[updated January 2019 with help from Pattie]
I travel a lot, both for work, and some with family. One of the areas I most enjoy visiting is New Mexico. I have been visiting NM nearly yearly for over two decades. There is something about the combination of scenery, food, and general atmosphere that appeals to me; I find the geology of NM particularly interesting. I haven’t lived there, although I hope to spend my upcoming sabbatical in the Albuquerque area, so it will be interesting to see how my impressions hold up over an extended visit.
In recent weeks I have spoken with 3 different couples who are headed to NM for something or other. I provided some recommendations based on my experiences. Now, in the spirit of “If you need to do something 3 times, find a way to automate it” I have decided to jot down some notes here for others.
I have broken this out by general areas of the state. I have not been everywhere in NM yet, and in some places I’ve only spent a few hours. So, if I missed something important, let me know in the comments. BTW, check the comments for more info and ideas from some locals.
FYI, my favorite place to get away for a few days is Old Town Santa Fe, so that has a section all its own, below.
A few things that I especially recommend have a ♥ symbol next to them.
I have yet to make it to NW New Mexico, to the Four Corners area. That is on my list.
In North-Central NM is the Carson National Forest, which I have yet to explore.
Taos is in this part of the state. If you like to ski, I’m told the skiing is nice. I found it to be a pleasant town, but I was not overly impressed. I also didn’t hear the infamous “Taos Hum” that 2% of the population hears.
The Taos Pueblo is worth a visit. It has been inhabited for over 1000 years, and there aren’t many places in North America that can make that claim. This is also a great place to buy some native-made jewelry and art, while also experiencing some history.
Taos is also part of the “Enchanted Circle” of ski resorts, artist galleries, and scenery.
If you are in the area, head NW on US 64 out of Taos. a bit out of town is one of the Overland Outfitters stores. It is one of the older ones and has quite a nice selection of items of leather, sheepskin, and more. Continue NW on US 64 to the ♥ High Bridge, the 7th highest bridge in the US. It, and the Rio Grande gorge, sort of “appear” as you drive towards them. It is an amazing view of the gorge, but you may want to avoid it if you have a problem with heights (or depths!).
If you have time, or it is on your route, get on US 285 S to NM 567, then to NM 570 to NM 68 S. I doubt this is a good route in the winter, but in the summer it is scenic and quite pleasant. This eventually connects up to US 84 if you are headed to points south.
Along US 285, south of where it enters the Carson National Forest is the town of Ojo Caliente. On route NM 414 to the west is a well-known mineral hot springs & spa resort that I’m told is quite good. They also have private pools for starry night soaking outdoors.
Los Alamos, White Rock
There are a few ways to get to Los Alamos. The “back way” on NM 4 through Jemez Springs is a lovely drive, and passes some interesting geological formations; it may be a difficult drive in the winter. A bit north of Jemez Springs is “Soda Dam” — an area of fascinating mineral deposits caused by hot springs with minerals dissolved in them. The springs still bubble up there.
South of Los Alamos on NM 4 is Bandelier National Monument. This is an archaeological preserve where native Americans carved homes out of the tuff (soft stone formed from volcanic ash) hundreds of years ago. If the area isn’t closed because of weather or wildfire, it makes for an interesting walk around the main path; there are some 70 miles of trail in the overall park.
Los Alamos the town, and Los Alamos the National Lab are skirted to the south by NM 4, and somewhat to the north by NM 501/NM 502. The lab doesn’t have anything for the public to see unless you count driving past a few ominous low buildings surrounded by multiple rings of barbed-wire fences and walls — don’t stop to take pictures unless you want to meet armed guards who ask you lots of pointed questions!
Los Alamos and White Rock have a number of interesting things to see and do:
- ♥ The Bradbury Science Museum is operated by the lab and has a changing set of exhibits. The permanent exhibits give a history of the lab, the development of the atomic bomb, and a fair amount on nuclear physics, including some hands-on exhibits for kids.
- ♥ The White Rock Overlook in the town of White Rock provides a spectacular view of the Rio Grande Gorge.
- ♥ The [Anderson Overlook] is just outside of Los Alamos to the west on NM 502, and gives an incredible view of the mountains and valley to the west.
- The Don Quixote Distillery & Winery has some interesting local versions of gin, and even a blue corn vodka, although I’ve heard some of the wine is not so great.
- I’ve heard some good things about the Los Alamos Nature Center but have not been able to visit yet.
