Boasting one of most incredibly scenic and diverse landscapes in North America, New Mexico offers endless opportunities for exploration and adventure. With strong influences of both Native American and Hispanic culture, the state offers the visitor a multitude of unique attractions both in large cities like Santa Fe and Albuquerque, as well as the smaller hubs of UFO-focused Roswell and the artists’ colony of Tao’s. Center of the American Southwest, the “Land of Enchantment” didn’t gain statehood until 1912. Today, New Mexico offers the visitor fantastic nature experiences, distinctive cuisine, and an impressive fine arts scene.
1 Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Comprised of nearly 120 known caves, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is hidden mostly underground. Carved from limestone deposited in an ancient sea, the alien underground landscape is one of the most famous New Mexico tourist attractions. The Park Service offers self-guided audio tours and ranger-led tours. Visitors can also experience bat tours, trips to specific caves, and walks through the outlandish geological formations. Up above, visitors will find a wide range of opportunities for back-country hikes and backpacking. Be sure to bring ample water.
2 White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument is one of the most stunning landscapes in the state, located a half an hour’s drive southwest of Alamogordo in the south of New Mexico. It lies in the Tularemia Basin, a northern offshoot of the Chihuahua Desert, and is surrounded by rugged mountains. Here, gleaming white gypsum sand has built up into an extraordinary landscape of dunes up to 60 feet high, which are constantly displaced by the wind.
3 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Each autumn, Albuquerque hosts the world’s largest hot air balloon festival, drawing crowds of more than 80,000 people. The tradition, which started in a parking lot in 1973 with only 13 balloons, has grown to occupy a 365-acre park with more than 500 balloons participating. This nine-day festival is kicked off by the breathtaking “Mass Ascension” and continues with unique displays of coordinated ballooning and nighttime presentations. In addition to the brightly colored skies, the festival offers plenty of things to do, from kids’ activities and live musicians to a juries craft show and dozens of street performers among the numerous vendors. While in Albuquerque, tourists will enjoy sightseeing in the city’s old town, where the Spanish first settled, also home to the Albuquerque Museum, which contains historical artifacts and exhibits about the area.
4 Bandolier National Monument
Bandolier National Monument is a 33,677-acre preserve encompassing some of the most dramatic volcanic landscapes and archaeological ruins in the state. Former home of ancestral Pueblo people, the area was occupied from AD 1150 to 1600. Among the remains of the indigenous habitats are structures such as masonry walls and dwellings that were carved from the volcanic rock, as well as hieroglyphs that illustrate the Pueblo culture and daily life. This national park has an educational museum, hiking trails, and campsites.
5 Petroglyph National Monument
The Petroglyph National Monument is managed jointly by the city of Albuquerque and the National Park Service, which help preserve this culturally significant site while educating visitors. The area encompasses 7,244 acres consisting of a basalt escarpment, five dormant volcanoes, and an expansive mesa. The park’s most famous feature is its petroglyphs, images which were carved in the basalt by indigenous peoples and early Spanish settlers centuries ago. There are a total of approximately 20,000 petroglyphs within the park, many of which can be viewed from the hiking trails. There are three main hiking routes, the least strenuous being Bo ca Negro Canyon, which has 100 petroglyphs along one mile of trails. Those who are up for a longer hike in the desert can take the 2.2-mile Concordat Canyon trail or the 1.5-mile Madagascar Canyon Loop, each of which have around 300 petroglyphs. Hikers should be aware of local wildlife, especially rattlesnakes, and should be well prepared with water for the longer treks.
6 Tao’s Pueblo
Just outside the city of Tao’s, the Tao’s Pueblo has the oldest continuously inhabited dwellings in the United States. These adobe structures have stood for more than 1,000 years, constructed of straw-reinforced mud bricks and timber-supported roofs. These apartment-style homes are up to five stories high, and around 150 people live within the old town full-time. An additional 2,000 reside on the 95,000-acre property in a variety of traditional and modern homes. Residents welcome visitors to take a tour of the community, which has been designated both a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are fantastic photo opportunities, as well as regular markets. The Pueblo is closed to the public during several of its annual traditional events. Tourists visiting Tao’s can easily see the area’s top attractions on the Tao’s Highlights Small-Group Driving Tour, which visits the Pueblo as well as historic Tao Plaza, the St. Francis de Assisi Roman Catholic Church, and Gorge Bridge.
7 Cumbers-Toltec Scenic Railway
The Cumbers & Toltec Scenic Railroad is a narrow gauge heritage railroad that runs between Champ, New Mexico and Antonino, Colorado. Constructed in 1880-81, this cozy train ride traverses the 10,015-foot Cumbers Pass and heads through the dramatic Toltec Gorge. The ride offers stunning views of the surrounding land, from grassy, deer-filled, hillside meadows to stream-laced mountains. This is the highest steam-powered railroad in the nation, and the ride has thrilling moments as it crosses the Cascade Creek trestle 137 feet in the air, climbs the face of a cliff, and doubles back dramatically on the Tangle foot Curve. Passengers will see many of the Railroad’s original structures along the journey and have the chance to stop in the rustic Osier, Colorado halfway through the trip for a lunch break and some exploring.
