Bucket List Road Trip: 6 Southwest National Parks - plus more! - in 2 Amazing Weeks
Updated: Aug 31
If you have always wanted to do a road trip around the southwest, I've got the perfect road trip for you. This road trip has 6 southwest National Parks, an airplane graveyard, the chance for alien sightings, and more!
The Southwest U.S. is one of my favorite places to visit, because there is so much to see. We recently took a 2-week trip from Dallas to Arizona and covered 6 National Parks along the way.
But we did more than National Parks. We also stopped for some downtime in Sedona and Scottsdale and enjoyed all that Arizona and New Mexico offered.
I want to share our itinerary in the hopes that it will inspire you to do more in your vacation time.
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Table of Contents for Southwest National Parks and Southwestern Road Trip:
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
White Sands National Park
Potential Add-on: Roswell and/or Ruidoso
Airplane Boneyard / Grave Yard
Saguaro National Park
Potential Add-On: Williams Train to the Grand Canyon
Petrified National Park
Tucumcari (Route 66)
Our friends were headed to Taos via Carlsbad and asked us to join them in Carlsbad. My sister and her family were separately planning a trip to Sedona and the Grand Canyon a week later.
We wanted to make both trips, so we devised the following itinerary to make the most of our time with them and between meeting up with them. I've adjusted the number of nights because I thought we needed less time in some places and more time in others.
Carlsbad, New Mexico (2 nights)
Tucson, Arizona (2 nights)
Phoenix, Arizona (2 nights)
Sedona, Arizona (3 nights)
Grand Canyon Village, Arizona (3 nights)
Tucumcari, New Mexico (1 night)
Return to Dallas
Dallas to Carlsbad
We drove straight to Carlsbad, New Mexico from Dallas (~7 hours before stops) and only stopped for lunch.
West Texas has a unique beauty to it: for miles, you can see sagebrush, golden fields, and bright blue sky. After a while, however, it starts to get monotonous and you long for some topography. Fortunately, that break comes as you get closer to the Guadalupe Mountains.
We decided to make the town of Carlsbad our home base for both Carlsbad Caverns and the Guadalupe Mountains. You can read more about Carlsbad, NM in a previous post.
For both parks, you take Hwy 62. You arrive first at Carlsbad Caverns (~25 mins) from the town of Carlsbad and then the entrance to Guadalupe Mountains NP is just across the border into Texas and just 35 miles down the road from the Caverns.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is 21 miles away from Carlsbad, NM. You must have a timed reservation to get into the park. We did see people get turned away for not having tickets.
There are 120 known caves within it that were formed 4-6 million years ago by a reef that covered southern New Mexico and West Texas. As the water receded, the reef was compressed and formed limestone. Over millions of years, rainwater seeped in and when mixed with hydrogen-sulfide-rich water, created sulfuric acid. This acid created the cave rooms, and mineral deposits mixed with water continued to shape the caves and their formations.
The caves are still largely unexplored. To date, there are 30 miles of caves that are known, and the deepest cave is 1,027 feet below ground.
You descend into the cave through a natural opening, where cave swallows fly all around the top. I will warn you, you will smell bat pee. It is not pleasant, but you will get used to it.
Strollers aren’t allowed. If you have physical limitations or young kids, I’d suggest taking the elevator down to the middle part of the cave system. The walk down through the natural entrance is rather steep.
The walk to the Big Room takes about an hour. It is an impressive walk where you can see the system's vastness. In the Big Room, there are restrooms and an elevator.
The back half of the tour takes you around a large loop to the true variety and beauty of these caves through their various formations. This was my favorite best part of the cave.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Most people see Carlsbad Caverns, but miss Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, just 32 miles further down the same road and just over the state line in Texas. I think this is a big mistake. Each park has different things to see and why skip a National Park that is co-located with another park?
Guadalupe Peak, within the park, is the highest point in Texas. The Park is also part of the world’s largest Permian fossil reef.
If you like history, the Pinery Trail is just 0.6 miles roundtrip takes you to the ruins of the Pinery mail station that was part of the Butterfield Overland mail route back when the West was being settled. It starts just outside of the Visitor's Center.
Aside from climbing to the peak, the most well-known and popular hike is Devil's Hall.
The Devil’s Hall hike is 3.6 miles roundtrip and goes through cacti and desert forest, and then leads you down into a rocky creek.
