Southwest US Road Trip Part 3: Saguaro, White Sands, Carlsbad, Guadalupe Mountains


After packing up the next morning in Flagstaff, we hit the road to head toward Sedona. We cruised through, admiring the gorgeous red rock along the way. We headed straight for Phoenix, where we stopped in for lunch with a good friend and her darling crew; I will forever admire Janssen for packing up her four little girls at a moment’s notice and driving to meet us for a meal after I texted her an hour before.
From there, we enforced some car naps on the way down to Saguaro National Park. The kids had filled out a good bit of their Junior Ranger books on the way down, so they were excited and knew what to expect well before we hit the visitors’ center. From the moment we started seeing the giant cacti pop up along the road, we all started gazing eagerly out the window.
We went straight to turn in the booklets and get their badges, as well as get some info on the best paths to take for the rest of the afternoon/evening. They recommended driving the Bajada Loop Drive, which was perfect and gorgeous.
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The loop is about 6 miles and incredibly scenic. It’s also fairly diverse in terms of Saguaro content – there are the gorgeous, huge cacti, of course, but also desert and views and wildflowers and petroglyphs.
We did the Valley View Overlook Trail, where we saw tons of huge saguaros and got to a gorgeous overlook of the valley. We kept a close eye out for any unwelcome critters but didn’t have any issues.

Then we headed to the Signal Hill Petroglyphs Trail. This was a fun one to climb up and find lots of rock art. The kids loved looking at the different carvings to figure out what they meant (and we appreciated the explanations to give us the answers ;)). There was also a beautiful lookout and we stayed up there until sunset and delighted in watching the sun dip.
We drove out of the park at dusk, and got an amazing view of the saguaros in silhouette, and headed to our hotel about half an hour away.


After breakfast at our hotel the next morning, we started our drive to White Sands, NM. The drive was about 4.5 hours, so plenty of time to read/listen to audiobooks/work on Junior Ranger/take naps.
When we got to White Sands, there was a sign stating the wind was blowing at about 50mph that day. Yikes! Still, we decided to try it out a bit, anyway. We purchased one of the round plastic sleds from the gift shop for about $12 or so. We also finished the Junior Ranger booklets by watching the video of the park and looking around the mini museum.

Then we drove out to the dunes and took turns sledding and waiting in the car. It was way too windy (especially with sand blowing in our eyes!) to wait outside when it wasn’t our turn, so those who weren’t sledding just waited inside the non-sandy car.

Because the wind was blowing so hard, it was painful to even open our eyes outside the car. Fortunately, we’d packed swim goggles for the hotel pools and decided to pull those out. They were perfect and we were SO grateful to have them. I really don’t think we would’ve been able to participate that day without them. Still, with them, we had such a blast sliding around on the smooth sand.
White Sands also just became the 62nd National Park (upgraded from National Monument) and is worthwhile as a stop all on its own. (Check out this post where it’s featured along with other great US vacations with kids.)
After a couple hours there, we continued on to Carlsbad, NM to our hotel (where we performed some very thorough baths as we all had sand caked in our hairs and our ears and even our teeth), grabbing dinner on the way.


After again having breakfast at our hotel (we love staying in Marriott TownPlace Suites and Residence Inn properties for this reason – they include breakfast and will often upgrade our family to a suite for free), we drove over to Carlsbad Caverns. We’d all been so excited for this stop!

We started off with some time in the museum right at the start to learn about the cavern and its formation, as well as the creatures found there. Since we knew we’d have more time at this stop, we didn’t fill out Junior Ranger stuff beforehand and spent some time working on that.
The caverns themselves were SO cool! We loved seeing all the stalactites and stalagmites, and it was so fun walking lower and lower. We rented a couple of audio guides, which I would highly recommend. There were so many interesting facts about how the caves came to be, what lives in there, and how it’s been preserved.

Since we only had about half a day there, and since children under four years old aren’t allowed on the ranger-led tours, we just stuck to the main, self-guided tour. We felt that was a great overview and felt like the main experience. I’m sure the others are cool, but this was perfect for our family situation. As I mentioned, we had the audio guides, and those were very well done and provided TONS of information, so frankly, I don’t know that we would’ve been up for more tours (especially with switching off with younger kids) after that even if we did have more time.
We packed a backpack and took the baby carrier if T got tired (which he did near the end). Overall, the kids were great until the very end, when T started to lose his mind because he was so tired. So we tried to hightail it out of there, but there was a decently long line for the elevator back up. So Dan hung in line with the big kids while I hung with T and we walked around a bit.

We finally got up and back to the car and fed the kids lunch while we drove (the whole trip, we’d been replenishing food supplies for easy lunches, like PB & bread and cut up veggies and fruit, and a cooler for cheese/yogurt).
Turns out Guadalupe Mountains National Park was super close by, so we had decided to pop over there for just a very short bit. T was passed out in the car when we got there, but the big kids went in with Dan for a bit to the mini museum (to do – you guessed it! – Junior Ranger) and then we drove around a bit to see the landscapes there. If I’m being honest, this was by far and away the least impressive part of our entire trip. We likely just didn’t get far enough in to see cooler stuff, but even the rangers at the visitors’ center told us to just sort of drive around and that there wasn’t really much to see/do. So quite possibly those particular ones were just not that informed and we missed some really cool things, but oh well.

We had quite a long drive in front of us this time, but we quickly stopped in El Paso for some delicious Tex-Mex. They didn’t have a ton of vegetarian options, but we managed to get a bit, and the amazing salsa bar made up for it. The kids thought it was really fun to see the lights of Mexico in the distance as we drove. They all passed out and slept for hours as we rolled into Albuquerque quite late.

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