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American Southwest Road Trip

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.

Points of Interest in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is a massive national park located in Texas with plenty to see and explore. The park encompasses the Rio Grande and the Chisos mountain range, and the vast and rugged wilderness is rife with points of interest you won’t want to miss during your visit! 

Santa Elena Canyon

This iconic hike offers fantastic views. Only 1.7 miles round trip, this trail leads you alongside the Rio Grande River into the Santa Elena Canyon. The massive canyon walls rise up around the river making for  incredible landscape views.

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

A beautiful drive through the park, you’ll have the opportunity to take in spectacular desert scenery on the way to the Santa Elena Canyon area. This drive takes you through impressive desert landscapes with mountains rising up from the Chihuahuan Desert.

Lost Mine Trail

One of the most popular hikes in Big Bend National Park, the Lost Mine Trail takes you on a steady incline through the park that offers views of the Chisos mountain range. You’ll be rewarded for your hard work at the end of this hike, where you’ll enjoy panoramic views over the mountains and valleys of the entire park.

Window View Trail

Watching the sunset at the Window View Trail is one of the most iconic things to do in Big Bend National Park. A perfect opening in the Chisos Mountains, you’ll watch as the sun dips below this scenic natural V. 

Emory Peak

Emory Peak is the highest point in Big Bend National Park. The hike to this point is strenuous but the views are absolutely worth it. This 10-mile hike is not for the faint of heart, so make sure to prepare accordingly before heading out!

South Rim Trail

This popular trail begins at the Chisos Basin and ascends all the way up to the South Rim. You can expect breathtaking views of the vast Chihuahuan Desert once you reach the top!

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Places to Visit After Big Bend National Park

A rugged and vast national park located in southwest Texas, Big Bend National Park and its surroundings have much to offer. If you’re planning to make a trip out of your visit, be sure to check out these options for where to go next after Big Bend National Park!

Mexico

Just across the border from Big Bend National Park, there are lots of nearby charming towns in Mexico to explore. Head to the Presidio-Ojinaga border crossing and hop from town to town for an exciting adventure!

Amistad National Recreation Area

If you’re looking for a gorgeous oasis in the middle of the desert, this is it. Amistad National Recreation Area is home to a shockingly blue man-made lake perfect for boating and swimming and hiking and camping in the surrounding area. 

Fort Davis

Fort Davis is a historic town located nearby Big Bend National Park. This little town makes for a charming respite in the vast Texan wilderness and is a fun stop along your way. Fort Davis was an important post during the Civil War which makes for a fascinating history lesson during your journey.

Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site

A great nearby destination for hiking and camping, Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site is also home to caves and ancient Native American artwork. Enjoy the scenic landscape and opportunities for bird watching and wildlife viewing.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Another of Texas’s national parks, head to Guadalupe Mountains National Park for excellent hiking and a variety of historic sites. This rugged park is also home to the tallest peaks in the state.

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Just next to Big Bend National Park is Big Bend Ranch State Park, which is even more remote. This is a great park to visit if you’re looking for backcountry camping, off-road tours, and rugged hikes.

Staying Safe at Big Bend National Park

Located in southwest Texas, Big Bend National Park is one of the least visited of the U.S. national parks. This vast and rugged wilderness protects the Chisos mountain range and a large part of the Chihuahuan Desert. There are several safety precautions you’ll need to take when visiting Big Bend National Park.

Weather

The sun here can be particularly hot, so it’s important to bring plenty of water; bring more than you think you’ll need. Make sure to drink it regularly to remain hydrated. It’s important to dress properly and be prepared for both extreme hot and extreme cold. The days are likely to be hot while temperatures drop significantly overnight, though temperatures are typically cool in the mountains. You’ll want to bring plenty of layers and wear sturdy, closed-toe footwear. Don’t forget your sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat as well.

Thunderstorms are common in this area, so it’s important to be wary of flash flooding. Roads can easily flood and become unsafe to cross, even in your car. In the case of lightning, stay low to the ground, away from tall trees and wide open spaces, and seek shelter or get into your car.

Wildlife 

There are plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities in Big Bend National Park. Never feed or approach wild animals. You’re likely to see deer, javelinas, racoons, rodents, bats, poisonous snakes, scorpions, and spiders. There are also a host of thorny cacti and plants in the park. Be wary of where you step, as dangerous creatures take shelter under rocks and in cracks and crevices. Always check your sleeping bag and inside your shoes before using them for animals when you’re in Big Bend National Park. 

In the Chisos Mountains you may encounter black bears and mountain lions. Always secure your food safely and keep a safe distance from these wild animals. 

Other Concerns

Do not rely on your cell phone as there is little cell service in the park. Always tell someone where you’re going before you head out and have a physical map and compass with you. 

Due to the remoteness and ruggedness of this national park, it’s important to be prepared for anything, even if you just plan to take a short hike. You never know what can happen and you don’t want to be stranded inside the park without the proper provisions. Make sure to have a first aid kit, food and water, a flashlight, and an emergency signaling device with you (a mirror and a whistle can be used for this).

It is not safe to swim in the Rio Grande river at Big Bend National Park, as currents are strong and the murky waters hide boulders and branches beneath the surface. NEVER drink water from the river, even if you’ve purified it. It is not clean.

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Safety- Big Bend National Park

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Watching Wildlife at Big Bend National Park

Located in western Texas bordering Mexico, Big Bend National Park is the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert topography in the U.S. The park is famed for protecting more than 1,200 species of plants, 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles, and 75 species of mammals.

Unlike other U.S. parks, dinosaur bones and volcanic dykes can be observed in this national park, making it a popular archeological site that has history dating back 10,000 years. Today, the park encompasses 801,163 acres of land. It’s notorious for its hot semi-arid climate, with dramatic, extreme weather fluctuations throughout the seasons.

Since the climate is hot by day, most of the native species are not visible due to their nocturnal adaption. But as you can image, the park comes alive at night with most animals emerging to forage for food. Keep your eyes peeled for cougars, coyotes, kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and bears in the park, as well as rattlesnakes, bullsnakes, southern prairie lizards, and mule deer.

Big Bend National Park’s Top Animals

  • Cougars
  • Golden eagles
  • Roadrunners
  • Kangaroo rats
  • Coyotes
  • Gray foxes
  • Jackrabbits
  • Black bears
  • Mule deer
  • Rattlesnakes
  • Bullsnakes
  • Prairie lizards

Viewing Locations

Rio Grande: One of the best ways to see the animals in the park is to check out the Rio Grande River which serves as their main source of water. The river supports 40 species of fish, several species of turtle, beavers, and plenty of birds.
Cottonwood Campground: This campground is one of the best for catching local animals roaming to and from their food sources in the morning. Be sure to tie up your food at night so no bears are tempted to break into the campground.

When Should You Go?

As a desert region, it’s best to visit this park in the early morning and evening hours. Since temperatures can get hot at the Mexico border, it’s best to visit the park in the fall, winter, and spring months and avoid the summer. Note: it can get cold enough to snow in the winter, so be sure to pack accordingly.

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