This Southwestern State Is America's Endlessly Trippy Desert Wonderland
Art, hoodoos, and aliens are everywhere.
You could visit New Mexico for the beauty of nature alone and leave perfectly happy. The Southwest state is full of national parks and monuments that show off volcanic rock formations, cave dwellings, and stark white sand dunes that could've been imported straight from the Sahara, if not another planet entirely. Throughout it all, Native American culture, historic architecture, and an Old West independent spirit are woven into the cultural fabric. And at this confluence of traditions, history, and geology, you'll find a place unlike anywhere else on the continent.
You've also got Breaking Bad filming locations, nuclear test sites, and probably at least a few aliens. You'll find world-class museums and some of the best regional cuisine in America amid newly hip small towns and ancient settlements still thriving after centuries. The Land of Enchantment is all but demanding to be your next big road-trip destination. Here's what you're missing in the meantime.
Carlsbad Caverns National ParkDespite having just 1/10 of the annual visitors to Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most engaging national parks in the country—a 73-square-mile network of more than 100 massive caves that seem to go on forever. In the "Big Room," stunning stalactites drip from the tall ceiling and fat stalagmite mounds reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt rise from the cave's floor. It’s certainly worth grabbing a seat at the amphitheatre at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge from the cave for their evening meal at 6pm—or when they return by 6am.
Santa FeMost of the action in Santa Fe is in the walkable, easy-to-navigate Historic District, where mud-colored adobe architecture complements a legacy of Spanish Colonial history and Native American heritage. The dining scene is especially vibrant, ranging from the elevated Italian of Sassella to the traditional Mexican flavors of The Shed—although it's hard to resist the live music and flamenco dancing at El Farol.
Every bartender in town is trying to outdo each other with their Margaritas, but Santa Fe cements its legacy as one of the best cities in the country for art, whether browsing the shops near the Plaza town square or the galleries on Canyon Road. The Railyard District is a little more hipster with bars, coffeehouses, bed and breakfasts, and theaters, including the Jean Cocteau Cinema, owned by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. Midtown is all about Meow Wolf, which turned an old bowling alley into an interactive art installation with a trippy, abstract take on classic Americana. The less you know about this in advance, the better.
TaosTiwa Native Americans have inhabited the World Heritage-listed Taos Pueblo for a millennium, although artists have been shaping a new, more modern image of the picturesque mountain town since at least the 1920s. Apart from the pueblo and charming village plaza with its excellent Harwood Museum of Art, check out the cold sweat-inducing Gorge Bridge perched 600 feet above the Rio Grande and the futuristic Earthship Biotecture, a sustainability project where houses are made out of recycled tires, cans, and bottles. Self-guided tours have the feel of roaming an art gallery, while offering a glimpse into the home of the future—or an off-the-grid lifestyle that may remain frustratingly out of reach.
White Sands National MonumentStretching 275 square miles, the dunes here aren’t composed of your typical beach sand, but rather from gypsum crystals left behind from a nearby dried-out lake bed. The result looks more like a white-sand version of the Sahara desert than New Mexico. You half expect to see camels waltzing by. The dunes are a jarring sight so far inland, and best experienced on horseback or by zipping down the sand in one of the plastic saucers sold at the visitor center. The White Sands Missile Range (north of the national monument) has its place in history as the site of the world's first atomic bomb detonation. Tours to the Trinity test site (where a National Historic Landmark monument stands on ground zero) are offered on an extremely limited basis— traditionally just twice a year.
Acoma Sky CitySixty miles west of Albuquerque, on top of a 367-foot tall golden mesa, is America’s oldest continuously inhabited community with about a dozen families still living there. Acoma Pueblo, also known as Sky City, looks and feels much as it must have hundreds of years ago. Adobe bricks pad its tiny box-like homes and there’s no sign of electricity or modern toilets. Residents sell gorgeous, intricate horse-hair pottery and jewellery.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National MonumentVolcanic eruptions that occurred six to seven million years ago have resulted in hundreds of strange-looking hoodoo spires with boulder caps that look like silly hats. Take it all in with a 1.2-mile loop (about a two-hour trek) or opt for the more ambitious three-mile route with a climb through a slot canyon. Either way, factor in plenty of time to stop for snaps. The destination is a tempting detour between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Chaco Culture National Historical ParkThis ancient Puebloan metropolis was the center for Native American culture in the region at the turn of the 10th century and had huge buildings for the time; some of the largest seen anywhere on the continent for the next 900 years. The buildings are smack in the middle of a sprawling canyon surrounded by towering red mesas including the spiritual Fajada Butte—or the American Machu Picchu, which juts 440 feet up from the canyon floor. Along with the fascinating archaeology sites, Chaco is an official Dark Sky Park and thus one of the best places to look up at the stars and contemplate human existence.
Bisti/De-Na-Zin BadlandsRoswell might get all the alien-loving attention, but little green visitors would feel right at home in this bizarre wilderness area. Bisti—meaning "a large area of shale hills” among local Navajo and De-Na-Zin (Deh-nah-zin) meaning "cranes” for the birds found on cliffside petroglyphs—is chock full of weird hoodoos, rocks balancing impossibly on edge, huge arches, and slot canyons. The area is off the beaten track and easy to get lost in because there are no established trails, so be sure to bring a GPS device and a buddy before setting out on a hike.
AlbuquerqueNew Mexico isn't always about the beauty of nature. Albuquerque has all the traffic, grit, and congestion of any big city—although it's not without its share of Southwest charm. Walk the cobblestone streets of Old Town, where the city was founded in 1706, or visit during the week-long Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air balloon festival in the world, which usually takes place every autumn. Breaking Bad fans can retrace the steps of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman with an RV tour that (presumably) doesn't have a meth lab on board. An even more rewarding mode of transportation is the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, which carries guests nearly three miles to an observation deck more than 10,000 feet high in the Cibola National Forest with sweeping views of the Rio Grande Valley west of the city.
Silver CityIf you want to visit an Old West cowboy town, Silver City reeks of authenticity: The best reason to visit the southwest corner of New Mexico, it once saw the likes of Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid roaming the streets. Geronimo was possibly born on the city's outskirts, although there's no definitive proof of that. Over the years, Silver City has become a cultural arts oasis with theaters, restaurants, and enough galleries to give Santa Fe a run for its money—much of it heavily influenced by the students of Western New Mexico University.
Just 15 minutes north is (pronounce it right) Pinos Altos, best known for the Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House, which doesn't look like it's changed much since it opened in the 1860s. No visit is complete without an excursion to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, where the Mogollon took shelter more than 700 years ago. Expect a one-hour hike to get there, but the payoff is nearly 50 rooms in five caves. It's also worth visiting the remaining abandoned structures of Fort Bayard, a base where African-American Buffalo Soldiers protected mining communities from the Apache.