Julie United States 6 Comments

On this 10-day Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary, you will visit four national parks plus make a quick detour to a gem of a state park that just might be one of the big highlights of the trip. Go hiking in Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains, explore the underground wonderland of Carlsbad Caverns, and sled on dunes as white as snow at White Sands National Park.

This road trip is done as a loop from El Paso, Texas. In general, the best times for this itinerary is late winter into spring and the fall months, when temperatures are mild. Since Big Bend is so remote, you will do a lot of driving and most of this will be getting to and from Big Bend.

Overview of this Texas New Mexico Road Trip

Below is a map of this Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary.

HIGHLIGHTS: This road trip includes four national parks (Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands) as well as Big Bend Ranch State Park. You will drive through Marfa, Texas, and have the option to add on Roswell, New Mexico.

DIRECTION: The road makes a loop and a “lollipop,” the lollipop being the out-and-back drive to Big Bend National Park. This itinerary can be done in either direction. In this article, I lay out a detailed day-by-day itinerary for doing this road trip in a counter-clockwise direction. We liked the idea of getting the long drive to Big Bend over with early in the trip, so we chose to start with Big Bend. If you prefer to do it in the other direction, at the end of this article I list how to do this itinerary in the opposite direction.

RENTAL CAR: For this road trip, a standard vehicle is sufficient. There is just one place where a high clearance 4WD is necessary (Ernst Tinaja in Big Bend), but you can skip this if you don’t want the added expense of renting a 4WD vehicle.

Best Time for this Texas New Mexico Road Trip

The best time for this Texas New Mexico road trip is from late winter into spring (late February into early April) and the fall months (October and November). Temperatures are mild during this time and this is the best weather for hiking.

Mid-March is when many Texans go on spring break, making the second and third weeks of March the busiest time of year in these national parks. If you can, plan your visit for the first week of March or the last week of March for slightly lower crowds.

In Guadalupe Mountains National Park, fall colors appear in mid-October, peaking by the end of October and sometimes lasting into early November. During this time, the average high in Guadalupe Mountains is in the low 70’s, making this a gorgeous time of year to visit this national park. The temperature will be similar in Big Bend, Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands.

Winter is also a good time to do this itinerary, but you will have cold temperatures and maybe a dusting of snow. But crowds will be very low.

The worst time, at least in terms of weather, are the summer months. In Big Bend, it gets into the 90’s in the summer, with the high temperature getting well over 100°F on the hottest days. Mid-May through September are the hottest months in the parks.

10 Day Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

Day 1

El Paso & Big Bend National Park

On the Road: 300 miles, 4 hours 45 minutes

Arrive in El Paso, Texas

There are several airports that you can fly into for this itinerary. El Paso International Airport has the best location, since it is near White Sands and the drive to Big Bend is not too far (300 miles, just under 5 hours of driving). It’s also a large airport, so you should have lots of flight options to choose from.

The Midland International Air & Space Port is slightly closer to Big Bend National Park (240 miles with just under 4 hours of driving), so it is also an option to consider. But due to this airport’s location, you will have to reconfigure the order of this itinerary.

Ideally, book a flight that gets into El Paso, Texas no later than noon or 1 pm, so you have plenty of time to drive to Big Bend National Park. In the airport, pick up your rental car.

Drive to Big Bend National Park

From El Paso International Airport, it takes just under 5 hours to drive to Big Bend National Park. It is somewhat of a monotonous drive, on a mix of multi-lane highways and two-lane roads. The speed limit is high (usually around 70 mph) so you can cover a lot of distance quickly.

Where to Stay

Inside of Big Bend National Park, you can stay at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, which has a great central location in Chisos Basin. There are also campgrounds at Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin, and on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (Cottonwood Campground). 

Terlingua is a small town that sits just outside of Big Bend National Park. Near Terlingua, we stayed in two different places.

We spent two nights in a yurt at the Local Chapter. Three yurts, each one secluded from its neighbors, sit along a plateau and from here, you have outstanding views of Big Bend National Park. And we spent two nights at the Lajitas Golf Resort, a 4-star hotel with a golf course and multiple onsite restaurants.

Tim and I split our stay into two different properties because we had a hard time deciding between the two. Both had their advantages: the yurt was really cool, private, and had great views but Lajitas Golf Resort had onsite restaurants and internet.

You will spend 4 nights in Terlingua/Big Bend National Park. 

Local Chapter Yurt | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

Local Chapter Yurt


Day 2

Big Bend National Park: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

On the Road: 100 miles, 2.5 hours, out and back from Terlingua. Adding on Balanced Rock adds a total of 32 miles and 1.5 hours of driving.

