What to Do in Balboa Park on a Weekend Away in San Diego

Balboa park is really a cultural gem of San Diego, and no trip to this seaside city would be complete without a visit to this premier location. If you want to know about what to do in Balboa Park, here is a short list of what will be explored below. There are a variety of gardens, and museums of all kinds (some of them free). And on top of all that, Balboa is right next door to the San Diego Zoo, and walking distance from downtown. You could spend an entire weekend exploring this beautiful park, or you could visit different parts over time. Whatever the case, if you’ve never been and you are planning a visit to San Diego, don’t miss this special place. As I always say, it has a little bit of something for everybody.

what to do in Balboa Park

History of Balboa Park

what to do in Balboa Park

The land that Balboa Park now sits on is in the ancestral home of the Kumeyaay people, who have lived in the San Diego region for more than 10,000 years.

In 1868, post-colonization of the area, the land was designated a city park, but was not tended until Kate Sessions entered the scene in 1892. This amazing woman began planting 100 trees a year, and donating other plants in exchange for the use of some land as a nursery. Due to her tireless work and lasting impact on the place we know and love today, Kate is known as the “Mother of Balboa Park.”

More attention and investment was put to Balboa in preparation for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, at which time the park received the name it goes by today (replacing “City Park”). While much has changed in the park over time, many of the thematic ideas that we can still enjoy today were envisioned and developed at this time.

You can read more about the history of the park in Balboa Park History. 

What to Do in Balboa Park for a Weekend

what to do in Balboa Park

Inside the Botanical Building (c) ABR

If you really want to experience the park, you will need to spend at least an entire day, if not two. You could certainly spend more time in Balboa if you wanted to visit all the museums, and many elements of the park are fun to revisit.

On a nice fall or spring day, I would suggest spending the morning walking through the gardens (see below for some good options). Eat lunch at one of the park cafes or surrounding restaurants, and then go to one of the park’s many amazing museums for the afternoon.

When it is really hot in San Diego, you can also escape the heat in one of the many museums, while also getting some amazing views of the architecture and park.

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San Diego Tiki Bars and An Honest Review of Tiki Oasis

As the tiki folks who read my guide to Phoenix tiki bars know, I still have a lot to learn about the world of tiki. But we have really gotten into the scene (in my introverted way) since our first tiki bar out in Las Vegas. I’ve been to all the tiki bars in Arizona, visited tiki bars across the Midwest, started collecting signature tiki mugs… And we started our home bar with tiki recipe books. Needless to say, I really enjoy this corner of Americana. So, when we got vaccinated in the year of our Lord 2021, we wanted to celebrate with tickets to Tiki Oasis. It seemed like the biggest tiki celebration we’d probably ever have the chance to attend, and it was nestled among some of the amazing modern San Diego tiki bars. So, we made a weekend of it.

Whether you are considering Tiki Oasis in what I hope to be less strange years post-2021, or will be visiting San Diego in general and want to see the tiki sights, this little, honest guide is for you.

san diego tiki bars

The Wonderful World of San Diego Tiki Bars

San Diego is home to one of the oldest tiki restaurants still in operation in the US. It’s got the sun and sea for tiki. And its modern tiki bars are exceptionally fun.

For anyone looking to get into tiki or cross a few special places off of their tiki bucketlist, San Diego is a must-visit location. There is a tiki bar for everyone here.

Bali Hai

san diego tiki bars

(c) ABR 2021

The Bali Hai is a tiki classic, which opened all the way back in 1954. You can delve into the story of this historic restaurant on their website, but no tiki trip to San Diego tiki bars would be complete without a visit. At least, not if you’ve never been.

For as special as it is, the Bali Hai isn’t really what I would consider my jam when it comes to tiki. The restaurant is beautiful, and the views are unmatched, with its huge glass walls. But it’s really more of a classy place for date night than it is a fun-loving tiki place. The prices are higher, and the food is fancier. But it also lacks the immersion of other tiki restaurants/bars on this list. Also, while I think it is inarguable that tiki has questionable roots, there are some strong… inappropriate vibes when it comes to the Bali Hai signature tiki mug and the giant head that adorns the top of the building. I know it’s historic, but we didn’t even bother buying a mug because it just felt… a little too on the nose. I know people will have differing opinions than me on this in both directions when it comes to tiki, and I think all perspectives are legit. But for me, it was an additional element that just made Bali Hai one of my less favorite tiki spots in San Diego.

