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An Enchanting Road Trip in New Mexico

Sun-baked dunes, high-desert hills, Southwestern cuisine in Santa Fe and Taos

map of new mexico road trip over a photo of downtown santa fe at night

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Its immense, wide-open spaces and boundless diversity of terrain make New Mexico an ideal destination to explore when you want to go roaming while practicing social distancing. Begin this road trip in the southern part of the state and wind your way up through the middle, hitting many of New Mexico's natural highlights and snagging some of the cultural high points, too — while avoiding crowds.

COVID-19 update

The unpredictability of the coronavirus means travel restrictions are constantly evolving. Be sure to check New Mexico's website for travel advisories before visiting from out of state, and follow CDC guidelines for safe travel.

sunset in white sands national monument in new mexico

Peter Unger/Getty

White Sands National Park

Day 1: El Paso, Texas, to Alamogordo (111 miles, 2 hours driving time)

Start your adventure in the border town of El Paso, Texas, just a few miles south of New Mexico. If you're flying into the region, its international airport has the most commercial flights in this area of the country. El Paso is worth exploring on its own, but you've come to see the Land of Enchantment, so leave Texas behind and drive north on Interstate 10 to Las Cruces, just 59 miles (one hour) away. Situated on the vast floodplains of the Rio Grande Valley, Las Cruces charms with its many pecan orchards, cottonwood groves and wineries. Spend time strolling through the historic Las Mesilla neighborhood, once its own Old West border town where Billy the Kid stood trial for murder. All of its decorative ristras — dried red chiles strung together and hung next to doorways as a sign of hospitality — offer you a time-honored welcome to the state. Don't miss this neighborhood's centerpiece, the Basilica of San Albino, an adobe cathedral dedicated in 1908 where a church had stood since 1852.

Grab lunch in Las Mesilla at Chala's Wood Fire Grill, favored for its tacos al pastor and chile con carne burritos, then drive five minutes away, across I-10, to Caliche's Frozen Custard on South Valley Drive for dessert (currently, take-out only). This sweet spot mixes its custard — chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors — with all manner of toppings, such as bananas, strawberries and local salted pecans.

Now, take U.S. Route 70 52 miles northeast to White Sands National Park (entrance, $20 per vehicle), a 275-square-mile park encompassing the world's largest gypsum dune field. Here, the wind has blown white sand crystals into 60-foot-high piles, creating an otherworldly landscape that you can see by driving along the park's eight-mile long Dunes Drive. If you're feeling energetic, pick one of the half-dozen hiking trails for some climbing-in-the-sand fun. For a short trek, set out on the Dune Life Nature Trail, a one-mile loop that will take about an hour or two if you stop to read all the naturalist signs and snap lots of photos. Alternatively, unleash your inner child: Buy a plastic sled at the park's gift center and go sledding down the dunes. You'll have a blast (with sand in your pants to prove it). You might see animal tracks — perhaps from badgers or kit foxes — in the dunes.

Continue 19miles northeast on 70 to Alamogordo for the night. Dinner options are limited under New Mexico's current COVID-19 restrictions, but you can still fill up on one of the state's best green chile cheeseburgers at the Hi-D-Ho Drive In, an old-school burger stand where you can sit outside or grab your food to go.

Where to stay: Overnight at one of the city's basic hotels, such as Fairfield Inn and Suites.

Valley of Fires recreation area

Phil Degginger / Alamy Stock Photo

Valley of Fires recreation area

Day 2: Alamogordo to Santa Fe (218 miles, 3 1/2 hours drive time)

Make your first stop this morning at Alamogordo's New Mexico Museum of Space History, a somewhat quirky Smithsonian affiliate. Although the building is currently closed, you can still explore the outdoor John P. Stapp Air & Space Park for a fascinating look into the can-do spirit of the U.S. space program's early days. The park features many early space-flight vehicles and exhibits, including the Little Joe II rocket, a testing rocket for the Apollo Space Program. In front of the museum, look for the grave of HAM the Astrochimp, the first hominid launched into space, in 1961.

Sixty miles north on U.S. 54, turn west onto U.S. 380 for four miles to the Valley of Fires recreation area. Here, a lava flow from Little Black Peak erupted some 5,000 years ago, creating a black strip on the landscape as the magma cooled. The recreation area has 19 campsites with tables and grills, making it an exceptional spot for a roadside picnic. Just check in advance before you go: The state barred visitors from using many historic sites, such as this one, earlier this year and may impose the restrictions again based on safety.

Back on the road, head north on 54 and 285 for 160 miles (roughly 2-1/2 hours) to Santa Fe. Dine that evening on the expanded outdoor patio at Sazón, less than two blocks south of the Plaza, the town's center, for some of the state's best Latin-inspired cuisine. A favorite dish: the chile poblano with lamb and a creamy walnut sauce.

