National Parks of Texas – December 2008

  • Fort Davis National Historic Site
  • San Antonio Missions National Historic Park
  • Lyndon B Johnson National Historic Park
  • Padre Island National Seashore
  • Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site
  • Amistad National Recreation Area
  • Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River
  • Big Bend National Park
  • Guadalupe Mountains National Park
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Chamizal National Memorial

Photos

It’s taken me nearly a year, but I finally posted pictures from our national park roadtrip to Texas last winter. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long, but it’s clear that I’m losing some of the excitement of getting the perfect trip photos online. In fact, I spend noticeably less time taking pictures on trips (and am more likely to use my point-and-shoot than lug around my dslr), and I’m also taking far less time to edit, name, describe, and tag the photos I do take. So, please excuse the following albums for not containing those details…I’ll see if I can’t add some of them later on.

If you’d like to review the trip, we made sure to blog each night:

Our next trip starts in a few days, and if things go as planned, we’ll continue to blog each night. And yes, this time I’ll be sure to get the photos up much sooner.

Blog posts

Here are the original blog posts from the trip:

Chamizal…and home

by SCOTT on JANUARY 3, 2009

We awoke this morning ready to tackle the last day of our trip. Our first stop was Chamizal National Memorial, a site we had stopped at once before when it was closed and had quickly determined that we didn’t care much about returning – at least beyond the satisfaction of getting the passport stamp and marking the sucker off our list. Since it was just across town, we arrived a few minutes before they opened at 10am. And waited. And chatted with some fellow visitors from Vancouver. And waited some more. Finally, the visitor center opened – nearly 15 minutes late.

The memorial, which is mostly comprised of a small interpretative visitor center, an art gallery, a large amphitheater, and a outdoor mural adorning one side of the building, is situated in a nice park with some other outdoor features, like ramadas, grills, and some other unidentified concrete structures. It’s actually built on land that was once Mexican territory, but had shifted to US hands as the Rio Grande River – the international boundary – shifted it’s course. And that’s really the point of the national memorial to begin with. The site, whose history and importance was greater than we expected, tells the story of how the US and Mexico surveyed, determined, challenged, challenged again, challenged yet again, and finally resolved, its common boundary along what is Texas. The story is too complicated to detail here, but it’s actually a fascinating tale – and one that has lots of implications for the southwest.

After touring the museum, getting our stamps and buying our requisite pin, we chatted for awhile with the Park Ranger, the lone one on duty at the site. Side note: we couldn’t check out the main gallery because there wasn’t a second ranger on duty to staff that building. We had a good chat about some parks, some annoyances of the park service, and the promise of better days ahead. We then took a few more shots outside and left, pleasantly surprised at the site that had until then been of one the banes of our quest. We headed onward to Fort Bowie National Historic Site, in southeastern Arizona, which was next in line – both on our trip agenda, and in the frustrating way we hadn’t yet visited it.

Just a few minutes into driving, however, we realized that Fort Bowie – which requires a hike just to get to the visitor center and ruins – would take a good three hours. Added to the three hours it would take to get there, plus time for lunch, and we would be hiking back to the car in the dark, not to mention arriving home pretty late and well after the playoff football games were over. We quickly decided to pass by Fort Bowie once again, instead tacking it onto a Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument trip we’re planning for the Presidents Day weekend.

And thus marked the last official stop of our National Parks of Texas roadtrip. We made our way back into Arizona listening to the early NFL game using streaming internet radio on my iPhone. A stop for lunch, and another stop for an afternoon snack at Eeegee’s in Marana, and yet another stop in Casa Grande for Kim to exchange some clothes, and…that 6.5 hour drive from El Paso took a bit longer. However, we finally made it home – and in enough time to watch most of the Colts-Chargers game – a little tired but happy to have completed yet another successful national park roadtrip.

Over the next few days, we’ll work to get the final trip summary and photos posted. Check out thetrip summary page for updates.

King’s Palace by lantern

by SCOTT on JANUARY 2, 2009

We started the morning waking up at a pretty crappy Super 8 in Carlsbad, New Mexico. We left the motel thinking that we would do the self-guided tours at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, make a quick stop at Chamizal in El Paso, and finish the drive home. It would be a little disappointing not doing a guided cave tour, but reservations.gov showed that all of the tours were booked.

