Photo by Irene Owsley
The best way to see the curves and contours of the Land of Enchantment is by foot.
By Jim O'Donnell
From the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge, the land falls away through craggy volcanic layers cut through over millennia by the great river below. A golden eagle sails past, searching the deep pools for fat trout. The eagles, along with dozens of species of hawk and falcon, nest along these sheer cliffs year-round.
New Mexico is home to 30 federally designated wilderness areas. These lands cover more than 1.5 million acres of the state. New Mexico is also blessed with millions more acres of wilderness, like the 250,000-acre Rio Grande del Norte National Monument north of Taos.
It's the wide-ranging terrains that shape the people, the history, the art, and the beliefs of New Mexicans. The cloud-topping peaks robed in spruce and pine, the crashing rivers buried deep in canyons, the short-grass prairie, the red dunes studded with giant yucca of the Chihuahuan Desert.
To truly understand New Mexico, dive into its land. All these diverse landscapes are laced with hiking trails of varying difficulty and distance, each one offering an incredible opportunity for adventure, enlightenment, and just plain fun.
White Sands Backcountry Trail, White Sands National Monument
Distance: 1.8 miles round-trip
Nearest Town: Ruidoso
Equal parts geological rarity and family-fun (don't miss sand sledding), White Sands is an iconic New Mexico destination. The White Sands Backcountry Trail leads you into the world's largest gypsum dunefield without taking you too far from the car (just follow the orange trail markers). Barefoot is the easiest way to move along this trail.
Frijoles Canyon, Bandelier National Monument
Distance: 8 miles
Nearest Town: Los Alamos
This landscape cradled some of the state's first people, who hunted and gathered here and later settled into the cliffs that edge the canyon now protected as Bandelier National Monument.
Dripping Springs Trail Complex, Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument
Distance: A variety of short trails — distances vary
Nearest Town: Las Cruces
The 500,000-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument outside of Las Cruces is one of the most ecologically diverse locations in the American Southwest and boasts amazing plant and wildlife.
Big Arsenic Trail, Rio Grande del Norte National Monument
Distance: 2.5 miles round-trip
Nearest Town: Questa
Granting Rio Grande views, this trail accesses a gorgeous cold-water spring and an array of dramatic ancient petroglyphs and is located within the Wild Rivers Recreation Area of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.
Gila Loop Trail, Gila Wilderness Area
Distance: 20-mile loop
Nearest Town: Silver City
Departing from the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, 45 miles north of Silver City, the Gila Loop Trail ascends one of the Gila River's three branches into a narrow canyon.
Lake Katherine, Pecos Wilderness Area
Distance: 13 miles round-trip
Nearest Town: Santa Fe
"The Pecos," as locals know it, is the region's most popular wilderness playground with hikes for every level and ample creeks for fishermen, too.
Looking for less guesswork? Join these guiding companies for an outing.
The YogiHiker, located in Santa Fe, offers two- to four-hour guided hikes into the mountains surrounding the City Different. These small group hikes combine hiking and yoga with a focus on natural sights and sounds.
Based in Santa Fe, Outspire Hiking offers guided hikes based on your interests and physical abilities. Guides are trained to provide a wide range of information about New Mexico's rich ecological, geological, and cultural history.
Santa Fe Mountain Adventures
In business since 2005, Santa Fe Mountain adventures leads guided hikes, mountain biking, four-wheel-drive tours, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing trips, as well as interpretive tours to ancient and modern cultural sites throughout north-central New Mexico.
Wild Earth Llama Adventures
Based in Taos, Wild Earth Llama Adventures offers environmental-education-based single- and multiday llama treks in some of the most remote wilderness areas of the state. Gourmet meals are available for certain hikes and are carried by the well-treated animals.
When he's not hiking, Jim O'Donnell is based in Taos, New Mexico, where he works as a freelance photographer and environmental journalist reporting on climate change resiliency.