As I close in on my quest to visit every National Park in the United States, there are still a few I have yet to visit. Today’s guest, Kay Rodriguez, gives us a taste of one of the lesser visited national parks in the US: Big Bend National Park, Texas.
Everyone knows the stereotypes about Texas. The endless, dusty roads littered with tumbleweeds and the scrap metal remains of industrial vehicles. The decaying buildings and ghost towns covered in reddish-brown soot.
Nothingness. Lots of empty nothingness.
In the middle of those dusty roads, on the border of the United States and Mexico, is a breathtaking outcropping of mountains, canyons, and the famed Rio Grande. Perhaps the Texas stereotypes prove true somewhere, but Big Bend National Park is a different story.
While on our way to the Trinity Site in New Mexico, I poured over our route. Texas… well. Texas is big. And while I’ve been to a lot of it, I had never traveled to the West Texas area near El Paso. It is sometimes called “Big Bend Country” after our flashiest national park. But Big Bend is down on the border of Mexico, and we have another often forgotten national park called the Guadalupe Mountains up on the border of New Mexico. And I was determined to get there!
Located in the Guadalupe Mountains, Guadalupe Mountains National Park contains the highest spot in Texas. – Guadalupe Peak. Clearly, there is a naming structure at work here.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the US, ranking #12. With five of those being hard to get to parks in Alaska, and one being American Samoa way out in the Pacific, that’s pretty significant.
What does that mean? It means there aren’t many people to run into. It also means there aren’t a lot of amenities. You know how there are a crazy amount of hotels and places to eat at the Grand Canyon? Yeah – don’t expect that. There aren’t places to stay near there if you don’t want to camp. We stayed in Carlsbad, NM and we drove all the way to El Paso to have lunch.
But it was absolutely worth the trip.
I loved Guadalupe National Park, even if we were only able to spend a few hours there while driving through. It’s a hard park to get to, and an even harder park to stay near, but it’s beautiful. I wish we could have stayed longer, and I definitely want to return. It would be great to visit in the fall when the leaves are changing in McKittrick Canyon, or when we have more time and can hike up El Capitan. It is very close to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, so it would be a great joint trip for the family to visit both of those parks in the same swoop.
That’s not something most Texans admit. There’s a lot of country pride in my state. But I grew up in a big city suburb and I’ve never lived in anything even remotely close to a town. I don’t know anything about farms.
My husband is a farm boy.
While he’s spent most of his adult life in cities, the wide open spaces of West Texas are where he feels most at peace. He’s probably clocked more hours working on the farm than flying, and he’s been flying for over 10 years.
When we go to visit his family, it’s a weird clash of cultures for me. James is clearly at home and the fact that all I can see for miles and miles are corn fields is a bit unnerving to me. And this is West Texas. It’s so flat you can see next Thursday from here.
During our road trip to Albuquerque, the kids demanded a stop at Grandma and Grandpa’s and James was excited that it corresponded to corn harvest. He took me out to the fields at sunset to check out some of the action. He jumped aboard a farm equipment thingamajig to ride for a while, but I opted to stay behind in the field to photograph the sunset.
For generations the buffalo were the Plains Indians’ source of food, clothing, tools and dwellings. These animals were gifts from their Gods, and each piece of the animal had a purpose. Even the buffalo chips were used as fuel. They were plentiful on the plains before the middle of the 1800’s, like pigeons in New York City today. It would be hard to believe they would ever near extinction.
Yet they were close to being wiped off the planet. We visited the buffalo of Caprock Canyon State Park earlier this year, and after doing some digging I’ve found their story to be fascinating.
The Changing Face of the Plains
Despite their large numbers the High Plains had been stripped of most buffalo by white hidehunters by the 1860’s. They were greatly helped by the development of high powered repeating riffles. An experienced hunger with a long range rifle could kill 100-150 buffalo a day, leaving their carcasses to rot after their hides had been stripped. This destruction and miles of rotting carcasses was especially infuriating to an already unhappy group of people who’s homes were being encroached upon. This outrage would lead to violence.
