Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains & Carlsbad Caverns NPs

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Greetings blog fans!  This past week we embarked on our second annual (i.e. traditional) Thanksgiving hiking vacation.  Since the kids’ fall breaks don’t line up and we see family over Christmas, we’ve decided we like heading outdoors to stretch our legs and hopefully soak up some sunshine.  This year certainly fit the bill.

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Our trip was to a previously unvisited part of the country and involved 3 National Parks in southwest Texas and southern New Mexico.  We also fit in a stop to a renowned astronomy observatory.

 

After flying into Midland Airport, we drove ~4 hrs to Big Bend NP where we stayed for 4 nights.  We broke up the 5-6 hr drive to Carlsbad, NM with a stop at the McDonald Observatory.  We stayed 2 nights in Carlsbad to visit Guadalupe Mountains NP and Carlsbad Caverns NP before heading back to Midland for our last night.

Day 1 (Sunday) — Big Bend NP:  Windows & Lost Mine Trails

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Big Bend is a large national park in southwest Texas that borders Mexico.  I was surprised to find out that it is only the 15th largest NP in the country.  There are 5 visitor centers and essentially 3 main areas:  Ross Maxwell Drive, Chisos Basin and the Rio Grande Village.  I had a “stretch goal” of hitting all 3 but came up short on the latter.  There is only one lodge which is in Chisos Basin so that’s where we stayed.

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We had a fairly aggressive first day planned with two 5-6 mile hikes in the Chisos Basin area (nothing like jumping into things).  The first was The Window (purple box above) and the second was The Lost Mine (red box).

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Here we are at the start of the first hike (all smiles).  The “Window” is the illusion of the two mountains coming together as a V in the center of the picture.  As you can see, crisp, blue skies on this day.  It was probably 50F or so starting out.

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A closer shot of the Window.  All the sticks are local agave plants called Lechugilla.

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Obligatory cactus shot.  Aww, it’s heart shaped.

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As you can tell, I like to get shots of the crew up ahead of me, particularly if the scenery is interesting.

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I guess this is the actual window though it isn’t where the two mountains touch (they don’t actually).  Rare couple shot (hats off this time!).  The rocks were pretty slick so we didn’t venture any closer.

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Heading back on this in-and-out hike.  Nice clear day with wispy clouds.

 

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After a well deserved lunch break, we headed to the Lost Mine trail.  Nothing like a mountain lion warning sign to get your attention.  Fortunately, we didn’t see one on the trail.  We think we may have seen on on the drive in (at night) but we weren’t 100% sure.

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The trailhead is further up the road so once we started hiking up we got  a different view of the Window.

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bumpy hills and mountains

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another nice view on our way up

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not sure we found the actual “Lost Mine” but there was a nice plateau that offered these views

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Nicole and I went off to explore a little more (still no Lost Mine) while the other two decided to park it

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living on the edge (the sun generally out-matched my photographic skills on this trip)

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one more view into the distance

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I’m always amazed at trees growing out of rocks.

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Geeky stats time.  The Window ended up being 6.0 miles with 1000′ elevation change that we did in 3:00 hours (2:36 moving).

The Lost Mine was 5.0 miles, 1134′, and 2:58 (2:31 moving).

So, 11 miles, 2100′ and 6 hours on the first day.  Good job Team Frey!  That was a good warm up for our big day on Tuesday.

 

Day 2 — Monday:  Big Bend NP, South Rim Trail

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Today’s adventure was to tackle the South Rim which some call the best hike (and best views) in Texas.  This would be our longest family hike to date (green box) and would involve another 2000′ ascent.  I knew it would be a challenge but I really wanted to give it a try.  Fortunately, we could jump on the trail right outside our cottage and shave a few miles off the total trip.

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Deer sighting before we got started.

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Start of hike = happy (Kuk did come, she just passed on photo op this time)

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Overcast day with the sun peaking through (those aren’t the mountains we climbed though).  The views would be damped without the glorious sunlight but we were glad to have cooler temps on this day.

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That’s essentially the mountain to climb.  The hike involved climbing early and then getting to a plateau while we walked to the back (south) side for the views.

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Yet another view of the Window

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Another well deserved rest

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I liked this wispy, long grass.  Much better looking than the ornamental grass in our yard!

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able to see past the Window now that we are higher up

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another mountain in the distance

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and another

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up on the plateau now — we were surprised to have an Indiana-like woodsy walk in the middle

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rocky ledge now

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another deer spotting — can you see both?

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and finally the south rim — too bad it was a bit hazy and overcast (but still an impressive view)

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another view into the expanse

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resting at the south rim

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Though I needled Kuk about her (lack of) conditioning, it was her feet that bothered her the most.  She had hiking boots and these tennis shoes and neither prevented [multiple] blisters.  She did well to carry on (though I will admit she wasn’t Miss Sunshine at the end of this walk).

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nice one of the kids at the rim

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rare shot of them walking together (on our way back, but still on the plateau)

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Big Bend bumps

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this angle didn’t show it that well, but we all thought this looked like Pride Rock from the Lion King

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heading home — you can just make out the red/orange roofs of the lodge buildings

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And here are the (impressive for us) stats:  11.8 miles, 2000′, 8:32 (6:40 moving — needed a few more breaks on this one!)

