Travel Tips 

Texas and New Mexico Road Trip: Four National Parks in Four Days

Join me on an epic 4-day, 4-park, father-daughter road trip through Texas and New Mexico. From the desert mountains of Big Bend to the underground caves of Carlsbad Caverns, we bonded over the open road and were awestruck by incredible scenery and history.
Prepared By:

Sydney Farthing

Adventurer & Photographer

Our lasso-shaped Texas / New Mexico national park road trip map is fitting as if it’s wrangling up the endless desert terrains and ponderosa pines that make up the route for me to put in my pocket and share with you all.

Funny enough, it didn’t take much wrangling to convince my dad to join me on this expedition. He’s 65 and needed a break from work. So when I asked him to accompany me on an off-the-beaten-path western adventure 1,500 miles from home, he said, “Syd, screw work. I need an excuse to get a senior national park pass; let’s go!” (in his own words, of course). So one April morning, My dad and I, a pair that hadn’t traveled alone since a camping trip in 2003, flew from our small Greenville, South Carolina airport to El Paso, Texas, and hit the open road in the name of father/daughter exploration. Our app-curated Spotify Blend playlist let us know that we were only 30% alike and had a lot of getting to know each other to do. Not to worry. We had four days and four national parks to visit. 

Road Trip Route

National Parks

Big Bend National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and White Sands National Park

Total Distance

815 miles / 1311 km

Suggested Days


Suggested Seasons


Day 1: Tuesday

Song Inspiration: “Hotel California” – The Eagles

“On a dark desert highway…”

It takes work to get to Big Bend National Park. Realistically, you can’t get there from South Carolina in just one day, even with modern conveniences. So the first day of our trip was solely dedicated to travel, flying most of the day with a layover in Dallas, then picking up a rental car upon landing in El Paso and driving three hours to Marfa, Texas.

I’m a fan of quirkiness, so I was ecstatic to check out Marfa, Texas. For context, Marfa is a small, once-cattle-town-turned-artist-haven in the middle of nowhere, Texas. The town is a spectacle because it’s a place where two worlds that don’t typically mesh coexist. Some locals grew up on cattle farms and stuck around even though business dried up. Others were big-city artists who moved to Marfa looking for breathing room and a quiet place to showcase their craft. Seemingly, both groups agree that they’ll welcome anyone except those who disrupt the peace or aim to make Marfa something it’s not. 

On our trek from El Paso, we excitedly spotted the iconic “Prada Marfa” storefront about 35 miles from town. It’s what it sounds like, a strange fake Prada store in the middle of the desert, showcasing only left shoes through the windows. It stands out alongside the only other buildings on the road, truck stops, and dilapidated homes. We continued our drive and could both use a drink after a long day, so upon arriving in Marfa, we stopped at the only bar in Marfa open on a Tuesday, Planet Marfa. It’s an eclectic beer garden with multiple unique gathering areas, like a bus, a teepee, and a tree house. We enjoyed karaoke before heading to our art-filled adobe rental home to crash (I splurged on lodging for Marfa).

Day 2: Wednesday

Song Inspiration: “Texas Sun” – Khruangbin and Leon Bridges

“You say you like the wind blowing through your hair; well, come on, roll with me ’til the sun goes down… Texas sun…”

Texas stretches remarkably far and wide. There is so much space between towns that, in Texas culture, the city of Marfa is basically inside Big Bend National Park. However, if you’re from anywhere else, a 100-mile distance equates to a moderate journey to a different place. So even though I would have liked to spend hours wandering around Marfa, shopping, visiting art exhibits, and people-watching, we decided to get an early start for our three-hour drive to Big Bend to get the most out of our day. But first, we stopped at Aster Marfa, a farm-to-table cafe in Marfa-typical, artsy, tex-mex fashion, and picked up breakfast sandwiches for our drive. The commute consisted of many jagged mountain peaks, flat-topped mesas, and about five other cars.

Our first stop in Big Bend was the 1.3-mile out-and-back hike to Santa Elena Canyon. Views of the tall rock formations beside the Rio Grande River were already beautiful from the trailhead, and we were eager to see what the rest of the park had to offer. At the start of the hike, we had to choose between crossing through the river or taking a longer trail. We chose the latter, mainly because we wanted to avoid getting our socks soggy. I quickly regretted our decision when the incline and dry heat got to me earlier than expected. My sweet, athletic-beyond-his-years dad was patient and encouraged me to take many water breaks, allowing him to bird-watch and read the interpretive signs along the trail. I knew the hike was relatively short, which kept my morale up. Soon, we arrived at the narrow canyon with red clay rock, a perfect contrast to the bright blue sky looming over the clear water of the Rio Grande. It was a spectacular sight, worth the effort to get there. I sat on a riverside rock and enjoyed the sights, watching a turtle that kept poking up its head while my dad explored further, as athletes do. Then we continued back on the trail, unhesitantly taking the river-crossing route on the way back. The water was incredibly refreshing, making it hard to get out. But we had more to see, so we were off to the Chiso Mountain region of the park.

