If you are planning a trip to the Land of Enchantment, you’ll have to check out some of the best National Parks in New Mexico while you are there!
You might be tempted by its world-famous Hatch chile or the artsy vibes of Santa Fe, but you don’t want to overlook its beautiful natural wonders especially since a huge part of the draw of visiting New Mexico is its landscape.
Interestingly, New Mexico is home to only two National Parks, but don’t let that number dissuade you. The state more than makes up for it with a rich array of National Monuments and Historical Parks.
New Mexico is a vast playground for outdoor enthusiasts—there are opportunities everywhere. But, choosing from such a huge list in a large state can be overwhelming, so I’ve narrowed it down for you.
These are the must-visit spots for you that offer a little bit of everything—history, nature, and even a touch of the mystical. By the end of this post, I bet you’ll be itching to plan your next Southwestern adventure.
National Parks in New Mexico
We start by introducing the two National Parks in New Mexico that are as unlike one another as sand dunes and crystal-studded caves.
White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park is an absolute gem and it should be high on your list of parks to visit. This park is located just 52 miles east of Las Cruces, is easily accessible, and offers hiking, sand sledding, and stargazing.
You’ll feel like you have driven into another world as you drive closer to the white sand dunes and eventually end up immersed amongst them where they go on almost as far as your eye can see!
You step into a surreal world where the ground beneath your feet is as white as snow but as warm as a beach. Be sure to take your shoes off and enjoy the feel of that pure white gypsum! It’s one of the best feelings. Plus, it’s easier to walk amongst the dunes barefoot.
Aim for visiting in spring or fall when the temperatures are moderate. Summer can be scorching, and you’ll want to avoid that. You can explore the park independently, but ranger-led programs offer valuable insights into the unique geology and ecology of the area.
Accommodations and camping can be found in nearby Alamogordo. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park is a great choice if you prefer camping.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a subterranean wonder that will make you feel like you’ve stepped into a different realm! It’s located in the Guadalupe Mountains just north of the Texan border, about 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad.
This park is a spelunker’s dream! Time entry tickets are required for access to the caves so plan ahead. The main attraction is the Big Room, a natural limestone chamber that’s one of the largest of its kind.
Getting there is an adventure in itself with the option to either hike down the switchbacks via the Natural Entrance or take an elevator straight down. The hike is definitely worthwhile but adds a lot of time to your visit so plan ahead for this!
You can explore on your own at Carlsbad or join a ranger-led King’s Palace tour of the deepest caverns open to the public. Book your tour early because they fill up well in advance!
Also, don’t miss the evening bat flight. It’s a mindblowing sight as up to 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats exit the cave at dusk. If you plan your visit to end with this experience you won’t be disappointed.
The best time to visit is late spring through early fall. Accommodations are available in the nearby town of Carlsbad, ranging from hotels to campgrounds.
National Historical Parks in New Mexico
Pecos National Historical Park
This National Historic Park gives you the opportunity to walk through centuries of history. It has the feel of being “off the beaten path” but is conveniently located only about 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe so it’s a great day trip!
Pecos is a time capsule of Native American and Civil War history. You’ll start your visit at the amazing visitor center to get an overview of the park’s history, don’t skip it. Also, be sure to buy the trail guide map at the center.
From there, you can explore the ancient Pueblo ruins, Spanish mission churches, and even a Civil War battlefield. You can really soak up the beauty walking around on a self-guided tour. There are very good wheelchair-accessible trails.
The best time to visit is from late spring to early fall when the weather is mild. Accommodations are available in nearby Santa Fe, offering a range of options from boutique hotels to cozy bed and breakfasts.
Chaco Canyon National Historic Park
Chaco Canyon National Historic Park is an absolute must-visit for history buffs. It is located in Northwestern New Mexico and is incredibly remote, so you need to be prepared for a bit of a drive on dirt roads. Some parts of the road can be rough and slow-going.
Get ready to be wowed and leave yourself a couple of days to explore. The scale and abundance of ancient architecture at Chaco Canyon is out of this word! The park is truly a testament to the ingenuity of the ancient Puebloans.
The main attractions are the Great Houses, massive stone structures that were once the center of a thriving community. Definitely don’t miss Pueblo Bonito, the largest and most iconic of them all. Leave time for hiking on some of the backcountry hiking trails if you want to enjoy sweeping views.
