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 (at least!) family road trip. There are so many possibilities for stops along the way or on a short detour, offering something for everyone to remember.
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 (866/855-7902) 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 authentic by the pueblos, and a restaurant serving Native American specialties along with New Mexican cuisine.
If you’re looking for an unusual stop, 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!
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, and the area is considered a sacred place. Stop at the Visitor Center for orientation and information. 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 1.5 miles through Piedras Marcadas Canyon or Rinconada Canyon, a 2.2-mile trek. Kids aged 6-13 also have the opportunity to earn a Junior Ranger badge and certificate.
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. Sandiago’s Mexican Grill (505/856-6692) at the base provides snacks, lunch and dinner accompanied by spectacular views.
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). The indoor exhibits include explanations of the principles of atomic energy, 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 including nuclear medicine, as well as “Little Albert’s Lab,” a hands-on exhibit that aims to help kids grasp the fundamentals of physics. Information on the political and social events which coincided with scientific advancements are presented. The museum’s 9-acre Heritage Park features 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!
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.
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 (800/747-0181). 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. After the hour-long drive 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 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.
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.
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 15 museums and historic monuments under their aegis for $30pp. Four separate 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 are well worth a visit. Perhaps the most child-oriented of the museums is the Museum of International Folk Art (505/476-1200) which offers a fascinating collection of folk art, hands-on projects and activities that change seasonally, in addition to a book and toy lounge. Actually, all ages will be enthralled by the permanent exhibition entitled “Multiple Visions: A Common Bond,” which contains only 10% of the 100,000 objects in the collection of Alexander Girard, amassed from this travels around the world. It displays art made by ordinary people, including hand-made toys from over 100 countries which are grouped together in realistic and often whimsical settings of daily life; the detail is remarkable. The museum also houses the Neutrogena Wing, a Hispanic Heritage Wing, and traveling exhibits often of interest to families.
Be sure to check out the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (505/946-1000) which celebrates the legacy of the American artist who is perhaps most closely associated with New Mexico, and her contribution to the development of modernist American art. The permanent collection includes over 3,000 of her works. There is a short film on her life and influences, and ongoing special exhibitions. Certainly, seeing the splendor of the Southwest, one can understand how she was inspired to create works of such beauty. 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 Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, where she lived and worked for over 38 years until her death in 1986. In response to an increase in visitors to the site, the Georgia O’Keefe Abiquiu Home and Studio Welcome Center will open in the spring of 2018, to enhance guest’s experiences with the artist’s story and inspiring surroundings.
Opened in 1995 to showcase innovative art, SITE Santa Fe (505/989-1199) presents the work of renowned contemporary artists has been remodeled and expanded by 15,000 square feet.
Finally, with the kid’s in mind, Meow Wolf (505/395-6369) is an “amusement park” with a twist. Featuring the Victorian “House of Eternal Return,” home of the fictional Selig family, visitors are in for an immersive, interactive storytelling experience throughout the 70 rooms with secret passages, magical worlds and hypnotic art exhibits created by over 500 artists. It’s part climbing gym, part kid’s museum and part haunted house. 2018 brings upgrades including new rooms, a new cafe and a new secret portal.
Also, The Santa Fe Children’s Museum is great – with a large outdoor garden, interactive exhibits, an open art studio and more. Don’t miss Wee Wednesday for stories, songs and games programmed for toddlers and their parents or caregivers, or watch the staff feed Cornelius, the resident corn snake his weekly mouse on Sunday afternoons.
A 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 early 1940s, and the Bradbury Science Museum (505/667-4444) that explores the subject of atomic energy. 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.”
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). 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.
If you have the time, consider a trip 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.
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
Before leaving town be sure to stop at the city’s moving Farmers 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 Saturdays and Tuesdays, you can visit the market at the Santa Fe Railyard from 8am until 1pm (opens at 7am from June to September). Check their site for other locations, dates and times.
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.
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.
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