New Mexico is all about blended diversity. Situated at the confluence of the southern Rocky Mountains and the southwest desert, it is one of the most geographically spectacular places in the country, but also one of the most culturally unique— Native American traditions and hispanic influence contribute equally to the rich tapestry of modern New Mexican life.
From the Puebloan architecture still dominant in small towns and big cities alike to the bright chile ristras strung from every doorway and the spicy New Mexican fare on every corner, it almost feels like being in another country. But when you venture further afield into the untouched wilderness and endless sand dunes, you’ll swear New Mexico is another planet.
This itinerary packs some of New Mexico’s many highlights and our favourite hidden gems into a whirlwind 2-week road trip, including the spectacular White Sands National Park; local cuisine-hot spots in Sante Fe and Albuquerque; the abundant hot springs of Truth or Consequences; and the bizarre hoodoos of the Bisti Badlands. Check out all of our insider tips, free camping spots, and specific recommendations below!
Looking to extend your road trip? Check out these posts:
Located in the desert southwest, New Mexico is a year-round destination offering spectacular scenery and unique experiences during all 12 months. For this particular itinerary, however, I’d definitely recommend visiting during the autumn shoulder season (October/November) to avoid extreme temperatures and crowds at some of the more popular destinations.
Fall foliage can also be really spectacular during this time, especially when the mountains get a light dusting of snow! We travelled around New Mexico in late October/ early November and found that the weather was absolutely perfect (60-80F during the day, 40-50F at night) and that we even had popular spots like White Sands National Park almost entirely to ourselves!
Getting to New Mexico
This itinerary begins with Taos in northern New Mexico and travels south to White Sands National Park before curving NW to the far corner of the state at Bisti Badlands. If you’re driving from Colorado, you can follow this order exactly, but those flying in and picking up a hire car will likely need to begin in Albuquerque and travel north to Taos and Santa Fe before continuing south as per the itinerary.
Albuquerque International Airport is the largest transit hub in New Mexico, withregular flights from most major US cities and heaps of car hire options right in the Arrivals terminal.
For the best deals on plane tickets AND rental cars, I use Skyscanner to compare between dozens of airlines/rental companies and even check for specials offered on third-party travel sites.
Camping in New Mexico
Like most of the American West, New Mexico is a treasure trove of dispersed BLM camping and scenic Forest Service pull-outs. If you’re travelling in a van, RV, or other self-contained vehicle, your options for free camping will feel somewhat endless, and indeed many of the sites we stayed at in New Mexico were among our all-time favourites (especially Elephant Butte Lake and the Organ Mountains)!
To find campsites when we’re on the road, we use iOverlander, an awesome crowd-sourced camping app that collates reviews from travellers across the world to provide up-to-date info on millions of campsites and their access, amenities, price (where relevant) & heaps of other useful info.
The iOverlander appfor iPhone or Android even works (with minor limitations) without service! This is always the first place we look for campsite info when we’re researching a new place, and is an invaluable resource for every road trip.
For specific camping recommendations, be sure to check out Where to stay beneath each destination below!
National Parks Pass
This itinerary features several NPS sites, including White Sands National Park and Bandelier National Monument, and therefore it’s definitely worthwhile to invest in an annual parks pass. Even if you only plan on visiting 3 US national sites in the next 12 months, it’s still cheaper to buy an annual parks pass for $80USD, accepted at all 63 national parks and thousands of other national monuments and forests around the country!
Purchase your America the Beautiful Pass directly at an NPS visitor centres or entrance station, at Recreation.gov, or even in-store or online from outdoor retailers like REI.
General tips for travelling in New Mexico
Altitude: No where in the country is an awareness of altitude as relevant for the average traveller as in the Rocky Mountains— and even though Denver is known as the mile-high city, a majority of New Mexico sits well above 7,000ft. Limited people experience minor lightheadedness and breathlessness in the city (no need to worry, this isn’t altitude sickness!), but in the mountains, few will escape some sort of noticeable physiological effect related to the elevation. If arriving from sea level, take it easy for your first couple hikes to avoid serious altitude sickness.
