Road Trip IX, Days 11-16, Tucson to Central Texas: Why Have I Never Heard Of This Park Before?

Disclaimer: some of the pictures from this stretch of our trip come from parks that are very well known indeed. Like Saguaro National Park, whose two sections frame Tucson. We love Saguaro, but we have fallen into a rut the last few times through, opting to ride our bikes around the wonderful 8-mile loop of the eastern chunk of park. This time, we went west.

Now THIS is winter desert. Right?

But that glorious sunshine didn’t greet us till the second day. What did? THIS. 

Really, Tucson? Really?!

There’s a reason I have no pictures of Tucson’s sweet downtown, as we were too busy avoiding frozen puddles and hunkering down in coffee shops to sightsee.

But when it came to snowy cactus, my camera couldn’t get enough.

Ocotillo…which ought to be blooming this time of year!

I really need to stop clicking and start hiking.

Okay, okay…one more!

Also on the west side is the Desert Museum, one of the best put-together set of exhibits we’ve ever come across to interpret the desert environment.

Really cool sculpture there, tracing the evolution of animal life from protozoan on up.

It happens to include a zoo, made up of animals rescued from injury or abandonment.

Like Cruz the puma, who gave us the death-stare from three feet away (behind glass).

The greater Tucson area also includes a good network of bike paths, but the section we rode was more about exercise and visiting with an old friend, so no photos there either. Ditto on the tacos.

After three days of civil, though, we were eager to revisit one our favorite and least-known parks: Chiricahua National Monument.

Hoodoos in my happy place!

We’re pretty sure the only people who know about this park in Arizona’s extreme southeast corner are friends of ours we’ve raved to, or birders. Birders know the Chiricahuas, because they rear up to 10,000 feet, create their own riparian system in the desert, and act like an oasis for bird species you’d otherwise have to go to Mexico to spot.

The Mate and I aren’t birders, or we wouldn’t have been there in February. We’re hikers. And once again, having arrived just after a snowstorm, I couldn’t stop taking pictures of big rocks in snow.

Enough of these to make giant mushroom soup.

Different flavor of mushroom?

The Mate above Echo Canyon

Me in The Grotto

Or just big rocks.

Can’t…stop…taking…pics!!

Camping was cold: 28 degrees.

With faithful Red Rover in the background

We’ve slept through colder, though, and it was so worth it to be there at sunset…

G’night…

…and under starlight, and sunrise (even though my fingers were too chilled for photos by then).

Next stop: Las Cruces, NM, a town we’ve driven past multiple times. This time we met a friend there and, unusually for us, stayed in an artsy inn.

VERY artsy.

We also hiked, twice, in a section of another park we’ve never bothered to notice: Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument.

Heading for Dripping Springs…which were actually dripping.

I kept thinking, “This is just as cool as the Pinnacles! Where has this park been all my life?” No condors, true, but…

This! (and the ruins of an old TB sanatorium. This place would heal me!)

There was also a cave, which came with intriguing stories from the 1700s about a murdered priest/hermit.

No disrespect, Father What-was-your-name.

Made of volcanic tuff…ancient, petrified ash.

Before heading out across the dismally flat and featureless West Texas plain, we hit one more park. Guadalupe Mountains National Park was first introduced to us via the mystery writer Nevada Barr, whose park ranger protagonist, Anna Pigeon, worked there in Barr’s first book. While hiking solo, I kept that book cover in mind: it featured a puma print. (Puma attacks have been in the news lately…)

But pretty soon the scenery seized hold of my attention.

Hey, wow–a madrona tree! Like a hello wave from the Pacific Northwest!

The Guadalupes are part of the same range as the hollowed-out mountain which we know as Carlsbad Caverns. They are an ancient reef of limestone, uplifted 6-8,000 feet and eroded from within by water.

You can see how much this stuff wants to be hollowed out.

I saw plenty of evidence of that geology on my speed-hike (racing sunset).

On the right: pure, smooth limestone–probably full of fossils. On the left, an aggregate of loose rock glued back together somehow. Oh, why aren’t I a geologist???

The real “prize” of that hike was this formation, Devil’s Hall:

Ever notice how the Devil gets all the cool stuff named after him?

But the whole hike was cool. We’ll definitely be back to the Guadalupes, hopefully to camp!

After spending the night in the town of Carlsbad, we put on our big-kid panties and headed out across West Texas.

Sighhhh.

Now THIS scenery we can all be forgiven for not knowing about.

While we’re on the topic, though, I’ll ask my annual Road Trip Question: does anyone have any special, little-known beauty spots of their own to tell about?

Road Trip VIII, Days 10-13, LA to Arizona’s Chiricahuas: Hidden Treasures and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Avocados

Is anything more satisfying than seeing or experiencing or eating something hardly anyone else gets to? I think that’s why we humans love secret hideouts, bragging about buying stuff on sale, and scarce foods like truffles (not the chocolate kind, which are much less rare and infinitely more delicious).

I’m writing this from a special place which has been, in fact, a historical hideout—for the Apache leader Cochise, and also for Gerónimo—and which is so little known as to count as a hidden treasure. The “town” is named Portal, but it’s the portal to the Chiricahuas, a region of such grandeur it belongs more in the class of the Grand Canyon than in the obscurity of this southeasternmost corner of Arizona. One side of the mountains is actually a national monument; we’ve camped there before but I never blogged about it and don’t have those pictures accessible. But no worries: the non-monument side, where we’re staying in a cabin (since it was starting to snow, no camping)…THIS side manages to be just as spectacular.

How to describe the Chiricahuas? Soaring rock towers in gold and orange…

caves and hoodoos carved by wind…

…presiding over a deep valley of scrub oak and sycamore.

I also was startled by several javelinas, aggressive little wild piggies that burst out of the brush and give you a heart attack. Alas, I wasn’t able to grab my camera in time, so I had to settle for this picture of their diggings next to this barrel cactus:

Desert riparian: that’s the term for the rare phenomenon of streamside vegetation in the midst of drought. And along with the sunrise-colored rock, that habitat is what makes this place so special.

The only people we’ve met who have heard of this place are birders, and for good reason: as a little island of Sierra in the midst of the Sonoran desert, the Chiricahua offers a familiar haven to birds usually found only in the mountains of Mexico. Birders from all over the world congregate here every spring to “bag” rare species of hummingbird, and that most prized of sightings, the Elegant Trogon.

We aren’t birders. Also, it’s February. So we make do with what we can spot: turkeys!

But what about those avocados?

Getting back to the joy of rare things: our cousins in LA have a 100 year-old avocado tree, a huge beauty that bears fruit like green butter. When we left them, they gifted us with half a dozen, which we have been ripening serially as we travel. So, Avocado #1 went into a quesadilla in a motel outside of Joshua Tree National Park, where, sadly, a freezing windstorm was filling the air with dust and blasting our hopes of camping.

#2 met a similar fate in Tucson, where, still stymied by wind and dust, we holed up with map and weather reports and figures out where we could find some clear air to recreate in.

So Avocado #3 had the honor today of gracing an arugula salad…and the front porch of our cabin. Thanks, cousins!

Where will the next Traveling Avocados end up? Stay tuned.