Wide Open Spaces: Road Trip Across the American Southwest

Wide Open Spaces: Road Trip Across the American Southwest

The American Southwest, best known from the old Western films, often has a reputation of being the wild west or for its very, very barren landscape.  


lost mine trail big bend national park texas
Lost Mine trail at Big Bend National Park, Texas.

And it is true - the landscape of the American Southwest is very empty.  But its vast emptiness lends to an amazing beauty not witnessed in most place in the world.  This seemingly limitless scenery of dry barren plains and wide open blue skies, dotted here and there by flat plateaus and rugged mountains, contributes to a landscape that is unimaginably beautiful.

open road american southwest
Open road of the American Southwest.

This past December, amidst the coronavirus outbreak, my girlfriend and I decided to take a nine day (nearly 1,900 mile long) road trip across the American Southwest, from Houston, Texas to Phoenix, Arizona.   This trip took us across three states and hit landmarks like Big Bend, Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, Chiricahua, and Saguaro East.  

camping carlsbad caverns new mexico
Free campsite near Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico.

To mitigate our exposure to COVID-19, we took many precautions to lower our risk of transmission.  One of our main methods for this, not to mention also saving a lot of money, was to primitive camp along the way.  For the most part we used Apps like Campendium, FreeRoam, and The Dyrt to find free camping areas around the National Parks that we were visiting.  There are a lot of awesome free camping spots out there, if you are ok with not having running water.  

sunset big bend national park texas southwest
The American Southwest has some great sunsets.

National Parks were also taking precautions during the COVID-19 outbreak.  All of the visitor centers had tables outside with their park maps and information pamphlets.  Many of the parks also had park rangers sitting at the tables to answer any questions (at one park they also swore-in two kids as junior rangers), but his wasn't the case at all of the parks that we went to.  Many of the visitor centers were also closed, or only allowing one person in at a time, and the parks were only allowing for online payment for camping.  

bull creek trail austin texas
Trail through the mesquite woods of Bull Creek, Austin.

We started our road trip by swinging up to Austin to visit my cousin and her family.  I hadn't seen them in a while and I had promised that I would visit the next time I was in the States.  While there we tried out a few beers from the Whitestone Brewery and got in our first (even if short) hike of the trip on the Bull Creek Trail.  

mexican jay big bend national park texas
Angry looking Mexican Jay. Maybe I should have asked before taking its picture.

The following day we headed west, over the Great Plains.  There was nothing much but rolling hills of grass, the blue sky, and the horizon as far a the eye could see.  Not many places in the world can you travel for hours and hours, miles and miles, and never see anything - not another car, person, or tree - nothing, but wide open spaces.

fort stockton texas
Historic Fort Stockton

We traveled over the Great Plains until we reached Historic Fort Stockton, a token of the American Indian Wars.  The buildings were closed due to the coronavirus, but we were able to walk the grounds of the old fort and get a sense of what life might have been like.  Once we were done at the fort, we headed south to our camping site just north of Big Bend National Park.  

cantrabando trail system big bend ranch state park texas
Rugged landscape of the Cantrabando trail system in Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas.

Camping at Big Bend National Park was full for the next few days, so we opted for a campsite in the nearby state park, Big Bend Ranch.  We spent the first day doing a few hours hike within the Cantrabando trail system in the state park.  We had planed to do more hiking in the north part of the park the next day, but the following morning we instead decided to take a day trip to Big Bend and I am glad we did.

fossil discovery exhibit big bend national park texas
Tyrannosaurs skull, one of the many fossils displayed in the Fossil Discovery Exhibit at Big Bend National Park, Texas.

The Chisos Basin Visitor Center within Big Bend National Park isn't exactly close to the State Park.  Looking at a map, the two seem relatively near each other, but nothing in Texas is really close.  It would have been a 1.5 hour drive had it not been for traffic, but there was some road construction in the park.  The park is also incredibly large in size, so there is quite a bit of traffic due to people traveling from one part of the park to another for the different trails and attractions.  

window trail chisos basin big bend national park texas
Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Entry into Big Bend National Park is $30/vehicle, but, since we knew we would be visiting a few other national parks on our trip, we decided to buy the annual America the Beautiful pass ($80) which covers the entrance fees to many of the national parks in the US (It covered the entry fee to every park we went to on our trip).  We started off our trip to Big Bend by hiking both The Window trail and the first half of the Lost Mine trail; located out of Chisos Basin Visitor Center in the center of the park.  We were amazed by the difference in landscapes of the national and state park, just a short distance away.  Following a cue from one of the park rangers, we swung by the Fossil Discovery Exhibit in the north side of the park.  It was fascinating to read about the prehistoric history of the area and to see the fossils that were found not to far from that spot.  


rio grande red canyons big bend ranch state park texas
Rio Grande winding through the red canyons of Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas.

