If you have been following us on social media for some time now, it will come as no surprise to you that our entire family is smitten with New Mexico. If you are new here, now you know!
We are consistently blown away by the beautiful and diverse landscapes of the Land of Enchantment. This beautiful and rightly named state, is not only known for it's desert vibes, but it's vast landscape and history. From forest to caves to sand to desert to swimming holes, there is a little slice of everything! There are a plethora of places to hike, camp, and explore. And a lovely bonus is that there are lots of activities that are family and budget friendly!
Below is a list of our highlights of New Mexico. It is not an itinerary, but rather must-sees depending on what region you are in. However, if you are up for a full spin around the state, I have placed them in order when entering from Arizona. We recommend purchasing the national park pass (if you don't have one already) to save money on entrance fees.
Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
This mesmerizing hot air balloon festival, takes place in October of every year, which also happens to be one of the best times to visit New Mexico. The heat has cooled down, you are out of monsoon season and outside of the week of this festival, there are minimal crowds.
If you are going, you will want to book your stay in advance. When we went, tickets weren't required in advance, but there are also plenty of places to get close to balloons without even entering the fiesta itself. Just park in the fiesta parking and walk all the way to the entrance. There are plenty of benches and areas to witness the wondrous event. The balloons land in the parks in that area as well, so you have a chance to get very close.
Bandelier National Monument
On nearly 30,000 acres, the main area to visit is an easy walk from the parking area, making this spot a must-see! The monument preserves the homes and territories of the Ancestral Puebloans. It's believed that the petroglyphs and carved dwellings date back over 11,000 years ago.
I've read recently that they are closing the area for restorations, so be sure to check their website for details.
Santa Fe has my heart. If was an artist, I would move here. It is a town flourishing with color, art and inspiration all around. The town square is adorable, and the city is packed with museums and fun places. We especially enjoyed the Saturday market, the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, and Meow Wolf. All very different and unique experiences, it almost feels strange to group them in the same sentence. But that's Santa Fe for you: a blend of eclectic flair.
If you are flying or driving in from Albuquerque, you'll want to take the turquoise trail. It's a windier road that takes you through some of the most creative and artistic shops. From paintings to carvings to rocks to tapestries, there is so much to explore.
Taos Plaza has lots of restaurants and shops to indulge in. Visiting Taos Pueblo is an absolute must. It is the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. It was closed for a long time, but has recently reopened. It's a beautiful slice of history that moves you in so many ways. It really makes you rethink how unequal natives are treated, and on the flip side how glorious it is to live more simply and as a community.
Blue Hole of Santa Rosa
I'll be honest, if you are not a diver I am not sure this location is entirely worth the trek. It is pretty far out from anything else, but if you have a flexible itinerary and you are open to some added pitstops, this is a good one!
It is actually one of the more popular dive locations in the United States for scuba diving and training, which surprised us. We always instantly think to the oceans. But this gem of blue is quite popular. It is connected to a whole underground system of waterways, making it always have water even in a desert area with little rain. It is magical.
It rained and was very cold the day we were there, so we just paddled in the water a bit.
Roswell is a stop that my family had visited on a road trip when I was younger. So as we planned for a New Mexico trip, my parents filled my children's minds with wonder and excitement as they told them about Roswell (Carlsbad Caverns too!). The town has been developed quite a bit from my childhood memories, and the International UFO Museum and Research Center did not disappoint. There is a little something there for everyone. There was an interactive experience for my youngest and a library for my oldest, to both feel comfortable.
These caverns are one of the coolest places we have experienced.
Bat Night Flight:
Most evenings you can reserve a spot at the bat night flight. It is a magical experience that was a core memory for us all. Right before sunset, the ranger will lead you down to a private space directly outside of the caverns. For those that have visited, this is right before you enter the caverns themselves if you walked down them. Everyone is asked to remain silent as to not disturb the bats naturally process. You sit quietly without any photography or phones and just revel in the moment. They start to slowly come out.
And for anyone wondering, if we got splattered on, the answer is no. Bats are mammals and prefer to use the restroom in a seated position, not while in flight.
King's Palace Tour:
This tour often books weeks in advance. A little unknown secret is that you don't need to fret about that! Visit the visitor center as early as you can the day you arrive, and see if they have any openings for that day or the next day. They reserve half of the spots for same day visitors, and we had no problem snagging a reservation for two hours after we arrived.
