Historic Sites In New Mexico. More Than Just Parks has 10 incredible must-see sites for you.
I’ve been to so many of these amazing places since retiring from teaching in 2018. Did I mention that I taught history? I spent a lifetime teaching about the history behind these momentous sites. Then I got to see them firsthand. And now I’m sharing the stories of these incredible places with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!
I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing these articles for More Than Just Parks.
I’m going to give you my list of the Top 10 Historic Sites in New Mexico that you’ll want to see. These are our top 10 sites which we will provide in reverse order. We’ve got amazing monuments, fascinating exhibits, historic museums, legendary figures and so much more.
To be clear, this list includes national park sites (as in sites managed by the National Park Service) as opposed to national parks. (More on that below)
Historic Sites In New Mexico
10. Capulin Volcano National Monument
We kick off the top ten list of the best historic sites in New Mexico at #10 with Capulin Volcano National Monument.
Everyone’s list of historic sites in New Mexico to visit (or at least national park sites) has to include Capulin Volcano National Monument. At Capulin Volcano National Monument, you’ll see a fascinating display of the volcanic geology of northeastern New Mexico.
I’ve been there and I can tell you that the views are spectacular. From the volcanic rim you will see parts of 4 different states.
This area also features one of the darkest night skies in the country.
Hiking At Capulin
Capulin offers a variety of activities. There’s nearly five miles of hiking trails. These include:
- The Crater Rim Trail is a paved, 1 mile loop around the rim of the volcano. Informational waysides provide visitors information about the surrounding features in the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field.
- The Crater Vent Trail is a 0.2 mile (one-way) trail leading to the bottom of the Capulin’s crater. This trail is paved and has an elevation change of 100 feet.
- The Lava Flow Trail is a one mile loop crossing one of the volcano’s lava flows while providing great views of the surrounding volcanic topography.
- The Boca Trail is an unimproved, 2 mile strenuous loop through the Boca area. This is the vent area at the base from which the volcano’s lava flows originated. The trail provides close up views of numerous geologic features.
- The Nature Trail is adjacent to the visitor center. Stop along the way at descriptors discussing plant life, geology, and wildlife. This is the only hiking trail where pets are permitted. (Source: NPS)
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#9. El Morro National Monument
Coming in at #9 on the list of the best historic sites in New Mexico is El Morro National Monument.
It’s home to beautiful cliffs and stunning landscapes, El Morro is one of the most beautiful New Mexico National Park sites.
If you were a desert traveler like the Ancient Puebloans then the first thing on your travel agenda would be water. If you forgot about water you likely wouldn’t be around to forget about anything else.
For these travelers, El Morro was a reliable waterhole hidden at the base of a sandstone bluff. Referred to as “El Morro” (the headland), it became a popular campsite hundreds of years ago.
You’ll Have 2 Trails To Choose From
Visitors to El Morro have two wonderful hiking trails to choose from.
- The Inscription Trail will take you to a shady oasis (the pool). Along the way you’ll pass hundreds of Spanish and Anglo inscriptions, as well as pre–historical petroglyphs. This loop trail is paved, 1/2 mile in length, and wheelchair accessible with assistance.
- The Headland Trail is a 2–mile loop which includes the Inscription Trail. It continues to the top of the bluff. There you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the Zuni Mountains, the volcanic craters of the El Malpais area, and the El Morro valley. On this trail is the Ancestral Puebloan ruin, Atsinna, or “place of writings on rock.” There, between approximately 1275 to 1350 AD, up to 600 people lived in this 355 room pueblo.
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#8. Petroglyph National Monument
Petroglyph National Monument is a fascinating look into the past. It protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. It’s #8 on our list of the best historic sites in New Mexico.
These images are a record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans and for the descendants of the early Spanish settlers.
There is no museum or exhibits at this monument. At Petroglyph’s visitor center you can pick up a park brochure and trail maps.
Located on the western edge of the monument, the park’s trail system offers scenic miles of hiking around the volcanic cinder cones.
From there you’ll enjoy the clear views of the Rio Grande valley and the Sandia Mountains from the scenic overlook. These trails vary in length from 1 mile to 4 miles round-trip.
See The Amazing Petroglyphs
If you’re looking to see the petroglyphs the trails you’ll want to take include:
- Boca Negra Canyon: 1 hour, 100 petroglyphs, developed trail system.
- Rinconada Canyon: 2.2 miles round trip, 2 hours, 200-300 petroglyphs, undeveloped trail system, no water.
- Piedras Marcadas Canyon: 1.5 miles round trip, 1.5 hours, 300-500 petroglyphs, undeveloped trail system, no water, no restrooms.
