While New Mexico’s biggest city, Albuquerque, is well known for being the site of the world’s largest hot air balloon festival, the place where Bugs Bunny realized he should have made a left turn, and the real-world setting for Breaking Bad, the Land of Enchantment’s second-largest city is less famous.
Located about 4 hours south of Albuquerque on Interstate 25, Las Cruces sits just north of the United States border with Mexico. A fertile agricultural region along the Rio Grande framed by the Organ Mountains, Las Cruces is the former stomping grounds of outlaw Billy the Kid and the present-day home to New Mexico State University.
Here are nine things to do in beautiful Las Cruces.
1. Mosey Through The New Mexico Farm And Ranch Heritage Museum
From the Native Americans to the chile, cotton, pecan, and dairy farmers of today, the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum explores 3,000 years of agricultural history in the Rio Grande Valley. The exhibits offer fun interaction for visitors of all ages, and the demonstrations make this one of my favorite places to go in Las Cruces. You can watch a dairy cow being milked, fiber being spun into yarn, and a blacksmith pounding out a horseshoe.
2. Explore Historic Mesilla
Until the railroad rerouted activity 5 miles northeast to Las Cruces, Mesilla, New Mexico, was one of the most important cities in the area. It was the capital of the Confederate Territory of Arizona during the American Civil War and a stop along the Butterfield Overland Trail stage line connecting Saint Louis and San Francisco.
As the ghosts of outlaws like Billy the Kid and Pancho Villa swirl around you, explore the Plaza de Mesilla in the center of the small town now rimmed by quaint boutiques and delicious restaurants. My favorites include:
- Old Barrel Tea Company for loose-leaf tea (my favorite is the lavender creme brulee) and locally sourced honey (be sure to try the molasses-colored avocado)
- Silver Assets for a wide selection of Native American and contemporary jewelry fashioned out of silver, turquoise, and other stones
- Heart of the Desert for pistachios (try the garlic/green chile) and a free tasting of award-winning local wines
- Thunderbird de la Mesilla for a huge selection of Native American and Southwest-inspired souvenirs and gifts
If you need a bite to eat, there are few places more legendary than La Posta de Mesilla. When this 150-year-old adobe former hotel along the Butterfield Overland Trail was converted into a restaurant just before World War II, it had only four tables, dirt floors, and no running water. At the heart of the large, Territorial-style building today is a zaguan filled with exotic birds. I recommend the margarita, La Posta Special, and sopapillas drenched with honey for dessert.
3. Admire The Amazing Street Art
From large-format murals to outdoor sculptures, street art tells a city’s story in a very personal way, showcasing the community’s history and culture. While plenty of amazing murals dot Las Cruces — including one of artist Georgia O’Keeffe and one honoring legendary artist Prince — Las Cruces artists have also wrapped their talent around the city’s water towers.
Instead of uninspiring, sky-blue cylinders, these curved canvases portray the conquistadors trudging through a dusty section of the Chihuahuan Desert along El Camino Real known as Jornada del Muerto, or “the Route of the Dead Man”; early farmers and settlers in the region and their dependence on the Rio Grande River; and an Aztec version of paradise known as Tlalocan.
You can find a complete list of the Las Cruces water tank murals, including a map, here.
Another unique art piece in Las Cruces is the recycled roadrunner. Perched above Interstate 10 on the west side of town is a 20-foot-tall sculpture of the state bird, constructed from old tennis shoes, CDs, and other castoffs. (And unlike the cartoon character, this roadrunner is confident about his life choices back in Albuquerque.)
4. Enjoy The Local Cuisine
One of the tastiest reasons to visit the Land of Enchantment is that green chile is available everywhere. The delicious peppers are added to all types of cuisine — cheeseburgers, sushi, pizza — anything goes in the Chile Capital of the World! In addition to La Posta de Mesilla, we love the tacos al carbon and salsa bar at Andele Restaurante and the green chile enchilada plate at La Nueva Casita (be sure to try the guacamole sauce).
