New Mexico’s rustic Wild West aura appeals to explorers who seek adventure in an untamed environment, away from the crowds. From white gypsum sand dunes to 39 miles of underground caves, here are 13 incredible places we think everyone in the Land of Enchantment should explore at least once:
1. Magdalena for Astronomy
If you live in a city, you likely never get to see stars sparkling in the dark sky. In tiny Magdalena, population ~900, in the center of the state west of Socorro, you can experience the Enchanted Skies Star Party (ESSP) each October. This spot in the Cibola National Forest is one of the darkest sites in the continental United States. Because this is an ideal spot for astronomy, nearby are the Very Large Array (pictured above), Magdalena Ridge Observatory and Magdalena Astronomical Lyceum with antique telescopes.
2. Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, 10 miles northwest of Taos, is a must-see. Hovering 650 feet above the Rio Grande, it is the fifth highest bridge in the United States. When the bridge was being built in the early 1960s, it was called "the bridge to nowhere" because there was not enough funding to continue the road on the second side. It was dedicated on September 10, 1965 and has been a popular spot to visit ever since.
3. Roswell UFO Museum
Was it an alien ship that crashed north of Roswell in 1947, or was it simply a weather balloon, as the U.S. military claimed? If you are curious about the so-called Roswell Incident, you’ll want to visit the International UFO Museum and Research Center. This is not a fancy museum, but it documents the much-discussed mystery thoroughly. Opened in 1990, the museum is located at 114 North Main Street.
4. Sandia Peak Tramway
You’ll need to tame your fear of heights for about 15 minutes to experience a spectacular sunset at Sandia Peak. Take the world’s longest aerial tramway in new cars, unveiled in 2016, that climb 2.7 miles up the steep western face of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque (10 Tramway Loop NE). From the observation deck at the 10,378-foot summit, you can see Santa Fe to the northeast and Los Alamos to the northwest—about 11,000 square miles of awe-inspiring scenery. Dress warmly; it’s 30 degrees colder up there!
5. El Santuario de Chimayó
El Santuario de Chimayó is a Roman Catholic church in Chimayó. ("Santuario" is the Spanish word for sanctuary.) This National Historic Landmark, built in 1816, is considered the most important Catholic pilgrimage center in the United States. Every year, approximately 30,000 people from all over the world make pilgrimages to the Santuario de Chimayó during Holy Week, seeking blessings or fulfillment of a vow. Many visitors take a small amount of "holy dirt," hoping for miraculous healing.
6. Taos Pueblo
Native people have inhabited the multi-story adobe Taos Pueblo continuously for more than 1,000 years. Approximately 150 Pueblo Indians live in the structure full time. It is the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. You can take a tour of the Pueblo and purchase pottery and silver jewelry from local artisans who sell their creations at many of the individually owned curio shops within the Pueblo.
7. Valles Caldera Natural Wildlife Preserve
Valles Caldera is the newest national preserve in the United States. It’s located just west of Los Alamos in northern New Mexico. A caldera is a volcanic crater. This 13-mile-wide circular depression in the earth was created about 1.25 million years ago when a volcano erupted. Elk, wild turkeys, Gunnison prairie dogs, coyotes, badgers, black bears and other wildlife roam the vast meadows, often decorated with wildflowers. The preserve covers 89,000 acres in north central New Mexico, a 90-minute drive from Santa Fe.
8. Wheeler Peak
The highest point in the state of New Mexico is at Wheeler Peak, at 13,161 feet. This 20,000-acre area with meandering streams is refreshingly rugged. Located about an hour’s drive northeast of Taos, the wilderness area is home to bighorn sheep, Marmots, pikas, elk, mule deer and golden eagles.
9. White Sands
More than 275 square miles of pearly white gypsum sand graces this national park in gently rolling dunes. White Sands is in the Tularosa Basin, tucked between the Sacramento and San Andres Mountain ranges. This unique national park is the perfect getaway for campers, hikers, sledders, photographers and those who need to be overwhelmed by nature’s beauty.
10. Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico is the largest known subterranean labyrinth in the world, with more than 37 miles of connected chambers and corridors. More than 119 caves have been discovered beneath the surface in the area, formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone. The only thing more memorable than the majestic stalactites and stalagmites in the yawning caves is the spectacular flight en masse of hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats out of the Carlsbad Caverns entrance at sunset and back into the entrance each sunrise between April and October.
11. Ghost Ranch
It’s easy to see how the haunting beauty of Ghost Ranch inspired so many of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. "The mother of American modernism" used the home and art studio on the property from 1945 until 1984. Now a retreat and education center, the 21,000-acre ranch is located 65 miles northwest of Santa Fe.
12. Jemez Springs
You can soak in therapeutic hot springs bubbling up from the ground in developed properties from as far south as Truth or Consequences to Santa Fe up north. But if you want a more rustic experience, go to Jemez Springs, about 60 miles northwest of Albuquerque. You’ll need to hike up some rocky hills to get to the springs, whose temperatures hover between 95 and 129 degrees. Al Capone is said to have enjoyed visiting these springs. Clothing is optional!
13. Bridal Veil Falls
The majestic 45 foot waterfall at Bridal Veil Falls is a welcome respite after hiking the 7.4-mile Grand View Trail. These falls, located in the central part of southern New Mexico, are part of the Lincoln National Forest. What’s better than finding water in New Mexico’s arid to semiarid climate? Finding a cascading waterfall!
Have you explored any of these places before? What other places in New Mexico do you think everyone should explore at least once? Share your thoughts and experiences with us!