Tourist looking at the ristras hanging in front of the store in Mesilla, New Mexico, via Grossinger /

6 Towns in New Mexico With Rich History

New Mexico, long called the "Land of Enchantment," is a modern state built on histories recent and ancient. The site of Native peoples for thousands of years, the territory — a former Spanish possession, a US territory since 1848, and state in the Union only since 1912 — has played host to missionaries, explorers, scientists, and truth-seekers about extraterrestrial lifeforms. The site of the nuclear tests that brought the world the atomic bomb, New Mexico's contributions to national and global history are as important as they are, sometimes, terrifying. For some travel inspiration and a deep sense of history, this state has it all. 


Fitch Hall, New Mexico Tech, Socorro, New Mexico
Fitch Hall, New Mexico Tech, Socorro, New Mexico, Wikimedia Commons

Socorro, population 8,400, takes its Spanish name from the story of its founding. In 1598, a Spanish mission crossing a patch of dry desert, and finding a group of Piro Native Americans who welcomed and nourished them, the Spanish named the spot Socorro — succor, or "help." The town marked the endpoint of the 90-mile trek from Las Cruces, which the Spanish called Jornada del Muerto: "Dead Man's Journey." The Jornada del Muerto Desert, outside town, makes up part of the historic Camino Real and remains nearly uninhabited today. 

Modern Socorro has developed as a result of more recent developments. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway ran near town. In 1945, tests for the nuclear bomb took place at the Trinity site nearby (see Los Alamos, below). The Owl Bar and Cafe, just south of town, used to serve nuclear workers, on whom the restaurant tested and perfected the now-famous recipe for its green chile cheeseburgers. For some time outdoors, head to the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, or the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, north and south of town. 

Los Alamos

Ashley Pond Park at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Ashley Pond Park at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The north-central town of Los Alamos, with 19,200 residents, traces its roots to World War II and the  nuclear arms race. The city played a leading part in the 2023 film "Oppenheimer," which details the "Manhattan Project," the project that built the original nuclear bomb. Once a closed city, Los Alamos now welcomes fans of science tothe Manhattan Project National Historical Park, Los Alamos History Museum, and the Bradley Science Museum. All of these sites show how Los Alamos hosted major, and deadly, advances in modern science and warfare.

For some time outside, head to the Valles Caldera Natural Preserve, one of the latest additions to the United States National Park network. The Bandelier National Monument provides inspiring views over the region's landscapes and canyons. 


Aztec Public Library in Aztec, New Mexico
Aztec Public Library in Aztec, New Mexico

Aztec, population 6,100, is home both a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national monument. The Aztec Ruins National Monument attracts 45,000 tourists each year. Once the home of the Pueblo tribe of Native Americans, Aztec's ancient buildings once held trade, ceremonies, and community events.

Aztec also supports more active adventures. For thrill-seekers, head out to the Aztec Speedway for car racing. The Animas River runs through town, with Hartman Park and Riverside Park on either side. Tiger Lake has an 18-hole disc golf course and the grounds to simply walk around, breath fresh air, and soak up the New Mexico sunshine. 


One of the many artisan shops in the historic town of Mesilla
One of the many artisan shops in the historic town of Mesilla, via Lynda McFaul /

Mesilla, a border town with a 1,800 souls, is one of New Mexico's most historically significant places. Following a years-long struggle for sovereignty between the United States and Mexico, the town came to be a permanent US settlement in 1853. The Civil War brought further troubles to the town, while Billy the Kid and other outlaws drifted through here.

And if Mesilla, northwest of El Paso, Texas, is calmer today, it has preserved elements of its multicultural spirit. The Mesilla Plaza, a site recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1961, begs for visitors and a photo or two. The town honors Cinco de Mayo, Mexico's Independence Day, with a festival each year. The Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park sits just west of town along the Rio Grande river. 

Silver City

Bullard Street in downtown Silver City, New Mexico.
Bullard Street in downtown Silver City, New Mexico. Image credit Underawesternsky via Shutterstock.

Silver City, a southwest town with 9,500 residents, derives its name from the area's mineral boom starting in the 1870s. Fortune-seekers swelled the local population, and some never left. Yet the town's settlement reaches much farther back, with Spanish and Apache presences in the town's valley location for centuries. 

Creative types and tourists will love Silver City's blend of art and architecture. The Silco Theater, erected in 1923, saw renovation recently, and has shown movies since 2016. Other old buildings stand mostly in the Chihuahua Hill Historic District. The town supports cultural events for Apache, other Native American, and Hispanic communities, with regular festivals including the Red Paint Pow Wow and the Chicano Music Festival. The Whiskey Creek Zocalo, a performance space and art center, opened in 2023. 


Roswell, New Mexico: Iconic city vista in summer at sunset
Roswell, New Mexico: Iconic city vista in summer at sunset via Alex Krassel /

Southeastern Roswell, with a larger population of 47,400, stands among the state's stranger towns. It may by a center for aerospace and agriculture, but the town's primary reputation stems from its association with unidentified flying objects (UFOs), which some scientists and many amateur theorists believe are piloted by extraterrestrial life forms. In 1947, what became known as the 'Roswell Incident' took place when an alien spacecraft allegedly crashed outside town. Roswell's alien-related tourism industry has blossomed since then. Fans and skeptics can learn more at the town's International UFO Museum and Research Center. 

For a break from town and its UFO enthusiasts, make for Bottomless Lakes State Park, or Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, both east of town. 

New Mexico Blends Histories Ancient and Modern 

As towns like these show, New Mexico has gathered all manner of people, and perhaps aliens, in its vast desert spaces. Its human history runs deep: once a habitation of Indigenous peoples, later settlers from Spain, the United States, and elsewhere have chosen to make the Land of Enchantment home. Towns like Socorro and Los Alamos bear witness to the fearsome advances of modern nuclear technology. Add to that a few theories about alien lifeforms traveling to the state via UFO, and New Mexico may have a broader appeal than our human minds had previously known. If the truth is out there, it is probably worth seeking on a visit to New Mexico. 

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