Southwest US '96

A View from the Top of the Cross in Carlsbad Cavern's Great Room (September 1996)

Still Under Construction - More To Come

Index:
About the Trip
Big Bend National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Enchanted Rock State Park (Texas)
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Saguaro National Park (West)
Three Rivers Petroglyphs National Monument
White Sands National Monument

Big Bend National Park

Cerro Castellan with approaching storm

A section of Burro Mesa from pouroff canyon

Cluster of butterflies on the Window Trail

Flowering shrub with butterflies on Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail

Casa Grande

Casa Grande after sunset with storm approaching

Century plant with Chisos Mountains for a backdrop

Chisos Mountains from Window Trail

More Chisos Mountains from Window Trail

And yes... more Chisos Mountains from Window Trail

Chisos Mountains from near Panther Junction

Rio Grande at Santa Elena Canyon

Flowers on the Window Trail

Mule Ears Butte

Ocotillo cactus on Dagger Flats

Typical scrub plantlife on Dagger Flats

Rio Grande entering a canyon at the east end of the park

Storm shadows

Some of the exotic wildlife - a tarantula trying not to be seen

A view from The Window (with the Gunsight below)

Sunset over the Window area of the Chisos Mountains

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

A view of the Great Room from the "Top of the Cross"

Another portion of the Great Room

Enchanted Rock State Park (Texas)

The western face of Enchanted Rock

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Fruit-laden cane cholla cactis (?)

El Capitan at close range

The west side of the Guadalupe Mountains near sunset

Morning fog lifting off hills near Guadalupe Mountains NP

The Grottos in McKittrick Canyon

Manzanita Springs with El Capitan in background

Plant life in wash below XXX Springs

Saguaro National Park (West)

Three Rivers Petroglyphs National Monument

Bunch of glyphs - Cool looking design, Kokopelli, etc.

Man with hot foot and 2 other glyphs

White Sands National Monument

Yucca plant managing to survive in the dunes

Walking in circles

About the Trip (September 1996):

Sometimes patience pays off. I had planned to take a trip similar to this particular excursion in March 1995 after a business trip to San Diego. In fact, I even had the airline tickets to do so. Unfortunately, I busted up my knee a couple of weeks beforehand and had to cancel it. Ever since then, I've been looking for an opportunity to try again. As luck would have it, my uncle's wedding finally provided the perfect excuse to go back to the southwest and even set me up with a travelling partner - my cousin Perry.

Perry and I met up in Austin, Texas, where my cousin Peter and his wife Cammie live. This was first time I had ever been to Austin, so I didn't know what to expect. It turns out Austin is quite alright. It has an awesome nightlife, including a great music scene. We went to see the band Storyville at Antone's, one of Austin's more famous music clubs (the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn and the Fabulous Thunderbirds passed thru here early in their careers as well as a lot of more established blues and rock bands). By the way, Storyville was great and they now appear to be just hitting the national scene - buy their disc! We also went to 6th Street - the heart of bar life in Austin - which is a wild place, especially on home UT football game weekends. I also recommend Esther's Follies for some topical comedy - it's well worth the price of admission.

After leaving Austin, Perry and I headed west into the desert. Our first stop was Big Bend N.P. way down in the southwest corner of Texas where the Rio Grande makes a wide looping turn (hence the name). Big Bend covers a wide variety of terrain, from the canyons, reed plants and parched heat of the river, to the scrub brush and cacti of the more elevated desert flats, to the rugged spires of the Chisos Mountains in the park's interior. We spent our first morning hiking around the Chisos on the Window Trail which goes from the basin area to the top of the pouroff for a small stream. From the pouroff, there's a nice view of a portion of the western part of the park. However, the best part of the trail is the plantlife and critters. I was really surprised to see the number and variety of butterflies and flowers in the high desert. I was also taken aback by seeing my first tarantula in the wild along with stuff I more expected to see - a couple of snakes, a few lizards, and tons of grasshoppers.

We spent the afternoon driving to the eastern access to the Rio Grande and hiking the mile or so through reeds to the canyon there. The canyon was quite nice, but what was more interesting was that we found 4 or 5 unattended horses near the canyon mouth. They weren't tied up, nor did they have saddles or other riding gear on them. In fact two of them were young, which makes it less likely that they were being ridden. To this day, we still haven't figured out what they were doing there, who they belonged to or if they were wild (which seems unlikely). The final part of day 1 was watching the sunset in the Chisos Basin.

Day 2 of Big Bend involved lots of driving. We went to Dagger Flats - a flat part of the desert plain with lots of cacti, creosote, etc. Then we slowly made our way across to the western side of the park, where we saw Mule Ears peaks, Cerro Castellan and a really wild thunderstorm. We finally made it back to the Rio Grande at Santa Elena Canyon with the intention of hiking the trail into the canyon. Unfortunately, a walkway looked to be washed out and about 10 feet of sucking mud stopped us from getting to the other side. After several attempts to find another way and build another make-shift bridge over the mud, we were thwarted and settled for some pictures of the canyon entrance. Now I have a reason to go back.

Our next stop was Guadalupe Mountains N.P. The Guadalupe Mountains are the remains of a coral reef that formed around the perimeter of a Permian era shallow inland sea that spread over western Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The sea is long since gone and the reef was buried for ages, but the land has since been pushed up by other geologic events. Parts of the reef are now exposed as softer ground has eroded around it. The Guadalupes rise over 3000 feet above the desert floor, making a spectacular sight. El Capitan is the leading southern edge and rises almost straight out of the desert below, while Guadalupe Mountain stands the tallest at over 8700 ft. above sea level (highest spot in Texas).

