If you are thinking of doing a memorable road trip within the US, New Mexico is definitely at the top of the list for an inspiring road trip. The state is filled with adventures at every corner, beautiful national treasures, Native American heritage, and wonderful art and food scenes for travelers to explore.
Most travelers visit New Mexico for the wondrous White Sands National Park. This 4 to 5 day itinerary includes the gem, along with other famous sites such as the Bandelier National Monument and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. You can visit New Mexico year-round, although the best seasons are September to November in the fall and March through May in the spring time, when both the weather and temperature are optimal.
This was a roadtrip a I did with friends and it was truly a blast!
A Note on Where to Stay
If you are doing a road trip like us, be sure to plan out your route and factor in the amount driving you are willing to do each day. You can book your stay accordingly based on where you will likely be at the end of each day.
I found it to be the most convenient to just book motels along our trip, as they are frequently located along the route. We were travelling on a budget and only stayed at most one night in each place, therefore only needed the bare necessities. I have included in the itinerary places we stayed at as a point of reference.
The 4 to 5 Day Itinerary
Depending on which direction you are coming from, you can plan your trip accordingly. This trip is broken down into 4 days, with each day in a specific area:
- Day 1 and 2 in the North central region around Santa Fe
- Day 3 in the Central and South region around Albuquerque and Alamogordo
- Day 4 in the Southeast/East region around Carlsbad
See the map below summarizing the destinations on the trip:
If you have time to add a day 5 to the trip, you can consider breaking up Day 3 into two days: one day spent in and around Albuquerque, and another day around Alamogordo so you can get to explore more. Check out the Bonus Point section at the end for a Day 5 itinerary.
Day 1: Arrival and Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument
As we were driving into New Mexico from the north, our first stop on the trip was the Bandelier National Monument. This monument protects over 33,000 acres of rugged but stunning canyon and mesa country as well as evidence of human presence going back over 11,000 years. It is a must-see site in the area.
You can spend the whole day here if you’d like to hike the longer trails, but three hours should be enough to see the highlights. Be sure to hike the Main Loop Trail, which is a 1.4 mile loop taking you through the archeological sites, including Big Kiva, Tyuonyi, Talus House, and Long House. There are also wooden ladders that let you climb up (super fun!) and explore the cavates built by the ancient Pueblo people.
Also, definitely check out the Alcove House, which is a 1 mile round trip detour off the Main Loop Trail. The Alcove House was formerly a Ceremonial Cave reachable by 4 wooden ladders and a number of stone stairs. Climbing up is an exhilarating experience, and the views from the Alcove House is absolutely stunning.
If you have more time to spare, also explore the 3 mile round-trip Falls Trail to the beautiful Upper Falls.
Drive to Santa Fe
After taking in the history and stunning views at Bandelier, start driving over to the city of Santa Fe, located about one hour away.
On the way, you can also stop at the White Rock Overlook, which offers an open space view of the beautiful Rio Grande River. Also consider exploring the Tsankawi Prehistoric Sites, a detached portion of Bandelier, with a 1.5 mile walk along a mesa, viewing cavates, petroglyphs and the Ancestral Pueblo village of Tsankawi.
Spend the evening at Santa Fe. For lodging, we stayed at the La Quinta Inn Santa Fe. There is actually a ton of lodging options in Santa Fe so definitely book one that you like!
Day 2: Kasha Katuwe, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and Meow Wolf
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
Start the day early by beating the crowds at the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. The monument showcases mind-blowing, cone-shaped tent rock formations, which are products of volcanic eruptions that occurred 6 to 7 million years ago, leaving behind rock formations that vary in height from a few feet and up to 90 feet.
There are two hiking trails: the easier 1.2 mile Cave Loop Trail, and the more strenuous 1.5m Canyon Trail which leads through a narrow canyon and a steep (630-ft) climb to the mesa top. I highly recommend the Canyon Trail; this is a magnificent hike through the valley of tent rocks, up the mountain and to the top of the world where you get a stunning view of the grounds below. It is a hike that I still vividly remember to this day.
**The Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is temporarily closed during COVID-19 for renovations with plans of re-opening. Check the official website for the most recent re-opening update.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
After the morning hike, get changed and head back to Santa Fe to explore the city. One landmark not to miss is the famous Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, dedicated to the artistic legacy of Georgia O’Keeffe. The museum has a collection of over 3,000 works, comprised of 140 O’Keeffe oil paintings, nearly 700 drawings, and hundreds of additional works dating from 1901 to 1984. It is a wonderful place to visit and breathe in the legacy of this artist who shaped American Modernism.
The museum itself isn’t super large and you can expect to spend 45 minutes to an hour here. There are also numerous art galleries nearby if you would like to explore the area more on foot.
Meow Wolf Santa Fe
Meow Wolf is a collective of artists focused on creating immersive and interactive experiences that transport audiences of all ages into fantastic realms of story and exploration. Their location in Santa Fe, House of Eternal Return, is a super fun space featuring a fantastic back story and over 70 rooms of immersive art. Check out their cool website here.
It’s so much fun getting lost in this space, whether you are an adult or child. My favorite part was discovering portals in unexpected places, like the fireplace, fridge, washing machine, and closet that transport you to rooms with really artsy and trippy installations. It’s so cool and so much fun. We spent about two and a half hours inside and it was a blast.
Meow Wolf opens late until 8pm (10pm on Fridays & Saturdays) so there’s plenty of time to explore this wonderland – although you would definitely lose your sense of time in here.
