One of the most epic family vacations in America is taking a Southwest national parks road trip. This region of the country is a great place to enjoy the outdoors and fall in love with the beauty of the desert.
It is also an ideal place to learn more about Native American history and culture. Visit national parks and state parks across Arizona and New Mexico with our epic Southwest national parks road trip itinerary.
I created an itinerary for a Southwest national parks road trip that begins and ends in since Phoenix is the easiest city in the Southwest to fly in and out of.
We visited 11 national park units and 3 state parks in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas on our road trip to the national parks. It is easy to break this itinerary up into a shorter adventure if you have limited time.
Southwest National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
Begin Your Southwest National Parks Road Trip in Phoenix
If you are flying to reach America’s Southwest, there is no better place to begin your adventure than at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. It is an American Airlines hub so it is a direct flight from many other cities that American Airlines services across the country. Southwest Airlines also uses this airport as a hub.
After you pick up your rental car, you may want to spend some time exploring Phoenix before heading out on your Southwest national parks road trip adventure.
A great spot for families is Papago Park, home to both the Phoenix Zoo and the beautiful Desert Botanic Gardens.
There are world-class museums for those days that it is simply too hot to be outside and a variety of hikes to enjoy during the cooler months, like the Hole in the Rock at Papago Park (pictured).
For a local parent’s top choices on the best things to do in Phoenix with kids, check out Trekaroo’s Top 10 Things to Do with Kids in Phoenix.
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Southwest National Parks Road Trip Day 2: A Scenic Drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff
Forget the scenic drives that we took through Saguaro National Park and Petrified Forest National Park, my favorite drive of our two-week Southwest national parks road trip was the stretch of highway 87 from Scottsdale to Payson.
Starting out early from Phoenix, we drove approximately 90 minutes northeast on Highway 87 to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.
In early April there are a variety of green cacti, including saguaros, dotting the mountainous desert landscape as the road winds its way upward to peaks covered in pine trees and greenery. From the town of Payson, the road to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park slowly descends into a canyon.
The state park has several short, but rocky and steep, trails that lead to waterfalls and down to the world’s largest natural travertine bridge. It’s possible to scramble on the damp, slippery rocks beneath the arch and traverse the entire 400-foot tunnel. Overhead there are swallows flitting from one hole in the rock to another.
Montezuma’s Castle National Monument
After a couple hours of hiking, we hit the road for Montezuma’s Castle National Monument, which we reached in just about an hour
Montezuma’s Castle National Monument is one of Arizona’s most popular due to its location right along highway 17 the main road connecting Phoenix with Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon.
There is a short, half-mile, paved trail loop that aims to show visitors why the ancient Sinagua people may have chosen to settle in this location along the river but up high on the cliff side.
The museum in the visitor center and Junior Ranger booklet give a nice overview of the people that lived in this area over the last several centuries.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Our final stop of the day was at Walnut Canyon National Monument just a few miles outside of Flagstaff along I-40.
While the focus of Montezuma’s Castle tends more towards the history than the scenery, the opposite is true at Walnut Canyon National Monument. The dwellings made by the Sinagua people at Walnut Canyon are similar to those at Montezuma’s Castle. However, there was less to read and learn at Walnut Canyon.
The views at Walnut Canyon are simply spectacular! Be sure to arrive at least 90 minutes before closing time in order to hike the one-mile Island Trail that descends 185 feet into the canyon and meanders past several reconstructed cliff dwelling rooms that are fun to explore.
There’s so much more for families to do in Flagstaff! Check out 15 Fun Things to do in Flagstaff for more ideas.
Your family can choose to book a hotel in Flagstaff for the night or start to travel further east and stay the night in Winslow (one hour from Flagstaff) or Holbrook (90 minutes from Flagstaff) to get you closer to the next destination on your Southwest national parks road trip- Petrified Forest National Park.
Southwest National Parks Road Trip Day 3: Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert
On our third day we drove southeast to the southern entrance of Petrified Forest National Park.
The hues of color found in the petrified wood and sedimentary hillsides of clay at this eastern Arizona park are truly unique. A Junior Ranger activity asks children to list the colors that they find in these rocks. However, even as an adult, I struggle to define this rainbow of color.
There are two basic types of experiences and trails that this national park has to offer. One type of trail features the most colorful and extraordinary petrified wood logs. The other offers the most spectacular landscape views.
Hiking on the Crystal Forest Trail, we saw lizards, birds and a small rabbit among the colorful petrified rock logs.
