Planning a trip to the Southwest and looking for the best New Mexico road trip itinerary?! Get ready for adobe-style architecture, scenic landscapes, cultural diversity, steamy hot springs, and green chile everything. It’s gonna be a spectacular week in New Mexico!
I had been wanting to visit New Mexico for quite some time, and was overblown by the beauty of the state. After some consideration (and realizing there was honestly so much I wanted to see), I ultimately decided on a week-long New Mexico road trip! It was the perfect decision – we got to see oh so much, and the drive was relatively easy (says my husband, haha).
New Mexico is known for a whole slew of spectacular things. The striking white gypsum sand dunes of White Sands National Park. The famous International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque. The development of the first atomic bomb (yes, true story). Tons of Native American art, including pottery, jewelry, and textiles. Vast underground caves and formations in Carlsbad Caverns. The oldest capital city in the United States (Santa Fe)!
I mean, the state’s nickname is the “Land of Enchantment” afterall!
Even American artist Georgia O’Keeffe made New Mexico her home and got tons of inspiration from its scenic landscapes. Oh, and you can’t forget about that green chile stew and those blue-corn enchiladas. And all that traditional Pueblo architecture and adobe buildings.
It’s unlike anywhere else in the Southwest, and so, so different from Texas! Even the iconic Route 66 passes through New Mexico. The state really has so much going for it, and yet, most people head straight to Arizona or Utah (completely forgetting about New Mexico altogether). What a shame! I bet this week in New Mexico itinerary will totally change your mind, wink wink.
There’s even lava fields, volcanoes, and badlands. Bet you had no idea New Mexico was this diverse! We won’t be able to see everything on our New Mexico road trip, but you’ll definitely see a lot! Okay, I’ll stop gushing… but if you’ve never tried fry bread or a sopapilla drizzled with honey, book your flight right now. Promise you won’t regret it.
Overview and Logistics of this New Mexico Road Trip
- Day 1: Albuquerque
- Day 2: Santa Fe
- Day 3: Santa Fe
- Day 4: Taos or Day Spa
- Day 5: Bandelier National Monument
- Day 6: Truth or Consequences
- Day 7: White Sands National Park
Estimated Driving Time: +/- 15 hours (1000+ miles)
This New Mexico road trip basically follows Interstate 25 — a major north-south highway traversing basically the entire length of the state. Meaning you’re gonna see a whole lot!
Where is New Mexico
New Mexico is located in the southwestern region of the US, and bordered by Colorado, Oklahoma (a teensy tiny sliver!), Texas, and Arizona. Plus my favorite – the country of Mexico to the south!
The state is entirely landlocked (meaning no coastline or ocean/sea), but I promise, you won’t be missing the water as there’s so many other views to admire! Lots of high mountain peaks, expansive deserts, and even sand dunes.
It’s one of the four states that make up the Four Corners Monument, although we won’t be headed that far northwest on this New Mexico itinerary (it’s a few extra hours of driving if you’re so inclined)!
And there’s so much natural beauty! The Northern part of New Mexico is home to parts of the Rocky Mountains (yes, really) and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Rio Grande is one of the major rivers in New Mexico, while you’ll find the Jemez Mountains to the northwest of Santa Fe. And then there’s the Sandia Mountains, rising dramatically from the Rio Grande Valley east of Albuquerque.
Where to Start Your New Mexico Road Trip
Where you start this New Mexico road trip really depends on what airport you decide to fly into!
Most people fly into Albuquerque International Sunport (airport code ABQ), the largest and busiest airport in New Mexico. Because of that, I’m writing this New Mexico road trip starting in Albuquerque! But you can also fly into Santa Fe or even El Paso, Texas which I’ll get into a bit below.
Coming from San Francisco, we couldn’t find many nonstop flights to ABQ, so had to connect in Salt Lake City. And since we were traveling over a busy holiday weekend (Thanksgiving!), flights were more pricey than normal. Was it worth it to spend a week in New Mexico? 100%!
Note that you can also fly into Santa Fe Municipal Airport (SAF), but the airport is TINY, and only serves regional flights. Meaning there’s a super limited number of direct flights available (only from Dallas, Denver, and Phoenix at this time). If you’re coming from one of those cities, definitely check into flying straight to Santa Fe as it’ll decrease the overall drive time of this New Mexico road trip a tad!
And then there’s ALSO El Paso International Airport (ELP) – which, yes, is in Texas, but a great idea if you’re starting your New Mexico road trip in the southern part of the state. It’s only about an hour (50 miles) from Las Cruces, which is a great place to base yourself for visiting White Sands National Park. Do this road trip in reverse if you’re flying into El Paso!
So basically, if you’re visiting central or northern New Mexico first, it’s best to fly into Albuquerque, and if you wanna start your week in New Mexico in the southern part of the state, El Paso may make more sense.
Round Trip Road Trip or One Way?
You can do this New Mexico road trip one of two ways:
- Starting and ending in Santa Fe/Albuquerque
- Flying into Santa Fe/Albuquerque and flying out of El Paso (or vice versa)
There’s pros and cons to both, but we ultimately decided to fly in and out of Albuquerque, so naturally headed back to ABQ at the end of our trip.
- Roundtrip: No one-way car rental fee, an extra 3-4 hours of driving, airfares will probably be more cost-effective
- One-way: Extra car rental fees, less driving, but possibly higher airfares
My recommendation? Look into car rental rates and airfares before you make your final decision!
