I can’t share my recent road trip to New Mexico without a little backstory. It was unusual for us to leave on a road trip on Christmas Day. For us, Christmas is all about gathering with family as we celebrate our Savior’s birth. But this year, our grown children were “Christmassing” with their in-laws.
Things get a little too quiet when it’s just my husband and I at home during the holidays. With his engineering team gone for the holidays, my husband was free to travel as well. Recognizing an opportunity when we saw it, we planned a 5-day road trip to New Mexico from San Diego. Why? Simply because we’d never been, we enjoy discovering new places, and it was a manageable distance. And hey, it’s ‘The Land of Enchantment.’ How could we go wrong?
How we chose our must-see itinerary
Inspired by Instagram photos of pure white sand dunes in New Mexico, I learned these dunes make up one of our nation’s newest national parks: White Sands, designated as a National Park in 2019. In 2022 we visited Sequoia and Great Basin National Parks as well and were not disappointed. In fact, we’d love to see them all!
White Sands National Park became our main target. Everything else we did on our road trip to New Mexico would be on the way to, near, or on the return trip from White Sands. And since we love to photograph our natural surroundings, we focused on outdoor activities.
Our rough itinerary included 4-6 hours of driving every day. Our plan was to visit White Sands National Park, hike in the Organ Mountains, and explore the City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico. On our return trip to San Diego, we would also visit Tombstone AZ, and another national park — Saguaro National Park East in Tucson.
I chose economical hotels along the way and booked through Booking.com. I prefer their booking site and ease of cancelling if necessary. And sometimes I’m able to book rooms through Booking.com, even when the hotels show no availability. I’m including my affiliate links for the hotels we stayed in. If you book a hotel with any of these links, I will earn a small commission at no additional expense to you.
Day One (from San Diego to Tucson, AZ)
On Christmas Day, we left after church and drove about 6 hours to Tucson. We added a side trip to visit my daughter and her in-laws to exchange gifts and get some snuggles from some of our grandchildren. That’s always worth a detour!
We checked into our hotel kind of late in Tucson, but not so late that we couldn’t enjoy the two-room suite (with kitchen!) at 3 Palms Tucson North Foothills. For the price of $94 (incl. taxes and fees) this was a great deal. There was some construction going on at the hotel, so the pool and miniature putting green were not available. That didn’t matter to us because we were heading out early the next morning, anyway.
I woke up early and just had to explore a little. Directly behind our hotel was a beautiful desert garden. Way off in the distance, a hot air balloon followed the ridgeline of the mountains as the sun came up. And a sweet little songbird serenaded the sun. There’s always something beautiful if you’re willing to go looking for it!
Day 2 of our road trip to New Mexico
On this day, our goal was to get to White Sands NP, but we planned a stop at City of Rocks State Park in Faywood, NM. If we had driven directly to White Sands, it would have been just under 5 hours. Enroute we stopped at a rest area worth mentioning: Texas Canyon Rest Area, about an hour from the New Mexico border on I-10. The surrounding mountains and rock formations were quite appealing.
CHECK YOUR Route carefully
We knew City of Rocks was northwest of Deming on Hwy 180, but when we stopped in Lordsburg for gas, the GPS showed a “shortcut” from Hwy 90 to Hwy 180, so we headed that way. I was a bit confused when my husband’s Google Maps showed that shortcut, because I could see no roads connecting the two.
Well, we soon had our answer about the shortcut! We were both right. There weren’t any PAVED roads connecting 90 to 180, but there was a dirt road through several cattle farms. The longer we stayed on the dirt road, the more worried I was that we’d get to the end and there’d be some locked gate or barrier we couldn’t get past. I was NOT going to be happy if we had to turn around and go all the way back! Here’s what that road looked like…
I just had to share this with you as a reminder that it’s risky to accept everything Google maps tells you. But we did, in reality, successfully navigate to City of Rocks State Park via this route. Sure glad we didn’t have any car problems, though!
city of rocks state park
City of Rocks is aptly named as it does kind of resemble rows of “rock” buildings with lanes between them. It’s a fun place to explore, climb, and take photos. There’s also a small museum (not open the day after Christmas), picnic tables, and even some campsites. Restrooms, too.
