White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument

Southern Grand Circle Road Trip

April 12, 2012, 2:34 pm

White Sands National Monument in New Mexicoby Phil Bencomo

Encompassing much of southern New Mexico and western Texas, the Southern Grand Circle features some of the Southwest’s most spectacular scenery, all less than half a day’s drive from El Paso. With mild temperatures and flowering fauna, spring is the perfect season for a road trip through the rugged mountains, rocky deserts and serene forests of this lovely loop.

It neighbors the more famous Grand Circle, but the Southern Grand Circle—a moniker newly coined by park service staff—rivals any area in the country for beauty and outdoor recreation. From the challenging trails of the Guadalupe Mountains and the dank caves of Carlsbad to historic Fort Davis and the tranquil Chamizal National Memorial, the national parks of the Southern Grand Circle will leave any adventurer sated.

The Itinerary

Day #1: The center of the Southern Grand Circle is El Paso, Texas. Start at the city’s Chamizal National Memorial, which celebrates the resolution in 1964 of the century-long border dispute between the United States and Mexico. The memorial hosts regular theater performances, art exhibitions and other cultural events.

Day #2: From El Paso, drive 100 miles east to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where more than 80 miles of trails take hikers to mountain ridges with scenic vistas. Spend the night at a park campground, or continue 55 miles on U.S. Highway 62/180 to Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Day #3: Tour Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad. The Natural Entrance descends 1.25 miles—the equivalent of 75 stories—to the breathtaking Big Room and the caverns’ dazzling formations. (An elevator takes visitors down, too.) The adventurous can take guided tours and crawl through the narrow passages of less-traveled caves. On late-spring and summer evenings, head outside to see the park’s bats emerge from the caverns.

Day #4: A three-hour drive from Carlsbad on scenic Highway 82, White Sands National Monument is 275 square miles of rolling, white dunes. Hike on your own or take a guided sunset stroll. The park also offers ranger-led hikes under every month’s full moon. Camping is available in White Sands’ backcountry, and the nearby cities of Alamogordo and Las Cruces offer lodging.

Days #5 and #6: Drive west through Las Cruces to Gila National Forest. Explore the rugged wilderness and its magnificent mountains, forests and canyons. The forest’s 3.3 million acres are home to hundreds of miles of hiking trails, dozens of campgrounds, hot springs and scores of plant and animal species. Don’t forget to tour the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, which protects homes built in the 13th century by the Mogollon people.

Day #7: Return to El Paso, five hours away.

For a two-week road trip, continue three hours southeast of El Paso to Fort Davis, Texas. There, walk through the historic Fort Davis National Historic Site, a military post restored to 1880s condition. During major holidays and the warmer months, park staffers dress in period costume and reenact life on the American frontier. Hiking trails lead to a scenic overlook of the fort and connect to the adjacent Davis Mountains State Park. Other attractions in the Fort Davis area include McDonald Observatory and a 75-mile scenic drive that loops through the Davis Mountains.

Cap your trip with half a week at Big Bend National Park, 130 miles south of Fort Davis. The park’s 800,000 acres could keep you busy for much longer. Revel in the vivid desert landscape and mountain ranges from the park’s hiking trails, scenic drives and dirt roads. But the evening’s brilliant sunset and starry sky just might be the best sight of them all.


With highs in the upper 70s to low 80s, spring in the Southern Grand Circle offers all the splendor of the Southwest without the region’s oppressive heat. The days are even cooler at higher elevations. Note, though, that temperatures often drop 30 degrees overnight in the desert.

Windstorms intermittently tear through White Sands National Monument in the spring, so remember to call ahead for weather conditions and a forecast.

Image: White Sands National Monument, courtesy of NPS