Big Bend

by Bob Hoelscher 1. February 2012 19:07

One of the country’s most “off-the-beaten-track” scenic treasures is Big Bend National Park in Texas. Unlike many park service units, Big Bend is not a place that one can just “stop by” along the way to another destination. It’s just not “on the way” to anywhere else, but isolated in rugged West Texas along 118 miles of the northern banks of the Rio Grande, where it makes a “big bend” roughly 325 miles southeast of El Paso. 

Across the river is the even more remote and forbidding desert wilderness along the northern borders of the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. Covering more than 800,000 acres, Big Bend is the eighth largest national park in the “lower 48” states, and fifteenth in size when including the massive parklands in Alaska.

As the National Park Service puts it, “Here, you can explore one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States, and experience unmatched sights, sounds, and solitude.” This is a park for hikers, for birders, for river runners, for photographers, for lovers of all things natural. Many easy and moderate trails are available, as are more challenging desert treks and mountain climbs.

Over 450 bird species have been spotted here, as well as countless varieties of cacti, wildflowers and other annual plants that have become particularly acclimated to harsh desert climes. Animals native to the region include the kangaroo rat, jackrabbits, roadrunners and coyotes. As elevations rise towards the Chisos Mountain in the center of the park, plant life includes pinyon pines, small oaks and junipers, while Douglas fir, quaking aspen, bigtooth maple and Arizona cypress make their homes in the mountains themselves, the highest of which is Emory Peak, at 7,832 feet.

Spectacular sights include the great Santa Elena and Boquillos Canyons, the rugged Chisos Mountains and “The Window,” through which the incredible desert expanse below can be viewed near the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. Also at Chisos Basin is the Chisos Mountain Lodge, offering spectacularly-located accommodations and dining to both individual and group travelers. One could do far worse than just to relax and enjoy the peace, quiet and views from the lodge for a couple of days. I spent a full week in my motor home at Rio Grande Village Campground on the east side of the park, which had to be the quietest place I’ve ever spent a New Year’s Eve, but one which offered the opportunity for unobstructed (virtually no ambient light) night sky views, which put an exclamation point on the incredible splendor of the universe. Beautiful weather throughout my stay and fascinating ranger-led programs completed an exceptional experience.

Mexican Blue Jay

Sotol Vista

Santa Elena Canyon


Three Southwestern National Parks

Guadalupe Mountains

by Bob Hoelscher 1. February 2012 19:05

I decided to make an overnight stop at Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which, although authorized by Congress back in 1964, is still one of our least known parks. In fact, my motor home was the only one there that night, although a few more hardy souls than I were camped out in their tents nearby, braving a cold winter night (daytime was quite pleasant, as desert areas warm up substantially after the sun rises).  

Although this is primarily a hiking park for those interested in exploring this splendid mountain wilderness on foot, there are several features and short walks available to groups that make this a very worthwhile stop for groups traveling from El Paso to Carlsbad Caverns. In addition to very scenic views of the Guadalupe Mountains themselves, both along U.S. Highway 62/180 and at the Pine Springs park headquarters area, there is an excellent movie and small museum at the Visitor Center, plus restrooms and picnic facilities in an area where few visitor amenities can be found.

I would recommend exploring the park beyond the Visitor Center, however, as there are several points of interest that are very convenient to the highway. At “The Pinery,” one can visit the ruins of a mid-1800s Butterfield Stagecoach Station, while just up the road is the Frijole Ranch History Museum, a complex including an original ranch house, springhouse, schoolhouse, bunkhouse and barn which tells the story of the pioneers who settled in the Guadalupe Mountains area. 

I’d also suggest taking the short (.4 mile round trip) trail, which is wheelchair accessible, from the Frijole Ranch to scenic Manzanita Spring, unless your group has the time and stamina for the more moderate (2.3 miles round-trip) Manzanita/Smith Spring Loop Trail, which I enjoyed immensely, capping off a beautiful morning.

Frijole Ranch Cultural Museum

Manzanita Spring

Desert landscape from Smith Spring Trail

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Three Southwestern National Parks

Carlsbad Caverns

by Bob Hoelscher 1. February 2012 19:03

In January, I decided to visit some of the lesser-known, but truly outstanding national parks in the Southwest. One of these is the world-famous Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, via a scenic seven-mile spur road from U.S. 62/180 at White’s City. By far, the most popular tour here for group visitors is the self-guided route through the spectacular Big Room, which is included in the standard park entrance fee. 

Rental of individual “Audio Guide” units are an additional $3 per person. This 1.25-mile round-trip, which begins and concludes with an elevator ride to and from the Underground Rest Area, follows a paved, mostly level trail, although there are a couple of hills which are short but relatively steep. Even individuals who tend towards claustrophobia will not be upset by their visit to the massive, eight-acre Big Room, which has a 255-foot ceiling and is filled with beautiful, delicate formations, as well as huge columns, stalactites and stalagmites. 

Highlights along the route itself, include the Lion’s Tail, Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit and the Rock of Ages.  Exhibits, a restaurant, book store and gift shop are also available on site. Quality group accommodations can easily be found in the town of Carlsbad, which is 27 miles northeast of the Visitor Center. I would no longer recommend staying in the motel units at nearby White’s City, which seems to have fallen on hard times during recent years.        

Groups interested in more extensive cave exploration certainly have a lot to choose from at Carlsbad Caverns. I enjoyed taking the self-guided (and no extra cost) route through the Natural Entrance many years ago, which is a 1.25-mile trip to the Big Room through a steep, roughly 800-foot descent from the surface. Guided tours are available for an additional charge of from $7 to $20 per person over the general park admission, and last from 1½ to 4 hours. Most require strenuous climbs and negotiation of ladders and/or dirt trails that may be rocky or slippery.

Two “Wild Caving” adventures are also offered, which both involve “climbing and crawling, tight squeezes, drop-offs” and a promise that participants “will get dirty.” Finally, in mid-summer, early-rising visitors can participate in the unique “Carlsbad Caverns Bat Flight Breakfast,” featuring the bats’ awe-inspiring return flight to the Natural Entrance at dawn.

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”. 

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at or by calling (435) 590-1553.


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Three Southwestern National Parks

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