Dazzling desert landscapes, bathed in crystal-clear light. Deep gorges and canyons, accessed by rugged trails. Adobe-walled ruins and isolated churches, blending in perfect harmony into the landscape.
Take these stunning physical elements, add the ongoing stories of its many peoples, from Navajo and Pueblo Indians to Hispanic colonists and Anglo settlers, and you have New Mexico. Here are 10 reasons you shouldn’t miss the Land of Enchantment.
A weekend in Santa Fe
New Mexico’s capital has a lot to show for its 400-year history. From its seductive adobe monuments – all rounded buttresses and exposed ancient beams – to its world-class museums, Native American galleries, gourmet restaurants and cozy B&Bs, the ‘City Different’ is a world apart. Spend a long weekend in Santa Fe, though, and your most lasting memory may be the sheer beauty of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains, stretching luxuriantly along the eastern horizon and tinged a glorious red as the sun sinks each evening.
Exploring the Great Houses of Chaco
Simply getting to Chaco Canyon is an adventure, bumping across the dirt roads of the Navajo Nation. A thousand years ago this windblown desert canyon was even drier than it is today, but it held the biggest pre-Columbian city in North America. The ruins of its majestic Great Houses still stand guard – one, horseshoe-shaped Pueblo Bonito, was the largest building in the US until 1898. Ancient astronomers performed mysterious calculations here, while traders haggled over precious turquoises and priests greeted emissaries from the mighty empires of Mexico.
Biking bad in Albuquerque
Albuquerque may sprawl across 200 sq miles, but it’s a haven for cyclists. Cycle lanes crisscross the city, connecting laidback residential neighborhoods with downtown and cruising beside intact stretches of the former Route 66. For the best views follow the 16-mile, traffic-free Paseo del Bosque River Trail through the woodlands beside the Rio Grande. Or take a guided tour with Routes Rentals, whose program includes five itineraries based on the TV series Breaking Bad, as well as tours of local microbreweries and wineries.
Ghost riders of Lincoln County
Lincoln doesn’t quite count as a ghost town – 50 hardy souls still live there – but it’s home to a lot more ghosts than people. The stores and saloons along its single dusty street have barely changed since 1878, when Billy the Kid and the Regulators fought it out with the Murphy-Dolan boys. Billy got away that time, and bullet holes in the courthouse remain from when he escaped again three years later (unlike Bob Marley, Billy shot the sheriff and the deputy). Pat Garrett, who once owned Lincoln’s Wortley Hotel, finally caught up with the Kid later that summer.
Trails of the Rio Grande
New Mexico’s wide-open desert landscapes make fertile territory for hikers. Amid the striped, tepee-like formations of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, an impossibly narrow trail climbs through a slot canyon to reach views across the full width of the Rio Grande Valley. Further north, in the new Río Grande Del Norte National Monument, you can hike to the bottom of the gorge, to the point where the Rio Grande meets the Red River.
In the footsteps of Georgia O’Keeffe
It takes a rare artist to reshape how the world sees an entire region. Distilling the Southwestern deserts into iconic abstractions, Georgia O’Keeffe achieved just that. Head northwest from Santa Fe, where her namesake museum holds half of her lifetime’s output, to reach her former home in the village of Abiquiu, then continue to Ghost Ranch, and hike the hills she immortalized on canvas. O’Keeffe claimed of the nearby mesa named Pedernal that ‘God told me if I painted it often enough, I could have it’; her ashes were scattered atop that lone hill after her death in 1986.
A desert playground
It’s summer in New Mexico, hundreds of miles from the ocean, and a long lonely drive from the nearest river…and everyone’s down at the beach. In White Sands National Monument, happy families barbecue amid the dunes, while the kids slither and slide down the shifting slopes. Anywhere else on earth, white gypsum dissolves at the slightest hint of moisture, but here in the waterless Tularosa Basin, it nurtures an extraordinary eco-system; follow the nature trails to be amazed by the plants that somehow flourish.
The highway that’s the best
Songwriter Bobby Troup had it right: Route 66 is the highway that’s the best. And there’s no better place to get your kicks than on the New Mexico stretch of this famed road. As you motor west, dip off the I-40 interstate whenever you reach a town and you’ll find yourself sharing the legendary Mother Road with a glorious array of ‘50s sedans, souped-up low riders and roaring Harleys. From Tucumcari in the east, with its vintage motor courts and quirky museums, via Albuquerque and its all-but-intact Route 66 frontage, to Navajo-dominated Gallup near the Arizona state line, it’s the great American road trip writ large.
Experiencing the Pueblo heritage
Of the 100-plus Pueblo Indian tribes encountered by the Spanish five centuries ago, 19 are still separate, independent entities, speaking their own languages and maintaining distinct traditions. Some Pueblo communities (‘pueblo’ is the Spanish word for town) such as Taos with its 1000-year-old, multi-story adobes, and Acoma, glowing atop a red-rock mesa like a real-life City of Gold, offer guided tours year-round. Others only welcome visitors on Feast Days, when costumed, body-painted dancers gather in their plazas to perform time-honored ceremonies.
The reinvention of Silver City
Silver City is a former mining town (guess what it mined) that has re-awakened as a foodie destination. Restaurants in its Old West downtown, such as the Curious Kumquat – where chef Rob Conneley transforms what he finds in the woods into critically acclaimed ‘modern foraged cuisine’ – lure in gourmets, while historic hotels like the Murray and the Palace offer contemporary comforts. With the vast Gila National Forest, birthplace of Geronimo and a wonderland for wilderness backpackers, on its doorstep, Silver City is once again firmly on the map.