At the end of the wash, there are a set of tall boulders to climb. It’s not difficult – we had 5- and 6-year-old kids do it. Once you get to the top of the rocks, you will have a lovely vista and a gorgeous tiny pool of clear water in front of you.
Just shortly after that, you will see the "hall". It is not quite as spectacular as what I've seen in pictures of the Narrows at Zion, but it is impressive and a great photo.
Potential Add-ons: Roswell and/or Ruidoso, NM
Roswell is famously known for the 1947 Roswell UFO incident, where a supposed flying saucer crash-landed. It's no surprise that everywhere you look, you'll find references to aliens and outer space.
This detour would add about 40 minutes to your travel time and would not include time exploring the town. If you do decide to do it, though, it will also take you through the mountain town of Ruidoso. You could easily add a day and cover both of these places if you wanted. For us, we skipped these towns (for this particular trip) and continued on to...
White Sands National Park
Just 3.5 hours down US Hwy 285 N, US-82 W, and US-70 W from the town of Carlsbad, you reach White Sands National Park. Alternatively, you can take a 20-minute longer detour and do El Paso.
Both are interesting routes, as Alamogordo is known for the test missile at Holloman Air Force base (fun fact: my sister was born on that base). Since the 1980s, there are a couple of families that also grow pistachios and you can find the world's tallest Pistachio roadside attraction. It's small-town America kitsch at its best.
We chose to bypass El Paso and head to Alamogordo so that we could explore the town a bit and give my parents an update on what had changed since their assignment there in the 1960s.
White Sands N.P. is one of our kids' favorite parks. Sledding in warm weather on sand that is warm, but not hot to the touch? Awesome.
Bring a sled if you have one, or you can buy one there and get the wax to help remove friction.
Drive to the back of the park if you want to get away from the people and walk as far as you feel like to find the perfect hill.
White Sands is great because the gypsum sand doesn't get as hot as regular sand so you can enjoy it year-round and not worry about burning your feet.
The park is also great because there is only one road and it's easy to get in and get out. You can stay for 20 minutes or stay all day if you are inclined.
We love not only sledding down the hills but just laying in the sand and looking up at the beautiful sky above.
You can find more detail about the park entrance requirements and other details in my article, "White Sands National Park: Sledding in June."
From White Sands, we continued on towards Tucson, but I had to make a stop for myself...
Airplane Boneyard / Grave Yards in Tucson, Arizona
So not necessarily a well-known fact, but I am a commercial airline buff. I love everything about the industry, from the planes to the people to the process.
You've probably seen aerial pictures of massive lots of planes parked out in the desert. Deserts lack rain and moisture, so they are conducive to storing planes and provide the best chance of minimizing damage from corrosion or bugs.
There are seven airline boneyards in the southwest of the United States across New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Most don't let you tour, although you can get a decent glimpse from the fences.
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is an exception. They have the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center. This boneyard has a variety of planes that you can see, including C-130s, DC-3/C-47s, Boeing 727s, and more. It is located just outside of Tucson. Tours are conducted by docents from The Boneyard Safari and take place once a month for about 3 hours.
There are over 3,000 aircraft and nearly 6,000 engines.
Unfortunately, since the pandemic, it is no longer open to the public for tours. A good consolation prize, however, is The Pinal Airpark, on the northwest side of Tucson. It's just off of I-10 and provided a quick stop off the highway to appease me and allowed everyone else to sit in the car while I took pictures:).
Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona
I was recently shocked to read in a National Park Facebook group that some people didn't care for Saguaro National Park. The four of us think it is super cool. Not because of facilities or anything like that, but because drumroll... the saguaros.
If you think saguaros are cool, you will love this park because they are everywhere. If that doesn't seem exciting to you, then I guess you would agree with those people in the Facebook group. The Park is pretty much as advertised (i.e., full of giant saguaro).
The park is divided into two distinct districts: the East and the West. Each district offers its own unique charm and breathtaking landscapes. The park's main attraction is, of course, the majestic saguaro cactus, which is synonymous with the American Southwest.
In the East District, you'll find a vast expanse of saguaro cacti, standing tall like guardians of the desert. These iconic cacti can reach impressive heights, some over 50 feet (15 meters) tall and hundreds of years old. It's a sight to behold, especially during sunrise or sunset when the saguaros cast long shadows across the desert floor, creating a mesmerizing scene.
