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New Mexico is called The Land of Enchantment, and if you’ve ever been, you know it’s an appropriate moniker. You only have to look at the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert, the ponderosa pine-filled Gila National Forest and the mighty Rio Grande River, to grasp the state’s beauty. This stunning scenic diversity, combined with well-preserved Native American traditions, unforgettable art, great museums, and tasty eats, make New Mexico a great vacation choice for any family. When you visit, be sure to engage all of your senses as you uncover the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that await you, and aim to hit every one of these 12 bucket list items in New Mexico.
Take a ride on a scenic railway
The whole family will enjoy taking a one-way or round-trip journey on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway, the highest and longest steam-operated railway in America. The 64-mile track, built in 1880, takes passengers between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico, over the San Juan Mountains to the Conejos Valley. Full day “through rides” include a stop at Osier Station for lunch but require a motor coach ride back to the point of origin. Other full day round trips cover less of the track, but also include a stop for lunch. Shorter options allow exploration at local attractions.
Experience peak New Mexico atop Sandia Mountain
Ascend to the 10,378-foot peak of Sandia Mountain via tramway for an 11,000-square-mile panoramic view. The 15-minute ride operates every day but Tuesday. TEN 3 restaurant at the peak is open for casual dining lunch through dinner and offers a memorable fine dining experience in the evenings as well (reservations required).
Explore Pueblo cliff dwellings
Hike the trails at Bandelier National Monument in Los Alamos, home to Ancestral Pueblo people from approximately 1150 to 1550 CE. View cliffside dwellings carved into the volcanic tuff (soft, breakable rock), several of which are situated along the base of the Frijoles Canyon. You can reach them by climbing a series of steps and wooden ladders, making this a wonderful place for families to explore. Visit the museum in the visitors center before or after hiking the 1.4-mile Pueblo Loop Trail. Those with additional energy can add on the half-mile hike out to impressive Alcove House, only accessible by ascending up 140 feet via ladders and steps.
Go on an off-road desert adventure
No trip to the Southwest would be complete without a chance to enjoy beautiful natural, high desert surroundings, and a 4×4 tour is one of the most exciting ways to do it. Santa Fe Mountain Adventures is one of several companies offering excursions through Diablo Canyon’s mountainous landscape, filled with pinon, juniper, sage and cacti—including prickly pear and cholla. A two-and-a-half-hour trip to the canyon from Santa Fe offers dusty, bumpy off-road thrills and incredible views, including a short hike on foot between the canyon’s stunning vertical basalt cliffs.
Steep yourself in Santa Fe’s art scene
Santa Fe is known for its art, and in a city with approximately 85,000 residents, there are more than 100 galleries, just on a half-mile stretch of Canyon Road alone. Here you’ll find everything from paintings and photography to textiles, jewelry, glasswork, pottery, and sculpture. One of the most popular museums in town is the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, featuring the artist’s signature Southwest landscapes and enlarged flower paintings. Also worth checking out are the New Mexico Museum of Art, IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art, SITE Santa Fe, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, and the Wheelwright Museum to name a few. Children of all ages will love Multiple Visions: A Common Bond at the Museum of International Folk Art, full of more than 10,000 objects representing more than 100 countries on six continents, organized in colorful dioramas filling a vast exhibit space.
Spelunk your way through Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns features more than 119 caves beneath the surface of the Chihuahuan Desert. Stop in the visitors center for hands-on exhibits and a park film called “Hidden World,” browse the gift shop, and fuel up in the restaurant before heading out on the 1.25-mile trails to Big Room, the largest single cave chamber in North America, or to Natural Entrance, which is much steeper. Come in the evenings May through October for a ranger talk about the resident Brazilian free-tailed bats followed by a chance to watch them take flight for their evening meal.
