Epic National Parks Road Trips – Desert Mountains and Caves Road Trip

LAST UPDATED: 5/24/23 – National Parks Road Trips – Desert Parks Road Trip

When it comes to travel, there are few things more American than epic road trips and national parks.  Americans have been hitting the open road on their family vacations for decades. And when they do, the most popular destinations are the country’s beautiful national parklands.

In the spirit of both of these American cultural mainstays, I have put together a series of road trip itineraries. These road trips are certain to bring your family together to make memories that will last for a lifetime.

Desert Parks Road Trip - Big Bend
Big Bend National Park

In this five-part series, I will lay out a series of road trips for you to explore. These road trips take you thru some of the most stunning national parklands in the country. If you are looking for a mountain adventure, there is an itinerary that will be right up your alley.

For those looking for a desert escape, I have an itinerary that will blow your mind. And for those looking to explore America’s incredible coastline, there is an itinerary you will never forget. The beauty is, there is an itinerary for everyone to enjoy! From the incredible Rockies to the magnificent canyons of Utah, to the coast of Oregon, these have it all.

Desert Mountains and Caves Road Trip

Desert Parks Road Trip - Saguaro
Saguaro National Park

In my third installment, I will be taking you thru some of the most remarkable deserts and mountains in America. You will be awe-struck as you make your way thru the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Your eyes will be mesmerized by cactuses as tall as telephone poles and one of North America’s most iconic rivers. Not only that, but you will also get to tour one of America’s largest cave systems. These are just some of what makes this desert parks road trip one of America’s most beautiful road trips.

You Start Your Trip in El Paso, Texas

You will start this desert parks road trip in the city of El Paso, Texas. From here, you will rent a car and head towards the border of the United States and Mexico. At last, this is where you will catch your first glimpse of the beautiful Big Bend National Park.

Indeed, Big Bend is one of America’s largest and most beautiful national parklands. It has a wide array of landscapes, including desert, forests, and mountains. Not surprisingly, there is a lot to see in this beautiful park.

After enjoying Big Bend, you will head back north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Here, you will get to enjoy some of the most breathtaking mountains in the American Southwest. When you have finished exploring the mountains, it is only a short drive to your next stop.

Of course, that next stop is the incredible Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Believe it or not, this is one of the largest cave systems in the world. You will learn about how it was formed, how it has been used, and marvel at its size and complexity.

Desert Parks Road Trip - White Sands
White Sands National Park

You’ll Explore the Caves and Deserts of New Mexico

When you’ve had your fill of the caves, you will take a short drive to beautiful White Sands National Park. Here, you will get to enjoy one of the most stunningly beautiful desert landscapes in North America. When you visit, make sure you are there for either a sunrise or sunset. These are the most beautiful times to be at the dunes as the sun paints the sands brilliant colors.

After enjoying the beautiful vistas at White Sands, you will head west into Arizona to the amazing Saguaro National Park. Within the park, you will find the legendary cactuses that give the park its name. If you are looking for something to see between White Sands and Saguaro, you are in luck. The iconic town of Tombstone, of American cowboy fame, is located conveniently in between. Here, you can relive some of the adventures of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the shootout at the OK Corral.

You’ll See Cactus as Tall as Telephone Poles in Saguaro

Once you reach Saguaro National Park, have your camera ready to take plenty of pictures.  The Saguaro cactuses can grow as tall as a telephone pole and are absolutely amazing to see in person.  When visiting the park, please note that it is split in half by the city of Tucson, where you will finish your trip.  Once you have finished checking out the amazing cactuses in Saguaro, you can head to the airport to return your rental car and fly home.

With a total drive time of roughly 19 hours, this desert parks road trip is the shortest road trip in my series.  You could probably complete this road trip in 8-10 days, but in order to really see and appreciate these unique landscapes I would recommend scheduling a bit more time and enjoy these beautiful parks.  Below you will find an itinerary that I set up for a 12-day road trip thru the national parks and public lands in Texas, New Mexico, and Central Southern Arizona.


Day 1 – El Paso, Texas

El Paso, Texas
El Paso, Texas

You will start your desert parks road trip in beautiful El Paso, Texas, which is near the Southern US border with Mexico.  As soon as you land in El Paso, you will rent a car and head South towards Big Bend National Park.  When you book your flights, make sure you book a multi-destination flight where you fly into El Paso, Texas, but fly home from Tucson, Arizona.  The same thing applies to your rental car.  Make sure your pick-up location is El Paso, but your drop off location is Tucson.  If you would like to take a day or two to explore the city of El Paso before heading South, there are a lot of great things to do in the city.

Driving Time:  5-hour and 45-minute drive from El Paso to Big Bend National Park

Days 2-4 – Big Bend National Park

Desert Parks Road Trip - Big Bend
Big Bend National Park

As soon as you arrive at Big Bend National Park, you will be blown away by the beautiful vistas and the diversity of the landscapes that you find within the park.  You will want to spend at least a few days at Big Bend National Park, as it is one of America’s larger parks and there is so much to see and do at the park. 

