New Mexico: From Pueblos to Bat Dwellings
Taos and Santa Fe have always been top tourist destinations in New Mexico and, with the success of the TV series "Breaking Bad," Albuquerque also enjoys a steady influx of visitors. But beyond the natural beauty and stunning desert surroundings of these popular locales, New Mexico is surprisingly diverse in its topography and can run the gamut from snow-capped mountains to underground caverns to lush woodlands.
The best way to see everything is by car so here are some recommended highlights that start with Taos in the north central region and take you all the way down to Carlsbad in the southeastern corner. Whether you want to take nature hikes, unwind in a spa resort or immerse yourself in the state’s fascinating history, you’ll understand why they call it the “Land of Enchantment.”
The only UNESCO Living World Heritage Site in the U.S. that still boasts a culture living and working at the site, Taos Pueblo is an excellent place to start your journey and give you some historical perspective on the state’s original inhabitants who have lived here for more than 1,000 years. The natural beauty of the region is best appreciated by exploring The Enchanted Circle, an 86 mile circular drive that starts and ends in Taos with stops along the way in Questa, Red River, Eagle Nest and Angel Fire. If you’re interested in the arts and crafts, you can browse the many galleries in town but make sure you visit The Harwood Museum of Art with its distinctive collection of Hispanic, Native American and contemporary art. History buffs will enjoy the Kit Carson Museum which houses artifacts and possessions of the famous American frontiersman and Indian guide. For great views, check out The Rio Grande Gorge and The Gorge Bridge or get some exercise hiking at the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument with its rugged terrain of volcanic cones and deep canyons.
Situated at an elevation of 7,000 feet, Santa Fe has long been famous as a health resort with its clear air, dry climate and abundant sunshine (more than 300 days of it yearly). It has also become a thriving art center with almost 300 galleries and museums as well as a mecca for foodies with such renowned restaurants as the Coyote Cafe and El Faro. Experience the bustling market scene in the old Plaza and learn about the town’s rich history with visits to the Palace of the Governors, El Rancho de las Golondrinas and the Loretto Chapel’s “helix to heaven” stairway. Cultural highlights include the open air Santa Fe Opera House, the Georgia O’Keefe Museum and the Meow Wolf art collective. Nature lovers will want to explore the Santa Fe Botanical Garden and spend some time birdwatching at the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary.
DAY TRIPS FROM SANTA FE
Off the beaten path but highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand the visual inspirations for much of Georgia O’Keefe’s work is Abiquiu (about 50 miles NW), where the artist lived and worked. Nearby is Ghost Ranch, a frequent retreat for O’Keefe, and the remarkable white limestone obelisks and spires of Plaza Blanca, the “White City” (pictured above). Another unique side trip awaits you in Los Alamos (about 35 miles NW), the former location of The Manhattan Project where the first atomic bombs were developed between 1942-45. The Bradbury Science Museum offers a fascinating window into the town’s history and spectacular vistas and hiking trails can be enjoyed in nearby Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandolier National Monument.
Before "Breaking Bad" became a cult TV series, Albuquerque was mostly perceived as a relatively laidback western town despite the fact that it is the state’s largest city. Today Albuquerque is an eclectic mix of the past and present combining the charm and history of Old Town with new, state of the art attractions such as Explora! Science Center and annual events like the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The city has a base elevation of almost 5,000 feet but you can climb to heights of 10,000 feet or more by taking the Sandia Peak Tram to the top in Cibola National Forest for spectacular views over the city and surrounding countryside. Just outside town is Petroglyph National Monument with its fantastic array of symbols and drawings on volcanic rock from 400 to 700 years ago.
DAY TRIPS FROM ALBUQUERQUE
One of the most visited sites is Acoma Pueblo aka Sky City (about 67 miles to the west), a centuries-old Native American settlement that is a Registered National Historical Landmark. Located at the top of a 367 foot sandstone bluff in a valley of gigantic monoliths and volcanic formations, this sacred site is not only visually dazzling but also an enlightening introduction to the tribal celebrations and pottery making traditions of the Acoma people. A completely different kind of cultural experience can be found at Tinkertown in San Antonito (about 20 minutes from Albuquerque). The strange and wondrous creation of folk artist Ross Ward houses a 22-room museum of wood carvings, Western memorabilia and more in an odd assemblage of masonry walls and 50,000 glass bottles.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
While most tourists tend to concentrate on Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque in northern New Mexico, some of the most alluring and often overlooked attractions in the state are further south along I-25. The national wildlife refuge Bosque del Apache offers a rare opportunity to glimpse the diversity of wildlife that frequents this wild stretch of the Rio Grande. A key stopover area for migrating birds and waterfowl, you can view warblers, hummingbirds, sandhill cranes and countless bird species depending on the season. Further south is Elephant Butte Lake, the largest state park in New Mexico and the epicenter for all water sports (swimming, jet skiing, sailboats, kayaks). Nearby is the quaint and picturesque town of Truth or Consequences, which took its name from the popular 1950 TV game show and is now a funky spa/hot springs resort. Further afield and most spectacular of all is the City of Rocks State Park, located off State Hwy. 61 near Silver City. This amazing, lunar-like landscape of volcanic rocks and formations sculpted by wind and water (pictured above) was created by a massive eruption 34.9 million years ago.
Imagine an endless ocean of white sand where the wave-like dunes extend into the distance across 275 square miles of desert. The White Sands National Monument, located on U.S. Highway 70, is one of the world’s natural wonders and is made for sand sledding, hiking or quiet contemplation. The pristine beauty of the place is simply overwhelming. Just make sure to check the local weather conditions before exploring in case the heat index is too high. While you’re there, check out the White Sands Missile Range Museum, an almost surreal presentation of the various missiles and rockets tested at this location over the years such as the Pershing II and the Loon (the U.S. version of the V-1 rocket).
CLOUDCROFT AND POINTS EAST
If you drive east toward Alamogordo, you’ll notice the terrain changes dramatically from rolling sand dunes to the lush greenery and towering mountains of the Lincoln National Forest. Get on US-82 E and follow the signs to Cloudcroft where you’ll ascend toward the heavens and possibly see snow. This delightful resort is one of the state’s best kept secrets with snow skiing at Ski Cloudcroft as well as a romantic getaway (stay at The Lodge, a lovely Victorian-style resort and spa that comes complete with a resident ghost). If you want to see the old stomping grounds of Billy the Kid, then head over to Lincoln (about 76 miles NE) and see a frontier town frozen in time. From there you can make your way to Roswell (about 57 miles on US-380E), which is justly famous for the UFO Incident of 1947 and other area sightings. Of course, a stop at the International UFO Museum and Research Center is mandatory and you can also pick up some provisions in town and have a picnic at Bottomless Lakes State Park (14 miles SW of Roswell), which is ideal for fishing, boating and even scuba-diving.
No visit to New Mexico would be complete without a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, one of the oldest and most famous cave systems in the world. Above the ground, you’ll experience flowering cactus, desert wildlife and ancient sea ledges but the real treat is below ground where more than 119 known caves feature fantastic calcite formations of various colors and shapes such as the Hall of the Giants or the Temple of the Sun. If you visit between August and September, you might get to see one of the park’s famous bat flights where thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats fly out of the caves at dusk. They also offer a pre-dawn event where you can see the webbed winged mammals return to their deep lair. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience!