In the beginning of March, we were in Arizona already, and this National Park site was not too far from the FamCamp where we were staying, so we decided to check it out. The entrance fee was $12, which was good for a seven day period.  

We decided to camp inside Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The rate was $16 per night, but with the Access pass it was discounted to $8 per night. There were no hookups available, but each site had a barbeque grill and a picnic table. Some sites had shade ramadas. The sites were rather close together, but we had adequate room, and anyway we were really only at the campsite to eat and sleep. There were RV rows where generators are allowed, RV rows where generators were NOT allowed, and tent rows, with the no-generator RV rows acting as a buffer between the tent sites and the generator sites. We chose a site in the no-generator section as close to the tent rows (and thus furthest from the generator rows) as possible. We had a solar panel rather than a generator, and wanted to minimize noise. There were comfort stations with flush toilets and solar-heated showers. I was  also very excited to see a book exchange near the entrance to the campground. I got rid of some books we were done with and picked out a couple of new ones. 

We felt that camping in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was a good value because the amphitheater where evening programs are held is adjacent to the campground. Had we camped outside the park on BLM land, I doubt we would have had time to come back into the park for evening programs after returning to our campsite to cook supper, and the evening programs were well worth our while. Topics ranged from night-blooming cacti and the bats and moths that pollinate them, to identifying animal tracks, to the Native American stories behind the stars and constellations. The evening programs at this park were the best we’ve attended in any park so far.

The children, big and small, enjoyed completing the junior Ranger program and earning a badge.  They also particularly enjoyed going on a Ranger-led hike to Red Rocks Tinaja. We were the only family with children on this hike, but the ranger was happy to answer their many questions.

group of children hiking in the Sonoran desert
The Ranger-led hike was a big hit with the kids.

One of our favorite parts of our visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was the ‘Hike for Health” program. We picked up a log sheet in the visitor center and recorded our hikes. Once we reached 5 miles in total, we recieved a free pin. By dividing the milage among shorter hikes over a couple of days, even my three-year-old was able to do it!

This park site preserves a unique piece of habitat in the Sonoran desert. Not only is it one of the only places where the organ pipe cactus is found in the US, it is also home to an endangered pupfish. You can see the pupfish in a manmade pool at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center, and also in their original habitat, Quitobaquito Springs.

The Monument is right on the Mexican border, and there has been illegal activity in the past. The Visitor Center is named after a ranger, Kris Eggle, who was killed in the line of duty in 2002 while pursuing drug cartel members. Don’t let that deter you from visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, however! We didn’t encounter anyone sneaking across the border, but we did see a gorgeous variety of plant and animal life.