On this road trip, you have 3 days in Big Bend, which gives you plenty of time to visit each area of the park and not feel like you are in a race. You can do day 2, 3, and 4 of this itinerary in any order.

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a 30-mile road through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Big Bend National Park. This road starts at Panther Junction Road and ends 30 miles later at Santa Elena Canyon.

There are numerous viewpoints and hiking trails along this drive. Here are recommended viewpoints and hikes to do:

  • Sotol Vista Overlook: panoramic views of the park
  • Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off: 1 mile easy hike through a canyon
  • Mules Ears Viewpoint: for a view of a rock formation that look like Mules ears
  • Tuff Canyon: 0.75 mile easy hike to a viewpoint of Tuff Canyon
  • Santa Elena Canyon

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

 Tuff Canyon | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

Tuff Canyon | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

Santa Elena Canyon

Visiting Santa Elena Canyon is one of the highlights of the day. When you see photos of Big Bend National Park, this is what you commonly see…the mighty Rio Grande coursing through this canyon.

The Santa Elena Canyon hike is 1.7 miles out-and-back and easy to do. The trail runs alongside the Rio Grande. There is one brief climb but it’s worth it…the views over the Rio Grande are breathtaking. The trail ends at a beautiful viewpoint of the Santa Elena Canyon.

Rio Grande at Sunrise

Rio Grande at Sunrise. Photo taken from the Santa Elena Trail. 

 

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

You have the option to go canoeing on the Rio Grande. Big Bend River Tours offers a guided canoeing trip on the Rio Grande in Santa Elena Canyon. Learn more about this one day tour here. 

Afternoon: Return to Terlingua or Hike to Balanced Rock

By now, it is midday (unless you added on canoeing in Santa Elena Canyon, which typically lasts into the early afternoon). You have a choice to make: return to Terlingua or hike to Balanced Rock.

Return to Terlingua

There are two ways to return to Terlingua. You can either retrace the driving route on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive or you can drive Old Maverick Road.

Old Maverick Road is a 14-mile improved dirt road that is suitable for most vehicles. Depending on road conditions, the national park service warns that this can be rough and washboarded. Old Maverick Road starts near the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook and heads north towards Terlingua. It takes an hour to drive this road and goes past several historic sites.

Once in Terlingua, you can explore the Terlingua Ghost Town (this only takes about a half an hour to see the cemetery and other sights) and have dinner at the Starlight Theater. The Starlight Theater opens at 5 pm and has live music every night. People line up before opening in order to get a seat.

Terlingua Ghost Town

Terlingua Ghost Town | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

Hike to Balanced Rock

This is one of our favorite hikes in Big Bend National Park. It’s a bit out of the way but if you do it today, you have more free time later in Big Bend to add on other cool activities.

Balanced Rock Big Bend

Balanced Rock | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

From Santa Elena Canyon, it takes about an hour and a half to drive to the Balanced Rock trailhead. Retrace the drive on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, turn right onto Gano Springs and then turn left onto Grapevine Spring. Grapevine Spring is a 6.3-mile gravel road that is suitable for standard vehicles, but an SUV or a vehicle with high ground clearance is ideal.

To hike to Balanced Rock, it is a 2.2 mile out-and-back hike on the Grapevine Hills Trail. This hike is rated as easy to moderate and takes 1 to 2 hours. Get the full details in our Balanced Rock Hiking Guide.

After the hike, return to your hotel/yurt/lodge/campsite and have dinner.


Day 3

Big Bend National Park: Chisos Basin

On the Road: 66 miles, 1.5 hours out and back from Terlingua. Minimal driving if you stay in Chisos Basin.

Chisos Basin is the prime spot to go hiking in Big Bend National Park. Rugged, jagged mountains rise up from the desert, creating a wonderland of hiking trails and beautiful landscapes. This is where you will find some of the most exciting and challenging hiking trails in Big Bend National Park.

There are several great trails that start in Chisos Basin. Take your pick from the list below. I recommend getting an early start because the parking lots do fill up fast during peak season.

Lost Mine Trail

Distance: 4.8 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Time: 2.5 to 3.5 hours

The Lost Mine Trail is an extremely popular hike in Big Bend National Park. Most of the hike is an unexciting, steady uphill walk, with occasional views across the Chisos mountain range. However, once at the top, the views really open up. Your reward is a panoramic view over the mountains and valleys of Big Bend National Park.

Lost Mine Trail

Lost Mine Trail | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

The Window Trail

Distance: 5.6 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Time: 3 to 4 hours

The Window Trail is a moderately strenuous hike that ends at the Window. From here, you have stunning views of Big Bend National Park.

