Last Updated on December 21, 2023

Las Cruces is a mixture of old and new; this piece of Chihuahuan Desert surrounded by mountains today hosts a space program. Native Americans, Spain, Mexico, Texas, and finally the U.S. fought over ownership of this land until the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo finally declared the United States  the winner. History tops the list of many visitor’s what to do in Las Cruces, New Mexico itinerary.

Las Cruces was founded in 1849 when the U.S. Army laid out the town plans.

When visiting, you’ll run into names like Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Geronimo, the Butterfield Trail, and many others associated with the Wild West movies. In many ways, Las Cruces looks like a movie set but it’s real and you can visit and discover its charm for yourself.

Las Cruces is the second largest city in New Mexico yet has little traffic and a very small-town feel. Las Cruces lacks a true central business district, but around the historic downtown of the city at Main Street (where the farmers market is held) you will find some shops, art galleries, theaters, and restaurants.

I suggest you enjoy the Mexican food here as that is a big part of the culture. Mesilla has many restaurant choices.

The city hosts two wine festivals annually. The Harvest Wine Festival over Labor Day weekend, and Southern New Mexico Wine Festival held over Memorial Day weekend. Both feature local wines.

Several festivals are big events here throughout the year. Day of the Dead is held November 1st and 2nd at the plaza in Mesilla and at the Branigan Cultural Center in downtown Las Cruces. On Halloween, the Mesilla Valley Mall holds a “day of the walking dead” with zombies strolling around the mall.

Cowboy Days are held at the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in early March. A Cinco de Mayo celebration is also held in Mesilla.

The closest airport with commercial flights is El Paso International Airport. Interstate 10 and Interstate 25 are the main road routes to the city. If you really don’t want to drive, the city operates a small transit authority known as RoadRUNNER Transit. It’s $1 for adults and $.50 for children. 

Old Mesilla

This is one of the most iconic Old West towns in New Mexico. It’s a 1800s border town that has retained most of its original buildings and is filled with western legends. 

The heart of town is the plaza, once a stop on the Butterfield Stagecoach route. Mesilla was claimed by both the U.S. and Mexico until 1854 when the Gadsden Treaty officially made Mesilla part of the U.S. The American flag was raised at the plaza after the treaty signing to officially proclaim it as part of the United States.

Visit the original Basilica of San Albino, an adobe church built by Spanish padres in 1855. The new church that stands today was built in 1908. It anchors the plaza on the north side.

The former courthouse and jail at the southeast end of the plaza is where Billy the Kid stood trial in 1881 for killing Sheriff William Brady during the Lincoln County War. He was sentenced to hang on April 13, 1881, and sent to Lincoln County for the sentence. He escaped, but was killed a short time later by Pat Garrett.

Rumors claim the ghost of Billy the Kid still haunts the building. Today, it is a gift shop.

Much of the structure remains the same including the original 18 inch walls of handmade, adobe bricks. 

One of the oldest buildings off the plaza was erected in 1849 by Valentin Maese. It was originally a two-room log home known as a jacal. Today, it’s home to the Double Eagle Restaurant which has great food and a ghostly legend.  

Fort Selden 

© Kathleen Walls

Established in 1865 to protect settlers from Apache raids, Fort Selden has a storied history with an interesting connection to 20th century history. 

There was one young boy sitting in the shade of an adobe home watching his father, the fort’s commander, drill troops to prepare for a possible Apache attack. The boy dreamed of a day when he might also be commanding troops to protect America. That father was Captain Arthur MacArthur. His young son followed his dream and became General Douglas MacArthur. 

Many of the soldiers stationed there were African Americans known as Buffalo Soldiers. During their service in New Mexico Territory, nine Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor.

The museum inside the visitor center of this New Mexico Historic Site tells what life was like for those who lived at this fort. There is a great video about the fort and its history.

Outside, you can view the ruins of the adobe buildings and the markers and artifacts that tell the frontier story. This includes a marker showing where the MacArthur family lived. Some of the walls and foundations still stand.

The various wagons around the grounds, including a covered wagon like the ones used by early western-bound settlers, also help tell the story of life at the fort.

New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum 

The New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum tells the history of farming and ranching in New Mexico back to the Paleo-Indians. There are exhibits showing how farmers lived and the kind of equipment they used. There’s an exhibit about a local farmer who helped rescue a tiny bear cub from a fire in the Capitan Mountains near Nogal Lake. The cub grew up to became Smokey the Bear.

The museum goes much deeper into New Mexico farmers’ lives. One of my favorite exhibits is the oral histories where farmers tell their own stories on tape. I learned how many of the farmers lost their lands to eminent domain when the government began developing rockets during WWII. They were promised a return after the war, but that never happened. Many got little or no compensation for losing their homes.

Outdoors, you get a firsthand look at livestock that were and are raised in New Mexico. Ranging from a huge bull that pawed the ground and stared me down to a momma cow and tiny calf. 

My guide was very knowledgeable and was able to explain the process of cross breeding cattle to improve meat grades. There are examples from the early Spanish cattle to the crosses between Brahman and Angus that produced Brangus, a hardy and popular breed of beef cattle that is more resistant to New Mexico’s heat.