children in front of an organ pipe cactus
Organ Pipe Cactus
  1. Keep a traditional road atlas on hand.  GPS and Google Maps are great, and we use them a lot.  Plenty of times, though, we’ve found ourselves with a device that needs to be charged or in an area with no service.  Having a paper road atlas as a backup is a must.
  2. Take fewer clothes, mostly mix-and-match separates, and wash laundry more often. We tend to stay in one place for 2 weeks at a time, and when we started out, we would spend the day or two before we were leaving cleaning up the RV, packing, and washing two weeks worth of laundry. That made for a couple of really long days.  When I realized we needed to reduce the weight we were hauling, the first thing I did was go through the kids’ clothes. Print leggings and shirts that only went with one outfit were replaced with navy or khaki slacks and  polo-type shirts. These are suitable for just about anyplace we might go in our travels, from museums  to trails. For occasions the younger girls want to dress up a little more, they have a couple of skirts or jumpers to pair with a polo shirt. If Tiny spills spaghetti sauce on her shirt or has a toileting accident, I can change her pants or shirt, not a complete outfit. Now we only have about one week’s worth of clothes, and we do laundry every 5-7 days.
  3. Sometimes we need to bring a garbage bag and a bathmat to campground showers. There may be a “changing area” adjacent to the shower, but the floor gets covered with water that doesn’t run off the the drain, and the towels and clothing hung up in the changing area get wet from shower spray.  If I had a quarter for every time I encountered a campground shower like that, I wouldn’t need laundry money for a very long time.  A garbage bag will hold my towel and clean clothes and keep them dry, and a bathmat to stand on to change- even if it’s just an extra towel- lets me get my pants on without getting them wet from the puddles on the floor.
  4. Don’t waste space on “unitaskers.”  Chef and TV personality Alton Brown refers to kitchen gadgets that do one thing as “unitaskers.” His advice to avoid them is sound for everyone, but doubly so for RVers.  We don’t need a garlic press or hard-boiled-egg slicer; a good knife will do the job.  We carried a teakettle around to boil water for our morning coffee, but I’ve realized a pot will do just as well.  Unitaskers aren’t just found in the kitchen, however.  We had a mop with a refillable reservoir and washable pads, which we already owned when we bought the RV.  It does one thing- clean the floor- and in the RV, not very well.  It doesn’t get in the corners and narrow places, and I end up cleaning about half the floor with a rag and bucket of sudsy water.  Why bother with the mop at all?  I can do the whole floor with the  rag just as quickly, and cleaning rags also serve to clean countertops, wipe up spills, etc.
  5. Zoo and museum memberships can really help a family save on attractions.  The first year we were on the road, we focused on free attractions, or free days at museums.  Sometimes this meant passing up a museum or zoo we  probably would have enjoyed, in favor of a more budget-friendly choice.  These choices are simply part of living and traveling on a limited budget- and let’s face it, nearly everyone’s budget has some limit!  Recently we visited the Western North Carolina Nature Center and purchased a membership.  The WNC Nature Center participates not only in the AZA Passport reciprocal program, but also the ASTC travel passport program.  This will allow us free or discounted admission to zoos and science centers all over the country.  Check back for reviews of the zoos and science centers we visit using these programs!

ABOUT PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE

Padre Island  National Seashore, near Corpus Christi, Texas, is a national park site on Padre Island consisting of undeveloped, natural seashore habitat.  The vehicle entrance fee is $10 for a seven day period; the fee is $5 for a pedestrian or bicycle for seven days.  The Bird Island Basin area has an additional day-use fee of $5 per day per vehicle.  A Padre Island annual pass  is $20 and a Bird Island Basin annual pass is $10.

CAMPING

Padre Island National Seashore has two campgrounds, Malaquite Campground and Bird Island Basin,  and also allows primitive camping right on the beach.  No reservations can be made; all camping is first come-first served.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Bird Island Basin campground has been closed.  The area is still open for day use.

When we visited in May, we had no trouble getting a campsite at Malaquite.  It was late in the evening when we arrived, but with a flashlight we were able to self-register at the pay station near the entrance.  The campsites are separated from the beach by dunes- we couldn’t see the water from our campsite, but we could certainly hear it.  After so long away from the coast, it was incredibly soothing to fall asleep to the roar of the surf.

Our site, on the side nearest the beach, had a grill and a picnic table with a shade ramada. Sites on the other side had only tables, no shade structure, but the sites seemed a little bigger. There are no hookups, but there is an RV dump station and potable water filling.  There are flush toilets and unheated freshwater rinse showers.

You’ll need to stock up on supplies before  you go, because no groceries or fuel are available in the park.  Corpus Christi is about 40 minutes away, and there you’ll find firewood and charcoal, groceries, and just about anything else you’ll want or need.

Primitive camping on the beach is free, though you still have to register for a permit.  We didn’t want to drive on the beach with our 2WD Suburban, so Malaquite campground was a good fit for us.  

Portuguese Man-of-War

THINGS TO DO

Malaquite Visitor Center, a short drive from the campground, has educational exhibits, a short video, and a gift shop.  Junior Ranger workbooks can be obtained here.  One activity prospective Junior Rangers can do is picking up rubbish on the beach, and the staff at the visitor center has trash bags available for this purpose.  

Bird Island Basin has a boat ramp, kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals, windsurfing lessons and rentals. Lessons are booked in advance, but kayak and SUP rentals are first-come, first-served.

Though there are no lifeguards, swimming at your own risk is permitted.  Fishing is also allowed in accordance with applicable regulations. By and far, the best part of our visit was simply being on the beach! I don’t even know how many miles we walked, picking up trash, picking up shells, and just watching the sunrises.

