Every region in New Mexico has its special wild spots, where you can hike, gaze at the stars, learn about dinosaurs and ancient Native culture, play in a lake and connect with the unmatched wonder of the natural world. Starting at the Northwest and traveling clockwise across the state, here are some favorites among the 35 state parks and 14 national monuments.
The Bluewater Lake State Park, located 25 miles west of Grants, is set in a pinon-juniper landscape with views towards the Zuni Mountains. The park offers camping, hiking, birding, horseback riding and some of the best tiger muskie fishing in the state. Those who want quiet will camp on the canyon side, and those wanting to socialize will be lakeside.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park was home to thousands of people between 850 and 1250 A.D., and the ruins of the highly complex, massive cities they built are one of the wonders of the American Southwest. Guided tours, hiking and biking trails, evening campfire talks and night sky programs make this a must-do experience.
Aztec Ruins National Monument is home to spectacular architectural remains of ancestral Pueblo people, including a 400-room Great House and the only reconstructed Great Kiva in the world.
El Malpais National Monument is an eerie and beautiful landscape of black basalt formations, considered one of the best continuous geologic records of volcanic activity on the planet, and makes for memorable hiking and photography.
El Morro National Monument, a sandstone bluff where ancestral Puebloans, Spanish and American travelers carved their signatures, dates, messages and designs over thousands of years, includes hiking trails, a visitor center and small Puebloan ruin.
Heron is a “quiet lake” where boats operate at no-wake speed and is ideal for sailing and windsurfing. El Vado offers boating, water skiing, lots of coves for fishing and lakeside playground. Both lakes have a variety of campsites, from primitive to fully developed.
Rio Chama Trail, a hiking and fishing trail along the river, connects the two lakes by suspension bridge. Bandelier National Monument preserves the remains of buildings constructed by ancestral Puebloans who first settled here more than 11,000 years ago. The easy trails allow walkers to explore dwellings and petroglyphs carved into the sandstone cliffs, masonry pueblos below the cliffs and miles of wilderness. An extensive visitor center and picnic area.
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos is more than 240,000 acres of wilderness cut through by the Rio Grande Gorge, with some of the best whitewater boating in the state. The area also has campgrounds, excellent fishing and wildlife viewing, trails and visitor centers.
Enjoy boating, picnicking, camping, fishing and hiking in the rolling grasslands about 12 miles northwest of Clayton at the Clayton Lake State Park, where you can explore one of the most extensive dinosaur trackways in North America and get a close-up look at the stars at the Lake Observatory. The park has an RV site, tent camping, boat ramp and picnic sites. It is stocked with trout, catfish and bass, and hosts an annual Clayton Lake Trout Derby each June.
Fort Union National Monument played a significant role in the Civil War and today interpretive talks, guided tours and living history programs make a visit here entertaining and educational. Capulin Volcano National Monument offers hiking trails around the rim and into the mouth of this extinct cinder cone volcano.
Pecos National Historical Park, just outside of Santa Fe, has a complete visitor center, picnic table and a self-guided trail to explore the ruins of Pecos Pueblo and its mission church.
The Bottomless Lakes State Park is located 14 miles southeast of Roswell along the Pecos River, offering non-motorized boating, camping, fishing, birding and scuba diving along with a visitor center and shaded picnic shelters. This became New Mexico’s first state park in 1933. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a labyrinth of 119 caves that ranks as one of the state’s must-do experiences. Self-guided walks, guided tours, backcountry hikes, birding at Rattlesnake Springs, nature trail hikes and camping are all available.
White Sands National Monument extends throughout the Southeast and Southwest regions, with 275 square miles of glittering white dunes of gypsum sand – the largest in the world. Photo buffs are in heaven here, as are those who like to surf or sled the dunes, picnic and watch the sun and moon rise in this otherworldly landscape.
New Mexico’s largest state park surrounds Elephant Butte Reservoir, the state’s largest reservoir and largest body of water. The Elephant Butte Dam, which celebrates its 100th birthday this coming October, was a major engineering feat in its day. The lake has three developed camps with more than 200 camping and picnic spots, concession-operated marinas, stores, sandy beaches, playgrounds, RV sites and a fine visitor center. Kayaks, jet skis, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, cruisers, and houseboats are in play all summer, and the fishing is superb, with record-breaking black, white and striped bass, crappie and bluegill.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument Surrounded by the Gila National Forest, this lies within the Gila Wilderness, the nation’s first wilderness area. Cliff dwellings here inside natural caves were first occupied sometime in the 1280s, and the remains are accessible by guided tour. There is also a small museum and visitor center.
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is the newest national monument, with miles of hiking, horseback and mountain biking trails, campgrounds and picnic sites with shelters and shade trees, a visitor center and spectacular views from Picacho Peak.
Prehistoric Trackways National Monument just north of Las Cruces, contains fossilized trackways with the footprints of hundreds of amphibians and reptiles that predate the dinosaurs, as well as plants and petrified wood as old as 280 million years.
Right in the middle of Albuquerque, the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park is a peaceful nature retreat with easy walking trails, bike paths and a nature center/visitor center that offers education programs, gardens and a gift shop. There are indoor and outdoor wildlife viewing areas, trail access to the Rio Grande, picnic spots and a window into how nature – including families of porcupines, roadrunners, turtles, ground squirrels and many types of waterfowl – can flourish in the middle of an urban environment.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, with spectacular hiking in the cone-shaped rock formations formed by volcanic eruptions 6-7 million years ago. Petroglyph National Monument, a treasure house of more than 20,000 Native American and Colonial Spanish rock carvings, miles of hiking, five volcanic cones and a visitor center – all within the Albuquerque city limits.
Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument gives visitors the opportunity to explore three ancient ruins dating from the early 17th Century. Valles Caldera National Preserve, site of a “super volcano” that left a 13.7-mile wide crater in the Jemez Mountains. Hot springs, streams and herds of wild elk can be seen along the miles of trails.
To find the details on these and all New Mexico State Parks, National Monuments, National Parks and National Historical Parks, as well as complete information on outdoors adventures and lodging, dining and attractions in each area, visit Closer to Wild at www.NewMexico.org.