From the shimmering dunes of White Sands National Park to the craggy peaks of Big Bend National Park, a road trip between the two takes in not just the iconic park terrain, but also several cool cities, wide-open ranchland, and the border of two nations.
With White Sands located in the southern region of New Mexico, and Big Bend lying along the southwestern border of Texas, the two national parks make for an epic two-state Chihuahuan Desert road trip. Add in the proximity of the Mexico border, and you have the makings of a truly unique adventure.
A direct drive between the two national parks takes about six hours, but as with most road trips, there are fascinating stops and detours along the way that will add to your experience. In order to take in all that this route has to offer, I recommend taking a five-to-seven-day road trip.
Based on my recent fabulous road trip between the two parks, here are seven of the best stops on a road trip between White Sands and Big Bend.
1. White Sands
When it comes to U.S. national parks that offer singular experiences, White Sands National Park is high on the list. The park bills itself as being “Like No Place Else on Earth,” and the wave-like gypsum dunes in the heart of the Tularosa Basin certainly live up to the tagline.
White Sands is especially popular with families for its cool hiking trails that head into the midst of the dunes, as well as its fun sand-sledding scene. The park is also one of the loveliest spots around to take in the sunset. For ideas on other things to do in White Sands, check out the best things to do there.
One to two days with an overnight stay should allow visitors to take in most of the park’s hikes, the sunset, and a bike ride along the scenic drive.
2. Las Cruces
A green, chile-focused culinary scene, a charming adobe-style old town, and rugged mountain surroundings make New Mexico’s second-largest city of Las Cruces a delightful stop on a New Mexico/Texas road trip.
While you’re there, be sure to head to the old town area of Mesilla. Once a stop along the Butterfield Overland Trail stagecoach line, Mesilla features vintage adobe buildings that radiate old New Mexico’s charm. For a not-to-be-missed dining experience, head to La Posta de Mesilla for its classic Mexican cuisine and its excellent Tequileria. A two-night stay would allow you to explore both Las Cruces and White Sands National Park.
Pro Tip: For an even deeper dive into New Mexico’s green chile culture, take a 40-minute detour north on Interstate 25 to the small community of Hatch. Especially during the harvest in August and September, Hatch comes alive with roasting chiles, ristras strings of dried red chiles, and chile-themed metal art. For more ideas, see these tasty bites on New Mexico’s Green Chile Trail and why Hatch is a must-visit for chile lovers.
3. El Paso
Located at the intersection of Texas, New Mexico, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua, El Paso offers a wonderful mix of cultures. Among other things, a visit to this West Texas town will deliver on a fascinating Old West story, authentic Mexican cuisine, and ruggedly beautiful mountain surroundings.
With a population of nearly 700,000, El Paso is a big city — the sixth largest in Texas. Still, its downtown area is compact and walkable, and has a cool western vibe. A few of the not-to-be-missed features include the El Paso Museum of Art, the pretty San Jacinto Plaza, and the Hotel Paso Del Norte’s Dome Bar with its circular bar and beautiful Tiffany-style stained glass dome. El Paso is also located in the midst of mountains, with a range of hiking opportunities available in the Franklin Mountains State Park and the nearby Organ Mountains.
The city is worthy of a longer stay, but if your intention is to take in the two national parks in a week or less, an overnight stay at the Hotel Paso Del Norte, or another one of El Paso’s historic hotels, would allow you to sample the atmosphere and the cuisine.
The tiny town of Valentine is known mostly for two distinct things: its romantic-sounding name and Prada. According to the Fort Davis website, Valentine’s post office regularly handles an influx of cards that are stamped and sent to valentine recipients all over the country.
The town of fewer than 200 people has also gained considerable attention for the Prada Marfa artwork that appeared along Highway 90 just outside of Valentine in 2005. “Within its walls are shoes and other items from the fall 2005 Prada collection,” says the Fort Davis website. The designer display attracts hordes of visitors to the side of what is otherwise a lonely stretch of road. Expect to spend an hour or so exploring the town and the Prada display.
Known as a center for artists, musicians, and filmmakers, Marfa exudes a hip authenticity. As I approached from the north, I was first intrigued by the display along Highway 90 marking the location for the 1956 movie Giant starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. I also loved browsing the Spanish Revival-style lobby and gift shop of the Hotel Paisano, which served as the headquarters for the movie crew.
Marfa is a West Texas sensation for a number of reasons, including its internationally known art galleries, the mysterious Marfa Lights, and a range of innovative restaurants such as Aster Marfa, popular for its daily fresh baked pastries and creative burgers, as well as the upscale Cochineal, where you will find standouts like warm pheasant salad and cast iron trout on the menu.
For other things to do in Marfa, see How To Spend An Amazing Day In Marfa, Texas.
Pro Tip: After Marfa, you have a couple of route choices: You could continue east on Highway 90 toward the quaint little towns of Alpine and Marathon before heading south on Highway 385 toward Big Bend. Or you could head southwest on Highway 67 toward Presidio, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Terlingua. On my recent road trip, I ended up doing a loop that included Alpine and Marathon on my way down south to Big Bend, and Terlingua and Presidio on my way back north to El Paso — a great option if you have the time.
6. Presidio And Terlingua
For huge skies, distinctive rock formations, and a bit of fun mining history, head southwest from Marfa on Highway 67 toward the border town of Presidio, and ultimately to the living ghost town of Terlingua.
Along the way, you will pass by numerous ranches, gorgeous glimpses of the Rio Grande in the Big Bend Ranch State Park, and overlooks with sweeping views.
Fun Fact: Along Highway 67, between the tiny town of Shafter and Presidio, keep your eyes peeled for the cool “Profile of Lincoln” rock formation located in the Burro de Cuesta mountains on private property. I didn’t know it was coming, but when I saw the sign, I looked to the west, and the prominent nose and brow of President Abraham Lincoln were unmistakable.
Once you arrive in Terlingua, plan to spend a few hours wandering the wide porch along the main street, and stop by the Terlingua Trading Company for unique souvenirs. Have lunch or dinner next door at the Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon, where the menu includes regional favorites like chili, Frito pie, and green-chile cheese tamales, along with burgers and steaks. The little ghost town is perhaps most famous for the Terlingua International Chili Championship, now in its 54th year.
Pro Tip: If you’re looking for unique accommodations close to the Big Bend National Park, check out this story about the tiny ghost town of Terlingua.
7. Big Bend
Big Bend National Park’s size (800,000 acres), its soaring Chisos Mountains, and its sweeping views all deserve the adjective big. The word actually refers to the massive curve in the Rio Grande, and the beautiful river is prominent throughout the park. It is the centerpiece of a number of famous river hikes, such as the Boquillas Canyon Trail and the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.
Along with the river, Big Bend National Park also features desert and mountain areas, and all of the regions are worth checking out. Highlights include the Mule Ears Springs Trail, the Windows Trail, and the Emory Peak Trail — the highest point in the park. For other hiking ideas, see Big Bend National Park’s 11 best hikes.
It makes sense to stay in the park because of its remoteness, but accommodations are fairly limited, so advance reservations are recommended. Big Bend has three developed campgrounds, Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, and Cottonwood, as well as a concession campground, the Rio Grande Village RV Park. The park also features the pretty mountain setting of the Chisos Mountains Lodge, which offers a variety of rooms and cottages.
In order to take in all that Big Bend has to offer, I recommend staying two to three nights, which would give you a chance to focus your time on each of the regions.
Pro Tip: Road trippers could easily add a third or fourth national park to their itinerary by heading 2 hours east from El Paso to Texas’s beautiful Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and then about 30 miles farther to New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park.