Don’t Waste Your Time at These New Mexico National Parks

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New Mexico is a state full of contrasts and national parks. From snowy mountain peaks covered with pine forests to high arid deserts, this Southwestern land has several surprises up its sleeves. Deep chasms in the landscape and colorful rock mesas have become the catalysts for many artists who try to capture its allure on canvas. And the people are as full of light as the topography here.

They bring a melding of histories and cultures to this vibrant land. A visit to New Mexico is much like a multi-course meal – gastronomic diversity with every plate. That leaves the customer deeply satisfied but always yearning for more than New Mexico national parks!

However, it’s pertinent that you don’t waste your time when exploring New Mexico national parks. This is a desert landscape so timing your visit with the weather and crowds can be tricky. You don’t want to be wasting valuable time fighting the crowd or tired from the heat. Read on to learn more about planning your perfect trip!

The Vast History New Mexico Holds

The country’s oldest continuously occupied capital in Santa Fe, New Mexico has a vast and diversified history. From the numerous Native American tribes to occupancy by first the Spanish and then Mexican settlers, the state has found a gracious mixture of cultures.

Pueblo Indians have survived the arrival and takeover attempts by outsiders living in New Mexico for several thousand years. They have established beliefs, skills, and territories upon which much of the state’s foundation has been built. 

The Spanish arrived through their satellite land of Mexico, and they brought with them religion and a desire to colonize. They attempted to persuade the locals to change their beliefs (often by force), but that didn’t go well.

About the same time the Natives sent the Spaniards packing, Mexicans took back their homeland, then ventured into “New” Mexico for a look around. Today, Easterners are making the pilgrimage to see what all the fuss is about. New Mexico continues to evolve.

A street full of colorful Mexican decoration in Santa Fe, New Mexico

How Many National Parks Are in New Mexico?

With two New Mexico national parks in the Land of Enchantment, your time will not be wasted. It will be used wisely when visiting them. Start with Carlsbad Caverns National Park for an underworld adventure full of stalactites, bats, and caves. There’s plenty to see and do above ground there, as well.

Then head northwest to White Sands National Park for some beach time. Granted, there’s no water or waves, but the sand is an adventure!

About Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The caverns formed millions of years ago as water from an inland sea steeped through the limestone rock. In 1898, a local teenager named Jim White stumbled upon it. There were dozens of rooms that he explored with a wire ladder.

It only took 25 years for the federal government to set aside the area. They designated Carlsbad Caverns as a national monument. With more exploration, the destination quickly graduated to national park status in 1930.

Today there are 120 rooms in Carlsbad, with a cave system thought to be 40 miles in length (and that’s just what has been discovered). The last big find was in 2018 when a group of women squeezed through a particularly narrow slot and found several more rooms, including Wriggler’s Relief and Tomb of the Sky Bears.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico

Things to Do at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Hiking through the cavern’s 120 rooms, including the largest accessible cave chamber in North America, is a fascinating activity. It’s especially enjoyable when the summer outdoor temperatures hit the 90s, as cave visitors will be cool at a steady 56 degrees.

Self-guided tours can take three to four hours, and when allowed, ranger-led tours take cavers through some undeveloped caves on adventure tours. These explorations may require crawling, but park rangers will provide gloves and knee pads.

A by-product of touring the caves is photographing them. Many visitors spend more time capturing one of New Mexico national parks’ secrets on film than they do hiking around them.

Others hit the desert hiking trails above ground to discover the lure of the Chihuahuan Desert and the Guadalupe Mountains. In fact, 21 miles of the 100-mile Guadalupe Ridge Trail meander through the park, and several side trails can keep hikers busy for days.

Of course, one of the major draws to a stop a Carlsbad Caverns is the nightly bat flight program from May through October. Nearly 750,000 Mexican free-tailed bats take flight to the skies at sunset – an image you won’t soon forget.

Pro Tip: While visiting Carlsbad Caverns, make time to see the bats while you’re there! Check out Why You Should Add Carlsbad Caverns Bats to Your Bucket List.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico

About White Sands National Park

The subtle jewel in New Mexico’s public lands, White Sands, has become one of the most visited New Mexico national parks. This fact is somewhat confusing, as the park is not in a particularly popular location.

