New Mexico Road Trip: Carlsbad, White Sands, and Las Cruces

Since starting college, I thought it would be fun to do a spring break road trip, and I planned out different hypotheticals (including a hiking-intensive 9 National Parks in 9 days trip that, physically, I don’t actually think I could do). Last fall, with the pandemic still dragging on and online classes keeping us in the apartment almost constantly, my roommates and I started to discuss the idea of a spring break trip for senior year. Of course, things didn’t work out entirely as planned – officially, spring break was cancelled, and due to that and COVID, we scaled down the trip and only two of us (Sarah and I) went.

Nevertheless, it was an excellent and much-needed trip. Our revised itinerary allowed for a relaxed pace that I really enjoyed because it allowed for plenty of time to just relax, hang out, and eat a lot of green chile. Though there’s much more in New Mexico I’d love to explore, we had a great time in the southern part of the state! (And part of Texas) This is a really long post, so grab a coffee and settle in to read!

Hiking in the Organ Mountains

Our Trip

The road trip began just before 5 am when we started our drive from Tucson, Arizona to Whites City, New Mexico, which is the small town just outside of Carlsbad Caverns. With our playlists ready to go and a full tank of gas, we drove into the sunrise. Leaving this early, traffic wasn’t too terrible, even going through Las Cruces and El Paso. Really the only issue on the drive was a somewhat stressful border checkpoint in Texas during which, unlike the border stops I’d been through previously, we had to stop, allow them to look in the trunk, and answer several questions about where we were going. Besides that, there was high wind driving through the open desert, but we still made good time and reached Whites City around 1 pm.

While many visitors to the caverns stay in the town of Carlsbad, I really liked staying in Whites City. It’s a very small town with only one restaurant and limited lodging options, but it’s right outside the park, and everyone we met working in the town was really nice. Though the caverns were explored and popularized by the cowboy Jim White, the town of Whites City is actually named for a man called Charlie White who capitalized on the popularity of the caverns in the 1920s by purchasing the land and turning into a resort for tourists, who continue to fuel the small town’s economy. We stayed for three nights at the Whites City Cavern Inn, which, while it isn’t a mega resort, does provide spacious, comfortable rooms that are convenient to the caverns at a decent price. Though there are more options in Carlsbad, this fit what we wanted and worked great for us! We also got takeout that evening from the Cactus Café in Whites City, which was decent, but as the only restaurant in town and catering as it does to tourists, it was very overpriced compared to other places we ate on the trip. Going back, dinner in Carlsbad or purchasing some food from the Whites City convenience store would be a more economical option.

Sunrise at Carlsbad

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

On Saturday morning, we were up bright and early to drive into Carlsbad (only 7 miles from Whites City). We’d stopped by on Friday to ask how busy they expected to be and were told to arrive by 7:30 if we wanted to be in the first group going into the caverns. So, we arrived at 7:15, which turned out to be a very good idea since the line stretched around the visitors center by the time the park officially opened at 8 am. With only two groups ahead of us, we had no problem getting tickets to walk into the Natural Entrance at 8:30 sharp.

If you think you know what Carlsbad Caverns is like, just forget it. Pictures don’t do it justice. Articles about the caverns can’t capture them. There’s a reason Carlsbad has close to half a million visitors every year: It’s AMAZING. It’s a place you have to see in person to really believe and appreciate. And the Natural Entrance is a huge part of that in my opinion.

You can enter the main cavern by taking an elevator or by walking down the trail from the Natural Entrance. While the elevator may be easier, in my opinion, if you are physically capable of walking into the cavern, you have to do it. Sarah and I took 50 minutes to walk down and loved it because the Natural Entrance introduces you to the cavern system in a way that’s just not possible if you take the elevator. You first see the incredible mouth of the cave from which thousands of bats leave each night in the summer, but soon you enter “the Dark Zone” where no sunlight reaches. Though we started the trail in a group of people, you’re able to walk at your own pace, and, because most people stop in the same places for frequent pictures, by the time you leave the sunlight, the large group has split into a dozen smaller ones. Also, because a normal speaking voice can carry for a quarter mile in the caverns, you’re supposed to speak no louder than a whisper. So, because we couldn’t hear anything but ourselves and some dripping water and because we only occasionally saw other people, it really felt like we had the cave to ourselves on the walk down, which was an incredible experience by itself.

