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.

Staying Safe at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Located nearby Carlsbad, New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The natural caves covered by ornate decorations that characterize this unique national park are exquisite and well worth exploring. It’s important to take the necessary safety precautions when visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park to ensure a safe and pleasant visit! 

Weather 

The climate in Carlsbad Caverns National Park is extremely sunny and hot so be sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection, including sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat. During the summer, brief but intense thunderstorms are common, so it’s important to be prepared if that’s when you plan to visit. 

Wildlife 

You may encounter wildlife like deer, sheep, and javelina, which are common in the park. Do not feed or approach the animals and make sure to maintain a safe distance, both for your safety and theirs.

Other Concerns 

Be sure to wear sturdy shoes with good traction, as the caves can be slippery and there are sections that are quite steep. It is essential that visitors remain inside the designated tourist areas of the caverns which are well maintained, while other parts of the caverns could be dangerous and pose a significant safety hazard.

All cavern tours are strenuous so make sure your body is up to the challenge before embarking on any tour. Ask a park ranger to explain what your tour specifically entails before committing to it, and make sure to prepare yourself accordingly.

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Safety- Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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Watching Wildlife in Carslbad Caverns National Park

The Carlsbad Caverns National Park is an impressive American park located within the Guadalupe Mountains in Southeastern New Mexico. The most visited part of the park is the Carlsbad Cavern, which can be reached by hiking a few miles along a paved path. Located on US Highway 62/180, about 18-miles south of Carlsbad, New Mexico, the park has two entries on the National Register of Historic Places: The Caverns Historic District and the Rattlesnake Springs Historic District.

The cavern is home to a limestone chamber called the Big Room, which is close to 4,000 feet long, 255 feet high, and 625 feet wide. The chamber is famous for being the largest chamber in all of North America. As far as worldwide statistics go, it ranks as the 31st largest chamber in the world.

Discovered by European settlers in 1898 when teenager Jim White explored the cavern using a ladder he built, the teen named many of the rooms, including the Big Room and the New Mexico Room. He also named the cave’s prominent formations, like the Totem Pole, Witch’s finger, and the Bottomless Pit. Upon his discovery, locals had to walk down a switchback ramp that took them about 750-feet below the surface to check out the cave. It was a strenuous hike that made it impossible for many to see the caves for themselves.

By 1932, the National Park opened a visitor center which built two elevators into the caves. Visitors could now come in and out of the caverns below without needing to climb. The visitor center was equipped with a cafeteria, waiting room, and a museum. The park was officially proclaimed the Carlsbad Cave National Monument in 1923 by President Coolidge.

Currently, roughly two-thirds of the park is protected wilderness area in an effort to ensure there are no harmful changes to the habitat. The high ancient sea ledges, deep rocky canyons, flowering cacti, desert wildlife, and 119 caves make this National Park the only one of its kind.

There are 67 mammal species, 357 bird species, 5 fish species, and 55 amphibians and reptiles found within the confines of the park. Most of the animals are desert species, which means they sleep during the day and forage at night.

The Carlsbad Cave National Park’s Top Animals

  • Coyotes
  • Foxes
  • Wolves
  • Bobcats
  • Otters
  • Badgers
  • Skunks
  • Bats

Viewing Locations

Balloon Ballroom: This small room was first accessed by floating someone into the passage using balloons.
Bat Cave: This unadorned rocky passage is home to the majority of the park’s bat population. It has been mined for bat guano in the past.
Bell Cord Room: Characterized by the narrow stalactite that comes in through a hole in the ceiling, this room is found at the end of the Left Hand Tunnel.
Bifrost Room: Named for its location above the Lake of the Clouds as well as its colorful oxide-stained formations, the Bifrost Room wasn’t discovered until 1982.
Big Room: The biggest room in the Carlsbad Caverns.
Green Lake Room: Named for the malachite-colored pool in the room, the Green Lake Room is probably your best bet for getting photos that look like they were captured on another planet.
Guadalupe Room: The second largest room in the Carlsbad Caverns, the Guadalupe Room is known for its soda straw stalactites.
Queen’s Chamber: Regarded as the most beautiful area of the cave, Queen’s Chamber is where Jim White spent hours after his lantern went out.
Spirit World: Nestled into the ceiling of the Big Room at its highest point is an area filled with white stalagmites that look like angels to those just seeing the room for the first time.

When Should You Go?

If you want to get in on the Bat Flight Viewing celebration that happens every year, flight programs are scheduled from Memorial Day weekend through the middle of October. The best time to see the bats in flight is during July and August. Morning programs are great for making your way into the caves before the tourists arrive.

As for stargazing, programs throughout the entire year are hosted to help visitors better understand what they are seeing in the sky.

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