Hiking through the East District is an incredible experience. There are various trails of different lengths and difficulty levels, allowing you to explore the unique desert ecosystem up close. Keep an eye out for other desert flora and fauna, such as prickly pear cacti, barrel cacti, desert wildflowers, and diverse bird species.
Our favorite thing was just to pick our favorite cactus and stand underneath its majesty.
On the other hand, the West District boasts a more rugged and mountainous terrain, offering stunning views of the surrounding desert landscape. The Bajada Loop Drive is a scenic route that takes you through some of the most picturesque areas of the West District, and it's perfect for those who prefer a more leisurely exploration.
If you're lucky, you might spot some of the park's wildlife during your visit. Keep an eye out for desert dwellers like Gila monsters, roadrunners, coyotes, and various species of snakes. Birdwatchers will be delighted by the park's diverse avian population, including hawks, owls, and the Gila woodpecker.
One of the best things about Saguaro National Park is its stargazing opportunities. The park is designated as an International Dark Sky Park, making it a fantastic place to observe the night sky in all its glory. With minimal light pollution, the stars shine brightly, creating a truly magical experience.
When you visit Saguaro National Park, make sure to learn about the park's cultural history as well. The saguaro cactus holds great significance to the indigenous Tohono O'odham people, who have lived in the region for thousands of years. They consider the saguaro a sacred plant and use it for various traditional purposes.
Saguaro National Park is a remarkable destination that allows you to immerse yourself in the beauty of the Sonoran Desert, appreciate the grandeur of the saguaro cacti, and connect with the rich cultural heritage of the region.
I give it two thumbs up!
We broke up our National Park trip by taking a couple of days to enjoy Scottsdale. We had a couple of days to kill before we met up with my sister and her family at the Grand Canyon, and this was the perfect stop.
We stayed at the Sonesta Suites Gainey Ranch in Scottsdale. I've seen these hotels around (we have one in Dallas) but I had never stayed in one before. The one in Scottsdale is lovely. It has a large lawn with yard games and a great pool vibe.
Happy Hour itself is worth the stay. They had free appetizers and drinks in the evening and we made that dinner one of the nights.
We took our kids to OdySea Aquarium at the Arizona Boardwalk. This is, admittedly, a tourist trap type of place, but it was a huge hit with our kids. We had ice cream at Frozen Penguin on the upper level and it was impressive. Our kids are still talking about it.
In addition to the aquarium, the Boardwalk also has Butterfly Wonderland, UFO Experience, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Laser + Mirror Maze, Museum of Illusions, Cyber Quest, Pangaea Land of the Dinosaurs, and Johnny's Playground.
If you are a Frank Lloyd Wright fan, make sure to visit Taliesin West. I admit that I thought most of his work was in the north and I didn't realize that he had a studio in Arizona.
Taliesin West is a UNESCO World Heritage site and where he spent his winters. He designed and built it, and maintained it with his apprentices. No other Lloyd project had such a personal touch.
Scottsdale is a great way to break up the trip. Our next stop was Sedona which was just under 2.5 hours down the road from Scottsdale along I-17.
I added more time in Sedona to this itinerary from what we did, because it is such a paradise if you love the outdoors. My only complaint about Sedona is that it is too busy and there's not really enough of a service infrastructure right now to support it.
The best way that you can help out is to bring patience and tip well.
I didn't want to do it, but I begrudgingly signed up for a Pink Jeep tour. My sister and her family were doing it and it would be uncool not to take my kids along too. I will happily admit that I was wrong to doubt it - it was a trip highlight.
Our guide, Dave, was amazing and not only was a great driver and comic, but also a great photographer.
We took the Broken Arrow Trail, their most popular.
Slide Rock State Park is well-known for the large rocks that line the river and make for a scenic place to splash around. It was on our itinerary, but quickly fell off when we saw how popular it was with locals and tourists. I suggest skipping it and instead splashing around in Oak Creek river at Grasshopper Point.
If you're into spas, make sure that you visit one in Sedona. My sister and I went to New Day Spa and both enjoyed heavenly massages and then relaxed with a mimosa afterwards in their nice courtyard.
Read more about my full list of recommendations for Sedona and Grand Canyon.
Optional Add-On: Williams Train from Williams, AZ to Grand Canyon
If you have a car and are doing this proposed itinerary, doing the Williams Train won't make sense. I did, however, want to mention it in case you are doing a subset of this itinerary because from Sedona, you will drive right near it. If you are staying in Williams, Sedona or Flagstaff, this would be a viable (and cool!) day trip option.
