Adventure meets culture and history in the Land of Enchantment
Venture into America’s most pristine backcountry while learning about a rich cultural heritage and thousands of years of human history. From cliff dwellings and petroglyphs to caverns and mineral hot springs, you’ll find some of the best access to outdoor recreation in North America intertwined with some of the oldest cities and towns on the continent.
Here are some special outdoor and cultural experiences that deserve a spot on your New Mexico must-do list.
1. Sled down the dunes of White Sands National Park (and walk in the footsteps of early humans)
The white gypsum dune fields of White Sands National Park create an absolutely surreal landscape. At dusk, the sky can take on otherworldly hues of pink and purple, blending seamlessly with the rolling white dunes to create a vivid watercolor. The area also has quite a rich history. Long before the dunes existed, Palaeo-Indian nomadic hunters came here in search of camels, bison and mammoths. Today the park contains the the world’s largest collection of fossilized human footprints.
2. Soak in timeless hot springs
If you’re looking for an adventure in search of some hard-earned relaxation, string together a self-guided hot springs tour that takes you through some of the most striking scenery in the state. Start with a challenge by hiking to Spence Hot Springs, just outside the town of Jemez. Before hitting the road again, be sure to visit the historic site of Jemez, where you can visit the 16th-century Gíusewa Pueblo and a Spanish colonial mission.
Further south, relax in the natural springs in and near the remote Gila Wilderness region. At Gila Hot Springs Campground, the mineral water bubbles to the surface at temperatures up to 157 degrees and cools to perfect soaking temperatures by the time it reaches the three soaking pools. You can soak in it day or night for $10 per person.
To the east, in Truth or Consequences, choose from a handful of historic and unique spas like Riverbend Hot Springswhere you can swim along the Rio Grande.
When you’re ready to head north, end your journey in the wonderfully remote region Ojo Caliente, whose legendary healing waters have soothed minds, bodies and spirits for thousands of years. A short hike from the property will take you to the site of Posi Ouinge, an ancestral Tewa pueblo dating back to the 13th century. The pueblo had perhaps over 2,000 rooms and would have been one of the largest such structures in the Southwest when in use.
3. Hike to Ancestral Puebloan Cave Dwellings in Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument is home to well-preserved cave dwellings carved by the ancestral Puebloan people of northern New Mexico. While the dwellings are a short and easy day hike from the visitor center, the lesser-known backcountry offers greater challenge and the reward of greater solitude. First, stop at the Visitor Center to learn about the history and culture of the Ancestral Puebloan people and guidelines for respectfully visiting areas where you might encounter artifacts along the trail. Then, set out on a strenuous 12-16 mile hike to Yapashi Pueblo, once a large village with hundreds of rooms. For an overnight trip, take the 22-mile Painted Cave Trail, which features a pictograph sign.
4. Rafting through the colorful landscapes of Abiquiu
It’s easy to see why the landscapes of New Mexico have inspired artists past and present. Raft the Rio Chama through the same canyon country that appears in many works on a three-day trip with distant adventures. The float begins at El Vado Reservoir and follows 31 miles of the Wild and Scenic Rio Chama before ending near the craft town of Abiquiu.
5. Send a postcard from the center of the Earth
OK, maybe it’s not the center earth, but you can actually send mail from over 700 feet underground as you walk through the caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The caverns were designated a national monument in 1923, and within a few years a dining hall and souvenir vendors were welcoming tourists as they made their way to the park’s main attraction, the 250-foot-tall limestone Great Hall. Today, the park is much more aware of the impact tourists can have on the cave’s ecosystem, so concession operations in the cave are somewhat more moderate. But you can still walk into the cave via a long series of switchbacks or take an elevator down to the underground dining room (now a snack bar) where you can drop a postcard into the active mailbox. The postmark will let your recipient know that the map – certainly one of the most distinctive keepsakes of the national park system – was sent from deep within the earth.
6. Admire the truly dark skies of the Chaco Canyon
Chaco Canyon is one of the most important cultural sites in the United States. Over a thousand years ago, this special place served as the economic center of the San Juan Basin. Many stone structures built as early as AD 800 are still standing. Today, visitors to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park can enjoy crystal clear views of the night sky, just as the Chacos did while interpreting the constellations. The park is certified International Dark Sky Park, free from light pollution. Park rangers regularly offer archaeoastronomy programs which explain how the Chacoan people incorporated astronomy into their culture and architecture. During the day, stop at the Visitor Center for a backcountry hiking permit to walk the roads leading to the impressive large Chacoan houses.
Point: For a real treat, visit during an equinox or solstice. During the autumnal equinox, for example, the sun rises in alignment with Casa Rinconada, a large kiva.
7. Take a scenic train through the Rockies on North America’s highest steam railway
Venture into the town of Chama to traverse the 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass on North America’s highest steam railway—an accessible way to see pristine backcountry scenery. A National Historic Landmark, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad was built in 1880, and its steam train still operates in much the original way, meandering slowly back and forth over a 64-mile stretch from New Mexico’s border with Colorado. The journey takes over six hours, so you can fully immerse yourself in the scenery. Along the way, you’ll take a steep climb out of the Chama Valley, cross the Toltec Gorge, and cross a 137-foot-tall trestle bridge. Keep an eye out for bears, elk, hawks and other birds.
Point: Show up hungry. The railroad has brought its historic lunch menu back on board, including classic New Mexico enchiladas, so you can get a taste of local food culture.
8. Eat your way on Chile’s Green Trail
New Mexico’s food culture is unlike any other. Case in point: even McDonald’s has green chili cheeseburgers on the menu here, something you won’t find out of state. But burgers are just the start. Set up an adventure base camp in Las Cruces, an ideal transit town for trips to the Gila Wilderness, White Sands National Park, Elephant Butte Lake, and more, and fuel your adventure days with meals along the Chile Green Trail. This chain of restaurants around the area is getting really creative: Double Eagle has green chile cheese wontons with pineapple jalapeño salsa; Caliche’s ice cream has green chili sundaes; and at DH Lescombes Winery & Bistro, you can sip a glass of fire-roasted Hatch green chili. Are you traveling alone? Check Bike club and chowderan open group for riders who want to ride together and share stories over a good meal in Las Cruces.
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