18 New Mexico National Parks

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The Land of Enchantment is a perfect name for the state of New Mexico, with its amalgamation of colour, music, culture, landscape and rich history. In this US state, the national parks are plentiful and beautiful. New Mexico is an adventurer’s dream from the Great Plains and Colorado Plateau to the Rocky Mountains and the Basin and Range region.

New Mexico has been home to Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans in turn. This has resulted in the state embracing its hugely diverse history and heritage and its multi-cultural population. But it’s one of the least densely populated states in America and there is a vast expanse of stunning land to explore without bumping into too many people.

New Mexico has a diverse range of national park sites, 18 in total, and there are two New Mexico National Parks, the world-renowned Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands National Parks. Our guide also covers National Monuments, National Historic Parks, National Historic Trails and National Preserves.

18 New Mexico National Parks

National Parks in New Mexico

Two of the best national park sites in New Mexico are Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands National Parks.

1- Carlsbad Caverns National Park

new mexico national parks camping
Once you see the calcite inlets, stalactites, stalagmites and the massive underground chambers in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, you’ll immediately realise why this is one of the best New Mexico national parks to spend time at.

When you arrive at Carlsbad Caverns, you won’t immediately be able to find the national park until you step inside this 4000 ft (1,220m) long, 626 ft (191m) wide and 255 ft (78m) high cavern.

The Carlsbad Caverns lie beneath the Chihuahuan Desert.

They are a labyrinth of over 300 limestone caves formed over 250 million years ago and are some of the largest North American caves to explore.

Within the system of caves, you’ll find Lechuguilla Cave, which is the US’s deepest and fourth-longest limestone cave at a whopping 478m.

This New Mexico National Park is not to be missed, and the caves are so incomprehensibly large they will blow you away.

When you arrive at the park, you’ll have to pay a general admissions ticket for adults ($15); children go free.

When visiting Carlsbad, you’ll want to explore by yourself or take a tour.

Most people need three to four hours to walk around the caves but if you’re taking lots of photographs, you could spend longer there.

Things to Do at Carlsbad Caverns
national parks in new mexico map man walking along handrailed paths past cave formations
Calcite inlets, stalactites and stalagmites in the massive underground halls in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico.

There are two hiking trails at Carlsbad Caverns.

The most popular hike is around the Big Room, a 1.25-mile (2 km) trail that will showcase some of the best caves.

The less frequented trail is the Natural Entrance Trail, which is undulating but offers spectacular views of some of the other caves.

One of the most exciting experiences at Carlsbad Caverns is to see the nightly bat flight between early spring and mid-autumn when 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats leave the cave each night.

This is an astounding spectacle and you should plan your entire trip around this seasonal activity.

Park Rangers offer information about the bat flight as they disappear out for their nightly hunting session.

There is an amphitheatre to view this display, which is open on a first-come, first-serve basis, so arrive before sunset to get a seat.

2- White Sands National Park

new mexico national parks
Yucca plants growing in White Sands National Park in New Mexico.

When you conjure up an image of New Mexico, an arid desert and hues of orange and yellow and a splash of colour come to mind.

The White Sands National Park is something else entirely. At a glance, the sand almost looks like mounds of perfectly shaped smooth snow.

But of course, it’s soft whiter-than-white sand made from gypsum.

White Sands National Park is a truly unique national park in New Mexico and the largest example of a gypsum dune field anywhere in the world.

White Sands National Park is one of the newest in America after it was upgraded from National Monument to National Park in 2019.

Enormous wave-like dunes cover 275 square miles of desert, making everything else around them look infinitesimal.

The park is in the south of New Mexico and the closest big city, Albuquerque, is a 3.5-hour drive away.

El Paso, Texas is closer if you’re coming from there, at just a 1.5-hour drive.

When you reach the park, you’ll have to pay a $25 per vehicle fee to enter, but that’s not bad considering all the fun you’ll have.

Things to Do at White Sands
  • Take The 26-mile Dune Drive
national parks new mexico white car driving on a road past the sand dunes
Going on a road trip through this New Mexico national park reveals impressive scenery.

Drive around, hop out of your vehicle and explore. There are numerous parking areas along the route, perfect for walking up some dunes and taking photos. Make sure you pack a picnic, and you can eat lunch with views of the dunes.

