All the hits: week ten (in which spring break ruins our Big Bender)

More New Mexico!

Tent Rocks National Monument: Tent Rocks was really beautiful. As someone else said, it’s “a real jewel”. Tent rocks are pointed rocks formations that look a bit like … tents. Often they have a little cap on top that protects the rest of the structure from erosion. We’ve seen these formations in a couple of other places, but these were, by far, the largest. The Cave Loop Trail to see the tent rocks from below was nice, but the real fun was the Slot Canyon Trail. It was a hike unlike any we’ve done so far as it had us ducking under boulders and twisting our way through narrow channels between towering cliff walls. After a steep climb out of the canyon, we were at the top of a mesa with a spectacular view from which we could see the tent rocks, valley, and even our campsite and the lake off in the distance. Utterly gorgeous.

El Patio de Albuquerque: A delicious Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque where we went to eat. We were told to try green chilis while in New Mexico, so we were sure to get all our food covered in the delicious sauce. To quote our server “you can put green chilis on anything”.

The Santa Fe Brewing Company: Located in the Green Jeans Farmery, the entire development is notable for being built using old shipping containers. They’re placed on one another in quite an interesting way and the space is definitely unique with lots of patio space. The beer was delicious, but while we love patios, patios located right beside the highway kind of mud the vibe. Anywhere else and we probably would have stayed longer.

Carlsbad Caverns: Many people had told us to go here and, after exploring these colossal caves, all we can say is … you should go here! It is almost like a dream to think of it – so different from reality above ground. Normally accessible by elevator, they were broken when we visited (and won’t be fixed until June) so everyone had to do it the old-fashioned way. Walking to the natural entrance, we hiked 2km down into the cave. The main, massive cavern is called “The Big Room” and, at 8.2 acres, it is “the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America”. The system open to visitors is all very dramatically lit, but it’s so fascinating to think what this must have been like to explore when pitch black. After spending some time wandering around and inspecting all the fascinating rock formations (including a view down into the lower caves – the entire cave system still hasn’t been explored), it was time to hike back up again. Did we mention we descended and then ascended over 750 feet? According to the Ranger, that’s the equivalent of climbing the stairs of an eighty-story building. The caves are always about 13°C and very humid so we emerged exhilarated but sweating buckets.

Bonus: Pecos National Monument (we didn’t have a lot of time here, but it wasn’t that large a site), Cochiti Campground (a really nice new campground on Cochiti Lake which is formed by the Cochiti dam on the Rio Grande), Ponderosa Pines (because their bark smells deliciously like vanilla), Petroglyph National Monument (a park just outside of Albuquerque where you can see Indigenous markings on all sorts of rocks), spending the night car camping on a mountain farm surrounded by dogs, horses, sheep, goats, chickens, and donkeys (Thanks Miriam and Ruby!)

More Texas!

Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Located in the remote west corner of Texas, these mountains are the state’s highest points. Boy are they beautiful to behold. We camped at the park overnight and hiked the McKittrick Canyon trail the next morning. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what trails we should hike when our time is so limited, and in this case we may not have picked the best one. While the canyon is beautiful and diverse in its fauna (much of this part of the Texas is scrub desert with not many large trees – the canyon had many), the entire trail was gravel and not that nice to walk on. Oh well.

Marathon: There are some really cool small towns in west Texas. Marathon is truly tiny. One of those towns that only has one of anything, if anything at all. But while other towns of this size that we’ve driven through have seemed quite run-down and/or abandoned, Marathon was a vibrant tiny community anchored around a nice hotel and a few restaurants.

