🏞 September 30, 2021 - A Year With A National Park Pass - Part 2

Written By Amanda

Inspired by Tommy’s new scratch-off National Park map that he received for Christmas, we made our way out west with the goal of hitting as many national parks as possible over a 5 week period. Tommy and Evelyn had the first week of the trip off; while the remaining 4 weeks they would work and school during the week and we would travel on the weekends. Below is a brief itinerary of our travels. I will post a more detailed write up later!

Raleigh, NC → Knoxville, TN → St. Louis, MO, → Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO → Mesa Verde National Park, CO → Moab, UT → Arches National Park, UT → Canyonlands National Park, UT → Capitol Reef National Park, UT → Bryce Canyon National Park, UT → St George, UT → Zion National Park, UT → Grand Canyon National Park, AZ → Sedona, AZ → Tuzigoot National Monument, AZ → Montezuma Castle National Monument, AZ → Petrified National Forest, AZ → Carlsbad, NM → Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM → Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX → Big Bend National Park, TX → Marathon, TX → San Antonio, TX, → San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, TX → Hot Springs National Park, AR.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve - Colorado

After two and a half days of driving, our first national park of our road trip did not disappoint. We drove for hours through rural Colorado, passing through many small communities I did not know even existed in the United States, to arrive in Mosa. Literally “in the middle of nowhere” (well, the San Luis Valley to be exact) there is a massive sand dune field surrounded, ironically, by snow capped mountains. This is definitely not the place I would expect to see the “tallest sand dunes in North America”. You can only help but wonder, “how did sand dunes get here!”.

Visitors are free to climb and explore any part of the dune field they wish. Originally, we planned to do some hiking trails but once arriving we noticed there were no real marked “trails”. So we just explored as our hearts desired, which seems like part of the experience. It was fun to climb from one dune peak to the other.

I had hoped to do some sledding on the sand dunes while we were there. Since it was the off season, all the rental places were closed. I ignored all the travel advice I had read and we brought our own snow sleds all the way from NC to try out. Not much of a surprise, but they definitely did not work. Evelyn and I opted for a few barrel rolls down the dunes instead. We had so much fun just playing in the sand after so much time spent in the car.

I did grossly underestimate the amount of sand that would find its way into every crevice of our exposed body and clothing. Maybe it had something to do with those barrel rolls. I was so thankful we were able to visit the park the evening we arrived because that meant we could go straight to the hotel room and into the showers after all of our fun.

Since the nearest town with services was 30 minutes away (and there was no way you could get us back in the car for another hour) we pre-packed a hotel dinner of ramen. We have learned to travel with a handy tea kettle on our road trips which was also useful for french pressed coffee and oatmeal the next morning.

Mesa Verde National Park - Colorado

We stopped by this national park on our way from Great Sand Dunes to Moab, UT. This was meant to be a quick visit as most of the park was closed due to Covid or the fact that it was off season. We came in with very low expectations but left feeling pleasantly surprised. We grossly underestimated the amount of time we should have spent in the park and all the things that we could see even with the closures in place. The windy scenic drive from the park entrance and up to the mesa alone was worth the visit.

After the visitors center, our first stop was at the Park Point Overlook where we enjoyed a picnic lunch looking out at the surrounding area. A little play time in the snow was an added bonus.

From there we drove to the Chapin Mesa area. Here we got just a glimpse of some of the over 4,700 archeological sites within the park from the ancestral Pueblo people. We were able to see pit-houses (dating from around 750 AD) and cliff dwellings (dating from around the 12th century). Our first stop on Chapin Mesa was the Spruce Tree House. Typically, this cliff dwelling would be open for self guided tours but we enjoyed our views from afar all the same. We then drove to the Square Tower House on the Mesa Top Loop. This one was actually my favorite. Probably because, at the time, this is the one that we could get the closest to.

