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Roswell, New Mexico: The town with an identity crisis

Roswell, New Mexico: The town with an identity crisis

Last Updated on October 22, 2023

When we were planning our New Mexico road trip, it was clear that we could not NOT go to Roswell, the tiny town in the middle of nowhere that suddenly raised to fame in 1947 when a UFO crashed here… apparently. But more on that later.

roswell new mexico 1947Even though we’re no UFO proponents and not sure how we felt about the UFO conspiracies surrounding Roswell, we wanted to see the place and learn more about the crash. And when we discovered that Roswell was half-way between Carlsbad Caverns and our next stop Las Vegas (New Mexico, not Nevada) anyway, there was no question that we’d spend a night here.

roswell new mexico alienFrom the minute we drove into Roswell it appeared that the town was all about the famous UFO crash. Bright green aliens were staring at us from car dealerships, fast food restaurants, doughnut shops and garages. The local Roswell radio station advertised with aliens, McDonald’s built a custom-made space-themed branch here, and even a local tattoo parlor used an alien as their mascot.

Aliens in Roswell New MexicoAnd we hadn’t even reached the main street yet, where we’d encounter more ‘alien-ness’: An alien-themed Mexican restaurant, alien-shaped street lights, ‘UFO parking only’ signs in the car parks, even a loan shark who advertised with aliens (!) and of course a number of alien and UFO related souvenir shops.

Aliens in Roswell New MexicoWe had to visit Roswell’s small airport to add a second driver to our rental (because it turned out that Jess’ license had expired, leaving me, the foreigner, driving 2,000 miles across New Mexico and finally all the way to Chicago!) where we found ourselves greeted by several aliens as well – even our rental company’s desk had several aliens to welcome us.

Airport Roswell New MexicoOf course there’s also alien beer in Roswell (actually a neat souvenir, you can pick it up in any of the large supermarkets but note that alcohol is not sold on Sundays).

roswell new mexico alien beerAt first sight, everything here seems to be about the funny-looking creatures that put this otherwise uninteresting place on the world map nearly 70 years ago. Main Street, the thoroughfare through the town, is also home to the UFO Museum and International Research Center and the Alien Zone. It is around this stretch of the street where most tourists gather – families, Harley bikers, UFO conspiracists or just curious road trippers like us.

roswell new mexico ufo museumWe headed to the UFO Museum and International Research Center first, eager to learn more about the UFO crash – or The Roswell UFO Incident as it is officially referred to – and the conspiracies around it. Had there really been a UFO crash at all? Were people abducted by aliens? Were aliens taken into captivity to research their bodies? According to the UFO Museum: yes, yes and yes.

roswell new mexico ufo museum displayBut it also became quickly evident that the second part of the museum’s name ‘International Research Center’, (and the museum itself) is way less significant than it sounds. Instead of a sleek, informative museum, we found a place that seemingly has not been updated in any way since the 1980s (except for the addition of poster of the TV show ‘Roswell’, which aired in the late 90s). The exhibits range from childish to ridiculous – as if a bunch of fourth-graders had provided the displays for the museum.

roswell new mexico ufo museum incident timelineWe now also realized why the lady at the entrance had pointed out that the $5 ticket was valid for multiple entries throughout the day: There was so much reading material on the walls, from old newspaper articles to printed interviews with eye witnesses, that it took a while to read through all the info and some folks might want to go and get a coffee in between.

The saddest aspect of the museum was that you didn’t even need to visit it to learn all the facts they presented – there was nothing here that you couldn’t find on the internet, and it actually felt like we paid $5 to read the Wikipedia entry on the Roswell UFO incident and could’ve found better information on Roswell-related websites.

roswell new mexico ufo museum displayWhen a cheap light show started around some aliens that were displayed in the center of the museum, we couldn’t take any of it serious anymore:

We left disappointed and went to the Alien Zone just a few minutes down the road, which was supposed to more interesting with actual aliens, and the option to play with them! Okay, ‘real’ aliens might take it a step too far. Look for yourself:

Alien Zone New MexicoWhile the Alien Zone was definitely more fun than the UFO Museum, the place still felt utterly outdated. In the gift shop area, where you buy your ticket for the Alien Zone ($3 per person), they were still selling UFO magazines from 2002, and some of the souvenirs seemed to be from the 1990s. The yellowed postcards certainly had been laying in the store for many years.

Roswell New MexicoWe felt that both the museum and the Alien Zone, along with all the souvenir shops, could use some fresh paint, but we are not sure if Roswell still wants to push the UFO-related tourism. Sure, that’s what made the town famous and brought in hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars, made people stop and spend money here who would’ve just passed through had Roswell not been the place of the alleged UFO crash.

