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Why you should visit New Mexico’s national parks in winter

The Valles Caldera National Preserve is called the Yellowstone of the Southwest. Photo by Richard Ellis/Alamy Stock Photo

New Mexico’s public lands are enchanting year-round, but come winter, they take on a particularly crisp sparkle. Cooler temperatures and thinner crowds make for relaxed exploration of New Mexico’s parklands.

Given New Mexico’s vast terrain, adventurers can choose from desert escapades or snowy alpine pursuits. Enjoy a free day at all National Park Service sites on January 15 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day (one of a handful of annual fee-free days).

Here are a few winter activities scheduled at New Mexico’s national parks, monuments, and preserves. Confirm events ahead of your visit.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Interior of Carlsbad Caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Photo by Sean Pavone Photo/

Naturally climate-controlled Carlsbad Caverns is 56 degrees year-round, which is roughly the January daytime high temperature outside the caverns. Some 500,000 people visit Carlsbad Caverns annually.

The winter months are by far the least visited, allowing for less-crowded exploration of this cave system that contains the largest chamber in North America, the Big Room, at more than 8 acres. Other amazing spaces in the caverns include the Queen’s Chamber, the Green Lake Room, the Hall of the White Giant, and the Spirit World.

Visit the park’s website to schedule your self-guided tour. Tickets ($15) to enter the cave can be purchased only at the park. Reservations must be made in advance. For general tickets and reservations, call (877) 444-6777.

White Sands National Park

A long person standing amid gypsum at White Sands National Park.

White Sands National Park. Photo by Cristina Hagerty/2019 Westways Photo Contest

Sledding is a year-round sport at White Sands National Park, where gypsum sand dunes glisten like snow. Winter is the perfect time to visit New Mexico’s newest national park because of the thin crowds and mild southern New Mexico temperatures. Bring a plastic saucer disk or purchase one at the park’s visitors center, and zip down the dunes.

Monthly ranger-led tours to Lake Lucero are held November through March. This dry lakebed is the source of White Sand’s gypsum sand, and hikers traverse the park’s backcountry along a 1.5-mile trail to learn about this feature. Tickets for the day hike are $8 and require reservations.

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park

Puebloan ruins in Chaco Canyon National Historic Park.

Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. Photo by MSchneider/

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park protects the Great Houses built during the apex of the ancient Puebloan world, roughly between AD 850 and 1200. These architectural marvels were aligned to astronomical events and served as a calendar for planting, weather forecasting, and ceremonies critical to culture here.

Chaco Culture was declared an International Dark Sky Park in 2013, and the winter sky here is dizzyingly clear and filled with constellations. This time of year, the stillness in this remote place is so intense, you may feel as if you have this 34,000-square-mile park all to yourself. Day passes, $15.

You may also like: Near Santa Fe, discover a hidden treasure trove of petroglyphs

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Visitors inside the Aztec Great House at the Aztec Ruins National Monument.

Aztec Great House. Photo by MSchneider/

Aztec Ruins National Monument protects a Chaco Culture–related great house in the city of Aztec, some 70 miles north of Chaco Canyon. Admission is free.

Valles Caldera National Preserve

Wooden structure in the middle of Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Valles Caldera National Preserve. Photo by Jeff/

Called the Yellowstone of the Southwest, Valles Caldera National Preserve is an 89,900-acre skiing and snowshoeing playground come winter. Skiers and snowshoers slide or step along snow-covered roads and trails as elk graze in the distance. Trails wind through ponderosa forests alive with gray jays, badgers, golden eagles, and other wildlife.

Parents tow kids on sleds through the silent landscape. Bring your own gear or rent snowshoes and poles at the visitors center for $20. Snow or not, hikers are invited to explore the preserve’s trails year-round, and winter offers excellent photo opportunities. Admission is free.

Bandelier National Monument

A snowy wooded area.

This national preserve is a great spot to snowshoe during the snowy season. Photo by GUILLAUME/

Cross-country skiing is also popular at nearby Bandelier National Monument, where two trails are marked with colored diamonds to guide skiers through the forest. Passes start at $15.

Steve Larese is an Albuquerque-based travel journalist who explores the American Southwest, whether it’s through learning the local cultures or dropping into remote canyons for days at a time.

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