- One of my favorite bookstores, Otawi Station in Los Alamos, closed permanently several years ago; if you’ve heard me mention it before, well…
One of the features in the area you don’t immediately notice because of its size is the Valles Caldera. Actually, everything in this area is on the flanks and residue of that ancient (but believed only dormant) supervolcano that has a rim 22km in diameter! This whole northwestern part of New Mexico is volcanic in origin, and there is still considerable geothermal activity, including hot springs, with some seismic activity.
There are so many things in the area that I find interesting, I’m not sure I can list them all.
Santa Fe is a sprawling small city. I am not familiar with much of it, but the area I have spent a lot of time in is the Old Town area and vicinity. You can easily fill several days wandering the shops and restaurants. If you are after art expressed in some physical format — in wood, stone, oil, metal, or some combination — you can find it in the area, in price ranges from $50 to hundreds of thousands (at least). Antiques abound, as does hand-crafted jewelry.
Your best bet if you want to see the area is to stay at one of the hotels in town. That also covers your parking, which can be difficult to find in town.
I have stayed at a half-dozen of the hotels in the area. Here are a few I can recommend based on my stays and the recommendations of others.
- Hilton Santa Fe Hilton consistency with distinctive NM touch.
- Eldorado Hotel & Spa Higher end accommodation
- La Fonda Actually, on the plaza itself
- Inn of the Governors Near the plaza, good value
- Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi Interesting restaurant
- The Madeleine A very nice B&B
- The Inn & Spa at Loretto Higher end, fantastic restaurant
There are lots more, in every price range. Some of the hotels also offer “casitas” — detached, small cottages in town.
Nearly every place you can eat offers something interesting. I can’t begin to list them all. I do suggest you get a reservation for any place you really have your heart set on visiting.
To the north of Santa Fe on US 64 is one of my favorite restaurants: ♥ Gabriel’s. If you are in the area, you really should have lunch or dinner there.
We also liked the restaurants at the Inn at Loretto (the ♥ Luminaria) and La Fonda (La Plazuela). I would suggest dinner at the former and lunch at the latter. The restaurant at Inn of the Anasazi is also quite good.
Having lunch or breakfast at the Plaza Café diner is recommended. It may not look like much from outside, but the food I’ve had there is good, as is the pinyon coffee.
We have a certain affinity for the Blue Corn Café — it is not overly special, but I’ve been stopping there for years because of its convenient location. Get the chile “Christmas” — both red and green.
The Coyote Café & Cantina has higher-end dining that isn’t always overtly regional in nature, but the food is great (although more expensive than many of the other places mentioned here).
There are all sorts of food guides to the area, and lots of people will share recommendations. Your best bet is to wander around and identify some candidates. Before you ask for recommendations, get some idea if you want a cozy, romantic dinner, or a family-style meal to help narrow the list.
North of Santa Fe about 20 miles is the ♥ Rancho de Chimayo. It is a restaurant in an old hacienda, nestled in a small valley near a creek. The food is good but not outstanding, but combined with the setting makes it well worth adding to your list if you are in the area for a few days.
“Eater” (online magazine) published an article that lists some other notable spots to get food.
Art galleries abound in the area. If that is what you want to buy, get one of the maps or guides. You will also find some in the general area around the plaza.
If you spend a day or two wandering the shops within 2-3 blocks of the plaza, you will find all kinds of amazing things. Some of these buildings are historic, so don’t make a presumption of what is inside by what the outside looks like. Besides, half the fun is in the exploration! You will find everything from high-end shops to quirky artist boutiques.
The market held on the patio of the old palace on the square, features handmade items (mostly jewelry) by local, native artisans. That occurs nearly daily, depending on the weather. There are many unique and beautiful pieces, although not always the best prices. There is an annual large-scale market in the fall that features Native American artisans from all over that is amazing to visit.
When I’ve been there, the plaza has lights at night, and sometimes a band performing. It is quite nice, although there are a lot of panhandlers that seem to come out at night. It’s even more decorated during the end-of-year holiday season (although colder).
♥ Shops where I usually stage a visit include the Overland Outfitters (I’ve gotten several coats there), the Santa Fe Olive Oil & Balsamic Co (taste scores of exotic flavors), the Chile Shop (everything chile related), the Earthfire Gems Gallery for all sorts of fossils and minerals, O’Farrell Hat Shop (I’ve gotten two custom-made hats), Keshi Zuni (lots of hand carved fetish animals), and Boots & Boogie (the owner makes custom western boots and is a real character). Those are simply the ones I remember off the top, but there are scores more worth seeing. Every time I visit, I find more.
You will find shops selling all kinds of native pottery, weavings, clothes, jewelry, wall hangings, lights, woodworking, exotic foods, cookware, and more. If you like to window shop, this is the place.