Renting a Car in New Mexico
Since this is in fact a road trip, you’ll need a vehicle to get you from place to place! Worth mentioning so you don’t forget to account for the cost of a rental car when following this New Mexico itinerary! I like to search via this site in order to compare rental companies to see who has the best price.
There’s plenty of car rental agencies right at the ABQ airport, and I recommend renting one for pickup as soon as you land. The top sites in Albuquerque are kinda spread out, so you’ll definitely want the flexibility of your own car starting from Day 1.
Many rental car shops charge extra for returning their cars at different pick up/drop off locations – just something to keep in mind if you’re planning to head home from a different airport.
Note: We didn’t pay any tolls on our New Mexico road trip, and if you follow this itinerary, you won’t either! That’s because there’s NO toll roads in New Mexico at all! ZERO! You can drive from Santa Fe all the way south to White Sands National Park without having to worry about paying tolls or getting an EZPass/Fast Track or other toll booth pass provider.
Also, all the roads and main highways we drove on (I-25) were completely paved and easy to drive without any major potholes.
When to Take this New Mexico Road Trip
This post assumes you’ll be driving during the spring, summer, or fall, roughly between April and November. Note that snow is common in higher altitudes in New Mexico (Taos, Santa Fe, etc), so always be prepared for that (yes, even in April/May and October/November).
New Mexico experiences a huge variety of climates, ranging from arid and semi-arid in the south to a more alpine climate in the northern mountains. Plus, the state’s got a lot of big elevation changes, which definitely contributes to variations in temperature. When you go will drastically affect your trip, so read below!
Spring (March to May)
Ohhh – spring is an excellent time for a New Mexico road trip! Temps will be mild (ranging from 50°F to 70°F), with lots of blooming flowers and green landscapes.
Do note that snowfall is still possible in early spring at higher elevations (particularly in mountainous areas), so just be aware of that. Thunderstorms are also possible (usually in the afternoon and evenings), but mornings are typically dry.
Summer (June to August)
Summer in New Mexico gets hot, hot, hot, with temps ranging from 80°F to 95°F in lower elevations. Thankfully, higher elevations are cooler and more moderate. This is when it’s most crowded, so make sure to grab all your accommodations and even restaurant reservations well in advance!
And if you look towards the highest mountain peaks, you just maybe will be able to see some lingering snow! So, so beautiful!
Important note: Summer is MONSOON season, with afternoon and evening thunderstorms and heavy rainfall. You don’t wanna be outside this part of day. Flash foods do and can happen, although mostly in arroyos (dry stream beds).
If you’re exploring remote parts of the state or desert areas, always be cautious of flash foods; they can happen pretty quickly! It’s crucial to stay away from low-lying areas, dry washes, and arroyos during or after heavy rainfall. Not sure what those are? Look them up! Be safe, always – never take any chances with your life.
Fall (September to November)
Fall in New Mexico is absolutely beautiful! It’s a super pleasant season with cooler temperatures, vibrant foliage, and tons of cultural events. And a much less chance of thunderstorms than summer (thank goodness!). Plus the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta falls every October (!!!).
My top choice for this week-long New Mexico road trip, although I wish we went a few weeks earlier than we did!
Expect crisp and comfortable weather (typically 50°F to 70°F) and beautiful fall foliage. Aspen trees turn golden yellow and cottonwoods get all red and orangey – gorgeous! If you’re looking for the best foliage, head to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and other higher elevations.
While snow typically doesn’t fall until winter, you may catch the first snowfall in late fall at higher elevations!
For reference, we completed this New Mexico itinerary in mid-late November, and it was *so* much colder than expected, haha. I’m not really sure why I thought it’d be a little warm… probably because it’s in the southwest and I associate that part of the country with scorching hot temps.
Alas, don’t be me, and take along a true winter jacket if you’re visiting in late fall and especially the dead of winter.
Winter (December to February)
New Mexico in winter is kinda tricky – there’ll still be plenty of blue sky days (winters are known to be crisp and clear), but it’s gonna be COLD. And since elevation changes so much depending on where in the state you are, the weather can vary drastically from one area to the next.
Expect cities/towns in low elevation (like Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and Carlsbad) to have highs ranging from 30°F to 50°F (so really, not terrible!), but temps in higher elevations (especially mountainous areas like Taos and Santa Fe) will be much colder – think 30°F to 40°F during the day and dropping below 10°F at night.
Come during winter if you’re planning to ski or snowboard! Taos and even Santa Fe have some great ski resorts for both – and yes, tons of snow. It may snow at lower elevations but not super likely, and will probably melt pretty quickly.
Experience with driving in snow is a big plus – you never know when there’ll be a major snowstorm, especially in the mountains. This New-York-turned-California girl will not be driving during winter in New Mexico anytime soon, haha.
Where to Stay Along the Drive
Whenever I travel, I try to minimize the number of times I need to switch hotels. It’s just so annoying to pack up every single day and move your stuff (in my opinion). Therefore, I attempted to do this for our New Mexico road trip, only staying in 4 different hotels during our week-long trip. Sure, it’s still quite a few but better than 6 different hotels!
Here’s what we did and I recommend you do as well:
- Albuquerque: 1 night at the beginning of the trip (Hotel Chaco)
- Santa Fe: 3 nights (Rosewood Inn Of the Anasazi and/or Pueblo Bonito Santa Fe)
- Truth or Consequences: 1 night (Holiday Inn Express & Suites Truth or Consequences)
- Las Cruces or Alamogordo: 1 night (Holiday Inn Express Hotel Las Cruces)
- Albuquerque: 1 night at the end of the trip (Hotel Chaco)
You’ll notice we stayed in Santa Fe for 3 nights, which seems kinda overkill for a fast-moving road trip, dontcha think?! Fear not, you can easily do day trips to both Bandelier National Monument and Taos from Santa Fe, both in under an hour and a half.