Walking down the Natural Entrance is an essential part of visiting Carlsbad Caverns because it gives you a real sense of how far underground you’re going. I was also thinking quite a bit about early explorers of the cave, both Native Americans, and white settlers who mined the bat guano. For them, there was no paved trail with lights. They just entered a dark cave that seemed to go on forever, which is both a terrifying and exciting prospect. Even today the cave system at Carlsbad has not been completely explored.

When we finally reached the Big Room that is the main attraction of Carlsbad Caverns, I wasn’t ready. We’d already spent most of an hour walking into the cave and seeing lots of cool formations. So I thought, basically, that I’d already spent a lot of time in a cave for the day – all other caves I’ve visited have only had 45-60 minutes tours – and I probably wouldn’t be that impressed by whatever I saw in the Big Room. I was very wrong!

The Big Room is a spacious cavern that contains Carlsbad’s most well-known features. Though you see some pretty cool things walking down, this still takes the cake. The trail around the room’s perimeter is about a mile and pretty level, but we walked so slowly and took so many pictures that we spent a full hour exploring the Big Room. While I did include a few pictures above, it bears repeating that these pictures absolutely don’t do the cave justice. If you have even a passing interest in caves, this will blow your mind. Since I think it would be impossible to capture in words, I’ll just say that my favorite parts of the Big Room were “Fairyland,” which does indeed look like a place where fairies would live and the “Rock of Ages,” which looks like an old man watching over the room.

Carlsbad Caverns was definitely, 1000% a highlight of this road trip and probably my favorite stop! Since I could continue talking about it for a while, I’ll be posting another blog soon that will be solely devoted to Carlsbad Caverns and how amazing it is. But the main takeaway here is that if you’re planning to visit New Mexico, you should add Carlsbad to your itinerary.

Roswell has some fantastic murals

Roswell, NM

Since we did Carlsbad Caverns so early, we ended up with the afternoon free. Originally, we’d intended to go to Roswell on Sunday, but we changed things up and added this to our Saturday itinerary. From Whites City, it’s a two-hour drive to Roswell. It was on this drive that we discovered that the town of Carlsbad had some confusing road work that Google Maps didn’t know about, so we had an adventure navigating a detour on the way to Roswell. The town itself reminded me of Point Pleasant, West Virginia if the entire town decided to completely embrace Mothman and make that their entire marketable identity, which is to say, it’s very touristy but still pretty fun.

Basically, the story with Roswell is that in 1947 something crashed just outside the town of Roswell, New Mexico. The U.S. military said the crash was just a weather balloon, but the rumor of a crashed flying saucer had already begun. The story wasn’t a big deal at the time but became very popular in the 1970s when ufologists (yes, that’s a word) began speculating about a government cover-up involving aliens. It turns out that there actually was a bit of a cover up: Government documents released in the 1990s revealed that the crash was a surveillance balloon that was part of the top secret Project Mogul. Despite the Roswell incident being thoroughly investigated and debunked, the story continues to be popular, and the town has definitely capitalized on it.

Another of Roswell’s excellent murals

Since we didn’t really want to spend a lot of money, we mainly just walked down the main street and popped into a few different shops. There are lots of fun (and weird) novelty items and books that relate directly or tangentially to aliens. It was a fun little day trip, and I really loved the alien-themed murals around the city. If I ever go back, I’ll probably just spend a few hours tracking down and photographing all the murals because they were excellent!

