This trip focuses on the southwest states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. The three states, in addition to Utah, meet up at a location called Four Corners, a stop on this loop. In addition the trip highlights the caves in Carlsbad Caverns, the dunes of White Sands, and mountain formations in Black Canyon of the Gunnison. You will also be able to see the ancient petrified wood fragments and Native American cliff dwellings.
Along the Way
- Roswell, NM
On the drive to Carlsbad Caverns, you will pass through Roswell, NM, the central location to many of the UFO conspiracies. Despite your thoughts on the situation, Roswell makes for an interesting pit stop.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park has one entrance and parking area. Visitors can go on the self-guided Big Room Route, or Natural Entrance Route, but we highly recommend the guided Kings Palace Tour, a 1.5 hour tour deep into the caverns. Tour fees are $8/adult and $4/children. Reservations can be made in advance and are strongly recommended.
There is only camping in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, so for other lodging, we recommend Whites City or driving back north to the town of Carlsbad, NM.
Be sure to return to the cavern entrance before sunset for the overwhelming bat flight program. Each evening, the Rangers give a talk and then upwards of 400,000 bats leave the cave entrance in search of their nightly meal. It is by far one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip.
Along the Way
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- White Sands National Monument
Leaving the Carlsbad area, drive south on Hwy 62/180 to Guadalupe Mountains Visitor Center. Unfortunately, this is a long driving day and so a long hike in the park in not advised. You can see some of the details on the park map >>.
Continue on to El Paso, TX, a good location to stock up on supplies for the next few days. Drive north leaving El Paso on Hwy 213 until you reach US Hwy 70 and turn right. Pay close attention from this point as you will be driving through the White Sands Missile Range, a highly restricted area. It is around a 2 hour drive from El Paso to the White Sands National Monument.
Once at White Sands, we recommend the Dune Life Nature Trail and the Interdune Boardwalk. The hiking trails can be found on the park map >>.
Due to the restricted nature of the surrounding area, there is no lodging near White Sands, so drive back south on Hwy 70 to Las Cruces, NM. Based on your plans for the day and the time spent at Guadalupe Mountains, you may want to continue on to Deming or even Silver City for lodging.
Along the Way
- Gila National Forest
From Silver City, you can take Route 15 an hour north to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, but these are similar to the much larger dwellings at Mesa Verde, so we recommend skipping that side trip. Instead, we recommend driving through Gila National Forest. In the National Forest, take the Cat Walk Rd to the Catwalk National Recreation Trail, a 1 mile metal walkway through the creek bed surrounding it.
Continuing north on Hwy 180 for 4 hours will take you to Petrified Forest Rd into the Petrified Forest National Park. In addition to the largest collection of petrified wood in the country, the park is home to badlands of the painted desert and historic structures. We recommend Giant Logs, Long Logs, Newspaper Rock, and the Painted Desert area to the north of the park. Consult the park map >> for details.
There is no camping or accommodations in the park, so we recommend finding lodging in nearby Holbrook, Winslow, or even Gallup, NM, which is along our route for Day 5.
Along the Way
- Four Corners National Monument
For Day 5, we recommend a detour on the way to Mesa Verde to stop at Four Corners Monument. Though not a natural wonder, it is an interesting location where you can be in four US states at one time. From Shiprock, NM, take Hwy 64 to Hwy 160 in Teec Nos Pos, AZ. The monument is just off of Hwy 160.
After a short stop-off, continue on to Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde is location of the ancient Pueblo Indian's cliff dwellings dating back almost 700 years. All tours of the dwellings are guided and cost $3/person. However, tour reservations must be made in person the day of the tour, so plan accordingly as tours fill up quickly. You can see the locations of the different tours the park map >>.
There are many lodging options within the park, but we recommend making the reservations well ahead of time. Based on availability, you may want to find accommodations closest to the cliff tour that you plan on taking.
To start off Day 6, we highly recommend driving one hour east to Durango, CO. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad >> offers a unique experience of a traditional steam locomotive taking you high into the San Juan National Forest. However, adult tickets are $83 and children are $49, so travelers on a budget may have to see our alterative suggestion below. The trains leave quite early from Durango, so be sure to have a reservation far in advance and to make your way to Durango early on Day 6.
The trains take you up to Silverton, CO and back, arriving in Durango late in the evening. You could drive to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, but the road there is windy and is not recommended for after the sun sets. Instead, we suggest staying the evening in Durango and driving the next day.
For those who choose not to take the Railroad trip, we propose two alternatives. First, you can stay a second day in Mesa Verde and tour additional cliff dwellings and spend a second evening in Mesa Verde. Alternatively, you may drive from Durango to Silverton rather than taking the railroad, though the views are not quite as majestic. From there continue on to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park for the night of Day 6.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a narrow, deep canyon created by river erosion over millions of years. We recommend visiting the south rim of the park, due to it's proximity to lodging. As you can see on the park map >>, there are many overlooks in the park. We recommend stopping at them all. There are some hikes near the visitor center that are recommended if time allows.
There is camping in the park, but no other lodging, so nearby Montrose will offer some accommodation options.
The drive towards Colorado Springs passes over some of the prettiest mountain regions in all of North America. From Colorado Springs, we recommend making your way to Pike Peak, a 14,110 mountain. There are two ways to reach the top. We recommend the Cog Railway >> to the top. It runs multiple times per day and cost $34/adult and $18.50/child. The railway is 3.5 hours roundtrip and reservations are strongly recommended. If you choose not to do the cog railway, you can drive your vehicle to the top as well. Adults cost $10, children are $5, or you can do the full car rate of $35/car. The drive is approximately 2 hours, though plan on spending some time on the summit.
That evening, find accommodation in or around Colorado Springs or Pueblo, CO. If you have extra time, we recommend the local park Garden of the Gods >>. For dinner in Colorado Springs, we recommend Phantom Canyon Brewing Company >>.
Sante Fe is home to some of the richest history and heritage of any city in the southwest. Visit the historic sites or art museums. Or, if you are still looking for more natural sites, visit Bandelier National Monument >> or the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument >>. Stay the evening in Sante Fe.
Return flight home.
Depending on the flight time, you may also be able to stop off at Petroglyph National Monument >> just outside of Albuquerque.
Day 10 is the final day of the loop. Return your rental vehicle and begin the trek home. We hope you truly enjoy the loop experience and have found that you were able to see much more in this one trip than you could have imagined.