Day 3 — Tuesday:  Big Bend NP, Santa Elena Canyon, Mule Ear Springs (abort) and Balanced Rock

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Day 3 allowed us to venture to different areas of the park.  The plan was to drive to the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the Santa Elena Canyon and work our way back for a few other short walks.  The drive took about an hour which gives you an idea of the size of the park.

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Cool beans:  a momma bear and cub on the way out of the Chisos Basin (from the safety of our car).  I took this quick shot and moved along though.

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Can you tell I like lagging behind for photos?  This  walk would take us into a canyon along the Rio Grande.

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Much brighter sun today!  I assume that’s Mexico on the other side of the river.

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Apologies for the sun blast but I still wanted to keep this one.

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Looking back east.  You can see the mountains in the very far distance (on the left) which I assume is where we were hiking the first 2 days.

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walking into the canyon (looks like Trump already has his wall covered here)

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nice, easy, change of pace walk for the morning

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a higher vantage point (again looking back east; canyon is west)

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nice one of the “girls” — we had to walk through that thicket after crossing a stream to get to the canyon walk (though there was a trail); this photo was on the return

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short warm up hike 🙂  3 miles in 1:21 with a 600′ total climb (I think that dip at 2.1 miles is bad data — too lazy to clean that up)

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The second walk of the day, Mule Ear Springs, was about halfway back up the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.   You can see the Mule Ear Peaks in the shot above.  We weren’t going to walk that far but in the end we didn’t make it to the springs either.   It was an intense 75F or so and we were under-prepared for the sun (no sunscreen except for faces) so many of us were keeping our long sleeves on.  The scenery was constant desert and it seemed like a slog so I suggested turning around after a mile.  No complaints.

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cool pineapple looking plant at least

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Next up, after lunch and a trip to the Panther Junction visitor’s center, was Balanced Rock.  That required about a 7 mile drive out the Grapevine Hills gravel road (yuck) — see orange box above.  The hike was worth it though.

 

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different type of cactus here

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the hike wasn’t too long (about a mile out) and then a scramble of sorts to the top and there we were at Balanced Rock

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How about that?  I made it too.  We actually met a very nice (and talkative), recently retired, southern gentleman from Memphis who took this photo.  He was starting his retirement journey with 2-3 weeks camping in the park (I think he was going to do all the trails) before moving on to the next one.

Hike stats (no plot):  2.1 miles, 300′, in 1:30.

Totals for the [light] day:  7 miles over 2.5 walks.

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we saw a lot of road runners on the drive today and didn’t have the photo opportunity for most, but I did capture this one (pretty sure this is one)

Day 4 — Wednesday:  McDonald Observatory (drive to Carlsbad)

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Time to say goodbye to Big Bend.  As mentioned above, we didn’t make it to the Rio Grande Village (and the Hot Springs) but we got to see and do what we wanted to.  The 4 nights/3 days seemed about right.

Upon leaving it was really neat to see the clouds literally rolling over the one set of rock formations.

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different, closer view

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Not the best shot, but we did see a pair of javelinas on the way out as well — I blew by them and then turned around to get this photo.  When I turned around again they scampered off.

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We went slightly out of the way to visit the University of Texas (Austin) McDonald Observatory.  (we are 450 miles from Austin though). A couple of the big telescope enclosures are shown above.

Interesting story on how this got started.  Basically a rich guy (William McDonald) with no heirs and no real scientific background gave UT a bunch of money in his will for the purpose of starting an observatory in the 1930s.  They picked this spot in the middle of nowhere and brought in some folks from the University of Chicago to run the place (and teach them).  Now, it’s run by UT.

We signed up for the daytime tour which involved a brief movie, a solar viewing program and a tour of 2 of the large telescopes.  The tour was given by a UT astronomy professor who was visiting.

This was super cool and a really pleasant surprise.  Wished my Dad was around to share this with him!

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This is looking live (at the time) at the sun.  The red mask has been applied to better see the prominences.  The one above is the size of about 3 earth diameters!

Pardon my geek out here, but I found this really interesting.  We also saw sunspots (not photographed).  Sunspots are magnetic in nature (ionized plasma from the sun).  We could see how the gases around sunspot gravitated towards the sunspot poles.  This magnetic activity can also lead to arcs/loops away from the sun (called prominences).

We also learned about the connection between sun flares, etc. and the aurora borealis (northern lights).  Cool stuff!  (It wasn’t just me, either).  A nice explanation is here.

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this is the larger, newer Hobby-Eberly Telescope (360″)

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This is the 110″ Harlen J. Smith Telescope built in 1968  — the globally renowned spectograph that is contained in the floor below.  They moved the telescope in numerous directions and rotated the outer wall as well.

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I was amused that they took out the Exit sign above the door — it needs to be dark after all!

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here’s a view with the outer dome rotated around — they didn’t open it yet because the climate control is set for that evening’s predicted temperature; letting in hotter air now will distort the imagery.