On the Blue Mesa Trail we descended into a canyon highlighted by deep shades of blue. The Blue Mesa Trail was one of my favorites on our entire Southwest national park road trip itinerary.
Want to explore more in Arizona? Check out Trekaroo’s Top 10 Things to Do in Arizona with kids.
Southwest National Parks Road Trip Day 4: El Morro National Monement and El Mapais National Monument
After we left the Petrified Forest, we drove through the Zuni Reservation, which has some spectacular scenery. Not long after that, we reached El Morro National Monument.
Along with the Slot Canyon Trail at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, the Headlands Trail at El Morro National Monument was one of my favorite trails of our entire adventure.
First, the trail follows the base of the enormous sandstone bluff. In the sandstone there are inscriptions from poetry written by traveling Spaniards to petroglyphs left by ancient Puebloan people.
The visitor center provides hikers free guides that translate many of the inscriptions. It also highlights some of the more unusual ones.
However, the hike does not end there. Hikers have the option to continue up via steep switchbacks to the top of the sandstone bluff. The rocky trail along the top not only is a fun path to walk but also affords some awesome views of the valley below and the Zuni Mountains.
Finally, atop the bluff there are the excavated Atsinna ruins dating back over 700 years. El Morro is a fascinating place that combines history and unique scenic beauty.
El Malpais National Monument
It would take another full day to full appreciate the scenery of El Malpais National Monument, just 20 -30 minutes down the highway from El Morro National Monument. The volcanic landscape, sandstone cliffs and signature arch are all worth a visit.
However, splitting the day in order to keep on this busy Southwest national parks road trip schedule still gives you the opportunity to appreciate both parks. El Malpais is a volcanic landscape home to lava flows, cinder cones, plenty of lava tube caves.
Be sure to check the park website before visiting to monitor the status of the caves. They do close to protect reources and bat colonies from time to time. When they are open, they are very fun to explore/
For more information about making your visit to these national monuments a more educational one, check out Trekaroo’s Road School: Learning about Native American History and Culture through Travel.
Southwest National Parks Road Trip Days 5 & 6- Santa Fe and Los Alamos
While visiting some friends in Los Alamos, we spent a weekend at the Homewood Suites Santa Fe North conveniently located between Los Alamos and Santa Fe.
We thoroughly enjoyed Northern New Mexican cuisine in between hikes at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks and Bandelier National Monument. As a matter of fact, Bandelier gets my kids vote for their favorite place on the entire Southwest national parks road trip itinerary.
Kasha- Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
Despite the mountains off in the distance, the drive between Albuquerque and Santa Fe doesn’t appear particularly inspiring. But in fact, one of the state’s most curious landscapes is only a 15-20 minute detour from the highway.
Kasha-Kawutwe Tent Rocks were designated a National Monument in 2001, though you won’t see it on the national parks website because it is managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management.)
While rangers and staff are much more scarce at BLM sites, there is a Junior Ranger booklet available. Most visitors to Kasha-Katuwe hike one of two trails the flat, easy Cave Loop or the in-and-out Slot Canyon.
The Slot Canyon Trail passes through a slot canyon before climbing above the whimsical tent rocks for an overhead view. In the morning hours, tourists are few and the canyons are shadowy. However, as the day progresses, light shines into the narrow passageways that form the canyons and the parking lot fills up.
Important Note: As of March 14, 2022 Kasha-Katuwe is close due to Cvoid-19 concerns and some safety updates. Check the park website for reopening information.
Historic Santa Fe
I have to admit that we spent most of our time in the city of Santa Fe eating on our Southwest road trip. Due to local recommendations, we stuffed ourselves with only the best enchiladas, chile rellenos and sopaipillas the entire weekend.
Our favorite restaurants in Santa Fe were La Choza and Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen. Of course a stroll around the arcades and churches of historic downtown area of Santa Fe is absolutely essential when visiting this area as well.
Check for hotel availability in Santa Fe.
Looking for ideas on where to enjoy Santa Fe’s art scene with kids or where to stay on your Southwest road trip itinerary? Check out Trekaroo’s Top Five Things To Do Near Santa Fe with Kids and Santa Fe with Kids: For Artisans and Adventurers
Bandelier National Monument
My kids may have been happier at Bandelier National Monument than at any playground we visited on our Southwest road trip. They scurried up nearly vertical ladders at the Alcove House only taking the time to yell down to me, “Faster, Mom!”
