Our Travels: NM & Big Bend NP

 
 

After leaving Tombstone, Arizona (where we left off in the last travels update blog post), we were in desperate need of a few things. One, we seriously needed a shower; we had figured out how to do a sink shower and wash our hair with only one gallon total of water but a full body shower was needed after a week on BLM land. Two, we needed water; we have been able to get our water use down even further going from using about 6 gallons a day to no using about 4, but we still needed to get more after a week. Three, we needed food; we had stocked up before going out onto BLM land but there’s only so much we can fit in our fridge.

Because we planned to see friends in Los Alamos the next weekend, we wanted to start making our way there. And the best way to go from Tombstone to Los Alamos was through Las Cruces, so that was our first stop. Originally, we weren’t even going to go to Tombstone; our plan from Phoenix to Los Alamos was through Sedona, Flagstaff, the Petrified Forest, and Albuquerque to Los Alamos. But due to snow and concerns about the cold and potential ice, we decided to take a more southern route through Tucson, Tombstone, Las Cruces, Albuquerque, and Sante Fe to Los Alamos.

Las Cruces

We drove to Las Cruces on Saturday, March 2, and even though it was only a 4-hour drive it seemed to take up most of our day. We spent our afternoon at the gym showering, at the grocery store (there’s a very nice Sprouts in Las Cruces), at the craft store (picking up some embroidery supplies for me), and running all of our other errands. Sunday morning we spent some quality time at the laundromat then decided to hit the road again to Albuquerque. We had been planning to spend a few days in Las Cruces but a) didn’t really see a point and b) our solar setup was not working properly so we could only charge by driving and we needed to cook some rice in the Instant Pot.

Where we stayed the night

Rest area (super nice with a view, we were not the only ones)

Albuquerque

We did absolutely nothing of note in Albuquerque. We spent the few days we were there working, catching up on projects, and trying to figure out solar. Last time we were there, in the fall, we checked out Petroglyphs National Monument which is a couple of cool little hikes (and I think there are some longer ones too).

Where we stayed the night

Cracker Barrel

Sante Fe

We drove to Sante Fe midweek and again did not much of note, spending more of our time working. We did, however, go back to Sante Fe on Saturday with our friends and wandered around the downtown part of the city. We checked out the cool architecture, the cute little shops, had some delicious food, and enjoyed the art. Our overall impression of the city was that there were a lot more hippies than we thought there would be and that people we very friendly. We would definitely like to go back to get a better view of the culture. On Thursday night (our second in Sante Fe), we realized that we needed to be in Los Alamos earlier than we thought and Ben had meetings that prevented us from driving there midday. So, we drove north of town, halfway to Los Alamos, so we could finish the drive in the morning and just be in town for when we were meeting our friends.

Where we stayed the night

Sketchy national forest land outside of town past the animal shelter (and unbeknownst to us, next to a landfill, definitely DO NOT RECOMMEND!)

Camel Rock Casino parking lot

Los Alamos

After spending Friday morning in the Starbucks (yes, the, meaning the only one) we met up with our friends from college who showed us around town a bit then took us for a short hike. The hike was in Bandelier but not the main part of the park, it was just a little trailhead on the side of the road. On the 2 mile hike, we went up and down rocks, saw many cave dwellings, carvings, and views of the landscape. It was on this hike that I realized I should get some trail running shoes or something more than my gym shoes for outdoor exploring. (I have had many hiking boots in the past but I hate every single pair. They always seem to be uncomfortable, too high in the back, and too heavy but my friend, Ingrid, was wearing trail running shoes to hike in which is some I had never thought of doing!) After our little hike, we went back to our friends’ apartment where they made us a lovely dinner and we hung out and talked until later in the evening. As we were chatting after dinner, the wind picked up and it started to snow. We were concerned about how cold the van might be but as we slept that night it was the wind more than the cold that bothered us. The wind was so violent and strong that the van was rocking all night and it was hard to sleep. As I mentioned above, we spent Saturday exploring downtown Sante Fe and drove to Taos after dinner.

Where we stayed the night

In the parking lot of our friends’ apartment building

Taos

We arrived late into Taos on Saturday night and almost immediately went to bed. In the morning we woke up, made breakfast, and explored the views of the Rio Grande. After cleaning up, we went to the Earthship Biotecture Community. If you don’t know what Earthships are, they are homes that use reused materials for construction along with using the earth to help with both construction and temperature control, are totally off-grid, recycle water, use solar panels, and so many other techniques to be recyclable, reusable, and self-sufficient. It is something that I have been interested in learning more about for a while now after our tour of the building, Ben is totally into as well. When we get a house, we want to use some of the principles of building Earthships in our home, so it was cool that Ben got so into it. And we even got the full library of books from them to help us research what we like best and want to use in our home eventually.

After touring the Earthships, we drove through Taos and stopped at the Rio Grande visitor center to fill up on water. We then drove down to Sante Fe and stopped at REI. We had a nice membership bonus after buying so many things last year in the build and in prepping for van life (like buying our cargo box) and I wanted to get some trail running shoes before spending a week in national parks (in Carlsbad, Guadalupe, and Big Bend).

At REI, we also got a refillable 1lb propane tank and the refill kit. When we decided to switch from electric cooking to a camp stove, we had a few 1lb propane tanks to use up before we had to worry about getting more. We had a lot of discussions about what our propane options were: should we drill a hole in the floor and build a sealed box to put in a 20lb tank, use throw away 1lb tanks, use refillable 1lb tanks, etc. We ultimately decided to go with the refillable 1lb tanks and get a 4lb tank to fill them from. To keep it safe, we are planning on putting the 4lb tank in the cargo box and drilling two holes in the bottom of the cargo box to vent it and just having the two 1lb tanks in the van for use. So after getting the 1lb refillable tanks and my trail running shoes at REI in Sante Fe, we bought a 4lb propane tank at Camping World in Albuquerque and continued driving down to El Paso.

Where we stayed the night

Rio Grande Viewpoint/rest area

El Paso (yes, we know this is Texas)

El Paso is the last big city before you get to Carlsbad NP, Guadalupe NP, and Big Bend NP so it’s where we spent the week before driving off into the wilderness for a week. In El Paso, we made plans for what we needed food wise in the national parks, did laundry, and generally stocked up before we couldn’t for a week. Otherwise, we spent a lot of time working. Ben took the week off in Big Bend (mostly because there is almost no cell signal so he couldn’t work) so he had a few projects he had to finish up before being off the grid for the week.

Where we stayed the night

Cracker Barrel

Carlsbad Caverns

We left El Paso on Saturday and made the short drive to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We planned to stick around the area until Tuesday morning (so Ben could work on Monday) but decided to do the caves on Saturday because it was a bit far to drive again on Sunday from the BLM site where we stayed. First, we built a little reflectix fort for Arrow so he could stay cool; it was a cool day anyways but we didn’t want the sun to warm him up at all and there were strict rules about when you could leave a dog in the park and while we knew he was safe we didn’t want someone else to be concerned. Before going into the caves, we had a quick lunch, put on our hiking shoes, and filled up the Camelbak since we didn’t know if we’d take the elevator our or hike out. In the visitor center, we got a ticket to ride the elevator down into the cave (you have to get one even if you are hiking down) and went down to explore. The caverns were really cool because there were so many different facades and textures on the walls, floors, and ceiling. There were pools of water, deep seemingly endless holes, stalagmites, stalactites, and many different areas to check out. After touring the cave, we originally thought we would just take the elevator back up and get back to Arrow quickly, but we realized that while the line to go down the elevator had been short, the ride back up was definitely not. The estimated time to get back up was about 45 minutes, so we decided to get our exercise in for the day and hike the 1.5 miles up from the cave (about an 800ft elevation change). While the elevation change was 800ft, that number doesn’t include all the ups you have to go after the dips in the path. Overall, it was difficult, we had to stop a number of times, and we were happy to have a Camelbak full of water with us.

Other than hiking the cavern, we stayed at our BLM campsite for the three days we were in the Carlsbad area. I cut Ben’s hair, we met and had long chats with Dave and Carrie from One Advanture at a Time, and Ben got in one final day of work before taking the week off to be in Big Bend.

Where we stayed the night

BLM land

 
 

Guadalupe Mountains

This was a really cool national park that we did not get to see basically any of. We added this park on last minute after a recommendation from someone in El Paso and mostly did a drive by with a stop at the visitor center. On Tuesday, we took a few minutes to check out what the park has to offer (most of which was a hike in kind of deal so not an option for us) and were back on the road to Big Bend by way of Marfa.