We enjoyed seeing some other cliff dwellings and pit-houses along the Mesa Top Loop as well. You are able to get up very close to the pit-houses and imagine what it was like for families who once lived here. We then headed over to the famed Cliff Palace and nearby Balcony House. It was all very astonishing to see and I am sure our experience would have been even better if we were able to tour some of the dwellings. This sounds like a great excuse to make a return visit!

Arches National Park- Utah

On this road trip, Arches was my favorite national park and now definitely in my top five all time favorites. Zion is in very close competition and one of my top favorites as well. Evelyn does not like it when you ask her to pick a favorite (she does not want to hurt anyone’s feelings); however, if you phrase the question correctly (i.e. “where would you want to work if you were a park ranger”) this would be her all time favorite.

I have nothing but great things to say about this park (minus the lack of parking). Arches is a perfect example of “nature’s playground” and pure heaven for a 6 year old kid who loves to climb. As well as her parents who love to see her enjoying the outdoors. Adding to the fun and excitement, Nana and Papa were able to join us in Moab, UT for this part of our road trip adventure.

We arrived at the park bright and early at 7:00 am. My traveling crew was not too thrilled but I knew the park would get busy and we needed to get an early start if we wanted to minimize frustrations with overcrowding later in the day.

Our first stop was at the Park Avenue Viewpoint. We were all instantly amazed at the beauty of the sandstone formations. They were multiple shades of orange, pink, and red set against the purple light of sunrise. The scene was breathtaking and set a great tone for our entrance into the park.

Next, we stopped at Balanced Rock where our ever humorous Papa pointed out to Evelyn how easily the large boulder could fall on us. This heightened Evelyn’s awareness of the fragile landscape and her fear.

From here, we headed over to the Lower and Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint. After getting a glimpse of the arch, everyone in the group was eager to take on the hike leading directly to the arch. I had not planned time out to make the 3 mile trek thinking a quick view from the overlook would suffice. I also worried I had already planned out too many hikes for the day. Even Evelyn informed me I was wrong. We had to hike it! We decided to go about the day as originally planned and return to hike to Delicate Arch later if time and energy allowed.

At our next stop, Devil’s Garden, we were able to hike to Tunnel, Pine Tree, and Landscape Arch. We all loved the trails and views. Evelyn loved the little bit of climbing she could do around Pine Tree Arch.

Despite our enjoyment, we all felt incomplete without taking on the Delicate Arch hike. We decided to head back to the trail head to give it a shot. By this time, midmorning, the parking lot was slammed. After circling for more than half an hour, we gave up and drove over to the Windows Section of the park. Again we struggled to find parking but we were eventually successful.

In this section of the park, we had so much fun! Once parked we went over to Double Arch where the boys took Evelyn climbing all over and through the arch and the girls got to rest and talk while sunning on the rock below. Then we hiked over to North Window, South Window, and Current Arches where Evelyn continued to climb and play. If we did not have time constraints, we truly could have spent all day here. After a full day, we left the park exhausted but still felt like we were missing out on not completing the Delicate Arch hike.

The very next morning as we made our way to Canyonlands National Park (again bright and early) and drove past Arches we all called an audible on the day’s plans until we could complete the Delicate Arch hike. Even starting early (7:30a) the parking lot was mostly full and the trail was already busy. It was a steep initial climb up and along sandstone rocks but the views from the top and the sense of achievement when arriving at the arch were well worth it! This ended up being one of everyone’s favorite hikes of the trip!

Canyonlands National Park - Utah

Canyonlands National Park was a bit of a disappointment for us. I say that very unfairly because we did not even come close to experiencing the park in its full glory. Also, the similar nearby Arches and Dead Man’s Horse State Park had already stolen the show for us.

We only made a few quick stops at overlooks in the Island of the Sky portion of the park and hiked to Mesa Arch. We did not do any of the White Rim Road known for mountain biking and 4 wheel driving nor did we do any canyoneering, rafting or back country hiking in the area. I am sure if we had a chance to get more up close and personal with the park, our opinions would change. We also did not travel to the more remote Needles or Maze sections of the park.

