VERMILION, DESERT LANDSCAPES. Mountain range after mountain range. For right now, forget Albuquerque and Santa Fe — New Mexico is home to tons of small, eclectic towns that get you closer to nature and closer to the authentic side of the Land of Enchantment. Pack the car, bring your camera, and get ready for something a lot of travelers don’t bother to experience. This list is just the beginning.
Cloudcroft (Otero County)
With a population of only 674, the small mountain town of Cloudcroft (northeast of Las Cruces) is smack dab in the middle of the Lincoln National Forest and surrounded by mountain ranges and hiking trails on all sides. Established in 1902, the forest proves New Mexico isn’t just canyons and desert — it spans over 1,000,000 acres of scrubby hills, cacti, and spruce, with everything from desert to subalpine regions.
Between May and October, temperatures in Cloudcroft only reach an average high of around 71 degrees, making the town a popular destination for hikers of all skill levels. Among many others (including plenty of shorter options), Cloudcroft is home to two main adventure trails that take the willing deep into nature: Osha Trail is an easier and family-friendly option with views overlooking the not-so-distant mountains. For the more experienced, Rim Trail offers a longer, more rigorous ascent to views of the landscape you won’t get anywhere else.
After all that hiking, tourists and locals alike tend to gravitate toward the Western Bar and Café, a local joint that lives up to its name — it’s as Western as you can get. Think dollar tacos, live country music, and karaoke nights. Folks around here say they have the best omelettes in the state. Inside, the walls are lined with dollar bills — signed and stapled to the interior by customers for over 50 years. The place is cash-only, and no, you can’t just borrow a few bills from the ceiling to cover your tab.
For your token souvenir, a rock’s throw down the pier from the Western Bar is Cricklewood and Company, a family-owned organic candle and body shop that sells handmade products. Step inside and you’ll be greeted with fragrances from sage to citrus. The walls here are lined with treasures, too: jars, essential oils, incense, and Dead Sea bath salts.
Tucumcari (Quay County)
Before its settlement and official naming in 1908, Tucumcari was originally called Douglas — but nicknamed “Six Shooter Siding” as a result of its infamous rowdy gunfights. Historic Route 66 runs through the heart of the town, and tourism was a booming industry in the heyday of the great American road trip. Maybe that’s why this town of 5,000, 175 miles east of Albuquerque and 50 miles from the Texas border, used to boast it had 2,000 motel rooms.
Travelers venturing east from central New Mexico won’t see too much else in this part of the state, making Tucumcari a logical stop on the long stretch of I-40. Running down Main Street is the town’s most popular attraction: painted murals that capture the unique history of Tucumcari. Houses, posts, and many restaurants are adorned with giant murals; some have a definite Route 66 theme, others reflect the long, long, long history of the area itself. To see it in action, visit the old Odeon Theatre. It was built in the ’30s and still screens movies today.
When the hunger sets in, hit up Watson’s BBQ for some New Mexican-style brisket, pulled pork, ribs, and just about any other meaty delicacy you can imagine. In a strange and fortunate turn of events, they even have a donut menu for the attached bakery (presumably when brisket doesn’t sound good for breakfast).
Red River (Taos County)
Set in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and named after the stream that runs through town, Red River was once a mining town with a population of around 3,000, back when mining reached its peak in the late 19th century. Today, it’s a winter resort community that comes most alive with ski tourism in the winter months.
Looking to explore? Three miles east of town is a wooded area named for its 20 or so miles of groomed trails, lovingly deemed “The Enchanted Forest.” Founded by John and Judy Miller, Red River natives and members of the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame, this place has open access to miles of backcountry trails for skiing and snowshoeing — some even designated for skiing with your dog.
For an apres meal, check out the Bull o’ The Woods Saloon, a tavern with classic bar food, pool tables, and live entertainment. This place has been a mainstay in town since the 1940s — and you’ll see why. There’s not much more you could ask for in a small-town bar. For a deeper look into the creative history of the town, the Red River Gallery of Fine Arts is worth a stop for the classic Western paintings — think plenty of horses, gorgeous New Mexico landscapes, and cowboys.
Jemez Springs (Sandoval County)
Just 70 miles from Santa Fe, the small village of Jemez Springs sits in a valley that’s been inhabited for a long (really long!) time, likely more than 4,000 years. It’s thought that people have been coming to this area for so many years for the same reason people visit today: mineral hot springs.
The village is located within Santa Fe National Forest, and the Jemez River runs nearby, where geothermal springs feed the stream. It’s said the native people of the area, the Anasazi, considered the hot mineral waters sacred and used them for healing and spiritual purposes. Today, the village has several private and public bathhouses for those looking to try it out and see if the folklore still rings true. One of the most popular is Giggling Springs, a resort that hails itself as a “mountain tropical” paradise, complete with therapeutic mineral pools.
