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A Road Trip Through New Mexico's Odd and Enchanting Landmarks

Adventure Sports Network logo Adventure Sports Network 4/12/2019 Johnie Gall
a close up of a rock: Photo: Andy Cochrane © Jon Perino/Adventure Sports Network Photo: Andy Cochrane

Sitting shotgun in my friend's truck as we barreled down the highway, the first sign welcoming us to the Land of Enchantment crested the horizon. It's a bold slogan for a state, but if one thing's for sure, New Mexico is certainly aware of its own allure.

a group of people in a field with a mountain in the background © Johnie Gall/Adventure Sports Network

We recently road tripped from Denver to Salt Lake City by way of New Mexico. Without much of a plan, we set out to visit some of New Mexico's most famed features (Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands) as well as its lesser known roadside oddities.

As we traversed the state through juniper-dotted deserts and mud-brick towns, we found a quiet, beautiful, unexpected adventure that could only be described one way: enchanting.

Here, our favorite stops discovered along the way.

Earthship Biotecture Community

a building made out of stone © Johnie Gall/Adventure Sports Network

At first pass, New Mexico's Earthship community comes across like some mid-90s, Bio-Dome-esque imagining of the sustainable home of the future. (Or an alien settlement.)

It's actually the brainchild of Michael Reynolds, who developed several versions of an autonomous home completely built from natural and upcycled materials, like glass bottles and tires. The off-the-grid homes are inexpensive to erect, can be constructed in any climate, and are eco-friendly - the goal is a zero-carbon footprint, with nearly totally self-sustained solar, wind, waste management and food production systems.

There are guided tours of the Taos Earthship community available, as well as a short self-guided tour of the visitor center. And if you're into the idea of having zero utility bills (or just really cool photos from your trip) spend a night in one of the community's rentals and test out the concept for yourself.

Plaza Blanca

a close up of a rock © Johnie Gall/Adventure Sports Network

Plaza Blanca, "The White Place," has inspired artists for centuries, but perhaps none so iconic as Georgia O'Keefe. The artist could see the area's creamy, towering geological formations from her nearby home and often included the cliffs and spires in her works, like "The White Place in Sun." There is a 2.7-mile hiking loop through the canyons, perfect for a short trail run or photography strike mission.

Spence Hot Springs

a black bear standing on top of a rocky mountain © Johnie Gall/Adventure Sports Network

The first rule about hot springs? Don't talk about hot springs. Spence Hot Springs are well-marked and frequented springs that are no well-kept secret. If you decide to visit the scenic pools, come equipped with two things: a trash bag to help clean up, and low expectations about the temperature (these are lukewarm springs at best).

Meow Wolf

This decade-old art gallery is a kaleidoscopic neon treat for the senses. Meow Wolf hosts immersive and interactive experiences for all ages using art, video and music production.

A visit here is a trip to another world - which makes a little more sense when you know the gallery's first installation, the THEA award-winning House of Eternal Return, was launched in 2016 with support from Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin. A ticket ($29 for adults, $24 for New Mexico residents) gets you into the party for the day, so arrive at least a few hours before close.

Bandelier National Monument

a close up of a rocky mountain © Johnie Gall/Adventure Sports Network

A walk through the rugged canyons and mesas of Bandelier National Monument is a reminder we're just a small part of a very long human history with the land.

Beautifully preserved petroglyphs, rock cliff dwellings, and masonry walls of the ancestral Pueblo people are evident along a one-hour walk starting from the Frijoles Canyon visitor center - you can even climb replica wood ladders into some of the small human-carved alcoves.

Carlsbad Caverns

a close up of a rock next to a tree © Johnie Gall/Adventure Sports Network

One of the main draws to the Chihuahaun Desert is the massive system of 119 known caves beneath its surface. Carlsbad Caverns are truly enormous; actor Will Rogers called the cave system "the Grand Canyon with a roof over it."

Visitors start at the information center and can opt to descend into the cave by walkway or by elevator for the self-guided tour. The most popular route through the cave is the Big Room (the largest single cave chamber in North America) which consists of a well-lit concrete path that will take you an hour or more to complete. The temperature in the cave averages 56 degrees Fahrenheit, so bring a jacket.

New Mexico Museum of Space History

a boat sitting on top of a mountain © Johnie Gall/Adventure Sports Network

This museum and planetarium complex is no Kennedy Space Center, but it does have enough artifacts and displays hiding behind its desert-dusted facade to make it well worth the stop.

Inside you'll find mock-ups of equipment still in space or on the moon, the International Space Hall of Fame, and an exhibit dedicated to Star Trek. Just outside, you can visit the grave of Ham, the first chimp in space.

White Sands National Monument

a close up of a person © Johnie Gall/Adventure Sports Network

Remember how fun it was to play in the sand as a kid? It's still pretty fun, as it turns out. And the sandbox is a lot bigger at White Sands National Monument, a system of rare white gypsum sand dunes intertwined with raised boardwalk trails and a single looped road.

Sunset and sunrise are obviously the golden hours for photographers at this popular spot, but any time is a good time for some sand-dune sledding, kite flying, and camping.

All Photos by Johnie Gall and Andy Cochrane.

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