Itineraries,  Road Trip Tips

How to Plan a 4- or 7-Day Texas & New Mexico National Parks Road Trip

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There are some epic road trips in this world – especially if you love national parks. Think of the National Park to Park Highway. A drive to all of Utah’s Mighty 5 (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion). Or a loop through all four of Colorado’s national parks, from the Rocky Mountains to the deserts of the southwest. There is no shortage of ways to explore our national parks, connecting the distance between them by car, and crossing some of the most scenic landscapes in the world.

One part of the U.S. that’s often overlooked – both for its national parks and for its road trip potential – is Southeast New Mexico and West Texas. Crisscrossed by Interstates and Highways, you can easily put together a memorable Texas and New Mexico national parks road trip that hits four of the 63 national parks – including both parks in Texas, both parks in New Mexico, and one of the newest national parks.

Texas New Mexico National Parks Road Trip Itinerary Hero

It was with this idea in mind that friend and fellow blogger Marissa from Postcards to Seattle and I set out on our annual national parks trip in 2023. We didn’t do this exact route – I am the “test traveler” after all – but it was with this post in mind that we tried our route and I’ve made some adjustments to help you have an even better trip.

Whether you have just a long weekend (4 days) or an entire week (7 days), you can see a lot in this part of the country – and explore a few new national parks (including one of my favorites!). Ready to hit the open road and explore some natural wonders? Punch it, Chewie!

(This is something Mr. V and I say when we’re getting going in the car 😅)

In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Mescalero Apache, Tampachoa (Mansos), Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache), Jumanos, Coahuiltecan, Chiso peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

The Perfect Texas & New Mexico National Parks Road Trip Itinerary

Before hitting the road and diving deep into the details of what I recommend for this Southwest/West Texas road trip, I thought it might help to start with an overview. First, a map:

Texas New Mexico National Parks Road Trip Itinerary Map
Click to interact with the map.

As you can see, this route has two parts: a loop through (mostly) New Mexico that takes you to three national parks (Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, and White Sands), and an out-and-back portion that adds on Big Bend National Park too. You could do it in either order – loop then out-and-back or out-and-back then loop – but I recommend two options below based on how much time you have for your trip.

Suggested 4-Day Itinerary

If you only have four days but want to make the most of it, here’s a route very similar to the one I did when I visited three of the four national parks in New Mexico and Texas with my friend Marissa in 2023.

DayRouteActivitiesOvernight
1El Paso to Whites CityWhites City
2Guadalupe Mountains National ParkWhites City
3Whites City to AlamogordoCarlsbad Caverns National ParkAlamogordo
4Alamogordo to El PasoWhite Sands National Park

Suggested 7-Day Itinerary

If you have a full seven days, you can add on a trip down to Big Bend National Park, too. This means you’ll visit both national parks in New Mexco and both national parks in Texas.

DayRouteActivitiesOvernight
1El Paso to Whites CityWhites City
2Guadalupe Mountains National ParkWhites City
3Whites City to AlamogordoCarlsbad Caverns National ParkAlamogordo
4White Sands National ParkAlamogordo
5Alamogordo to Big BendBig Bend
6Big Bend National ParkBig Bend
7Big Bend to El Paso

Choosing between the two is really a matter of how much time you have; unfortunately, because of how far Big Bend is from the other parks, you need those extra days and can’t really fit the trip into fewer days if you want to visit all four parks. I can say from experience though that a three-park, four-day trip was a great time too! (Also, I’ve heard that Big Bend National Park is worth a trip in its own right, which is what I plan to do.)

Okay, now let’s dive into the details of the route and plan(s) I laid out above.

Day 1: El Paso to Whites City

As you might expect from a road trip in a part of the country you don’t call home, your first day of this Texas/New Mexico national parks road trip is all about travel. Unless you’re driving to do this road trip, I recommend flying into El Paso and renting a car there. Once you’ve gotten settled, your final destination is Whites City, New Mexico, about 2.5 hours’ drive away – but you want to make one stop for sure before leaving town: a grocery store.

