25 Best New Mexico National Parks & Monuments (in 2023!)
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New Mexico national parks and monuments are some of the most culturally rich in the United States. Each site is tied to dense New Mexico history, some of which dates back thousands of years.
I’m here to help you discover the enchantment of the best outdoorsy areas in New Mexico. As some of my favorite national parks and monuments in the Southwest, these parks are near and dear to my heart.
Before we start exploring the mesa trails and ancient ruins of New Mexico, check out these top places to stay in Santa Fe, some of which are in ideal proximity to New Mexico national parks.
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25 Best Parks in New Mexico
White Sands National Park
An impressive collection of reflective white Chihuahuan Desert dunes that are irresistible to sled down
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 White Sands National Park Website
For as far as the eye can see, White Sands National Park sets the stage for a mirage-like scene of rolling white hills. Ocean ripples of shimmering sand are backdropped by southern New Mexico geologic outcroppings, making White Sands National Park a most unique New Mexico national park.
Don’t forget to bring a sled (an old piece of cardboard will also get the job done) to shred down the gypsum dunes; the best way to experience this national park. If you prefer to keep both feet on the ground, there are also copious hiking trails in the area.
Backcountry camping is allowed anywhere in the national park with a permit. The stargazing opportunities in White Sands National Park make it one of the best places to camp in New Mexico.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Wander into the depths of the speleothem abyss at this southern New Mexico park
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Carlsbad Caverns National Park Website
Bats swirl overhead as you wind your way through an open-mouth entrance into the belly of the beast otherwise known as Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Here, 119 caves thrive underground in the Guadalupe Mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert.
The biggest attraction at Carlsbad Caverns is the “Big Room,” a cave that’s nearly 4,000 feet long. Take photos next to the acidic groundwater-formed formations known as speleothems or simply wander around the ginormous cave system in complete awe.
The Carlsbad Caverns are one of the largest cave complexes in the world, the biggest of all national parks, and are worth the remote drive. Visitors can also explore various hiking trails throughout the park. Be sure to keep an eye out for “far-out” ocean fossils that are more than 265 million years old.
National Historic Parks
Chaco Canyon National Historic Park
One of the most culturally-rich national parks in NM with archaeological ruins, ceramic shards, and stunning hiking trails
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Chaco Canyon National Historic Park Website
Chaco Canyon is my favorite of the New Mexico national parks. Tucked away in the northwest corner of New Mexico, this culturally-rich national park not only showcases grand ancient architecture but does so in a setting surrounded by jaw-dropping Southwestern desert beauty.
While you only need one full day to get the gist of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, I recommend staying a night or two for an epic Chaco Canyon experience. Besides camping in the scenic Gallo Campground and stargazing millions of evening stars, there are also so many ruins to visit and hiking trails to explore.
I recommend stopping at the major archaeological sites on the Loop Drive, most of which require just a short walk to get to. I also have to recommend hiking the Pueblo Alto Trail. I’ll get into more detail on this quintessential desert trail below, but in short, the trail takes visitors to multiple overlooks, to lonely backcountry ruins, and through semi-slot canyons.
Pecos National Historical Park
One of the only NM national parks with a historic ancient trading route, just outside of Santa Fe
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Pecos National Historical Park Website
Located just outside of Santa Fe, Pecos National Historical Park is the perfect way to add variation to your Santa Fe shopping and museum-going experience.
The park is also known as “Gateway to the Plains” and lies between the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the flat Glorieta Mesa, a stop along an ancient trading route that has been utilized for thousands of years.
The land of Pecos National Historical Park has long been a stomping ground for Indigenous individuals, Spanish settlers, Mexican armies, frontiersmen, and missionaries. Besides cool trails like the Ancestral Sites Trail, I also highly recommend checking out the cultural museum at the visitor center to learn more about the rich past of northern New Mexico and the present-day national parks.
Bandelier National Monument
View ancient cliffside Indigenous dwellings, most only accessible via a ladder
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Bandelier National Monument Website
Another top New Mexico archaeological site, Bandelier National Monument encompasses nearly 34,000 acres of ruins, hiking trails, and pristine wilderness.
This national monument preserves dwellings and other structures of the Ancient Puebloan peoples that date back 11,000 years. Besides viewing archaeological structures, Bandelier also houses petroglyphs and nearby living Indigenous communities.
🛎️ Need a Hotel? Here are the closest hotels to Bandelier.
