A 3-Day Road Trip From Phoenix to Big Bend

Last week, I embarked on my final adventure of the year to Big Bend National Park. Starting in Phoenix, my friend and I traveled nearly 1,000 miles in 48 hours to visit one of the most remote National Parks in the U.S. We had a wonderful time exploring Big Bend, and also paid visits to Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Park along the way.

Read on for a basic 3-day road itinerary starting in Phoenix and ending in Big Bend.

Day 1: Begin in Phoenix, visit Guadalupe Mountains (540-miles), stay in Carlsbad (50-miles)


At around sunrise, head east on US-60 towards Globe. Alternately, you can go south towards Tucson on I-10 with a similar ETA. However, I enjoyed taking this route instead because I was recently on a trip to White Sands National Monument where we took the latter.

Instead of heading straight to Carlsbad, take a small detour to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Depending on what time of the year it is, you’ll have one to three hours to explore the park.  At the suggestion of a park ranger, we did the Pinery trail, which took us to the ruins of a station built in 1858 along the Butterfield Overland Mail Route–the first transcontinental mail system. The trail was mostly paved, scenic, and only took us about 20 minutes.

We then backtracked a little and watched the sunset at Guadalupe Peak, Texas’ highest mountain at 8,749 feet.

The Trinity Hotel & Restaurant.jpg
Source: The Trinity Hotel

Before heading to your accommodation, grab some dinner in downtown Carlsbad. We dined at The Trinity Hotel & Restaurant, which is the top-rated restaurant in town. The food was decent (we both ordered spaghetti) and the service excellent. That night, we stayed in a 4-person cabin at Carlsbad KOA Holiday. Fortunately, were still able to get our keys after the reception desk had closed (which is at 7:00 pm).

The room contained one double bed, one bunk bed, two small chairs, and a heater, with the bathroom located very close by. The only downside to staying here was the strong petrochemical smell (which others have noted)–most likely a result of gas operations nearby.  However, I would still recommend this place to those planning to stay for just one or two nights.

Day 2: Continue road trip, visit Carlsbad Caverns (30-miles), stay in Terlingua (290-miles)


The next morning, drive down to Carlsbad Cavern National Park. At 8:30 sharp, my travel companion and I (plus two men we met who were coincidentally both from the same town in upstate New York) made our way through the Natural Entrance and eventually into the Big Room.

Throughout the otherwise pitch-dark cave, LEDs illuminated the Permian-age speleothems. From columns, stalactites, and stalagmites to soda straws and popcorn, the formations and descent of the cavern reminded me of how I envisioned Inferno by Dante.



Next, head south towards the Lone Star State. If time permits, take a small hike (such as the Santa Elena Canyon Trail) or watch the sunset at Big Bend National Park.

Rather than stay a campsite or at the lodge inside the park, we opted to rent a teepee from Basecamp Terlingua.  While in Terlingua, be sure to explore the Ghost Town and stop for dinner at the Starlight Theater, which is open from Sunday to Friday from 5pm–midnight. Happy hour is from 5–6 pm, where you can get $3 margaritas.

For an honest review on Basecamp, see Glamping in Big Bend Country: A Review of Basecamp Terlingua.

Day 3: Big Bend National Park (8-miles)


Spend the remainder of your trip exploring Big Bend National Park. Since we only had one day here, we left just after sunrise and spent most of the day hiking light trails and driving along the main roads of the park. During your visit, be sure to do the Santa Elena Canyon Trail and enjoy the Hot Springs.


For dinner, eat at La Kiva Restaurant and Bar. The stone walls, dinosaur decor, and caldrons, along with the eclectic music gives the semi-subterranean hideaway a warm charm. I ordered a veggie burger, which came with a side of Shiner Fries–classic french fries with Shiner Rock Beer Salt. Our food came very quickly, and both the burger and fries tasted great.

Screen Shot 2018-12-23 at 6.04.24 PM

Feel inspired to take a trip down to Big Bend country?Click here for basic driving directions on Google Maps.

For a basic one-day itinerary for inside the park, see One Day in Big Bend National Park.


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