If you’d really like, you can stay in Taos for a night, but I honestly don’t think it’s worth changing hotels unless you wanna stay there for more than a day.
Other Important Things to Know for this New Mexico Itinerary
- Gas is inexpensive. We paid about $2.50 a gallon, which, compared to the $5+ we typically pay in California, seemed exceptionally cheap to us. And for a road trip, we didn’t even fill up that many times (I think twice over the course of our week in New Mexico if I remember correctly). Not bad!
- On that note, there’s not much gas between Las Cruces and Albuquerque, so fill up ahead of time and don’t let your tank get too low. If you’re even half full and see a station, I’d fill up just to be on the safe side.
- A lot of New Mexico is at high elevation (including Santa Fe, Taos, Los Alamos, Jemez Springs, etc). If you plan to visit mountainous areas, stay hydrated and take breaks. You don’t wanna fall victim to altitude sickness!
- New Mexico gets lots of sunny days (yay!), so slather on that sunscreen and wear sunglasses and a hat. That high-altitude sun is no joke!
- If you follow this New Mexico road trip, you’ll be traveling on one main highway — Highway I-25, which runs north to south. You’ll encounter border patrol checkpoints as you get to the southern part of the state – because our last stop, Las Cruces, is only about 50 miles from Mexico! We had no problems with these (just wanted you to be aware).
- Have your camera ready at all times, as we saw stunning landscapes on the drives. But be careful and only stop at designated turn offs (especially on mountain roads!).
- New Mexico was popularized by the hit tv shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul (we’re huge fans!). You can even take a tour of the filming locations in Albuquerque.
- There’s no way you can see all of New Mexico in a week. If you’ve got more time, consider adding Roswell, the Bisti Badlands, and/or Carlsbad Caverns to your New Mexico itinerary! On my list for next time.
The Complete New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary
Finally, what you came here for — the perfect week in New Mexico! I know I’m exceptionally wordy, but hey, all that info above is important!
Note: This New Mexico itinerary assumes you have a full week in the state. You’ll wanna get to ABQ the night before in order to see and do everything on this road trip, unless you cut a few things out or spend less time at each spot.
But don’t fret – there’s ways around it if you’ve only got 5 or 6 full days. I recommend combining Days 4 and 5 by doing a short hike in Bandelier in the morning, and then spending the afternoon/early evening at the spa. OR you can try and squeeze everything you wanna do in Santa Fe into one day instead of two! You’ve definitely got options!
Day 1: Albuquerque
Welcome to ABQ! Time to get this New Mexico road trip underway! Get ready – it’s gonna be an exhilarating week, filled with tons of scenic beauty, tons of Native American crafts, and too many blue corn enchiladas.
But first – a full day in Albuquerque! It’s got Adobe-style architecture and vibrant marketplaces full of history and heritage. Green chile cheeseburgers, sweet honey-drizzled sopapillas, and authentic fry bread. Exhilarating heights with gorgeous sunset views at the Sandia Peak Tramway. Oh, and you can’t forget about all the kitschy and eclectic Route 66 relics! Plus all the Breaking Bad paraphernalia.
Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico, so there’s lots to do! Thankfully, with even only one day you can see plenty of highlights (I recommend spending a full weekend here to really see it all though).
For some reason, most people skip Albuquerque entirely and head straight to Santa Fe. I get it – Santa Fe is super charming with an artistic ambiance, offers hot springs nearby, and boasts way more upscale restaurants.
BUT don’t sleep on Albuquerque! It’s the perfect starting off point for a longer New Mexico road trip. I mean, you’re probably flying into ABQ anyways, so may as well explore for a day or so.
And remember, you’ll definitely want a car in Albuquerque, so rent one straight away from the airport!
Here’s how you should spend your first day in New Mexico:
Morning/Early Afternoon: Old Town
Old Town is the heart of Albuquerque, and a perfect first stop. Plus, you can grab some coffee here (I recommend Blackbird Coffee House and/or the Flying Roadrunner Bakery) and do lots of window shopping.
Historic Old Town is full of century-old adobe buildings, vibrant marketplaces, charming shops, quirky museums, and cultural attractions. It’s a great introduction to Albuquerque, and really gives you a feel for the city’s past.
I’d allocate at least 2-3 hours for a leisurely visit, plus additional time for breakfast and museum exploring. You can totally get by with less time, but we loved going into all the shops (there’s tons of tiny artisan shops and marketplaces here) and really taking it all in. Especially since it was our first time to New Mexico!
Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it here. There’s tons of unique Southwestern crafts, beautiful Native American turquoise jewelry (although some is touristy crap, haha), handwoven rugs, ceramic ristras, the softest blankets known to man, and handcrafted local pottery (which I kind of regret not buying).
Besides shopping, don’t miss the San Felipe de Neri Church, The Portal Market, a museum or two (there’s even a Rattlesnake Museum!), and The Breaking Bad Store (a must for any fans of the TV show).
Mid-Afternoon: Late Lunch at Indian Pueblo Kitchen
Who’s hungry?! Your first real meal (besides breakfast of course) needs to be some authentic New Mexican food – and yes, it’s way different than Mexican food, haha.
New Mexican cuisine is known for its distinctive flavors, vibrant colors, and literally chile peppers in everything. Influenced by Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo culinary traditions, New Mexican food really has its own unique identity.
