18 Top Things to Do in New Mexico

From distinguished art galleries and intriguing UFO museums to significant archaeological sites, New Mexico is the gift that keeps on giving. Visit in October to watch hundreds of brightly colored hot air balloons take over the Albuquerque skyline or head to Taos in winter for prime skiing conditions. New Mexico’s authentic energy and strong cultural roots also attract travelers in search of a spiritual experience. Whether you’re ready to plan your trip or you simply want to daydream about the state’s stunning rock formations, keep reading for a list of the top things to do in New Mexico. (Note: Some of the following activities and locations may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions, reservation requirements or mask mandates. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)

Albuquerque

Sitting approximately 65 miles southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico’s largest city appeals to culture hounds and outdoor enthusiasts. Visitors can spend their time hiking the nearby Sandia Mountains, or save their feet by riding the 2.7-mile-long scenic Sandia Peak Tramway to the top. Meanwhile, travelers looking to explore Albuquerque’s many museums can browse the diverse collections at the Albuquerque Museum, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science and The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. For a glimpse into Albuquerque’s past, head to Historic Old Town, where Pueblo-Spanish style adobe buildings now house numerous art galleries, restaurants and shops. Although Albuquerque is beautiful year-round, travelers recommend visiting in October when more than 500 colorful hot air balloons take to the skies during the nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. As the most-photographed event in the world, this popular festival offers concerts, educational exhibits, fireworks and evening balloon glows, where hundreds of grounded balloons fire their burners simultaneously, creating a magical nighttime light display.

[See more of Albuquerque: Things to Do | When to Visit | Hotels | Photos ]

White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park is one of the most mesmerizing and unusual natural wonders in New Mexico — and possibly the world. This stunning national park is located within the Tularosa Basin and is home to the earth’s largest gypsum dune field. More than 73,000 acres of brilliant white sand stretch out as far as the eye can see, a sight which recent travelers say will take your breath away. In fact, this magnificent dune field is so large, it can even be seen from space. Visitors can explore the park by car along Dunes Drive, an 8-mile-long thoroughfare that stretches from the White Sands Visitor Center into the heart of the gypsum dune field. Biking and hiking are also popular activities, and the park offers several ranger-led programs that include everything from beautiful sunset strolls to full moon hikes. However, the activity most travelers can’t wait to try is sledding. This exciting activity is allowed in the loop portion of Dunes Drive, where there is little vegetation and no cars nearby to pose a danger risk. The safest way to sled is on a waxed, plastic snow saucer, which visitors can purchase at the park’s gift shop.

Santa Fe

New Mexico’s capital is brimming with traveler-friendly activities. The first stop on your itinerary should be Santa Fe Plaza, a National Historic Landmark located in downtown Santa Fe. Here, visitors can enjoy the lively atmosphere of the plaza, which often buzzes with vendors, live music and markets. It is also a jumping-off point for many of Santa Fe’s downtown restaurants and shops. Meanwhile, the renowned Santa Fe Opera House appeals to travelers who fancy spectacular opera shows set in remarkable open-air theaters. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum also can’t be missed, along with other traveler favorites like the New Mexico History Museum, New Mexico Museum of Art, Museum of International Folk Art and Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, a unique and colorful art installation featuring more than 70 rooms of immersive art. And if that wasn’t enough, Santa Fe’s Canyon Road is lined with more than 80 galleries and studios showcasing some of the best artists in New Mexico. Visit during September to watch the city come to life during the Santa Fe Fiesta, an annual celebration that includes music, dancing, arts and crafts booths and more.

[See more of Santa Fe: Things to Do | When to Visit | Hotels | Photos ]

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

An extensive labyrinth of limestone caves lies deep below the Chihuahuan Desert — and Carlsbad Caverns National Park is home to more than 100 of them. These caves formed when sulfuric acid dissolved Capitan limestone, leaving behind a complex network of underground passages and rock formations. Explore these caves at your own pace along two underground trails: The Big Room Trail and the Natural Entrance Trail. The Big Room Trail is the most popular route, taking visitors through one of the largest cave chambers in North America. Meanwhile, visitors can see rock formations like Devil’s Spring and Iceberg Rock along the Natural Entrance Trail. Keep in mind, this trail is very steep and is best suited for experienced hikers. Above ground, there are several hiking trails that wind through the Guadalupe Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert. Popular hikes include the short Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail, which is only a half-mile in length, and the Guadalupe Ridge Trail, the park’s longest above-ground trail at 100 miles long. If you visit in summer, you’ll have the chance to see 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats exit Carlsbad Cavern in search of food every evening. This mass exodus is a spectacular sight to behold, and is best seen from the Bat Flight Amphitheater, where rangers offer free educational presentations from Memorial Day weekend through October.

