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The Best Cold-Weather Hiking in New Mexico

New Mexico National Parks Hiking
by Noelle Alejandra Salmi Oct 26, 2020

When the weather is cold but you still want to get outdoors, one of the best places to do that is New Mexico. The state, already ideal for a winter road trip, is a place where you can ski one day and hike the next. More notably, New Mexico’s landscapes combine stunning natural beauty, including one of the country’s newest national parks, and rich, historical Indigenous treasures. Just know that this land remains sacred to many Native peoples, so treat it with respect.

But do visit, since your showing up lets decision-makers know that this land should be protected. In fall and winter, here are our favorite New Mexico hiking destinations. Just note that New Mexico is arid and its high elevations make the air dryer still. Always carry plenty of water, even when the temperatures feel comfortably cool.

1. Organ Mountains

Hiking in New Mexico at the Organ Mountains

Photo: JB Manning/Shutterstock

The Organ Mountains are a stunning range of rust-tinted peaks in a region of the state that is almost too hot to visit in the summer. The nearby city of Las Cruces, where you can base yourself, is a fantastic place for a weekend visit, with a friendly vibe, local art, and zesty New Mexican cuisine flavored with the area’s inimitable green chilis.

But with average high temperatures from May to September in the high 80s to high 90s, fall and winter are the ideal seasons to explore the area. Just 25 minutes from Las Cruces is the Dripping Springs Natural Area in the Organ foothills. The area’s namesake trail is an easy three-mile hike through desert brush. You may spot desert mule deer, coyotes, and rock squirrels on the ground, while overhead, red-tailed hawks are some of the many species acclimated to the high-altitude desert. Alternatively, on the northern side of the Organ range, 35 minutes from Las Cruces, the Pine Tree Trail is a four-mile loop that takes you up 1,000 feet and offers stunning vistas. In fall, you’ll see the changing leaves of the mesquite trees.

2. White Sands National Park

A person hiking White Sands National Park in New Mexico

Photo: sunsinger/Shutterstock

Also close to Las Cruces is White Sands, which became a national park at the end of 2019. Even with its (relatively) new national park status, it’s still a wonderful place to enjoy with your dog — as long as you keep your animal companion on a leash. One of the most popular trails here is the Alkali Flat Trail, which crosses through the incredible dunes made of gypsum, a soft mineral the color of chalk. Although the hike is only five miles roundtrip, it is not actually flat, and walking on the dunes is a taxing exercise.

In fact, the exertion of walking on dunes, the absence of shade, and the incredibly dry air make hiking in hot weather a high-risk endeavor. And from late spring to September, average highs here range from the upper 80s to upper 90s — which means that late fall through early spring is the ideal time to visit. Even in winter, the dunes gleam white in the sunshine. And don’t worry about the overnight freezing temperatures as the dry air makes for big temperature changes, and you’ll find fall and winter days highs reach comfortably into the upper 50s and 60s.

3. Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico

Photo: Traveller70/Shutterstock

The Bandelier National Monument is best known for its ancestral Pueblo ruins, which date back nearly a millennium — with ladders that take you into kiva caves and petroglyphs showing everything from animals and bolts of lightning to more mysterious artistic symbols. Take in these ancient relics on the one-and-a-half-mile Tsankawi Trail. Beyond the fascinating ruins you will find here, the 30,000-acre Bandelier area has over 70 miles of trails, many of which are accessible in the colder months. However, the Cerro Grande trail, a four-and-a-half-mile loop that takes you 1,200 feet up through conifers to the highest point in the park at over 10,000 feet, is probably best attempted before the snow falls — unless you have appropriate snow-ready hiking gear and poles.

4. Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico

Photo: Jeffrey M. Frank/Shutterstock

Another place to take in New Mexico’s centuries-old cultural wealth is in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to Chacoan Great Houses that date back 900 years. The most popular hike in the area is the Pueblo Alto hike, which takes you from Kin Klesto, one of the best-preserved Great Houses, up three miles and 345 feet to the Pueblo Alto ruins on the north side of Chaco Canyon. The views from there, at nearly 6,500 feet, to the canyon’s southern wall and its western expanse are as impressive as the ruins themselves, which as of yet have not been completely excavated. For a longer hike try the Penasco Blanco Ruins Trail, a seven-mile loop that’s flat most of the way until the gentle upwards slope at the end. There, you’ll be rewarded with distinct petroglyphs of such celestial objects as the crescent moon and a dazzlingly bright star. Note that the Chaco area is still home to Navajo and Pueblo peoples and is under threat as the Bureau of Land Management leases this land to extractive industries. Your thoughtful appreciation of this land goes a long way to validating its preservation.

5. Rio Grande Gorge

Rio Grande gorge near Taos New Mexico

Photo: karengesweinphotography/Shutterstock

While only a fifth of the size of the Grand Canyon, the 50-mile long Rio Grande Gorge is still a sight to behold. The best way to do that is to start at the Wild Rivers Recreation Area and hike down the Wilder Rivers Backcountry Byway. You’ll reach the river and head back up, for a seven-mile loop, shaded in parts by juniper and ponderosa pines and able to peruse helpful signage about the river and history of the gorge.

This area is about 7,500 feet above sea level, and you may get snow in December, so it’s best hiked in late fall and early spring. If you don’t mind a little snow, then consider stopping there on your way to a ski trip in Taos and hiking along the upper rim of the canyon. Often Taos, the base of which is at a whopping 9,200 feet, will have fresh snow while the hikable regions below are simply sprinkled in a snowy dusting that simply makes the area that much more magical.

6. City of Rocks State Park

City of Rocks State Park, NM

Photo: Fotoluminate LLC/Shutterstock

When you first lay your eyes on the City of Rocks, you may believe that you are catching sight of yet another impressive, age-old manmade creation. You would be correct, except for the manmade part. Like the ruins at Bandolier or Chaco, the structures to be found in this state park nearly 90 miles east of Las Cruces will command your wonder and attention. Yet these particular designs were created by erosion in the 35 million years since a volcanic eruption filled the area with molten lava. What you see today are towering pinnacles and monoliths reaching as high as four-story buildings. This out-of-the-way park is too hot to visit in summer but is the ideal place for meandering hikes in the cooler months. Just make sure you give yourself plenty of time to explore in December as the sun here sets just past 5 PM in mid-December — and then things get chilly.

7. El Malpais National Monument

Stone structures in New Mexico's El Malpais National Monument

Photo: Lucas Townsend/Shutterstock

El Malpais National Monument offers everything from sandstone cliffs and grasslands to forests and sweeping vistas from its higher elevations. A challenging trek is the Zuni-Acoma Trail, which takes you seven miles in one direction over fields of black lava rock and sagebrush along an ancient pathway traveled by the area’s Zuni and Acoma peoples for a thousand years. Depending on where you are, the trail may also be called the Acoma-Zuni Trail.

This trail traverses part of the 3,100-mile-long Continental Divide Scenic Trail that stretches across the Rocky Mountains from the country’s northern and southern borders. It’s a lovely walking route that sees few hikers, but it’s easy to get lost and there’s no cell coverage here. Only consider it if you are an expert hiker and remember to always inform someone of your plans before you depart.

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