The cities are in two different states, but are less than 45 minutes apart. El Paso is a city of about 800,000 at the western tip of Texas. Las Cruces sits just north, in southern New Mexico. At just over 100,000, it is the second largest city in the state (behind Albuquerque). Both are cities worth visiting, and are easy places for a “hub-and-spoke” approach to the region.
The southern New Mexico/west Texas region includes three national parks, some cool history, some fascinating culture, and the Mexican border. This guide will give you but a taste of what the area has to offer, and will be updated when I hopefully return next spring to fill in some blanks.
For now, please click on the links throughout the article to read more detailed stories on some of the amazing attractions in the area, and click here to see an index of all of our ultimate guides from destinations all over the world.
The Ultimate Guide to El Paso and Las Cruces!
So you want to explore the region? First you have to get here. The easiest way is to fly into El Paso. While not a large airport by any means – and it will likely require a stop at a nearby hub – flights aren’t so hard to come by. The airport is easy to navigate, isn’t too far outside the central part of the city, and, as of last time I flew through, served gigantic margaritas. That’s sort of a win. From the airport, it’s about an hour to Las Cruces, and about 15 minutes to downtown El Paso.
If you live anywhere in the remote vicinity to make it viable, you can also drive. Both Las Cruces and El Paso are on Interstate 10, which stretches from Los Angeles to Jacksonville. From my home in Los Angeles, El Paso (my base for my most recent trip; the prior one was based in Las Cruces) is about twelve hours by car. The drive is dull, flat, and relatively brown, but not bad outside of that.
If you don’t drive, you’ll need to rent a car. Yes, you can get by in El Paso via public transit (buses) or even on foot if you are staying downtown, but to explore the region, you’ll need a vehicle. The attractions we will be talking about in this guide can be 2-3 hours away by car, with no real other option of how to get there.
I was in El Paso in May, and it was warm (95-100 Fahrenheit). However, being both a lazy jerk who needs to walk more and an apparent glutton for punishment, I chose to walk most places around downtown from my Airbnb about a half mile north. I enjoyed it, although people always seemed surprised when I said that I had walked to meet them. I guess there isn’t much of a walking culture here, even though it is easily my preferred way to see a city core, especially one as flat as this one.
Where to Stay
Let’s start with the obvious: pick a home base in either El Paso or Las Cruces. If you want luxury hotels, El Paso has the iconic Plaza (formerly the Hilton) or the Hotel Paso del Norte, both downtown just off San Jacinto Plaza. If you prefer a budget hotel, both cities have the entire gamut, offering a variety of price ranges, locations, and affiliated chains. For a longer stay, you can opt for an Airbnb as I did.
It is important to note that, if you choose to see both of these cities and the entire region, you can get by with just staying at one and not moving, provided you are ok with some long days in the car. If you prefer, you can also move around, staying in both El Paso and Las Cruces, and even adding a night in Alamogordo (closest to White Sands National Park) or Carlsbad (closest to Carlsbad Caverns National Park).
What to Do
Let’s start with El Paso. History buffs can spend a few hours on the El Paso Mission Trail, seeing three different Spanish missions to the southeast of the city. (Click here to read about the El Paso Mission Trail.) Other must-see attractions are the best view of the city (especially at sunset) at one of the lookouts off Scenic Drive, the Centennial Museum at UTEP – the campus itself is quite gorgeous – and Chamizal National Memorial. There are plenty of other museums, and most are free, as well as a lot of hiking spots just outside the city, although I haven’t done most of them yet.
As for Las Cruces, the highlight is Old Mesilla, one of the original towns in the area. It is a pleasant place to walk among the Wild West era buildings, with a lot of shopping as well. Las Cruces also has a railroad museum and a heritage ranch that I am told is awesome, especially for families. (We will update you on those when our writer Tamara heads to Las Cruces this fall with her family of five.)
