January Getaway in Big Bend and White Sands National Parks

Nothing screams Happy New Year like an honest to goodness January getaway. After all of the hustle and chaos of the holiday months, you owe it to yourself to step out and get away. And some destinations were just meant for January travel. Two of those spots for us were Big Bend National Park in Texas and White Sands National Park in New Mexico. We had amazing weather and very few crowds. I cannot recommend a January getaway to Big Bend and White Sands enough.

wide sweeping view of Big Bend National Park from a high view with blue skies, sunshine, and clouds in the distance. choppy mountains in the middle and desert landscape in the foreground
man with winter hat and vest and backpack on facing away from the camera looking at the colorful sunset across White Sands National Park sand dunes

Where to start your getaway to Big Bend & White Sands

Let’s assume that you have a window of time to travel to these two amazing National Parks. Your best jumping off point for a getaway to Big Bend and White Sands is going to be from El Paso, Texas. El Paso has an international airport and is situated to give you the best and fastest driving conditions to get to these parks.

Having said that, this will partly be a road trip. But don’t lose heart because this is actually a really good driving road trip. I mostly expected this to be an uninteresting and monotonous road trip, but I was completely wrong. You will be delighted with the surrounding landscape as you drive to both parks. Big Bend is about 4.5-5 hours driving distance from El Paso, depending on which park entrance you use and where exactly in the park you are headed. White Sands is approximately 1.5 hours drive from El Paso. To combine these parks, you will pass through El Paso again as you connect the two.

man standing with t shirt and backpack looking away from the camera and toward the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park

Driving on your January Getaway to Big Bend & White Sands

If these destinations are an add-on to another road trip or are part of a long-haul slow travel gig, then you can start at one and end at the other. There are plenty of other amazing spots to smush together to make an incredible road trip. Check out Guadeloupe mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, San Antonio, Austin, Tucson, Saguaro National Park and more.

I do have a suggestion to make about what type of vehicle you use to visit these destinations. If you like to adventure travel and you like to get off the beaten path, you will need a high clearance vehicle and even a 4 wheel drive vehicle to get the most out of your January getaway. Yes, you are in a high desert, but the rains in winter can change the paths of the waterways. Many of the most beautiful areas in Big Bend National Park especially cannot be experienced from the immediate park roads. You will want to get off on the rougher roads to do the special things.

Why a January getaway?

The truth is that you can visit these parks in spring, winter, and fall and have a wonderful time. But I think taking time for a January getaway to decompress is the best. And we had really great weather while we were there. The mornings and evenings were quite cool, but the sunshine in the day warmed things up considerably and the temps were perfect for hiking and activity. Look to travel between the months of October-April for maximum comfort.

a view of the Rio Grande from a high vantage point looking down at the river bank and cliffs on a nice sunny day. the water has a green hue and the blue skies have whispy clouds

What to do in Big Bend on your January getaway

Hike the Trails

There are a bunch of trails to choose from in all corners of the park. Plan your days around what area of the park you will be in and pick a hike or two in a variety of spots. Remember, you don’t have to bag peaks for a hike to be great. Some of the hikes that I recommend near Chisos Basin are the Lost Mine Trail, the South Rim, and the Window Trail. The Grapevine Hills Trail and Trail to Balanced Rock are awesome, but you will have to off road to get there.

a high vantage point looking over the Rio Grande from a hiking trail in Big Bend National Park. man drinking from a water bottle in the foreground, looking away from the camera and toward the river

The Boquillas Canyon Trail is a bit boring, but quick. Two better hikes along the Rio Grande are the Hot Springs Canyon Trail and the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. All of these hikes are under 8 miles and can be done easily as day hikes, rated as moderate. Although the hot springs can be reached by just driving in, the hike gives you epic views of the Rio Grande from above and it is truly a fabulous 6 mile hike. However, do NOT attempt this hike in the summer months as it will be too hot. On our January getaway the temperatures reached in the low 80’s with lots of sunshine and we had both had 64 oz of water that we completely consumed by the time we returned.

a man looking at the camera in a canyon hiking amongst rocky cliffs. stairs made of rock along the hiking trail. the sun is shining, but the man looks chilly with a vest and long sleeves on

Go off road with your vehicle

Take a little extra time to go off road with your appropriate vehicle. You will have a blast bumping over dirt roads while you work around divots and mounds. The places you will see away from the crowds will be absolutely worth it. Give yourself plenty of time to do this. An 8 mile drive to the Balanced Rock trailhead can easily take 30-45 minutes. If you are unsure of navigating this type of adventure, make sure you leave to return to the main road before the sun goes down completely.

a man and woman standing under a rock formation where a large rock is balanced between other rock formations, forming a window of sorts to a high a vantage point in Big Bend National Park

Stay out past dark

Big Bend is an official International Dark Sky Park. That means it possesses and exceptional quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is protected for our enjoyment. It. Is. Wow. There is so little light pollution and so little hindering the views of the incredible night sky. There are no bad spots to do this unless you are walking on dark roads or parked in a precarious location. Pull all the way off the road and keep a headlamp with you if you need to be seen by others. But there are plenty of spots to safely park and sit for awhile as the stars truly engulf you. Make every effort to position yourself to settle in and absorb the night skies while you’re in Big Bend.

Take a scenic drive

When I said this is good driving, I really meant it. Driving through Big Bend you will have eye candy all around as the high desert meets the mountain ranges and then plummets into canyons. During a January getaway give yourself several hours to make your way across the scenic byway and down to Santa Elena Canyon. Stop at the pull offs for the highest views and take extra time down in the canyon. Most importantly make sure you have plenty of gas as there are no fuel options in this part of the park.

Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park from a low vantage point close to the river. water is high so there are no river banks visible, just rock cliffs up the canyon walls. water looks green hued

Get on or in the water

You might wonder what water? Well, one of the main borders of Big Bend National Park is the natural border of the Rio Grande. One of the activities that most will try to do while at Big Bend is to hire either a kayak or rafting guide to take you on part of the Rio Grande. It is a special way to experience this beautiful wonder. Our time did not allow for this, as in January there were limited options for tours. I wish we had planned ahead a little better to make this happen. Don’t be like us. Plan ahead!

Another great way to experience the Rio Grande is to dip your toes in. I’ll be frank here. It’s cold. Even in the hottest months of the summer, this water will be cold as it never stops running. Head over to Boquillas Canyon, Santa Elena Canyon, or the Hot Springs area for the safe options of getting in the water. I got really warm hiking to the hot springs, so before I relaxed in the springs, I did a polar plunge in the river. It was awesome. I had a great time moving between the frigid Rio Grande and the blissfully warm springs.

sweeping view of the Rio Grande where it meets with natural hot springs that have been walled off for enjoying

Know before your getaway in Big Bend

Big Bend is far everything and close to nothing. You will need to keep an eye on your fuel tank, make sure you have plenty of water to drink, and bring snacks along. On top of that, there is only one lodge, at Chisos Basin, inside the park and everything else is FAR outside the park. Plan accordingly to do a lot of driving, or spend one to two nights at the lodge and another night or two in a gateway town like Lajitas or Alpine. Both towns have additional lodging and food options, but are at least one hour outside the park. I do think, though, making a night happen in one of these spots when you are done in the park is worthwhile if you have the time to make it work because there is just so much driving that you do.

What to do in White Sands on your January getaway

First I want to encourage you to set your expectations with this park. There is not a lot to DO here. But I can promise that if you make the effort to go, you will never forget it. It’s one of those unique places in the U.S. that takes some effort to get there, but no one really regrets it. You only need a few hours inside the park because there won’t be too much to keep you occupied.

up close photo of sand dunes at white sands national park. the sand looks like waves that have likely been created from the wind showing a pattern of wavy lines across the bright white sand

Climb the sand dunes

As you drive through the park you will see various pull offs where you can park and claim a spot to climb up the sand dunes and sled down. Surprisingly the sand is quite cool (at least in January) because it holds water in it. So it’s a bit damp and cool and can be slightly sticky. You will oooh and ahhh as you get to the higher points on the dunes. As you look out across the horizon, you will see white sand dunes in all directions and a massive mountain range as a backdrop. It is pretty incredible.

man atop the sand dunes at white sands national park holding a red sled and looking at the camera

Play and goof off on your White Sands getaway

Bring some games to play while you’re up there. We saw people playing bocce ball having a super fun time together. Take a frisbee or spikeball set if you can swing it. Just enjoy the freedom of being outside and away from screens and real life for awhile. No cell signal means you are unaware of what you’re missing anyway. There’s nothing like it!

man giving the "rock on" signs with his hands looking at the camera smiling atop White Sands National Park

Do the sunset ranger guided walk

Each day there should be a ranger guided walk offered at sunset. You will learn about the history of the park, the flora and fauna, and other interesting facts. Dress accordingly for a desert temperature drop when the sun begins to set. On our January getaway to Big Bend and White Sands the temps dropped more than 20 degrees from the middle of the day to last light when the parks closed.

sunset view across white sands national park with the sky aglow in a purple haze hue

Take pictures on your January getaway

White Sands National Park is a photographer’s dreamland. But even if you are just a novice you will capture some incredible photos. Although you can never really capture the real essence of this kind of beauty, you will have the memories locked in forever.

a man bundled up in a winter hat and vest and the sunset behind him at White Sands National Park

Know before your getaway to White Sands National Park

Stop at the visitor center to check the weather conditions and rent/buy a sand sled. If the wind is kicking the day you are there, you need to protect yourself or you will be miserable. Sunglasses and sunscreen are a must even if it’s partly sunny. The reflection off the white grains of sand make this the brightest place I’ve ever been.

Another pro tip regarding your visit to White Sands is to check ahead on the missile testing schedule. IF there is missile testing going on, the highway leading to White Sands and the park itself will be closed down while testing is going on. When I asked about it at the visitor center, there is usually a two week notice. Know they can do it at any time they want, but best to check ahead.

Where to stay near White Sands National Park

Not too far from the park entrance is the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico. It’s a rather big town with a strong U.S. military presence. So, you will have plenty of lodging and restaurant options to choose from. If you are keen to make it back to El Paso that same day, it will take you about 1.5 hours to get to the city. We stayed at the Hotel Indigo in El Paso on our first night, but the Plaza Hotel is the perfect spot to end your trip on a high note. We typically love to end our active vacations with a high end stay, but we did not have the timing worked out this trip and stayed in Alamogordo our final night.

January Getaways

It’s no secret that we love to get away from home for a bit in January. It’s a good reset time for us and John and I get to dream and plan together. Our typical getaway usually involves activity during the day, a nice meal at night and an early bedtime so we can be up with the sun in the mornings. A January getaway to Big Bend and White Sands has been on our bucket list for awhile and we are so glad we made it happen. Now to plan for next year!

If you’re looking for more inspiration on great January getaways, take a look

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