“Cities That Surprise” highlights places across America that defied or exceeded our expectations, for whatever reason. Today, Carrie Murphy explains why Las Cruces, New Mexico, should be on your radar!
The southern New Mexico city of Las Cruces is usually a quick stopover for people traveling east or west on I-10. That’s a pity. From the highway, you can’t experience any of the awesome stuff that makes Las Cruces the awesomely quirky place it is. Although northern New Mexico — especially Santa Fe and Taos — gets most of the tourist dollars from travelers hoping for a Southwestern experience, I promise you southern NM is worth a visit that’s longer than it takes to fill up your gas tank and inhale some truck stop food.
I lived in Las Cruces for three years, to attend grad school at New Mexico State University. Although I now live up north in Albuquerque, I still love Las Cruces. It’s the place that taught me to love the particular beauty of the desert, the smell of creosote after the rain falls. I feel instantly happy and relaxed when I drive into the city and see the peaks of the Organ Mountains coming into view.
Las Cruces is about 50 minutes northwest of El Paso, three hours south of Albuquerque, and four hours east of Tucson. Although it’s the second-biggest city in New Mexico with roughly 100,000 people, it’s still kind of a small town, with a low-key, no pressure vibe. Las Cruces is the Old West: Billy the Kid country, land of legends and dust and the burning hot sun. It’s horchata and no traffic–ever–and cowboy boots and mariachi musicians inexplicably playing at the Thai restaurant and and sunsets that take over the whole sky.
It’s also home to the Organ Mountains, the stunningly beautiful peaks that you can see from almost anywhere in the city. In fact, the United States’ newest national monument is the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument, an area of the Southern Rockies that includes the Organ Mountains themselves, plus hiking trails, petroglyphs, and other important historical sites.
Hotel Encanto (above) is a popular boutique hotel for visitors to Las Cruces although it’s kind of far from most of the cool stuff to do in town. For plain ol’ budget hotels, I love the Ramada Palms, which has a surprisingly good in-house restaurant and bar. Bonus: it’s close to the highway and the university. For a more romantic experience, you can try the b&b Casa de Rosie in Mesilla.
No trip to Las Cruces complete without a trip to the farmer’s market, open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Located right in the middle of downtown Las Cruces, you can stroll up and down, buying local produce and artisan goods like papel picado, ristras (those hanging chile decorations), jewelry, and more from over 300 vendors. After you’re done there, it’s just a short walk to the cavernous local used bookstore Coas Books.
Mesilla is a must-see spot in the LC. Technically its own small town, Mesilla is kind of like the “historic” district of Las Cruces. It looks pretty much like every Southwestern cliche you’ve ever seen—and it’s awesome. Mesilla is all hundred-year-old adobe buildings and shops full of turquoise jewelry and Mexican tcotchkes. It is steeped in history, too; It was the Confederate capital of the Arizona territory (which included southern New Mexico at the time), a stop on the Butterfield Stagecoach trail, and the place where Billy the Kid ended up in jail. In fact, the jail where Billy was held is now a gift shop where you can buy one of the aforementioned Mexican tcotchkes. On weekends, there’s often events and live music in the plaza, which boasts an awesome old-fashioned bandstand (above). I also recommend the Fountain Theatre, a tiny art-house theatre that has the prettiest movie theatre mural I’ve ever seen.
Mesilla’s plaza is definitely fun for a touristy Southwestern experience, but I also recommend just taking a few minutes to walk around the town itself. Once you get off the main drag, you’ll have a greater appreciation for its charms. A drive down Highway 28, flanked by fields and pecan orchards, is fun, too. Mesilla is one of the most magical places I’ve ever lived (from 2010-2011 I lived in a converted adobe motel from the 1880s that had the benefit of a location next to one of the biggest Mexican restaurants in town), and I’m constantly scheming about how I can get back there to stay for good.
If you’re the hiking type, definitely check out Dripping Springs (above), an easy trail to a little waterfall and abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium from the early 1900s (its not as creepy as it sounds, I promise). Hiking to the top of “A” Mountain–A is for Aggies, the New Mexico State University mascot–is also fun. Up on top, there’s an altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe and incredible views of the mountains and the Mesilla Valley. There are plenty of more intense hikes throughout the area, if you’re wanting a full day excursion. Make sure you bring a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water!
Las Cruces is also the perfect home base for a number of day trips around southern NM. You definitely won’t want to miss White Sands National Monument (above), which is a 275 sq mile area filled with soft white gypsum sand. You can sunbathe, go sand-sledding or just hang out and gape at the fact that you are 100% surrounded by sand. If you’re there during the full moon, there are events, including yoga.
Another great day trip is the eccentric spa city of Truth or Consequences, NM, located about 70 miles up I-25. T or C, as it’s called, has natural hot springs that flow in and around the town, so it’s perfect for a relaxing afternoon. My personal favorite place to soak is Riverbend Hot Springs, which has beautiful pools that look directly out onto the Rio Grande. It’s $10 an hour to soak in the public pools, but you can spring for a private one for $15 an hour There are also some cool galleries and shops in the tiny, walkable downtown of T or C.
So after all that hiking, soaking and hanging on pristine white sands you’re going to need something to eat. And since you’re in New Mexico, it better have green chile on it, right? Pretty much all the locals adore the Mexican restaurant Andele!, which I think has the best salsa I’ve ever tasted in my life. If you’d like more of a mom-and-pop experience, La Nueva Casita is an amazing authentic spot in the historic Mesquite district near downtown. For fancy, you’ll want to go to Double Eagle, which is known for their steaks and green chile cheeseburgers. I also really like Josefina’s (above, also an inn) and Habanero’s. Make sure you order “Christmas” if you’re getting burritos or enchiladas; It means half green chile and half red. If Mexican really isn’t your thing, St. Clair Winery is a good option for bistro-ish classics you can enjoy with a big old glass of local wine.
Las Cruces definitely isn’t a town known for its bar scene, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some cool places to unwind with an adult beverage. El Patio, the historic bar in Mesilla, is quite possibly my favorite bar on earth and certainly one of the best dives ever. Think low lighting, cheap drinks, a kick-ass jukebox and a clientele that ranges from old farmers in their 80s to newly minted 21-year-old undergrads. It’s been continuously operating in the same old adobe building since the 1930s.
If you’d like a quiet night sipping wine, Vintage Wines (also in Mesilla) is terrific, with live music on the regular and a fun, laid-back crowd.. For beer, there’s no place better than High Desert Brewery, where you can sit out on the patio and shoot the shit with any combination of middle-aged Las Crucens, local bluegrass musicians, and New Mexico State grad students. De La Vega’s Pecan Grillis also a popular spot if you’re into beer.
Whether you’re looking for an off-the-beaten path trip to New Mexico or just want a cool, unexpected adventure on a cross country drive, Las Cruces is a great option. Give it a chance, I think you’ll dig it.
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