Mixing rich history and spectacular environments, New Mexico is teeming with underrated destinations. From Santa Fe and Albuquerque to towering mountains and enthralling monuments, travelers will uncover ancient civilizations from centuries ago, historic adobes and plenty of art and culture.
New Mexico has been shaped by Native Americans and Spanish settlers. A unique combination that is unrivaled in the United States. The cultural diversity plays out in the local food scene and in the many things to do in New Mexico with interesting museums and galleries that can be found throughout the state.
So, whether you’re after adventure, history or a mix of both, there is always some you’ll find what you’re looking for in New Mexico.
23. Petroglyph National Monument
Comprising over 25,000 ancient images from the Puebloans and early Spanish settlers, the Petroglyph National Monument is one of the largest in North America. The unique monument is a fascinating look into the life and cultures of those that have come before. With intricate stories showcasing daily life, spirituality, and community.
The best way to see the majority of the petroglyphs is along the monument’s hiking trails. Easy to moderate trails lead you to nearby etchings, with more strenuous treks taking you into beautiful canyons, where caverns have formed over thousands of years. For a simple hike, capture 100 petroglyphs on the Boca Negra Canyon trail, while the Rinconada Canyon Trail is longer but leads to approximately 300 historic petroglyphs.
22. Lincoln National Forest
Established in 1902, the Lincoln National Forest was developed over multiple years to combine several mountain ranges and a vast range of landscapes that are an adventurer’s dream. However, the national forest is best known for being the birthplace of the iconic Smokey the Bear.
Explorers will have their choice of three mountain ranges, Capitan, Sacramento, and Guadalupe. With the elevation range stretching from 4,000 feet to towering 11,500 feet peaks. There are endless trails ready to take you through the mountains that will suit all hiking abilities. Wander through five distinct life zones from subalpine forests to the Chihuahan desert.
21. Riverbend Hot Springs
As you travel around the beautiful landscapes of New Mexico, take the time to relax and appreciate the scenery at the Riverbend Hot Springs. Along the shores of the surging Rio Grande River, recharge your batteries in the natural springs.
You can find the Riverbend Hot Springs in Truth or Consequences, where the revitalizing waters were believed to be sacred by the Apache and Mimbres peoples. Here, rival Native American warriors would put aside their differences, down their weapons and seek healing in the springs.
The Riverbend Hot Springs feature a high mineral concentration, spectacular views of Turtleback Mountain and haven’t lost their power over the centuries.
20. Meow Wolf (Santa Fe)
Owned by the one and only George R. R. Martin, Meow Wolf in Santa Fe has a different take on the art gallery experience. Rather than halls of paintings, photographs, and sculptures to admire, Meow Wolff has created an interactive experience where you can be a part of the art.
Within Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, you can experience the gallery’s exhibits through various senses, from sight to sound and touch. Rather than just admire the art from a distance, you can decide how each piece makes you feel through your own hands-on experience.
19. Billy the Kid Museum (Fort Sumner)
Celebrating the life of one of America’s iconic outlaws, the Billy the Kid Museum is a wonderful look into his life and the culture of the Old West. The museum is in Fort Sumner and runs out of a small building by a local couple, Don and Lula Sweet.
The building marks the exact spot Billy the Kid died at just 21 years old, having already mustered up a memorable reputation. Inside, you’ll find several displays from his very own rifle to his saddle spurs. Walk through the museum to see rows of old photographs, wanted posters from the Wild West, along with some eye-opening portraits.
18. Four Corners Monument
Ever wanted to be in four places at one time? Well, at the Four Corners Monument, your wishes have come true. The only such occurrence in the United States, here, the borders of New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona collide.
The small monument is a paved square with a circular plaque in the center where each state corner meets. With your legs on two sides and arms on the other, you can be in four states at once.
Compared to cliff dwellings and ancient ruins, it may not stand out as a fascinating attraction. But standing on this unique spot is sure to be a fun icebreaker for years to come.
17. Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness
For otherworldly landscapes on your travels around New Mexico, you’ll have a hard time topping the Bisti Badlands. Otherwise known as the De-Na-Zin Wilderness, which means “standing crane” in Navajo, the rock formations and petroglyphs are majestic.
The wilderness is 2.5 hours northwest of Albuquerque, placing you in what feels like the middle of nowhere. The eerie silence is complemented by the wondrous natural scenery that is best seen under the rising light of sunrise or the blazing dusk. Have your camera well-charged to capture the man-made statues, petroglyphs, and spires of colorful sandstone.
This is a genuine off-the-beaten path experience, so load up before you arrive as there are no on-site amenities.
