New Mexico is full of beautiful wide-open spaces, awe-inspiring landscapes, and mysteries just waiting to be unfolded. This is a place where spending time outdoors is a way of life and where it’s easy to find inspiration in the natural world around you. Some of the best places to visit are the many national parks and monuments scattered throughout the state. Here are the most stunning national parks and monuments to check out when visiting New Mexico.
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Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos
A popular weekend getaway in New Mexico, this national monument spans more than 33,000 acres of mesa and canyon country and tells the story of people who lived here 11,000 years ago. The hiking trails lead out to cliff dwellings that you can actually climb ladders to see inside for yourself. There are petroglyphs carved onto the walls and several shorter trails that are easy loops and accessible for many visitors. During the busy season between May and October, you can only visit Frijoles Canyon and the visitor’s center by shuttle bus. Therefore, you may want to visit during the winter instead to have more of the park to yourself and perhaps see the cliff dwellings covered in a beautiful dusting of snow.
White Sands National Park, Alamogordo
This epic New Mexico destination was only recently granted national park status and was previously known as White Sands National Monument. Here you’ll find gypsum sand dunes that span over 275 miles of desert. It’s the largest gypsum dune field in the world, with sands that stay cool even on the hottest days. It’s truly an otherworldly landscape where you can wander around the dunes or stick to the designated trail so you don’t get lost. Unlike many national parks, you can bring your dog to this one to hike with you as long as you keep him/her on a leash. While you’re here, buy a sand sled at the park gift shop to go sledding down the dunes. Then, extend your stay by backcountry camping in the park.
Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque
One of the largest and most impressive petroglyph sites in all of North America is located right in the Albuquerque area. Native Americans carved symbols into the volcanic rocks, which serve as records and cultural expressions worth seeing still today. A top attraction in Albuquerque, there are an estimated 25,000 petroglyph images along 17 miles within the monument. Three hiking trails give you views of the petroglyphs in Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon, and Piedras Marcadas Canyon. These hikes are all about 1-2 miles long and take a little over an hour each to hike. You can bring your dog along with you to check out the Piedras Marcadas Canyon and the Volcanoes Day Use Area.
El Morro National Monument, Ramah
This national monument is also a prime petroglyph site and served as a watering hole for travelers for hundreds of years. The Inscription Trail leads you to the pool and lots of carvings on a half-mile paved loop trail. You can also hike the Headland Trail, which is a two-mile loop that leads to Atsinna, an ancient Puebloan ruin that housed up to 600 people between the years 1275 and 1350. Overall, El Morro National Monument is a wonderful place to learn about the history and near the New Mexico town of Ramah.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Carlsbad
One of the most impressive caverns in the world is in southeastern New Mexico near the town of Carlsbad. Carlsbad Caverns National Park has more than 119 caves, as well as deep canyons, ancient sea ledges, and desert plants and wildlife. You can check out much of the cavern on your own, including the Big Room. But for the best experience, sign up for a ranger-guided tour to learn about the caves and see more of them. If you’re traveling with your dog, you should know that dogs aren’t allowed in the caves but that there’s a convenient kennel at the visitor center to hold them while you’re on a tour. You can also join a park ranger for a bat program or night sky program, depending on when you visit this national park.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Nageezi
Deep in the remote backcountry of New Mexico is Chaco Culture National Historical Park, home to a massive collection of Puebloan structures that date back to 850 to 1250 A.D. To get here is an adventure in and of itself because of the rough and long dirt road that leads here. Take your time to walk around the Puebloan structures, which you can actually go into and explore. There’s also a museum here to check out. Because of its location, it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park and is one of the best places to watch the night sky. The best way to see this is by camping overnight at the park in a tent or camper under 35 feet in length.
