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Adventure awaits on these 3 New Mexico road trips

City of Rocks State Park City of Rocks State Park. | Photo by Judd Irish Bradley/stock.adobe.com

I remember my first New Mexico road trip, face pressed against a station wagon window as my parents cruised still-commissioned Route 66 through Tucumcari. Neon signs flickered in the cobalt-blue dusk, and murals of dancing kachinas had an otherworldly energy.

As soon as I had my license, I would pile friends into my Mazda hatchback and we’d venture to Carlsbad Caverns and points beyond. Throwing snowballs on an empty Taos plaza, staying at the now-defunct College of Santa Fe after all-night desert drives, and camping out under star-blanketed skies are simple but beloved memories of the absolute freedom of road trips.

Nowadays, it’s my young children staring out of a Subaru Outback at passing deserts and mountains, usually only after their game batteries have thankfully died. After a lulling silence, questions begin to percolate from the back seat. “Dad, how old is that?” “How did these mountains form?” One question leads to another, and I grin out to the open road ahead as my kids take an interest in their state.

These 3 New Mexico road trips are just a few of my favorites that hold decades of memories for me. I hope you explore these routes and make memories of your own.

1. Jemez Springs Loop

Drive through the high desert and along the peaks of the Jemez Mountains on the Jemez Springs loop. Red-rock cliff bands and ponderosa pine forests fill the views. The Jemez and Pojoaque Pueblos share their cultures with respectful visitors, and Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument reveal the area’s remarkable natural and human histories.

This 169-mile drive can be completed straight through in about 4 hours, but you’ll want to allow a couple of days to explore the many stops along the way. Stay overnight in Jemez Springs, Los Alamos, Pojoaque, or Santa Fe.

See the TripTik route for the Jemez Springs Loop.

What to see and do along the way

Learn about Jemez Pueblo at the Tribe’s Walatowa Visitors Center, then hike around the picnic area, with its striking red rocks. Closed to the public as of press time.

In the Village of Jemez Springs, swing by the venerable Los Ojos Restaurant and Saloon for burgers and northern New Mexican specialties like enchiladas and chile rellenos.

At Jemez Historic Site, just north of Jemez Springs, visit the ruins of Gíusewa Pueblo and a 17th-century Spanish mission. Admission, $7.

Stop at Soda Dam, a 7,000-year-old travertine bridge off the east side of NM 4 about 1.5 miles north of Jemez Springs. It’s great for photography and for soaking in its hot spring.

Read more: 8 free natural hot springs with stunning views

Stretch your legs and hike what’s called the Yellowstone of the Southwest, Valles Caldera National Preserve. This huge ancient volcanic crater is now a grassy expanse etched with trout-filled streams, wildflowers, and herds of elk.

Ladder to the Ancient Puebloan Caves

Ladder to the Ancient Puebloan Caves. | Photo by Tom Kilroy/stock.adobe.com

Ancestors of the area’s Pueblo nations carved south-facing homes into the soft, volcanic tuff along Frijoles Canyon in what is today Bandelier National Monument. Hike to the Alcove House on a trail lined with impressive ruins and climb ladders to a kiva perched in a shallow cave 140-feet above the canyon floor. Admission, $15.

Read more: 6 top outdoor attractions in New Mexico

The Poeh Cultural Center at Pojoaque Pueblo showcases Pueblo art and culture. Admission, $10. Closed to the public as of press time.

2. Gila Wilderness Loop

The Gila Wilderness loop encircles the Gila Wilderness, the largest designated wilderness area in New Mexico. The drive encompasses ancient relics, historic mining towns, university-town main streets, and astronomical facilities, all surrounded by forested mountains and desert landscapes. The route takes you from Silver City, the gateway to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, to the site of cutting-edge space exploration at the Very Large Array, a radio telescope facility.

The drive covers approximately 531 miles, so plan on overnighting along the route. You can complete the drive in about 12 hours, but each stop demands exploration. You also might want to add extra time to explore out-and-back destinations such as the Gila Cliff Dwellings and the ghost towns of Chloride and Winston.

In Silver City, choose from a variety of restaurants including Revel and Diane’s Bakery & Deli, and check out the vast Mimbres pottery collection at the Western New Mexico University Museum.

See the TripTik route for the Gila Wilderness Loop.

What to see and do along the way

Catwalk Recreation Area

Catwalk Recreation Area. | Photo by Brad Prudhon

Explore the waterfalls of Whitewater Canyon along the Catwalk, a bridge-like structure built above Whitewater Creek at the Catwalk Recreation Area near Glenwood. Admission, $3.

Camp at the Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary in Alma, where the Milky Way can stretch across the inky-black night sky.

Read more: Where to see the Milky Way in the Southwest

It’s a road trip must-stop: Have a piece of pie in Pie Town. The Pie-O-Neer has added Sunday dinners to its lavish pie menu. Open Friday–Monday.

Very Large Array

Very Large Array. | Photo by Kenny Tong/stock.adobe.com

Walk the grounds of the Very Large Array, used as a backdrop in the 1997 movie Contact, for some out-of-this-world photographs. The Array uses 27 huge dish antennas to pick up naturally occurring radio waves from deep space. Closed to the public as of press time. Admission, $6.

Savor a glass of wine at Hillsboro’s Black Range Vineyards, and end your night at Enchanted Villa Bed and Breakfast. Rates start at $55.

Relax in a pool at Faywood Hot Springs resort (prices vary), then marvel at the pinnacles at City of Rocks State Park. Admission, $5 per vehicle.

3. Taos Loop

The Taos loop travels around the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and New Mexico’s highest summit, Wheeler Peak.

It passes through Taos and picturesque mountain villages established in the 1700s, including Truchas and Trampas, as well as mountain resorts that offer family fun year-round. Road-trippers are rewarded with mountain views and the discovery of the local restaurants, inns, and cultural attractions that define northern New Mexico.

From Santa Fe, this loop is approximately 339 miles and takes about 7 1/2 hours. You can drive it in a day, but you’ll want to allow at least 2 days to make time for stops and side trips. Break up your trip by staying in cozy bed-and-breakfasts, inns, and hotels along the way.

See the TripTik route for the Taos Loop.

What to see and do along the way

El Santuario de Chimayó

El Santuario de Chimayó. | Photo by Mona Makela

Visit El Santuario de Chimayó, called the “Lourdes of America” because its “holy dirt” is alleged to have healing powers. Rancho de Chimayó is a great place for authentic New Mexico meals.

Explore Pot Creek Cultural Site, 9 miles south of Taos on NM 518. It protects the remains of a 13th-century Ancestral Puebloan village. There’s also a picnic area and a hiking trail.

Spend time at Taos Pueblo, which has been continuously inhabited for at least 1,000 years and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Admission, $16. Closed to the public as of press time.

Take the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, an 84-mile loop including Questa, Taos Ski Valley, Red River, Eagle Nest, and Angel Fire. Hiking, camping, and fishing are available.

Read more:

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire, pay homage to the men and women who served during the Vietnam War.

At the Historic Mora Valley Foundation, visit the late-19th-century Cleveland Roller Mill Museum, a former water-powered flour mill.

Seven miles away, you can pick raspberries (when they’re in season) at La Cueva Farm. Museum is open weekends from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. Admission, $3.

Read more: Top pick-your-own farms in New Mexico

In Las Vegas, there are several great places to eat, including the dining room at the historic Castañeda Hotel.

On the scenic grounds of Pecos National Historical Park, learn about Native American, Spanish, and Civil War history.

Steve Larese is a travel journalist based in Albuquerque.

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