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White Sands National Monument, New Mexico (ebettini/iStockPhoto)
Road trips are opportunities to get off the beaten path, to travel along slower roads through small towns you might otherwise have skipped. While driving from Austin, Texas, to the Grand Canyon, I passed through South Eastern New Mexico, and in the spirit of the scenic detour I stopped at three unique places. It turned out to be a great decision: they were only an hour or two apart (you could easily cover them over a weekend or on a single, action-packed day), and they thoroughly stunned me with their beauty and weirdness. If you've got some free time and a taste for the unusual, treat yourself to a drive that takes you from natural to supernatural and back again.
Carlsbad Caverns (David Parsons/iStockPhoto)
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
To reach Carlsbad Caverns, you'll take a picturesque mountain road that culminates—somewhat anticlimactically—in a parking lot. Don't be deterred by the seemingly unremarkable location: below your feet lies a subterranean world of more than one hundred limestone caves. The principal attraction here is the Big Room, an eerily beautiful 8.2 acre chasm that could have been a set from the Lord of the Rings movies.
It is, by volume, the biggest single-cave chamber on the continent, and you'll need several hours to properly explore its dripping stalactites, liquid pools, and cloth-like folds of rock. As you descend along the footpath from daylight to darkness, you may notice an acrid smell. A colony of bats resides here in the warmer months, and at dusk you can watch hundreds of thousands of them fly out to feed.
International UFO Museum and Research Center (via Facebook)
Roswell, New Mexico
Most people had never heard of this city until the Roswell Incident of 1947, when a rancher found unusual metal and other debris on his property. Staff from a nearby military base were sent to clean it up and later claimed it was a fallen weather balloon, but a conspiracy theory endures to this day that what really happened was a UFO crash and subsequent government cover-up. The city is now a bastion of gloriously hokey alien-themed tourism centered around the low-rent International UFO Museum and Research Center.
Newspaper clippings and all-caps exhibit placards cover the walls, explaining unexplained phenomena like crop circles and Area 51. Dated-looking flying saucer models and large-headed aliens on operating tables provide glorious photo ops for believers and skeptics alike.
The best time to visit is during the annual Roswell UFO Festival in July, when the museum hosts panel discussions and talks such as "Sensual Alien Encounters" and "Xenoarchaeology: The Science of Hunting Alien Artifacts".
White Sands National Monument (David Parsons/iStockPhoto)
White Sands National Monument
Whatever your thoughts on extraterrestrials, it's not hard to imagine you're on a different planet when wandering through the otherworldly landscape of White Sands. The world's largest gypsum dunefield is something that must be seen to be believed: 275 square miles of impossibly white, constantly shifting sand stretching as far as the eye can see.
The dunes can reach a height of 60 feet and the mineral sand (technically calcium sulfate dihydrate) remains cool in the desert heat, making this an ideal place for sledding and barefoot exploration. It's also a shutterbug's paradise, especially at sunset, when it is basically impossible to take a bad photograph. For the ultimate wannabe Nat Geo shot, sign up in advance for a ranger-guided full moon hike to watch the sun set and the moon rise over the ethereal dunescape.
Sarah Theeboom writes about food, travel, lifestyle and culture. Follow her @sarahtheeboom.