We’d longed for a return to Big Bend National Park this spring (Colima warbler, woo hoo!), and had reservations at the Chisos Mountain Lodge in the park for this month made waaaaay back in February 2020 (if you want to stay *in* the park, in April, you have to reserve over a year in advance). We were vaccinated and ready to do anything that didn’t involve being around lots of people! The plan was to meet our Brooklyn friends Mark and Joanne in El Paso, continue onto Big Bend for three nights, then drive back north through Carlsbad and Ruidoso and onto Las Cruces. They’d fly home from El Paso and we’d drive home.
Well, that was the plan! M&J decided not to make the trip, and the South Rim 4 fire in BBNP put the Chisos Mountain Lodge and indeed the entire Chisos Basin off-limits. The structure wasn’t threatened, but if you looked at the fire map (see below) it encompassed very neatly (and sadly) exactly where we wanted to hike and the breeding range of the Colima warbler.
Initially we lost only the first night at the lodge, but subsequently the entire reservation. So we made the best of it, staying in Alpine (a good 100 miles away), day-toured the park including the Fossil Discovery Exhibit and getting down to Castolon and the Cottonwood campground.
Then we headed up to Carlsbad NM, where we’d added a night, intending to spend our time exploring Guadalupe Mountains National Park and birding in the superb Rattlesnake Springs picnic area (part of Carlsbad NP). In what was starting to become a recurring theme for the trip, our first attempt at Rattlesnake Springs found it closed by NM Dept Game & Fish for a youth turkey hunt. Boo! “Come back in a few hours”, said the officer. Well…no…it was still closed, and was closed all the next day too.
Ok, let’s hike instead. Being the weekend, Guadalupe Mountains NP was very very busy. Pent-up demand from the pandemic, the fact that a prime hunk of BBNP was closed … who knows … but the parking lots at the Pine Springs visitors’ center filled up quickly. We were able instead to hike the relatively empty Smith Spring trail from Frijole Ranch in the park, and also the Permian Reef Geology trail from McKittrick Canyon, where we were watched closely by Barbary sheep (really a goat, but I digress). We made the long drive over to Dog Canyon at the far north of the park, which was quite nice. We also visited Living Desert State Park in Carlsbad; all of the indoor exhibits of course were closed, but it was pretty nice walking the outdoor paths.
Finally, the Monday morning we were leaving Carlsbad for Ruidoso, we got in a couple of hours at Rattlesnake Springs – no more turkey hunt, and mercifully no wind. Did I mention the wind? Pretty much red flag warnings the whole time, 25-45 mph. But for a few hours at least, we had a great time in a beautiful spot viewing and photographing some birds, some cooperating more than others.
So far into the trip, we had fire, closures, and wind. Ruidoso would be better, for sure. En route we had a nice stop at the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Roswell, driving the loop within the refuge. Inexplicably the bird blind was closed – and it’s not exactly enclosed – oh well.
Moving on, on the drive up we saw some odd clouds in the distance, and thought it might be a dust storm from all the wind. Nope. Turned out there was another fire! This one the Three Rivers Fire in the Lincoln National Forest. (As of May 3, it remained only 23% contained, although only a little over 7100 acres in size.) Darn. Well, we can bird in Ruidoso!
Except it rained and howled wind all the next day. We took that as an opportunity to relax in our lovely room at the Sitzmark Chalet Inn and read.
So…fire, closures, wind, and rain. We just had to laugh at that point. Add to that list, in Ruidoso on a Monday and Tuesday, nearly all the restaurants are closed. One that we particularly wanted to revisit, the Rio Grande Grill and Taproom, was on vacation for the whole week. (Give them a thumbs down for only announcing that on their facebook page.) Monday night we gave up, bought beer in the supermarket (Ziegenbock!) and ordered a pizza from Dominos. Tuesday at least we got into the very nice Grill Caliente.
Leaving Ruidoso we went up to Cloudcroft (8650 ft elevation) and found … snow! Lovely. Then moved on to Las Cruces and our hotel in nearby Mesilla, with a quick stop in Alamogordo to see the World’s Largest Pistachio (just had to do it, and have to say the pistachio brittle is darn good).
We thought we’d visit the missile park at White Sands Missile Range, but it was closed (hahahahaha). However we had a great time at the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument – new for us! – and made a quick stop at the White Sands National Park visitors’ center. Have to note last time we were at White Sands, it was “only” a national monument.
Mesilla at least had open restaurants 🙂 and we had a lovely dinner at Salud! de Mesilla. A variety of Spanish, Mexican, and American dishes served tapas-style.
From Mesilla finally we headed home. We thought we’d do some birding in the vicinity before hitting the road but those red-flag winds kept us in the car. We did make a birding nice stop in Willcox at the Twin Lakes Golf Course, though, wind be darned.
So to sum it up … not really the trip we expected it to be, but despite all that, we had a good time anyway. It was so nice to be doing anything at all that we just rolled with it. (Although at one point we thought we could use some locusts, just to make the trip complete.) Maybe the high point was indeed the World’s Largest Pistachio. 🙂
Photos from the trip are below. Click an album to open it, then click any photo to view a larger image and optionally start a slide-show.