Drive to Albuquerque
We decided to do a night time drive down over to our next stop, Albuquerque, mostly because we anticipate a lot of driving on the next day on our way over to White Sands National Park. It takes about 1 hour to drive from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, and we stayed at the Days Inn & Suites in Albuquerque. You can also choose to stay in Santa Fe for the night and drive down the next morning.
Day 3: Albuquerque’s Sandia Peak and White Sands National Park
Albuquerque/Sandia Peak Tramway
There are so many things to do in Albuquerque. Due to a time constraint, we had to pick one activity, and decided to ride the Sandia Peak Tramway, an aerial tramway that stretches from the northeast edge of the city to Sandia Peak of the Sandia Mountains and has the world’s third longest single span.
The view up at the Peak is so refreshing and stunning. Be sure to bring a jacket with you as it can get chilly up there.
If you have extra time, check out the many other cool things to do around Albuquerque, such as the Petroglyph National Monument, a Hot Air Balloon Ride, or even a Breaking Bad Tour if you are a fan of the legendary TV show shot in Albuquerque.
White Sands National Park
When you are ready, embark on a roughly 3.5 hours drive down over to the White Sands National Park. One of the world’s great natural wonders, White Sands is enveloped in glistening, great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand, which covers a vast territory of 275 square miles and has attracted people for over 10,000 years.
There are lots of activities to do at White Sands. You can consider camping, hiking, biking, and picnicking. The most popular activity is perhaps sledding, which is allowed in the loop portion of Dunes Drive. A lot of people bring their own sleds, but you can also purchase them at the park’s gift shop. Check out the complete list of things to do at White Sands here.
I loved just walking around barefoot and rolling down the sand dunes. The sand is composed of gypsum, a type of really soft mineral, which causes the sand to be really soft and soothing to the touch. The glistening sand also reflects sunlight, causing the sand to be very cool on the feet even under the blazing hot sun.
If you can, also wait for the sunset when the sky turns pink and pastel. The sand dunes appear dreamily beautiful under the dusk, and we spent time cherishing this moment of our youthfulness, dreaming about coming back here one day when we are old and hopefully still friends.
For the night, we stayed at Super 8 Alamogordo, which is conveniently located right next to the park.
Day 4: Pistachio Land, Carlsbad Caverns and Bottomless Lakes State Park
The last day starts from Alamogordo and goes to the Southeast part of the state. Here are a few spots to check out on the way:
10 minutes always from Alamogordo is a fun spot – Pistachio Land, a pistachio tree ranch with “the world’s largest pistachio.” It’s a really fun place to stop buy, where you can get a delicious selection of ice cream, coffee, wine, souvenirs and of course, pistachio in many flavors and forms. I purchased a bag of pistachio brittles as a gift and souvenir, and my friends at home loved it.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
About 3 hours to the southeast of Alamogordo is Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Hidden beneath the surface of ancient sea ledges and deep rocky canyons of the Chihuahuan Desert are more than 100 caves, where countless stalactites cling to the roofs, forming magnificent views.
You have the option to explore on your own or reserve a ranger-guided tour (check the website for availability). Either way, visiting the caves is a truly stunning experience where you get to marvel at the timelessness of these vast geological formations. It takes about two hours to explore the site, although you can definitely spend more time visiting some of the hiking tails.
Be sure to reserve a visiting time slot in advance here.
Bottomless Lakes State Park
If you have time, Bottomless Lakes State Park is 2 hours and 30 minutes to the east of Alamogordo, or 1 hour and 45 minutes to the north of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The park takes its name from nine small, deep lakes located along the eastern escarpment of the Pecos River valley.
It’s great place to relax, breathe in the scenery, and do some fun activities such as kayaking or canoeing, camping, fishing, picnicking, swimming, hiking, and even scuba diving.
This stop is certainly optional due to the long drive out. I recommend spending more time at Carlsbad Caverns instead. For us, as Day 4 was our last day, we did not have time to visit this spot and had to embarked on our journey home.
Bonus Point: Ideas for Day 5
As mentioned above, if you can spare an extra day, definitely consider adding it to the Albuquerque area (before or after Day 3). There are several landmarks to the west of Albuquerque that are worth visiting.
Located about 1 hour and 10 minutes to the west of Albuquerque is Acoma Pueblo, is a Native American pueblo made of four communities: Sky City, Acomita, Anzac, and McCartys. You can visit the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum, which are rich in cultural architecture. At the visitor center, you can check in for a guided tour, which takes you on a journey through the area while interacting with locals and learning about history.
**Note that during COVID-19, guided tours are not available. Please check the official website for the most recent update on tour availability.
El Morro National Monument
Located about 2 hours to the west of Albuquerque, El Morro National Monument is an ancient east–west trail. Along this ancient route is where Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish and American travelers carved over 2,000 personal signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs, as they travelled along the trail and rested at El Morro’s oasis-like source of water.
The Inscription Trail is a must-do. It’s a spectacular experience walking along the trail, exploring hundreds of Spanish and Anglo inscriptions and arrive at the Pool, which was the resting oasis to ancient travelers. If you have time and proper hiking shoes, definitely take the The Headland Trail, which includes the Inscription Trail, and continues to the top of the bluff, where you get a spectacular view of the canyon and get to explore Atsinna, the Ancestral Puebloan ruin, where up to 600 people lived between approximately 1275 to 1350 AD.
New Mexico a truly inspirational place to do a road trip in. The vast and magnificent nature combined with rich cultural heritage makes the journey an unforgettable experience. I had a really memorable time here, and would not hesitate to go back and explore more!
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