Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Overview

Designated as a National Park on May 14, 1930, Carlsbad Caverns National Park was established to preserve Carlsbad Cavern and more than 100 caves within the Permian-age fossil reef. This park houses a limestone chamber called the Big Room, which is almost 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide and 255 feet high, and is considered the fifth largest cave chamber in North America.

Accessibility

Carlsbad Cavern is easily accessible for all ages, and even those on wheel chairs in the major caves. The 700+ feet elevator from the visitor center to Carlsbad Cavern makes visiting the cave easier for those that need additional help.

Park Highlights

2018_Carlsbad-28.jpg

Big Room Trail – This is largest cave chamber by volume in North America with 1.25 mile of flat trail with parts that are wheelchair accessible. The Big Room (size of 6 football fields) can be accessed via the National Entrance route (1.25 mile trail) and elevator directly from the Visitor Center. Most of the cave is well lit and there’s even a cafeteria if you need a snack and drink underground. This is the only cave we’ve seen with food sold! This was Harvey’s first big cave experience and he absolutely loved it. He enjoyed learning about the soda straws, popcorns, stalagmites, and different tiny creatures and bats that live in Carlsbad Caverns.

Rattlesnake Canyon Trail – This is a 9 mile scenic drive or hike that showcase the beautiful surrounding landscape and plants that live on the surface of the cave. We drove this trail and learn as much as we can with the self-guided brochure that is available in the visitor center.

Natural Entrance Trail – This is a 1.25 mile steep trail that takes you down to Carlsbad Caverns. We weren’t able to do this trail because Harvey was not ready for the dark cave trail. But, if you come at the natural entrance at dusk in the summer time, you can see thousands of bats fly out!! Isn’t that so cool?

2018_Carlsbad-30.jpg

Lodging

We stayed at an RV park in White City, NM, right outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The RV park is very basic and on the high-end for what you get. White City is a small town with limited lodging and food options, so please plan ahead if want to visit this park. If you need more lodging, food and other amenities, the next largest city is Carlsbad, which is 23 miles from the park. As a side note, because of the oil boom that is happening in the area, hotels in Carlsbad is very expensive, so please do not be shocked if you see a Super 8 going for $200/night.

Closest Cities to the Park: 

If you’re flying in to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the closest city to fly into is Carlsbad, which is 23 miles from the park. If you need to fly into a larger city, El Paso, TX, is a little more than 2 hours drive from the park.

Recommended Length Stay: At least 2-3 days to explores caves and trails outside Carlsbad Caverns.

Would we be back?  Definitely yes when we’re in the area, this is our favorite cave!

Additional Notes:

  • There’s no lodging in Carlsbad National Park, only backcountry camping.

  • Pets are not allowed in the cavern but there is a kernel at the visitor center.

  • For your safety please wear low-heeled and non-skid shoes because the caves can be steep and slippery. Bring a jacket or sweater to keep warm because the cave is at a constant 56° F.

  • Stay on trails to prevent falling into steep drop-offs. Bring a flashlight because there are unlighted passages that you can get lost in. Lastly, use handrails when available.

  • You can bring a tri-pod if you do a self-guided tour. If you attend a tour, tri-pods are not allowed as it slows down the group.

For more photos, click here.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Park Overview

With over 400 miles of cave and growing, Mammoth Cave National Park is the longest cave system in the world; covering over 52,000 acres. Mammoth cave is layered with thick Mississippian-aged limestone that’s has layers of sandstone to make this cave system extremely stable. Mammoth Cave National Park was established in 1941 to preserve the cave system. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1981 and became the core area of an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990.

Park Accessibility

Overall, this park is easily accessible by road and many cave tours are available nearly every hour year-round (except Christmas Day). All cave tours begin and end at the Visitor Center can range from easy to difficult with tour length from one to six hours. Cave trails are lit with electric lights but some tours are pitched dark and you’ll have to carry a lantern. If you’re comfortable with dark and small spaces, you’re here for a treat! If your’e not, then this place could be challenging because the pathways are really narrow and rugged.

