Most people seem to think of New Mexico as a splotch of land between the desert of Arizona and the flat plains of Texas, thereby having little to no appeal as it relates to beauty. While geographically they may be right – New Mexico is, in fact, between Arizona and Texas – this is a viewpoint that doesn’t hold water when an exploration of the state’s natural wonders is undertaken.
Much of New Mexico does look like this, but there are some amazing places, as you’ll see!
Ok, those people will occasionally admit, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is incredible, but it’s underground so it doesn’t count. While I staunchly disagree, here are a few above ground sites that are worth a visit by any lover of the outdoors, all very close to I-25, the main north-south artery in the state.
White Sands National Monument
About an hour outside of Las Cruces in New Mexico’s southwestern corner lies White Sands. Best known as a missile range (with weapons testing still going on), the area also holds a national monument encapsulating a vast swath of the largest gypsum sand dune field on the planet. (Note: at no point in the Monument are you in danger from the missiles.)
The color on the sand is from gypsum, and is obviously where the monument gets its name.
The dunes can grow up to 45 feet high, so visitors will enjoy clambering up, down, and over them. The entire field is free to roam, though as there are few identifiable features, you’ll want to make sure you have a general idea of where your car is. Winds move the dunes with frequency, so your favorite spot this year will likely be gone by next. In fact, the dunes can move up to nearly 40 feet per year, burying trees along the way!
This tree has been buried by a dune moving over it!
For the most fun way to explore, the Visitor’s Center rents and sells little sleds. Since no motorized vehicles are allowed on the dunes, this is the best way to experience sliding down. Or do what I did, and spread your arms wide as you run down a dune at full speed. It feels like flying! Just note that there is only one place with a boardwalk extending over the sand, so if mobility over sand is a hardship, this might not be the best place to visit.
Petroglyph National Monument
About 1.1 million years ago, the Jemez volcano erupted for the last time in what is now northern New Mexico. One of the lingering effects of this event is seen in the mountains of basalt – volcanic rock – outside of Albuquerque. As the ancestral Pueblo peoples found, basalt is easy to paint on.
The basalt mountains outside Albuquerque are remnants of a volcanic eruption more than a million years ago.
Petroglyph National Monument is technically inside of Albuquerque, only a few minutes off of the freeway. Contained within its boundaries is one of the largest collection of native petroglyphs in the Southwest. In fact, more than 21,000 such drawings have been discovered here – to this point!
Most of the Monument is wilderness area, but the Boca Negra Canyon area is easily accessible by a couple of short (but steep) trails. In less than an hour, more than 100 petroglyphs can be seen here. (For those with mobility issues, there are free telescopic viewers at the base of some of the trails.)
This large rock stands about five feet off of the parking lot
The drawings in this area date from about the mid-1300s, though some in other parts of the Monument are believed to be more than 3,000 years old. They mostly depict wildlife and basic aspects of life, and it is a fun game to try to decipher them as you walk along.
This one looks demonic to me, but is probably much less sinister
Being wilderness, most of the petroglyphs are fairly well preserved. The ones here, however, show signs of modern human interference and graffiti. Don’t be that tourist; leave wonders like this alone for the next generation of New Mexico tourists.
Bandelier National Monument
Northern New Mexico is a much different place than southern, and nowhere shows off that difference than this spot north of Santa Fe. Stunningly beautiful, historically significant, and peaceful, Bandelier National Monument is easily worth a trip!
Whether you drive in or take the summer shuttle (there is no private access during summer so it’s your only option), you’ll find yourself in Frijoles Canyon. The cliffs all around aren’t sandstone, as they appear to first glance. Rather, they are made of tuff, volcanic ash (from the aforementioned Jemez eruption) condensed into solid, but light, rock. This made it the perfect substance for building, and the ancestral Pueblo did just that, with a large (500 or so residents) village and some intact cliff dwellings and cavates all along a paved loop from the Visitor’s Center.
The tuff cliffs tower over the valley.
This area was a good one for settlement due to its year round water source, a small creek running through that eventually makes its way to the Rio Grande. Animal and plant life are abundant still, and while wolves and a few other native fauna are no longer in the area, much of the environment is similar to what these villagers would have encountered in the mid-1300s, after which the area has always been settled.
Looking out the “window” of one of the cavates at the village below, arranged in a circle. These houses would have been two stories or taller.
For the more adventurous visitor, ladders are set up to allow exploration of some of the cavates used as the “back rooms” of the cliff dwellings built in front of them against the rock. One can even climb a series of ladders to Alcove House, built nearly 200 feet above the valley below, a site of religious importance to the native peoples.
The ladders are secure, but some of the dwellings are quite small.
Back at the Visitor’s Center, a wonderful 25-minute video explains the significance of the area.
New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, is much more beautiful than it is given credit for. I hope these awesome sights have inspired you to plan your own trip!
Like it? Pin it!