New Mexico — Land of Enchantment, UFOs, and More

Intro

I travel a lot, both for work, and some with family. One of the areas I most enjoy visiting is New Mexico. 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.

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.

Northern NM

Taos, etc.

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.

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 into 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) super volcano that has a rim 22km in diameter! This whole north western part of New Mexico is volcanic in origin, and there is still considerable geothermal activity, including hot springs, with some seismic activity.

Santa Fe

There are so many things in the area that I find interesting, I’m not sure I can list it 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.

Hotels

Your best bet if you want to see the area is 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.

There are lots more, in every price range. Some of the hotels also offer “casitas” — detached, small cottages in town.

Dining

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 first, and lunch at the second. 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.

La Boca features Spanish cuisine and some really nicely prepared dishes, and is near the plaza. So is the related Taberna, although I have not eaten there; it features “nuevo latino” cuisine.

We have a certain affinity for the Blue Corn Café — it is not overly special, but it I’ve been stopping there for years because of its convenient location. Get the chile “Christmas” — both red and green.

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 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.

Shopping

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 weather. There are many unique and beautiful pieces, although not always the best prices.

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.

♥ 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, 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.

Other Attractions

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’ll add to this account as I go along.

Central NM

Albuquerque

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 some interesting things to see here, but I prefer Santa Fe.

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.

NRAO

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.

Southern NM

Truth or Consequences

I’ve been through here once, and stayed at a wonderful small spa hotel with geothermal hot springs, the Sierra Grande, which I can recommend. There are several others in the area.

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.

Las Cruces

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 be sure they catch illegal immigrants.

White Sands

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.

Cloudcroft

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.

Artesia

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.

Carlsbad Caverns

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.

Roswell

Last, but not least, is the home of UFO lore. UFOs and extraterrestrials are the theme of many things in towns, 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 6 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.

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7 Responses to “New Mexico — Land of Enchantment, UFOs, and More”

  1. Sue Says:

    Thanks for this great list. I visited Santa Fe a few years back and keft enchanted. I took some walking tours. There is a church a couple of blocks from the main square that has a circular staircase in it that was built by a visiting carpenter who left as silently as he arrived. To this day, architects have studied it with no explanation of how it was built.

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  2. Troy Says:

    Spaf, what about Ruidoso in Lincoln County? Mix shopping, skiing (with 2 different mountain ranges), with beautiful views, and picturesque places to stay (stayed at Inn of the Mountain Gods). Then for the historic old West, Lincoln is 20 miles off to the NE and you can explore all the history and nostalgia that surrounded Billy The Kid.

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  3. LeadingEdgeBoomer Says:

    Comments on your article:

    * “Old Town” is not really a term used in Santa Fe, but it is in ABQ. We refer to the Plaza, or Plaza area, … . Also, the plaza is not referred to as the square.

    * You did not mention Taos Pueblo, a major tourist destination. Always obey pueblo rules, you are in their homes. At Taos Pueblo, you must buy a permit to take photos.

    * About purchasing native American goods: The 3 best alternatives are—

    —The vendors at the portal of the Palace of the Governors (built 1610) on the Santa Fe Plaza are either the artists themselves or a family member. Their presence is determined by a daily lottery. But the goods are perforce limited to jewelry and other small items.

    —The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in ABQ is jointly owned and operated by the NM pueblos. All the various art forms, with quality ranging from kitsch, items like jewelry or pottery one might want to own, all the way to very expensive sculpture and other items. You might want to add that to your ABQ section.

    —The pueblos themselves. Artists sometimes have vending facilities associated with their workshops; check out web pages and guide books to the pueblos.

    Regular commercial vendors are a poor choice. High markups, occasional dishonesty about the quality of turquoise or the actual origin of items, artists of course do not get the same remuneration as the above venues, etc.

    * The NRAO was seen in the film “Contact”, but that does not really do justice to the scale.

    * Try not to stay in Carlsbad when you visit the caverns, unless something has changed since I was there long ago.

    * The Blue Hole (Google it) in Santa Rosa is one of the most popular scuba-diving destinations in the country.

    * Carry lots of water when hiking—a gallon per day per person in hot weather. A French couple recently died while hiking in White Sands; their son survived because they gave him more of the little water they had.

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    • spaf Says:

      Thanks for the corrections and additions!

      I’ve been the Taos Pueblo. It is eye-opening, especially for someone immersed in 21st century, first-world life.

      When we visited Carlsbad, we spent the nights in Artesia. It’s a 60-90 minutes drive to the caverns from there, but a better selection of lodging. Cheaper, too!

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  4. John McDermott, CPLP Says:

    US 64 through Taos forms part of the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway of northern NM. There’s more info at http://www.enchantedcircle.org/ with a little of the history of the area at https://www.newmexico.org/enchanted-circle-trail/ Our local arts council (full disclosure: my wife is Executive Director) operates an art trail that runs partly along the Enchanted Circle and also includes Cimarron, Raton, and other historic areas.. You can learn more about the art trail at http://www.artisticvistas.org/. It is a beautiful area worth visiting or, in my case, living in.

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