We approached the ticket counter to ask about guided cave tours—sold out. But the park ranger said we could do the self-guided tour. We could take the elevator or the Natural Entrance. “But you’ll take the Natural Entrance. Nothing’s wrong with you. You’ll do it.” “Um…ok” I responded to the park ranger as he caught me eyeing the elevator down to the caves. (I mean, they have built them for a reason, yes?)
The Natural Entrance trail is 1.25 miles long and takes you 750 feet below ground—if that doesn’t mean much, let me give you one word to sum it up: STEEP! Also dark, and slippery in places. This trail has warning signs! Before you even start!
But that gruff old ranger was on to something—the Natural Entrance trail is breathtaking (ha!), and without walking down those steep switchbacks, I don’t think I would have appreciated just how deep underground we went. You can see the trail disappear into the darkness way below you, and then when you finally reach that spot, you discover it disappears into another abyss. Do you see the handrails in the photos below? Try to follow them down, down, down along the trail.
These aren’t the best photos we’ve ever taken (it’s really dark down there!), but hopefully they give you an idea of the scale of these caverns. They are massive!
The Natural Entrance trail takes you through lots of different caves, until finally opening up at The Big Room—which is about 8 acres! There’s a mile-long loop trail inside that takes you past all sorts of stalactites, stalagmites, shallow pools, columns, curtains, and bottomless pits.
This place is so large, there’s even a gift shop and cafeteria—underground!
Do you have the Fraggle Rock theme song stuck in your head now, or is that just me?
When we mentioned our plans to visit the VLA, our Airbnb host recommended we end the day with a trip to Bosque del Apache for the sunset fly-in. Every evening, thousands of geese and birds fly to a patch of land in the park to settle down for the night. Perhaps you’re thinking what I was…”hmm, what is so special about this?” But it was actually a really impressive thing to watch! There were tens of thousands of birds, and when one small group got worked up, it set off a chain reaction and suddenly there was a riot of honking and flapping.
Curious how loud thousands of birds can be? Check out our short video on Instagram!
On the outskirts of Albuquerque is the Petroglyph National Monument. There are a few hiking trails, all a short drive from the visitor center. The park ranger we spoke with recommended the Piedras Marcadas Canyon Trail. It’s a relatively easy walk, but be prepared to leave with shoes full of sand!
The park ranger gave us a map with a short list of petroglyphs to look for at marked stops along the trail. We paused for several minutes at stop one, but couldn’t find the mark! We improved our scouting skills further along the trail, and spotted lots of markings on the basalt rocks.
A couple of Jack Rabbits were chasing each other near the trail. Can you spot one in the photo below?
These tall, cone-like rock formations are called “hoodoos” and are the product of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. The different bands of color seen in the rocks are different types of ash and volcanic rock deposits.
There are two trails at the park: the Cave Loop and the Slot Canyon Trail. We started with the Slot Canyon Trail, and it was amazing! At some points, the canyon closes in on the trail and the walls are just shoulder-width apart!
We got to duck under a huge boulder and scramble up some big rock piles.
After walking through the canyon, the trail starts climbing a steep hill. When you get to the top, you can walk along to the very tip of the mesa and see for miles all around.
Walking back through the slot canyon is just as fun. We got lapped by a couple of groups because we stopped so often to look around and take photos!
The Cave Loop trail is a nice walk and there are plenty of tent rocks to see along the way. And of course, the cave! It’s a bit high up in the wall, so you can’t go inside, but it was still pretty neat.
We posted a short timelapse video of the canyon on Instagram. Check it out! >
We liked White Sands so much we visited twice in two days! The first day we arrived around 4:00 and took the ranger’s advice to drive the loop during sunset and save hiking for another day. It was cloudy, windy, and cold—but it created a fun illusion that we were driving and walking around on ice.
There are several places to stop along the road and get out to walk on the dunes. One area has an elevated boardwalk and felt a bit more like a visit to the beach.
You might not have a lot of time for exploring before the park closes, but White Sands is definitely worth a visit at the end of the day. The sunset creates some really neat colors and shadows on the dunes.
We went back the next morning with a cloudless sky overhead. And, wow, those sands are bright! Blindingly white!
We passed a few people on the trail, but mostly it felt like we were alone. And it was so quiet out there!
One regret: not buying sleds at the visitor center. Yes, you can go sledding on the dunes! (FYI, frisbees do not work.)
While visiting Tucson, we spent a few hours walking around the desert trails and gardens of Tohono Chul Park.
What’s neat about this park is their theme of nature, art, and culture. In addition to several walking trails, there are sculptures on the grounds and an art gallery. Signs along the trails taught us about the Tohono O’odham people and the Sonoran Desert.
Let’s start with this: it’s pronounced “sa-WAH-ro.” These cacti are only found in the Sonoran Desert, and only up to a certain elevation (they can’t survive the colder temperatures).
The saguaro sprouts from a tiny black seed.
A 6-foot tall saguaro is around 35 years old. They often sprout their arms when they reach about 10–15ft.
Which means saguaros that are super tall, and have lots of arms, are really old!
We took a guided walk (they’re free!) with Park Ranger Jeff, who took us off the trail to see the giant above. That cactus is around 150 years old! The ranger program was very informative! We learned a lot about the saguaro, and also other cacti, local trees, and the impact people and the changing climate have had on this area. We’re now very good at spotting the state tree of Arizona, the Palo Verde:
After the ranger program, we did the Mica View Loop. It was an easy walk that gave us plenty of opportunities to admire the saguaros (and all those other plants we learned about, too).
There are lots of trails and they often intersect. The markers are helpful, but I’d recommend reviewing the trail map with a ranger before you set out.
The saguaro is supported on the inside by woody ribs. When the cactus dies, the ribs sometimes remain standing.
To access some of the trail heads, you have to take the Cactus Forest Loop Drive. This is a one-way 8-mile road that begins and ends at the visitor’s center. It’s a very pretty drive with great views of the desert and surrounding mountains. There are some overlooks along the route for checking out the views or taking a walk to see the Javelina Rocks.