Planning to visit New Mexico? There are a lot of things to do and places to explore, but a lack of human settlements makes preparedness crucial to having a pleasant, relaxing experience, rather than a harrowing ordeal. It is common for locals to carry a variety of useful gear in their car, which in some cases can begin to resemble hoarder behavior, but there are legitimate reasons for most items. For example, carrying an axe in your trunk probably has more to do with a need for firewood than homicidal tendencies.
In an effort to ensure that visitors enjoy their travels in the Land of Enchantment, I compiled a list of useful tips with a lot of valuable input from locals who follow New Mexico Nomad online. Without further ado, here’s a breakdown of advice to visitors from locals…
There is nothing like coming to a region known for drought to make you appreciate the importance of water. When wandering far from a city or town, take a lot of water. Buy a cooler. Carry more in your backpack than you think you will need. Yes, it is heavy. Carry extra anyway. Purchase a micro filter if you will be near a body of water. They are cheap.
It is challenging to gauge hydration in New Mexico. It is so dry that your perspiration dissipates. When active, you may not realize how much water you are losing. Heatstroke is common. Combined with the high altitude sickness frequently experienced by those from sea level, it may take newcomers a couple of days to acclimate to the climate and altitude transition. Symptoms of altitude sickness include headache, nausea, shortness of breath and inability to exercise.
Keep the gas tank full.
The concept of ‘close’ is subjective and prone to cultural interpretation. For people from high density population areas, less than 25 miles is close. Depending on where you live in New Mexico, 100 miles may seem close.
The potential for getting lost, with countless roads to nowhere, and a lack of gas stations along the way, make monitoring the gas tank more important than other places, where gas is usually within walking distance or a passing motorist will give you a lift. In large swaths of New Mexico there may be no gas station and no friendly motorist in close proximity. If I intend to head somewhere off the interstate system, I fill up the tank. If possible, don’t allow your tank to be less than half full.
Beware the path less traveled.
When contemplating routes that involve forest roads in the mountains, be realistic about your vehicle’s capability. There are many places that are inaccessible without 4 wheel drive. A lot of forest roads are not navigable for vehicles with low suspension nor are they 4-cylinder friendly. Even 4 wheel drive is no guarantee that you won’t get stuck. To complicate matters, it isn’t unusual for roads to be deceptively pleasant initially only to deteriorate alarmingly, often coinciding with an inability to turn around.
There is nothing like finding yourself on a narrow road, flanked by cliffs, at a slope that won’t allow you to slow down or stop, lest gravity send you and the car backwards off a precipice, often while chanting loudly ‘this is a bad idea, a bad idea, a bad idea’ shrilly, usually combined with more profane utterances, while mulling the epiphany that your vehicle was not made for this purpose. Been there, done that, lesson learned. In these situations it is inevitable that there won’t be anyone around to rescue you and there probably won’t be a cell phone signal.
The ability to change a tire is necessary and basic tools are useful.
This relates to the last two. Car issues acquire additional layers of complication in the absence of repair facilities, tow trucks, cell phone reception and a lack of traffic on secondary roads. Expect inopportune break downs if you have a car that is unreliable. Your tire will invariably go flat at the worst possible time. It is Murphy’s law of motoring in New Mexico. When the battery dies, there won’t necessarily be a motorist to provide a jump start. Having a spare tire, tools, and knowing how to change a tire, is a very useful, if not critical, life skill west of the Mississippi, particularly if you are planning to wander far outside the city limits. The standard issue kit for changing tires is often comparable to changing a tire with a wire hanger and a toothpick.
Prior to learning this valuable skill, there was an adventure between Vaughan and Roswell that involved being followed by a herd of cows until I was rescued by Cheech and Chong in a Monte Carlo. It is a long story that began with a car breakdown. I like cows, but they are intimidating when there are dozens of them trotting in close proximity, jostling you, while heavy breathing in your ears. Once again, lesson learned. Now I travel with a mobile jump start kit and a small hydraulic jack.