If you are up for doing some hiking, I would strongly recommend getting out on some of the trails and enjoying the beautiful backcountry in Big Bend.  Once you have finished visiting Big Bend, you will want to head back up North to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is two hours East of El Paso.

Driving Time:  5-hour drive from Big Bend National Park to the Guadalupe Mountains

Days 5-6 – Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Desert Parks Road Trip - Guadalupe Mountains
Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a breathtakingly beautiful park, but it is also one of the more difficult parks on this desert parks road trip to adequately experience without hiking.  With a vast majority of the park in what is considered back-country, you will need to make sure you have your hiking boots ready when you visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  If you are up for the challenge, you can even climb to the top of Guadalupe Peak.

As soon as you have finished exploring Guadalupe Mountains National Park, you will start to head Northwest into New Mexico where you will make the short 30-minute drive to your next stop at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Driving Time:  30-minute drive from the Guadalupe Mountains to Carlsbad Caverns

Day 7 – Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Desert Parks Road Trip - Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns National Park

If you aren’t afraid of bats, then you will absolutely love Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  This amazing labyrinth of passageways and large caverns forms one of the largest cave networks in the world.  If you are feeling adventurous, you can enter the cave thru the natural entrance and make your way thru the cave on the lighted pathways.  For those who may not want to spend as much time hiking thru the caves, there is an elevator in the visitor center that will take you down into the heart of the caverns.

As soon as you have finished exploring Carlsbad Caverns, you will continue heading west towards White Sands National Park.  Make sure you have your camera out when you visit because the views you are going to see at White Sands are out of this world.

Driving Time:  3-hour and 30-minute drive from Carlsbad Caverns to White Sands

Day 8 – White Sands National Park

Desert Parks Road Trip - White Sands
White Sands National Park

In my opinion, White Sands National Park may just be one of America’s most beautiful national parklands.  These beautiful white sand dunes were created because of an underground water table that keeps the ground moist and prevents the sand from blowing away.  I would try and plan on being at White Sands during either a sunrise or sunset, as the white sands are absolutely breathtaking under a colorful sky.

Once you have had your fill of beautiful sunrises and sunsets at White Sands, you will continue heading West into Arizona towards Tucson and Saguaro National Park.  If you are looking for a stop to break-up your drive, I would suggest making a stop at Tombstone, Arizona, which isn’t out of your way at all.  Here you will find the site of the legendary gun battle at the OK Corral, which is reenacted on a daily basis.  There is also some great restaurants and souvenir shopping if you are so inclined.

Driving Time:  5-hour drive from White Sands to Saguaro National Park

Days 9-10 – Saguaro National Park

Desert Parks Road Trip - Saguaro
Saguaro National Park

Once you reach the Tucson area, your next stop will be Saguaro National Park, which is divided in half by the city of Tucson.  You can spend the next few days exploring this beautiful park that is filled with giant Saguaro cactuses.  If you are into hiking, there are some amazing hiking trails throughout the park, but you will want to make sure you have an ample amount of water before setting out on your hike.

Driving Time:  Half hour drive from Tucson to Saguaro National Park in each direction

Days 11-12 – Tucson, Arizona

Desert Parks Road Trip
Tucson, Arizona

As soon as you have finished touring Saguaro National Park, you will need to make your way to Tucson where you will return your rental car and catch your flight home.  If you have some extra time to spare, you can check out the city of Tucson, which is beautiful.  There is a lot to see and do in the city, so scheduling an extra day or two to unwind from your road trip is a great option.

Driving Time:  None

Best Time to Go

Without a doubt, the worst time to make this desert parks road trip is during the Summer months of June thru August as the scorching hot temperatures can be miserable if you aren’t used to them.  The Winter months of December thru February are great, but nighttime temperatures can be quite cool. 

Big Bend National Park-5562
Big Bend National Park

I would suggest either visiting during the Spring months of March thru May or the Fall months of September thru November.  During these times of the year, the temperatures are very moderate, and the crowds are much smaller.

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Categories: Mountain Parks, Mountain Parks Itineraries, National Parks, National Parks Itineraries, North America, North America Travel Itineraries, Road Trips, Travel, United States, West South Central Parks, West South Central Parks ItinerariesTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. On our road trip this past summer we decided last-minute to skip Carlsbad and attach it to a future itinerary that would also include Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Now I’m really excited to get back there, so thank you!

  2. This is my old home. I grew up in El Paso, and spent lots of time with my Dad exploring these areas. The Chihuahuan desert of west Texas on into New Mexico and Arizona is harsh, and yes as you mentioned summers can be brutal. But at the same time there is an interesting and fascinating beauty to the Southwest as well. And well, White Sands is spectacular as you now know. I hope you had time to hike around in the dunes getting away from the parking areas. Then you really get to experience the feeling of the place. Almost no one ventures past those first dunes. Going into the heart of the gypsum dunes is just indescribable. But take a GPS and know how to use it as it is easy to get disoriented. Thanks for the great post.

    • Hi Tim. I did get to explore past the first dunes, and as you said, it was absolutely amazing! I need to get back there again soon. One of my favorite park lands I have visited.

      • Cool Josh! I am glad you had the time to really get into the monument. I still really love New Mexico. Great laid back culture, and so much diverse beauty.

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