We had been living in El Paso for the past 4 years while I finished my medical training. I wish I could say we did all of the possible exploring while we were there, but the truth is we did MOST of it in the last 3 months we were there. However there are some underrated places that are a MUST see while in the southwest region. There’s a lot of other wonderful places to visit but these were my absolute favorite places we visited. Over the last few years we developed a love for visiting national parks. It really started when we visited Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona where we saw a small Passport book in the gift shop. Since then, we have become obsessed with visiting National Parks and collecting the stamps!
Most people recommend the most classic spots like Horshoe Bend, Arches National Park, and the Grand Canyon, among other. But in this post I will give you my 6 underrated MUST see places in the southwest.
1. Big Bend National Park
Since we moved to El Paso a couple of our good friends are avid hikers and they had RAVED about Big Bend National Park, among others. So on a random Monday in May my husband found a deal near Big Bend and bought it on the spot. It was a one night stay in the AMAZING Basecamp Terlingua Bubbles! It was insane since I was on night float at that time. So, that Friday I got home, slept 4 hours, and then we drove 5+ hours from El Paso to the Terlingua camp. We spent a beautiful night under the stars in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert.
As for the Terlingua Camp Bubbles, HIGHLY recommend it. I waited almost 2 years to be able to go and it was a lucky find on the spot. However, it was 100% worth the wait. After waking up with a beautiful sunrise, we had some food and coffee and we made our way to Big Bend. Let me sat the park is HUGE. Needless to say one day is certainly NOT enough. I recommend at least 3 full days at the park. However, MUST see areas I think are the Santa Elena Canyon and the Window/Chisos Basin. The drives around the park to get from one area to the next have INCREDIBLE views. Also recommend stopping at all the visitor centers/viewpoints.
So, I think of all the places on this list, Big Bend National Park might be one of the most amazing places to visit in the Southwest! Bonus is that to get there, you pass through Alpine and Marfa which are beautiful small towns in southwest Texas. For these and manu more reasons, Big Bend tops this list of underrated places you must see in the southwest.
2. White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is the only place on this list we went to multiple times. This was the first National Park we went to and it was a breathtaking experience. Out of the 4 times I went, the first one was by FAR my favorite. We went with my cousin, who lived in Albuquerque at the time, and we arrived to the park almost at sunset. I can genuinely say, that has been the one of the most beautiful sunset I have ever witnessed. Yes. Even more beautiful than in California and even some in Puerto Rico! In addition to watching the sunset, we had TONS of funs taking the sleds and going down the dunes. A MUST when you visit!
The other times we went it was still beautiful and breathtaking but nothing like that beautiful sunset. Another recommendation is to take off your shoes and feel the sand between your toes. Double win, ultimate relaxation AND natural exfoliant! The dunes are endless and there are many trails available. By far the biggest regret I have was not being able to make their Full Moon tour. Every month during the Spring/Summer they do there Full Moon hikes and it sounds absolutely amazing. Definitely a bucket list item! Do I need to list more reasons why this park made the MUST see underrated places in the southwest list?
3. Carlsbad Caverns
This national park is another breathtaking experience. If you are anything like me, then you just fawn over the grandiosity of mother nature and it’s creations. To think that the stunning formations are just pure science, history, and nature at work is incredible. Carlsbad Caverns is another MUST see place. As with most national parks they have different tours/options available. They currently have the main self guided tour and the King’s Palace tour. We wanted to do the King’s Palace, but it was sold out. Thus we went on the self guided tour and it was still absolutely amazing. In addition to the tours, the have the Bat Flight Program which is around sunset and it allows visitors to see the thousands of bats come out from the caverns.
For the self guided tour you have 2 options: Walk IN or Walk Out. They do have an elevator that takes you directly from the lobby to the main cavern which you can also use BUT let me tell you seeing the entrance of the cavern is worth the walk. However, unless you are an avid hiker and are in excellent shape, I recommend walking IN and taking the elevator out. Walking in I would say is an experience in and of itself because not only do you see the natural entrance and formations outside of the main chamber, but you also get to take in how majestic this place is. Thus, no wonder this park made my MUST see underrated places in the southwest.
4. Gila National Forest
Out of all the places on this list, this one is the saddest one. It is also the only location we did not fully explore due to time and unforeseen circumstances (aka massive forest fire). Although not a national park, Gila National Forest is the 6th largest forest in the continental US. In addition to being a huge wilderness sanctuary, the protected lands include hiking trails, camping sites, a lake, and even historical site like the Cliff Dwellings National Monument. We visited the forest and drove through mani miles or protected land to get to the Cliff Dwelling but we were greeted with a massive thunderstorm that closed the monument. Thus, we could not check THAT off of the bucket list.
We then had plans to spend a weekend camping at Gila National Forest in early June but a massive wildfire broke out and ruined our plans. However, the time we drove through the forest it was absolutely magical and with so many different activities available I HAD to put it on my underrated places you MUST see in the southwest list.
5. Hueco Tanks
Hueco Tanks is a State Park rather than a National Park. I must say that this one surprised me the most out of all of the places on this list. On the surface it is a state park with giant rocks and boulders. But in reality, it is an incredibly surprising habitat. Hidden within the boulders is an oasis. When you find it, it almost feels like you are being transported into a different place. Imagine being in the middle of a HUGE desert/mountain ecosystem, aka El Paso, then all of a sudden you find green trees, grass, and a pond! It is truly a sight to be seen. The pictures do NOT do it justice.
Similar to Carlsbad Caverns, Hueco Tanks has self guided and ranger guided experiences. Even though we did the self guided, I HIGHLY recommend the guided tours as they will give you the most complete experience of this incredible place. And the rangers there know where all the cool hieroglyphs are, so you don’t struggle to find them!The areas we explored were incredible, so I can only imagine the other areas and pictographs. Because of its unique experience and that oasis, this state park is on my must see underrated places in the southwest.
6. Saguaro National Park
Finally, the one that started a new chapter of our lives, Saguaro National Park. This is another park I wish we had been able to explore more but it is MASSIVE. There are SO many trails it is difficult to figure out which ones to do. In addition, the HEAT in Tucson is REAL, especially in the summer months. Anyway, the park is definitely a sight to see. It is one thing to see pictures or to imagine what acres of cacti will look like, but it is an entirely different thing to stand in the midst of thousands of Saguaro Cacti. It is another one of those “mother nature is incredible” moments because you have these cacti that are growing to enormous heights, with multiple arms, in the desert.
Although the picture we took are not the most “IG worthy” I think they capture the emotion of the experience and the grandiosity of this national park. Also, their visitor’s center is pretty cool and they have awesome goodies! I am definitely a sucker for gift shops. I hope we get another chance to go to Saguaro National Park again, but in case I don’t I wanted to remember this awesome trip.
It is safe to say me and the husband have begun enjoying everything the National Parks Service has to offer. It not only fuels or travel bug/wanderlust, but it brings me joy to know we are connecting with nature and helping conservation efforts at the same time. Even though it took us 4 years and the pressure of moving from the mountains to the east coast, we enjoyed every single moment. And I hope you will too! If this inspires you to visit any of these places I would love to see it, so remember to follow me on Instagram @living_md!
With fall fast approaching, it means the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is almost here. It is another HIGHLY recommended activity in the southwest. We went in 2018 and you can learn more about my experience HERE. Also I created a quick Southwest Travel Guide to help you plan your trip to the southwest region with these and some other places to check out. Get it here!
Do you have any other recommendations for those visiting or in the southwest? Let us know in the comments!
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