GPS navigation: For everything from short day hikes through the national park to long overnight backpacking trips (and millions of routes in between), I use the AllTrails app to navigate on all of my outdoor adventures! At just $30/year, this is the cheapest GPS you’ll ever own, but also the easiest to use (it runs off your smart phone, so there’s no learning curve with fiddly buttons or uploading tracks from the computer) AND the most up-to-date (other hikers can leave comments and even their own GPS tracks for you to download). This is by far the best app I’ve ever invested in, and far better than any GPS device I’ve used!
Emergency beacon: While hiking and road-tripping through remote areas of Colorado, I’d also recommend carrying a PLB or emergency beacon. With my Garmin In-Reach Mini, I can send a message to family if we’re delayed in the mountains OR if our van breaks down in the middle of no where, receive accurate weather updates, and call for help in case of a true emergency— no matter where you are in the world, Garmin will patch you through to the relevant local authority for support (sheriff, police, SAR, Coast Guard, etc). The unit itself is a few hundred dollars, on top of which you’ll need to pay a monthly subscription fee (we pay $10/month for the cheapest plan, and you can toggle this on and off at your leisure), but BOTH of my parents have been injured in the mountains and rescued through use of a Garmin In-Reach, so don’t underestimate the importance of satellite communication!
*Overview: 2-week New Mexico itinerary
With several weeks, you can experience many of New Mexico’s most beautiful places, including White Sands National Park, Elephant Butte Lake, and Bisti Badlands, as well as diving deep into the local history, culture, and cuisine (green chile everything). Here are the stops I’d recommend, described below in more detail:
White Sands National Park
Las Cruces & Hatch
Truth or Consequences
Use the interactive Google Map above to explore all the stops & specific points of interest along this itinerary. You can also download the map for easier use while travelling by clicking on the square icon in the upper right corner of theimage!
1 | Taos
This burgeoning artist community in northern New Mexico receives a lot of mixed reviews, but I found the colourful town square to be absolutely charming and the native history of the area to be particularly compelling.
Even if you’re not interested in Taos from a cultural aspect, though, the scenery along the Rio Grande is sure to impress even the most dubious of travellers!
What to do in Taos
Taos Pueblo: Visit one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the entire country to learn about New Mexico’s rich native history.
Farmer’s Market: From May through the end of October, the Taos Plaza transforms every Saturday (8am-1pm) into a bustling market full of fresh ingredients (everything from bread and veggies to dry beans and spices), local handicrafts (like the colourful red ristras you see all over the state), and fresh-made food (we had some incredible tamales from Carnicería Jireh that I would highly recommend).
Taos Mesa Brewing: Solid beer and very reasonably priced tasting flights!
Rio Grande: The massive Rio Grande winds through the entire state of New Mexico, but many of the most impressive vistas are located near Taos, either at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge or further south at any of the picnic areas along its colourful shores.
Black Mesa Winery: Amazingly, New Mexico is the oldest wine-producing region in the entire US, and although it may not represent true competition for California or Washington, it’s still super fun to sample a flight of local vino at Black Mesa Winery (about halfway between Taos and Sante Fe in Velarde). There are also about a dozen kitties living on the property, as well as ancient petroglyphs and a rock labyrinth to explore!
Recommended time: 1 day
Getting there: If you’ve flown into Albuquerque to begin your road trip, Taos is a little over 2hrs north.
Where to stay: There’s a large gravel lot right at the Taos Ski Valley that offers FREE first-come, first-serve camping for up to 7 days (and the reception is excellent!). I imagine this place gets busy during the summer and winter, but in the shoulder season, you’ll have your pick of the lot.
2 | Santa Fe
Located at the base of the Sangre de Cristo foothills, New Mexico’s capital is a soaring 7,200ft— and just as dizzyingly beautiful.
Of all New Mexico’s more developed city centres, Santa Fe is also the most striking, the entire downtown replete with Puebloan architecture, colourful ristras (strung chiles), and trendy New Mexican restaurants dishing up traditional food inspired by the mixed Native American and Hispanic influence. With only a day or two in the city, it’s easy to fall in love with the rich history and vibrant culture of NM!