Menu standouts are easily the blue corn-crusted onion rings (get the full stack, trust me) and the blue corn enchiladas smothered in green and red chile (which locals call christmas style!). I tried the Indian fry bread taco, and it was SO much larger than expected – come hungry!
Once you’re nice and full (seriously, wear your stretchy pants), check out the attached Indian Pueblo Cultural Center! The museum highlights the rich cultural heritage of the Native American Pueblo tribes, and showcases their art, history, jewelry, and traditions.
Sunset: Sandia Peak Tramway
Riding the Sandia Peak Tramway is an absolute must on any week in New Mexico itinerary. It’s one of the longest aerial tramways in the world, with the journey taking about 15 minutes each way (meaning lots of time for photos and views).
And once you’re at the top – wow, just wow! Spectacular vistas of not only the city, but a panoramic view of the entire Rio Grande Valley and the vast expanse of the New Mexico landscape.
While you can totally visit any time of day, I highly recommend heading up the mountain for sunset! Why? Because it’s absolutely spectacular, especially on a super clear day like we had. Sunsets are always so stunning in the desert. New Mexico included.
Psst – It’s cold and windy at the top! Dress appropriately, especially if you’re visiting for sunset in late fall/winter. We wore our warmest stuff and I still almost froze. Bring gloves; I had none and totally regretted it.
Dinner at Los Poblanos (fancy) or Sawmill Market (casual)
I’m giving you two options here, one fancy and one way more casual. Note you’ll need to book a reservation for Los Poblanos ahead of time, so get on that like yesterday if you already know your dates.
Looking for a romantic spot? Campo at Los Poblanos Historic Inn is it! They pride themselves on their farm to table food, and it shows; everything is made from scratch. And most of the ingredients either come from their farm or are locally sourced.
Standouts are the lemon Za’atar salad, the duck, the lamb Birria, and the housemade cavatelli. Oh, and don’t miss the breadboard – don’t blame me if you dream about that green chile sourdough for a while.
Los Poblanos requires reservations WEEKS in advance, so don’t fret if you’re kinda last-minute and don’t get a rez. If you didn’t fill up at TEN 3 atop the Sandia Peak Tramway, head over to the Sawmill Market for some dinner!
We loved this trendy warehouse – it has an eclectic collection of bars and foodie spots, and some of the best fresh pasta we’ve ever had (and yes, we’ve eaten our fair share in Italy!). There’s also poke, tacos, Mediterranean, pizza, salads, New Mexican (obviously!), and tons more.
Where to Stay in Albuquerque: Albuquerque has plenty to choose from in terms of accommodation, from cozy adobe bed and breakfasts to downtown high-rise hotels, and everything in between.
If it’s your first trip to Albuquerque, my top pick would be to stay in Old Town! Check out Hotel Chaco (luxury hotel with a classy modern design), Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town (upscale hotel influenced by Native American decor), and Casas de Suenos Old Town Historic Inn.
Where to Eat in Albuquerque: 66 Diner, Blackbird Coffee House, Sawmill Market, Java Joes, Golden Crown Panaderia, Indian Pueblo Kitchen, Campo at Los Poblanos, TEN 3 at Sandia Peak Tramway
Day 2: Santa Fe
Total Drive Time: 1 hour; ~65 miles (Albuquerque to Santa Fe)
Next up – Santa Fe, also known as “The City Different”, and the state capital of New Mexico. Get out early and make the short drive over from Albuquerque.
Note that there are THREE different routes you can take between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, yes three!
- Interstate-25 is the quickest and most direct route, right on the main highway
- The Turquoise Trail takes about 1 ½ hours, a 50-mile stretch through mining towns with gorgeous views along the way – make sure to fill up your gas tank before starting the drive!
- Driving through the Jemez Mountains takes about 3 hours, plus however long for stops (which goes through Bandelier National Monument and Jemez Springs)
Since we only had 2 full days in Santa Fe on our New Mexico road trip, we didn’t wanna waste any time so simply took I-25.
BUT if you want you can totally do a hike or two at Bandelier today and rearrange Day 2 and 4! Your call! Although Albuquerque and Bandelier are about 2 hours away, so you’d need to leave early early if you wanna get there before 9am (which is highly recommended so you don’t need to take the mandatory shuttle bus…).
Once you make it to Santa Fe, plan to spend the day around the famous Santa Fe Plaza in Old Town! This is Santa Fe’s famous historic district, a culturally rich neighborhood with distinctive adobe-style architecture, art-filled streets, and a vibrant plaza! You can easily spend all day here, and that’s exactly what we did!
It’s super chill but there’s actually quite a bit to see. If you wanna have a leisurely day and still see everything on this list and eat, I’d stick to only one museum visit.
A few things not to miss:
- Santa Fe Plaza: This is the central hub of Old Town, and a must for anyone visiting for the first time! You’ll see tons of people out and about, enjoying the park with their families and children.
- Palace of the Governors: Directly north of the Plaza you’ll find vendors selling tons of handcrafted items at the Palace of the Governors. This is the Native American Artisans Program, and the artists sell and showcase pottery, textiles, and jewelry made of traditional materials like turquoise, coral, and silver.
- IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts: A super colorful spot for some great photos, plus over 10,000 Contemporary Indigenous artworks inside!
- Shopping at The Plaza: You’ll find plenty of Native American jewelry, clothing, boots, pottery, and more. There’s so many artisan shops and boutiques, but here’s my favorites: O’Farrell Hat Company, The Rainbow Man, Parts Unknown, Shiprock Santa Fe, Back at the Ranch, and Original Trading Post.