We arrived here midmorning after hiking in Arches. We could already tell this park was going to be less crowded than the nearby Arches. We enjoyed several views into the canyon right across the street from the visitors center. From there, we did the short hike to Mesa Arch. This arch set high on the canyon rim had amazing views of the canyon and snow peaked La Salle Mountains while gazing through. From there we took in more canyon views from the Grand View Point. Our last stop was at Upheaval Dome, the remains of an impact crater. This overlook impressed me the most.

Capitol Reef National Park - Utah

Capitol Reef National Park was sort of a rest stop for us while driving from Moab, UT to Bryce Canyon National Park. This was another park we probably only scratched the surface of and maybe could have enjoyed more if canyoneering or off-roading. Although our time was short and activities limited we thoroughly enjoyed the time we did have to explore.

We entered the park on the east side on Hwy 24. We found the trail head for the Grand Wash Hike off of Hwy24. I had read that this was the shortest route to the most scenic portion of the wash. We hiked about a mile into the wash to the Narrows. Although short and flat, we spent a lot of time here. It was amazing hiking between the giant canyon walls. Everyone had fun exploring all the neat crevasses in the canyon walls and climbing on large boulders. We even made up a game where we would try and throw small pebbles into the holes in the canyon walls. It is hard to imagine that the very area we were hiking in was formed by years of rushing water. This ended up being another one of our favorite hikes of the trip because of all the playing we got to do in nature.

Following our Grand Wash Hike, we drove over to the Hickman Bridge trail. Here I made a big mom mistake. After our flat shady hike in the wash, I did not pack any water for this hike. It ended up being a steep climb up (comparatively) and sun exposed. We were all feeling it about a quarter a mile in and this could have been a fatal mistake had it not been late March and we were already prehydrated. On the Hickman trail, we enjoyed beautiful views of the rushing Fremont River below and Capitol Dome. Hickman Bridge (a large sandstone arch) was beautiful and worth the hike. Along the trail there were also a few smaller arches Evelyn enjoyed climbing on and under.

We ended our visit with a few quick stops at the Fruita Schoolhouse, the Petroglyph Panel, and the Visitors Center.

Bryce Canyon National Park - Utah

We arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park after a full day of driving from Moab, UT and exploring Capitol Reef. We got there in just enough time for Evelyn to pick up her Jr. Ranger workbook before the visitors center closed for the day.

We were lucky enough to get rooms at the Bryce Canyon Lodge that night. Not that they are spectacular or anything but they are very convenient, especially for parking. This was everyone in the group’s second trip to Bryce but Evelyn’s first. Since my first trip, I had always wanted to return. I also wanted to see the hoodoos with snow on them. I was so excited to get to come back and to see snow! It was as beautiful as I thought it would be!

After checking in and having a quick takeout dinner at the lodge restaurant (again a COVID restriction), we went to catch the sunset at Sunset Point. On our way there we got a little distracted by the piles of snow and a few April Fool jokes. We were probably a little later than we should have been to get the prime viewing of the sun setting. Good memories were made all the same!

The next morning we woke up with the intention of hiking down Wall Street on the Navajo Loop Trail. We did not realize that Wall Street would be closed due to ice on the trail that time of year so we hiked down the eastern portion of Navajo Loop and back up the Queens Garden Trail. Our plans changed a bit but we still got spectacular views hiking down into the canyon among all the hoodoos. This is one of my favorite places to hike and I was so happy to share it with Evelyn. I hope to go back one day and tackle the Under the Rim trail. Snow on the hoodoos would be an added bonus!

After our hike, we enjoyed a few treats at the general store and then drove further into the park to Rainbow Point, Natural Bridge, and Bryce Point (my favorite overlook).

Zion National Park - Utah

Ahhh … Zion! True to its name, the “kingdom of heaven” on earth! This is my favorite national park (if a two way tie is allowed with Glacier). As much as I love it, unfortunately, so does everyone else. Even though we were technically there during the off season it still was very crowded and took a lot of preplanning.

