Road Trip in New Mexico
From the painted sands of the desert to the painted canvases of Georgia O'Keefe, New Mexico is a wide range of color and culture. And, one of the best ways to delve into everything the state has to offer is by driving through it.
But, before hopping in your car, you may want to brush up on the NM rules of the road, figure out what, exactly, you'd like to see on your trip, and pinpoint the best ways to get there.
Major New Mexico Roadways
New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment, and there are several main thoroughfares to lead you through the magic, including:
- Interstate 40—Part of the original Route 66, this interstate cuts directly across the state from east to west, running directly through Albuquerque, skirting the edges of Navajo Nation, and offering exits to send you on your way to Santa Fe and Las Cruces. Interstate 40 also crosses the Continental Divide, offering several pit stops where drivers can stop not only to rest but to take in the vistas. Trust us, you're going to want to bring your camera.
- Interstate 25—Running primarily north-south, I-25 spans the entire length of the state, entering NM from Colorado before offering exits to Taos and eventually cutting through Las Cruces. Along the way, the highway not only intersects Interstate 40, but includes a number of offshoots for outdoor recreation, including campgrounds, wildlife refuges, desert hikes, and canyons. The perfect pathway for an open-air adventure.
- Interstate 10—NM's shortest interstate, Interstate 10 branches off of the southern part of Interstate 25 in Las Cruces, heading west and exiting New Mexico at the Arizona border near the town of Lordsburg. The road will also bring you on your way to the Gila National Forest, among other natural preserves.
- U.S. Route 380—Beginning in San Antonio—New Mexico, not Texas—this state route also cuts east-west across the Land of Enchantment, but takes a more southerly path than Interstate 40. Traveling along the NM highway will take you through the literal and figurative hot spot of Roswell, along with a number of mountain passes and national forests.
NM Traffic Laws
Besides knowing where to take your car in New Mexico, it's a good idea to learn what you can and can not do in your vehicle.
Check out our guide to safety laws in New Mexico for more information on, among other topics:
- Car seat and seatbelt information.
- Cell phone laws.
- Headlight rules.
- Motorcycle helmet requirements.
Additionally, there's no better way to get to know a state's rules of the road than to read through the Driver Handbook. Check out the information relevant to your road trip before you get behind the wheel.
New Mexico Hot Spots
There are plenty of places—and ways—to be enchanted by New Mexico, whether you're more interested in the sands or the slopes, the wildlife or the nightlife, SCUBA diving in the desert, or something even more unexplainable.
It's easy to see why the state capital has been a long-time draw for artists, especially when its dust-colored, Pueblo-inspired architecture is turned a golden red-brown at sunset, under a pastel sky stretching uninterrupted for miles.
If you want more tangible inspiration from the artistic enclave, you can visit the famous Georgia O'Keefe Museum, or any number of the other art and historical museums in town. The capitol itself is a beautiful location, and Santa Fe also offers all the trappings of a thriving community, like the numerous shops with unique wares and restaurants serving up the spicy food of the southwest.
The Land of Enchantment's largest city has a fair share of its own magic, from the historic Old Town area, populated with adobe structures from the city's founding in the early 1700s, to the University of New Mexico campus, and all of the stores, restaurants, and museums that come with a college town.
The high desert community is ensconced in a ring of majestic purple mountains, making it a great home base for hiking adventures, and those who like to go even higher in the air will be excited by the city's preponderance of hot air ballooning opportunities—and its Hot Air Balloon Museum.
If you like your desert more on the rocky side, this mountain town is a great place to stay. Offering some of the Southwest's best skiing opportunities—compliments of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on which the community is built—Taos is an outdoor adventurer's dream, also providing great opportunities for hiking, biking, kayaking, and canoeing, among other activities.
For those who like to enjoy nature in a less strenuous way, Taos is surrounded by a number of scenic drives, including the Enchanted Circle Drive and the High Road to Taos.
Do you believe in aliens? The people of Roswell do, and they have the International UFO Museum and Research Center to prove it. (Along with a number of other alien-themed shops and restaurants.)
The site of a “mysterious" crash in the 1940s—which the government attributed to a weather balloon, a story some described as a “cover up"—the town is still largely driven by believers from all over the country who come for the extraterrestrial experience.
If you're more interested in Earth's flora and fauna, there are still plenty of beautiful areas to see them around Roswell, including Bottomless Lakes State Park, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and Spring River Park and Zoo.
Gila Cliff Dwellings
A truly unique experience, the cavernous cliffside—designated a national monument by President Teddy Roosevelt himself—once housed the Mogollon People, who built their homes into the sheer cliff face.
Visitors today can climb up to see how the indigenous people lived, or check out a number of other nearby ruins they left behind.
White Sands National Monument
White sand. Blue sky. And not much else. For miles.
The feeling of this place is difficult to describe, but there's undoubtedly a sense of serenity and reverence for the pure beauty of the towering white dunes. It's a must-see for anyone interested in unique destinations or photography.
For those who like a bit more adrenaline, the park allows visitors to sled down the giant sandy slopes in certain locations.
Other Places of Interest
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park—A huge cave system tucked inside the state's southeastern Guadalupe Mountain range, where visitors can explore a number of underground geological formations.
- Blue Hole of Santa Rosa—A perfectly bell-shaped, deep blue lake in the heart of Guadalupe County, this swimming hole offers not only a place to take a refreshing dip in the desert heat, but a chance to earn your SCUBA certification (really!).
- Aztec Ruins National Monument—Before New Mexico had the “New" placed in front of its name, it belonged to Mexico, and some of their most prominent indigenous people left the foundation of their towns behind. Some of those ruins are showcased in this San Juan County national monument.
- Bandelier National Monument—Another perfect place for budding archeologists, the national monument is the home to a number of preserved Puebloan structures dating as far back as the tenth century.