Texas

Visit Four Less Crowded National Parks: An Epic West Texas and New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

April 24, 2021

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An Underrated USA Road Trip between West Texas and Southern New Mexico

You might imagine the landscape of West Texas and Southern New Mexico to be full of endless roads and flat farmland. While that landscape is there, there are also incredible mountain ranges, boundless sand dunes, a massive cave system, and more! The four national parks on this itinerary are some of the least visited national parks in the US, making this vacation perfect if you’re hoping to escape crowds. This epic 12 day itinerary will bring you to four national parks, five state parks and several hidden gems and tips along the way.

This itinerary covers a visit to every national park in Texas and New Mexico. Texas is home to Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, while New Mexico is home to White Sands National Park and Carlsbad Caverns. Along the way, there are several Texas state parks and other incredible places to visit. This route includes recommendations of where to stay, the best hiking trails and what to eat along the way.

Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park

Tips for a Desert Road Trip

  • Keep your car full of gas by refilling whenever you can. Parts of this road trip are remote and you may be many miles from the next gas station.
  • Bring plenty of water and food so that you are prepared if you cannot find restaurants or services when you’d like.
  • This desert region can be extremely hot in the summer. Bring sunscreen and be prepared for heat.
  • Download offline maps and/or bring a paper map for navigation without cell service.
  • Be prepared for a time change. El Paso and all of New Mexico are in mountain time while the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend are in Central Time. My phone kept switching back and forth while hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains. This may be especially important for your timed entry into Carlsbad Caverns.
  • If you are flying in and renting a car, be sure to book the rental car several months in advance. As of this writing, the US is experiencing a rental car shortage.

Big Bend Ranch State Park
Big Bend Ranch State Park

What to Pack on a Desert Road Trip

  • Plenty of road trip snacks!
  • A lot of water and water bottles to refill.
  • Sun protection, including sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses.
  • Sturdy hiking shoes and trekking poles if you prefer them for hiking.
  • Paper maps. I recommend National Geographic’s ‘Trails Illustrated’ maps. There is at least one for each national park.
  • A bathing suit. There are a few opportunities to swim along the way.
  • Shoes you are willing to wear for crossing a river.
  • Lots of layers. While you may experience high heat in the desert, the weather can change quickly in the mountains and get cold without warning.
  • A sled for the sand dunes (you can rent them but it’s pricey).
  • A passport, if you plan on crossing the border into Mexico.

When to Visit West Texas and New Mexico

Most of the places on this itinerary are accessible to visit year round. Consider your tolerance to high heat in the summer or possible snow in the winter as you decide when to visit.

I believe fall is the best time to visit because there is beautiful fall foliage in the Guadalupe Mountains and the weather is mild. Spring is also a great time for mild weather and for seeing wildflowers in Big Bend, but you may experience high winds in the Guadalupe Mountains.

As you can see below, Big Bend maintains a higher temperature than the Guadalupe Mountains due to its lower elevation.

Here are the average temperatures in the two Texas national parks throughout the year:

Big Bend Guadalupe Mountains
January High: 58, Low: 39 High: 44, Low: 29
May High: 81, Low: 58 High: 67, Low: 50
August High: 84, Low: 65 High: 73, Low: 57
October High: 75, Low: 55 High: 61, Low: 46

I visited Big Bend in June and it was very hot, but tolerable. I visited the Guadalupe Mountains and New Mexico in late April and had wonderful weather, however there were very high winds right before and after my trip.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Day One - El Paso to Big Bend

Start your road trip from El Paso

I recommend flying into El Paso, Texas and renting a car for this road trip. El Paso is home to the closest major airport to all of the parks on this trip. Almost all of the major airlines in the United States fly at least one route into El Paso.

For reference if you are driving from somewhere else, El Paso is 6½ hours from Phoenix, 4 hours from Albuquerque and 9 hours from Dallas.

