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From the rugged mountains to the giant forests to the vast desert, New Mexico truly is the Land of Enchantment and home to an exceptional variety of activities throughout the state. Best of all, you don’t need a passport to visit — one of the most common misconceptions about the state.
I lived in Alamogordo, N.M., while stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in the 1983. After I was discharged, we moved to Las Cruces while I operated an event photography business. I fell in love with New Mexico and the Las Cruces area. The weather is exceptional year round, the scenery is hard to beat.
Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico behind Albuquerque, is home to just over 100,000 people thanks in part to hosting New Mexico State University. That gives the city a unique southwestern culture. However, the surrounding area offers several popular attractions all within easy driving distance.
Nestled under the sharp landscape of the Organ Mountains to the east, the Mesilla Valley is situated along the banks of the legendary Rio Grande river where some of the nation’s spiciest and scrumptious chilis are grown a few miles north of Las Cruces in the town of Hatch, which calls itself the Chili Capital of the World.
The Hatch Valley Chili Festival takes place in early September and visitors can taste delicacies that range from hot to scalding to molten lava. For a fun souvenir, pick up a chili ristras, which are rumored to bring extra good health when hung outside a house — or RV. www.hatchchilefest.com
Founded in 1848, the city has a rich history with American Indian tribes and Spanish conquistadors claiming the area as their own. Billy the Kid, a famous American outlaw, was sentenced to death just outside of the city in a town called Old Mesilla. The courtroom and jail that held him are still standing. www.oldmesilla.org
A quaint little community, Old Mesilla is home to dozens of art galleries and souvenir stores. The town square is the site of the very last stop on the Butterfield stage coach line. In fact, the building that served weary travelers back then is still standing. Today, La Posta de Mesilla is a 10,000-square-foot restaurant serves some of the best, most authentic Mexican food in the region. www.laposta-de-mesilla.com
Las Cruces is home to some of the largest dairy farms in America where they’re milking thousands of cows twice a day. If agriculture is of interest to you, be sure to check out the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum. The 47-acre site consists of 24,000-square feet of exhibit space, including a working farm where people can see cows being milked and a blacksmith tending to his duties. Admission is just $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and $2 for kids age 5 to 17. www.nmfarmandranchmuseum.org
Live the life of a real cowboy by taking the family on a horseback trail ride. Located just west of Las Cruces, the Corralitos Ranch encompasses more than 1,000 square miles of land that includes a working ranch and the ruins of old settlements, mines and forts. There are also a few historical sites accessible only by horseback. Guided two-hour trips are available to groups of six or less. Riders must be at least 10 years old and weigh less than 250 pounds. www.corralitostrailrides.com
Not only is New Mexico State University a vibrant educational center with a plethora of ongoing cultural, social and athletic events, it is home of the Zuhl Collection, which is part art gallery and part natural history museum. Sponsored by Herb and Joan Zuhl, New York business people who made their living collecting fossils, minerals and rocks, they retired to New Mexico and donated more than 2,000 of their best exhibits to the university. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, admission is free. www.zuhlmuseum.nmsu.edu
Who says you have to go all the way to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., to enjoy a glimpse of modern American history? Art Obscura is an art and collectables superstore. People can view — and buy — everything from southwestern art to handmade turquoise jewelry to collectable antiques. It’s a pawn shop on steroids without the shady characters. www.artobscuragallery.com
While touring historic downtown Las Cruces, be sure to stop in the Amaro Winery. Established just a few years ago, it has become a favorite stop among wine connoisseurs. All the grapes are grown in the fertile lands of southern New Mexico. The same soil that produces mouth-watering chilis also nurtures fine wine. www.amarowinerynm.com
Military buffs will enjoy touring the White Sands Missile Range Museum, located about 25 miles east of Las Cruces. Featuring more than 50 different missiles and rockets tested at the top secret facility over the years, the museum is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Admission is free. www.wsmr-history.org/
About 30 miles further east, you’ll arrive at White Sands National Monument which features 275 square miles of giant pure white gypsum sand dunes. Kids will have a blast rolling or sliding down the dunes. For a truly special experience, look to see when the park hosts its full moon nights and no moon nights. Both are memorable experiences. www.nps.gov/whsa
During full moon night, it’s customary to pack a picnic dinner and hike over a dune or two to find a quiet, secluded spot to watch the sun set behind the Organ Mountains in spectacular color. Then, turn around and wait as a giant orange moon appears to rise over the Sacramento Mountains to the east. Very romantic! On no moon nights, rangers host a special stargazing event where the brilliant unobstructed night sky comes alive. Yes, you can even see satellites passing overhead.
Las Cruces’ neighbor to the south, historic El Paso, Texas, is just 45 minutes south and features its own assortment of fun activities including a casino. museums, historic monuments and a zoo. It’s a fun and scenic day trip, especially the scenic route that goes around the southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains for fabulous views of El Paso and neighboring Juarez, Mexico.
Another scenic route is the Woodrow Bean Transmountain Road that connects east El Paso to the west. In nearby Franklin Mountains State Park, visitors can enjoy breathtaking scenic views aboard the Wyler Aerial Tramway, an enclosed gondola that makes a four-minute trip to Ranger Peak. There, you’ll have an eagle’s view of 7,000 square miles of land that encompasses three states and two nations. There are no entrance fees to the state park, but tram rides cost $8 for adults and $4 for kids age 13 and older. tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/wyler-aerial-tramway
To experience a completely different culture, it’s possible to walk across the bridge into Juarez, Mexico, where you’ll encounter a bustling market offering thousands of handmade items from colorful blankets to hand-carved wood decorations and beaded jewelry. Unfortunately, Juarez is one of the most violent cities in Mexico, so be sure to stay in groups and in well-traveled areas
It is not recommended that you drive a car into Juarez, but if you walk over and stay within a few blocks of the border entrance, it should be a safe and memorable way to experience a foreign culture.
There are several RV parks in Las Cruces. I have stayed at Hacienda RV Resort and Las Cruces KOA. Both were excellent parks.
Hacienda RV Resort — Located right off the interstate near New Mexico State University, the RV resort offers first-class accommodations, including fast high-speed Internet and paved sites. www.haciendarv.com
Las Cruces KOA — Ideal for families with children, this campground is known for its spectacular views of the Mesilla Valley. www.koa.com/campgrounds/las-cruces/
Sunny Acres RV Park — Situated within a mile of downtown Las Cruces, this park caters to adults, although children are also welcome as visitors. www.sunnyacresrv.com/