We drove a slowly inclining, winding one-hour route to the Chiso Mountain trailhead and were delighted by the change in environment – a cool breeze and rugged mountain tops with lush, green accents. It looked like the backdrop for Jurassic Park. There are many trail options, and with our short time allotment, we bargained for the 1.8-mile Chiso Basin Loop Trail. The views were dramatic and unique as we were surrounded by mountains on all sides, except for one window through which gave views of a further mountain range. With more time, we would have tried the 5.6-mile Window Trail for a hike down to the actual opening.

Next, we drove another 45 minutes to the Hot Springs Historic Trail, a .5-mile walk to the riverside remnants of a stone bath built over a hot spring. This area was once a spiritual sanctuary for the Indigenous Madessawi people until around 1800. It was easy to see why the babbling river, accented with wildflowers and hilly views in the distance, with the built-in warmth and tranquility of a hot spring, seemed almost too good to be true. Maybe it was, because the area eventually became a town and inn after white settlers invaded. Along the trail, you can glimpse into past worlds through petroglyphs on the side of stone walls and abandoned motel rooms. Now, the historic hotspring is a protected haven for parkgoers, a way to honor its intricate and dark history and allow everyone to enjoy its beauty. Of course, when my dad and I approached the hot spring, it was being enjoyed by other white families. Suddenly, our expedition felt less groundbreaking. I began to recognize the pushed-under-the-rug notion that although there are placards and “help us preserve these petroglyph” signs, this is a place for the ancestors of war winners. If I travel to sacred spaces, the least I can do is acknowledge the ugly truths. The descendants of those who truly understood and loved the land either don’t feel welcome or aren’t around. 

We soaked in the hot spring, taking in all we’d experienced in Big Bend. We then made the trek back to Marfa, stopping halfway through for tacos at the Starlight Theater in Terlingua Ghost Town. We were contently exhausted and passed out almost immediately as we returned.

Day 3: Thursday

Song Inspiration: “The Man That Time Forgot” – Charley Crocket

“Have you ever seen a stranger just a-passing through? And wondered where that drifter he was headed to?”

By Thursday, my dad and I felt like outlaws on the run, with no time to stop anywhere for too long. We snagged some breakfast tacos at the Sentinel Marfa before skipping town to explore Guadalupe Mountains National Park in New Mexico.

The drive from Marfa to Guadalupe was about 2 hours. We passed bare deserts and wind storms and eventually weaved through shrub-covered, round-topped mountains. There was no cell service or radio signal, and we couldn’t play our Spotify blend playlist, so I began playing every saved album on my phone, like deep-cut Taylor Swift and John Mayor tracks. Then I obviously had to explain the controversy between the two artists. My dad and I were really getting to know each other. (Take that, Spotify!)

Our first stop at the park was Pine Springs Visitor Center, where a ranger informed us that we could only squeeze in a small portion of the activities I had planned for the day due to time. It was a bummer, but we expected plan changes. Next, we went to Frijole Ranch Trailhead, just a stone’s throw away, to hike the 2.3-mile Smith Spring Loop trail. My expectations were low, and I was disappointed we couldn’t experience the epic hikes with dramatic views Guadalupe is known for in our limited time. Luckily, my dad was in positive spirits. He was just happy to be exploring, so I tried to mimic his attitude. We began our trek, which headed through the dry desert towards more lively vegetation at the base of some mid-sized mountains at a slight incline. I quickly became light-headed and out of breath. I was learning that I don’t do well in dry heat. It’s best that we missed the epic hike anyway.

To my delight, the landscape and temperature suddenly changed about a mile in as we entered a shady oasis, Smith Spring. There was a creek, a small waterfall, and greenery all around. We cooled down, enjoyed the satisfying payoff, and chatted with friendly passersby before continuing the loop trail, enjoying the unique views of the hilly Chihuahuan Desert. When we reached the trailhead, we walked through the Frijole Ranch Museum, a restored homestead from 1876. We learned about the Mescalero Apaches, who held peaceful sanctuary in the area before pioneers conquered the land in the 1800s. It felt like another testament to the dark history of valuable land. How a place with such grandeur is usually a double-edged sword; appreciating something to its fullest with no defense often comes at a cost.

Next, we departed for Devil’s Hall Trail, another short drive away. Our second and last Guadalupe experience had the promise of magnificence, a 4.3-mile round-trip hike through a rocky wash and up a natural staircase to a slot canyon – Devil’s Hall. It was late afternoon and noticeably cooler than earlier. I gleefully trudged along the trail, enjoying the dramatic, cliffy mountains surrounding us, similar to the Jurassic Park scene in the Chiso Mountains of Big Bend. When the path turned into boulders, I hopped along quickly, leaving my dad in the dust, happy to find that balancing on rocks is my hiking skill. Sadly, someone along the trail told us there was a deer carcass dominated by flies in Devil’s Hall, and he didn’t recommend we climb up. When we reached the natural staircase, we enjoyed the unique geologic formations, took photos, and hiked back. The park was closing soon, so we had to say goodbye to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, even though there was much more we wanted to see. 