8 Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
North of the old mining town of Silver City are the Gila cliff dwellings: 42 rooms in six caves, built into the cliff face by the Mongol Native Americans around the year 1300. Tourists can learn more about the Mongol culture and the region’s natural history at the museum in the visitor center. Among the park’s geological features are numerous natural caves, as well as hot springs, some of which can be reached by trail from the visitor center. Tours of the cliff dwellings are available, although visitors should take note that the tours start at the cliff dwellings themselves, and it takes about a half hour to walk up to them from the trailhead.
9 Tao’s Ski Valley
Northeast of Tao’s, in the Sanger de Crista Mountains, at 8,900 to 12,500 feet, is the magically beautiful and excellently equipped winter sports region of the Tao’s Ski Valley. In recent years, the ski resort has come under new ownership and undergone considerable upgrades. This hill has always been known as a skiers’ hill, with outstanding intermediate and advanced terrain. Half of the trails are for experts.
10 Pecos National Historical Park
Pecos National Historical Park encompasses what was once one of the largest Native American pueblos in the state. It was inhabited from the early 14th century until 1838, with a population over 2,000. In 1990, the park was expanded to 6,600 acres. The visitor center contains exhibits and park information and also offers an Ancestral Sites Walking tour, a guided 1.25-mile hike that explores evidence of the area’s indigenous peoples. The park is also home to the Civil War battlefield of Gloriana Pass, which can be toured via a 2.25-mile trail with or without a guide. The visitor center also offers van tours of the Civil War site, as well as tours of nearby Forked Lightning Ranch.
11 The Very Large Array
In the remote rolling hills west of Socorro lies the Karl G Jan sky Very Large Array (VELA) – a radio astronomy observatory located on the Plains of San Agustin. The array is used to observe black holes and other astronomical phenomena. There are self-guided walking routes through the site, and the VELA also hosts free, guided tours on the first Saturday of each month. Though reservations aren’t required, it is worth checking ahead for times. Tours begin from the VELA Visitor Center.
12 Chaos Culture National Historical Park
Perhaps one of the most stunning archaeological sites in all of North America, Chaos Canyon was occupied by ancestral Pueblo an peoples from about AD 800 to 1200. It was a major center, comprised of 15 massive ruins and hundreds of smaller constructions. Located in a remote area northwest of Albuquerque, the park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Park facilities and activities include camping, an excellent interpretive center, interpretive and back-country hikes, and astronomy experiences from telescopes located in the canyon.
13 Billy the Kid Museum
Out on the eastern plains of New Mexico is the small town of Fort Sumner, the resting place of the infamous Billy the Kid. The lanky youth was shot and killed at the nearby Fort Sumner State Monument by Sheriff Pat Garrett at the age of 21. The museum hosts the Kid’s rifle, horse-riding equipment and the original Wanted poster. Rumor has it they even have some of his hair. The museum also has a collection of cavalry swords, old firearms, and antique cars and trucks. Guided tours are available.
14 Wheeler Peak Wilderness
The highest point in New Mexico is the summit of Wheeler Peak, at 13,161 ft. The mountain is next to Moreno Valley near Angel Fire in the Carson National Forest, in the Sanger De Crista mountain range. The area is home to a variety of wildlife and visitors may be lucky enough to see marmots, pikas, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and golden eagles. Hiking is one of the most popular things to do with several trails, most ranging from 4 mi to 8 mi long.
Due to the elevation, Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area enjoys moderate summer temperatures and cold winters, when temperatures regularly fall below freezing. Most visitors come here during the summer months, which are warm but also a little wet. July and August are the rainy months, so be sure to bring a rain jacket to deal with passing showers. Official site
15 International UFO Museum and Research Center
A top tourist attraction in Roswell, the international UFO Museum and Research Center was opened in 1992 as an information center inspired by the 1947 “Roswell incident.” This widely speculated event put Roswell on the map as a hub of UFO activity and curiosity. Despite this, the museum’s intention is not to convince visitors to believe in extraterrestrial life or government conspiracy theories. Exhibits take an objective look at local events, as well as numerous others around the world, inviting visitors to come to their own conclusion. The museum contains a variety of material, including documents, eyewitness accounts, and artifacts related to UFO research. Tourists interested in Roswell’s alien mystery will also enjoy one of the many local “UFO tours” that visit spots like Building 84 at the former army base where the downed craft and its occupants were allegedly brought by military personnel.