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3 beautiful New Mexico mountain towns

The "Midtown" district in Ruidoso. Photo by Discover Ruidoso

During the long New Mexico summers, a gain in elevation offers refreshing salvation. To help you stay cool during the summer months, we’ve curated a trio of getaways to mountain towns near Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos that offer not only sweet mercury relief but also a ton of outdoor fun.

1. Red River

Main Street Red River

Red River's main street. Photo courtesy Town of Red River

When Taos summer temps climb into the mid-80s, seek relief some 35 miles northeast in the town of Red River, typically chillin’ in the mid-70s. At a lofty 8,750-foot elevation in the Carson National Forest, the former mining town turned winter ski resort is also a summer playground for camping, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, OHV use (permit required), and mountain biking.

You may also like: 8 family-friendly lakes in New Mexico

What to do in Red River

A pair of people fishing in the Red River

Fishing for trout in Red River. Photo courtesy Town of Red River

The Red River runs past the town, so you’ll find plenty of nice trout fishing spots there. If stream fishing isn’t your jam, instead drop a line in one of the local ponds regularly stocked with trout that can’t wait to take your bait.

At the Red River Ski & Summer Area resort, hop aboard the scenic 30-minute chairlift to the ski area’s summit, where a restaurant, disc-golf course, and hiking and intermediate-to-advanced mountain biking trails await. Lower down the mountain, near town, climb into a rubber inner tube and zoom down the resort’s Summer Mountain Tubing track.      

Where to stay in Red River

The tiny town’s inordinate amount of cabin rentals, mountain lodges, condos, and motel rooms can easily send you down a rabbit hole.

You can’t go wrong with the Best Western Rivers Edge (Rates start at $199 per night), within walking distance of dining and shopping. Best Western’s usually reasonable rates net a comfy room, cooked-to-order continental breakfast, and relaxing Red River views (request a room on the building’s back side).

Where to eat in Red River

Red River Brewing Company & Distillery packs beer and barbecue lovers onto the breezy patios of its casual 2-story restaurant (the tender smoked brisket is best).

Where to shop in Red River

Taos Mountain Outfitters gears you up for the great outdoors with top brands like Patagonia, The North Face, and CamelBak.

You may also like: 8 free natural hot springs with stunning views

2. Ruidoso

Ruidoso Mural

A fun photo opportunity in Ruidoso. Photo by Discover Ruidoso

When heat waves begin to hula dance above the Albuquerque asphalt, head roughly 3 hours southeast of the city for the Sacramento Mountains’ winter ski town of Ruidoso. In summer, highs typically hover in the comfy upper 70s and low 80s. Lake swimming, boating, fishing, and shopping the “Midtown” area top the list of ways to chill.

Spring 2022 saw the tragic McBride Fire destroy hundreds of area homes and burn perilously close to Midtown. As the community recovers, be thoughtful and follow local fire-danger restrictions so as not to start another blaze.   

What to do in Ruidoso

Ruidoso Grindstone Lake

Grindstone Lake. Photo by Robert Harding/Alamy Stock Photo

About 5 miles southwest of town, take a refreshing dip in Grindstone Lake, a shimmering blue beauty cradled in a green mountain valley. Swimmers and sunbathers flock to the main beach, where you’ll find paddle boats, kayaks, and paddleboards for rent. Kids flip for the Wibit Water Park (open only in summer; admission, $20)—an inflatable floating structure with water slides and trampolines.

The lake is also a jumping-off point for a web of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails. Summer weekends, the Grindstone Lake parking lot requires reservations ($10 per vehicle).     

About 7 miles southwest of town, the Mescalero Apache Tribe deals a cool hand at its AAA Four Diamond Inn of The Mountain Gods Resort & Casino on the shores of Lake Mescalero. The resort’s lakeside boathouse rents fishing poles, paddle boats, kayaks, and paddleboards. For thrill-seekers, there’s a zip line that launches from a distant hillside, zooms over the entire lake, and touches down at the resort.

You may also like: 10 great places to go mountain biking in New Mexico

Where to stay in Ruidoso

story book cabins

Story Book Cabins. Photo by Discover Ruidoso

In the shade of soaring ponderosa pines, unabashed herds of deer wander the grounds of Story Book Cabins (Rates start at $149 per night), which range in size from romantic hideaways to spacious digs that sleep 4 to 6. While every unit sports rustic-chic decor and a full kitchen, book well in advance to snag one of the coveted cabins with either an in-room or outdoor hot tub.

Where to eat in Ruidoso

Tina’s Cafe has breakfast covered with excellent New Mexico re-imagined classics like eggs Benedict swimming in a silky green-chile cream sauce.