The Window View Trail

Distance: 0.3 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 2o minutes

Not to be confused with the Window Trail, the Window View Trail is a paved, flat trail leads to a viewpoint of the Window, a cut-out in the Chisos mountains. This is a popular sunset destination in Big Bend National Park.

The Window

The Window | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

Emory Peak

Distance: 10.4 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Time: 5 to 7 hours

If you want to stand on the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains and Big Bend National Park, put Emory Peak on your list. This is a tough hike but the views over the park are awesome. Learn more in our Guide to Hiking Emory Peak.

Emory Peak

Emory Peak | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

South Rim Trail

Distance: 12.6 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Time: 6 to 8 hours

Starting in the Chisos Basin, you will steadily climb up to the South Rim, where jaw-dropping views of the Chihuahuan Desert await. This hike is done as a loop and you have the option to add on Emory Peak. Learn more in our Guide to the South Rim Trail.

South Rim Trail Big Bend itinerary

South Rim Trail | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

Emory Peak + South Rim Trail

Distance: 15.6 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Time: 7.5 to 9.5 hours

This is the ultimate hiking experience in Big Bend National Park. Hike the complete South Rim Trail and top it off with the climb up to Emory Peak for unbeatable views of the Chisos Mountain Range and Chihuahuan Desert. Learn more in our Guide to the South Rim Trail.

Afternoon

Depending on which trail(s) you chose to hike, you could be finished anywhere from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. If you still have plenty of time left in the day, consider hiking the nearby trail to Balanced Rock, if you didn’t do it yesterday, visiting the Fossil Discovery Exhibit (great if you are traveling with kids), or soaking in the hot springs near Rio Grande Village (just note that it will be a very long drive to get back to Terlingua or Lajitas).


Day 4

Big Bend National Park: Rio Grande Village

On the Road: 105 miles, 2.5 hours out and back from Terlingua.

Rio Grande Village is located in the eastern section of Big Bend National Park. There are a few hiking trails and scenic overlooks, but the big draw are the hot springs and the chance to cross the border to visit the Mexican town Boquillas del Carmen.

Before heading right to the Rio Grande Village, we have an optional side trip to recommend. Hiking to Ernst Tinaja was one of our favorite experiences in Big Bend National Park.

Optional: Ernst Tinaja

Distance: 1.6 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 1 to 1.5 hours

Ernst Tinaja is a series of water holes that are tucked away in a remote canyon. With its colorful limestone rocks, this area looks much different from the rest of Big Bend National Park.

Ernst Tinaja | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

Ernst Tinaja | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

 

Ernst Tinaja Trail

Ernst Tinaja Trail | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

It is a short, easy hike through a canyon to get to the water holes. Those looking for a little more adventure can continue the hike past the water-filled pools and rock scramble their way to the back of the canyon.

You will need a 4WD vehicle to get to the Ernst Tinaja trailhead. Old Ore Road, a rough, primitive dirt road, leads to the trailhead. The national park service recommends having a high-clearance 4WD vehicle for this drive.

For full details on the hike and the drive, read our Guide to Ernst Tinaja.

Boquillas Canyon Trail

Distance: 1.6 miles | Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Time: 1 to 1.5 hours

Drive to the end of Boquillas Canyon Road. This road dead-ends at a parking lot and the trailhead for Boquillas Canyon.

This hike is similar to Santa Elena Canyon in that it follows along the edge of the Rio Grande. The first part of the hike is the most challenging, a steep but brief climb up and over a good-sized hill. The view from here is very nice, as you look out over the Rio Grande, and honestly, it’s better than the view you will have from the nearby Boquillas Canyon Overlook (next on this itinerary). Then, it is a mostly flat and scenic walk along the river.

Boquillas Canyon Trail | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

View from the Boquillas Canyon Trail

Boquillas Canyon Overlook

Drive back down Boquillas Canyon Road just a short distance until you reach the Boquillas Canyon Overlook. This view isn’t quite as good as the view you just had from the Boquillas Canyon Trail, but it’s still worthwhile. From here, you look out over the Rio Grande and off in the distance you can see Boquillas del Carmen in Mexico.

Visit Boquillas del Carmen

Boquillas del Carmen is a very small town in Mexico. To get here, you will cross the Rio Grande by row boat. Spend the afternoon drinking margaritas, eating Mexican food, and shopping.

In order to do this, you will go through Border Control, so you must have your passport.

Park at the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. You will pass through the Port of Entry building and then walk a short distance along the Rio Grande to the river crossing.

There are several men operating row boats to shuttle visitors back and forth across the river. Once on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, you pay your fee ($5 per person, cash only, round trip), are given a ticket, and you will show this at the end of your visit, when you are ready to cross the Rio Grande again.

