Adventure Travel

Must-see national monuments of New Mexico

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We all know New Mexico as ripe with scenic desert views and endless expanses of sand. While that might be true, there’s so much more to this diverse state. From the epic cinder volcanoes to cliff dwellings to natural arches and dune fields, New Mexico is unlike anywhere else in the world.

New Mexico’s national monuments have had the privilege of preserving these wonderful natural wonders for hundreds of years. Start your journey through New Mexico by checking out these monuments first!

Gila Cliff Dwellings

Ruins of, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Image: Shutterstock/Zack Frank

Along the Gila River north of Silver City lies an intricate network of caves used over time as various sources of shelter for the nomadic peoples of the area. In the 1200s, the Mogollon Culture decided it would be the perfect spot to call home and moved in permanently. Throughout the years, they built impressive cliff dwellings, crafted useful pottery, and raised their young within the walls. While the Mogollons only lived in the caves of the Gila River for around twenty years, their magnificent architecture lasts to this day.

El Malpais

El Malpais National Monument

Image: Shutterstock/Zack Frank

With so many samples of volcanic activity in one place, El Malpais National Monument is one-of-a-kind. Whether you start by climbing around the sandstone bluffs or hiking through the lava tube caves, there’s no wrong way to experience El Malpais. Other highlights include an impressive natural arch (La Ventana), miles of rocky lava flows, and a series of cinder cones. And bonus, hitting El Malpais is the perfect venture on any road trip on 1-40 through western New Mexico. Simply take 117 or 53 south to discover the splendor and diversity of El Malpais National Monument!

El Morro

inscription rock carvings

Image: Shutterstock/Zack Frank

Experience more than 2,000 examples of carved messages, signatures, dates, and petroglyphs in the sandstone bluffs above a convenient and historic regional watering hole. El Morro National Monument, located just west of El Malpais, was an important stopping point on many trips and migrations through the area. For hundreds of years, Ancestral Puebloans and Spanish and American settlers made their mark while seeking refuge under the shady bluffs.

Capulin Volcano

The entrance to Capulin Volcano National Monument, New Mexico, US

Image: Shutterstock/IrinaK

To witness one of the most well-preserved examples of an extinct cinder cone volcano in the world, stop by Capulin Volcano in northwestern New Mexico. As part of the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field, the impressive cone rises seemingly out of nowhere. Visitors are welcome to drive the circular road to the top, where hiking trails circle the rim and delve down into the mouth of the volcano.

White Sands

White Sands National Monument New Mexico

Image: Shutterstock/lphoto

Rising from the surrounding desert, the glistening gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument are truly a sight to behold. The 275 square miles of wave-like dunes are a national—and global—treasure, as they’re the largest collection of gypsum dunes in the world. Straight out of the heart of the Tularosa Basin, the sight of White Sands will leave you breathless. Found easily by driving northeast of Las Cruces, these dunes will make you feel like you’re on a completely different planet.

Rio Grande del Norte

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge - New Mexico

Image: Shutterstock/Henryk Sadura

As one of the newest National Monuments in the country, Rio Grande del Norte has been left untouched by tourism for hundreds of years. The Rio Grande Gorge, which runs for fifty miles from the Colorado border down east of Taos is best known for the incredible scenic Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which hovers above the steep walls carved over millions of years by the river. Don’t forget your camera—the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and overwhelming gorge below are worth a photograph or two!

Mandy Burkholder is a travel, adventure, and outdoor writer who honed her craft in the foothills of the La Plata Mountains of Southwest Colorado. After a stint in the Swiss Alps, she now resides in Tennessee. Follow her on twitter — @mandyburkhold3r