If you are curious, you can read about the Roswell cow incident here.
Stock up on lotion.
Suntan lotion and moisturizers are vital. For those unaccustomed to dry climates, your skin will immediately parch like a sun dried raisin. Within an hour of arriving, you will be able to write on your flesh due to dry skin. Please see #1 regarding water. Drink lots of it. Note how infrequently you urinate. Evaporation. It’s amazing.
Additionally,if you don’t plan to stay inside a building, purchase suntan lotion. The nuclear testing did a number on the ozone in this area and we have an average of 300+ days of sun per year. Tanning is inevitable. The sun is unavoidable. Unlike many places, finding shade can be a challenge. Many locals have developed an increased, albeit unconscious, awareness of shadows in close proximity, automatically migrating for respite from the sun. I call it shade surfing. For fair skin, purchase SPF 1000.
Get a hat…or several.
In the absence of shade, it is necessary to create your own. Perhaps this practical consideration was what gave birth to the cowboy hat and sombrero. Hats are not an accessory in New Mexico and local fashion goes far beyond the baseball hat, trucker hat and cowboy hat, with multiple local retailers selling every type of hat imaginable. I love hats. Having a good excuse to own a variety is just a perk of living in New Mexico. My personal favorite in Albuquerque is the Man’s Hat Shop on Central Avenue (downtown).
Extra clothes and layering.
The temperature in New Mexico varies significantly every day. You can roast during the day and freeze at night. A 30-40 degree swing in temperature is normal. Even during the heat of the summer we tend to get a rapid reprieve from the heat as the sun sets. Weather is unpredictable, particularly at higher elevations. Assume that you are dressed inappropriately and take additional options. Layering is key when hot and cold are likely to occur in rapid succession.
Take extra batteries for any critical electronic devices.
Whereas there is something to be said for leaving the electronic gadgets and trappings of civilization behind…to live in the moment, I like to savor my moments with photography. The number of times I have been somewhere beautiful, on a photo lark, only to run out of batteries is beyond counting. If you are also fond of taking photos, videos, checking your cell phone neurotically, etc., take extra batteries and SD cards.
Be aware of the inconsistent cell phone reception.
The cell towers along the interstates usually provide consistent coverage for most carriers, but once you venture off the interstates cell phone reception drops. For those addicted to being digitally plugged in, withdrawal may ensue. Given that the internet era has cultivated the expectation that everyone should be available 24/7, the solitude provided by a legitimate lack of cell phone reception is priceless. If that is an unsatisfactory response and you find yourself in the middle of nowhere in need of a bar or two, I have found that metal cattle grates increase reception. If you can find a random cattle grate on a hill, it almost always yields a bar or two, regardless of how remote you may be.
New Mexico is an oft overlooked treasure for gourmands. If you are visiting New Mexico and eating at chain restaurants, you are missing out on a significant part of the experience. Not only does New Mexico have distinctive culinary fare, we also have numerous restaurants with national prestige.
With a vibrant café culture and numerous local restaurateurs serving up everything from comfort food to award winning cuisine, patronage of local establishments is a must. Check out the Nomad recommendations for a chile fix in Santa Fe or Albuquerque or the statewide Dining Guide. Here are a few recipes if you prefer New Mexican cuisine from the comfort of your own kitchen.
It isn’t a question of whether you will see wildlife when wandering the wilds of New Mexico, it is more a matter of proximity, frequency and whether that encounter is hazardous for either party. There are the obviously dangerous species, like bear, mountain lions and rattlesnakes, but it isn’t a good idea to surprise or vex an elk or scorpion either. There was an old lady that chased a bear out of her kitchen with an oversized zucchini several years ago, but I wouldn’t count on that approach. A bear killed a camper a few years ago, because it wanted her Doritos. True story.