As we wound along the Rio Grande and made our way through the red canyons of Big Bend Ranch the next morning, we marveled at the scenery that lay before us.  As we exited the state park in the west we stopped at Fort Leaton, a historic adobe compound used as a trading post and fort during the mid to late 1800's, before turning north and heading through Marfa on our way to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico.  Our campsite that night was in the wide open desert of New Mexico. 

fort leaton big bend ranch state park texas
Fort Leaton, 19th century trading post and fort on the Texas/Mexico border.

Waking up the next morning, we headed the few miles from our campsite to Carlsbad Caverns for what would be one of our favorite stops on the entire trip.   The start of the cavern tour begins in the visitor center with numerous displays explaining the history of the cave, the geology, and a large 3D map.  Due to COVID-19, park rangers were not doing any tours of the cave itself, but allowing visitors to do self guided tours instead.  The cave system has a concrete path with explanatory signs at many of the stops, so a guide is not really needed.  


carlsbad caverns new mexico
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico


The cave system was awe inspiring and extraordinarily beautiful.  As we weaved through the paths we were taken aback by the vastness of the caverns.  Throughout the caves the park has lite different formations, illuminating them with a yellow glow while casting ghostly shadows on the walls and formations around them.

chicken mole enchiladas l&j cafe el paso texas
Chicken Mole Enchiladas and Mexican Combination plate at L&J Cafe in El Paso, Texas.

After we had finished exploring the caverns, we swung down to El Paso, Texas to grab some dinner.  We had been wanting some good Mexican food for a while and what better place to get some than this Texas border town.  After doing a little food research we decided to give L&J Cafe a go.  We tried the Mexican Combination plate and the Mole Enchiladas; they were both delicious and well worth the stop.  The salsa there has a smoky taste and is also great.  After a great meal, we made our way up to Alamogordo for our only night in a hotel (we needed a shower!).


footprints white sands national park new mexico
Footprints in the sand; White Sand National Park, New Mexico.


Our following day was spent at White Sands National Park.  The park was really unique and looks completely out of place.  The entire park is made up of rolling dunes of white sand for as far as the eye can see.  It was great to walk through the dunes and to slide down the steep slopes.  The park sells plastic sleds at the visitor center or you can bring your own, or just some cardboard, to try the slopes yourself. 

heart rocks chiricahua national monument arizona
Heart of the Rocks loop in Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

The next day started our third and final state, Arizona.  We started this off with a visit to Chiricahua National Monument.  It is not a huge park, but it was different to what we had seen and had some great hiking trails.  The park is covered with huge boulders, rock formations, and pine forests.  The most striking of these is the Heart of the Rocks loop trail, which snakes through unique formations and overlooks a forest of rock towers below. 

saguaro east national park arizona
Desert landscape of Saguaro East National Park, Arizona

The last night of our trip was spent on the side of a mountain over looking Tucsan.  Redington Pass is a popular spot for locals to go to watch the sunset over Tucsan, so we felt lucky to find a spot to camp to watch it ourselves.  The following day we took a short trip to Saguaro East National Park, a relatively small park to the east of Tucsan that is covered in saguaro cactus.

copper mine brewing company tucson arizona
Flights of beer at Copper Mine Brewing Company in Tucsan, Arizona

After finishing our hike at Saguaro East we headed into Tucsan to try some new beers at the Copper Mine Brewing Company.  The 'Honey, I Baklava'd the Stout' and 'Campfire Dream Stout' were my two personal favorites.  Afterwards, we made the short jump up to Phoenix, officially ending our nine day road trip across the American Southwest. 


Have You Ever Traveled Across The American Southwest?
What Are Your Favorite Places to See?

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Wide Open Spaces:  Road Trip Across the American Southwest


  1. Big Bend was awesome when I went in 2019. Although I did try to make it to Rio Grande and did get to sit in the hot spring there, it was way too hot and went back to camp in the Chisos Basin. I'll probably do a blog about it later. Saw that you went to Austin as well. I did a blog on the people migrating COVID and alot of people have moved to Texas, especially Austin.


    What has been your experience?

    1. Yea, Big Bend was a great park! It was cold when I went, so the mid-day temp was great for hikes. Austin is a great place to visit also, for sure. There is a lot of amazing food there.


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