A Whirlwind Tour of 4 National Parks (Emphasis on Wind) and a Real race

When we began carving out a schedule for our week in New Mexico and Arizona, visiting a number of national parks and other areas of interest was a priority. Mike had visited Carlsbad Caverns when he did a cross country trip in college and he was keen to revisit that park. White Sands and Petrified Forest National Parks were on our short list as well. Inspired by tales of adventures recounted by Matt and Karen Smith on the Dear Bob and Sue podcast, I convinced Mike to add a tour of Canyon X or Antelope Canyon. And we planned to cap off our week with a return visit to the Grand Canyon, which we had last visited decades ago.

So after our time in Santa Fe, we were ready to hit the road and start exploring. Our first destination was Carlsbad Caverns, which is more than a four hour drive south. Luckily, Roswell, NM, the home of a 1947 incident that some believe involved the crash of a UFO and the presence of aliens, made for an interesting midway diversion.

The conspiracy theories abound about what really happened. But by the time we left the International UFO Museum and Research Center we were totally convinced…that some sort of government cover-up had occurred.

As we continued on our way to Carlsbad, we were surprised (and not pleasantly) to drive by multiple oil fields. The smell was miserable so we were thankful we were just whizzing past.

Google Maps directed us through the pretty desolate outskirts of Carlsbad so we were surprised to find our hotel, the Hyatt House Carlsbad, was quite spiffy. We were sick of driving so opted to have dinner at the hotel. The only option was pizza or wings at the bar, but we were thrilled not to have to go further.

The hotel was woefully understaffed, but the bartender and desk clerk valiantly tag-teamed to serve everyone. We were surprised to see this hotel in what looked like the middle of nowhere, but the bartender told us it was there to host the oil company execs. I was ridiculously impressed with this set-up in our room.

And Mike liked that the décor matched his attire.

We were obviously tired.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The next morning we had a quick drive south to the entrance of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Due to covid restrictions it was necessary to purchase timed entry passes which were $1.00 apiece. We arrived a little early but the ranger told us we could just head down right away. You can either take the elevator down into the cavern or walk the 1.25 mile natural entrance trail. We opted to walk on the trail and we were really pleased we had chosen that option.

Since we walked down the trail, we didn’t find it strenuous at all.
The switchbacks started in the open but soon we were walking through a dark, captivating other-worldly landscape.
Looking back to the opening, I could feel my claustrophobia being tweaked a bit. However, as we continued on, as long as I didn’t think about the fact that I was basically 75 stories below ground, I was fine.
The lighting in the caverns added spectacular dimension to the entire experience.

Once we had completed the natural entrance hike, we entered the Big Room and followed the 1.25 mile trail through what the NPS website notes Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof over it”.

Signs provided excellent information to support the visual experience of walking through the caverns.
This formation does seem to be aptly named, “Lions Tail”.
Although I hadn’t been especially excited about spending a day hundreds of feet below ground in a dark cave, I had to admit the caverns were certainly impressive and completely unlike anything I had ever experienced.

After a morning of wandering among stalactites and stalagmites we were more than willing to forgo the hike out of the caverns in favor of a zippy elevator ride back to the top.

After a surprisingly pleasant lunch at the Lucky Bull Grill in Carlsbad, we were on the road again heading to White Sands National Park just outside of Alamogordo, NM.

White Sands National Park

We drove through the Lincoln National Forest which was scenic, but snowy. As we came off the mountain road into Alamogordo, we could see dust storms ahead.

There were weather warnings about dust storms and signs along the road instructing drivers what to do if visibility suddenly dropped dramatically (pull to the side of the road but don’t stop in the path of traffic). This is certainly not an event we deal with in Maine. Thankfully, we arrived at our hotel safely, ready to hit White Sands National Park early the next morning.

It was a short drive to the park entrance. We had been warned that the road to the park is periodically closed due to missile testing at the White Sands Missile Range.

