Great Basin National Park

GreatBasin (16)Great Basin National Park marked our 44th and final park for this leg of our trip.  300 miles North of Las Vegas stands the 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak. The ‘great basin’ itself is the 200,000 square mile area that surrounds the mountain where the rivers and lakes drain internally (as opposed to emptying into the ocean).  Recent snow in the area kept us from driving to the top of the mountain, but we were able to see the sweeping desert which surround the mountain with great contrast.  We enjoyed a hike that took us alongside an old water-sluice that fed a mining-camp 9 miles distant on the other side of the mountain, but was now just a few scattered timbers.

On our way out of the park, we enjoyed the crazy “lawn-art” that neighbors had displayed along the main road including the “horse” driving the old car below.

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Saguaro National Park

Saguaro (12)Straddling both sides of Tucson are both halves of Saguaro National Park. Named after the unique and beautiful saguaro cactus, which are found in very few places in the United States.  Saguaro are the cactus most people think of when hearing the word cactus. We discovered that virtually none of these armed cacti look as perfect as represented in things like the Taco Time sign.
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We were struck by how beautiful and downright hostile this desert is.  Everywhere you look there’s something waiting to poison, poke, bite, sting, or scrape you.  It was fun to recall the names of the various plants and cacti that we learned about during our last visit to the southwest.

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Since the park is too fragile/dangerous to hike through, we visited the nearby Desert Museum, a great place to get up close with the creatures and plants that call the desert home. We saw mountain lions, javelinas (think wild pigs), and many kinds of spiders & snakes.  We were also able to see a raptor free-flight demonstration featuring a family of Harris Hawks who uniquely hunt in packs.  This was a very nice, zoo-like, museum, that we highly recommend if you are in the Tucson area.

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During our evening drive in the East section of the park, we enjoyed one of Arizona’s legendary sunsets. The drive also gave us our first three rattlesnake sightings, quickly reducing Lisa’s excitement to see a wild one close-up after it coiled and rattled at her.

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White Sands National Monument

Our drive took us close to White Sands, so we just had to stop and play in its majestic dunes of gypsum!  The area is also home to American rocketry, as well as the Trinity Test Site where the the Manhattan Project’s first nuclear detonation was tested.  Unfortunately, Trinity is only open to the public twice a year, but it’s OK – we didn’t really need the radiation anyway. 😉
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Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe (6)Just south of Carlsbad Caverns lies one of the lesser-known parks: Guadalupe Mountains.

Much of this park is only accessible via overnight hikes, so given our timetable (and Lisa’s fear of spiders), we were only able to see those parts not too far from the roadside.  But despite these constraints, we saw a few new creatures here, including our first wild tarantula and javelinas!
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Carlsbad Caverns National Park

CarlsbadCavern (3)Near the Texas border in New Mexico lies the most amazing cave we have ever seen.  Carlsbad Caverns is one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.  We began our visit with a self-guided, mile-long tour down the natural entrance.  We were immediately taken-in by the immense size and beauty of the cave’s opening.  As we descended into the cave, the smell of bat guano was overpowering, but thankfully the smell subsided further-in, and the wonders of the cave took over.

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Nearing the end of this tour, at an amazing 750ft below ground, lies a small information center and cafe.  There, we met up with our hobbit-sized tour-guide for a 90-minute walk that descended another 500 ft to the most ornate portions of the cave: the King’s Palace, Queen’s Chamber, and Papoose Room. These chambers are something everyone must see for themselves; words and photos can do them no justice.

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After our guided tour, we had just enough time for a walk around the “Big Room”, a natural limestone chamber which is almost 4,000 ft long, 625 ft wide, and 350 ft high, making it one of the largest in the world. The chamber is decorated with large columns and other surprises around every corner. 

After spending 4 hours underground, we took an elevator back to the world above, and anxiously awaited the grand finale of our day: the flight of ~300,000 Mexican Free-tailed Bats that make Carlsbad Caverns their home. We were fortunate enough that they had not headed off to their Winter home yet, as they do this time of year.  We gathered in the amphitheater situated at the cave’s opening around 5:30pm as a ranger educated us about the bats we were about to see.  Just after 6:00, Lisa was the first of the group to notice the bats starting to spiral out of the cave at the rate of about 5,000 bats per minute, some of them flying right over our heads!  This process seemed unending as we watched the bats continue to fly out for what seemed like an hour. Sadly, for the health of the bats, we were not able to take pictures of their ascent, but we did snap one of some bats still overhead as we walked to the parking lot.  What an amazing experience, making Carlsbad Caverns one of our favorite National Parks, and a day we will not soon forget!

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Big Bend National Park

BigBend (29)In remote southwestern Texas lies Big Bend National Park, named after the horseshoe bend of the Rio Grande river that borders the park.  There are three primary sections to this park.  The first is the Chinos Mountains, the southernmost range in the continental US.  We began our visit there, driving up to higher elevations, twisting our way through a rare lush valley, until reaching the road’s apex that offers views of the park’s iconic castle-like mesa called “Casa Grande”.  We skipped a couple hikes along the way, due to temperatures higher than our northern blood is accustomed to.
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We then descended to the Rio Grande Village, where the temperature increased further with each mile we drove.  We stopped to view the Sierra del Carmen, the mountain range behind Lisa below, which mark the beginning of Mexico’s border.  We soon reached the Rio Grande, where we stood just a stone throw away from Mexico.  There was actually a group of Mexicans sitting with their boat and horses, just across from us, waiting to rescue their friend, if need be, who had crossed the river to sell handcrafted items to park visitors.

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The following day, we drove to the southwestern corner of the park, where the Rio Grande runs through Santa Elena Canyon.  The river was so shallow at parts, one could easily wade across if they desired.  A few short walks in this area allowed us some closer encounters with the many insects that call this desert home.  On our drive out of the park, we finally captured a photo of one of the park’s elusively swift road-runners.

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We enjoyed our time at Big Bend National Park, but only the dedicated like us reach it, given its remoteness.  If you plan on visiting, know that lodging within 60 miles of the park is hard to find.  So, keep your car gassed up and bring plenty of water!

Hot Springs National Park

HotSprings (34)The hot springs in Arkansas were actually one of the first national park systems protected by law.  Today, Hot Springs National Park is a small wooded area adjacent to Hot Springs, AR, which protects the unique hydrological system that feeds the springs.  Lisa was expecting large pools of hot water in the ground that we would be able to bathe in.  Instead we found the springs are capped-off and piped into bath houses in the town of Hot Springs. Picture traditional spa offerings and hot tubs in an outdated setting.  Although disappointed by this, we did enjoy walking by the old bath houses in town and taking a tour of a bath house that has been preserved by the national park system.
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