El Paso to Terlingua

Before you leave El Paso, stop at a grocery store and stock up on plenty of food and water for the road. When you’re ready, begin your road trip by driving to the furthest destination and making your way backwards. The drive from El Paso to Big Bend National Park is about 5 hours. Make your way there and settle in to stay in Terlingua for the next 3 nights.

Where to Stay in Terlingua

Terlingua is located right outside of Big Bend National Park and has a number of unique accommodations for visitors. Terlingua is the perfect place for glamping, as there are incredible night skies and the peace and quiet of the desert is unmatched. These are the properties I recommend, but keep in mind that they book up quickly so you should book early if possible.

Basecamp Terlingua

Basecamp Terlingua
Basecamp Terlingua

Basecamp Terlingua offers a number of different accommodation options but the one that drew me in was their clear bubbles. The clear domes are perfect for stargazing and include a comfortable bed, bathroom, fire pit and living space. Keep in mind that the bubbles are inflatable so there are two zip-up doors as you enter. You can only have one door open at a time or it will deflate. There are walls outside of the bubble that are strategically placed giving you privacy from the other guests. From the bubble, you’ll experience incredible views of the desert and Chisos Mountains in the distance. The best part is the star gazing outside of the clear dome on a clear night. If you want to stay here, book early. The bookings for the bubbles fill up quickly, especially on weekends. I booked my stay 11 months in advance.

Tin Valley Retro Rentals

Tin Valley Retro Rentals
Tin Valley Retro Rentals

Tin Valley Retro Rentals has a special place in my heart. The property offers multiple options for glamping; options include a vintage airstream with a painted toilet, a boat on land and a spinning cuddle bug raised above the ground. White Tin Valley is located 40 minutes from the main entrance of Big Bend, it is right up against the mountains which makes for beautiful views. The property is also home to a burro named Sampson, friendly cats and pigs.

I stayed in the spinning cuddle bug and it was more comfortable than I could have imagined. There is a mattress and blankets, curtains on the windows and a charger for your phone. Next to the bug, there is a picnic table and fire pit. It’s incredible to gaze up at the night skies from this secluded place.

Some accommodations at Tin Valley have bathrooms and others do not. For the ones that don’t (like the spinning bug), there is an outhouse and outdoor shower nearby. With a 4 mile drive, guests can also use the pool and bathroom facilities at Terlingua Ranch Lodge.

Willow House

Willow House is a gorgeous place to stay right outside of Big Bend. Concrete casitas face the Chisos Mountain Range with unobstructed views. The accommodation is meant to be a place where travelers connect and cook in a communal kitchen, sit around the fire and make new friends.

The Local Chapter

The Local Chapter is another beautiful accommodation comprised of yurts. This relaxing accommodation is adults only and right on the border of Big Bend National Park. The decor is absolutely stunning, which is unsurprising as these yurts were designed as a “retreat for the design-minded adventurer.”

Where to Eat dinner in Terlingua

The most iconic place to eat in Terlingua is the Starlight Theatre. This establishment is a restaurant and saloon with a lively atmosphere, live music and a large menu. They serve chili, burgers, tamales and more along with cold beer and cocktails.

It’s also worth walking around the “Terlingua Ghost Town” where you’ll find ruins of an old mining town. There is an abandoned mine shaft, a graveyard and shells of former buildings.

Depending on where you’re staying, it also might be nice to cook your own food or bring a picnic back to your accommodation to enjoy along with the expansive desert views. Cottonwood General Store has a variety of food options.

Day Two - Hike in Big Bend National Park

Spend the day hiking in the desert, mountains and river landscapes that make up the magical Big Bend National Park. Big Bend is over 800,000 acres of mountains and desert and follows a large bend in the Rio Grande River. The Rio Grande River is all that separates the US and Mexico in this region.

There are three distinct types of landscape that you can visit in Big Bend National Park. I recommend doing at least one hike in each part: the mountains, the desert and the river.