Roswell

Roswell’s name recognition comes from its connection to a now-infamous 1947 alleged UFO crash, in which wreckage from a “flying disc” was recovered on the property of a local rancher. While Air Force officials said the debris was from a crashed weather balloon, the event sparked widespread speculation. Still today, many believe that this event is proof of the existence of extraterrestrial beings. Whether or not you consider yourself a believer, Roswell is a must-see destination for any first-time visitor to New Mexico. If you want to learn more about the town’s alien reputation, head to the International UFO Museum and Research Center. The exhibits on display are not designed to convince visitors of anything, but rather to inform the public about the 1947 Roswell Incident, and other unexplained phenomena surrounding UFO research. However, this small city in southeastern New Mexico is about more than just aliens. Roswell is also home to a collection of top-tier art museums like the Roswell Museum and the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, along with a bevy of outdoor attractions. For fun-filled activities like swimming, kayaking and scuba diving, head to Bottomless Lakes State Park, where the blue-green color of the large sinkholes here give the illusion of great depth.

Bandelier National Monument

Spread across more than 33,000 acres of rugged wilderness, Bandelier National Monument is a testament to New Mexico’s long and fascinating history. Once inhabited by the Ancestral Pueblo people, this monument protects thousands of archaeological sites, including cave dwellings, villages and petroglyphs. In addition to these well-preserved ruins, the park offers more than 70 miles of hiking trails. Along the Main (Pueblo) Loop Trail, visitors can check out the three cavates, small caves that have been hand-carved out of rock, by using the wooden ladders in place. Other trails lead to waterfalls and mesa tops. For more information about Bandelier and its history, check out the visitor center, which includes a museum with tactile exhibits and an educational movie about the park. Across the parking lot from the visitor center, you’ll find the Western National Parks Association Store, which sells a wide variety of books, maps and souvenirs.

Address: 15 Entrance Road, Los Alamos, NM 87544

Taos

Nicknamed the “Soul of the Southwest,” Taos is home to art galleries, hot springs, spellbinding scenery and excellent skiing opportunities. In Taos, visitors will have their pick of several fascinating museums: The Millicent Rogers Museum, Taos Art Museum at Fechin House and the Kit Carson House & Museum are a few traveler favorites. After perusing the exhibits, stroll through historic Taos Plaza or jump in your car to cruise along the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway. On your drive, you’ll be treated to views of Wheeler Peak and Hondo Valley. For an exhilarating experience, visitors can also drive across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, one of the highest bridges in the United States, or walk along the rim of the gorge to get a different perspective. Come winter, Taos is busy with skiers looking to hit the slopes; Taos Ski Valley and Red River Ski & Summer Area are two of the area’s most popular skiing destinations.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, located about 150 miles northwest of Albuquerque, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Between A.D. 850 and 1250, this region was a major center of Chacoan culture. Civilization flourished here and that history is evident today in the park’s approximately 4,000 prehistoric and historic archaeological sites. Many of these are the ruins of Chacoan great houses, massive stone buildings constructed using masonry techniques (which were unusual at the time). These houses are thought to be some of the largest, most complex and best-preserved prehistoric structures in North America. While here, visitors can take a self-guided tour of these dwellings by driving along the 9-mile-long Canyon Loop Drive, which leads to six major cultural sites: Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, Pueblo del Arroyo and Casa Rinconada. Of these, Pueblo Bonito is undoubtedly the most famous — and for good reason. A spectacular example of ancestral Pueblo history, Pueblo Bonito was once the epicenter of Chacoan society. Today, visitors can hike the short gravel trail (less than a mile) through the site and admire what is left of this stunning architectural wonder. Keep in mind, the drive here is long and requires traveling over miles of very bumpy and uneven roads, which may not be suitable for vehicles without all-wheel or four-wheel drive. Self-guided trail maps can be purchased for $2 at the visitor center bookstore.

