Austin

You’ve heard the slogan, right? “Keep Austin weird.” I thought Austin was really fun, but I wouldn’t necessary call it weird. Except for those stuffed animal snakes wrapped around the electric poles on 1st Avenue. And that time a white peacock crossed the street in front of us. But otherwise, it’s a totally normal town!

Austin, TX

Zilker Park, Austin TX

Bullock Texas State History Museum

We were lucky to get expert insider tips from our friends Gina and Ian, who live in Austin, and from our friendly Airbnb hosts. Wildflowers? Check. Live music? Check. Educational day trips? Check. BBQ, donuts, and breakfast tacos? Check, check, and check!

Texas wildflowers

We hit most of the popular spots in Austin: the murals, bat watching at the Congress Street bridge, Blanton art museum, Zilker Park, Sixth Street, the university, and the state history museum.

Skyspace

University of Texas at Austin

We went on the free tours at the O. Henry house (very small, but very knowledgeable staff!) and the Texas State Capitol (very large, and also very informative). Fun fact: O. Henry worked at the General Land Office building, which is now the visitor center for the Capitol.

O. Henry's house, Austin TX

Texas State Capitol

Not too far outside the city is the LBJ Ranch, now a national park. There’s a long winding drive through the ranch with several interpretive signs that describe the history of the land, LBJ’s life, and his beloved cows. We took a guided tour of the Texas White House, which includes the family’s original furnishings from the 60s.

LBJ Ranch

LBJ Ranch

Another fun day trip took us to Waco, Texas, home of Magnolia Market! Fixer Upper is a popular show, but we were really surprised at just how crowded this place was!

Magnolia Market, Waco TX

Magnolia Market, Waco TX

And, yes, those cupcakes are worth the wait!

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Padre Island

Did you know you can drive on the beach in Texas? You can! Well, on Padre Island at least. People just drove right on to the sand, and pulled up to the water. I guess it beats lugging around a bunch of gear!

A ranger talk at Padre Island National Seashore taught us about the Gulf currents and how loads of stuff washes onto the shores there. Not just trash, although sadly there is a ton of it, but also fish bones, and sea beans from the Caribbean and South America. We were very proud to find a hamburger seed and a sea heart bean (it floated all the way from Brazil!). On the way out of the park we passed a controlled burn, which was a little too close to the road in my opinion!

Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Balli beach was about a 10 minute walk from our Airbnb. It was a quiet and relaxing beach, with a fishing pier at one end. A good spot for pretty sunsets. On one of our walks we watched a Coast Guard drill. Another weekend, the beach hosted the Barefoot Mardi Gras Festival, with a parade on the beach! I think this gave us a small glimpse of how crazy spring break can get (but we left town just before the crowds arrived).

Padre Island

Padre Island

Padre Island

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

This place is so large, there’s even a gift shop and cafeteria—underground!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Do you have the Fraggle Rock theme song stuck in your head now, or is that just me?

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

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.

Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache

Curious how loud thousands of birds can be? Check out our short video on Instagram!

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument

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!

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument

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.

Petroglyph National Monument

A couple of Jack Rabbits were chasing each other near the trail. Can you spot one in the photo below?

Petroglyph National Monument

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

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!

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

We got to duck under a huge boulder and scramble up some big rock piles.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

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.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

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!

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

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.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

We posted a short timelapse video of the canyon on Instagram. Check it out! >

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument

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.

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument

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.

White Sands National Monument

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.

White Sands National Monument

We went back the next morning with a cloudless sky overhead. And, wow, those sands are bright! Blindingly white!

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument

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.)

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Saguaro National Park (East)

Saguaro National Park

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).

Saguaro National Park

The saguaro sprouts from a tiny black seed.

Saguaro National Park

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!

Saguaro National Park

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).

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park

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.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park

The saguaro is supported on the inside by woody ribs. When the cactus dies, the ribs sometimes remain standing.

Saguaro National Park

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.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park

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Joshua Tree National Park

Welcome to Cool Trees and Rocks: Desert Edition! Our day at Joshua Tree National Park was spent on the Mojave Desert side of the park. We entered the park at the Oasis Visitor Center, drove down to the Cholla Cactus Garden, then back up to Keys View and Hidden Valley.

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park

In addition to long day hikes and backpacking trails, Joshua Tree has several nature trails. These were easy walks and were a nice way to experience different areas of the park. The picnic areas and campground pull-offs were also great spots to stop and view scenery (and watch rock climbers).

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

Have you guys been watching Westworld? This way to the maze!

Of course we saw the famous Joshua trees, too…

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

At an elevation of 5,185 feet, Keys View is a great spot to look out over Coachella Valley — including the San Andreas Fault, which was right below us!

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

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Beaches and trees

Were we in Mount Tamalpais State Park or the Golden Gate National Recreation Area? I have no idea! But we found an excellent route for an afternoon of scenic driving and pretty walks along the Pacific.

From 101, we took the curvy Shoreline Highway (Rt 1) towards the coast. First stop: picnic at Muir Beach Overlook.

Muir Beach Overlook

Muir Beach Overlook

Muir Beach Overlook

We then continued on Shoreline Highway up to Stinson Beach. This part of the road hugs the coastline and there are some overlooks for checking out the view below. Stinson Beach was really long compared to other beaches around here, so we took a nice walk along the chilly sand. It was a breezy 70 degrees! FYI, the Parkside Snack Bar has excellent soft serve.

Stinson Beach

Stinson Beach

Next up, the Panoramic Highway, another twisty turny road. This road and the Shoreline Highway felt like car commercial roads. In fact, we saw a small film crew! They were filming a vintage station wagon driving around. Maybe we will be in the background! Anyways, the Panoramic Highway took us to Muir Woods National Monument. We visited the woods several years ago and were both happy to visit again. Plus, I got stamps for my National Parks Passport!

Muir Woods National Monument

Muir Woods National Monument

It’s hard to capture in a photo, but these trees are giants! I know we’re just talking about trees, but they really are amazing. Dare I say, majestic!

Muir Woods

Muir Woods National Monument

Kenan found the entrance to the Upside Down!

Muir Woods National Monument

At some of the parks in this area we found these neat models of the landscape. Doesn’t it remind you of the Game of Thrones opening credits?

Muir Beach

Muir Woods

Muir Woods Road took us back down to the coast for sunset at Muir Beach. This place gave me a “whoa, we are definitely in California” vibe. There were people playing frisbee, dogs running wild, a bunch of groups huddled around bonfires…and a guy playing bongo drums!

Muir Beach

Muir Beach

Muir Beach