New Mexico is also known as the “Land of Enchantment”, a sentiment I wholeheartedly understand after road tripping through the state. The staggering snow capped mountains, brilliant-colored desert sunsets, mouthwatering flavors of New Mexican food (chiles – green or red), and relaxing natural hot springs all come to mind.
I left New Mexico totally enamored with the state and have compiled the top things to do there, moving in order from South to North:
1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park features over 119 caves that were formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone, leaving behind caverns of all sizes. To this day bodies of water keep being discovered within the caverns, making it a wonderland for geologist types. There’s plenty beyond them as well, with lots of wildlife to look at.
Truth be told this is one of the only things on the list that I didn’t do. Everyone recommended it, but I couldn’t justify the detour when I’m not that into caves. Everyone assured me I had made a mistake, so next time I come through New Mexico, I’ll be checking out Carlsbad Caverns as well as Roswell.
Keep in mind that you need reservations to go into the caverns. You can learn more here.
2. Watch Sunset at the Organ Mountains
The Organ Mountains, just outside of Las Cruces, are famous for the way that the sun reflects on them as it sets. On a lucky day, they will turn red. This is best seen from within the national monument down Dripping Springs Road. Just before the entrance, there is even some dispersed camping. It’s free provided that you leave no trace.
Keep going and you’ll arrive at the dripping Springs natural area, which has a nice, easy hike to an old resort that has since become some intriguing ruins. That said, it’s still uncovered and can get hot, so plan accordingly.
If you just want to see the sunset, there’s no hiking needed, you can pull off on the way and view it from the dripping Springs Road or the Sunset Hill.
3. Hike in the Organ Mountains
Accessible off of the 70, just east of Las Cruces and on your way to White Sands, you can also stop in the organ Mountains national monument and do some hiking. Some favorites are the Aguirre Springs Campground Loop via Pine Tree Loop, La Cueva via Fillmore Trail, and the Baylor Canyon.
Prepare for an uncovered hike with minimal water, and some gorgeous views!
4. Visit White Sands National Park
White Sands is an absolute must stop for any New Mexico trip (and it’s a recently designated National Park!). Expanding over 275 square miles, it’s the world’s largest gypsum dune field and while gypsum pebbles are actually clear, it gets its bright white color from the reflection of the sun.
Walking through the dunes feels like you’re on another planet – following pole trail markers in the sand, the 5-mile Alkali Flat loop is a great option to explore the area. Most visitors only venture a short distance into the dunes, so just keep going and you’ll find a slice of solo sand dune paradise.
Guided moonlight hikes are available from the Visitor Center (check regarding COVID regulations), and if you’re feeling adventurous, backcountry camping permits are also available. On your way out of the park, Cloudcroft is a great mountain town pitstop for lunch. It’s a minor detour on the way north, but Mad Jack’s BBQ is worth it.
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5. Stay in Las Cruces
Las Cruces is a quiet town with a growing coffee scene and fun dive bars. Las Cruces is a great spot for an overnight stay en route to White Sands – there are several eccentric Airbnb properties in the area including former artist warehouses and shipping container homes.
Be sure to check out High Desert Brewing Company for local craft beer, Chala’s Wood Fire Grill for their famous green chile cheeseburger, Picacho Coffee Roasters for quality small batch coffee, and Las Cruces’ historic watering hole with live music, El Patio.
6. Have a Drink at the No Scum Allowed Saloon
The No Scum Allowed Saloon in White Oaks is one of those unique things to do that makes New Mexico so quirky and amazing. It probably proclaims itself one of the top 10 cowboy bars in the USA, but what visitors love it for is the friendly atmosphere and the history.
This former gold rush town was one of the liveliest in New Mexico once upon a time, and when you visit the saloon, you get to feel like you’re back in the past.
7. Hike in Lincoln National Forest
On the east side of White Sands and Las Cruces, The Lincoln National forest covers over 1,000,000 acres, offering trees and mountains in an otherwise arid part of New Mexico.
There are several campgrounds, cabins, swimming hole, and waterfalls! You can learn more about visiting here.
