New Mexico, the “land of enchantment,” lives up to its reputation for beautiful locations and great things to see and do. From mountains to deserts, sand dunes to snow capped peaks, New Mexico has it all when it comes to natural wonders. It also has some incredible attractions and events that make the state a great place to visit year around. Here are SeeTheSouthwest’s top 10 picks for places to visit and things to do in New Mexico.
1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Beneath the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico is a cavern of wonder and mystery. It’s hard to image that under a rather bleak stretch of cactus, rock and sand there exists a world of exquisite beauty, hidden in more than 300 known caves (more caves are being discovered every year). Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains 116 of these caves, and some of the largest caves in North America, which means you should plan to spend some time in the park exploring. The caverns were created as water wore away at a fossil reef created in an inland sea some 250 to 300 million years ago. In more modern times, the ancestral Native Americans, the Spanish, settlers and more have explored the caves.
2. Chaco Canyon National Historical Park
There is a 20-miles stretch of Chaco Wash in the San Juan Basin that was a major center of Puebloan culture between AD 850 and 1250. There are nine major houses and nearly 4,000 other smaller sites that are part of the homeland of Pueblo Indian peoples of New Mexico, the Hopi Indians of Arizona, and the Navajo Indians of the Southwest. Chaco Canyon National Historical Park is located in Northwest New Mexico and was once the hub of trade, culture and ceremony for the Four Corners region and is unlike anything seen before or since. Some of the walls in the major houses rise as high as five stories, and required a great deal of architectural planning.
3. Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
The San Juan Mountains are an extremely rugged and picturesque range in western Colorado, and include some of the most unexplored territory in the continental U.S. The San Juans are also considered by many to have some of the best, most varied scenery anywhere in the world. Spanning the continental divide, the San Juans haves numerous jagged volcanic summits, 13 of which rise to over 14,000 feet, as well as many lakes, waterfalls and streams. Today, you can make the same journey the first miners and settlers did aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. It’s a fantastic way to capture the beauty, majesty and mystery of the Southern Rocky Mountains, and it’s lots of fun! The train departs from either Chama, New Mexico, or Antonito, Colorado.
4. Earth, Wind and Flyers: The Albuquerque International Balloon Festival
Every year during the first week of October, the skies over New Mexico, bloom with color as the balloons from the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival take to the air. Nothing rivals the grander of these gentle giants as they ascend into the deep blue desert skies or fill the night sky with glowing, illuminated shapes. The event began in 1972 with just 13 balloons that launched from a mall parking lot. Today, during the Balloon Fiesta, nearly 700 balloons launch from the 365-acre balloon park and pilots come to join the fiesta from all over the world.
5. Bandelier National Monument
Frijoles Creek begins on the snowy slopes of Cerro Grande Peak and carves its way down through the Pajarito Plateau for over fourteen miles before entering the winding Rio Grande, and drops about 4,000 feet. Tucked into a deep canyon cut by the creek are the pueblo dwellings of an ancient people built between 1150 AD to the early 1500s. The people chose this area because running water was readily available year around in a time when the southwest was experiencing harsh drought in other areas. While sites like Mesa Verde were being abandoned, the pueblo houses of Bandelier National Monument were growing and prospering.
6. El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area
El Malpais is one of the most unique outdoor adventure areas on the Southwest. El Malpais means “the bad country” in Spanish, so named by the Conquistadors who had to detour around rough terrain. This area lives up to its name with more than 590 square miles of razor-sharp black lava flows, the landscape is inhospitable, but beautiful. Unquestionably, the main feature of El Malpais are gnarled configurations formed by molten lava — including lava tubes, ice caves, sinkholes, spatter cones, pressure ridges and craters. Due to the low altitude and black rock, this place can turn into a furnace during the Summer months, so it is best visited in the Spring and Fall.
7. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
High on a cliff above the headwaters of the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico sits a series of stone dwellings tucked cleverly into alcoves. Situated 180 feet above the canyon floor, these 40 precarious perches have level plastered floors, mortared masonry walls, plastered walls, and hearths, and were home to eight or ten families of Native American Mogollon culture. The dwellings at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument were most likely constructed in the late 1200s and have a strong resemblance (construction techniques and T-shaped doorways) to the ancestral Puebloans that lived all across Southwestern America. Although archeologists aren’t sure if this was a dwelling place or a special sacred site, one thing is for certain, you’ll never forget your visit to this amazing place.
8. Sandia Peak Tramway
If you love heights and love the feel of looking down over vast amounts of land, then a trip on the Sandia Peak Tramway in Albuquerque, New Mexico, will amaze you! The aerial tramway transports you above deep canyons and breathtaking terrain for a distance of 2.7 miles — the world’s longest passenger aerial tramway. From the observation deck atop Sandia Peak (elevation 10,378 feet) you will overlook Cibola National Forest and 11,000 square miles of the Rio Grande Valley, also known as the Land of Enchantment. Some claim the view is similar to looking down from an airplane on scenic tour. This is also a great jumping off point for some amazing hiking and biking trails.
9. White Sands National Monument
Gleaming like arctic snow, the sand dunes of White Sands National Monument are anything but cold. Here, great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of desert just north of the border with Mexico, and have created the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Gypsum typically forms large crystals. There is a cave in Naica, Mexico where the crystals dwarf the people standing next to them. So it is most unusual to find gypsum in the form of sand. Again, due to the high summer heat, this natural wonder is best visited during the Fall, Winter and Spring.
10. Albuquerque Biological Park
The Albuquerque Biological Park is a terrific, kid-friendly place to enjoy while visiting the Southwest. The park is comprised of four different attractions — the Albuquerque Aquarium, the Rio Grande Botanic Garden, the Rio Grande Zoo and Tingley Beach. Linked by two narrow gauge trains — the Rio Line travels between the Aquarium & Botanic Garden, Tingley Beach and the Zoo, and the Thunderbird Express loops through the Zoo — the four attractions will provide days of fun for your family so plan to spend several days or you’ll never see it all.