by Robert Annis
Tucked away near the New Mexico–Texas border lie three unique attractions: White Sands National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
With less than four hours' drive time to hit all three spots, it’s perfect for time-strapped tourists. But while you can visit all three in a weekend, odds are you’ll find a reason to linger.
Many people don’t stop at White Sands because it’s not officially a national park but it’s easily one of the most unique properties within the National Park Service system.
The white sand – technically it’s gypsum – stretches for miles, forming massive dunes. The pristine dunes make for great photos, but you might need to hike a bit to find untrampled spots.
Buy or rent a plastic sled at the visitor center and start looking for a steep slope for some adventurous fun. Time your visit for after rain or wind for a fresh canvas of sand.
If you plan to hike, be sure to bring a compass; with the exception of the backcountry trail, there are no real trail markers on the dunes, so it’s easy to get lost.
Plan to devote two or three hours wandering the sand dunes. There are a handful of overnight camping spots in the park, all of which require about a one-mile hike and a permit.
Carlsbad Cavern’s Big Room is incredible: the trail around the cave stretches more than a mile and takes visitors past fascinating rock formations, stalactites, and even some natural water features.
The Big Room self-guided tour is free for visitors with the America the Beautiful pass. Ranger-led hikes will take you to other sections of the caverns, but you’ll have to pay extra for those.
From late-May through October, the park offers nightly programs allowing visitors to witness the bats emerge from the cave to feed.
Although the biggest spotlight is on the caves, visitors have access to more than 50 miles of hiking trails on the surface.
The Big Room self-guided tour can take up to 90 minutes. If you have time, skip the elevator down and take the mile-long hike down to the mouth of the cave. The last tour starts at 4pm.
Only backcountry camping is allowed inside the park, but you can park your RV either at Guadeloupe Mountains National Park or Lincoln National Forest, which sits between the two national parks.
Hikes here include a 9-mile trek to Guadalupe Peak, the highest spot in Texas. The 4-mile Devil’s Hall hike has spectacular rock formations, or walk the 3-mile Smith Spring loop.
If you just want to stop at the visitors’ center and take a few photos, you can be in and out of the park in an hour but it’s easy to spend an entire day.
Stay: Dog Canyon has 9 tent and 4 RV spots, while Pine Springs has 20 tent and 20 RV sites. All sites are first-come-first-served.
Although it’s not an official Dark Sky Park, you can get some spectacular shots of the Milky Way. Many of the campers bring a telescope or camera gear.
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