Do You Believe? A Roswell Adventure -
Welcome to Roswell sign.

When visiting Roswell, you can’t help but notice that it’s populated with little green and silver men. Lots of them, everywhere downtown. The city has embraced the alien mythology centered around the Roswell Incident that did or didn’t take place in 1947. But that’s not all there is to Roswell, so let’s explore this city of 48,000 people in southeastern New Mexico that we explored as the terminus of our road trip from Las Cruces.

Roswell History

John Chisum’s huge Jingle Bob cattle ranch was about five miles from what is now Roswell and cattle from his ranch and others were driven to market on the Chisum Trail and the Goodnight-Loving Trail, stopping at the Pecos River to water the animals. Roswell was later founded by Van C. Smith and Aaron Wilburn, who built two adobe structures in 1869. The city is named after Smith’s father, Roswell Smith.

Sculptures at the entrance to the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell.
Sculptures at the entrance to the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell.

Since its founding in 1891, the New Mexico Military Institute has been an important part of the city, as was Walker Air Force Base from 1941 to 1967. Now, the economic driver seems to be the alien allure, although there are quite a few dairy farms south of town.

The Alien Connection

The UFO Museum is just one of the many alien-themed businesses in Roswell.
The UFO Museum is just one of the many alien-themed businesses in Roswell.

When you enter Roswell, you are welcomed by an alien-themed sign. Take a stroll down Main Street in the center of downtown and you’ll discover aliens peering at you from every lamppost, waving to you from storefronts, peeking out from store displays, and beckoning you to take part in a wide range of alien-themed adventures, from virtual reality experiences and tours to museums, interactive black-light adventures, and even Lego aliens. From local businesses to big-name fast food restaurants, they’ve embraced the aliens!

Signage at a shop in Roswell featuring aliens.
Aliens are everywhere in downtown Roswell, beckoning you to visit various businesses.

I’ll admit that we didn’t try any of them, although we did see several groups of people heading into the museum. When we stopped by the city’s visitor center and asked their advice about things to do while in town, the list started with alien activities and much of their merchandise is on that theme, as are the city’s logo and welcome signs. A friend who visited a while back enjoyed using an app to search for aliens around Main Street in exchange for prizes at the visitor center.

Roswell really gets into the alien culture in July when the city hosts the annual UFO Festival. There are parades, contests, presentations, and lots of other fun for people who believe or just want to enjoy the celebration.

Exploring Roswell Beyond the Aliens

Display at the Roswell Museum of Native American garments and pottery.
One of the many fine displays at the Roswell Museum depicting the area’s Native American cultures.

One of my favorite places to visit in Roswell is the Roswell Museum & Art Center. This 50,000-square-foot facility was founded as the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center through the WPA (Works Progress Administration) 10 years before the Roswell Incident. It became a cultural hub and a place to display national shows through the Federal Art Program and local exhibits. In 1942, the city took over the museum, which has had outstanding support from local patrons. Browse the galleries to enjoy pieces from their impressive permanent collection by famous artists like Peter Hurd and his wife Henriette Wyeth Hurd, Ernest Blumenschein, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Fritz Scholder as well as more contemporary artists. There are many displays focused on the history of the area and Native Americans.

A small portion of the reconstructed workshop of Robert Goddard.
A small portion of the reconstructed workshop of Robert Goddard.

One wing of the museum is dedicated to the life and work of Roswell resident Robert Goddard, known as the Father of Modern Rocketry. He moved to Roswell from Massachusetts when his rocket tests frightened neighbors and caused a stir. His workshop has been reconstructed within the museum and there is also a planetarium. Find the museum at 1011 N. Richardson Ave.

Explore the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art at 409 E. College Blvd., founded in 1994 to showcase the art created through the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program, which began in 1967. The museum has 12 galleries and 22,000 square feet of exhibition space and also hosts a variety of special programming. The museum is free to visit and is open daily except for major holidays.

You may enjoy a visit to the Miniatures and Curious Collections Museum, 320 N. Richardson Ave., which is just a few steps from what we were told was the only bookstore for 200 miles, the nicely organized shop called Books Again run by the Friends of the Library. Of course, we left with a pile of books to read!

