New Mexico Might Just Be the Trippiest State in the U.S.
Art, tent rocks, and aliens are everywhere.
New Mexico ranks in the top two weirdest states, and it sure as hell isn’t number 2. It’s got extraterrestrials and nuclear test sites. It’s got legal weed and Breaking Bad filming locations. It’s got Mother Nature’s most bizarre experiments, from otherworldly volcanic rock formations to ancient cave dwellings and stark white sand dunes that look like they were imported straight from Frank Herbert’s fictional Arrakis.
The heritage and cultures of 23 Native American communities, along with historic architecture, unique cuisine, and an Old Western spirit, are also woven into the state’s identity. And at this confluence of traditions, history, geology, and straight-up eccentricity, you'll find a place unlike anywhere else on the continent.
The Land of Enchantment is the perfect road trip destination. Here are some unmissable stops to visit along the way.
Despite getting a tenth of the annual visitors that Yellowstone sees, 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. Grab a seat at the amphitheater at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge for their evening meal at 6pm (or return from the feast around 6am).
Stretching 275 square miles, White Sands’ dunes aren’t composed of typical beach sand, but rather of gypsum crystals left behind from an ancient dried-out lake bed. The result looks like an otherworldly white-sand version of the Sahara Desert, an astonishing sight so far inland. You half expect to see camels waltzing by.
A driving loop takes you into the heart of the park, where you can get out and walk right into the dunes. The visitor center sells plastic saucers for sand sledding, and you’ll sometimes see people on horseback taking epic trail rides. To see the dunes at their most magical, sign up for a ranger-led sunset walk or camp out overnight to see the sunrise. The national park also sits within the White Sands Missile Range, which is where the first atomic bomb was tested back in 1945. Today, a National Historic Landmark Monument stands on ground zero, and the park offers tours to the site twice a year.
Tiwa Native Americans have lived at the World Heritage-listed Taos Pueblo (currently closed due to COVID-19) for more than 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. On a self-guided tour, you’ll feel both like you’re roaming an art gallery and like you’re glimpsing into the home of the future—or an attractive off-the-grid lifestyle that may remain frustratingly out of reach.
Located on Indigenous Cochiti Pueblo lands, Kasha-Katuwe makes for an easy detour between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Volcanic eruptions that occurred six to seven million years ago created this national monument’s hundreds of strange-looking rock spires, whose boulder caps look almost like silly hats. Take it all in with a 1.2-mile loop hike (about a two-hour trek) or opt for a more ambitious 3-mile out-and-back route with a climb through a slot canyon. Either way, factor in plenty of time to stop for snaps.
Note: Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is currently closed to the public due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Roswell might get the most attention from alien lovers, but little green visitors would feel right at home in this bizarre wilderness area. The phrase Bisti/De-Na-Zin comes from the Navajo words Bisti, meaning "a large area of shale hills,” and Dééł Náázíní or "cranes,” referring to petroglyph birds found on the cliffside.
The area is full of strangely eroded formations, rocks balancing impossibly on cliff edges, huge arches, and slot canyons. This is a very remote area with no established hiking trails, so be sure to bring a GPS device and a friend if you plan to set out on a hike. It’s also a protected landscape, so don’t climb on or disturb the delicate rock formations, petroglyphs, or fossils.
New Mexico isn't only about the beauty of nature: the big skies and mountain views of its largest city, Albuquerque, create a laid-back atmosphere worth checking out, too. Explore the walkable streets of Old Town, where the city was founded in 1706, or visit in the fall during the week-long Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot-air balloon festival in the world. Breaking Bad fans can retrace the steps of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman on a bicycle tour of filming locations with Routes Rentals.
An even more rewarding mode of transportation is the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, which carries guests nearly 10,000 feet up into the Cibola National Forest to an observation deck (and an A+ restaurant) where they can catch sweeping views of the Rio Grande Valley west of the city. And in the evening, explore Albuquerque’s growing brewery district in the north part of downtown; don’t miss Bow & Arrow Brewing, founded by two Native American women, or one of the city’s oldest breweries at Marble Brewery, which has a fantastic upstairs patio with views of the mountains.