If you like national parks – and let’s face it, who doesn’t – the region has three. White Sands is about an hour from Las Cruces or two hours from El Paso, and features the largest field of gypsum sand dunes in the world. Rent a sled and spend a day walking and sliding. (Click here to read about White Sands from my perspective, or here to read about it from that of our writer Christian.) Carlsbad Caverns National Park is one of the most beautiful cave systems on the planet. Even if you don’t like caves, this one doesn’t feel cramped; indeed you can fly an airplane through the aptly named Big Room. 2.5 hours from El Paso or three from Las Cruces will see you to the entrance, but remember that you’ll need timed entry ahead of time. (Click here to read about Carlsbad Caverns National Park.) Finally, there is Guadalupe Mountains National Park. While the majority is only reachable by backpacking in and out, the highway between Carlsbad Caverns and El Paso passes through a corner of the park. Get out and stretch on a nice little nature trail with gorgeous views of Texas’ highest peaks. (Click here to read about Guadalupe Mountains.)
Finally, it would be a mistake to visit the border area without experiencing the border. Take a day and cross into Juarez. Yes it is safe, especially with a guide. (Click here to read about a day trip to Juarez.) And pay attention to the border itself. While the media sensationalizes everything, the crossing between El Paso and Juarez is one of the most important economic and political points in the country. (Click here to read about the border from my experience.)
This is by no means a full list. But I can’t recommend things I haven’t yet done. So as I or my writers return to the area, we will add to this guide with more recommended experiences.
What to Eat
El Paso is the only place outside of Mexico that has tacos as good as those in Los Angeles, in my experience. (I realize this is a bold statement, but I stand by it.) I had tacos pretty much every night this trip. I can recommend the following: Taconeta, Tacos Chinampa, and Elemi. Chinampa is the cheapest, then Taconeta, with Elemi being upscale indulgent and fairly expensive. All are awesome, as I’m sure are more than a dozen other places that I didn’t get to try.
A quick note here on the iconic Texas burger chain, Whataburger. It made for great takeout to take to Scenic Drive. Solid fast food burgers, especially the green chile one, although it pales in comparison to my state’s In N Out. I didn’t get a chance to try a Dr. Pepper milkshake, and I am both intrigued and a little disgusted by the concept.
As for Las Cruces, New Mexico has its own cuisine, and you just have to experience it to fully understand. My favorite meal was at La Posta in Old Mesilla, and if you go, have the spicy green chile and try the margarita flight. (Click here to read about La Posta de Mesilla.) New Mexico is famous for chile, and just outside Las Cruces is Hatch, the central point for all things chile in the state. While I prefer green chile, others like red, and that debate will continue for the rest of time. (Click here to read about Hatch and New Mexico chiles.)
The moral of the story: this is a good region for food. Enjoy!
Other Useful Information
Weather is an issue here, to be sure. Summers are hot and dry, and having enough water with you is important even if you are just driving. Winters can be cold, but still dry. And while I didn’t experience any, the numerous highway signs warning of huge dust storms must mean that they are not infrequent. Be aware of what to do. (The signs say to pull over and turn off your lights and flashers, lest someone behind you think the shoulder is a lane and plow into you.)
Politics is one of the first things people think of, especially as it pertains to Texas. El Paso is a blue oasis in the bright red of the western portion of the state. I saw more pride flags than Trump flags. So yes, you’re still in Texas and subject to their ridiculous zealot-esque laws, but you won’t feel it on the street. (Click here for an article I wrote called Reconciling Texas, where I talk about the political climate.)
A note on the border: highways in El Paso end in Mexico. Pay attention to signs, as missing a turnoff can lead you to cross the border inadvertently. And carry your passport just in case.
It seems this has become a focal region for us at The Royal Tour. This was my second trip to the area, Tamara will be going in fall, and I may be going again next spring. While that might seem like a lot, I can assure you that not only have I had a blast on my trips, but that even with a few more I still won’t have seen or done everything worth seeing and doing. So many people simply view this region as one to pass through. That’s a mistake. Stop, spend a few days – or more – and experience the natural beauty, incredible food, lovely people, fascinating culture, and deep issues of the El Paso/Las Cruces area. You won’t regret it.
Thank you to both Visit Las Cruces and Destination El Paso for welcoming me, for hosting some of my experiences, and for your openness at having me back.
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