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Tempe Hiking Trails: Hayden Butte Preserve, Evelyn Hallman Park and Tempe Papago Park

If I’m being frank, Tempe, AZ isn’t known for its hiking options and for good reason. There really aren’t a lot of options in this Phoenix suburb for outdoor adventurers, and nothing supremely challenging. That being said, Tempe hiking trails do offer some good opportunities for exercise and exploring the Sonoran Desert. Furthermore, because these trails are not particularly challenging, they are accessible to more people at different levels of experience and physical needs. (I also know from experience the Tempe parks and rec department is full of amazing people looking to protect the habitats that their desert parks include). Although there are no sweeping peaks in Tempe, there are sacred lands with evidence of long-standing indigenous use. So, let’s explore what hiking you can do in Tempe, Arizona.

Hayden Butte Preserve

tempe hiking trails

ABR (c) 2019

If you are looking for a mountain from among Tempe hiking trails, Hayden Butte Preserve is for you. Also known as A Mountain, this butte is easily identifiable from the south side of the mountain by its large, cement ‘A.’ This may be painted different colors throughout the year depending on University of Arizona/ASU competition and pranks.

It’s about a 0.7 mile RT hike from the base of this little mountain to the top. But it is pretty steep, so Hayden Butte is a popular spot for exercisers. If you are working up to big mountains, and starting from little hiking experience or you are rebuilding strength, this is a great option. The trail is mostly paved and pretty wide. Towards the top, there are stairs that need to be navigated, however. And there are sections of dirt trail as well.

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Mt. Humphreys Trail: A Guide to the Arizona Highpoint

Arizona doesn’t have the spectacular 14,000 ft mountains of Colorado or the pacific states, but the state is home to the sacred San Francisco Peaks. These rise out of the crags of the Sonoran Desert to the south and the drier plains of the north, and tower over everything else in Arizona. You can see them from miles away in every direction, and when you are exploring the likes of Flagstaff, you can see evidence of the powerful volcanic activity that formed this place eons ago. Unsurprisingly, the San Francisco Peaks are home to Arizona’s highpoint, which can be reached via the Mt. Humphreys Trail. For those travelers who are willing to respect the mountain, its people, and their own safety, trying for the summit of Mt. Humphreys is one of the most beautiful adventures in Arizona. This 10 mile hike is a challenging day excursion, which is well worth the physical struggle for the spiritual experience, the beautiful views, and chance to visit the crown of Arizona.

For those interested in trying their hand at this trail, this guide will give you insight into the specifics of the Mt. Humphreys Trail, what it’s like to climb it, and how to stay safe and respectful on the mountain.

Is the Mt. Humphreys Trail For You?

This guide is not a promise of safety nor a guarantee that you can do this climb. It is your responsibility to decide if this is a challenge for you, and you are responsible for your own safety while exploring.

There is no doubt that the Mt. Humphreys Trail is not for everyone – at least not if you plan on trying for the summit. In order to do this trail safely, you need to be in good shape, have some trail experience, and be willing to change your plans for inclement weather. That all being said, this trek is relatively well-marked for most of its length, and with patience and an early start, I think it is a positive challenge. Even if you can’t make it to the top, the forest is breathtaking in the lower stretches of the trail. It’s one of the most vibrant places in Arizona. And if you make it to the saddle, you will be rewarded with expansive views of Flagstaff. From there, you can experience life above the treeline even without making it past the false summit to the peak itself.

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Three Great Places for Popsicles in Phoenix, Arizona

Everyone knows that it is HOT in Phoenix, Arizona in the summer. Hot and dry- perfect weather for enjoying a nice, cold popsicle. Store bought brands might jump right to the top of your mind, when I bring up popsicles, but Phoenix actually has some really amazing places for fresh, beautiful, frozen treats. Let me share three of my favorites, ranked. ALL of them are amazing.

