Destination Guides,  National Park Travel

How to Visit All 13 National Monuments in New Mexico

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New Mexico is often overlooked in the Southwest – and in the U.S. as a whole. But often those overlooked destinations hide secret gems. Turns out New Mexico is a really cool place that’s worth exploring beyond the big cities (“big” being relative, as the largest city, Albuquerque, has only about 550,000 residents), top sights, and national parks. That’s where the national monuments in New Mexico come in: there are more of them, and they offer you a chance to explore and enjoy the Great Outdoors in every way New Mexico can offer it.

I recently took my first trip to New Mexico, and I completely fell in love with it. Stunning southwestern landscapes, starry skies, and fascinating history, culture, and food… I mean, I think we may be moving to New Mexico someday! (Or at the very least, I’m planning several return trips!)

National Monuments in New Mexico Hero

Whether you’ve visited the Land of Enchantment before (what a great and appropriate state nickname, as you’ll see) or you’re planning your first trip, this post will teach you about each of the national monuments in New Mexico. Most are National Park Service lands; the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the rest. All of them display the incredible diversity of cultural, natural, and historical experiences you can have while visiting New Mexico.

1. Aztec Ruins National Monument

National Monuments in New Mexico - Aztec Ruins National Monument

Aztec Ruins is the first of the national monuments in New Mexico on my (alphabetical) list. Located on the western bank of the Animas River, the national monument gets its name from the early white settlers that considered the site to be Aztec in origin. But actually, it was built back in the 12th Century by Ancestral Pueblo people, formerly known as Anasazi, who lived in Pueblos. These multilevel communal dwellings were constructed of sandstone, mud, and stones and consisted of numerous rooms to house hundreds of people. 

Today, you can go back in time and explore the vestiges of Ancestral Puebloan culture on this site. There’s a gorgeous 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House with over 400 masonry rooms that still preserves original timbers holding up the roof.

Details about visiting Aztec Ruins National Monument:

  • Aztec Ruins National Monument is open year-round except Thanksgiving and Christmas, and hours vary by season.
  • There is no admission fee to visit Aztec Ruins National Monument.
  • Learn more on the Aztec Ruins National Monument NPS site.

2. Bandelier National Monument

Located near Los Alamos in Sandoval, Bandelier National Monument is one of New Mexico’s most popular national monuments that combines nature with anthropology. The national monument was created to protect over 33,000 acres of rugged canyon and mesa country and evidence of a human presence here dating back over 11,000 years. 

Scattered throughout the park, there are petroglyphs, dwellings carved into the soft rock cliffs, and standing masonry walls built by the Ancestral Pueblo, who have lived in this area for over 10,000 years. The most amazing part of this National Monument is that the National Park Service has installed lots of replicas of pueblo ladders on the dwellings for visitors to climb and see the inside. 

Besides its cultural richness, Bandelier has privileged wildlife. Thanks to its wide range of ecosystems, you can spot mule deer, Abert’s squirrels, lizards, and many bird species in the monument.

Details about visiting Bandelier National Monument:

3. Capulin Volcano National Monument

National Mounments in NM - Capulin Volcano National Monument

Approximately 60,000 years ago, the rain of cooling cinders and lava flows formed Capulin Volcano. As a nearly perfectly shaped cinder cone, it rises more than 1000 feet above the surrounding landscape. Today, Capulin Volcano National Monument is the national park in New Mexico that protects and interprets this cinder cone volcano. 

A few things have changed since the earth trembled and the volcano was formed. Today, instead of mammoths, giant bison, and short-faced bears, you’ll find the pine-forested volcano is home to mule deer, wild turkey, and black bears. And, of course, the volcano is extinct. However, Capulin Volcano National Monument is still a great place to explore the volcanic processes of northeastern New Mexico. 

This site also boasts panoramic views day and night, with views of four different states from the volcanic rim and one of the darkest night skies in the country (stargazing, anyone?!).

Details about visiting Capulin Volcano National Monument:

4. El Malpais National Monument

While El Malpais might not be considered one of the most exciting national monuments in New Mexico, it still is a great option to explore the diverse geology features of the state. Located in western New Mexico, it was the extremely barren and dramatic volcanic field of the area that lends the monument its name, Malpaís (badlands). 

In 1987, El Malpais was established to protect the geological, archaeological, ecological, cultural, scenic, scientific, and wilderness resources surrounding the volcanic field.

Here, you can explore diverse geologic features, such as lava flows, cinder cones, lava tube caves, and sandstone bluffs. While the geography itself is impressive, the fact that this desolate environment has been home to people for generations is even more striking.

