The Best National Parks In New Mexico What to See
New Mexico is a highly underrated state when it comes to parks. The National Park Service operates 15 sites within the state including North America’s largest cave network and America’s biggest petroglyph site.
There is a contrast between arid desert in the north and high-altitude forest in the southern half of the New Mexico. It’s a truly unique place to explore.
New Mexico also has some of the clearest and darkest night skies in America, so if you’re into stargazing, try spending the night at any of their National Parks and you’ll be pleasantly impressed.
National Parks In New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Hidden within the Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is home to an expansive network of more than 119 caves.
Both above and below the ground, the park has many great features to explore. Beneath the mountains you can take self-guided or group-led tours through the cave entering via a famous series of switchbacks called the Natural Entrance Trail.
The most popular paths through the cave are paved and dimly lit so you can carefully move through the towering stalagmites and stalactites. The “Big Room Trail” is the most popular hike leading 1.25 miles into the cave and commencing at the largest cave chamber in North America.
Outside the cave, bat flight and night sky programs are also offered at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Every night from May-October you can sit in the amphitheater outside the Natural Entrance and watch thousands of bats exit the cave in the evening.
Above ground, travelers can go backpacking or hiking on Guadalupe Ridge Trail, which offers views of the Guadalupe Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert. Several desert trails are available as well, including Walnut Canyon Overlook and Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail.
Visitors can get to the park entrance by taking US Highway 62/180 toward Carlsbad Caverns Highway. The park is open for cavern hikes and tours in the morning and afternoon. The visitor center has limited hours of operation.
Pets are not allowed in most areas of the park, including park trails, visitor center, caverns, and off road areas. Fortunately, kennels are available for visitors who want to explore the caverns while leaving pets in a safe, temperature-controlled environment for a small fee.
There are no campgrounds within Carlsbad Caverns National Park. However, there are multiple private campgrounds in the area. You can also go camping in Guadalupe Mountains National Park which is only 40 minutes away in Texas.
Things To Do Near Carlsbad Caverns National Park:
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park (30 minutes southwest)
- Living Desert State Park (30 minutes northeast)
- Carlsbad National Wildlife Refuge (45 minutes northeast)
- Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area (1 hour north)
- Lincoln National Forest (3 hours northwest)
White Sands National Park
The world’s largest gypsum dune field is located at White Sands National Park near El Paso New Mexico. The impressive dunes glisten in the desert sun and spread out over 275 square miles.
Hiking, sledding, and photography are popular activities among the dunes. Native plant garden tours are also available for those who want to enjoy the park at a leisurely pace. While in the park, be sure to look for local species including kit foxes, porcupines, badgers, burrowing owls, jackrabbits, and roadrunners.
Those staying for less time can take a driving tour of the park along Dunes Drive, which offers eight miles of scenic views.
Take US Highway 70 from Las Cruces, El Paso, or Alamogordo to get to the visitor center. The park is open all year round on a daily basis except for Christmas Day, but hours of operation may vary.
Pets are allowed in most areas of White Sands National Park. In fact, the park has walking stations with pick-up bags for waste removal. Pets must be on a leash that’s 6 feet long or less. No pets are allowed inside the park’s visitor center.
White Sands does not have any established campgrounds within the National Park. But there are primitive backcountry camping sites for those who want to spend more than a day on the dunes.
You can find a number of private campgrounds in the city of Alamogordo nearby. There are also several free camping opportunities in the Lincoln National Forest.
Things To Do Near White Sands National Park:
- Lincoln National Forest (1.5 hours east)
- Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area (1.5 to 2 hours northeast)
- Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (2.5 hours north)
- San Andreas National Wildlife Refuge (2.5 to 3 hours west)
- Downtown Albuquerque (3.5 hours north)
New Mexico National Monuments
- Aztec Ruins National Monument
- Bandelier National Monument
- Capulin Volcano National Monument
- El Malpais National Monument
- El Morro National Monument
- Fort Union National Monument
- Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
- Petroglyph National Monument
- Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
Bandelier National Monument
Located in the northern part of New Mexico not far from Albuquerque and Santa Fe is Bandelier National Monument. It features early human settlements dating back thousands of years.
