Sprawling dunes, magnificent cave features and the highest point in Texas are all available to visitors in the southeast New Mexico region.
White Sands National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park all offer unique vistas for travelers from around the country who make the journey to the remote areas where they reside.
These three parks don’t have the visitation of the more famous Yosemite National Park in California or Arkansas’ renowned Hot Springs National Park, yet data shows southern New Mexico’s offerings are treasured by visitors above their more famous counterparts in the National Park Service.
A recent study by travel blog Park Sleep Fly listed the most “underrated” national parks in the U.S., considering visitation numbers from 2020 along with ratings on popular tourism site Trip Adviser.
Overall, there are 423 national park sites managed by the Service on 84 million acres throughout the U.S. and its territories, with many often overlooked by most but highly recommended by visitors, per the study.
White Sands was ranked ninth on the list with 82 percent of its 4,085 Trip Adviser reviews listed as “excellent.” The park received just 415,383 visitors last year.
Carlsbad Caverns was next on the list, tied for 10th place with Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
The Caverns had 183,835 visitors in 2020, with 81.5 percent of its 1,132 Trip Adviser reviews rated as “excellent,” per the study.
Guadalupe Mountains came in at 31st with 151,256 visitors last year, and 47.3 percent of its 148 reviews giving an “excellent” score.
“We all know the likes of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and, of course, the Grand Canyon, and there’s no denying that they’re some of the most breathtaking locations in the U.S.,” the study read.
“But the one thing that can make visiting these national parks a little bit less special is the heaving crowds, especially in the last year, with record visitor numbers due to restrictions on international travel.”
Here are some of the top offerings at the locations in the southeast New Mexico area included in the list of underrated parks.
White Sands National Park
New Mexico’s newest national park is located near Alamogordo in Otero County, in the state’s south central region.
It’s characterized by vast miles of sand dunes famous for their white color due to high gypsum content.
Visitors to White Sands can enjoy back country camping among the dunes, and miles of trails for hiking, biking and driving.
Visitors are also able to sled on the dunes, allowing for the popular winter activity without the cold.
The Alkali Flat Trail is a strenuous, 5-mile loop hike around what remains of Lake Otero. Hikers will climb and descend dunes repeatedly during the hike. The Park Service warned there is no shade, water or toilet facilities along the way and it takes about 3 hours to complete.
The same challenges arise on the shorter Backcountry Camping Trail, mostly frequent by campers but also available for day visitors looking for a shorter trek. This trail takes about an hour and a half, passing through the several steep dunes and loose sand.
The Playa and Dune Life Nature trails are offered for easier journeys, taking 30 minutes and an hour, respectively.
These trails are meant to educate visitors on the wildlife present at White Sands and the history of the land.
About 700 feet underground visitors will enjoy spectacular cave formations with massive stalactites forming at the ceiling and traveling down and stalagmites coming up from the ground.
Visitors can either take the elevator down into the cave or hike in through the natural entrance, a 1.25-mile steep trail that ascends about 750 feet – the equivalent of a 75-story building – in about an hour.
Once you’re in the cave, the Big Room Trail is the most popular.
It’s mostly flat and wheelchair accessible in certain areas but provides visitors up-close views of the renowned formations.
On the surface, Carlsbad Caverns also offers numerous hiking trails to enjoy the desert flora and fauna.
Between May and October, the park offers a bat flight program where visitors gather at the natural entrance to watch thousands of bats fly out of the cave at dawn and return in the evening.
While its technically located in Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is near the New Mexico border, about an hour drive from Carlsbad.
It’s a popular destination for southeast New Mexicans to hike among the desert mountains, and witness the shift to fall colors in September and October.
The park boasts the highest point in Texas, the Guadalupe peak, which can be visited through an about 8-hour strenuous hike.
The park also offers shorter trails such as the Smith Spring Trail which takes hikers past an historic home and up to a mountain spring, a rare body of water in the arid region.
Other popular destinations like McKittrick Canyon and Devil’s hall expose visitors to the unique land formations and wildlife native to the area.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.