The other excellent part of Roswell was Martin’s Capitol Cafe, which has FANTASTIC Mexican food for not a lot of money. Sarah and I got chimichangas to go and ate them in the park by the Roswell Visitor Center while also drinking alien-themed soft drinks we found in a souvenir shop (mine was “Rocket Fizz Rootbeer Float”). While the alien soda was unimpressive, the chimichangas were phenomenal, and I would go back to Roswell just for another one. For dessert, we naturally went to the spaceship McDonald’s and got some Oreo Shamrock McFlurries, whose green color was, I thought, appropriate given the stories of little green men in the area.

Roswell was definitely a fun stop on our itinerary, and I’m glad we went! Incidentally, on the drive back to Whites City, we decided to be smart and avoid the construction in Carlsbad, so we ended up on a 24 mile farm road that was important enough be be two lanes wide but not important enough to have a center stripe of paint. It was the quintessential desert road as I imagine it, just stretching straight to the horizon and bracketed by miles of sagebrush and brown grass. Aside from the occasional cow or farm truck, the only movement seemed to be oil drills with their heads bobbing up and down. Though we did eventually have to drive through Carlsbad again (just some confusing roads this time, no construction), my favorite part was driving through the desert as the sun edged toward the horizon.

Mountain Morning

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Sunday morning, we were awake and in the car before sunrise to reach Guadalupe Mountains National Park at sunrise. This park is technically in Texas, but it’s only about half an hour from Carlsbad Caverns, which is also part of the Guadalupe Mountain range. Since it was so close, we decided to check another National Park off the list and do some hiking here. Guadalupe Peak here is actually the highest point in Texas and is known as the “Top of Texas.” But we weren’t really feeling the 6-10hour hike up a mountain and instead hiked into the Devil’s Hall.

But first a bit more about the park because the coolest part about the Guadalupe Mountains is that they are a marine fossil reef! Way back in history, this entire area was underwater, and the mountains that now tower about the Chihuahuan Desert were part of Capitan Reef (different from Capitol Reef in Utah) and were covered in sponges and algae. These days of course, the mountains are in a desert that receives only 10-20 inches of rainfall annually. However, the mountain peaks and flat stretches of desert are deceptive: The canyons sheltered by the Guadalupes are home to vibrant wildlife that is a beautiful mix of desert and forest.

In recent history, this region of Texas and New Mexico was home to the Mescalero Apache. In the late 19th century, however, pioneers, like the Apache, recognized the value of these mountains both as navigational landmarks and as a place to find water and game. Thus, in 1849, the U.S. Army launched a 30-year campaign that was ultimately successful in driving the Apache from the land. Today the Mescalero Apache Tribe have their headquarters in Mescalero, New Mexico where they are governed by a tribal council. Following other wars with the Apache, the Lipan and Chiricahua tribes were also brought to the same reservation, and today all three groups compose the Mescalero Apache. To learn more about the Mescalero Apache, visit this link, and if you’re looking to add a bit more to a New Mexico road trip, consider adding a stop at one of the tribal enterprises – personally I’m intrigued by Ski Apache and would probably visit there on a return trip through New Mexico.

As shown in the pictures above, the hiking in Guadalupe Mountains is fantastic! While I would definitely like to return and hike Guadalupe Peak, I loved the Devil’s Hall Trail. In starting early, we had the whole trail to ourselves until we were coming back, and it was so much fun to spend the morning scrambling over rocks and climbing the natural staircase! Our legs hurt later, but it was completely worth it! We also saw a mule deer who got remarkably close to us, though a park ranger we met while walking back out of the canyon said that the park’s deer really have no fear of people. Still cool though! The fall-colored foliage lit by early morning sunlight was a special treat to photograph since it’s different from most of the pictures I get to take in the desert. The entire trail was great, but the Natural Staircase was undoubtedly the highlight for me. While it’s probably not that impressive, I just really liked getting to climb up it. ¯ \_(ツ)_/¯

Taco Tuesday is best enjoyed in New Mexico

Las Cruces

Okay, I’ve got to be honest here: While Las Cruces did have some pretty good fodd, Tucson is favorite southwest city. Also, I really loved exploring in the national parks, and cities aren’t my favorite, so I was probably destined to be a little biased against Las Cruces. That said, we ate some really REALLY good food here, so it’s worth a stop if you need to spend the night somewhere. Also, it’s conveniently located to White Sands National Park and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, which had some good hiking.