However, nobody who was working in one of the alien-related establishments seemed overly enthusiastic or proud to be there, and it didn’t seem like any of the Roswell residents who were NOT working on Main Street would ever come down here.

Alien Zone Roswell New MexicoWe left the Main Street to see what else Roswell New Mexico had to offer, but came to realize quickly that there is not much beyond the ‘alien zone’. Just venturing a couple of blocks away from Main Street we saw many empty houses and closed-up shops, streets and sidewalks in need of repair and buildings where the paint was peeling off.

roswell new mexico empty buildingIt seemed that the historic center would be completely dead if the Roswell UFO Incident wasn’t still attracting tourists from all over the world.

roswell new mexico rundown streetThe town had tried to expand their tourist attractions several times – in the 1990s, the Anderson Museum Of Contemporary Art opened its doors, and is regularly named as one of the best contemporary art museums in the South West, but if you decide to head there when passing through Roswell, you will barely encounter another visitor (even though it’s free!).

roswell new mexico ufo & alien stuffIn the early 2000s, the Pecos Flavors Winery opened on Main Street in midst of the alien madness, in an effort to promote wines and beers produced in New Mexico and to bring a higher-class establishment to the area. They don’t produce any wines themselves or brew their own beer, but the winery has a large variety of wines and micro-brews from all of New Mexico, many of which are of a surprisingly good quality (even though the state isn’t particularly known for either one!). While you’re trying some wine or beer here (I can vouch for the Alien Amber Ale, despite the cheesy name), you can also pick up New Mexico-made products such as chiles, pecans, pistachios, cheeses and even coffee!

roswell new mexico alien zone hqRoswell beyond the historic center is actually a pretty little town, with some gorgeous historic southern houses in a quaint setting.

Houses in Roswell New MexicoIt felt like people here were ready to move away from the UFO crash that made the city famous, especially since none of the witnesses of the incident are alive anymore. That nobody makes the effort to update the museum or the old alien puppets in the Alien Zone is another sign that Roswell’s residents don’t really care about the UFO conspiracies, but they also don’t really seem to know how to develop and brand their town differently. It felt like the town was in an identity crisis – trying to let go off the past, but uncertain in what direction to head.

Roswell New mexicoI hope that Roswell, New Mexico will be able to reinvent itself, because, quite frankly, the antiquated UFO Research Center won’t cut it much longer.

Roswell New Mexico all about aliensroswell new mexico aliensRoswell New Mexico Aliens everywhere

Roswell resident

Friday 20th of October 2023

I am a life long resident of Roswell New Mexico and I agree that the UFO attraction is pretty odd but almost all examples of abandoned buildings and buildings in need of repair no longer need repair and haven’t for quite some time. I recommend for anyone visiting Roswell visit the shops on Main Street and not just the alien themed shops. Good things to do in Roswell would be to visit the planetarium, Stellar coffee shop for a good snack and drink, Main Street arts, laser tag, Graves Farm, and Roswell Wildlife Refuge. Roswell is a good place to visit if you see the right places. Roswell isn’t a town having or had an identity crisis.

Garth Graves

Sunday 26th of March 2023

My parents moved to Roswell from West Texas in 1941, when I was six months old. During WWII, my dad worked at the Roswell Army Air Field, which later became Walker Air Force Base. After the war, the military brought the Enola Gay to RAAF, one of the B-29 airplanes that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. For several years after that, the RAAF was the only nuclear capable base in the world. The alleged UFO crash happened in July 1947. I was six years old at the time, and remember some talk about it, but Dad worked at the base and really didn't talk about it much. I graduated from Roswell High School in 1959, and can't recall anyone talking about the crash during those years. Then in about 1970, the book "The Roswell Incident" came out and the Roswell Chamber of Commerce decided to capitalize on that. The annual UFO Festival was started, growing to the huge event it is today. Before that, Roswell was known for it's world class artesian basin, with the world's largest free-flowing artesian well, and for South Springs Ranch, the headquarters of the ranch of the famous cattleman, John Chisum. William H. Bonnie, aka Billy The Kid, once worked for Chisum. Pat Garrett, the sheriff who killed Billy The Kid, once lived in Roswell and helped establish the Hagerman Irrigation Canal, used to irrigate farms in the area. During the early 1960s Roswell was a beehive of activity, with a major SAC base with some 48 B-52 bombers and 12 Intercontinental ballistic missile sites. The base was on Code Red during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.


Friday 23rd of September 2016

Your post highlights one of my ongoing frustrations with living in Roswell: the City is too restricted in its promotional campaigns. You came here expecting UFO-related stuff, and you clearly got it, but did you know about any of the other attractions Roswell has to offer? I doubt it, because it gets under the radar. A lot of our residents don't even know about these other places, or haven't visited them recently.