When we arrived at Carlsbad Caverns, however, we learned that there were indeed some tours available – including a special “holiday” tour of King’s Palace by lantern. Even though it would add an extra day onto the trip, we pounced on the opportunity. We quickly made our way down the trail to the natural entrance – an incredibly impressive way to experience the cave. After the 750-foot descent, we wandered through the first half of the Big Room self-guided tour before grabbing a quick snack and making our way to the guided tour meeting place. This tour was a lot of fun – it’s a much different experience to explore a developed cave with only lantern-light. Kim had an especially good time.

After the ninety-minute tour was over, we headed back to finish the back end of the Big Room. With growling stomachs, we took the elevator up to the visitor center, had lunch in the adjoining restaurant, and got our passport stamp and pin.

We then hopped in the car and drove back west to McKittrick Canyon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to get a passport stamp that we had missed the previous day. Unfortunately, the visitor contact station is closed, and, windy as ever, we decided to skip any short hikes in the area. It was late in the afternoon at this point, and it was obvious that we would not make it to Chamizal before they closed – and we certainly wouldn’t make it home tonight.

We ended up staying in a Ramada in El Paso, a decent suite room that comes complete with kitchenette and mini living room. After eating dinner out, we returned to the room to watch the conclusion of a bowl game and plot tomorrow’s schedule. The plan is to arrive at Chamizal National Memorial across town at 10am when they open, spend approximately an hour there, and then start heading home.

Unless we’re feeling anxious to get home early, we may stop at Fort Bowie National Historic Site, the only NPS Arizona site we haven’t done yet. We’re hoping to start working on our trip photos and summary page this weekend.

A windy New Years in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

by SCOTT on JANUARY 1, 2009

Happy New Years, everyone.

After sleeping in a bit and enjoying our nice hotel room, we loaded up and hit the road. A few hours of driving later, we found ourselves at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. A very windyGuadalupe Mountains – gusts were above 55mph with sustained winds of 15-20 mph. We did the visitor center and headed off to do a 4-mi hike to Devil’s Hall. Less than a mile into it, we turned around and headed back to the car – it was just so cold and windy that hiking wasn’t much fun. Instead of hiking up the canyon, which seemed to be funneling the wind down towards us at an incredible pace, we headed out to a couple of shorter trails on the foothills.

They were pretty short, but we still enjoyed them and have our eyes on returning – at a less windy future date – and doing some longer hikes up Guadalupe Mountain. The park, even though it’s on the road to Carlsbad and about an hour away, sees less than half of the visitation. That’s a shame, but probably due in part to its low profile and lack of easy, family-oriented trails and overlooks. Instead, most of its trails are long and its scenic drives of the 4WD variety. It also boasts the largest point in Texas, plus an iconic peak named El Capitan (though it still doesn’t hold a candle to the original). At 5700 feet, the park is relatively high and sees snow – it also contains the highest stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route.

After our short hikes, it was getting late and we headed on to our hotel in Carlsbad, a pretty crappy Super 8. Tomorrow we’ll be hitting Carlsbad Caverns National Park, doing the natural entrance hike and touring the Big Room. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get tickets to any guided tours, so we’ll have to save that part of Carlsbad until our next trip out here to see ASU play in the Sun Bowl. After Carlsbad, we’re heading back to El Paso to mark Chamizal National Memorial off our list. From there, it’s about a seven hour drive home. That puts us back home a day earlier than originally planned, but it’ll be nice to have some more time to decompress before the next year really gets started. Also, we’ve gone over budget on this trip due to our hotel stays after we ditched our camping plans because I was sick, so it’ll be nice to save some cash.

I’m not sure if we’ll get a chance to post an update about tomorrow’s events – we’ll return home pretty late at night – but we’ll get a full trip summary up soon on the trips page. Thanks for following along, and Happy New Year.

The Big Bend of the Rio Grande River

by SCOTT on DECEMBER 31, 2008

Even though we stayed up far too late last night watching Storm Chasers on tv, we got up early and departed Del Rio for Big Bend National Park. Big Bend was originally the anchor park of the trip (meaning, the main park we were excited about seeing) but hitting it so late in the trip has reduced some of our excitement. In the end, we cannibalized one of the two days we had originally scheduled for the park in order to stop by Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

After arriving in Big Bend, our first order of business was making sure that we hit all five visitor centers to get all of the passport stamps for the unit. At the first visitor center, we chatted with the ranger about our options for the day and night. Apparently, we’re here for the busiest week of visitation – not only is the lodge full, but the campgrounds will be full by early afternoon. That presented us with a bit of a challenge, as we had decided to keep our plans flexible until we saw how much there was to do there. We now had to make a quick decision about whether to camp and stay an additional day (and not doing Carlsbad), or leaving the park at dusk and moving on to a motel in Alpine, 100 miles away. After considering our options, we decided to get the hotel in Alpine, and if we were feeling bad about missing something at Big Bend we could simply get up early and make the drive in.

