A Swing Through the American Southwest: National Parks and National Monuments in TX, NM and AZ, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in July 2008
Deer at Chiricahua National Monument entrance at dusk, 25-second video clip

In September 2007 my fiance Barbara and I enjoyed a five-day fly/drive holiday in western Texas, southern New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona that was unbeatable for its variety.  Spending just three full days and two half-days in a rental car on a circular itinerary through the American Southwest, we were able to take in a unique cluster of four U. S. national parks and three national monuments! 

Arriving at El Paso Airport at midday, we first headed southeast to Texas’s Big Bend National Park.  Later we overnighted at the freeway crossroads of Alpine, Texas to the north. 

On our second day we visited both Guadalupe Mountains National Park, one of America's best-kept secrets lying on the Texas/New Mexico border, and the widely-acclaimed Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southeastern New Mexico.  We slept nearby in the town of Carlsbad. 

On day three we first drove north to see the world-renowned International UFO Museum and Research Center at Roswell.  Then we turned southwest to reach White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo in south central New Mexico.  After leaving the national monument, we took in the nearby White Sands Missile Range Museum with its impressive indoor and outdoor displays of more than 50 rockets and missiles before continuing west into southeast Arizona.  There we toured Arizona's practically-unknown Chiricahua National Monument hurriedly at dusk before driving all the way to Tucson to overnight.

Early on our fourth day we toured Saguaro National Park, a portion of which is located in a Tucson suburb.  Then we returned to New Mexico to visit Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.  Our final night was spent in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

After exploring Las Cruces on the morning of our fifth day, we drove south into Texas to catch our flight at El Paso Airport.

Big Bend National Park

Established in 1944, Big Bend National Park is situated in southwestern Texas.  Its southern boundary runs for 190 km (118 miles) along the Rio Grande, which forms the international border between the U. S. and Mexico.  The park, significant because it contains the largest protected area of Chihuahuan desert in the U. S., takes its name from the sweeping turn of the Rio Grande from a southerly to a northerly course. Although at 3,242 square km (1,252 square miles) Big Bend is one of the largest of the U. S. national parks, it is also one of the most remote and therefore least visited.  Fewer than 350,000 visitors enter Big Bend annually.  (By comparison, Great Smoky Mountains National Park which spans the border between North Carolina and Tennessee attracts at least nine million visitors every year.)  Hiking, river rafting, backpacking and camping are some of Big Bend's major attractions.  Because elevations in the park vary from 564 meters to 2,388 meters (1,850 feet to 7,835 feet), the warmer lowlying desert is popular in the winter while the mountains offer a summer alpine retreat.  This wide variation in altitude and habitats allows Big Bend to play host to 67 species of mammals and over 450 species of birds.  But the park is also interesting from a cultural perspective.  Artifacts dating back 9,000 years have been discovered there while the Spanish arrived in the area about 1535 A. D.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Covering 350 square km (135 square miles) along Texas's northern border with New Mexico, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which entered the national park system in 1972, is said to contain the world's most significant and extensive fossil reef.  250 million years ago a huge tropical ocean covered this region.  It was the buildup of lime-secreting marine organisms that helped form this long reef which ran parallel to the shoreline for some 644 km (400 miles).  After the ocean evaporated, the reef was buried for millions of years until finally being uplifted and exposed.  Guadalupe Peak, at 2,667 meters (9,749 feet), is the highest mountain in Texas.  The rugged terrain of Guadalupe Mountains contains not only desert plants but also higher-altitude forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.  In late October and early November the park's walnut, canyon maple and oak trees are ablaze with color.  This same mountain range continues through Carlsbad Caverns National Park, located 129 km (80 miles) north across the state border in New Mexico. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Occupying 189 square km (73 square miles) in southeastern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, established in 1930, is only a part of a system of some 300 caves which lie beneath the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains.  Carlsbad Caverns’ 113 caves are noted both for their immense size and for the variety of their formations.  While it is difficult to appreciate how it could take a century for a stalagmite to grow only a tiny fraction of an inch, it is easy to enjoy the beautiful end product.  The formation of these caves began some 60 million years ago when water seeped into cracks in a limestone reef, creating caverns.  Then three million years ago the water drained away and the stalagmites and stalagtites which give the caves their beauty today began to form from ground water seepage.  Visitors have the option of descending into Carlsbad Caverns via a path or in an elevator.  There are many rooms with imaginative names and even an underground cafeteria!  The Hall of the Giants, the largest room, has a floor space of 33,210 square meters (357,469 square feet).  New caves and new passages are continually being discovered, some as recently as the 1990s.  Between May and September visitors can view a spectacular show as thousands of bats exit the caves daily at dusk to go spend the night foraging for food.  Sixteen species of bats live in the park.