But thankfully there were no delays getting into the park.

Almost immediately, it was clear that we were in a very unique landscape.

After lots of much cooler weather than we had anticipated, we were thrilled to soak up a little warmth and sun.

There are trails through the park but we were surprised how easily we could become disoriented. Spotting a trail marker as we made our way along the Dune Life Nature Trail was reassuring. We were amazed at how much we learned from the interpretive signs along the trail. The park website notes that there are 275 square miles of gypsum sand , the world’s largest gypsum dune field.

I think this photo that Mike took is especially stunning.

Our plan had been to drive north to the Petrified Forest National Park, stopping at Canyon X, and then arriving at the Grand Canyon. But the night before we were due to head out we realized there were snowstorms in that area and that some roads were being closed. Very reluctantly, we cancelled our Canyon X tour and worked on Plan B. We had originally considered adding Saguaro National Park into our Arizona and New Mexico itinerary but at the time thought it wasn’t realistic. But now, heading south to the Tucson area seemed like a brilliant idea.

So off we went the next morning on I-10 towards Arizona.

Saguaro National Park

We had encountered quite a bit of wind in White Sands NP but driving east we were absolutely buffeted by what felt like gale force winds! There were an exorbitant number of huge tractor trailers traveling on this route, as well. At one point, the tandem trailer just ahead of us veered slightly off the pavement and listed so precariously we were positive we were about to witness a crash. However, after more than 4 hours of slightly harrowing driving along extremely mundane scenery, we approached Tucson.

It seemed like our arrival to Saguaro National Park would perfectly coincide with sunset. I had visions of spectacular sunset photos with silhouetted saguaro cacti. Our timing was truly impeccable, until as we drove up to the entrance, they literally swung the gate closed in front of us! Disappointed, we continued on to the hotel we had booked through Hotel Tonight, an app that we have found to be fabulous at helping us nab nifty hotels at remarkable rates.

The Tuxon Hotel was our destination and after too many hours of harrowing driving we were elated to pull into the parking lot. We were instantly captivated by the myriad of spiffy touches.

The pool was inviting, but the cool temps deterred us.

It may have been too many hours on the road, but we were immediately smitten with our “cool” new abode.

Not the stereotypical motel artwork.
Mike was inspired to request this Bluetooth speaker play the Marshall Tucker Band, and it did!
We appreciated the nifty additions to our room’s décor.

We gratefully popped down to the bar/restaurant in the lobby of the hotel for a casual dinner and drinks.

The next morning we made the short trip to the west entrance to Saguaro National Park. As we drove up, every time we spotted a saguaro cactus we excitedly pointed it out. But by the time we had entered the park, they were everywhere.

Saguaro cacti grow very slowly. The NPS website notes that branches emerge when a cactus is 50-70 years old.
I was fascinated by the variety and complexity of the myriad of cacti in this park.
Obviously it was windy and chilly.

The trail recommended by the ranger was an easy meander through thousands of saguaro cacti, each one uniquely shaped.  Apparently, the adage about no two snowflakes being the same also holds true for saguaro cacti. When the trail dipped into small gullies, we welcomed the fleeting warm and our shoulders relaxed a tad after unconsciously being raised to huddle against the blustery wind.

After that hike we drove to a picnic area at the base of a trail that lead to petroglyphs It was so windy that we opted to eat in the car for a brief respite from the wind. After an easy climb, Mike spotted the first petroglyphs.  As we looked at them, we continued to discover more sites. I found it intriguing to contemplate the people and process that had created these images.

That evening we continued to monitor the weather and road conditions further north.  The grand finale of our trip was to be staying at Thunderbird Lodge on the rim of the Grand Canyon.  There were reports of closed roads and significant snow but it looked like the conditions would have improved by the time we began the drive north the next day.

Grand Canyon National Park

The year before Amelia was born, we had taken a trip through California, Nevada, and Arizona.  That was 34 years earlier so we were eager to return. As we drove the four plus hours north, more snow appeared in the mountains and then on the roadside.