Keep in mind that everything in the park is quite spread out and there may be long driving times between each hike.

Big Bend Mountain Hiking - Lost Mine or Window Trail

Views on the Lost Mine Trail
Views on the Lost Mine Trail

Start early to beat the heat with one of the mountain hikes, the Lost Mine Trail or the Window Trail. The Lost Mine Trail is 4.8 miles and is a steady climb up to amazing views. The trail has several switchbacks offering better and better views of the surrounding canyons. When you reach the top, there are 360 views of the Chisos Mountains and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico. The trail is also full of greenery with a pine forest, which is a nice contrast against the desert landscape. It is called the Lost Mine Trail for its view of the Lost Mine Peak, the second highest peak in Big Bend. There are only a few parking spots at this trail, so you’ll want to have a back up plan in case they are full.

Nearby, the Window Trail (5.2 miles) also offers beautiful views. It begins right next to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center and descends down to a window between rock faces. There is a mix of stone steps and some rock scrambling at the end.

Big Bend River Hiking - Santa Elena Canyon, Hot Springs Trail or Boquillas Canyon Trail

Boquillas Canyon Trail
Boquillas Canyon Trail

If you do one hike in Big Bend, the Santa Elena trail is probably the most iconic. The trail is 1.5 miles with 610 feet in elevation gain. It begins with crossing the Terlingua Creek and continues with steps taking you up and back down the canyon. At the end, you’ll be only feet away from Mexico with canyon walls towering up around you. After rainfall, the Terlingua Creek can flood and be difficult to cross, so be sure to check current conditions.

The Hot Springs Trail is a 1.2 mile loop that follows the magnificent Rio Grande River. You can enjoy the views along this round trip hike, or just walk directly to the hot springs for 0.5 miles round trip. There are 105 degree fahrenheit springs contained within the ruins of an old bathhouse. These waters are thought to be good for the body and soul. Note that if the Rio Grande floods, it can cover the hot spring in rocks, mud and debris.

The Boquillas Canyon Trail offers a great view of the Rio Grande and is located deep inside of the park. The trail is 1.4 miles and begins with a short ascend up a cliff and continues onto a sandy shore. It’s a great spot to take a dip in the Rio Grande if the water is at a good height during your visit. You’re likely to spot wild horses, colorful lizards along the way and tamales or gifts sold by local Mexicans along the way.

Big Bend Desert Hiking - Grapevine Hills Trail

The Grapevine Hills Trail is an easy trail that gives you a great perspective on the desert landscape of Big Bend. It leads to a fascinating and giant balanced rock. The hike is 1.9 miles with little elevation gain and little shade. It is recommended to have 4-wheel drive to make it to the trailhead.

If you are just interested in visiting the Big Bend region, head over to my blog post on road tripping between Big Bend and Marfa.

Day Three - More Activities in Big Bend National Park

While you could easily spend days hiking in Big Bend, there are also some special excursions to check out that are unique to the region.

The Rio Grande River
The Rio Grande River

Float on the Rio Grande

I recommend taking a river float trip on the Rio Grande River during your visit. Depending on where you take this trip, you can float through the tall canyon walls of Santa Elena, Colorado Canyon in Big Bend Ranch State Park or other spots. The Rio Grande has been low for many years, so there are not a lot of rapids. You may need to use a canoe instead of a raft when the water is especially low.

You have the option to bring your own float or canoe (be sure to obtain a permit) or go on a guided tour. Guided tours range from half days to multi-day trips with camping overnight. There are even guided tours lasting 3 weeks! I recommend Big Bend River Tours, the oldest river outfitter in the area for guided tours.