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument, established in 1933 and situated in the landlocked Tularosa Basin 24 km (15 miles) west of Alamogordo, New Mexico, occupies the southern third of a 710 square km (275 square mile) field of white gypsum sand dunes.  After the last ice age the lake which formerly covered the Tularosa Basin evaporated, leaving behind large surface deposits of crystalline gypsum called selenite.  Erosion caused these crystals to break down into tiny grains which the wind has blown into dunes.  Interestingly, unlike sand created from quartz crystals, these gypsum dunes do not absorb heat from the sun; so visitors can walk on them without burning their feet.  A 12 km (8 mile)-long paved road leads into the dunes from the visitor center, and hiking trails also exist.

Chiricahua National Monument

Seldom-visited and remote Chiricahua National Monument, only 49 square km (19 square miles) in area, lies in the extreme southeast of Arizona, some 64 km (40 miles) from the town of Willcox.  This monument contains a section of the Chiricahua Mountains where volcanic rocks have eroded into pinnacles.  Chiricahua's formations are similar to those at Utah's much more famous Bryce Canyon National Park.  However, Chiricahua’s mostly-gray rocks lack the extreme pinkish hues of the latter.  There is a winding 13 km (8 mile) scenic drive through Bonita Canyon which ascends to Massai Point at an altitude of 2,094 meters (6,870 feet).  Hiking trails branch off from there.  Although casual visitors to Chiricahua are unlikely to come into contact with them, this mountain island with its relatively high altitude is home to mountain lions, javelinas and ocelots as well as to some species of birds and plants which are native to Mexico but which are not found elsewhere in the U. S.  Interestingly, the Chiricahua Mountains provided a sanctuary for the Apaches under Cochise and Geronimo in the 1860s and 1970s.

Saguaro National Park

Formed in 1933 as a national monument and then expanded in 1961, 370 square km (143 square mile) Saguaro National Park was finally established in 1994.  Situated both west and east of Tucson, Arizona, Saguaro is divided into two different sections roughly 64 km (40 miles) apart.  Although named for the saguaro cactus which is native to Arizona, in fact many other types of cactus are also found in the park.  Saguaro, which preserves sections of the Sonoran Desert, contains 264 km (165 miles) of hiking trails.  Because of the strong association of the giant saguaro cactus with the American West, one could be forgiven for being surprised to learn that this beautiful plant is actually only found in a small section of the U. S.  Lying perilously close to Tucson's ever-expanding doorstep where the annual rainfall is only about 30 cm (12 inches), Saguaro contains extensive forests of these giant sub-tropical cacti which can grow to up to 15 meters (50 feet) high.  While the park's visitor traffic peaks in March, the saguaro cactus flowers during the nighttime from April until June.  On each plant a flower opens in the evening and then wilts by the following afternoon.  This process is repeated for about a month.  During that period the plants are pollinated by bats, doves, bees and moths.  In June and July the fruit ripens.  The pulp, containing up to two thousand seeds, is eaten by coyotes, foxes, javelinas, squirrels, ants and birds alike.  The root system of the saguaro, lying only some 8 cm (3 inches) underground, allows the plant to absorb up to 757 liters (200 gallons) of water from a single rainfall.  This is enough to sustain the saguaro for an entire year!  

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Remote and tiny Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, only 2.16 square km (0.83 square mile), is located near Silver City in southwestern New Mexico.  This area was set aside as a national monument in 1907 to preserve the remains of the people of the Mongollon culture who inhabited cliff dwellings there from the late thirteenth century until the early fourteenth century.  It is thought that the area has probably changed very little over the past 700 years.  Luckily the wild character of the region will continue to be sustained as this national monument is surrounded by a national forest.  A small museum and visitor center operate in the national monument.  Gila Cliff Dwellings is unique in being the only place in the entire U. S. national park system where visitors are allowed to enter ancient cliff dwellings!

Due to time restraints on this trip, Barbara and I were forced to limit our visit on the ground in the American Southwest to only 96 hours.  Even so, we still managed to include a cluster of seven very different national parks and monuments in our circular itinerary based out of El Paso.  Those with more time at their disposal should consider undertaking this itinerary over the course of a week or longer.  Visitors cannot fail to be impressed by the wide variety in ecology, geology, human history, and sheer beauty found in these seven superb natural wonders.


ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 307 of the 317 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com

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