From snow-covered peaks in the north to the arid Chihuahuan Desert in the south, it’s easy to see why New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment. Hikers can wind through densely forested mountains, explore limestone caves, chase waterfalls, visit ancient ruins, and trudge through soft white sand when trekking in New Mexico. Soak in the state’s brilliant sunshine, rich history, and breathtaking scenery on these gorgeous hikes in New Mexico.
1. Tortugas Mountain Recreation Area
Although this turtle-shaped mountain is officially named for the Spanish word for “tortoise,” locals refer to it as “A” Mountain due to the giant letter A whitewashed onto its side in honor of the New Mexico State University Aggies. Circle the base of “A” Mountain by following the moderately challenging and relatively flat 5-mile Tortugas Mountain Trail. Or view the nearby pipe-shaped Organ Mountains and the Mesilla Valley below from a different perspective by following the rocky path up the west slope to the top.
2. Dripping Springs Natural Area
The 4 miles of trails in this section of the craggy Organ Mountains are full of surprises. Not only are you likely to spot wildlife and colorful wildflowers, but you’re sure to see historic remnants from the past. In the mid-1880s, the Confederate General Eugene Van Patten built a 16-room resort in this area known as Van Patten’s Mountain Camp. After losing the Civil War and declaring bankruptcy, he sold it to San Francisco physician Dr. Nathan Boyd, who converted it into a sanatorium for his beloved wife who was suffering from tuberculosis.
When you hike through the Dripping Springs Natural Area today along the 2.7-mile out-and-back trail, take a moment to explore the ruins, including the livery, caretaker’s house, dining hall, and old mountain camp.
3. White Sands National Park
Dona Ana And Otero Counties
This is my pick for the best hike in New Mexico. Check out TravelAwaits’ picks for the best hikes in all 50 states here. Located along Highway 70 between Las Cruces and Alamogordo, in the northern portion of the largest desert in North America, White Sands National Park contains one of the world’s largest gypsum sand dune fields. Surrounded by some of the most unique scenery in the world, the trails at White Sands National Park range from the very easy 0.3-mile Interdune Boardwalk to the moderately challenging 4.9-mile Alkali Flat Trail that loops through the shifting white sand. I recommend packing these items for your hike at White Sands as well as taking a ranger-guided sunset stroll or full moon hike.
4. Petroglyph National Monument
Featuring volcanic rocks chiseled with images of soaring hawks and roaming antelopes, Petroglyph National Monument stretches along the western edge of Albuquerque. You can explore this landscape of sacred symbols on a variety of hiking trails.
See nearly 100 petroglyphs on the easy 1-mile Boca Negra Canyon Trail. For a longer (and more petroglyph-filled) hike, wander the Rinconada Canyon or Piedras Marcadas Canyon Trails. If you’d rather explore volcanoes, then check out the 3.2-mile Volcanoes Trail loop on the western edge of Petroglyph National Monument.
Throughout Petroglyph National Monument, you can use your cell phone to join one of several audio tours and learn more about the area. Simply look for the Park Ranger Audio Tours signs, dial (505) 353-3004, and enter the stop number shown on the sign.
5. Santa Fe National Forest
Santa Fe Area
About an hour from the capital city, the Santa Fe National Forest covers more than 1.5 million acres in northern New Mexico.
About 30 minutes northeast of Jemez Springs, the 0.7-mile Jemez Falls Trail is one of the most popular easy trails in the national forest. As a longer, more challenging alternative to the Jemez Falls Trail, consider the McCauley Hot Springs Trail. This 3.4-mile out-and-back trail gains an elevation of about 810 feet and ends with hot springs. Be sure to wear waterproof hiking boots or water sandals when you hike one of these Santa Fe National Forest trails so that you can easily wade into the water.
For a more challenging hike in the Santa Fe National Forest, check out the Chamisa Trail. This 4.5-mile loop has an 1,100-foot elevation gain, is flanked by wildflowers, and is dog friendly (provided your four-legged best friend remains on a leash).
6. Bandelier National Monument
Surrounded by the Santa Fe National Forest, Bandelier National Monument is a rugged wildlife habitat that also preserves some of the state’s prehistoric past. With more than 70 miles of trails winding through the 33,000-acre park, you’re sure to find the perfect path for everyone in your party. Climb a ladder to peer into cavate cliff dwellings and explore the archeological sites by hiking the 1.2-mile Main Ruin Loop Trail. Or climb to the highest point in the park by following the moderately challenging 3.7-mile out-and-back Cerro Grande Trail.
