The American Southwest road trip explores the surreal landscapes of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. You’ll visit each national park in all three states to uncover rocky canyons, rugged mountains, sweeping dunes, and more!
Where to Go
Big Bend National Park
Your road trip starts at Big Bend National Park. Situated on the border of West Texas and Mexico, Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains. The Rio Grande cuts sharp canyons through rugged limestone, and steep cliffs peer over the vast desert grasslands. Soaring rock walls engulf its rivers and streams for adventurous rafting trips. Hikers have over 150 miles of trails that either follow the waterways or climb the highest peaks of the Chisos Mountains. At 7,832-ft, the trek to Emory Peak gives you a heart-racing panoramic view of the wild terrain. Your journey from the Rio Grande to the mountaintops reveals one of the country’s most diverse ecosystems. Discover dozens of cacti species, hundreds of bird species, thousands of insect species, and one of America’s best places to find bats.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The next stop along your road trip, the Guadalupe Mountains are a hiker’s paradise featuring the highest peaks of Texas and thrilling backcountry trips. From brisk strolls through beautiful desert grasslands to challenging treks along immense canyons, there are trails for every skill level. The 2.3-mile Smith Spring Loop is a fantastic warm-up that climbs from desert lowlands to verdant woodlands. Seasoned hikers can summit the roof of Texas by venturing through coniferous forests to reach Guadalupe Peak. With 10 campsites scattered around the park, serious backpackers can find solace after a challenging day’s hiking along scenic ridge lines. McKittrick Canyon enchants visitors with its colorful fall foliage that deeply contrasts with the harsh desert. Tackle the nearby Permian Reef Geology Trail to discover hundreds of prehistoric fossil species.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Your road trip continues at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Stay in the Chihuahuan Desert a little longer to plunge into the hundreds of caves beneath the arid landscape. Just past the Texas-New Mexico border, the Carlsbad Caverns stands out for its mesmerizing stalactites clinging to cave roofs. There are over 100 caves and the trail at Carlsbad Cavern provides entry into the immense cave network. The Big Room Trail is the network’s greatest spectacle that astonishes visitors with calcite formations of all sizes. At nearly 4,000 ft long and 255 ft high, the limestone chamber is the largest cave in America. Above ground, spend time wandering the desert to gaze at rocky canyons, desert scrub, and diverse wildlife.
Grand Canyon National Park
Your next stop is the magnificent Grand Canyon, one of the world’s geological masterpieces that has inspired visitors for generations. Standing at the South Rim gives you breathtaking vistas of the mile-deep and 18-mile wide canyon. The colorful red rock canyons and sandstone cliffs reveal eons of erosion that have shaped the landscape. Some of the miraculous viewpoints include Mather Point and Shoshone Point. Grand Canyon Village is the ideal starting point for your adventure if you choose to venture into the canyon. Bright Angel Trail takes you from the South Rim to the mighty Colorado River, and Rim Trail accommodates most hikers. You’ll need a prior reservation, but visiting the Havasupai Indian Reservation gives you access to the canyon’s plunging waterfalls and turquoise pools.
Petrified Forest National Park
Moving on to Petrified Forest National Park, this remote section of the Arizona desert provides the best opportunity to find colorful pieces of petrified wood. Wander the Black Forest to find enormous chunks of wood upwards of 50 feet in length. The logs split apart long ago, and areas such as Onyx Bridge have formed natural bridges along backcountry trails. Other treks reveal multi-colored hues of Badlands that show the effects of erosion over millions of years. The Painted Desert Rim Trail gives you remarkable views of the ancient fossils and desert wildlife. Native Americans established settlements here thousands of years ago, and the park maintains ruins of pueblos and petroglyphs.
Saguaro National Park
Continue driving just outside of Tucson to reach Saguaro National Park, which preserves one of the timeless symbols of the American West. Saguaro cacti grow upwards of 40 ft tall in the Sonoran Desert, and nowhere else in America produces dense forests of the desert plants like this. Located west of Tucson, the Tucson Mountain District lies at a lower elevation but has a higher density of cacti. The eastern Rincon Mountains boast hills soaring to heights over 8,000 ft and offer more hiking expeditions. Cacti within the Rincon Mountain District are similar in size compared to the Tucson Mountain District and are more sparsely populated with greater biodiversity in the region. Whichever district you prefer, don’t leave without experiencing a dreamy desert sunset with cacti dotting the landscape.
White Sands National Park
The final stop along your journey is White Sands National Park. The sparkling white dunes of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin received the upgrade from national monument to national park in 2019. Encompassing 275 square miles, the wavy dunes create the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The region is home to hardened plants and animals who’ve adapted to the unforgiving landscape. Hiking trails crisscross the sea of sand and let you feel the isolation of wandering the desert. The Interdune Boardwalk is an ideal place for novice hikers to gaze at the white, sandy hills and colorful skies along the horizon. Search for signs of wildlife on the Dune Life Nature Trail and look for gypsum deposits in Lake Lucero. White Sands National Park finds itself surrounded by military bases, and the park faces routine closures due to missile tests.
When to Go
Summer in the American Southwest is brutally hot and temperatures soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Lots of safety precautions are required to protect yourself, but the intense heat is too much for many visitors. Despite the high temperatures, crowds at the Grand Canyon are busiest during the summer. Winters are frigid in the desert regions, and it’s possible to encounter snow or adverse driving conditions. The spring and fall shoulder seasons provide the ideal combination of fewer crowds and comfortable temperatures. You’ll find blooming wildflowers during spring, and some areas boast colorful foliage in the fall.