Describing New Mexico as the “Land of Enchantment” in 1906, Lillian Whiting captured the essence of the 47th state between Texas and Arizona. Sharing a border with Mexico, its mix of cultures is most evident in the hospitable small towns, like the common local events on Main Street and the Courtyard in Aztec.
With lots of love in the air, these towns extend their warmest welcome to guests through the charms of historic downtowns and sprawling landscapes with untapped enchantment. Red River features the Enchanted Forest with 20 miles of groomed trails through vivid verdancy, while Cloudcroft nestles in the middle of the Lincoln National Forest with mountain views, as well as Ruidoso, a wine destination at 7,000 feet in elevation, named after its noisy river.
Aztec, an ancient settlement with only recorded history since the summer of 1776, was established in the late 1800s. A trading post in its infancy and a town from 1887 in San Juan County, by 1890, the Aztec Town Company began dividing the 40 acres of land to form its official layout. With the first Anglo-settlers and so much planning in one little town, Aztec delights the eye amid agricultural and horticultural lands, unlike much of the Wild West. Many of the rivers and valleys were documented thanks to Don Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, a mapmaker, surveyor, and one of the explorers with Father Francisco Atanosio Dominquez and Father Francisco Velaz de Escalante’s search for a shorter trail route from Santa Fe to the missions in California. The Aztec Ruins National Monument and the town boast a proud name, thanks to Escalante’s misguided notion. The Anasazi people built the ruins in the San Juan Basin, which he thought were Aztec Indians.
Despite failing in the purpose of the mission, it provided a route for other explorers and early settlers. The unique names like Rio Florida, the River of Flowers, or Rio de Las Piedras—the River of the Stones—speak of beauty unique to the region, like music for the ears. Home to the Pueblo Native American tribe centuries ago, who hosted ceremonies, trade, and social gatherings in the area, the monument draws 45,000 annual tourists. Home to 6,100, Aztec welcomes the curious, historians, and sightseers for discoveries and unique architecture, much on the National Register of Historic Places, with common local events on Main Street and the Courtyard from modern culture. The unique Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness features petrified trees and stumps in strange and surreal stone shapes, giving the area a mystic vibe. Aztec Speedway offers thrilling races, while Tiger Pond, just east of downtown, offers a challenging 18-hole course for disc golf.
The town of 674, with its cool name, nestles in the middle of the Lincoln National Forest, which was established in 1902, and the mountains around. With hiking trails for every skill on all sides, locals and visitors have access to over 1 million acres of scrubby hills, cacti, and spruce through desert and subalpine regions, in lieu of the typical canyons and deserts. Providing a hideaway from the scorching summer sun rays, the various landscapes along the trails offer photo ops, fun scrambling, and leisure strolls, among the two main adventure trails into the wild. The family-friendly Osha Trail is an easier option overlooking mountains that feel a hand reach away, while the Rim Trail offers a longer, trying ascent to see the landscape in your palm, which is inaccessible from any other perspective.
May and October, the most popular months to visit Cloudcroft, offer a pleasant average high of around 71 degrees. Back in town, Western Bar and Café attracts adventurers and locals to gather, share, and listen to the stories of the other lifestyle in the Wild Old West atmosphere and joint food like dollar tacos, live country music, and karaoke nights. Enjoy a breakfast omelet, the best in the state, with dollar bills on the walls left and signed by customers from over 50 years ago to the present day. Down the pier, Cricklewood and Company, a family-owned organic candle and body shop, is perfect for tokens and souvenirs for friends in the fragrance-infused atmosphere of their handmade product. Think sage, citrus, and more, with treasures like jars, essential oils, incense, and Dead Sea bath salts.
Some 70 miles from Santa Fe, this small village in the valley has long roots, digging deep for over 4,000 years as a revered area to live and visit. The culprit? The hot springs, which native Anasazi thought sacred, were used for healing and spiritual purposes. The mineral waters attract crowds of wellness seekers, spiritualists, and those looking to rejuvenate at the hands of nature; among them are the many adventurers bound for the nearby Santa Fe National Forest surrounding Jemez Springs, while the by-running Jemez River gets its own mineral kick from the feeding geothermal springs. Highway 4 Coffee extends its warmest welcome as your first rest in town to get energized, with a variety of strong coffees and pastries, a menu of sandwiches and pizza to enjoy on a cute patio, and a final stop for gift chocolates and some homemade bread to bring with you.