I highly recommend a stop here, for at least an hour or so. It’s a very unique outcropping of rocks, rising up out of the desert floor. Even more fun for a family with young kids that need to work through some of their pent-up energy!
on to White Sands National Park
Our original plan was to visit White Sands twice — once at dusk/sunset and again the next morning at sunrise. So our arrival at White Sands at about 3:30 pm was perfect timing. We checked out the Visitor Center briefly, mostly to use restrooms and to pay admission. We learned you actually pay at a kiosk as you drive further into the park. There’s a nice gift shop and some educational displays but we didn’t stay long. It is important to note, however, that the Visitor Center is the only place where you can fill water bottles. I’m sure that’s much more of an issue in the warmer months than it was for us in December.
We decided to buy an annual “America the Beautiful” pass (the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands pass). The cost is $80 and covers admission for a vehicle and its passengers at all national parks. As we learned later, it also covers fees for other federal lands too. We have plans to visit more national parks this year, so this was a good deal for us. Otherwise, it would be $25 for 7 days at White Sands.
We drove to the end of the road, parked and changed our shoes. I preferred to wear sandals in the sand. My feet were cold after the sunset but that was better than having shoes full of sand. Oh, and about the sand…it’s not really regular sand. It’s actually gypsum from an ancient seabed. That’s why it’s so white.
taking photos at White Sands
While many park visitors were sledding on nearby dunes, our goal was to get beyond them to get photos of untrampled dunes. That took awhile, actually. Just when we thought we had passed everyone, we’d find someone else ahead of us on another dune. Plus, we had to be sure we knew how to get back to our car. People get lost in these dunes regularly because everything looks the same in all directions once you can’t see the parking lot any more. So, how do you not get lost? Look for and stay close to the “trail markers” that are sunk into the gypsum and stick out about 5 or 6 feet.
We found our sweet spot and watched the sun slowly sink behind the San Andres mountain backdrop, casting deeper and more colorful shadows onto the dunes. I was amazed at the variety of colors reflected in the dunes, just depending on which direction I faced: white, light blue, rosy pink, darker blues and even purples!
The patterns in the gypsum, caused by the wind, were even more beautiful as the shadows deepened. My photos don’t really do it justice, and I highly recommend you go see it for yourself someday. We had a magical evening photographing and exploring White Sands.
We left the park and drove to the White Sands Motel, a quaint vintage-style motel about 18 minutes away in Alamagordo. Here we paid $112 for our stay. Rooms were a little small but had everything we needed to prepare microwave dinners, watch a movie, sleep well, and grab a light breakfast the next morning.
Day 3 of our road trip to New Mexico
Our plans to return for sunrise photos at White Sands were nixed when we realized the park didn’t open early enough, so we made new plans. It’s good to be flexible because things like this happen all the time. Before leaving Alamagordo, though, we just had to see Pistachioland, home of the World’s largest pistachio. The gift shop here is fun to browse, and if you like pistachios, you’re going to be in heaven! You can even buy pistachio ice cream at their ice cream bar. They have tram tours of the pistachio groves, but we didn’t take the time to do that. This would be a great stop for a family, especially if you’re into photo ops and souvenirs. Perhaps a bit hokey, but isn’t that what makes it fun?
Lincoln National Forest and Cloudcroft
We decided to take a drive up into the mountains east of Alamagordo into the Lincoln National Forest. It was crazy to leave the desert floor, climb 7000 feet and be on a densely forested mountaintop within 30 minutes. Our drive included some turnouts with great views, a cool tunnel to drive through, a peak at the Mexican Canyon Trestle Bridge and a visit to Cloudcroft — a little mountain village with boutique shops, a historic rock church, and a western-style boardwalk. We ate lunch at a family-run restaurant that served up some amazing barbecue: BrotherNLaw BBQ.
