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This two-week feast of historic charms, natural wonders, and adrenalin spikes designed with families in mind packs a lot of fun alongside a little learning. Start with the cool, subterranean world of Carlsbad Caverns before getting acquainted with iconic local characters Smokey the Bear and Billy the Kid. Spend nights camped in proximity of prime territory for hunting precious minerals and under unparalleled views of the night skies.
A. Carlsbad Caverns
Descend into the cool cave climate at Carlsbad Caverns, the iconic national park known for its cave systems, which are laced with remarkable pinnacles and spires of rock. There’s a chemistry lesson to be had here—acidic groundwater takes credit for dissolving the limestone former ocean floor into fantastical forms. Stalagmites emerge from the floor, and the walls are adorned with speleothems in the form of columns, soda straws, draperies, and popcorn. Or set aside the science and focus your attention on the hunt for the fairies and giants for which these caves now take their names. The caves also house 17 species of bats, which take off en masse each evening. Peak season is May through October, and ranger talks precede the sunset launch.
B. Lincoln Historic Site
Bring Old West history to life at this living time capsule. The historic town of Lincoln, located near Ruidoso, preserves nearly 20 historic structures fit for a Wild West filmset. Tour a mercantile still stocked with goods from the 19th century and the former county courthouse and jail, climb the village’s defensive tower, and browse artifact tents and an overland coach at the museum.
C. Birthplace of Smokey Bear
After a wildfire swept through southern New Mexico’s Capitan Mountains, firefighters rescued a black bear cub with charred paws that became the mascot of an effort to curtail forest fires throughout the West. Smokey Bear lived out his days in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and was then buried at the historical park in Capitan that shares his name. A museum there features exhibits on forest ecology and the role fire is now understood to play in it.
D. Zipline at Ski Apache
Fly through the skies above Ski Apache in the Wind Rider Zip Tour, a 8,890-foot zipline course that can see riders reaching speeds of up to 65 miles per hour. Go high-adrenalin, or slow down and soak in the views of the Sierra Blanca Mountains and Lake Mescalero. Parallel cables allow for side-by-side trips through the three-part tour that takes about 90 minutes to complete. The route claims to be both one of the highest, at 11,500 feet in elevation, and longest zipline routes in the country.
E. White Sands National Monument
Wind carves the mounds of gypsum sand at White Sands National Monument into wave-like curves perfect for sledding. Off the Dunes Drive loop and away from the vegetation, summertime sledders take plastic snow-saucers (available at the park gift shop) for a spin down the sand. The visitor center also loans out adventure packs stocked with binoculars, a compass, flashlight, and guides to the area’s birds, wildlife, insects, and snakes.
F. Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum
New Mexico’s rich tradition as real cowboy country shine through in this living museum, where docents continue to demonstrate pioneer-era skills like forging tools, dowsing, weaving, and quilting. Say hi to “Hoot,” the museum’s resident owl.
G & H. Rockhound and City of Rocks State Parks
Take in some of the state’s geologic wonders in these two state parks in the southwestern corner. At Rockhound State Park, perched on the steep side of the Little Florida Mountains, hiking trails make for prime territory for hunting precious minerals and geodes to crack open. Volcanoes sculpted the columns and 40-foot pinnacles at City of Rocks, and paths meander among the clusters of improbable, bubble-like stones.
I. Cosmic Campground (Glenwood)
Of the billions of comets in the solar system, only a few pass close enough to our planet to spot, and one of the best places for spotting them lies in the continent’s first officially recognized dark sky sanctuary in the Gila National Forest. A lawn chair and some binoculars are that’s necessary to watch for nocturnal wonders, or simply bask in a view of the Milky Way so thick it looks drinkable.
J. Pie Town
Its name comes from an early bakery for making dried-apple pies that was established by Clyde Norman in the early 1920s. Pie Town is the location of a "Pie Festival" on the second Saturday of each September. Pie Town is located immediately north of the Gila National Forest and not very far west of the Plains of San Augustin, the location of our next stop, the Very Large Array radio telescope.
K. Very Large Array
It’s tough not to spot the giant dish antennas tuned to the sky, using radio waves to search for signs of otherwise invisible astronomical phenomena, while driving through the Plains of San Agustin. The Very Large Array Radio Telescope Facility is open to visitors, who can get introduced to the center with a 20-minute video before visiting gallery displays and walking below a working array. Guided tours run only on the first Saturday of the month.
L. San Antonio
Around 100 people call San Antonio home, but the site hosts two options for famous green chile cheeseburgers, the Owl Bar and Café and The Buckhorn Tavern. The Owl is a classic, longtime locals favorite, but the Buckhorn has been garnering national attention since 2005.
M. Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum
The Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum in Albuquerque explains how and why hot air balloons fly, and explores the history of this form of aviation, which dates to 1783. Special exhibitions feature fantastic feats like the attempt to use a hot air balloon to become the first person to reach the North Pole.
Located in Albuquerque’s Old Town, ¡Explora! is a new kind of learning place that provides real experiences with real things and allows children to put learning in their own hands. ¡Explora! is described as “part science center, part children’s museum, part free-choice school, part grandma’s attic, part grandpa’s garage, part laboratory, part neighborhood full of interesting people, and part of many people’s lives.”
O. Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
Cone-shaped rock formations made through volcanic explosions dominate the landscape at this national monument just north of Albuquerque. Hike 1- to 3-mile trails into tight canyons carved by wind and water over millions of years and find oases of Manzanita, vibrant green plants that can grow clinging to the cliffsides. Then top out on the mesa to enjoy a view of the surrounding mountains and the Rio Grande Valley.
P. Meow Wolf
The House of Eternal Return, located in Santa Fe, is a life-sized mystery to solve, beginning with the now-abandoned home of a curious family and taking visitors through “wormholes” into a maze of interactive art exhibits. The fun for all ages includes surprising passageways and playful spaces for plucking a laser harp and lounging in an indoor treehouse.
Q. Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
This train journey sets off from quaint Chama to traverse 64 miles of mountainous terrain right on the Colorado state line. The historic Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad train has been featured in movies since the 1960s, Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade among them, and the route passes structures dating to the Gold Rush, when the railroad was constructed to serve miners.
Billy the Kid Museum (Fort Sumner, NM)
After walking in Billy the Kid’s footsteps in Lincoln, venture to the museum that keeps the infamous outlaw’s rifle, and the chaps and spurs he was said to wear to dances. The museum, located just east of Fort Sumner, one of the Kid’s favorite haunts, started as one man’s collection of western relics, and has grown to more than 60,000 items.