An abundance of history, wildlife and outdoor escapades await at New Mexico’s three national and 33 state parks that enrich our land. If you’ve never visited or want to get more familiar with them, view our insider’s guide below to help direct you toward your interests. Start exploring. Cruise down a sea of sand dunes. Survey the state for miles from the top of an extinct volcano. Uncover geologic secrets kept hidden for millennia next to your campground. Bring home the big one from your favorite fishing spot. Or see aquatic life from a different perspective as you scuba dive in a clear water lake. With all these things and more, New Mexico offers plenty of options to get lost and find yourself on the same day.
Urban Oasis Rio
Grande Nature Center State Park
Peeling off Río Grande Boulevard to this Albuquerque park, city noise falls away as cottonwood forests drop their leafy curtain around this refuge. The bosque habitat comprises 270 acres along the Río Grande and offers easy river access along flat, sandy trails. A popular landing for wildlife, some 300 bird species have been spotted here, not to mention aquatic fauna such as the frogs, snakes and muskrats that reside in the nature center’s pond. View the wildlife from the Observation Room at the Visitors Center, or join the Friends of the Rio Grande Nature Center on one of their guided nature walks or twilight hikes.
You might also like: Hyde Memorial State Park (Santa Fe); Cerrillos Hills State Park (N.M. 14); Manzano Mountains State Park (Mountainair)
Worth the Long Drive
Pancho Villa State Park
In 1916, Mexican revolutionaries led by General Francisco “Pancho” Villa attacked a military camp a few miles across the border in Columbus, New Mexico, killing 18 Americans. The battle marked the only ground invasion in the continental U.S. since 1812. Today, the state park commemorates these events. Established on the former grounds of Camp Furlong, from which U.S. General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing launched his unsuccessful 11-month pursuit of Villa, the park includes an exhibit hall with equipment similar to that used by Pershing, including a full-size replica Curtiss JN-3 “Jenny” airplane used by the First Aero Squadron.
You might also like: Capulin Volcano National Park (Ratón); Brantley Lake State Park (Artesia)
Waiting to be Discovered
Aztec Ruins National Monument
The Aztec Ruins National Monument offers an intimate opportunity to explore an Ancestral Puebloan great house along a self-guided 700-yard walk. It is also home to a subterranean Great Kiva, now the oldest and largest reconstructed building of its kind. Come visit soon. The City of Aztec plans to create a walkway from downtown across the Animas River to the monument, which will bring more traffic to this invaluable site.
You might also like: Conchas Lake State Park (Tucumcari); Percha Dam State Park (Truth or Consequences)
Connected to the Ancients
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
When you hear the wind sweep across the barren landscape here, it’s easy to imagine the voices of Ancestral Puebloan people whispering through the ages about mysteries yet untold. From 850 to 1250 A.D., the settlement was a hub of ceremony and trade. The multi-storied buildings were and remain to be a spectacular architectural display, based on astrological alignments, geometry and an understanding of the landscape. Beginning at the Visitors Center, Canyon Loop Drive travels past several fascinating structures, including the most popular, Pueblo Bonito, the largest archaeological site in Chaco Canyon. If you’re looking for adventure, take one of four backcountry hiking trails (ranging from three to seven miles) to remote great houses.
You might also like: Pecos National Historical Park (Santa Fe area); Petroglyph National Park (Albuquerque)
El Morro National Monument
Situated near present-day Grants, El Morro’s reliable waterhole created this monolith, which was a popular stopover for Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish conquistadors and American pioneers. Each group of travelers made its mark here, quite literally. Also known as “Inscription Rock,” travelers have carved more than 2,000 signatures, dates and messages at this destination. Trek to the top of the bluff on the Headland Trail and you’ll be rewarded with a moonscape of alabaster sandstone and sweeping views of the nearby Zuni Mountains and El Malpais National Park. The Headland Trail also leads past Atsinna, an Ancestral Puebloan Ruin whose name means “place of writings on rock,” a testament to the Native peoples dwelling here from 1275 to 1350 A.D.
You might also like: El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail; Old Spanish National Historic Trail; Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument (south of Albuquerque)
El Malpais National Monument
Three thousand years ago, lava bubbled up from deep within the earth near present-day Grants, then cooled as it swirled across the ground at El Malpais (Spanish for “bad country”). Follow the cairn-marked route at Lava Falls through ancient lava rivers at El Calderon, or hike the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail from the Visitors Center. But whatever you do, don’t go in the caves, recently closed to the public.
You might also like: City of Rocks State Park (Faywood)
Cimarrón Canyon State Park
Animals abound in Cimarrón Canyon, part of the 33,116-acre Colin Neblett Wildlife Area near Eagle Nest, where crenellated granite formations form palisade cliffs that tower above evergreen forests. Anglers will enjoy eight miles of the rainbow and brown trout-filled Cimarrón River, while hunters can prey on elk, deer, bear, turkey, and grouse. Bring binoculars. Three campgrounds and numerous trails provide quiet settings to watch animals.
You might also like: Clayton Lake State Park (Clayton); Ute Lake State Park (Logan)
El Vado/Heron Lakes State Parks
Tucked away in the northern mountains near Tierra Amarilla, these two parks are connected by a 5.5-mile scenic trail along the Río Chama. Because Lake Heron is a “quiet lake,” boats must operate at no-wake speeds. This results in plentiful wildlife in and around the water. In addition to trout and salmon, you’ll likely see a variety of birds, including bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, water ouzels, and ospreys. El Vado is closed December through March, Make plans to visit this area during the warmer months when you’ll be able to choose from more than 300 scenic campsites.
You might also like: Eagle Nest Lake State Park (Eagle Nest); Sugarite Canyon State Park (Ratón); Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park (Angel Fire); Villanueva State Park (Villanueva)
Access to Backcountry
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
At this monument near Silver City, explore dwellings of the Mogollon people who lived in the area over 700 years ago. Then pack into the Gila Wilderness, the nation’s first wilderness area and an undisputed backcountry favorite. With more than 550,000 acres to explore, it’s the largest wilderness area in the Southwest. (That’s not including the nearby Blue Range or Aldo Leopold wilderness areas, also parts of the Gila National Forest.) Head for the hills to see how many of the 107 bird, 387 plant and 37 mammal species you’ll encounter. Or soak in one of the many natural hot springs here. Lightfeather hot spring is only a 20-minute walk from the Gila Visitor Center.
You might also like: Bandelier National Monument (Los Alamos)
Family Fun Park
Elephant Butte State Park
With 35,000 acres of lake surface, there’s something for everyone at the state’s largest and most popular lake. You can go swimming, boating, waterskiing, fishing, canoeing, and even scuba diving. Several record-setting fish have been caught here at this popular fishing destination. More than 200 miles of shoreline means plenty of campsites, picnic areas and RV hookups, plus plenty of hiking along sandy beaches and desert nature trails. Interestingly, the park gets it name from an ancient volcano that’s shaped like an elephant on one of the four islands in the reservoir.
You might also like: Bottomless Lakes State Park (Roswell); Living Desert Zoo State Park (Carlsbad); Navajo Lake State Park (Bloomfield); Rockhound State Park (Deming); White Sands National Monument (Alamogordo); Carlsbad Caverns National Park (Carlsbad)