After writing this article, I received outstanding input from folks on Facebook and Twitter. A few of their recommendations below…
“Have a hat that ties onto your head. The wind can be fierce. Carry toilet paper and some plastic bags in your car. Wear a bandanna to cover the back of your neck when outdoors. Don’t touch the pretty cactus. If you’re not used to eating hot chile, order a glass of milk to drink with your meal. Stomp your feet when walking through a rocky area to prevent warn rattlesnakes. Never put your hands between rocks. Any area that is posted as restricted is truly a place you don’t want to go. Many rural roads are impassible in the winter– if it is getting dicey, turn back.”
“Carry extra layers of clothes to change into when the sun goes down in the fall and winter. Understand that elevation can make a huge difference in driving conditions and temperature. Places like Alamogordo have totally different conditions than Cloudcroft, even though they are just 20 minutes away from each other. Most of all, use common sense before off-roading in the mountains.”
“Be careful on curvy mountain roads. Black cows walking down a mountain road at night are virtually impossible to see.”
“Distances are huge – takes many hours to drive from one part of the state to another.”
[Nomad commentary] New Mexico is the 5th largest state in the United States. It would seem bigger if it wasn’t located next to Texas. People often plan trips that involve more time in a car than outside of it, usually driving right past all sorts of interesting places in the process of traversing the state to see the highlights. It is best to anticipate that you may need to visit more than once to see many of the countless things worth seeing and activities worth doing.
“You may have to pee on the side of the road, be prepared.”
[Nomad commentary] This isn’t really a ‘may’ so much as inevitable. Until my new dog decided that toilet paper in the car was meant to be converted into confetti, I always traveled with a roll of toilet paper in the car. As the next person notes, it is also common to find yourself pulling over when there isn’t more than a creosote bush for cover. Even in areas where there is little to no traffic, someone will probably drive by the moment you drop your pants.
“Always look at a map or computer to see how far it is to your destination. Most times there are no pit stops available, there may not be a tree to hide behind. Pace the hydration with rest stop available. Several years ago, while taking my daughter-in-law to Carlsbad Caverns from Alamogordo,she asked how far. We replied 4 hours. She had purchased the biggest drink Allsups sells, 40 oz i guess. There is no place to stop between Alamogordo and Artesia. Thought she would bust a bladder before we found a gas station for her needs. Just a practical word to the wise.
“Always have some kind of food with you and something to cook in.”
[Nomad commentary] Road snacks are always a good idea, particularly if you are out hiking for the day. If you have food allergies or dietary restrictions, travel snacks are a must, because getting specialty items outside of the larger communities is hit or miss (usually miss).
“The one thing you might add is: respect when visiting pueblos. Check websites for protocols.”
From the Indian Pueblo Culture Center | Pueblo communities are happy to welcome visitors to experience our culture and traditions. We ask that you read and consider the following information and guidelines for visiting our living communities. Please call the Pueblo directly at least two days before your visit to make sure the community will be open to visitors.
- Although most Pueblos are open to the public during daylight hours, the homes are private.
- Tribes value traditions, customs and religion. Please keep in mind that tribal dances are religious ceremonies, not public performances. It is a privilege to witness a ceremony. Some actions and/or questions could be offensive, so please refrain from pressing for answers.
- Some Pueblos charge an entry fee. Camping and fishing fees are charged where such facilities are available. Call ahead to find out if there are fees associated with visiting.
- Most Pueblos require a permit to photograph, sketch or paint on location. Some Pueblos prohibit all of the above. Please check with the Tribal Office for the permitting process before entering the Pueblo. Once a permit is obtained, always ask for permission before taking a photograph of a tribal member. Remember: cameras and film can be confiscated.
- The carrying or use of alcohol and drugs on the Pueblos is strictly prohibited.
- Silence is mandatory during all dances and Pueblo ceremonies. This means no questions about the ceremonies or dances while they are underway; no interviews with the participants; no walking across the dance plaza; and no applause during or after the dance or ceremony.
