This Southwestern Road Trip Is Filled with Hidden Gems

A trove of national monuments make for an amazing drive through New Mexico

Nena Farrell
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A New Mexico Adventure

When you think of New Mexico, adobe architecture and green chile dishes probably leap to mind. Exploring the great outdoors might not be your first association with New Mexico, but the Land of Enchantment has an amazing trove of under-the-radar national monuments, preserves, and trails that make it more-than-worthy for your next road trip. We hit the road with the National Park Foundation to explore the best spots that New Mexico has to offer just outside two of its major cities, Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
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Landing in NM

All road trips need the perfect start and end points. Fly into Albuquerque, pick up a rental car, and take advantage of what’s left of the day in Historic Old Town. Walk around the plaza and the neighboring streets to see a number of shops, galleries, bed and breakfasts, and the beautiful San Felipe de Neri Church. There are plenty of touristy shops, but also great little finds if you’re willing to hunt. You can also hike the numerous local trails in the Albuquerque area, like you’ll find in Martinez Town, along with local public art (such as the piece pictured above).
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Stop by the Farm

Head over to the Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm to spend the night. Just outside Old Town and downtown Albuquerque, the site is home to a lavender farm, a curated farm shop, and a restaurant. Wake up in the morning to grab breakfast and admire the lavender rows, and pick up one of the many lavender-infused products in the shop before you head out of ABQ.
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Head to the Big City

Hop in the car for the hour-long drive over to Santa Fe, and check into the Hotel St. Francis. The historic hotel named for the city’s patron saint is the oldest of its kind in Santa Fe; its beautiful design is a remnant of older times, with stone columns, rounded archways, and a beautiful font surrounded by candles that are lit each night. It’s located just a block off Santa Fe’s town square, making it a great home base for exploring.
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Walk around Town

And explore you will! Walk around downtown Santa Fe for the local art galleries and artisan shops, from jewelry to pottery to home decor. The square itself marks the end of the Santa Fe Trail, the 19th-century route that brought the rest of North America to the city for trade. Keep walking to spot historic churches like the gothic Loretto Chapel, and visit the Fort Marcy Ruins just outside the city to see where the fort once stood in the mid 1800’s.
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Outside, Bright and Early

Now, for a foray into the great outdoors. Wake up early and hit the road to Bandelier National Monument, an epic 32,000-acre site full of cave dwellings and 77 miles of trails. Bandelier’s soft rock made for both natural and man-made holes, occupied by ancestral Native American Pueblos 400 to 700 years ago. Take the two-hour loop trail to see the initial cave dwellings, a few of which you can climb inside of, and then visit the Alcove House, which can be accessed via a 140-foot ladder. You can stop here for just a few hours to do the Main Loop, or bring a tent and stay at the campsites to explore the additional miles and miles of trails onsite. Fun fact: Bandelier is the only national monument with an annual opera.
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Head Next Door

Whether you stay in Bandelier for a few hours or a few days, your next stop will be its neighbor, Valles Caldera National Preserve. The preserve is a newbie on the block in the national park family, only joining in 2014 after being in a variety of family-owned hands for over 100 years. Formed by a volcano 1.25 million years ago, property is nearly 90,000 acres with a 13-mile wide depression in the center, but is still building out infrastructure like camping. For now, the preserve is popular for daytime use like hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and snowshoeing in the winter. The property is a preserve because they also allow for limited hunting permits and fishing.
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Into the Forest

One of the most surprising features of New Mexico’s outdoor landscape is how quickly it can turn from rocky desert to thick forest. Keep driving past Valles Caldera to discover the Santa Fe National Forest, full of small hiking trails just off the highway and even a few hot springs.
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Back to ABQ

After visiting Valles Caldera and the Santa Fe National Forest, head south back to Albuquerque. But you’re not heading into the city quite yet—there’s a national monument to hit up just outside the city limits. Petroglyph National Monument holds nearly 25,000 petroglyph images by Native American Pueblo tribes, in a style dubbed Rio Grande that dates back 400 to 700 years. Explore the petroglyphs on volcanic rock throughout the linear park (it’s over 7,000 acres but is 17 miles in length), and jump back in the car to stop by the Three Sisters Volcanoes at the far end of the park. Hike around the trio of volcanic cinder cones, created 150,000 years ago by the Rio Grande rift, on a three-mile loop trail.
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Head Home (or Out for More)

Fun fact: According to Petroglyph's park rangers, Albuquerque is within a day’s drive of 50 national monuments and parks. If you’re up for more after seeing Bandelier, Valles Caldera, and Petroglyph, continue on to see parks like White Sands National Monument and Carlsbad Caverns National Park within the state, or even iconic attractions like the Grand Canyon if you’re willing to head beyond New Mexico.