2018_MammothCave-119.jpg

Natural Entrance

Park Highlights

There are 17 tours but we only did 3 of the tours of the tours that fit our schedule.

Mammoth Passage Tour – This is an easy 1.25 hours cave tour that covers ¾ mile. The tour takes you through the Rotunda and a large canyon passageway to view the dripstone formations. Overall, it was the perfect short tour to give you a quick introduction to Mammoth Cave’s history. If you’re visiting the park during peak seasons, please plan in advance and book your tours here .

Historic Tour – This is a moderate 2 hours cave tour that explores 2 miles of cave system. This tour enters the cave system via a natural entrance, so please come early or plan to stay later after the tour to enjoy and experience the beauty of this natural entrance. You’re experience the Bottomless Pit and squeeze through Fat Man's Misery which is a really narrow pathway to get through.

Domes and Dripstones Tour – In this tour, you’ll ride a 10 minute bus ride to get to sink-hole/man-made entrance that takes you through a ¾ mile cave system. The tour begins with a descend of approximately 280 stairs then takes you through various sizes of domes and pits, and ends with a short walk through a variety of dripstone formations. If Mammoth is your first cave visit, this tour is a must as it showcase very unique decorative dripstone formations that must be experienced.

2018_MammothCave-90.jpg
2018_MammothCave-3.jpg
2018_MammothCave-192.jpg

Lodging

Camping: There are campgrounds in the Mammoth Cave National Park and you can find more information here. Unfortunately, the park’s campgrounds near the visitor center were closed during our visit so we stayed at an RV park right outside the park. The closest city to the park’s main entrance with hotel and motel options is Park City. We stayed at the Diamond Caverns RV Resort & Golf and it was an ok place to stay. We would not stay there again due to lack of wifi on site and limited facilities in the winter. It was also a little pricy for what you get.

Lodging: The other lodging in the park can be booked here.

Closest Cities to the Park: 

The easiest city to fly into and visit Mammoth Cave National Park is Nashville, TN or Louisville, TN which is about 2 hours from the park.

Recommended Length Stay: 2-3 days visit would be adequate to explore the park and complete several cave tours.

Would we be back?  Yes if we’re driving through Nashville, TN.

Additional Notes:

  • Free entrance to the park but you will have to pay for the tours.

  • Tri-pods are not allowed on the tours so increase your ISO!

  • Tours are great for kids but it is a little dark on some places so prep your kids.

For more pictures, click here.

Hot Springs National Park

Park Overview

Created by the United States Congress in 1832, before the national park, Hot Springs National Park is to be preserved for recreation. The hot springs flow from the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain, and the park manages the conservation of the production of uncontaminated hot water for public use.

Park Accessibility

Hot Springs National Park is located downtown of Hot Springs, Arkansas (home of Bill Clinton). There are paved roads to drive through the park and to trailheads for hiking. Overall, the park is easily accessible by vehicle and small enough that you can visit and explore within a day or two. There are no public bathhouse or hot springs for the public to use. There are currently 2 operating bathhouses on bathhouse row. Buckstaff (traditional bathhouse) and Quapaw bathhouse (non-traditional bathhouse). Kids are not allowed in the bathhouses so this is not a place for kids if you want to experience the bathhouses. We traded turns going to them so that is how we were able to enjoy it. Something to do think about before heading here.

It is open all year long except for Christmas, January 1, Easter Sunday, 4th of July, and Thanksgiving.

Our Park Highlights

2018_Hotsprings-72.jpg

Buckstaff Bathhouse – Buckstaff is one of the preserved bathhouses on the main strip of bathhouses in downtown Hot Springs. Buckstaff provides the traditional bathhouse experience and is a must visit if you’re curious about the traditional bathhouse process and equipment. You can find more information about Buckstaff bathhouse and theire services here.