Your options for food in Whites City are super limited, so I recommend using your phone to map a route to a grocery store on your way out of town; this will let you stock up on some essentials like snacks and microwavable frozen foods for meals you aren’t able to get at the one restaurant in town (the Cactus Cafe). You might also want to stop for dinner depending on your travel timing.

Depending on your arrival time, you may just want to relax for the evening; the Whites City Cavern Inn – your only accommodation option in Whites City – has good wifi and cable TV.

Where to Stay: Whites City Cavern Inn, as mentioned. Rooms start from $100/night.

Day 2: Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Rise and shine – it’s time for the national parks part of the trip, instead of the road trip part that you had yesterday.

It’s a 30-minute drive from Whites City back across the Texas border to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. This is a “hiker’s park” so be sure to grab your good shoes, plenty of water and snacks, and lunch before setting out.

I’ve got a guide for spending one day in Guadalupe Mountains that includes a few hiking suggestions to make the most of this park. Here they are, briefly:

  • You could choose to try and summit Guadalupe Peak, which is an 8-9 hour hike with 3,000 feet of elevation.
  • Or you could do two shorter hikes; I loved Devil’s Hall and many people recommend McKittrick Canyon (which I also did but didn’t love). In between, enjoy a picnic lunch at the main trailhead area, and don’t forget the Visitor Center (no matter which hikes you do).

After getting plenty of steps in for the day, you’ll want to make the drive back to Whites City. As the Cactus Cafe isn’t open for dinner, this is where your frozen microwavable dinner comes in handy.

If you’re up for it after a long day, Whites City sits on the border of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where you could go stargazing once the sun goes down.

Where to Stay: Another night in Whites City Cavern Inn.

Day 3: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

After a night of rest, it’s time to visit another park: Carlsbad Caverns National Park. This was the park I was most excited to visit among the three I did during my trip in March 2023, and it quickly jumped onto the list of my favorite national parks.

I also have a guide for spending one day in Carlsbad Caverns National Park; that’s an essential read if you’re following my itinerary, but here are the basics:

  • Start by getting reservations to enter the caverns, ideally on a ranger-led tour.
  • Depending on the time of your tour, either enter the caverns through the Natural Entrance and Tour the Big Room then take your tour, or vice versa.
  • Enjoy lunch in the upstairs cafeteria, as well as a snack in the underground lunchroom.

After touring the Big Room (and ideally going on a ranger-led tour too), you’ll want to make yoru way north through Carlsbad and over to Alamogordo for the night.

Where to Stay: The Classic Desert Aire Hotel. Rooms start from $76 per night.

Day 4: White Sands National Park

Rise and shine early in Alamogordo – seven days is a good length of time for this Texas & New Mexico national parks road trip itinerary, but it’s not so much time that you can sleep in.

Will it surprise you to learn that I have a guide for how to spend one day at White Sands National Park, too? Of course not – you know I love putting together helpful resources that all fit together like a perfect puzzle. Now this itinerary doesn’t fit perfectly with that post, so let me provide a modified day suggestion for this itinerary specifically:

  • Catch the sunrise over the dunes
  • Hike some of the easier trails, the Interdune Boardwalk, Playa Trail, and Dune Life Nature Trail
  • Enjoy a picnic lunch under an iconic shelter
  • Hike the Backcountry Camping Trail or Alkali Flat Trail
  • Enjoy sunset and a little stargazing before dinner in Alamogordo and a night of rest

Now, in the event that there is missile testing at White Sands on this first day of your visit (which I address in the post above), you could also get up early tomorrow to watch the sunrise before leaving Alamogordo headed south on a long day of driving… but that only applies if you’re doing a 7-day trip – let me get to that now.

Where to Stay: Another night at The Classic Desert Aire Hotel, if you’re doing this as a 7-day road trip.

If you’re only doing a 4-day Texas and New Mexico national parks road trip, you’ll want to cut your day in White Sands short, make the 90-minute drive to El Paso, and head home. This is what Marissa and I did, and it was a great, jam-packed trip with plenty of parks and adventure in them.

Day 5: Alamogordo to Big Bend

If you’re doing a 7-day Texas and New Mexico national parks itinerary, the rest of this post is for you.