Where to stay: The Inn and Spa at Loretto, a Southwest-themed hotel just two blocks south of the Plaza (near Sazón) in a multitiered adobe structure, may be one of the city's most recognizable buildings.


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The lampposts at the Santa Fe Plaza, which is a National Historic Landmark in downtown Santa Fe

Wolfgang Kaehler / Alamy Stock Photo

Downtown Santa Fe

Day 3-4: Santa Fe

As of late August, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, the Palace of the Governors and many other downtown attractions were still closed for the pandemic (although they were scheduled to open at 25 percent capacity in September). On the upside, that means far fewer people in the streets around them, making it easier to stroll through the area and enjoy some quiet time sitting in the Plaza. Most shops are open but only operating at 25 or 50 percent capacity, so you can go on a buying spree without bumping into many other shoppers. One of the city's best artisan shops to hit: Keshi the Zuni Connection sources its jewelry and pottery directly from artists on nearby pueblos (currently, in-store shopping by appointment only). You'll also want to tour the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, with its iconic twin towers, and browse through the many art galleries open on Canyon Road, a mile south of the Plaza. The easy, compelling stroll along the road known for its galleries ends at The Teahouse, a charming café in an old adobe building with a walled courtyard that makes a cozy setting for an open-air brunch. It serves dozens of teas from around the world, all exceptional. So is the food; take your pick from six types of eggs Benedict.

That afternoon, stretch your legs on the Dale Ball Trails, a 25-mile series of relatively easy hiking (and mountain-bike) paths in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Access the trails at the Sierra del Norte Trailhead, just a three-mile drive northeast from downtown on N.M. State Road 475. But keep in mind that the elevation, roughly 7,500 feet, will leave you breathless if you're not acclimated. What will also leave you breathless: the views from the tops of the low peaks, which stretch all the way across the desert to the Jemez Mountains beyond.

For dinner back in town, head to the Tune-Up Café, in a quaint neighborhood just west of downtown and arguably the city's most popular restaurant with locals. You can't go wrong with the barbacoa tacos or the mole Colorado, chicken or veggie enchiladas covered with a rich, complex sauce made from dried red chiles and Mexican chocolate. Dine out on the patio — and try snagging the corner booth for privacy (you'll feel as if you're in your own world).

Where to stay: Remain at the Inn and Spa at Loretto.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, Taos, New Mexico

BHammond / Alamy Stock Photo

Days 4-5: Santa Fe to Taos (70 miles, 90 minutes drive time)

Before you leave Santa Fe, go zen this morning at Ten Thousand Waves, the impossibly serene Japanese spa four miles northeast of downtown on 475. It's operating at limited capacity, so make reservations well in advance to soak in its outdoor hot tubs set amidst piñon trees (or to get a massage). You'll soak in your own private pool and dry off in the sun entirely by yourself.

After your spa experience, move on to Taos, driving 75 miles north on U.S. 285 and then N.M. State Road 68. Taos’ many adobe buildings and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rising to the northeast give the city so much appeal. Walk around the Taos Plaza and surrounding streets, then sit down for a late lunch at the Alley Cantina, just off the Plaza in a 16th-century house built by the Pueblo Indians. Try the carne adovada, slow-braised pork in a red chile sauce. After lunch, drive out to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, 12 miles to the northwest on U.S. Route 64, to peer straight down onto the Rio Grande River 700 feet below.

The next morning, lace up your hiking boots and drive 20 miles north on N.M. State Road 150 to the Taos Ski Valley. From the ski resort's parking lot, the moderate Williams Lake Trail climbs up through spruce trees for two miles to one of New Mexico's prettiest alpine lakes. There, you'll also get a dramatic view of Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest at 13,159 feet.

Cap the day with the best experience Taos offers: dinner at the Love Apple, a locavore's heaven set in an 1800s-era chapel on the town's north side, right off the main drag of Paseo Del Pueble Norte. The tiny restaurant brims with charm and features an American and New Mexican menu that changes nightly, with ingredients sourced from nearby farms and ranches. Dine outside on its patio and take in the setting sun in the high-desert air.

Where to stay: Just southeast of downtown, towering cottonwood trees surround El Monte Sagrado, another Southwest-themed spa and resort.

National Scenic Byway in New Mexico

Visions of America/UIG/Getty Images

High Road to Taos Scenic Byway

Day 6: Taos to El Paso (512 miles, 9 1/2 hours drive time)

Loop your way back to El Paso by taking the High Road to Taos Scenic Byway (N.M. State Road 76) to Santa Fe, then south on Highway 285 for 273 miles to Carlsbad, which is about seven hours of drive time. From Carlsbad, it's an easy 169 miles (2 1/2 hours) to El Paso on U.S. 62.

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