  • Go Hiking
national parks in new mexico vast dunes aerial view with blue sky
The gypsum sand dunes in White Sands National Park in New Mexico are nothing short of impressive.

A popular way to see picturesque mountain and dune views in White Sands is to go on a hike along one of the five hiking trails. The Playa Trail and the Interdune Boardwalk are the most accessible and easy walks.

The Dune Life Nature Trail and the Backcountry Camping Trail are moderate in difficulty, and the Alkali Flat Trail offers a five-mile round hike. These routes are all helpfully marked so you know which one you are attempting.

  • Go On An Adventure
national parks in new mexico list sun shining on the vast sand
White Sands National Park is in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin.

Enjoy biking, horse riding and sledding on the dunes but biking is only permitted on the Dune Drive route and you’ll need a permit if you want to ride a horse.

Sledding is a fun activity to try in White Sands National Park as the sand looks like snow and behaves like it too all year round.

  • Attend The White Sands Balloon & Music Festival
new mexico national parks and monuments yellow, red and blue multicoloured balloons taking off over the desert
The balloon festival is a colourful time to visit White Sands National Park in New Mexico.

If you are able to head to New Mexico in September, tailor your trip around the White Sands Balloon & Music Festival. This vibrant balloon festival is a photographer’s dream.

Balloons launch twice a day, offer an astonishing contrast to the pearly white sands below and you’ll get to listen to some fantastic music.

For more about New Mexico also read:

National Monuments in New Mexico

3- Aztec Ruins National Monument

national parks in santa fe new mexico stone ruins built by the Aztecs
Aztec Ruins National Monument is one of the best national parks in New Mexico for pre-historic Indian culture.

Aztec Ruins National Monument allows visitors to view a large 12th-century Pueblo.

The Pueblo people are Native Americans who traditionally inhabited a lot of the land in New Mexico.

The word pueblo in Spanish means “village”.

This National Monument is located just within the boundaries of the city of Aztec in northern New Mexico.

It’s free to explore and an excellent place to understand more about Native American culture and see an old Pueblo.

4- Bandelier National Monument

national parks new mexico map red rocky canyons
One of the ‘national parks’ in New Mexico to see spectacular rock formations is Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos.

Bandelier National Monument is just an hour’s drive from Santa Fe in northern New Mexico.

The Pueblo people lived in Bandelier homes in volcanic tuffs between 1150 CE and 1550 CE.

The Bandelier caves are either naturally occurring or carved out by the native people.

Once at the National Monument, take the main loop that allows you to explore inside these incredible ancient homes.

Along the main loop, you’ll discover the cliffs with tiny holes (like windows or doors) at the front.

Some of the openings have ladders that lead up to them, so you can climb inside and see this traditional dwelling.

Head to the Alcove House from the main loop, which is an extra half a mile hike and a 140 ft vertical ascent with four large ladders leading up to the main house.

This Bandelier used to house 25 people, and the views are amazing from the top.

5- Capulin Volcano National Monument

New Mexico is known for its volcanic geology, and there’s no better example than Capulin Volcano, a dormant volcano close to the Colorado border in northeast New Mexico.

When you arrive at the volcano, there are several hiking trails to enjoy.

One of the most impressive things is seeing four different US states from the volcano’s rim.

In the area, there are almost five miles of hiking trails: Crater Rim, Crater Vent, Lava Flow, Boca, and the Nature Trail.

6- El Malpais National Monument

New Mexico National Parks El Malpais rock formations
El Malpais is one of the national parks in new Mexico with impressive rock formations to see.

El Malpais is a volcanologist and geographer’s dream featuring some incredible geological topography.

The lava flows, lava tube caves, cinder cones, and sandstone bluffs at El Malpais are otherworldly.

Fortunately, there are several hiking trails in the area as a hike is the only way to view El Malpais and enjoy the finer details of this geographical landscape.

It’s also the perfect destination to stargaze at night, as the sky fills with stars.

7- El Morro National Monument

New Mexico national monuemtns and parks
Exploring the ruins in El Morro National Monument is one of the interesting things to do when visiting national parks and monuments in New Mexico.

El Morro is a beautiful national park site and monument in New Mexico that served as a reliable watering hole for the local people.

The imposing sandstone headland called El Morro became a popular spot for Native Americans because of its proximity to the water source.