- Admire the Santa Fe churches: Don’t miss the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, San Miguel Chapel, and the famous staircase at the Loretto Chapel.
- Georgia O’Keeffe Museum: You can’t visit Santa Fe and not visit this museum. I mean, New Mexico is the place that inspired a lot of her artwork afterall! You definitely need to purchase a timed ticket in advance on the website (they sell out quickly).
- Sunset at Cross of the Martyrs: The #1 spot in Santa Fe to watch the sunset, panoramic views and all! I loved it so much I came twice!
Where to Stay in Santa Fe: If it’s your first time in Santa Fe, I highly recommend staying in either the Historic District (Old Town) or the nearby Railyard District (up-and-coming trendy area). We stayed in both the Rosewood Inn Of the Anasazi (smack dab in the heart of Old Town) and Pueblo Bonito Santa Fe (a block over from the Railyard District) and had only great experiences!
Where to Eat in Santa Fe: This city is such a foodie spot, and there’s SO much good food. That’s another reason I recommend making Santa Fe one of your bases and doing some day trips – so you can try more restaurants of course!
I could write a whole post on this, but our favorites were: Tia Sophias (get the breakfast burrito, Christmas style), Coyote Cafe, La Choza (mmm those sopapillas), El Chile Toreado (the best pork adobada burrito in the city), Whoo’s Donuts (blue corn!), Paloma (the best menu), and Paper Dosa (worth the wait, I promise!).
Day 3: Santa Fe
Total Drive Time: Not much! You could even park your car for the entire day and not use it once!
Morning: The Railyard Arts District
The Railyard Arts District is a vibrant and evolving area that’s undergone a huge revitalization lately. It’s got a way more contemporary and urban feel compared to Old Town, and feels kinda trendy in a sense. You’ll still find a mix of shops, galleries, and restaurants here, but more modern and eclectic.
After fueling up with some caffeine (stop by CrashMurderBusiness for a creative coffee or Iconik for your standard breakfast menu), swing by the Santa Fe Farmers Market! Every Tuesday and Saturday you’ll find tons of fresh produce, handmade goods, locally grown spices, eggs, dried beans, honey, and much more. Honestly, it’s one of the best markets I’ve been to (on par with those in Guatemala and Mexico).
Once you’ve had enough (don’t miss a blue corn pupusa), stroll along Guadalupe Street for some shopping. There’s a whole slew of shops, but I especially loved form & concept (actually an airy art gallery), Double Take, Rio Bravo Trading Co, Array, and Kowboyz.
Afternoon: Canyon Road and Kakawa Chocolates
Next up — an afternoon of art! Head over to Canyon Road for a few hours, and start strolling!
Here you’ll find an eclectic assortment of art galleries in historic adobe homes and sidewalks lined with coyote fences and plenty of trees. The whole area is undeniably charming, with hidden sculpture gardens and patios serving up wine and margaritas.
Plus tons of art everyone! Where else can you see classic black-on-black pottery, contemporary mixed-media, exquisite Navajo weavings, and vibrant lithographs all on the same block?!
There’s over 80 art galleries here (so many!), but here’s a few galleries we popped into that I especially loved:
- Gerald Peters Contemporary
- Luca Decor
- Prescott Sculpture Gallery
- Freeman Gallery
- Adobe Gallery
But before you start your walk, pop into Kakawa Chocolate House for some chocolate elixirs and truffles! Everything is oh so good, and we loved hanging out in such a cozy space. Note that it does get busy, so prepare to wait in line for a tad (line moved fast though).
Where to Stay: Santa Fe (preferably the same place as last night!)
Day 4: Bandelier National Monument and Los Alamos
Total Drive Time: 2 hours (90 miles roundtrip) – Santa Fe to Bandelier National Monument and back
Time to get your hike on! Bandelier National Monument is one of the best places near Santa Fe to get yourself out into nature and learn about the lives of the region’s indigenous peoples. Imagine well-preserved ancestral cliff dwellings, stunning scenery (full of canyons, mesas, and the Frijoles Creek), and even ancient petroglyphs.
Plus ladders to climb, cavates to explore, and tarantulas to watch out for – yes, we saw one!
Bandelier is a must-visit if you’re interested in soaking up the stories and rich heritage of the American Southwest, plus lots of natural beauty. And getting some cool pictures too!
I recommend waking up early, grabbing a quick breakfast, and making your way to Bandelier (it’s only about an hour from Santa Fe, so really not that bad). The park does get busy though (understandably!), so the earlier you arrive, the better.
Plus, if you’re visiting in summer you’ll wanna ensure you get a spot in the parking lot so you aren’t forced to take the shuttle (mandatory after 9am from mid-June to mid-October).
You can really see so much of the park in just a day, although I highly recommend prioritizing the Main Pueblo Loop Trail. This is the most popular hike in the park, and in only 1.4 miles (roundtrip), you’ll see multiple archeological sites within the canyon and even use the ladders to crawl into a few cliff dwellings.
And petroglyphs! We saw a whole bunch – it’s wild to think just how long ago these were carved. If you look (really) closely at the photos (try squinting, haha), you’ll see a ram’s head, a bird/chicken, a fish with legs, and a duck — I think!
It’s a really fun short hike that almost anyone can do! The beginning of the trail is relatively flat, and is accessible by wheelchair and stroller. The second portion of the hike is where you’ll find the steep, winding steps; some spots were pretty tight with only enough room for one-way access.
