The Land of Enchantment is well-named – it enchants visitors with its Native American heritage, Spanish Colonial history, sunny blue skies, natural wonders, and art that flows out of every city and town. Although it is difficult to highlight all those strands that make up the tapestry of New Mexico, these are the 10 that top the list. For more New Mexico places to visit check out Offbeat New Mexico: Places of Unexpected History, Art, and Culture.
Considered to be the largest surviving multistoried pueblo structure in the United States the sprawling adobe blocks piled several stories high make the Taos Pueblo visually stunning. Visitors can also truly experience living history with the people of the pueblo continuing their lives in a manner that has been unchanged for centuries. People bake bread in the horno ovens, do maintenance on the adobe houses, go down to the river than runs through the pueblo and chat with each other. Guided tours are available. Although not required, they add a vital historical and cultural context to the visit.
Three Rivers Petroglyphs is the largest petroglyph site in the Southwest, in terms of the number of these mysterious carvings—with an estimated 21,000 glyphs. Not only will visitors see these designs along the path, but careful exploration is encouraged to see even more.
The trail is easy to follow, and has numbered signs to point out some of the highlights, which are keyed to a handout available at the visitor center. Some of the engravings are so beautifully executed that they seem very much like art, while others designs are clearly stylized symbols. But their locations seem random. Why pick that boulder? What relationship did it have to the other designs two or three boulders away?
In a land of mystery, these creations of the group known as the Jornada Mogollon remain even more tantalizing with their uncertain meanings and purposes.
Bandolier National Monument
Few parks and monuments can match Bandolier’s convenient access to the architectural history of Ancestral Puebloans, as the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people are known.
Easily reached from Los Alamos, Bandolier offers a 1.2 mile loop trail that takes visitors through the breadth of these historic cultures. A paved path takes visitors past ruins of a settlement built near the river. Ladders let you climb into the alcove rooms carved into the cliffs by the early inhabitants. The loop ends with a lovely walk through the woods. And that’s just the main trail. More adventurous explorers can climb ladders and stone stairs to reach the Alcove House which was home to about 25 Ancient Puebloans. Outlying areas of the park, away from the main visitor center, offer additional spectacular trails and views.
National Hispanic Cultural Center and Torreon Fresco
Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center is an important destination with its focus on Hispanic culture and arts. The impressive architecture is Mayan-inspired. Special events, cooking classes, movies, lectures, exhibits by emerging and established artists as well as an excellent restaurant make this a true community cultural center.
Within the Torreon or Tower is the fresco that makes this one of New Mexico’s top ten destinations. Master artist Frederico Vigil has created the largest concave fresco in North America. The vibrant, sprawling, plaster-based fresco covers 4,000 square feet is the result of about 10 years of loving labor. It depicts 3,000 years of Hispanic art, culture, and history from Europe to Meso-America and the southwest.
One of the highlights of the High Road to Taos, the town of Chimayo is known for its church, its weavers, and its distinctive red chile.
The Santuario de Chimayo is a stunning and often-photographed wood and adobe church that opened in 1816. It still offers daily mass for the community and its visitors.
Chimayo is also justifiably famous for its weavers. The early Hispanic settlers brought a particular type of Churro sheep that thrived in the New Mexico climate. The fleece of the sheep became an important part of the economic life of the area, and Chimayo families became known for weavings that were prized up and down the trade routes.
Throughout town you’ll also see the distinctively delicious Chimayo chile for sale. To get the genuine Chimayo chile the package has to use the word Chimayo, not just New Mexico. It’s worth making sure you get to taste this fiery unique chile.
Art is what makes Santa Fe a tourist mecca, and Canyon Road is the major art site of the city. Over half the galleries line both sides its half-mile length and often spread out beyond.
If you’ve ever thought how much fun it would be to window-shop for art, to chat with gallery owners and artists, to poke around in a treasure trove of pottery, paintings, watercolor, sculpture, and almost every creative product you can imagine, Canyon Road is your destination. There is little in the world that can match it.
Street Art Albuquerque
The state’s largest city is also filled with art, but this version is the grittier aerosol art. Throughout the Downtown area you’ll find murals on the sides of buildings, but head to the alleys behind Central Avenue for some of the city’s most innovative street art and graffiti.
The alley behind the Lobo Men’s Shop at 2120 Central Ave. SE has gorgeous and meticulously executed aerosol wall art. The walls of the arroyo by Acme Metals at 6142 Second St. NW host a long series of graffiti painted as part of a festival held several years ago. Artists came from across the country and turned the ugly cement wall into a canvas. The building tucked in between 3903 and 3907 Central Ave. NE sports an unusual wall mural that actually turns the corner of the building.
Spread over 21,000 acres, Ghost Ranch was where Georgia O’Keeffe painted much of her southwest art. Its multi-hued cliffs were depicted in her landscapes and even her beloved Pedernal can be seen to the south. She even maintained a house nearby that can be toured.
Ghost Ranch, now owned by the Presbyterian Church, is open it to the public for O’Keeffe-themed tours, as well as workshops, hiking, and more.
The intriguing name is said to have come from the cattle rustlers who used to hide their stolen goods in the area and wanted to discourage neighbors from poking around. The original name Rancho de los Brujos (Ranch of the Witches) eventually became Ghost Ranch.
White Sands National Monument
These pure white dunes stretch across the horizon like a huge sandy desert but they are not made of sand (or silica). These blindingly white dunes are made of gypsum. The area was once covered by the Permian Sea. When the climate changed and the waters dried up massive deposits of gypsum were left behind. The White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is the world’s largest gypsum dune field.
The effect is like snow that never melts. In fact, sections have been set aside as a play area for sledding on the dunes. If you didn’t bring your own sled you can buy one at the park and then sell it back at the end of your visit for a portion of the purchase price. What you won’t be able to do is construct a sand castle. There’s not a bit of moisture in the gypsum to hold it together.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
There are cave systems throughout the United States but Carlsbad Caverns includes a large natural limestone chamber almost 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet high. It is the fifth largest chamber in North America. “Big Cave” and its Big Room—a massive 14 acre space filled with unusual calcium‑carbonate cave formations make an underground stroll into a walk through an wonderland of eerie architecture. Another unusual aspect of the caverns is that visitors can use the natural entrance by a hiking down a 750-foot trail. Of course, an elevator is also available to bring visitors down into the caverns.
May through October, thousands Brazilian Free‑tailed bats exit the cave at dusk on their nightly forage for food and the park runs a special Bat Flight program for visitors.
If you’re a photographer be sure to allow lots of extra time – the vistas and colors are gorgeous and you’ll want to stop often for photographs.
Neala McCarten is the publisher and editor of OffbeatTravel.com, a freelance writer, and an award‑winning fine art photographer who regularly exhibits in shows in Albuquerque. Offbeat New Mexico: Places of Unexpected History, Art, and Culture is her first book, dedicated to the state she loves. Available on Amazon in both print and kindle
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She’s already at work on her second book.