There’s something about the unusual landscapes of southern New Mexico that makes travelers gaze outward and upward. The region’s unusual rock formations and bright-white dunes evoke visions of alien worlds, and it’s no wonder visitors here frequently look to the clear desert skies and ponder the galaxies beyond.

Ever since a UFO supposedly crash landed near Roswell in 1947, New Mexico has kept its eyes on the skies, constructing far-out facilities like Spaceport America, a launchpad for commercial space flights, as well as the aptly named Very Large Array, built to observe distant galaxies. But out of these otherworldly landscapes come welcoming towns and relaxing destinations, too. Silver City is New Mexico’s hippest and friendliest outdoors destination, while a sublime hot springs along the Rio Grand makes Truth or Consequences the perfect place to unwind.

These combined aspects make southern New Mexico the perfect destination for outdoorsy travelers hoping to tap into the region’s enchanting landscapes.

Walk through another world in White Sands National Monument

The strange white dunes of White Sands National Monument © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet
The strange white dunes of White Sands National Monument © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

A dreamscape for desert hikers, the dazzling dunes of White Sands National Monument stand 50 miles east of Las Cruces. Despite the name, they’re made not of sand but of gypsum, which accumulated on the bed of a long-vanished prehistoric sea. Undulating endlessly towards distant mountains that shimmer on the horizon, they make an unearthly spectacle; small wonder that White Sands doubled as the (very) alien, bleached-out and waterless home planet in David Bowie’s movie The Man Who Fell To Earth. Signs of life are rare, though the odd straggly cactus, tousle-headed skunkbush or bright-colored wildflower pokes incongruously here and there from the sands. Visitors park in swept-out clearings along the monument’s single loop road, then slither down the slopes on sand sleds, toss UFO-shaped Frisbees, bask in deckchairs and picnic beneath the curving, futuristic shelters. If you succumb to the all-but-irresistible temptation to set off hiking across the dunes, be sure you take a lot of water with you. The summer heat in New Mexico’s most popular national monument is utterly unforgiving.

Climb a volcanic needle or hike to a waterfall in the Organ Mountains

The Organ Mountains gained notoriety in 2014 when they became part of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument © Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images / Getty
The Organ Mountains gained notoriety in 2014 when they became part of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument © Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images / Getty

Long a favorite among New Mexico’s outdoor adventurers, the stark volcanic summits of the Organ Mountains sprang to prominence in 2014, when they became half of the new, two-part Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument (blm.gov/nm/omdp). The Organ range, named for its resemblance to the pipes of an organ, stretches from north to south roughly ten miles east of the Rio Grande, near lively Las Cruces. From the Dripping Springs Visitor Center, on the mountains’ western flanks, hikers set off along an exhilarating 3.5-mile trail that loops to a small waterfall in Filmore Canyon, while climbers scramble up towards the mountains’ single highest peak, the 9000ft Organ Needle. Reaching this pencil-point pinnacle involves an elevation gain of 4000ft in four miles, though only the route’s sheer final section requires technical climbing skills.

Brews, blues and biking in Silver City

The El Sol Theatre in Silver City © Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images / Getty
The El Sol Theatre in Silver City © Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images / Getty

Hardbitten mining community turned haven for outdoors enthusiasts, Silver City is southern New Mexico’s coolest mountain town. Home to William Bonney until a flash of temper transformed him from a kid into Billy the Kid, it never quite became a ghost town, and now its bustling downtown has sprung back to life. Grand Victorian buildings house everything from historic Murray and Palace hotels to laidback brewpubs, bike-tour operators and outdoors outfitters.

Fifty miles north of the I-10 interstate, Silver City is already a long way from anywhere, but it’s also the gateway to New Mexico’s greatest wilderness. Immediately north lies the enormous Gila National Forest, where Apache medicine man Geronimo grew to adulthood without ever encountering a white intruder. Hardy backpackers explore it on multi-day backcountry expeditions, while bikers race through the woods in early May during New Mexico’s premier road cycling race, the five-day Tour of the Gila (tourofthegila.com), which culminates in the hundred-mile ‘Gila Monster’ stage.

Later in May, the free Silver City Blues and Bikes Festival (mimbresarts.org), southern New Mexico’s best music festival, showcases big-name blues artists along with vintage Harley Davidsons and even a Wall of Death (a silo-shaped stage in which daredevils travel along the vertical walls while performing acrobatic tricks and maneuvers). If gentle buzzing is more your thing, come instead for July’s Hummingbird Festival (silvercitytourism.org).

Relax in hot springs or wade out among the wildlife

A sandhill crane in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Danita Delimont / Gallo Images / Getty
A sandhill crane in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Danita Delimont / Gallo Images / Getty

Truth or Consequences might get a whole lot more visitors if it was still called ‘Hot Springs.’ Instead, this delightful Rio Grande resort – stuck with New Mexico’s silliest name since it renamed itself after a popular radio game show in 1950 – remains blissfully unspoiled. Riverfront spas continue to tap into the mineral-rich, naturally heated waters that bubble up hereabouts. At Riverbend Hot Springs (riverbendhotsprings.com), southern New Mexico’s best spa, private and communal outdoor hot tubs are set right into the riverbank, enjoying sumptuous views. Ideally, you’d spend a night or two in its colorful rooms and cabins, but day visitors are also welcome. For a timeless taste of the Rio Grande as seen by early explorers, call in at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, 60 miles north. The riparian woodlands and lush meadows here form the wintering ground for a breathtaking array of migratory birds, including snow geese and sandhill cranes.

Alien encounters … from Spaceport America to Roswell

The Very Large Array is a radio observatory that studies objects in deep space © Westend61 / Westend61 / Getty
The Very Large Array is a radio observatory that studies objects in deep space © Westend61 / Westend61 / Getty

Twenty-first-century New Mexico is still a frontier state… the final frontier, that is. The world’s first commercial spaceflights are due to launch from the Rio Grande valley, just as soon as Virgin Galactic have ironed out the remaining technical issues. For the moment, would-be astronauts can only tour Spaceport America itself, 20 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences. Meanwhile, up at the Very Large Array, located on the high desert plateau 40 miles west of Socorro, 27 vast radio dishes maneuver in intricate patterns as they explore the furthest reaches of the universe. Jodie Foster, who used the VLA to search for extraterrestrial civilizations in the movie Contact, narrates the introductory film shown at the visitor center. And let’s not forget the little green men who allegedly found their way to New Mexico in 1947. Little Roswell, NM, still celebrates the UFO that crash-landed nearby – dig out your X-Files and Roswell box sets if you don’t believe us – with all sorts of quirky museums, festivals and souvenir stores.

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