Address: 1808 CR 7950, Nageezi, NM 87037

Santa Rosa Blue Hole

Landlocked New Mexico is not known for its scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities. However, Santa Rosa’s Blue Hole may just be one of the most interesting diving destinations in the United States. Amid the state’s vast desert landscape, this unexpected gem was once used by cowboys as a way to cool off from the summer heat. Now, visitors come from all over to cliff jump, dive or swim in its crystal-clear waters. With water that refills 3,000 gallons every minute and stays at a cool 62 degrees year-round, the Santa Rosa Blue Hole is one of New Mexico’s most unique tourist attractions. Nearby, there is a small fishing pond with an inflatable obstacle course that is popular with families. Keep in mind, scuba divers must purchase a permit to dive here.

Address: 1085 Blue Hole Road, Santa Rosa, NM 88435

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyphs, rock carvings made from a chisel and hammerstone, are complex and sacred symbols that were created by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. Petroglyph National Monument protects nearly 25,000 of these images, 90% of which are believed to have been made by Ancestral Pueblo people. While the exact meaning behind many of these petroglyphs is unknown, one thing is for sure: These ancient carvings are integral to New Mexico’s spiritual and cultural landscape. The monument offers three areas where visitors can see petroglyphs, with hiking trails that range in distance and difficulty level. Boca Negra Canyon is the only fully developed area in the park, offering restrooms and a drinking fountain, which makes it a very popular tourist destination. The other two viewing areas — Rinconada Canyon and Piedras Marcadas Canyon — offer fewer facilities than Boca Negra, but they are no less beautiful. Just remember to keep your eyes peeled while visiting — the monument is home to western diamondback and prairie rattlesnakes.

Address: Unser Blvd. NW at Western Trail, Albuquerque, NM 87120

Ghost Ranch Education & Retreat Center

Ghost Ranch, made famous by legendary artist Georgia O’Keeffe, encompasses 21,000 acres of dramatic desert landscape in northern New Mexico. While the views are incredible, there is more to this scenic getaway than just beauty. The region is one of New Mexico’s most important geological and paleontological resources. Here, visitors can hike, get a massage, kayak on Abiquiu Lake or even learn about the dinosaurs that once roamed these lands millions of years ago. In fact, the property is home to the only complete Coelophysis (a small and slender carnivorous dinosaur) fossil in the world. Museums and a library are available on-site for research and educational purposes, and there are several fossil quarries worth exploring. Numerous tours are also available, whether you’re looking for a Georgia O’Keeffe art tour (she once lived on the property), a paleontology tour or a sunset horseback riding tour. Visitors can purchase a day pass or stay overnight at the retreat’s campground or in one of the rustic housing accommodations.

Address: 280 Private Drive 1708, Abiquiu, NM 87510

Pecos National Historical Park

Located less than 30 miles southeast of Santa Fe in northern New Mexico, Pecos National Historical Park tells the story of the ancient civilizations that came before it, dating as far back as 11,500 B.C. Hunters, traders, immigrants, soldiers and ranchers once passed through these lands and Pecos National Historical Park protects the legacies left behind. Start at the visitor center, which offers a short introductory film and a museum detailing the region’s history and archaeological significance. You can also pick up a brochure or purchase an interpretive guide to take with you as you explore the popular Ancestral Sites Trail. Along this 1.25-mile-long trail, visitors will find the Pecos Pueblo and the 1717 Spanish mission church, the park’s two top sights. Meanwhile, Civil War buffs won’t want to miss the 2.25-mile Glorieta Battlefield Trail, which takes visitors through the harrowing story of the 1862 Battle at Glorieta Pass. For the best experience, explore these sites on a free ranger-led walking tour. While admission to this historical park is free, keep in mind, camping is not permitted anywhere in the park.

Address: 1 Peach Drive, Pecos, NM 87552

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Travel to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, about 45 miles north of Silver City, if you’re interested in soaking up more of New Mexico’s important cultural history. In the late 1200s, the Mogollon people lived and worked here, building their homes and raising their children in cliff dwellings for more than a thousand years. To learn about their fascinating culture, check out the Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitor Center, which features a small museum with Mogollon artifacts, a short park film and an exhibit on the Chiricahua Apache. There is also a small bookstore located 2 miles down the road that is a jumping-off point for the mile-long Cliff Dwellings Trail. At the monument, visitors will also have the opportunity to explore the surrounding Gila National Forest, which is a popular destination for camping, hiking and fishing.

Address: 26 Jim Bradford Trail, Mimbres, NM 88049

Relax in a natural hot spring

As a state that is rich in geothermal activity, New Mexico is home to several natural hot springs. Ranging from small off-the-beaten-path soaking options in the wilderness to lavish spa resorts, these springs are revered for their healing properties. Travelers looking to relax in nature can head to local favorites such as Black Rock Hot Springs and Spence Hot Springs (which is clothing-optional), while those searching for a more luxurious experience can book a soak at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa or Jemez Hot Springs.

