Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Western Texas

Our son, Sam, was going to be home for Christmas, so I suggested we fly to El Paso after Christmas and then drive to and spend time in Carlsbad Caverns NP (New Mexico), Guadalupe NP (Texas) and Big Bend NP (Texas). He thought it sounded fun, so I made reservations on Southwest Airlines for Sam, Judy and I, from Ontario to El Paso and back. As we started to talk details, it sounded like too much driving to Sam, so I cut out Big Bend and planned to spend the extra time in El Paso. From there, little went as planned, more so than any other trip we've ever taken.

We made beginning and ending hotel reservations in El Paso and in between in Carlsbad, NM. All hotel reservations were made through hotels.com and were refundable, except the last night in El Paso. When we flew in on Thursday we were going to drive north to visit White Sands National Monument in New Mexico and then the roadrunner sculpture outside of Las Cruces on the way back to El Paso. We would stay the night in El Paso, spend Friday in El Paso, then drive that evening to our hotel in Carlsbad, NM. Saturday we would visit Carlsbad Caverns, where I made reservations for the King's Palace tour, then stay in Carlsbad again that night. Sunday we would spend the day hiking in Guadalupe NP, then drive to El Paso Sunday night, where we would stay, and fly out Monday early afternoon. 

As we got closer to leaving, the weather took a turn for the worse. It was going to be in the high 30s at Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe and in the high 40s in Big Bend. That was just too cold, so we cancelled plans for Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe NP and decided to visit Big Bend instead. No hotel reservations were available in Big Bend or nearby towns, so we had to make reservations in Alpine, TX, about 80 miles away. With that long drive each day, from Alpine to Big Bend and back, leaving from El Paso on Friday morning would add 3 1/2 hours of driving on Friday, which was too much. So I decided we needed to drive to El Paso Thursday evening instead. By that time, our refundable reservation Thursday evening in El Paso had become non-refundable. Fortunately, we'd used a free night on hotels.com and were only out of pocket about $36 for that lost night. 

Then the government budget shutdown occurred and we learned that Carlsbad Cavern cave tours would not be available, so we were happy we'd switched to Big Bend, which was still open to the public. However, we learned that White Sands NM was completely closed, so we had to plan activities in El Paso on Thursday to replace it. 

Ontario to Alpine:
Thursday morning, December 27, our Southwest Airlines flight was to leave Ontario at 5:15 a.m., arrive in Phoenix at 7:25 a.m. for a 1 hour, 20 minute layover, then leave Phoenix at 8:45 a.m. for El Paso for a 9:55 a.m. arrival. We were driving from our home in Redlands to Ontario about 3:15 a.m. when Judy discovered an email from Southwest Airlines that had arrived about 10:30 p.m. indicating that the flight from Phoenix to El Paso had been cancelled. Judy tried to go on-line with her i-phone and call Southwest from the car and could not get through. We got in line at Ontario Airport with a bunch of other people whose flights had also been cancelled and did not get to talk to the help desk until about 4:30 a.m. The best we could come up with was to fly to Phoenix and spend the day there, then take an 11:00 p.m. flight to El Paso that would get us there after midnight. We still had the hotel in El Paso that night I'd not been able to cancel, so we would just take it and then lose our night in Alpine which was now non-refundable and we would face the long-long drive on Friday I'd tried to avoid. 

However, while we waited at Ontario for our flight, Judy went on-line and was able to reserve an SUV with Avis in Phoenix for pickup when we arrived which we could drop-off in El Paso. It was $151, more than our scheduled rental with Alamo for the whole time in Texas, but at least it got us to El Paso sooner. The drive from Phoenix to El Paso was about 6 hours, 15 minutes. So we figured we could drive to El Paso, turn in our car, pick up the car we'd already reserved, late, eat dinner, then drive to Alpine, arriving before our plane otherwise would have landed in El Paso. 

We picked up our SUV in Phoenix and drove to Tucson where we stopped at Five Points Market and Restaurant for breakfast. We had a nice healthy breakfast (I had vegan chipotle sausage, two eggs, poblano peppers and winter squash). However, it took us about 1 1/2 hours which set us back time-wise. Judy was able to arrange with Alamo, by telephone, for pickup of our El Paso rental later in the day. Outside of Las Cruces, the freeway took us by the roadrunner sculpture Judy wanted to see. 
Roadrunner sculpture outside Las Cruces, NM.
It is made out of discarded junk, like tires, computer parts, etc. 
We also got a great view of the Organ Mountains outside of Las Cruces, with a new dusting of snow. 
Then we drove to the airport in El Paso where we turned in our SUV to Avis and picked up a Nissan Altima from Alamo. We were able to make the 5:30 p.m. reservation I'd made at Tabla, in the historic section of El Paso, with ten minutes to spare. Tabla serves tapas and was one of the best meals of our trip. Leaving El Paso about 6:30 p.m., we drove the 3 1/2 hours to Alpine, arriving around 10:00 p.m. So much for trying to keep the driving down. We drove about 10 hours and over 650 miles. We stayed at America's Best Value Inn in Alpine our three nights in Alpine.