The park covers 33,000 acres of land, which includes numerous mesas and canyons. Settlements within the area date back roughly 11,000 years. Visitors can come to see petroglyphs, masonry walls, and cliff dwellings from this time period.
Many long and short hiking trails are available for visitors, such as Frijoles Rim and Canyon Trail or Painted Cave. Some of the hikes include scaling ladders to reach the cliff dwellings above.
Other activities offered include guided tours, cross-country skiing, and boating. Keep an eye out for local wildlife including badgers, pika, bighorn sheep, black bears, bats, mule deer, and elk.
You can reach the park entrance by taking Highway 501 to NM 4. Bandelier National Monument trails are open from dawn to dusk, while the campgrounds are open 24 hours a day. The visitor center has varying hours of operation.
Pets are only allowed in Bandelier National Monument in certain areas, including the visitor center parking lot, Juniper campground, and Cottonwood Picnic Area. No pets are allowed on the park trails.
Bandelier has two established campgrounds and backcountry camping available for those with permits.
Things To Do Near Bandelier National Monument:
- Valles Caldera National Preserve (30 minutes west)
- Downtown Santa Fe (1 hour southeast)
- Diablo Canyon Recreation Area (1 to 1.5 hours east)
- Pecos National Historical Park (1.5 hours southeast)
- Santa Fe National Forest (2 hours southeast)
Capulin Volcano National Monument
Located in New Mexico’s northeastern corner, Capulin Volcano National Monument showcases a dormant volcano. Visitors can explore around the crater and base of the volcano via hiking trails.
From the top of the volcanic rim, you can get stunning views of four different states. Then hike downward and explore lava flows near the base.
The park has around 5 miles of trails, including Crater Rim Trail, Lava Flow Trail, and Crater Vent Trail, that provide visitors with impressive views and a closer look at the extinct volcano. Auto touring and guided tours of the park are also available.
Aside from the volcano, this National Monument is also known for its pitch black night skies so it’s the perfect place for stargazing.
To get to the park’s entrance, take US 64 E or US 64W/US 87 N to NM 325. The lower areas of the park are open from dawn to dusk, while Volcano Road is open during regular business hours only. The visitor center is open on a daily basis during regular business hours.
Pets are only allowed in a few areas of Capulin Volcano National Monument, including on the short, Nature Trail next to the visitor center, on public roads, in parking areas, in the shelter area of Volcano Rim, and in developed areas near Juniper Picnic Area.
There are no campgrounds within the Capulin Volcano National Monument, but there are many private campgrounds nearby.
Things To Do Near Capulin Volcano National Monument:
- Sugarite Canyon State Park (30 minutes northwest)
- Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge (1 hour west)
- Rita Blanca National Grassland (2 hours southeast)
- Pecos National Historical Park (2.5 hours southwest)
- Carson National Forest (4.5 hours west)
El Malpais National Monument
Positioned in western New Mexico close to Albuquerque, is El Malpais National Monument. It features a volcanic landscape filled with lava tube caves, grasslands, diverse wildlife, and more.
El Malpais National Monument gives visitors an opportunity to go underground and explore lava tube caves. A free caving permit is required for this activity.
Those who want to stay above ground can hike over challenging lava flows and trenches along Lava Flow Trail or Zuni-Acoma Trail, or take a more moderate hike in the El Calderon area.
Whether exploring the park above ground or underground, visitors can watch for different species, including bats, black bears, coyotes, and prairie dogs.
Take I-40 to reach the visitor center and other areas of the park, which is open from sunrise to sunset each day. The visitor center has more limited hours and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Backcountry areas have limited availability at times due to storms and snow.
Pets are allowed on many of the park’s trails, although not all of these are pet-friendly due to rough basalt surfaces. Dogs can explore the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, the El Calderon Area, and the El Malpais Visitor Center Trail.
While there aren’t any established campgrounds within the park, there is primitive backcountry camping available with a permit. There are also free, primitive campgrounds located at the Joe Skeen Campground and El Malpais Natural Conservation Area outside the park.