Explore a ghost town

With more than 400 ghost towns peppered throughout the state, New Mexico is a haven for history buffs and fans of the paranormal. Many of these now-abandoned settlements were once flourishing mining towns that vanished when demand fell and the area’s natural resources dried up. Today, travelers can visit these sites, which range from tiny villages with a handful of dilapidated buildings to resurrected towns with hundreds of year-round residents. If you want to feel like you’ve stepped back into the Wild West, head to the town of Chloride, where you’ll find 27 original buildings still standing. This includes the Pioneer Store, which has been restored and turned into a museum featuring historic artifacts from the town’s past. Other notable ghost towns include Madrid, Pinos Altos and Shakespeare, a former silver mining town that is now privately owned. While unescorted visits of Shakespeare are not available, travelers can book a guided tour of the property for a fee, which includes interior access to 8 buildings. (Note: Many of these towns still have small populations so please make sure to respect all private property.)

[See: America’s Coolest Ghost Towns to Visit.]

Go stargazing

Thanks to the state’s low population density, high altitudes and clear night skies, stargazing opportunities abound in the Land of Enchantment. Boasting five International Dark-Sky Association-certified sites, the New Mexico True Dark Skies Trail includes Clayton Lake State Park, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Capulin Volcano National Monument and Cosmic Campground, the Northern Hemisphere’s first International Dark Sky Sanctuary. Located in Gila National Forest, the Cosmic Campground is the perfect place to lay back and ponder the universe under a blanket of stars. Whether you’re looking for a place to practice night photography or you simply want to bask in the beauty of the Milky Way, stargazing in New Mexico is sure to be an unforgettable experience.

[See: The Top Dark Sky Parks in the U.S.]

Four Corners Monument

Have you ever wanted to be in two places at once? How about four? The Four Corners Monument is the only place in the United States where four states intersect at one point. Here, visitors can stand in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado simultaneously. The location is marked by a simple granite and brass plaque and surrounded by flags representing the tribal nations and states that share the region. At the site, you’ll find local vendors selling homemade jewelry, pottery, crafts and artwork.

The cost to visit this monument is $5 per person; payment is only accepted via credit card. Keep in mind, services and facilities surrounding the monument are extremely limited, so come prepared with a full tank of gas and enough food and water to sustain you throughout the day. Although many recent visitors loved the novelty of being in four places at once, others called the attraction a tourist trap. While this site makes for a great photo opportunity, it is located on private land managed by the Navajo Nation, so please be respectful of tribal regulations when visiting the area.

Address: 597 NM-597, Teec Nos Pos, AZ 86514

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

One of the most beautiful ways to take in the scenery of New Mexico’s diverse landscape is aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad. Shared jointly by the states of Colorado and New Mexico, this railroad is the longest and highest steam railroad in the United States. As the train zig zags across the Colorado and New Mexico border, travelers will be treated to unparalleled views of the Rocky Mountains, rolling past verdant meadows, grassy hills and impressive aspen groves. During your ascent to Cumbres Pass, keep your eyes peeled for deer, elk and even bears, as wildlife is plentiful in this area. The journey also includes a lunch stop in the small mountain town of Osier, Colorado. Leaving from Chama, New Mexico, and ending in Antonito, Colorado, this full excursion stretches on for 64 miles. Passengers wishing to ride round trip may purchase two one-way train tickets, but they should know that the entire process cannot be completed in one day, so plan on finding lodging for the night. However, those who would like to experience this historic railroad but who can’t budget more than a day should consider choosing the half limited trip, which travels from the Chama or Antonito stations to the mid-way point of Osier Station and back. Express short trips are also available for families or anyone limited on time.

Address: 500 Terrace Ave., Chama, NM 87520

You might also be interested in:

The Best Hotels in New Mexico

The Best Places to Visit in New Mexico

The Top Things to Do in Utah

The Top Things to Do in Arizona

The Top Things to Do in Colorado

The Top Things to Do in Texas

The Top Travel Backpacks

The Top Travel Packing Cubes

The Best Carry-on Luggage

More from U.S. News

29 Top Things to Do in Colorado

21 Top Things to Do in Arizona

28 Top Things to Do in Utah

18 Top Things to Do in New Mexico originally appeared on usnews.com

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up