Big Bend Ranch State Park: 
Friday, December 28, we back-tracked (west) 25 miles from Alpine to Marfa and ate at Marfa Burrito. It is in a small building with lots of cars parked outside and a line of customers out the door. You order, wait for your food, pay, then next customer. Photos of celebrities with the owner adorn the wall, including two with Anthony Bourdain. All they sell is burritos. We watched them roll the dough out into a huge tortilla, then fry it. I got egg and cheese. Judy and Sam get beans, tomatoes, cheese, etc. Much to my surprise, the burritos were horrible - all tortilla and very little filler. I don't know what keeps people piling in there - we certainly did not discover the answer. From Marfa we traveled south 61 miles on Hwy 67 to Presidio, right on the Mexico border. There was little civilization along the way. In Presidio we took Hwy 170 southeast for 50 miles along the border to Lajitas, through Big Bend Ranch State Park. The road is known as El Camino Del Rio (the "River Road") because it follows the Rio Grande. The speed limit was about 35 miles per hour and the road curved and twisted and went up and down continually. I read that this is the seventh most scenic driving route in the U.S. We caught glimpses of the Rio Grande River occasionally (which is the U.S./Mexico border) and stopped several times for photos. 
From the top of a hill. A small sliver of blue (the Rio Grande River) is barely visible in the center of the picture.
In particular, we stopped at the Hoodoos which is a short trail down to the Rio Grande where there is a bend with several rock "hoodoos" similar to those in Goblin Valley or Bryce Canyon, although not as spectacular. But at least we got next to the Rio Grande. 
View from the top of the hill at Hoodoos.
We continued on and stopped at Closed Canyon and hiked in about half a mile. It is a slot canyon with canyon walls that go up several hundred feet. We continued until standing water provided an obstacle we did not want to conquer and turned around and went back. 
Closed Canyon
From Lajitas we continued on Hwy 170 about 13 miles to Terlingua, an old ghost town, although it looked more town than ghost, and ate a late lunch at High Sierra Bar & Grill. I got two poblano pepper rellenos with beans and rice and we shared some guacamole. The poblanos were pretty good.
     Food Near Big Bend NP in Texas: Marfa, Marathon and Terlingua  (Bob)

Big Bend National Park:
From Terlingua we connected to Hwy 118 and then traveled 20 miles into Big Bend National Park to Santa Elena Canyon. The road was shut down two miles before the hiking trail into Santa Elena Canyon, because of the government shutdown, but we pulled into a river access that allowed us to visit the Rio Grande again, this time next to canyon walls that went upwards of 1,000 feet. 
Santa Elena Canyon near sunset. 
It was late in the afternoon and most of the people were gone. Judy and Sam skipped rocks on the Rio Grande and we admired a flock of white, black and black and white sheep on the Mexico side of the river. 
Black sheep, white sheep, and various mixtures of black and white. 
I wanted to be in the park in the dark to see the Milky Way as Big Bend is supposed to be the darkest place in the continental U.S. We sat in the car as it got dark and listened to "Educated" by Tara Westover. As we drove out of the park we stopped several times to admire the spectacular night sky and also saw a bobcat cross the road. We took Hwy 118 back to Alpine which was about 80 miles. As we neared Alpine the windshield started to fog up and ice. I noted that the temperature was 24 degrees. We stoked up the defrost and slowed down for safety on what must have been icy roads with the moisture. We got back to the hotel around 9:00 p.m. 

