Most visitors to New Mexico set out on the predictable Santa Fe‒Taos circuit in the northern part of the state, but those that follow the compass further south are pleasantly rewarded. Here, in these less-trodden reaches of the American Southwest, Mother Nature has tucked away unexpected treasures, including undulating fields of white-sand dunes and enormous limestone caves set unassumingly underfoot. Here you can step into another era in a perfectly preserved Wild West stagecoach town (once Billy the Kid territory) or explore an old silver mining center that's since been colorfully reinvented as a thriving culinary and arts haven. And as southern New Mexico gears up to serve as the world's gateway to outer space—as the setting of Spaceport America, featuring Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic—don't miss a chance to pass through the UFO capital of the world, at the site of a supposed 1947 UFO crash that still piques curiosity, nearly 70 years later.
Roswell’s Alien Invasion
Roswell attracts more than just little green men these days, and the no-frills town doesn't skip a beat in catering to the UFO hunters and conspiracy theorists that descend here in droves. The international spotlight landed on this dusty cow town-cum-pop culture mecca thanks to an alleged UFO crash here back in '47. Much of today's activity is anchored at the International UFO Museum and Research Center, which takes a serious approach to documenting the occurrences surrounding that fateful incident (weather balloon or spacecraft—you be the judge!), as well as presenting UFO research and phenomenon from all over the world. Stop by the Alien Zone, just down the road, where for a few bucks, you can take essential campy pics with life-size sets depicting a UFO crash site, alien autopsy, and more. In fact, the entire town seems to offer a tongue-in-cheek nod to the mysterious event, with business signs proclaiming “Welcome, aliens!” and street lamps shaped like alien faces. Visit during July's annual UFO Festival for the most out-of-this-world experience.
When not out searching for spaceships, it's well worth popping into two (free!) local museums that serve as testament to New Mexico's legendary artistic spirt: the Roswell Museum and Art Center and the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art. Refuel on heaping, chile-smothered burgers at Big D’s Downtown Dive, sample New Mexican wine and beer at the welcoming Pecos Flavors Winery, and hobnob with the locals at quintessential dive bar Billy Ray’s.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
This subterranean wonderland engulfs mind-bogglingly vast chambers carved out of limestone reef, marking some of the largest and most impressive caves on the entire continent. Located underneath the Chihuahuan Desert's Guadalupe Mountains, parts of the network of more than 119 known caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park can be visited on self-guided (audio guides are available) or ranger-led tours, accessible via an elevator or 750-foot-long trail from the cave's natural entrance (each descend the equivalent of about 79 stories underground). Wild formations (stalactites, stalagmites, and more) and gaping limestone chambers—including the most famous: the 8.2-acre-sized Big Room—capture the imaginations of visitors here, in a hollowed-out setting sculpted over a 250-million-year-long geological process, dating back to when the caves you see today started off as ancient undersea reef. When it’s in season, stick around, too, for the memorable sunset flights of bats from the cave entrance.
This former silver-mining town today touts a thriving arts and foodie scene, with a creative small-town spirit reminiscent of Santa Fe before it was so widely discovered. Wander Silver City's historic downtown, with its colorful Victorian buildings (now galleries, coffee shops, bars, and eateries) and murals; pop into the Silver City Museum for insights on regional history and cultural heritage; and peruse art galleries clustered in the “Texas/Yankee” district.
Most surprisingly for a town of its size (population: 10, 200), Silver City has attracted national acclaim for its top-notch culinary scene, supported by locally grown foods. Sample the best of it at the Curious Kumquat, helmed by chef/owner Rob Connoley, who creates inventive dishes based on foraged and local ingredients. Dig in on 5- to 7-course dinners (starting from $39/person), veritable culinary adventures led by the chef's whims, with entrées like the memorable mole negro cauliflower.
On the outskirts of town, nature beckons with high desert, mountain, and river landscapes, especially scenic in the City of Rocks State Parks or Gila National Forest (site of the Gila Cliff Dwellings).
White Sands National Monument
Wander the world's largest gypsum dune fields at White Sands National Monument, where some 275 square miles of glistening white-sand dunes tower as high as 60 feet overhead. The dunes run through the Tularosa Basin, within the Chihuahuan Desert, in dreamscape waves made of fine white gypsum sand. Visitors can learn more about the geological processes behind the unusual dune formations at the visitor center, and then set out on the 16-mile scenic drive through this wonderland, stoping to hike at designated dune trails along the way. Most fun of all: Purchase a sled at the visitor center for a ride like no other down the dunes.
Insider Tip: Seeing the white sands under lunar light is a sight to behold—about once a month, from May through October, the park stays open late to accommodate full moon visits; consider timing your visit accordingly.
Brush elbows with the ghosts of the Wild West (in some establishments, perhaps quite literally—with spots like the Double Eagle restaurant claiming its very own resident specters!), in this town where Apache tribes and Billy the Kid once roamed (the notorious outlaw was once sentenced to death in a courthouse here). Transporting and atmospheric, Old Mesilla, dating back to the 1500s, sits just outside of the city of Las Cruces, and presents a trip back through time via a perfectly preserved 19th-century frontier town that was once a bustling stagecoach stop. Wander the old square, fringed by 150-year-old adobe buildings (now galleries, eateries, and gift shops) and the 19th-century San Albino Church, then pop into the historic Double Eagle tavern, a residence-turned-restaurant littered with antiques, artworks, chandeliers, and a gorgeous 30-foot-long hand-carved oak and walnut bar. Refuel here on potent margaritas paired with some of New Mexico's signature chile-influenced cuisine (don't miss the green chile cheeseburger). La Posta, just down the block, is another charming drinking-and-dining venue, set within a converted 1850s-era adobe hacienda.
Where to Stay
Expanses are vast and driving distances are long in southern New Mexico—break up your trip accordingly. Bunk down in Roswell, where the 70-room Hampton Inn & Suites Roswell stands out from the town's pack of nondescript chain hotels and motels, with modern facilities and extras like an indoor heated pool, fitness room, and free daily breakfast. In Silver City, lodge in one of the charming Victorian-style homes-cum-B&Bs—our favorite is the Inn on Broadway (built in 1883), set on a quiet side street just steps from the attractions and drinking and dining establishments of downtown. Four guestrooms come with tasteful period furnishings and decor, and rates include delicious home-cooked breakfasts.
Elissa Garay is a contributor to Fodor's, Yahoo, Condé Nast Traveler, Cruise Critic, About.com, and more. Based in Brooklyn, NY, she has traveled to and reported on some 55 countries and 20 cruise lines around the globe, and has resided in Argentina, France, England, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Follow her @TravelSpiritNYC.