If you have time, this is the perfect stop before or after White Sands National Park, you may even prefer staying in this area to staying in Las Cruces, if you’re the outdoorsy type.
8. Stop in Silver City
Moving over to the west side of Las Cruces, and on the way if driving from southern Arizona, Silver City is the perfect jumping off point for the Gila National Forest, a 3.3 million-acre area with hikes to petroglyphs, lush landscape, and plenty of hiking.
But it’s also a quirky small town with about 10,000 residents and plenty of historic buildings and landmarks. You’ll find plenty of hikes, wilderness, beautiful rock formations that will remind you of Arizona, and even ancient cliff dwellings. Read on for more and visit the city website for more specifics here.
9. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
This National Monument is one of several in New Mexico that gives visitors a peek into how people thrived in this environment in cave dwellings.
New Mexico has such an interesting and varied history, with many of the historic cave dwellings from the Pueblo people still intact and visitable today.
This is also one of few opportunities to actually go inside of the caves and the cliff dwellings, although this was modified for COVID, be sure to check their website to see if they are open again in the future. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time here, as most people spend all day exploring!
10. Soak in the Hot Springs in Truth or Consequences
Heading north on the 25 freeway, if you’re a hot spring enthusiast like I am, then you will love Truth or Consequences, located right on the Rio Grande.
This little town isn’t the bougie hot spring destination that I expected. It’s a low-key, salt-of-the-earth type of place with a couple of commercial springs that have made it famous with visitors. The highest-rated is Riverbend.
We ended up booking an Airbnb that had its own Hot Spring right on the Rio Grande. This Airbnb is a bit pricey, but it was worth it. Alternatively, rent something cheaper and visit Riverbend!
I was blown away by how much animal life there was! Just the sheer number of birds made it a delightful experience. Imagine filling up your own hot spring while the sun rises and an Osprey dives down into the water to catch a fish. This really happened to me!
As for as food, Tony’s Mexican Restaurant is where it’s at. Truly, it’s the most happening place in town!
11. Visit Elephant Butte Lake State Park
Just outside of Truth or Consequences, you’ll find Elephant Butte Lake State Park, a favorite with locals for swimming and boating in the warmer months. In such an arid part of New Mexico, the Rio Grande brings in plenty of wildlife and opportunities for swimming and boating.
If you’re staying in town, you can head over for a swim or sunset. It’s also possible to camp, RV, bring a boat, a houseboat, kayaks, and more. Visit the state park website for more information.
12. Visit Spaceport America
Spaceport America is the first airport for spaceships. Unfortunately, it never really got off the ground (please tell me you noticed the pun) and has yet to open into the bustling spaceship airport as planned. That said, virgin space did have a successful departure from spaceport America recently, so it may just be a matter of time until it reaches its full potential!
Although not open to the public, you can book and take a Spaceport America tour. They’re somewhat pricey, but for the true enthusiast, it’s probably worth it. Learn more here.
13. Get Your Alien Fix in Roswell
In keeping with the outer space theme, if you’re into alien lore like I am, you might find it worth the drive east to Roswell, New Mexico. If you’re coming from White Sands, it might make sense to hit up Roswell and then make your way up to Albuquerque, assuming that you don’t want to stop in Truth or Consequences. What can I say, New Mexico is a big state!
Check out The International UFO Museum and Research Center, the museum of art, showcasing artists-in-residence, and generally enjoy the quirky atmosphere.
14. Catch the Balloon Festival in Albuquerque
Albuquerque is famous for its annual International Balloon Fiesta in October. It is the largest city in New Mexico, home to many cultural museums and vintage Route 66 motels. The Historic Old Town, located in the heart of the city, is known for its unique jewelry shops (beautiful turquoise stones!), leatherworking shops, and art galleries.
For food, eat doughnuts out of a double decker bus at Bristol Doughnut Company or try the Grove Cafe & Market for an organic, locally sourced spot for a break in between all the classic New Mexican food staples. The most popular outdoor activity in town is the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, which offers 360 degree views of the city and surrounding mountains.
