A Monumental Road Trip through New Mexico’s National Monuments

From ancient natural wonders to Native American and Southwestern culture, to scenic vistas and alien lore, New Mexico is one of the most wonderfully unique destinations in America

Road trips have the unique ability to make you feel like you’ve thoroughly explored a region on a Lewis and Clark-esque journey. In reality, even the most extensive road trips leave many stones unturned especially in states with seemingly limitless natural beauty. New Mexico would probably take months on the road to fully explore. That’s okay. You don’t have to see every inch of New Mexico on one tank of fuel but the state’s famous national monuments are a good place to start.

Albuquerque from Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In fact, only California and Arizona have more national monuments and that’s not even counting New Mexico’s historic parks. Rather than visit all 11 national monuments we’ve listed our favorites among them which will give you a feel for what makes this state’s geography so unique and memorable. Whether it’s a volcanic field or a white-sand desert, New Mexico’s unusual landscapes are just waiting to be visited. Here’s how to plan the perfect New Mexico road trip through its epic national monuments.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Albuquerque to rock carvings

Road trips might be about the journey rather than the destination but no one wants to wait too long before stopping at their first viewpoint or reaching the first stop on their itinerary. When you set out from Albuquerque you’ll only have to wait mere minutes before seeing your first national monument.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Technically located within the city limits of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument stretches 17 miles along Albuquerque’s West Mesa. Petroglyphs are rock carvings where drawings are made by chiseling on the outer layer of the stone to expose the paler rock underneath. One of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, this area features designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks 400 to 700 years ago by Native Americans and Spanish settlers. The symbols give you a window into the life of a centuries-old civilization and serve as a record of cultural expression.

There are also four different hiking trails just a short drive from the information center ranging in length from one to four miles roundtrip. Three of these trails allow for petroglyph viewing. To see the area is less time and then continue on your journey, consider mountain biking. Bikes are permitted on the Boca Negra Canyon multi-use path.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head to the headlands

About two hours west of Duke City, El Morro begs the traveler—ancient and modern—to rest awhile. This national monument is an area both of scenic beauty and historic significance. The bluff (el morro means “the headland” in Spanish) has a reliable source of water making it a great base for ancestral Puebloans and a good stopping point for both Spanish and American travelers. Along the path, only a half mile long and perfect for the casual visitor, are ancient petroglyphs as well as inscriptions from Spanish conquistadors as early as 1605 and, more recently, American travelers passing through in the 1850s.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico’s volcanic landscape

From El Morro, your route continues back toward Albuquerque and it’s worth the detour to head to El Malpais National Monument. The rough lava landscape so scarred by its volcanic history that “malpaís” in fact means “badland.” Like El Morro, the landscape is quite barren though there is evidence of prior volcanic activity including several lava tubes you can explore.  Even though these badlands cover a large area you can see much of it by following the main park road. Numerous hikes and longer treks are available. Malpais is certainly worth a visit.

White Sands National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South to the white desert

Since you’re half way to the border of Arizona at this point, it’s time to turn around and head south. But we’re not stopping at Albuquerque. We’re passing your starting point by about four hours (250 miles) to White Sands National Park taking Interstate 25 south to Las Cruces and US-70 northeast.

At the end of 2019, White Sands was designated a national park—but it was a national monument for 86 years. It’s on the itinerary because you haven’t really seen the New Mexico desert until you’ve seen White Sands, a remarkable place that looks like the Sahara Desert collided with the Alabama Gulf Coast. That’s because its sand is made of gypsum, a mineral salt left by a long-lost lake tens of millions of years ago.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located at the southern edge of a 275-square-mile dune field in the Tularosa Basin, the monument is best explored by the eight-mile Dunes Drive from the visitor center into the heart of the rippled gypsum knolls. In addition to driving the alien terrain you can also get out and cycle, take advantage of picnic areas, or even camp under the stars. Indeed, backcountry camping sites among the dunes are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

There are five hiking trails through the park ranging from the half-mile Playa Trail focusing on outdoor educational exhibits to the more strenuous Alkali Flat Trail, a five-mile round trip hike taking you to the edge of Lake Otero. Despite its name, the trail is not flat taking you over steep dunes and into the heart of the spectacular park.

Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From delicate dunes to craggy peaks

To cap off your New Mexico road trip, travel south to Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument. A stark departure from the flat, arid landscape that has defined much of this road trip, this area is home to dramatic ranges with rocky spires and the park is full of open woodlands with towering ponderosa pines.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The monument includes the Organ Mountains, Doña Ana Mountains, Sierra de las Uvas Mountains Complex, and the Greater Potrillo Mountains. The Organ Mountains are defined by their angular peaks, narrow canyons, and views of the Chihuahuan Desert habitat. It’s popular among horseback riders, mountain bikers, campers, and hikers. The Doña Ana Mountains have an abundance of hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking trails as well as rock climbing routes. The more remote Potrillo Mountains comprise a volcanic landscape including lava flows and craters.

Before driving back to Albuquerque, consider spending an evening in Las Cruces to explore Historic Mesilla and savor the area’s Hatch Valley chile peppers in one of its tempting green chile burgers—or even in a sweet frozen custard.

La Posta in Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

The Mind-Blowing Enchantment of New Mexico: San Antonio & Bosque del Apache

Most enchanting places in New Mexico for your bucket list

The Land of Enchantment, the state motto of New Mexico, is certainly an apt description of a state with diverse landscape and population. This is a state in which the air is crisp, the water fresh, and the people warm and friendly. 

Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We begin in New Mexico’s largest city, Albuquerque. Albuquerque and its suburbs have a vibrant, growing population just shy of one million residents. It is a sprawling, picturesque city, with the stunning Sandia Mountains constraining it on the east, Petroglyph National Monument to the west and the Rio Grande River meandering through its center. 

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual event held in early October. This nine day celebration hosts over 500 balloons each year and is the largest hot air balloon festival in the world.

Plaza de Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Journey 50 miles north and you arrive in Santa Fe, a world renowned city with shops, historic churches, art galleries, restaurants, and inns. Well known for its artists, cowboys, and Native American influence, Santa Fe is a melting pot of culture and ideas.

Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The commuter rail system, the Rail Runner Express offers a convenient, comfortable, and affordable excursion from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.
Today’s journey takes us in the opposite direction. We’ll drive our motorhome about 100 miles south via I-25 to our first stop in the quaint little town of San Antonio, New Mexico. 

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Christmas day in 1887, this little hamlet in southern New Mexico was the birth place of its most noteworthy resident, the legendary hotelier, Conrad Hilton. Along with his brothers and sisters, Conrad grew up helping his father in the five-room hotel where rates were $1 per day. Their first Hilton Hotel burned to the ground with only the grand mahogany bar spared from the devastation.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, this original mahogany antique can be seen in the Owl Bar and Café in San Antonio. This historic café vies with its neighbor, the Buckhorn Bar, for the “best green chili cheeseburger in the world.”

The Owl is an interesting place to stop for lunch. Walk in the door and you’ll step back into time. Your eyes are first drawn to Hilton’s original bar and then to the walls packed with memorabilia and collectable décor distinctly southwestern.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can’t help but note the dollar bills covering the restaurant’s walls. This is an Owl tradition which encourages visitors to write messages, or their names on dollar bills, then find an available space and tack them up. The cash is gathered annually and given to charity. Over the years, patrons have donated over $20,000.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio is gateway to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a ten minute drive south on SR-1S. Bosque del Apache stands out as one of the country’s most accessible and popular national wildlife preserves providing a seasonal home, November through March, for up to 12,000 sandhill cranes, 32,000 snow geese, nearly 40,000 ducks.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The visitor center is staffed with friendly, knowledgeable volunteers who provide maps and firsthand information on what’s happening at the refuge. Displays introduce you to much of the wildlife that call the refuge home. The gift and nature store offers field guides and gifts to make your visit enlightened and memorable.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to reserve time for the twelve-mile auto loop through the refuge. This loop is divided into north and south halves. Time spent will depend on how often and how long you stop at the many viewing areas. The south loop has more deep water ponds, which draw an abundance of diving birds. Both loops afford you opportunity to spot a wide array of wildlife.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The enchantment of New Mexico and many critters of the Bosque can be enjoyed any time of year. However, if your visit is from October through March, be sure to take warm clothes as the temperatures can blend with the New Mexico winds to drive a chill straight to the bone.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And there’s no better time or way to appreciate all that the 57,000-acre refuge has to offer than attending the annual Festival of the Cranes, a virtual event in 2020 (November 19-21). Registration required. It’s a glorious pageant of nature celebrating the annual migration of birds as they head south for the winter.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Kiva RV Park and Horse Motel (Bernardo); Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park (San Antonio)

