There are places we zoom through, places we slowly explore, and places so mesmerizing that it’s a challenge to keep moving. New Mexico falls into the latter category. It’s so magnetic and spellbinding that several weeks don’t seem enough.
The state’s beauty lies in its authenticity. It’s not overrun with tourists; it protects Indigenous heritage and history; the landscape is haunting and surreal; the hikes and camping are superb; and it boasts interesting and quirky stops.
Most people know New Mexico through its two main cities, Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Santa Fe is a destination for artists with galleries and artisan shops. Albuquerque shot into fame through the series Breaking Bad. Both are beautiful stops, but many equally deserving places are often overlooked.
The drive from the funky community of Silver City twists through Gila National Forest to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, transitioning through eco-zones from the desert to piñon pine to Ponderosa pine. It’s a half-hour hike to Cliff Dweller Canyon and the preserved rooms tucked under a cliff overhang to keep out the summer sun. Four free, first-come-first-served United States Forest Service campgrounds are within ten minutes of the park, most open year-round but best suited for small to medium-sized RVs.
In the northeast, Taos Pueblo protects and preserves the millennia of history, language, and traditions of the Red Willow People—visitors can learn about these on guided tours. The multi-story, adobe-brick buildings hadn’t changed from when the first Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s searching for the fabled golden cities of Cibola. Mica-flecked pottery, silver jewelry, moccasins, boots, and drums made by local artisans are sold in the Pueblo shops. Taos may also be open to the public for special feast days—check the website and note that no photography is allowed.
LIKE NOWHERE ELSE
I’ve always found that New Mexico radiates excellent fun and adventure, with unique stops not found elsewhere. Try these:
On Route 66, Gallup is a Centre of Indigenous crafts and traditions. Richardson’s Trading Post is known for its authentic jewelry, rugs, pottery, and arts and crafts selection. Earl’s Family Restaurant serves unique chiles rellenos. Walk through the historic Hotel El Rancho, where Hollywood stars stayed when filming Westerns.
The beautiful Farmington Public Library was designed in a circular layout to respect the values of the Pueblo people: inspiration and imagination, time of development, light, and a place of remembrance. Not far to the south, look for free boondocking sites overlooking Angel’s Peak on BLM land.
Los Alamos is where thousands of scientists came to work, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. The Bradbury Science Museum tells the story of the Manhattan Project, where interactive exhibits and short films outline the massive Second World War undertaking. Los Alamos is also a short drive to Bandelier National Monument.
It doesn’t get quirkier than the main street of Hatch; the village nicknamed the Chile Capital of the World (Hatch Chile Festival runs every Labour Day weekend). It’s a blast of color: small shops with ristras of bright red peppers and life-size statues of Americana line the street.
A hop off the I-40 is the mesmerizing black volcanic flows at El Malpais National Monument. The lava rock is sharp, so wear proper footwear on hikes. The volcanic rock holds moisture and creates a beautiful landscape where grasses and desert shrubs thrive. Hundreds of lava tube caves lie beneath the extensive lava flows. We hiked the accessible El Calderon Trail and felt like we had the lava tube caves, cinder cone, and the park’s oldest lava flows.
Not far to the west of El Malpais, El Morro National Monument protects “stories in stone.” The waterhole hidden at the base of the mammoth sandstone bluff was a popular stopover for Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish, and American settlers who carved thousands of signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs into the soft stone. The self-guided Inscription Rock Trail is level and paved and passes the carvings at the cliff base.
Some people believe aliens dropped the massive boulders at City of Rocks State Park, southeast of Silver City. The large, sculptured rock columns formed about 34.9 million years ago when a mighty volcano erupted and spewed far into the desert. Over millions of years, erosion formed the sculptured columns, creating an otherworldly landscape. The campground’s sites are tucked between the rock formations. There are showers, restrooms, and a small loop with hookups for larger RVs. The nighttime sky is spectacular.
The Lincoln Historic Site preserves the 19th-century Territorial Style of adobe architecture and the history of the outlaw Billy the Kidd and lawman Pat Garrett.
It’s an island of blinding white at White Sands National Park in the Chihuahuan Desert, the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Kids can sled down the hills of white sand. Grab a water bottle and walk the 1.6-km Dune Life Nature Trail. Drive the Dunes Drive, a loop road with picnic stops, trails, and sledding hills. Vehicle camping isn’t allowed in the park.
Roswell—home to the International UFO Museum—is alien ground zero. On one famous day in 1947, a local rancher alerted authorities to a crashed object. What followed has become known as The Roswell Incident—“the most documented UFO coverup”— spawning leading street shops and the museum. Nearby Bottomless Lakes State Park has excellent sites.
The world’s largest pistachio marks McGinn’s Pistachio Land north of Alamogordo. Inside, décor and housewares are emblazoned with pistachios and chilli peppers. A pistachio-tasting bar has flavors like garlic, red, green, chocolate, and lime chilli.
- Route 96 and Highway 84 through the Santa Fe National Forest from La Jara to the turnoff for Los Alamos
- Turquoise Trail connecting Santa Fe to Albuquerque (scenic alternative to the interstate)
- Route 36 from the Zuni Reservation to Quemado (stay at Juniper Campground in the National Forest)
- Route 32 to Route 12 to Highway 180 from Quemado to Silver City hugs the Gila National Forest.
- Route 152, east of Silver City, is a breathtaking experience up and over the Mimbres Mountains and the Rio Grande Valley. The hairpin turns are not for the fainthearted or large motorhomes.