Pop N’ Tea

Pop N’ Tea makes both popsicles and teas, but even as a tea-lover, I still think that the popsicles steal the show in this shop. Referred to as diamond bars, the popsicles of Pop N’ Tea have a unique appearance that makes them aesthetic and appealing. But unlike some Insta-worthy foods, these popsicles are out of this world. Made of gelato and sorbet, these are the softest popsicles- the perfect texture. The texture is only outmatched by the rich flavors and the pleasant appeal of the extra crunch that you can get by adding chocolate and/or toppings to your popsicle. The mix of flavor options and some ability to create your own mix of flavors with the popsicle base and toppings makes this an extra fun place for a light, cold dessert.

Learn more at the Pop N’ Tea website.

550 W MCDOWELL RD.

PHOENIX, AZ 85003

602-253-6310

POPNTEABAR@GMAIL.COM

Pop Stand in Rise Hotel

Pop Stand doubles as the check in for Rise Hotel, and it is proud enough of its treats to serve them to all guests checking in. Luckily, you don’t need to be a guest to get your hands on these tasty and creative popsicles. Pop Stand has a ton of different flavors, with the most eye-catching popsicles being the triple flavored treats that you can get. Each one has stripes of color representing the combinations of flavors. There are also a few alchoholic options, along with both dairy and fruit-only options. All are delicious and refreshing. In terms of texture, these are harder popsicles, and you won’t be able to get customizations. However, there are enough flavors that this shouldn’t be an issue. When we visited, I was so enchanted by the atmosphere of the hotel, that I hope I can hold a staycation here sometime in the future.

Check out Pop Stand’s website for their current flavors.

400 W Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85013

popstand@riseuptownhotel.com

480.536.8990

AZ Pops

In my opinion, AZ Pops is the best option for health-conscious dessert eaters and/or people with dietary restrictions. The staff were very knowledgeable about the contents of the popsicles here, and most options were fresh and vegan. (Although they do have some dairy options). They also have options that don’t have added sugar and get most of their sweetness from the fruits used to make the popsicles. They also have many many different flavors, and you can customize your order by dipping into a coconut-based chocolate. These popsicles were also quite hard like Pop Stand, so if you have sensitive teeth, be sure to take your time eating them. This won’t be too problematic, as this will give you more time to enjoy their fresh flavors.

Learn more about their flavors and commitment to healthy and fresh ingredients at the AZ Pops website.

5050 N 7th St. Phoenix, Arizona 85014

602-279-0026

Learn more about the joys of exploring Arizona.

What to Do In Litchfield Park, AZ for a Weekend

If you’ve never heard of Litchfield Park, Arizona, you wouldn’t be alone. It’s a small town nestled within the sprawling city of Phoenix-metro. With only a population a little over 6,000 people and claiming only 3 square miles, wondering what to do in Litchfield Park might seem a bit strange. But I think this little town is a great getaway within Phoenix; the perfect place to spend a relaxed weekend. You can get a small-town experience without leaving the city, and you can even escape back to a former era of development and design in Phoenix. This guide will tell you my honest thoughts on where to stay, what to eat, and what to expect to do while you are visiting.

what to do in litchfield park

History of Litchfield Park

what to do in litchfield park

(c) ABR 2021

The history of human habitation in the area of Phoenix is very ancient. Native American peoples were living and thriving in the Valley of the Sun for thousands of years. But colonial American claims to the land that the town now sits on were submitted in 1910.  Initially, it was thought that the area would be a great place to grow citrus, but due to the demands of WWI, the area was bought up by Paul Litchfield for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 1916 as space to grow cotton. A company town was eventually built, and was given the name Litchfield Park in 1926. The town wasn’t officially incorporated as a city until 1987.

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What to Do in Amarillo, Texas for a Weekend

I feel like I start almost every blog in the same way. But I guess I am a “explore the less road less travelled” blogger these days. So… while most people would not think of Amarillo, Texas as a destination, there is actually a lot to do there. In particular, I think nature and history-lovers would enjoy visiting this town over a weekend. There is a theme park as well, so it could be a food family destination as well. Whether you are passing through town on a business trip, a cross-country roadtrip, or planning out a little weekend adventure, here is my list of what to do in Amarillo, TX.

