Drive New Mexico

Author: Fran Falkin

Tags : Cheap Vacation, Mexico, Museums & Culture, New Mexico, North America, Road Trip, USA
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During a week-long driving tour of New Mexico, my family of dedicated sightseers had time to enjoy a variety of sights spanning America's history. With three nights in Albuquerque and four in Santa Fe, we encountered the history of Native Americans, breathtaking nature, fascinating science, inspiring arts and their relation to each other. These were the highlights of our trip, allowing time to relax and play in the hotel pool.

Round and About Albuquerque

For first-time visitors to the Southwest, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (866/855-7902) offers a wonderful overview of native cultures. A non-profit organization owned and operated by the 19 pueblos or villages of New Mexico, it provides information on the history, art and culture of each group, a large selection of Native arts (pottery, silver, rugs, and Kachina dolls), and a performance area for traditional dances and art demonstrations. Special activities are planned to coincide with feast days and festivals; the restaurant serves both Native American specialties and New Mexican cuisine.

Located west of Albuquerque, the Petroglyph National Monument (505/899-0205) established by Congress in 1990, preserves an estimated 24,000 petroglyphs. These images, which have been scratched, pecked, or carved with stone tools into basaltic rock (remnants of volcanic action of 110,000 years ago) are powerful cultural symbols that reflect the complex society and religion of the Pueblo Indians. The entire area is considered a sacred place. Stop at the Visitor Center for orientation, information and guidebooks; Ranger-guided hikes and talks are often available. The most popular spot for viewing is Boca Negra Canyon, where you will find a choice of three self-guided trails (5 to 40-minutes long) ranging from easy to moderately strenuous. Those with stronger legs and lungs can hike 1½ miles through Piedras Marcadas Canyon or Rinconada Canyon, a 2½-mile trek. Kids aged 6-13 also have the opportunity to be named a Junior Ranger. All they have to do is complete the J. R. workbook, present it to any park ranger and receive a Junior Ranger badge and certificate.

The Pueblo of Acoma (800/747-0181), named "Sky City" because it is located 367 feet above the desert floor or 7,000 feet above sea level on a sandstone mesa, offers a fascinating view into the lives of its inhabitants. The hour-long drive from Albuquerque is punctuated by breathtaking scenery and views of geologic formations. As you approach the actual village, you understand how its location provided excellent defense against enemies. Archaeologists date the pueblo to 1150 AD as one of the oldest continuously-inhabited communities in the United States. The Tourist Center presents an introductory display, and then groups are taken by bus to the top of the mesa where an hour and a half walking tour is given by an Indian guide. You may not roam independently, but you will be guided through many interesting sights including multi-story adobe dwellings with mica windows, wood ladders leading into ceremonial areas called kivas, cisterns for collecting rainwater (there is no running water or electricity), and the Spanish Colonial San Esteban del Rey Mission, built between 1629 and 1640 to honor the pueblo's patron saint. Acoma pottery is for sale; still photography only is allowed with a camera permit on non-feast days.

Day Trips with Kids from Albuquerque

If there is a budding scientist in your group, he/she may enjoy a visit to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (505/245-2137) located north of the Kirtland Air Force Base off the Coronado Freeway. The indoor exhibits include explanations of the principles of atomic energy, correspondence between Albert Einstein and President Roosevelt which led to the top-secret Manhattan Project, full-scale models of "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" (the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war with the Japanese), and information on peaceful applications of this technology, as well as “Little Albert’s Lab,” a hands-on exhibit that aims to help kids grasp the fundamentals of physics. Also included is information on the political and social events which coincided with scientific advancements. Displayed outside are many military aircraft including B-52 and F-1015D bombers and a 280mm atomic cannon. Their size will evoke cries of "awesome" from the kids!

For the best view of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and the environs, take a thrilling ride on Sandia Peak Tramway (505/856-7325), the longest such ride in the US. At 10,400 feet, it is a 2.7-mile trip from the lower terminal, with a vertical rise of 3,819 feet. The 15-minute ride takes you from the desert to the mountainous terrain of the Cibola National Forest (505/876-2783) past sightings of deer, bears, eagles, changing plant life and dramatic granite formations. At the summit (where there may be a 20º drop in temperature), the observation deck provides an 11,000-square-mile panoramic view. Two expensive restaurants, Sandiago's Mexican Grill (505/856-6692) at the base and High Finance (505/243-9742) at the summit, provide fine food accompanied by the spectacular views.

If you don’t mind doing some driving, another way to view the stunning landscapes of the southwest can be found by heading about an hour south of Albuquerque. The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (505/248-6911) boasts a 12-mile auto road through the refuge along the Rio Grande that offers some spectacular views and opportunities to view wildlife. With the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east, the road winds through the marshes and fields of the refuge. From October to March, thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese roost in the refuge, and you can view the massive flocks from the road. The auto road is open year round.

Museums Round and About Santa Fe

An umbrella organization of several museums and state monuments, the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs (505/827-6364) offers a pass entitling you to visit all of the state's 14 museums and historic monuments under their aegis for $25pp. Our favorite branch of the Museums of New Mexico was the Museum of International Folk Art (505/476-1200), where all ages will be enthralled by the permanent exhibition entitled "Multiple Visions: A Common Bond." The exhibit was briefly closed for renovations but will re-open in late June 2010. Containing only 10% of the 100,000 objects in the collection of Alexander Girard (who amassed this material from his travels around the world), it displays art made by ordinary people, including hand-made toys from over 100 countries. The objects are grouped together in realistic and often whimsical settings of daily life; the detail is remarkable. The museum also houses the Neutrogena folk collection, a Hispanic Heritage Wing, and traveling exhibitions often of interest to families.

Although probably not high on the list of most of the younger set, we were also intrigued by The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (505/946-1000) which opened in 1997, and is dedicated to the artist most associated with New Mexico. The permanent collection includes 1,149 works created by O'Keeffe. There is a short film on her work and influences, in addition to an ongoing series of special exhibitions. Certainly, seeing the splendor of the Southwest, one can understand how she was inspired to create works of such beauty.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, the site of the top secret "Manhattan Project" of the early 1940s, operates the free Bradbury Science Museum (505/667-4444), named for the laboratory's first peace-time director. Many hands-on exhibits teach how atomic energy works and how scientists are using up-to-date technology in seeking solutions to energy problems. Visitors can also take a walking tour of the town of Los Alamos and acquaint themselves with the history of WWII's "Secret City”—a walking guide is available at the Los Alamos Visitor Center (505/662-8105).

New Mexico's Great Outdoor Attractions for Kids

Before leaving Santa Fe, make sure you stop by the moving Farmer's Market (505/983-4098). Here you will find local farmers selling their finest goods and produce and you can purchase everything from quality meats, dairy and eggs to homemade body care and herbal products to jellies and jams. Also sold are traditional dried fruits which are great for the kids on the road. And of course, you can't miss the local musicians who keep the shoppers happy with tunes that make the market alive. On Tuesdays, the South Side Market, located on Rodeo Road at Zafarano Drive, is open from 3pm-6:30pm. On Saturdays and Tuesdays, you can visit the market at the Santa Fe Railyard from 7am until noon.

Forty-six miles west of Santa Fe, fairly near Los Alamos, are remains of the Anasazi civilization, ancestors of the Pueblo Indians. The ruins of these "cave-dwellers" are located on the mesas and canyons of Bandelier National Monument (505/672-3861 x517). Home to approximately 500 Indians between 1100 and 1550, this site is fascinating to behold. Most travelers begin with an orientation at the Visitor's Center and then proceed on a 1½-mile trail to the principal ruins, which include spectacular panoramic views of the cliffs, several kivas, natural caves and cave rooms, and petroglyphs. A must-do is to climb 140 feet up piñon ladders to view an "apartment" of the prehistoric people. Seventy additional miles of trails are available for further exploration. The aforementioned Junior Ranger program is also offered at Bandelier.

After the walk, you'll welcome a seat on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad (888/CUMBRES), America's longest (64 miles) and highest (mountain passes up to 10,015 feet) narrow gauge steam railroad. Get a glimpse of history as you chug along amid dramatic, unspoiled scenery, and a thrill from the treacherous terrain, breathtaking trestles and eerie tunnels. Registered as a National Historic Railroad, several day-long itineraries alternate between Chama and Antonito, Colorado.

We suggest saving Colorado for your next trip.