While I carefully made my way down, they were already at the bottom waving to me. Back on the Main Loop Trail they played inside the reconstructed cavetes as long as I would allow – getting ridiculously dirty in the process.
My daughter did complete the Junior Ranger activity booklet. I’m sure that she learned quite a bit about life would have been like at Bandelier centuries ago as well.
A Visit to Los Alamos
A visit to Los Alamos should not stop after a hike at Bandelier National Monument. The town has a fabulous small science museum the Bradbury Science Museum, that features both the history of the nuclear lab and hands on exhibits highlighting modern scientific accomplishments.
In nearby White Rock there is an overlook of the Rio Grande from a neighborhood park that compares to the view from the Grand Canyon.
There is hidden natural beauty around every corner up on the hill in Los Alamos. Finally, for a real adventure, head upwards out of town to the Valles Caldera Natural Preserve with a plethora of back country trails as well as wildlife like elk and prairie dogs.
Southwest National Parks Road Trip Day 7- Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Based on the map, we expected our drive from Santa Fe to Carlsbad to be one of the most desolate stretches of highway out on Southwest national parks road trip. It was.
It was a 4 1/2 hour drive from Santa Fe to Carlsbad and we opted to make the drive the evening of our sixth day in order to have the full seventh day to explore Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Our motel was located in White’s City, just 10 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Yes, as you have undoubtedly heard, Carlsbad Caverns are simply amazing! The rooms are so large, and chances are, these caverns are different from any caverns that you have experienced before.
I haven’t seen any caves of this magnitude in my travels from California to Virginia. The features of the caverns were formed by a different chemical process than most caverns in America. That explains why they are found so deep underground and away from any known water source.
The features are familiar and include stalagmites, stalactites, curtains and columns. Everything is certainly on a much grander scale at Carlsbad Caverns.
There are several different tour options available at the caverns. Families who are not big planners will be happy to know that the tours of the Big Room are self-guided. They begin either at the elevator beside the ticket desk in the Visitor Center or by walking down into the cavern’s natural entrance just outside.
Tours of the stunningly intricate King’s Palace can be reserved online prior to your visit. Plan to reserve them at least a couple of weeks ahead of time to avoid disappointment. For more adventurous families there is a full complement of tour options available, including tours of caves at more remote sites.
Southwest National Parks Road Trip Day 8- Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Just down the road from Carlsbad Caverns, one of the most familiar and recognizable of the United States National Parks, is Guadalupe Mountains National Park, one of the least visited parks in the lower 48 states.
Hikes in the Guadalupe Mountains tend to be long. There are few services around the park. However, if you have an extra half day, there are some kid-friendly trails available among the park’s rugged wilderness peaks. The park is notable as it includes the tallest peak in the state of Texas.
McKittrick Canyon is a well known spot to enjoy fall foliage if you are road tripping inthe autumn. There are several different hikes of varying length and difficulty in the area.
Want to know more details about planning a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park with your family? Check out A Family Guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
If weather limits what you can do at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, consider heading to Hueco Tanks State Park in El Paso. Stopping at Hueco Tanks State Park was a total afterthought for our family. We were trying to escape thunderstorms forecasted up by Guadalupe Mountains.
Based on our experience, it’s best to come to Hueco Tanks prepared with some knowledge about the park. Due to damage done to the petroglyphs and pictographs in the 1980s and 1990s, an educational video is required for all visitors. The purpose of the video is to instill a sense of respect for the history and the land.
Also, much of the park is now only available via guided tour on specific dates. I would highly recommend a guided program if one is available. I personally found it challenging to identify the historic pictographs on the rocks.
The historic pictographs and hiking opportunities are actually not the most popular reason for visiting Hueco Tanks. Most visitors come to the park to climb. My kids were no exception.
There are several shaded picnic areas beside walled of rock naturally notched with child-sized foot and hand holes. After I finished scouting out the rocks for snakes and other dangers, my kids scampered over the rocks for hours.
Both Hueco Tanks State Park and Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso have Junior Ranger activity booklets.
Southwest National Parks Road Trip Day 9: White Sand National Park
We took a bit of a detour to reach White Sands National Park on our way west out of El Paso.
Pictures of White Sands National Park clearly show that it is a beautiful place. However, White Sands is not a national park where for families need to hike long distances; it’s a place to play!
Even with the bright sun beaming down, the pure white gypsum sand stays damp and cool. Kids can dig in the sand, sled down the dunes, or even fly a kite.
