How to Spend 3, 5 or 7 Days in New Mexico

Exploring New Mexico may be the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the Southwest.The northern half of “The Land of Enchantment” is the New Mexico of popular imagination,with its desert landscapes, adobe-style architecture and rich culture abundant in two of the state’s most popular tourist destinations: Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

With one of these two hub cities as your base, use our guide to customize your perfect family trip —whether you’re visiting for a long weekend or a whole week.

How to Get There
Fly into Albuquerque International Sunport:

  • Drive about 3 miles north to downtown Albuquerque
  • Drive about 70 miles northeast to Santa Fe

Santa Fe

With history, museums, cuisine and art galleries galore, the country’s oldest state capital has plenty to keep you busy. At the top of many people’s list are the abstract paintings from Santa Fe icon Georgia O’Keeffe. After you’ve had your fill of American modernism, there’s still a ton left to see and do that will keep your whole family entertained.

3-Day Trip: Explore the ‘City Different’

If you’re only in New Mexico for a long weekend or a quick getaway, Santa Fe has plenty to offer. First, head to the city’s historic Railyard district, which is full of vibrant art galleries, shopping and entertainment for grown-ups, while its imaginative children’s playground will put a smile on your little one’s face. The district also hosts the weekly Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, brimming with produce vendors, street performers and sweet-treat purveyors like Cloud Cliff Bakery. For a family-friendly meal, try nearby Cowgirl BBQ, which has an outdoor Kid Corral play area.

Looking for a hands-on experience of the city’s art scene? Wander, climb and crawl through Meow Wolf, a mind-bending, 20,000-square-foot art installation-meets-jungle gym that’s less than 4 miles southwest of the Railyard district. Designed by a local high-tech artists’ collective, Meow Wolf has been described as real-life virtual reality, full of immersive storytelling and interactive games and puzzles. Bonus weirdness: Giant spider and robot sculptures stand guard over the parking lot.

From a glowing Glitteropolis to interactive stories and games, travelers can engage with New Mexico’s creative arts scene at Meow Wolf. Photo courtesy of Jason Eppink, Flickr.

Next, venture outdoors, where New Mexico’s high-desert beauty beckons buckaroos big and small to climb in the saddle. About 25 miles south of downtown, Broken Saddle Riding Company offers one- to three-hour horseback riding trips among the rolling hills and dusty creek beds of Cerrillos Hills State Park. Film buffs may recognize the location from the 1980s “Brat Pack” Western “Young Guns.”

5-Day Trip: Visit Bandelier National Monument and Los Alamos

If you’ve got a bit more time in the area, drive 40 miles northwest of Santa Fe and more than 500 years back in time to the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings of the lush Frijoles Canyon, now known as Bandelier National Monument. The easy, 1.2-mile Main Loop Trail leads to the stone remnants of a massive canyon-bottom pueblo and continues alongside the cavelike cliff dwellings — some of which are accessible by wooden ladders.

See ancient cliff dwellings that are more than five centuries old at Bandelier National Monument.

About 12 miles north of the monument, grab lunch in Los Alamos, the once-secret city now known as the birthplace of the atomic bomb during World War II. The Bradbury Science Museum uncovers the history of the nuclear Manhattan Project and features hands-on exhibits for kids in its TechLab.

7-Day Trip: Take in Taos

About 70 miles north of Santa Fe (via State Road 68) lies the artsy town of Taos. Nestled between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Rio Grande Gorge, Taos warrants a one- or two-night stay and offers lodging from casual motels to charming and artsy B&Bs, like the American Artists Gallery House. Travelers planning weeklong New Mexico vacations can easily arrange an overnight in the Taos area and enjoy rafting on the Rio Grande, summer hiking and winter sports in Taos Ski Valley and exploring the 1,000-year-old adobe dwellings of Taos Pueblo.

Albuquerque

From views to zoos, New Mexico’s largest city offers a wealth of attractions — and providesa convenient base for daytrips and an overnight excursion to Carlsbad Caverns NationalPark.

3-Day Trip: Experience the ‘Duke City’

If you’re planning a short New Mexico getaway, Albuquerque has plenty to keep you busy. Families flock to ABQ BioPark along the Rio Grande for its excellent zoo, home to more than 900 animals. The park’s aquarium brings toothy predators of the deep to the desert in its 285,000-gallon shark tank. You’ll also find a lovely botanical garden, plus the Tingley Beach fishing ponds, where you can cast a line or rent a pedal boat.

Next, head 2 miles north and keep your eyes peeled for the colorful geometric dome atop Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum. The center enthralls younger kids with hundreds of hands-on science, technology and art exhibits — from soap bubble experiments to a high-wire bicycle ride. Still hungry for brain food? Head next door to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and catch a planetarium show or 3-D movie.

For more high-flying fun, drive about 15 miles to Albuquerque’s northeastern outskirts and board a gondola at Sandia Peak Tramway, the country’s longest aerial tram ride. The desert view along the 15-minute “flight” to the 10,378-foot crest line of the Sandia Mountains is a knockout at any time of day, but sunsets can be breathtaking. Plus, you’ll see the twinkling city lights on the ride down.

For unforgettable views from more than 10,000 feet high, go for a 2.7-mile ride inside a Sandia Peak Tramway gondola. Photo courtesy of gardener41, Flickr.

5-Day Trip: Follow the Turquoise Trail

For those planning longer vacations, you may be considering a drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe or vice versa. As an alternative to Interstate 25, the 50-mile route along Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway (State Road 14) winds through the piñon pine-studded hills east of the Sandia Mountains. The route’s Old West mining towns are now filled with quirky shops, art galleries and eateries. For lunch, try a green chile cheeseburger at Madrid’s Mine Shaft Tavern. In neighboring Cerrillos, stop by Casa Grande Trading Post & Petting Zoo so your little travelers can feed the goats some lunch, too.

7-Day Trip: Venture Under (and Out of) This World

If you’re spending a week in the Land of Enchantment, head south and deep underground to the subterranean wonderland of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a 4.5-hour drive from Albuquerque via U.S. 285, for an overnight adventure. Get an early start to spend the better part of a day exploring the stalactites and stalagmites in caves like the Big Room and Kings Palace. Hit the pillow at one of nearly two dozen motels in the town of Carlsbad, about 20 miles north of the park.

Discover the depth of New Mexico inside Carlsbad Caverns.

Returning to Albuquerque, break up the drive with a stop in Roswell, the unofficial UFO capital of the world. The city trades on its 1947 Roswell Incident alien fame with extraterrestrial-themed museums, gift shops and even a flying-saucer-shaped McDonald’s.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Eli Ellison is a travel writer who specializes in the American Southwest. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, AAA.com and WorldHum.com.


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