The Comanche Campaign, a series of battles over the late 1860’s – mid 1870’s, was designed to force the Comanche people to retreat to their designation reservation in the midst of all this slaughter. The United States government used the destruction of buffalo as a tactical advantage to help them solve their “Indian problem.”
…The older Indians at first will be unwilling to confine themselves to these districts (reservations). They are inured to the chase and they will not leave it. The work may be of slow progress, but it must be done. If our ancestors had done it, it would not have to be done now; but they did not, and we must meet it. Aside from extermination, this is the only alternative now left us. We must take the savage as we find him, or rather as we have made him.
…When the buffalo is gone the Indians will cease to hunt. A few years of peace and the game will have disappeared. In the meantime, by the plan suggested we will have formed a nucleus of civilization among the young that will restrain the old and furnish them a home and subsistence when the game is gone. — Excerpt from the US Indian Commissioner’s Report, January, 1868
The Surprise at the Bottom of Palo Duro Canyon
As the Comanche Campaign came to a close and the last of the nomadic plains people were forced into reservations, the area became safer for cattlemen. Charles Goodnight was one of them. He started searching for Palo Duro Canyon, where the last of the large battles between the US Army and free-roaming Native Americans took place in the Southern Plains. He knew water was available at the bottom of the canyon, a resource rare in the area but necessary to raise a significant amount of cattle. The adjacent plains would also be great grazing in the summer. Goodnight found the canyon and established the first cattle ranch in the panhandle of Texas in 1876 and eventually named it the JA Ranch after his business partner.
Goodnight was shocked when he found buffalo at the bottom of the canyon. Gone from the plains, he found an astounding 10,000 to 12,000 buffalo in the canyon. Goodnight knew that the buffalo would compete with his cattle for the canyon’s grasses. Not wanting to slaughter the animals, he drove the buffalo to the furthest part of the canyon from his ranch. He accomplished this fete by shooting near their hooves and continued to do so with any stragglers he found.
But word got out that buffalo were plentiful in the canyon, and buffalo hunters made short work of slaughtering the herd. When it became clear that the hide hunters were exterminating every last buffalo in the canyon, Charles Goodnight’s wife Mary Ann encouraged him to start a herd of his own. He reported started with two roped calves and grew his famous herd to 250 buffalo. When he left the JA Ranch to move to a new ranch, he moved the herd with him.
The Legacy of the Goodnight Herd
The buffalo from the Goodnight herd was one of only five herds in the US that preserved these large native creatures. Yellowstone National Park’s buffalo herd was populated by buffalo bought from the Goodnight herd, and descendants of these buffalo were shipped all over the world.
In 1997, the herd was donated to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. After sampling the DNA of the buffalo, most were found to be pure – and unique. This was truly the last pure herd of the great wild southern herd that roamed the prairies in great number.
“What makes this herd unique is that while Goodnight shipped a lot of animals out, it appears that he never brought an animal in. Their DNA is not found in any other buffalo herd in the world. ” — Danny Swepston, wildlife district leader of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for the Panhandle district
Today, the herd resides at Caprock Canyons State Park. The hope is that the buffalo will continue to reproduce and can eventually be reintroduced to roam wild in the prairie. But for now, they have to make due with a 153-acre pasture. They co-exist with the visitors that come to see them. While the visitors are instructed to keep at least 50 yards away from the buffalo, someone forgot to tell the buffalo to keep away from the visitors. When heading to get water in Lake Theo, these wild majestic creatures will walk inches away from your car. It is a pretty surreal – and unique -experience to have.
Caprock Canyons State Park is in the panhandle of Texas near the city of Quitaque. It is an hour and a half south of Amarillo, and about four and a half hours west of both Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. There are campsites available, as well as a limited amount of hotel rooms in the surrounding area. Like the rest of the panhandle, the summers can be blistering hot and the winter can bring snow. The best times to visit would be in the spring and fall.
Robertson, Pauline Durrett and R. L. Robertson. Panhandle Pilgrimage: Illustrated Tales Tracing History in the Texas Panhandle, Book, 1978; digital images, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth225495/ : accessed March 05, 2013), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Canyon Area Library, Canyon, Texas.
