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Whites City, New Mexico is the gateway to Carlsbad Caverns National Park – and the closest community to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. This might make you think it’s well-equipped to handle tourists, perhaps like Seward (Alaska) near Kenai Fjords, Bar Harbor (Maine) near Acadia, or even tiny but growing Baker (Nevada) near Great Basin.
As of my visit in early 2023 though, Whites City is still trying to come up to meet the popularity and visitors it receives as a base for national park visitors. There aren’t a lot of things to do in Whites City (even including the parks), but that doesn’t mean you should just drive through this community.
Instead, I wanted to put together a resource to help people see as much as Whites City currently has to offer – and make the case for staying here (as overnight stays are a huge part of local economies that can help a place like Whites City grow). If you’re planning a trip to Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, or the surrounding area, here are the things to do in Whites City during your time based there.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache) and Mescalero Apache 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.
Admire the Whites City Mural
First stop during any trip to Whites City? At the mural that proves you’re there! Actually, Marissa and I found these murals by chance at first – though they’re unmissable if you’re approaching Whites City from the north (say, from Carlsbad). You could easily miss them when approaching from the south or even in passing by, if you don’t look for them.
There are two cool murals on the side of one of the buildings of the Whites City Cavern Inn; one reads Welcome to Whites City (and is done by the same artist who did a similar mural in Carlsbad) and the other is a conglomerate of lots of the imagery you’ll find in this part of New Mexico.
Photos essential, selfies get bonus points in my book.
Eat Local at the Cactus Cafe
If you haven’t gotten that Whites City is small, let me drive the point home: there is one restaurant in town, the Cactus Cafe.
As of writing, it is only open for breakfast and lunch, meaning you have to plan your meals around these opening hours and plan for other meals outside that time if you’re planning to spend the night in Whites City. (Marissa and I stocked up on frozen dinners at the grocery store before our stay.)
However, despite being the only refueling station in town (for humans, that is – there is also one gas station), the menu is both big enough and delicious enough to merit multiple meals. For breakfast, opt for a breakfast burrito or omelet smothered in green chile sauce (no matter what you choose to have inside); for lunch, they have more burritos, fajitas, tacos, and some more American dishes, too.
Also, the cinnamon rolls are freshly-made and to-die-for; grab one to go for a sweet snack during the rest of your adventures in this part of the Land of Enchantmant.
Learn Town History at the Gift Shop
Okay, stick with me here: I know going into the super kitschy grocery/gift shop with the giant bats on top of the roof is like, a total tourist-not-a-traveler move. (Admittedly, I think the disdain of traveler versus tourist is kinda baloney anyway…) But as Whites City is not home to any small-town museum where you can learn the quirky history of this place, your next best bet is a room within this multi-room/multi-purpose space.
After entering the gift shop, turn left and move into the room before the gift shop. There you’ll see a few historic pieces from the town (including one of the old buckets originally used to lower visitors into the caverns), as well as a small video playing about the history of Whites City and Carlsbad Caverns.
It’s nothing fancy, but it’s at least something that goes a little bit deeper into why Whites City came to be and what it has to offer.
Visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Obviously, you’re in Whites City to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park; the park entrance is right on the west end of town, and the Carlsbad Caverns Highway (the park road) runs seven miles from there to the Visitor Center.
I have a guide on how to make the most of a day at Carlsbad Caverns National Park (which is really all you need to see the best this park has to offer), so be sure to check that out for all the details to plan your visit. In short though, be sure to get reservations to access the caverns during your visit, take the natural entrance trail if your mobility can handle it, and prepare to be wow-ed.
(Carlsbad Caverns jumped onto the list of my five favorite national parks after my trip, so let that motivate you!)
Go Caving in Slaughter Canyon
If, during your visit, the National Park Service is offering tours in the Slaughter Canyon part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, I highly recommend having the adventure of caving on this guided tour.
On a 5.5-hour tour (reservations a must), a park ranger will equip you and guide you into a part of the caverns that is unlit and lesser explored – though not dangerous for visitors, as long as you follow the ranger’s advice.
This is the tour I’ll be waiting to hear has restarted to plan my return trip and try my hand at spelunking.
Hike in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
A little further afield, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is just a few miles south of the New Mexico-Texas border; it’s one of two Texas national parks. (The other being Big Bend, which is still on my list.)
This is a hiking-focused park, so be sure to strap on some good shoes before setting out. I have a full guide to visiting Guadalupe Mountains and which hikes I recommend, but if you only want to do one during your visit to the Whites City area, I highly suggest Devil’s Hall – it was varied and interesting and had super cool geology to explore at the far end of the out-and-back trail.
Enjoy the Night Sky by Stargazing
As you probably know, I love stargazing, so I’ve gotta include it on my list of things to do in Whites City – especially as a short drive back up into Carlsbad Caverns will give you lots of protection from nearby light pollution and the ability to see the Milky Way clearly if you visit during the summer months.
My favorite viewpoint is the Walnut Canyon viewpoint, which is a short walk from the parking area. If you want to go stargazing, be sure to keep the moon phase in mind; the best stargazing nights of each month are the week surrounding the new moon – though it is very dark in Carlsbad Caverns, so I also recommend bringing a red flashlight so you can see while walking around out there.
Where to Stay in Whites City
Like your restaurant options, your choices for where to stay in Whites City are limited… to one.
As of writing, your only option is Whites City Cavern Inn, which is a nice motel in the heart of town and conveniently located for exploring the whole area and doing everything on this list. (You could, instead, stay in Carlsbad, but I hate the idea of adding extra driving time when there’s a local option that’s good.) Marissa and I stayed here during our trip and our room was clean and quiet – exactly what we needed after each day of adventure!
I did discover that the aforementioned gift shop – which also oversees RV parking and camping in town – has a few cabins for rent. However, I asked about them and read the literature they provided and honestly, just don’t do it. Sleeping on a cot in a dodgy “cabin” isn’t worth the money you’ll save compared with other options or time you’ll save instead of staying in Carlsbad.
As I mentioned at the top, Whites City is small, and your options for things to do in Whites City are limited – but don’t let that deter you from visiting or encourage you to skip over what it has to offer! Have any questions about what to do in Whites City during your visit? Let me know in the comments below!