The end of November often proves to be the best time to travel– the weather is still decent, most families are back in school and holiday travel centers around family gatherings, and we get a guaranteed few days off from work.
This year we left blustery Seattle and migrated south for a 1,000 mile road trip from Phoenix to Albuquerque across ten days. The weather was poised to be comfortable and dry, and we have enough experience road-tripping to survive so many hours in the car together. Packing for a trip like this takes a bit of resourcefulness since we travel with three carry-on suitcases and three backpacks, but after ten years of it we have a fairly smooth system and packing list. Email me if you'd like a copy of our packing list Excel file. My favorite part of southbound flights is the moment you can see Mt. Rainier lined up with Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood in the background. We are always arguing over the window seat. Three hours later we touched down...
Day 1: Phoenix, AZ
• The moment we had our car, we hightailed it to a quick lunch and then the Arizona Museum of Natural History. Winter meant early closures for just about every place on our list, so we needed every moment of our first day. We arrived with two hours to spend which was just about right. They had an excellent assortment of dinosaur skeletons, including our favorite Quetzalcoatlus, and several exhibit rooms of ancient Native cultures dating back to 1500 BCE Olmecs. The lower level also included a opportunity for free gold panning and a kids' play area. Admission $12 adult / $7 for kids. Two hours needed.
• Next in Phoenix we toured the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chase Field. This added a notch to our slow-growing collection of ballpark tours across the country. We noticed the ballpark bore a striking resemblance to Safeco Field in Seattle! The best features here were the pool "suite" you could rent for $5,500, and the incredibly cheap food menu. We're talking Costco-esque two buck hot dogs and drinks. Tickets $9pp and available online, 75 minute tour.
• Other activities we considered but didn't have time for included: Goldfield Ghost Town, Pioneer Living History Museum, Desert Botanical Garden, and Lost Dutchman State Park. This is our second time in Phoenix and we'll likely return again.
Day 2: Tucson, AZ
• Our first stop in Tucson was the Old Tucson Movie Studio, located southwest of the city. Hundreds of movies have been filmed here, including Three Amigos, Young Guns, and Tombstone. The complex offers a guided walking tour, stagecoach rides, trail rides, a train, several shops, and a few restaurants. We enjoyed the prickly pear bbq chicken while watching a gunfight reenactment! A fire in the '90s burned down about half of the buildings, but what was left was still worth the drive and admission. Adults $20 / Kids $11.
• Next up was Saguaro National Park, a truly stunning landscape unlike anything else in America. We got to see it both in the daytime and at dusk, when the sounds of the desert come alive. We drove the Bajada Loop Drive and hiked the Signal Hill trail which included some Hohokam petroglyphs which dated back hundreds of years. It definitely is worth it, but give yourself time– some roads are gravel, the parking areas are slim, and you need plenty of water. A junior ranger program is available, but we decided to mail the booklet in later.
• Other activities we considered included Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Sonoran Desert Museum, and the Pima Air & Space Museum.
Day 3 & 4: Tombstone, AZ
• What fun we had in Tombstone! Bell is the biggest fan of the old west, so this entire trip actually centered around this town. ;) The only thing that could have made it better would have been to see Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer wandering the streets asking for a huckleberry.
• Our first stop was the Trolly Tour. This short 30 minute tour was crowded and a bit on the boring side, but we did learn some interesting facts about the origin of the city and the locations of several buildings. Armed with this new knowledge, we were able to scour the streets for relics of the past.
• We dined at Big Kate's Saloon and Longhorn Restaurant– neither was spectacular but both were lively and had awesome stained glass windows to admire. Both, of course, were playing Tombstone on big screens.
• Might as well blow twenty bucks on a souvenir old-timey sepia photo too. What better way could there be to remember your visit? They don't mess around either. We were in and out in less than 15 minutes with 8x10 photo in hand.
