We’re going back in time to share our 2017 car camping adventure through the Southwest! While our trip ended up being shorter than planned, we had some amazing adventures, including several new national parks and getting to be on one of our favorite TV shows! Thanks for reading along!
The Plan had been to leave the Texas coast and head straight for our next stop: Big Bend National Park (cue heart eyes). But you guys should know by now that we rarely stick to the plan — and this time, it was for an unexpected and welcome detour.
At the time my brother, who lives in San Antonio with his wife, was working as a contractor in Iraq. When we were beaching camping, we learned that he was unexpectedly traveling home, and we’d be able to see him after all! His wife very graciously okayed our visit (even though we’d be passing through just a couple of days after my brother got back into the country) so we planned to spend a quick weekend seeing them and catching up.
Our sister-in-law is photography student who has visited the missions several times to take pictures. I could see why once we arrived — the missions are beautiful!
There’s also a fantastic trail between the five missions comprising the park — and if you’re really up for some miles, you can take it all the way to the Riverwalk! We didn’t have time to walk the whole thing, prefer to linger over a few of them, but it would definitely be fun to come back and walk or bike the whole thing at another time.
Mission Concepción may have been my favorite — we had the whole place to ourselves, and it was very quiet and eerie.
We were fortunate enough to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park just weeks before the park closed due to the deadly fires that have claimed several lives. We feel so lucky to have seen the Smokies before they were devastated by these fires — which, tragically, were caused by a man-made fire on the Chimney Tops trail. As we write this, many park facilities, roads, and trails remain closed — and we’re so sad to think about those idyllic woods and mountains being charred and destroyed. If you’re one of the millions of people who have visited and loved Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we encourage you to donate to relief efforts through Friends of the Smokies.
Before we’d visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we’d heard the stats: It’s the most visited national park by a pretty sizeable amount. What we hadn’t heard was why that was the case. And that made for some pretty amazing discoveries when we arrived!
We’re both East Coast kids who have traveled and explored up and down the east coast our whole lives, and we thought we’d pretty much seen it all. Boy, were we wrong. We found gorgeous, lush woods, with species of flora and fauna not found anywhere else. We found mountains taller and more beautiful than any others in the East — I had no idea we had mountains that gorgeous! And we found a well-organized park with beautiful drives, campgrounds, and views, and cheerful, knowledgeable rangers.
We ended up staying outside the park, at a very nice KOA in Pigeon Forge. It was a bit more RV-parky than we usually stay in, but none of the open campgrounds in the park had full hookups or showers, so we ended up there, and they had tremendous amenities.
As we normally do, we decided to start exploring by vehicle. Per usual, we headed straight to one of the visitor centers to get the lay of the land. We took the parkway south from Pigeon Forge, going through Gatlinburg on our way to Sugarlands Visitor Center. It was one of the biggest and nicest NPS visitor centers we’ve visited, with a tremendous wildlife exhibit that we enjoyed, and an excellent video about the park. We grabbed some maps, a sticker for our cartop carrier, and hit the road.
We hadn’t hit the road until the afternoon, so we didn’t go far, but we followed the Little River Road down to Route 73, and looped north on 321 back towards Pigeon Forge. It was almost dark, and we hadn’t done a Wal-Mart run in a while, so we splurged on some TGI Fridays for dinner.
The next day, we hit the road again, ready to explore. We headed back through Gatlinburg, then hit the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which is one-way, partially dirt and gravel road, and closes in the winter. It was a gorgeous drive through the woods, slowly working our way up into the foothills, around deep ravines, and over streams.
We saw several old homesteads and farms, and stopped at a number of beautiful overlooks, taking pictures and enjoying the muh cooler weather in the mountains. It’d been climbing into the 90s when we left Gatlinburg, but it was in the low 70s up in the mountains, and at one point, got as cold as 50 degrees! I was in heaven.
After we finished the loop, we headed over to Newfound Gap road, and headed toward Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park. On the way, we found an overlook with a beautiful plaque where we learned something new — John D. Rockefeller had actually paid for fully half of the creation of the park! Not only that, it’d done it in honor and memory of his wife Laura. What a way to remember someone!
We continued on towards Clingmans Dome, constantly climbing as we drove. The views became more and more vast and breathtaking with every turn.