So first, Food. I’m sure there are great restaurants all around Las Cruces, but we picked the ones that we could walk to (from this amazing Airbnb), namely La Nueva Casita Cafe and Nopalito. Of the two La Nueva Casita is my preference, but the taco Tuesday deal (and the tacos themselves) at Nopalito were phenomenal as well. We also got coffee at Beck’s Roasting House, which had both really good chai lattes and really nice t-shirts that I was severely tempted to buy. We did have one meal downtown near the Mesilla Plaza, and while I enjoyed walking around the plaza, the restaurant we found there was overpriced and honestly not as good as the ones I mention here.

While I’m sure there’s more to do in Las Cruces than we did, we were limited on time and because of COVID preferred to hang out in the parks rather than the city. We did spend some time at Mesilla Plaza, which has some very nice buildings and cool history – one building on the plaza, now known as Billy the Kid gift shop, is where Billy the Kid was held after his 1880 capture (though he escaped soon after, he was ultimately killed in Fort Sumner in July 1881). The Billy the Kid gift shop was not a highlight for me as it was primarily a lot of ultra-touristy trinkets. The better gift shop on the plaza was, in my opinion, Del Sol, which had a variety of good-quality products, including southwestern-style rugs, assorted jewelry, and some really nice wood carvings. I also liked the plaza’s bookstore because it’s my favorite kind of hole-in-the-wall place where the books available are curated based on the owner’s interests, and you’re likely to find things you wouldn’t notice in a bigger store.

Basilica of San Albino in Mesilla Plaza

Also while in Las Cruces, we stopped by the Rio Grande at La Llorona Park, but as the river was completely dry, we had no chance of actually seeing the weeping woman. On the morning we left, we attempted to go by the farmer’s market, which occurs on Wednesdays and Saturdays. We knew before going that the Saturday market was supposed to be bigger, but we saw literally one shop while there on Wednesday, which was a bit of a let down.

Outside the city however, we did have fun hiking in the Organ Mountains. We chose a short, easy trail: La Cueva Loop. In looking at the elevation changes, we decided to hike it backwards and started on Dripping Springs Trail. While not one of the best trails I’ve ever done, it was a good hike with some nice views of the mountains and city. We also veered slightly off the All Trails route to actually see the cave that the trail is named for, which was Very Cool. Known as the “Hermit Cave” it is where an Italian immigrant and traveling hermit named Agostini-Justiniani lived for the last two years of his life. His death was actually one of several unsolved murders at the time. Prior to El Ermitano (as Agostini was/is called), the cave was inhabited in the Archaic period (5000 BC – 1 AD) and there are pottery shards from the Mogollon Culture (1 AD-1450 AD). Even further back in this cave was created from “rhyolitic ash flow tuff” which basically means volcanic rock. The area around Las Cruces is part of the Rio Grande Rift, which has had an especially active geologic history; the state of New Mexico as a whole is actually a great place to learn about volcanoes in part because of this. I like a hike where I get to learn something, so this was a fun one for me!

Lonely Yucca in the sand

White Sands National Park

White Sands was yet another amazing place to visit, though it was very difficult to take pictures that really captured the scenery. So, like Carlsbad, you have to come here to really experience it! White Sands National Park is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield and covers 275 square miles – which means it can be seen from space! The park also has a sister park at Cuatrociénegas in Mexico, which you can read more about here.