Rowboat to Boquillas del Carmen

To get into town, you can walk or you can ride a donkey or a horse. We chose to walk, and from what we saw, it takes about the same amount of time, since the donkeys and horses do not move very fast.

It is a 0.6-mile walk (one-way) along a sandy road. The road is covered with donkey poop and the trucks that drive back and forth kick up dust into the air, making this very unpleasant, whether you are walking or riding a donkey.

Boquillas del Carmen has a few restaurants that have terraces with views of the Rio Grande. There are also several small souvenir shops. Many people who come here love hanging out at one of the restaurants, eating Mexican food, and having drinks.

Boquillas del Carmen

To return to Big Bend National Park, cross the river by rowboat and go through the Port of Entry. Your passport will be scanned and then you will be on your way.

From November 2 through April 30, the Port of Entry is open Wednesday through Sunday 9 am to 4 pm. From May 1 to November 1, the Port of Entry is open Friday through Monday from 9 am to 4 pm. Get updated hours on the National Park Service website before you go.

Important Note: The Port of Entry closes at 4 pm so you cannot come here for dinner. You need to make sure you are back at the Port of Entry no later than closing time or you will be spending the night in Mexico. If you plan to spend the night in Mexico, you will need a temporary visa.

Planning Your Visit: This will take about 4 hours of your time, if you do a little shopping and have lunch in town. The shops and restaurants accept US dollars and it is helpful to have small bills. Confirm the closing time of the Port of Entry so you know when you must cross back to the US side of the Rio Grande.


Day 5

Big Bend Ranch State Park & drive to Carlsbad

On the Road: 315 miles, 5.5 hours

Morning: Big Bend Ranch State Park

Big Bend Ranch State Park is a wonderful state park that sits just outside of Big Bend National Park. There are fun, easy hiking trails to choose from and these tend to be less crowded than those in the national park. Even if you don’t plan to do any big hikes, it’s a very scenic drive through the state park and a great detour on the way to Carlsbad, New Mexico.

It is free to drive through Big Bend Ranch State Park but if you choose to stop and hike any of the trails, you will pay a $5 fee per person. At each trailhead, there is a box with envelopes. Fill in your vehicle and personal information. Place the appropriate amount of money into the envelope and deposit it into the box. You only have to do this one time per visit. Make sure you bring cash and a pen or pencil.

Big Bend Ranch State Park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days per week.

Here are things we recommend you do as you drive through the park.

El Camino del Rio

El Camino del Rio, also called River Road, is the stretch of highway 170 that travels through Big Bend Ranch State Park. This road runs parallel along the Rio Grande, and National Geographic called this scenic drive one of the prettiest in America.

This road is 40 miles long and it takes about an hour to drive the full length of it, without stopping at the viewpoints or hiking trails. On this itinerary, you will exit the park in the north and continue the drive to Carlsbad.

See Dom Rock

Fandango is a 1985 comedy that stars Kevin Costner and Judd Nelson. Fandango Dom Rock, located in Big Bend Ranch State Park, was one of the filming sites for this movie.

It is located at the top of the first large hill you come to on Camino del Rio. Just past the crest in the hill is a turn-off where you can park your car. Walk to the top of the hill and look for the word “DOM” scratched on the rock.

Fandango Dom Rock

Fandango Dom Rock | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

Rio Grande Viewpoint

Located on the same hill as Dom Rock, next to the parking turn-out, is a wonderful view over the Rio Grande.

Hike Closed Canyon

This hike is 1.4 miles round trip. Most of it is through a slot canyon.

For the most part, it is a very easy hike, since it is mostly flat, but there are a few sections of rock scrambling that could be difficult for some people. You can simply hike through the slot canyon as far as you like. Once you get tired, or once you meet an obstacle that you can’t get past, turn around and walk back to your car.

The slot canyon ends at a pool of water. You can wade through this murky pool of water or turn around when you get to this point. We chose to turn around.

Closed Canyon Hike Texas

Closed Canyon | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

 

Julie Rivenbark

Closed Canyon

Hike the Hoodoos and Balanced Rocks Trail

This is another wonderful, short hike to do in Big Bend Ranch State Park. Hiking trails weave their way between hoodoos and rock formations. You can follow the trail out to the edge of the Rio Grande, for an up-close view of this river.

Big Bend Ranch State Park Hoodoos

Expect to spend 30 to 60 minutes here, depending on how much exploring you would like to do.