Acoma Sky City
Sixty miles west of Albuquerque is Acoma Pueblo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America, where about a dozen tribal elders and their families still live full-time. Known as Sky City for its location atop a 376-foot-high mesa, Acoma Pueblo looks and feels much like it must have hundreds of years ago, with streets of tilting adobe homes, no indoor plumbing, and electricity provided only by portable generators. Come here to soak in the history and to shop the gorgeous, intricate horse-hair pottery and jewelry that locals sell around town.
In New Mexico’s charming capital, Santa Fe, sights are mainly centered around the easily walkable historic Plaza, the traditional end of the Old Santa Fe Trail. The city’s architecture is part of a complex legacy of Spanish Colonial history and Native American heritage, and several of its historic adobe buildings rank among the oldest structures in the US.
The dining scene is equally as vibrant. The Shed serves up traditional New Mexican flavors in the sunny courtyard of a historic hacienda, while Tia Sophia is the rumored birthplace of the breakfast burrito. Every bartender in town tries to outdo each other with their margaritas, all of which are best sipped at sunset; the best drinks and views can be found on the rooftops of La Fonda’s Bell Tower Bar or Coyote Cantina.
Santa Fe is also one of the country’s best art cities. Browse the shops around the Plaza or the galleries on Canyon Road before heading to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which is full of flower paintings and works from the artist’s time spent living at Ghost Ranch in the northern part of the state. Any Santa Fe itinerary should also include some time spent absorbing Native American art, with The Wheelwright Museum and the Institute of American Indian Arts being the best places to start.
The Railyard District’s bars, coffeehouses, Saturday farmers market, and Jean Cocteau Cinema (owned by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin!) should also satisfy your creative needs. And, of course, no trip is complete without a stop at Meow Wolf, an old bowling alley-turned-massive, trippy interactive art installation.
Less than an hour’s drive from Santa Fe, Los Alamos is well worth a day trip. The mountain town was the site of the secretive Manhattan Project and the birthplace of the atomic bomb, which earned it the nickname “The Town that Never Was” even before it became home to Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the country’s most important nuclear labs.
You can learn about the town's history at the Los Alamos Historical Museum, which preserves the school buildings that served as the main base for the Manhattan Project and housed its top scientists, including J. Robert Oppenheimer. Several poignant exhibits chronicle the costs of the bomb with interviews with Japanese survivors. There’s also the Bradbury Science Museum, which offers a scientific lens on atomic and nuclear development.
Otherwise, there’s ample hiking, camping, and mountain biking on high-elevation trails outside of town, and nearby Bandelier National Monument has petroglyphs, cliff dwellings (accessible by wooden ladders), and other ruins left behind by the ancestral Puebloan people. Los Alamos is home to a handful of great breweries, too—specifically, Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op and Boese Bros, two brewpubs opposite one another on Central Park Square.
This small village in the Sierra Blanca Mountains is home to Ski Apache, the southernmost ski resort in the United States. Even if you're not much of a skier, take a ride up the gondola for beautiful arid mountain views. The trails around Alto Lake and Grindstone Lake are popular with hikers, while the bars and restaurants in Midtown will keep you busy when you want to head inside. Later, take in a performance at the Spencer Theater for the Performing Arts, a nonprofit venue said to have the best acoustics in the entire state.
Not far away from Ruidoso are the ghost town of White Oaks (home of the No Scum Allowed Saloon) and the Lincoln Historic Site, a collection of late-1800s buildings preserved from the era of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
This 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—they were the largest anywhere on the continent, and would hold that status for the next 900 years. The buildings sit smack in the middle of a sprawling canyon surrounded by towering red mesas, including the spiritual Fajada Butte (aka the American Machu Picchu), which juts 440 feet up from the canyon floor. Along with the fascinating archaeological sites, Chaco is an International Dark Sky Park and thus one of the best places in the US to look up at the stars and contemplate human existence.
Back in the day, the likes of Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid roamed the streets of this true Old West town, and Geronimo is believed to have been born not far away on what is now the New Mexico-Arizona border. Now, Silver City—named for its once-flourishing mining industry—is a cultural oasis, with a small but excellent handful of theaters, restaurants, and art galleries.
Just 15 minutes north, you’ll hit Pinos Altos, a town best known for the Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House, which hasn’t changed much since it opened in the 1860s. Also nearby are the remains of Fort Bayard, an army base where African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” were garrisoned against Apache raiders.
Just outside of Las Cruces, the tiny town of Mesilla was the site of numerous US-Mexico boundary disputes in the 1850s; it was originally settled by a community that wanted to remain a part of Mexico after the border was further moved south.