The park’s gypsum is a remnant of the ancient Permian Sea (so really given all the ancient ocean and volcano stuff in this post, our New Mexico road trip was kind of a tropical getaway). Slow geologic processes led to layered gypsum deposits that were eventually broken down into the sand you see today. The dunefields also have a surprising amount of moisture, and it is the water located within the dunes that keeps the sand from blowing away entirely. And though these are desert dunes without a lot of readily visible plant and animal life, it’s still out there, and it’s actually really impressive to learn about their adaptions – from animals who blend in with the sand to plants like skunkbrush that have dense, deep roots to stay in place among the shifting sands.

Like at the nearby Organ Mountains, White Sands’ human history connects to the Jornada Mogollon who farmed in this area until drought in the 1300s. Native Americans returned around the 1600s and were followed in the 1800s by European American settlers. White Sands was declared a National Monument by Herbert Hoover in 1933 and was used as a weapons testing site in WWII. The park is still occasionally used by the military, and during those times it is (obviously) off-limits, but this usually only lasts for a few hours at a time and shouldn’t cause a huge disruption to any plans – if you’re wondering about park closures, check the website or ask at the visitor center. It was in 2019 that White Sands was reclassified as a National Park, and it was the most recent addition to that list until the addition of the New River Gorge at the tail-end of 2020.

Total we spent about two hours at White Sands. There is an 8-mile road through part of the park that takes you to the different trail heads and picnic spots. Though the actual park is much more extensive, you would need special permissions to explore it, especially since the further reaches of the park are a cooperative use are with the military (AKA where they detonate things). On the drive we pulled off first at the Nature Trail, which is only about a mile but involves hiking on the sand specifically, and since we weren’t in the mood to slip and slide on the dunes, we only walked out a short way. We also stopped at the boardwalk, which is much easier to walk on and includes several posted signs about the park’s natural history and flora and fauna. Our last stop was at the end of the road where there’s a plethora of socially-distanced picnic tables, each with a wind shelter so you can eat sand-free sandwiches.

Probably the most popular thing to do in the park is sledding on the dunes. You can bring your own sled or rent one at the visitor center (technically you buy it and then return it for most of your money back). While we didn’t do this, it is absolutely something I would do on a subsequent visit! I also think it could be interesting to hike the Alkali Flat Trail, which takes you beyond the dunes; however, it does involve five miles of hiking over shifting sand, so it’s something that would require some preparation, a lot of water, and a lot of patience. Due to COVID ranger programs are suspended, but in normal times, there are evening events where you can see the stars and potentially spot some of the nocturnal critters who live here. I would absolutely return here post-COVID just for some of the evening events.

This New Mexico post is bracketed by pictures from Texas (this one and the featured one at the top)

Final Thoughts

Basically, I LOVED this trip. For one thing, I really needed it this semester, but also it was just amazing to visit these incredible places that far exceeded my expectations. I really enjoyed the places I visited in New Mexico in 2017, so this trip really just confirmed for me that New Mexico is a state with a lot of natural beauty and amazing food. While I didn’t love driving in Texas, Guadalupe Mountains was a phenomenal and beautiful park that I would love to visit again! This was a fantastic trip, and I would absolutely recommend stopping at some of these places if you’re considering a road trip through New Mexico! Our overall itinerary if you’re wondering was as follows:

Day 1:

Day 2:

Day 3:

Day 4:

  • Drive to Las Cruces (3 hrs)
  • Lunch at La Nueva Casita Cafe
  • Explore Mesilla Plaza
  • Stop by La Llorona Park
  • Stayed at Airbnb in Historic District

Day 5:

Day 6:

  • Attempted visit to Farmer’s Market
  • Second coffee and pastries at Beck’s
  • Drive back to Tucson (4 hrs)

One thought on “New Mexico Road Trip: Carlsbad, White Sands, and Las Cruces

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