After a second night in Alamogordo, it’s time for a big day of driving: it’s a 6.5-hour drive from Alamogordo, New Mexico to Big Bend, Texas. As you might guess, Big Bend is home to Big Bend National Park.

Before you get there, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the wide-open spaces of West Texas. Luckily, the drive is quite interesting, with lots of small mountains that you move between while following Interstate 10 and US-90.

There are two stops worth making along the route: Van Horn is the biggest town and your best bet for lunch. Marfa – famous for its Prada store on Instagram – also has a lot to offer (and only a few hundred fewer residents). You could also make one stop on the way down and another stop on the way back north in a few days.

As the drive will take most of the day, you’ll probably arrive in time for dinner, at Chisos Mountains Lodge, where you’ll also stay the night.

Where to Stay: Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only accommodation option near Big Bend National Park.

Day 6: Big Bend National Park

As I mentioned earlier, I think Big Bend is a park worth a trip in its own right – and more than a day to spend in it (unlike the other parks so far, which can all be pretty completely enjoyed with just one day). In any case, a day is what you have – so let’s make the most of it!

Sunrise (and sunset) are popular in Big Bend, so if you’re not too tired from yesterday’s drive, you could rise and shine early to capture the sunrise in the park – or just at your hotel if you’re not up for a drive.

Speaking of drives, Big Bend has over 100 miles of paved roads within the park (and dirt roads of varying conditions too) – that’s a lot of driving if you want to get oriented by car before setting out on foot. Chisos Basin Road is essential, as it’s also where you’ll find the Visitor Center (and gift shop!), but you’ll likely drive this anyway if you’re staying at Chisos Mountains Lodge. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is another good option, totaling 30 miles in length but really showing off the scenery of Big Bend.

Hiking is the other popular daytime activity in Big Bend, with 150 miles of trails to explore. (That’s almost twice as many as Guadalupe Mountains – which is called a “hiker’s park!”) Where you hike depends on what you want to see; the NPS categorizes hikes based on the landscape: the desert, the mountains, or the river. AllTrails lists 79 different trails, so I’ll leave it to you to browse their site, read reviews, and pick ones that make sense based on your interest and effort level.

As if that weren’t enough, Big Bend National Park is also famous for stargazing; it has some of the darkest skies in the U.S. overhead once the sun goes down. Again, the NPS has an excellent guide on both ranger-led stargazing programs and where to go stargazing on your own.

That’s quite enough to pack into one day, isn’t it? Especially as you have another long day of driving tomorrow to wrap up the trip.

Where to Stay: Another night at Chisos Mountains Lodge.

Day 7: Back to El Paso

As you might expect from the out-and-back nature of these past few days on the road trip itinerary, the final day of your Texas and New Mexico national parks road trip needs to bring you back to El Paso, a five-hour drive.

You’ll obviously need to plan based on your departure flights, but I would anticipate leaving Big Bend in the morning. You can then stop for lunch in Marfa or Van Horn, then carry on back the rest of the way to El Paso.

Where to Stay: You probably don’t need anywhere to stay if you’re flying home, but in case you do, I like the look of The Plaza Home Pioneer Park in El Paso.

And there you have it: a bucket list-worthy road trip to four national parks in seven days – or three parks in four days. No matter which way you choose to do this trip, you’ll come home with sand in your shoes, stamps in your National Parks Passport, and memories to last a lifetime. Have any questions about how to plan your own Texas and New Mexico national parks road trip? Let me know in the comments!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

2 Comments

  • Lisa

    I am planning this trip for April of this year and am wondering why you choose to do a counterclockwise loop from El Paso to GMNP to CC to WS then an out and back to BBNP? My thinking has me going clockwise from El Paso to WSNP to CC to GMNP to BBNP then back to El Paso.

    I’ve plotted it on different maps and it’s less time on the road going clockwise. But you and ChatGPT both go the other direction.

    Am I missing something? Sure appreciate any insight you have. Thanks. Lisa

    • Valerie

      I think it’s a matter of how much time you have and the options for accommodation along the way. BBNP is really its own trip so it’s kind of like smushing two together… but you could do it either way, whichever you prefer. (Also, I don’t trust ChatGPT on anything travel – it is frequently wrong and makes things up.)

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