Sierra County is probably best known for Elephant Butte Lake, the largest body of water in New Mexico, and Truth or Consequences, the town that changed its name at the request of television game show host Ralph Edwards. While I was working for a rural tourism project at New Mexico State University in the late 1990s, I discovered Sierra County is also home to an amazing collection of Old West ghost towns.
Lake Valley is the site of the Bridal Chamber Mine, likely the richest silver strike in history. The county also was home to Buffalo Soldiers, more than a dozen of whom were Medal of Honor recipients; Geronimo, Victorio, and Apache warriors; historic churches and graveyards; famous cowboys, frontier forts, and railroad stops. With support from then Sierra County Extension Agent Albert Lyon of T or C, my friends Don and Edmund in Chloride, and others, we created brochures and guided tours that included Chloride, Cuchillo, Monticello, Hillsboro, Kingston, Lake Valley, and other communities and hidden treasures that dot the county’s landscape.
What we were doing, along with others in all 33 New Mexico counties and its more than 100 communities, was telling the story and sharing the wonder of the vast and remarkable Land of Enchantment. “New Mexico is full of so many incredible tourism experiences and establishments that you simply cannot fit everything into a single campaign,” said New Mexico Tourism Department (NMTD) Communications Director Cody Johnson. “But this is why NMTD has a series of programs and services that enables us to work with location destinations and tourism-related organizations in a more personalized manner.
“Programs like our Cooperative Marketing Grant Program allow us to pool advertising dollars with local destinations to build and implement marketing plans that leverage New Mexico True alongside their own brand identity,” Cody said. “This means that for places like Alamogordo that wish to really lean into White Sands [National Park] in their marketing and advertising, they can work with NMTD to create a marketing strategy that emphasizes White Sands (or whatever additional experiences and establishments they want to promote) while receiving technical assistance from the NMTD team and further amplification through pooled resources. NMTD also has programs like the New Mexico True Certified program that allows local businesses to leverage the New Mexico True brand for locally produced products.”
More than 39 million visitors spent $7.2 billion in New Mexico in 2021, NMDT reported. That created an economic impact of $10 billion and sustained nearly 84,000 jobs around the state. Visitor spending grew by 24 percent in 2021, “recovering up to 97 percent of (pre-pandemic) levels,” Cody added. Lodging accounted for nearly one-third of visitors’ spending ($2.3 billion), while food and beverage purchases ($1.7 billion) were almost one-quarter, retail sales accounted for 17 percent ($1.3 billion), and transportation ($1.1 billion) was 16 percent.
Almost 26 percent of those traveling New Mexico in 2020 came from within the state, followed by Texas (18.1 percent), Colorado (8.2 percent), California (7.9 percent), Arizona (7.4 percent), and New York (4.4 percent). Most visitors stayed an average of one to four days, and came to visit friends and relatives, tour, attend special events, and enjoy the state’s vast outdoors. About 75 percent of visitors were driving, while more than 20 percent were flying. Hotel occupancy statewide reached 70.1 percent in October 2021, NMDT said. NMDT began fiscal year 2021 with a goal of generating $1 million in regional, national, and international coverage of New Mexico as a premiere travel destination. The department’s marketing and promotion budget for the current fiscal year is $16.9 million, Cody said. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive budget request for NMDT for the next fiscal year is $21.1 million.
Why New Mexico?
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta draws hundreds of thousands of visitors over nine days in October. The Santa Fe Fiesta features the burning of the 50-foot Zozobra (Old Man Gloom) in September along with many other activities. The Roswell UFO Festival celebrates the world-famous crash that occurred near Corona, New Mexico, in July 1947. The Festival of the Cranes welcomes the return of sandhill cranes to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro in December. The Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque in April is the largest powwow in the United States. The Hatch Chile Festival welcomes thousands of visitors to the green chile capital of the world each September. And Christmas on the Pecos has become a national destination
as visitors tour magnificently decorated homes along the Pecos River in Carlsbad each November and December.
“What do you love?” asked Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber. “Blue skies and perfect temperatures? Great food and unmatched hospitality? Amazing art and culture blended with historic architecture? Outdoor recreation with hiking and biking? Whatever you’re looking for, whatever makes you happy to be someplace — Santa Fe is that place! We’ve got it all.”
“This is what I tell people about Las Cruces and New Mexico: The nicest and most kindhearted people live in Las Cruces,” said Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima. “I go on to explain that the El Paso/Las Cruces area tops a list of the 50 most generous cities in America. I explain that you can experience all four seasons here in New Mexico . . . Wheeler Peak (in Taos County), which is the highest natural point in the U.S., experiences about six snow days in May!”
The most popular parks in New Mexico tend to be in the southern half of the state, including White Sands National Park near Alamogordo and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The Cliff Dwellings National Monument north of Silver City preserves the Mogollon culture of the 13th and 14th centuries. But Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in San Juan County in the northwest boasts one of the nation’s most important pre-European sites. Garrey Carruthers traveled all over New Mexico during his tenure as governor and later as president and then chancellor of NMSU.
A favorite site was El Morro National Monument (about an hour southwest of Grants) which he called “the home of the original graffiti in New Mexico.” “All travelers through El Morro — Native
Americans, Spanish soldiers, folks moving west — all felt compelled to write something on the sandstone walls at El Morro. Great history lesson,” said Garrey, who grew up in Aztec, New
Mexico, and now lives in Las Cruces. “The Owl Bar in San Antonio has always been a must-stop for me.”
New Mexico’s 35 state parks include Elephant Butte Lake, City of Rocks, Rockhound, and Mesilla Valley Bosque in the south, and Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Nature Center, Eagle Nest Lake, and Sugarite Canyon up north. “People want outdoor experiences,” said state Senator Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces, who sponsored legislation that created the Outdoor Recreation Division within the New Mexico Economic Development Department in 2019. According to its website, the division’s goal is “The Outdoor Recreation Division works to ensure that all New Mexicans gain from the public health, environmental, and economic benefits of sustainable outdoor recreation.”
The state’s outdoor economy generated $2.4 billion in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, and provided more than 35,000 jobs. Senator Steinborn is also working to extend the nearly 500-mile-long Rio Grande Trail the entire length of the state, touching on four national wildlife refuges, six national monuments, one national heritage area, six state parks, 10 counties, and nearly two dozen communities.
The state Department of Cultural Affairs oversees eight New Mexico museums, including the Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, and the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. “Interest is in the eye of the beholder,” said History Museum Executive Director Billy Garrett, a former Doña Ana County commissioner who now lives in Santa Fe. “Honoring Tradition and Innovation: 100- years of Santa Fe’s Indian Market has been an especially popular exhibit. This has been especially true for family members of Native American artisans whose work is on display. We often hear how proud they are to have that work honored.
Visitors also tell us that they appreciate learning about the shift over time from Anglo control of the market to Native management.” “From a global perspective, we have visitors from all over the world, with the largest number from Mexico, the UK, and Europe,” Billy said. “Many folks I have talked to really are impressed with the diversity of New Mexico to include the seven life zones and our cultural/socio/economic diversity,” Garrey said. “The vastness of New Mexico is striking to folks from the overcrowded, heavily forested areas of the east.”
Story by Mike Cook | Courtesy Photos
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.
Posted by LasCruces.com