For the last few years, Dad’s been on a quest to visit every national park in the US. Last spring break, he took Pips, Nana, Isla, and I on an epic road trip across the US Southwest from Arizona to Texas and up to Colorado. Because Isla had been a bit annoying when Dad was planning the trip, Dad told us that she wasn’t coming. We were all surprised when Dad asked her to get in the car.
We flew into Tucson, Arizona from Seattle, driving to Saguaro National Park. It was Isla’s first visit to the desert – it took her a few hours to ask “Wait – are we in the desert?” We were all amazed by the saguaros, the largest cactus on Earth. Saguaros grow incredibly slowly- it takes 65 years for one arm to grow. The biggest saguaros in the photo are probably as old as the city of Tucson. Sunsets in the mountains are spectacular!
The next day, we climbed the highest peak in the park (Wasson Peak), with a 360 degree view of Tucson. Isla and Pips were a bit tired but they loved the view. After this, we drove to White Sands in New Mexico: a rare example of gypsum sand dunes. These dunes are blindingly white (I wish I’d brought sunglasses), and the sand was surprisingly cold, despite roasting under the sun for the day.
After a LONG drive, we reached Big Bend National park in southern Texas. This is classic Western movie country, with rocky cliffs, craggy peaks, deep canyons, and of course cacti. We hiked the Lost Mine Trail to a viewpoint: we could see all the way to Mexico. For dinner, despite warnings, Dad ordered the biggest burger on the menu, thinking that it couldn’t be too big. It turned out to be the size of his head. Random strangers took bets on whether he could finish it. (He didn’t.) (Sorry about the lack of photographs – it would not have done the burger justice.)
The next morning, we rafted down the Rio Grande upstream of the park, having lunch in muddy Mexico. It was a different world in the canyon – cooler, wetter, and more turtles. After lunch, we hiked up to the Grapevine Hills area near the Lost mine trail, an otherworldy landscape of massive boulders. The balanced rock was surprisingly stable. At the restaurant, Dad ordered a salad.
After the drive back up to civilization, we visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park in northern Texas. This park contains the highest peak in Texas, which we had fun climbing. Lots of chocolate was eaten on the peak. After the hike, we had dinner at a fancy restaurant: the waiter saw Pips’ short hair, assumed she was a boy, and constantly called her “sir” and “buddy” despite her pink jacket and floral pants.
Millions of years ago underneath the Guadalupe Mountains, the rock was easily dissolved by chemicals within it. Over time, small cracks in the rock grew into the amazing Carlsbad Caverns, protected in Carlsbad Caverns National Park to the north of Guadalupe mountains. The photos don’t do it justice. The Big Room, the biggest room in Carlsbad Caverns (and North America) could fit something close to 14 football fields.
We drove to Albuquerque, in a different part of New Mexico. Nearby was Petroglyph National Monument, a lava flow where Native Americans carved over 2000 images into the black rocks. Nobody knows what they meant.
After leaving Albuquerque, we stopped at El Malpais NM, where we explored lava tubes (created when the top of a lava flow cools but the molten lava. We also visited El Morro NM: a rare watering hole in the desert. For aeons, thirsty travelers stopping at the pool carved their names on the wall. Native American petroglyphs are immortalized next to Spanish carvings (from 1605) and Americans (from the 1840s).
Petrified Forest National Park was a geologic gem: when the first dinosaurs, no bigger than chickens, were roaming the swamps of Arizona in packs, streams buried trees. Over time, they became fossilized, buried under layers of rock, and finally exposed in the desert covering the ancient swamp. The colors are caused by minerals seeping into the fossilizing wood
Also, there were several acres of badlands: very soft rock eroded into wavy shapes.
Our next stop was Canyon de Chelly in northern Arizona, a traditional sacred site for the Navajo people. The Navajo have lived in this canyon from time immemorial, and their dwellings can still be found in the canyon. Access into the canyon (with the exception of one trail) requires a Navajo guide. Our guide took us on horseback: Pips loved it.
To the north, Monument Valley and the Valley of Gods were surreal. Many Western movies (for example most of John Wayne’s films) were filmed here. Natural Bridges National Monument protects three of the world’s most striking natural bridges: Isla had fun rock-climbing.
Mesa Verde in Colorado protects some of the best-preserved Native American ruins. The most famous ruins are the cliff dwellings, built around the 1200s into the sides of cliffs. On the mesa top, older structures (built from the 600s to the 1100s) were also preserved: some of the oldest and most vulnerable were covered by roofs and walls.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison may be the most spectacular canyon I’ve ever seen. Carved out of hard black rock by the Gunnison River, the canyon is deeper than it is wide in some places. Snow, a welcome relief after the desert, prevented us from venturing into the canyon.
All through this trip, the girls collected Junior Ranger badges from various national parks. One of their last was Curecanti National Recreation Area, upstream from the Black Canyon. In order to get a badge, the girls had to complete a series of questions in a booklet, to show they understood the main features of the park, and then swear an oath to help to preserve it. Not hard to do: these lands are worth preserving.
After a quick stop at a hot spring, we visited the Great Sand Dunes, the tallest dunes in North America. Dad and I climbed one of the highest dunes (650ft) while Nana and the girls sledded. These dunes were cold for a different reason than White Sands: it started snowing while we were on the dunes. We hastily retreated to the safety of the visitor center.
We ended our trip with a visit to our cousins in Boulder. They didn’t know we were coming (although Aunt Suzanne had been tipped off by dad). It was neat surprising them and we had a lot of fun together. Dad took us all to lunch at a brew pub called Avery Brewing: cousin Julian misheard Dad as we were leaving, and thought we were going to Gateway (a mini golf place/arcade). All through the car ride, he kept talking about how awesome Gateway was and how he would beat his high score. He was crushed when we walked into a brew pub.
After two days in Boulder, it was time to head home. It was an amazing holiday: I got to visit places like Mesa Verde and Carlsbad Caverns that I’ve always dreamed of visiting, as well as discovering places I’d never heard of but were truly amazing, such as the Black Canyon and White Sands. I had lots of fun and learnt a lot.