It’s best to visit Chaco from April to October when the weather is more forgiving but be prepared because wind can be shockingly powerful at times. You should bring sunglasses and a headscarf in case the sand starts blowing around!
Also, if you’re into astronomy, you’re in for a treat! Chaco Canyon is an International Dark Sky Park, offering unparalleled views of the night sky.
Accommodations are limited to camping within the park and spaces fill up in advance, so pack accordingly. Arrive with all of your camping food essentials because grocery stores are nowhere to be found near the park.
There is potable water available outside the Visitor’s Center to fill jugs so bring your camping sink for clean up after meals!
National Monuments in New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument is located 48 miles west of Santa Fe. The park provides a unique window into the lives of the ancestral Pueblo people, featuring ancient cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, and hiking trails.
The Main (Pueblo) Loop Trail, which is 1.4 miles long, is worth doing because it showcases ancient kivas, cave dwellings, and petroglyphs. You can even climb into some of these dwellings for a closer look, which is really cool!
The hike culminates with a climb up three tall ladders, leading to a viewpoint with stunning vistas and a close-up look at a main kiva. However, if you have breathing issues or a fear of heights, consider skipping this part. Alternative trails are available, like the one leading to the falls.
If you’re hungry, the on-site café offers a delightful Indian-Southwest fusion menu. Picnic tables are also available if you prefer to pack your own lunch.
During the summer, a shuttle from White Rock is required due to limited parking. Remember to pack sunscreen, a sun hat, and water!
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument preserves the architectural ingenuity of the Mogollon people. It is tucked away in the secluded Gila Wilderness, about three and a half hours northwest of Las Cruces.
This destination may require some effort to reach, but the payoff is immense. The Gila National Forest is quite large, but the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is actually small.
There is an added bonus too! The area is also known for its hot springs, adding a relaxing touch to your historical exploration. The springs are a result of the region’s volcanic history, making them a perfect way to unwind after a day of hiking and discovery.
A popular trail is the short Cliff Dweller Canyon loop that leads you directly into cliffside rooms. The hike is moderately challenging but entirely rewarding because you get the opportunity to explore rooms built into the cliffs.
Late spring to early fall is the ideal time to visit, as winters can be unforgiving. Lodging options are limited to nearby campgrounds or a drive to Silver City, so plan accordingly.
Also pack plenty of water and snacks, as the area lacks amenities. If you enjoy immersing yourself in ancient history without the crowds, Gila Cliff Dwellings should be on your list.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is a geological wonder that looks like it’s straight out of a sci-fi movie! It is one of the most striking landscapes in New Mexico.
Located about 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe, this park features cone-shaped tent rock formations that are the products of volcanic eruptions from 6 to 7 million years ago.
The park consists of two main trails: the Cave Loop Trail (1.2 miles) for a more leisurely experience and the more challenging Canyon Trail (1.5 miles), which leads to an overlook with panoramic views after a steep climb.
Both trails offer a close-up look at the unique tent rock formations so you don’t need to feel like you are missing out if you choose the easier hike!
The best time to visit is from late spring to early fall, as the area can get quite hot in the summer. Nearby Santa Fe offers a wide range of accommodation options.
Note: As of the latest update, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument has been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the most current information, please visit the official website.
Petroglyph National Monument
Petroglyph National Monument is an incredible place that showcases the art and spirituality of ancient Native American and Spanish settlers. Situated on the western outskirts of Albuquerque, this park is home to over 24,000 petroglyphs etched into volcanic rocks.
Please note that the monument doesn’t have any trails in the area of the visitor center. You need to go inside to get a trail map and then drive to the trailheads to see petroglyphs. Arrive at trails prepared with drinking water!
There are several trails to choose from at the park and each one gives a different perspective on the ancient drawings. The Boca Negra Canyon provides the quickest access to a large number of petroglyphs, while the Rinconada Canyon Trail offers a more secluded experience.
The ideal time to visit is from late spring to early fall, as the New Mexico heat can be intense in the summer. Nearby Albuquerque offers a wide range of accommodations, from hotels to bed and breakfasts.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Contrary to its name, Aztec Ruins National Monument has nothing to do with the Aztecs; it’s actually a well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan site!
Situated in the northwestern part of New Mexico near the town of Aztec, this monument serves as a captivating window into the daily lives and spiritual practices of its ancient inhabitants.