Visit Mexico from Big Bend

Another unique excursion that you should consider doing at Big Bend is crossing over to Mexico at the Boquillas border crossing. As of this writing, the border is closed due to Covid-19, but keep it in mind if you visit in the future! In order to cross the border, you’ll need a Passport or Passport Card. To cross the river, you can pay $5 for a rowboat across the river or walk across if the water is low enough. When you arrive in Mexico, you can either walk a ½ mile or pay for a burro or vehicle ride to reach the town of Boquillas. Once in town, there are a couple of restaurants. My Airbnb host recommended Falcon’s for delicious tacos and tequila.

Other activities near Big Bend include horseback riding, Jeep tours and ATV tours.

Day Four - Travel from Big Bend to Marfa

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Big Bend Ranch Closed Canyon Trail
Big Bend Ranch Closed Canyon Trail

Big Bend Ranch State Park is a smaller and much less crowded park not far from Big Bend National Park. Just driving through the park makes for an incredible scenic drive right along the Rio Grande River. There are several viewpoints along the way to pull over and take in the views. I highly recommend hiking the Closed Canyon trail, a trail that descends into a slot canyon. The trail is 1.4 miles and gets narrower as you go further inside. As you get far along the trail, you start to climb down large boulders. You can continue down the trail until it becomes impassable.

Another quick trail to stop at as you pass through the park is the Hoodoo Trail. The trail is 1.1 miles with little elevation. It includes an overlook of the Rio Grande River, views of Hoodoos, a balanced rock and plenty of desert plant life.

Arrive in Marfa

The drive from Big Bend Ranch to the town of Marfa is about an hour and a half. You’ll stay in Marfa for two nights.

Marfa is a small town known for its modern art and mysterious lights. The town is surrounded by the Davis Mountains to the north, the Chisos Mountains to the southeast and the Chinati Mountains to the Southwest, making it the highest incorporated city in Texas.

The small town was the film location of James Dean’s final movie, Giant, which included Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. In 1971, the minimalist artist Donald Judd moved from New York City to Marfa and built permanent installations of his art. Today, you can visit the Chinati Foundation and see a unique collection of architecture and art. Ever since the opening of the Chinati Foundation in the 80’s, Marfa has developed an international reputation as a modern art destination. You can also visit a variety of art galleries in the town.

Where to Stay in Marfa

El Cosmico

My trailer at El Cosmico
My trailer at El Cosmico

I stayed at El Cosmico, a destination for glamping, dutch tubs and bohemian vibes. They offer trailers, yurts, tepees, safari tents and the space to pitch your own tent. The trailers are all uniquely decorated and designed. There is one that mirrors the sky and the others range from bright yellow to silver to purple and more. I was placed in the green and white trailer, one of the large trailers on the property. The tiny home had everything I could need, from comfortable robes, to a chemex for coffee and a soft bed. The trailer also came with an outdoor shower, which was a bit difficult to use comfortably, but still nice.

The Lincoln Marfa

The Lincoln Marfa offers short term and long term stays in a building that used to be an apartment complex. The owners did a great job renovating the space to be well designed for guests. Each room is unique and full of Marfa-inspired details. There are a variety of room sizes available for different size groups and even options for bringing your pet.

Hotel Saint George

Hotel Saint George is a luxury hotel in the heart of downtown Marfa. The original Saint George Hotel was built in 1886 and many elements from the original building have been salvaged. There are great amenities offered, like a beautiful pool and a nice restaurant.

Day Five - Spend A Day in Marfa

marfa2

marfa3

Marfa, Texas

Keep in mind that a lot of restaurants and activities in Marfa have limited hours and are closed on weekdays and Sundays. Your best bet for experiencing the town to its fullest is to schedule your time in Marfa for a Saturday.

Breakfast in Marfa

I recommend Marfa Burrito for a filling breakfast. The restaurant is located right across from El Cosmico and seems unassuming at first, but is truly a gem. All ingredients at Marfa Burrito are homemade: from the hand rolled tortillas to the fresh salsas. They serve up giant burritos with your choice of egg & potato, egg & cheese, egg & chorizo and more. Keep in mind that they are typically closed on Sundays and are only open for breakfast and lunch.