Marfa: Marfa is weird – in the good way – but still weird. It’s a small town of several thousand with a vibrant art and food community. But, it’s kind of hard to tell. On driving through we saw a couple of food trucks and a bunch of young hipster-looking locals and tourists milling about, but most things appeared closed. In fact, the town appeared similar to many of the run-down desert towns we had already driven through. Most of the buildings looked abandoned except for the fact they were generally in excellent condition. On closer inspection, one of them turned out to be a very fancy hotel, and many others galleries – but there was very little in terms of exterior decoration and signage to communicate this. Even after spending a couple of days at the local saloon, coffee shop, and grocery store, we still couldn’t really figure out where all the tourists wandering the streets were going. Marfa is also famous for the “Marfa Mystery Lights”, a strange phenomenon where at night, and just outside of town, strange and unexplained lights can be seen hovering south of the highway. We stayed up late to try and see them (with about fifty other people, but nothing unusual caught our eyes). For more about the oddity that is Marfa, read this.

Fort Davis National Monument: Located just outside the current town of Fort Davis, the historic fort contains dozens of buildings, many of which are still being excavated and repaired. While in generally good condition, many of the floor boards in the building had rotted away and archeologists hadn’t yet taken advantage to dig down into the dirt to see what they could find. Just like Fort Larned, the buildings that had been restored were incredibly detailed with lots of original furniture from the era. We took a lovely nature walk that gave a beautiful view of the fort before heading south again.

Later on, we would return to camp just north of Fort Davis at a lovely free campsite in a desert canyon. There was a nature trail leading to the top of a hill beside the campsite, and we found ourselves just a ten-minute drive from the McDonald observatory (which we only visited because they have bathrooms and a water fountain).

Big Bend National Park: Originally Big Bend had not been part of our itinerary, but several people talked about just how remote and beautiful it was and, since it wasn’t that far out of our way, we decided to check it out. The first time we drove down it was a Saturday afternoon, and though we spent hours driving mostly emptiness, upon rounding a corner into the park, we suddenly found ourselves in a long line of cars waiting to enter the park. Finally getting to the gate we were told every single campsite was taken (including those in the back country). As it happened, we had wandered down to Big Bend on the weekend bridging elementary/high school and college spring breaks – possibly the busiest weekend of the year. We decided to explore some of the other small towns mentioned above and return on the Monday with the hopes of things having calmed down somewhat.

We returned to Big Bend early Monday morning with the hope of snagging a campsite, but, once again, everything was booked up. We decided to spend the day in the park anyway and find somewhere outside to camp. After doing a few trails in the morning (one into a spectacular canyon along the Rio Grande, and another to some very warm hot springs) we ran into another issue. There was nowhere to park at the other trails. At some point during the day, so many people had entered the park that every available parking space and road-side shoulder near any trailhead was full of cars. We had nowhere to stop, and so being hot, and at this point, somewhat frustrated, we decided to abandon (what was a very beautiful park), and find a nearby campsite. As it turned out, most of the campsites outside of the park were also packed, but, having a mattress in the van, all we needed was a parking space in a parking lot and that was something we were able to find (the site also had showers, a total bonus).

El Camino del Rio Scenic Drive: Driving West from Big Bend along the border, we took the El Camino del Rio along the north side of the Rio Grande. It was a spectacular drive up and down hills, winding in and out of canyons, with amazing views and some pretty cool rock formations.

A note about the US/Mexican border: You might think that we’d be free to drive around the southern states freely. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The US Border Patrol has dozens of permanent and roaming checkpoints north of the border. You can’t go to Big Bend without returning through one of them. That means, having your passport ready, being pulled over to the side of the road, being interviewed by a border guard, and having a border guard dog conduct an inspection of your vehicle for “illegal” immigrants and drugs. We have now driven through these checkpoints four times and expect to get stopped at more until we get further away from the border. Future travelers, be prepared and yes, it is frightening – especially for Mexican, Latina/o, and Spanish folks.

Bonus: Roadrunners (we’ve seen a bunch now and the cartoon is surprisingly accurate in it’s depiction of the way they move – especially when they hop), Frama and Plaine coffeeshops/laundromats in Marfa and Alpine, the Lost Horse Saloon.

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