What to do in Santa Fe
Santa Fe Plaza: The central square of Santa Fe is incredibly charming, the New Mexican aesthetic apparent in everything from the adobe-style architecture to the brilliant turquoise accents. Spend an afternoon exploring the local art galleries and wandering through shops!
Farmer’s Market: Santa Fe has its own local market, held every Tuesday and Saturday from 8am-1pm on Paseo de Peralta.
The Shed: Housed in a 17th-century hacienda and family-owned since 1953, The Shed is one of the best New Mexican restaurants in town and my top pick across the entire state for authentic local cuisine like green chile enchiladas and posole. Unsurprisingly, it can be tough to get a walk-up at The Shed before 8pm, so either plan to eat a very late meal (which is what we did) or call the host at 4pm to put your name on the wait-list.
Santa Fe Brewing Co: New Mexico’s original brewery has several locations around the city (and in Albuquerque), but check out the Brakeroom for an old-timey feel and excellent IPAs.
Bandelier National Monument: Less than an hour west of Santa Fe, this historic site features impeccably preserved cave dwellings inhabited more than 11,000 years ago by native tribes. Entry is included with an Annual Park Pass!
Recommended time: 1-2 days
Getting there: Santa Fe is a super easy 1.5hr drive south of Taos, fairly close to Albuquerque for those who began their trip in the city.
Where to stay: There are heaps of charming accomodation options around Santa Fe, but you’ll need to head out of the city and into the mountains to find rugged but scenic spots perfect for a self-contained vehicle!
3 | Albuquerque
Although it lacks much of the charm of Santa Fe, nearby Albuquerque is still worth a visit for its award-winning local breweries and access to hiking trails that will carry you high into the hills (this is the southernmost point of the Rockies, after all!).
What to do in Albuquerque
La Luz Trail: For an aerial view of central New Mexico, hike the steep La Luz trail up South Sandia Peak (8mi one-way; 3570ft gai) and then either catch the tramway back down ($18 one-way) or return the way you came for a full day in the mountains.
Gravity Bound Brewing Co: Excellent beer and even better hard kombucha (try the blueberry basil!) in a super-hip indoor/outdoor garden.
Bow & Arrow Brewing Co: Another top-notch brewery in downtown Albuquerque with great beer on tap in a lively indoor setting.
Recommended time: 1-2 days
Getting there: From Santa Fe, Albuquerque is only an hour’s drive along the 25.
Where to stay: There are hundreds of affordable hotel options scattered throughout Albuquerque, but if you’re hoping to camp for free, your best bet is patronising a local brewery (with their own parking lot) and then politely asking to stay overnight— in our experience, this has been extremely successful, and even when we got a “no”, it was often accompanied with a better recommendation for free camping nearby!
4 | White Sands National Park
Home to the largest gypsum dunefield in the entire world, there’s truly no comparison for the endless sea of sparkling white sand that stretches to the base of jagged mountains at White Sands National Park.
Where most of the world’s sand is formed from quartz-containing rocks like granite or even eroded from sandstone, the sand dunes at White Sands are the product of a rare mineral component, gypsum, which was gradually washed from the surrounding mountains and deposited into the basin.
In any other climate, water-soluble gypsum is likely to have simply washed away, but in New Mexico’s arid heat, the water quickly evaporated and left large crystals of solid gypsum in its place. Over millions of years, and with the aid of heavy wind, these crystals were eroded into the powder-fine sand that today comprises White Sands National Park.
Although quite sizable, vehicle access to the National Park is limited to a single sand road and about a dozen pull-outs/car parks from which you can walk into the sand. There are even several “hiking trails” that lead through the dunes to showcase the unique flora and fauna of the region.
My advice, however, is to ditch the 0.5mi boardwalk and ignore the arbitrary 2mi “trail” through the dunes in favour of blazing your own random path into White Sands. Like Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, it’s the ability to lose yourself in the dunes that makes this place special in the first place!
What to do in White Sands National Park
Backcountry Trail: There is an established 1mi (each way) trail leading out to the park’s only backcountry campground (which is closed until further notice). Whether you’re camping or not, though, we found this to be a great access point to some of the larger dunes and walked for 5mi on our own route through the sand from the backcountry trailhead.
