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.

Watching Wildlife at White Sands National Park

Reminiscent of the Sahara Desert and located right in the United States, the White Sands National Park is nestled into New Mexico on U.S. Route 70. With an average elevation of 4,000 feet in the Tularosa Basin, the park is famously known for its field of white sand dunes and gypsum crystals. The park encompasses 145,762 acres that protect the dunefields and the White Sands Missile Range.

Designated the White Sands National Monument in 1933 by President Hoover, it wasn’t re-designated as a national park until Congress passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act in 2019.

Fun fact: gypsum dunefield is the largest crystal dunefield on Earth.

The inhabitants of the Tularose Basin included Native Americans for thousands of years. When Spanish settlers arrived in the 1800s, they stared to build farms, ranches, and mines, driving out the previous inhabitants.

Upon their arrival, they began to discover there is more than meets the eye in the arid New Mexico landscape. Today the park is home to more than 600 invertebrates, 300 plants, 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, and 7 amphibians. There is even one fish that calls the park home. The White Sands National Park is the most visited site in New Mexico, boasting 600,000 or more visitors per year.

Thanks to the scorching hot temperatures, most of the animals in the park have developed coping mechanisms – namely being nocturnal. They are able to survive with very little groundwater.

White Sands National Park’s Top Animals

  • Bleached earless lizards
  • Sand-treader camel crickets
  • Sand wolf spiders
  • Moths
  • Spiders
  • Wasps
  • Tarantulas
  • Mockingbirds
  • Ravens
  • Roadrunners
  • Kangaroo bats
  • Coyotes
  • Bobcats
  • Badgers
  • Foxes
  • Bats
  • White Sands pupfish
    • The only fish endemic to the Tularose Basin, the White Sands pupfish has dark eyes, silver scales, and is miniscule. It has adapted to the scorching hot desert temperatures.
  • Great Plains toad
    • This toad is able to store more water in their urinary glands than any other toad species. Due to this water retention, they can survive with less water access than normal amphibians.

Viewing Locations

Dunes Life Nature Trail: Hike this trail at dusk to watch the local mammals come to life out of their burrows. Listen to their calls as they soak in the night sky.
Interdune Boardwalk: This family friendly boardwalk is an easy way to see wildlife in the early morning or evening hours.
Alkali Flat Trail: Where you go to get that incredible shot of nothing but white sand and horizon, check for insect movement along the sand during the morning and evening hours.

When Should You Go?

It’s no secret that temperatures can get scorching hot in White Sands National Park. Therefore, plan to visit the park from September to May, or in the early morning or evening hours. For your best shot at seeing wildlife, 5-6AM and 9-11PM are the best windows to catch their movement.

Categorized as Wildlife Tagged