New Mexico: Hiking Adventures in 4 Stunning National Parks!

Wide open skies, expansive desert and the Guadalupe Mountains.

Our Spring Break in New Mexico was full of adventure, activity & exploration! This state has a long history of ancestral people and fascinating geological formations. We visited 4 very different national parks that were separated by vast areas of wide open desert and grassland, sometimes with no hint of civilization other than the road we travelled on and the wire fences lining the fields!

Travel is a wonderful way to step back from your daily life and learn about other landscapes and ways of living. We came back with new perspectives, feeling refreshed and blessed for having learned about desert plants, animals, human history and geology.

New Mexico has a charm of its own with sweeping open sky views and a certain mystery about it! We found some quirky sights along our drives (over 1000 miles in total!) that sparked curiosity on our loop from Santa Fe to Carlsbad to Las Cruces and back to Albuquerque:

Flat grasslands as far as the eye could see!
  • Out of the blue, in the distance we saw 2 cowboys, one on either side of the highway, pointing at each other looking like maybe a gun fight, but upon a closer look, they were just very large wood cutouts of cowboys!
  • Lots of ghost towns with abandoned buildings that were once gas stations, restaurants and businesses.
  • A clustering of semi-truck cabs parked in rows way out in an empty field.
  • RV trailers scattered every so often in wide open desert, maybe dwellings or abandoned?
  • City street signs marking a potential street, but upon driving past, it would just be a one-lane dirt road leading to somewhere over the horizon?
  • Very little farming, but sadly, thousands of cows clustered in feed lots just outside of El Paso, TX. 😦

Laddering at Bandelier National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo People lived in the Frijoles Canyon thousands of years ago, using the year-round water source from the creek for farming and living in the cliff dwellings that they carved out with tools. Their grid or waffle style gardens had rock walls that released heat during the cool nights while the pumice in the soil absorbed water and slowly released it for the plants. They grew corn which was a support for beans, beans which released nitrogen into the soil and squash which provided a layer of mulch.

The highlight adventure of hiking through this canyon was climbing up to Alcove House, a cliff dwelling reached only by climbing 140 ft. up 4 long wooden ladders and numerous stone stairs!

Exploring underground at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

This was a bucket list item for me ever since I read Navada Barr’s Blind Descent 25+ years ago! Discovered in 1901 by Jim White, a cowboy who wondered if he saw smoke rising in the distance, but realized it was thousands of bats exiting a large underground cave! He lowered himself into the cave on a homemade ladder to explore the mysteries of what is today, Carlsbad Caverns.

We hiked into the natural cave entrance winding our way down 800 ft. in depth on a steep switchback paved path! It took us 2.5 hours to walk the whole route and it was spectacular! The formations are phenomenal and awe-inspiring at every glance! I was amazed by not only the length of the cave, but the immense size of the opening, especially in the “Big Room“. We used our creativity to name various otherworldly formations, imagining gigantic monsters, whale’s mouth, lion’s tail, popcorn, curtains and more! I wondered if I might feel a little claustrophobic inside, but observing the beautiful formations kept me totally captivated and when I returned to the earth’s surface, I longed to spend more time in the cave nature journaling and finding stillness in this underground world that was formed 250 million years ago! TIP: Be sure to make a reservation in advance.

Bouldering at Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas)

On the drive between Carlsbad and Las Cruces to White Sands NM, we drove through the spectacular Guadalupe Mountains! It was a welcome sight after miles of flat grassland. Our hike to Devil’s Hall had 3 distinct sections: 1) well marked path through a canyon sparsely covered by a mixture of oak, juniper, yucca and cacti. The Alligator Juniper tree caught my fascination with it’s bark structure resembling alligator’s skin! 2) the path then drops down to the floor of the main wash where we climbed over boulders, sand and rock 3) we climbed up a short, stepped section of the streamway known as the Hiker’s Staircase, where the floor is formed of many thin layers of Limestone. A short walk over boulders leads to 200-foot long Devil’s Hall, where the vertical, parallel limestone walls become just 15 feet apart! This was quite an adventure and with no turned ankles, we all loved the variety of the hiking trail!

Hiking the dunes at White Sands National Monument

Like a mirage, dazzling white sand dunes of gypsum shimmer under the desert sun; quite an unusual sight! We hiked the well-marked 5 mile Alkali Flat Trail (which was not flat at all!) up and over multiple dunes in our bare feet! The scenery was stunning and the sand was surprisingly cool just an inch or 2 below the surface. There is a lot of animal life here, but they become active at night when the air is cooler. Plants cling to harder sand in the low-lying areas where the shallow water table can rise to the surface after heavy rains.

Worth a Mention!

Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, Carlsbad: This was a wonderful way to learn about the plants and animals of the Chihuahuan Desert! The highlights were observing the energetic Roadrunners, experiencing the silent footsteps of a Cougar, the ominous reptile exhibit, the numerous outdoor desert plants, the very warm indoor greenhouse of succulents and the amazing “touch” table full of rocks, feathers, bones, dried cactus stems, antlers and more!

Botanical Gardens and BUGarium, Albuquerque: These 2 exhibits were so interesting as part of the ABQ BioPark (there is also an Aquarium). The botanical gardens feature outdoor and indoor exhibits of local plants, trees and cactus. We had so much fun walking through the BUGarium which is full of fascinating insects, arachnids and other fascinating creatures like walking sticks, tarantulas and beetles.

Natural History Museum, Albuquerque: Great exhibits on space exploration, New Mexico resources, and the dinosaur fossils!

Sandia Peak, Albuquerque: Spectacular view of Albuquerque from Sandia Peak at the top of the rugged mountains just to the east of the city! There is a tram that you can ride up from the west side or you can drive up the back of the mountain range on a good road with lots of hairpin turns! There is a view to the west and the east of the expansive desert and wide open sky! We even had paragliders floating past the viewpoint waving at us! A layer of slushy snow kept us from walking the crest trail to the tram area and also the nature trail which has informational signposts along the way about the flora and fauna at the peak.

Sandia Peak overlooking Albuquerque.


#nature #naturejournaling #newmexico #landofenchantment #desert #chihuahuandesert #cliffdwellings #carlsbadcaverns #devilshall #whitesands #adventure

6 thoughts on “New Mexico: Hiking Adventures in 4 Stunning National Parks!

  1. Hi Karen. Don’t know if this is the place for it, but I love your journaling. (if that’s not a word, it should be) You have great written skills, painting pictures so easily in the reader’s mind, which probably comes for our solid Canadian education. Of course the accompanying pictures are fun too. Who is the watercolor artist? I’m assuming it’s one of you. Thank you for sharing. I look for more.


    • Thank you so much, Carol, for your kind comments! Yes – I am the watercolor artist and nature journaler! I developed these hobbies over the past 2 years and it has become such an every day joy! Thanks for visiting my blog! ~Karen


  2. Wow! What a wonderful time you had exploring NM! I’m so happy you found this state fun and full of mystery, roads to nowhere, grand vistas, glistening sands, and underground majesty! I loved all of your sketches and photos, Karen. And your narrative was full of excellent descriptions of places you visited. Wow!


    • Thank you so much, Barb! It was a spectacular trip of adventure enjoyed by our whole family (our college aged boys as well!). You were a big part of providing such a wonderful list of places and things to do, so thank you for that, too! We’ll be back one day!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What an AMAZING trip Karen!!! Now you’ve got me dreaming of a trip there myself! Thank you for chronicling this for us— Loved this!


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