Finally, we reached the parking lot, and headed up the short trail. While somewhat steep, it was very smoothly paved, and we joined people of all ages, from children to grandparents, working their way up to the overlook. It was a gorgeous clear day on this side of the mountain, but as we neared the top …
Fog began pouring over the mountaintop, and the trail led straight into it!
It turned out the ridge of the mountain was separating a bright and sunny day from a dark and cloudy one, and the overlook tower was right on the border! It made for some awesome pictures.
We hiked up to the top of the tower, enjoying the nearly-panoramic views, and reading the displays about the different mountains in the distance. After a quick hike back down (in which I realized I missed my roller blades for the first time since high school), we continued our drive south, checking out the town of Cherokee, and then jumping on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
My hope was to have time to drive Balsam Mountain Road, a dirt and gravel loop through the mountains that promised great views, but when we arrived, we only had about 90 minutes of sunset left — and about four hours of backcountry driving. Not willing to risk getting stuck in the mountains overnight unprepared, we sadly turned around and headed back to Pigeon Forge. Next time you’re mine, Balsam Mountain Road!
The next day was planned to be our last day in the park before moving on, so we decided to take another recommended drive — this one to Cades Cove on the west side of the park. A number of friends, both personal and online, had told us we HAD to make it there, and it was every bit as lovely as promised.
We saw a number of rural churches (some still in operation!) and farmhouses, and were able to get out and visit a few as well. We enjoyed some tremendous vistas, many of which reminded me (as a huge Lord of the Rings fan) of where the fields of Rohan back up to Fanghorn forest in Peter Jackson’s movies. Nerd or not, the scenery was gorgeous. There was quite a bit of wildlife, as well — we saw both deer and elk.
After spending a few hours slowly touring the loop, we headed back towards Pigeon Forge, stopping off to visit the Sinks, a waterfall that runs directly under Little River Road. The falls, while small, were quite pretty, and we enjoyed lounging in the sun for a while.
It seemed like an ideal time for a selfie.
Back on the road, we got to see some more wildlife — a full-grown black bear was hanging out right on the side of the road! Rebecca especially loves bears, and was very happy to see one.
We left the next morning, having loved our visit, and rather sad we hadn’t had time to do more hiking and exploring. But that just means next time we go, there will be plenty to do!
Have you been to the Smokies? What did you love? Did you have any favorites? Let us know in the comments!
Our week-long visit to New Jersey ended up being a fun opportunity to “play tourist” in the state where Ryan grew up! In addition to showing me some of his favorite spots, we also planned to check out the national park sites, just like we do in every other state we visit.
Thoughtful consultation of the National Park Passport — my constant travel companion — showed four national park sites in New Jersey: Morristown National Historical Park, Gateway National Recreation Area, Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park, and Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
Ever the greedy park collector, my heart sang when a quick Google search revealed all four were in northern New Jersey, and laid out in a convenient, scenic four-hour round trip loop.
Tragically, my hopes of visiting all four would soon be dashed by New Jersey traffic, although it would have been possible if we’d gotten an earlier start and reversed the direction we drove the loop. (Read through to the end of my post for my tips on how to collect all four New Jersey national park passport stamps in one day!)
I thought it was just a battlefield, but Morristown is actually an expansive national park that encompasses three sites commemorating General Washington and the Continental army’s encampment of December 1779 to June 1780, where they survived the coldest winter in recorded history.
We started our visit to Morristown at the Jockey Hollow Visitor Center. We watched a short video about Jockey Hollow, its role in the American Revolution, and the frigid, snowy winter George Washington’s men spent there.
The visitor’s center also had a staged, cross-cut reproduction of one of the huts the soldiers built to survive the snow and cold. George Washington ordered the building of a “log-house city” and somewhere between 1,000-1,200 of these huts were built in the rolling hills.
After touring the visitor’s center we proceeded to the Cemetery Road driving loop to see the encampment site. The burnished fall colors were out in full force, and I couldn’t help but think the Continental Army soldiers might have had a very different opinion of New Jersey if they’d been there in the fall instead of winter!
On the side of the hill were more cabin reproductions, which we also wandered through.
After driving through Jockey Hollow we considered visiting the Ford Mansion, also part of Morristown, which served as Washington’s Headquarters during the encampment. Unfortunately we had just missed a scheduled tour, and didn’t want to wait another hour to catch the next one. But if we’re in the area again I’d love to visit the Ford Mansion and Fort Nonsense, the other two sites in Morristown National Park.