Alkali Flat Trail: Another excellent access point to some of the larger, more untouched sand dunes is from the Alkali Flat trailhead, and yet again I’d recommend skipping the trafficked 5mi loop and instead wandering off until you find your own private dune field. Within about 20min, you’ll likely find yourself entirely alone without a single human footprint in the sand ahead of you, and that’s the true appeal of this park!
When in the area, you can also check out some great food in Alamogordo (the entrance to White Sands).
What to do in Alamogordo
Buckhorn Tavern & The Original Owl Bar: Heading south from Albuquerque to Alamogordo, you’ll pass through an otherwise unremarkable town called San Antonio, which is home to two restaurants that both lay claim to the title of “best green chile cheeseburger”. Each was recommended to us by no fewer than 3 different locals over the course of a single week, and after trying half a dozen burgers around the state to compare, I can now say that “best” is no exaggeration. We preferred Owl Bar’s drive-in style burgers, but both are less than $7, so try one from each restaurant to compare yourself!
Pistachioland: Only a few minutes out of White Sands in Alamogordo, this giftshop sells all variety of seasoned New Mexico pistachios and they are beyond delicious. I personally recommend the habanero lime, but you can sample upwards of a dozen different flavours from the self-serve nut dispensers before settling on the best pistachio.
Caliche’s Frozen Custard: Retro-style café in Alamogordo serving specialty frozen custard, milkshakes, banana splits, and more!
Rockin BZ Burger: Although it can’t compete with an Owl Bar burger, this local spot in Alamogordo does a delicious green chile cheeseburger and even tastier green chile cheese fries.
Recommended time: 2-3 days
Getting there: At 3.5hrs south of Albuquerque, White Sands National Park is a detour for just about every road-trip itinerary, and we heard plenty of people express that it wasn’t worth driving south because there’s “nothing else to do down there”. We found this to be not only inaccurate, but a major under-sell of what has become one of my favourite places in the American southwest. Trust me, it is VERY worth it!
Where to stay: Although there’s no camping within the national park, there’s an abundance of dispersed camping within easy driving distance. We camped for free on BLM land just north of Alamogordo (see the map above for an exact location) and enjoyed a beautiful view of the dunes. Others have also recommended Oliver Lee State Park, which is a paid but allegedly very desirable campsite near Alamogordo.
Read more: COMING SOON
5 | Las Cruces & Hatch
New Mexico’s second-largest city isn’t anything super special, but the dramatic landscape and cultural-rich desert towns surrounding it certainly are!
Rather than spending your days wandering through Las Cruces, then, I’d recommend getting out into the Organ Mountains, a jagged and very distinctive range looming just behind the city, and wandering along the quiet, dusty streets of nearby Hatch, the self-proclaimed “chile capital of the world”.
What to do in Las Cruces & Hatch
NM Pecan: It doesn’t look like much (just a small, dimly lit room attached to the warehouse), but this farm-operated “gift shop” in Las Cruces offers a variety of locally grown pecans at direct prices, far cheaper than the supermarket or other shops in town that buy their nuts from this very gift shop.
Sparky’s BBQ: If you’re still on the hunt for the best green chile cheeseburger, this kitschy BBQ joint in Hatch is definitely worth a try. At the very least, grab a green chile lemonade for the drive!
Hatch Chile Market: There are easily a dozen markets on the main street of Hatch selling fresh chile, dried chile, frozen chile, and ristras (strung chile), but we found both the prices and selection to be better here than anywhere else— our small red chile ristra was just $5!
Recommended time: 1-2 days
Getting there: From the White Sands entrance in Alamogordo, New Mexico’s second largest city is just 45min away, and indeed many travellers prefer to use Las Cruces as their base for exploring the park (but I still believe Alamogordo has everything you need!),
Where to stay: For one of my all-time favourite dispersed camping spots, head to the base of the Organ Mountains on Baylor Canyon Road just outside of Las Cruces. Camping is free anywhere on the BLM land, and this area is easily accessible to 2WD (even large RVs have some options at the start of the road) and has superb mobile reception!
