Carlsbad Caverns to Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Driving Guide and Recommendations

carlsbad road trip

Located just 30 minutes apart by car, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas are ideal for a short road trip. 

You can check out these two unique parks on a single vacation, exploring the surreal underground caves of Carlsbad and the fascinating desert hikes of Guadalupe.

Driving from Carlsbad Caverns to Guadalupe Mountains National Park (or vice versa) is a short trip, but national park lovers will find it an enjoyable adventure.

Read about why we think Guadalupe Mountains NP is worth visiting.

In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about this road trip, including places you may want to stop along the way, the best hotels in this area, the best detours from the route, and the top attractions in each park. 

The Drive From Carlsbad Caverns to Guadalupe Mountains

carlsbad to guadalupe
Carlsbad Caverns to Guadalupe Mountains National Park driving map (Google Maps)

Driving Distance: 42 minutes (45 miles)
Time Needed: 2-5 days
Nearest Airports: El Paso (ELP), Midland (MAF), Cavern City (CNM)
Time Zone: Mountain Time Zone 

As you can see from the terrain map above, both of these national parks lie in the same mountain range, the Guadalupe Mountains. They are part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America.

From the edge of one park to the other, the driving distance is just 30 minutes. The main visitor centers are 45 minutes apart. That’s a super-short drive!

Here’s the official NPS map of the two parks:

carlsbad to guadalupe

You can visit both parks in as little as two days, but to maximize your experience, we recommend 3 or 4 days for this vacation. Spend 1.5 to 2 days in each park, and leave a little bit of time to explore the small towns in the area and to account for time to and from the airport.

Note that while both parks lie in the Mountain Time Zone, your phone may display the wrong time, since they are very close to the line where the Central and Mountain time zones meet.

Places to Stop Between Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains

Let’s run down all the places you may want to stop between these two national parks! We’re assuming that your road trip is starting in Carlsbad Caverns, but if you’re going the opposite direction, simply follow this itinerary in reverse.

Carlsbad Caverns NP

carlsbad caverns

While in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, make sure to take a cave tour to explore the stalagmites and stalactites 750 feet underground.

Drive the full length of the park road, and if you’re here at sunset, stay to watch the bats fly out of the cave. 

There are some hiking trails in Carlsbad Caverns, but they’re just ok. If you’re an avid hiker, save your hiking boots for Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which has many more interesting trails that weave up into the mountains.

Town of Whites City

whites city mural

Whites City, New Mexico is the only town located between these two national parks. This town officially has a population of only 14 people, but it has several business to serve tourists who are visiting these parks. It’s an ideal place to stock up on food or fuel, or to stay overnight.

Whites City has a hotel — Whites City Cavern Inn — which we can vouch for, as we’ve stayed there in the past. It has an RV cand campground as well, called Whites City RV Park. 

You’ll find a gas station here, which is invaluable, since there’s no gas available anywhere else on this drive!

Whites City also has a gift shop, which sells snacks and small meals, in case you need food for your hikes.

There’s even a full-fledged restaurant, called Cactus Cafe, which is open 8 am to 3 pm from Tuesday through Saturday.

Finally, check out the cool mural on the back of a building — you can’t miss it while driving into town from the north. Drive all the way to the end of Carlsbad Cavern Drive, and you’ll see the mural on the back side of the building, close to the main highway.

Roadside Historic Markers

historic markers carlsbad

This area has a handful of historic markers along the side of the road which road trippers may want to read.

Pull over for these markers when you see them. They provide information about the history of the area and the national parks.

Rattlesnake Springs

rattlesnake springs

Rattlesnake Springs is a small area that is technically part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. But it’s disconnected from the main park and requires driving to reach. It’s so small, you don’t even see it on most park maps.

The National Park Service acquired these 24 acres in 1930 as a source of water for the rest of the national park, which is six miles away.

Here, you can find a quiet picnic area with benches and grills. This part of the park is rarely busy. In fact, if you stop by to eat lunch, you may be the only one here.