So, pick up a kite, a picnic lunch, and plenty of water at a store somewhere along your travels. Then stop by the store at the park’s entrance to purchase a plastic sled and some wax.
Finally, park your car at the end of the road beside a mountain of sand and enjoy a few hours of simple, relaxed play time — perfect for all ages.
City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico
From White Sands we drove to Deming, New Mexico – and stopped at our hotel, Best Western Deming Southwest Inn.
Rather than spend the evening watching cartoons and wishing the outdoor hotel pool was open, we made a quick trip to City of Rocks State Park about a half hour outside the city.
Our day at White Sands National Monument and later City of Rocks State Park outside of Deming was as relaxed and playful as life gets on a fast-paced Southwest national parks road trip itinerary.
My kids loved pretending that the maze-like boulder piles at the state park were their “homes.” I enjoyed photographing the low light over the strangely shaped rocks.
City of Rocks is a popular place for RVs to park and camp. The sites are cleverly tucked into the rocks which protect them from the gusty desert winds. I can only imagine bringing a group of families here and letting the kids run off to play one epic game of hide and seek.
Want to extend your road trip even further into New Mexico? Check out Trekaroo’s Top 10 Things to Do in New Mexico with kids.
Southwest National Parks Road Trip Day 10- Chiricahua National Monument
From Deming we drove west, across the Arizona border on I-10 to the remote Chiricahua National Monument – far, far away from reliable cell phone service.
Most people familiar with America’s Southwest can recognize the striking hoodoo rock formations of Bryce National Park in Utah. These pink-tinged, natural stone pillars rising up from the canyon floor are some of the most photographed features in the United States National Park system.
But, few people know that hoodoos can be found all over the Southwest, and even fewer are have hiked among the hoodoos of Chiricahua National Monument.
There’s one obvious difference between the rock formations in Utah and those in this remote corner of southeastern Arizona; the hoodoos in Chiricahua are not as brilliantly colored and are often topped with green lichen.
In the early 20th century, this area was aptly nicknamed a “Wonderland of Rocks.” The name was an effort to get the area classified as a national monument and draw in visitors. My kids would definitely agree that this “wonderland” is far better than any playground on our southwest road trip itinerary.
We hiked the 3.3 mile Echo Canyon Loop descending roughly 500 feet into the canyon and back up again. I’m not sure if it was the elevation and heat or the fact that we were nearing the end of our Southwest road trip itinerary. But, for us, this hike felt like it was longer than three miles.
Generally, it is recommended to hike down through Echo Canyon first. Then hike back up the less scenic Hailstone and Ed Riggs Trails. The Echo Canyon trail winds around the rock formations as it descends into the canyon; there are plenty of large boulders just off the trail to keeps the kids happy scrambling from one rock to another.
Southwest National Parks Road Trip Day 11: Saguaro National Park and Tucson
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is comprised of two separate districts on either side of the sprawling city of Tucson. The eastern district is nestled among the city’s suburbs. It is a popular destination for locals out on their morning jog or bike ride.
Unlike the western district rough roads, the eastern district’s loop drive is fully paved. The road is quite narrow in spots as it winds among the saguaro cacti. We drove the loop on a warm, 80-degree Sunday morning, slowly appreciating the colorful blooming cacti.
We only stopped the car and ventured out onto the trails a couple times during our drive. However, it was totally worth it to walk beside and pose for a picture beneath the 20-25 foot tall towering saguaro.
The Freeman Homestead Trail on the east side is a one mile loop with interpretive signs. The Signal Hill Trail on the west side is a ½-mile climb to dozens of ancient petroglyphs.
For fun on the trail, imitate the saguaros “arms” and take silly pictures. Stay for the changing light of sunset which is one of the most beautiful moments in the desert.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
We found the western district of Saguaro National Park to be more remote. When when we visited in mid-April, we saw a few saguaro beginning to bloom. The western district of the park is only a short drive away from Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
The Desert Museum is home to many animals that live in the Sonoran Desert. It’s part outdoor natural science museum, part zoo, and part botanic gardens.
While I loved the cactus garden in full bloom, my kids could not get enough of the cave exhibit. At the cave exhibit they could climb through a man-made cave replica complete with stalagmites and stalactites. There are also trails for families who would like to roam among the desert plants and animals.
After enjoying your time in Tucson, make your way back up to Phoenix to close the loop on your epic Southwest national parks road trip.
Special thanks to Tiffany Vaughn who updated this post for 2020.