Afternoon: Drive to Carlsbad, New Mexico

Continue on Highway 170 until you get to Presidio. Once in Presidio, take US-67N for 24 miles to Marfa. In Marfa, take US-90 W. Just past Valentine, keep a look out for the Prada art installation on the side of the road. This is a popular photo spot. There is a turn out where you can safely park and take a photo of the art installation.

Prada Marfa

Prada

Continue the drive to Carlsbad. US-90 changes to TX-54 north of Van Horn. The Guadalupe Mountains come into view and then you will make a slight right onto US-180/US-62 and continue north to Carlsbad.

Guadalupe Mountains

Guadalupe Mountains from Us-180/US-62 | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

Get settled into your hotel and have dinner.

Where to Stay

There are campsites (for tent camping and RVs) at Pine Springs Campground and Dog Canyon Campground in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Learn more here.

Carlsbad, New Mexico is the best town to stay to visit both Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns. There are many hotels to choose from them (some are brand new) as well as a handful of good restaurants.

Here are several hotels that get very good reviews.

TownePlace by Marriott Carlsbad. This is where we stayed on both of our visits to Carlsbad. It is centrally located in town, so it’s just a quick drive to get dinner or go to the grocery store. Breakfast is included and this is one of the highest rated hotels in Carlsbad.

Home2 Suites by Hilton Carlsbad. This new property is located on the southern end of Carlsbad, making it faster to drive to Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It sits outside of Carlsbad, so if you have plans to go to dinner in town, you will have a 10 to 15 minute drive, but staying here shortens your drive to the parks. Plus, it gets awesome reviews.

Post Time Inn. This is another new hotel that opened in 2020. Your stay includes breakfast, premium movie channels, and free laundry. This is a hotel that I would consider on a return visit to Carlsbad.

You will stay in Carlsbad for 3 nights.

Where to Eat in Carlsbad

Here are two restaurant recommendations, great spots to get dinner at the end of the day. We have eaten at both of these on both of our visits to Carlsbad. The Trinity Restaurant is our favorite of the two.

The Trinity Hotel Restaurant. This hotel serves excellent pasta dishes. We were lucky enough to get a table on the second level where we could overlook the restaurant and bar.

Yellow Brix Restaurant. This restaurant offers indoor and outdoor seating. They serve salads, steak, burgers, sandwiches and pasta. I had the Green Chili Fettuccini and it was delicious.

PRO TRAVEL TIP: Call and make a reservation in advance, especially if you will be visiting the area during peak season. During our second visit, the restaurants were turning people away or offering wait times of an hour or more.


Days 6 & 7

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

On the Road: 110 miles, 2 hours each day (Carlsbad, NM to Pine Springs Visitor Center). Driving distances to Dog Canyon and Salt Basin Dunes are longer.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park preserves a portion of the Guadalupe Mountains. The highest peaks are in the southern part of the mountain range, within the boundaries of the national park. Guadalupe Peak, at 8,751 feet, is the highest peak in the Guadalupe Mountains and the highest peak in Texas, earning it the nickname “Top of Texas.”

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is also located within this mountain range. You will visit Carlsbad Caverns later in this itinerary.

There are many different ways to plan your time in Guadalupe Mountains. The main factor depends on how much hiking you want to do. This national park is really geared towards hikers and there is not much you can do without setting foot on a hiking trail. So, if you aren’t a big hiker, you can eliminate a day from Guadalupe Mountains, turning this road trip into a 9-day itinerary.

Here are several different ways to plan your days. With 2 full days in Guadalupe Mountains, you can pick two of these. For more information, check out our article Best Things to Do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

El Capital Guadalupe Mountains | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

Option #1: Hike Guadalupe Peak

Distance: 8.4 miles out-and-back | Difficulty: Strenuous | Total Ascent: 3,000 feet | Time: 4 to 8 hours

This is one of the most popular hikes in the park, as many people want the bragging right that they stood on the highest peak in Texas.

Tim Rivenbark

Tim on Guadalupe Peak

 

Guadalupe Peak Trail First Mile

Trail to Guadalupe Peak | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

Getting here is not easy. It’s a tough, uphill hike to get to Guadalupe Peak, with rocky trails, long steep staircases, and some narrow sections of trail.

But once at the top, the views are unbeatable. From Guadalupe Peak, you have panoramic views over the national park as well as the Chihuahuan Desert.

For full details on how to do this, check out our guide on How to Hike to Guadalupe Peak.

Option #2: Hike McKittrick Canyon Trail or the Permian Reef Trail

The McKittrick Canyon Trail is 10 miles out-and-back. It’s one of the most popular hikes in the park and takes you to a historic cabin and the Notch (a nice viewpoint of the park).