Just outside the city lies Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm – the property is on a beautiful 25 acre working lavender farm, which also offers various workshops on site. The property is stunning and worth a visit or relaxing overnight stay.
15. Explore Albuquerque’s Breaking Bad Filming Locations
If you’re an enthusiast of the hugely popular and Emmy-decorated Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul like I am, then what better way to see Albuquerque than through the notorious filming locations?
They’re located all throughout the city and most of them are still working businesses and homes that people live in to this day, so do tread lightly.
I especially enjoyed watching Better Call Saul episodes after exploring Albuquerque, as it gave me a whole new appreciation for where these were filmed!
16. Check out Chaco Culture National Historical Park
For lovers of history who want to explore more ruins, Chaco Canyon has some of the best preserved and least crowded ones to check out. This might be due to how far west it is of major cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but there’s plenty to see in the area!
Most of the reviewers recommend a four-wheel-drive vehicle to access these due to huge potholes and the washboard nature of the road, which kept me from visiting as I had a rental car, but if you’ve got the right vehicle, it sounds like one of the best places to dip back into history without too many other people.
17. Marvel at Fajada Butte
Believed to be a place of ceremonial importance for the Chacoan people, the Fajada Butte houses dwellings as well, and rises like a giant over the landscape around it at 6,623 ft (2,019 m) in elevation.
If you happen to be visiting around either this summer or winter solstice, you may be lucky enough to view the dagger of light that shows up in the spirals of the petroglyphs. Artist Anna Sofaer also noted light daggers in other spirals at the winter equinox and even daggers of moon light every lunar minor standstill (which has roughly an 18-year cycle). How cool is that?
This is one of the most famous places to visit in the Chaco canyon and it’s best to access it with a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
18. Visit the Bisti Badlands and De-Na-Zin Wilderness
For some of the trippiest rock formations you’ve ever seen, including the alien’s throne and dragon eggs, head to the Bisti Badlands wilderness.
In total this wilderness area covers about 45,000 acres, and it’s easy to get lost or disoriented. There are no trails to speak of, so I recommend tracking your location on an off-line map like maps.me and be sure to bring plenty of water.
That said exploring this area is such an adventure, and there are new, unique rock formations around every twist and turn. I do wish I had known about some of them before going, so here’s a map of some of the most famous things to see and their locations.
Though located down a dirt road, you don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to access the parking lot of this one, and you can even camp out in the parking lot!
19. Visit Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness
Close to the Bisti Badlands, you’ll find this wilderness full of similar yet unique rock formations and soft colors.
This area is probably best explored from the Chaco Canyon all the way to the Bisti Badlands, taking several days to really enjoy it, if you’ve got the time. The way that the clay landscape has been carved continuously evolves as you explore, and the stars, full Moon, sunrises, and sunsets out there must be spectacular.
A word to the wise: I visited in the spring which is the windy season, and they really mean windy! It got so dusty, we didn’t see the moon-rise as planned, but it was still beautiful to experience.
20. Soak in the Jemez Hot Springs
From the Bisti area, head west into the mountains and check out Jemez Springs, full of pine trees and hot springs. There are plenty of beautiful hikes throughout the forests and unique rock formations to check out as well. This is also a great area for camping, although in the winter it gets snowy and cold.
Some of the Hot Springs are natural, primitive Hot Springs that require a long hike or drive, and in town there’s also the Jemez Hot Springs, a hot spring spa with several pools. It’s first-come, first-served, so keep that in mind on busy weekends.
Spence Hot Springs and San Antonio Hot Springs are the most popular primitive springs, with pine forests surrounding the various pools. If visiting San Antonio Hot Springs during snow season, an all wheel, high clearance vehicle is necessary, or be prepared to hike an additional 5 miles to the trailhead. Please be sure to brush up on Leave No Trace principles and hot spring etiquette before you go.
Watch more here:
21. Valles Caldera National Preserve
This national preserve unfortunately recently experienced some extensive fire damage, but it is still a beautiful part of the state, full of pine trees and beautiful hikes. In the winter, there are several ski slopes in the area as well.
It’s also the area surrounding Jemez Springs, so you’ll find several hot springs in the area too.
