Road Trips and Destinations

Camping Road Trip through Southern New Mexico

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White Sands National Monument at Sunset

Southern New Mexico surprisingly has a lot to offer to any visitor. Its contrasting, yet stunning landscapes, where sand dune deserts meet alpine peaks provide breathtaking scenery and great hiking opportunities. For military or space enthusiasts, there is the White Sands Missile Range where the government tests rockets used both by the military and to aid space exploration. And the area is steeped in Wild West History including one of the most notorious outlaws, Billy The Kid.

When to Go

You can go any time of year, however the lowland areas are very hot in the Summer and the alpine areas are snow covered and cold in the winter. April / May and September / October are the best months to avoid the extremes.

How to Get There

The I-10 passes West to East and East to West through Las Cruces, and the I-25 from the North. Las Cruces also has an international airport.

How Long Should the Trip Be?

We recommend five leisurely days as per the itinerary set out below. However, you could squeeze it all in, in four days.

What to See and Do

Five-Day Visit - Las Cruces to Three Rivers - About 320 miles.

Day One - Old Mesilla to Las Cruces - 5 miles

  1. Old Mesilla is one of the most culturally and historically significant communities in the state. Founded in 1848, the town served as the capital of the Confederate Territory of Arizona during the Civil War before it was recaptured. The town also served as the backdrop for many Western stories, having long been associated with romantic Wild West figures such as Pancho Villa, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. In fact, Old Mesilla was where Billy the Kid was jailed and put to trial. In Old Mesilla you will also find the Gadsden Museum, a private museum that displays a variety of Native American Spanish artifacts; the Mesilla Plaza, a National Historic Landmark; and the Basilica of San Albino, one of the oldest churches in the Southwest. The best way to experience Old Mesilla is through a walking tour. Grab lunch at one of the restaurants in town once you're done touring. Allow 3 hours minimum in Old Mesilla.
  2. Next head to Las Cruces and see the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum. The Museum is a working cattle ranch. Here, you can learn about rural life in New Mexico and the 3,000-year history of farming in the area. You'll also get to see demonstrations on how to milk a cow as well as watch a blacksmith at work. You can join guided tours or tour the Museum on your own using a booklet provided at the site. Allow two hours minimum.

    Spend the night at campground or RV Park in Las Cruces.

Day Two - Las Cruces to Alamogordo - 70 miles.

  1. Drive to Dripping Springs Natural Area via the US-70 and Baylor Canyon Rd or follow Dripping Springs Rd from town. Dripping Springs Natural Area is excellent for easy hiking and viewing wildlife. It lies 10 miles east of Las Cruces and is located on the western slopes of the Organ Mountains. Hike the 3.5 miles round trip Dripping Springs Trail. It passes through intriguing desert landscapes and a few historic ruins such as Col. Eugene Van Patten's desert hideaway. Make sure you check out Dripping Falls waterfall at the end of the trail. The trailhead is located just south of the visitor center. Allow a minimum of two hours to complete the hike.
  2. Drive 20 miles via Baylor Canyon Rd and US-70 to White Sands National Missile Range Museum. The museum will show you how the atomic age started and give you an overview of the country's missile program. Don't miss the Missile Park outside the museum where there are at least 50 missiles on display. Allow 1 hour minimum.
  3. Hop back on the US 70 and head north about 30 miles to the last stop of the day at White Sands National Monument. The white, wavelike dunes here, shining under the desert sun, are one of the world's most beautiful dune fields, remarkable for its sparkling shade of white. White Sands National Monument covers 275 square miles and is the largest dune field made of gypsum sand - a mineral deposited in an ancient sea - in the world. Start at the visitor center and then drive the scenic 16-mile round trip along Dunes Drive. Explore the sand dunes at any of the pullouts. The hour-long, ranger-guided sunset stroll is also a must. You'll learn about the geology, plants and animals. As the sun sets the sand dunes change color to our eyes to become pastel pinks, yellows and oranges, a sight to behold.

    Spend the night at a campground or RV Park at nearby Alamogordo.

Day Three - Alamogordo to Cloudcroft - 55 miles

  1. Start your third day by visiting the New Mexico Museum of Space History near Alamogordo. Exhibits showcase humanity's achievements in studying outer space. The Museum has an IMAX theater and planetarium, the only one of its kind in the region. You should also see the John P. Stapp Air & Space Park, where the Museum holds its outdoor exhibits featuring spacecraft and launch vehicles, and the Astronaut Memorial Garden, which is a tribute to the astronauts of Apollo 1, Columbia and Challenger. Allow two hours minimum.
  2. Join the US 82 and head East climbing approximately 14 miles up to the trail head for Osha Trail in Lincoln National Forest. Osha Trail is a 2.2-mile loop that begins and ends at US 82. Its trailhead is found opposite the old railroad trestle on US 82. The trail offers an outstanding view of White Sands and the Tularosa Basin below with interpretive flora signs the whole length. Allow 1 hour minimum.
  3. Continue to National Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak in Sunspot. To get there, continue towards Cloudcroft and then take the Sunspot Scenic Byway for 15 miles to the observatory. The facilities of the National Solar Observatory are used to conduct research on the sun. You can take a tour of the observatory, either on your own or as part of a guided tour. The most exciting part of the tour is the Dunn Solar Telescope, where you can take a look at sunspots and solar flares. Allow 1 hour minimum.