7. Sandia Mountain Wilderness, Cibola National Forest
Just east of Albuquerque, and often enjoyed from the longest aerial tram in the western hemisphere, the Sandia Mountains are some of the most-visited peaks in New Mexico. For a short and easy 1.1-mile hike through the trees to some cool caves and a waterfall that flows seasonally, take the Travertine Falls Trail near Tijeras. You can also explore a cave along the 1.1-mile out-and-back Sandia Cave Trail. If you plan on investigating one of the caves, be sure to carry a flashlight in your day pack!
At the other end of the spectrum, La Luz Trail is a challenging 13.3-mile out-and-back trail that takes hikers from the base of the mountain to its peak. If you are itching to drink in the views of the mountains and city from this trail but aren’t up to such a strenuous hike, you can cut the distance in half by taking the tram up or down the mountain.
8. Pecos National Monument
Santa Fe Area
About 30 miles southeast of Santa Fe, the most popular hikes at Pecos National Monument incorporate history into the enchanting landscape. An easy 1.25-mile gravel-and-dirt loop, the Ancestral Sites Trail winds past the Pecos Pueblo and the mission church while offering breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Glorieta Mesa.
A bit longer and more challenging, the Glorieta Battlefield Trail is located a short drive from the visitor center behind a locked gate. Once you’ve obtained the gate code from the visitor center and driven to the site, this 2.25-mile loop through a tree-filled area will provide a detailed look at the American Civil War in New Mexico.
9. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
In the southeastern corner of New Mexico, just a few miles north of the Texas border, Carlsbad Caverns National Park features more than 100 limestone caves. The most popular hike at Carlsbad Caverns is the Big Room Trail. A relatively flat, 1.25-mile trail, it takes visitors through the largest known single cave chamber in North America. And if you need to cut your visit to the Big Room short for any reason, ask rangers about the shortcut that reduces the trail to just over a half mile.
About the same distance as the Big Room Trail, the Natural Entrance Trail is much steeper. With an elevation gain of 750 feet, it’s roughly the equivalent of scaling a 75-story building.
While there are many trails to explore on your own at Carlsbad Caverns, the ranger-led tours are also insightful. For several ranger-led tours -- like Lower Cave, Left Hand Tunnel, and Slaughter Canyon Cave -- hiking boots are required.
As of July 1, 2020, all out-of-state visitors must quarantine 14 days or the duration of their trip in New Mexico -- whichever is shortest. For the latest information about guidelines at the park, check out our full list of national parks requiring changes for visitors.
10. Gila National Forest
Hugging the Arizona state line, Gila National Forest contains thick forests, majestic mountains, and the nation’s first designated wilderness area.
For hikers seeking a relatively easy trek, the 2-mile loop trail over Whitewater Creek near the town of Glenwood is the perfect path. For a longer trek, consider the Dragonfly Trail near Arenas Valley. Watch for several petroglyphs in the rocks around the midway point of this 3.4-mile loop. At 8 miles long and with an elevation gain of more than 1,200 feet, the Little Bear Canyon Trail is one of the more popular moderately challenging hikes in Gila National Forest.
Regardless of the path you pursue, dogs are welcome to join you in the Gila National Forest provided they are leashed and remain on the trail with you.
What To Know Before You Go
With an average altitude of 5,700 feet, New Mexico is the nation’s fourth-highest state. So no matter which hikes you enjoy, ease into them if you are visiting from a lower-altitude area in order to avoid altitude sickness. It’s also important to bring (and drink) plenty of water or electrolytes. The high altitude and sunny, arid climate can be sneakily dehydrating, and fresh water isn’t available along most of these hikes. Finally, be sure to slather on sunscreen and wear a hat. Your exposure to the sun’s harmful rays intensifies at higher altitudes, so be smart about sun protection.
This article is presented by KEEN Footwear. For my hikes, I wore the KEEN SOLR Sandal in Light Gray/Ocean Wave. The acronym stands for Sea Ocean Lake River, and the SOLR was the perfect hiking shoe to splash around in when visiting waterfalls and trekking along creeks and rivers. Shop KEEN’s SOLR and other hiking shoes here.