Our adventures kept us in the lower elevations around the central mountains of the park. We took a trail that wandered by two natural springs and the oases they create in the desert flora. We also hiked into McKittrick Canyon. Both hikes were well worth it. McKittrick is supposed to be absolutely amazing when the leaves change colors due to the variety of trees inhabiting the canyon - especially the maples which turn bright reddish-orange. Unfortunately, we missed the foliage season by a couple of weeks. If you go to Guadalupe Mountains N.P., I would suggest going in mid-October and hiking into McKittrick Canyon (a good hike is 4 1/2 miles roundtrip with little elevation change).

Day 4 was a bit of a change as we spent most of our time below ground in Carlsbad Caverns N.P. I still can't believe that people actually find it fun to crawl around in caves hoping that their lanterns don't go out. Luckily, someone explored Carlsbad years ago and now it has paved walkways to hike on and elevators to get in and out without all that crawling around stuff. Anyway, the caverns are incredible. Someone once described them as being the Grand Canyon upside down - which is a reasonable attempt at describing the indescribable. It's peaceful (when you can get away from the crowds), yet it is very eerie at times; it's beautiful, but it is also somewhat intimidating; it's huge, but also seems confining (I guess millions of tons of rock will do that to a person...). All this rolled into one still doesn't quite describe it. Anyway, go for yourself and you'll see.

We took the hard way down - hiking a mile (about 800 ft. vertical) through the natural entrance. This was well worth it because it was the only time you can get away from the crowds. An added benefit is that you can make all the gross noises you want and listen to the echoes off the sometimes 200+ feet high ceilings while no one is around - great fun for the whole family.

Once at the bottom, the Great Room is fantastic - this is what everyone comes to see. It's also pretty cool that there is a gift shop and restrooms down there - 800 feet under ground! If you can get on a ranger-led tour, do it. We took one to the area that is now off-limits to the general public due to vandalism. It was an interesting tour and the rooms had some amazing formations - especially the King's Throneroom. And, of course, they do the standard tourist thing - turn off the lights (if you've never done this, it is a very odd feeling).

After Carlsbad we continued our trek westward across New Mexico stopping next in the Alamogordo area. Our primary objective was White Sands National Monument but we managed to sneak in Three Rivers Petroglyphs National Monument and Aguire Springs National Recreation Area just for grins.

White Sands is a large dune field made completely out of gypsum sand, so it is brilliant white instead of the tan or black of most dunes. For geology buffs the process that forms the dunes goes something like this. First, the dunes are located in the desert valley between two mountain ridges - the Sacramento and San Andreas (no this isn't California). Before the mountains were pushed up and the valley collapsed, the entire area had a layer of gypsum buried below the surface (from an ancient alkaline sea or lake I think). Anyway, after the valley collapsed, the sides of the ridges along the fracture line now have layers of gypsum exposed to the elements. Rain dissolves the gypsum, carrying it into the valley. However, because the valley has no drainage outlets, the gypsum-laden water collects in a Lake XXX and during dry times is deposited on the valley floor as the lake dries up. Wind takes care of the rest, moving the sand into dunes which can sometimes move more than 30 feet per year.

OK, enough geology. White Sands is worth a trip and I had a lot of fun jumping off the tops of dunes and generally looking silly. When I was a kid going to the Jersey shore walking on the dunes was strictly taboo, because the dunes protect the beaches. So I enjoyed it doubly much because I had the feeling that I was getting away with something.

Three Rivers Petroglyphs was a spontaneous little side trip that was more interesting than I expected. Rock drawings were thicker than the bugs on our windshield after 2000 miles crossing the desert. We employed a time-honored strategy for finding the best ones - we let kids do it (a large group of kids on a field trip arrived just after we did). We just listened for the loudest shouts, waited til they cleared out of the area and then swooped in. They also made sure that any snakes or scorpians were long gone by the time we got there - bonus!.

Aguire Springs was an after thought and is basically just a camping and picnic area. But, we hit it near sunset, so there were a few nice views and it was worth the hour or so we invested in driving around there.

On our final day on the road was probably the busiest of all. First, we decided to take a detour to Tombstone, Arizona. Boy is this a big time tourist trap. We spent our $4 for the grand package. What you get is:

After escaping Tombstone as quickly as possible, we headed to the Pima Airforce Museum in Tuscon. It was really cool. It has tons of stuff - bombers, fighters, cargo planes; WW 2, Korea, Vietnam, current - you name it. The highlight by far is the SR-71, which is a tech-head's dream. Almost everything on the plane had to be invented from scratch because it runs so hot from the speeds it achieves that conventional technology wouldn't cut it. It's also really cool because there really isn't much chance of it being shot down because at mach 3.2+ it flies faster than everything else - including bullets, rockets and missiles.

And finally... we drove through the western section of Saguaro National Park. Lots of big saguaro cacti, some nice hills, some more tarantulas - definitely worth the quick drive through.

The rest of the trip involved seeing family and going to my uncle's wedding - oh yeah, remember that?? Anyway, an excellent time was had by all.

To Big Bend National Park Index

To Carlsbad Caverns National Park Index

To Guadalupe Mountains National Park Index

To Saguaro National Park Index

To White Sands National Monument Index

To Travel Picture Index

To John's Home Page



Last modified: 11 October 1996, Karp@virginia.edu