New Mexico lives up to its nickname – the Land of Enchantment – with glittering deserts, vast underground caverns, gem-rich mountains and hundreds of years of human history
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks national monument
Tent Rocks, less than an hour south of Santa Fe, has everything you could want in a desert trek, including slot canyons, bizarrely beautiful rock formations and incredible views. The first half of the three-mile trail winds through a slot canyon so narrow you can touch the walls on both sides, then the canyon opens up beneath the 100ft conical hoodoos that give this national monument its name, before switchbacking up to the top of the mesa for a sweeping overlook of the Jemez mountains and the Rio Grande River Valley.
Kasha-Katuwe means “white cliffs” in the Keresan language, spoken by residents of Cochiti Pueblo, which co-manages the monument. The white cliffs, hoodoos and slot canyon are all made of of volcanic tuff that erupted around a million years ago. The trail is only open during daylight hours, with no camping at Tent Rocks, but the nearby Cochiti Lake recreation area offers developed sites. It’s is an easy drive from historic Santa Fe, making for a fantastic day trip.
Top tip: After completing the three-mile hike through the slot canyon to the overlook, continue on the trail anti-clockwise to visit a cave dwelling similar to the famous cliff cavates at Bandelier national monument.
The haunt, at various points over the millennia, of dinosaurs, cattle rustlers, horse thieves and the painter Georgia O’Keefe, Ghost Ranch, an hour north of Santa Fe, is a draw for palaeontology buffs, hikers and artists. A privately-owned education and retreat centre, it welcomes the public to its dinosaur and archaeology museum, plus year-round photography and painting workshops, and four stunning hiking trails.
Ghost Ranch also offers a number of options to visitors interested in O’Keefe’s 50-odd years in the area, including a Jeep tour of the landscapes that inspired her and a hiking tour of the areas where she lived and worked. Camping is available seasonally at Ghost Ranch and year-round up the road at Echo Amphitheater.
Top tip: A three-mile round trip, the Chimney Rock trail is the shortest hiking option at Ghost Ranch. The relatively easy path starts behind the cluster of museums and ascends through geologic time on a gradually rising ridge to reach an overlook of Chimney Rock. If you’re visiting Ghost Ranch in winter, consider hiking to Box Canyon, a dead-end canyon surrounded by 200ft cliffs covered with impressive columns of ice.
White Sands national monument
Awash with sunshine all year round, the south-western desert is known for luminous light and out-of-this-world sunsets. With its stark white backdrop, New Mexico’s White Sands boasts its own enchanting glow. Tucked in a mountain-ringed basin at the very northern end of the Chihuahuan desert in south-central New Mexico, White Sands is famous for the Trinity Site, where the world’s first atomic bomb test took place, in 1945. The southern half of the dune field was designated a national monument in 1933 and remains a remote outpost, 50 miles east of Las Cruces. Walk-in primitive camping is available with a free permit from the Heart of the Sands visitor centre, and developed sites can be found nearby at Aguirre Spring recreation area and Oliver Lee Memorial state park.
Hiking in the ever-shifting White Sands can be exhausting and disorientating, but the exotic landscape is well worth the effort. And unlike beach sand, the sands here, made up of eroded gypsum crystals, do not get scorching hot in the sun and can usually be walked on in bare feet, even on the hottest days.
Top tip: Sunset, starlight and sunrise are particularly magical against the white dunes. Plan to camp in the park or join a ranger-led sunset hike. Sledding is also a popular activity in the dunes. Round, saucer-type sleds work best on the powdery sand.
Chaco Culture national historical park
For hundreds of years, until well into the 19th century, New Mexico boasted the largest building in North America: a 650-room edifice covering more than two acres in Chaco Canyon, within the pueblo-rich, north-west corner of the state. Pueblo Bonita, constructed from artfully stacked sandstone blocks between AD900 and 1100, was once the centre of culture and commerce for the ancient Puebloan people. Starkly beautiful Chaco Canyon is dotted with the ruins of dozens of “great houses” and smaller buildings, many aligned with beams of light and shadows cast by solar and lunar cycles. The houses were abandoned after a prolonged drought, which started around 1130.
Chaco Culture national historical park sits at the centre of dozens of once-thriving desert communities, connected by a series of ancient pathways known as the Chacoan Roads. After visiting Chaco, which offers a first-come-first-served campsite at the end of a 21-mile, dead-end dirt road, drive north 75 miles to see another spectacular great house, as well as a reconstructed underground ceremonial room, called a kiva, at Aztec Ruins national monument.
Top tip: The scale and the crescent layout of Pueblo Bonita are best appreciated from above. Be sure to head northwest to the Kin Kletso ruins and pick up the Alto Mesa Trail, which runs through a cleft in the cliff to an overlook above Pueblo Bonita.
Bandelier national monument
Around a million years ago, the Valles Caldera supervolcano in the Jemez mountains exploded, blanketing the region with ash more than 1,000ft thick. Over time, this ash layer solidified into a soft, easily eroded, whitish rock called tuff. At Bandelier national monument, tucked deep inside Frijoles Canyon, ancient Puebloan people used hand tools to shape natural caves in the tuff into shelters known as cavates. Here they lived for hundreds of years, raising corn, squash and turkeys, and eventually dispersing throughout the south-west after a prolonged drought.
Visitors to Bandelier can get a feel for life in Frijoles Canyon by hiking the 1.2-mile paved loop trail, which rises along the cliff face with wooden ladders giving limber visitors the option of entering some of the cavates. The visitor centre offers a comprehensive overview of the canyon’s history and displays many artefacts recovered from the cavates, including pottery and tools. Camping is available at two developed sites, and backcountry camping is permitted on the park’s 70 miles of trails.