Note: Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park closed for several years but has reopened under the same management.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument

A petroglyph is an image on stone, created by removing part of the surface of the rock by pecking, carving, etching, or abrading with a tool or harder stone

Greetings on day 1,999 of lockdown! Oh, wait, that’s not correct. It just feels that way.

Just remember, this isn’t forever, but you have to know what’s out there before you can step back into the world of RV travel. Today we keep the fire going as we head to the Land of Enchantment.

Standing amid a jumble of basalt boulders, I paused after pulling myself up a steep climb of coffee-colored rock. We’re hiking appropriately named Boca Negra Canyon of the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, and so far the rock art hasn’t exactly been jumping out at me. But as I pause to rest and finally consider the beauty of the canyon, petroglyphs begin to emerge before me.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Round faces, turtles and birds, brands and crosses, and lightning bolt-like patterns appear plain as day where I was looking on the fly just moments before. Sometimes you cover more ground and observe more beauty when standing still.

These images are inseparable from the greater cultural landscape, from the spirits of the people who created them, and from all who appreciate them today.

While it may be tempting to reach out your hand, don’t touch! Oils from your skin can permanently damage the petroglyphs.

Petroglyph National Monument and Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jointly managed by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument comprises 7,236 acres of a volcanic basalt escarpment created by ancient lava flows along 17 miles of Albuquerque’s west escarpment, known as the West Mesa. The monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources, including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites, and an estimated 25,000 images carved into these dark rock outcroppings.

About 150,000 year ago lava seeped from an enormous fissure here, covering the landscape like a prehistoric parking lot. Over time, cooling and erosion cracked the hardened lava. In many areas the ripples of once-hot lava can be seen in rock fragments.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By pecking the flat basalt, ancient artists found they could chisel away the dark desert varnish that had coated the rock and expose lighter rock beneath, creating a contrast that is still striking today. Basalt has a high iron content, and the rocks’ dark interior is basically rust. Creating a petroglyph was no small undertaking, as it took considerable time to etch the rock.

The National Park Service Las Imagenes Visitor Center and book store is located off Unser Boulevard at Western Trail. We began our visit here with a brief orientation to the monument and checked the schedule for ranger guided tours and special events before lacing up our hiking boots and hitting the trail at Boca Negra Canyon, a 70-acre section of the monument. Each trail offers a diverse view of the cultural and natural landscape within the monument.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located two miles north of the visitor center on Unser Boulevard, Boca Negra Canyon provides quick and easy access to three partly paved self-guiding trails where you can view 200 petroglyphs.

This is the most popular section of the monument, and is the only fully-developed area with restroom facilities, shade, and a drinking fountain. A nominal parking fee is charged by the City of Albuquerque.

Mostly, the national monument’s expanse of open space is undeveloped save for interpretative signs and facilities along the few developed trails at Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon, and the volcano’s trails. Otherwise, silence and isolation are yours just minutes from New Mexico’s largest city.

Located one mile south of the visitor center on Unser Boulevard, Rinconada Canyon is one of the few places, where at the end of the trail you can be out of sight of the city.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 2½-mile round-trip sandy trail follows the base of the escarpment where you can view more than 800 petroglyphs. This trail area has no water, so bring your own. You are advised to stop at the visitor center for an orientation and map before hiking this trail.

The northernmost area of the monument, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, means “canyon of marked rocks”. Piedras Marcadas is home to the densest concentration of petroglyphs along the monument’s 17-mile escarpment, with an estimated 5,000 images. This area may be entered from a small parking lot west of Golf Course Road.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This trail area has no water, so bring your own. You are advised to stop at the visitor center for an orientation and map before hiking this trail.

Worth Pondering…

Each of these rocks is alive, keeper of a message left by the ancestors…There are spirits, guardians; there is medicine…

—William F. Weahkee, Pueblo Elder