Our next stop, after grabbing some hot chocolate for the drive, was Paterson Great Falls National Park. We had no idea what to expect, but were decidedly underwhelmed when we arrived a small “park” at the top of the falls. (I put “park” in quotes because, while there was a sign announcing “Mary Ellen Kramer Park,” it seemed to be just a parking lot surrounded by abandoned buildings.) While Ryan locked the doors and forbade me from getting out of the car, I double-checked my Google directions. It turned out they’d brought us to the top of the falls, while the visitor’s center was across the street at the bottom of the falls.
A half-mile spin around the block brought us to the visitor’s center and a much-improved neighborhood. (If you decide to visit, you’re looking for the The Great Falls Historic District Visitors & Cultural Center at 65 McBride Ave, Paterson, NJ 07501.)
A trip into the small visitor’s center yielded a display about the history of the falls, an orientation video set to music from Hamilton, and a staff member who seemed to know just about everything about the history of Paterson.
The short version is that Paterson was founded in 1791 — heavily influenced by Alexander Hamilton — around the Great Falls, which plunge 77 feet over a basalt shelf. Industry powered by the falls earned the town the nickname “Silk City,” and Samuel Colt even began his firearms production in the small town. But in more recent years drugs, crime, and unemployment have plagued the city, and the falls have been something of a well-kept secret — even after the national park site was established in 2009.
The park service is working hard to make improvements to the area, including this colorful mural below the steps leading to the falls view.
A few flights of stairs took us from the visitor’s center to a prime viewing location. Northern New Jersey is currently in a mild drought, so the falls weren’t running heavily, but the fall colors more than made up for the diminished water levels. The view was stunning, and it was hard to believe we were standing in the heart of the third largest city in New Jersey!
After visiting Great Falls, we made a detour on a suggestion from the staff member we’d chatted with in the visitor’s center. A ten-minute drive brought us to the Lambert Castle Observation Tower.
Built in 1892, the castle itself was the home of Catholina Lambert, the owner of a prominent silk mill in the City of Paterson. The observation tower sits on the hill above the castle, and offers a panoramic view of New York and New Jersey. It was a cloudy day, but we could still see the outline of the Manhattan skyline in the distance.
I’d been excited for this stop all day, but sadly it was not to be. We arrived half an hour before the site closed (what’s up with national parks that close at 4:00pm, by the way?) and didn’t want to rush through it. It has been added to the list for another day, because seriously, this place — which includes Thomas Edison’s home and laboratories — looks awesome.
Tips for Collecting All Four New Jersey National Park Passport Stamps in One Day
As promised, I have a few tips for collecting all four New Jersey national park passport stamps in one day — learned from experience after I was unable to do it myself!
Start with Gateway NRA and travel counter-clockwise. My understanding is that passport stamps are available at the Sandy Hook Lighthouse Keepers Visitor Center, which opens at 9:00am. Don’t save Gateway for last or you’ll never get through NYC traffic in time to make all four stops!
Start your day early. We didn’t leave the house until after 10:00am. I just figured we’d have enough time because the stops were so close to each other. I didn’t account for traffic, and I definitely underestimated how much there was to do at each of these “small” parks.
Plan around tour times. While you could just tour all these parks on your own (like we did), a little planning will allow you to experience everything the parks have to offer. Ford Mansion at Morristown offers regular tours; Paterson Great Falls offers guided walking tours, and at Thomas Edison there are tours of his home and programs in the laboratory complex.
Don’t try to do it in one day. Okay, this tip is totally cheating! But we could easily have spent at least 3-4 hours at each of these spots, and if you can extend your trip you definitely should. We stayed with friends so I can’t personally vouch for any area campgrounds, but Stephens State Park would be a pleasant drive from Morristown or Paterson.
As always, I’d recommend using your America the Beautiful national parks pass. But if you don’t have a pass, you’re in luck on this trip: many of these stops are free! As of October 2016, Gateway is free (there’s a beach parking fee from Memorial Day to Labor Day). There’s a $7/person fee at Morristown, but if you skip Washington’s Headquarters (like we did) it’s free. Paterson Great Falls is free. Thomas Edison is $10/person.