Details about visiting El Malpais National Monument:

  • El Malpais National Monument is open year-round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
  • There is no fee to visit El Malpais National Monument.
  • Learn more on the El Malpais National Monument NPS site.

5. El Morro National Monument

Another place the Ancestral Puebloans called home, El Morro National Monument is a must-stop for travelers interested in archaeology. El Morro was a community site hundreds of years ago among Pueblo people, thanks to the reliable waterhole hidden at the base of a sandstone bluff.

While the landscape alone is worth visiting, the most astounding site is Atsinna, the largest of the pueblos atop El Morro. Dating back to 1275, Atsinna was a pueblo built in a defensive position, and people lived there for about 75 years. The impressive construction featured 875-rooms and was occupied by up to 1,500 people at its height. Today, the visible ruins (uncovered and reconstructed in the 1950s) comprise only 10% of the original village site.

Visitors can also see traces of many travelers in this national monument. Carved into the soft sandstone cliffs are over 2,000 signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs by early Spanish and American explorers as well as Ancestral Puebloans. 

Details about visiting El Morro National Monument:

  • El Morro National Monument is open from 9am to 5pm daily year-round, though some trails may be limited or closed during the winter months.
  • There is no fee to visit El Morro National Monument.
  • Learn more on the El Morro National Monument NPS site.

6. Fort Union National Monument

National Monuments in New Mexico - Fort Union National Monument

If you’re a history buff, you’ll definitely love visiting Fort Union. Located north of Watrous in Mora County, this is one of the national monuments in New Mexico that once played a pivotal role in the political and cultural change of the Southwest.

For forty years (1851-1891), Fort Union was a bustling center of frontier defense in the Southwest established by Lt. Col. Edwin V. Sumner. It was the largest U.S. military post in the region and worked as a base for both military and civilian ventures that changed the cultural landscape of the Southwest. Today, Fort Union National Monument protects the territorial-style adobe remnants of the largest 19th-century military fort in the region.

Details about visiting Fort Union National Monument:

  • Fort Union National Monument is open daily from 8am to 4pm (winter) or 5pm (summer), year round, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
  • There is no fee to visit Fort Union National Monument.
  • Learn more on the Fort Union National Monument NPS site.

7. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Tucked away at the very end of highway 15, there’s very little chance you’ll accidentally drive past Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. 

For hundreds of years, nomadic communities used the caves of the Gila River as temporary shelter. But it was the prehistoric Mogollon people who decided to settle and call the caves of this place home. In the 1200s, they used natural caves to build interlinked dwellings within five cliff alcoves above Cliff Dweller Canyon.

While the Mogollon people are long gone, you can appreciate the remains of their culture in the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a monument consisting of 553 acres and with two prominent ruins sites.

Details about visiting Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument:

8. Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

New Mexico National Monuments - Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
Photo credit: John Fowler via Flickr

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is located 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe. The Ancestral Pueblo people baptized the place with the name Kasha-Katuwe, which in the Keresan language means white cliffs. As you can see, the name is accurate!

Sitting southeast of the Valles Caldera, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks encompasses a fascinating landscape sculpted by the same volcanic activity that shaped the Jemez Mountains. This is one of the national monuments in New Mexico where you’ll be awe-inspired by the natural beauty; it’s easy to see why Indigenous peoples came to this place.

The geological process started 6 to 7 million years ago when a tremendous pyroclastic eruption from the Valles Caldera covered the landscape with over 1,000 feet-thick pumice, ash, and tuff deposits. The results of the volcanic eruption can be seen today with cone-shaped tent rock formations of up to 90 feet high.

Details about visiting Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument:

9. Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

New Mexico National Monuments - Organ Mountains
Photo credit: Bob Wick, Wilderness Specialist via Flickr

A picturesque area of rocky peaks, narrow canyons, and open woodlands, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks was established to protect prehistoric, historic, geologic, and biologic resources of the Desert Southwest. The national park includes four areas: the Organ Mountains, Desert Peaks, Potrillo Mountains, and Doña Ana Mountains.

The Organ Mountains is located adjacent to and on the east side of Las Cruces. It contains an area boasting mountain ranges with 9,000 feet-high rocky spires that would make any photographer go crazy. It’s seriously stunning and reminds me of High Peaks at Pinnacles National Park.

The second area, Desert Peaks, includes the Robledo Mountains, Sierra de las Uvas, and Doña Ana Mountains, characterized by desert mountains rising steeply from flat plains. 