If you’re looking for a longer hike and don’t mind climbing up some rocky ladders, make your way to the Alcove House! Just note you’ll be climbing 140 feet up above the canyon floor – so definitely not for the faint of heart. And yes, the ladders are much steeper than they look from afar.
Don’t leave the park without stuffing your face with some fry bread (covered in sugar) from the park’s semi-famous restaurant, Sirphey. The perfect after-hiking treat!
A few things to note:
- Bandelier National Monument is part of the National Parks Service (NPS), meaning all visitors MUST have an entrance pass. Private vehicles are $25, or you can of course use your America the Beautiful Pass.
- If you’re planning this New Mexico road trip in the cold and sometimes snowy winter months, check the website ahead of time to make sure the park is open!
- Leave no trace! Do your part to protect the park and all its culturally significant remains and the natural flora and fauna found here! This means staying away from wildlife, no mutilating or defacing any natural/cultural objects, and packing out whatever you bring in.
Once you’re done exploring Bandelier National Monument, you can either hang around the area or head back to Santa Fe. We decided to check out the Bradbury Science Museum, a free museum all about the Manhattan Project. I didn’t really know much about it beforehand, and learned tons about the development of the atomic bomb which I found especially interesting.
You can also visit Jemez Springs (about an hour west) – a charming little village known for its natural hot springs (with multiple pools with different temps) and the Jemez Historic Site (which preserves the remnants of a 17th-century Spanish mission).
Where to Stay: Los Alamos or Santa Fe
Like many national parks and monuments, there’s no lodging within Bandelier itself. Spending the night in Los Alamos or back in Santa Fe is your best option.
Personally, I recommend heading back to Santa Fe and staying where you did last night. There’s way more restaurant options there and with only a few days in the area, you’ll want a few days/nights to eat your way through the city. Plus, if you wanna head to Taos the next day, you aren’t really saving much driving time by staying in Los Alamos anyways. But your choice of course!
Los Alamos: It’s only a short drive southeast of Bandelier National Monument, at around 25 minutes away. The town is known for its association with the Manhattan Project during World War II – yes, the development of the atomic bomb! Expect to find mostly basic hotels here, including Holiday Inn Express and Suites Los Alamos and Pueblo Canyon Inn.
Day 5: Taos or Spa Day
On Day 5 of our New Mexico road trip itinerary you’ve got options! You can either head north to Taos, or have a super chill day at the spa. We chose the spa, surprise, surprise, haha. BUT either are great choices, just depends what you’re in the mood for!
Option 1: The High Road to Taos
Total Drive Time: ~4 hours (Santa Fe to Taos on the High Road, then back to Santa Fe on the Low Road)
Taos is a special place in the high desert of northern New Mexico. There’s tons of adobe buildings surrounded by the stunning Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the town is so artsy and fun. Traditions run deep over here, as people have lived in Taos Pueblo for centuries and centuries.
There’s two main ways to get to Taos from Santa Fe:
- High Road: This is the most scenic way to get from Santa Fe to Taos, driving through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s longer, at around 2 ½ hours with no stops, but there’s plenty to see along the way (with lots of small villages like Chimayo, Truchas, and Ranchos de Taos). Plus beautiful views of hoodoos in the Badlands, mountains in the distance, and Carson National Forest all around!
- Low Road: This is the more direct route between the two cities, although not as incredibly scenic as the High Road. Because of this, I recommend taking the Low Road back to Santa Fe once you’re done exploring in Taos (it’s much quicker).
I have to be completely honest with you – we decided to skip Taos on our New Mexico road trip. I had originally planned to visit, but we just weren’t feeling it that day. Thankfully I had already done all the research for you fine folks!
Visiting in winter? You can totally spend a whole day on the mountain – Taos offers world-class skiing and snowboarding! Plus, tons of après-ski opportunities (my favorite).
If I were to day trip from Santa Fe to Taos, here’s exactly how I’d do it:
Morning: Leave Santa Fe pretty early (around 8ish or so), then onto the High Road it is (NM-503 then following signs for the High Road to Taos). Make a stop at the historic Santuario de Chimayo, and explore the chapel and its surroundings (the “Holy Dirt” is known to have healing properties)!
Grab some New Mexican food at Rancho de Chimayo, a really popular spot with the best sopapillas drizzled with honey butter. Make a quick stop in the artistic village of Truchas to appreciate the adobe architecture!
Afternoon: Make your way to Taos, and head straight away to Taos Pueblo. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site afterall, and you can get a quick tour of this centuries-old Native American community by someone who lives there. Yes, people have lived right here in the pueblo for over 1,000 years, and still do! No wonder why there’s SO much cultural history here!
Head over to the Taos Plaza (the heart of the town!) and check out the shops, galleries, and historic buildings, plus the Kit Carson Home.
Evening: Before heading back to Santa Fe, make a pit stop at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge – there’s lots of breathtaking views over here (don’t forget your camera).
You can even walk across the bridge to get a feel for the true depth of the gorge (a whopping 800 feet deep). Finally, drive the Low Road back to Santa Fe – it’s a long and tiring day but well worth it!
Option 2: Hot Springs!
Total Drive Time: 1 hour (roundtrip to Ojo Santa Fe Spa Resort)
Not feeling another long day trip? I feel you – we actually had planned to head to Taos, BUT we were feeling kinda lazy and wanted a day to reset and relax.
Thankfully there’s a few highly-rated spas/resorts in the near vicinity. Just know that Day 6 will be more hot springs, so decide for yourself if two soaking sessions in two days is your jam. Never enough hot springs for me though!
We opted to visit Ojo Santa Fe Spa Resort, only 20 minutes or so from the city.