We briefly stopped in Marfa (again a recommendation from someone in El Paso) and checked out a cool co-op for a snack. The town was very cute, definitely a creative artsy vacation vibe kind of place. We wanted to get to Big Bend before it got too dark though, so we decided to keep going. That turn out to be a mistake and we probably should have just stayed in Marfa, checked out the Marfa Lights (mysterious lights that dance around at night though we’ve heard conjecture that it’s just lights from the highway up the way) because we ended up driving all to Big Bend and had nowhere to stay. We thought we could just stay in a parking lot in Big Bend, but that ended up being bad information and we had to backtrack an hour/hour and a half to a rest area that we could sleep at.

Where we stayed the night

Rest Area between Alpine and Terlingua

Big Bend

On Wednesday morning we got up really early (not even light out yet) to drive back to Big Bend. I was really worried that if we didn’t arrive at least half an hour before the visitor center opened that the line would be way too long for us to secure a backcountry parking pass. Turns out my suspicions were right and we were second in line 30-45 minutes before the office opened (by the time the office opened the line was 15-20 groups long). As it was, there were no sites available for Wednesday night so we got a spot for Thursday-Saturday but then had to beeline to a campground to get a campsite for that night. Once it was all said and done, we spent one night at the Cottonwood campground ($14), Thursday and Friday at a backcountry site ($12) and wasted about $30 in gas driving to the rest area and back on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. But you live and learn, right? Now we know to call ahead and ask about rules on parking in parking lots in national parks.

Once our overnight parking was all settled, we had some time to explore. Because Big Bend is so big (about 70 miles from one end of the park to the other) we planned out our time according to where we were planning on being each day. The park really has three main areas to explore if you aren’t hiking in: Castolon, Chisos Basin, and the Rio Grande Village. On Wednesday, we drove around the Castolon area near our campsite (because it was 30 miles away from everything else and we were already out there) and saw the Santa Elena Canyon and the Castolon visitors center and exhibits. We also napped because of the late night and early morning driving.

On Thursday, we drove back to the main road through the park and stopped at all the overlooks and viewpoints. I guess I should note before someone angrily comments about us missing everything by not hiking, it was in the 80s while we were in Big Bend and we had Arrow with us. We are very cautious about leaving him in the car and because of the temperatures we didn’t want to leave him and we couldn’t take him with us on any of the hikes. So, we didn’t have as cool of an adventure as if we had left him home, but he’s our travel buddy and leaving him in Portland would not have even been an option.

Anyways, we checked out all the viewpoints we could, saw some cacti flowering (actually a lot of cacti flowering), and admired all the Big Bend bluebonnets blooming. We also drove into the Chisos Basin and did a short .5 mile hike to check out the Window View Trail. After another stop at the visitor center for postcards and stickers, we found our backcountry campsite down a rocky dirt road and relaxed for the evening.

On Friday we had a lazy morning admiring the landscape of the park then drove in to check out the Rio Grande Village, Boquillas Canyon, the Rio Grande, and attempt to access the Hot Springs ( the road was way too bumpy and hazardous for the van to get down). The Rio Grande was smaller than we thought it would be and fairly dirty looking but we enjoyed lunch at the Boquillas Canyon viewpoint and chatted with a few other people. We decided that we had really done everything we could do in the park without having to be concerned about the pup so we relinquished our campsite for Saturday night and enjoyed our last evening in the park.

On Saturday morning before heading out, we continued down the backcountry road we were camping on (Grapevine Rd) and did the 2.2 mile round trip hike to Balanced Rock and back. This is probably one of the easier hikes in the park, though the last ¼ mile before Balanced Rock is definitely some scrambling up rocks but it was nice to start our day with something active, get at least one hike in, and enjoy the views of the park. This was probably one of my favorite experiences at Big Bend National Park.

We left after the hike and headed to Austin. During our drive out of the park, we discussed how it was a cool park that had a lot to offer that we just couldn’t do. It didn’t live up to the expectation we had from what everyone had said about it, but we still enjoyed our time there and would consider going again when it is less busy (it was spring break and everyone was visiting), a little cooler, and maybe without the pup.

Where we stayed the night

Cottonwood Campground & Backcountry site on Grapevine Rd.

Check back in with us in two weeks to learn about the three weeks we spent in Austin or hop on over to our Instagram to get some more real-time updates! Have you been to any of these places? What did you think of them? Anything we missed?