Updated: Aug 20
Whether traveling solo or with friends or family, road trips are always a great adventure. With COVID putting a haul on travel plans, many travelers and families are opting for road trip vacations. Here’s a road trip that you can complete over a 2-3 day weekend - White Sands National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Both of these parks are easy to get to from El Paso, TX; a bit longer from Albuquerque, NM, but still doable.
White Sands National Park
Formerly known as White Sands National Monument, this park was added to the National Parks Registry in December 2019. The White Sands National Park hours vary by season and there are occasional closures due to missile testing in the area, so plan ahead! The hour and a half drive north from El Paso is not very scenic, but once you arrive, the journey will be well worth it. The park offers camping, biking, hiking, sledding and picnicking. The entrance fee is only $15 per person (solo traveler) or $25 per car (2+ travelers).
Stopping at the visitor’s center is a must. There you can pick up a plastic sled that will come in handy when you want to slide down the tall, powdery white sand dunes. Sleds can be rented from the park for approximately $20 with a $3 buy-back option. While at the visitor’s center, you can also visit the White Sands National Park Museum which features cultural and ecological exhibits. Be sure to purchase water or fill up a tumbler of water before you enter the park. You’ll also want to bring some sun shades. After all, this is a desert.
Note: Pets are allowed as long as they are on a leash. Once inside the park, there is no WiFi. Also, if you plan to visit the first Saturday in April or October, consider a free tour of the Trinity Site (site where the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated).
Carlsbad National Cavern
About a two and half hour drive East of El Paso, you will find Carlsbad Cavern National Park. The drive is so scenic that it may take a bit longer because you’ll definitely want to stop and take photos of the picturesque landscape; so you may want to get an early start.
The Carlsbad Cavern Visitor’s Center is where all the action starts. This building houses their bookstore, gift shop, and educational exhibits; and it’s where you purchase tickets for the cavern. Hop on the elevator to descend 750 feet into the cavern. Be sure to check the last entry and exit times which vary depending on the season. Carlsbad Caverns offers six different ranger-guided tours. You’ll want to make reservations because they fill up fast. Otherwise, you can explore the cavern at your own pace.
Once in the cavern, there are two trails to follow - The Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room Trail. The Big Room Trail is the easiest route (1.25 miles and 24 feet in elevation) with a vast amount of underground rock formations and a few water ponds to see. Most of this trail is wheelchair accessible, but there are portion of this trail that are not. There’s good signage in the cavern to show you the way. There is one steep climb on this trail; however, there are benches along the way so you can stop and catch your breath if needed. The Natural Entrance Trail is a different beast. Still only 1.25 miles, but the elevation is 800 feet. The steep descent can be challenging. Wheelchairs are prohibited in this part of the cavern.
Above ground, you can learn about 17 different species of bats through Carlsbad Cavern’s Bat Flight Program. If you plan your trip between mid-April and late October, you can experience the bats’ night flight when thousands of bats exit the cave at sunset, flying into the night sky in search of food. An amazing site to see!
Note: Pet lovers will want to read the park’s pet policy. Also take a jacket for cavern; it can get chilly down there! This park has a picnic are with tables and grills.
If time allows, when leaving Carlsbad Cavern, stop by Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Just a 40 minute drive south, this park has some great hiking and scenic overlook views. There’s one hour, half day and full day trails. Entrance fee is only $10 per person.
If you plan on visiting many national parks, consider buying the National Parks Annual Pass. It pays for itself within 3-4 uses. BONUS: members of the United States Military and their dependents can get annual passes for free!
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