    Spend the night at a campground or RV Park at nearby Cloudcroft.

Day Four - Cloudcroft to Lincoln to Alto - 100 miles

  1. Start the fourth day with stops at the Hubbard Museum of the American West, as well as its neighbors the Anne C. Stradling Museum of the Horse and the Billy the Kid National Scenic Byway Visitor Center. To get to these museums, you need to drive US 244 and US 70 to Ruidoso Downs about a 45 mile drive from Cloudcroft. These three museums collectively give you a glimpse into New Mexico's rich Wild West, Hispanic and Native American heritage and allow you to brush up on your Billy the Kid lore. Allow 1 hour 30 minutes minimum.
  2. Continue East on US 70 for another 21 miles and then West on US 380 for 10 miles to Lincoln. Lincoln is famous for being the place that Billy the Kid called home and where he made his last escape from the law. Lincoln is a town frozen in time. There are 11 sites you can explore here that make up the Lincoln State Monument; the ones you shouldn't miss are the Old Lincoln County Courthouse, which also served as the town's jail, Torreon a 20-foot high round stone tower originally built in the 1860s, where settlers hid during Mescalero Apache Indian raids and the San Juan Mission Church. Allow 2 hours minimum.
  3. Head 12 miles west on US 380 to Smokey Bear Historical State Park. This state park is the resting place of the original Smokey Bear, whose image was used to promote fire prevention awareness across the country. The state park was also the location of a terrible forest fire in which Smokey Bear was found as a cub clinging to a tree. It's only fitting that you should pay your respects to Smokey Bear's grave and take a look at the forest health and fire prevention exhibits found at the Visitor Center on your visit here. Allow 1 hour minimum at the State Park.

    Drive south for 13 miles on SR 48 and spend the night at a campground or RV Park in Alto or a campground or RV Park in Ruidoso.

Day Five - Alto / Rudioso to Three Rivers - 90 miles

  1. First stop on the final day is Sierra Blanca Peak. To get there from Alto, take the SR 532 road for 13 miles to the peak. It rises 12,000 feet and is the southernmost peak in the Rocky Mountains. In spring and summer, Sierra Blanca puts on a mantle of sunflowers, asters and wildflowers. In winter, it is a popular skiing destination. You should stop at Windy Point Vista Lookout, where you can treat yourself to dramatic views of the mountains up to 100 miles away. Toward the end of the drive along SR 532, you'll find the Ski Apache ski resort operated by Mescalero Apache Indians and a favorite winter destination in the area.
  2. Return to SR 48, head north on SR 48 for 4 miles, then north on SR 37 for 14 miles and finally another 12 miles west on US 380 to Valley of Fires Recreation Area. Approximately 5,000 years ago, Little Black Peak erupted and flowed 44 miles into the Tularosa Basin, filling the basin with molten rock. A barren field of black rock, is now what remains of the lava flow. Though barren, the Valley is showing signs of being conquered by life in the form of cacti, desert flowers and fauna. Hike the three-quarters of a mile loop trail through the Valley that crosses a cracked terrace of sandstone to solidified lava flows. Allow 1 hour minimum.
  3. Your last stop is Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, 38 miles South on US 54. Located in the Tularosa Basin, Three Rivers is remarkable for having the largest collection of stone etchings or petroglyphs in the entire country. More than 21,000 glyphs of birds, humans, animals, fish, insects and plants, as well as numerous geometric and abstract designs are scattered over 50 acres. The petroglyphs at Three Rivers, date back to between about 900 and 1400 AD and were created by Jornada Mogollon people who used stone tools to remove the dark patina on the exterior of the rock. Aside from these petroglyphs, Three Rivers offers beautiful panoramas, formed by the Sierra Blanca to the east, the San Andres Mountains to the west, and White Sands to the south. Three Rivers also holds the remains of a Mogollon Indian village.

From Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, drive south on US 54 and US 70 back to Las Cruces.

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San Albino Church, Old Mesilla NM
San Albino Church, Old Mesilla
Space Rocket at New Mexico Museum of Space History, Alamogordo NM
Space Rocket at New Mexico Museum of Space History
View of White Sands and Tularosa Basin from Osha Trail
White Sands and Tularosa Basin from Osha Trail
Several horse statues at Hubbarb Museum of the West
Hubbarb Museum of the West displays over 10,000 horse related artifacts
Scenic view of Southern New Mexico from Sierra Blanca Peak
Scenic view of Southern New Mexico from Windy Point Vista Lookout on Sierra Blanca Peak
Torreon a 20-foot high round stone tower, part of the Lincoln State Monument, Lincoln NM
Torreon stone tower, Lincoln State Monument
Lava Rock, Valley of Fires Recreation Area, Carrizozo, NM
* Lava Rock at Valley of Fires Recreation Area
Petroglyph of a ram stuck with two arrows, Three Rivers NM
* Indian rock art of a Ram stuck with arrows
* Photo courtesy of BLM New Mexico

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1 comment(s) so far...

That's a very nice trip but as long as you are in that neck of the woods you might consider an extra day to visit the caves at Carlsbad National Park. It's well worth the time. Also when leaving Three Rivers Petroglyph Site for Las Cruces be sure and turn right on US 70/82 because US 54 will take you to El Paso.

By dgypzz on 12/18/2012 10:27:19 PM
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