In the end, we made the right decision – we were able to see most of what we had wanted to, and even though we didn’t get to do any of the hikes we had planned, we definitely got a sense of the park. We’ll be back – next time with a kayak – and can hit the trails then. Part of the decision centered around the date – it’s New Year’s Eve and we wanted to be in hotel with television and internet. Earlier in the morning, I had reserved a Best Western via my iPhone. Since I barely had coverage at the visitor center, I had some trouble getting the reservation made. In fact, I lost the room I was reserving in the middle of the confirmation process – leaving no additional rooms available at the lowest price point. In the end, however, I was able to finangle the staff to give us a better room – a king suite – for the lowest room rate.

After dropping off the bags and enjoying the great room for a few minutes, we headed across the street to the Buffalo Rose restaurant across the street. Though the service was a bit slow, the food was plentiful and we enjoyed the dinner. After that, it was off for dessert and then back to the room to watch some tv, get online, celebrate the new year, and relax after another long day.

Tomorrow we’re off to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

An unworthy unit

by SCOTT on DECEMBER 30, 2008

Today was mostly a driving day. We left Edinburg a little later than we wanted to and headed towards Amistad National Recreation Area. It’s roughly a 7-hour drive and we really wanted to get to Amistad before the visitor center closed so we could finish the unit today and not have to wait around until they opened in the morning to get it done. Amistad, a manmade reservoir straddling the US-Mexico border, was only on our roadtrip list due to its management by the National Park Service – this is not a unit we were at all excited about. However, I did hear that there was a 9-foot long panther pictograph in a cave within the NRA, so that seemed to be the obvious focal point for us. The cave is usually accessed by boat, but we were hopeful that a local concessionaire could provide one or otherwise arrange a tour – or that we might be able to hike over to it.

Unfortunately, neither was possible. After arriving slightly ahead of schedule, we entered the visitor center and chatted with the ranger. I asked what hiking was available, the ranger answered “not much really.” The one trail in the NRA was flooded – and was only 2 miles long to begin with, connecting the visitor center parking lot with a boat ramp. Yikes. To his credit, the ranger did come up with a couple of bushwhacking possibilities, but none of them sounded very exciting, even after a full day of driving. In the end, we drove to a couple of dayuse areas, snapped some quick pictures, drove out to the dam, snapped a few more pictures, and called the unit “done.”

If we return, we’ll be sure to bring a kayak and paddle out to Panther Cave, and maybe plan a day at the local state park – which seems to have some great trails and archaeology. But, to be honest, this is one of those units that we yawn at and reluctantly visit just to get the passport stamp and pin and check off the list. This is clearly one of those National Park units that should not be managed by the NPS – instead, it should be run by the Army Corps of Engineers or BLM.

After the disappointment of Amistad, we headed back to Del Rio, the city we were staying in. We spent awhile stealing wifi from the hotels while we decided where to stay, finally ending up at a Best Western (using a AAA discount despite the fact we aren’t members – hotels rarely ask for the card, so it’s worth the risk for the 10% you get off). Then it was over to Applebee’s for dinner. Kim was craving an Applebee’s salad and I had promised a stop last night. Unfortunately, the steak and shrimp dish I ordered was horrible – so much so that I hardly ate any of it, and the waitress offered to remove it from the check as soon as she saw it sitting mostly untouched at the edge of the table and before we could mention how crappy it had been.  After a couple of quick stops, we grabbed a to go order from Chili’s and made it back to the hotel room to watch Oregon pound Oklahoma State and discuss Mike Shanahan’s firing.

Tomorrow we’re off to Big Bend National Park, the highlight park of the roadtrip. We have a couple of options for the rest of the trip. One is camping in Big Bend tomorrow night and spending a full two days there before heading over to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Chamizal National Memorial before returning home. Otherwise, if we feel like we’ve done enough to get a good taste of the park (we’ll be back for a kayaking trip in the next several years), then we might stay until dusk then head out to a motel in Alpine. That would give us an extra day that we could use to stop by Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which happens to be tantalizingly close to Guadalupe Mountains.

From beaches to battlefields

by KIMMIE on DECEMBER 30, 2008

After staying the night in a crappy 3 star-rated La Quinta (the bathroom hadn’t been mopped in a while) that was across from an oil refinery, we hit the road for today’s adventure. Driving through Corpus Christi proved surprising as neither of us expected the city to be so industrial.

