From the rugged steep peaks of the Organ Mountains to the largest rock etchings in North America, the stunning contrasts of southern New Mexico can be viewed at any time of year. Plains meet craggy alpine peaks and the white sands roll across the northern horizon. Visit the nearby Mescalero Cultural Center, International Space Hall of Fame, or Alamogordo just outside the Lincoln National Forest. Explore the Chihuahuan Desert and find history, plentiful shopping, and a giant sandbox for kids of all ages. This road trip through New Mexico is exploring the southlands through the Land of Enchantment.
How long? If you include side trips, it’s around 298 miles, about six-and-a-half-hours. Of course, this assumes you don’t stop at any of the destinations. It’s a doable one-day trip if you start early in the morning and plan to spend all day driving, visiting the sites, and then heading back to Las Cruces. It might be a fun weekend trip if you spend the night in Ruidoso or at the Inn of the Mountain Gods (I highly recommend doing so).
Time of Year? This road trip can be done year-round. Summer temperatures can get toasty, but that’s to be expected. April, May, October, and November are prime months to visit.
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Scenic Southlands Itinerary
Start from Las Cruces
Las Cruces is a vibrant, old city on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Less than an hour from El Paso, Texas, the city has a shared history and geography as the Texas border town. Start out at the Mesilla Plaza and visit outdoor shopping areas, musicians playing in the gazebo, and traditional architecture. Also, like hot food? The Walk of Flame Green Chili trail will lead you to places where you can sample everything from green chili ice cream to green chili hot dogs. The fertile Mesilla Valley has also been growing wine back to the late 1500s. Sample a glass of wine at the Rio Grande Vineyard and Winery and other wineries around the city.
Pre-American, New Mexican, and American history can quickly be seen as you cross this steep mountain range that rises above the desert. The Dropping Springs Visitor Center has an array of interactive displays about the geography and ecology of the area. During the rainy season, the nearby Dripping Springs Natural Area is transformed into a gushing waterfall that you can hike to. The La Cueva rock shelter was occupied for thousands of years and you can hike from the visitor’s center to view the site. While it is illegal to disturb or remove any artifacts, you can still view them as you walk along the trails.
As you continue down NM-70, you’ll quickly spot the dunes of the White Sands National Monument across the northern horizon. Known for its rare white gypsum sand dunes, these 230 square miles of the preserve is one of the world’s most beautiful sandboxes. Walk down the Dune Life Nature Trail for interactive exhibits on the wildlife that survive in the area.
The eight-mile Dunes Drive loops around from the White Sands Visitor Center to the dune field and then loops back around. The heat in the summer can exceed 100 degrees so plan accordingly. You can simply stay on Dunes Drive and see the area without ever leaving your car (or AC). Otherwise, bring more water than you think; one gallon (four liters) per person per day is recommended by the National Park Service.
The next portion of the drive will take you through Alamogordo, New Mexico, and up a steep ascent on Route 82 into the Lincoln National Forest and Cloudcroft. The increased elevation brings a decrease in temperature and greener landscape. Pine trees and apple orchards can be seen along the route. Stop at Tunnel Vista overlook to see both the forested mountains and the desert floor that you are rising above. Cloudcroft is a city perched at 8,700 feet and is a popular winter destination. Stop at the popular Big Daddy’s Diner on James Canyon Highway for a bite to eat and to sample the local ambiance.
If you’re a fan of astronomy and want to take a side trip, take the 17-mile Sunspot Scenic Byway and head down to the National Solar Observatory. You’ll pass evergreens and an array of wildflowers on your way up to the National Solar Observatory. While there, walk around the telescopes and view exhibits about the history of the observatory. Park and get a first-hand look at solar flares and sunspots.
As you snake through the mountains, you’ll venture into the mountain resort town of Ruidoso. This town is great in the summer as you can keep cool while visiting many of the towns unique shops and centers. Mechem drive is the main drive. You can buy jewelry at Apache Trading, visit pottery shops, or go for a walk. Many of the roads are two lanes and get crowded fairly fast during the day. Look for the public parking signs, park, and then walk from there while exploring downtown. It’s not that big and you’ll spend less time sitting in your car when the traffic makes you feel like you are in Estes Park in June.
Feeling whimsical? Visit the Hondo Fairy Garden about 24 miles east of Ruidoso near Hondo. It can be a lot of fun, especially if you have children (or are a child at heart).
Located in the heart of Capitan, the Smokey Bear National Historic Park is a place where visitors can learn all about the orphaned little bear cub with burned paws to rose to fame as an icon for forest fire prevention. Once he passed away, he was laid to rest in his hometown and his burial site can be viewed within the park. His legacy was then passed on to another orphaned black bear from the Lincoln National Forest. [If you need a good cry, look at the pictures of the baby cub with Judy Bell, a little girl who was instrumental in getting him to eat after he was rescued as a cub.] At the visitor’s center, take a tour to learn about the area, forest health, wildfires, and fire ecology. You can also explore information about the state’s natural resources. Capitan’s original train depot and a playground can also be found at the site.
Approximately 5,000 years ago, Little Black Peak volcano erupted and flowed 44 miles into the Tularosa Basin. From the Valley of Fires Recreation Area, you can view the barren rock that solidified into tiny peaks. Tenacious drought-resistant plants surround the area and a short ¾-mile loop trail will take you across a cracked terrace onto the solidified lava flow. A variety of birds, such as owls, hawks, cactus wrens, sparrows, and eagles can be found in the area. It’s a short little side stop just four miles west of Carrizozo. It has picnic shelters, tables, potable water, and vault toilets throughout the park.
Carved centuries ago by the Jornada Mogollon people, the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is unique for the being one of the largest rock art sites in the Southwest. Scattered over 50 acres in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert, there are more than 21,000 petroglyphs of humans, animals, birds, fish, geometric, abstract, and other designs. View a small pueblo ruin and hike up from the visitor’s center to have a grand view of the Sierra Blanca in the east, the San Andrews Mountains in the western horizon, and the White Sands to the south.
Continuing south on NM-54, you’ll finish in the city of Alamogordo in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert. Space development is local history in this area, so you can find a variety of sites and museums to cool off in the desert heat. At the International Space Hall of Fame, you can take a simulated walk on Mars and view exhibits that talk about space exploration from the earliest rocketry experiments. The New Mexico Museum of Space History is also nearby and not too far from New Mexico’s space center.
From Alamogordo, continue your way back down NM-54 towards Las Cruces or even further south to El Paso. Carlsbad Caverns is a solid three-hours east of Alamogordo, but it’s another great place to visit and cool off in the underground caves.
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