The Inscription Trail and the Headland Trail are two hiking trails.

The Inscription Trail is a paved half-mile loop that will lead you to the pool.

Keep an eye out for the Spanish inscriptions on rocks and pre-historical petroglyphs, which are impressive and offer a lot of insight into life 2.5 million years ago.

The Headland Trail is the longer of the two hikes and is a two-mile (3.2 km) loop with a stunning view of the Zuni Mountains, dormant volcanoes and the El Morro Valley from the top of the bluff.

8- Fort Union National Monument

best national parks in new mexico
Fort Union National Monument is a unit of the National Park Service north of Watrous in Mora County.

Fort Union National Monument is New Mexico’s answer to Stonehenge.

Located in the northeast of New Mexico in the Mora Valley, Fort Union was established in 1851 and played an important role in guarding the Santa Fe Trail, an important trade route in North America since the 1820s.

Fort Union sits on land that was used by the Pueblo Indians.

At Fort Union, you’ll discover the culture and history behind the ruins and the old wagon ruts created during the height of the trade route.

9- Gila Cliffs Dwellings National Monument

National Parks in New Mexico Gila Cliffs
For dramatic scenery, Gila Cliffs Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico is an amazing sight.

History, culture and landscape rolled into one; the Gila Cliffs are another of New Mexico’s astonishing national monument sites.

Nomadic people used the caves next to the Gila River as a shelter or thousands of years but during the 1200s, people of Mogollon heritage decided to make these caves their permanent homes.

At the caves, you’ll be able to enjoy five unique caves.

The Mogollon people used rocks to create different rooms of the house.

You’ll find the Gila Cliffs in southwest New Mexico surrounded by the Gila National Forest.

From Silver City, it takes around two hours to drive to the Gila Cliffs.

10- Petroglyph National Monument

national parks and monuments in new mexico petroglyph of people on the rocks
One of the cool things to see in the national parks and monuments in New Mexico are the petroglyph markings depicting human-like figures on a rock at Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque.

Petroglyphs are ancient rock carvings made using stone chisels and hammerstone.

The Petroglyphs were carved around 400 to 700 years ago by both Native American and Spanish settlers.

There is no museum or guided tours, so it’s up to you to discover this unique place.

The visitor’s centre has maps and brochures with more about this national monument.

You can take a few trails to ensure you see the petroglyphs and you will see more than 100 petroglyphs on just one of these trails.

The Boca Negra Canyon (100 petroglyphs), Rinconada Canyon (200-300 petroglyphs) and the Piedras Marcadas Canyon (300-500 petroglyphs) trails are all perfect for discovering the area’s history and intricate carvings.

Petroglyphs National Monument is the closest national park site to New Mexico’s largest city, Albuquerque.

The park stretches for 17 miles (27 km) and provides visitors with a unique insight into the state’s past.

11- Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

National Parks New Mexico Salinas Pueblo ruins and well
Tick the Salinas Pueblo ruins off your New Mexico national parks list of places to visit.

In the centre of New Mexico, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is not one but three sites to explore: Abó, Quarai and Gran Quivira.

Abó is an old pueblo ruin that dates to the 14th century.

The main feature here is the Mission of San Gregorio de Abó and keep your eyes peeled for scuttling tarantulas.

At the Quarai site, start your tour at the visitor centre and museum to learn more about the area.

It’s here where you can explore the Nuestra Señora de La Purisima Conception de Cuarac.

Lastly, at Gran Quivira, you can discover two churches and an abandoned Pueblo Mound.

National Historic Parks in New Mexico

12- Chaco Culture National Historic Park

how many national parks are in new mexico
Archaeology lovers should tick the Chaco Canyon Ruins off their New Mexico national parks list.

The sites of Chaco Culture Park are spread across a 9 mile (14.5 km) Canyon Loop Drive.

Some of the best things to see at this park are Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, and Casa Rinconada.

The park is home to a large concentration of historic pueblos.

Chaco is well renowned for its ceremonial buildings and distinctive architecture.

Much of this area of New Mexico dates to the mid 9th to early 13th century.

You’ll be completely in awe of this expansive national historic park.

From Albuquerque, head about 160 miles (250 km) northwest and you’ll reach Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

13- Manhattan Project National Historic Park

New Mexico is an amalgamation of history, culture, and landscapes but its national park sites are also bafflingly diverse.