• Our last stop was the infamous O.K. Corral, site of the gunfight that made the town known worldwide. There was a small museum and gift shop, including a 30 minute film to watch (we didn't), before venturing out to the corral and buildings of the surrounding area. A short re-enactment of the Earps' gunfight with the McLaurys and Clantons was especially fun to watch, even though none of the actors even remotely resembled the actual people. Admission $10pp.
• On our way out, we drove south before heading east to check out Bisbee, AZ, another old mining town with a very cute downtown area and huge copper mines. We only cruised through for a few minutes, but it definitely looked like a worthy stopping point.
• Other activities we considered included the Good Enough Silver Mine Tour and the Bird Cage Theater's Ghost Tour.
Day 5: White Sands, NM
• As you're driving through the area towards White Sands National Monument, you'll be asking yourself, "Where is it? Why can't I see it?" Well, I can tell you now– you won't see a damn thing. Even after reaching the Visitors Center, you still won't see anything. Even after you drive a ways into the park... not much. Then you'll find some small hills of white sand and you'll be tempted to stop. Don't! Keep going.
• Once you get to the REAL sand dunes, the action begins! We had the misfortune of arriving on a cloudy day which meant temps in the 50s. Ordinarily I wouldn't mind but we were dressed for a "day at the beach" with flip flops and shorts. (I certainly didn't want to get sand in my shoes and socks!) We ended up leaving after an hour or so because our toes were going numb.
• Pro Tip: Arrive early and hope for a pile of used sleds for $10 each. Otherwise you have to buy a new one for $19. You can sell them back for $5 after you're done, because honestly who is taking one of these lime green or neon orange saucers on an airplane?! The gift shop was PACKED with people buying sleds, which really surprised me. After all, we were there on Thanksgiving Day. Didn't all these people have turkeys to gobble up?
• Pro Tip: Find the steepest hill you can for the best sliding. And definitely purchase the wax cube for two bucks at the gift shop.
Day 6: Guadalupe Mountains National Park
• For about three hours, we dipped across the state line into Texas to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I really had no idea what to expect there, other than knowing the mountains were part of the same Chihuahuan Desert as so much of the land we'd been exploring.
• The Visitors Center is tiny. The gift shop is tiny. The parking lot is tiny. These are the first clues to let you know they don't get a lot of visitors at this park. There isn't much to do if you're not planning to backcountry hike or camp, so you'll have to be satisfied with the half mile jaunt called the Pinery Trail from the Visitors Center. This flat, level, walk takes to you a spot where stagecoaches used to arrive, but nothing remains at the end of the trail! Spoiler alert.
• No gas is available near the park, so fill up at Whites City, a cute town at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns.
• We did nothing else this day because our energy tanks were running on fumes. Zzzzzzzz.
Day 7: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
• We got a bit of a late start on Caverns morning. Bell and I are early risers, but Matt is most certainly not, which often puts our arrival time at activities in the middle of the morning rush. There were A LOT OF PEOPLE at the caverns. Repeat– many, many people. If you have a plan for a ranger-led guided tour, sign up early. By the time we arrived at 11am everything was sold out for the day.
• There is an option to enter the caverns from the natural entrance and hike down and through the maze of dimly-lit but well-marked trails. We were told it was about 2.5 miles and by the time I realized I wasn't sure if that was one way or roundtrip, we decided it was best to take the elevator down instead. Most people seem to take this option, and your walk will then be just over a mile.
• Brush up on your stalactite, stalagmite, draperies, and other vocabulary word definitions before you go and you'll sound like an awesome science professor. ;)
• There is a small restaurant in the caverns, a very large gift shop, and a separate book store. The resident bats had flown to Mexico and we were unable to see the evening bat flight, but it's truly a sight to see if you get a chance.
• The closest big town is Carlsbad, about half an hour north of the caverns. The city has all the essentials and a plethora of hotels, as well as several restaurants. We had extremely long waits at every food place, so pack some patience and call-in your to-go orders if you can.