2018_Hotsprings-48.jpg

Visitor Center

is also a museum to a real bathhouse where you can experience this!

Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center (Open daily 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.) – The visitor center is a historic building that serves as a museum. We went in the winter time and there wasn’t that many visitors at the museum. We went in and we were alone and it was a little spooky walking through this old bathhouse. A very cool (pun) eerie place to walk around by yourself. Harvey was a little freaked out so we left and daddy was there by himself taking photos. He, too got a little freaked out and left and did not finish the museum. Boo!

Lodging

Hot Springs National Park has a campground that accommodates both tent camping and RVs. If you need other accommodations, there are plenty of hotels that are within walking distant to the park’s visitor center and historic bathhouses in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas. We heard the old hotels are haunted so stay there and tell us if it’s really haunted!

Closest Cities to the Park: 

The closest and easiest city fly into and visit Hot Springs National Park is Little Rock, Arkansas, which is 53 miles from Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Recommended Length Stay: 1-2 days visit would be adequate to explore the park and bathhouses. If you are there in the high season (summer and spring time), make sure to make reservations ahead of time at the bathhouses.

Would we be back?  Yes if we’re driving through Hot Springs, Arkansas.

For more pictures, click here.

Big Bend National Park

Park Overview

Established in 1935, Big Bend National Park preserves the largest tracts of Chihuanhuan Desert topography and ecology in the United States. With about 801,163 acres of land, the park protects more than 1,200 species of plants, 450 species of birds and 56 species of reptiles, and 75 species of mammals. A unique geological feature of the park is that it has large sea fossils, dinosaur bones, and volcanic dikes.

Park Accessibility

Located in West Texas, bordering Mexico, Big Bend National Park is one of the more remote parks to visit. The majority of the park requires a vehicle, sometimes a 4x4, to reach but most roads are paved. Overall the park has plenty of easy to drive to beautiful viewpoints if you don’t have the time and/or energy to hike. However, if you do have the desire to experience the raw side of the park, Big Bend will likely be your hiker’s paradise. With over 150 miles of hiking trails and elevations ranging from 1,800 ft to 7,800 ft. Big Bend National Park will surely make you want to extend your stay at the park, it surely did for us. This park is for all ages and definitely a place to take kids. Harvey loved it. The park is open year around but peak season is during the winter time due to extremely hot weather in the summer. Many of the visitor centers and facilities are closed during the summer so something to note. And if you are brave enough to come here, please bring lots of drinking water.

Park Highlights

2018_BigBend-305.jpg

Balance Rock

Grapevine Hills Trail (Balance Rock Trail) – This is a 2.2 miles round trip trail that leads you to the balanced rocks. The trail is mostly flat in the beginning then climbs steeply the last quarter mile into the boulders. Harvey loved this trail, especially towards the end because of the fun rounded boulders that you can climb on. Additionally, lots of desert animals may come out to say “hi”. We saw lizards, quails and heard that someone saw a tarantula. The drive to the trail head is gravel with a few rocky dips that should be driven with care to prevent damaging your vehicle or getting stuck. This is a must hike at Big Bend!

Santa Elena Canyon Trail – This is a 1.7 miles round trip trail that is a must visit at Big Bend National Park. This trail takes you into the breathtaking1,500 feet high walls of Santa Elena Canyon. Hiking into the canyon will quickly make you feel how small we are, and how grand mother-nature’s landscape is. Harvey loved this hike because of the muddy river you cross to get into the canyon. Additionally, there were many bugs crawling around in the parking lot like the stick bug. As a side note - If you’re visiting the park without a child or with a older children, kayaking through the Santa Elena Canyon is an absolute must. There are kayaking tours that you can signup for or you can bring your own kayaks and bicycles to complete your trip!