16. Gila Cliff Dwellings
Ancient civilizations and historic architecture are no strangers to New Mexico. Whether that be the Puebloan people or the Mogollon tribe. The latter of which built the incredible Gila Cliff Dwellings 700 years ago at the beginning of the 14th century.
You can explore these dwellings from the old mining town of Silver City at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Begin at the visitor center to learn more about the Mogollon culture and the monument’s geological history. From there, join one of several trails into the park. Some guide you to natural caves and hot springs. Or sign up for a guided tour of the cliff dwellings to see how the Mogollon people lived and thrived.
15. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (Santa Fe)
Chronicling the life work of Georgia O’Keefe, the museum in her name showcases some of the finest nature-based art in the United States. O’Keefe created a broad range of works that focused on flora and the environment of New Mexico, capturing the beauty of the desert landscape like few else.
Visitors can discover the full length of her career as she progressed from a young, up-and-coming creative to a nationally renowned artist. You won’t just find beguiling paintings here. O’Keefe’s works include sketches, photography, and sculptures. You can explore the museum on a self-guided tour with the help of the museum’s app, or join a guided experience for an in-depth exploration of her life’s work.
14. Bandelier National Monument
The Puebloan people called what is now New Mexico home for centuries. Many attractions on our list can be traced to the ancient community, with one of the best examples being the Bandelier National Monument. The monument comprises epic landscapes and enthralling history from vast mesas to excavated ruins.
South of Los Alamos, the Bandelier National Monument is within Frijoles Canyon where the Puebloan lived between 1150 and 1550 A.D. Explore the museum to learn about the civilization and the park’s geology before embarking along one of the 70 miles’ worth of hiking trails. Including the Main Loop Trail that brings you to historic cliff houses and alcoves above the canyon floor.
13. Very Large Array
With its not-so-subtle name, the Very Large Array is a vast collection of giant antennas that combine all their power into a single radio telescope. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is in central New Mexico and all up there are 27 enormous antennas, creating one of the most incredible vistas in the state.
The Very Large Array is just shy of 7,000 feet above sea level, with the dry desert surroundings bringing immense clarity to astronomers. Through these antennas, astronomers are able to explore the expanse of space to learn about quasars, black holes and cosmic gases. Visitors can embark on self-guided tours to get up close to the giant antennas, while there’s also a museum and theater.
12. Taos Ski Valley
From as high as 12,500 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain, the majestic Taos Ski Valley is the best of its kind in the state. It can be hard to wrap your mind around the desert-laden New Mexico being a ski destination, but Taos Ski Valley’s average snowfall of 25 feet will quickly change your perception.
Blue bird powder days are common under the New Mexico sky. Have your choice of 110 runs serviced by 14 lifts with over 3000 feet of vertical. The mountain is popular with advanced skiers, with over half the runs being black or double black diamonds. But the range of green and blue runs is enough to keep newbies skiing all day long.
11. Sandia Peak Tramway (Albuquerque)
Taking you from the desert floor high into the mountains, the Sandia Peak Tramway is a wonderful way to appreciate the scenery around Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley. The tramway is 2.7 miles long and, depending on the time of year, it may deliver you to a snow-capped peak.
The 15-minute journey leaves you on the crest of the Sandia Mountains, from which you can embark on a bevy of hiking trails, or rush down on a mountain bike. For those that like to do things backwards, you can hike the La Luz trail to the top of Sandia Peak before relaxing on the tramway back to the valley. In the winter, there are 25 miles of slopes to ski.
10. International UFO Museum and Research Center (Roswell)
Inspired by the Roswell Incident of 1947, the International UFO Museum and Research Center opened 45 years later in Roswell. The informative museum is your one stop shop to learn all about the suspicious events that put the small New Mexico town on the map.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the research center has gone all in on the certainty that aliens exist and that each conspiracy theory is true. However, what makes the experience here so great is that the center takes an unbiased look at each event, laying out the timeline and educating visitors on both sides of the story, leaving all of us to make up our own minds.
9. Cumbres-Toltec Scenic Railway
Traveling from Chama, New Mexico to Antonito, Colorado, the Cumbres-Toltec Scenic Railway is your ticket to the Old West. The railroad first operated in 1881 when its coal-fired steam engine carried passengers through dramatic mountain canyons, alpine desert, and vast valley meadows.
The railroad led to an economic boom along the route with more opportunities, especially in Chama, where the logging industry thrived. Today, the spectacular scenic railway provides a six-and-a-half-hour experience through the beautiful landscapes crossing the 10,000-foot Cumbres Mountain Pass and the Toltec Gorge.
Aside from the memorable scenery, you’ll bear witness to several original structures, including a stop in Osier, Colorado, a historic railroad settlement.
8. Chaco Culture National Historical Park
From the 9th to 13th centuries, the Native American Puebloan people resided in Chaco Canyon. The community was a major trade and commercial hub, and its dozens of striking ruins can be explored today.