I thought of Kuk and her challenges with getting her data for her PhD.  These astronomy graduate students may just need a few more days on this machine and finally get their shot only to have it be a cloudy week and back in the queue they go.

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This larger telescope didn’t photograph well.  This one was partially a stunt.  They were losing the best students to programs with larger telescopes so they needed to build one but had limited funds.  It works but it doesn’t move around like the smaller scope does — they have to schedule around the stars being in a particular location.

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They can’t make the mirror for a scope this size in one piece.  Instead they have 91 (?) 1-meter mirrors that are each articulated to the appropriate angle (they use laser sightings to line it all up).  This one is a partial cutaway to see the mechanism.

We spent about 4 hours at the Observatory and really enjoyed it.  It made for a stressful nighttime drive up to Carlsbad, but it was definitely worth it.

Day 5 — Thursday:  Guadalupe Mountains NP near Carlsbad

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Guadalupe Mountains NP is about an hour away from Carlsbad, NM and is actually back in Texas.  The original (stretch) goal was to climb the highest point in Texas, the Guadalupe Peak.  It is about 4.5 miles up with a gain of 3000′ (to roughly 8500′).  That would have been a challenge under normal circumstances.  Given Kuk’s blisters and also admitting that might be a little out of our league, I picked an easier one for us to walk (on Thanksgiving).

We did the McKittrick Canyon Trail on the eastern side of the park instead.  (Good choice).

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Guadalupe Mountains on the way in.  Clouds seem to be hovering over the peak.  It turned out to be a really nice day though.

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the typical start-of-hike photo

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the hike was generally flat and had a little more vegetation than our Big Bend hikes

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actually had a stream to cross too

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a nice look back

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a nice mix of scenery

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blue sky and white clouds providing some nice color contrast

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7.2 miles, 300′, 3:25 (again, ignore the one spike) — it’s great that this classifies as a low-key (“easy”) hike for us these days

We were on a bit of a schedule as we hoped to make it back to Carlsbad to see a movie (Mockingjay).  That was quite an experience in its own right.  The theater was small (3 screens) but was also undergoing renovations.  The lobby was ripped apart (no carpet, etc.) and the toilets were portalets outside!  At least the movie wasn’t bad.

We had also lowered our standards for Thanksgiving dinner.  It turns out they weren’t low enough as most restaurants, even fast food and grocery stores were closed.  I had to fight the Thursday-Black-Friday madness at Walmart to pick up a few things to eat in the hotel.  The Sonic drive in was also open so we got some chicken nuggets for the kids there as well.   Yum (not).  Oh well, it’s not the food, it’s the experience.

Day 6 — Friday:  Carlsbad Caverns NP

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Here comes the weather.  A front had moved in and dropped temps about 40 degrees (to the mid 30s) with freezing rain predicted.  Good thing we were spending the day in a cave!  Had this happened the day before we would have been miserable (or stuck in a hotel room).  Lucky break!

The cave is famous for it’s resident bats that fly out every night but they’d left for warmer climes by this time of year.  Here’s what we missed.

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We had a short walk to get to the mouth of the cave.  Really, really cold.

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They have an elevator but it’s been out of service for awhile.  This was actually a good thing as you got a nice perspective walking down through the “Natural Entrance” (it goes much farther than the picture implies).  It took us about an hour to get down, an hour and change to walk around the Big Room and surprisingly less than an hour to get back up (we were haulin’).

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The pictures kinda look like crap and it’s hard to tell what up and down but we all really liked the cave.  We had been to Luray Caverns in the spring and the smaller Crystal Cave in Sequoia in June.  It’s been 10 years or so but we’ve also been to Mammoth Cave so I wasn’t expecting to be amazed.  But we were!

The Big Room was huge (the largest, readily accessible cave in North America) and there were different features throughout to keep things interesting.

Again, the pictures aren’t great but here they are.

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DSCN3274One final photo as we were leaving — frozen cactus spikes!  You don’t see that every day.

Summary

All in all, it turned out to be a great week.  The hikes were about right and we caught a break with the weather.  I think we spent the right amount of time in each location too.  I’m glad we were able to tackle some of the “stretch goals”, particularly the South Rim in Big Bend.  Even our backup hike in Guadalupe Mountains NP turned out well.  The McDonald Observatory was a very pleasant surprise and the Carlsbad Caverns exceeded our expectations.

We don’t have a burning desire to return (it’s not that kinda place) but we did enjoy our time there.

I’m leaning towards returning to Sedona next year but maybe something else will pop up.

Thanks for reading!

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2 thoughts on “Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains & Carlsbad Caverns NPs

  1. Great photos I grew up in that area in Alpine Tx as a young man in boy scouts I got to back pack the Big Bend Nat Park your photos brought back a lot of great memories thanks for sharing.

    Like

  2. I enjoyed your photos and trip report. I reside in Houston and made my first visit to Big Bend NP during Thanksgiving 2016 with team at Austin Sierra Club. Your photos, report brought back many lovely memories. Hiking to Emory Peak was my best day in Big Bend and best day in 2016. We ascended Emory Peak via Pinacles & Laguna Meadow and decended via South Rim.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Like

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