Valles Caldera National Preserve, Jemez Springs
Many people don’t expect to find volcanoes in New Mexico, but this one created quite the eruption about 1.25 million years ago. The Valles Caldera National Preserve is the depression left behind by that eruption and about 13 miles wide. Today, this is an excellent place to view wildlife, go fly fishing, and even try elk and turkey hunting. Venture into the backcountry to see more of the volcano, and consider visiting during the winter to explore the vast area on snowshoes or cross-country skis.
Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec
To see more ancient Pueblo ruins, check out Aztec Ruins National Monument, which dates back around 900 years. There are 400 masonry rooms and a reconstructed kiva here that you can see on the half-mile trail. The trail is self-guided, and you can also spend time at the visitor’s center, join an interpretive ranger talk, or tour the heritage garden in the summer.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, Gila
The Gild Cliff Dwellings were used by nomadic people throughout history as temporary shelters and home to the Mogollon Culture. You can join a guided tour of the dwellings in the summer and also visit the hot springs in the area, including Lightfeather Hot Spring (a 20-minute walk from the visitor center) and the Jordan Hot Spring (a 6-8-mile hike from the visitor center). This monument is about 44 miles from Silver City but takes a couple of hours to drive to because of the mountainous roads. Spend more time here by venturing out into the surrounding Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness.
Fort Union National Monument, Las Vegas
This unique site in New Mexico served as a large 19th-century military fort in the mid-to-late 1800s. You can learn about its role in history on a 1.25-mile self-guided walk that goes through the entire fort. Daily ranger-guided programs are also offered here. Pets are allowed on the monument grounds as well.
Pecos National Historic Park, Pecos
Nearby lies Pecos National Historic Park, which is another important historical site with Native American pueblos and geographical features that shaped ancient life here. The park is also filled with history about New Mexico ranching, Route 66 travel, and a far-west Civil War battle. You can hike the 2.35-mile Glorieta Battlefield trail to learn more about this battle. This park not only allows leashed pets on the trails, but it also participates in the B.A.R.K. Ranger program.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, White Rock
For a weird and otherworldly New Mexico experience, don’t miss out on seeing Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. Here you’ll find tent-shaped rock formations that formed after volcanic eruptions six to seven million years ago. This park gets very busy in the summer, so consider planning a winter excursion here. The Cave Loop Trail is an easy 1.2-mile trail, while the Canyon Trail is a 1.5-mile one-way trail that’s more difficult but offers awesome views of the mountains and valley.
El Malpais National Monument
Near the town of Grants, El Malpais National Monument features a volcanic landscape, lava tube caves, cinder cones, and plenty of solitude. This is a fun place to go caving with a free permit that you obtain at the visitor’s center. Highlights are Junction Cave, Xenolith Cave, Giant Ice Cave, and Big Skylight Cave. Above ground, you can also hike the cairned routes and get into the rugged backcountry. Many trails allow pets, but be mindful that the lava flow rocks can be sharp and painful on your dog’s paws.
Manhattan Project National Historical Park
The New Mexico town of Los Alamos has an interesting history in the world of the atomic age and nuclear science. Visit Manhattan Project National Historical Park to learn about how the atomic bomb was created and its role in World War II history. There are three locations that make up this park (the other two are in Tennessee and Washington), and you can contact the staff about taking a guided tour. At the Los Alamos site, over 6,000 scientists worked here to design and build atomic bombs. The town of Los Alamos and the Bradbury Science Museum are also fun to check out when you’re in this part of New Mexico.
Capulin Volcano National Monument
Another volcanic site in New Mexico is Capulin Volcano National Monument, which has a fascinating geologic history that began over a million years ago. You’ll definitely want to hike the Crater Rim Trail, which is a paved, one-mile loop around the volcano’s rim with informational signs along the way. Other trails to check out are the Crater Vent Trail, Lava Flow Trail, and the dog-friendly Nature Trail by the visitor’s center. Meanwhile, the park also offers diverse animal and plant life for viewing, including 73 species of birds, mule deer, and white elk.