It’s no wonder that New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment. Whether exploring ancient ruins, shopping for silver and turquoise jewelry or just enjoying the ever-changing colors of the sky at sunset, New Mexico casts its charm on every visitor. With varied landscapes that range from red rock mesas to snow-capped mountains, New Mexico encapsulates all of the geological features that attract visitors to the American Southwest. No other state, however, has such a unique palette of light-infused colors, which is why so many artists call New Mexico home. Claimed by Native Americans, Spaniards and Mexicans before becoming a state in 1912, few places have a history that is so rich in cultural diversity too. An overview of the best places to visit in New Mexico:
Located to the west of Socorro in central New Mexico is the Very Large Array National Radio Astronomy Observatory where 27 giant antennas combine to form a single radio telescope. At an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet (2,100 meters) above sea level, the aptly named array has helped astronomers make key observations about phenomena like black holes, quasars and cosmic gases. A museum, gift shop and theater are open to the public year round. Self-guided tours allow visitors to get a closer view at the dish-shaped antennas, and guided tours are available the first Saturday of every month as well.
Constructed during the 13th century by the ancestral Puebloans of the Mogollon area, the Gila Cliff Dwellings are the main attraction of this national monument. The ancient dwellings were carved into 6 natural caves on the canyon wall and divided into rooms with stones and mortar hauled up from the canyon floor 180 feet (55 meters) below. Steps, rocks and ladders lead visitors into the caves, which contain a total of 42 rooms. Hiking is a popular activity within the forested park as well. Several popular hot springs are located near the visitor center.
For travelers who want to enjoy views of some of New Mexico’s most spectacular landscapes in comfort, there’s no better option than a trip aboard the historic Cumbres-Toltec Scenic Railway. Built in 1880, the highest narrow-gauge steam railroad in the country runs for 64 miles (103 km) between the city of Chama and Antonio, Colorado, passing over the 10,000-foot (3,000 meter) high Cumbres Pass and through the Toltec Gorge. Two-hour trips from Chama to Cumbres Pass are available as well. Passengers have their choice of coach, deluxe or parlor cars, and everyone is welcome to enjoy the open-air gondola.
Encompassing canyons and mesas, Bandelier National Monument was home to the ancestral Puebloan people between 1150 and 1550 A.D. Located in Frijoles Canyon south of Los Alamos, the Monument has a broad array of restored and unexcavated ruins, a museum displaying archeological artifacts and a wilderness area that includes 70 miles (110 km) of hiking trails. The 2-mile-long Main Loop Trail leads past the site’s famous cliff houses where visitors can climb ladders to reach small alcoves perched 140 feet (40 meters) above the canyon floor. A visitor center is equipped with picnic tables, toilets and parking.
One of the most unusual landscapes in New Mexico, the White Sands National Monument covers a huge area of sand dunes in the southeastern section of the state. The sands are composed of 8 billion tons of gypsum crystals blown in over millions of years from an ephemeral lake rich in mineral content located in the western part of the Monument. The well-marked 16-mile (26 km) long Dunes Drive near the visitor center includes designated parking areas where visitors can stop and explore the dunes. Ranger-guided day and evening walks through the dunes are available as well.
Located near the center of New Mexico, Albuquerque is the state’s most populous city and one of its oldest municipalities too. Founded on the banks of the Rio Grande in 1706, the city is best known today as the site of the International Balloon Fiesta held each year in October. The new Balloon Museum features exhibits about the history of ballooning while the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History explores the city’s cultural past. The nearby Sandia Peak Tramway takes visitors on a 15-minute ride up to the crestline of the Sandia Mountains.
Located in northwestern New Mexico, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park boasts the most extensive collection of ancient pueblo ruins in the United States. Between 900 and 1150 A.D., the 9-mile (15 km) stretch of canyon was the center of civilization for the ancestral Puebloan people formerly known as the Anasazi. Sandstone blocks and timber were hauled from great distances to build structures up to four stories in height, and recent archeological findings suggest they were built to align with solar and lunar cycles. Visitors must drive along dirt roads to reach the canyon. Tours, maps and camping permits are available at the park’s visitor center. One of the signature features of Chaco is Fajada Butte near the south entrance. This narrow, steep-walled butte rises about 400 feet (135 meters) above the canyon and includes several small cliff dwellings in its higher regions.
The Carlsbad Caverns are part of a vast cave complex situated in southeastern New Mexico near the town of Carlsbad. One of the most popular places to visit in New Mexico, the main attraction of the Carlsbad Caverns is the Big Cave, which contains one of the world’s largest underground chambers, known as the Big Room. The Big Room is easily accessed by an elevator from the visitor center or by a short walking trail. Once inside the massive chamber, visitors can walk along a paved pathway to admire electrically lighted stalactites, stalagmites and natural pools.
Founded by Spanish explorers in 1610, Santa Fe is one of America’s oldest cities and arguably one of the most beautiful. It is also the state capital. Building codes require new construction to maintain the “Santa Fe Style” of pueblo architecture, ensuring that visitors will enjoy picturesque views from every corner of the city. Santa Fe’s cultural attractions include the Palace of the Governors museum, which is housed in the nation’s oldest public building. With its permanent collection of 20,000 works of art, including pieces by Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe and Francisco de Goya, the New Mexico Museum of Art is must-see attraction as well.
Situated in a picturesque valley of the Rocky Mountains near the Rio Grande, the beauty of the small pueblo community of Taos has drawn artists to the area for hundreds of years. Long before the town attracted luminaries like novelist D.H. Lawrence, painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Dorothea Lange, the Tiwa tribe of Pueblo Indians made an art of crafting fine pottery. The town also serves as a base for several places with “Taos” in their name that are all part of the region. The most well-known is probably Taos Pueblo just north of town, an ancient American Indian community in a particularly beautiful setting. Ranchos de Taos is a small village south of Taos proper that is notable for a its much-photographed church. Taos Ski Valley is about 20 miles (30 km) north of town in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Finally, the Taos Box is a section of the nearby Rio Grande known for its superb whitewater rafting.