22. Check out Bandelier National Monument
If you’re hoping to see some historic cave dwellings, then put this on your list. Human settlements in this area date back over 11,000 years, and exploring these dwellings is both fascinating and entertaining! I loved imagining what life was like back then. And I admired how clever it was to establish residences in the rock, which is porous and easy to carve.
We visited on a warm day in April, and the temperature in the caves must’ve been at least 20° cooler. I imagine the opposite is true in the winter. If you have a national parks pass, this will give you free entry to the national monument.
23. Puye Cliff Dwellings
If coming from the North, you’ll also pass by the Puye Cliff Dwellings, which are another impressive set of cave dwellings and structures to explore. Be sure to check their website because like many things on Native lands, these are closed due to COVID at the moment.
24. Golden Hour at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
In case you didn’t get enough at the Bisti Badlands, the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is another amazing set of geological formations. The cone-shaped tent rock formations are the products of volcanic eruptions that occurred 6 to 7 million years ago.
This area is great for hiking, and I can imagine at golden hour or sunset it’s spectacular. Unfortunately due to COVID it is temporarily closed, but check to see if it has reopened by the time you’re reading this, because it looks soooo cool!
25. Hang in Madrid
Madrid was once a ghost town that artists moved into to breathe new life into it. These days you’ll find plenty of galleries with jewelry, sculptures, rugs, and crystals. This was such a friendly town that was bustling over the weekend! I recommend eating lunch at The Hollar and exploring the galleries on foot before you head onward to Santa Fe or Albuquerque, depending in the direction you’re going.
26. Drive the Turquoise Trail
On your way to or from Santa Fe, you could take the 25 freeway, but why do that when you can take the Turquoise Trail? This scenic drive between Albuquerque and Santa Fe meanders through rolling hills and artistic communities. Be sure to stop by the Bottle House (below) for a personal tour from Leroy before arriving in Madrid.
27. Check out the Bottle House
I can’t be sure if I really saw the actual bottle house, because it looks like there are two of them across the street from each other, I stopped at the one with Leroy, and you’ve got to meet him to really know him, but he’s ecclectic and highly entertaining.
He will give you a tour of his Upcycled little art installation in exchange for a donation. It’s a nice five minute stop that reminded me in some ways of my exploration of Slab City in California.
28. Be Wowed at Meow Wolf Santa Fe
Created by Santa-Fe-based artists, this trippy fun-house vibed experience is a must-do. It’s worth several hours just to explore all of the little details and exhibits, and to get lost inside the art itself.
Co-author Megan shares, “I initially booked my trip to New Mexico because one of my favorite DJs was playing a show at the infamous interactive art museum, Meow Wolf. With or without live music, Meow Wolf is a must visit for anyone who loves the idea of a weird, wild, immersive, can-get-lost-for-hours indoor playground. There are secret passageways (even through a washing machine!) – it’s one of those things that you just need to see for yourself to understand!”
29. Immerse In Santa Fe’s Arts + Culinary Scene
For a more classic art experience, the Georgia O’Keeffe museum is worth a visit, and for modern art, check out IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA). There’s also Canyon Road, full of art galleries.
Downtown Santa Fe is easily walkable and filled with lots of weekend open air markets. For authentic New Mexican cuisine, check out Casa Chimayo (the green chile stew is a classic!) and Cafe Pasqual’s for brunch. The El Rey is a reasonably priced boutique hotel with classic southwest decor and a cute mezcal bar, called La Reina, inside.
Food-wise, check out the Kakawa Chocolate House for some inventive hot chocolate elixirs and truffels. For upscale dining, Geronimo is the most famous, although it does book out in advance. Book a reservation here.
30. Check out Galisteo’s History + Stay in an Historic Building
There are plenty of upscale hotels that you can stay in Santa Fe, and I totally understand if you want that experience. Most people don’t put this stop on their road trip, but this historic area has pueblos dating back to the 1200s-1300s.
We stayed here instead of in Santa Fe in order to have a more unique, truly New Mexican experience. This Airbnb is over 100 years old, and the owner’s family lived in it for generations before turning it into a rental! It’s also a great value in an other wise bougie Santa Fe.