The Notch Guadalupe Mountains

The Notch | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

The Permian Reef Trail starts at the same spot but is much more scenic and less crowded than McKittrick Canyon. It also has more elevation gain over its 9+ miles, which makes it more challenging. But we recommend the Permian Reef Trail over the McKittrick Canyon Trail.

McKittrick Canyon

View of McKittrick Canyon from the Permian Reef Trail.

Both of these hikes take 4 to 6 hours. In the afternoon, hike the McKittrick Canyon Nature Trail, visit the El Capitan Lookout and visit the Frijole Ranch Museum. You can also visit Carlsbad Caverns in the afternoon. If you are planning your itinerary between late May and October, you can watch the Bat Flight Program in Carlsbad Caverns.

Option #3: Visit Dog Canyon

Dog Canyon is a remote area on the northern end of the park. To get here from Carlsbad, it is an hour and a half drive through ranches and tiny towns. It is a beautiful drive to get here and the road is paved the entire distance.

If you like the idea of leaving the crowds behind and going off-the-beaten-path, put Dog Canyon on your to-do list.

Once here, hike the Tejas Trail to Lost Peak. This hike is 6 miles out-and-back, moderately difficult, and takes 3 to 5 hours. I also liked this hike more than the McKittrick Canyon Trail.

Lost Peak Guadalupe Mountains

Lost Peak | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

 

Lost Peak View

View from Lost Peak

Option #4: Devil’s Hall Trail

Distance: 3.75 miles out-and-back | Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous | Total Ascent: 800 feet | Time: 2 to 4 hours

Starting at the Pine Springs Trailhead, the first mile is an easy hike on a dirt trail that runs through the canyon. At about one mile into the hike, you reach the wash. For the next 0.75 miles, you hike/rock scramble up and over boulders of all sizes to get to Devil’s Hall, at the end of the canyon. Get the full details in our Devil’s Hall Trail Guide.

Devils Hall | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

Devil’s Hall | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

Since this hike only takes half of a day, in the afternoon, visit the El Capitan Lookout and visit the Frijole Ranch Museum.

Option #5: Salt Basin Dunes

This is another remote region of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

The Salt Basin Dunes are gypsum dunes, similar to those at White Sands National Park. However, the dunes in Guadalupe Mountains are smaller and covered with vegetation.

Salt Basin Dunes Entrance

Entrance to Salt Basin Dunes

 

Salt Basin Dunes | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

Salt Basin Dunes | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

From the Pine Springs Visitor Center, it takes an hour to drive here. Google Maps can route you to the dunes, just be aware that you will not have any cellular service once you leave the Pine Springs area. We did not have cellular service in and around the sand dunes. From Highway 62, turn right on FM road 1576 and take this for 17 miles. Turn right on Williams Road and take this for 7.5 miles. The road ends at the parking lot. Williams Road is a well-packed clay road but it can be impassable and slippery when wet.

From the parking area, it is just over a 1-mile walk one-way to get to the dunes. This trail is flat and sandy. Since the Salt Basin Dunes sit at a lower elevation than the rest of the park, it will most likely be warmer here than at Pine Springs or McKittrick Canyon. There is no shade on the trail so bring water, sunblock, and sunglasses.

We didn’t walk far into the dunes, just far enough to take a few photos. This is one of my favorite parts of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The views of the Guadalupe Mountains, the beautiful snow-white dunes, and low crowds make this one of the best things to do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

DOG CANYON + SALT BASIN DUNES: It is possible to visit Dog Canyon in the morning and the Salt Basin Dunes in the afternoon. Just note that you will do a LOT of driving on remote roads and some of these are gravel roads. These roads are suitable for standard vehicles, as long as it is not wet or raining. For more information on how to do this, read about Dog Canyon in our article Best Things to Do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.


Day 8

Carlsbad Caverns National Park & Drive to White Sands

On the Road: 200 miles, 4 hours on the “fastest route” to Alamogordo.

Morning: Carlsbad Caverns

A half of a day is all you need to hike the Natural Entrance Trail and explore the Big Room. With a little more time, add on a ranger-guided tour of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

PRO TRAVEL TIP: Timed-entry reservations are required to enter Carlsbad Caverns. The Self-Guided Tour refers to the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails, which you do on your own without a park ranger. There are set times for these tickets and the first one is at 8:30 am. Learn more here. 

Unlike many national parks, which are open 24 hours a day, Carlsbad Caverns has set hours of operation. The visitor center is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm. You are permitted to hike into the cave starting at 8:30 am.

To make the most of your time today, I recommend getting here right at opening time. It’s also a very nice experience to be one of the first people on the Natural Entrance Trail.