The park’s crown jewel is the Great Kiva, a ceremonial structure that has been fully restored! This massive, circular space was once the heart of community gatherings and rituals, and its intricate stone masonry is a testament to the skill of the builders.
As you walk along the trail, you’ll wander through a labyrinth of interconnected rooms and courtyards, each with its own story to tell. Some areas feature T-shaped doorways and original timber roofs.
El Malpais National Monument
El Malpais National Monument is a rugged expanse that exposes the raw power of volcanic activity. Located near Grants, New Mexico, this monument is an amazing place for those interested in geology, history, and outdoor adventure!
The landscape is dominated by lava flows, cinder cones, and complex lava tube systems. One of the most popular attractions is La Ventana Natural Arch, a stunning sandstone formation that stands as a gateway to the area’s volcanic past. It is reminiscent of the arches found at Arches National Park in Utah.
For the more adventurous, the monument offers caving experiences in its extensive lava tube network. However, make sure to obtain a free caving permit at the visitor center before you go underground.
Nearby Grants provides a range of lodging options, and the monument itself has several campgrounds for those looking to immerse themselves in this area for a visit.
Tips for Visiting New Mexico’s National Parks and Monuments
When traveling in arid New Mexico, it’s crucial to be well-prepared for a range of conditions and situations. The state’s national parks and monuments offer diverse experiences that require different types of planning. You can focus on enjoying what these remarkable places have to offer by being prepared ahead of time!
Stay Hydrated: The New Mexico climate can be dry and hot, especially in the summer. Always travel with and carry plenty of water with you whether you are walking, hiking or backpacking. Not all of the parks have easy access to drinking water.
Wear a Hat and Sunscreen: The sun can be intense and there may not be any shade available so protect your skin with sunscreen and your head with a wide-brimmed hat.
Check the Weather: New Mexico’s weather can be unpredictable. Check the forecast and be prepared for sudden changes.
Plan for Seasonality: Some parks have seasonal closures or limited services. Sometimes flooding closes roads and campgrounds. Always check park websites for the most current information.
Pick Up Trash: New Mexico is windy and vast. Do your part to keep the environment clean by bringing along a mini collapsible trash can on your hikes for wrappers and trail garbage.
Gas Up: Gas stations can be few and far between in rural areas of New Mexico. Always fill up your tank when you have the opportunity as very long stretches of road can be surprising to out-of-state travelers.
Know the Terrain: Many parks have rugged, steep, or uneven terrain. Wear sturdy, comfortable footwear suitable for hiking.
Take It Easy: The elevation in some areas can be high, so take time to acclimate and ease into strenuous activity if you’re not used to it.
Drive Carefully: Roads can be winding and wildlife is abundant. Always drive cautiously and observe speed limits.
Follow Park Rules: Whether it’s staying on marked trails or not picking plants, always adhere to park guidelines to protect these natural treasures.
FAQs: Best National Parks in New Mexico
How many national parks are there in New Mexico?
New Mexico features two national parks: White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns. These parks showcase the state’s diverse landscapes, from the ethereal gypsum dunes of White Sands to the subterranean magic of Carlsbad Caverns, providing visitors with unparalleled opportunities for outdoor exploration and adventure.
What is the most visited national park in New Mexico?
White Sands National Park is the most visited national park in New Mexico. The park is well-known for its striking gypsum sand dunes and offers a range of outdoor activities, including sand sledding and stargazing, attracting a large number of visitors annually.
How many national parks and monuments are in New Mexico?
New Mexico has 15 federally protected sites: two national parks, 11 national monuments, and two national historical parks. These sites offer a diverse range of natural landscapes and historical treasures, making the state a rich destination for outdoor and cultural exploration.
Summing It Up: National Parks in New Mexico
New Mexico is a treasure trove of outdoor activities and natural wonders. Whether you’re a history buff, a nature lover, or an adrenaline seeker, you’ll find amazing adventures!
From exploring ancient ruins and subterranean caves to hiking through stunning landscapes and stargazing, the Land of Enchantment has it all.
So, when you’re planning your next adventure, make sure to include some of these must-visit national parks and monuments in New Mexico on your list.
About the Author
Heather is the creative mind, the adventurer and a seasoned outdoor chef behind This Noshtalgic Life. She has spent several decades traveling, exploring, hiking, camping, and backpacking.
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