25 Enchanting Facts About New Mexico

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron / Chloe Effron

Compared to some of the states in the nation, New Mexico is a relatively young territory: It wasn’t officially recognized by President William Taft until 1912. But the culture of the southwestern landscape has made a tremendous impact on the rest of the world. Check out some facts on its Aztec origins, its unlikely exports, and how Smokey Bear got his start.

1. It isn’t really named after Mexico. New Mexico was coined in 1563 by Don Francisco de Ibarra, a governor of a Mexican province who thought the Indian people he saw in the territory reminded him of Aztecs—a discovery he later messaged as a kind of “new Mexico.” Mexico didn’t become known as Mexico until it dropped the New Spain label in 1821.

2. They were once invaded by the United States. President James Polk felt California, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona should be part of his territory. Polk was initially nice about it, offering to buy the land, but when he was rejected, he ordered military forces to seize it by force in 1846. By 1848, Mexico had lost those states, which amounted to half of its property, to Polk’s aggression.


3. Infamous outlaw Billy the Kid was shot and buried in Fort Sumner in 1881. When he wasn’t busy working as a ranch hand, the man born Henry McCarty was reputed to have killed 27 people. A museum in the town features some of his original possessions, including a lock of his hair. 

4. It has its own Las Vegas. In 1900, the city on the Santa Fe trail was the largest in New Mexico, with a series of Old West legends like Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday passing through. Some of the original architecture remains for tourists.

5. People weren’t really sure what happened on July 16, 1945, the day the government detonated the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos: they were told it was an ammunitions explosion. While the engineering feat was later celebrated, some believe the resulting radiation caused health problems for nearby residents. 


6. The Taos Pueblo building is thought to be the oldest continuously-inhabited structure in the world. Erected sometime between 1000 and 1450 A.D., the adobe walls were made from soil, water, and straw and are consistently replenished with mud to keep them supported. More than 150 families call it home.  

7. The Navajo people were instrumental in helping the Allies win World War II. Natives of New Mexico, they were recruited for their unwritten language—it has no alphabet or symbols. Virtually impossible to decipher without being raised learning it, Navajo soldiers were able to relay strategies, issue supply requests, and forward other key messages for the Marines without their “code” ever being cracked by enemy forces.

8. It wasn’t big on boxing. After a series of prizefights took place that drew negative press attention for their perceived brutality, New Mexico Governor William Thornton rallied fellow territories Texas and Arizona in banning bouts in 1896. When it became a state 16 years later, fighting resumed. 


9. It’s home to what entertainer Will Rogers once referred to as the Grand Canyon with a roof. Carlsbad Caverns was water-formed more than four million years ago, with three miles open to tourists. One popular attraction: the 250,000 Brazilian bats who hang out at the entrance and then swarm the night skies looking for insects. Their voluminous droppings were once shipped out and used as fertilizer for Florida’s citrus groves.

10. The town of Truth or Consequences changed its name to accommodate a publicity stunt. In 1950, the producer of the radio show bearing the same name told listeners he’d broadcast from the first locale to adopt the show’s title. Hot Springs took him up on the offer.

11. Despite its reputation for being a dry slice of desert, New Mexico’s Bandera Fire and Ice Cave offers two extremes. A collapsed tube in the volcano collects rain water that keeps a frosty surface thanks to temperatures that rarely exceed 31 degrees Fahrenheit.


12. The state bird is no fan of coyotes. The roadrunner received the honor in 1949, and is named for its preference of sprinting up to 15 mph to grab its prey. 

13. They don’t pay their legislators. State lawmakers aren’t granted a salary, but instead receive per diem compensation when the Legislature is in session that averages $16,000 a year. The perk? They receive a pension after 10 years of service, no matter what age they leave office.

14. The southern town of Artesia really looked out for its student population. During the height of Cold War paranoia in 1961, they constructed an elementary school that doubled as a bomb shelter. The entire building was located underground; kids were able to play on the roof at ground level. Despite the fact it had a morgue, the kids were largely oblivious to its secret identity. It closed in 1995 owing to high maintenance costs.


15. There really was a Smokey Bear, and he was found lost during the Capitan Mountains fire in 1950. The cub tried escaping the fire by climbing a tree; he survived, but received burns that needed treatment by animal conservationists. The resulting press attention led to a new home at the National Zoo, and a name: Smokey Bear. (There’s no “the”—that was added for a 1952 song.)

16.The residents of Taos have a noise problem. Since the 1990s, a “hum,” or faint buzzing, has been identified by several locals. Researchers have not been able to zero in on a possible cause, but it’s not helping real estate sales: some have moved because of the incessant noise.

17. It has an official state question: Red, or Green? The query refers to the state vegetable, the chile, and how ripe it is when served. You can also select option C—Christmas, which is a blend of the two.


18. They like to do a little effigy-burning. Zozobra, or “Old Man Gloom,” is a 50-foot tall figure made of sticks that’s burned every year in Santa Fe to help onlookers rid themselves of sorrow.  A smaller version is also torched in Aztec.

19. They’re incredibly serious about their hot air balloon rallies. The annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta features a variety of creatively-shaped aircraft that makes it look like a Macy’s parade on steroids. The Elephant Butte Balloon Regatta is a more modest affair, with craft launched over a lake.

20. They weren’t huge fans of unfiltered Shakespeare. The state received media attention in 1983 after ordering 400 “sexually explicit” words to be stripped from Romeo and Juliet in copies kept by school libraries.


21. It helped birth the UFO craze of the 1950s. In 1947, a local found debris from an unidentified craft 75 miles outside of Roswell, New Mexico. Military personnel quickly retrieved it and told media it was a collapsed weather balloon; a skeptical public believed otherwise. The town has since become a popular tourist attraction.

22. It has the can-you-believe-this-is-a-sport angle covered. The World Shovel Race Championships are held every year in Angel Fire: Contestants sit in unmodified snow shovels and slide down a snow-covered hill. The practice began in the 1970s, when ski lift operators would do it for fun. Riders can reach 60 mph.


23. It’s home to something that resembles another world. The White Sands National Monument sports over 275 square miles of white gypsum sand, which makes it resemble a kind of albino desert landscape. Because there’s hardly any source of water, native animals like the kangaroo rat have evolved to get their hydration from food sources like seeds.

24. It had a more tightly-contested electoral race than Florida in the 2000 presidential elections. While George Bush garnered 537 more votes than Al Gore in the Sunshine State, Gore beat him by 366 votes in New Mexico.


25. If you find yourself on a road trip, plan on a car wash: Sante Fe has more unpaved roads than any state capital in the nation. Beginning in 2016, the state will lower the default speed limit from 75 miles per hour to 55 on dirt paths. Think of it as more time to enjoy the scenery.