You can view a tour at the 7:42 mark in the video above.
31. Soak in Ojo Caliente
Oh Kelly and her are perhaps the most famous springs in New Mexico, with most people telling you that they are a must to do. This historic Springs have beautiful mountain views, and it used to be possible to stay there as well. Unfortunately, a fire has closed the main Springs, however they do have a smaller springs in Santa Fe.
Be sure to check back on the Ojo Caliente site to see if they reopen in time for your New Mexico Trip!
32. Hang in Taos
The atmosphere of Taos is hard to explain – it’s one of those towns where I immediately felt at peace, wanted to extend my trip, and soak in the beautiful and spiritual aura of it all. Maybe it’s a vortex.
Between the stunning views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, live music in “the living room of Taos” – also known as the Adobe Bar inside the Historic Taos Inn, and Black Rock and Manby Hot Springs along the river, it’s definitely a town to spend a few days in. Taos is also a year-round destination offering white-water rafting in the summer and skiing in the winter, among other outdoor activities.
33. Visit the Taos Pueblo
One of the most popular destinations is Taos Pueblo, the sole, still active Native American community that’s been designated not only a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, but also a National Historic Landmark. The pueblos are considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States – ancient ruins show inhabitants dating back over 1000 years. The cultural and historical importance of the pueblos – and Native American history in New Mexico in general – is something all visitors should learn about while visiting.
At the moment it’s closed due to COVID, but check back for opening potential in the future.
34. Check out the Overlook
On your way out of Taos and onward to the Earthship Biotecture, catch the sweeping views of the Rio Grande, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the Rio Grande River gorge at the Taos Valley Overlook.
There’s a small parking lot on either side. I imagine it would be brilliant at sunset or sunrise.
35. Stay in an Earthship in the Earthship Biotecture
Imagine a community of over 70 earth houses that are completely off the grid. Not only that, but they are designed to be amazing, trippy designs using old tires, bottles, cans, and adobe.
It is completely self-contained, growing its own food, creating its own energy from the sun, subsisting on rainwater that is filtered and reused four times throughout the structure, and is self-heating, in harmony with its environment. After spending time here, you might ask yourself why every structure isn’t built this way.
I stayed in two Earthships during my New Mexico road trip, and candidly seeing this for myself was one of my biggest motivators for visiting the state in the first place! You can read more about the experience, both the good and the bad, here.
Even if you don’t end up staying in one of the earthships, you can check out the visitor’s center where you can take a tour of one structure and see how the systems work. While this is cool, it only gives you a taste of the experience. So I recommend that you stay overnight in one! This is the Airbnb I recommend.
36. Ski in Taos
During the winter, Taos is a famous area in New Mexico for skiing. There’s also Via Ferrata, mountain biking, and more during the summertime. Not to mention, there’s plenty of great hiking in the area.
You can check out season pass times and rates here.
Heading back northwest for the next two, Shiprock is an isolated mountain rising nearly 1,583 feet (482.5 m) above the high-desert plain of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo name for the peak, Tsé Bitʼaʼí, “rock with wings” or “winged rock”, refers to the legend of the great bird that brought the Navajo from the north to their present lands.
Obviously, this area is of great spiritual significance, and it is closed to climbing or hiking, but you can view and photograph it from Indian Service Route 13 or from US Highway 491.
38. Four Corners
The famous meeting of four states, each contributing a perfect corner, allows you to be in multiple paces at once. At the four corners, you’ll be at the meeting point of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.
This is the only location in the United States where four states meet, and is marked by national monument. It’s also an area of historical significance with regards to the statehood of each state.
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New Mexico still feels so wild and untouched. Its rich heritage, rooted in the Native American spirit, is so alive that you can feel the magic in your bones as you traverse the open roads and stare up at the starry dark skies. I can’t wait until I have a chance to return.
This post is a collaboration written by Kristin with some content written by Courtney – a longtime weekend warrior who quit her corporate job to backpack Southeast Asia. She is currently back in the US, and you can follow her future adventures on Instagram.