 

Botanical Gardens and Museums

what to do in amarillo

Amarillo Botanical Garden (c) ABR 2021

As little as I know about plants, and as much as my house plants struggle to stay alive, I love botanical gardens. For someone searching for peaceful place to enjoy nature in an urban setting, botanical gardens are perfect. In my case, as a shy person, I find these to be one of the best places to enjoy your own company without feeling too awkward for being solo. I know that not everyone deals with that particular challenge while traveling alone, but I definitely do, even though I travel solo every year.

I feel similarly about museums and I especially love historic, place-based museums. Amarillo, Texas has both a lovely botanical garden and a great historic museum. Both of which should be included on any list of what to do in Amarillo.

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best trails in big bend

Five of the Best Trails in Big Bend, Texas

Before I started planning my West Texas roadtrip, I really didn’t know much about Big Bend National Park. But even the tiniest bit of research immediately made it clear that this was a park deserving of two or more days of exploration. There are so many trails to explore here. The ecosystems are varied and beautiful. And Big Bend is home to its namesake, the big bend of the Rio Grande. One of the life-blood rivers of the American Southwest. In short, this national park should be on every nature-lover’s bucketlist, and in particular, I would suggest checking out some of the best trails in Big Bend. Whether you want to take photos from the car, go on a family walk, or challenge yourself, there are options here for everyone.

How I Picked My List of Best Trails in Big Bend 

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

Generally speaking, I’m the kind of person who can enjoy just about any kind of trail. I love short jaunts out into nature. And I also enjoy the challenge of long, strenuous treks into the wilderness. And I know people who like only one or the other, or trails somewhere in between. Due to that, I think it bares some explanation as to how I came up with the following list of the best trails in Big Bend.

That all being said, NONE of these trails are the most strenuous trails in the park. These aren’t wild trails with rare views and long treks to see them. Rather, I’ve selected this short list for the following reasons:

(1) Accessibility

Many of these trails, but not all, are short and relatively flat. Thus, they can be walked by hikers of almost all skill levels. And while they are not accessible or even rated for accessibility, all of them have amazing views which can be enjoyed from the trailheads. And all trailheads are accessible by regular vehicles.

(2) Variety

Every single one of these trails will give you a different taste of the wide range of ecosystems and landscapes in Big Bend National Park. While there are three different canyon trails, every one is highly unique. One trail explores the desert on the way to a desert oasis, and one reaches the heights of the sky island of the Chisos Mountains. If you are an avid hiker, it would not be hard to get all of this variety in two days visiting the park. (Check out our itinerary for suggestions on how to do this.)

Boquillas Canyon Trail

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

Boquillas Canyon Trail is a very short 1.5 mile round trip walk from the trailhead to the interior of the canyon. I was particularly smitten with this route because of the spectacular colors that the Rio Grande takes on in this side of the park. These were the most vibrant of blues and greens. I only wish that I were a skilled enough photographer to have captured the majesty of the river here properly. The canyon itself is also lovely. The walls here are a warm, sandy color, and when contrasted with the water, it is a really breathtaking place. Thus, it’s placement on my Best Trails in Big Bend (non-exhaustive) list.

While the trail is short, there is a little bit of elevation gain. Not much, but if you aren’t feeling a walk up rocky steps due to the heat, physical limitations, or anything else, you can get some nice pictures from the river overlook up the road from the trailhead. There is also a tiny bit of trail finding that you will need to do on this little walk because it isn’t all that clear once you get down to the sandy beach area. Just continue walking up river. Turn around when you reach the wide beach. You should not need to wade in the water or push through plants.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

DO NOT SWIM in the water. Rivers are notoriously dangerous. They may look calm and inviting, but they are extremely powerful. Please also mind your children closely.

Also, please note that if there are people selling things along the trail, it is technically illegal to purchase them. If the little river border crossing is open, you might consider purchasing the art and keep-sakes legally and support the village on the Mexican side. You can inquire with the rangers about this at the visitor centers.