Organ mountains and dripping springs
Back down the mountain and 1 1/2 hours of driving west brought us to Organ Mountains. This mountain range has a very distinct rugged ridgeline that is quite beautiful. The full name is Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. A very popular place to hike is the Dripping Springs Trail and our America the Beautiful Pass covered the $5.00 fee to park at the trailhead and visitor center. The trail is a relatively easy 3-mile up and back trail. It takes you past a few historic buildings and has a marker for a historic campsite. At the end of the trail is Dripping Springs. There wasn’t much water in the springs on our December visit, but it was still pretty and nice to hear the sound of the water dripping down the rock face.
My favorite part was walking back down the trail at the beginning of golden hour as the sun rays made the golden grasses “sparkle” with light. We had to be out of the parking lot by 5:00 pm, so we left and parked aways up on Baylor Canyon Road to watch the sun set on the Organ Mountains. There were great views — west as we watched the sun set behind Las Cruces, and east as the sun colored the mountains. My husband got the drone out for some nice views of the sun-drenched mountains, too.
Hotel in deming for the night
We drove into Las Cruces for dinner and then another hour to Deming, NM for our stay at the Days Inn by Wyndham. Our room was quite beautiful and filled with amenities to keep us comfortable, especially with a low price of $79 for the night.
Day 4 of our road trip to New Mexico
Deming, NM to Tombstone, AZ
Now we were headed through Arizona on our way back to San Diego. We only had to cover 3 hours of driving to end up in Tucson, AZ, so we had time to add a side trip to Tombstone, AZ. It added an hour to our road trip but was worth it. While every other day on our trip was sunny, this day was a rainy, overcast one. But it kind of fit the mood of the Boothill Cemetery we encountered first in Tombstone, “The Town Too Tough to Die.”.
The historic portion of old Tombstone has not been paved, so it looks more like the town that witnessed the OK Corral gunfight it’s famous for in 1881. Old west building facades and a boardwalk line several blocks of the historic district. Several original businesses are still there: the Crystal Palace saloon, the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper, Fly’s Photography Gallery, the Bird Cage Theatre, Schieffelin Hall, the Courthouse and the City Hall. In fact, the entire Tombstone Historic District is registered in the National Register of Historic Places. These days, Tombstone is kept alive by tourism and it’s a popular place to visit.
We strolled through town, ate lunch at the Crystal Palace, checked out the museum of printing presses at the Tombstone Epitaph, and looked at the above-ground displays at the Good Enough Silver Mine. We didn’t opt to tour the mine as we once toured a silver mine in Wallace, ID and thought it would be similar. We didn’t pay to watch the re-enacted OK Corral gunfight either. Perhaps if we had had more time…and if the weather had been better.
Tombstone to Tucson
We’re kind of on a national park roll these days, so when I learned there was a national park in Tucson, we made time to see it. It’s the Saguaro National Park, and there are two parts: East and West. Not really close to each other, I might add. We opted for Saguaro National Park (Rincon Mountain District) East, as it was closer to the city and to our hotel for the night. It took about an hour to drive from Tombstone to Tucson, and it was still raining when we arrived.
Saguaro National Park East has a great visitor center. I recommend you take a look around first because there’s a lot of interesting information about the Saguaro cactus and the park. You’ll receive a map that shows where parking lots and turnouts are, as well as all the hiking trails. If you want this visit to be really easy, just drive like we did to a few of the parking lots and get out to read the signs and take photos. Then continue on the loop road through the park. In my opinion, the most picturesque portion was the Javelina Rocks. Here, we did get out and walk around a bit. There was a nice view to the west, and the chiseled rocks here added a lot to the landscape. I was told this is the best place to take sunset photos, but alas, not on a rainy day!
Tucson Hotel for the night
For the last night of our road trip to New Mexico, I chose the nicest hotel so far: Home2 Suites by Hilton Tucson Airport. While looking for our other hotels, I kept noticing the outstanding reviews for Home2 Suites hotels. I finally decided I wanted to see what all the raving was about. Our experience definitely fell in line with what everyone else was saying. Beautiful room with both a sleeping area and a living area/kitchen suite, the most comfortable bed ever, very quiet despite being close to the airport, and a really good breakfast served in the reception area. Our total came to $129 for the night, and I didn’t mind the higher price at all. I’ll be booking Home2 Suites again in the future.