2018_BigBend-252.jpg

Santa Elena

Lodging/Camping

2018_BigBend-39.jpg

Chisos Basin Campsite

We camped in Chisos Basin Campground and couldn’t have been happier because of the beautiful Chisos peaks that surround this campground. Not only is this campground spectacular during the day, but the remoteness of the park allows you to easily gaze at the milkyway and major stars at night. Winter is peak season for the park, and there are a total of 60 sites with 26 sites that can be reserved online so please plan in advance or come early in the day if you will be visiting during peak season. There are other campgrounds inside the park and you can find more information about them here. If camping is not your thing, the park also offers other lodging options and you can find more info about them here.

Closest Cities to the Park: 

The closest flying city to visit Big Bend National Park is San Antonio, TX. You will have to drive about 6 hours to get to the park but it is SO worth it!

Recommended Length Stay: At least 3-5 days to see key highlights of the park. Would we be back?  Definitely yes when we’re back in San Antonio, Texas.

2018_BigBend_a-7.jpg

Additional Notes: If you have never been to an observatory, McDonald Observatory is a 4 hours drive from the park and tickets to the Star Party can be purchased online here. We visited McDonald Observatory and it was really a great experience to see the galaxies, nebulas, and other stars far far away from telescopes. Harvey really like using the telescopes and seeing the stars! We also snapped some photos of the Milky Way while we were there and it was pretty amazing!

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Overview

100 miles east of El Paso and 40 miles southwest of Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. This less heard of park is the world's most extensive Permian fossil reef and home to Texas’ four highest peaks.  If you’re an energetic hiker who wants to explore vast wilderness, this park should be on your list of place to visit. 

 

Accessibility

The majority of the park is wilderness and therefore requires lots of hiking to see and experience the views and animals that live in the park. The visitor center and only drivable campground is in Pine Springs, which 100 miles east drive from El Paso our 60 miles drive from Carlsbad.  If you have time and want to experience the raw side of the park, you can drive 2.5 hours to the north entrance via Dog Canyon.  

 

Park Highlights

2018_Guadalupe-23.jpg

Smith Spring Trail – This is bird watcher’s paradise trail that is 2.3 miles round-trip.  Although we didn’t see any mule deer or elk on our hike, we were able to sneak up on a several wild boars feeding near the creek.  As we were finishing our hike later in the day, we could hear more animal noises in the bushes and trees.  

Devil’s Hall Trail – This is a 4.2 miles round-trip hike leads you to the Hiker’s Staircase (a natural rock stairway) and ends at a narrow canyon called Devil’s Hall. The trail is moderate with minimal elevation change.  We ran out of time and was not able to finish the trail.

Guadalupe Peak Trail - You can climb to Texas’ highest point (8,751 feet, or 2,667 meters). The trail is very steep and some areas are exposed to cliff edges. The park rates as strenuous, with 3,000 feet of elevation gain. The round trip distance is 8.4 miles, and generally takes 6-8 hours. Avoid the peak hike during high winds and thunderstorms.

2018_Guadalupe-156.jpg

If you have more time, we would highly recommend that you drive 1.75 hours from Pine Springs to the Salt Basin Dunes and explore the wilderness of Guadalupe Mountains via the north entrance.  Be prepare to bring extra water and fuel the Pine Springs has limited facilities.  The closest gas station from Pine Springs is in White’s City, which is roughly 35 miles east of the campground. 

Lodging

We stayed at Pine Springs campground because of its ease of access.  The campground is a parking lot and access to majority of the hikes in the park. This is a walk-up campground with minimal facilities so the daily rate is $8/night. 

Closest Cities to the Park: 

The closest city to Guadalupe Mountains National Park is Carlsbad, but flying into El Paso is the easiest and probably the cheapest option.

Recommended Length Stay:  At least 2-3 days to hike and explore the park.  If you’re hungry for raw wilderness, 3-5 days should allow you to explore the backcountry and camp in several remote campsites deep inside the park.