- Volcanoes Day Use Area: 1 mile to 4 miles round trip, 1-4 hours, no petroglyphs, undeveloped trail system, no water.
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Historic Sites In New Mexico
#7. Fort Union National Monument
At lucky #7 on our list of the best historic sites in New Mexico is Fort Union National Monument.
New Mexico became a United States territory after the Mexican American War. The Army established garrisons in towns scattered along the Rio Grande to protect the area’s inhabitants and travel routes.
In April 1851, Lt. Col. Edwin V. Sumner, commanding Military Department No. 9 (which included New Mexico Territory), was ordered “to revise the whole system of defense” for the entire territory.
Among his first acts was to break up the scattered garrisons and relocate them in posts closer to the Indians.
Sumner moved his headquarters and supply depot from Santa Fe, “that sink of vice and extravagance,” to a site near the Mountain and Cimarron branches of the Santa Fe Trail, where he established Fort Union. (Source: NPS)
Things To Do At Fort Union
You can take a 1.25-walk on the self-guided interpretive trail. It will take you through the entire fort.
Or, you can take a shorter half-mile walk on the same trail. It will take you through a portion of the fort.
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#6. Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
Completing the bottom five of the top 10 historical sites in New Mexico is Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.
New Mexico abounds in the history of the American Southwest. At Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument visitors will find three distinct sites offering a unique glimpse into a different time in history.
These sites serve as reminders of the Spanish and Pueblo peoples’ early encounters and prompt exploration of today’s interactions among different people. These sites include:
- Abo where you can enjoy a walk through the 17th century Mission of San Gregorio de Abó and see the Spanish Resettlement Structures.
- Quarai is a place where you can walk through the Nuestra Señora de La Purisima Conception de Cuarac, enjoy some spectacular bird watching and hike the one mile Spanish Corral Trail.
- At Gran Quivira you can explore an excavated Pueblo Mound and two Mission Churches. Or visit the museum and see the different tools and artifacts made by the people of Las Humanas.
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The Top 5 Historic Sites In New Mexico
#5. Chaco Culture National Historical Park
We’re on to our top 5 historic sites in New Mexico. At #5 we have Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Imagine a field trip to explore the massive buildings of the Ancestral Puebloan people. You’ll marvel at their organizational and engineering abilities not seen anywhere else in the American Southwest.
At the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, there are six major sites along a 9-mile long Canyon Loop Drive. These sites include Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, and Casa Rinconada.
At Chaco Culture National Historical Park, You’ll Find A Wonderful Bookstore Too
At the Visitor Center Bookstore you’ll find a terrific collection of books on the culture, customs and traditions of these Ancestral Puebloan People there as well.
If you’re up for a more rigorous adventure there’s four backcountry hiking trails that lead visitors to remote Chacoan sites, passing ancient roads, petroglyphs, stairways, and spectacular overlooks of the valley.
These trails are open from seven in the morning until sunset. For your safety and protection permits are required.
They are free at the Visitor Center and at the trailheads. There is no overnight backcountry camping; camping is only allowed in Gallo Campground. (Source: NPS)
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#4. Bandelier National Monument
We’re on to the “final four.” At #4 on our lit of the best historic sites in New Mexico is the Bandelier National Monument.
The Ancestral Pueblo people lived in Bandelier from approximately 1150 CE to 1550 CE. They were able to build their homes from the volcanic tuff and plant their crops in the mesa top fields.
After over 400 years, however, the land here could no longer support its people.
A severe drought also meant that the life-sustaining crops could no longer be grown. By 1550, the Ancestral Pueblo people moved from this area to pueblos along the Rio Grande. (Source: NPS)
You Can Explore The Land Of The Ancient Pueblo People
At Bandelier National Monument you’ll find evidence of a human presence here going back over 11,000 years.
This includes petroglyphs, dwellings carved into the soft rock cliffs, and standing masonry walls. I recommend beginning your exploration of Bandelier with a walk on the Main Loop Trail.
It’s a short 1.4 mile loop trail that starts from the Visitor Center and leads through excavated archeological sites on the floor of Frijoles Canyon.
There are other fascinating trails including the 3 mile round-trip Falls Trail which goes to the gorgeous Upper Falls.
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#3. Santa Fe National Historic Trail
Coming in at #3 on our list of the best historic sites in New Mexico is the Santa Fe National Historic Trail.
Between 1821 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was a highway connecting Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The route was originally pioneered by Missouri trader William Becknell.
There were two major routes. Some used the Mountain Route, which offered more dependable water, but required an arduous trip over Raton Pass.