For coffee in town, visit Frama. In addition to a variety of coffee options, they serve homemade ice cream and smoothies. On the porch area in front of Frama, there is a fun “Greetings from Marfa” mural that is perfect for photos!

Prada Marfa

Prada Marfa
Prada Marfa

You can’t visit Marfa without making the trip to Prada Marfa. This unique art installation is essentially a fully stocked Prada store in the middle of nowhere. It was built in 2005 by artists Elmgreen and Dragset. While you can make your own interpretation about the meaning behind this unique art piece, it is often interpreted as a criticism of consumerism.

The art piece is located 40 minutes west of Marfa and is particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset. It’s fascinating to see this single building stand by itself, right along the road in with the vast desert behind it. You can also bring a lock to adorne on the fence behind the building.

Lunch in Marfa

Food Shark is a mediterranean restaurant in Marfa tha offers seating inside of a vintage school bus. Enjoy delicious hummus, falafel and more among retro fixtures and quirky places to sit. At this writing, the restaurant is only open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at lunch time.

Art in Marfa

Wrong Marfa
Wrong Marfa

The Chinati Foundation is an iconic place to visit in Marfa. This contemporary art museum has a collection of artwork by famous artists such as Donald Judd, Robert Irwin and Dan Flavin. There are outdoor and indoor portions of the museum. At this writing, only the outdoor portion is open for touring.

There are several art galleries and shops to explore in Marfa. Wrong Marfa is a beautiful gallery and store that curates unique and handmade products. Other galleries include The Rule Gallery, the Martin Maria Studio and Marfa Open. Hours for most of the galleries are limited at this time due to Covid-19, so be sure to check websites for details.

Enjoy a Beer Garden in Marfa

Planet Marfa is a great place to enjoy a beer on an outdoor patio. The quirky space has a tepee, a tree house, a vintage school bus and more unique decor. They serve a small menu of beer, wine and a few bar food options like nachos.

Dinner in Marfa

For a delicious and nice bistro and wine garden, Al Campo Marfa is the perfect dinner spot. The restaurant is South American-inspired and has an extensive wine menu. Food options include a charcuterie board, tacos, queso and a beet salad.

See the Mysterious Marfa Lights

The Marfa Lights are a mysterious phenomenon that occur out in the desert near Marfa. There is an impressive viewing area for the lights, complete with nice bathrooms, informational signs and plenty of space to spread out and bring a chair or blanket to sit on. At around dusk, you may start to see lights in the distance. I saw them very clearly while visiting in June. They are essentially small bright lights in the distance that move across the horizon and then fade away. I am a believer that they come from the headlights of cars driving on Highway 67, but many believe they cannot be explained. See for yourself to decide.

Day Six - Davis Mountains and Nearby

Davis Mountains State Park

Davis Mountains State Park is located 30 minutes north of Marfa and is known for a small range of desert mountains. The CCC-built park has several hiking trails, a wonderful bird watching area, horseback riding trails and a lodge with a refreshing swimming pool.

Spend the morning on the Skyline Drive Trail to ascend up to beautiful views of the Keesey Canyon. Combine this trail with the Old CCC Trail to create a 3.3 mile loop. Visit the Lookout Tower and Limpia Creek Vista for more views around the park.

Lunch in Fort Davis

Head to downtown Fort Davis for lunch and check out the Fort Davis Drug Store. This restaurant serves milkshakes, a selection of burgers, sandwiches, pizza and more, but are most known for their chicken fried steak. The atmosphere feels as if you’ve stepped into a classic western diner with checkerboard curtains, a saloon-like exterior and an old-fashioned soda fountain. The restaurant originally opened in 1913 and moved to its current location in 1951. Grab a bite to eat and shop in the giftshop before hitting the road again.

