Alien Throne
Feast your eyes on the almighty Alien Throne in the Valley of Dreams | Diana Robinson Photography/Moment/Getty
Feast your eyes on the almighty Alien Throne in the Valley of Dreams | Diana Robinson Photography/Moment/Getty
Travel

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
Stalactites and stalagmites and bats, oh my! | Danita Delimont/Gallo Images/Getty

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Despite 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.

The Meow Wolf
The Meow Wolf attraction is a must-see when visiting Santa Fe | AFP Contributor/Getty Images

Santa Fe 

Most 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. 

Manby Hot Springs by Rio Grande
Soak your worries away at Manby Hot Springs | Mona Makela Photography/Getty Images

Taos

Tiwa 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 Monument
Grab your saucers and get to sledding | Bob Thomason/ Photographer's Choice/Getty

White Sands National Monument

Stretching 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 City
Welcome to the oldest community in America | Josemaria Toscano/Shutterstock

Acoma Sky City

Sixty 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 Monument
Basically the Grand Canyon's smaller sibling | Alex Mironyuk/500px/Getty Images

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Volcanic 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 Park

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; 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 Badlands

Roswell 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.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has over 500 balloons each year | Alan Copson/Photolibrary/Getty

Albuquerque

New 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. 

From Old West oasis to arts hub | Courtesy of New Mexico Tourism

Silver City

If 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.

Bandelier National Monument
Hike if you must, but watch out for mountain lions | John Dreyer/Moment/Getty Images

Los Alamos

Los Alamos is less than an hour drive from Santa Fe, but worth a day trip on its own. The mountain town covers four mesas, but earned its place in history as the home of the secretive Manhattan Project and the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Learn about the town's explosive history at the Los Alamos Historical Museum, Bradbury Science Museum, or on a walking tour of leftover military structures scattered among the trees and sidewalks of this low-key community. There isn't much in the way of nightlife or entertainment, but the hikers and bikers will appreciate the high elevation and trails of Bandelier National Monument, where you can spot petroglyphs, cliff dwellings (accessible by ladders), and other ruins left behind by the Ancestral Pueblo.

Yes, this is New Mexico | Ski Apache

Ruidoso

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 to absorb the sweeping alpine 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 not on the slopes. (Try the chili at Grill Caliente.) Ruidoso has relative proximity to White Sands National Park, White Oaks ghost town (home of the No Scum Allowed Saloon, and the Lincoln Historic Site —a collection of buildings preserved from the late 1800s, including a general store with legit products from the era still on display. No matter where you go, you'll hear a lot about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. If you've got the time, attend a performance at the Spencer Theater for the Performing Arts, a nonprofit venue said to have the best acoustics in the entire state.

Mesilla is one of New Mexico's best-kept secrets | Dan Monaghan (NM Tourism)

Mesilla 

Just outside Las Cruces, the tiny town of Mesilla is one of the most unexpected surprises in the entire state. Formerly part of Mexico and the focus of more than one border dispute, Mesilla is rich in culture and manges to foster an independent spirit while still celebrating its heritage. Visit during Cinco de Mayo weekend to really see the people come alive. Mesilla Plaza is the heart of the community with the twin steeples of Basilica of San Albino as the most identifiable landmark. The church is more than 160 years old, but still welcomes the public for regular mass. The heritage is also represented in the shops and restaurants in the Mercado district. Eat dinner at the haunted Double Eagle steakhouse or stick with traditional Mexican cuisine at Andele. Book a tasting on the patio at Lescombes, founded by a family of French winemakers who discovered an ideal climate in New Mexico for producing robust, flavorful vino.

Roswell's UFO Museum | Photo by Dan Monaghan/ New Mexico True

Roswell

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 a s scientific evidence, and the Roswell UFO Spacewalk, a blacklight journey through vintage sci-fi imagery. There's even a McDonalds on Main Street built in the shape of a flying saucer. 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.

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Joel Balsam is a freelance journalist and travel guidebook writer whose work can be found in National Geographic Travel, Time, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure. Follow him @joelbalsam.
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