Mesilla Plaza is the heart of the community, with the twin steeples of the 160-year-old Basilica of San Albino as the most identifiable landmark. Local heritage also flourishes in the shops and restaurants of the Mercado District: Eat dinner at the haunted Double Eagle Steakhouse, dig into more traditional New Mexican cuisine at Andele, or book a tasting on the patio at D.H. Lescombes Winery, founded by a family of French winemakers who discovered an ideal climate in New Mexico for producing robust, flavorful vino.
Along with being an inexplicably popular locale for alien activity, New Mexico is popular for chaotic human activity—including one region once designated as a potential nuclear test site. It’ll only take one look at El Malpais (literally, “the badlands”) to understand why: barren and boundless, the land is no stranger to explosions. Beneath the craggy terrain, you’ll find ancient lava tubes carved out during a massive volcanic eruption about 4,000 years ago. Trek the lava fields and high desert above ground, then strap on a headlamp and head into the depths to explore the dormant underground systems and ice caves.
Truth or Consequences
We’ll be damned if Truth or Consequences doesn’t sound like something out of the best Old Western film imaginable, but the truth (ha ha ha) is a little different. Originally called Hot Springs, the town was renamed in 1950 as a publicity stunt for the NBC radio game show of the same name.
Aside from taking a picture with the welcome sign, there’s actually plenty to do: take a soak in ancient mineral hot springs, check out Apache artifacts and a real 1930s miner’s cabin at the Geronimo Springs Museum, or visit during the annual T or C Fiesta—held since the 1950s—for motorcycle and traditional rodeos, pageants, food, live music, and more. Sign up for a guided tour of the nearby Spaceport America, where Virgin Galactic is taking the first space tourists into orbit, and at the end of the day, grab a brew at Truth or Consequences Brewing Company on North Broadway.
Gila Wilderness & VLA
The Gila Wilderness in western New Mexico was designated the first national wilderness area in 1924. Within are the cliff dwellings where the Mogollon people lived more than 700 years ago. A one-hour hike brings you to the five caves, which together have more than 50 rooms, while the Catwalk Recreation Area allows you to venture deep into the wilderness along raised platforms originally installed for ore prospecting. Nearby, the Cosmic Campground is a certified International Dark Sky Sanctuary, perfect for camping out under the Milky Way.
To the North, Pie Town is named for a Depression-era bakery that specialized in pies, which can still be enjoyed at the Pie-O-Neer and other cafes in town. And just off of Highway 60 east of Pie Town is the Very Large Array, a huge radio telescope composed of 28 satellite dishes and made famous in the Jodie Foster film Contact. A visitor’s center and walking trails allow you to get up close to the dishes and learn more about radio astronomy. (Be aware: you have to turn off your cell phone to enter!)
Note: The Very Large Array is currently closed to the public due to Covid-19.
So was it space aliens or a weather balloon that crashed outside Roswell back in 1947? We'll probably never get a straight answer from the U.S. government, but that doesn't stop the fifth-largest city in New Mexico from embracing its UFO legacy. There's the International UFO Museum and Research Center, where kitsch counts just as much as scientific evidence, and the Roswell UFO Spacewalk, a blacklight journey through vintage sci-fi imagery. There's even a McDonald’s on Main Street built in the shape of a flying saucer and an annual UFO Festival. But lest you think it’s all probes and spaceships, Roswell also has four art museums that have (almost) nothing to do with space creatures.
The mountains of northern New Mexico offer a stunning Rocky Mountain respite amid the rest of the state’s arid beauty. The former mining village of Chama is the western terminus of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway, a narrow-gauge railroad on what remains of the 19th century Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. Food options include the Boxcar Cafe (set to reopen in 2022) or the Elk Horn Cafe (try the Chama Burger). A number of mountain lodges and campsites offer the chance for a mountain escape with hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and trout fishing in the Rio Chama.
Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas and other destinations in Thrillist for more than seven years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Trivago Magazine, Sophisticated Living, Modern Luxury, and other publications. Follow him on @rkachelriess.
Megan Eaves is a travel writer and editor at Nightscapeand Visit Uzbekistan whose work can be found in Culture Trip, Lonely Planet, TimeOut, CNN, The Independent, and more.
Tiana Attride contributed to reporting for this article.