Known for its sprawling landscapes, rugged mountains and natural landmarks, the Southwest is an incredible destination. A mecca for outdoor travelers, the region is celebrated for its numerous National Parks, drawing in millions of visitors each year. Whether you’re in search of the ultimate hiking experience, a heart-stopping mountain biking adventure, or a thrilling trip below ground, you’re sure to find it here!
On this five-day itinerary, we’ll take you to some of the Southwest’s most remarkable attractions, traversing across the sand dunes of southern New Mexico and under the sunny skies of El Paso, Texas to witness first-hand the region’s astounding natural wonders.
We’ll start our journey in El Paso, which serves as the closest major city and airport for our trip. If you opt to fly in the night before, there are several available accommodations downtown. For a unique experience, we’d recommend booking a room at the Stanton House. Originally built in 1912, this historic building once served as a popular furniture store. Today, it’s a highly sought-after boutique hotel that offers modern art-focused accommodations.
DAY 1 – EL PASO, TEXAS
When you’re ready to begin your explorations of El Paso, hop in the car and head towards our first destination for the day—Mission Trail. Stretching nine miles through El Paso County, Mission Trail is home to three of the oldest churches in Texas. These churches, Ysleta Mission, Socorro Mission and the Presidio Chapel of San Elizario, all date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, offering visitors the chance to take a peek back in time.
As you travel between the churches, you’re also likely to come across various museums, art galleries, restaurants and shops; many of these are worth checking out, so be sure to stop by and visit any that pique your interest. The town of San Elizario is an especially popular stop for its historic art district and Old County Jail, which is famous for its connection to western outlaw Billy the Kid.
Keystone Heritage Park
Once you’ve had your fill of sightseeing, head back towards El Paso for a relaxing afternoon at Keystone Heritage Park. Spanning more than 50 acres, the park encompasses a botanical garden, wetland bird sanctuary, a desert experience and a 4,000-year-old archeological site. The best part about this park, however, is that it allows dogs! So if you happen to be traveling with any four-legged friends, feel free to bring them along.
White Sands National Park
Following this quick pit stop, you’ll want to settle back into your car and head northbound for White Sands National Park in New Mexico. You’ll have two options here for accommodations. If you’d like to stay in the park, backcountry camping among the dunes is available. Keep in mind that with this option, you’ll have to arrive before the park closes, and you won’t have any access to amenities, so be sure to come prepared.
If you’d rather stay in a hotel, stop and spend the night in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Here you’ll find various accommodations, ranging from chain hotels to budget motels and house rentals.
DAY 2: WHITE SANDS NATIONAL PARK
Today is all about sand dunes, sand dunes and more sand dunes! Once you arrive at (or wake up in) White Sands National Park, the first thing you’ll want to do is head to the visitor center. This is a great place to gather information and learn more about the animals that inhabit the park. It’s also where you’re going to buy a sled and wax, so you can partake in the park’s most exciting activity: dune sledding.
You’re allowed to sled anywhere in the park, so drive around, pick a spot that looks good and go for it! In fact, if you’d like to do it more than once, then choose a few places to give it a try. You can spend as much or as little time sledding around the dunes as you like.
Once you’ve had your fill of sledding, there are a few different hiking trails that you can check out. All of them are pet-friendly, so if you are traveling with dogs, this is a great place to bring them. One short hike that you won’t want to miss is the Dune Life Nature Trail. This one-mile loop offers the opportunity to glimpse some of the park’s wildlife or, at the very least, their tracks. The Interdune Boardwalk is another great hike to check out if you want to learn more about the park.
Where to Stay Near White Sands National Park
When you’re ready to wash off the sand, hop back in the car and make your way over to Cloudcroft, New Mexico for the night. Located in the midst of Lincoln National Forest, this historic town offers many accommodations, including several camping and glamping experiences. Check out the Lodge Resort & Spa or the Cloudcroft Hostel for the night.
