example being Santa Elena Canyon.

Big Bend NP is a desolate but beautiful place. Everyone we met was amazed and in awe but without fail quickly added a qualifier, “it is nice but I would not want to spend a lot of time here. It is just not my vision of beauty.”

Beautiful BluebonnetsHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10)
There a few stories of life in the area aside from typical tales of mining, ranching and mild Indian incursions.

CROWDS (2/10)
Weather allows for a small window of opportunity at Big Bend NP. The rains and the summer heat make May through October a sparse time at the Park. November through February can get cold, especially at the high altitudes.

Consequently, March and April is the time to visit. These months also coincide with the voluminous bird migrations for which the Park is famous. March and April also bring another type of bird, the RV-ing snowbird.

There are only 194 camping sites accessible via paved roads. This is a surprisingly small number given the Park’s iconic status. Sixty-nine of these spots can be, and are, reserved ahead of time via www.reserveusa.com. During peak visitation time, every campsite seems occupied by an RV. We lucked onto a rare non-reserved site with lush green grass to sleep upon. We spent the next two days shooing away RV’s trying to take our place.

The large crowds we encountered made our trip one big headache with the constant hum of an RV generator in the background. And we were parked in a no generator zone! If you have a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle, you can get to a plethora of remote campsites and escape the madness.

That being said, the Park Service repeatedly warns visitors of illegal border crossing Mexicans. Our hike at the Boquillas Canyon Overlook began with an ominous NPS warning, “Car Break-Ins Frequently Occur in This Lot”. We pressed on. At the first overlook, Michael scanned the Rio Grande with his binoculars. A Mexican man, relaxing along the Rio Grande’s banks, waved to him. He was watching us with his own set of binoculars. We went back to the car and did not finish the hike.

Texas is a huge and Big Bend NP is its most remote place. The nearest town of over 10,000 people is Odessa, 215 miles to the north. It is a 325-mile trek from El Paso and 450 miles from San Antonio. Those are the closest places to Big Bend NP. Make sure you fill up on gasoline and water before you head south from Interstate 10.

Distance from civilization is not the only accessibility problem. Most of the backcountry campsites are located on primitive roads and can only be reached with a high clearance vehicle. If you have a 4×4 or an off-road motorbike, the world of Big Bend is your oyster. Not so with a Nissan Altima.

The bookstores all carry a good selection of Big Bend-related books: hiking guides, paved road guides, unpaved road guides and river guides. There are posters, jigsaw puzzles and other photographic remembrances for your trip.

The Park has four stores that sell food, camping gear, beverages and other necessities you may have forgotten. They are located at the four interior Visitor Centers. Prices are not terrific but it is your only choice. Two gas stations, located at the Rio Grande Village and the Panther Junction VC, dispense fuel at a hefty price.

Amidst the Sky Island
COSTS (3/5)
Park entry is $15 per car or free with the National Parks Pass. Campsites are an affordable $10 and backcountry permits and campsites are free.

The Rio Grande Village campsite is beautiful with thick green grass, cottonwoods filled with birds, playful roadrunners on the ground, easy access to trails and a stunning view of the sunset over the river. Most of the Ranger talks originate from around this area. If you know you are coming and want a developed campground, try to reserve a spot here. 43 of the 100 spots are reservation only. The other 57 are first come first served and highly sought after, often selling out before noon.

The Chisos Basin campground enjoys a more dramatic but much colder setting. It is located 3,550 feet above the Rio Grande in a “sky island”. The campsites are rocky and sloped. The parking spaces are small and at such an angle that RV’s have a difficult time getting up, but given the Park’s limited overnight options, they find a way. 26 of Chisos’ 63 campsites are reservation only.

The 31-site Cottonwood campground is more remotely located than the other two. All spots are reserved and during our stay served as the run-off for RV’s who did not plan in advance.

There are 72 affordably priced rooms available at the privately run Chisos Mountain Lodge.

Even during the high season, Park Rangers are hard to find. Visitor Centers are staffed with volunteers and Student Conservation Association interns. The volunteers who helped us at Chisos Basin and Castolon were remarkably helpful. We are guessing that the Park dedicates much of its Ranger budget toward security and border patrol, a sad necessity.

We were dismayed by the small quantity of Ranger-led interpretive activities at the Park. We altered our stay so that we would be able to attend the week’s only Birding Walk. The 2-hour walk was great and crowded. The 50+ people in attendance included four off duty Park volunteers eager to learn.

Sadly, there are not more Bird Talks as the spring migration thickens because it coincides with Spring Break and the Interpretive Rangers must be inside to fill out the excessive backcountry permits. Big Bend NP is a confounding and magical place that forces you to understand its environs on your own.

FUN (8/10)
We probably should have had more fun than we did. In fact, this rating does not accurately reflect our experience, it represents what our experience should have been.

5 fun things about Big Bend NP: 1) Santa Elena Canyon hike; 2) Wildflowers; 3) Birdwatching; 4) Hiking in the Chisos Mountains; 5) Rio Grande Village Nature Trail.

Not fun things about Big Bend NP: 1) Lack of shade; 2) Lack of Ranger tours and 3) Necessity of a 4×4. An off road vehicle would eliminate: a) Very crowded campgrounds; b) The need to take long desert hikes to get anywhere; c) Rabid RVers on the constant hunt for a campsite.

Well-Balanced WoodpeckerWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
Big Bend NP can be a hassle. Our overly logistical review tends towards this conclusion. Since it is so remote, only the traveler without a set time frame (us and RVers) will not plan things in advance. Once you get here, there is nowhere else to go. You cannot daytrip this Park.

You need to know exactly what, where and when you want to do at Big Bend NP because it is so big, so overwhelming and portions of it are so crowded. If you plan your trip carefully, these three problems can easily be alleviated.

We highly recommend traveling to Big Bend NP in a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle. It will change everything you can do in the Park.

Be sure Big Bend is a place you would like to be. Its beauty is stark, wildlife sightings are rare and a desolate Mexican border-type of danger is tangible. If you do not like deserts, you should go somewhere else.

TOTAL 43/80

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