Use this guide and sample 3-day itinerary to New Mexico’s White Sands National Park and Carlsbad Caverns for your next trip. From what routes to take, where to stay along the way and tips on tours to take, this guide is sure to leave you feeling prepared to experience the most of New Mexico’s beauty in just a few days.
There’s a reason they call it the “Land of Enchantment.” One visit to the unparalleled beauty of New Mexico’s varied landscape immediately puts travelers under its spell. Exploring Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands National Park provides some unique vantage points for immersing yourself in the state’s magical surroundings.
From more than 145,000 acres of glistening white gypsum dunes to an unearthly landscape below ground, White Sands National Monument and Carlsbad Caverns couldn’t be more different, but these southern New Mexico attractions, located roughly 200 miles apart, share one important trait: They’re frequently at the top of travelers’ must-see lists. Less than four hours apart, these national treasures work great together as a combo road trip.
Want some help kickstarting your travel plans? Take a peek at this 3-day itinerary exploring southern New Mexico’s best national park gems.
Day 1: Start at Carlsbad Caverns
Starting above ground, walk among the Chihuahuan Desert’s flora, fauna, and wildlife while exploring canyons and primeval sea ledges for some outstanding photo ops against dazzling and dramatic backgrounds. Next, the hidden labyrinth of underground caves is ready and waiting. On average, visitors spend between three and four hours exploring the caves and exhibits on ranger-guided or self-guided tours. Plan to bring a light sweater or jacket for added warmth, as the average year-round temperature is only 56 degrees Fahrenheit in the caverns.
If you have time when visiting between May and late October, the Carlsbad Caverns’ Bat Flight Program is open to visitors. Allow some extra time to stay at the Caverns until sunset to watch thousands of bats fly out of the caverns from your perch in Bat Flight Amphitheater.
Stay in Carlsbad Overnight
You won’t find campgrounds or overnight lodging in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but the nearby town of Carlsbad has several hotels and campgrounds available. Staying in Carlsbad overnight gives you a chance to explore some of the other gems located in the area, including the Carlsbad Museum and Art Center, where you can learn all about the history of the region and stroll through a vast collection of Native American and southwestern art. Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park is popular with families interested in learning about the 40 species of native animals and countless plants that are native to the Chihuahuan Desert.
Day 2: Hit the Road to Bottomless Lakes State Park
No trip to southern New Mexico is complete without checking out the nine mysterious lakes that have confounded people since the days of the Wild West. To get there from Carlsbad, take U.S. Highway 285 North to Bottomless Lakes State Park, located about an hour and a half away. Named for the difficulty the early cowboys had in measuring the lakes’ depth, Bottomless Lakes is no stranger to eerie local legends, ranging from mysterious disappearances to an enormous turtle that allegedly patrols the waters from below.
As visitors to this state park soon learn, the bottomless lakes aren’t what they seem. They’re actually sinkholes of varying depths between 17 feet and 90 feet, and the brilliant bluish-green color is spectacular. Swim or scuba dive in Lake Lea, which is made up of three sinkholes and a sandy beach. If you prefer to stay on land, explore the trails and keep an eye out for native birds.
Stay in Roswell
From Bottomless Lakes State Park, head north on Bottomless Lakes Road for about 5 miles before taking U.S. 380 West to Roswell, about 20 minutes away. While there, spend some of your downtime exploring the infamous town, made famous by a 1947 incident involving an unidentified flying object (UFO). Go on a UFO tour, stroll through the International UFO Museum and Research Center, and visit the downtown historic district to get a good feel for Roswell’s unique vibe before turning in for the night.
Day 3: Travel to White Sands
From Roswell, head west on U.S. 70 for about three hours to reach White Sands National Monument, New Mexico. Once you arrive, you may feel as though you’ve landed on another planet. The white gypsum crystal dunes at White Sands National Monument offer a surreal experience. Drive down the 8-mile Dunes Drive to take in the scenery, traipse along the dunes to find the perfect spots for family photos, and sled down at least one of the dunes for a little extra fun. Bonus points for staying long enough to catch the sunset.
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