3 days and 3 worlds in southern New Mexico

Map of New Mexico showing three national park locations
Jazmine Solorzano/Staff

We’ve all done or at least heard of the classic southwestern road trip through the breathtaking desert of Arizona, visiting spots such as the Grand Canyon, Sedona and Monument Valley. These spots are always worth a visit, but not many southwestern road-trippers take the time or even know to drive just a bit more southeast into New Mexico. By adding just a few more days to your road trip, you’ll encounter landscapes of rolling white sand dunes, deep caves that host underground ecosystems and vast canyons along the Texas border. And with these few more days, you’ll have the chance to explore the many worlds that exist within New Mexico.

White Sands National Monument

Located in the heart of southern New Mexico is White Sands National Monument. After driving through miles of brown desert, pistachio farms and missile ranges, you’ll begin to wonder whether you’re lost. You haven’t seen anyone for hundreds of miles, and the highway is lined with electric barbed wire fences, separating you from restricted military land. But soon you’ll begin to see signs for White Sands National Monument directing you toward what seems like even more brown desert.

But as you drive into the park, you’ll enter a completely new world of rolling white sand dunes. Surrounding you is an endless landscape of white, reflecting the bright New Mexican sun. It’s hard to believe that this world, now covered by gypsum sand, was once an ancient sea in the middle of the southwest. When you park and walk out into the dunes, you move farther away from the sounds of the cars and you begin to feel like you’ve entered a new planet as you look out onto the desolate hills decorated by an occasional grass cluster. As you climb up and down the white sandy hills, only the sun and the red trail markers will remind you that you are still actually standing on Earth.

When you leave the park that night, the New Mexican sun will seem brighter than you’ve ever seen it, turning the sky into pinks and purples as it descends. The sand will become dimmer and dimmer as the sun drops, but fortunately, you won’t need to rush out of the park, because even at night, the white sand will still be visible as it guides you back into the dark Chihuahuan Desert.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

After leaving Alamogordo, you will head east, straight into the Sacramento Mountains. Unlike before, your drive will no longer be endlessly flat, and you will wind up in the Lincoln National Forest. Just yesterday, your drive was only brown, but today it is full of greens. After passing the forest, you will begin to descend back into the desert, this time on the opposite side of the Sacramento Mountains. After a few more hours of flat desert, you’ll once again see signs for the National Park just ahead, but this time the signs will read “Carlsbad Caverns.”

As you descend down the steps into the caverns, your world will grow a little darker and a little more unfamiliar. Tall cave formations reach above you, twisting and turning in every direction as spotlights create unique and eery shadows across the dark walls. As the sun disappears, you can only hear the sounds of dripping water and your own footsteps as they echo deep into the cave’s abyss. Fortunately, lights brighten your path, as you walk through another alien world. Just above you is the desert, the same landscape you have been driving through for days, but right now, you stand in a world you never even knew existed.

As you hike up and out of the cave, the sun grows a little stronger with each step, and when you reach the entrance, you step back into a familiar world. It’s impossible to not wonder if time has actually passed while you were exploring the world that is now below you.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

After you leave Carlsbad Caverns, you have just one more park to explore, Guadalupe Mountains. Soon you will be passing the Texas border and entering into a landscape of deep desert canyons and tall mountain peaks. Although the colors that surround you blend in with one another, it couldn’t be more colorful. Tall rock walls painted in grays, blues and browns rise above you as your car winds through the curvy valleys. When you get out of your car to walk through a canyon, the sun shines brightly above, making the small streams sparkle and the cactus flowers blossom. For the past two days, you have been in flat desert landscapes, with nothing taller than just a few feet around you, but today tall peaks make you feel incredibly small.

For the past three days, you have explored parks many people never take the time to visit. You have found yourself lost in purely white landscapes of endlessly rolling sand dunes, alone in an echoing underground world and under desert peaks lined by small streams. As you head back home and leave New Mexico, the sun will pause for just a second before it eventually disappears for the day. Just for a minute, the sun will be at your eye level, lighting up the desert floor that surrounds you and your car. And just for a minute, you will be able to appreciate the beauty of New Mexico one last time — a place where many worlds exist.

Contact Emily Denny at [email protected].