New Mexico's Most Populous County
As far as land area goes, Bernalillo is one of New Mexico's smaller counties. In terms of population, though, it's certainly the largest. In 2021, it was more than three times larger than any other county in New Mexico.
Many of Bernalillo County's residents live in the city of Albuquerque. Known as the Sunbelt City, it's the biggest municipality in New Mexico. According to 2019 census data, it's also the 32nd-largest city in the United States.
Bernalillo County is known for its beautiful weather. It's sunny in Albuquerque about 310 days each year. The summers do get quite hot, but the winters stay pleasant thanks to the dry climate. There are distinct seasons, but you won't find endless days of snow and ice in Albuquerque. While other parts of the U.S. are covered in a blanket of white, you can still enjoy the great outdoors in Bernalillo County.
Spanish, Mexican and American History
For much of the 17th century, Spain controlled the territory that is now New Mexico. In 1680, the indigenous population rose up against the Spanish. Through the Pueblo Revolt, they did win their freedom for a short time. By 1696, however, the region was once again under Spanish control. It became known as New Spain.
There was a military outpost in the area. In 1695, it was first referred to as Bernalillo. A family with the surname Bernal resided nearby, so historians believe that the location was named for them.
When Mexico won independence from Spain in the early 1800s, the Bernalillo area was included in the region known as Nuevo Mejico. The land was then divided into smaller territories. First, in 1823, it was organized into four cabeceras. Reorganization in 1844 created three prefecturas. At that time, today's Bernalillo County was part of the Rio Abajo section.
In 1846, New Mexico was claimed by the U.S. government. The Territory of New Mexico was officially formed in 1850. The territory was divided into counties in 1852. One of them was Bernalillo County, named for the town that was initially used as the county seat.
In 1851, the county seat was relocated to Ranchos de Albuquerque. Over the next three decades, the county seat shifted locations a few times. In 1883, though, Albuquerque was firmly established as the permanent county seat.
The first county courthouse was constructed in 1886. A new courthouse building was put up in 1926. It was renovated in 1964 and remains the courthouse today.
Bernalillo County's Diverse Geography
New Mexico's Bernalillo County measures 1,169 square miles, of which only 6.4 square miles is water. That means its land area is larger than the land area of the state of Rhode Island. Amazingly, even with that prodigious size it is still New Mexico's third-smallest county by land area. Bernalillo County is just northwest of the state's center and surrounded by five other counties: Sandoval, Santa Fe, Torrance, Valencia and Cibola. Within the county's borders sit a variety of geographical features, including a river, mountains and plains.
The Rio Grande River cuts through the center of the county, dividing it east and west. The Downtown and Old Town districts of Albuquerque are situated along the banks of this calm stretch of the river.
The city of Albuquerque sits at 4,500 feet to 6,500 feet above sea level. To the east of the city are the Sandia Mountains. Sandia Peak reaches an elevation of 10,678 feet — the highest point in the county. The region on the east side of the Sandias is known as the East Mountains or the Greenside.
The Sandia Mountain Wilderness is a part of the Cibola National Forest. There's also a variety of canyons and valleys in the forest. They include Lurance Canyon and Madera Canyon.
On the opposite side of Albuquerque, you'll find five old volcanoes and the West Mesa. The volcanoes and various canyons are within the Petroglyphs National Monument park. The Mesa Grasslands Preserve to the west of the volcanoes is managed by the city of Albuquerque.
A Well-populated County
More than 30% of New Mexico's residents live in Bernalillo County. There are 568 people for every square mile of county land. 2019 census data showed a population of nearly 680,000 people. Approximately 560,000 of them lived in Albuquerque.
Just over half of the people in the county are Hispanic or Latino. 83.9% of the population is white, 3.6% is Black and 2.9% is Asian.
Also, 6.3% of Bernalillo County's population is Native American. The Pueblo of Isleta in the southern portion of the county is home to many Native Americans, particularly people of Tiwa descent.
Technology, Transportation and Movies
The New Mexico Technology Corridor, which includes Bernalillo County, houses a variety of tech companies and government institutions. Albuquerque, in particular, is a hotspot for cutting-edge companies.
For example, Sandia National Laboratories is headquartered in Albuquerque. Sandia, a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), works on research and development projects in the fields of technology and security.
Kirkland Air Force Base is in Bernalillo County. Also, 5 million people pass through the Albuquerque International Sunport each year. As the state's largest commercial airport, this facility serves eight major airlines and offers flights to more than 20 airports around the world.
The film industry has found a home in Bernalillo County. The Albuquerque Film Office provides support and coordination for television and movie production. Projects that have been filmed in Bernalillo County include "Better Call Saul," "Roswell," "Get Shorty" and "Too Old to Die Young."
Education and healthcare represent some of the largest employment sectors in the county. The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque employs over 10,000 people. Other higher education institutions include Trinity Southwest University and National American University. Optum Care, Presbyterian Hospital and the Raymond G. Murphy VA Hospital are some of the biggest healthcare organizations in the area.
The Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual festival that's held each October. This event features over 500 balloons and welcomes more than 800,000 guests each year. The Mass Ascension is the highlight of the nine-day festival.
Fiesta week isn't the only time of year that balloons are a big deal in Bernalillo County. Two men from Albuquerque, Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson, were on the first hot air balloon to travel across the Atlantic Ocean. The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum is named in their honor.
Other museums in the Sunbelt City include the American International Rattlesnake Museum, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, and the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. Additional cultural attractions include the KiMo Theatre and the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
If you enjoy hiking and other outdoor activities, the many parks and protected areas in Bernalillo County may be calling your name. The Sandia district of the Cibola National Forest has many hiking trails. There are trails to explore at Petroglyphs National Monument as well.
Albuquerque prioritizes green spaces. Parks managed by the city include Arroyo Del Oso, Country Meadows, Dennis Chavez and El Oso Grande. Many of the parks feature amenities like shelters, basketball courts and playgrounds.
The Isleta Resort and Casino offers swimming, dining and a spa. The property also has golfing, bowling, billiards and, of course, casino games.
Multiple Albuquerque neighborhoods offer unique shopping experiences. Popular retail districts include Old Town, Downtown and Nob Hill. In addition to clothing boutiques and gift shops, there are also many establishments that specialize in southwestern crafts and jewelry.
One must-eat food from the region is the biscochito cookie. This treat delivers a hint of anise flavor and is the state cookie of New Mexico. Another item to try is a breakfast burrito. Legend has it that this morning dish was invented in Albuquerque. And when you order Mexican food, consider getting it "Christmas style," which means that it will come with both red and green chile sauce.
Bernalillo County offers year-round fun. In addition to the balloon festival, other annual events include Festival Flamenco, the Albuquerque Renaissance Faire, the Albuquerque Folk Festival and the Twinkle Light Parade.
From hiking to shopping to community celebrations, the Sunbelt City offers memorable activities to suit everyone's tastes.