Once you arrive, you’ll need to purchase a day pass (good for as many hours as you wish – they don’t take reservations), and optional robe and slippers. It’s a tad expensive (at $45 during the week and $65 on weekends and holidays), but if you stay a few hours, I feel it’s more than worth it.
The whole resort is gorgeous – with multiple soaking areas, plenty of spring-fed thermal pools, comfy hammocks, a duck pond, a full-service spa, a bunch of walking trails, and even a first class restaurant on-site. You can also book yourself a private pool ahead of time if you want more privacy.
It looks especially beautiful in the fall when all the leaves change color (we visited in late fall/early winter and most of the leaves had sadly already fallen off). And once you’re done soaking, it’s only a 20-minute drive back to Santa Fe! Unless you wanna stay overnight, but I honestly don’t recommend it since it’s kinda isolated from the rest of the city.
Note: There’s also Ten Thousand Waves (a Japanese-style spa hotel with views of the mountains) about 10 minutes north of Santa Fe. BUT you can’t just walk on in, so prepare to make a reservation for one of their public communal pools or private soaking tubs a few weeks in advance.
Where to Stay: Taos or Santa Fe
Note: Tomorrow we’ll be driving a few hours south to Truth or Consequences, so staying in Santa Fe tonight will save you about 1 ½ hours of driving. I personally don’t see the benefit of staying in Taos tonight.
Day 6: Truth or Consequences and Riverbend Hot Springs
Total Drive Time: ~3 hours (Santa Fe to Truth or Consequences)
This New Mexico road trip itinerary is almost over, but not without spending a few hours soaking your stresses away in a hot spring at Riverbend!
Truth or Consequences is a super quirky little town that’s known for its wellness tourism and natural hot springs. And quite honestly, the town kinda feels like a time capsule – there’s evidence of the wild, wild west over in these parts, and it’s got a quiet, laid back feeling with a hippy/cowboy vibe. And so many vintage buildings from the 1950s!
The town is in a revitalization stage of sorts, with plenty of colorful buildings and art galleries lining the downtown streets. Artists are *loving* the temperate climate and low cost of living, and many are actually moving there!
It’s America’s most affordable spa town, and I highly encourage you to book yourself a soak or two! The natural waters are packed with some of the richest minerals in the country, so you can be sure your body will be feeling fiiiine afterwards. The water is actually pumped from deep within the Earth directly to the pools – kinda wild, right?!
To be completely honest, there’s not a ton to do in Truth or Consequences besides go for a soak and wander the (very) tiny town. So, if you wanna make a quick stop in Albuquerque for something you possibly missed on Day 1, feel free! Just don’t get carried away and miss your hot springs appointment!
Don’t laugh, but one of the main reasons I wanted to visit T or C was because of its super quirky name, haha. Sure, it might sound silly to visit a town simply for its name, but I mean, c’mon! It’s called Truth or Consequences (I can’t be the only one who finds this utterly fascinating, right?)!
The town was actually renamed from Hot Springs to Truth or Consequences over 70 years ago in 1950. Why? Because of a radio show contest of all things, haha!
And it’s a great mid-way point between Santa Fe and White Sands, so unless you wanna drive about 6 hours with no breaks, why not stop for a night?!
You’ll probably arrive in T or C late morning, where you can then peruse the colorful town, grab some lunch (A & B Drive In and Passion Pie Cafe are great options), and then go for a soak at Riverbend Hot Springs.
What to Know About Riverbend Hot Springs
- It’s the most popular of all the hot springs in Truth or Consequences (it’s the only hot spring directly on the banks of the Rio Grande), so you most definitely need to make a reservation in advance.
- You can choose between a private soak in a private pool, or a public soak in the common hot springs pools, or both! We chose to make reservations for both – just make sure to time them correctly (back to back) or you’ll be waiting around with literally nothing to do.
- You can totally reserve a few hours at a time if you’d like, but we found an hour at the private soaking tub and then an hour in the common pools were enough for us!
- Prices are super affordable, at $25-35 per hour for 2 people for a property pass (yes, that’s the price for TWO people – super great value in my opinion!). Private soaks are a tad more expensive, at $35-50 per hour for 2 people for a private pool, but still a really good value!
- This isn’t a glamorous bougie spa. It’s a bit more rustic and bare-boned, but still very comfy and fun.
- Riverbend Hot Springs is actually a hotel, so you can stay the night! Unfortunately there was a 2-night minimum stay when we were visiting, so chose to stay elsewhere.
- There is no alcohol, no glass/breakables, or food near the pools. And no smoking of any kind. Respect their rules!
Where to Stay in Truth or Consequences: You really have two options for location – either directly in the town of T or C itself, or along I-25, which is where we stayed.
Check out Blackstone Hotsprings, Pelican Spa, and of course Riverbend Hot Springs directly in town, or Holiday Inn Express & Suites Truth or Consequences (where we stayed!) and Comfort Inn & Suites right off the highway.
Where to Eat in Truth or Consequences: The town is pretty tiny, and therefore there’s not too many restaurants to choose from. But enough for a 1-night stay for sure.
There’s El Faro (Mexican food), Outer Edge Pizzeria, The Giddy Up Cafe (American breakfast), Pacific Grill, A & B Drive In (hamburgers), Further Bistro (salads and wraps), and a few others. There’s also plenty of fast-food options right off I-25 which we gladly indulged in, haha.