The Potrillo Mountains are the third and most remote section of the Monument. Located a distance to the southwest from Las Cruces, The Potrillo Mountains comprise a volcanic landscape of cinder cones, lava flows, and craters. The Doña Ana Mountains are a great option for hikers thanks to their extensive pedestrian trails, equestrian trails, mountain bike trails, and rock climbing routes. In short, this New Mexico national monument has something for everyone!

Details about visiting Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument:

10. Petroglyph National Monument

Photo credits: Mobilus In Mobili via Flickr (L), Angel Schatz via Flickr (R)

As the name suggests, Petroglyph National Monument protects a petroglyph site in New Mexico. As one of the largest petroglyph sites in the U.S., the site features designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Indigenous peoples and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. I personally love petroglyphs and ancient art, so this is one of the national monuments in New Mexico that’s high on my list.

Petroglyph National Monument stretches along a 17-mile canyon outside Albuquerque; there you can see around 15,000 prehistoric rock art images carved by early Spanish settlers and Indigenous peoples on the West Mesa volcanic basalt escarpment. To this day, for contemporary Native Americans, the petroglyphs still hold profound spiritual significance; the monument is considered a sacred place where they celebrate outdoor ceremonies. 

In addition to the petroglyphs, there are hundreds of archaeological sites (including the Piedras Marcadas Pueblo Ruin), five volcanic cones, and two detached parcels of land that retain geologic formations. 

Details about visiting Petroglyph National Monument:

  • Petroglyph National Monument has varying hours and access by season, as well as by trail and canyon.
  • Some parts of Petroglyph National Monument charge fees, but they are nominal ($1-2).
  • Learn more on the Petroglyph National Monument NPS site.

11. Prehistoric Trackways National Monument

Nestled away in the Robledo Mountains just outside Las Cruces, Prehistoric Trackways National Monument conserves and protects the nationally important paleontological and scientific resources of southern New Mexico.

The monument is known for its major deposit of Paleozoic Era fossilized footprint mega-trackways. Along the trackways, visitors can see footprints of numerous amphibians, reptiles, and insects (including previously unknown species), as well as plants and petrified wood dating back 280 million years.

However, viewing trackway fossils is limited. At this time, no developed sites allow access to the fossils. To preserve them for ongoing and future scientific study, some trackway fossils have been removed and transported to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, making up the Jerry MacDonald Paleozoic Trackways Collection. That’s the place to go if you want to see well-preserved tracks for sure.

Details about visiting Prehistoric Trackways National Monument:

  • Prehistoric Trackways National Monument is located on BLM land and there are no access restrictions.
  • There is no admission fee to visit Prehistoric Trackways National Monument.
  • Learn more on the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument BLM site.

12. Rí­o Grande del Norte National Monument

NM National Monuments - Rio Grande Del Norte

You have to drive quite a bit to get into Rí­o Grande del Norte National Monument. However, the stunning canyon views waiting for you are well-worth it. The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument is an approximately 242,555-acre public land in Taos County, New Mexico.

The landscape boasts rugged, wide open plains with volcanic cones jutting out and steep canyons with rivers that interrupt the plains. The Río Grande Gorge, which lends the name to the monument, is also located in the national monument. 

According to anthropologists, this area was already inhabited in prehistoric times. As evidence of these archaeological cultures is petroglyphs, prehistoric dwelling sites, and many other types of archaeological sites. Besides exploring the astounding landscape and anthropological remains, visitors can enjoy many recreational activities, like rafting, hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and camping in the monument.

Details about visiting Rí­o Grande del Norte National Monument:

13. Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

New Mexico National Monuments - Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is one of the lesser-known national monuments in New Mexico. Located in the central part of the state, Salinas Pueblo Missions is a complex of three Spanish Franciscan missions, as the name suggests. 

The ruins, comprising three mission churches, date back to the 17th century and are a testament to the earliest contact between Pueblo Indians and Spanish Colonials, who have arrived to spread Christianity. 

Quarai is the northernmost ruin and the least visited. Located in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains, Quarai contains a large red brick church, outbuildings, and grassy mounds with pueblo foundations. The Abó Ruins is located 12 miles south; this is the most popular site as it’s located along the main road (U.S. 60). However, the ruins are quite similar to Quarai. Gran Quivira, the third and biggest site, sits 20 miles further southeast. Here, you can explore vestiges of Spaniards and Puebloans as there’s a mission complex next to a multi-room pueblo village.

Details about visiting Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument:

Have any questions about any of these national monuments in New Mexico? Which one(s) do you want to visit? Let me know in the comments!

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