Road Trip USA: Exploring The Diverse Cultures of New Mexico

Author: Family Travel Forum Staff

Tags : Cheap Vacation, Kids, Museums & Culture, New Mexico, North America, Road Trip, USA

Exploring the byways and Camino Real of New Mexico -- from Albuquerque to Taos -- makes a Southwestern road trip adventure with many unexpected pleasures.

New Mexico offers a unique fusion of Native American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures, making it a particularly interesting place to explore. With 22 Native American tribes in the area, there are 19 pueblos (villages), in addition to numerous reservations, offering guided tours, arts and crafts workshops and celebrations to attend throughout the year. The first Spanish colonial settlement was founded in 1598 in what is now northern New Mexico, and the Hispanic influence remains strong today -- you will see this in the layout of the cities and towns, in the flavors of the local cuisine, and in the various festivals and events. The Anglo influence is evident in the area’s dude ranches, ghost towns and western shows.

While the drive from Albuquerque to Taos is a mere two-and-a-half hours, there is so much to see in and around these cities that it is worth making a few detours and turning it into a week-long family road trip.

Our suggested 6-day itinerary follows:

Day 1: Albuquerque
Day 2: Albuquerque to Acoma
Day 3: Albuquerque to Spaceport America
Day 4: Albuquerque to Santa Fe
Day 5: Santa Fe and Environs
Day 6: Santa Fe to Taos
Day 7: Taos

Day 1: Albuquerque

The largest city in New Mexico, Albuquerque is one of the most colorful in the United States, and a genuine representation of the “southwestern spirit.” A multi-cultural metropolis of almost a million people, Native American, European, and Hispanic influences are found in every corner of the city. For southwestern authenticity at its finest, explore Albuquerque by hopping aboard a trolley with ABQ Trolley Co, which offers an 85-minute city tour with a burquee (Albuquerque local) as your guide.

Be sure to take a stroll through Old Town Albuquerque lined with mud and adobe buildings, a part of the city that has been the center of community life for over three hundred years. With shops, boutiques, churches, plazas and fabulous restaurants to visit, you’ll want to set aside a few hours for your family to explore this old part of town. For some delicious local fare try Monica’s El Portal in the Old Town, offering both Mexican and New Mexican cuisine. 

Another must-see is The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, a museum and cultural institution owned and operated by the 19 Native American pueblos of New Mexico, showcasing their history, culture and accomplishments with displays, performances, demonstrations and workshops. They also operate a huge gift shop of jewelry, pottery, kachina dolls and other items certified as authentic by the pueblos, and a restaurant serving Native American specialties along with New Mexican cuisine.

Petroglyph National Monument, located on the western side of Albuquerque is where you can join a ranger-guided hike or select a self-guided trail to explore some of the estimated 20,000 ancient images in this sacred place.

If you’re looking for an unusual trip, and it’s not too late in the day, check out the American International Rattlesnake Museum, hosting the largest collection of different species of live rattlesnakes in the world!

Day 2: Albuquerque to Acoma - 62 miles

A very worthwhile side trip is the breathtaking drive west from modern Albuquerque to the ancient Acoma Pueblo.  Pick up I-40 West for 50 miles and turn onto NM-23 for 12 miles to "Sky City,"  so named because it is located 367 feet above the desert floor, or 7,000 feet above sea level on a sandstone mesa. Tours of the adobe dwellings and native ceremonial areas as well as the Spanish Colonial San Esteban del Rey Mission are given.

Standing at this site, you have a spectacular view of the scenery and geologic formations, and you come to understand how this location provided excellent defence against enemies. The pueblo dates from 1150 AD and is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited communities in the United States.

Day 3: Albuquerque to Spaceport America, White Sands - 150 miles

Spaceport America in the southern part of the state represents the future of air travel. The launch complex, situated on 18,000 acres adjacent to the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range, has been providing commercial vertical launch services to Virgin Galactic and SpaceX since 2006, but can only be visited on an escorted tour. Since the tragic explosion of SpaceShipTwo, the Virgin Galactic-owned experimental spaceship, tours run by Follow the Sun Inc. may be limited. But if you can go, do! Families with more time will want to stay overnight to visit Carlsbad Caverns, go caving and see the Brazilian Free-tailed bats take flight at night. With older kids, don't miss a chance to try sledding at White Sands National Monument.

Day 4: Albuquerque to Santa Fe - 64 miles

If you've returned to Albuquerque, depending on what time you begin your trek onwards towards Santa Fe, there are a few more (ok, maybe more than a few) places to visit. Explora, the Science Center and Children’s Museum of Albuquerque offers creative, constantly changing and hands-on exhibits for the whole family to enjoy. If your little ones are traveling with Saige, the 2013 American Girl doll who comes from New Mexico, be sure to allow time to learn more about her heritage.

The Albuquerque Biological Park is an environmental museum with four neighboring attractions including the Albuquerque Aquarium, Botanic Garden, Rio Grande Zoo and Tingley Beach. While the zoo houses over 250 different animal species, Tingley Beach offers a fishing lake and a model boating pond and the four facilities offer fun for all.