This was our second trip to Zion and unfortunately we could not get reservations at the lodge like we hoped. Staying in the park is always helpful with getting in and having a place to park. Instead, we home based in St. George for a week and took two of those days to explore Zion National Park. I attempted to get shuttle tickets the minute they were released (like 30 days prior). I was fortunate to get tickets but they were at very crummy times (12p and 2p). We knew we had to get into the park early to have a chance of parking at the visitors center verse in town, to avoid the heat of the day, and to avoid crowds at Angels Landing. We found out that a new batch of tickets would be released at 5 pm the day prior and we all got on our computers to fight for better shuttle times. We were lucky to score tickets at 7:30a/ 8a each day! Our wake-up times were a bit rough, especially when driving in from St George, but we were reminded of how much it was worth it when it started to get warm each day by 11a.

On our first day we arrived at 7 am for our shuttle into the park. We easily found parking at the visitors center. We headed straight for the Grotto bus stop and up the West Rim Trail. Years prior Tommy, my father, and I hiked Angels Landing at sunrise and it was an amazing experience. We wanted to share that experience with Nana and Evelyn. We trekked straight up the steep West Rim Trail. Evelyn did amazing on the trek up with a little bribery. We also kept her preoccupied with stories from our childhood. At that time in the morning she was the only one of her age on the trail. When we hit the Wiggles, we made a game out of how many switchbacks we had climbed. We counted 21!

Once we finally reached the Scout Overlook, Evelyn insisted she was done until she caught a glimpse of people climbing further up the side of a mountain with the help of chains. Somehow she summoned some energy and insisted on climbing as far as her little legs would take her up Angels Landing.

To put it mildly, I was extremely anxious. This is not a hike for young children. Also, even at 9a, when we arrived, the chains were already packed with people! Tommy convinced me to let Evelyn try it. She is adventurous but she is also a good listener with a healthy awareness of danger. We also had my dad with us as a 3rd set of hands to help as needed. Nana stayed back to get some pictures and fight off some very aggressive chipmunks that kept trying to find their way into her backpack.

We started up the chains slowly (as the crowd really did not allow for anyone to go any faster). By the time we made it up and over the first peak, my momma bear instincts were heightened and I called it quits. The trail is risky on its own. The amount of people on it made it increasingly even more dangerous. Evelyn was disappointed and ready for more climbing but I put my foot down. Tommy was starting to get nervous as well and agreed. Our climb back down proved to be even trickier than our climb up as we had to fight against the flow of all the hikers coming up.

Following our knee aching hike back down the West Rim Trail (hiking up is truly easier than the hike down) we took the shuttle back to the Zion Lodge. We hoped for some refreshments but due to COVID there was not much offered. We had a picnic lunch of trail snacks from our backpacks on the lawn in front of Zion Lodge. I absolutely loved sitting here in the grass under the large cottonwood tree with the beautiful canyon walls surrounding you. What a zen moment!

We finished the day with a hike down Riverside Walk to watch all the people starting out on The Narrows. This hike has been on our bucket list for a long time but we wanted to wait until Evelyn was a little older and taller to take this one on. Evelyn got to splash in the river a bit with Nana and Papa.

Our second day into Zion started just as early as the first. We took the shuttle in from the Visitors Center to Zion Lodge. From here we hiked to the Upper, Middle and Lower Emerald Pools. This was a nice, moderately difficult, but enjoyable hike with some elevation gain. Though it was nothing compared to the day prior. Following the hike we ended at the horse stables where Evelyn and I got to say hello to some furry friends.

Returning to the visitors center we then took the Zion-Mount Carmel Drive Highway. This was a very scenic drive up into the mountains and through tunnels but it was also very slow with a lot of traffic. We stopped at a few pull offs to stretch our legs and climb on the sandstone rocks. Evelyn’s favorite!

We then headed over to Kolob Canyons. We had never been to this less popular section of the park. We were very pleased we made the hour or so drive over. Here we drove to the end of Kolob Canyon Road, took in all the beautiful views, and then hiked the Timber Creek Overlook Trail for more great views.

Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona

This was mine and Tommy’s third visit to Grand Canyon National Park and we were admittedly not too excited. Add to that the side effects from our second dose of the COVID the vaccine in addition to the Grand Canyon Lodge cancelling our reservations last minute due to staffing shortages. Despite our reluctance, we knew we could not be this close and not take Evelyn to visit the famed Grand Canyon.

We arrived in the late afternoon, entering from the East Entrance of the park after driving from St. George, Utah with a few tourist stops. Luckily, we found we gained an hour to the day after all the crazy confusing time changes between UT and the national park. I truly believe our clocks changed 5 times during the 5 hour drive! This left us feeling very disoriented.

Our first stop, and Evelyn’s first view into the canyon, was at Navajo Point. Her amazement at the view renewed our excitement. She was absolutely astonished at how large the canyon was and was eager to visit as many viewpoints as possible. Tommy and I’s attitude improved as we took in the Grand Canyon from the perspective of young eyes.

Next, we drove over to Grandview Point and then over to Mather Point. Approaching dinner time, we headed to the Grand Canyon Village but as expected, all dining locations were booked. We decided for a quick view around Bright Angel’s trail head and then watched the beginnings of sunset over the canyon.

Our visit was embarrassingly short but we knew we did not have time to do any major hiking (which most hiking trails here require a major commitment). Nor would the vaccine side effects allow us. We have given Evelyn just a taste of the Grand Canyon’s beauty and maybe we can make it back one day to hike the Bright Angels trail as a family.

Tuzigoot National Monument - Clarkdale, Arizona

We took advantage of the fact that we were staying outside of Sedona, Az and close to this site and we had our national park pass to make a quick visit to Tuzigoot National Monument.

From the visitors center we walked the loop trail around and through the Tuzigoot pueblo on a hilltop overlooking the Verde Valley. We enjoyed getting up close to the 110 room village remains dating back to 1100 to 1400 AD.

Montezuma Castle National Monument - Camp Verde, Arizona

Again, we took advantage of the fact that we were staying outside of Sedona, Az and close to this site and our national park pass to make a quick visit to Montezuma Castle National Monument.

Here we viewed two cliff dwellings dating between 1100 and 1425. We liked that we were able to get a little closer to these cliff dwellings than those at Mesa Verde. However, the fact that we had already been to Mesa Verde made our visit here a little less exciting. We had a very interesting conversation with one of the park rangers regarding a fire outbreak in one of the dwellings. We enjoyed seeing the small reproduction of how the Sinagua people would live in the dwellings.

Petrified Forest National Park - Arizona

We spent some time in the Petrified Forest National Park as we drove from Sedona, Az to Carlsbad, NM. It was nice to break up a very long day of driving with nature’s own Route 66 roadside attraction. I was inspired to visit this park after hearing all the folklore surrounding people who claim they were cursed after stealing a piece of petrified wood from the park.

We entered the park from the south entrance stopping at the Rainbow Forest Museum. We walked around the easy Giant Logs loop examining the beauty of all the petrified logs. When coming up to the logs (now turned stone) there initially does not seem to be anything special about them, until you get a good look into the exposed trunks. They shine with the most unique metallic colors from all across the rainbow.

It is amazing that these logs are from the late Triassic period (over 225 million years ago)! Some of the oldest dinosaur remains have been found in this park as well. Also, from the late Triassic period.

On our way through the park, we stopped at Jasper Forest, Agate Bridge, Blue Mesa, Newspaper Rock, and several of the Painted Desert View Points. I would have loved to take a piece of the stone home but they were quite pricey in the gift shop (understandably so given their history). Also, I would not dare risk my luck by stealing one!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park - New Mexico

We visited Carlsbad National Park while spending a week home-based in Carlsbad, NM. Staying a week in Carlsbad is not something I would recommend but we needed a little stability so we could work and school while traveling.

Prior to our arrival, we needed to get our free timed ticket from the National Park Service web page. We selected an early morning time with hopes of squeezing in a visit to the nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the afternoon. Coincidently, we picked the perfect day for our visit - a rare rainy day in the desert!