Our first stop of the day was Padre Island National Seashore. This is only the second National Seashore we have been to (Point Reyes, north of San Francisco) and unfortunately it didn’t make us want to rush to see another one. Mainly what was most disappointing was the lack of activities to do and lack of any interpretation outside of the visitor center.

Basically it preserves the largest undeveloped barrier island in the world. The most common thing to do is walk along the beach that is accessible from the visitor center. Due to recent weather, the bird viewing opportunities were minimal but we did get to see lots of pelicans as well as some shorebirds. And seeing the Gulf of Mexico was neat.

This seashore is known for protecting the endangered sea turtle but of course this is the wrong time of year to see them. We enjoyed a nice walk along the beach watching birds eating at the waters edge and ghost shrimp making air holes in the sand. We spent about an hour and a half here before heading on to Brownsville, TX and our next NPS site.

A short three hour drive south brought us to Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site, one of the first battles in the Mexican-American War. The visitor center is decent with good use of quotes from both sides of the battle. There is a 15 minute video which is a must see to get a good understanding of what happened here. Without it the battlefield trail would not have made any sense.

There is a battlefield loop trail that leaves from the back of the visitor center. We were challenged to figure out what was going on as the signs and map provided were confusing and inaccurate to what the movie said. We got it straightened out when we realized the map the ranger had given us was outdated. It did not include the spur trail that took us to closer view of where the Mexican troops were stationed. It also did not include the unfinished spur trail to the American troops location.

We completed the loop trail and was fairly disappointed with the lack of interpretation along the trail. We have been to many battlefields and the interpretation is always what makes the experience more meaningful. Once back at the car we decided to drive a little further to Edinburg instead of of staying in Harlingen.

We found a pretty decent Comfort Inn and had dinner at Pizza Hut. We got ice cream to take back to the hotel and watched the Alamo Bowl. Kim enjoyed a relaxing bath in a huge tub before we hit the hay for an early rise. It was one of the better nights of the trip.

Johnson City

by SCOTT on DECEMBER 28, 2008

Today was all about Lyndon B Johnson. We started by leaving San Antonio and making our way up to Johnson City, a town established in part by LBJ’s grandfather. Tucked within this small town is the Lyndon B Johnson National Historic Park. There’s a well-done museum and visitor center and some local sights to see. One of those, called Johnson Settlement, is about a 10 minute walk from the visitor center and consists of some of the early ranching buildings and homes belonging to the Johnson family. Across the street from the visitor center is the boyhood home of LBJ, which we toured in a ranger-led group. It’s not surprising that President Johnson pursued “Great Society” programs after you see how he grew up.

A fifteen or twenty minute drive away is the LBJ Ranch, where you can find one of Johnson’s most favorite places. Here is the one-room schoolhouse that inspired him to teach – and to pass more education legislation than any other President. You’ll also pass by the family cemetery, which includes LBJ’s gravestone. The Ranch’s biggest attraction, however, is the “Texas White House:” the main residence that served as Johnson’s office for nearly 1/4 of his time in office. A $1 dollar tour allows you to see the main office room, including LBJ’s desk and many authentic pieces from his time there.

After LJB, we headed south to Corpus Christi. Driving into the city, one sees these tall lit structures, resembling a robust and lively downtown core. Once you get a bit closer, however, you realize that this isn’t a nice skyline, but is instead a collection of absurdly over lit industrial plant. And when you get even closer, you realize that you’re staring at several oil refineries. It’s just one of those things about Texas – things only look interesting and nice from a distance; once you get close, you start seeing more than just warts.

Tomorrow we hit Padre Island National Seashore and make our way south towards Brownsville and the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site.

EDIT: I failed to mention that my health seems to be – at least for now – on an upswing. I’m feeling a bit better and ate real food today without having to ensure that I was adjacent to a restroom. This is very helpful when you’re on a roadtrip – trust me. We’ll see how things progress, but it seems like I may have turned the corner. Fingers crossed.

Missions Complete

by SCOTT on DECEMBER 28, 2008

Today we finished the drive into San Antonio and started hitting the various missions of San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. The park consists of a long string of open space, connecting four missions (plus the Alamo, which is a related mission but is not run by the NPS) along with an aqueduct that helped deliver water through the region.

Mission San Jose is the largest, and home to main visitor center, and was definitely the most popular. It has been the site of quite a bit of damage over the years and while the entire complex now sports a reconstructed perimeter wall, historic photos show many roads crisscrossing the plaza. The other missions are smaller, in varying degrees. All of them are active churches; we witnessed a baptism at one and a wedding at another.

