The Land of Enchantment is one of the nation’s least-populated states, often dwarfed in tourism by iconic American locales that vacationers may more readily consider.
However, New Mexico’s small population belies its unforgettable offerings: intriguing, ancient, and thrilling locations unlike anything else you’ve ever seen.
The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum
In a state rife with ancient history, one of its newest landmarks opens this list. The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum was founded in 2005 to honor the city’s legacy of daring aeronauts, or hot-air balloon flyers. Featuring dozens of exhibits dedicated to the science, history, and sport of hot-air ballooning, visitors can get hands-on with artifacts that make sky exploration by balloon possible.
Though the museum is open year-round, it’s best enjoyed as the headquarters for the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. For nine days every October, New Mexico’s only large city is dwarfed by a sky alight with colorful hot-air balloons featuring classic vessels and quirky airborne art alike.
New Mexico also celebrates exploration far underneath the earth’s crust at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, located less than an hour from the Texas border. Extending more than 1,000 feet below ground, this grand complex of caverns deserves its worldwide fame. There are over thirty miles of subterranean passages through the park, where visitors can take solo hikes, reserve guided tours to learn about the history and discovery of these 120 caverns, or even go spelunking in the unnervingly named Slaughter Canyon.
If you dare, descend one and a half miles into the abyss that over 400,000 Mexican free-tailed bats call home from April to October. Then take in other notable feats of Mother Nature, including the world’s largest intact stalagmite. Save time to venture near the famous Bottomless Pit—a dark chasm into the depths of the earth that is not for the faint of heart.
The Roswell International UFO Museum
In the summer of 1947, unusual debris crashed into a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. Military officials closed the site to the public and confiscated the residue, leading to rumors of alien life visiting Earth. The Roswell International UFO Museum is dedicated to the evidence surrounding the “Roswell incident,” as it came to be known, and features exhibits that just might change your perspective on what else—or who else—is out there.
This museum does an excellent job catering to believers and naysayers alike, as even those certain that its alien evidence is hokey can enjoy the extraterrestrial-themed, life-size dioramas and starry atmosphere. Surrounding the museum, the quirky city of Roswell leans into its claim to fame, featuring fun sights like alien streetlamps, cosmic street art, and UFO-shaped architecture.
The Very Large Array
Mysterious, bewildering, and strange, the Very Large Array complex may be an underrated destination due to one simple fact: it’s a collection of satellite dishes. However, one must behold the twenty-seven gargantuan, 240-ton, eighty-two-foot-wide radio telescopes to fully understand their glory.
While these dishes scan the far reaches of the universe, reporting fascinating findings to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, viewers can gaze at their unbelievable size. Veterans of Roswell’s UFO museum may feel tingling in the back of their necks as they witness these twenty-seven machines in motion. You can learn all about the Very Large Array’s role in astronomical discovery at its Visitor Center, located fifty miles west of Socorro, New Mexico. To grasp the dishes’ significance, arrange a guided tour of the facilities and expansive grounds well in advance. These guided talks explain what the Very Large Array has unveiled of the cosmic wonders beyond our planet.
White Sands National Park
Spanning nearly 300 square miles, the dreamlike White Sands National Park hypnotizes visitors with vast dunes, boundless fields, and deep valleys of white, crystalline sand. A geographical oddity remnant of New Mexico’s prehistoric and extinct lakes, this destination is a must-see. In fact, White Sands is so bizarre and otherworldly that it has become a favorite of photographers, filmmakers, and musicians. You may be inspired to embrace your inner artist during your visit.
Be sure to show up with ample water, nutrition, and shade tents, because this park’s spartan campsites and five-mile Alkali Flat walking trail seem virtually absent of human civilization—spare the sunbathers, hikers, and artists drawn to this desert as if to visit another planet.
Another destination that adds to the state’s natural wow factor is Wheeler Peak, which proudly dominates the New Mexico landscape. This is the tallest summit of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost range of the Rocky Mountains—at 13,161 feet, it dwarfs its surroundings in an already elevated state. You can dare to traverse its rugged terrain for breathtaking views of the landscape, take a casual hike through about 20,000 acres of forested wilderness flocking Wheeler Peak, and even observe inhabitants like elk, marmots, pika, and golden eagles.
This landmark also lends itself to an excellent day trip to Santa Fe, the state’s popular capital city, which sits about one and a half hours southwest of Wheeler. For a taste of adventure that’s slightly less daring, spectate Wheeler Peak and the surrounding Rocky Mountains from one of many ski resorts in the area, including Taos and Angel Fire.
The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
Daring adventurers can also visit an engineering wonder forty-five minutes west of Wheeler Peak that spans the storied Rio Grande River. Those who fear heights, beware: the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which connects two mountainous shores high above the riverbed, is one of the nation’s highest bridges. A whopping 650 feet high and over 1,200 feet long, it offers a pedestrian walkway for those who dare traverse it. You can also commemorate your victory over vertigo at one of the gift shops at either end of the rugged valley far below.
About twenty minutes away, you’ll discover one of the nation’s oldest surviving human-made landmarks, Taos Pueblo—a series of preserved, iconic adobe homes dating as far back as 1000 AD. A site revered by the Pueblo people native to the region, these undulating stories of ancient structures are some of the finest, most intact examples of classic adobe architecture anywhere.
Tribal guides lead tours of the grounds, during which they share details about the ancient homes’ history, composition, and even current significance. Because the site sits upon tribal lands, it is closed from February to mid-April for private events and ceremonies. And, although walking tours of the grounds are free, donations are highly suggested. To memorialize your visit, take home a piece of pottery, jewelry, or decor handmade by the descendants of those who have occupied this land for centuries.
For more info, visit newmexico.org