We drove to Carlsbad, New Mexico, about an hour away, where we ate at Yellow Brix, an upscale-ish American diner suggested to us on a hike that day, before crashing in our hotel room. 

Day 4: Friday

Song Inspiration: “Dime Store Cowgirl” – Kacey Musgraves

“Drivin’ through New Mexico where the saguaro cactus grow…”

Friday was a big day for me and Dad. We planned to visit both Carlsbad Caverns National Park and White Sands National Park and then check into a rental home in Las Cruces, waking up before dawn the next day to get to the El Paso Airport. So we woke up early, ate a quick hotel breakfast, then drove to Carlsbad Caverns, about 30 minutes from town, to make our 8:30 am reservation. The drive in was hilly, beige, and bare, and it took about 15 minutes to reach the visitor’s center after entering the park. By this point, we’d listened to about all of my downloaded music and almost resorted to the infamous U2 album that was dropped onto every iPhone in 2014. 

After checking in at the visitor’s center, we proceeded to the natural entrance, a winding trail that drops 750 feet into a giant, underground hole. As we walked through the cave opening, we descended further and further into darkness with minimal guiding light. This was both me and my dad’s first cave experience, and we were in awe. We passed through multiple cave rooms and past rock formations with interpretive signs. It felt like a long line for a ride in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. We were surrounded by unique, ancient structures all around – stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling and stalagmites piercing from the ground. The hike took about an hour and led to the Big Room, a vast open space with infinite formations and relics from early explorers, with information on the cave’s discovery and its opening for tourism. For me, the most enticing aspect of the cave was learning about human interference. There’s an interpretive sign which explains a proposed idea from the early 1900s to blow up a portion of the cave so cars could drive through. I’m happy that never happened.

The tour ended in a futuristic underground food hall and gift shop next to an elevator up to the visitor’s center. With little time to peruse, we quickly made our way to Alamogordo for an afternoon at White Sands National Park, stopping first for burritos from Carniceria San Juan De Los Lagos, a local southwest drive-thru in Carlsbad.

 The drive to White Sands was surprising. The terrain of the first hour or so was flat desert speckled with oil rigs. I fell asleep sometime around then, probably because Dad and I were listening to dead silence since there was still no service, and we’d listened to all my downloaded music. When I woke up, we were winding through mountains covered in Ponderosa Pines, past campgrounds, mom-and-pop shops, and even a ski resort in a village called Cloudcroft. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at the White Sands National Park entrance, purchased sleds and wax for about $50, and ventured into the park.

 The landscape, changing from desert to blanketed white sand and contrasting the bright blue sky, was incredible. We drove a couple of miles into the park, passing the occasional parking lot on either side until we found one with just a few cars. We waxed our sleds and wandered into the seemingly endless abyss until we found a steep dune to our liking. Sledding took some getting used to, but we had a blast! It felt like the perfect ending to our trip, a joyful playtime to reward us for the exercise and learning of the previous parks. 

 After 30 minutes or so of sledding, we drove further into the park to find a dune to watch the sunset. We sat and stared at the waves of sand backdropped by the dramatic San Andres Mountains as the sky changed from blue to orange to pink. It was the perfect time for me and Dad to process everything we’d seen in such a short time and feel lucky to have experienced it together. We could have sat in awe for hours, but it was getting late, and we had an hour’s drive to Las Cruces, where we had a rental home booked for the night.

 In retrospect, we should have driven straight to El Paso and gotten a hotel near the airport for the night. I aimed to see as much as possible and was probably in denial. I had wanted to explore Las Cruces, having heard it’s a cute and eclectic city. We were drained but made our final stop at a whimsical bar, Vintage Wines. We listened to live, local music and enjoyed wine and pistachios (apparently a staple of the area). Then, once again, we crashed at our rental until abruptly waking up at 6 am to drive another hour to the El Paso Airport.

Final Reflections

Visiting four national parks in four days was a fantastic whirlwind, although far from perfect. There were long drives, changing of plans, and problem-solving with few resources. My dad and I had a lot to reflect on, and with so much time together, we had no excuse but to have some much-needed, difficult conversations. But travel shouldn’t be about ignoring discomfort. Every beautiful space has faced hardships; it’s just a part of being on Earth. Suppose we allow ourselves to feel it all, like the thrill of exploring a new place and the sadness upon learning that its longstanding inhabitants lost their home. When we consider the full picture, we’re one step closer to preventing humankind from repeating tragic mistakes while gaining an appreciation for the vulnerable beauty of our world.

My and my dad’s Spotify blend playlist may have been right; maybe we are only 30% alike. But the other 70% is full of opportunities to explore our differing perspectives and gain deeper connection and understanding. That’s a lot to wrangle for one road trip, huh?


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