A Guide to New Mexico’s National Parks
Most travelers imagine New Mexico as a state of stark desert, cactus, and saguaro trees. But Bandelier National Monument superintendent Jason Lott told Travel + Leisure that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“We call New Mexico the ‘Land of Enchantment,’ and it’s true. We have Ponderosa pine, rushing creeks, rivers: It’s actually a very green state.”
And when it comes to national parks, it’s rich in those, too.
Santa Fe, the irresistible state capital (and a burgeoning epicurean destination), is within a two hour drive to several New Mexican national parks and monuments, making places like Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera perfect for a day trip.
New Mexico's incredible diversity—ski slopes and hot springs, sugar white sand dunes and wildflower-filled meadows—makes it one of the best places to explore the National Park Service's treasures.
Bandelier National Monument
Spanning 32,000 acres, with a mile in elevation change, Bandelier National Monument welcomes day visitors of all kinds. Start by tackling the mile-long Main Loop Trail, which leads you straight to Alcove House, in the heart of the park. This ancient human cave is perched at the top of a 140-foot ladder, and provides breathtaking views of Frijoles Canyon and the Rio Grande below. It’s also an example of the hundreds of impeccably-preserved cliff dwellings that are scattered throughout the park.
In total, there are more than 3,000 sites—including large ruin complexes, petroglyph panels, and prehistoric trails—spread across 70 miles of accessible trails.
“Human history at Bandelier goes back 10,000 years,” explained Lott. And uncovering all those archeological treasures is part of the excitement: “We won’t necessarily tell you where all those sites are. They’re for you to discover and explore on your own.”
To get off the beaten path, Lott recommended a solitary hike through Tsankawi. The remote, 1.5-mile mesa trail is punctuated with additional cave features, as well as the preserved footprints of prehistoric residents. There are no tour guides here—just an open, empty landscape which visitors can enjoy at their leisure. Look out for pottery shards and mystical symbols etched into the rock.
Valles Caldera National Preserve
Though it’s one of New Mexico’s newest national park additions, Valles Caldera itself has been around for quite a while: 1.5 million years to be exact. Formed around a collapsed volcano, the 89,000-acre preserve sits inside the Jemez mountain range. Come winter, the vast backcountry is ideal for cross-country skiing.
Because this is a volcanic site, there are hot springs, too, most of which can be reached on foot. For a truly secluded experience, try hiking away from the main road and claim one of the sulphuric pools for yourself.
Enclosed within the collapsed volcano’s 70-mile rim is the caldera itself, a bowl-like feature that’s the source of not one but two major water systems: the San Antonio Creek and the Jemez River. As a result, fly-fishing is the other preferred past time here, with lush meadows (home to sizeable elk herds) framing the clear, trout-filled mountain streams.
White Sands National Monument
Down in the state’s southern reaches (though still drawing half a million visitors each year) you’ll find one of America’s most peculiar natural wonders: White Sands National Monument. The rippling fields of pure white gypsum sand dunes look like something out of a science fiction movie. And, Lott noted, they’re a great place to bring the kids.
“You can rent these little plastic sleds at the visitor’s center. You wax the sleds, and the kids can ride them all the way down the sand dunes. It’s more of a recreational way to enjoy the park,” he said, noting there’s a decent road network, “so you have access to all of it—for the most part.”