You could visit New Mexico for the beauty of nature alone and leave perfectly happy. The Southwest state is full of national parks and monuments that show off volcanic rock formations, cave dwellings, and stark white sand dunes that could’ve been imported straight from the Sahara, if not another planet entirely. Throughout it all, Native American culture, historic architecture, and an Old West independent spirit are woven into the cultural fabric. And at this confluence of traditions, history, and geology, you’ll find a place unlike anywhere else on the continent.
You’ve also got Breaking Bad filming locations, nuclear test sites, and probably at least a few aliens. You’ll find world-class museums and some of the best regional cuisine in America and ancient settlements still thriving after centuries. The Land of Enchantment is all but demanding to be your next big road-trip destination. In the meantime, here’s what you’re missing.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Despite having just one-tenth of the annual visitors to Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most engaging national parks in the US—a 73-square-mile network of more than 100 massive caves that seem to go on forever. In the Big Room, stunning stalactites drip from the tall ceiling and thick stalagmite mounds rise from the cave’s floor. It’s certainly worth grabbing a seat at the amphitheatre at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge from the cave for their evening meal at 6 pm—or when they return by 6 am.
Most of the action in Santa Fe is in the walkable, easy-to-navigate Historic District where adobe architecture complements a legacy of Spanish Colonial history and Native American heritage. Santa Fe is a food lover’s paradise. The cuisine is as unique as the city itself. Spanish colonizers brought chile with them when they founded Santa Fe in 1610 and it has shaped the state’s cuisine for more than 400 years. Santa Fe’s culinary world allows diners to experience a true cultural exploration with every bite. Savor a taste of the Southwest with delectable dining experiences at La Fonda on the Plaza or El Farol. Every bartender in town is trying to outdo each other with their Margaritas, but Santa Fe cements its legacy as one of the best cities in the country for art whether browsing the shops near the Plaza town square or the galleries on Canyon Road.
White Sands National Park
Stretching 275 square miles, the dunes here aren’t composed of your typical beach sand but rather from gypsum crystals left behind from a nearby dried-out lake bed. The result looks more like a white-sand version of the Sahara than New Mexico. You half expect to see camels waltzing by. The dunes are a jarring sight so far inland and best experienced by hiking or zipping down the sand in one of the plastic saucers sold at the visitor center. The White Sands Missile Range (north of the national park) has its place in history as the site of the world’s first atomic bomb detonation.
Badlands of El Morro and El Malpais
El Morro and El Malpais national monuments stand in western New Mexico fewer than 50 miles apart. They preserve rugged, demanding landscapes that have attracted travelers from ancestral Puebloans to early 20th century homesteaders. El Morro means “The Headland,” a landmark above the desert that guided travelers to a towering cliff and natural water reservoir. Many carved petroglyphs, names, and dates into the soft sandstone to show who came before. El Malpais is Spanish for “The Badlands.” There is much to see. You’ll find expansive lava flows, cinder cones, complex lava-tube cave system more than 17 miles long, fragile ice caves as well as sandstone bluffs and mesas easily viewed from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook.
New Mexico isn’t always about the beauty of nature. Albuquerque has all the traffic, grit, and congestion of any big city—although it’s not without its share of Southwestern charm. Walk the cobblestone streets of Old Town where the city was founded in 1706 or visit during the week-long Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air balloon festival in the world which usually takes place every autumn. An even more rewarding mode of transportation is the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway which carries guests nearly three miles to an observation deck more than 10,000 feet high in the Cibola National Forest with sweeping views of the Rio Grande Valley east of the city.
Just outside Las Cruces, the tiny town of Mesilla is one of the most unexpected surprises in the entire state. Formerly part of Mexico and the focus of more than one border dispute, Mesilla is rich in culture and fosters an independent spirit while still celebrating its heritage. Visit during Cinco de Mayo weekend to really see the people come alive. Mesilla Plaza is the heart of the community with the twin steeples of Basilica of San Albino as the most identifiable landmark. The church is more than 160 years old but still welcomes the public for regular mass. The heritage is also represented in the shops and restaurants in the Mercado district. Eat dinner at the haunted Double Eagle or stick with traditional Mexican cuisine at La Posta.
So was it space aliens or a weather balloon that crashed outside Roswell back in 1947? We’ll probably never get a straight answer from the authorities but that doesn’t stop the fifth-largest city in New Mexico from embracing its UFO legacy. There’s the International UFO Museum and Research Center where kitsch counts just as much as scientific evidence and the Roswell UFO Spacewalk, a blacklight journey through vintage sci-fi imagery. There’s even a McDonalds on Main Street built in the shape of a flying saucer. But lest you think it’s all probes and spaceships, Roswell also has four art museums that have (almost) nothing to do with space creatures.
I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had. It certainly changed me forever….The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning sunshine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend….In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly and the world gave way to the new.