The 18 National Parks in New Mexico: Why & How to Visit Each One!

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New Mexico is a stunning destination for anyone looking to explore a natural or cultural wonder. The state is practically bursting at the seams with beauty and awe-inspiring sites. Here are the US National Parks in New Mexico so you can plan your own New Mexico adventure!

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The 18 National Parks in New Mexico_ Why & How to Visit Each One!-2

How to Visit New Mexico’s National Parks

Well, if you’re a New Mexico local then you probably already know that getting around the state is really tough without a car. There just isn’t good public transportation between cities and out into the parks. Some of these can be pretty remote.

Since you really need your own wheels, I have tips below for renting a car if you don’t have one.

Tips for Renting a Car in New Mexico

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It’s awfully hard to get around New Mexico without a car. Trust me, I’ve tried! Typically, I drive to New Mexico from Oklahoma, but when I don’t have access to my own wheels I use Discover Cars to rent cars on my travels. You’ll be able to pick up a car at any airport or in your hometown.

Check availability and get a quote for a rental car for your trip here.

The Best New Mexico National Parks

What’s listed here are the sites that are governed by the National Park Service (NPS), hence the term “national parks.” Keep in mind that there are many more natural wonders in New Mexico, including national forests and national monuments, that are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service (USFS). And of course, there are many beautiful state parks in New Mexico you can see on your visit as well.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

New Mexico - National Parks in New Mexico - Aztec Ruins National Monument

Located in Aztec, New Mexico, the Aztec Ruins National Monument is an archaeological site in North Western New Mexico. White settlers mistakenly thought it was Aztec in origin, but it was later discovered to be the ruins of the 12th century Ancestral Pueblo settlement built by people connected with Chaco Canyon. 

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They lived in communal dwellings that were made of mud, sandstone, and stones, called pueblos. At one time, it had over 500 rooms in the middle of an open plaza, and there were artifacts dating back to the ancestral Pueblo people. However, it was abandoned in about 1300. 

The West Ruins are open for visitors. There is now a visitor center that has many artifacts on display from the area. Make sure to take a moment to listen for drums in the Great Kiva, which has been painfully reconstructed.

Bandelier National Monument

New Mexico - National Parks in New Mexico - Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument is known for its mesas, several thousand ancestral Pueblo dwellings, and sheer-walled canyons. The first human interactions with this location date back over 11,000 years when hunter-gatherers followed wildlife across the land. 

It was named after Adolph Bandelier, who was an anthropologist in the 19th century. There are many interactive programs, such as pottery making, traditional music and dance, and cultural food making. There are several trails that you can also hike. There are over 55 species of mammals that dwell in the park.

Visitors who are not camping can stay overnight in Los Alamos.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

New Mexico - National Parks in New Mexico - Capulin Volcano National Monument

Located in the aptly named Capulin, New Mexico, Capulin Volcano is located on the New Mexico planes. It last erupted around 60,000 years ago and stands at 8182 ft tall. While it is unclear who the first people were to discover this volcano, there is evidence that the Paubloians who traveled the land as far back as 10,000 years ago were likely one of the first. 

Visitors can hike almost 5 miles, drive along the volcano road all the way to the rim, explore the ancient lava flow of the volcano, and admire the view of the Rocky Mountains from the summit.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

New Mexico - National Parks in New Mexico - Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park can be found in Southeastern New Mexico. The first guano mining began in 1903. The park contains desert wildlife, plant life such as flowering cactus, deep rocky caves, but these are just a few of the gems to be found in the Chihuahuan Desert, where the caverns are located. 

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Under the surface, there are 120 caverns, which were created by folic acid dissolving limestone, which leaves behind caves in different sizes. Visitors can enjoy the gift shop, bookstore, educational exhibits, and a scenic 9-mile drive on a gravel road.

There are over a hundred mapped caves at the park, but there are a few can’t-miss sites, including the Big Room. If you are planning to visit, here’s a great overview of the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. There are also fun things to do in the town of Carlsbad.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

New Mexico - National Parks in New Mexico - Chaco Culture National Historical Park

One thousand years ago, this valley was the focal point of the thriving ancestral Pueblo culture. The Puebloan culture began back in the mid 800s and lasted for over 300 years. They built huge stone buildings known as great houses with several stories that held hundreds of rooms which were much bigger than any they had built before. 