When I called the reservations line to ask about cabin availability at Palo Duro Canyon, the lady on the other end of the line chuckled a bit. She told me that they are often booked months in advance, and finding something last minute wasn’t guaranteed. We were lucky and got a last minute cancelation.
The problem lies with supply and demand. There are only three rim cabins at Palo Duro Canyon, and it is a very popular destination! Located in the Panhandle of Texas very near the city of Amarillo, Palo Duro Canyon is second in size only to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
I have a confession. I’ve never felt as conflicted as I do writing this post. I loved our stay, but we were lucky to get the cabin. What if I publicize how great they are and can’t find an opening in the future? I definitely plan to go back.
The rim cabins were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930’s out of stone quarried nearby. The CCC workers, young men, and veterans of WWI unable to find work in the height of the Depression, came to this area in the middle of the Dust Bowl. They created what would become Palo Duro Canyon State Park. They built the road into the canyon, six cabins total, and other improvements. Knowing how cold the winter nights and how hot the summer days are in the Panhandle, I have immense respect for these men and appreciation for what they achieved.
While making phone reservations, I wasn’t able to pick our particular cabin – just the pricing category. It was still a surprise when we arrived at the Ranger Station. Drumroll… we were staying in the Goodnight Cabin!
Knowing the age of the Goodnight Cabin, I was surprised by what I found when I got there. The hard work and fine craftsmanship of the CCC were very evident. Although 80 years old, the cabin was very sturdy. You could tell the cabin had recently been refurbished, but that original features had been preserved. The original hand-carved ceiling beams were exposed and gave the cabin a beautiful rustic charm. It was cozy, but it was very clean and the linens were quality. The children loved the full-sized bunk beds!
You may remember we were at the Grand Canyon only three weeks earlier, so it was interesting to compare the lodging to Palo Duro. The cost nightly was $110. Similar accommodations would be FAR more expensive at the Grand Canyon – and they would likely be booked years and years in advance.
While Palo Duro doesn’t have the food facilities (especially in the evening) that the Grand Canyon has, we were able to get a great burger at the Trading Post in the park for lunch and we brought a cooler with our dinner. The cabin included a microwave and a minifridge. If the temperatures had been a little warmer the picnic table on the back porch would have been a fantastic place to eat and take in the view.
There was also a fireplace inside and a grill outside, but they were off limits because of a fire ban. It is my understanding that this fire ban is very common. While you can call ahead and see if the ban is still in effect, you shouldn’t bank on being able to use the fireplace and grill.
We had a clear view of the sunset from our porch. The stars were amazing over the canyon at night! If your children are city kids, like ours, they will probably be surprised by how many stars are actually visible. The sunrise was a bit obstructed, but I took a couple minutes to walk past the cabins to watch it on the morning we were there. Very worth it!
Of course like every stay, there were a few drawbacks to the experience. The heater, while effective, was a wall unit and very loud. I would assume it would be the same in the summer when it was attempting to cool the cabin in the hot Texas sun. Like I mentioned, the evenings were cold and a fire in the fireplace would have been nice – but precluded by the fire ban, which also did not allow us to use the grill. There were no doors separating the bedrooms. While not a problem for us, this could be a disadvantage if you aren’t as close to your family as we are. Also, there are only four occupants allowed, so it is not an option for you if you have a larger family than that. However, the cons were nothing near dealbreakers for us, and we will return to the canyon for another stay in the cabins.
On the surface, Wichita Falls is not an interesting city. It is one of those places you go through on your way to somewhere else. Even the highway was built to accommodate a swift and smooth passage. It is elevated above the city and is a pain to get back on if you dare to exit to eat.
But it wasn’t always that way. In the 1910’s, oil was found close by. Wichita Falls was where IT was AT. Business was booming, and the building wasn’t able to keep up. Tents were erected on the street to use as office space.