Would we be back?  Yes if we’re driving east from El Paso.

For more photos, click here.

 



Saguaro National Park

Overview

Home to the giant saguaro cactus, Saguaro National Park houses more than 1,160 plant species. Located in southern Arizona, the park covers over 142 mi² and provides a safe haven for many wildlife. 

Accessibility

The park is relatively accessible by car from both west and east entrance.  In the western Tucson Mountain District, Signal Hill Trail leads to petroglyphs of the ancient Hohokam people.  The visitor center is located near this entrance. In the eastern Rincon Mountain District, Cactus Forest Drive is a loop road with striking views of the desert landscape.

Park Highlights

2018_Saguaro-25.jpg

Bajada Loop Drive – This is a 5-mile drive that includes the Hohokam Road and par of the Golden Gate Road. This dirt road offers an amazing sunset view of the park with the highest concentration of saguaro cactus plants.  If your lucky on the right day and at the right time, you will able to see the saguaro cactus golden glows.  We were very lucky on our first day to the park and was able to see the amazing golden glow.

Cactus Garden Trail – Behind the Red Hills Visitor Center lies the most concentrated grouping of saguaro cactus.  This roughly 1-mile developed trail will take you around the back of the Visitor Center to see the countless wild saguaro plants that are native to the region.

2018_Saguaro-150.jpg

Valley View Trail – This is a 0.8 mile round trip developed trail that takes up a vista point to see the western peaks of the Tucson Mountain.  The trail has many detours that will take you to different areas of the Bajada Loop Drive so feel free to explore and get lost a little when you’re here.

Signal Hill – Towards the north end of the Bajada loop is a 0.3 mile round trip hike that takes you to see dozens of drawings etched into rock.  These have been dated from the Hohokan period, 450-1450 CE. 

Lodging

The park has limited backcountry camping that requires permit so please check with https://www.nps.gov/sagu/planyourvisit/camping.htm if you plan to camp.  There’s no camping accommodation for RV or trailer, so we had stayed at a nearby hotel.

Closest Cities to the Park: 

Right on the outskirt of the park is Tucson, and you can fly into Tucson International Airport (TUS) to visit the park.  

Recommended Length Stay:  At least 2-3 days to check out the different trails that the park has to offer.

Would we be back?  Maybe, if we’re in the area for business for a family event.

Fore photos, click here.

Petrified National Park

Overview

Established in 1906, Petrified Forest National Park is located in northeastern Arizona and covers 229 square miles.  The park is famous for its abundance of petrified forest, fossilized wood, and colorful landscape.

Accessibility

The park can be driven by car to most major vista points with many short developed trails.  Via the south entrance is the Rainbow Forest known for its colorful petrified wood, and houses a museum with paleontology exhibits.  In the center of the park are petroglyphs of Newspaper Rock and ruined village of the Puerco Peublo tribe.  Via the north entrance is the Painted Desert Inn that was built in 1930s and is now a museum with murals from the Hopi tribe.

The park’s operating hours are from 9am to 5pm so please plan accordingly. Additionally, the park only offers tent camping that requires a 1 mile hike as well as a permit, so please check with the https://www.nps.gov/pefo/planyourvisit/index.htm.  The closes city to the park with lodging is Holbrook and there are many options for lodging at low rates.

Park Highlights

Blue Mesa

Blue Mesa

Blue Mesa – This is a 0.9 mile loop trail near the middle of the park that offers a unique experience of hiking among badland hills of bluish bentonite clay as well as petrified wood. This trail tops our list of places to stop at Petrified Forest because of its easy hike and spectacular vibrant hills.  It is a must stop if you only have half a day at the park.

Teepee Point

Teepee Point

Tepees Point – We drove through Tepees vista point at the perfect time during sun-setting, and this lighting brought out the amazing colors of the badland hills. If you’re lucky during your drive through the park, make sure you time it correctly to get the perfect lighting on the hills at Tepees. 