Visitors can enjoy the natural spa in almost every style, with several private and public bathhouses, maybe only lacking the full-fledged services that stave off the resort vibe this town holds dear to heart. Just one, the popular Jemez Hot Springs (previously Giggling Springs), hosts a “mountain tropical” paradise vibe and offers therapeutic mineral pools, but that is more on the healing side than the aesthetic side. Remaining a humble town, Jemez Springs let nature do all the talking while enriching your visit with comfortable accommodations and delicious food you can enjoy in between dips and soaks to see if the folklore is true. Don’t miss Los Ojos Restaurant and Saloon on the Main for a Mexican-style bar and food since 1947 for hikers, spring visitors, and bikers. With an on-site gift shop, a pool table, and poker tournaments, it is popular among locals for regular rowdy entertainment events.
Red River, a small town with a big heart with a namesake river through it, is home to around 3,000 people within the picturesque Sangre de Cristo Mountains. With so much beauty around, it is no wonder that Red River happily welcomes visitors along the fruitful banks that have long been an inviting spot, hosting mining activity in the late 19th century. Quite surprisingly, the small town today is a spun-out winter resort community coming alive after the first snowfall with avid skiers. In the summer, the Enchanted Forest is not to be missed, spreading just three miles away and lovingly named after its 20 groomed miles of trails through vivid verdancy.
With the help of Red River natives and the contribution of the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame, locals enjoy great access to some of the best destination backcountry trails for skiing and snowshoeing, including designated ones for skiing with a friend—a four-legged one! The local mainstay tavern since the 1940s, Bull o’ The Woods Saloon, will fill you up on classic bar food with pool tables over live entertainment.
Named “noisy river” after a stream through this small town looking down from 7,000 feet, Ruidoso sits in the enviable Sacramento Mountains, with Sierra Blanca as its highest peak at over 12,000 feet in elevation. Built in 1914, its popular cabins are an attraction in themselves, dotting the meandering road alongside the snaking river. From the nearby Grindstone Lake for waterside recreation and hikes, though forested foothills, visitors can pack a picnic for the Two Rivers Fairy Trail and find skiing opportunities in winter. Ruidoso is also a regional destination for the tons of businesses in the Midtown shopping district, including a vibrant wine scene. Don’t miss its anchoring Noisy Water Winery, open since 2009, with award-winning wines and handmade cheeses, adorned with plaques and art decoration for a homegrown vibe.
Visitors can sample cheeses over some 50 varieties of dry, sweet red, and white wines, like Dwight’s White Wine, in honor of its favorite haunted ghost the workers have named Dwight. The beer fans will find Rio Grande Grill and Tap Room just down the road. Home to around 8,000 people, this alpine tourist town in the southeast of the state is favored for various watersports, wineries, and eateries, exuding warmth from the hearts of hospitable locals who are nature lovers and equestrians. In addition to the horse racing scene, Ruidoso offers a popular gambling industry and wholesome family fun at Pillow’s Funtrackers with mini golf, video games, and boats for go-kart racing.
Truth or Consequences
Boasting a steady population of 6,000, this town got its gourmet moniker from NBC radio host Ralph Edwards in the 1950s. During his “Truth or Consequences” program, he announced the show’s 10th anniversary would air from a place that would adopt the show’s title, which aired that year in then-Hot Springs on March 31. This town in the west of the state, with a tumbledown name often referred to as “T or C,” matches the local spirit with a unique sense of humor and quirks along the unique desertscape, while its intended destination for the ancient hot springs never waned. Today, visitors enjoy a leisure-inspired getaway for soaking and strolls through the culture-centered Las Palomas Plaza, an installation by the local artist, Shel Neymark.
This insanely Instagram-worthy spot in T or C’s old downtown features aesthetic fountains for free, dipping your feet into their famed mineral waters. Don’t miss the Passion Pie Café for fine java, hailed as one of the best in a homey yet eclectic atmosphere, Colorado-roasted coffee, and artworks by local artisans. Run by three environmentally conscious young ladies with its locally crafted tables that appeal to visitors so much, the cafe offers the same ones for sale. Decorate your own dining room and enjoy eating here with the cutlery made of sugarcane and coffee cups made from plant starch for minimal waste. Open since 1970 on the other side of town, Los Arcos Steakhouse is a surf-n-turf hotspot, or for anyone hungry post-adventures for hand-cut steaks, prime rib, lobster, fresh seafood, and chicken, as well as a delish green chili chicken soup.
With culture seeping in from all sides, enjoy the down-to-earth Old West vibes in Cloudcroft, a town nestled against over 1 million acres of atypical landscape of scrubby hills, cacti, and spruce through desert and subalpine regions. You will come upon the more common desertscape in Truth or Consequences, a truly one-of-a-kind town with hot springs, with its culture-centered Las Palomas Plaza, as well as the Enchanted Forest in Red River.
Jemez Springs, another naturally blessed town with mineral waters, lets nature do all the talking while you enjoy a leisurely escape for soaking and delicious food to charge up for adventures through the nearby Santa Fe National Forest.