If you’re not from the Southwest, then being stationed at one of the many military installations in this region of the United States may feel like a completely different experience than the home you're used to. Desert landscapes, dry climate, and an abundance of spices in regional cooking is an adventure and change for those of us used to being surrounded by trees and water.
West Texas, New Mexico, and Southeast Arizona are home to several Army and Air Force bases, but also are overflowing with desert, mountains, and National Parks, only taking a few hours to drive from one beautiful type of landscape to the next, rich with the culture of the borderlands.
10 Amazing Travel Destinations in the Southwestern U.S.
1) Chiricahua National Monument
With scenic drives and hiking trails through the mountains, the rock displays at Chiricahua in Southeast Arizona will amaze you. Geologic features formed by volcanic eruptions, lava flows, and erosion looks like giants playing with huge rocks to the delight of children and adults.
Sweeping views of rock formations formed over millions of years.
2) Saguaro National Park
The farthest west on this list, Saguaro National Park (the “g” in sagauro is pronounced as a “w”) is the place to see the cactus you expect when you think of American desert. Located in Tucson, this park is home to towering Saguaro cacti, desert wildlife, and beautiful vistas. Families should check out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson for more information on the region and a very cool indoor playground where you take on the views of a packrat, including an outlook to the desert.
A towering Saguaro cactus as a summer thunderstorm rolls in at the east section of the park.
3) Desert Dunes Day Trip
The rolling sand dunes of the typical American desert cannot prepare you for the sights of White Sands National Monument. The white gypsum dunes are cool to the touch and ready for hiking and sledding. The heat and winds can be difficult here, so check the weather before your trip, but families can enjoy sledding as well as sunset views and peeks at wildlife like roadrunners and lizards.
One last time down the hill before the park closes.
4) From Desert to Mountain Forest in One Trip
The areas surrounding Albuquerque and Santa Fe, NM, are rife with things to do and see throughout the year, including museums, a zoo, local art, and historic missions. Thanks to the mountains of the Cibola National Forest, you can also wind your way through several climates dependent upon your elevation. In the winter, enjoy a desert hike to see the Petroglyph National Monument or drive higher for snow in the Sandia peak area, where there’s a tramway for the more adventurous.
5) A Nostalgic Drive in the Woods
The Lincoln National Forest covers a large area of land throughout New Mexico. During the holiday season, purchase a Christmas Tree permit to find your own evergreen and visit Cloudcroft for seasonal festivities. Or, plan a trip to a more northern area and stop to visit the Smokey the Bear Museum, grave, and gift shop in Capitan, NM, where he was found as a cub after the Capitan Gap wildfire. Continue your drive to Lincoln, NM, where you can visit the museum and many historic buildings that tell the story of the Lincoln County War.
6) Gila Cliff Dwellings
After a winding drive away through the Gila National Forest in NM, pausing at lookouts to admire beautiful forests, mountains, and wildlife, you will not be disappointed by a hike to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Marvel at the engineering feat of the Mogollon people that dwelled here for a short time, respectfully exploring the various rooms built into the cliff face through steps and ladders.
7) The Franklin Mountains
For soldiers and their families stationed at Ft. Bliss, the view of the Franklin Mountains are an everyday occurrence. However, by paying use fees or purchasing an annual Texas State Parks Pass, hiking trails, camping opportunities, and even rock climbing become available.
McKelligon Canyon and the Tom Mays Unit are popular destinations for local hiking throughout the year. The Mt. Cristo Rey Restoration Committee runs annual hikes during holy days to allow hiking where it is not normally allowed or suggested to see the monument in Sunland Park, NM.
Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site offers self-guided views of this desert oasis and pictographs for a limited number of people each day. Events with park rangers are offered throughout the year, both during the day and for nighttime stargazing.
A hike to the top of Mt. Cristo Rey on Good Friday.
8) Chamizal National Monument
Located around 10 minutes from Ft. Bliss and within sight of the U.S.-Mexico border, Chamizal tells the story of the borderlands through a museum, art installations, and as a venue for performances. The national monument and beautiful urban park commemorates the settlement of a border dispute at the location.
9) Carlsbad Caverns and the Guadalupe Mountains
Located very close to one another, explore deep caverns in NM and climb the highest peak in Texas all in one trip. The Guadalupe Mountains provide an abundance of outdoor recreation. To explore the caves at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, take the elevator down or, for a more strenuous hike, walk through the natural entrance. Memorial Day weekend through October, stay for the bat flight program to watch the awesome sight of bats leaving to hunt, but please leave your camera and electronics behind for the safety of the bats, and instead sit back and watch in awe.
10) Big Bend National Park
Following the border and the Rio Grande, the sprawling Big Bend National Park is home to scenic drives and hikes, fossils, water rafting, and dark skies for stargazing. Out of the way of big cities, stay in the park lodge or campgrounds or at one of the hotels or campgrounds in neighboring towns.
Several places to stay include quirky accommodations such as retro RVs, teepees, luxury cottages, or even a bubble house! Don’t expect to stay connected to your phone; out of the way, this is the place for connecting with nature.
Trip photos courtesy author Meredith Flory.