Because this hotel was close to the airport, there were a lot of restaurants to choose from for dinner, some within walking distance.
Day 5 of our road trip to New Mexico
From Tucson, it’s a 5 1/2-hour drive to San Diego, but we split it up. Three hours to Yuma, and then about 2 1/2 hrs to San Diego. We have an aunt living in Yuma we visited for the afternoon. It’s always nice to get together with family! Yuma has plenty of fun things to see and do as well. See what Yuma has to offer at “Yuma, AZ — Not Just Passing Through.”
Would I recommend this road trip to New Mexico?
Overwhelmingly, yes! There were times when I wished we didn’t have to fit in so much driving in a day. But honestly, the drives went pretty fast. We were always listening to good music, even singing along! And there was so much to see along the way, too. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety in landscapes, all the mountain ranges, and even lots of historic markers along the way. Googling the names of sites as we went gave us more background information, too.
I’d never been to New Mexico before and I was delighted to see so many beautiful things there. Everyone tells me there’s so much more to see: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, for starters. That will have to happen another time, but it gives me something to look forward to. It’s definitely The Land of Enchantment, and our road trip to New Mexico just reinforced that.
It was certainly among the most Enchanting road trips I’ve done!
I love my new home state… now come and travel to the North End!! I’d be happy to show you and Darren around!! Hello to Darren and Happy New Year!
Hi Kathlene! I didn’t realize you were in New Mexico. We’d love to come back soon. You chose a beautiful state!
What a beautiful place to visit! We’re gonna add it to our road trip bucket list.
I think you’ll be glad you did!
Your road trip reminded me of our road trip through New Mexico although we started from Texas. White Sands is so beautiful that I want to go back. I love pistachio, so it was a wonderful stop for us. But how could I miss City of Rocks State Park? I guess it’s time to make another road trip through that areas.
Made me happy to hear you’ve already been, Umiko. I’m sure there will always be reasons to go back to NM!
I like that you had so much varied landscape during this trip. The White Sands look so beautiful, no wonder you planned to go there for both sunrise and sunset. I would have probably turned around seeing that dirt, unpaved road, and take a longer route. The Organ Mountains look so pretty as well, how great that you could go on a short trail to explore more. I would like to visit Tombstone as well, it looks like a visit back in time.
Joanna, yes I think that is what made Tombstone so fun to visit. It definitely felt like going back in time!
What a lovely experience this journey to New Mexico has been. I simply adore the meticulously selected itinerary; each location has something special to offer. In the future, I’d like to visit White Sands National Park and Lincoln National Forest, both of which sound promising. As a side note, I must say that your photographs are actually pretty impressive!
Thank you! Glad you liked the photos…
White Sands National Park looks so fantastic! To be honest, I have never heard of this National Park, but the pictures are amazing. And Pistachioland seems like a weird fun place to visit too!
I love the idea of heading out on a new road trip destination just because you had not yet been. I think your plan to drive 4-6 hours every day was a reasonable approach to ensuring you had time for detours. I totally understand your concern with just following the GPS or Google Maps directions. We have found far too many unpaved roads that way. I can see why we need to plan to visit White Sands National Park. That alone would make a road trip to New Mexico worthwhile.
Oh no! This is why I don’t really follow recommendations for shortcuts. We have also experienced this before where the road condition was not really good. It’s just so risky.
Anyway, I am happy to know that you were able to navigate successfully.
Such surprise trips are always so exciting and good to know that this time you celebrated Christmas differently. I love the overall plan and would to replicate it when around that side of the globe. Driving 5-6 hours is just the perfect way with enough time to explore. The beautiful photos give such a good feel of White Sands. Tucson, would be nice with a visit to the Saguaro National Park before moving on to New Mwxico.
I love this idea, me and my husband get the same when we have time off to relax for too long, especially if you are normally used to busy dinners with the family. This road trip looks like so much fun, I love how diverse the scenery is, from the quirky boulders to the white sands. I need to go here.
That’s so funny – we went through New Mexico after Christmas too – I had never been to Santa Fe.
I still haven’t been to Santa Fe — I guess that will be another trip someday!