Things To Do Near El Malpais National Monument:
- Downtown Albuquerque (1 hour east)
- Cibola National Forest (2 hours southeast)
- Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge (3 hours southeast)
- Santa Fe National Forest (3 hours northeast)
- Gila National Forest (4 hours south)
El Morro National Monument
Another National Monument in western New Mexico is El Morro. The park features sandstone carvings from roughly 2,000 years ago.
El Morro National Monument offers a few trails that visitors can hike along in order for views of the Zuni Mountains and other natural surroundings. The Inscription Trail is a convenient way for visitors who aren’t spending a lot of time in the park to see the ancient carved signatures and prehistoric petroglyphs.
Those who have more time to spend at the park can hike the Headland Trail, which includes the Inscription Trail. Hikers on this trail can also see El Malpais’s craters and parts of the El Morro Valley.
Those who want to learn more about the area’s history can head to Atsinna to see an ancient Puebloan ruin up close.
Take I-40 to Highway 53 from Albuquerque or Flagstaff to reach the monument. The park is open from 9 am to 5 pm on some days of the week, although hours may vary. Parts of the trails may close in winter due to snow and ice.
El Morro National Monument is a pet-friendly park that allows pets on all trails as long as they are kept leashed. Visitors should be aware that the park has steep drop-offs in some areas while walking pets. No pets are allowed inside the park’s visitor center.
One established campground is available all year round in the park for campers who want to stay a couple of days or more. The campsite has very basic amenities including vault toilets and water spigots.
There are also several public campgrounds and dispersed camping areas in New Mexico.
Things To Do Near El Morro National Monument:
- Bluewater State Park (1 hour northeast)
- Downtown Albuquerque (2 hours east)
- Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (3 hours southeast)
- Cibola National Forest (3 hours southeast)
- Gila National Forest (5 hours south)
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is located in southwestern New Mexico. It features Mogollon cliff dwellings which date back to the 1200s.
Travelers can hike or backpack along a trail to see the Mongollon cliff dwellings up close and learn more their culture in the on-site museum. Guided tours of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument are also available during certain times of the year.
For equestrians, there are plenty of trails open to horseback riding in the surrounding areas that are part of the Gila Wilderness. Be sure to look out for local wildlife while trekking through the park, including elk, jackrabbits, beavers, black bears, and mule deer.
Take US Highway 180 and NM Highway 15 from Silver City to reach the cliff dwellings. Those who drive to the monument should be aware that the road is narrow and winding.
RV drivers should take Highway 180 to NM Highway 152, then NM Highway 35 to NM Highway 15 to avoid the narrowest part of the road.
Pets are not allowed on the trails, at the cliff dwellings, or inside the museum and visitor center. Visitors can leave pets in an on-site complimentary kennel while exploring the monument.
There are no campgrounds within the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, however there are several public campgrounds within a 10-minute drive of the park.
Things To Do Near Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument:
- Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument (3.5 hours southeast)
- Gila National Forest (4.5 to 5 hours west)
- San Andreas National Wildlife Refuge (4.5 to 5 hours east)
- Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge (5 to 5.5 hours northeast)
- Lincoln National Forest (5.5 hours east)
Petroglyph National Monument
Located in the western mesa area of Albuquerque is Petroglyph National Monument. The park features Native American drawings and designs carved into rock surfaces. This is one of the biggest petroglyph sites in all of North America.
The carvings in the park’s canyons feature symbols and designs from Native American culture, as well as from Spanish settlers who were in the area between 400 and 700 years ago. Those who come to the park can take one or more of the trails to see these carvings, such as the Boca Negra Canyon, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, or Rinconada Canyon.
The park also has a day use area featuring an undeveloped trail system.
The park visitor center can be reached via I-40 or I-25. The visitor center is open all year except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Visitor center hours are limited. Park trails are open every day for a limited time.
Pets are allowed in certain areas of Petroglyph National Monument, such as Piedras Marcadas Canyon and the volcanoes day use area, but they must be on a leash at all times.
No pets are allowed at Boca Negra Canyon due to the heavy volume of visitors this part of the park gets on a regular basis.
Be aware that asphalt surfaces can get painfully hot in the heat of day, so bring some booties to protect your pet’s paws.