6 | Truth or Consequences
For a town that was formerly called Hot Springs, it’s no surprise that Truth or Consequences (which changed its name in the 1950s in a bid to capture the attention of a popular radio program by the same name) is home to some of the best hot springs in the entire southwest.
One of these hot springs stands out from the rest and is widely considered to be the best hot spring in the state (but I’d actually classify as the best established hot spring anywhere, ever). And that’s to say nothing of the beautiful riverfront scenery along the Rio Grande or the sandy beachfront camping at Elephant Butte Lake— no wonder Truth or Consequences is one of my favourite places in NM!
What to do in Truth or Consequences
Riverbend Hot Springs: This award-winning local hot spring is quite honestly the best of the best, a riverside paradise with half a dozen naturally heated rock pools overlooking the Rio Grande and such a thick sense of tranquillity that you can hardly remember what day it is. Hourly passes are fairly expensive ($25/30 for 1-2 people on weekdays/Fri-Sun), but all overnight guests (including at an RV site, which is $65/80 for 1-2 people on weekdays/Fri-Sun) receive unlimited access to the pools from 3-10pm on the day of check-in and 8-11am on the day of check-out. It was a definite splurge, but worth every single penny to watch the sunset while laying in a hammock in a 101-degree hot spring, and even more so because it felt like we almost had the place to ourselves. And the LIGHTS after dark… However magical it may appear in the photos, just know that the reality is indescribably better.
Truth or Consequences Brewing Co: Excellent beer, super friendly staff, and free delivery from local restaurants at T or C’s only craft brewery!
Elephant Butte Lake State Park: Less than 10min from T or C, Elephant Butte Lake is a favourite fishing, boating, and camping destination among local families, and one that I’d absolutely recommend visiting. Not only is the convoluted shoreline and rocky backdrop incredibly beautiful (and very reminiscent of Lake Mead and Lake Powell), this is also a wonderful place to escape the heat of southern New Mexico.
Recommended time: 2 days
Getting there: Truth or Consequences is just over an hour north of Las Cruces, which makes for an easy drive in the morning and allows plenty of time to explore!
Where to stay: Nearby Elephant Butte Lake State Park features both paid and primitive campsites directly on the sandy shores of the reservoir, and was another of our very favourite campsites in the US. If you’re looking to splash out on something special, though, Riverbend Hot Springs is worth every single cent!
7 | Bisti Badlands
Hidden in the desolate landscape of northwestern New Mexico, the expansive 45,000-acre Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness protects rolling badlands, fantastical hoodoos, and some of the state’s most otherworldly geology.
The best way to explore Bisti Badlands is by hiking deep into the rocks and clambering around between the striking formations— there’s no official route, no trail, and no signs, which leaves you entirely free to make it up as you go along!
Best hiking route: If you do want to follow a route through the Badlands, Jeff at Firefall Photography put together an amazing guide that includes the most striking formations and even labelled these as waypoints along an AllTrails map (which you can download and use to navigate without service). It is far and away the BEST information available on Bisti Badlands, so rather than trying to top it, I’ll link to his site and map for your perusal! We followed his route loosely and ended up hiking 10mi through the Badlands, but you’re entirely free to modify at your leisure.
Ship Rock: About 1.5hrs further NW from the Bisti Badlands (near the Four Corners), this 1,600ft volcanic tower rises dramatically from the flat desert plains and has been sacred to the Navajo people for thousands of years. It’s illegal to climb the rock, but it makes for a pretty impressive photo opportunity if you are continuing this direction on your road trip!
Recommended time: 1-2 days
Getting there: Bisti Badlands is nearly 5hrs north of Truth or Consequences and we certainly questioned whether it would be worth the extra driving time to make it up here. If you’re flying out of Albuquerque or continuing your road trip in Arizona or Utah, though, this represents a less substantial detour than it may seem and I’d say it’s definitely worth going a few hours out of your way!
Where to stay: Camp for free at any of several BLM parking areas right next to Bisti Badlands (including the trailhead and several spots within a mile down the road), with epic views out onto the rocks and easy access for your hike the following day.