Jasper Forest – Jasper Forest is one of the largest deposits of petrified wood in the park. We did not complete the 2.5 miles hike into the Jasper Forest, but instead hung out at the overlook and enjoyed our lunch. From above, this vista point provides an amazing view of the beautiful landscape that Petrified Forest offers.  If you have the time, we would recommend exploring this trail.

Painted Desert Overlook – This is a 3 miles drive from the north entrance with many vista points that highlight the colorful desert sands.  This is a good place to be if you’re looking to catch a stunning sunrise or sunset on a clear day.  

We also stopped at the following locations while driving through the park: Newspaper Rock to see the petroglyphs; Agate Bridge to see the 110 feet long petrified bridge; and the Rain Forest Museum to see the dinosaurs fossils and learn more about the park.

2018_Petrified-99.jpg

Lodging

The closest city to the park with lodging is Holbrook, which is 25 miles west of the park. There are RV parks and plenty of inns and motels to choose from.

Closest Cities to the Park: 

The closest major cities to fly into to visit Petrified Forest National Park are Albuquerque, NM, and Phoenix, AR. 

Recommended Length Stay: 2-4 days

Would we be back?  Maybe, if we find ourselves driving near the park.

For more photos, please click here.

Grand Canyon National Park

Overview

Often considered as one of the Wonders of the World, Grand Canyon National Park covers 1.2 million acres of land and is the second highest visited national parks. Designated as a national park in 1919, the Grand Canyon became a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. The Grand Canyon is world famous for its enormous colorful layered of rocks that exposes millions of years of geological history. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the park and said: “The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled through-out the wide world.”

Accessibility

2018_GrandCanyon-16.jpg

South Rim Drive

Grand Canyon is primarily accessible via the South and North Rims with the majority of the park classified as backcountry. With some 30 miles of the South Rim being accessible by road and is slightly more than 4 hours east of Las Vegas, the South Rim accounts for 90% of park visitors each year. Additionally, due to elevation and supporting facilities, the South Rim is open year round while the North Rim is often close during the peak winter season.

Park Highlights

2018_GrandCanyon-149.jpg

Bright Angel Trail

Bright Angel Trail – This is a 10 miles one way trail that descends over 4,300 feet of elevation at an average grade of 10%. This switch back trail ends at the Phantom Ranch and will take you to the Bright Angel Campground. Camping at Bright Angel and Indian Garden campgrounds requires a permit issued by the Grand Canyon National Park Backcountry Information Center.

Please plan very far in advance if you would like to camp overnight at any of these campgrounds. We had limited time and a toddler on this trip so we did a 3 miles round-trip on the Bright Angel trail. Although the trail was packed, the view down and up the canyon was amazing. We will definitely be back to hike and camp at the bottom of the canyon in the future.

Great View Points: While at the park, we spent sometime at the Mather Point, Yavapai Observation Station and Lipan Point viewpoints to catch both sunset and sunrise. These viewpoints are very easily accessible and gave us an amazing front-row seat of the magnificent Grand Canyon.

Lodging

2018_GrandCanyon-17.jpg

Campgrounds – There are a lot of campgrounds at Grand Canyon. We stayed at Mather campground. Although it was November, the campground was still packed with RVs and camper trailers during our visit. From a reasonable size grocery store to a handful of restaurants and hotel options inside the park, Mather Campground will make you feel like you’re in a small town rather than a remote national park.

Hotel Lodging can be found here.

Closest Cities to the Park: The closest big city to fly into to visit Grand Canyon via the South Rim is Las Vegas.

Recommended Length Stay: At least 3-5 days to hike and explore some of the famous areas of the park. For those who can commit and plan very far in advance, a 5-7 days camping trip in the canyon could be an exciting and memorable adventure.

Would we be back?  Definitely yes when Harvey is older and can carry his own gears for an unforgettable camping trip.

For more pictures, click here.