Las Cruces Railroad Museum

Housed in a historic 1910 Santa Fe Depot for the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway that shows Las Cruces history with railroads. The depot was in use until the 1980s and is located at an active rail yard so passing trains are always a possibility. Inside rail fans and children will be in heaven. There is lots of memorabilia including typical conductor and other train clothing, trunks, and scales. There is a passenger waiting room as it was back in the early 1900s. 

There is a detailed model train with which you can interact. For the younger kids, there is a wooden train set they can put together and run around a small track. Outside there is a 1918 wooden caboose that awaits restoration.

The museum rotates many different activities throughout the year. Admission is free.

Las Cruces Museum of Nature & Science 

© Kathleen Walls

Las Cruces Museum of Nature & Science offers a look at desert wildlife. You’ll find live reptiles and amphibians. There are also realistically posed stuffed cougars, coyotes, and larger desert wildlife.

The museum is small but well done and offers a good education on the geography and wildlife of the region. It’s located on Main Street adjacent to another event you’ll want to visit…

Las Cruces Farmers & Crafts Market

Step out the front door of the museum on a Wednesday or Saturday morning from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and you’ll find yourself in the middle of the Las Cruces Farmers & Crafts Market. It’s more than a traditional market.

The day I visited the market there were stilt walkers roaming, music playing, healthy-looking produce, and lots of crafters with their wares. It’s rated one of the top farmers markets in the country.

Organ Mountains

The Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument, rising 9,000 feet, was christened part of the National Park System in 2015. The Organ Mountains were named for the steep, needle-like spires that resemble the pipes of an organ. The National Monument is 496,000 acres of land surrounding Las Cruces. 

It’s the perfect location for outdoor fun including photography, mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, camping, and wildlife viewing. Keep your camera handy as you might see golden eagles, hawks, owls, mule deer, coyotes, or mountain lions.

Aguirre Spring Campground is a free basic campground, but camping is permitted in most areas of the preserve. Some parts within Fort Bliss are off limits and closed to the general public.

There are marked hiking trails that can be accessed from four sites: Aguirre Springs Campground and Baylor Canyon Road offer access to trails in The Needles area; The Soledad Canyon Day Use Area has a loop trail; and Dripping Springs Natural Area has over four miles of trails and is where the Visitor Center is located.

The Visitor Center offers a mini museum explaining the features of the Organ Mountains.

White Sands Missile Range Museum and Missile Park

© Kathleen Walls

As you drive through the Organ Mountains towards White Sands you pass a military base where the atomic age began. You can tour the museum on the base and visit the Missile Park outside. Since this is an active military base you will need to pass through a guard station and show your driver’s license. 

Missile Park is open dawn to dusk seven days a week. The museum is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The museum is closed on Sundays and holidays. The park is filled with over 50 missiles and rockets tested at White Sands. 

Inside the museum there are exhibits including a model of McDonald Ranch House, headquarters for the Manhattan Project. There’s also a scale model of the first atomic bomb detonated at the Trinity site.

The portable calculator used to work the data of early missile firings at White Sands will make you laugh. Portable is somewhat a misnomer in today’s pocket sized culture. This thing is bigger than an old fashioned typewriter.

Other displays include a Chupadero black-on-white Olla water jug and lots of memorabilia from the days of the Wild West like saddles and chaps. 

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument is worth a visit for the beauty of its sunsets alone. You’ll find miles of nothing, but white sand dunes dotted with small desert shrubs as far as the eye can see. Walking along one of the boardwalks you can look down and read markers that label each desert plant.

Many people bring plastic sleds, but you can improvise with any flat cardboard or whatever is handy. Walk to the top of a dune and slide to the bottom on your sled. The sunsets are reflected in the eastern sky as well as lighting up the western sky with the most vivid reds, oranges, and yellows I had ever seen in nature. 

The visitor center at the entrance to White Sands is a great example of the Spanish adobe buildings constructed here between 1936 and 1938. The center is furnished with decoratively carved corbels, benches, and chairs. There are interactive exhibits and computer touch screens to describe and explain the environment of the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.

The interpretive film, A Land in Motion, explains how White Sands evolved. By the front entrance there is a garden with local plants, and at the rear there is a gift shop and restrooms. Once out in the dunes, there are only portable toilets.

Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces

Looking for a place to stay that reflects the local style and traditions? The beautiful Spanish Colonial style Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces is a treasure. The striking beauty of the hotel is so iconically New Mexico. It’s literally an oasis in a desert.

From the moment you enter the tree-studded lobby with its Mexican art you’ll be enchanted. Spanish and Mexican colonial history and tradition are showcased all around you, and you’ll feel you have found the real New Mexico. However, the hotel has all modern amenities and is located right near the interstate for easy access.

My room was on the ground floor and had a private patio that opened onto the pool area. The pool is large and refreshing on a hot day. My spacious room was furnished with the type of furniture you would expect in a Mexican palace. A king-sized bed with a unique headboard, posts, and a decorative backdrop was a wonderful place to lay my head after a full day of exploring.

Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces has all the amenities you would expect in a classy hotel and is also pet friendly. The restaurant and bar on the main floor is cheerful and has a large food and drink selection.

Author

  • Kathleen Walls

    Kathleen Walls, a former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, GA, is publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. Originally from New Orleans, she currently resides in Middleburg, FL and has lived in Florida most of her life while traveling extensively.