1. White Sands National Monument
These incredible crystalline dunes are one aspect of America’s landscape which often goes sorely under appreciated. New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument is 100% composed of rare white gypsum sand, which makes for quite a mesmerizing sight to behold. This dramatic landscape serves as an awesomely unique backcountry campsite, if you’re willing to go old-school (aka without plumbing readily available). Grab a permit from the visitors center, and you’re ready to set up your tent to spend a night among these dazzling waves of white.
As far as how to spend the day, challenge yourself with a strenuous hike leading to striking views, or enjoy family-friendly fun in this 275 square-mile natural playground. Sand boarding, hot air balloon rides, once-in-a-lifetime photographs, and even guided trips to a restricted lake are all in the cards here at the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Don’t skip out on this destination which is, quite literally, like nothing else you’ve ever seen (or will ever see again) on this Earth.
2. Chaco Culture National Historical Park
When it comes down to it, if you were going to stumble into Indiana Jones anywhere in the U.S., this would probably be the place it would happen. Chaco Culture National Historical Park is home to the densest concentration of pueblos in all of South Western America. Arguably, this concentration is also the most jaw-dropping of them all, and it is surrounded by multiple amazing hiking and biking trails. Here, you can expect to witness not only the spectacular architectural remains of the Pueblo culture on a phenomenal scale, but also natural beauty that will utterly astound as you sweat your way through this valley.
This is another spot where camping is the move to make, as Chaco Culture has been officially designated as an International Dark Sky Park. It is regarded as one of the best places in America for stargazing, so after an evening of fireside storytelling beneath a breathtaking sunset, extinguish your flames to participate in an array of night sky programs.
3. Taos Ski Valley
New Mexico steps outside the bounds of it’s typical reputation with this one: Taos Ski Valley. This small village and alpine ski resort is settled in the heart of Taos County, NM, with a shockingly tiny population of only 69 permanent residents as of 2010. The Valley has peaks reaching an altitude of 3,274 ft, which makes for epic skiing conditions on what has been regarded as the highest quality snow in the West.
Good luck becoming bored at this hotspot for adrenaline junkies! There are loads of exciting activities for enjoying here in the cool mountain air. Hit the slopes for a sunrise ski, take a snowmobile tour, freestyle through the cross-country ski area in the Enchanted Forest, or take some lessons if you’re not quite ready to take on the mountains solo. Then, once you’ve thoroughly worn yourself out, visit the resort spa or soak in the Ojo Caliente hot springs to relax your muscles before doing it all over again the next day.
Even beyond the snow, Taos Ski Valley is a great summer location for those looking to enjoy the great outdoors. Visitors can rock climb in the Rio Grande Gorge, hike or horseback ride along Wheeler Peak, or cool off on a hot day by swimming and fishing in Williams Lake. The possibilities are practically endless, and are all right at your fingertips at this awesome destination.
4. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
This is a glorious location for admiring some of Mother Nature’s most astounding architectural work. Located in New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, the caves themselves (which can be accessed via the steep natural cave entrance, or the wheelchair-accessible manmade entrance) display a massive variety of ancient stalagmites and stalactites–mystically preserved underneath the Guadalupe Mountain Range. Each trail will lead you through multiple well-lit cave rooms decorated from floor to ceiling with stunning rock and crystal formations which have been forming for thousands of years, and now spend their days amazing travelers who make the trek to witness them with the naked eye.
The caves can definitely become a bit chilly after spending long periods of time underneath their depths… which is luckily no problem for those who visit this national park. The park outside of the caves boasts a wide variety of wildlife, brought to the area by Rattlesnake Springs. The desert wetlands serve as an oasis in the region, attracting dozens of native animal species to the site such as jackrabbits, bunnies, mule deer, and an exciting selections of diverse birds for observing. Have a picnic, bring a camera, and enjoy the serenity that this stunning national park so effortlessly provides.
5. Santa Fe, Cibola, Gila, and Lincoln National Forests
With four main national forests to choose from, there’s no question that New Mexico has really got in going on in the nature department. No matter which way you look at it, natural beauty runs through this state for as far as the eye can see. What makes New Mexico’s national forests unique, however, is the fact that they are littered with remains of human history.
Sure, there are mind-boggling vistas, countless scenic hikes, a dozen immaculate waterfalls, and more wildlife than you could possibly keep track of… but there are also petroglyphs alongside entire cliff dwellings which have been left behind by Pueblo civilizations from the distant past. When you’re camping, off-roading, trail running, hiking, biking, or whatever it is you enjoy doing when out in the wilderness, here in New Mexico’s national forests, you can do so in the most authentic of natural and human history museums. Zipline over the trees that the Pueblo people once walked through daily, or rent a cabin to snooze underneath the same stars they gazed upon by night.
If that weren’t enough, all of your winter favorites are available in some of these forests, too! Skiing, snowboarding, sledding, tubing, and snowshoeing are all activities that winter visitors should absolutely take advantage of in this astounding landscape. When you pack for New Mexico, pack for the world–because in all its diversity, the world is what it has to offer.