Finally, we were driving through the park gates, happily flashing our America the Beautiful senior park pass. I balk at being called a senior but the National Park Service offers a lifetime park pass for people 62 and older for a one-time fee of $80.00.  For that deal, I am happy to acknowledge my senior status.

The parking lot beside the South Rim was divided into sections, each appropriately designated by a native bird.  We laughed at the irony of the raven sitting on the raven sign.

It looks like a lot of ravens perch here.

As we approached the canyon rim, I was surprised that I found myself tearing up at the grandeur and pure magnificence of the canyon.

It had snowed the day before and many parts of the rim trail were snow covered. We had hoped to hike a portion of the Bright Angel Trail, as we had done years ago, but without micro-spikes we felt it was too precarious for us.

We thought this snowman perched on the rim was amusing.

I had yearned to stay at a lodge on the rim and we had been lucky enough to nab a room at the Thunderbird Lodge. Our room literally overlooked the canyon.

The next morning, determined to watch the sunrise over the canyon, I stepped out the door and took in the peaceful beauty of the still dark landscape.

A number of other photographers lined the rim. We watched quietly as the sun rose and transformed the view from dark shadows to warm sunlit vistas.

Once I had my fill of sunrise photos, we debated whether to grab a quick breakfast at the cafeteria or to go to the dining room at El Tovar, the premier lodge on the south rim. We opted for the dining room and were so glad we did.

I am enthralled with nation park lodges and try to soak up every opportunity to visit one.

The lobby exuded the National Park lodge ambience I just love!

We had a delectable breakfast in the dining room. I’m sure Mike had heard enough of me exclaiming about how wonderful everything was by the end of the meal. But the food was wonderful and the service was outstanding. And as an added bonus, this breakfast cost less than the Denny’s breakfast we had the day before.

I was enthralled with the china that breakfast was served on and toyed with purchasing some to bring home but was able to resist that urge.

After breakfast and another walk along the rim, we headed south to Phoenix where we were scheduled to run our Arizona race the next day.

After a chilly week we were thrilled to find Phoenix temps in the 70s. We picked up our t-shirts and race packets the evening before the race and had a quiet pre-race dinner at a local brewery.

After having our New Mexico race derailed, we were excited to actually be running an official race. The GPS Run for Fun fit into our schedule and geographic route. When we arrived at the high school Saturday morning, we were pleased to be back on track (literally, it turned out) to participate in an actual race. The sun was warm and we were finally running a real race. The course was a lovely out and back route with virtually no hills. We both felt strong and each ended up placing second in our new 65-69 age group. Alas, our schedule was really tight because our flight departed a few hours after the race, so we had to forgo the awards ceremony which even included podiums! Our trip to New Mexico and Arizona had not been the warm and sunny reprieve from winter that we had yearned for but we had completed our 44th quest race and even managed to end our whirlwind trip with a dose of warm sun.

Quest Race #: 44

State: Arizona

Race: GPS Run for Fun, Gilbert, AZ

Date: February 26, 2022

Bottom Line: After a week of unexpected glitches, we loved finishing our trip with an excellent run in the sun.

4 thoughts on “A Whirlwind Tour of 4 National Parks (Emphasis on Wind) and a Real race

    • Thank you! It was a great trip and those areas are so beautiful it’s easy to get good photos. Thanks for reading!

  • Karen, your blog posts are something I look forward to seeing in my inbox whenever they arrive. You write in an informative and engaging manner, leaving me reading every word and reviewing every picture! What an exciting quest – what will you do next? I can’t imagine this ending, yet you are meeting your goals!
    Thank you for sharing and allowing us to live vicariously through your writings!


    • Oh, thank you so much, Deb, for those very kind words. It means to much to me to hear that! I’m not sure what will be next. This quest has certainly been life-changing. With just 5 more states to go we will need to see what our next adventure will be.

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