After touring the missions, we headed downtown to the famed Alamo. The immediate area around the Alamo is a big tourist trap, with various lots charging anywhere from $5-15 for the privilege of parking. We were lucky to find an open meter two short blocks from the complex and paid only 45 cents. We arrived to find, even at this late hour of 4:40pm (less than an hour before they close), a line at least a block long – I’m not sure exactly how long it was because we couldn’t see the end of it. All of this to wander into the Alamo church, which is roughly the size of a 7-11. Kim and I took some pictures outside and then wandered around the museum and outdoor exhibits, skipping the indoor “shrine” that everyone else was wasting their afternoon in a Disneyland-long line to see.

We then headed north towards the airport to find a hotel and get food, which took us a fair while, before we settled into a relatively nice Best Western and spent the night watching the Emerald Bowl. After the game was over, we had to rework the trip plans. We ended up with two major options and several big decisions, and in end, decided to shorten the trip and drop Big Thicket National Preserve from the trip. It’s the easternmost unit and one that can easily be incorporated into a future Gulf Cost trip, and it also adds a bunch of late nights to the rest of the trip. It’s disappointing, but not surprising – we’re moving slower than normal on this trip, and Big Thicket was an outlier unit and the last place we tacked on before we left.

I’m still feeling crappy, but feel like I’m starting to turn the corner. We’ll see what today brings.

Heading on

by SCOTT on DECEMBER 26, 2008

Yesterday we made it to Fort Davis National Historic Site. The unit is pretty extensive – probably the largest fort we’ve been to yet – and while only a handful of buildings have been restored, many more are still standing in various states of ruin. In addition, there are numerous foundations and low crumbling walls around the site corresponding to many of the fort’s outlying buildings. All of this is propped up against some really neat low cliffs, making for what are probably some great photographic opportunities if you took the time to scout out angles from off the pathways.

A cool fort, but for the wind. Boy, was it blowing. In fact, in walking towards the officer’s quarters, it was strong enough to seriously slow your gait, forcing you to take conscious and determined steps to make any progress. At times, I felt like one of those weatherman sent out to cover the impending hurricane, struggling to stay upright in front of the camera. Nonetheless, we wandered around to each of the restored buildings and some of the ruins, but might have stayed longer if not for the wind.

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Well, that and our hunger. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the car after we were done, though I couldn’t eat but half of it. I’m still definitely sick. In driving back to the interstate, we had to decide whether or not to continue the trip. We decided to continue along, but to make some significant changes to the itinerary. First, we’ll probably cut out at least one or two units–probably the hiking units of Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend–and will try to slow our pace. Not pushing so hard to drive longer or leave the hotel early each morning will hopefully give me a better shot at getting better, though it will certainly cost more money. I think we’ve also changed the order of our visits, staying north to San Antonio and Austin, then dropping down the coast as opposed to the original plans.

 

Delayed departure

by SCOTT on DECEMBER 24, 2008

Unfortunately, we’re still in Phoenix, despite trip plans that had us leaving by 5am this morning. In a case of bad luck and even worse timing, I managed to get a bit sick last night. At first I thought it was food poisoning – we made the always-bad mistake of eating fast food since we had already gotten rid of most perishables from the fridge and hadn’t grocery shopped all week. As soon as I was done eating, I knew it wasn’t going to be good, and I felt nauseous the whole night until I vomited a few times.

I was hoping that we could still get started this morning – even if we were a bit delayed in leaving. However, I was experiencing cold chills, serious body aches, and had also developed a fever. Suddenly, it seemed less like a fast-case of food poisoning and much more like a real cold, or worse, the flu – sickness that could not just seriously delay the trip, but cancel it altogether.

Luckily, a night of sleep and an early decision to postpone the trip a full day seems to have done the trick. Though I have some lingering symptoms, I feel better and anticipate that we’ll be hitting the road in the morning as long as I don’t regress any.

Since it was obvious that we wouldn’t be leaving on time, Kim’s been working on revisions to the trip plans. Most of them cut out at least one national park unit. After several revisions throughout the day, I think we’ve settled on one that manages to maintain the original list of sites. It will require an additional motel stay and also some relatively late arrivals at the motels – not too mention a post-midnight estimated return time back home – but I think we’ll be able to get it all in. And if not, we can cannibalize the night in Austin and/or arrive home later on Sunday to make sure it all fits.

At least if we can stay healthy, that is.

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