In fact, it’s smack dab in the middle of a desolate desert. It’s also surrounded by a national missile testing range and just east of the dreaded Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man). It sure doesn’t sound like an appealing family vacation destination!

But White Sands National Park is actually one of the most entertaining New Mexico national parks in the National Park Service (NPS). Whereas Zion or Glacier national parks offer stunning scenery, White Sands doles out fun by the fistfuls! The entire family will feel like they’ve spent a day at the amusement park when they finally pull themselves away from the towering sandy hills. 

From its beginning as a lake with massive salt deposits, White Sands formed due to the erosion of wind and water evaporation. By the time Native American Indians camped there, fine particles of gypsum sand remained. But there were plenty of them in the world’s largest sandbox!

Named a national monument in 1933, White Sands became a full-fledged national park in 2019. It may be off the beaten path, but the destination is not only a popular place for fun. Many filmmakers have used the endless dunes and bright blue New Mexican sky as a movie location.

A girl cartwheeling at White Sands National Park in New Mexico

Things to Do at White Sands National Park

What is there to do at White Sands? Sled, sled, SLED down the endless hills of fine white gypsum sand. Even on the hottest days of summer, the sand is not hot to stand on or slide down.

If you get tired of sledding, there are several hiking “trails” over and around the sandy landscape. Just follow the poles marked in the sand for directions, and bring plenty of water with you.

Plan Accordingly: To learn more about White Sands National Park and plan your perfect visit, check out Why You Should Add The White Sand Dunes To Your Bucket List!

Other National Park Service Designations in New Mexico

Both White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns began their lives as national monuments before becoming national parks. New Mexico has 11 current national monuments that are also worthy of distinction.

Check out Bandolier, Aztec Ruins, Capulin Volcano, Fort Union, El Malpais, and El Morro. Also, visit Gila Cliff Dwellings, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. Don’t forget Petroglyph, Rio Grande Del Norte, Prehistoric Trackways, and Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monuments.

Pecos and Chaco Culture National Historical Parks are well worth a visit, too!

Don’t Waste Valuable Time at the New Mexico National Parks 

If you start to worry about wasting your valuable time at New Mexico National Parks, stop. Time spent caving in massive rooms of limestone formations or gleefully sledding down a 30-foot tall sand dune a thousand miles away from an ocean is time well spent. You’ll gain enormous respect for Mother Nature’s design at each of these gems. You’ll also regain a sense of joy with childlike abandon.

Have you ever visited a New Mexico national park?

  1. I visited Carlsbad several years ago and did not appear R V accessible at that time….tightroads going in and tight parking areas….has that improved?? Would love to return in the near future with the 5er..and white sands is a must see if you’re in that area…the ocean is just over the next dune, next dune, next dune…

  2. Just came back to Wisconsin after 6 weeks traveling around New Mexico. What a beautiful state!!! So many national parks with so much diversity – from Carlsbad Caverns to White Sands to Gila National Forest to Bandelier National Monument to Manhatten Project National Park. Go, Go, Go and get yourself to the wonderful state of New Mexico.

  3. If you are in the Carlsbad cavern area, checkout The Living Desert. I enjoyed that as much as the caverns. Also dress warm when visiting the caverns.

  4. Never sent the Spanish packing. The Spanish reconquest happened in 1692 and stayed. Most of the original Spanish families in New Mexico are descended from the 1692 Reconquista.

    1. Not true. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 sent the Spanish packing down the Rio Grande to El Paso. They couldn’t be kept out though. Hence the “reconquest” of 1692. You have to remember the intruders had been in the area, at least on and off, since the mid 1500s.

  5. Your article title is misleading and sounds negative. Try something like,
    Make the most of your time at these New Mexico National Parks.

  6. I was born in alamagordo New Mexico and I love to visit during my last visit I went to pinionnew Mexico which is where my mother was born and all most all of her siblings .
    I love the history of that area . I’m stuck on the history of my family in a book called the oteroCounty History . The lives and what these people went through together is amazing the history has captured my heart and mind reading it I can’t lay it down … For any one interested reach out to the Historical society and ask about this book to see if you can get one
    Karen (Childress) Helterbrand

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