One warning — if you see something you love but the price makes you hesitate, keep in mind that many store owners will discount items if it isn’t the height of tourist season (and sometimes even then). Many things are marked up specifically to let them appear to give a discount, so ask to see if you can get the price reduced. Also, unless it is absolutely one-of-a-kind that you’ve always wanted, make a note and keep shopping: you may find something like it at another store, and less expensive.
♥ ♥ Away from Old Town is Meow Wolf. I can’t possibly do this justice in words. It is a combination of art installation, science-fiction role-play, amusement park, a social encounter, and a set of inside jokes, all in one. Allow a few hours so you don’t feel rushed, and explore. If you have kids with you they may not want to leave; if your “inner child” is within reach, you may not either. Highly recommended. Be sure to crawl through the fireplace and walk into the refrigerator (there, does that intrigue you?).
10,000 Waves is the best Japanese baths outside Japan, according to some of my friends. Get a tub outside at night and see the stars without urban light pollution! Or, get a massage and spa treatment.
To the north of Santa Fe, on US 64 is the opera house. You might not immediately think of opera and NM, but it has a world-class reputation, and a high-profile set of performances every year. (Arts, in general, are quite good in the area.)
To the east of the plaza is the historic Loretto Chapel, completed in 1878. For a fee, you can tour the inside, including seeing the “miraculous” spiral staircase. (Loretto is no longer a consecrated chapel, but is a dedicated museum.)
I’ve already mentioned the art galleries, especially along Canyon Road. There are also several museums. I wasn’t overly impressed by the Georgia O’Keefe museum, but the New Mexico Museum of Art was well worth the time. If you do a search on “Santa Fe Museums” you will get a long list with lots of recommendations.
If you can find the Santa Fe Distillery tasting room, it is worth a visit, especially on a cold day. Their products are quite interesting (in a good sense), and you especially need to try some Atapiño. I wish I had had more room in my luggage for bottles when I visited!
This is the biggest city in NM. This is likely where you’ll fly in if you are coming from out of state. I haven’t explored too much of the city yet, but there are a few things I can recommend so far.
Old Town is a set of shops and restaurants. There are several interesting things to see here, but I prefer Santa Fe’s version.
Sandia Peak is an uplift that towers over Albuquerque. You can get to the top by taking a cable car tram from Albuquerque, or by taking the ♥ scenic drive around from the other side and up NM 536 from NM 14. The view is incredible, with an elevation of 6850 ft above Albuquerque (10,678 ft above sea level). The temperature can be 20-30 degrees below what you are experiencing in the city, so bring a jacket!
If you take the drive, you can continue up NM 14, the Turquoise Trail, and see all sorts of old mining towns and artist colonies. It’s a pleasant drive compared to the Interstate, but it does take longer.
Albuquerque is full of great restaurants. Currently, my favorite is ♥ El Pinto. You can find a huge variety on the menu, and they make their own salsas.
The annual balloon festival may be worth a visit, but if you go my advice is to avail yourself of the shuttle service from one of the satellite parking spots. Note that admission prices are steep, and if you go on a day when the weather isn’t good (windy, especially) there isn’t much to see except vendors.
If you are in Socorro (south of Albuquerque on I-25) with a few hours to spare and you have an element of geek, then you should detour to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Very Large Array. Take US 60 W through Magdalena to NM 52 S. Then watch for the signs. There is a small charge for the tour, but it is interesting, as is the small gift shop.
Sky City Cultural Center, Acoma Pueblo, and Haak’u Museum
About an hour west of Albuquerque, this is the ancestral home of the Acoma Pueblo Tribe, who settled and built a village upon a large mesa in the desert around 1100. Visiting is a breathtaking and humbling experience and absolutely worth doing. Check in at the ♥ Sky City Cultural Center is required, as non-tribal members may not go to the village unescorted. Part of the admission cost is your photo license. Be prepared to have a sticker put on your phone or camera, whichever you plan to use to take pictures. A shuttle is provided to transport the group to the village.
Fifty or so people live on the mesa year round. The tour guides are members of the Acoma Tribe and are well versed in the history of the people and the area. Local artisans sell small clay and bead works in the village along the route of the tour. Prices are reasonable and while some take credit cards, most do not. It’s best to take along some cash if you are planning to make a purchase. Everyone we met was warm and friendly and we had a nice time chatting with some of the residents. The views from the mesa are stunning beyond compare. You really do feel like you are standing in the sky. At the end of the tour, you have the option to descend to the cultural center by foot or take the van.
Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano
Located west of Albuquerque in Grants, NM, the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano are on private land. Check in at the Trading Post, which was originally built in 1930s as a dance hall. It houses lots of interesting artifacts and information about the land as well as a nice array of souvenirs. The hike up to the side of the volcano is a little steep, but nicely kept up and an easy walk. There are benches along the way to where one can stop, rest, and take in the scenery. The tour is self-guided so you can set your own pace. Points of interest along the way are very clearly marked and the map we were given had information about each stop along the way.
Once we hiked to the volcano, we swung back to walk to the ice cave. Don’t imagine that you are going to walk into a place like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, you aren’t. The ice cave is the end of a collapsed lava tube that was formed when the Bandera Volcano erupted about 10,000 years ago. It maintains a pool of ice nearly year round. The owners have built a set of stairs that lead to a viewing deck at the mouth of the cave. It is a fascinating piece of local history that is a bit off the beaten path. It has been nick-named the Land of Fire and Ice (George R. R. Martin has certainly left his mark upon the area.) We did not visit the wolf sanctuary near there where a pack of white wolves has been named for members of the Stark family from the Game of Thrones Series.
Valley of Fires
We happened across the recreational area quite by accident and what a little gem it was. The Valley of Fires is one of the youngest lava flows in North America. Roughly 5,000 years ago, the Little Black Peak erupted and spewed lava that filled the Tularosa Basin. The resulting lava field covers approximately 125 square miles, and in some places is 160 feet thick! There is a nice paved path (wheelchair accessible, by the way) through part of the lava. The rolling ropes of pahoehoe lava make for an otherworldly landscape. While plant life is slowly retaking the area, the lava is beautifully preserved. We found this stop to be a nice break during the long drive across the state from Carlsbad to Albuquerque.
Truth or Consequences
I’ve stayed at a wonderful small spa hotel with geothermal hot springs, the ♥ Sierra Grande, which I can recommend. The Sierra was purchased by Ted Turner a few years back, and rennovated but still has the “Old NM” feel to it. Soaking in geothermal spring water at 108F in carved rock tubs is quite the experience! There are several others in the area. Well worth at least an evening’s stay.
Outside of town is Spaceport America. I have not been there, and it is supposed to be pricey, but it is home to several commercial spaceflight organizations including SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.
I stopped here briefly, for dinner, on my way north. My memory was of trying a local pecan flavored beer with my dinner. I was not impressed.
If you are driving north on the roads here and look vaguely Hispanic, be sure you have ID with you. This is close enough to the border with Mexico (and El Paso) that Immigration has some checkpoints to try to catch undocumented immigrants.
If you take US 70 NW out of Las Cruces, you will encounter ♥ White Sands National Monument before you reach Alamogordo. This is well worth a visit. It is a desert, but not of regular sand, but of gypsum crystals. It is like nothing else I’ve ever seen.
The drive on US 82 through the Lincoln National Forest has a 4300ft vertical change between Alamogordo and Cloudcroft. This is one of the highest elevations in the US. It is a very scenic area, with wonderful forest and the smell of pine. I would like to visit there again and maybe stay longer. Stop in to the Burro Street Bakery for a piece of pie, and imagine you are in Twin Peaks.
The name of this town is based on the fact that it originally had many artesian wells. It was a major agriculture center until the aquifer was drawn down in the 1920s. Now, the area has a boom in oil and gas production from a variety of wells, going below the strata where all the water was. There are a few things of interest to see in the town, but the main reason I stayed here was I was spending a few days in the area and they had a good selection of hotels.
This is a national park that is a ♥ “must see” if you are in the area. Spend the day on some of the main paths, or get on one of the guided tours. At the end of the day, from May to October, sit in the amphitheater and watch the exit of hundreds of thousands of bats on their nightly hunt. It is an amazing place to explore. (Nearby is Lechuguilla Cave, which is not open to the public, but is the deepest cave system in the US.)
I recommend taking the natural entrance into the cave, as the walk from there is mostly downhill into the main part.
Last, but not least, is the home of UFO lore. UFOs and extraterrestrials are the theme of many things in town, including a museum, several gift shops, and even restaurants. I found some wonderfully fun gifts, including my UFO driver’s license. I managed to see most of the interesting things in about 3 hours, but that may be because it all started to run together after a while.
To the east, is the Bitter Lake Wildlife refuge, and the Bottomless Lakes State Park. The former is interesting because of the rare species and diversity, and the later because of the line of water-filled cenotes. Follow NM 380 southwest from Roswell.