They planned out the architecture beforehand as opposed to adding rooms as they went along. While each house is unique in itself, they all share features that make them distinctly Chacoan. 

Visitors can take themselves on a self-guided tour along the Canyon Loop. They can also attend ranger programs which are ranger-led walks through the park. There are also hiking and biking opportunities here.

For those planning to visit, here’s a guide to what to do in Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Make sure to pay close attention to the driving directions to get here, as getting to Chaco Canyon from the town of Nageezi can be a bit difficult.

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail

New Mexico - National Parks in New Mexico - El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, also known as the Royal Road of the Interior, is one of the earliest Euro-American trade routes in the USA. The route ran for three centuries, going through two countries and traversing over one hundred and sixty miles as part of Spain’s Camino Real Intercontinental, a global network of roads and maritime routes. 

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It is possible to follow the overall route in modern-day highways in New Mexico and Texas; however, much of the trail is either privately owned or managed by the state, municipal agencies, or tribal.

El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais’ (also known as the Badlands) hugely diverse volcanic landscape provides isolation, leisure, and exploration. There are cinder cones, volcanic rocks, lava tube caves, rock formations, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. 

The open grasslands and forests are bustling with wildlife. People have been adjusting to and living in this incredible terrain for centuries, despite what some might perceive as a barren landscape. 

Scenic overlooks, quick drives, short walks, strenuous hiking, caves, and rough backcountry camping are just a few of the activities accessible. These numerous opportunities provide insights into the region’s geology, history and culture, and wildlife.

Visitors can stay overnight in the nearby Grants or camp overnight.

El Morro National Monument

El Morro National Monument

For hundreds of years, El Morro (the headland) was a common camping spot thanks to a waterhole located at the base of a sandstone bluff. About 2,000 signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs were carved here by Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish, and American travelers. 

It is an unincorporated area located in Cibola County. The nearest town is Ramah. Visitors can experience the many trails and walking opportunities and join in on Ranger programs to explore El Morro’s history. At the top of the bluff, you can see the Zuni mountains, the El Morro Valley, as well as the volcanic craters from the El Malpais area.

Fort Union National Monument

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Fort Union National Monument was first established in 1951, located in the Mora Valley near Watrous, which is in northeastern New Mexico. The Plains and Pueblo Indians used Fort Union as protection for travelers, commerce, and mail routes.

Visitors today can witness the evolution from the 1850s all the way through the Civil War and into our late 1880s. You can experience the military history and cultural ties by exploring the ruins and wagon run-offs of the Santa Fe Trail in a prairie setting that brings you back to the time it was settled in.

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Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

New Mexico - National Parks in New Mexico - Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were mostly built back in the 1280s. The Pueblo people made the homes in natural caves as well as in the open. The monument has authentic examples of both. 

It takes you back to the time when the Mogollon culture lived here. They are surrounded by The Gila National Forest and the Gila wilderness near the modern town of Silver City. 

It is believed that 8 to 10 families would live in a cliff dwelling for about a whole generation. Visitors can enjoy a museum and a park store.

If you love a good soak, check out the hot springs and natural spas in the surrounding area.

Manhattan Project National Historical Park

New Mexico - New Mexico National Parks - Manhattan Project National Historical Park

The Manhattan Project National Historical Park has three sites inside of it: Oak Ridge Tennessee, Hanford Washington, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. The park has artifacts, facilities, and equipment used in a top-secret government program called the Manhattan Project. 

This is what was used to develop the atomic bombs that ended World War II. Since then, the work done there has aided in nuclear machines, energy production, space travel, as well as other things. This park shows the story of how it changed the world through science and engineering.

Old Spanish National Historic Trail

Once Mexico claimed its independence from Spain, trades between Mexico and the USA flourished. The Old Spanish National Historic Trail was created in this time for explorers, settlers, and traders who attempted to find a safe journey to the USA. 

The trail started in Santa Fe and extended all the way west to Los Angeles, California. On its way, it passed through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada.