Rio Grande Grill & Tap Room (just north of Midtown on SR 48) turns out juicy burgers, sandwiches, hand-cut steaks, and even a few pasta dishes (the green chile chicken lasagna is a must-order) best washed down with a frosty pint from the lineup of Sierra Blanca Brewing Company suds.         

Where to shop in Ruidoso

Suddeth Drive

Gift shops, boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants along Suddeth Drive. Photo by Discover Ruidoso

The Midtown district, along Sudderth Drive, is chockablock with gift shops, clothing boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and brewpubs and wineries. Parts Unknown carries quality sportswear, Western apparel, and outdoor gear, from water shoes and Stetson hats to backpacks and Hydro Flask water bottles.

Ruidoso has been named the “Bear-Carving Capital of the World,” and you’ll see the ubiquitous chain saw–molded wooden ursine sculptures for sale around town. Browse other handcrafted works at The Adobe Fine Art gallery, dealing in Western and contemporary paintings, bronze sculptures, and jewelry by Southwest artists.

Cool your shopping jets with a chocolate sprinkle–topped frozen yogurt at Chill Out by Simple Sugars. Or better yet, unwind on the outdoor deck of Noisy Water Winery (Ruidoso is Spanish for “noisy”) with a glass of sparkling wine.

You may also like: 6 top outdoor attractions in New Mexico

3. Pecos

Star trails fill the sky above Pecos campgrounds

The campgrounds in Pecos are perfect for stargazing. Photo courtesy NPS photo/VIP Stan Ford

When desert summer temps rise, drive 30 miles southeast of Santa Fe to the cool, piney mountain playground of Pecos. From the decidedly non-touristy center of town, motor north on SR 63, which climbs and winds for 21 miles, skirting the Pecos River as it flows through the Pecos Wilderness, part of the Santa Fe National Forest. Average July-August highs in the upper 70s to mid-80s make for comfy river and lake fishing, as well as pre-noon hiking.

What to do in Pecos

Pecos National Historical Park

Pecos National Historical Park. Photo by Robert Harding/Alamy Stock Photo

Pecos’ marquee attraction, Pecos National Historical Park, lies 2 miles south of town. An easy 1.25-mile round-trip hiking trail visits the scant remnants of a Puebloan village and the hulking adobe ruins of an 18th-century Spanish mission church. Non-hiker hack: From the visitors center’s main parking lot, drive up the short, signed access road to the center’s “overflow parking” lot, and voilà, you’re steps away from the main church ruins.

Just 1 mile north of town off SR 63, hook trout from the piñon-shaded shores of pretty Monastery Lake, situated on land owned by the Pecos Benedictine Monastery.

Up the road a tick, Lisboa Springs Fish Hatchery raises the trout used to stock the area’s lakes and rivers. You’ll see live trout in all sizes of their early development, plus you can help fatten ’em up with handfuls of fish food dispensed from coin-op machines. Bring a pocketful of quarters and let the feeding-frenzy fun begin.

Roadside fishing and picnic sites pepper SR 63 as it snakes through the canyon. A choice spot, the Windy Bridge Picnic Site has riverside picnic tables and barbecue pits in the deep shade of a towering ponderosa pine grove.

You may also like: Why you should visit New Mexico’s national parks

Where to stay in Pecos

Pecos River Cabin

Pecos River Cabin. Photo courtesy Pecos River Cabins

If snoozing under the stars in one of the area campgrounds isn’t your thing, spring for civilized digs at Pecos River Cabins. Rates start at $110 per night.

On the east bank of the sparkling Pecos River, accommodations range from small, rustic 1920s-vintage cabins to newer units with full kitchens and baths. Fishing from the riverbank, you’re soothed by the sounds of birds chirping in the breeze-rustled cottonwood trees and water tumbling over the river rocks.

Where to eat in Pecos

Frankie’s at the Casanova serves reliable American and New Mexican grub in a dining room reminiscent of a Western hunting lodge. Pancho’s Gourmet To Go, tucked inside the Shell gas station at the town’s main intersection, whips up surprisingly tasty deli subs, burgers, and New Mexican staples (consider the tender carne adovada burrito) perfect for a picnic lunch.  

Where to shop in Pecos

Eagle Nest Market, at the Phillips 66 gas station just west of town on SR 50, is your one-stop shop for groceries, camping and fishing supplies, and take-out pizza.

A Southern California native, travel writer Eli Ellison recently relocated to the Santa Fe hills, where he’s made fast friends with the local lizards and jackalopes.

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