For example, I wish you'd had time to stop by the Roswell Museum and Art Center, which has been around since 1937. It's got an art collection on par with the museums in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, thousands of historical artifacts from the Southwest, from armor to beaded dresses to rifles, AND the rocketry equipment of Robert H. Goddard, one of the first scientists to seriously experiment with liquid-fuel propulsion back in the 1920s and 1930s. And it's all FREE to the public. I'll admit I'm biased because I work here, but the point is that there is a lot more to Roswell than the whole Ufology thing. There's the ranching history, the archaeological richness of the surrounding areas, an enviable Artist-in-Residency program that has been running for nearly 50 years now , some great WPA projects at Cahoon Park, City Hall, and other places, not the mention the natural wonders of Bitter Lakes, a federal bird sanctuary, and Bottomless Lakes State Park, which features a series of turquoise-colored sinkholes surrounded by red rocks. Plus there are several museums in town beyond the UFO Institute. In addition to RMAC, there's the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico, even the airport has a little museum dedicated to the former Walker Air Force Base. The campus of the New Mexico Military Institute, founded in 1891, is also nice to walk around in and explore.

You're absolutely right that the City is experiencing an identity crisis and doesn't quite know what it wants to be, but seriously, there's definitely more to Roswell than UFOs.

Gary G

Tuesday 17th of May 2016

I moved here about 25 years ago working as an engineer in the oil and gas industry. I was aware of the alleged space craft crash years before I ever thought of being a residence of Roswell. I actually read many books about the subject including Communion, circa 70's. After moving here, one of my neighbors, an elder man at the time, Walter Haut, who was the press secretary in the military during the time of episodes and good friends of the RN who mysteriously disappeared, was responsible for gathering and releasing the story to the public. But ten years before I ever thought I would be residing here, living in Louisiana and working as an offshore platform engineer, I met a nurse who was taking care of General Marcel during his retirement days. Her stories conveyed from Marcel seemed like science fiction at the time, but held my undivided attention nonetheless. I was familiar with NM because I am a native of that state, avid hiker and fisherman of the mountains and streams. I also a lot, mostly technical books and including encounters with extraterrestrials people claimed to have had. Not to say too much, I must say my Great Aunt, being in love with New Mexico had refurbished an old Hacienda in Tularosa, NM, in the 60's, with adobe walls, a large yard surrounded by turquoise colored and carved wooded gates, the lizards and roadrunners cohabitated with her and her visitors and where my parents would also spend a few days seasonally allowing me to wander the area as a curious adventurous ten year old. Years later, I discovered that my aunt's long term tenant was none other than rancher Mr. Brazel. They told me not to bother him as he was a disturbed and unhappy man. He needed his rest and quite. However, as I sat by myself on a bench over the adobe Saltillo tiles, in the Hacienda's court yard, he approached me carrying a old cigar box. He sat next to me, and began a normal grown-up to kid conversation about things I do not remember. But then he asked if wanted to see ' a critter hand". Being a great hunter of lizards, rabbits, turtles and everything else that comes natural to a boy or gilr my age I said yeah. I don't even remember knowing what he had asked me, because I didn't really comprehend what he was saying, until years later when I put 2 and 2 together. He opened his box and inside what I thought was a dried up frog or similar critter of reasonable size. I couldn't make heads or tails of it and couldn't perceive a critter, but hey I had seen several dried up critters, -had some at home. But I do remember the word 'hand' and my initial thought before he opened the box was the infamous hand on the then popular Adams Family TV series. But this thing didn't look like 'the hand" so my cognitive response was 'duh". He didn't say much, yes he did looked disturbed and unhappy. Years later, I came to realize what he showed me was a hand from an alien being, and not any relation to the aliens we have that have flooded New Mexico and many parts of the USA which are mostly illegal.

jim douglas

Saturday 19th of March 2016

After spending several years narrowing down hundreds of places to retire I settled In Roswell a couple years ago, and love it. It has some of the best year round weather in the country, walking around you meet friendly people not graffiti on walls, There is little crime, and it's a great place to raise a family. If you want another lifeless big box city that's great- but I prefer this traditional American town. The author managed to take shots of some of the worst old buildings in town not the typical beautiful neighborhoods. The city is gradually tearing down some of the abandoned buildings. After going through Roswell for 8 years, and living here two I finally visited the UFO museum, although I've never been in the souvenir shops. We welcome the visitors and I'll take the many families enjoying our downtown UFO gift shops to many of the other cities that I've been to with deserted boarded up buildings in the city center any day!