Welcome to the Lone Star State! This trip began with a flight into Houston to visit with my dad for a few days and then morphed into an additional week of driving across the entire state of Texas and then up into southern New Mexico. The final two days were a long drive back to Houston (with a stop in San Antonio) to drop off the rental car and, exhausted as always, return home to the Garden State.
My dad has now lived in Houston for a couple decades. He originally transferred down there from Chicago for work purposes. This Yankee is not a big fan of the South, but without admitting it, seems to love everything about Texas – especially the warmer weather. The picture below shows us celebrating his birthday at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. I can fondly remember our conversations and smothering one sushi roll after another in soy sauce.
After saying goodbye, I traveled south about 250 miles along the Gulf Coast to Mustang Island, located just north of the famed Padre Island National Seashore.
Here’s a few cool things I did during my one-day stay on Mustang Island.
#1 Visited a massive sand castle. Actually it wasn’t sand and it was only the front to a store, but you have to admit it’s a creative and impressive design.
#2 Rented a kayak and went for a paddle in the Laguna Madre, the intracostal waterway that separates the barrier island from the mainland.
#3 Walked through the belly of a shark!
Yet the best part about Mustang Island was the opportunity to camp-out on the actual beach itself (as you can see from the pictures below). Being September, there weren’t a lot of people there. For the most part I had the run of the place to myself. I went for a dip in the water, cleaned up with a fresh shower and then planted myself in front of the tent (on my newly purchased $5 Walmart folding chair) to watch a beautiful sunset (left). The sunrise (right) was no less impressive. The lapping of the closely spaced waves, and pelicans that would routinely fly by and the oil rigs that glowed off in the distance made this a memorable experience.
The video below captures the drive I enjoyed along the beach during my early morning departure.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend is not hard to locate on a map. Go southwest in Texas and look for the “big bend” in the Rio Grande River. Nestled in this cranny is Big Bend Nation Park. Few visitors from outside of Texas attend this park because it is remote, inhospitable and not “on the way” to any other destination. If you’re at Big Bend, you definitely made the intentional decision to go there and some 300,000 visitors make it a point each year to do so.
Measuring in at 317,000 acres, Big Bend is the 7th largest national park in the lower 48 states (Death Valley measures in at number 1). The domain is oftentimes the final resting place for border-crossing Mexicans who underestimate the arid and rugged conditions of the Chisos Mountains in the Chihuahuan Desert. Unprepared tourists sometimes fare no better.
A blurb from the park website reads, “There is a place in Far West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone. Here, at the end of the road, hundreds of bird species take refuge in a solitary mountain range surrounded by weather-beaten desert. Tenacious cactus bloom in sublime southwestern sun, and diversity of species is the best in the country. This magical place is Big Bend.”
I was only at Big Bend for two nights and one full day, but I definitely made the most of my time by enjoying the 3 memorable experiences listed below!
First, is the “Santa Elena Canyon Trail.” It is a moderate hike traveling measuring almost two miles for the round trip. After crossing the Terlingua Creek, the trail ascends high into the cliffs.
Not after much distance, the trail descends back to the water’s edge of the Rio Grande River.
Hikers continue to traverse along the water in a narrowing canyon of steep cliffs until the canyon walls meet the water and navigation is no longer possible. The video below shows me at this very point.
Second, is the “Lost Mine Trail.” This hike, while considered “moderate,” takes you up to the top of of the Chisos Mountains. The ascent is a tad over 1,000 feet and the round trip consists of almost 5 miles of walking. This hike is a favorite of Big Bend visitors and is oftentimes the first one recommended to those who have limited time at the park. The terrain is steep at times, but the vegetation is diverse and the viewpoints along the way that enjoy the Case Grande and Juniper Canyon expanses are spectacular.
Third, is the “Hot Springs Historic Trail.” A very remote dirt road takes you off the beaten path to the trail head. After locating a small parking lot, the walk to the hot springs is about a half of a mile.
