From snow-capped mountains and thick pine forests in the north to craggy deserts and the world’s largest gypsum dunefield in the south, New Mexico certainly earns its nickname, the Land of Enchantment. One of the best ways to experience New Mexico’s varied scenery is by taking a road trip between Albuquerque and Las Cruces, the state’s two largest cities.
While my favorite time of year to make this trip is in the spring, when everything is in bloom and stormy weather ushers in dramatic skies and the delicious fragrance of rain in the desert, it’s still a fun drive during the other three seasons of the year.
These are the best stops on a New Mexico road trip from Albuquerque to Las Cruces.
New Mexico’s biggest metro area is located in the heart of the state where Interstates 40 and 25 crisscross, dividing the city into four quadrants. Albuquerque is well known for hosting the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta each October, but there’s so much more to see and do before hitting the road and heading south.
Established more than 300 years ago, Albuquerque is one of the oldest cities in America. Travel back in time by visiting the Petroglyph National Monument and hiking along volcanic rocks decorated with prehistoric images of animals and scenes of everyday life chiseled by an ancient civilization. Learn about the Pueblo tribes native to the area at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. Or stroll through Albuquerque’s historic Old Town, where adobe buildings and the beautiful San Felipe de Neri Church date to the late 1700s.
Don’t leave Albuquerque without riding to the top of Sandia Peak on the longest aerial tram on this side of the Atlantic. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more breathtaking view of the Duke City, especially if you visit at the end of the day as the sun sets.
Located in the small town of Belen, about 35 miles south of Albuquerque, is the Belen Harvey House Museum. Long before airplanes and an interstate highway system made movement between cities fast and convenient, Americans traveled by train. And this museum provides a glimpse back at the time when the Santa Fe Hotel was remodeled into a Harvey House and young women in long black dresses and crisp white aprons efficiently served guests freshly brewed coffee and wholesome meals throughout the day.
Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge
Continuing south along Interstate 25, the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge is about 25 miles south of Belen. Drive through the 230,000-acre park or hike one of its trails, keeping an eye out for mule deer, coyotes, pronghorn antelope, and prairie dogs.
As you explore, watch for colorful native flowers and flowering plants of all shapes and colors between April and October. You’ll see bell-shaped blooms along the spiky stems of yucca plants and the soft petals of evening primrose close to the rocky ground. In late summer, look for patches of bright yellow prairie sunflowers.
National Radio Astronomy Observatory
The next stop on this road trip from Albuquerque to Las Cruces requires a small detour, but this unique experience is so worth it! About 50 miles west of Socorro, stop at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to see the Very Large Array (VLA), one of the most advanced radio telescope arrays on Earth.
Begin your visit with a stop at the visitor center, where Contact actress Jodie Foster narrates an award-winning documentary about the site. Then explore the exhibits that detail the work being conducted on-site and take a self-guided tour to the base of one of the massive dishes.
Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
Returning to Interstate 25 and traveling south from Socorro, the next stop is the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Nestled between the Chupadera and San Pascual Mountains, this 57,330-acre refuge was established as a safe haven for migrating birds like sandhill cranes and as a winter home for a variety of geese and ducks.
Explore the refuge via its 12-mile auto tour route that is open from just before sunrise to just after sunset year-round. Or hit the trails to observe the sanctuary’s scenery, greenery, and wildlife more closely.
Truth Or Consequences
From the Roswell incident back in 1947 to the 27 massive telescopes in the desert west of Socorro, New Mexico has strong ties to outer space. So it’s not surprising that the organization seeking to make space travel as accessible to all as air travel is today is located here.
As with all federally licensed airport facilities, Spaceport America is closed to the public. However, the Spaceport America Visitor Center in Truth or Consequences, about an hour south of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, is one of two departure points for a behind-the-scenes guided tour. Because space is limited and tours fill up quickly, be sure to plan ahead if you want to experience the G-Shock simulator, observe mission control, and get a hangar photo opportunity. These are experiences you won’t want to miss on your New Mexico road trip.
Originally named Hot Springs, the town that is home to the Spaceport America Visitor Center was renamed for a radio quiz show as part of a contest. Host Ralph Edwards promised to broadcast an episode from the town that agreed to change its name to match the name of the program, and so Hot Springs became Truth or Consequences in March of 1950.
Although you can find red and green chiles on nearly every menu and decorating license plates all over the state, the little town of Hatch is the official Chile Capital of the World. About halfway between Truth or Consequences and the last stop on this road trip, stop in Hatch to fill up on these flavorful peppers.
Grab a green chile cheeseburger, chile cheese dog, or another delicious option smothered in Hatch green chiles at Sparky’s. There’s often a long wait to enjoy the dishes created by James Beard semifinalists Josie and Teako Nunn, but taking in the quirky decor inside and outside the establishment will keep you busy until your food arrives.
Stock up on everything from flame-roasted whole chiles, chile powder, and green chile sauce to decorative ristras and wreaths at one of the boutiques in this small New Mexico town. We love Hatch Chile Express, Grajeda Hatch Chile Market, and Chile Fanatic.
Pro Tip: If you now have a hankering for all things chile, order now through the online stores!
In the fertile Mesilla Valley, framed by the rugged Organ Mountains, the final stop on this New Mexico road trip is about 200 miles south of Albuquerque. The name is Spanish for “The Crosses,” and there are several theories about how Las Cruces got its name. Some say it was in honor of a collection of crosses marking the graves of explorers many years ago, while others believe it’s a nod to the city’s location as a crossroads. Either way, here are a few things to see and do in Las Cruces.
Embrace the city’s agricultural heritage by visiting the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, where you can learn more about the state’s cotton, pecan, and dairy farmers -- and watch a dairy cow being milked in one of the many live demonstrations. Las Cruces is also home to the state’s land-grant university, New Mexico State, which includes the Chile Pepper Institute.
Like other destinations on this New Mexico road trip, Las Cruces offers many wonderful places to hike, bike, or walk to soak up the sun and enjoy the scenery. Climb Tortugas Mountain (locally known as “A” Mountain after the NMSU Aggies), or hike Dripping Springs. Enjoy a leisurely stroll around Veterans Memorial Park, or admire the massive carved wooden sculpture Dineh at Apodaca Park.
Pro Tip: While it’s about an hour northeast of Las Cruces (and therefore outside the scope of this road trip), try to incorporate a day trip to White Sands National Park if you’re in the area. Exploring the cool white gypsum dunes of this natural wonder is truly a unique experience.
What To Know Before You Go
If you purchase green chile sauce, salsa, or other jarred treats to take home, be sure to carefully pack them into your checked luggage if you are returning home by air.