New Mexico is one of the best travel destinations in the US for connecting with the history of the southwest and exploring canyons and mountain peaks. It’s home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other US state. This guide to visiting New Mexico provides everything visitors need to plan and travel to the state’s most popular sites.
Along with scores of ancient historical sites, an active art scene, and an opportunity to answer the official state question “red or green,” it’s a vacation spot that has something to pique everyone’s interest and where every journey becomes an exciting adventure!
UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES IN NEW MEXICO
Carlsbad Caverns is one of the 300 limestone caves formed by fossilized reefs 250-280 million years ago. In December through February visitors can have the place to themselves making it a great time to visit, but at a constant 56 degrees, the caves are comfortable all year-round. The basic entrance ticket at this UNESCO World Heritage site includes the Big Room and Natural Entrance Trail with soaring ceilings and a 200,000-ton boulder. An elevator is available to whisk visitors below, but the hike gives visitors a real sense of the scale. Ranger-led tours through other caves are also available and can take up to 1.5 to 5.5 hours. Visitors to the caverns between late May and October can witness the spectacular sight of hundreds of thousands of bats flying out of the cave.
Occupied by 6,000 people between 850 and 1250 A.D., this site has relatively remained untouched since the ancestral Puebloans departed. It’s the largest collection of ancient ruins in the US.
The visitor’s center is where you can pick up a map, arrange for a guided tour, plan hiking & biking routes, reserve a campsite and book an evening campfire talk. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a registered International Dark Sky Park. Be sure to check out the night sky programs that are available for some of the world’s best stargazing.
Visitors can take the 9-mile one-way loop drive (and back again), to explore the various ruins. There are parking areas near each major site with short hikes to each ruin.
This area is not easy to get to and requires 13 miles of a desolate pothole littered dirt road. The heat is extreme in the summer and winters can get bitterly cold. It’s best for visitors to call before they go to check on weather conditions. When you do visit, be well prepared with water, food, a full tank of gas, and a GPS. There is no food available for sale at this site. A hat and sunscreen are musts in the summer months.
The Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a multi-story adobe community that has been continuously inhabited for over 1,000 years. The apartment-like dwellings with walls over several feet thick are inhabited by approximately 150 people today. Upper levels are reached by ladders and dwellings have no running water or electricity. Visitors can take a tour and meander through town amidst the Spanish-influenced structures which were built between 1000 and 1450. According to Taos Indian custom, oral history is not divulged outside of the community and because their language has never been written down, much of the culture remains a mystery.
Visitors, however, can get a good sense of the culture by stepping back in time and experiencing the living history provided by the residents, viewing the local arts & crafts, and by tasting the local cuisine, such as the extraordinary fry bread. When visiting, be mindful and stay clear of private residential and ceremonial areas. Check the website before you go, as closures are common for unexpected events within the community.
NATURE & HIKING IN NEW MEXICO
The largest petroglyph site in North America, the Petroglyph National Monument features designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. 20,000 lizards, birds and other designs and symbols carved onto black volcanic rocks. Visitors center for maps and brochures on native plants. Continue on to Boca Negra Canyon.
This is a 70-acre section within the Petroglyph National Monument boundaries. It’s an interesting place to visit because of the natural splendor and relative ease of access. There are approximately 100 petroglyphs that are within a 1-hour walk on paved and unpaved trails.
Ride the gondola to the top of the observation deck on Sandia Peak, within the Cibola National Forest. At an elevation of 10,378 feet, the panoramic views of the Rio Grande Valley are breathtaking, and sunrise and sunsets are truly awe-inspiring. Hungry? Try Sandiego’s Grill at the base of the tram serving steaks, burgers, and Mexican fare amid mountainside views. At the top of the peak, visit Ten 3. Open for lunch and dinner there’s a sky bar on one side and fine dining on the other. Try the mole braised beef short rib or the New Mexican paella.
The Bernardo Waterfowl area serves as the winter home to as many as 12,000 sandhill cranes and 25,000 snow geese from around mid-November to mid-February.
These waterfowl spend the summer breeding season in northern Canada, Alaska, and the Arctic tundra, and during their annual migration south for the winter many make this stop at this area in the Rio Grande Valley. The Waterfowl Area has a 3-mile driving loop and a number of elevated viewing platforms from which the birds can be observed. At around sunset, thousands of these birds simultaneously lift off in a deafening cacophony of honking and trumpeting as they head for nearby ponds and lakes to spend the night safe from predators.