I have great memories of coming here as a kid and watching the bats fly out of the cave overhead at dusk. Regrettably, we were too early in the season to see this. Due to this and a large portion of the cave being closed because of COVID, I had very low expectations when visiting this park.

We enjoyed a beautiful drive into the park before we even got to the caves. I have never seen a desert with so much vegetation! I definitely did not remember that as a kid. We spotted several rams and their babies on the cliff side on our way in. Some even head butting each other!

To maximize our time in the cave, I suggested that we all take the natural entrance down (versus the elevator). After a mile and a quarter descent, we finally made it to the “bottom”. Already, I was so impressed by the amount of distance and the formations we had already seen just making our way down into the cave. From here we walked another mile and a quarter on the Big Room Trail. On this trail, we saw even larger and more detailed formations. Park rangers were located throughout the trail to answer questions (and I suspect to keep everyone on the trail and from touching what they were not supposed to). At one point a ranger called me over and showed me the fossils of a bat! One formation I found unique was the “cave popcorn”. A ranger explained that this was typical of caves in drier climates. Most of the caves back east, where I am from, have more of a wetter environment.

I was not prepared for the amount of mileage and time we were going to spend down in the cave and did not bring along any water. We were all thankful for a little break at the lunchroom before going back up on the elevator.

The humidity in the caves felt absolutely amazing to all of us after being in the dry, arid climate for so long. It reminded us of home. I never would have believed that I would miss humidity so much! At this point in our trip, my skin had never been more thankful!

Guadalupe Mountains National Park - Texas

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is another park that I have childhood memories of visiting. Now as an adult, I wanted to share its beauty with my own family. When I was last here, I was a preteen. My goal was likely to make my parents as miserable as I was being dragged away from friends and out into the Texas heat midsummer. Despite my tween attitude, my parents persevered and that left us all with comical memories of our time at the park that we have laughed about for years to come. One such story I can not escape is when I dramatically experienced a suspected, self diagnosed, “heat stroke” during one of our hikes.

After many years of my husband hearing my parents and I laugh about my suspected “heat stroke” event in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, we were both surprised when we arrived mid-afternoon to bone chilling temperatures. The new family joke has become “remember that time we went to Guadalupe National Park and I got frostbite”.

After checking in at the visitors center, we set out on the 3.8 mile Devil’s Hall Trail. The trail starts off fairly easy as you hike along the bank of a dry wash through juniper trees, yucca and cacti. One reason I love this park so much is the desert environment contrasted with all the green vegetation.

After about a mile, the trail descends down into the wash where you have to navigate around and over large boulders, loose rock and debris. This trail was pretty challenging for Evelyn’s little legs; however, Evelyn was in absolute heaven scrambling over all the large boulders. She loves “rocky” hikes and I was so proud of her taking on this hike with no complaints!

First, you come upon Devil’s Staircase which is a natural rock formed stairwell. Then you reach Devil’s Hall which is a spectacular narrowing of the steep canyon walls; in some portions only 15 feet apart! While hiking the wash, I noted some unique boulders that looked like they are made of several smaller rocks. A park ranger explained that this was the result of the location once being an ancient coral bed.

Sadly, Evelyn and Tommy’s time in the park was short but I had the opportunity to return by myself at a later date (while they schooled and worked) to hike the 8.5 mile Guadalupe Peak Trail. The trail was literally 4.25 miles straight up (3,000 feet elevation gain) from the canyon floor to the “top of Texas” and then 4.25 miles straight down. Ironically, it was not the straight up that was the tough part! I was inspired to take on this challenge by my father who somehow effortlessly completed it after a full day of hiking with the family and as a thunderstorm was brewing (another fun family story).