Day 8: Roswell, NM
• This was the day everything went downhill. The drive from Carlsbad to Roswell wasn't the longest of the trip, but this was when we all started to get REALLY tired of being. In. The. Damn. Car. Backs were aching, heads were pounding, iTunes playlists were getting irritating. I also think we had a misconception of what Roswell would look like– like it would be a quaint, theme town stuck in 1947. In reality, the city of Roswell was large, bustling, and just like any other American city. We settled into the umpteenth hotel and didn't leave again for that night.
• The next morning we were supposed to visit the International UFO Museum, but decided against it and started the last long haul to Albuquerque. And what a haul it was.... We left the city with half a tank of gas, some cold drinks, and a three hour stretch ahead of us. I had NO IDEA it would be like sinking into an abyss of absolute nothingness. Literally nothing anywhere– no animals, farms, phone lines, not even rolling hills or interesting landscape. I should have taken a panorama of the emptiness but I got caught up in another issue– the fact that when I noticed we were at a quarter tank of gas and should go ahead and stop, the nearest city was a full 60 miles away. Cell service basically dropped out at this point in another twist of cosmic giggles. I'm convinced our gas was being sucked into the void somehow. I ended up crawling a 75 mph highway at an achingly slow 45 with the AC and radio off, all the while hoping a mirage of Vaughn, NM would show up in the distance. Finally, the world's sweetest sight of a Conoco was within a couple miles' walking distance, and then we miraculously coasted in to a pump with the indicator pegging E and a glaringly bright gas tank light scolding me from the dash.
Day 9: Albuquerque, NM
• We got 1.5 days in Albuquerque, so despite running on fumes, we ended up at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History with a couple of hours before closing time. I really liked how the museum was arranged chronologically, so you start at the Big Bang and work your way forward from there. The bottom floor had an extra bonus of an arthropod/reptile/amphibian room with live animals.
• Pro Tip: If you have a zoo or museum membership, remember to take your card when you travel! We got in to this museum for free, as well as the next one below....
• Across the street was an equally cool museum called Explora! This museum was entirely hands-on and had activities suitable for everyone from toddlers to adults. Explora! stays open until 6pm, so we only got an hour after the other museum closed, but it was enough to get a good taste. At closing time, the staff dumps the remaining liquid nitrogen into a center fountain, and all the kids gathered around to ooh and ahh at the freezing cloud of vapor.
• Day 2 began at Petroglyph National Monument. A junior ranger program is available here, and the visitors center only offers a small gift shop and maps/info. The petroglyphs are all a short drive away at a couple of different locations. We drove to the furthest option about 6 miles north of the center, and were almost instantly away from the city rumble and in the middle of wilderness. We saw a lot of birds and several jackrabbits, as well as the big prize– a roadrunner! Oh yeah, and petroglyphs too. We didn't walk very far along the path, maybe a mile or so, and saw a handful but also some obvious graffiti. This discouraged and frustrated us enough to actually turn around and move on with our day.
• Our afternoon was spent at the Albuquerque BioPark which included the Rio Grande Zoo. This was hands-down the best zoo we've seen so far across the country (and yes, we've been to several). Not only did we see a lot of new animals we've never seen before (wombat! tasmanian devil! cheetahs!) but almost every animal was out and active. The zoo was also almost completely empty which made our journey around pretty quick. We heard the giraffes were off-exhibit because just the day before a new baby was born. How exciting! Bell was able to come face to face with a hyena cub and we lost count of how many babies were at the zoo. We used our zoo membership card to get half price admission, which ended up at $10 for both of us.
• Our day wrapped up at Old Town so we could do some shopping. There are so many shops in this small neighborhood it could easily take all day and I wish we'd had more time. We settled down to a quick lunch at Church Street Cafe which operates out of a ~300 year old building, one of the oldest in all of New Mexico. A few treasures later and one too many sopapillas in our bellies, and we were ready to call an end to our trip and start packing for the trip home.