Others took the Cimarron Route. It was shorter and faster, but required knowledge of where the route’s scarce water supplies were located. It you ran out of water then you weren’t likely to survive the journey.
Now here’s an interesting fact. During the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Army actually followed the Santa Fe Trail westward to successfully invade Mexico. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended this war in 1848.
This historic trail became a national road connecting the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories.
Santa Fe Trail Today
Today the Santa Fe National Historic Trail extends between western Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Along the way, there are museums, historic sites, landmarks, and original trail segments located all along the length of this historic trail.
There’s a wonderful book filled with amazing stories about life on the legendary Santa Fe Trail. Written by David Dary, it’s titled The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore.
#2. Manhattan Project National Historical Park
We’re at #2 on our list of the best historic sites in New Mexico. We’re going from legendary trails to the nuclear age with the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
The Manhattan Project was the code name for the American-led effort to develop a functional atomic weapon during World War II.
The development of the atomic bomb brought together some of the world’s leading scientific minds, as well as the U.S. military. Most of the work was done at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
On July 16, 1945, the team of scientists led by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, in a remote desert location near Alamogordo, New Mexico, successfully detonated first atomic bomb.
This detonation created an enormous mushroom cloud some 40,000 feet high ushering in the Atomic Age. The explosive force was estimated to be equivalent to an 8.0 earthquake.
Things To Do At Los Alamos, New Mexico
You can learn about the Manhattan Project by visiting the park’s visitor center in the historic town of Los Alamos. From there you can hike desert trails, explore local museums, enjoy guided tours and visit historic sites within the community.
Tours of the Los Alamos and Trinity Sites are only offered at specific times of the year. The Los Alamos tours take visitors to historic buildings including Pond Cabin and a building that Nobel Laureate Emilio Segrè and his team used.
Visitors will also see Battleship Bunker, a building used for implosion diagnostic testing, and the Slotin Building where physicist Louis Slotin succumbed to a deadly radioactive accident.
Other Places In Los Alamos Accessible To The Public
There are other fascinating places where you can go in Los Alamos and these include:
- The Los Alamos Nature Center which gives you the chance to learn more about the incredible wildlife and natural history in this area.
- The Los Alamos History Museum. It’s located in downtown Los Alamos. There you can learn about the stories of the atomic secret city from multiple perspectives via indoor and outdoor venues, historic buildings, artifacts, documents, photographs, audio and video recordings of personal stories, and interactive visitor experiences.
- You can also go to the Bradbury Science Museum. There you’ll learn about the scientific history of Los Alamos and explore interactive exhibits.
- If you’re more interested in nature than science you can also hike the Kwage Mesa Trail where you’ll have a spectacular view of the canyons and mesas of the Pajarito Plateau.
The #1 Historic Site In New Mexico
#1. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Imagine a neighborhood that’s been around for thousands of years. You would need some very special dwellings to accomplish that. At #1 on our list of the best historic sites in New Mexico is the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.
For thousands of years, groups of nomadic people used the caves of the Gila River as temporary shelter. In the late 1200’s, people of the Mogollon Culture decided it would be a good place to call home.
These people built rooms, crafted pottery and raised children in the cliff dwellings for about twenty years. (Source: NPS)
What You Can See At Gila Today
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is the only national monument with Mogollon ruins. This the monument preserves the cliff dwellings where the Mogollon people built their homes, as well as the TJ Ruin – a small pueblo area that was inhabited between the years 900 and 1150.
These dwellings consist of five distinct caves, each of which contains about 40 rooms. To make the dwellings safer and more comfortable, the Mogollons used fallen rocks from nearby caves to construct some of these rooms, and also incorporated unique wall designs in strategic areas. (Source: NPS)
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Map Of Historic Sites In New Mexico
List Of Historic Sites In New Mexico
- Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
- Manhattan Project National Historical Park
- Santa Fe National Historic Trail
- Bandelier National Monument
- Chaco Culture National Historical Park
- Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
- Fort Union National Monument
- Petroglyph National Monument
- El Morro National Monument
- Capulin Volcano National Monument
About the Folks Behind More Than Just Park
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and a proud dad of these two wonderful guys who are hopelessly obsessed with the national parks. I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing articles for the More Than Just Parks website. I’m always on the hunt for topics where nature and history intersect so please feel free to share any ideas that you might have with me.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Meet The Parks Brothers
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We hope you’ll follow our journey through the parks and help us to keep them the incredible places that they are. If you’re interested in joining the adventure then sign up below!
To learn more about the difference between the various National Park Service designations check out our article that explains everything!
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