The Southwest is a wild and rugged landscape that plays host to some of the most mesmerizing National Parks across the country! Next time you are looking to explore a new National Park, head into the remote Southwest to experience the best canyons, mountains, rivers, caverns, deserts, dunes, and forests that the Southwest has to offer! In this guide, you will learn just what is in store when you visit the 5 best National Parks of the Southwest USA: Big Bend National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, White Sands National Park, and Grand Canyon National Park!
Disclosure: Below are some affiliate links-these are all products I highly recommend. I won’t make any recommendations on this page that I haven’t tested or personally used!
Table of Contents
What to See and Do in the Best National Parks in the Southwest USA
These 5 National Parks in the Southwest are brimming with outdoor opportunities:
- Big Bend National Park
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- White Sands National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
Whether you choose to roadtrip all at once through all 5 parks (which is totally doable), or visit them separately, you will not be disappointed with the jaw dropping amount of variety that is present in these 5 National Parks of the Southwest! Every type of ecosystem and geography can be found here, each with their own unique twist and tapestry. The heart of the Southwest is fully on display when you visit these 5 National Parks!
Location of the 5 Best National Parks in the Southwest
All 5 of these Southwest National Parks are relatively close to each other, with some very close to each other.
Locations of the top 5 National Parks of the Southwest
Big Bend National Park is located in the southwest corner of Texas, hugging the border with Mexico. This border is part of what makes this National Park so iconic, in that the Rio Grande River has helped to create standout landmarks like Santa Elena Canyon!
Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park are actually very close neighbors, approximately 1 hour apart, though they are in different states (Texas and New Mexico respectively). These two parks have a unique bond, in that they share the same mountain range. Guadalupe Mountains National Park can be found in far west Texas, with Carlsbad Caverns National Park located just across the border in eastern New Mexico. The city of Carlsbad, New Mexico, is a good central location for both of these National Parks, in terms of accommodations and lodging. If you plan to visit both on the same trip, or even the same day, just make sure to make a note that these two parks are in different time zones!
***Insider Tip: another great home base option for visiting both Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks is Whites City, New Mexico. This is a tiny little outpost with limited amenities, but lodging here is affordable, and it is located immediately outside the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and about 30 minutes from the entrance to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. If you want more options for lodging, restaurants, etc., then Carlsbad, New Mexico has the most offerings.
Travel a few more hours further west, and you will hit the alien-esque landscape of White Sands National Park, one of the country’s most recent National Park additions. If you want to see an out of this world landscape full of stark white dunes, then White Sands is your destination!
Finally, the most popular of National Parks in the Southwest US, Grand Canyon National Park, in northern Arizona. Ideal towns to find lodging, accommodations, and amenities nearby are Flagstaff, Tusayan, and Williams for the South Rim, and the smaller Jacob Lake for the less touristed North Rim or even Kanab in neighboring state Utah, which is just north of the North Rim.
Top destinations to see in the 5 best National Parks of the Southwest!
Best National Parks in the Southwest: Texas
Starting off in the Lone Star State! Most people may not be aware that Texas actually has two National Parks: Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Both are remote, if you are looking for a more secluded and less busy National Park. And both have unique highlights that include everything from rivers, canyons, mountains, and forests.
***Want to explore both Texas National Parks at once? Check out this 4 day itinerary for Big Bend and Guadalupe!
#1: Guadalupe Mountains National Park
I have to say, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of my favorite National Parks. Not only because you can feel like you have the place to yourself when hiking and camping here, but because this National Park disproves a commonly held myth that Texas is all flat with no good hiking and no mountains!
Guadalupe Mountains National Park contains a plethora of great trails and hikes, the least of which is the state high point hike at Guadalupe Peak! Guadalupe Mountains also contains a surprising amount of variety in its ecosystems. For example, when hiking Guadalupe Peak, you may start out hiking the base of a mountain through desert shrubbery, but soon you will find yourself trekking through a ponderosa forest! Or, take on the McKittrick Canyon Trail, one of the most beloved autumn hikes in the state due to its vibrant reds, oranges, and golds that pop up in abundance in this canyon during the fall months.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is also a great destination for secluded camping. There are two designated campgrounds here, each with different feels to them that highlight a different region of the park. There is also plenty of space and opportunity for great backcountry camping, and there is even a primitive backcountry campsite that sits just shy of the Guadalupe Peak summit! Get more info on camping in Guadalupe Mountains on the park website.
#2: Big Bend National Park
Up next in Texas is Big Bend National Park, which resides in southwest Texas. Big Bend is just as remote as Guadalupe Mountains National Park, but it is a little more known. This might be due in part to some iconic landmarks the park is home to, such as Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande River. Big Bend National Park is a great destination for boaters and kayakers, campers, and hikers alike.
Big Bend National Park has just as much surprising variety as its sibling Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most stunning canyons you can hope to see. There are other hikes like the Window Trail, which leads through a narrowing canyon and up rock stairways, until terminating in a natural “window” formation. There are plenty of challenging, uphill hikes with huge panoramic payoffs, like the Lost Mine Trail. Or you can always choose to go kayak the Rio Grande River or soak in one of Big Bend National Park’s hot springs!