Natural Entrance Trail

Start your morning with the Natural Entrance Trail.

Natural Entrance Trail

Natural Entrance Trail | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

Entering Carlsbad Caverns through the Natural Entrance is one of the best experiences in the park. A well-maintained asphalt trail winds its way down into the mouth of Carlsbad Caverns. Gradually, your eyes will adjust to dim lighting, as you travel farther into the cavern. The cavern gradually reveals itself and its collection of unique rocky formations and dripstones. The trail ends in the Big Room.

This hike is 1.25 miles one-way and downhill for the entire distance. It takes 45 minutes to one hour.

Big Room Trail

The Big Room is the largest cave chamber in the United States by volume. This massive room is filled with stalactites and stalagmites, cave formations, and breathtaking views.

Carlsbad Caverns Big Room

Big Room | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

The Big Room Trail makes a loop in the Big Room. This “hike” is 1.25 miles, wheelchair accessible, and takes 45 minutes to one hour.

PRO TRAVEL TIP: Both the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails are self-guided, which means that you do not have to do these on a tour. However, you still need to make a timed-entry reservation. If you just walk these two trails, you get to see some of the best parts of Carlsbad Caverns. For many people, this is sufficient. But if you want to explore farther, consider adding on a ranger-guided tour.

If you choose not to take a Ranger Guided Tour, you will ride the elevator from the Big Room to the visitor center, rather than walking back up the Natural Entrance Trail.

Ranger Guided Tours

Currently, there are five ranger guided tours that you can choose from. These range from short, easy walks to much longer “hikes” that have you crawling through narrow tunnels and doing a bit of rock scrambling. All of these tours have an additional fee.

For the full list, read our article Best Things to Do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Tim and I took the King’s Palace Tour. This tour is 1.5 hours long, has 1 mile of walking, and you get to see a huge number of stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave formations. If you are looking for an easy but beautiful tour of Carlsbad Caverns, this is a great choice.

Carlsbad Caverns | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

Afternoon: Drive to White Sands

There are several ways to drive between Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Alamogordo (the town that sits rights outside of White Sands).

FASTEST ROUTE: The most direct route goes through Carlsbad (so you can grab a bite to eat here) and Cloudcroft and takes just over 3 hours (175 miles).

ROSWELL DETOUR: You can add on a detour to Roswell. We drove through Roswell and weren’t impressed. But if you are curious about what it’s all about, this drive takes 4 hours (220 miles).

THROUGH EL PASO: Finally, you can also swing past Guadalupe Mountains again, take US-62 to El Paso, and then head north to White Sands. It is a boring drive almost the entire way (we have driven all of this multiple times).

Roswell New Mexico | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

Roswell, New Mexico | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

Where to Stay & Eat

Alamogordo is the best place to stay. From this town, it takes 20 minutes to drive to the park entrance of White Sands.

In Alamogordo, we stayed at the brand new Home2 Suites by Hilton and had a great experience. Other highly rated hotels include the Hampton Inn Alamogordo, the White Sands Motel, and the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott.

Alamogordo has a bunch of chain restaurants like Chili’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Applebee’s, IHOP, and Starbuck’s. We spent two nights in Alamogordo and both nights ate at D. H. Lescombe’s Winery and Bistro and highly recommend it (make a reservation in advance).

You will stay in Alamogordo for two nights.


Day 9

White Sands National Park

On the Road: 50 miles, 1.25 hours out and back from Alamogordo

White Sands National Park is small and very easy to visit. With one full day, you have plenty of time to go hiking and sledding.

PRO TRAVEL TIP: Unlike many national parks, White Sands National Park has set hours of operation. This park is gated and once the gate is closed, you won’t be able to get in or out. The gate always opens at 7 am and closing time is adjusted seasonally (the closing time ranges from 6 pm to 9 pm depending on the time of year). Before your visit, check the hours of operation and make sure you exit the park before closing time. 
 
Road Closures due to Missile Testing: Dunes Drive can close for up to 3 hours during missile testing at White Sands Missile Range. Usually, park staff is notified within 2 weeks of a missile testing, but in some instances, they may only get 24 hours notice. You can get updates on missile testing and road closures on the National Park Service website.

Hike the Alkali Flat Trail first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrive and the temperatures climb. This hike is a 4.5-mile loop through the largest dunes in White Sands. The Alkali Flat Trail is our favorite experience in the park.

Alkali Flat Trail | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

Alkali Flat Trail | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

 

White Sand Dunes

View of the dunes from the Alkali Flat Trail

Midday, go sledding on the dunes and have a picnic lunch. You also have the option to hike one of the shorter trails in the park (we recommend the Backcountry Camping Trail and the Dune Life Nature Trail).