Even though the Grand Canyon was a fixed point in our itinerary, we did not make campground reservations prior to arriving. We like to maintain flexibility in our schedule, and the Grand Canyon was a good three weeks into our itinerary, so we knew there was a good chance our arrival date would change more than once. This ended up causing some stress after I read that reservations are strongly recommended beginning March 1 (we arrived March 5), and that South Rim campgrounds are usually full by noon during the busy season.
Fortunately, our luck held, and when we arrived around lunch time we didn’t have any trouble snagging a great spot at Mather Campground — even though the campground was full of spring breakers from the south and midwest. (Who knew spring breaking at Grand Canyon was even a thing?!)
After setting up camp, our first stop was the park’s general store, to replenish the cooler and stock up on firewood. I knew the Grand Canyon was famous for being crowded — it is the second-most visited National Park — but I wasn’t prepared for how developed it is. (When I saw the link for a Grand Canyon “survival guide” on the NPS website, I assumed it would contain information about hazards like dehydration and rattlesnakes. In fact, it’s about avoiding the crowds, which can lead to jam-packed overlooks, long lines, and inability to find parking.) Mather Campground is within walking distance of a well-stocked general store, post office, and laundromat. There’s even a complex shuttle bus system that will take you to most points along the South Rim.
We went to bed that night full of anticipation for the next day, when we’d begin exploring the Grand Canyon in earnest. As always, our first stop would be the visitor’s center, where we’d get the lay of the land, watch the park information video, and collect as many maps and brochures as we could.
Fun fact: the Grand Canyon is really big. That may seem obvious, but I didn’t realize quite how much time it would take to get from one end to the other, and how much there was to see in between. (It’s almost 40 miles from Hermit’s Rest at the west end of the park to Desert View Watchtower at the east end.)
There are so many ways to experience the Grand Canyon — driving, busing, walking, biking, hiking, riding, and rafting — so we decided to divide the rim into manageable chunks and try a few different modes of exploration.
Driving the Grand Canyon
We love walking and hiking, but (as you may have noticed) we also really enjoy being in the car. When we’re checking out a new place, we love to get the lay of the land with a driving tour — and that’s just what we did our first full day at the Grand Canyon. After stopping at the main Visitor’s Center, we took the 25-mile Desert View Drive to the Desert View Watchtower located at the park’s East Entrance.
The Desert View Drive includes six developed canyon viewpoints, the Tusayan Museum and ruin site, and the Desert View Watchtower. There are terrific views along the way, a short hiking trail at the Tusayan ruins, and the Desert View Watchtower offers a cool aerial view of the canyon below.
Walking the Grand Canyon
Our second day at the Grand Canyon we did a combination of walking and riding on the NPS shuttle bus system. Starting once again from the main Visitor’s Center, we walked west on the lovely, paved Rim Trail. Although we paused often for photo ops, it was pretty incredible to be casually.
We also visited the historic Kolb Studio, which I would highly recommend. From there we hopped on the bus and rode rode it all the way to Hermit’s Rest at the park’s west edge. This direction also offered tremendous views; the bus stopped at each overlook and you could choose to walk from overlook to overlook, or just wait for the next bus to come along.
Hiking the Grand Canyon
We didn’t feel sufficiently prepared for a strenuous hike down into the canyon, although I would love to do it in the future — maybe next winter! From what we hear, it’s an incomparable way to experience the canyon in a way that goes far beyond exploring the rim. Even though we weren’t up to a full hike, we definitely wanted to experience in a small way the feeling of being below the rim. Starting at the Bright Angel Trailhead, we hiked about a half mile into the canyon. While that definitely whetted our appetite for more, when we saw how icy the trail was we knew we’d made the right decision to save a big hike for another day.
It’s impossible to describe the feeling of looking out over the Grand Canyon, waiting for your brain to catch up with your eyes and realize that what you’re seeing is real, not just a painting. It is so immense, so layered, and so beautiful — you’ll just have to go see it for yourself!
We experience one “first” at the Grand Canyon that shouldn’t go unmentioned: Our first time camping in the snow! As we drove back towards the campground after a day of exploring, the wind kicked up, the temperature dropped, and we got over an inch of snow in under an hour! Since outdoor cooking wasn’t happening, we took the opportunity to enjoy dinner in the Maswick Lodge while watching the snow fall. And we were extra happy to be warm and dry in the car, instead of a tent.