McDonald Observatory

McDonald Observatory is another wonderful place to stop near Fort Davis. The observatory is just 20 minutes from Davis Mountains State Park and is home to one of the largest optical telescopes in the world. You can visit the observatory in the daytime and explore the exhibits and outdoor telescopes or in the evening to star gaze. Purchase admission to the nightly Star Party for live views through the telescope at night. At this writing, advance reservations are required for visiting McDonald Observatory.

Where to Stay in Fort Davis

The Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park is a great place to stay. The white adobe building has a refreshing pool, a restaurant and 39 guest rooms of varying sizes. Make sure you book early because the rooms go quickly.

Other lodging options in Fort Davis include the Fort Davis Drug Store which offers 6 guest rooms above the classic restaurant, Davis Mountains Inn for a quaint bed and breakfast and Hotel Limpia which has been around since 1912.

Day Seven - Drive from Fort Davis to Carlsbad

Fort Davis Historic Site

One more stop worth making in Fort Davis is the Fort Davis Historic Site. The fort served as a frontier military outpost most active in the mid 1800’s. While visiting, you can learn in the visitor center, explore ruins from the fort and enjoy hiking trails. The Scenic Overlook Trail is 0.4 miles and offers an amazing view of the fort from above.

Monahans Sandhills

Monahans Sandhills State Park
Monahans Sandhills State Park

When you are finished exploring Fort Davis, make your way toward Carlsbad, New Mexico. The drive is about 3 hours. If you have enough time, consider making a detour to visit Monahans Sandhills State Park on the way. This will add about an hour to your drive. Monahans Sandhills is a beautiful park made up of white sand dunes. It seemingly pops up out of nowhere as you drive past the desert landscapes and oil pumps of west Texas.

The park is easy to see in an hour or two. Pack snacks and water and enjoy the views of the sand, or hike out into the dunes and try your hand at some fun photography. You can also rent sand disks from the park visitor center and enjoy sledding down the dunes. This park does not really compare in magnitude to White Sands National Park but it will give you a little taste of what’s to come.

Monahans Sandhills is a little over 2 hours from Carlsbad, which is where I recommend staying for the night. You’ll stay in Carlsbad, New Mexico for two nights and use it as a base for exploring Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Carlsbad has several chain hotel options to fit any budget.

Day Eight - Hike Guadalupe Peak

The Highest Point in Texas
The Highest Point in Texas

Wake up in Carlsbad and make your way down to the Pine Springs Visitor Center in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It is about an hour drive between the two locations.

If you are an experienced hiker, I highly recommend the Guadalupe Peak Trail to hike to the tallest peak in Texas. The trailhead for the hike is located at the Pine Springs area of Guadalupe Mountains National Park and is 8.4 miles round trip with a 2,952 foot elevation gain. The entire hike is very steep but is highly rewarding. The top has incredible views of the surrounding area.

You can find more details on this hike in my Guadalupe Mountain blog post.

After spending the day doing this grueling hike, enjoy a relaxing evening back at your hotel in Carlsbad.

Day Nine - Devil’s Hall and Carlsbad Caverns

Devil’s Hall and McKittrick Canyon

devilshall

devilstrail

Devil's Hall Trail

Start your day by heading back down to the Pine Springs Visitor Center to hike the Devil’s Hall Trail.

The Devil’s Hall Trail is 3.6 miles round trip with a 577 foot elevation gain. The first half of the hike is well maintained with a slight but steady incline. After about a mile, you will enter into a wash where you’ll climb over a series of white boulders. After climbing through the wash, you’ll reach a natural staircase and then a natural hallway with 100 foot limestone walls. This hike is one of my favorites of the trip. It is not overly difficult and has an incredible landscape.

If you have more time in the Guadalupe Mountains, and especially if you are visiting in the fall, be sure to visit McKittrick Canyon. The fall leaves are incredible here. This area is for day use only and has a trail that goes deep into mountains (you can choose how far you’d like to go) and a very short nature loop trail right by the parking lot.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The Natural Cave Entrance
The Natural Cave Entrance

The Big Room Trail
The Big Room Trail

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is an incredible sight to behold. The national park is home to the largest single cave chamber in North America and you can explore it at your own pace. There are actually 119 caves at this national park, but the Big Room and Natural Entrance Trails are the most popular and the only areas you can explore without a guide.