Dune Life Nature Trail Tree | Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary

Dune Life Nature Trail | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

 

White Sands Backcountry Trail

Backcountry Trail | Texas New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

End the day with the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

For more information about these activities, including many more photos, hiking stats, and additional things to do with your time, read our article Best Things to Do in White Sands National Park.


Day 10

Fly home

On the Road: 90 miles, 1.5 hours

In the morning, drive to El Paso and in the afternoon, fly home.


How to Modify this Itinerary

If you plan to do this road trip in the opposite direction, here is the itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive in El Paso and drive to Alamogordo
Day 2: White Sands National Park, drive to Carlsbad
Day 3: Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Day 4: Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Day 5: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, drive to Big Bend
Day 6: Big Bend National Park
Day 7: Big Bend National Park
Day 8: Big Bend National Park
Day 9: Big Bend Ranch State Park, drive to El Paso
Day 10: Fly home

Planning Your Trip

National & State Park Fees

Here are the fees to enter each park.

  • Big Bend: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days
  • Carlsbad Caverns: $15 per person, valid for 3 days
  • Guadalupe Mountains: $10 per person, valid for 7 days
  • White Sands: $25 per vehicle, valid for 7 days
  • Big Bend Ranch State Park: $5 per person from October through April

America the Beautiful Pass

If you have plans to visit all four national parks on this itinerary, it is worth it to purchase the America the Beautiful Pass. This annual park pass costs $80 and is valid for one year. You just break even with this pass but you will also get free admission to any other national park or federal recreation sites that you visit within 365 days of purchasing this pass. Big Bend Ranch State Park is not included with this pass since it is a state park.

Purchase your pass at the first national park that you visit (in this case, at Big Bend) or you can get it online.

Click here to learn more.

Important Links

Here are the links to each national park website. Check park conditions and road closures as you are planning your trip and again just before you go.


If you have any questions about this Texas New Mexico road trip itinerary, let us know in the comment section below.

More Information for Your Trip to Texas and New Mexico:

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK: Check out our Big Bend National Park Travel Guide for important travel information, sample itineraries, and how to plan your visit. Don’t miss our article Best Things to Do in Big Bend for great things to do in the park.

BEST OF GUADALUPE MOUNTAINS: Read our article Best Things to Do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park for a full list of things to do, plus important information and helpful tips to plan your visit here.

CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK: Learn how to plan your visit in our article Best Things to Do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. 

NATIONAL PARKS: In our Guide to the US National Parks, get the full list of national parks with important travel planning information, such as things to do in the parks and sample itineraries.

USA TRAVEL INSPIRATION: For more great ideas on where to go in the United States, check out our article Best USA Road Trips, which has 18 sample itineraries for your next big adventure. You can also see more travel itineraries on our Travel Itineraries page and our National Park Itineraries.

 

Texas New Mexico National Parks Itinerary

 

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Comments 6

  1. Avatar for Mel Coker
    Mel Coker

    Wow, another great guide! So, I was thinking where could I go next year for a road trip and pick up 3-5 National Parks (we now have 27 National Parks visited to date). Looked at a map and found 4 national parks in the area of west Texas and southern New Mexico. Since we fly Southwest mostly, I looked at Lubbock, then El Paso. My initial route thinking was White Sands, then Carlsbad Caverns, then Guadalupe Mountains, and end at Big Bend. Of course, I had to look next at EarthTrekkers to see what you might say about any of the four parks. Behold! I Found your 10 day, 9 night guide with exactly what I wanted to do. Going in the direction you suggest looks better too. So nice and convenient for me. We are looking at doing this next mid April. I liked the inclusions of Boquillas and Big Bend Ranch State Park. Both of these look nice for us – Boquillas since we like Mexican food and margaritas. Thanks again for all your hard work on your website.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author
      Julie

      You’re welcome, and congrats on 27 parks (and soon to be 31)! Have fun planning your trip and let us know if you have any questions. Cheers, Julie

  2. Avatar for Emilie C.
    Emilie C.

    Love it! Having lived in New Mexico for a couple of years, I highly recommend the northern part of the State.. So many incredible hikes to do in the Los Alamos and Santa Fe area : Bandelier NP, Pecos, Santa Fe National Forest and the Rio Grande Gorges near Taos. Also, culture and history with the Indian Pueblos and WWII sites in the area.
    Two years wasn’t enough to see all of it!

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author
  3. Avatar for Mary Jaksik
    Mary Jaksik

    If you’re out near Big Bend again, take a side trip to Marathon. The Gage Hotel and Gage Gardens are worth the trip.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author

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