New Mexico

Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico
© Anne Leco / USATourist

A drive of two hours from Albuquerque, Bandelier National Monument allows visitors to explore its many Ancestral Pueblo dwellings.

New Mexico

Land of Enchantment

New Mexico is located in the heart of the U.S. Southwest. It is situated along the Mexican border sandwiched between Texas and Arizona with Colorado to its north. It is a land of beautiful scenery and is the country of cowboys and Indians.

New Mexico has some beautiful landscape with a wide variety of strange and wonderful geological features. It has high elevation deserts and plateaus surrounded by barren mountains, peculiarly eroded rock pinnacles and volcanic cinder cones. It has high prairies that extend from horizon to horizon with extensive plains of sparse grass intermittently punctuated by low shrubs, squat piñon pines and massive citadels of flat-topped mesas. It has ranges of lofty mountains with snow capped peaks, dense pine forests and cascading mountain streams.

The Rio Grande River Valley

The Rocky Mountain cordillera extends southward through the state of New Mexico with the San Juan mountain range and the Sangre de Christo range in the north and several other ranges stretching southward. The Rio Grande river begins in the northern mountains and wends its way southward across the state until it reaches the Mexican and Texan borders at El Paso Texas. This river valley provides a riparian highway of green across the otherwise arid upland plateaus.

The Rio Grande Valley has been a highway of life in this somewhat barren landscape for several millennia. Ancient Anasazi ruins and Petroglyph drawings are still visible in many parts of New Mexico. Petroglyph National Park, on rock bluffs overlooking the Rio Grande River at the outskirts of present day Albuquerque, displays thousands of ancient drawings. The ruins of ancient villages and cliff houses can be seen at Bandelier National Monument in the mountains near Los Alamos and at the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in the northwest part of the state.

Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque New Mexico © Mike Leco /
Every April, The University of New Mexico at Albuquerque hosts the Gathering of Nations, the largest Indian powwow in North America.

Ancient and Modern Indian Pueblos

There are still 19 inhabited pueblos or Indian villages in New Mexico. Some of them have been continuously inhabited for a thousand years or more. Some of those pueblos are open to the public and they welcome tourists. Others prefer their privacy but welcome visitation on specific feast days. In addition to the Pueblo tribes, there are reservations of Mescalero Apaches, Zunis and Navajos in the state. Every April, The University of New Mexico at Albuquerque hosts the Gathering of Nations, the largest Indian powwow in North America.

Spanish conquistadores used the Rio Grande Valley to penetrate this inhospitable land over 400 years ago. Beginning in El Paso del Norte, now known as El Paso Texas, they journeyed up the Rio Grande Valley to conquer the Indians and establish colonies along the river. They founded the towns of Albuquerque and Santa Fe and established missions at many of the pueblo villages. The Spanish colonial architecture of adobe construction is still clearly evident in most of the towns in New Mexico and many of their old missions, churches and buildings are still standing.

Old Route 66

Route 25 bisects the state from north to south. It enters through the northern mountains at the Colorado border, then joins the Rio Grande valley and follows it south to El Paso, Texas. Route 40 bisects the state from east to west from Texas to Arizona. It roughly follows the original path of old Route 66 and remnants of the "mother road" still run parallel to the new highway. These two major thruways intersect in downtown Albuquerque, the largest city in the state.

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Albuquerque has all the amenities of a modern metropolitan center but still retains the rich cultural heritage of an ancient Spanish colonial outpost in the New World. It has an old town center with ancient adobe structures and a Native American crafts market. It has several nice museums and a very interesting Indian cultural center. It also has an excellent selection of hotels, restaurants and shopping centers.

Santa Fe and Taos Ski Country

Santa Fe, the capitol city, is just 60 miles north of Albuquerque along route 25. This city with its rich Spanish heritage and abundant colonial adobe architecture is the oldest city in the USA. It is situated at the base of the Sangre de Christo Mountains at an altitude of 7,000 feet (2.300 m.). It offers great skiing on the nearby mountain slopes, and plenty of upscale shopping, fabulous restaurants and art galleries.

Taos, located an additional 60 miles north along route 25, is another old Spanish colony at the base of a mountain range. It too offers great ski slopes, but is much smaller and more intimate than Santa Fe. It exhibits more of a western cowboy town atmosphere. Taos Pueblo, one of the ancient Indian villages open to the public, is located just outside of town.

Atomic City and Space Alien Center

Los Alamos, the once secret atomic city located atop an isolated mesa 30 miles from Santa Fe, is an international research center for atomic energy. It was here that the first nuclear bomb was invented. The city has long been open to visitors, but is predominately a haven for scientific researchers rather than a major tourist attraction. About 300 miles south, route 25 passes near the White Sands Missile Range and the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. The Trinity Site and the White Sands Missle Range is not open to the public, but nearby White Sands National Monument with its spectacular white gypsum dunes is open to tourists.

A hundred miles east of White Sands lies the town of Roswell which gained notoriety for its numerous sightings of flying saucers and unidentified flying objects. Every July 4, Roswell hosts a space alien festival. Tourists come to see the many costumed aliens and intergalactic floats appearing at that strange event. About 75 miles south of Roswell lies the town of Carlsbad and nearby, Carlsbad National Park with over 100 natural limestone caverns.

Native American crafts market in Santa Fe New Mexico © Mike Leco
Albuquerque's old town center features ancient adobe structures and a Native American crafts market.

The essence of the Southwest

If you want to experience the essence of the Southwest, New Mexico is a great place to visit. The culture and architecture of the old Spanish colonies is still very much visible in most of the towns and villages of New Mexico. Cattle roam the prairies and cowboys ride the ranges. Ancient Indian villages are still inhabited by the various pueblo people. You can drive on surviving stretches of old route 66 as it parallels route 40. Native American artifacts such as pueblo pottery, hand-crafted silver jewelry and locally-mined turquoise are available for purchase directly from their makers. Best of all, the scenery is magnificent. Austere desert plains are punctuated by towering rocky buttes. High snow-capped mountains rise above the upland plateaus with lofty pine forests hugging their flanks. New Mexico draws fewer tourists than Arizona or California, because it does not offer any well-known natural wonder, but the entire state is filled with wonders worth beholding.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: Mike Leco /
Photo Description: The view of Enchanted Mesa from Acoma Pueblo. Acoma Pueblo, also known as Sky City, sits atop a 347 ft. sandstone mesa and is one of the oldest communities in the United States.