Before hitting the road to Santa Fe, take exit 167 from I-40 or exit 234 off of I-25, to the Sandia Peak Tramway, the worlds largest passenger tramway, stretching from the Northeast edge of Albuquerque to the Sandia Mountains, passing dramatic cliffs and overlooking the Rio Grande for almost three miles, with a restaurant at the peak’s top. The tramway runs daily, and it makes for an unforgettable experience, perfect for those without fear of heights!

The distance from Albuquerque to Santa Fe is a short hour-long drive along the scenic I-25 N. About 45 minutes into your drive, be sure to make a stop at the 300-year-old historic El Rancho de Los Golondrinas. Now a living history museum portraying life in Spanish colonial New Mexico, the ranch was historically a major stopping point along the Camino Real, the famous road from Mexico City to Santa Fe. Open to the public from June through September, it offers private tours by appointment in April, May and October. Be sure to check their website as the ranch hosts regular events including frontier days, harvest festivals and Mexican music and dance performances.   

With adobe architecture and a high desert landscape, New Mexico’s capital city Santa Fe is quite simply a place of natural beauty. Assuming you’ll be arriving in Santa Fe later in the day, you may want to check out the city’s central plaza, marked by a large park with plenty of spots to lounge, and surrounded by numerous shops, galleries and restaurants. Grab your first meal just east of the plaza at The Shed, offering traditional and rustic cuisine of Northern New Mexico.

Day 5: Santa Fe and Environs

You can be overwhelmed by the number of interesting and exciting things to do in Santa Fe, it all comes down to how you would like to spend your day (or several days) in and around the city.

With an extremely high concentration of galleries throughout the narrow back lanes, Santa Fe is a thriving center for multicultural arts. Interested families should visit the Canyon Road area, an old neighborhood that has become Santa Fe’s  gallery district. The Santa Fe Children’s Museum is just as worthwhile, with a large outdoor garden and interactive exhibits such as “Make and Take” allowing children to create art with recycled materials. Don't miss Wee Wednesday for bilingual preschool stories, songs and games, or watch the staff feed Cornelius his weekly mouse, the resident corn snake, on Sundays from 3pm to 4pm.

The four Museums of New Mexico presenting the art, history and culture of the Anglo, Native American and Hispanic Southwest alike are all located on Museum Hill, and well worth a visit. Offering a fascinating collection of folk art, hands-on projects and activities that change seasonally, in addition to a book and toy lounge, the Museum of International Folk Art is the most child-oriented of the four museums.

If you’re on the Santa Fe museum kick, be sure to check out the Georgie O’Keeffe Museum, celebrating the legacy of American artist Georgie O’Keeffe and her contribution to the development of modernist American art. While on the subject of Ms. O'Keeffe, you can set out on Rte. 84, heading northwest from Santa Fe for about 50 miles for a breathtaking drive among pink and red sandstone cliffs to Abiquiu, where she lived and worked for over 38 years until her death in 1986.

Another side trip north on Rte. 84 north and west on Rt. 502 for about 36 miles brings you to Los Alamos, the site of the top secret "Manhattan Project" of the 1940s, and the Bradbury Science Museum that explores the subject of atomic energy.  For a step way back in time, nearby is the Bandelier National Monument, ruins of the cave-dwellings of 500 Native Americans who lived in these canyons between 1100 and 1550.

For the adventure seeking families, New Mexico True Adventures offers a true outdoor New Mexico experience from rafting to skiing and hiking. If you're there in winter, head up to Ski Santa Fe, the nearest local mountain, and enjoy the view from the slopes.

Day 6: Santa Fe to Taos - 70 miles

If you’re in Santa Fe on a Tuesday or Saturday morning, don’t miss the city’s Farmers Market open May through November, offering endless amounts of fresh produce, breads and meat.

Pick up 84 N out of Santa Fe and continue for an hour and a half before reaching Taos, an area offering a unique mix of past and present as it is comprised of three towns; Taos proper, Taos Pueblo and Ranchos de Taos.

Begin your time with a visit to Taos Pueblo, both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark, located just a mile north of Taos proper. An ancient village, approximately a thousand years old, 150 people live in the pueblo full time, and it is the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. In efforts to preserve their language and culture, the Taos community is regarded as one of the most conservative pueblos in New Mexico. It is open to the public daily from 8am to 4:30pm.

For great food and great views, try the Lambert's of Taos restaurant, located between Taos proper and Taos Ski Valley. In the mild spring and summer, it offers outdoor seating and live music, too.

Day 7: Taos

Spend the morning exploring the area around the central plaza, and with kids 12 and under be sure to visit Twirl which hosts children's crafts workshops, storytelling sessions and fieldtrips, many of which are free!

The area around Taos offers some of the most scenic rafting in the country, and at Los Rios River Runners you can sign up for half or full-day rafting excursions available for families with kids of all ages. Surrounded by rugged cliffs, paddle along the famous Taos Box for 17 miles of challenging rapids (kids ages 12 and up), or for families with younger children let a guide take you along the scenic Orilla Verde — either way, you’ll get the best views of the area from a raft.

Before your trip comes to an end, take a drive over the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, 10 miles northwest of Taos it is the fifth highest bridge in the United States—quite a way to end your Southwestern experience.

At any of these stops, the New Mexico Tourist Office can help you find motels, hotels, quaint B&Bs, campgrounds -- any place you'd like to stay.

Note! This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.