#TravelBackThursday Our First Road Trip: Carlsbad Caverns, Mesa Verde, and Grand Canyon National Parks

Hey everyone!

Today we’re going to travel back to our first ever road trip!

It was the fall of 2010, Jordan was about to begin his third year of veterinary school and I was about to begin my second. We had been dating for about 6 months, and Jordan got the harebrained idea for us to take a roadtrip to the Grand Canyon, with several stops along the way. Somehow he thought we were going to survive a 2200 mile road trip without killing each other or breaking up. Little did he know it would start a tradition of roadtrips for our little family.

We set out on our trip from Austin, Texas. Our first big milestone was making it to the New Mexico border, on our way to Carlsbad Caverns.

We had to stop at the visitor center as we headed into Carlsbad to pick up our backcountry camping permit. We chose to camp in the backcountry (defined as 1 mile and not visible from the road) primarily because it was free, and as broke veterinary students we were on a limited budget.

Permit in hand, we stopped at the caverns next. The trail through the caverns is approximately 1.25 miles long, with steep changes in elevation as you descend.

Descending into Devil’s Den.

We enjoyed wandering through the caverns and viewing all of the different types of underground rock formations.

The Whales Mouth

After making our way through the caves, we rode an elevator back up and out of the caverns. We then headed out a short drive and hike away, to set up camp in Rattlesnake Canyon. According to our backcountry permit, we were required to hike at least a mile from the road, and set up in a location that was not visible from the road. I’m not sure we actually made it a full mile, but we did walk far enough out that we couldn’t see our car any more.

According to the park rules, we were supposed to be at our campsite by sun down. However, one of the most amazing parts of the Carlsbad Caverns experience is going to see the Bat Flight at the amphitheater at dusk. After we set up our tent, we hiked back out of Rattlesnake Canyon and drove back to the main area of the park to watch the exodus of bats from the caves. The bats emerge in such a large, dense group that they almost appear as a plume of smoke rising from the caverns. It was definitely well worth the challenge of getting back to our campsite after dark.

When we returned, the road back to our campsite was blocked with a closed gate with a rope-like alarm was laid across the road. We opened the gate and carefully removed and replaced the alarm so that we could sneak back to our campsite.

We ate a quick dinner at the car using our old camp stove, and then made the short hike back to our tent. We’ve gotten a lot more advanced with our camp gear since then, but we still had a fairly comfortable night in the old borrowed tent.

Before packing up the next morning.
Hiking out of Rattlesnake Canyon at dawn.

From Carlsbad, we headed north through Roswell on our way to Santa Fe. While we didn’t have time to stop in Roswell, we did appreciate that the whole town gets into the spirit of things.

Even the Colonel believes.

We made it to Santa Fe by mid-afternoon, and stopped at one of my favorite places to eat, the Guadalupe Cafe (it appears that it may no longer be open, which is a huge shame). If you’ve never tried Santa Fe’s special style of Mexican food, you are missing out. We are huge fans of any kind of spicy food, and the blue corn tortillas and spicy sauce Santa Fe is known for are one of a kind.

One of the other great parts of Santa Fe is all the amazing artwork on display on every street corner. We spent the afternoon wandering the square and admiring all of the amazing work on display.

After spending the afternoon in Santa Fe, we got back on the road and pointed ourselves towards Four Corners. We didn’t have an overnight destination in mind, but planned to find somewhere along the way to settle in for the night.

Please forgive all the bugs stuck to the window.

Unfortunately, although we drove and drove, we were unable to find an easily accessible and cheap campsite. At about 2am, we wearily stumbled onto Mesa Verde National Park, just inside the Colorado border. The entrance to the park has no gates, so we once again crept in after hours. We pitched our tent in the campground and quietly settled in for the evening.

We work up bright and early to some friends who stopped by the campground.

After quickly packing up our campsite at daybreak, we noticed there were some pretty nice shower arrangements at the park. We snuck in for a quick shower before hitting the road, well before the park officially opened for the day.

In a funny series of circumstances, Jordan’s brother and his wife would complete this same road trip several years after we did. They also had no luck finding a campsite on the way to Four Corners and the Grand Canyon, and ended up sneaking into Mesa Verde late one night as well.

We arrived at Four Corners National Monument fairly early the morning after our night at Mesa Verde. While definitely a tourist trap, it was an interesting place to visit. We spent a lot of time playing around and taking pictures.

From Four Corners we finally crossed the border into Arizona!

We arrived at the South Rim of the canyon with plenty of time to set up camp and take a nice walk along the rim. We stayed in a drive-up first-come first-served campsite not far from the rim, and walked from camp to the canyon.

There was lots of nature to see and people-watching to be done along the canyon’s edge. I was surprised by how many foreign tourists were visiting the canyon while we were there. We also saw people doing all kinds of crazy stuff on the trails, like standing way too close to the edge for the sake of a great photo.

I think we were too close to the edge.
Check out the double rainbow!

While we didn’t have time to hike all the way down into the canyon on this trip, we did walk a short ways down Bright Angel trail.

We met this big guy on the trail as we were heading down.

By the time we were heading back up, he had parked himself right in the middle of the trail. We ended up sprinting past him along with some other hikers. He wasn’t being threatening, but he was a huge guy and we definitely didn’t want to get on his bad side!

After a long afternoon of hiking, we headed back to our campsite for our final night on the road.

We woke up to some rustling in the bushes outside our tent.

Apparently the elk like to frequent the campgrounds, and this one was very intent on rubbing his antlers on some of the foliage near our tent. He didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother him, and after watching him for a while we went our separate ways.

We headed for one last look out over the canyon before we got back in the car for our long trip back.

The drive back to Texas was much less eventful than the drive to the Canyon. We only made one stop on the way back, to see Meteor Crater. Again, a tourist trap, but Jordan loves anything related to space so we stopped to see it. Of course we had to ask the tour guide for a photo op.

From Meteor Crater we headed back to Austin and ultimately home to College Station. We had a great time on our first roadtrip, and learned lots of things along the way. We’ve definitely made some updates to our planning and gear over the years!

It’s fun to look back on our first trip even as we get ready for our first big family trip with Parker. We can’t wait to share our travels with you all as we journey to Acadia, Canada, and Niagara Falls at the end of the month.

Happy travels!

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