Sunset Grand Tour: Road to Enchantment
New Mexico tugs in so many directions when you’re planning a 10-day tour. How to knead all its compelling destinations into a manageable itinerary? You have to make hard choices―but in New Mexico, you’re never wrong.
Our 10-day, 1,000-mile excursion begins and ends in Albuquerque, looping north through Santa Fe and Taos, then heading west to the pre-Columbian mysteries of Chaco Canyon. From here we bend south to take in ancient but alive Ácoma Pueblo, the eerie badlands of El Malpais National Monument, and the quirky, charming mining town of Silver City before heading back to our starting point. It’s a great tour, but our advice is to customize it: Wherever a backroad or side trip presents itself, be sure you take it. The spirit of New Mexico is improvisation, and it never fails to reward.
If you have just four days in New Mexico, operate from a base in Santa Fe. Our suggestions:
DAY 1 Santa Fe. Get a map from the visitors bureau, then tour the Plaza and Canyon Road galleries. Best bets: Loretto Chapel, Museum of Fine Arts, Palace of the Governors, and St. Francis Cathedral.
DAY 2 Santa Fe. Visit outlying museums, especially the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. Consider a hike in the Santa Fe National Forest.
DAY 3 High Road to Taos. See the church of San Francisco de Asís Parish, the Santuario de Chimayo, and Taos Pueblo. Visit at least one roadside flower-and-chile stand; take home a ristra of dried chiles and a package of authentic Chimayo chile powder, the world's best. Return via U.S. 68 for a 145-mile round-trip.
DAY 4 Los Alamos and vicinity. Visit the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, detour north to see the Ancestral Puebloan sites at Bandelier National Monument, then drive the sinuous and scenic Jemez Mountain Trail (State 4) and return to Santa Fe for a 170-mile round-trip.
Deciding when to go? Fall is quiet and lovely, reservations are usually unnecessary, and the aspens and cottonwoods generally turn between mid-October and mid-November, depending on elevation. Ski season in northern New Mexico typically runs from late November to early April. If you're planning for next summer, the season is a constellation of festivals, from opera to art.
Planning your trip
The free 195-page New Mexico Guide is published every year; to order a copy, contact the New Mexico Tourism Department (www.newmexico.org or 800/733-6396). Some other useful resources:
New Mexico Bed & Breakfast Association (www.nmbba.org or 800/661-6649)
New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs
New Mexico Lodging Association (www.nmlodging.org or 505/983-4554)
Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper (www.santafenewmexican.com)
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Before visiting, call to check seasonal hours and prices.
It has ballooned into a big city (metro population: about 713,000), but Albuquerque’s best attractions are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Essentials: American International Rattlesnake Museum (202 San Felipe St. N.W.; 505/242-6569); Old Town (www.albuquerqueoldtown.com), the original Spanish village, founded in 1706 and renovated as a lively cluster of restaurants, museums, and galleries; and Petroglyph National Monument (6001 Unser Blvd. N.W.; 505/899-0205). Not far away is the National Atomic Museum (1905 Mountain Rd. N.W.; 505/245-2137). The Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.itsatrip.org or 800/284-2282) can help with trip planning.
Most common mistake: allowing too little time to see and understand this 400-year-old city. Two days is your bare minimum, three or four far better. The city’s gallery scene is so rich, the best advice may be just to browse randomly; still, don’t miss the Southwestern art at the Gerald Peters Gallery (1011 Paseo de Peralta; 505/954-5700). Buy a four-day pass for admission to five of the top museums, including the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art (750 Camino Lejo; 505/982-2226). Also see the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (217 Johnson St.; 505/946-1000); the Museum of Fine Arts (107 W. Palace Ave.; 505/476-5072); and the Palace of the Governors (105 W. Palace Ave.; 505/476-5100). Above all, eat frequently and adventurously: Santa Fe has more interesting restaurants than any American city 10 times its size. For more information, contact the Santa Fe Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.santafe.org or 800/777-2489).
Taos deserves at least a day: There are six engaging art and historical museums, and 4 miles northeast of town is Taos Pueblo (on Veteran's Hwy.; 505/758-1028), the Southwest’s most architecturally dramatic living pueblo. Also see San Francisco de Asís Parish (off State 68 in Ranchos de Taos; 505/758-2754), New Mexico’s most beautiful mission church. Contact the Taos County Chamber of Commerce (www.taoschamber.com or 800/732-8267). In nearby Truchas, visit Pierre Delattre Gallery (1632A State 76; 505/689-1005).
Chaco Culture N.H.P.
This national historical park is the most monumental and baffling pre-Columbian “city” in what we now call the United States. Every route to the park involves long distances and gravel roads, but you won’t regret the effort. Allow four to six hours in the park, and bring your own food and water. Primitive campsites $10. Off U.S. 550 at County Rd. 7900; 505/786-7014 ext. 221.