Down the main street of Jemez Springs is the Los Ojos Restaurant and Saloon, a Mexican-style bar that’s served hikers, springs visitors, bikers, locals, and freshly soaked hot-spring-goers since 1947 (you’ll notice most establishments come from around this time period). The saloon includes a gift shop, pool, and poker tournaments, and hosts a variety of rowdy entertainment events every month.
For a quick stop for treats on your way out of or into town, Highway 4 Coffee has a variety of strong coffees, chocolates, pastries, and homemade breads. And if you’re looking for lunch, they’ve got sandwiches and pizza, among other items, and a cute patio to enjoy them on.
Silver City (Grant County)
Both an old Apache campsite and the stomping grounds of the Spaniards in the 1600s, Silver City got its start thanks to copper mining. But after the Civil War and movement of American industrialists into the area, the settlement of the town really took off with the discovery of silver mineral deposits. Now home to hot-spot eateries, historical sites, and cliff dwellings, Silver City is a flourishing community of 10,000 residents in the southwestern corner of New Mexico.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings, some of the coolest archaeological finds in the country, are just 45 miles from town. In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt designated the well-maintained area of dwellings as one of the country’s first national monuments. The short “Trail to the Past” hike leads to a carved-out dwelling etched with ancient pictographs, and a small visitor center features artifacts recovered from the site. But the real highlight? A short (but steep!) one-mile trail leads to five caves that house 46 different rooms made of a type of volcanic rock called rhyolite.
Once back in civilization, head to Bullard Street to find the Jumping Cactus — a relaxed, homey coffeehouse with exposed brick walls that sometimes has local bands playing in the corner. With honey-almond scones, Vietnamese iced coffee, and gluten-free muffins, you’ll definitely find something to snack on while you soak up the scene.
Truth or Consequences (Sierra County)
With a steady population of around 6,000 (at least for the last few decades), this timeworn desert town with an unforgettable name is in the western part of New Mexico. Originally called Hot Springs, it got its current moniker from NBC radio host Ralph Edwards in the 1950s. Edwards’ “Truth or Consequences” program announced that it would air on the show’s 10th anniversary from the first town to rename itself after the show. And on March 31, 1950, the Hot Springs heading was forever changed, because — why not?
Truth or Consequences, commonly referred to as “T or C,” appears tattered and tumbledown at first glance, but is home to many ancient hot springs and the Las Palomas Plaza. Created by local artist Shel Neymark in 2003, the plaza is a popular — and Insta-worthy — destination in T or C’s old downtown. The fountains aren’t just for aesthetics, either — feel free to dip your feet in and try out their famed mineral waters.
Once your toes get wrinkled beyond recognition, it’s time for some grub. The Passion Pie Café, hailed as one of the best local eateries, is a homey spot with an eclectic atmosphere, featuring Colorado-roasted coffee and housing artworks from local artisans — even the tables are crafted by local makers (and are for sale). The three young women who run the place have eco-friendly aims, using cutlery made of sugarcane and coffee cups made from plant starch, and making a solid effort to compost as much waste as they can. Across town, Los Arcos Steakhouse has been serving T or C since 1970 with hand-cut steaks, prime rib, lobster, fresh seafood, and chicken. Local tip: Try the green chile chicken soup.
Ruidoso (Lincoln County)
Sitting high at 7,000 feet in the Sacramento Mountains is Ruidoso, a city named after the small stream that runs through it: Rio Ruidoso or “noisy river.” The first Ruidoso cabins, a popular attraction today, were built in 1914 and can be visited with a drive north up a meandering road that runs alongside the equally meandering river.
Set in the southeast region of New Mexico and with a population of around 8,000, this alpine tourist town features tons of businesses worth a stop in its Midtown shopping district. One, Noisy Water Winery, has been an anchor in the area since 2009, offering award-winning wines and handmade cheeses. Adorned with said awards and decorative artworks, Noisy Water’s tasting rooms know how it’s done — you can sample cheeses and roughly 50 varieties of dry, sweet red, and white wines. Bonus: Some say winery workers claim the shop to be haunted by a ghost they’ve named Dwight, for whom Dwight’s White Wine is named.
Just down the road stands the Rio Grande Grill and Tap Room, which is connected to the Sierra Blanca Brewery and pours a wide range of beers. With appetizers called “Angels in Paradise,” Rio Grande delivers delicious, classic pub food to keep you going on your New Mexico road trip.