Driving Across New Mexico: 6 Amazing Day Trips from Santa Fe
While Santa Fe itself is an amazing city to visit, sometimes you need to get out and explore. Luckily, New Mexico has no shortage of day trips from its capital city. Known as the Land of Enchantment, it feels like every few hours you drive in New Mexico takes you to a new town or road trip stop completely different from the last. As I describe New Mexico to friends, I’ve come to realize that the state is a fascinating blend of generations of Native American culture and roughly fifty years of American science. These two recurring themes are present throughout all corners of New Mexico. Below are a few of my favorite day trips from Santa Fe that will give you a taste of both the old traditions and newer scientific innovations.
I first travelled to New Mexico when I was a kid on an educational family vacation, and one of the few memories I have was visiting the Acoma Pueblo. Located roughly 1 hour west of Albuquerque, it’s a bit of a drive from Santa Fe but well worth it. I have a clear memory of exploring this Native American land by walking up a steep and treacherous mesa cliffside surrounded by desert. It’s honestly one of those childhood memories that doesn’t seem real: why would my family (including my grandmother) agree to hike up a cliff with young kids? It turns out we had chosen to trek the original trail that the Acoma people took for thousands of years from the base of the mesa to the top. The only way to see the Pueblo is via a guided tour where you can hike up like I did in my youth, or opt for a bus on a paved road to reach the top more comfortably. It’s a beautiful sight to look out as the endless land of New Mexico from the top of the mesa, so make sure you take in the views once you summit.
The Pueblo has been continuously occupied by the Acoma people for over 2000 years, one of the longest inhabited areas in the United States. The tour of the Pueblo takes you through narrow streets as you wind past homes, religious buildings and ancient structures. You’ll be greeted by the incredibly sweet Acoma people as they display their pottery and carvings for sale. Acoma pottery is some of my favorite that I’ve seen in New Mexico. The painted details can be incredibly ornate, often geometric and beautifully symmetrical, and the colors feature rich blacks and oranges. Not only is their craft addicting to look at but kindness of these people is always on display as they share the stories of their lives and welcome you to step in their shoes. At one point we were waiting for the shuttle to take us back down the mesa and discovered it wouldn’t arrive for about 20 minutes. A wonderful older lady overheard and invited us to wait in her home to warm up by the fire with a snack. The Acoma people also continue the religious and spiritual traditions of their ancestors. It was so wonderful to see this community, despite being so often persecuted throughout their history, still so proud of their heritage and sharing it with complete strangers. Be aware that a photography permit is necessary to take photos and sometimes shooting pictures is strictly forbidden if the tribe has gathered for a religious event or holiday.
Drive North to Taos
Taos is what I’d like to call the hip, younger brother of Santa Fe. Located a little bit further north with a bit colder of weather, many people loop Taos and Santa Fe into one trip. The biggest draws of Taos in the winter are the outdoor activities as the Taos Ski Valley overlooks the town. While in Taos, make a stop in the central Plaza. Though not as impressive as the Plaza in Santa Fe, it’s still a perfect place for food and shopping.
Continue your New Mexico pueblo tour by checking out the Taos Pueblo, one mile north of town. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the pueblo is backdropped by the gorgeous Taos Mountains. You are free to roam the Pueblo and see its well-preserved historic buildings or you can join a walking tour. Many native people still call the Taos Pueblo home so you’re sure to learn a lot about their culture and traditions.
Taos Mesa Brewing
After all the miles of driving across Northern New Mexico, you’ll obviously need to make a stop for dinner and beer. Taos Mesa Brewing is one of the best spots for both. The Mothership location is a large open industrial building with both an indoor and outdoor stage for intimate concerts. We hung out inside as open mic night was in full swing, giving us a slew of different musical acts to accompany our dinner of fish tacos. The beer selection constantly rotates and flights are available to try all the ones currently on tap.
Learn How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint at the Taos Earthships
Just outside of Taos, New Mexico is a thriving Earthship community that has grown to become the largest in the world. Earthships are homes built from recycled materials that are also completely self-sustaining, with their own systems for heat, cooling, electricity and water filtration. Living off the grid, these gorgeous homes spare no modern convenience and their architecture (similar to a home from a Dr. Seuss book) warrant a drive to be seen in person.