Top tip: After walking the main looped trail, stretch your legs another half a mile down to the Alcove House. You’ll need to ascend four wooden ladders to reach the reconstructed kiva, built into the floor of a huge, petroglyph-covered cave.
Carlsbad Caverns national park
New Mexico is spectacular on the surface, but at least one of the state’s natural treasures lies underground at Carlsbad Caverns national park. Located on the southern border with Texas, Carlsbad is far from everything else in New Mexico, but well worth the drive. Underlain by limestone deposited by an ancient coral reef, Carlsbad boasts 119 mapped caves, including the Big Room, a natural chamber 4,000ft long, 625ft wide and 255ft high, which makes it the third-largest cave chamber in North America and the seventh-largest in the world.
Carlsbad isn’t just big – it’s also strikingly intricate, featuring thousands upon thousands of unique cave formations, including stalagmites, stalactites, cave pearls, flowstones, cave crystals and underground lakes. Visitors can explore the well-lit caves on their own, or sign up for a ranger-led excursion into one of the less-visited caves. The King’s Palace and Left Hand Cave tours are suitable for children and beginners, while the half-day Hall of the White Giant and Spider Cave tours are not for the claustrophobic. Camping is allowed in the park’s backcountry, but the closest developed campsite is over the Texas state line at Guadalupe national park.
Top tip: Half a million Brazilian free-tailed bats call Carlsbad Caverns home in the summer. Visitors can go to the amphitheatre to watch them head for the skies each evening, just before sunset. There are also pre-dawn programs where you can watch the bats return to the caves en masse.
Cerrillos Hills state park
New Mexico is famous for its turquoise gemstones, and nowhere more so than the Cerrillos Hills, just south of Santa Fe. Featuring not so much hills as medium-sized mountains, New Mexico’s newest state park is home to some of the oldest and most productive turquoise mines in North America. With so many prospectors on the lookout for so long, you’re unlikely to find gem-quality shards of the blue-green stone just lying around, but the hills are a worthy destination on their own for the spectacular high-desert hiking and wild west lore.
With their long history of mining, for turquoise, iron, silver and other metals, the hills are riddled with holes, but most have been fenced off or wholly reclaimed. The trails are well-marked, with signs offering information about the productivity of the mines and tales of the miners who carved a rugged living from these mountains between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. At the base of the hills, the tiny, dusty town of Cerrillos is a photographer’s dream. Several movies have been filmed along the town’s dirt streets, including Young Guns. Just down the road, the artist community of Madrid offers an assortment of shops and galleries, as well as one of the state’s oldest saloons, the Mineshaft Tavern.
Top tip: Check out the best views from the Mirador Overlook. After a hike, head to the Casa Grande Trading Post in Cerrillos to peruse an impressive selection of Cerrillos turquoise – famous for its uniquely greenish hue – set into silver onsite by the owner, who works a claim in the hills.
Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge
Drenched by an average of 300 days of sunshine a year, New Mexico is a winter paradise, especially for migrating birds, tens of thousands of which flock to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, just south of Socorro, between November and May. More than 370 species of birds have been spotted since the refuge was established in 1939, making this one of the most diverse birdwatching spots in North America. No camping is allowed within the refuge – truly a place for the birds – but you can find sites in the nearby Cibola national forest, as well as further south at Elephant Butte Lake state park.
Top tip: Every November, just before Thanksgiving, Bosque del Apache hosts the Festival of the Cranes, a five-day event celebrating the return of the statuesque sandhill cranes. The festival is a draw for birdwatchers and wildlife photographers, with workshops, lectures and guided tours of the 57,000-acre reserve.
City of Rocks state park
New Mexico has no shortage of interesting rock formations, and this cluster of boulders, near Silver City in the southwestern corner of the state, lives up to its odd name. The house-sized rocks are lined up on a grid, like buildings arranged on city blocks. City of Rocks was created by a volcanic eruption around 35m years ago. Over time, the rocks have been shaped by weathering, creating a paradise for hikers and climbers. Some of the rocks are pitted with Indian Wells – holes worn into the rock to grind corn and collect rainwater, a testament to the long history of human habitation in the Chihuahuan desert.
City of Rocks is best visited in late fall, winter or early spring, when temperatures are mild and rattlesnakes are more likely to be dormant. The park offers 52 campsites, including full RV hookups, and a cactus-rich botanical garden, plus hiking and mountain-biking trails.
Top tip: After dark is when City of Rocks really shines, thanks to low light pollution. The park boasts its own 14-inch telescope in a solar-powered observatory, with retractable roof that’s open to visitors for star parties several nights a week.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
The Gila wilderness, in south-west New Mexico, is one of the wildest corners of the state. Here, Mexican grey wolves still roam and hidden hot springs bubble along the wild and scenic Gila river. This area may be all but uninhabited today, but 800 years ago, the Mogollon tribe made their home here in a series of interconnected cliff dwellings in what is now the Gila Cliff Dwellings national monument. Archaeologists have identified 46 rooms spread throughout five shallow caves, believed to have housed between 10 and 15 families for several hundred years.
A museum and visitor centre maintains a collection of artefacts recovered from the caves, but the most famous find, a mummy of a child nicknamed “Zeke” discovered in 1912, has long been lost to the Smithsonian archives in Washington DC. Camping is available at the national monument, as well as in the surrounding national forest.
Top tip: The Gila Wilderness is famous for its hot springs. Lightfeather hot springs is the most accessible, less than a 20-minute walk from the visitor centre. Jordan hot springs is reached after a six-mile hike down Little Bear Canyon, making for a toasty overnight destination.
Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance writer and photographer who makes her home on the back roads of North America, living and working out of a tiny solar-powered Teardrop camper
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