According to Wikipedia, “The site was the first major tourist attraction in the area, predating the establishment of the National Park. Before the Langford’s development, a small stone tub had been excavated in the local stone for bathing, with a dugout that was renovated by the Langfords as a residence. The Langfords later built an adobe house, a stone bathhouse, and brushwood bathing shelters. The Langfords left in 1912 when bandits made the area unsafe. When they returned in 1927 they rebuilt the bathhouse, but with a canvas roof. They also built a store and a motor court, consisting of seven attached cabins. The structures were built of local stone with wood trussed roofs covered with corrugated metal. Interior walls were plastered. Four of the motor court rooms featured painted murals. A terrace was covered with a long porch or ramada connecting the cabins.”
For the most part, all that remains of these structures today is the old foundation enclosing the existing hot springs. The 105 degree water is fed from a natural spring below, continually filling the basin with the excess draining over the wall and into the Rio Grande River. As you can see from the two pictures below, I arrived in the evening and stayed until the sun had fully set. Few things compared to the pleasure of being alone in this atmosphere and soaking in the hot water with one hand in the Rio Grande River. Eventually, a friendly older couple arrived and joined me in the water for a nice conversation.
This was my favorite place at Big Bend. The only difficulty I faced was the walk back to the car without any illumination. I remember several Mexicans that had gathered across the River and (maybe it was just my imagination) I was nearly positive they were now gathered in the tall grass that lined the perimeter of the trail. My pace was as quick as I could go without losing the trail (which I did once) as I repeatedly said out loud, “I have a knife and I’m not afraid to use it!” The mind certainly play games on you! “Will I be kidnapped only to have Julie forced to pay a large ransom for my return?” “I am going to get lost and have to spend the cold evening huddled up along a cliff teaming with scorpions and rattlesnakes?”
A music video of some highlights from Big Bend:
Terlingua Ghost Town
On the way north out of Big Bend, I couldn’t help but stop at this popular destination. I am always fascinated with the stores that lead to the the development of a ghost town. In this instance, the village was the home to a thriving cinnabar mining operation. As their website says, “When the market for mercury crashed everyone limped away except for the local critters.” The location boasts of decaying buildings, mine shafts, desert brush and “semi-friendly rattlesnakes.” Especially unique about this free location is the freedom you have at this site to explore the ruins without a tour guide or millions of rules.
Fort Davis National Historic Site
The video blow gives you a good panoramic view of the location.
The fort, established in 1854, was not surrounded by a wooded wall composed of cut trees with coned tops like something on an “F-Troop” episode. Rather, the fort was built whereby three sides were well-protected by the surrounding canyon walls. For the second half of the 19th century, the fort was strategically located to protect mail coaches on Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road (which a portion is preserved and can still be walked on today) and the Chihuahua Trail.
Wow, they let you really move here in Texas! Funny thing is that since the space is so open and the roads are so straight, 80 really doesn’t feel like 80!
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Although there is not “bad” national park, many people agree that Guadalupe Mountains is one of the least favorites in the system. I felt sorry for a family with several young children that pulled in not long after I arrived. The mother had the stomach flu and one child had already vomited in the car. Their vehicle was stuffed with so many items (a lot of board games) that it was impossible to see out the rear window. Beyond the sickness, I thought to myself, what are they going to do here with these little ones over the next few days?
I did have a nice campsite!
The best activity at the park is a strenuous hike up to the top of Guadalupe Mountain range. The round trip is 8.4 miles with an elevation change of 3,000 feet. The condition of the trail and the terrain changes frequently. Great views of the vast regions including the top of “El Capitain” will dominate. Many switchbacks and an occasional steep cliff drop-off (bottom left) are found throughout the trail. Your reward for making it to the top is standing on the highest point in the state of Texas, some 8,751 feet above sea level (bottom right). The summit is marked by a metal pyramid monument commemorating the overland stage and air travel.
