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 Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is divided into two sections, Saguaro East and Saguaro West, separated by Tucson, Arizona. Encompassing parts of the Sonoran Desert, there are plenty of interesting things to explore in this vast and fascinating park. If it’s your first time to Saguaro National Park, you’ll definitely want to hit all the highlights!

Saguaro West

Valley View Overlook Trail

Under a mile hike, this trail offers spectacular views of a valley laden with gorgeous Saguaro cacti. An excellent introduction to the park, the Valley View Overlook Trail certainly shouldn’t be missed on your visit to the park.

Bajada Loop Drive

A scenic six-mile drive through the park, the Bajada Loop Drive takes you through some of the park’s most densely-packed Saguaro cactus areas. The drive is on a dirt road, but it’s well maintained and cars typically shouldn’t have a problem. *Note that this area has been known to succumb to flash flooding, so make sure to check with the visitor center for the current conditions before heading out.

Signal Hill Petroglyphs 

More than 800 years ago, the prehistoric Hohokam people inhabited these lands. Take a quick, easy hike to Signal Hill to explore the remnants of this civilization. Here you’ll see the well-preserved petroglyphs which will connect you with this fascinating long-ago culture.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum 

Just outside of Saguaro West, you’ll come to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Filled with native Sonoran Desert animals, you’ll have the opportunity to view the region’s wildlife zoo-style. The museum also includes botanical gardens, an art gallery, a natural history museum, and an aquarium. It’s definitely worth a visit if you have the time.

Saguaro East

Cactus Forest Drive

View the stunning landscape of Saguaro East on this eight-mile paved loop. This is an easy way to get a feel for the beauty of this side of the park, and there are plenty of places to pull off for photo ops. Saguaro East is less-densely packed with cacti, but offers phenomenal views of the Rincon Mountains. 

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Staying Safe at Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park encompasses two areas of the Sonoran Desert, just outside of Tucson, Arizona. Characterized by the saguaro cactus, its namesake, this vast park offers striking views of endless desert landscapes that are certainly worth a visit. It’s important to take the necessary precautions to ensure your safety when visiting Saguaro National Park.

Weather 

The heat in Saguaro National Park is by far the greatest safety risk you will encounter. It’s essential you drink at least one gallon of water with you during your trip to prevent dehydration. Wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide brim hat for optimal sun protection. Be sure to drink frequently as you hike, even if you don’t feel thirsty. 

Weather can change quickly and without warning in Saguaro National Park, and flash flooding is very common. Be sure to seek shelter, move to higher ground, and avoid washes and canyons should you encounter a storm.

Wildlife

As in any desert landscape, you’re sure to experience your fair share of desert-dwelling wildlife at Saguaro National Park! Beware of poisonous rattlesnakes and scorpions, and avoid reaching or stepping into covered areas you can’t see, like beneath rocks or inside holes or cracks. You may also encounter javelinas in the park, so keep your distance to avoid being considered threatening.

Other Concerns 

Rough terrain and the park’s flora and fauna can pose quite a threat to visitors to the park. It’s recommended to wear closed-toe shoes and remain on designated trails when hiking to avoid stepping on a cactus, scorpion, or rattlesnake, or tripping on rocky ground.

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Watching Wildlife in Saguaro National Park

Situated in southeast Arizona within Pima County is the Saguaro National Park, a 92,000-acre park that has both the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mount District contained therein. The park is famous for preserving the Sonoran Desert landscapes, flora, and fauna, and of course, the famed saguaro cactus.

The park was home to early Native Americans before Spanish explorers and missionaries arrived in the 1800s. In 1933, President Hoover established the Saguaro National Monument within the Rincon Mountains. It wasn’t until 1961 when President John F. Kennedy added the Tucson Mountain District to the monument. Congress combined the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District to form Saguaro National Park in 1994.

Today people travel to the park to go hiking and capture the iconic Route 66 postcard image. There are plenty of biking trails, horseback riding trails, and wilderness camping sites available as well.

The park gets its name from the saguaro cactus, which does not grow anywhere else on the earth.

Although it’s a hot and dry landscape, the Saguaro National Park is still home to a slew of medium-sized and large mammals with more than 30 species marked. Some of the most notable residents include cougars, coyotes, bobcats, deer, mule deer, foxes, jackrabbits, cottontails, ring-tailed cats, squirrels, and bats. The park also supports a wide range of birds, like flycatchers, whiskered screech owls, great horned owls, cactus wrens, ravens, turkey vultures, roadrunners, quails, and hummingbirds.

The park is home to 36 reptiles, like the famous desert tortoise, diamondback rattlesnakes, and spiny lizards. The canyon tree frog, the lowland leopard frog, and the Couch’s spadefoot can also be spotted within the park.

Since the park ranges from 2,180 feet to 4,687 feet in elevation, there are two biotic communities, desert scrub, and desert grassland habitats available for exploration. There is also some annual rainfall and more activity than is typically found in a plain desert region. If you think you will merely see cacti when visiting this park, think again!

The Saguaro National Park’s Animals

  • Coyotes
  • Foxes
  • Bats
  • Bobcats
  • Deer
  • Mule deer
  • Rabbits
  • Squirrels
  • Bats
  • Javelinas
    • Also known as a skunk pig, the javelina is a medium-sized, pig-like, hoofed mammal that can be found in Central and South America. They weigh about 50 pounds and can be spotted making their way up into the Saguaro National Park. They live in small herds.

Viewing Locations

SNP East: Available after a mild hike, SNP East is a great spot for seeing javelinas in the washes. During the hot sunlight hours the animals will be hidden, so head out early in the morning to see them.
Catalina Mountains: At the top of the Catalina Mountains, especially at Mt. Bigelow, visitors can see deer, turkeys, bobcats, coyotes, and most other large mammals.

When Should You Go?

The Saguaro National Park has relatively stable and predictable weather year round – cool in the mornings and hot in the afternoons. For wildlife viewing, your best bet is super early morning or at dusk. The winter months can be cooler at night and in the morning, but it’s an overall safe bet that you aren’t going to be dealing with blizzards.

If you plan to hike by day, please pack plenty of water.

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