#129 - San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
#130 - Waco Mammoth National Monument
#131 - Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park
#132 - Amistad National Recreation Area
#133 - Big Bend National Park
#134 - Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River
#135 - Fort Davis National Historic Site
#136 - Chamizal National Memorial
#137 - Guadalupe Mountains National Park
#138 - Carlsbad Caverns National Park
#139 - White Sands National Monument
#140 - Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
#141 - Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
#142 - El Morro National Monument
#143 - El Malpais National Monument
#144 - Petroglyph National Monument
#145 - Bandelier National Monument
#146 - Manhattan Project National Historical Park
#147 - Pecos National Historical Park
#148 - Fort Union National Monument
#149 - Capulin Volcano National Monument
#150 - Valles Caldera National Preserve
#151 - Chaco Culture National Historical Park
#152 - Aztec Ruins National Monument
Working my way from the (Top 5 Highlights of) Gulf Coast National Parks through central Texas, this 3-year project truly hit the American West.
The 128 parks I’ve seen to this point have been beautiful, historically relevant, and cultural shaping, but have all carried a hint of the “But have you been to the BIG parks?” that many would comment when asking about my itinerary.
So in the same way that New Mexico and West Texas were my gateway to the American West, I present to you the 7 Tips these 33 parks taught me, to help you best make your way into your western national parks experience.
My and Voice of America's video summary of Guadalupe, Carlsbad Caverns, and White Sands
1. Don’t Overlook the Missions
Central to much of the American Southwest's story is the role the Spanish played in crafting its culture. While I’ll leave it to each visitor to determine the morality of the colonizer's usurpation of Native land and culture, the remaining Missions of today are a beautiful peek into the landscape, history, and culture that dominated much of the Southwest.
Watch the comprehensive and beautiful video Voice of America (VOA) and myself collaborated to create:
2. White Sands. White Sands. White Sands.
I talk a lot about not judging a park by its name. Some National Monuments (or other designations) are just as--if not more--magnificent than the 59 National Parks.
White Sands National Monument is the best example I’ve come across thus far.
This otherworldly locale was so magical and beyond anything I’d experienced before, that I can’t believe I skipped over it when driving through New Mexico five years ago.
I did not make the same mistake this time!
Whether majestic sunsets, foreign landscapes, or desert plant life that defied logic, White Sands was magical. Pure magic.
Of particular highlight was the Alkali Flats trail (which I was terrified to pronounce for my VOA video so I just called it “the Flats." Al-KAL-I? AL-ka-LIE?).
This 5-mile trail is now my 2nd favorite of all hikes I’ve done in the NPS—following my favorite, the Caprock Coulee Trail, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
*SPEAKING OF RATING* I’m now tracking each park with a rating system that will allow you, the parks traveler, to receive the expert knowledge gained by my visits to all 417 sites. The grades go from 10 (Absolutely must-do!) to 1 (Only if you have a specific interest in the subject).
It’s completely subjective based on my visitor experience at the park, but the goal is to give you a resource you can use to best plan your future family vacations, weekends off, or epic road trips.
For example, White Sands received a 10... (Stay tuned for the release of my VOA summary video VERY soon. To be linked below).
While the Alkali Flats' deep sand made the 5 miles take much longer than I thought (and also provided shoes so filled with sand that I didn’t know where they ended and the ground began--see above video) the intense contrast of the white sand dunes provided copious good pictures.
Of other benefit to this hike is that it was the only place in the Monument I found truly void of bushes, leaving the option for photos appearing as if the pure white dunes go on forever…
3. Spend More Time at Big Bend Than You Think
Big Bend overview video by myself and Voice of America
Big Bend National Park is remote.
How remote you ask?
So remote that its closest commercial airport is Midland/Odessa.
4 hours away.
This park is so isolated that it doesn’t receive the same sort of publicity other parks its size do—it’s the 8th largest in the lower 48.
But Big Bend’s far-flung location should not dissuade you from experiencing its many wonders. Very quickly into my 4 days in the park, it established itself as one of my Top 3 parks of the 133 I’d done to that point.
And I crammed a lot into those 4 days.
Even when staying active from dawn till dusk (and beyond on one hike started a little too late…), I still couldn’t fit everything in that I wanted. So I’ve put some of my favorite Big Bend moments below, but I highly suggest you allow at least 5 days to experience the park if you go.
After all, if you’re going to travel all the way to the middle of the Chihuahua Desert and border with Mexico, you might as well get your mile’s worth.