This extinct volcano last erupted around 60,000 years ago. Its cinder cone rises up 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape with a rim that is about a mile in circumference. Visitors have to wait to drive Volcano Road, a two-mile-long paved road that spirals up and around the volcano to its rim. A storm washed out the roads and won’t be open until September 2020. Make a stop, however, into the visitor’s center and hike the loop around the Lava Field trail. When Volcano Road opens the ascent to the top will reward visitors with 8,000 square miles of views all the way to Colorado and Oklahoma. Always check the weather before you visit.
The Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah WSA is located in the arid San Juan Basin of northwest New Mexico on 6,563 acres of land. The weathered rock formations found here are referred to as hoodoos and the area is rich with animal and plant fossils. The drive to get here is on 15 miles of unpaved road however, within one to two miles of the parking area visitors are able to view the hoodoos.
Bisti, a Navajo term meaning “among the adobe formations,” looks otherworldly. Located in the arid desert of northwestern New Mexico, rising rock formations of colorful sandstone and shale tower above the landscape. A 1.5-mile hike from the parking lot, there are no marked trails or facilities. Come prepared with water, it can get extremely hot during the day.
Unique and scenic, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, famous for its scenic cone shaped formations, is composed of deposits from volcanic eruptions 6–7 million years ago. There are two trails that begin at the designated Monument parking area. Begin at the Cave Loop Trail,1.2 miles long and rated as easy. When Canyon Trail branches to the right, continue on this more difficult 1.5-mile trek. This is the jewel of the park as the hike continues through a narrow canyon and then steeply climbs 630 feet to a mesa with spectacular of Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, Sandia mountains, and the Rio Grande Valley. A popular site, parking is limited and can result in a 60-90-minute wait if you don’t arrive early.
The Pueblo cave dwellings found here take visitors back in time. Built-in the cliffs during 1150-1550 CE the site is nothing short of impressive. The visitors center offers a short movie about the Pueblos and the surrounding area. A 2.2-mile hike on the Main Loop Trail and the Alcove House Spur Trail gives visitors an understanding of the geology of the land. Between May and October, the site is extremely busy and the visitors center can only be accessed by a shuttle bus.
Foundations of dwellings are visible along the Main Loop Trail, but it’s the Alcove House trail that takes visitors to the cliff dwellings accessed by climbing140 feet of ladders. This site is popular, so visit early in the morning.
Tsankawi is a detached portion of the Bandelier National Monument. Home to the Tewa Pueblo people in the 1400s, petroglyphs, caves, village ruins, and great views are found on this 1.5-mile hike. Pottery shards line the trail. At an elevation of 6600 feet, the hike involves climbing the occasional wooden ladder. Check the weather before you go and don’t forget to bring water and sunscreen. This area is generally not crowded.
The ruins of this pre-Columbian cliff village are often described as the most beautiful and well preserved in New Mexico. 46 rooms are nestled in five main caves. Hiking to the ruins takes about an hour round-trip and requires a one-mile hike up a side stream with irregular stairs, a few small bridges, and a slight incline. Much like the drive to Hana on Maui, with scenic overlooks and a speed limit of 20-40 MPH, the remoteness and distance to this site generally ensure that it is not crowded.
The ruins of Pecos Pueblo homes and villages, as well as the Spanish Mission Church, still stand even after the Spanish invasion, oppression, and disease. Stop in at the visitor’s center which contains a collection of thoughtful exhibits illustrating the history of Pecos.
Towering cliffs of white rock, inscriptions from long ago, and a huge pool of cold clear water under the shadow of the cliffs make this one of the most scenic and interesting areas in New Mexico. Start out at the visitor’s center for an informative but short movie about the area. There are several trails and if you only have an hour or less take the paved, ½ mile Inscription Trail past the hundreds of Spanish and Anglo inscriptions and petroglyphs.
If you have about 1 1/2 hours, and some energy, take the 2-mile Headland Trail loop which includes Inscription Trail along with a 250-foot elevation gain on the uneven surface. Once at the top of the bluff, visitors are rewarded with incredible views of the Zuni Mountain, volcanic craters, and the El Morro Valley. In addition, Atsinna, the Puebloan ruins built around 1275-1350 AD, in which 600 people lived in this 355-room pueblo, can be reached from this trail. Well worth a visit, this site gets an incredible amount of positive reviews on TripAdvisor.