Read the informational boards to learn about the more than 300 bird species that visit the area, including woodpeckers, warblers, hummingbirds, and flycatchers.

You can take a short walk (less than a half-mile) to see the spring itself, though it’s not anything special. The most interesting thing on my walk to Rattlesnake Springs was a group of more than 10 wild turkeys near the trail.

Cottonwood / Black River Recreation Area

cottonwood day use area

The Black River Recreation Area is 1200 acres of streams, pools, and desert landscape. The few folks who explore this area typically come to the Cottonwood Day Use Area, which has picnic tables and a wildlife viewing platform.

Most of the wildlife here is just birds, so I wouldn’t recommend making a stop here unless you’re an avid birder. The site itself is pretty boring, and your time will be better spent elsewhere.

Slaughter Canyon Cave

Like Rattlesnake Springs, Slaughter Canyon Cave is officially a part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. But you have to drive there by leaving the park, passing through the Black River Recreation Area, then continuing on a gravel road back into the southern end of the park.

This cave is much different than the tourist-friendly caves in the heart of the park. Here, there are no paved walkways or electricity. Guests can only see what is illuminated by their headlamps. 

Rangers lead infrequent tours of the cave. This is a 5.5-hour tour that requires advance reservations. 

Few park visitors embark on this tour, as it’s quite off the beaten path. Read more about this unique cave on the official NPS page.

Note: As of summer 2024, it does not appear that this tour is currently operating. If it ever returns, you’ll be able to find the tour on Recreation.gov.

Parks Ranch Cave

Operated by the Bureau of Land Management, Parks Ranch Cave is a 4-mile gypsum cave with 20 different entrances. 

This place is only for hardcore cave explorers. There are no guided tours, no entrance fees, no permits. You are entirely on your own. You’ll have to swim, crawl, and squeeze through the cave’s narrow spaces.

Beginners without caving experience should skip this one and stick to Carlsbad Caverns.

Welcome to Texas Sign

Once you reach Texas, you may start to catch a glimpse of El Capitan or Guadalupe Peak, the two most prominent peaks that define Guadalupe Mountains NP.

Road trippers may want to pull over to take a selfie with the “Welcome to Texas” sign on the side of the road as they cross the border from New Mexico into Texas.

Pine Spring Safety Rest Area

pine springs rest area

Nine miles after entering west Texas, you’ll reach the Pine Spring Safety Rest Area. From here, you can clearly see the mountain peaks in the distance.

This isn’t just a normal rest area. It has lots of maps and exhibits about both of these national parks. It’s essentially a mini-visitor center, so it’s worth a stop even if you don’t have to use the restroom. Stop in and educate yourself!

Guadalupe Mountains NP

guadalupe peak viewing

Finally, once you make it to Guadalupe National Park, you have all sorts of options. Read our guide to the best activities in the park.

For a short stay, we suggest seeing historic Frijole Ranch and Smith Spring, talking with park rangers at the Pine Springs Visitor Center, and exploring the Devil’s Hall hiking trail. The sunsets here can be epic, so have your camera handy.

See our guide to one day in Guadalupe Mountains NP for a suggested itinerary, hour by hour.

If you’ve got at least two days in the park, those who are physically able should definitely hike to the summit of Guadalupe Peak. At 8751 feet, this is the highest point in Texas, and the views are unparalleled.

Other worthy points of interest include Pratt Cabin and the Grotto on the McKittrick Canyon Trail, the ancient fossils on the Permian Reef Trail, and the Salt Basin Dunes, a small section of sand dunes in the western edge of the park.

Hotels and Campgrounds to Stay In

hyatt house carlsbad

As for recommended lodging, the best place to stay is either at a hotel in the city of Carlsbad, or at the Whites City Cavern Inn, which has the best location between the two parks. 