- Go to Mexico
Weather walking across the Rio Grande (I crossed back and forth over 25 times in my four days at Big Bend), swimming in the river, or making the trek to Mexico in earnest, and with an official passport stamp, by visiting the town of Boquillas, you will delight in the numerous opportunities to go to Mexico.
Beyond the media hype of border walls and “bad hombres,” the international community encompassing Big Bend (the land on the Mexican side is protected by their government) has a longstanding tradition of working together to help each other survive, and enjoy, this beautiful desert landscape. That collaboration leads to hikes, river trips, and natural hot spring soaks that leave you oblivious to man-made borders.
Plus, you can make copious jokes about “The Wall” that would seem pointless given the prohibitively high natural canyon walls on the Mexican side.
- Get Off The Beaten Path
Big Bend has 3 main roads that create a peace symbol shape in the way they allow paved access to the park. However, with the size of this park, much of it can only be experienced far from the smooth roads.
One of those rough ways isn’t a road, but the actual Rio Grande river that cuts through the center of this protected wonderland. Through outfitters like Far Flung Adventures, who took me on an 8-hour, lunch provided canoe trip 2 miles into Santa Elena Canyon, you can experience far more river views than you could from anywhere you can access by foot (we went 1.75 miles further into the canyon than hikers could).
If you’re wanting to stay on land and experience remoteness, start with a night in the former mining, ghost town, Terlingua. From the Motor Inn or any of the Big Bend Resorts you can take a Big Bend Overland Tour and spare your vehicle the rough roads while beating up the tour company’s Jeep through the River Road and other rare places that only 1-2% of Big Bend visitors get to.
- Don’t overlook Rio Grande Village
Sure, the Chisos Mountains campsite is the most central and temperate (it’s higher in altitude), but Rio Grande Village offers rare treats as reward for the 20-mile drive to the southeast corner of Big Bend. Firstly, its Nature Trail was my introduction to the park and made such a strong impression that I immediately regretted sleeping-in the morning of my drive to Big Bend.
From there I hurried to complete all the area’s trails (Boquillas Canyon, Boquillas Overlook, the natural hot springs, and the border crossing), always wishing I had planned more time to savor these moments.
- Stay cool in the Chisos Mountains
I got to the park on March 28, and the first day of my arrival it was 109 degrees…
So Big Bend is hot.
But you can escape the heat.
Especially popular during the afternoon, the elevation of the Chisos Mountains provides relief from the heat in the rest of the park. Of particular highlight in this area was the hike to Emory Peak, the highest point in Big Bend National Park.
I started my hike at 3pm and was the last person to begin the trail (I didn’t see a single other person for the last 3 hours of my 5-hour round trip hike), and also had to use a head lamp for the last 30 minutes. But if I hadn’t spent close to 1.5 hours taking pictures/video, I would’ve been just fine in returning before sunset.
Despite a harrowing final section of the trail back to the Chisos Lodge, I did not regret a moment of this hike. In an already stunning park, the Emory Peak hike provided my most spectacular views, and the photo that (as of publication) is my most liked on Instagram.
4. History Can Also Be Beautiful
While there are a number of NPS sites that are heavy on history and light on eye candy, the Southwest provides a number of Historical Parks, Historic Sites, and National Monuments that do a good job of blending both.
Some of my favorites that accomplished this difficult mix were:
Fort Davis National Historic Site
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
Pecos National Historical Park
Fort Union National Monument
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Bandelier National Monument
5. Just Because You Can Pronounce It Doesn't Mean It's Better
When local journalists ask you how to pronounce a national park, you don't feel so guilty for being unsure of it yourself. It's for that reason that when I planned my visit to two parks in close proximity, I assumed El Morro would be better than El Malpais.
Because I could pronounce the name.
But boy was I wrong!
El Malpais (think shopping Mall + Pice--as in ice for your drink), with its stunning sandstone cliffs and canyon walls providing views for days, far ousthined nearby El Morro, which focused primarily on cliff inscriptions and a historic water hole.
El Malpais National Monument
El Morro National Monument
This was the first of four hard-to-pronounce (aka, I mispronounced them before being set straight) parks.
Next was the Chamizal National Memorial (Cha-me-zal) in urban El Paso. But this park wasn't just urban, it was international. At least in the sense that my phone kept switching to Mexican carriers, and even the park's rangers had to try three different cell phones to record this Facebook Live video of my visit to the sight.
Though not a natural wonder (its views are mostly of a concrete barrier), it is celebrating both the political wonder and man-made wonder that occured when the United States and Mexico evenly divided a tract of land along the Rio Grande that, depending on how the river flooded, put it on either the Mexican or US side of the Rio Grande's agreed border.