White Sands Missile Range
If you are into learning about missiles and and seeing over 50 items of this nature on display, White Sands Missile Range is the place for you. After clearing a rather strict checkpoint and being scared by warning signs (like the one below), a nice museum and vast exposition of missiles awaits you. I found the development of the missile throughout history, as it pertains to power and accuracy, fascinating.
White Sands National Monument
Located in the heart of the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico, this great wonder boasts of 275 square miles of dunes composed of gypsum sand. Overall, it is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. The Monument itself preserves a major portion of this unique dunefield, along with the plants and animals that live here.
I was able to do a few neat activities when I was there for one day, and then a potion of the next day. Since much of it looks the same, most all of your activities will consist of short to long hikes on a few designated trails established by the park service.
First, upon arriving I hit three of the four hikes noted in the brochure. All of these hikes are relatively short. Below on the left is a shot from the “Big Dune Nature Trail.” On the right is the “Playa Trail” that was absolutely gorgeous at sunset.
Second, I embarked on the fourth and longest hike in the Park on the following day. It’s called the “Alkali Flat Trail” and it stretches across the park giving the hiker a 4.6 mile round-trip intense adventure. Since footsteps are covered with strong winds relocating the sand, the trail is maintained by following large posts that protrude from the ground with orange reflective tape. If you lose track of the next post it is very easy to get disoriented because the scenery in every direction looks exactly the same. This particular trail takes you through the heart of White Sands, up and over dunes, and ends at the edge of the Alkali Flat (“the selfie” pictured below to the right). Then you return to where you started.
Third, was not a hike, but a favorite activity of those who visit the park. For a nominal fee you can purchase a plastic sled (I actually borrowed one from another visitor). It was a lot of fun, but to maintain any decent speed (snow is much faster!), you need to find some flattened chutes already established.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
This is one of America’s greatest caves with a fascinating history. Inside it boasts of some of the largest “chambers” in the world. The “Big Room” is 4,000 feet long and 625 feet wide.
I arrived the first night just in time for the famous “bat flight program.” Around sunset approximately 400,000 Brazilian (aka Mexican) bats suddenly awake and depart out of the massive opening of the cave. Together they ascend in a giant and coordinated flock disappearing into the evening sky in search of insects. It is an incredible sight and definitely worth seeing at some point in your life. Some brave souls awake very early in the evening to observe the returning voyage. Personal pictures of the occasion are not available as cameras and electronic devices are prohibited, yet I did find this picture below provided by the park service.
There are a few guided tours available for an additional cost, but the general tour (“The Natural Entrance Trail” ) is included with the price of admission. This self-guided voyage winds down about 79 stories into the heart of the cave. Visitors at this point can exit either by a returning hike or a conveniently placed elevator that will take you back up to the top. I was able to tour the cave twice on two consecutive days. When I arrived for the second time I was the first one to enter and the residing ranger was kind enough to snap this picture for me seen below.
Since the Park offered no camping opportunities I pitched my tent at the closest privately owned campsite I could find. This was one of those places that hasn’t changed their look for many, many years. Few people where there (wonder why?) and I was greeted by a coyote and a couple wild pigs that first night of my occupancy. Thankfully, they kept their distance! To my surprise when I returned in the afternoon, I was grieved to see the wind did a number on my tent.
The video below provides all the pathetic explanation you’ll need!
This music video below shows highlights from Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands and the Guadalupe Mountain hike.
The Alamo and the San Antonio River Walk
“While the facts surrounding the siege of the Alamo continue to be debated, there is no doubt about what the battle has come to symbolize. People worldwide continue to remember the Alamo as a heroic struggle against impossible odds – a place where men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. For this reason, the Alamo remains hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty” (www.thealamo.org).
By the time I arrived that evening, tours inside the Alamo had ceased. Still, it was special to see this iconic landmark.
Later in the evening I went for a stroll along the famed River Walk in San Antonio. This marked the final evening of my trip.