If you need a break from green chiles, I recommend any of the waffle dishes at A Bite of Belgium, the French bistro cuisine at Le Rendez-Vous Cafe, and the authentic Italian fare at Luna Rossa Winery & Pizzeria.
5. Tour New Mexico State University
Established nearly a quarter of a century before New Mexico became a state, New Mexico State University is the oldest public institution of higher education in the Land of Enchantment. In addition to winding your way past red-roofed halls and wandering through the Corbett Center Student Union, pop into the University Museum of Anthropology, let the Zuhl Museum collection rock your world, or enjoy an event at the Pan Am Center. And no self-respecting agriculture school in southern New Mexico would be complete without a Chile Pepper Institute!
6. Climb ‘A’ Mountain
If you look to the east of New Mexico State University, you’ll see a local landmark known as Tortugas Mountain. But despite its official name, the locals call this peak “A” Mountain as a nod to the 300-foot-tall and 80-foot-wide letter A painted on the side in recognition of the NMSU Aggies.
For a little exercise and some great views, hike or bike up “A” Mountain. Two trails circle the mountain, one of them leading to the top. From a skill perspective, the hiking trail is perfect for beginners. However, the mountain biking trails are considered advanced.
Fun Fact: It’s an NMSU tradition to repaint the letter on “A” Day. And, you guessed it — it takes place in April.
7. Hike Through The Dripping Springs Natural Area
For a nature walk with less incline, explore the Dripping Springs Natural Area. Nestled in the west side of the Organ Mountains, Dripping Springs features more than 4 miles of easy hiking trails through desert scrub and woodlands. It’s a great place to glimpse wildlife, and you can also explore the ruins of Boyd’s Sanatorium, which once served tuberculosis patients.
8. Discover Las Cruces’s Link With Space
When thinking about New Mexico and space travel, the first image that comes to mind for many people is Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico, and the UFO crash that allegedly occurred there in 1947. But Las Cruces’s connection to the heavens is much more established.
Although its status has been officially downgraded to a dwarf planet, Pluto was discovered by Las Cruces astronomer Clyde Tombaugh. (And if you ask a local, they’ll tell you that Pluto will forever be a planet in Las Cruces!) Visit the Museum of Nature & Science on Main Street to observe a telescope built by Tombaugh and learn more about his study of the universe.
Then take U.S. Route 70 over the Organ Mountains to tour the White Sands Missile Range Museum and learn about the area’s contributions to the Manhattan Project and supporting role in NASA’s space programs. Outside the museum, you can explore approximately 60 different rockets, missiles, and aircraft in the missile park.
Pro Tip: Be sure to stop at the Space Murals Museum and Gift Shop in the little town of Organ, New Mexico, on your way to White Sands to see a bonus water tank mural.
9. Experience The Wonder Of White Sands
Although it’s about an hour’s drive northeast of Las Cruces, White Sands National Park is one of the most popular places to visit in the area. One of the world’s biggest gypsum sand dune fields, the cool, powdery white dunes of White Sands are absolutely magical. Drive through the park on Dunes Drive for an hour-long tour of the ever-changing white mounds by car. There are also plenty of opportunities to explore on foot, from the flat, wooden Interdune Boardwalk to backcountry hiking trails.
When visiting White Sands, here are some things to keep in mind:
- When the White Sands Missile Range is performing a test, U.S. Route 70 is sometimes closed to traffic. Be sure to check for any road closures before you go by visiting NMRoads or calling (575) 678-1178.
- Be sure to travel with a full tank of gas, because the park doesn’t sell fuel, and the nearest gas station is 15 miles away in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
- Don’t leave the White Sands Visitor Center without filling your water bottle. The park is at an altitude of 4,000 feet, so it’s important to stay hydrated, and there isn’t potable water at the park beyond the visitor center.