Things To Do Near Petroglyph National Monument:
- Downtown Albuquerque (15 minutes east)
- Cibola National Forest (30 minutes northeast)
- Manzano Mountains State Park (1.5 hours southeast)
- Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge (2.5 hours south)
- Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area (3 hours southeast)
New Mexico National Historical Parks
- Chaco Culture National Historical Park
- Manhattan Project National Historical Park
- Pecos National Historical Park
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, located in the northwestern part of New Mexico, features several ruins from Ancestral Puebloan times. These large buildings date back to between 850 and 1250 AD.
Visitors can take a self-guided tour through the park via Canyon Loop Drive, which features six major archaeological sites. There are also ranger-led walks available for those who want more guidance while exploring the ruin sites.
Travelers who want to get off the beaten path can hike along miles of backcountry trails to see more of the area, including ancient petroglyphs and stairways. Overlooks along these trails provide scenic views of the valley.
The Chaco Culture National Historic Park is also known for its incredible night skies so it’s worth staying late and perhaps participating in the parks’ night sky program.
Several roads lead to the park, including US 550, Highway 9, Highway 57, CR 7900, and CR 7950. The northern and southern routes are mainly made up of dirt roads that visitors must take in order to reach the ruins.
The visitor center and archaeological sites in the park are open year round, although hours of operation are limited. The park is not open to the public on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Pets are allowed in certain parts of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, including Gallo Campground and the backcountry trails. However, pets are not allowed near or at the archaeological sites.
Gallo Campground is the only established campsite in Chaco Culture National Historic Park. The campsites are available for RVs up to 35-feet long and tent campers. There are no showers or electric hookups. The park does not offer backcountry camping.
Things To Do Near Chaco Culture National Historical Park:
- Angel Peak Scenic Area (1 hour north)
- Navajo Lake State Park (1.5 to 2 hours north)
- Bluewater State Park (2 hours south)
- Santa Fe National Forest (3 hours east)
- Carson National Forest (3.5 hours northeast)
New Mexico National Historic Trails And Preserves
- El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro
- Old Spanish National Historic Trail
- Santa Fe National Historic Trail
- Valles Caldera National Preserve
Valles Caldera National Preserve
Valles Caldera National Preserve, located in northern New Mexico not far from Santa Fe, features mountain meadows, streams, and more. The park sits on the site of an ancient volcanic eruption that took place roughly 1.25 million years ago.
Valles Caldera National Preserve has several hiking trails available. Some trails offer easy or moderate hikes, such as Hidden Valley Trail and South Mountain Trail, while others are more difficult. Steeper hikes are found at La Garita Summit Trail, Northwest Rim Trail, and several other trails.
Visitors can spend the day fly fishing at the East Fork of the Jemez River or San Antonio Creek, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Winter activities are also available, including snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Take Highway 4 from Los Alamos or Jemez Springs to reach one of the park’s entrances. The park is open daily throughout the year, although hours of operation may vary. The park is closed to the public on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Pets are only allowed in limited areas of the park for safety purposes, such as the parking area of the Valle Grande Entrance Station and the Coyote Call, Valle Grande, and La Jara hiking trails. No pets are allowed in backcountry areas or on other trails mainly due to the presence of mountain lions, bears, and other wildlife.
There are no campgrounds within Valles Caldera National Preserve, however you can find several nearby in the Bandelier National Monument. There is also free, dispersed camping available in the Santa Fe National Forest.
Things To Do Near Valles Caldera National Preserve:
- Downtown Santa Fe (1 hour east)
- Cibola National Forest (1.5 to 2 hours south)
- Santa Fe National Forest (2 hours southeast)
- Carson National Forest (2.5 hours north)
- Sugarite Canyon State Park (3.5 hours northeast)
National Parks In The Surrounding Area
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This Post Has One Comment
I would add Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project NHP, Bradbury Science Museum and Tsankawi Trail which is part of Bandelier NM but not physically connected. The Manhattan Project is an extremely interesting part of our history and a deeply challenging and emotional experience. I would also highly recommend the Blue Window Bistro.