Saturday, December 29, it was freezing outside. It was about 26 degrees and our car windows were covered with hard ice. I turned on the car to get it warm and get the defrost working and found some hard plastic cups to use as scrapers. We went east 31 miles from Alpine to Marathon for breakfast at the Oasis Cafe. I'd read one on-line comment that they had the best huevos ranchero that this person had ever had. After trying the huevos ranchero myself, I have to pity the poor man's prior experiences. From Marathon we traveled south on Hwy 385 to the eastern portion of Big Bend. Once we hit the park, I believe it was about 20 miles to Boquillas Canyon where we stopped and Sam and I hiked in about 3/4 of a mile. The Rio Grande was a beautiful green and the trail went a ways up the canyon with high canyon walls. 
The Rio Grande curves around just before entering Boquillas Canyon. 
High canyon walls.
Looking back out the canyon.
I walked off trail part of the way back and stumbled across a Mexican man who had crossed the Rio Grande illegally on his horse to lay out and sell trinkets. He spoke very good English. He told me that the government shutdown is hurting them financially because the Boquillas Crossing is closed. I told him I would give him some money if I could take a picture of him on his horse. I gave him $10.00. He asked me where I was from. When I replied, "California," he asked, "How's the wall?" I laughed. 
Mexican man from Boquillas. 
We drove to Rio Grande Village. The campground was shutdown, but the store was open. We drove back out to Panther Junction and then uphill into the Chisos Basin. We drove into some heavy fog and snow and ice was covering the trees and cactus spines. It was absolutely beautiful. 
Fog and snow.

Once into the basin we stopped at the store and took a small trail. Then headed out the same way we came in. At Panther Junction we headed west for Hwy 118 to Alpine. We ate at the Chili Pepper on the outskirts of Terlingua. We got some wonderful guacamole and they improvised some veggie fajitas for me. We got back to Alpine a little earlier and spent some time reading in our hotel.

Sunday, December 30, we drove 26 miles west to Marfa and ate at Jett's Grill in the Hotel Paisano. This is the hotel where James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor stayed when they were filing "Giant" in 1956. It was a mediocre buffet that only consisted of different kinds of burritos (shades of Marfa Burrito). These burritos were better, but the service was poor and we couldn't get additional salsa in a timely manner. We took a quick look at the Presidio County Courthouse and then drove to the Chinati Foundation, established by Donald Judd, a world famous minimalist artist. We spent a few minutes walking a portion of the one kilometer walk where Judd has 15 works in concrete (all concrete squares). Then we had an 11:00 a.m. tour at "The Block" which was Judd's home and studio, so called because it is one walled-in city block. We saw Judd's kitchen, tables, swimming pool, libraries, etc. Our guide did not explain what made Judd famous. From my very untrained and un-artistic eye, it was pretty ordinary. The tour which was supposed to be 1 3/4 hours was thankfully done in 1 hour.

El Paso:
We continued on to El Paso and headed to the El Paso Zoo. It is a small zoo but has some great exhibits, including Mexican wolves, painted dogs, Amir leopards and a Malaysian tiger, all quite rare. 
Painted dog in the El Paso Zoo.
Then we drove to St. Patrick Cathedral and got inside and walked around. Finally, we ate dinner at the fabulous Kiki's Restaurant and Bar where I had the crab machaca which was delicious. The machaca was a mixture of snow crab and fish covered in tomatoes, onions, green chillies, egg and then covered in green sauce and cheese, along with rice and beans. I wish it was closer. I could eat that once a week. We stayed at TownePlace Suites El Paso Airport that night.

Monday, December 31, we followed the El Paso Mission Trail, starting at Ysleta Mission, which was closed. We continued on to the Socorro Mission, which was open, also looking at a mini Golgotha and graveyard on-site. Finally, we got to San Elizario Presidio Chapel which I think was closed, but we found an unlocked side door and went in. On the way to the airport Judy Yelped a restaurant, Quesadillas Estilo Villa Ahumada, which only had about 10 reviews, but was all five stars. We drove a little out of the way to get to it and enjoyed a wonderful breakfast. I had pork chile verde, refried beans and two eggs on a tortilla, as well as a cheese quesadilla.
     West Texas: El Paso Mission Trail  (Judy)
     The El Paso Mission Trail  (Bob)
     Food in El Paso  (Bob)

El Paso to Ontario:
Our Southwestern flight was delayed by about an hour, leaving about 2:00 p.m. We had a two hour layover in Phoenix, then caught a 5:05 p.m. flight to Ontario, which was also delayed about 60 minutes. 


  1. Cancelled flight, cold weather, government shutdown--it seemed that anything that could go wrong did. On the other hand, it was an adventure driving through Arizona and New Mexico, the scenery in Big Bend was beautiful (even if it was cold), Marfa was a kick, and SOME of the food was really good. All in all, the good far outweighed the bad.

  2. Sounds like a great trip. We have been in Arizona, New Mexico, Sonora, Chiahuhua, and Texas this week. We love collecting National Park stamps but luckily a lot of the trails have been open so we have been following those. It is interesting how everything in this region blends and weaves together.