Dusty pueblos and long, lonely, forgotten highways along Route 66. The ghosts of Billy the Kid and his Regulators are blazing a trail across the blood-red arroyos speckling the far-flung horizons of Lincoln County. The miles-long steel horse of the Santa Fe Railroad winds and weaves through the canyons of sandy, yellow-green waving plateaus towards the Arizona border.
These images may spring to mind when you hear the words “New Mexico,” but the Land of Enchantment has so much more to offer than ghost towns and high desert plains, especially for the outdoors-minded adventurer.
The lesser-known of the great naturally enriched lower 48, New Mexico has long been a top-tier destination for those in search of adventure. From big peak climbers to backcountry campers, river runners, and fly fishers, or those just interested in the storied history of the Old West, New Mexico is the bountiful art and amber of preserved traditions. Traditions of the Native peoples who have made this part of the New World their home for millennia, New Mexico is a true gem of the American Southwest.
Below are some of the can’t miss highlights for the wild at heart:
BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT:
Visit the home of the Ancestral Pueblo people for a generous helping of history and stunning scenery. Located near Los Alamos National Laboratory and military installation (some routes even take visitors through the base, so be prepared for a security stop or two…and remember, no photos while in Los Alamos!), Bandelier National Monument protects more than 33,000 acres of rugged and beautiful canyon and mesa country as well as the remains of a human civilization going back over 11,000 years. The rock cliffs are carved with petroglyphs, paying tribute to a culture that lives in the surrounding communities. A long, beautiful hike through the national forest to one of its many famous waterfalls is a must-do activity.
PECOS NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK:
Nestled in the dense pine and juniper forests of the Sangre de Cristos near Santa Fe, this national park preserves the life and history of the ancient people who once thrived on its land. Visitors can explore the unique cultural lineage of the native people and stunning geographic features that played such important roles in the rich history of the Pecos Valley. Visitors will want to be sure to travel through the majestic Glorieta Pass and learn about its evolution and survival through thousands of years, as well as the life and cultures that sprung up there and thrived in its cradle while enjoying jaw-dropping vistas and 360-degree panoramas from some of its highest points.
PETROGLYPH NATIONAL MONUMENT:
Lovers of archeological history will not want to miss this amazing collection, one of North America’s most prominent cultural and historical expressions, carved into and preserved for eternity in the volcanic rock protected by this national monument. Take a short walk to Boca Negra Canyon to view over 100 petroglyphs, or take a more extended jaunt to nearby Rinconada or Piedras Marcadas Canyon for even more incredible rock carvings.
WHITE SANDS NATIONAL PARK:
Visitors to this national park might find they can’t trust their eyes as they survey the miles and miles of rolling white dunes. But it’s not snow covering these undulating hills but pristine, white sand! Located near Alamogordo, New Mexico, Tularosa Basin is one of the world’s great natural wonders. This national park features great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand that cover over 275 miles of desert, preserving a major portion of the world’s largest gypsum dune field along with the plants and animals that live here.
VALLES CALDERA NATIONAL PRESERVE:
Located near Jemez Springs, NM, is a preserve that protects enormous mountain meadows, meandering streams, and abundant and diverse wildlife. This is the Valles Caldera. Created over a million years ago by a gigantic volcanic eruption, the Caldera is a 13-mile-wide circular depression that also preserves the homeland of ancestral people. Hiking, wildlife viewing, star-gazing, horseback riding, snowshoeing, and skiing are just a few of the plethora of activities Valles Caldera has to offer.