Visiting New Mexico on Your Next Road Trip
The state of New Mexico has plenty to brag about in the natural attractions department. From its Rocky Mountain peaks and Chihuahuan Desert cacti, to awesome canyons, Rio Grande splendor and Great Plains, New Mexico absolutely earns the title “Land of Enchantment.”
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Capulin Volcano National Monument is in this state’s northeast corner, on the High Plains west of Des Moines. The monument’s showpiece is a 1,200-foot-tall, inactive volcanic cone accessible only by a narrow, two-mile roadway that curves all the way up to the cone’s rim. The panorama from the summit of the volcano’s cinder cone offers amazing views of four frontier states – New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas.
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Capulin’s volcano, which is believed to have erupted about 60,000 years ago, blanketed nearly 16 square miles with its powerful surge of hot lava. Today, the sleeping volcano’s wooded slopes provide a home range for black bears, wild turkeys and mule deer, as well as a delightful display of New Mexican wildflowers. For guests who’d like to check out the volcano and environs on foot, there’s a short nature trail near Capulin’s Volcano Visitor Center, plus three hiking trails that follow the rim, base and vent of the crater.
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Central New Mexico is the site of the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic, and Historic Byway. Beginning at San Ysidro, this alternate auto route connects Albuquerque with Santa Fe and swings through the heart of the Jemez Mountains. What this remarkable trail showcases for travelers is the tranquil Santa Fe National Forest and loads of lovely sights past the authentic Pueblo of Jemez. Tourists on the byway trace the runs of the Jemez and Guadalupe Rivers, see the geologic wonders of “Red Rock” country, and encounter soaring mesas and steep canyons. The Jemez Mountain Trail presents nature walks, bike paths, hot springs and fishing streams as well as the enduring influences of New Mexico’s Native cultures.
Elephant Butte Lake State Park offers a 40-mile-long waterway in southwest New Mexico, just north of the town of Truth or Consequences. The “Land of Enchantment’s” biggest and most visited lake was created by a dam on the Rio Grande and was named for an elephant-shaped, dormant volcanic core that currently forms an island in the lake’s interior. Coincidentally, fossil evidence of primitive elephant ancestors called stegomastodons have since been unearthed on park grounds.
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Area rock formations also reveal that a number of dinosaur species, including the fearsome tyrannosaurus rex, once roamed and hunted this territory. Fortunately for modern-day guests, Elephant Butte is an all-season destination, boasting a year-round, mild climate and an ideal atmosphere for anglers, boaters, sailors and water skiers. And on land, there’s another appealing set of options. Picnic areas, nature exhibits and hiking trails are available to Elephant Butte’s visitors.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park preserves one of our planet’s foremost cave systems.
In the south central “Land of Enchantment” near Alamogordo at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, White Sands National Monument is the biggest gypsum sand dune field in the world. The Tularosa Basin is a high desert valley surrounded by the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains. It’s a valley filled with 275 square miles of bright, white sand blown in by the desert’s prevailing southwest winds. There are a number of ways to explore the dazzling, white waves of gypsum grains at this monument. The Interdune Boardwalk is a fully accessible trail that transports guests to the top of one of the park’s sandy peaks.
A self-guided auto tour with markers at periodic points of interest takes tourists between the dunes for an insider’s perspective. Visitors, of course, have plenty of options for sightseeing, including travel the old-fashioned way and tramp up the white hills on foot. They’ll see sand-loving plants such as tumbleweed, prickly pear and rosemary mint. You might even encounter unique desert-dwellers like Apache pocket mice, darkling beetles, or bleached earless lizards. For those who prefer ranger-led activities, there are moonlight bike rides and tours of White Sands’ Lake Lucero.
In the southeast near the common New Mexican/Texan border in the Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns National Park preserves one of our planet’s foremost cave systems. Visitors at America’s oldest national park are introduced to a subterranean paradise of intricate, limestone formations that dazzle the eye and spark the imagination. Cavern tours at this World Heritage Site range in difficulty from easy, self-guided go rounds that are wheelchair-friendly to narrated, eight-story climbs, ladder descents, and challenging journeys through a three-dimensional maze cave that require advanced spelunking skills. Evening programs at the bat flight amphitheater are not to be missed.
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