Enter opportunist J.D. McMahon. He saw a problem and set out to fix it. He drummed up investors by showing them a blueprint of an annex of his current building. It was to be an impressive 480 feet tall (to compare, this is the same size as the Giza Pyramid in Egypt).
Except in something that seems ripped from the Spinal Tap movie, he wrote” instead of ‘ on the blueprint. He built the building 480 INCHES high, which is 40 feet. There are four floors in this skyscraper, with the inside dimensions of 12 feet x 9 feet. There’s more square footage in my master bath than in a floor of this building.
When it became clear that the building was seriously flawed, investors went looking for Mr. McMahon. He had absconded with $200,000 of funds (which had the buying power of about $2.6 million of today’s dollars)! When the elevator company came to install the elevator for the building, they took one look at the mess and said “nope!” Investors reportedly recouped a small amount of cash from their refund. A ladder had to be installed (and later a stairwell built) because no other way between the floors had been allowed for.
The legends of this little building have survived, and unfortunately seem to be unable to substantiate. Are they true? Maybe…
Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not fame gave the building the nickname “The Littlest Skyscraper”
It was once saved from being demolished by a millionaire’s wife who thought it was “so cute” she bought it.
Investors hired a man to follow Mr. McMahon to all his subsequent endeavors and inform potential investors of the swindle.
We visited the building in November, and there was a small antique store occupying the annex (but not the “tower”). But we stopped by again last month, and they had vacated. The owner had told us that people stopped in almost daily to see Wichita Falls’ folly, and local school children studied the design when learning the mathematics of scale.
I hope that it will soon be occupied again. This building has survived fire, tornado and scorn to become an attraction. Even if it is a small one.
You can find the Littlest Skyscraper (officially known as the Newby – McMahon Building) at the corner of 7th and LaSalle in Wichita Falls, Texas. Since it was unoccupied on our last visit, I have no idea if you can get into the building to see the inside. However, it’s about a 10 minute round trip detour from Highway 287/Interstate 44 and definitely worth that time to see it in person.
Truly a Fort Worth tradition since it was opened in 1959, generations of families have ridden the rails along the Trinity River and through Forest and Trinity Parks on the Forest Park Miniature Railroad.
I love when we head down to ride the train. One of my favorite places in Fort Worth is Trinity Park. You see, I live in a young subdivision in the north part of town. The developer cleared all the existing trees! It’s horrible! We have no shade and all of the recently planted trees are too small to climb.
But in the large Trinity Park, and the smaller Forest Park next door, the old large trees along the river are nurtured and cared for. And reading the history of the Forest Park Miniature Railroad, it seems they have been since at least the train was originally planned. There were already rides of some sort in Forest Park.
After World War 1, William Henry “Bill” Hames left farming to manage the outdoor amusement park. Maybe it was his farming background that made him value the trees in the park, maybe not. But whatever the reason they plotted the route of the railroad to minimize the loss of trees, which is why the train zigs and zags in several places. They amazingly had to remove only ONE tree, in the circular turn-around next to the duck pond.
Along and across the river, through the woods and turn around at the duck pond… doesn’t that sound like a great route? No wonder it has been popular for almost 45 years. There’s little fanfare, just a small sign on the road the zoo. They only take cash, no credit cards accepted. No video screens, no entertainment. Just you, on the train, through the park. Magical.
There is a stop about 2/3rds through the ride where you can stop and grab popcorn and drinks at reasonable prices. It’s unclear when it is open and when it is closed. In my experience, it seems that it is open more consistently during the summer hours.
Take water with you, especially in the summer. Even if you are catching the first train of the day, it can get pretty warm in August and you’ll appreciate that you planned to stay hydrated. Trust me!
Do the kids like it? Six year old Claire gave the best recommendation…
While we are lucky to live in Fort Worth for many reasons, a big one would have to be because of the Fort Worth Zoo. Routinely named in the top five zoos in America, the Fort Worth Zoo is a local attraction we head back to time and time again. Even Gary said he was “impressed,” (which is rare) when we took him with us. With over 7,000 native and exotic animals on site, it is hard not to be.