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

The big sister to Boquillas Canyon is Santa Elena.

I was impressed by this canyon from the car, miles away. You really won’t believe how otherworldly this place is until you see it. Even now, just remembering the feeling of approaching this place leaves me awestruck. The sheer, impressive nature of this place made me slap this trail onto my Best Trails in Big Bend list. Particularly if you visit during the Golden Hour… even without hiking the trail, this place will really take your breath away.

From the road and the trailhead, Santa Elena Canyon looks like a deep, straight cut through a massive ridge of gray stone. And when I say massive I mean… mountain sized ridge.

If you aren’t planning on doing the trail (or even if you are) you might consider stopping (SAFELY) to take pictures on your way in. This will be especially effective if you have a nice zoom on your camera.

The trailhead for the Santa Elena Canyon Trail is fairly well developed, with a toilet onhand. Parking spots, if I recall correctly, are in the sand, however, and this particular area is popular. Once you snag a spot, you will follow the trailhead map out across a sand bridge towards the river. This is a great access point to the pebbly beach. So, if you are looking for a nice spot to enjoy the Rio Grande, this is a great option.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

Do remember, however, that is not safe to swim in the river. No matter what you see other people doing.

In order to continue along the 1.5 mile round trip trail, you will cross a small tributary on your way to the pretty obvious canyon. And then you will find yourself climbing a fairly steep cliff with switchbacks and stairs. Although steep, this part of the trail is well developed, so if you have stamina, it should be doable, although challenging.

Once you have it to the top of the rise, you will follow a more wild trail along the cliffside above the river. Along the trail, you will see some beautiful but pokey plant-life. And then, you will head back down towards the water on a less developed incline. This will involve stepping down well-worn rocks. So, take your time if you aren’t used to hiking.

Then, much like the Boquillas Canyon Trail, you will have to do a bit of navigating. The bank of the river is a bit more lush, so there are think plants growing all over and the trail splits in some places. However, just continue walking down river until the trail ends were the water meets the stone walls of the canyon. At that point, there is no where to go but back the way you came.

Chisos Basin Trail

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

There are many trails in the Chisos Mountains, which range from relatively easy to long backpacking treks. The Chisos Basin Trail, unlike the other trails on this best trails in Big Bend list, is long and difficult. However, it offers an amazing on-trail experience and beautiful views of the valley. On this trail, you will hike up from the visitor center, across a wide, forested shelf nested between the sharp stone peaks of the mountains, and then up into the reaches of the Sky Island.

While difficult, most people can do parts of this trail. E.g. just take a stroll through the forest for 0.5 miles and then turn around. I went about 2.5 miles in and then came back, because I was a bit too exhausted from my trip to keep going.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

For skilled hikers wanting a more challenging day trip, Emory Peak is a great option. And of course, this is the place to be if you want to backpack in Big Bend. Of course, you will need to reference the National Park materials to plan out a trip like that.

And if you can’t or don’t want to hike, the drive up to the visitor center in the Chisos Mountains is spectacular. And there are some great look outs from the parking lot. It’s the perfect place for photography, contemplation, and just generally enjoying nature.

Ward Spring Trail

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

This 2.8 mile, out and back hike was my time to revel in the desert that is particular to Big Bend and West Texas. In some ways, it felt very much like my home in Arizona, but in other ways, completely unfamiliar. I think the key to really enjoying this trail is stopping to admire the little plants tucked here and there, surviving in the roughest conditions. For my list of the best trails in Big Bend, this is the only one that crosses the desert. And as it’s name would suggest, it does take you to a small, wild spring at the base of the mountains.

This trail is not accessible for all, and due to its length and ruggedness in parts, it isn’t for the novice either. That being said, for anyone who hikes regularly, it is an easy trail. The path leads from the road, through the desert up a gentle slop towards the Chisos. As you get closer, you will begin traversing the sides of rocky hills and dipping down into washes.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

The end of the trail is a wild patch of trees crowding around a small puddle of water in the desert. It won’t be the most spectacular thing you see… unless you appreciate how special and precious water is in desert landscapes. For me, all springs are sacred places. So, I think Ward Spring is well worth the detour from grander trails.

