Photos clockwise from bottom left: Joanne, Mark Stephenson, Joshua Bousel, Angel Schatz

It’s impossible to avoid aliens when you visit Roswell, New Mexico. Bakeries, music stores, even financial services have little green men painted on their storefronts. Alien heads appear everywhere, even on street lamps. And the phrase “out of this world” is used in just about every advertisement.

But this town of 50,000 in southern New Mexico is more than just spaceships and quaintly stylized Martians. If you can see past the UFO-shaped playground at McDonald’s, you’ll find an unexpectedly diverse range of activities.

1. Go to the beach.

Yes, Roswell lies at the edge of the Chihuahua Desert, but just east of town you can find Bottomless Lakes State Park, the oldest state park in New Mexico. This chain of eight lakes is actually a group of subterranean caverns that caved in and filled up with water. You can camp, hike, and mountain bike. There is a beach at Lea Lake, the largest, where you can go swimming, scuba diving, and paddle boating. Despite their names, the lakes range from 17 to 90 feet deep. Bring a hat and your SPF 700.

2. Answer the State Question.

New Mexico is the first state to adopt a “State Question,” and not since the Team Edward / Team Jacob debate has there been a more burning decision: red or green? The question, of course, refers to whether the green or red chili pepper is best. Fortunately, coming up with an answer can be the best part of your New Mexico visit. Chances are good that everything you order will have green chilies on it. (Seriously, you have to convince the carhop at Sonic that you don’t want chilies on your cheeseburger. She’ll have to talk to the manager first.)

A good place to taste test New Mexican cuisine is Martin’s Capitol Grille downtown on 4th street. I’m a sucker for the chile rellenos, but if you’re going to do a red-or-green taste test, try the enchiladas.

3. Hunt dragons.

With its harsh desert environment, you might not think of New Mexico as a place to find dragonflies. But one of North America’s most diverse populations of dragonflies and damselflies can be found just 10 miles north of Roswell at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This 24,000-acre refuge lies where the Chihuahua Desert meets the southern plains. The Pecos River runs through the eastern side of the preserve, attracting a wealth of biodiversity, including over 100 species of dragonflies.

Try to go in the morning (it opens at 8am) to avoid the oppressive heat. You can wander on your own or take an organized tour.

4. Stargaze.

If you’re brave enough to risk alien abduction, stay up late and plan to be amazed. New Mexico is one of the best places in the world to be amazed by the night sky. A low population density means little light pollution, which in turn makes stargazing (and UFO sightings) pretty epic. Try to plan your visit during a new moon — like everything else in the sky, the moon can be bright and will detract from the billions of stars otherwise visible.

If the weather or your schedule doesn’t allow you to watch the stars the old-fashioned way, stop by the Roswell Goddard Planetarium next to the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

5. Get cultured.

The Roswell Museum and Art Center is a free (donations accepted) museum that features artists from across the southwest. Don’t miss the watercolor sketches of 1880s Pueblo Indian life by Peter Moran or regional artists Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd, who focus on the landscape and people of Hondo Valley. And bring some money — the museum is free, but the gift shop is the bomb.

6. Taste the local vintage.

The Pecos Flavors Winery is a tasting room and gift shop featuring drinks and food from southern New Mexico. They feature over a dozen New Mexico winemakers and five different local breweries. The décor is decidedly southern New Mexico ranch-style, with a 100-year-old bar from Hondo Valley.

Like almost everywhere else in Roswell, aliens play a big role in selling products. I can’t vouch for the taste, but Alien Ale and Galactic Vino make great souvenir gifts. There’s live music here on the weekends, too.

7. Submit to the little green men.

If all the alien-themed signage wears you down and you give in to visiting the International UFO Museum and Research Center, there are some things you should know:

  • This was put together with the blood, sweat, time, and dedication of volunteers who are true believers.
  • This is not the Smithsonian.
  • It will be hard to spend much time in here if you don’t read English well, don’t like to read at all, or have impatient children tugging at you. Ninety-nine percent of the exhibits are documents.
  • Those documents are framed and hung on pegboard, making it look a little like the inside of your grandfather’s garage. Again, not the Smithsonian.
  • The two exhibits that aren’t hung on pegboard are a group of animatronic aliens and a life-size alien autopsy diorama. The former is entertaining for about 45 seconds. The latter will freak out small children.
  • The gift shop is decidedly the most visually interesting part, but it’s the only place where you can’t take pictures.
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