Carlsbad: Hyatt House Carlsbad

Whites City: Whites City Cavern Inn

Campground Options: The Sunset Reef Campground and Chosa Campground are both located between the parks.

You can also stay at Pine Springs Campground inside Guadalupe Mountains National Park, or one of the park’s backcountry campgrounds, which require hiking to reach.

Other Destinations to Add to the Trip

As noted, the drive from Carlsbad Caverns NP to Guadalupe Mountains NP is very short. Want to extend the drive into a full-fledged road trip? Here are some other awesome attractions in the area to consider adding to your itinerary.

City of Carlsbad, New Mexico

greetings from carlsbad mural

Located north of Carlsbad Caverns, this city of 32,000 people has good shopping, breweries, Mexican restaurants, and public parks, including the Pecos River Flume, an engineering feat and public park.

The best place to walk around is the Lake Carlsbad Recreation Area riverfront park, a nicely-developed park that attracts families and joggers everyday.

There’s a historic Downtown area, and a two cool murals: a “bat wings” mural at 220 S. Canal Street, and a “Welcome to Carlsbad” sign at the intersection of N. Canyon and W. Stevens Streets.

Another under-the-radar attraction is Halagueño Arts Park, which has outdoor statues and art pieces. The Carlsbad Museum is also popular. 

carlsbad museum

Meanwhile, the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens houses a number of animals that you wouldn’t otherwise see on this road trip, including bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn, elk, tortoises, and wolves.

We recommend spending at least a few hours in Carlsbad to everything the city has to offer.

White Sands National Park

white sands national park

Why not add a third national park to your road trip? White Sands can be reached with a 3-hour drive from Carlsbad.

This unique atmosphere features miles and miles of white sand dunes. These are the largest gypsum sand dunes in the world. They reach as high as 60 feet.

You can hike on the dunes, play on the dunes, even sled down the dunes. Dunes Drive is an 8-mile scenic drive that will take you to all the main park highlights.

Roswell, New Mexico

roswell new mexico

The UFO-centric city of Roswell sits less than two hours north of Carlsbad Caverns NP, so many folks find it to be a worthwhile detour. 

The International UFO Museum and Roswell UFO Spacewalk are among the quirky tourist attractions here. Roswell also has a number of normal (meaning not alien-themed) art museums and city parks.

Lincoln National Forest / Dog Canyon Area

Guadalupe Mountains NP has a separate entrance on the northern end of the park, called Dog Canyon. 

Getting there requires a lengthy detour of at least 3 hours, as you have to go north from Carlsbad Caverns and loop all the way back through Lincoln National Forest.

This area has some decent desert hikes for adventurers, although casual tourists won’t really have a reason to spend time here, aside perhaps from Sitting Bull Falls.

El Paso, Texas

el paso texas

With two million residents, the city of El Paso is the largest city in the vicinity of either of these parks. 

Most Americans don’t know a lot about El Paso, but it’s an exciting city, and its crime rate is among the lowest of all major American cities!

Walk around San Jacinto Plaza downtown, and drive the Scenic Drive at sunrise or sunset for gorgeous views of the city and into neighboring Mexico. 

Explore the Chamizal National Memorial, a fascinating plot of land that used to belong to Mexico before the Rio Grande re-routed itself, forcing the United States and Mexico to create a treaty to establish new boundaries.

Franklin Mountains State Park has great hiking. Other attractions include the National Border Patrol Museum, El Paso Holocaust Museum, the Municipal Rose Garden, and the Museum of Archaeology. 

Make sure to enjoy the awesome Tex-Mex cuisine around the city. If you want some fast food, try Boss Chicken, which has great ice cream treats as well.

Big Bend National Park

big bend national park

Finally, for even lengthier national park road trip, drive 3.5 hours south of Guadalupe Mountains National Park to reach the Big Bend park entrance.

It’s one of the coolest national parks, with hiking trails to mountain peaks, natural hot springs, and even a chance to hike to swim in the Rio Grande right on the Mexican border.

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