Pros: Pleasant wooded sites. Easy access to showers, laundry facilities, and wifi — and, of course, the main attraction, the Grand Canyon! While getting an RV in this campground might take some finagling, the sites were ideal for car camping, with level, paved parking spots.
Cons: The coin-operated showers were a bit expensive and not within walking distance of most sites in the campground. The presence of ravens in the campground meant everything had to be packed away super securely anytime you left your site.
After our unexpectedly chilly day leaving Big Bend National Park, we couldn’t reach our campground quickly enough. We spent a quiet and comfortable night at Brantley Lake State Park (see the bottom of this post for more details) — although we woke up unexpectedly early, due to the time change! The sun was up bright and early, and so were we.
Although our campground was located in Carlsbad, it took nearly 45 minutes to reach our next destination: Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It was a long, twisty scenic drive up into the Chihuahuan Desert to reach the park on the outskirts of town.
Usually Ryan and I dedicate an entire day to exploring a national park, but today we were on a bit of a timeline. I had an early afternoon conference call, and I needed to be back in cell service in time to take it. (I’d lost signal long before we descended underground!) We did a speedier-than-usual spin through the visitor’s center — which highlighted both the Carlsbad Caverns and the Chihuahuan Desert — and headed for the mouth of the caverns. (If we’d had more time, we probably would have opted for a ranger-guided tour into areas of the caverns that visitors can’t access alone.)
The approach to the caverns is unassuming, a short, paved hike to the mouth of the cave. It’s flanked by an amphitheater where nighttime visitors can watch the Bat Flight Program, when the caverns’ colony of 400,000 Mexican free-tailed bats flood out of the cave for their nightly feeding.
We’d been warned at the ranger desk that the elevators were out of service. The Natural Entrance trail is only 1.25 miles long, but quite steep; as we began to trace the series of switchbacks into the cave, we realized the hike back up would be no joke.
It’s difficult to explain the feeling of walking towards the hole in the ground, watching as it grows gradually larger and realizing you’re headed down into the darkness. Many explorers, photographers, and visitors have said it much more eloquently than I could:
“[Carlsbad Caverns are] something that should not exist in relation to human beings. Something that is as remote as the galaxy, incomprehensible as a nightmare, and beautiful in spite of everything … They are so strange and deep in the earth that I can never feel about them as I do with things in the sun — rocks, trees … surf and fog.” — Ansel Adams
“I shall never forget the feeling of aweness it gave me … the beauty, the weirdness, the grandeur and the omniscience absolved my mind of all thoughts of a world above — I forgot time, place and distance.” — Jim White (the caverns’ most extensive early explorer)
“[Carlsbad Caverns are the] Grand Canyon with a roof on it.” — Will Rogers
The darkness, silence, and immensity of the caves is truly indescribable. And perhaps the craziest fact of all is that the cave is still being explored! Carlsbad Caverns is a must-experience destination in the southwest. Here are just a few facts to whet your appetite for subterranean exploration!
In 1903, guano mining began in Carlsbad Caverns.
In 1925 the wooden stair system was constructed, eliminating the need for cave visitors to enter via guano bucket (doing wonders for tourism, no doubt!).
On May 14, 1930 Carlsbad Caverns National Park was designated by Congress.
In January 1932, the elevator was completed and began operation.
Carlsbad Caverns has 120 known caves; that number grows with exploration!
Lechuguilla Cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the deepest limestone cave in the United States, with over 100 miles of surveyed passageways.
Carlsbad Cavern’s Big Room is the largest cave room in North America.
The caves were full of tremendous formations, stalactites and stalagmites formed deep within the earth over thousands of years. Not only are the caverns themselves immense — they make the passage of time seem immeasurable as well.
We left Carlsbad Caverns blinking under the brightness of the desert sun after a morning of inky underground blackness, thoroughly awed by everything we’d seen. Our drive that afternoon would take us 3.5 hours northwest to Alamogordo, New Mexico and our next stop: White Sands National Park.
Pros: A terrific value for a beautiful lakeside campground. Flat, paved sites with covered picnic tables. Nice bathroom facilities and easy after-hours check in. (Cheaper “primitive” campsites also available.)
Cons: Although the campground is in Carlsbad, New Mexico, it was still a good 45 minute drive from Carlsbad Caverns.