The day was much prettier during my solo visit. I was initially nervous to hike alone but felt pretty safe as I passed many other hikers along the way. The single track trail was challenging as a narrow path full of loose rock led up several different exposed mountain sides. Despite the challenge, it was worth every step! The view from the peak was breathtaking as were all the views along the whole route. When I made it to the peak it was quite windy. I am glad I got there when I did because several people said that the wind was supposed to be picking up as the day went on. After my hike, I popped into the gift shop and “got the t-shirt”! What an awesome experience! Although I enjoyed my solo hike and time, I hate that I was not able to share all the beauty and the adrenaline rush with Tommy.

Big Bend National Park - Texas

We visited Big Bend National Park somewhat on our way from Carlsbad, NM to San Antonio, TX. Out of all the parks we have visited, this one definitely felt like the most remote. We got very lucky with our visit, as a major portion of the park had been closed due to wildfires and just opened a few days prior. Like other parks we had visited in the western US, I continued to be impressed by all the vegetation in such an arid climate. When we came, many of the cacti were blooming with the most beautiful flowers. I also fell in love with the native Ocotillo plant. We definitely could have spent more time in this park but were at a significant disadvantage given that our accommodations were over an hour and a half away.

We entered the park through the northern Persimmon Gap entrance and drove south to our first stop at the Fossil Discovery. We all loved getting up close to several large fossil exhibits and discovering all the fossils that were found in the area.

From here we headed to Panther Junction Visitor’s Center where we took a brief walk in the garden full of native plants. From Panther Junction we headed south and west to the US/Mexico border on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive stopping at a few scenic overlooks along the way. We parked at Santa Elena River Access where we were able to dip our toes in the Rio Grande and look over at the sheer cliff face that was the US/ Mexico border. Definitely no border wall needed here!

We had hoped to hike some of the Santa Elena Canyon Trail but unfortunately at that time of day we could not find any parking. We were amazed at the temperature increase between Panther Junction and down at the river. Traveling in late March/ early April at much higher elevations, this was definitely the hottest we had been.

After a quick bathroom break at the Castolon Visitors Center, we headed back north to the Chisos Basin Region. This area was definitely like a little oasis in the middle of a desert. We were lucky to make it here as this was the portion of the park that was closed due to fires. We were also lucky that there was no remaining smoke to obstruct our views. We parked at the Chisos Basin Lodge and took the short Window View trail where we could take in the beautiful view through the “window”.

Again, our time here was very brief and we feel like we only tip-toed through the park. There were many other areas to explore. I would like to go back … but never in the summer.

That night, we rented a camper at a campground in Marathon, TX. We wanted to stay as close to the park as possible for convenience and also star gazing. We had heard that the area was the darkest place in the continental USA. We had a beautiful clear night and got to experience the star gazing as well as witnessing our first boarder patrol arrest.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park - Texas

We made a very brief visit after work and school one evening to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park while home-basing in San Antonio, TX.

We walked around the well maintained grounds of the Mission Concepcion and Mission Espada. The purpose of the Missions was to assimilate Native Americans into Spanish society and Christianity. The park service has done an amazing job maintaining the grounds and educating on this portion of Spanish/ US/ and Texas history.

Hot Springs National Park - Arkansas

We stayed overnight in Hot Springs, AR on our way home from San Antonio, TX. Compared to the parks we had just visited, this felt like (and was) more of a town than a National Park. I equate it to visiting any touristy mountain town, like Gatlinburg, TN.

The limited amount of time we actually spent “in nature” was when we drove up to and climbed the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. From here, we were able to take in the scenic view of the area. After driving back down the mountain and finding parking, we walked along the Promenade.

Unfortunately, we were not able to tour any of the historic bath houses which were closed due to COVID. However, we did make it into the Superior Bathhouse Brewing. This is an old bathhouse converted into a brewery, and the only brewery in a national park. We enjoyed walking along the Promenade hunting for all the locations where hot springs flow into the city the most. We also enjoyed taking a taste of the water (both warm straight from the fountain and once chilled) out of the Thermal Water Jug Fountain. Hot Springs felt a lot like the spa towns we adore in the Black Forest of Germany. We will have to make a trip back when we are able to go in and enjoy the historic baths.