Closed Canyon Trail in Big Bend State Park

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

Although not in the National Park, Closed Canyon Trail still makes my best trails in Big Bend bucketlist because it is in the Big Bend State Park.

This short, relatively flat slot canyon trail is located along the 170, and has a nice parking lot at the trailhead. However, there are no restrooms available there.

From the parking lot, you will take a few switchbacks down into a shallow wash and then follow the streambed towards the slot in the stony wall of mountains to your left.

best trails in big bend

(c) ABR 2021

Once you pass through the opening of the canyon, you will walk along the stone and sandy bottom. Take your time and marvel at the twists and turns in the stone. Check out the plants surviving in these harsh desert conditions. And take tons of photographs.

This trail isn’t long, so you can really take your time enjoying it. You will turn around when you see a steep drop off and a sign informing you that the trail has ended. Turn right on back around and take it all in from the other direction on your way out.

Please note that slot canyons are dangerous in rainy or wet conditions. Do not attempt this trail when there is running water or storms at the trail or nearby.

 Safety on the Trail

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Summiting Guadalupe Peak, The Texas Highpoint

One of the things that I love to do while traveling is check out the highpoints. Sometimes they are a challenge (or impossible for me) to summit, and other times they might be a cute hill in an out-of-the-way spot. In the case of the Texas highpoint, Guadalupe Peak is an attainable, but strenuous trek. For prepared hikers, this summit is well worth the upward hike. Trekkers will climb up from the desert landscape, into the forests of the higher elevations. And finally up to the top of Texas, where exceptional views await. Learn more about this hike here, along with need-to-know information about the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

guadalupe peak

On the Guadalupe Peak Trail

Desert Climb

The first section of the trail up towards the Texas highpoint takes you up from the desert. This part of the trail, unsurprisingly, is thus characterized by the open spaces and hardy bushes of the Chihuahuan desert. It’s a bit of a steep climb here, but there are some nice switch backs to help mitigate the upwards trek.

guadalupe peak

(c) ABR 2021

You will notice that there are two routes here. One is for horses, and the other is for hikers. Definitely stick to the one for whatever kind of adventuring you are doing. This will make you more safe and give much-needed space to other recreationists.

guadalupe peak

(c) ABR 2021

As I climbed upwards, I really enjoyed the stony cliffs and passages that popped up here and there on the trail. I found these little places to be challenging, beautiful, and a great break from the dusty character of the trail. That being said, you will want to be careful in some of these spots, particularly if you are riding a horse. Follow all signage and keep your eyes open for warnings.

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A West Texas Itinerary for Hikers and Adventurers

Texas is not known by many to be an ideal roadtrip destination, due to its vastness and the flat natural of its large, central plains. However, West Texas will surprise anyone with that stereotype about the state. Here there are rolling hills, vast mountains, glittering rivers, and one of the world’s most biodiverse deserts. There are plenty of things to do in West Texas, but we’ve tailored this West Texas itinerary for hikers and nature lovers in particular… with a dash of history and culture on the side as well.

 

Day 0: Travel to El Paso, TX

Since El Paso, TX is the big city of West Texas and a unique destination in its own right, I would suggest planning your West Texas itinerary from here unless you are driving in from some other area of Texas and would like to jump onto the loop from your hometown. El Paso has its own international airport, the El Paso International Airport (ELP), so you may consider flying into there. For me, coming from Phoenix, I opted to drive over, which is about a 6 hour drive.

Day 1: Hiking in Guadalupe Mountain National Park

west texas itinerary

(c) ABR 2021

If you want to attempt the summit of Guadalupe Peak (8750 ft), I would suggest being flexible with Day 1 and Day 2. This will allow you to see which day will have better weather for your summit attempt. Even for a smaller summit like this one, you should always avoid bad weather days for safety’s sake.

It’s about a two-hour drive from El Paso, TX to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. So, take the morning to rest a bit before setting off your West Texas itinerary. Make your first stop the visitor center, where you can learn more about the park, chat with the rangers, and get the low down on any safety concerns that you need to keep in mind.

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