- Pueblo villages, including Kivas, ceremonial rooms, and cemeteries are sacred places and restricted for use by Pueblo members only.
- Many of the structures are hundreds of years old. Do not scale walls or climb on top of buildings.
- Nature is sacred on the Pueblos. Littering is strictly prohibited.
- On Feast Days and other public observances, enter a Pueblo home as you would any other, by invitation only. It is courteous to accept an invitation to eat, but not to linger at the table, as your host will want to serve numerous guests throughout the day. Thank your host, but a payment or tip is not appropriate.
- Please obey all traffic and speed limit signs. Children and pets play near the roads. Also be cautious of livestock on or near main roadways.
- Observe all signage indicating off limits while visiting a Pueblo.
- If organized tours are offered, please remember to stay with your tribal guide at all times.
- Refrain from bringing a cell phone onto Pueblos. Tribal officials could confiscate cell phones if they feel they might be used for photography or recording.
- Do not remove artifacts, pottery shards or other items from the Pueblo.
- Tribal communities do not use the clock to determine their schedule of activities. Nature and the sequence of events that must take place determine the start and finish times for ceremonies.
“Learn when monsoon season is & plan your days accordingly. Stay at least one night away from light pollution. Stargaze well after sunset & ideally, plan that for a night when there’s no moon. Read “great river” by Paul Horgan both before & after your trip.”
[Nomad commentary] Monsoon season is typically in July and/or August. If you are looking for star gazing opportunities, please see dark sky locations.
Yet more input from my fellow New Mexico wanderers…
“I would add that if you are driving after dark, be extremely aware of the possibility of encountering large herds of wildlife milling about in the middle of a dark road. I’m not talking about a lone deer or two. My wife and I left Taos before dawn to drive home to Topeka. We headed north toward the San Luis Valley but still were in NM. I noticed that the headlights of an oncoming car were flickering. Legs! My wife slammed on the brakes as we ran into a large herd of mule deer or elk at almost 60 mph. The animals scattered to all sides, and we didn’t touch even one. We came to a stop in the road, and some prayers were said.
Except for the altitude and high trails, most of your hints also apply in Kansas, especially in the summer, including my tip about wildlife, plus escaped cattle and horses. The odds of hitting a bison are slim to none, however, unless you’re in Yellowstone!”
“We do have Buffalo. At least down in Hildago county they have the yellow road signs with buffalo on them.”
“We have buffalo in Lincoln County also!! But it is the elk that will destroy your vehicle! I do get tickled when guests say “Even God needs a map to find your house” and it IS pokemon free zone!! If people with cell phones need to contact me enroute, they have to be on top of hills! Neighbors are about 10 miles apart! Loads of peace and privacy with almost no vandalism and mayhem!! My grandmother always said we live 50 miles from nowhere and 10 miles from there! Most people turn around at the 50 mile mark and go back thinking they are lost.”
“If you are heading towards Ojo Caliente way from Pilar over the Taos Junction, make sure Hwy 567 is open”
“Concerning eating local, I’d like to add that everyone should try the gas stations that have grills and serve food. After living in Taos for many years and exploring the entire state I can safely say that some of the best food we’ve had has been in gas stations. I highly recommend the Chaco Grill in the gas station on the far north end of main street in Cuba, NM. The food at the Alto station in Costilla, NM (just this side of the border before San Luis, CO and, of course Bode’s in Abiquiu.”
“I so understand all 10 plus those written in the comments. I can only add that traveling thru any forest land during the spring wind will make you wish you left the axe at home and brought your chain saw. Roads are often impassable. I have so much to still see in NM and I have lived here for 22 years.”
“Being from Georgia I always thought I could make it to the next gas station. While in New Mexico in June I learned that wasn’t true in the land of enchantment. When you leave the Interstate or a larger town, fill up the gas tank . I rented a cabin that required a full tank of gas to make a round trip from town and back.”