Sled down a dune at White Sands National Park
Tell your kids you’re going sledding, no mittens required! White Sands is the largest gypsum dune field in the world, covering more than 275 square miles of desert. Head to the visitors center to watch the film “A Land in Motion,” visit the native plant garden and the interactive museum before hopping in your car for a 45-minute round-trip cruise on Dunes Drive. There are stops to hike and picnic along the way. Then comes the highlight: Kids and adults alike will catch a thrill while sledding the powdery white snow-like sand. You can purchase plastic snow saucers in the park gift shop. Young kids can also pick up activity packets at the visitors center and complete them to become Junior Rangers. Sunset strolls are offered Friday through Sunday.
Get a birds-eye view at the Balloon Fiesta
This year marks the 49th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, held from October 2–21. The biggest event in New Mexico features more than 500 hot air balloons with pilots from all over the world. The nine-day gathering includes dance and musical performances, souvenir and concession vendors, exhibitions including chainsaw carving and skydiving, and an opportunity to view the balloons on the ground as well as in the sky. Other fall festivals include the Hatch Chile Festival in Hatch held in early September, the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque held in early- to mid September, and the Southern New Mexico State Fair and Rodeo in Las Cruces held late September/early October.
Sample New Mexico cuisine
“Red or green?” is considered the official state question and one you’ll be asked when ordering many of the dishes served at restaurants throughout New Mexico. This refers to the chile pepper (spelled with an “e” in New Mexico) used to season sauces and dishes ranging from mild to wildly hot. Answer “Christmas,” if you can’t decide and try a little of each. Don an apron and create your own heat-inspired dishes at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, making everything from salsas and corn tortillas to rellenos, tamales, tacos, and the ubiquitous red and green chile sauces. While in New Mexico, you’ll definitely want to sample a few indigenous dishes, including the ever popular fry bread, which you can try with local honey at the Indian Pueblo Kitchen, located inside the very worthwhile Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Blue corn pancakes, piñon coffee, Frito pie, and sopaipillas are just a few of the other local specialties you’ll want to keep an eye out for in New Mexico.
Raft your way down the Rio Grande
Head to Rio Grande River Gorge Visitors Center near Taos and take a trip with Kokopelli Rafting Adventures, one of several companies taking groups on the Rio Grande. Float trips with mild rapids are perfect for those with young children, providing an opportunity to look for wildlife, learn to paddle and even jump in for a swim. Those in search of thrills should opt for the five-mile Racecourse trip, more physically demanding with a minimum age of 7 years (possibly older, depending on the water level).
Learn about intergalactic explorations
Roswell has become a major stop for tourists for one main reason: aliens! If you want to indulge your theories about extraterrestrial life, this is the place to do it. Start at the International UFO Museum and Research Center, where exhibits are inspired by “The Roswell Incident,” when an alleged spaceship crashed in the area in 1947. If you’re more interested in humans’ intergalactic adventures, take the family to learn about space exploration at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogardo; some of the many exhibits include Rockets, Living and Working in Space, and the John P. Stapp Air & Space Park. Meanwhile, head to Spaceport America for a private tour of the facilities (Final Frontier Tours book months in advance). Located in Truth or Consequences (famous for its numerous hot springs), the 18,000-acre, first purpose-built commercial spaceport is where companies such as Boeing and EXOS Aerospace conduct testing and launches. Comprehensive tours include the Mission Control Room, where hardy souls can even try the GShock Centrifugal Trainer. The National Museum of Nuclear Science in Albuquerque engages visitors with exhibits including the 9-acre Heritage Park, housing the largest aircraft collection for public viewing in New Mexico.
Catch an outdoor opera
For views as inspiring as the performances on stage, don’t miss the Santa Fe Opera, drawing some 85,000 annually. The covered theater is open on three sides, revealing panoramic views of the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains. Each of the 2,126 seats and 106 standing room spaces has an Electronic Libretto System, where translations in English or Spanish appear. Opera goers frequently park and tailgate pre-performance, bringing picnic dinners to the parking lot.
For more information on New Mexico, visit NewMexico.org.
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