Brokered by Kennedy and signed by President LBJ after his assassination, it now serves as a lasting landmark of resolving international conflict without war.
The 3rd was Capulin Volcano National Monument (Cap-u-lin, not Ca-PU-lin) in northeast New Mexico. This once sprewing volcano now provides expansive views of a lush (by New Mexico standards) green pasture, the chance to walk inside the cone, and a rim hike easily accessible by vehicle.
Last on the hard-to-pronounce list was the Valles Caldera National Preserve (not Val-less, but Vay-a).
"My soul lives there," said one congregant at St. Bede's Episcopal where I sang the morning before my visit.
And indeed, upon arrival at the site, I could see how it'd be a comfortable place to reside. Amidst the dry, arid brown/orange colorscapes of New Mexico, its green bowl of grass and mountains provides a unique pure grass field in a state defined by its otherworldly landscapes.
6. Lands of Enchantment
New Mexico’s official tourism slogan is “The Land of Enchantment,” and the state truly lives up to it. Cheesy as it may be, it was hard for me not to use the slogan when doing local media and describing the way it felt for a prairie boy to suddenly not recall “a second that I’ve been in New Mexico that I haven’t been able to see a mountain.”
Albuquerque CBS/FOX coverage of my day at Petroglyph National Monument
Beyond mountains, New Mexico was enchanting on the other side of the ground through its wondrous and MASSIVE Carlsbad Caverns National Park. My first park designed around a cave, it was one of the best experiences for sharing how you can’t understand the national parks until you feel them. No camera or video could capture the 360-degree otherworldly creations that surrounded me, whether officially named such as the Fairyland section, or unofficially like this rock I thought looked like Jabba the Hut from Star Wars.
Enchanting in their own ways, some parks shared their magic in differently.
Whether through the discovery of North America's only herd of mammoths (Waco Mammoth National Monument), the ability to stare down the descendant of a cow President Lyndon B. Johnson ranched (Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park), the reveling in sparkling blue waters jointly managed by Mexico and the United States (Amistad National Recreation Area), the way early Americans survived the Colorado Plateau's harsh desert climate (Aztec Ruins National Monument), or the thought of what it took to create the atomic bomb (Manhattan Project National Historical Park), these national parks each shared their bit of magic aiding a visit to New Mexico or West Texas.
And perhaps nothing summed up better the enchantments of these two states than being able to stand atop the highest point in Texas and look back at everywhere I'd come in West Texas, and everywhere I'd get to go in New Mexico, all in one expansive panorama.
Guadalupe Peak at 8,751 ft. in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
7. Some National Parks Aren't Run by the National Park Service
While watching the overview video at El Malpais National Monument, the opening shot was of a magnificent mountain that rises out of an arid desert with jagged peaks straight out of a Star Wars movie.
Scurrying back to the information desk to ask where in El Malpais this was, I learned that not only was it NOT in the Monument, it wasn't even on NPS land.
Rather, the iconic Shiprock is on Navajo Nation land and is closed to visitors.
However, there is one part of Navajo Nation they are very happy to have tourists visit:
4 Corners National Monument
Yes, that mystical place of Breaking Bad series and Vacation movie fame, where four U.S. states (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) all meet at one perfectly 90-degree angle square.
Though near nothing else, and of “once you go, you’ll never need to go back” recommendation from a friendly Mesa Verde Ranger, I made my pilgrimage to this culturally sacred land.
And after 10 minutes and $5, I never needed to go back.
Yes the parking lot is non-existent, yes it’s a giant tourist trap selling Native American trinkets, and yes it’s $5 you’ll never get back.
But sometimes isn’t travel just about sitting down and flashing a cheesy smile?
Seen here from the magnifiying scope at the highest point of Mesa Verde NP, is Shiprock.
Upcoming Units (Comment with recommendations. What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Western Colorado through Southern Idaho and Utah
-Mesa Verde National Park
-Yucca House National Monument
-Natural Bridges National Monument
-Hovenweep National Monument
-Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
-Curecanti National Recreation Area
-Colorado National Monument
-Dinosaur National Monument
-Fossill Butte National Monument
-Golden Spike National Historic Site
-Hagerman Fossill Beds National Monument
-Minidoka National Historic Site
-Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
-City of Rocks National Reserve
-Timpanogos Cave National Monument
-Arches National Park
-Canyonlands National Park
-Capitol Reef National Park
-Bryce Canyon National Park
-Cedar Breaks National Monument
-Zion National Park
-Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
-Rainbow Bridge National Monument
See them all on my MAP
The journey thus far: