Beyond the trifecta of Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Taos lies a vast and diverse landscape. Some of your richest New Mexico memories will come from taking the slow, scenic roads. When exploring, I always divide New Mexico into quadrants and the more-or-less center of the state.
North-Central: The Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway cuts through historic mining towns. The 19 Native American Rio Grande Pueblos have graced the region for centuries. The Valles Caldera National Preserve, a massive volcanic crater in the Jemez Mountains, offers hiking and wildlife viewing. Ojo Caliente hot springs are soothing. Tiny Chama is a terminus for the historic narrow gauge railroad into rugged southern Colorado. Georgia O’Keefe put the small village of Abiquiú on the map, but its towering mesas and the winding Rio Chama river preceded her.
Southwest: The 3-million-acre Gila National Forest is a hidden gem, a vast wilderness of canyons, rivers, and forests. Nearby Silver City is its charming gateway community. The Very Large Array (VLA) is a world-renowned astronomical observatory scattered over 13 miles in the high desert. Pie Town (yes pies) is a mandatory refueling stop.
South-Central: The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge overflows with wetlands and wildlife. Truth or Consequences (TorC), named in 1950 after a popular radio show, has natural hot springs. Check it out.
The stunning White Sands National Monument boasts the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Use Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second-largest city, as a jumping-off point. And don’t miss Hatch, home to New Mexico’s famous chile peppers.
Southeast: The batty Carlsbad Caverns National Park has an enormous network of underground caves and caverns. Mountainous Ruidoso is the region’s outdoorsy, arty hub. Then there’s wacky Roswell, where the alleged crash of a UFO happened in 1947.
Northwest: The haunting mesa-top Acoma Pueblo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America. Grants and Gallup are mostly Route 66 way stations. Chaco Culture National Historical Park holds some of the most well-preserved ancient Puebloan architecture in North America. Shiprock graces the top of this page. Farmington is the biggest town near Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, the Aztec Ruins National Monument, and the Four Corners Monument.
North-Northeast: The Enchanted Circle, an 83-mile loop through the mountains near Taos, offers stunning views of the Sangre de Cristo Range and the Moreno Valley. The historic, former frontier town of Las Vegas has a slightly artsy vibe along with a castle and a wildlife refuge. The Pecos Mountains offer pristine backcountry wilderness, rugged peaks, deep canyons, and lush forests – great for hiking, camping, and every other imaginable outdoor activity. The Pecos National Historical Park documents the history and culture of the Puebloan people and the Spanish colonizers.
See, I told you it was diverse.— Kim Grant