New Mexico Travel Guide
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12 Enchanting Small Towns You Should Visit in New Mexico

PHOTO: Carmen M Alex / Shutterstock

Madrid, Ruidoso, Silver City and so many more.

Endless chromatic skies, the smell of roasting green chiles, gorgeous adobe houses, craggy red mountains—these are the many reasons why New Mexico is called the “Land of Enchantment.” Though larger cities such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe offer plenty to see and do, it is the smaller towns that truly acquaint you with the enchanting traits of New Mexico. The next time you are road tripping through the state, make sure to visit these beautiful, quirky, and mysterious small towns.

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Madrid

When traveling between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, skip the faster Highway 25 and hit scenic State Road 14, otherwise known as the Turquoise Trail. Located on the trail is the funky town of Madrid, New Mexico (pronounced mad-drid, not ma-drid like the Spanish capital). Though the town of 149 people is tiny, it’s easy to kill a full day walking its color strip of boutiques, art galleries, and eateries. Whether you’re buying locally made turquoise jewelry at Trading Bird Gallery, perusing fine art at Indigo Gallery, or munching on chocolate from Shugarman’s Little Chocolate Shop, Madrid has a little something for everyone.

For a one-stop shop, visit the Mine Shaft Tavern where guests can enjoy an award-winning green chile cheeseburger, listen to local music, hobnob with traveling bikers, or wander through the neighboring Old Coal Town Museum.

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Cloudcroft

This town with a population of 674 is popular for those looking to ski New Mexico’s beautiful mountains, but what makes this dreamy enclave special is that it’s a microclimate, meaning it’s a damp, cool area surrounded by desert. At 8,600 feet, Cloudcroft, New Mexico, is one of the highest cities in America, and with its secluded nature, travelers are treated to a landscape pickled in time. Feel like a true westerner at the old-timey Burro Street Exchange, which houses over a dozen boutique shops, or grab a pie and soda at the kitschy Old Apple Barn. What really makes Cloudcroft stand out is its picturesque hikes. Walk the moderate five-mile roundtrip Trestle Trail & Cross Over Trail to get stunning views of Cloudcroft’s vintage railways.

INSIDER TIPThe Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly is found exclusively in Cloudcroft. In the summer months, you can see these gorgeous orange and black butterflies all over the town.

 

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Las Vegas

For those who appreciate vintage architecture, Las Vegas, New Mexico, features over 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including La Castaneda Hotel—one of the few remaining Harvey Houses—and Montezuma Castle. La Castaneda, which was a high-end rail stop hotel that welcomed famous people from all over the world, is currently being revitalized; Montezuma Castle, a Queen Anne-style former hotel that lodged the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant, is now home to the exclusive Armand Hammer United World College. Las Vegas is a walkable city and visitors can easily sightsee old buildings on foot.

A quality local hangout is Charlie’s Spic & Span. Guests enjoy their New Mexican comfort fare and indulgent baked goods. Upon finishing your Christmas-style enchilada or relleno, head across the street to see the Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States-inspired mural.

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Los Alamos

There’s no question that Los Alamos, New Mexico, located high on Pajarito Plateau, is a beautiful destination. But what makes this town of 12,000 most interesting is its secret past. Los Alamos was the pop-up home to the Manhattan Project, the government’s top-secret atomic bomb project during WWII. The Los Alamos National Lab still exists today with thousands of top-notch scientists working on America’s most secretive projects. Though most of the WWII-era buildings no longer exist, the town feels like it’s straight out of the 1940s. The people are friendly, the city is perfectly groomed, and the excellent Bradbury Science Museum is free and open to the public.

INSIDER TIPIf you’re interested in WWII history, stop by the Manhattan Project National Historic Park headquarters and a ranger will tell you the history of the project and historical markers you can visit in the city.

 

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PHOTO: Jerri Wells [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
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Mesilla

For those traveling west on I-10, Mesilla, New Mexico, which is adjacent to the city of Las Cruces, is a great stop for immersing yourself in rich Mexican culture. Mesilla Plaza features a walkable downtown filled with adobe bookstores, restaurants, and gift shops. Visitors can enjoy the 80-year-old La Posta Restaurant and its dozens of real-life tropical birds and fish that greet you in the doorway, or learn about the infamous Billy the Kid who was tried for murder in the small town, then taken to Lincoln, New Mexico, where he escaped.

Oh, and if you want a famous New Mexico chile ristra for your doorway, stop at Ristramnn (not a typo) to pick up an inexpensive bundle of peppers.

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Ruidoso

Located in the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico, this town of 7,700 offers a surprising amount of things to do, including skiing, zip-lining, hiking, and horseback riding. Ruidoso, New Mexico, is also one of the state’s fastest-growing cities with strong economic development, so the food and culture scenes are top notch. Taste award-winning New Mexico wine at Noisey Water Winery, or take the Midtown Gallery Walk and stop in any one of the fine art galleries located in town. Ruidoso also has its share of yoga studios and spas. The Blue Lotus Day Spa & Yoga offers everything from facials to massages, while Flotation Station lets guests leave their worries behind while floating in a sensory deprivation tank.  