Big Bend National Park also hosts great camping opportunities, as well as park lodges like the historic Chisos Lodge. Visit the park website to learn more about overnighting at Big Bend.
Best National Parks in the Southwest: New Mexico
Like its neighbor Texas, New Mexico also has two National Parks, one of which is one of the newest in the country. And both have something totally different to offer their guests. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is an underground haven of exploration, and White Sands National Park is an adult sized sandbox perfect for children, and the kid that resides in every adult!
#3: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is most known for its subterranean world of sightseeing. You can take a self guided tour through underground rooms like “the Big Room”, filled with fascinating formations! Self guided tours require advance reservations, which can be made on the recreation.gov website. Or take a ranger guided tour to more out of reach spots in the cavern. Carlsbad Caverns National Park also has some offerings above ground, and there are several trails in the park that can be hiked outside. You can find out all about visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park here!
There is plenty of lodging and accommodations in the nearby town of Carlsbad, but I have a definite favorite place to stay when it comes to visiting Carlsbad and the Caverns: Whites City. Whites City is not really a city as much as it is a motel and rv park. But it is right at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns, so it can’t get much closer than that. Also, though the motel is on the older side, the rooms are quite spacious and the property is quiet. Just make sure to bring food, or pick up food in Carlsbad, and fill up with gas before arriving to Whites City, as there are very limited amenities.
***Have some more time to spend in Carlsbad, New Mexico, after visiting the Caverns? Check out these 8 cool outdoor ideas for spending time in this southwest town!
#4: White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is one of those places that will leave you scratching your head after you see it, wondering how a place like this can exist in its location? Miles and miles of ivory gypsum sand dunes, with a beautiful backdrop of purple San Andres Mountains. The solitude and silence can be deafening at times, yet simultaneously pierced with the sounds of gleeful, laughing excitement of children and adults alike partaking in one of the favorite activities this park has to offer: sand sledding!
The sand dunes of White Sands National Park, found on the backcountry Alkali Flat Trail!
Bring your own sled or rent one from the park for a few dollars – either way, don’t miss your chance to climb a dune and slide down. White Sands also has a handful of trails to hike, ranging in distance from a few short trails, like the Dune Life Nature Trail and the Interdune Boardwalk Trail, to the 7 mile long backcountry hike at the Alkali Flat Trail, one of the most unique backcountry hikes you are likely to find at any National Park!
Best National Parks in the Southwest: Arizona
#5: Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona is by far the most visited and well known of the National Parks in the Southwest USA. Any true sampling of the best National Parks in the Southwest wouldn’t be complete without a visit to this iconic canyon.
Grand Canyon National Park is massive, and it definitely helps to have a gameplan of how to approach your time here. First off, Grand Canyon National Park is divided into sections, most notably the North Rim and the South Rim, and they are drastically different from one another.
The South Rim receives far more visitors annually than the North Rim. It is closer to major cities like Phoenix, Sedona, Flagstaff, and Williams, making it more easily accessible to visitors. Also, there are more amenities like lodging found in the vicinity of the South Rim, including National Park lodges. With that accessibility, however, comes less natural-ness and more crowds.
A visit to the North Rim will likely add an additional 4 or 5 hours of drive time if you are coming from the south, which most visitors do. But it will be noticeably less crowded and have a more “natural” feel to it. There are lodges, campgrounds, boondocking, and a small amount of accommodations at the North Rim, like Jacob Lake, but you should probably plan to book farther in advance. Another option is staying in Kanab, Utah, which is just north of the North Rim, and has additional accommodations and amenities. The North Rim is populated by thicker forest compared to more of the red rock canyon composure of the South Rim.
Wherever you decide to base your visit, there is plenty to do at Grand Canyon National Park. You can make a day simply out of seeing the sights, or you can take on some of the epic hikes at this park. Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail are some of the big names found on the South Rim, for those who wish to venture down into the canyon. Check out the North Kaibab Trail for the same experience at the North Rim, or take on the Widforss Trail if you want to hike parallel along the North Rim and enjoy the views, without going down into and out of the canyon.
For a truly unforgettable experience that will challenge you, there is always the “Rim to Rim” hike. If you decide to take on this hike, you will have to train at length before hand, but it is a payoff you will never forget. On a Rim to Rim hike, you will have the chance to depart one Rim, hike along the bottom of Grand Canyon to Phantom Ranch, cross the Colorado River, and climb up and out of the other Rim. Seeing Grand Canyon National Park from below is unforgettable, and an experience few visitors have the chance to witness. If you want to learn more about what it takes to plan and execute a Rim to Rim hike, check out my Rim to Rim guide here!
There are plenty of camping opportunities at Grand Canyon National Park as well, from established campgrounds to boondocking in the National Forest. Visit the park website for more details on how to camp or lodge in Grand Canyon National Park.
Finally, there are other adventures to be had at Grand Canyon National Park, including river tours and trips, helicopter rides, and sights like the Grand Canyon Skywalk in west Grand Canyon. There is a reason that Grand Canyon National Park is one of this country’s favorites, and one of the best National Parks of the Southwest!
***Have you made it your goal to see all the National Parks in the U.S.? Don’t forget to pop over and grab a handy National Park checklist to help keep track of your progress!
PIN for LATER!