Day 7: White Sands National Park
Total Drive Time: 2 hours; 125 miles (Truth or Consequences to White Sands National Park)
Next up – the stunning white gypsum sand dunes of White Sands National Park! The last day of our New Mexico road trip is dedicated to this other-wordly park, and I promise you’ll love it just as much as I did. A visit to White Sands needs to be on any New Mexico itinerary, especially a road trip!
IMPORTANT DRIVING TIP #1: We didn’t see many gas stations between Truth or Consequences and Las Cruces, so fill up ahead of time (there’s a few stations right off I-25 in T or C). Don’t worry, there’s plenty of gas once you get to Las Cruces, but I don’t want you freaking out if your gas tank gets low on the way there!
IMPORTANT DRIVING TIP #2: You’ll come across some border patrol checkpoints driving in the very south of the state. Don’t be alarmed – this is because you’re so close to Mexico (only about 50 miles or so)! You won’t need to show your passport or anything, and we got flagged through every time, but just be prepared to stop and follow directions if an officer does enforce you to stop.
Extra stop: If you leave early enough, make a short pit stop in Hatch – the chile capital of the world! We spent about 20 minutes at the Hatch Chile Market – and couldn’t believe just how many chiles were outside hanging to dry and stuffed in bags. Huge truckloads of chiles; it was wild! The market inside is also worth a quick look.
If you’re hungry and want an early lunch, head to Sparkys, known for their green chile cheeseburgers and green chile lemonade!
Finally – White Sands National Park!
Imagine miles and miles of sparkling white sand stretching as far as the eye can see. A striking landscape filled with shimmering gypsum dust. Surreal sunsets and dark starry night skies. The largest gypsum dunefield in the entire world. That’s White Sands National Park in a nutshell — and it’s 100% worth a stop on any New Mexico road trip!
Ever since I saw a photo of Whites Sands National Park, I knew I needed to go. And yup, it was even more impressive than the sand dunes in Death Valley – go figure! Yes, wildly different, but ever-so-striking.
And a day is the perfect amount of time to explore the park – it’s honestly HUGE, but visitors are not allowed past a certain point. It’s actually the largest gypsum dune field in the entire world – how cool is that?!
Psst – before visiting White Sands, check in advance that no roads are closed due to nearby missile testing (the park is surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range). When these military tests are in progress, Dunes Drive (the only way to access the park) is closed to all traffic for 2-3 hours or so.
Check in advance to see when the road is closed (park rangers usually find out 2 weeks ahead of time or so, but may be given only 24 hours notice).
Note that White Sands National Park gets extremely hot. In my opinion, I’d consider skipping it if you’re planning your New Mexico road trip during the scorching summer months. It’s by far the hottest time of year, with daytime temps often exceeding 100°F (38°C), and some days 110°F – no thanks!
If you do plan to visit during the summer (maybe you don’t have much flexibility in your travel plans), visit either early in the morning or late in the afternoon when temperatures are a tad cooler. Be prepared for the intense heat, and stay hydrated. Bring more water than you think you need, and plan to spend a bit of time in the AC in your car. Heat stroke is a real thing!
A few things to note:
- There’s no food in the park, so plan to bring your own picnic lunch and/or a bunch of snacks.
- PLEASE leave no trace and do your part to protect the park and all its natural flora and fauna!
- We had absolutely zero cell service, besides a bar or two at the visitors center. Stop by the Visitors Center for a paper map – you’ll need one.
- BRING WATER! And more than you think you need. Staying hydrated is absolutely crucial in the desert – you don’t wanna pass out! The visitor center is the ONLY place to refill your water in the entire park.
- Like most National Parks, you’ll need to pay a fee to enter – $25 per vehicle (included in the America the Beautiful NPS Pass of course as well).
If you’ve got some extra time after White Sands, stop by PistachioLand for homemade pistachio ice cream! It’s only a few miles north of the national park, and one of those super quirky roadside attractions you can’t miss. I mean, did you really visit New Mexico if you didn’t see the largest pistachio statue in the state?!
Where to Stay near White Sands National Park: Las Cruces or Alamogordo
While there’s no accommodations within White Sands National Park itself, there’s thankfully a few options for staying nearby in both Alamogordo and Las Cruces. I’m a sucker for cute, boutique stays, but found most of the hotels to be your typical standard hotel chain – perfectly fine for a night and definitely within budget (our splurges were in both Albuquerque and Santa Fe).
Alamogordo, New Mexico: This is the closest urban area to White Sands (about a 20 minute drive), and a common base for visitors to the park. It’s a relatively small town, although it does have some hotels, motels, and restaurants.
Las Cruces, New Mexico: Las Cruces is a vibrant city nestled in the Mesilla Valley, and another solid choice not far from White Sands National Park (about 50 miles west). It’s way larger than tiny Alamogordo, so a great place to stay if you’re looking for more restaurants and things to do.
We decided to spend the night in Las Cruces at Holiday Inn Express Hotel Las Cruces, and it was perfect for a one-night stay (plus under $150 and included breakfast). Other options nearby include: Comfort Suites Las Cruces, La Quinta by Wyndham Las Cruces, and Staybridge Suites Las Cruces
Where to Eat near White Sands National Park: If you stay in Las Cruces like we did, there’s a bunch of restaurants to choose from. However, I highly recommend The Shed for breakfast or lunch, and La Posta De Mesilla for dinner. But whatever you do, you NEED to grab some frozen yogurt sundaes from Caliche’s, basically an institution around these parts.
Note: If you’re flying back from Albuquerque, you’ll have a 3 ½ hour drive. To head to El Paso, it’s shorter at only 1 hour.
And that concludes our week in New Mexico road trip itinerary! Are you heading to the Southwest soon?!