A very challenging 1.9-mile hike to the top of this volcanic plug takes about 1 hour 45 minutes up and about 20 minutes less on the way down. The first half is a well-traveled trail that wraps around the mountain and then it starts a very steep ascent. The view at the top, at an elevation of 8,000 feet is impressive, overlooking much of northern and central New Mexico. The dirt roads become extremely slippery and possibly impassable when it rains. There are no services.
The La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site, not far from Santa Fe, has petroglyphs, cave paintings, and one of the largest collections of Native rock art which are called glyphs. Although there’s not much parking, it’s a short hike, 5-10 minutes, on a marked trail before you start reaching the petroglyphs. In1991 an archeological survey recorded over 4,400 images within a mile. The area is known for the great number of hump-backed flute player images and a third of the glyphs are birds thought to have been made 8000 to 2000 BCE, but most of the images are Pueblo and date to between the 13th and 17th century.
A short hike, one-mile round trip, allows visitors to view thousands of rock drawings left behind by ancient Native Americans. More than 21,000 images of wildlife, plants, mystical, geometric, and abstract figures are etched into the rocks. This archaeological site is often overlooked and should be considered by those visiting White Sands National Monument, which is less than one hour to the south.
For anyone visiting New Mexico, this is a must stop. Unique and unbelievably beautiful White Sands is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Once a lake, 275 square of gypsum deposits remain as a result of the water evaporating. These active dune fields can move at a rate of up to 30 feet per year which means the landscape is ever-changing. A visitor’s center with a museum and movie, gift shop, and light snacks available for purchase.
At White Sands National Monument there are a plethora of things to do. The white powdery gypsum gives rise to a year-round sport, sledding. Here visitors can rent a waxed plastic snow saucer and slide down the dunes. Ranger-guided tours, day and sunset, are popular and highlight the formation of the dunes, its relation to the military base, as well as the plants and animal life that has adapted to this unique location.
Visitors can drive around eight miles of sand dunes on Dunes Drive. Parking is available along the route, giving visitors a chance to stop and take in the incredible views. There are numerous easy to moderate hiking trails with incredible views and areas to backcountry camp.
White Sands National Monument borders the edge of an active US military base and missile-test facility. When tests are conducted the road to the site can be closed for several hours. It has been said that debris from missile tests can be buried in the sand. If there are any unusual objects while there, do not touch them. Make note of the location and tell a ranger.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Albuquerque is New Mexico’s largest city and sits in the high desert. Old Town Albuquerque, contrasted with the modern downtown, was founded in 1706 as a Spanish colony. It’s adobe buildings and shops selling Native American handicrafts is filled with historic charm. Albuquerque also has a plethora of fascinating museums.
New Mexico Museum of Natural History, Albuquerque NM
Visitors can explore the geological history of the southwest through exhibits and dinosaur fossils, including the largest dinosaur to walk the earth, the Seismosaurus. The Hall of Stars, a planetarium with engaging shows, a hands-on Naturalist Center, as well as changing exhibits, are all designed to ignite a passion for lifelong learning, making this an engaging place to spend a few hours.
This museum is where visitors can experience the art, history, and culture of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. Thousands of rare artifacts, works of art, pottery, paintings, jewelry, photographs are on display. Be sure to visit Pueblo Harvest, the full-service restaurant with New Native American Cuisine which incorporates traditional Pueblo flavors into contemporary cooking.
The city’s rich heritage is the focus of this museum with historic photographs and paintings that highlights its town people, local architecture, and businesses.
This fascinating museum focuses on the early research of nuclear development through today’s peaceful uses. From the weird and wonderful uses of radiation from the 1930s to the 1960s to a movie on the Manhattan Project to sobering weapons, the exhibits span the uses of nuclear energy from the past to the present and its future. With a five-acre outdoor Heritage Park, this sprawling exhibit of military aircraft, decommissioned rockets, missiles, cannons, and a nuclear sub sail is the largest aircraft collection available for public viewing in the state of New Mexico.
A museum dedicated to the history, science, and art of all types of ballooning and light air flight. Interactive displays make this an interesting and informative museum.