The affordability of Padre Island National Seashore and opportunities for birding make this a favorite.

 

Tumbleweed Dusty had long wanted to go to Carlsbad Caverns, so we went!  Overall this was one of our favorite stays and we plan to go back again sometime.

Camping near Carlsbad Caverns

We boondocked on BLM land.  There were four or five other camping units there when we arrived, but there was still plenty of room for us.  It was late and dark and we  needed to sleep.  We figured if the site looked too crowded in morning light, we could find another place to camp then.

When morning arrived and we found our fellow campers to be  friendly and pleasant. One family had young children, and ours kids were excited to have new playmates, but we found out they were leaving that day.  We discovered the wife was from my home state of Maine, and we exchanged some books with them. Their children played with ours while the parents got ready to get underway, and then they were off.

The couple camped closest to us were a retired couple from Florida in a vantage Airstream.  They were from Florida and headed to the Grand Canyon.  We had already been to the Grand Canyon and were heading slowly to Florida, so we traded  tips on what to see  and where to camp.

Another camper was a local guy who said he just liked to come out and camp in the desert every so often.  He proved to be a great source of local knowledge- the closest place to get ice, where to buy groceries, that sort of thing.  We all had some fun evenings around a communal campfire, sharing popcorn and swapping stories.  This particular patch of land was dusty with no shade, but we so enjoyed meeting our fellow-travelers that it was worth it.

Visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns was, of course, the biggest reason we were there. We had planned to hike in through the Natural Entrance and probably take the elevators back up to the surface.  We went after lunch only to discover that the elevators were not operating that day and it was too late in the day for us to hike in through the Natural Entrance, see everything, and hike back out.  Instead we watched the video in the visitor center and looked at the educational displays.  We went back bright and early the next day to find elevator service had been restored.  We listened to a quick briefing before heading out to the Natural Entrance.

Carlsbad Caverns is a popular National Park site, and we visited during Easter vacation/spring break week for many schools.  The Natural Entrance was worth seeing, but we would have enjoyed it more had it been less busy.  The path is narrow, making hard to stop and study formations when there’s a crowd. The trail is  mostly switchbacks, and I was being constantly blinded by people’s headlamps or flashlights as they turned the corners. We were appalled by the number of people we saw touching the formations, even after having been told not to at the visitor center and again at the briefing on the way to the entrance.

Large stalagmite against dark background
The “Totem Pole” in the Big Room

The cave was beautiful, though. There are interpretive signs, and the audio tour for rent in the gift shop has much more additional information.  Photography is permitted, but without a flash my photos didn’t come out great. ( I bought some postcards in the gift shop to keep instead!) one of the hardest things for us is that visitors cannot bring food in.  There is a snack bar inside the cave near the elevators, and visitors can purchase food and consume it in the designated area, but outside food is not allowed. The snack bar had a very limited selection and high prices. We didn’t find what we consider healthy choices.  Those with food allergies or dietary restrictions may not find anything suitable.  If we go again, and I think we will, I plan to pack a lunch to leave in the car, and we can simply ride the elevator up and take a lunch break. There are no restrictions on food outside the cave itself, and there are plenty of picnic areas aboveground.  Visitors can carry bottled water, and there are water fountains and restrooms near the elevators in the cave.  

Altogether, we spent one full and two half days at Carlsbad Caverns. The first half-day we spent  on the educational exhibits in the visitor center.  The full day we hiked in the Natural Entrance and toured the Big Room.  The second half-day we went after lunch, took the elevator down, and spent time looking more closely at the Big Room, allowing time for the kids to sketch.  After the cave closed, we waited around to watch the evening bat flight, which was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.  No video or photography is permitted during the bat flight, so I have no images to share here. You’ll just have to go and see it for yourselves!

Things to Do in Carlsbad, NM

In Carlsbad, NM, along the waterfront, we found fun playgrounds and a nice swim beach. There were paddleboat rentals available at the riverfront, though we chose just to swim and wade.   We also were able to dump our RV holding tanks for free at the Carlsbad Water Treatment Plant.