To visit, be sure to make a reservation for your entry in advance. As you begin your self guided tour, you’ll be able to choose between entering through the natural entrance or taking the elevator. If you’re physically able, taking the natural entrance trail is a must. The trail enters the cave through a series of steep switchbacks which are equivalent to walking down the stairs in a 75-story building. As you enter, you’ll likely see bats flying around. Further into the cave, the rock formations will become more and more interesting. The natural entrance trail is 1.25 miles of walking before it connects over to the Big Room trail. The Big Room trail is 1.25 mile loop and flat. The room was called a “Grand Canyon with a roof over it” by comedian Will Rogers and I’d say that’s an accurate description. The room is full of giant stalagmites and stalactites, clumps of soda straw formations hanging from the ceiling, grottos with popcorn rock formations and more.

The paved trails have benches and railings throughout. Take your time and admire the beautiful formations. After a few hours on the self-guided tour, stay to watch the bats emerge from the cave entrance. The bats fly out of the entrance every night around dusk. There are seats available in the amphitheater to watch the occurrence and rangers will talk about the bats prior to the flight. This occurs from late-May to October.

Day Ten - Visit White Sands and Las Cruces

On day ten, make your way from Carlsbad to White Sands National Park. The drive to get there is 3 hours with beautiful views of Lincoln National Forest along the way.

White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park

When you arrive at White Sands there are several ways to experience the beauty of the park. Start with arriving at the visitor center, where you can see an exhibit (currently closed due to pandemic) and pick up needed items. This is the last place to fill up on water before entering the park. Then you can enjoy a scenic drive as you enter on Dunes Drive. The road is an 8 mile journey with stunning views. You’ll see the landscape change from sand dunes full of plant life to bright white tall dunes as far as you can see.

One of the quintessential activities in the park is sledding down the dunes. Sleds are available to purchase from the visitor center but bring your own if possible. While sledding, pick a very steep hill and use wax to pick up speed.

Another incredible way to explore the park is by hiking into the Sand Dunes. There are 5 established trails in the park with varying difficulties. One of the easiest trails is the Interdune Boardwalk trail, which is 0.4 miles long and wheelchair accessible. The hardest hike, Alkali Flat Trail, is 5 miles long with 52 feet in elevation change.

For more details on visiting White Sands, head over to my White Sands blog post.

Las Cruces

Old Mesilla Square
Old Mesilla Square

After exploring White Sands, make your way over to Las Cruces, a historic town about an hour away. When you arrive, be sure to visit the Old Mesilla square, a beautiful park surrounded by an old church and a variety of restaurants and shops. On the square, you can visit the Billy the Kid Gift Shop, located inside of an Old Courthouse, and shop for souvenirs. To eat and drink at the square, visit La Posta de Mesilla for delicious Mexican food with a beautiful ambience and Double Eagle for a steakhouse. Double Eagle is also a great place for a drink, it is known for being haunted!

Another great place to eat nearby is Andele. Andele is a huge restaurant and runs a very smooth curbside pickup. I tried their chile relleno and cheese enchiladas and they were delicious and full of flavor.

Not far from Old Mesilla Square, Caliche’s is the perfect place for dessert. Caliche’s has been open for 25 years and has retro vibes with neon signs. They serve a variety of options of sundaes, milkshakes, custard and more. I got the strawberry shortcake caliche and it was so creamy and delicious. It had a very long line so be sure to allow some extra time, but it’s worth the wait.

Stay for the night in Las Cruces (check out Hotel Enchanto) or make the 45 minute drive down to El Paso for the next couple of nights.