Most people spend 4 hours or less visiting the Grand Canyon. That's mind-boggling to me. You don't end up there just by accident. You have to make your way there. You may as well stay a while.
The Rim Trail is easy to do and you learn a lot about the area's geology as you walk past rocks from different eras.
Lunch at El Tovar is time well-spent. I really enjoyed trying the Navajo tacos and sipping on a prickly pear margarita.
The South Kaibab Trail and the Bright Angel Trail are both very popular routes that can take you into the canyon. Most of us, however, will not make the required overnight trip down to the canyon but can still enjoy hiking to one of several vistas along the way. On South Kaibab Trail, we hiked to Ooh Aah Point and back. On Bright Angel, we hiked to the first rest stop and back up.
If you are afraid of heights (my husband, Bill has a phobia), you will not love either of these trails. If you fall into the supporting spouse, friend, or family member role, do not be like my sister and offer to hold his hand. Just stay back, give the person space, and stay in yell or text range:)
Read more about my full list of recommendations for Sedona and Grand Canyon.
Petrified National Park
Petrified Forest National Park was a late addition to our itinerary. I had forgotten about it and then, as I started to build our road trip route, I saw it on the map and knew we needed to add it to our itinerary.
We spent a few hours there and I will tell you the reality of a long road trip - sometimes, your people just aren't up for things and this was the end to a fantastic trip and Bill and the kids were having no part of this. They were ready to get home.
We all went into the Ranger's station to stamp our National Park passports, look at the displays, and get a map of the 28-mile driving trail. Once I started planning our time within the park, it quickly became apparent that no one was on board for lengthy adventures.
I asked Bill to move to the car's passenger's side, and I planned our route to hit the key sites I wanted to see.
The 28-mile scenic drive takes you along the park's most famous features: petrified logs, the Painted Desert and the Blue Mesa. The park also offers a shorter scenic drive, the Painted Desert Rim Road. Here are some of the things that you will see when you visit Petrified Forest National Park:
From Petrified Forest National Park, it's a 3 hour drive to Albuquerque, our next stop.
Albuquerque is a very nice town, but you probably don't need much time there. We really enjoyed the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway that takes you up the mountain on a 15-minute ride. I didn't know the history and thought that was cool on its own, but we learned during the ride that a plane had crashed there in 1955, and the remnants are still visible today from the tram. From the top, you can take one of several hikes or ski in the wintertime.
If your kids are into Junior Ranger programs, they have one there that my daughter really enjoyed at Sandia Peak. The tram is open Thursdays to Sundays and you should pre-purchase a ticket in advance to guarantee availability
For 17 miles along the city's west side, you can see Petroglyphs National Monument. 400-700 years ago, Puebloans carved images into basalt rock left behind by ancient volcanoes. Visitors since then have also left their mark in places. There are lots of trails to explore.
In October, the International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta takes over the skies. Not there then? That's OK. You can take a hot air balloon ride over this beautiful city anytime.
Tucumcari (Route 66)
From Albuquerque, it's a 2.5 hour drive to Tucumcari along I-40 and historic Route 66.
I can't ride along historic Route 66 and get to a place like Tucumcari without thinking about my favorite Pixar movie, Cars. The road-tripper in me is filled with nostalgia and a wish to have seen a town like this in its prime.
Today, it's a town that many drive past and that's a shame. We stayed at the Motel Safari and it was great. We pulled straight up to our room and parked the car. The room was clean and the rooms had the added touch of being set to an old-time radio playing old-time music.
The lobby was all decked out like a safari and there were fun murals on some of the outside walls. The owner clearly took pride in the place and we enjoyed the stop even though it was just a brief overnight.
You don't need much time in Tucumcari, but stop and give the hard-working business owners in town some of your business.
Back to Dallas
After an overnight in Tucumcari, we made it a long-day drive back to Dallas. Before stops, it's just over 7 hours. Amarillo is on the way and would make an equally great overnight stop if you wanted to drive a bit further from Albuquerque toward Dallas.
Read about our stay at The Big Texan Motel in Amarillo.
This trip was such a fantastic road trip and came together serendipitously. If it weren't for our friends and separately, my sister's family taking trips to the southwest that both appealed to us, we would have missed so many amazing stops in between.
If you've done all or part of this below - or would be interested in doing something like this, please comment below.