Sky Islands of West Texas – May 2017

Mexican (Couch’s) Jay

Last year on a driving trip to Dallas, we made a whirlwind visit of Big Bend National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park…and knew we had to return. This May we did, spending a few days in each place so we could truly enjoy the natural beauty, not to mention the birds and wildlife. (And the food, and the beer, and…)  Read about the landscapes, birds and other wildlife.

Click here to skip the narrative and go straight to galleries of trip photos and birds.

We drove out to Carlsbad NM first, making a nearly-obligatory stop at the State Line restaurant in El Paso to get our first dose of brisket and bbq. While in Carlsbad we birded in Rattlesnake Springs (no snakes, thankfully) and visited Carlsbad Caverns. We also drove back over the state line into Texas to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park, hiking in McKittrick Canyon.

Bat Cave en route to natural entrance, Carlsbad Caverns NP

From Carlsbad it was onward to Big Bend National Park, where this time we stayed at the Chisos Mountain Lodge in the park. BBNP is so far “off the beaten path” – at least 100 miles from the interstate, and the lodge is about 25 miles from the park entrance! – that it is great to be able to stay *in* the park. (The only downside to getting there is having to drive on US 285 – two lanes, a ridiculous speed limit of 70-75, pretty much no shoulder, and way too many big rigs.)

Getting there aside, once you’re there, the park is so big it seems you have it mostly to yourselves. We were a couple weeks off-peak (late April is probably ideal) but still there weren’t a lot of folks there. We enjoyed staying in the lodge situated in the Chisos Basin, at about 5500 ft, and especially enjoyed the lodge restaurant (pro adult tip: order the burgers off the kids’ menu, and enjoy some draft beer from the Big Bend Brewing Company).

In the park, we had a great day of hiking the loop up the Pinnacles Trail, then along the Boot Canyon and Colima Trails, returning via Laguna Meadows, about 9.8 miles total. The target of the day was the Colima Warbler and he was well seen (thanks to another hiker, a biologist, who told us where he had seen it 30 minutes earlier). This is the only place in the US where you can find this warbler.

View from Chisos Basin, Big Bend NP

The next day we went down to the Rio Grande, crossed over into Mexico at Boquillas Crossing, and met a guide for a half day of canoeing on the river, hiking to Boquillas Canyon, and lunch in the little town of Boquillas del Carmen.

Leaving Big Bend, we took the drive out the west side of the park so we could visit Santa Elena Canyon, a narrow, steep-sided canyon where the Rio Grande snakes through.

Approaching Santa Elena Cyn

From Big Bend it was north back to Davis Mountains State Park, where we stayed at the charming Indian Lodge in the park. The lodge is a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps project, and it is a little jewel. About the only quibble about the place is that I’d gladly have traded the television for a refrigerator! But otherwise it is a beautiful place to stay, with great hiking opportunities in the park, and easy biking over to the town of Fort Davis and the Fort Davis National Historic Site. We were also well situated for a Davis Mountains scenic drive and a visit to the McDonald Observatory. At the observatory we took in a “twilight” program on modeling the universe (first with kids, then with software), then a “star party” where we were reminded about constellations, and got to look through a number of telescopes at Jupiter and several star clusters before the almost-full moon nearly blinded us.

Eventually we did have to go home, and from Fort Davis we went back into New Mexico and stayed one night in Ruidoso, more of a scouting expedition than anything – it is a place that is calling out for a return. And not just for the beer and food at the Rio Grande Grill and Tap Room. 🙂 The next day we were on the road for home, stopping at lovely White Sands National Monument to see the blindingly white dunes, and lunching in Las Cruces.

White Sands National Monument

Again, for more photos, including a gallery of some of the birds we were able to photograph on the trip, not to mention a summary of Buddy Bison’s adventures! – click here.

lyw 5/22/2017