From ancient petroglyphs to the birth of the nuclear age, New Mexico has it all.

Los Alamos is where the first atomic bomb was built during World War II under the codename Manhattan Project.

Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists successfully detonated the first atomic bomb on 16 July 1945.

At Los Alamos, you can head to the visitor centre downtown to learn more about the Manhattan Project.

There are also a bunch of tours you can take from the town centre which guide you around some of the key sites.

14- Pecos National Historic Park

Pecos national historic park new mexico ruins against blue sky
Pecos National Historic Park is one of the national parks near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Pecos National Historic Park preserves the history and culture of the Pecos Valley and encapsulates the Cicuye people’s fight against colonial oppression.

The Cicuye people were enslaved when the Spanish arrived in the area.

They fought against their oppressors through strength and determination in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which marks a poignant part of history.

The revolt was the most successful uprising by Native Americans in North America.

When you arrive at the park, head to the visitor’s centre, where you’ll find a ton of information about Pecos, a museum, a bookstore, and a short film you can watch about the national historic park.

Next head out onto the hiking trails; the Ancestral Sites Trail, the Civil War Battlefield Trail, and the South Pasture Trail are all great for seeing more of the Pecos.

National Historic Trails in New Mexico

15- El Camino Real De Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail

The El Camino trail is a 404-mile (650 km) trail that extends from El Paso in Texas to Santa Fe in New Mexico, although the original historic route once stretched all the way to Mexico City.

The trail represents the region’s conflicts as well as positive cultural exchanges.

Throughout the New Mexico portion of the hike, there are plenty of opportunities to join the trail and walk to your heart’s content.

There are also several churches, museums and historic sites located along the El Camino, so you can hike and explore the history and culture of the area.

16- Old Spanish National Historic Trail

Palace of the Governors Old Spanish National Historic Trail New Mexico
One of the highlights of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail in New Mexico is the Palace of the Governors.

The Old Spanish National Historic Trail is 2,700 miles (4345 km) through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California.

The trail was once a trade route that connected Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles, California, meandering through arduous territory, from high mountains to arid deserts and deep canyons.

Two of the New Mexico highlights of the Old Spanish Trail are the Palace of the Governors and Santa Fe Plaza.

The Palace of the Governors was once the offices and living quarters for 58 Colonial Spanish Governors and 16 Mexican Governors.

The Santa Fe Plaza is a popular spot in the state capital and is filled with trees and is an excellent place to walk and explore.

17- Santa Fe National Historic Trail

map of new mexico national parks

The Santa Fe Trail passes through five states and was a 19th-century working trail that was a highway frequented by horses, wagons and workers, connecting Missouri and Santa Fe.

Today people still use the trail as a popular hiking route.

There are numerous museums, historic sites, landmarks, and beautiful landscapes to see along the route.

One of the best spots in the New Mexico section of the trail is Starvation Peak, where you can hike the 7045 ft (2146 m) butte for impressive and long-reaching views of New Mexico.

National Preserves in New Mexico

18- Valles Caldera National Preserve

camping in new mexico national parks
The Valles Caldera is a 13.7-mile wide volcanic caldera in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, with hot springs, streams, fumaroles, natural gas seeps and volcanic domes. The highest point in the caldera is Redondo Peak.

If you think of New Mexico as being covered in desert, there’s so much lush greenery at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, you will be surprised.

A volcanic eruption created Valles Caldera.

Millions of years later, this national preserve now features breathtaking meadows, mountains, picturesque streams, and plenty of wildlife if you’re lucky.

Among the things to do in Valles Caldera are enjoying the beautiful scenery on foot, mountain bike, or horseback and river fishing.

While hiking, make sure to keep an eye out for wildlife native to New Mexico, like prairie dogs, coyotes, black bears and golden eagles.

Valles Caldera also has the second-largest population of elk in New Mexico.

So, bring your camera and your patience and see what you can spot.

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Harriet Comley is a travel enthusiast, freelance travel writer and a lover of safaris. Since 2017 she has been travelling the globe living in the UK, Canada, Vietnam, China and now Zambia, where she is completing her PhD in Sustainable Tourism. For 3 1/2 years she taught English in Vietnam and China. Now she has turned her attention to writing, having contributed to a number of travel blogs and websites always focusing on what she loves most…exploring!