While the state of New Mexico might be “new” in relation to its time spent within the United States, the settlement history of this enchanting land suggests otherwise. While Native Americans have been here (like everywhere else on the continent) for 13,000 years, signs of the rise of a pre-Colombian civilization in its infancy are widespread here, as are the colonial remains of the days when this state was a possession of Spain and then Mexico.
While this place is little more then a desert to most people in their imagination, the highlands that predominate through much of the state give rise to forests in many places, and in the more northerly portions of New Mexico, skiing is possible for a few months out of the year (Taos).
Of all the states in the Southern tier, New Mexico will surprise the most, as it vastly over delivers on the low expectations that many visitors have. In fact, you might find yourself wanting to stay longer than you expected. After all, it is called The Land of Enchantment for a reason.
What To Do – Culture & History
While European and American settlement didn’t begin here in earnest until the 16th and 19th centuries respectively, people have been making the high desert and mountains of this state their home for a great deal longer than that.
Native Americans have been in the area for the better part of 13,000 years, with the Pueblo people being the most advanced of the lot. Evidence of their short-lived settlements and civilization can be found at Bandelier National Monument, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, and Aztec Ruins National Monument, with dwellings made from local rock and soil showing their ability to create structures beyond the simple teepees, wigwams and lean-tos that more nomadic peoples to the north preferred.
Bandelier features caves and buildings that were used as dwellings and as the place where the Pueblo people conducted their religious rituals, while the Gila Cliff Dwellings were well hidden from view, giving the 10 to 15 families that lived there perfect cover from potential threats.
Finally, Aztec Ruins was NOT inhabited by the Mexican civilization to the south (those that named the ruins did so under that mistaken assumption), but it was another Puebloean settlement that contained a massive brick structure that contained upwards of 400 rooms in its heyday.
All of these sights bear witness to yet another pre-Colombian civilization that was on the rise … just before the Europeans arrived on the scene with their unfamiliar germs and imperialistic ambitions, making any one of these three national monuments well worth the time you’ll spend poking around them.
While life in the New Mexican desert was far from easy, the vistas throughout this land gave many of them the inspiration to see another day through to its completion. It was this beauty that led modern artist Georgia O’Keeffe to make this place her summer base in 1929, and her permanent home from 1949 onwards.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum chronicles the life, times, and art of this influential painter and sketcher, displaying her best works, from watercolors to charcoal drawings, as well as several sculptures. There is also a research center dedicated to the art genre of American Modernism located here, with many of the example pieces being from O’Keeffe’s personal collection.
During your initial visits to the Pueblo cave settlements, you will likely notice that they were quite prolific when it came to works of art. While they are certainly impressive, none of these ruins contain the volume of rock carvings and drawings that Petroglyph National Monument possesses.
The symbols carved range from the mundane and easily identifiable (animals and people) to symbols that continue to mystify anthropologists to the present day, so check them out and ponder: do these markings portend something truly groundbreaking in our understanding of where we stand in the Universe … or is it something as basic as a map to the nearest watering hole? The choice is yours to make.
After the Spanish swept into New Mexico and took control, they created a territory with a variety of villages, town and cities, one that would eventually be annexed by the United States in the American-Mexican War.
While many have razed their heritage in the name of “progress” in the 20th century, others succeeded in preserving the older portions of their settlements. The Santa Fe Historic District is one of the best examples of Spanish/Mexican architecture within the state of New Mexico, containing spectacular plazas, cathedrals, and other incredible architectural specimens. Be sure to not miss the Governor’s Palace!
What To Do – Modern & Natural Attractions
One of the most enduring mental images when it comes to the desert is the large sand dunes that spring from dried up and eroded soil that hasn’t seen a good rainfalls in ages. While many dunes typically take on a golden hue, the ones at White Sands National Monument take on a shade of that color that is so brilliant and pure, sunglasses are practically mandatory to avoid suffering from sun blindness.
Created from gypsum rock, these sands offer photographers a nearly infinite array of shots, especially in the spring, when the dunes come alive with a variety of desert wildflowers. Those that are more active will enjoy sledding down the taller dunes, while the more introspective among us will be inspired by the unparalleled views of stars made possible by the pitch darkness the predominates here at night.
The subterranean sights in this state are equally, if not more impressive, as it is home to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Home to one of America’s best loved cave complexes, Carlsbad has one of the biggest natural subterranean caverns in America, as the so-called Big Room measures 255 feet high and 4,000 feet long. While two thirds of the complex is off limits to tourists, the rest is brilliantly lit, with guide ways that will make your first spelunking experience an enjoyable and educational experience.
With large stretches of uninhabited land, and with it, a lack of light and electromagnetic pollution, Socorro County in Central New Mexico is the ideal place for what is known as the Very Large Array, a series of massive radio telescopes that investigate a variety of phenomena relating to outer space.
Black holes, quasars, gamma ray bursts, and all other sorts of exotic aspects of space are researched here, and those that come here on the first Saturday of each month can go on a guided tour. Even if you don’t understand the science, the sight of the massive satellite dishes against the barren desert and mountains make it worth visiting just for the photo ops.
With all the dark skies that New Mexico possesses, it should be no surprise that this state logs many more reports of UFO sightings than other areas in the United States. The Roswell UFO Museumdocuments these sightings, as well as the major UFO incident that put this town on the world map back in the late 1940’s.
While the official explanation was changed to dub the wreckage as the remains of a crashing weather balloon, discrepancies between the official story and evidence found have allowed proponents behind this museum to compile a compelling case in favor of the notion that we are not alone in the universe.