Road Trip USA: Exploring The Diverse Cultures of New Mexico

Explore the byways and historic Camino Real on a New Mexico road trip and add unexpected pleasures to your Southwestern overland adventure.

The unique fusion of Native American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures makes an Albuquerque to Taos road trip particularly interesting. With 22 Native American tribes in the area, there are 19 pueblos (villages) to visit. Additionally, tour many of the numerous reservations with guides, take an arts and crafts workshop or plan to attend an authentic celebration. All reservations and pueblos have reopened since the Covid era.

Taos Pueblo
Taos Pueblo, Taos NM USA

The first Spanish colonial settlement was founded in 1598 in what is now northern New Mexico. The Hispanic influence remains strong there today. You will see this influence 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.

The actual drive time from Albuquerque to Taos is a mere 2.5 hours. There is much to see in and around these cities. We think it’s worth making a few detours and turning it into a week-long (at least!) family New Mexico road trip. 

Suggested Weeklong New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

There are so many possibilities for stops along the way or on a short detour, offering something for everyone to remember in nothern New Mexico.

Our suggested 7-day itinerary follows:

First Day: Albuquerque
Second Day: Albuquerque to Acoma or Outdoors
Third Day: Albuquerque to Spaceport America
Fourth Day: Albuquerque to Santa Fe
Fifth Day: Santa Fe and the Arts or Outdoors
Sixth Day: Santa Fe to Taos
Seventh Day: Taos

Need a discount rental car for your New Mexico family vacation?

Day 1: Albuquerque Old Town on your New Mexico Road Trip

Exterior of Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum with three hot air balloons flying overhead. Photo c. Visit Albuquerque.
Catch the October Balloon Fiesta from the deck of the Albuquerque International Balloon Museum. Photo c. Visit 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 560,000 people, Native American, European, and Hispanic influences are found in every corner of the city.

Exploring Albuquerque’s Old Town

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. Note that during this period of halting tourism, they are operating only spring to fall.

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 300 years. Set aside a few hours for your family to explore this old part of town. There are several interesing shops, boutiques, churches, plazas and fabulous restaurants. Cocina Azul and La Guelaguetza are popular for Mexican fare. Monica’s El Portal is a classic in the Old Town offering both Mexican and New Mexican cuisine.

Albuquerque Off the Beaten Path Museums

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. This one complex showcases the history, culture and accomplishments of indigenous peoples 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. Take a break from the exhibits and sample fry bread at the Indian Pueblo Kitchen to taste the Native culture.

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. Hours may be limited so be sure to check their website.

Day 2: Albuquerque to Acoma – 62 miles

Zuni tribe performs traditional ritual outside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Albuqerque. Photo by Travis Suazo for Visit Albuquerque.
Zuni tribe performs traditional ritual outside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Albuqerque. Photo by Travis Suazo for Visit Albuquerque.

A very worthwhile side trip, when the elders decided it’s safe enough to reopen, is to the ancient Acoma Pueblo. The breathtaking drive from modern Albuquerque starts on I-40 West for 50 miles, then turns onto NM-23 for 12 miles to “Sky City.” This pueblo is 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. You may not roam independently. Indian guides lead visitors 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.

Day 2 Alternative: Albuquerque’s Outdoor and Natural Wonders

Two bikes at the Paseo del Boque bike and rail trail in downtown Alburqueque.
Rent bikes or bring your own to cycle the 15-mile Paseo del Boque Rail Trail that runs through Albuquerque.

For the best view of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and the environs, take a thrilling ride on Sandia Peak Tramway, 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.

Spanning New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma, the forest boasts 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. At present, the tram is only operating Thursday to Monday.

Amazing Natural Sites Outside of Albuquerque

Petroglyph National Monument, established by Congress in 1990, is about 8 miles west of Albuquerque. Hike it to see an estimated 24,000 petroglyphs scratched, pecked, or carved with stone tools. Easy to carve basaltic rock is a remnant of volcanic action of 110,000 years ago. Study the powerful cultural symbols that reflect the complex society and religion of the Pueblo Indians in this sacred place.

