The World's Largest Pistachio in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Editorial credit: Kristi Blokhin /

7 Best Small Towns In New Mexico For Outdoor Enthusiasts

New Mexico, a part of the United States since 1912, is, for many, the essence of the American Southwest. Its Native American heritage sites have earned recognition and protection from US and international bodies. For outdoor adventure types, the state's eighteen parks and myriad points of natural interest put it on par with the best outdoor offerings in North America. As these small towns show, some of the state's finest scenery, hiking, biking, and fresh air are away from larger cities like Albuquerque and the capital, Santa Fe, and in around these charming towns. These destinations are ideal for outdoor enthusiasts and might just inspire your next trip into the wild, beautiful New Mexico. 


The empty amphitheater at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.
The amphitheater at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. 

Carlsbad, with a population of around 31,600, sits above the US-Mexico border. It serves as a historic, convenient base for all kinds of outdoor pursuits. The town's most obvious draw is Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a 20-mile drive to the town's southwest. The site has a "show cave," open for visitors, which displays the underground wonders developing over eons. Visitors can approach the cave via elevator — or take the adventurous option, hiking into the cave's natural entrance. The park boasts a pair of listings on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Other outdoor visit options include Lincoln National Forest and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a short drive into neighboring Texas. The colorfully named Brokeoff Mountains Wilderness Study Area offers next-level adventure and camping, with unmarked hiking trails, caves to explore, and rugged southwest scenery. Elk spend the winter here, as do various birds of prey, not to mention plants like agaves, cacti, creosote bush, soaptree yuccas, and pines. 


Two people walking on white sand dunes in distance. White Sands National Park. Alamogordo. New Mexico.
White Sands National Park. Alamogordo. New Mexico.

Alamogordo also offers various outdoorsy options. Sitting to the north of El Paso, Texas, the town of around 31,300 residents lies just northeast of White Sands National Park, whose snow-white sands bring to mind salt flats or Saharan landscapes more than southwest scrub. If bad weather keeps you inside, head to the New Mexico Museum of Space History, with diverse displays on the science and history of US space exploration.

Another, more eccentric time out of doors comes from Alamogordo's best-loved public sculpture. Heading in or out of Alamogordo on Highway 54, seek out the thirty-foot wonder that is "The World's Largest Pistachio." It looks, well, like a huge green nut. It sits at the entrance of McGuinn's PistachioLand, an orchard and winery. 


Chimayo, New Mexico.
Chimayo, New Mexico.

The north-central Chimayo is located in north-central New Mexico at an elevation of almost 6,100 feet above sea level. The town, with only around 3,200 residents, lies within the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a sub-range of the Rockies; hiking and other outdoor pastimes are a way of life here. Some of New Mexico's highest peaks lie east of town. Other options include nearby Santa Fe National Forest.

The town also has outsized status as a pilgrimage site for Catholics and other religious seekers. The town's name derives from the term "Tsi Mayoh," which is the name of a nearby hill in the Tewa Native American language. Tradition says that dirt from inside El Santuario de Chimayo, a Catholic chapel, harbors supernatural health benefits. The site draws up to 300,000 Catholic pilgrims annually. 


Taos Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico.
Taos Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico.

Taos, a north-central town with 6,400 people, offers wildly creative versions of New Mexico's cultural richness. The town boasts the Taos Pueblo, a former Native American community site with traditional adobe constructions. The site has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992. Fans of more modern creativity should carve out time for the Taos Art Museum at Fechim House or, alternatively, the Harwood Museum of Art. 

Nature fans should go to the Sangre de Cristo mountains to Taos' east or Carson National Forest to the northeast. Wheeler Peak and Gold Hill, both favorites among hikers, sit on either side of Taos Ski Valley, with enough winter snow for ski and snowboard enthusiasts. 


Aerial view of Raton, New Mexico.
Aerial view of Raton, New Mexico.

In New Mexico's northeast corner, just over the line from Colorado, the small town of Raton, with 6,000 inhabitants, makes for a quieter, naturally beautiful place to visit. Its rugged environment has been traveled for centuries, from the times when Native Americans and Spanish explorers cut through Raton Pass. A mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail likewise passes through town. 

Raton is an obvious choice for fresh-air fans, even with modest amounts of energy. Parks include the downtown Romero Park and Roundhouse Memorial Park. For outdoor fun with a little more intensity, Lake Maloya and Alice Lake offer horseback riding, fishing, mountain biking, and hiking. Other nearby sites, like Bartlett Mesa and Johnson Mesa, rank among the state's most attractive scenery. 


Old Town Mesilla Village Square.
Old Town Mesilla Village Square. Editorial credit: EndeavorMoorePhotography /

Mesilla punches above its weight as one of New Mexico's most historically important towns. After a tumultuous period of sovereignty disputes between Mexico and the United States, Mesilla in 1853 became a US settlement for good. Mesilla today gives the modern outdoors-seeker interesting choices. Downtown parks include La Llorona Park as well as Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, which takes in a section of the Rio Grande River. White Sands National Park lies east of town. For culture, the Mesilla Plaza is a famous local town center, recognized as a National Historic Landmark from 1961. The town, with a modest population of around 1,800 people, comes alive during its annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations, the day of Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821.


Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico
Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico.

Aztec, with a population of around 6,100, lies in New Mexico's northwest, near Colorado. The town's Aztec Ruins National Monument, a former center of Pueblo tribal life, now welcomes approximately 45,000 tourists every year. For the outdoorsy type, natural attractions in Aztec abound. Try the Bisti / De-Na-Zin Wilderness, a unique site where petrified trees have turned into surreal shapes of stone. East of town, Navajo Lake State Park gives the visitor all the water, sun, fishing, and boating they could ask for. The nearby San Juan River is said to be a world-class fly-fishing spot. Serious adrenaline junkies may prefer a visit at the Aztec Speedway for thrilling car racing.

New Mexico's Small Towns Are Outdoors Wonderlands

As these small towns prove, New Mexico is a well-loved outdoor destination for those in the know. It offers hiking, snowboarding, wilderness preserves, and local adventures. Its many national parks and its cultural destinations that show how past civilizations lived in and with nature have much to teach the adventurous visitor. The state's geography reflects Spanish history, with names like the Sangre de Cristo mountains, Mesilla Plaza, and the San Juan River. Cultural sites like those in Taos and Chimayo provide a diverse menu of active lifestyle points of interest. Add to that a giant pistachio or two, and New Mexico's outdoor charms may inspire a visit to remember in 2024.  

  1. Home
  2. Places
  3. Cities
  4. 7 Best Small Towns In New Mexico For Outdoor Enthusiasts

More in Places