History of the Fort Worth Zoo
Founded in 1909, the Fort Worth Zoo originally had rabbits, a peacock, two bear cubs, an alligator, a coyote and one lion. Not exactly a high caliber zoo animal list! But it has steadily grown over the years and experienced a renaissance in the mid 90’s with an ownership change.
Why Visit the Fort Worth Zoo?
Home to such facilities as Asian Falls, World of Primates, Texas Wild! and the Great Barrier Reef, the Fort Worth Zoo takes pride in taking care of their animal charges while serving the many visitors they receive daily. Zookeepers are at specially designated points at posted times daily, and love to answer questions about the animals! My kids love to ask them about what the animals eat, how they live, and what makes the animals unique.
Our favorite facility is the relatively new (2010) Museum of Living Art (or MOLA). Home to snakes, lizards, spiders, and fish the MOLA is a great place to spend an hour in the hot summer months. There is usually an animal out in the petting area, that you can touch and discuss with the zoo volunteer in charge of the station.
There is also a great cafe on premises that you can sit in and observe the turtles, crocodiles, and fish in the tank outside via a large window wall. It is a fantastic experience for the kids – and I really love it too.
Fort Worth Zoo Admission Prices
The price might seem a little high for a zoo admission if you didn’t know how great an experience it was going to be – although I’ve paid much higher admission for far less impressive animal experiences. 2013 ticket prices are $12 for adults, $9 for children and $5 for parking. Wednesday’s are always half priced, but they are usually much busier than the other weekdays.
If you live local, check out membership passes as we have found them to be a great value. We’ve been members for several years, and plan to continue to buy them as a Christmas present to the family as long as the children enjoy the trip.
Here is what has been happening on my US road trip the last few days and other odds and ends:
With today’s daily photo, I have now caught up with my most recent World Heritage site. Carlsbad Caverns was my 106th World Heritage site and it only took 35 days to go from Italy to New Mexico. You can view the complete list of all 106 World Heritage sites I’ve visited with links to all the daily photos corresponding to each location. I hope to do a day trip to the Everglades on Friday and visit three more on the way back to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mammoth Cave, and Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois.
The cruise I’ll be going on next week is sponsored by Princess Cruise Lines. They are picking up the whole tab, so if you think I’ve become a shill for the cruise industry, now you know why. This will not only be the first cruise I’ve ever been on but the first time I’ve ever been on a press trip. Given how I travel, cruising never really appealed to me. If I had to spend my own money, it probably isn’t something I would do on my own. Getting eight hours to visit a port is like having an extended layover in an airport. Nonetheless, I am not anti-cruising and am open-minded enough to give it a try. I’ll try to do a few updates while on board the ship and will be using Twitter during the cruise. You can follow all the Tweets from the cruise at #followmeatsea.
I’ve been staying with my friend Amy in Fort Worth. She has two kids, 3 years and 14 months old. It has been very different being around little kids. Her daughter Claire is adorable and is at that age where she is speaking complete sentences, but still learning how the world works. Luke is walking but not yet talking. He interacts with people by picking stuff up and giving it to them. On Sunday I went with Amy and the kids to the Fort Worth botanical gardens and yesterday we took the kids and her husband James to the Fort Worth Stockyards. It has been a nice break from sitting in a car all day.
I’ve also had a great time hanging out with my friend, cartoonist Scott Kurtz. Even though a travel blog has nothing to do with drawing a cartoon, there is a lot that I’ve learned from Scott over the years that I’ve incorporated into my blog. Scott normally does a live stream of him drawing his strip every day, and on Monday we took calls from his fans on Skype while he was drawing. We had calls from Germany, Poland, UK, Canada and the US. I think it is important to have friends that are totally outside of what you do, lest you never get a perspective from the outside of the bubble you live in.
The winners of the Lonely Planet book, Extreme Cuisine are Bev F, Bob, Jessie, Chaiaket, and Steph. You will be contacted by email.
If you are in the Fort Lauderdale/Miami area and would like to meet during my brief stay at either end of the cruise, contact me and we can try to arrange it.