A fantastic whimsical museum, TinkerTown, a house built of bottles, contains 20,000 of Ross Ward’s carvings and collections of miniatures. Various hand-carved miniature scenes with moving parts and circus memorabilia showcase the talent and attention to detail afforded by Ross Ward.
While not a museum, it’s something to see if you happen to be in Albuquerque during the holiday season. The Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority builds an enormous snowman, 10 feet wide and over 14 feet tall out of tumbleweeds. You can view it westbound along the I-40 freeway from “Tumbleweed Tuesday,” (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) until the first week of January.
Alamogordo New Mexico
The New Mexico Museum of Space History showcases the state’s long history of rocket launches, satellites, and simulations that helped make human space flight possible. An IMAX, the International Space Hall of Fame, and the grave of the astronaut chimpanzee, Ham can be found here. The museum’s Basin Overlook offers spectacular views.
While not a museum, Alamogordo is also the site of McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch and the world’s largest pistachio. Touted as the “Nuttiest place in New Mexico,” their motorized farm tour takes visitors on a ride around the pistachio orchards and vineyards to see the pistachios growing on the trees and the grapes on the vines. Visitors can get free samples at the pistachio bar, enjoy a wine tasting, and grab a sweet treat in the Pistachio Land ice cream parlor. Purchase a bag of red chili pistachio’s or if that’s too spicy, try the lemon-lime flavor. There much to see and taste.
Bernalillo, New Mexico
The ruins of Kuaua Pueblo are located a few minutes north of Albuquerque. First settled around 1325 AD, the Kuaua village, along with prehistoric and historic Puebloan and Spanish colonial artifacts, and 14 examples of the original art of mural paintings from the ceremonial chamber are on display, representing some of the finest examples of Pre-Columbian art ever found in the US.
Magalena, New Mexico
The Very Large Array, one of the world’s premier astronomical radio observatories, consists of 27 massive radio antennas in a Y-shaped configuration on the Plains of San Agustin. Each antenna is 82 feet in diameter. Open daily, guided tours are given on the first and third Saturdays of the month. For an impressive view, visitors can access the observation deck. Check the schedule for their night observation events.
Roswell, New Mexico
Easily walkable, the town of Roswell is lined with stores and shops filled with quirky aliens and UFO merchandise. It’s also a town with a myriad of museums.
Make your first stop the Roswell Visitors Center to obtain maps and tourism brochures, and take a fun photo with the resident alien while you’re there.
Truly out of this world, this museum is dedicated to the famous 1947 Roswell crash. Highlighting witness accounts of the discovery of a supposed UFO and the government cover-up, the museum highlights UFO incidents throughout the US and elsewhere. The informative displays and exhibits will have you truly wondering if we are alone in the universe.
Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, Roswell NM
This museum showcases a diverse collection of paintings, photos, and sculptures from regional artists and local themes.
Highlighting the art and history of the American southwest, it’s also where you’ll find the Goddard Planetarium. Be sure to check out the exciting new planetarium shows.
San Antonio, New Mexico
The launching point for the first atomic bomb test in 1945 took place at this site. Only open twice a year; first Saturday of April and October for tours, be sure to arrive early as the line to get in gets quite long and only a certain amount of people are allowed in at a time.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
The Plaza in Santa Fe is an excellent starting point for any first time or a return visitor. It’s listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and is the heart and soul of the city. A gathering spot for locals and tourists it is surrounded by city landmarks and architecture like the 1886 Cathedral Basilica of St. Frances Assisi that sounds its melodic chimes throughout the day, art galleries, breweries, and fine dining. Purchase Native American pottery along The Palace of Governors. Visit the Railyard Arts District, 7 blocks from the Plaza, featuring regional and international contemporary art. Be sure to stop in at the old-time Five & Dime General Store and try a Frito Pie. This southwestern favorite with ground beef, ranch-style beans, cheese, and enchilada sauce is baked with crispy Fritos on top. Metered street parking is available but is limited.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe NM
Dedicated to the life of 20th-century artist Georgia O’Keeffe, visitors will appreciate her use of color and subtle abstraction to describe southwest landscapes.
An interesting collection of miniature buildings and village scenes, from more than 100 different countries with Native American and Spanish colonial influence, make this an interesting and unique place to visit.
Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Santa Fe NM
Through native art and culture, the museum highlights the stories of the Native American people of the southwest from pre-history to contemporary times.
New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe NM
Exhibits focus on the history of New Mexico with Spanish, Mexican, and Native American influence from ancient times to the late 1900s.
New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe NM
A museum highlighting the art of Santa Fe’s many famous painters and photographers.
Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe NM
Changing exhibitions of contemporary and historic Native American art with an emphasis on the southwest.
While not a museum, Ethyl the Whale, an 82-foot sculpture made of hand-recycled plastic trash, brings awareness to the negative impact plastics have on the environment. Located on the backside of the Santa Fe Community College Campus, once you’re there this giant blue whale will be hard to miss.
INTERESTING CUISINE IN NEW MEXICO:
Pie Town, Pie Town NM
In the heart of the Chili Capital of the World, a 30-foot tall Uncle Sam, a robot alien, and Yogi the Bear are just a small taste of the pop culture statuary that surrounds Sparky’s restaurant. Americana signage and collectibles grace the inside and chili’s grace the menu. From their chili pepper milkshakes to their award-winning green chile cheeseburger, which is often said to be the best in the state, Sparky’s draws visitors from near and far. Open Thursday through Sunday.
Bison burgers, buffalo grilled with onions, and green chili stew make this local restaurant a unique place to eat. Located just off the highway en route to the Taos Pueblo UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tiwa Kitchen boasts their homemade loaves of bread, cookies, and pies that are made in an adobe oven, called a horno. Their homestyle Pueblo and New Mexican comfort food, made from recipes passed from generation to generation, is like eating in the family’s kitchen. The Pueblo’s bison herd supplies meat for their burgers and crops are harvested from Pueblo land. Their pie made with piñons is not to be missed. Tiwa Kitchen is closed on Tuesdays.
HOT SPRINGS & SWIMMING IN NEW MEXICO:
Three small, open-air, cement-lined springs filled with minerals can be found along the side of the road beckoning visitors to take a hot soak. The springs vary in temperature: The “Lobster Pot” is hot at 120 degrees and “Africa,” shaped like the continent, is a mild 103 degrees.
Blue Hole, Santa Rosa NM
This clear blue swimming hole within the Santa Rosa Sink rock formation is popular for swimming and snorkeling. Underwater caves, which were unexplored until 2013, are deep, making it attractive to scuba and free divers too. There’s a dive shop on-site and scuba lessons are available.
Soak in a natural flowing spring at Blackstone Hot Springs in the town of Truth or Consequences. The town, formerly known as Hot Springs, adopted its new name from the 1950’s game show that aired in town.
OTHER INTERESTING THINGS TO DO in NEW MEXICO:
Albuquerque Bio Park, Albuquerque NM
Comprised of 4 separate sections; the Albuquerque Botanical Garden, Rio Grande Zoo, the Albuquerque Aquarium, and Tingley Beach all make up the Albuquerque Bio Park complex. Visit the Albuquerque Aquarium, which houses a 285,000-gallon ocean tank containing a full array of Gulf of Mexico saltwater species. Explore the Albuquerque BioPark Botanic Garden’s 10,000 square foot conservatory and the live butterfly house. The Rio Grande Zoo, with 64-acres and 2.5 miles of paths, houses more than 250 species of exotic and native animals. Relax at Tingley Beach. It’s the place to fish, launch model boats and picnic.
If drivers cross the rumble strip on a quarter-mile stretch of Route 66 at just the right speed it plays “America the Beautiful. You need to be going exactly 45 miles per hour (the speed limit) to be serenaded. The “Musical Highway” was installed in 2014 as part of a partnership between the New Mexico Department of Transportation and the National Geographic Channel. It’s designed to encourage drivers on a stretch of the historic road to slow down and adhere to the speed limit. The individual strips had to be placed at the precise distance from one another to produce the notes to produce the song. The Musical Highway is eastbound on Route 333 (part of the old Route 66 system) between mile markers 4 and 5, near exit 170.
New Mexico’s largest open-air flea market is where thousands of people flock to buy and sell old, new, and unique items. From jewelry to furniture, to fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s open every Saturday and Sunday.
Farm fresh produce, eggs, and bakery items are available all year long on Saturdays.
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