INSIDER TIPLocated an hour southwest from Ruidoso is the White Sands National Monument. This 275-mile desert with gorgeous white gypsum sand is the perfect spot for hiking, sledding, or Instagramming.

 

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Jemez Springs

Jemez Springs, New Mexico, is small, but it packs a punch of beauty. Located 70 miles west of Santa Fe in the Jemez Mountains, this town of 250 offers dozens of outdoor activities, including soaking in hot springs, fishing in Fenton Lake State Park, or hiking through Bandelier National Monument. The Jemez Historic Site is home to the 500-year-old ruins of the San Jose de Jemez Mission church and Indian village and is open to the public year-round.

There are plenty of hot springs to choose from in Jemez Spring. For a tranquil pool-like setting, check out Jemez Hot Springs: Home of The Giggling Springs, or for a dip high up in the rocky hills visit the primitive Spence Hot Springs.

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Silver City

First an Apache campsite, then a bustling mining town, Silver City, New Mexico, located in the southwest corner of the state, is home to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Within this gorgeous park, visitors can hike among 900-year-old Mogollon ruins or sit in any of the nearby hot springs. For nighttime snacks and libations, check out the inspired comfort food of Revel or grab a shot of homemade green chile vodka at Little Toad Creek Brewery & Distillery in Historic Downtown Silver City.

Silver City has plenty of vintage hotels to choose from. The Art Deco-era Murray Hotel and the neighboring Victorian-era Palace Hotel treat guests to a step back into time right in the heart of the historic downtown.

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Chimayo

This unincorporated town located on the scenic stretch between Santa Fe and Taos is known for its healing powers. Chimayo, New Mexico, is home to El Santuario de Chimayo, a holy site that sees up to 300,000 miracle seekers a year. Visitors are invited to rub “holy dirt” on their skin in hopes of enjoying the healing powers the church is known for. Don’t skip town before grabbing a meal at the James Beard-winning Rancho de Chimayo, a beautiful hacienda featuring Mexican and New Mexican cuisine. Opened in 1965, the restaurant is nestled in a former home and offers a warm and romantic atmosphere.

INSIDER TIPHead 45 miles northwest and you’ll hit artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s beloved New Mexico home, Ghost Ranch. Guests are invited to visit the on-site museums, stay the night or book a multi-day retreat. The beautiful surroundings will help you understand why the artist found inspiration in the southwest.

 

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Gallup

Once part of Route 66, Gallup, New Mexico, is chock-full of vintage hotels and neon signs. It’s a must if you enjoy Americana, but this town of 22,000 is also notable for being the epicenter of Native American jewelry. For travelers who appreciate Native culture, Gallup is home to the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial Pow Wow, which features Native art, performances, and parade. You can’t say you’ve been to Gallup unless you’ve stayed at the El Rancho Hotel. The vintage Western hotel features beds made of wagon spokes, chairs made of wagon spokes and chandeliers made of…wagon spokes. Famous guests of the hotel include Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne.

Located one hour south is El Morro National Monument, a collection of gorgeous mesas and 700-year-old Pueblo ruins. Travelers through the centuries have left their names in the rocks and visitors can spot carvings dated as far back as the 17th century.

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Aztec

For those traveling to the Four Corners, where New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah meet, Aztec, New Mexico, is a must stop due to it being the home of Aztec Ruins National Monument. The park offers over 300 acres of pristine nature and some of the best preserved Native America ruins in the United States. Visitors can walk through 900-year-old dwellings of the Pueblo people and learn about the culture that still thrives today. Besides the National Monument, Aztec features a variety scenic areas including Lybrook Badlands filled with hoodoos—or spire rocks—and Angel Peak Scenic Area which offers canyons and badlands that glow in the sunset.  

INSIDER TIPIf all that hiking gets you hungry, make sure to stop at Beer Belly’s for a hearty smothered breakfast burrito or Aztec Main Street Bistro to get one of their famous piled-high sandwiches.

 

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Roswell

If you love sci-fi, then you’re probably familiar with Roswell, New Mexico, and its alien history. In 1947, an unidentified flying object crashed near the city. Though the U.S. government acknowledged that the downed UFO was actually a nuclear test surveillance balloon, it hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists from flocking to the area. Roswell has capitalized on its alien fame and the town of 48,000 offers a variety of alien-related shops and museums. One of its more extra-worldly attractions is the International UFO Museum and Research Center. Visitors can kill hours learning about the Roswell Incident, Area 51, and other extraterrestrial incidents. Don’t forget to stop in the gift shop and grab yourself an alien tie tack or necklace.

If you want more than good sci-fi, Roswell boasts an impressive contemporary art museum, Anderson Museum of Contemporary Arts, which features over 450 pieces of striking multi-media and outsider art by artists from all over the world.