Tag Archives: desert

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Overview

Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico is the most spectacular cave in the United States (and #1 on our Top 10 List).  Exploring the Big Room at your own pace is a great option, but you can add to your experience with guided tours of off-limits sections.  The King’s Palace Tour is short but scenic; and Left Hand Tunnel was historically used for movies.  Lower Cave Tour requires the use of ropes and ladders to access unlit portions of the cave.  Slaughter Canyon Cave tour requires an extra hour drive, but visits some astonishing formations.  “Wild caving” tours include Spider Cave and the Hall of the White Giant. 

Highlights

Big Room, Walnut Canyon Desert Drive, Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area, Bat Flight Program

Must-Do Activity

To enjoy the evening Bat Flight Program (where cameras are prohibited) you must come during the warmer months.  Brazilian free-tailed bats migrate to the cave from the south and around sunset exit from the Natural Entrance in clockwise circling swarms.  You will swear there are like a “Brazilian” of them, but the actual number is closer to 500,000.  For an experience you will hear more than see, come back before sunrise as the bats zip by your head down into the cave for their day’s rest.

Best Trail

For your first visit, we recommend taking the self-guided trail from the Natural Entrance down a steep, paved passage into the heart of the cave, since you can always ride the elevators back up to the surface.  After being surrounded by the natural cave formations, it was a bit jarring to come upon a modern restroom and cafeteria 775 feet underground. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

Nothing can prepare you for the immensity of the Big Room, which is big enough to fit eight football fields with a ceiling that rises up to 255 feet.  It defies belief that this cavity could have formed naturally.  Perhaps the best part of this section of cave is that you can take as much time as you like admiring the formations.  For the best photographs, we recommend using a tripod.

Peak Season

Summer, though it can be hot outside the 56°F cave.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

No entrance fee, but there is a charge for each guided cave tour.

Road Conditions

Main entrance road is paved, but Walnut Canyon Desert Drive and much of the route to Slaughter Canyon Cave are not.

Camping

There are no campgrounds within the park, but there is a private campground near the park entrance in Whites City, New Mexico.  Just down the highway in Texas, the National Park Service offers camping at Pine Springs within Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  Free permits are required for backcountry camping, with Rattlesnake Canyon off Walnut Canyon Desert Drive being a popular destination.

This design we created to celebrate Carlsbad Caverns National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – Historically, what was mined from the Natural Entrance and Slaughter Canyon Cave?

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Castle Mountains National Monument

Overview

Designated in February 2016, this small monument borders Nevada and is surrounded by the much larger Mojave National Preserve on its other three sides.  Its highest point is Hart Peak (5,543 feet), named for James Hart who discovered gold here in 1907 and founded a boomtown that reached 1,500 residents. 

Highlights

Hart Peak (5,543 feet), Hart Mine ghost town, view of Castle Peaks

Must-Do Activity

This new National Monument is undeveloped with no trails, no visitor center, and little signage.  Drive or walk its network of dirt roads to get a feel for the Mojave Desert.

Best Trail

None

Instagram-worthy Photo

Joshua trees are always photogenic, especially when the jagged Castle Peaks are in the background (though they are outside the monument’s northern boundary within Mojave National Preserve).

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

There are visitor centers in the adjacent Mojave National Preserve that have hours posted here:

https://www.nps.gov/moja/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Walking Box Ranch Road is a groomed dirt road passable to any vehicle from Highway 164 west of Searchlight, Nevada.  Access roads from Mojave National Preserve require high-clearance.

Camping

Dispersed camping is allowed within the monument.  Hole-in-the-Wall Campground within Mojave National Preserve is accessible by paved road from Interstate 40.

Explore More – Piute Spring is charged by the aquifer within Castle Mountains National Monument; when researchers tested it, how long ago did its water fall as precipitation?

Coronado National Memorial

Overview

There was no international border in 1540, but this valley in southern Arizona is where Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition crossed into the U.S.A.  His Spanish army marched north in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola, discovering multiple pueblos (including Pecos) and establishing a route for missionaries to follow. 

Highlights

Coronado Cave, Montezuma Pass, Coronado Peak

Must-Do Activity

The park does not actually contain a statue or large memorial to Coronado.  It does have a steep three-quarter mile trail to a 600-foot long limestone cave bearing his name, which visitors can explore on their own with flashlights.

Best Trail

From the parking area at Montezuma Pass it is half a mile to Coronado Peak.  This “sky island” at 6,864 feet in elevation offers excellent views north towards the Huachuca Mountains in the surrounding Coronado National Forest and south into Mexico.  From there, Joe’s Canyon Trail leads 3 miles down to the visitor center and works great with a car shuttle. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

The small but educational visitor center provides information on trails, the history of the Coronado expedition, wildlife, and the “I Hike for Health” program.  Plus, you can dress up in replica Spanish Conquistador armor, which is very heavy.

Peak Season

Winter

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/coro/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Paved to the visitor center and a good gravel road the final 2 miles up to Montezuma Pass.

Camping

Coronado National Forest surrounds the memorial’s 4,750 acres, offering both campgrounds and free dispersed camping.

Explore More – Disillusioned by not finding the Seven Cities of Cibola, in which present-day state did the Coronado expedition turn around in 1541?

Top 10 Sand Dunes in National Parks

Sand dunes are like giant sandboxes for big kids to play in and hike on, so we came up with a list of our favorites from across the National Park Service (NPS) System. Unlike most NPS backcountry trails, dogs are allowed on many of these dunes if they are leashed and picked up after.

10. Cape Lookout National Seashore (North Carolina)

9. Indiana Dunes National Park (Indiana)

8. Salt Basin Dunes at Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas)

7. Mesquite Flat Dunes at Death Valley National Park (California)

6. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Michigan)

5. Eureka Dunes at Death Valley National Park (California)

4. Kelso Dunes at Mojave National Preserve (California)

Sand sledding on the gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument

3. White Sands National Monument (New Mexico)

2. Panamint Dunes at Death Valley National Park (California)

…and finally our #1 sand dune in a National Park:

1. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (Colorado)

 

Honorable Mention

Padre Island National Seashore (Texas)

White Sands National Monument

Overview

You might know gypsum as the white powder inside drywall panels.  Gypsum readily dissolves in water, but here it forms sand dunes because no river drains the Tularosa Basin.  The white color of the dunes does make for extra intense albedo, so be sure to bring sunglasses and carry plenty of water.  Most of the wildlife here is nocturnal, but during the day you may spot a lizard species evolved to camouflage in the sand. 

Highlights

Scenic views, sledding, Interdune Boardwalk, wildlife

Must-Do Activity

Dunes composed of gypsum make a great destination for snow sledding year round, especially after a rainfall.  It is fun to see children wearing T-shirts and shorts sliding down the sparkling white slopes.

Best Trail

Follow markers on the five-mile round trip Alkali Flat Trail that goes up and down dunes with views of the San Andres Mountains.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The white dunes take on the colors of the sunset if you decide to backpack or take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

Peak Season

Spring and fall, since it can be very hot in the summer.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/whsa/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$5 per person or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Mostly paved and the packed dirt road is drivable by all vehicles.

Camping

Only backcountry camping is allowed in 10 designated sites for $3 per person, but that is dependent upon whether the military is conducting missile tests overnight so call ahead or check the schedule online.  Oliver Lee Memorial State Park offers a full service campground south of Alamogordo.

Explore More – What happens to the deep root system of a soaptree yucca when the dune it is growing on blows away?