El Malpais N.M.
This national monument (off I-40 at exit 85; 505/783-4774) offers fascinating hiking over volcanic flows and cinder cones on the west side, and New Mexico’s largest easily accessible natural arch on the east side; check weather conditions before going. On your way south from here, consider a stop at Pie Town’s two estimable pastry establishments: the Pie-O-Neer Cafe (call ahead; mile marker 56/57 off U.S. 60; 505/772-2711) and the Daily Pie (mile marker 56 off U.S. 60; 505/772-2700).
The “Sky City” may be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement (at least 1,000 years) in North America. On I-40 at exit 102, 55 miles west of Albuquerque; 800/747-0181.
Catwalk National Recreation Trail
This steel trail clutches the side of Whitewater Canyon in the Gila National Forest. In Whitewater Recreation Area on State 174 (Catwalk Rd.), 5 miles east of U.S. 180 at Glenwood; 505/539-2481.
A retired mining town with Victorian architecture, a cluster of downtown galleries, and, at the Western New Mexico University Museum (off West St. at 10th St.; 505/538-6386), the world's best collection of Mimbres pottery.
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Best Western Rio Grande Inn. Close to Old Town. 173 rooms from $98. 1015 Rio Grande Blvd. N.W.; 800/959-4726.
La Posada de Albuquerque. Downtown hotel, built in 1939, offers classic Southwest style. 114 rooms from $89. 125 Second St. N.W.; 800/777-5732.
Sadie’s Cocinita. Its ferocious salsa is a favorite. $. 6230 Fourth St. N.W.; 505/345-5339.
El Rey Inn. Near downtown, and a good value for Santa Fe. 86 rooms from $89. 1862 Cerrillos Rd.; 800/521-1349.
Inn on the Alameda. Quiet luxury inn, east of the Plaza. 71 rooms from $159. 303 E. Alameda St.; 505/984-2121.
Cafe Pasqual’s. Wildly delicious but crowded; plan for an odd hour. $$$. 121 Don Gaspar Ave.; 505/983-9340.
Tia Sophia's. Best New Mexican breakfasts in Santa Fe. $. 210 San Francisco St. W.; 505/983-9880.
Bear Mountain Lodge. A 1928 school turned into a bird-watchers’ inn operated by the Nature Conservancy. 11 rooms from $115. 2251 Cottage San Rd., 3 miles north of Silver City; 877/620-2327.
Shevek & Mi. Eclectic Mediterranean menu. $$. 602 N. Bullard St.; 505/534-9168.
Fechin Inn. This elegant hotel incorporates Nicolai Fechin’s home. 84 rooms from $114. 227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte; 505/751-1000.
The Historic Taos Inn. Famous historic-district hotel opened in 1936. 36 rooms from $60. 125 Paseo del Pueblo Norte; 800/826-7466.
Lambert’s of Taos. Elegant setting, new American cuisine. $$$; reservations suggested. 309 Paseo del Pueblo Sur; 505/758-1009.
Rita’s Mexican Restaurant. Basic and authentic. $. 1638 Paseo del Pueblo Norte; 505/751-4431.
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These nearby destinations don’t rank below those on our Grand Tour, they just invite different wanderings. Use these listings and our map to create your own itinerary. For all travels, the New Mexico Atlas & Gazetteer (DeLorme Publishing Company; $20) is a wise investment.
Bandelier National Monument
Adolph Bandelier, a Swiss-born amateur archaeologist, created the foundation of Southwest archaeology here. Sites date from 1175 to 1500, and there are more than 70 miles of forest hiking trails. Off State 4, 10 miles southeast of Los Alamos; 505/672-0343.
Northwest of Chaco Canyon, Bisti is serious-business badlands, a giant chess set of sandstone-and-shale hoodoos. You’re on your own here―no ranger station, no trails, no interpretive signs, absolutely no water. Off State 371, about 35 miles south of Farmington; 505/599-8900.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Touring all the caves in the national park's 30-mile complex will take two days, but it's worth the time. Most tours are now ranger-guided; reservations recommended. Off U.S. 62/180, 7 miles west of Whites City; 505/785-2232 (information) or 800/967-2283 (tour reservations).
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
The national monument honors cliff dwellings the Mogollon people built around 1276, the first year of a devastating 23-year drought. Like the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings far to the north, Gila has T-shaped doorways and kivas. At the end of State 15, 44 miles north of Silver City; 505/536-9461.
Birthplace of the atomic bomb, the government town has the highest per capita percentage of PhDs in the country. The Bradbury Science Museum (15th St. at Central Ave.; 505/667-4444) documents the development of the A-bomb and its enduring controversies.