Boca Negra Canyon is the most popular viewing spot. Three self-guided trails (5 to 40-minutes long) range 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. Download the new Junior Ranger Activity Book (ages 6-13 plus a Seniors version) to earn a Junior Ranger badge on your visit.

Head about an hour south for more stunning landscapes of the Southwest. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge boasts a 12-mile auto road along the Rio Grande that offers opportunities to view wildlife. Views from the winding road — the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east — are stunning.

From October to March, thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese roost in the refuge. The annual November Sandhill Crane Festival is spectacular. Hop a tour bus or even view the massive flocks from the road. In San Antonio, don’t miss the famous Green Chili Cheeseburgers made with Hatch chilis. Owl Bar, said to feature the actual bar from Conrad Hilton’s first hotel, is the original middle-of-nowhere watering hole. Across the street, less crowded and, many say, serving bigger and juicier burgers, is Buckhorn Tavern.

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

first test flights to Spaceport America by spaceships Whiteknight2 and Spaceship2. Photo c. Spaceport America
first test flights to Spaceport America by spaceships Whiteknight2 and Spaceship2. Photo c. Spaceport America

Spaceport America in the southern part of the state represents the future of air travel. The launch complex spans 18,000 acres adjacent to the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range. Although they have provided commercial vertical launch services to Virgin Galactic and SpaceX since 2006, Spaceport America can only be visited on an escorted tour. Tours run by Final Frontier may be limited. Scheduled departures leave from Truth or Consequnces or Las Cruces. And 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. They’re in residence from April to late October and usually migrate south in winter. The park requires entry reservations. With older kids, don’t miss a chance to try dune sledding at White Sands National Monument. The gift shop sells plastic saucers that zoom down the sand dunes.

Day 4: Another Albuquerque Day on the way 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. Their exhibits are very engaging with a goal, as they say, to “nurture thoughtful activity.” True.

The budding scientists in your group may enjoy a visit to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. It is one of many nuclear history sites on a New Mexico road trip. 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). Look for information on peaceful applications such as nuclear medicine. Little Albert’s Lab is a hands-on exhibit that aims to help kids grasp the fundamentals of physics. 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.

The Albuquerque Biological Park is an environmental museum with four neighboring attractions. Choose among 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.

Top Sights En Route to Santa Fe from Albuquerque

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. It’s now a living history museum portraying life in Spanish colonial New Mexico. Historically, the ranch was a major stopping point along the Camino Real, the famous road from Mexico City to Santa Fe. Open to the public from June through October, it offers self-guided tours of the grounds off season. Be sure to check their website for 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, check out the city’s central plaza. This open square is marked by a large park 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 the Arts on your New Mexico Road Trip

Santa Fe's downtown area has many narrow lanes and cul de sacs filled with galleries and pretty shops.
Santa Fe’s downtown area has many narrow lanes and cul de sacs filled with galleries and pretty shops.

Don’t 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 time in and around the city.

The extremely high concentration of galleries throughout the narrow back lanes makes Santa Fe a thriving center for multicultural arts.

Four terrific art collections, a cafe and the botanical garden are up on Museum Hill. Together, they present the art, history and culture of the Anglo, Native American and Hispanic Southwest. All the museums are worth a visit. Kids are usually most responsive to the International Folk Art Museum. Perhaps that’s because it houses hundreds of toys and dolls from around the world. Read more about all the arts venues in our story, Santa Fe With Kids.

A smaller gem is the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, housing the works of a prolific artist. Inside the museum, there is a short film on her life and influences and ongoing special exhibitions. Admire the splendor of the Southwest scenery to understand how O’Keefe created works of such beauty. Some call her the state’s official painter.

Kids say the Santa Fe Children’s Museum is great. The Back Yard is a large outdoor garden packed with exhibits. There are 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.