The tour was led by one of the guides we had met earlier on our self-guided tour, so the children were very excited to hang with him again. We also encountered another family of which we had done the self tour alongside as well. This woman truly touched all of our hearts and we are so grateful to have spent so much time with her. She was a native New Mexican who was accompanied by her husband, as well as her son and granddaughter who were visiting from out of the country. She spent so much time loving and uplifting myself and my children, and guiding us while we were completing the remainder of our trip. She was so thrilled that we had a flexible itinerary and that we were open to all of her suggestions and ideas. You meet some people, that you just instantly connect with and can truly speak to your soul, and she was one of those people. I am so grateful for her for expanding our experience in more ways than one.
One final note on the the King's Palace Tour, there is a point in tour where the guide turns off all lights in the cave and it is completely black with no noise. This was an incredible experience and the kids actually did enjoy that and still reminisce about the experience. Definitely a must if you have the option.
If you're not one of the lucky ones to secure a King's Palace Tour, you can do the self tour on your own which covers most of the cave anyway. You can walk all the way down by foot and back up, or opt for the elevator for one or both ways. We walked down, explored the bottom, and took the elevator back up. And then hopped into the guides King's Palace Tour. We ended the day with the bat night flight. All of it was totally worth it, and still to do this day one of our children's most favorite things we have done.
White Sands National Park
Honestly, this was the most fun all of us had in one setting!
When you enter, you'll want to check-in at the visitor center to poke around and get some sand sleds. The worker suggested trying all the way back, rather than stopping at the first set of stops to get the most space and fun. It was worth it!
The sand can get pretty hot, so you'll need to check their website for advisories.
Gila Cliff Dwellings
One of the best spots to teach a social studies lesson. It is far from any other New Mexico highlight but is well worth the drive. The drive, in fact, is one of the best parts. With breathtaking views of canyon and forest landscapes, you'll be tempted to stop at all the pull-outs to soak in the views.
According to the national parks website, "For thousands of years, groups of nomads used the caves above Cliff Dweller Creek as temporary shelter. In the late 1200s, people of the agricultural Mogollon (Southern Ancestral Pueblo) culture made it a home. They built rooms, crafted pottery and raised children in the cliff dwellings for one or two generations. By approximately 1300, the Mogollon had moved on, leaving the walls behind." There is a ranger on site eager and ready to share these facts as well.
It is best to visit in the spring or late summer, to enjoy it's blooms and weather. We were there in October and just got there in time before some heavy rainfall. The rangers said they will often close access during that time for safety reasons along the trail, so we were mighty grateful we made it just in the right time.
The locations above are best paired with the exquisite southwestern cuisine. Below are our highlights for food lovers.
Indian Tacos from a Reservation
I first had my Indian taco experience in Taos. So when I went back to New Mexico with my family, I knew it was something we just had to try. After speaking to some locals at a gas station, they suggested eating at the gas station itself. Apparently, the most authentic New Mexican cuisine is best found attached to gas stations. I will tell you, they weren't wrong for anything to do with their famous chilis! We were also directed to try a reservation for authentic Indian tacos. This is a deliciously soft and fluffy large tortilla topped with refried beans, lettuce and tomato. Its served with meat if you choose so as well, and an amazing selection of red or green chili (or both!). We have found ourselves craving these tacos so much since we left, that my husband and youngest child have taken it upon themselves to perfect the tortilla. And let me tell you, it is a little taste of nostalgia as we top it with some homemade chilis that we still have leftover. The way that meal can transcend me into a memory and help me so vividly remember such a beautiful moment is incredible.
Famous Chili Peppers
No, not your typical chili, but New Mexican grown chili peppers. As we were driving from one location to the other, we saw a sign that said fresh chilis and corn maze. So we turned around and checked it out. We ended up being the only non-locals and they gladly accepted us and showed us the ropes. It apparently was one of the more popular places for them to visit from neighboring towns in the evening and on weekends during the fall. You walk into the store, select your chili pepper(s) and then head around back where there is a cook with a large hot grill ready to freshly roast them for you right then and there. The locals informed us that you can have a little taste, but really the idea is to head home and make a fresh batch of homemade chili from there. You boil them in water and spices and can add protein if you desire for a full meal. We opt to not add any meat and enjoy it as a dip. Simply irresistible!
New Mexico has plenty to offer for all ages. With a plethora of museums, culture, food and hikes it checks the box for artists, outdoor enthusiasts, and anyone looking for either an exciting or peaceful adventure. Best of all, without breaking the bank. There are many other marvelous things and places to explore that aren't listed here as well. So, if I haven't managed to persuade you to visit the Land of Enchantment yet, why not just go give it a try yourself?