Four Corners National Monument
Stand in four U.S. states at once, an opportunity presented nowhere else in the country
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Four Corners National Monument Website
Four Corners National Monument is the only place in the United States where you can simultaneously stand in four U.S. states at the same time (with some strategic flexibility) – Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.
This unique national monument is located on Navajo Land at the northwesternmost point in New Mexico. Although Four Corners National Monument is a little out of the way from close major cities like Santa Fe and Taos, it’s in a convenient location if you’re passing through New Mexico on an ultimate Southwestern road trip.
This area is hands-down one of the neatest places to visit in New Mexico.
Petroglyph National Monument
Hike through volcanic terrain that boasts hundreds of petroglyphs near Albuquerque
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Petroglyph National Monument Website
Petroglyph National Monument is only one hour outside of Albuquerque and is home to the basaltic Volcanoes Trail. This cultural landscape carries significant sacred symbols scattered throughout the area that date back 700 years.
The visitor center is a great place to start. Pick up a brochure to discover the hidden locations of the petroglyphs and embark on a scavenger hunt-like journey to reach ancient rock art.
With hundreds of petroglyphs in the area, you will want to pack your sun hat, a nice camera, and perhaps some binoculars to experience the rock carvings in all their glory.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
An Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site in northern NM, just outside of Chaco Canyon
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Aztec Ruins National Monument Website
New Mexico is an archaeology lovers’ dreamland. Just outside of one of the most popular New Mexico national parks, Chaco Canyon, Aztec Ruins National Monument is another Ancestral Puebloan dwelling site.
There is reason to believe that this archaeological site is related to Chaco Culture due to its close proximity, site date, and similar architecture. The coolest part about Aztec Ruins (which have no relation to the Aztec peoples of Mexico) is the reconstructed kiva.
This kiva, or circular communal complex, gives visitors an idea of what the significant structures would have looked like in their prime. A self-guided audio phone tour is provided at Aztec Ruins, all you need to do is scan the barcode!
🛎️ Need a Hotel? Here are the closest hotels to Aztec Ruins National Monument.
Río Grande del Norte National Monument
Lounge around one of the most famous rivers in the Southwest
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Río Grande del Norte National Monument Website
Besides New Mexico national parks, the Río Grande National Monument is one of the most popular outdoor recreation areas in the state. The huge 242,555-acre protected wilderness is one of the best places to visit in Taos, New Mexico, with hundreds of recreational activities available.
The rugged open plains at the 7,000-foot Río Grande del Norte monument are home to native wildlife and ancestral dwelling sites, signifying the importance of this wilderness site. There are also multiple primitive campsites inside the monument, which provide some of the best places to stay in Taos.
Capulin Volcano National Monument
Roam through volcanic topography as you explore an extinct volcano in northeastern NM
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Capulin Volcano National Monument Website
This northeastern national monument sits at the New Mexico/Colorado border. Capulin Volcano National Monument houses an extinct cinder cone volcano with views of four different U.S. states from its rim.
I recommend hiking the rim trail or the lava trail at the base of the volcano that crosses one of the volcano’s old lava flow paths. Pets are only allowed on the Nature Trail next to the visitor center, not the volcano hikes.
El Morro National Monument
Hike to a natural waterhole, evidently used for thousands of years
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 El Morro National Monument Website
El Morro National Monument is an ancestral dwelling place with a bit of a twist. This outdoorsy site is set apart from the rest thanks to its hidden waterhole at the base of a sandstone bluff.
Visitors must embark on the Inscription Loop Trail, the path that takes hikers to the waterhole, passing hundreds of Spanish and American historic inscriptions as well as prehistoric petroglyphs.
🚗 Need a Rental? El Morro National Monument is 2 hours east of Albuquerque. The best way to get there is via rental car, with Discover Cars as the most reliable option in the state.
Gila Cliff Dwellings
Impressive cliff dwellings a thousand years old occupy territory high above the tree canopy in the Gila National Forest
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Gila Cliff Dwellings Website
This site was created to protect Mogollon cliff dwellings in Gila National Forest, NM. The impressive Gila Cliff Dwellings resemble a similar Monte Verde, one of the top national parks in Colorado.
Ancestral Puebloans used the natural caves above the Gila River as a temporary shelter for thousands of years. Remnants of those shelters have endured the test of time and can still be admired today.