Day 5 Alternative: Discoveries Outside of Santa Fe

Legan Tender Saloon and Eating House in Lamy, New Mexico, opposite the Lamy Railroad Station where the new Sky Railway operates a sightseeing train to Santa Fe.
Legal Tender Saloon and Eating House in Lamy, New Mexico, opposite the Lamy Railroad Station where the new Sky Railway operates a sightseeing train to Santa Fe.

If you have the time, consider a trip on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. It is 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. Registered as a National Historic Railroad, several day-long itineraries alternate between Chama and Antonito, Colorado. A very different train ride runs from Santa Fe to Lamy on the Santa Fe Southern route. The new sightseeing train, Sky Railway, offers scenic vistas and comfortable seats. Rail fans will appreciate the tiny museum and gift shop in the Lamy Station.

Shoppers and history buffs should drive The Turquoise Trail. The 62-mile National Scenic Byway follows the money through past gold and turquoise mining boom towns. The Turquise Mining Museum and stylish Station Mercantile make Cerillos a frequent movie stand-in for classic Wild West Main Streets. Have lunch at Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, another cute community known for its Old Coal Town Museum.

A side trip north on Rte. 84 north and west on Rt. 502 for about 36 miles brings you to Los Alamos. The town was the site of the top secret “Manhattan Project” of the early 1940s. The fascinating Bradbury Science Museum explores the subject of atomic energy.  Many hands-on exhibits teach how atomic energy works and how scientists are seeking solutions to energy problems. Take a walking tour of the town of Los Alamos to learn the history of WWII’s “Secret City.”

Bandelier National Monument

Forty-six miles west of Santa Fe 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. 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. These ruins 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. Choose between 70 additional miles of trails rated for a variety of abilities.

Due to crowds, Bandelier is enforcing a mandatory shuttle between mid-June and October of 2023. Unless you’re disabled, traveling with a pet or a tour group, you’ll have to park your own vehicle. Then, take the shuttle into the park from the White Rock Visitor Center. Discover Los Alamos suggests booking your parking pass in advance and researching what you want to do there before arrival. Dress the family in light layers with a rain jacket to accommodate monsoon season (July-August.) Carry a light backpack to store snacks, water bottles, sun hat and sunscreen.

Adventure seeking families should check out rafting, skiing and hiking experiences from New Mexico True Adventures. 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

The adobe ranch house artist Georgia O'Keeffe lived in during her years in Abiqui, New Mexico.
The adobe ranch house artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived in during her years in Abiqui, New Mexico.

Be sure to stop at the city’s moving Farmers Market before you leave. Here you will find local farmers and craftspeople selling their finest goods and produce. Purchase everything from quality meats, dairy and eggs to homemade body care, CBD products, jellies and jams. Look for traditional dried fruits which are great for the kids on the road. Don’t miss the local musicians who keep the shoppers happy with tunes that make the market alive.

Pick up 84 N out of Santa Fe and continue for an hour and a half before reaching Taos. Taos offers a unique mix of past and present. Explore all three towns; Taos proper, Taos Pueblo and Ranchos de Taos.

Start at Taos Pueblo, renowned as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark. Approximately a thousand years old, the Pueblo is just a mile north of Taos proper. As many as 150 people live in the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. They work hard to preserve their language and culture in this very conservative pueblo. Normally, open to the public daily from 8am to 4:30pmthey are completely closed to the public.

For great food and great views, try the Lambert’s of Taos restaurant, located between Taos proper and Taos Ski Valley. Lambert’s is a bit formal and, in spring and summer, offers outdoor seating and live music, too. Doc Martin’s is another option. This casual bar and eatery downtown is known for its craft brews and locally sourced green chile burgers and enchiladas.

Day 7: Exploring Taos with the Family

Sunset along Highway I-25 heading north from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.
Sunset along Highway I-25 heading north from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.

Spend the morning exploring the area around the central plaza. Those with kids 12 and under must 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. Sign up at Los Rios River Runners for half or full-day rafting excursions. Families can paddle along the famous Taos Box for 17 miles. The shore is surrounded by rugged cliffs and challenging rapids (kids ages 12 and up). With younger children, book a guide 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. It’s only 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.

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