To the northwest of Albuquerque, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its preservation can be best appreciated from in front of the 15 enormous structures that once formed this ancient city. The stunning archaeological site offers a range of interpretative experiences from ranger tours to self-guided hikes.
Far from civilization, Chaco Canyon is also noted for having a brilliant starscape. The park presents several astronomy events plus overnight camping.
7. Blue Hole (Santa Rosa)
At a pleasant 62-degrees, Blue Hole is your welcome respite to the heat of day in New Mexico. Santa Rosa is the “City of Natural Lakes” with Blue Hole being the best of the lot. You can find the bell-shaped lake along the iconic Route 66. Blue Hole is an artesian well fed from deep below the surface of the Ogallala Aquifer, thanks to the dissolution of the limestone bedrock.
At 80 feet deep, with crystal clear waters straight out of the Caribbean, it’s a popular destination for casual swimmers and scuba-divers alike. In the height of summer, Blue Hole fills up quick, so get in early to grab a prime spot.
6. Canyon Road (Santa Fe)
In the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the half-mile Canyon Road meanders through the Historic District of Santa Fe. Like Broadway in New York, the stretch of tar cuts through the heart of town, lined by fine art galleries, boutique shops and the best restaurants in Santa Fe.
Santa Fe has a historic art scene, where within the old adobe homes of eras past visitors can explore over 100 galleries, studios, and independent jewelers. Visitors will find all genres along the “Magical Half-Mile” from contemporary to Native American and expressionism.
Get about on foot and explore on a whim following your intuition into any gallery, shop or restaurant that piques your interest.
5. Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
There are over 600,000 bridges in the United States, but only five are higher than the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Standing 650 feet above the surging Rio Grande, it was called the “Bridge to Nowhere” in the 1960s, because there was no money to build the road on the other side.
The funding eventually came and now you can drive across one of the most beautiful long-span bridges in the country. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge has appeared in multiple movies, from the Terminator to everyone’s favorite awkward bike gang, Wild Hogs.
While you can appreciate the view from the driver’s seat, it gets better on foot. Walk alongside the sheer drop to soak in the amazing views.
4. Taos Pueblo
From straw and mud bricks, the Puebloan Native Americans created the oldest continuously inhabited residence in the USA. The Taos Pueblo is an invaluable look into the past. The homes date back to the 11th century and while the world is ever changing, 150 people still call these historic structures home. Some of which are five-stories high.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors are free to make their way through the town or sign up for a locally led tour. Life in the village has changed little over the centuries. Without water and electricity, the community lives off what they grow, create, and sell.
After your tour, continue to explore the town that includes a number of beautiful plazas, historic churches, and insightful museums.
3. Carlsbad Caverns
An intricate network of over 100 caves, the Carlsbad Caverns National Park is teeming with stalactites, natural history and yes, plenty of bats. The caverns were formed 250 million years ago, when the limestone sediments were left to their own devices as the inland sea evaporated.
Erosion swept through like a talented artist, creating miles of accessible caverns, with hanging stalactites like icicles dangling from the ceiling above. To your left and right, stalagmites rise from the cave floor, creating an eerie experience befitting of such a location. You can tour the Carlsbad Caverns beside a ranger or embark on your own through the limestone chambers. From May to October, visitors can see the bats fly out in unison during the free nightly Bat Flight event.
2. Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Forget Cappadocia and the effervescent Turkish sunrise. The largest hot-air balloon festival is held right here, in Albuquerque. It all began with just over a dozen balloons in 1973. Out of a humble parking lot, the fiesta grew into a phenomenon, attracting annual crowds of over 80,000 people.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta lasts for nine days and begins with a bang. On the first morning, the Mass Ascension event takes place, where over 500 hot-air balloons take to the sky to welcome the desert sunrise. It’s one of the world’s most popular photo-ops and the fuel for an amazing fiesta. Over the ensuing days, there are endless balloon-inspired events, while life on the ground is just as exciting with live entertainment and activities.
1. White Sands National Park
There are no surprises upon reaching White Sands National Park. Here, sparkling white sands paint the landscape that’s constantly evolving with the wind. You can traverse the towering dunes on a number of trails to gain an appreciation for a mesmerizing place that stands in stark contrast to the ever-blue sky.
The white gypsum sand has a smattering of desert brush and shrubs, disturbing the blank canvass. Choose between the elevated Interdune Boardwalk or the Dune Life Nature Trail. The fragility of the landscape means you’ll see most of it from afar, but that’s the perfect way to capture the sheer scale of the unique ecosystem.
If you have time, bring along your camping gear to sleep alongside the dunes under the black, starry sky.