The Chavez County Courthouse, built in 1911, is on Main Street in Roswell.
The Chavez County Courthouse, built in 1911, is on Main Street in Roswell.

Along Main Street, you can see the Chavez County Courthouse, which was built in 1911 in the Beaux Arts Revival “monumental civic style.” In front of the building is a POW memorial.

Another place you may want to visit is the Douglas L. McBride Museum at the New Mexico Military Institute, which was established in 1891 as a military high school and junior college and is known as the West Point of the West. The campus is on the National Register of Historic Places. Just a few of the school’s famous alumni include Sam Donaldson, Peter Hurd, Conrad Hilton, Roger Staubach, and Owen Wilson. Along with the museum, there are collections around the campus that you can explore.

A mural honoring Elizabeth Garrett, a Roswell native who wrote the state song.
A mural honoring Elizabeth Garrett, a Roswell native who wrote the state song.

Speaking of famous people who lived in or visited Roswell, you can discover even more of them at the museum of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico at 200 N. Lea. Roswell residents and visitors include cattlemen Charles Goodnight and John Chisum, famous bad boy Billy the Kid and the sheriff who shot him down, Pat Garrett, whose blind daughter Elizabeth Garrett wrote our state song. Charles Lindbergh visited Robert Goddard, whose work he supported. Singer John Denver was born in Roswell when his father was stationed at Roswell Army Air Field and Roy Rogers’ first wife was a Roswell native, Arline Wilkins. Roswell was home to some famous athletes, too, from golfer Nancy Lopez to Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.

Visit a Piece of World War II History

An Iron Cross in stone created by German POWs in Roswell during World War II.
An Iron Cross in stone created by German POWs in Roswell during World War II.

Like many isolated communities during World War II, Roswell was the site of a POW camp. Prisoners ended up as work crews. Some of the 4,800 German prisoners in Roswell were assigned to work on Spring River Parkway, which now has 5.5 miles of paved trails for walking and biking. The German POWs were bold enough to create an iron cross, a symbol of Germany, in the stonework. When it was discovered, it was covered with concrete. But eventually, the concrete wore away to again reveal the cross, and by the 1980s, the enmity between the two countries had also eroded. Now it is a central feature of the MIA/POW Park, along with a section of the Berlin Wall. Find it at North Pennsylvania Avenue and 10th Street.

If you’re interested in military history, you’ll also want to visit the Walker Aviation Museum, which records the history of Roswell Army Air Field/Walker Air Force Base.

Stops for Animal Lovers

Geese at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Roswell.
Geese at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Roswell.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to explore nature and add to your birding life list. It’s just a few miles outside of town and free to visit. The visitor center is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the refuge is open daily during daylight hours.

You can get an even closer view of animals at the Spring River Zoo, which houses animals from around the region and the world. You can also enjoy a wooden horse carousel and a miniature train from Easter weekend through September 30. The zoo is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last admission at 3 p.m. It’s free to visit and operated by the City of Roswell.

A recommended spot for birding in town is the J. Kenneth Smith Bird Sanctuary and Nature Center at 401 N. Sycamore. It attracts a variety of local and migratory birds with water features and fruiting mulberry trees. More than 100 bird species have been recorded at the sanctuary.

If you want to have some quiet time or enjoy a picnic, visit 26-acre Cahoon Park at 1101 W. 4th St., which has picnic tables, play facilities, restrooms, and a lovely sunken garden.

Where to Stay

There are plenty of hotels in Roswell along with some area RV parks for those who brought their lodgings with them. We stayed at Bottomless Lakes State Park, which is just 14 miles southeast of Roswell and offers adventures of its own.

Day Trips from Roswell

Roswell is just about a three-hour road trip from Las Cruces and makes a great home base for day trips around the area. In 90 minutes or less, you can get to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, stopping at Artesia and the city of Carlsbad on the way, Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner Historic Site to learn more about the history of Indigenous people who were forced to relocate there, or Ruidoso to explore the cool mountain town.

Story and photography by Cheryl Fallstead

Cheryl Fallstead loves exploring the outdoors and nature while visiting new places. She often travels with her husband, Brian, and little dog, Penny.

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