The Mogollan peoples made the Gila Cliff Dwellings their home base and pottery, room differentiation, and other artifacts serve as a testament to the rich cultural history of the area.
Salinas Pueblo Missions
Old Spanish missions used to thrive in the Santa Fe area during a colonial period; today, their ruins serve as a tourist attraction
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Salinas Pueblo Missions Website
Visit three Spanish missions from the 17th century to get a glimpse into early New Mexico settler life. This site stands as a reminder of early settler-Indigenous relations and the interpretive loop trail informs hikers about Spanish life, spirituality, and the salt trade.
👉 Pro Tip: Check out more Santa Fe tours here.
El Malpais National Monument
A landscape laden with geologic wonders beckons hikers to explore its playground in central New Mexico
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 El Malpais National Monument Website
Translated to “badlands” in English, this national monument was named after its barren volcanic fields around the park. Besides naturally-forming arches, there are also lava flows, cinder cones, lava tube caves, and sandstone bluffs at this ecologically rich monument.
Enjoy the night skies at El Malpais, littered with thousands of stars and constellations, or discover one of many cool hikes in the area.
👉 Pro Tip: Although some trails may be deemed “pet friendly” by the national park service, they may not necessarily be “paw friendly.” Volcanic rock is incredibly sharp so I would consider buying doggie shoes to protect your pups’ paws.
Boca Negra Canyon
Explore hundreds of ancient Indigenous petroglyphs near Albuquerque
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Boca Negra Canyon Website
Boca Negra Canyon is a rustic volcanic park with hundreds of Indigenous petroglyphs. Technically located in Petroglyph National Monument, this section of the protected area provides three easy trails (Mesa Point, Macaw, and Cliff Base) that take visitors to a viewing point of 100 petroglyphs.
This is the only fully-developed area in the monument with restrooms, shade, and a drinking fountain.
Valles Caldera National Preserve
Visit a huge caldera just outside of Taos in the Jemez National Forest
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Valles Caldera National Preserve Website
The 13.7-mile-wide Valles Caldera is the only of its kind in New Mexico. Located in the Jemez Springs area near some of the best hot springs in New Mexico, this national preserve formed about 1.25 million years ago from a volcanic eruption.
Today, the Valles Caldera National Preserve is known for its huge gallant mountain meadows, ever-present wildlife, and recreation activities like hiking, fishing, hunting, and backcountry skiing.
Fort Union National Monument
An adobe fort from the 1800s in a scenic sweeping plains landscape on the Santa Fe Trail
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Fort Union National Monument Website
Pay homage to New Mexico’s rich history with a visit to this historical site on the plains. The sweeping grass valley that holds the short prairie once provided an ideal staging area along the Santa Fe Trail.
Fort Union National Monument is directly related to the history of the area’s territorial disputes and wars that defined the area in the 1800s and was constructed on the Santa Fe Trail to serve both military and mail service duties.
Wander around the walls of the historic adobe fort today and check out the site museum for a glimpse into the frontier past of New Mexico.
Prehistoric Trackways National Monument
A vast wilderness area near Las Cruces with ancient organism fossils predating dinosaurs
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Prehistoric Trackways National Monument Website
Explore Paleozoic Era fossils at the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The fossilized footprint mega trackways are located on nearly 5,300 acres of land and include fossils from amphibians, reptiles, insects, plants, and petrified wood dating back 280 million years.
Besides fossil hunting, visitors can also enjoy hiking, horseback riding, and off-roading in the national monument. Many major trackway fossils have been removed and taken to the Museum of Natural History and Science, so a trip to both locations may be in order.
Old Spanish National Historic Trail
Retrace the steps and wagon tracks of colonial settlers and frontier folk as they embarked on a multi-week journey across state borders
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Old Spanish National Historic Trail Website
This historical trade route connected northern New Mexico with Los Angeles, California. The 700-mile Santa Fe Trail not only introduced different communities to trade goods, but also ideas, cultures, and services and played a huge role in shaping present New Mexico culture.
While very few people have time to hike the whole trail, visitors can enjoy sections of the trail at a time or simply hike to one of the historic fort ruins that intersect the trail at points outside of Santa Fe.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
Unusually-shaped rock formations dot the landscape of this Santa Fe National Forest monument
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument Website
40 miles southwest of Santa Fe, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is home to absurd geologic formations that shape the natural landscape. This monument is one of the best outdoorsy things to do in Santa Fe.