Visitors today can explore the trail as well as witness the struggles that early frontier people faced in the transportation of goods and how important the international economics and culture between Mexico and the United States was.

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Pecos National Historical Park

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Pecos, which was once called Cicuye, grew the reputation of being the most powerful Northern pueblos. This was because of its 7,000 FT elevation and its protection from the Great Plains as well as the Rio Grande Valley and other such landmarks. 

Pueblo and Plains Indians, Spanish colonizers and missionaries, Mexican and Anglo armies, Santa Fe Trail pioneers and explorers, railroad, Route 66, and Interstate 25 all went through the Peco Valley. It has traditionally been a setting that encourages reflection about where our culture came from and where it is headed (for good and for ill).

Petroglyph National Monument

New Mexico - New Mexico National Parks - Petroglyph National Monument

Located near the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument is an archaeological site with about 25,000 historic and prehistoric rock carvings known as petroglyphs. 

There are five volcanic cones, archaeological sites, and two separated landmasses in addition to the rock carvings. Some of the rock carvings date all the way back to the Spanish Colonial period. 

There are pictures of spirals, stars, people, animals, geometric shapes, and other images that relate to the Pueblo Indians’ lives. Modern Native Americans consider the monument to be sacred, and they hold outdoor ceremonies here.  

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

New Mexico - New Mexico National Parks - Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

There are three historic sites in central New Mexico protected by the Salinas Pueblo missions National Monument, a not well-known preserve that has very little annual visitation. 

The main piece of each of these ruins is the 17th-century Spanish missions that go back to the earliest settlements of Europe and the colonizers who started the spread of Christianity to the local Native Americans. 

There are also artifacts from ancient pueblos, mostly unexcavated and overgrown, but one village is well preserved.

Santa Fe National Historic Trail

New Mexico - New Mexico National Parks - Santa Fe National Historic Trail

The Santa Fe Trail, nicknamed the Great Prairie Highway, was originally used mostly as a commercial highway that connected Santa Fe to Missouri. Mexican and American traders were the primary users of the route. 

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In the 1846 Mexican American War, the Army followed the Santa Fe Trail to breach New Mexico. After the war, the trail became a national road that connected the USA to the new Southwest territories. 

In addition to this, the trail was also used for people seeking gold in California and Colorado and adventurers and fur trappers and immigrants. There are several sites to see along the trail, such as Fort Union National Monument, Pecos National Historical Park, Old Spanish National Historic Trail, And Fort Larned National Historic Site.

Valles Caldera National Preserve

New Mexico - New Mexico National Parks - Valles Caldera National Preserve

The Valles Caldera National Preserve, located near Jemez Springs, has been used since prehistoric times. There have been several Native American tribes that used to use Caldera for hunting. Eventually, settlers and other tribes came to the Caldera. It also started to be used commercially for ranching. 

Today it is a national reserve and can be visited by tourists. Some of the attractions include wildlife, trails, as well as horseback riding.

If you will be in the area, there is a magnificent park run by the Bureau of Land Management about ninety minutes away called the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. You can combine the two into a nice New Mexico outdoor adventure!

White Sands National Park

New Mexico - Sunset in White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park is located in the Chihuahuan Desert. It is made of gypsum sand dunes and is the largest field in the world. The gypsum dunes were made when an ancient sea was evaporated, and the sand survived because there is little rainfall and no other water that can get into the basin. 

The white sand replicates the appearance of white snow. Visitors can climb the dunes, have a picnic, sled on the sand, take a free hike with a ranger, and watch the beautiful sunset at night. While not technically a beach (as there’s no water) it frequently makes lists of best beaches in New Mexico since you can have so much beach-like fun in the sand.

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White Sands sometimes gets mistaken for a national monument instead of a park. It was created in 1933 as White Sands National Monument but was redesignated as a national park in 2019.

Located in Alamogordo, you can stay in town if you are choosing not to camp.

New Mexico Travel Resources

Coming soon!

Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!

Before you leave for your trip make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I have used World Nomads when I travel since 2016, and I happily recommend them.

Getting coverage is important whenever you’re more than a hundred miles from home in case of an accident, sickness, theft, etc.

Get a travel insurance quote for your trip here.

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