A road trip from Austin through New Mexico and Arizona is a great way to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States. With plenty of national parks and monuments to visit, as well as small towns and villages to explore, this is a great way to spend some time outdoors and experience the unique culture of the American Southwest.
Austin, Texas & Monahans Sandhills State Park
Carlsbad, New Mexico
Arizona and New Mexico offer many options for a road trip, but an excellent place to start is the area around Carlsbad, New Mexico. This is a great place to get a feel for the region and see some truly unique landscapes. Carlsbad Caverns’ largest room is the world’s third-largest cavern chamber and is a must-see. There are several other caves to explore, including a beautiful Lechuguilla Cave, known for its rare geological formations.
If you have time for more adventures, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is only a half hour away and includes mountains, vibrant colors during autumn, and good birding hot spots near Frijole Ranch and Smith Springs or McKittrick Canyon. Carlsbad Caverns is a great place to set up camp for a day or two; between the two parks, there are also tons of trails available for all skill levels.
White Sands, New Mexico
One of the most incredible natural landscapes in North America is White Sands National Park. This area is a massive white gypsum sand dune field with several trails and boardwalks through its beautiful landscape, scenic drives, backcountry camping, and dune sledding. The park offers a variety of ranger-led activities as well. If you want to dig a little deeper into the history and culture of the area, the nearby town of Alamogordo offers a lot of exciting things to see and do.
After a couple of days around Carlsbad and White sands, drive a few hours southwest to Tucson. Just a few miles outside of town, you’ll find a gem called Saguaro National Park, home to the most iconic cacti of the desert landscape! On a side note, the cactus forests are a great place to go bird watching—if you’re lucky, you might spot a roadrunner or a gambles quail! Finally, anyone looking to escape from the southwestern desert should head over to the unexpected oasis at Biosphere 2.
This city sits in a broad valley surrounded by mountains and many hiking options; the views of the Valley of the Sun from the top of Camelback Mountain are a sight to behold! Also, a little out of town is an excellent old gold mining ghost town called Goldfield Ghost Town that’s a great place to visit to catch a glimpse of the old wild west. Another intriguing attraction is phoenix’s Mystery Castle, a little girl’s dream castle brought to life by her father in the 1930s.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Halfway between Phoenix and Albuquerque is the petrified national forest, a unique stop featuring fossilized trees. Albuquerque is a charming little town with plenty of excellent restaurants, museums, and hiking! There’s a small mountain range called Sandia Peak with stunning views and a restaurant if you want to stay and enjoy the scenery.
Albuquerque is a great central location for exploring smaller towns in Albuquerque. Bosque Del Apache, one of the best birding hotspots in the world, is an hour south of Albuquerque, and Bandelier National Monument is two hours north.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
New Mexico has diverse landscapes and cultures where you can explore a mountain range one day and a desert the next. There’s no better way to experience this than by taking a road trip.
One of my favorite destinations in New Mexico is Santa Fe, a city rich with history and culture on display at Museum Hill, which offers plenty for visitors to do. From artsy shops on Canyon Road to the vibrant downtown plaza where artists sell their wares every weekend, there are many ways to enjoy this historic town.
Palo Duro Canyon, Texas
Finally, a few hours east brings you to a small city called Amarillo, an unexpectedly good place to stop for the night. This small town is famous for Cadillac Ranch and Palo Duro Canyon, the Grand Canyon of Texas. Spend a day hiking in the park or visit the largest museum in Texas, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, and explore the cultural and ethnological history of the plains region.
Sample 2-week Itinerary
There’s so much to explore in each of these, so I recommend planning a trip for at least 8-10 days. You’ll need 14 or more days to appreciate everything on this list. If you have the time, I recommend this 2-week action-packed Itinerary.
Austin to Monahans State Park (6 hours)
Monahans State Park To Carlsbad Caverns (2 hours)
- Visit Carlsbad Caverns and Lechuguilla Cave
- If you have time, do a scenic drive or short hike in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Carlsbad to White Sands (4 hours)
- Sand Dune Sledding
- Scenic Drive
White Sands to Tucson (5 hours)
- Saguaro National Park
Tucson to Phoenix (3 hours)
- Biosphere 2
- Goldfield Ghost Town
- Desert Botanical Gardens
- Mystery Castle
- Camelback Mountain
Phoenix to Petrified Forest (3.5 hours) To Albuquerque (3.5 Hours)
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Wigwam Motel for a roadside attraction
- ABQ Bio Park
- Sandia Peak Tramway
Day trip from Albuquerque to Bosque del Apache (1 hour)
- Bird watching
- Bird Photography
Albuquerque to Santa Fe (3 hours)
- Nambe Falls
- Jemez Recreational Area
- Bandelier National Monument
Explore Santa Fe
- Meow Wolf
- A Museum on Museum Hill
- Santa Fe Plaza
Santa Fe to Palo Duro Canyon (4.5 Hours)
- Longhorn Pasture
- Juniper Cliffside Trail
Palo Duro Canyon to Austin (7.5 Hours)
- Cadillac Ranch
Most people don’t realize how beautiful the desert landscape in the Southwest is; the natural beauty and amazing outdoor adventures make this region a terrific destination for a road trip. With plenty to see in terms of national parks, monuments and small towns, there’s something here for everyone. If you’re looking to spend a few days exploring new places with your family on vacation – I suggest heading Southwest!