Go for a hike among the cone-shaped tent rock formations that formed 6-7 million years ago from the collection and build-up of volcanic eruption debris. Precarious-looking boulder caps rest atop hoodoos in the national monument, giving the landscape a rather whimsical character.
👉 Pro Tip: The monument is currently closed due to COVID-19 measures but plans to reopen later this year.
Pueblo Alto Trail
One of the best backcountry hikes in Chaco Canyon that takes hikers to hidden ruins and viewpoints of the main archaeological sites
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Pueblo Alto Trail Website
From start to finish, the Pueblo Alto Trail is sure to awaken the inner child within as you pass breathtaking sites and experience unique natural formations.
Most hikers stop at the Pueblo Bonito Outlook – one of the best ways to view the D-shaped compound – but I recommend going beyond the viewpoint and completing the whole 5.4-mile trail.
Hikers follow the ancient Chaco Roads that past Puebloan people utilized thousands of years ago to arrive at the Pueblo Alto ruins. New Alto is one of the coolest sites, and because it’s perched on a hill that requires a steep climb to get to, you are most likely to have the entire site to yourself.
Keep your eyes peeled for ancient pottery and old shrimp burrows from millions of years on the trail. There are also various slot canyons to shimmer your way through as well as an overlook of Kin Kletso towards the end of the magical hike.
👉 Pro Tip: Dogs are allowed on this backcountry hiking trail as long as they are on a leash.
Alkali Flat Trail
Climb shimmering dunes on this far-out White Sands National Park hike
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Alkali Flat Trail Website
This 5-mile round trip hike boasts the largest sand dunes in White Sands National Park and because there’s no vegetation on the trail, the alien landscape makes even hikers feel extraterrestrial.
The Alkali Flat Trail traverses steep dunes and is therefore not suited for novice hikers. Don’t be fooled by the “flat” in the misleading trail name, the trail climbs and descends some short but steep dunes.
👉 Pro Tip: To avoid the annoying feeling of sand in your shoes and socks, I recommend hiking this trail in comfortable hiking sandals like the Teva Tirra Sandals.
Pueblo Loop Trail
View ancient dwelling places perched high in a cliffside cave
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Main Ruin Loop Trail Website
This 1.4-mile loop trail takes hikers to the top archaeological sites in Bandelier National Monument. Be on the lookout for ladders along the trail that lead to small ancient human-carved alcoves.
Pick up a $2 trail guide at the visitor center to learn cool facts about the Indigenous Big Kiva, Tyuonyi, Talus House, and Long House dwellings and surrounding ecosystems.
The Volcanoes Trail
Bring your four-legged friend on a hike around Albuquerque volcanoes
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 The Volcanoes Trail Website
The Volcanoes Trail is the most frequented Petroglyph National Monument. A 3.2-mile trail leads past three volcanoes and provides 360-degree views of the nearby Albuquerque capital city.
Enjoy the vistas of the Sandia Mountains and the Rio Grande Valley as you relax on the provided picnic tables on the trail. This hike is the perfect way to escape big-city commotion and it allows dogs as long as they’re kept on a leash.
Ancestral Sites Trail
Take a short ponder around ancient dwellings near Santa Fe, New Mexico
📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Ancestral Sites Trail Website
Visit the ancestral sites of Pecos Pueblo and the Spanish Mission Church in Pecos National Historical Park. The Pecos Pueblo served as a center for trade for more than 400 years and still stands somewhat intact today.
The 1.25-mile roundtrip loop trail is fairly straightforward and starts right behind the visitor center. The historic New Mexico buildings are just outside of Santa Fe and provide hikers with sweet views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
FAQs About New Mexico National Parks & Monuments
How many national parks are in New Mexico?
There are two national parks in New Mexico, two national historical parks, and 11 national monuments.
What is the most visited national park in New Mexico?
White Sands National Park is the most visited national park in New Mexico. Located in Southern New Mexico near the Texas border, this park receives almost 800,000 visitors per year. Carlsbad Caverns and Chaco Canyon national parks closely follow in terms of popularity.
How many national monuments are in New Mexico?
There are 11 national monuments in New Mexico. The most popular are Four Corners, Bandelier, and Aztec Ruins.
Now you’re ready to hit the road and explore New Mexico national parks and monuments! Before you go, check out the best state parks in Arizona, some of which are right across the New Mexico border.
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