DAY 3 – LINCOLN NATIONAL FOREST
We’ll begin today bright and early with a mountain bike ride along the Old Cloudcroft Highway Trail Loop. This 2.8-mile loop travels along an old railroad route, offering incredible views of the forest and the Toboggan Canyon. If you’d prefer to walk, hiking is also allowed on this dog-friendly path. Stop by High Altitude in Cloudcroft to rent bikes for the day.
Once you make your way back into town, take a break from the trails to check out the Sacramento Mountains Museum and Pioneer Village. Here, you can learn more about the town’s original settlers and walk through a recreated village that offers a peek into their lives. This is a great way to learn more about the history of the forest and its continued importance.
For lunch, head on over to MAD Jack’s Mountaintop Barbeque where you’ll find some of the best barbeque in the area. Just be prepared to endure a bit of a wait, as it is one of the most popular restaurants in town. No reservations are available but the wait is well worth it, we promise!
Following lunch, return to the forest for one final hike along the 2.2-mile Osha Trail. This hike, which is also dog-friendly, loops through a fir forest out onto a ridge that offers panoramic views of White Sands National Park.
Where to Stay Near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
We’ll end the day by hopping back in the car and making the two-hour drive to Carlsbad, New Mexico, our destination for the next two nights. Here you’ll find various accommodation options, including The Trinity, a luxurious restaurant and hotel dating back to the 1800s.
DAY 4 – CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK
We’ve spent plenty of time exploring the surface of the Southwest, so today we’re going to head below ground to check out Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Your first stop for the day will be at the visitor center, where you can collect information about the more than 119 caves that reside in the park.
From here, you’ll head below ground for a self-guided tour of the Big Room, the largest single cave chamber in North America. There are two ways to enter the cavern; you can either take an elevator down from the Visitor’s Center or walk along the Natural Entrance Trail, a 1.25-mile trail that slowly meanders below ground. Once in the cave, you are free to explore and wander around at your leisure.
Once you’ve completed your cave expeditions, head back to the surface to tour the rest of the park and stop for lunch at the on-site restaurant. There are several desert trails that you can hike along, or if you prefer, there’s also the Walnut Canyon Desert Drive, a 9.5-mile scenic road that travels through the park.
There are also several ranger-guided tours that you can sign up for. One particularly popular tour is the Bat Flight Program, which offers visitors the chance to watch the park’s bat colony take to the skies. This tour is held every evening from late May through October.
Pro Tip: Reserve a timeslot to enter the caverns ahead of time via the National Park website. It’s also important to mention that pets are not allowed in the caves. However, the park does have a kennel where your dog can hang out while you explore underground.
DAY 5 – GUADALUPE MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Today, we’ll pack up and head out for Guadalupe Mountains National Park, home to the highest mountains in Texas. However, before you make your way out of Carlsbad, be sure to stop by a store to pick up some snacks and sandwiches, as there are no dining facilities in the park.
You’ll have a few different options to consider for today, depending upon your energy level and hiking expertise. If you’d like to, you can spend the entire day hiking up to Guadalupe Peak, which is the highest peak in the state. This hike, however, is very strenuous and should only be attempted by more experienced hikers. The trail is 8.5 miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet. It typically takes six to eight hours to complete the hike, so come prepared if you’d like to do this one.
More Hiking Trails
For those who’d prefer something a bit less strenuous, there are a variety of other hikes in the park that you can take advantage of. One popular trail is the McKittrick Canyon Trail to Pratt Cabin. This 4.8-mile out-and-back hike takes you to the historic cabin of the family who donated the land that would become Guadalupe Mountain National Park. Piney Trail is another short but well-known hike, as it’s the only dog-friendly trail in the park. Finally, Smith Spring Trail is also worth checking out, as it leads to a small waterfall and shady oasis in the desert.
With that, we’ve concluded our trip through some of the best that the Southwest has to offer. From here, it’s about a two-hour drive back to El Paso, where you’re free to continue your explorations or hop on a plane bound for home!