Day Eleven - Hueco Tanks State Park

Hueco Tanks State Park
Hueco Tanks State Park

Spend the rest of your trip exploring El Paso and the surrounding area. Start with visiting Hueco Tanks State Park. Hueco Tanks is one of the most unique Texas State Parks I have visited. It is a sacred place for the Kiowa, Mescalero Apache, Comanche, Tigua and the people of Isleta del Norte Pueblo and the park is home to many pictographs and petroglyphs. The park is home to the largest grouping of masks or face designs in North America with over 200 of them.

To visit, you must make a reservation in advance over the phone and watch a 15 minute orientation video when you arrive. There are four separate rock mountains inside of the park and only one is available for self guided exploration. The others can be visited with a ranger led tour.

For the self guided exploration of the North Mountain, only 70 people are allowed on the rock at a time. It is a popular place for rock climbing as well as hiking. Be sure to bring plenty of water and download All Trails maps if you’re hiking on the North Mountains. I found it very easy to get lost with no unmarked trails. There are a few different areas of petroglyphs to discover on the mountain, such as the Kiva Cave on the park map. The cave is hard to find so download All Trails and ask for directions at the visitor center.

Also beware that I saw over a dozen barbary sheep while exploring the mountain, which are known to be aggressive.

Where to stay in El Paso

I recommend staying at the Indigo Hotel in El Paso for a central downtown location and great value. The hotel includes a rooftop pool and bar which are perfect for relaxing after a long day. The rooms each have a cute little succulent outside of the door and are full of cute decor and artwork.

Inside of the Indigo Hotel, Mamacitas is a great place to eat for dinner. They serve Tex-Mex and handcrafted cocktails. They also have an extensive breakfast menu.

If the Hotel Indigo isn’t your style, there is a large variety of other hotel and Airbnb options in and around El Paso depending on your budget and interests.

Dinner in El Paso

El Paso is known to have some of the best Mexican food in the USA based on its proximity to the Mexico border. Great places to eat for traditional Mexican food include L & J Cafe, a family-run Mexican restaurant that dates back to 1927 and Elotes Pepe Y Mas, a Mexican restaurant known for their churros.

For fine dining, visit Cafe Central. The restaurant was originally located in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico until Prohibition times when it migrated into El Paso. It has a beautiful New Orleans style courtyard and a finely crafted menu.

Coffee Box
Coffee Box

Hotel Indigo
Hotel Indigo

Day Twelve - Franklin Mountains State Park

Breakfast in El Paso

Coffee Box is a unique and ecletic destination for breakfast and coffee in downtown El Paso. The shop is located inside of a renovated shipping container painted with a colorful mural. On top of their menu of classic coffees, they also serve fun flavors like a pistachio latte. They also have a wide selection of tea and food that includes muffins, bagels, cinnamon rolls and more.

Franklin Mountains State Park

Franklin Mountains State Park
Franklin Mountains State Park

Franklin Mountains State Park is located entirely within the city limits of El Paso. The park offers a number of different trails of varying difficulty. You’ll need to start by checking in at the Franklin Mountains visitor center located on Tom Mays Road. From there, you can drive deeper inside and hike to a cave, get a viewpoint of New Mexico from the Upper Sunset Loop and even go rock climbing. I enjoyed the Aztec Cave Trail, which is 1.2 miles with a 419 foot elevation gain. The trail is very steep with no shade, so be sure to bring plenty of water. At times, the rocks are loose and a bit slippery. When you reach the top, there is a large cave to explore.

In another unit of the park about 20 minutes away, you can hike the Thousand Steps trail (2.8 miles) for a great view of El Paso and the B-36 Crash trail (2.3 miles) to see plane wreckage.

If you have more time in El Paso, other popular attractions include the El Paso Museum of Art, the El Paso Mission Trail and the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens.

Enjoy your epic New Mexico and West Texas road trip and be sure to save this on Pinterest for future planning!

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