New Mexico – the “Land of Enchantment.” This beautiful state is a popular tourist destination, no doubt, but there are plenty of amazing gems hidden in New Mexico’s dusty desert corners that are well worth checking out. Most visitors here come to Santa Fe for great shopping and Southwest style or head to Taos to visit one of the nation’s oldest Native American pueblos or go skiing. But the central and southern parts of the state have some amazing places worth more than just a glance in a guidebook. Here are four amazing lesser-known sights in New Mexico that are worth a visit.
White Sands National Monument
Ever heard of the alien-like white gypsum dune fields at White Sands? Few people have. But it is one of the most fantastic, unusual places to visit on earth. 275 square miles of snow white desert dunes spread across this part of Central New Mexico in a beautiful and positively lunar landscape. A circular drive takes visitors through the most accessible parts of the monument, or you can park your car and take a short (or long) hike through the more remote dunes. A fun way to enjoy the beauty of White Sands is by sledding down one of the dunes, which with their snow-like glow, will really make you feel like you’re in a winter wonderland.
White Sands National Monument is located along U.S. Highway 70 east of Las Cruces. A visitor center greets cars here and sells maps, sleds and books. Entrance fees are $3 per person.
Gila National Forest and Wilderness
Pronounced ‘hee-la’, the Gila National Forest is named for the tributary river of the Colorado River (think Grand Canyon) that flows through the area. Within the sprawling borders of this 3.3 million acre protected area in Western New Mexico, you’ll find everything from dense alpine forest to bubbling hot springs.
The Gila Wilderness was once home to ancient Native American cultures, such as the Mogollon and Apache tribes. The tribes left the remains of their settlements in cave dwellings, carved into the sides of desert mountains, and fantastic petroglyphs, giving us a glimpse into the daily lives of ancient people. Exploring the Catwalk Recreation Trail, you’ll maneuver along a series of elevated platforms once used by area miners, providing great views of narrow canyons and local wildlife.
The Gila National Forest and Wilderness is accessible from a number of entrance areas, depending on which activity you’re interested in. Camping can be done throughout the park, while the cliff dwellings, as well as a series of hot springs, are located in the southern part of the forest near Silver City, NM. The Catwalk Trail is closest to the town of Glenwood on NM 174. Entrance fees vary.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve
Unless you are a bird fanatic, you probably haven’t heard Bosque del Apache, a unique stretch of wetlands that sprawls through the central portion of New Mexico. The term ‘Bosque del Apache’ is Spanish for ‘Apache woodlands’, dating to a time early in New Mexico’s history when Spanish conquerors noticed that local Apache tribes often camped along the lush shores of this watery area. Today, the Bosque (‘bos-kay’), as it is known to locals, is a major migratory stopping point, where thousands of species of birds, including Sandhill Cranes, stop during their annual flights north and south.
A driving loop ($5/vehicle) takes visitors on a one-hour scenic tour of the Bosque, where you can stop to take in the spectacular views of flora and fauna reflected in the Bosque’s serene waters. Be sure to bring your camera and binoculars.
Billy the Kid’s Grave
Billy the Kid, one of the most infamous gunslingers of the Old West, is buried in the tiny town of Fort Sumner in the eastern part of New Mexico. Billy the Kid spent most of his short young life riding through New Mexico with a band of outlaws known as The Regulators. He participated in the Lincoln County Wars, and was arrested for murder and broke out of jail several times. Eventually, he was gunned down by local lawman Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner and laid to rest here. The Kid’s headstone has been the object of much speculation and thievery, and was stolen a number of times before finally being caged in over its current spot in Fort Sumner, on top of the Kid’s remains.
It is free to visit Billy the Kid’s grave, which makes for an easy stop when driving through Fort Sumner on NM 60/84. Don’t be fooled by the rather tawdry Billy the Kid Museum located along the main road, which charges an entrance fee to view photographs and a replica grave. Instead, just east of town, follow Billy the Kid Rd. south for about 5 miles until you see the Old Fort Sumner Museum. The tombstone is located in the graveyard behind the museum and is accessible for free.