Test if You’re Afraid of Heights at the Rio Grande Gorge
If you’re driving west from the city of Taos out to the Earthship Community (with a stop at Taos Mesa Brewing, of course), you may be surprised when out of nowhere you end up on a massive bridge with a steep drop-off that will make your heart leap into your throat. At the point when you look down from your car window and get a bit of vertigo, you know you’ve come upon the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The Gorge Bridge is the tenth highest bridge in the United States and 650 feet below runs the Rio Grande River which snakes its way through Colorado to the north and down to Mexico to the south. The bridge has a couple primo viewing platforms on each side towards the center of the structure allowing you to walk up and get a true peek over the edge. Be mentally prepared if you have an issue with heights. Good lord, I was definitely holding on for dear life to the cold metal railing along the side ESPECIALLY as the wind blew in gusts around me.
Grab Lunch at Rancho di Chimayo (but be careful on the drive)
There are two different routes you can take when driving from Santa Fe to Taos. The first route will get you there quickly but it’s pretty boring; you’ll be driving on expressways most of the way far from the beautiful landscape of northern New Mexico. The scenic route is the one you definitely want to tackle if you have the time. Not only will you be driving along smaller side roads along rolling desert hills, but you’ll be able to stop for lunch in the small village of Chimayo. The restaurant of Rancho di Chimayo is one of the most popular spots to eat in New Mexico. It’s a food institution: opened in 1965, it features family recipes passed down over generations. Pinto beans and chiles are the stars of almost every dish. You can not go wrong with the blue corn enchiladas and a Prickly Pear Frozen Lemonade or Margarita to wash it all down.
As you continue driving on to Taos, make sure you check your route. We learned our lesson on this trip to never just blindly follow our GPS. What started as a typical drive that continued onto a more beautiful stretch along the Rio Grande River turned into one of the scariest drives of my life. Out of nowhere we crossed over a one lane bridge which led to a treacherous dirt road with hairpin turns, 45 degree inclines and nowhere to turn around. We simply had to move forward in our tiny Nissan Altima rental car and we quickly realized we were scaling the Rio Grande Gorge, driving straight up the edge of the cliff. This stretch is NM 567 (listed as one of the most dangerous roads in America) and for 15 minutes, we traveled at 5 mph on a path just wide enough for our car. On a specific turn we had to literally drive an inch from the edge of a steep drop-off to avoid hitting a rock in front of us. No shame here, I panicked for all 15 minutes as a wild mountain goat casually walked in front of our car, and continued to panic as I was then face to face with an ADULT MALE RAM with full horns just 2 feet away from us.. We did eventually make it to the top with a flat drive to Taos ahead of us but I would not wish that drive on anyone!
Learn How to Research Space at the VLA
The Very Large Array, or the VLA, is a crazy sight of scientific engineering. Located far from civilization, the drive will lead you to a field of 27 MASSIVE radio antenna, all working together to find additional research and data about space and our solar system. A self-guided walking tour will not only teach you about these antenna and the work scientists use them for, but will bring you to the base of one of them, making you feel pretty minuscule in our world.
Explore White Sands Missile Range and White Sands National Monument
White Sands, New Mexico is a very strange place (and the furthest from Santa Fe on this list). As you drive down the main highway, you’ll come across signs for the White Sands Missile Range. This was not a stop we had planned for our trip but another misguided GPS search said we could stop there for gas (we couldn’t…it’s government property). It’s pretty surreal as you drive past warning sign after warning sign that you’re entering an active test range with explosive devices all around you (stay on the road! lol). There is also a museum on site if you want to learn way more about missiles then you could ever dream of…it’s not something I’m particularly interested in by it’s definitely a unique part of New Mexico.
Near the Missile Range is White Sands National Monument, a massive area of gypsum sand dunes. My photos do not do it justice due to the cloudiness we experienced from Mother Nature but this place is normally a photographer’s dream, with bright blue skies and white sand for miles. Many people bring sleds to White Sands since the hills of gypsum actually work like snow hills. Ironically we were there in the winter when there was actually snow on the ground…and people were still sledding! :)
Bonus: Head to Hatch for the Best Green Chiles
If you’ve made it all the way to White Sands, you HAVE TO stop in Hatch, New Mexico for food. If you’ve ever eaten green chiles, ones that were bursting with flavor and weren’t too spicy, they’ve probably been from Hatch. The best food we had our entire trip was from Sparky’s, home of the “best” Hatch Green Chile burger. I would fly back to New Mexico just to eat at this restaurant again and have a Hatch Burger with pulled pork on top. Seriously, I died and went to food heaven…I’m drooling just thinking about it!. They also make green chile milkshakes if you want to get super adventurous and have chilis for your entire meal. When in New Mexico right??
New Mexico has honestly become on of my favorite states in the U.S. We saw so much on our trip and we’re already planning to return to see even more that we missed. New Mexico is really the PERFECT road trip state, with stops that would interest anyone. To learn more about where we traveled to in New Mexico, check out the rest of my blog posts HERE.