“I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had,” says Author D.H. Lawrence. Indeed, there is no arguing that New Mexico embodies its nickname, The Land of Enchantment, with its dramatic and ethereal skies that bear down on you close enough to seemingly touch, smothered chile breakfast burritos, and hidden haunts along the historic Route 66 highway.
Here are 10 stops that make up the perfect New Mexico road trip, which are sure to help a new part of your soul to wake up, as Lawrence swears.
Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
It doesn’t take long to visit the Rio Grande Gorge, but the effect is intense. Ten miles north of the town of Taos (made famous as a celebrity retreat for Julia Roberts), this skeletal structure awarded “Most Beautiful Steel Bridge” provides passageway 565 feet over the Rio Grande River. Fun fact: The bridge was the setting for the marriage scene in the 1994 film Natural Born Killers.
Drive south to find the 21,000-acre retreat and education center, Ghost Ranch, located close to the village of Abiquiú and entrenched in multilayered cliff walls, red hills, and mesas. The Mother of American Modernism, artist Georgia O’Keeffe, would visit Ghost Ranch every summer to paint the beautiful and lonely landscape. Park or stay for the night in an RV, tent, or private room. Bring your paper, paints, and brushes and set up outside for an evening of reflection.
Tent Rocks National Monument
An early morning hike through the volcanic coned rocks of Tent Rocks National Monument eases you back in time via formations were created by volcanic eruptions 7 million years ago. Forty miles out from capital city Santa Fe, the quick 1.2-mile Cave Loop Trail and the more difficult 1.5-mile Canyon Trail both offer views of the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, and Sandia mountains.
Now, time for true Northern New Mexican tacos. There is no trip to New Mexico without El Parasol. A staple for locals, El Parasol’s original Espanola stand that has been around since the ’50s when a brother and sister began selling their mother’s beef tacos and red pork tamales under a patio umbrella on the main street. (“El Parasol” is Spanish for “the umbrella.”) Ask any 505-er where the best tacos in New Mexico are and they’ll say El Parasol. Quick, easy, and you’re back on the road.
Ten Thousand Waves
Your expectations visiting New Mexico probably involve old-timey Route 66 hotels, Native American markets, and green chile by the bucket, so you may be surprised to hear the best spa in the state is a Japanese-inspired communal bathhouse hidden in the mountains north of Santa Fe. Ten Thousand Waves is housed in a Japanese-style hot spring resort shrouded in piñons and juniper trees. The outdoor tubs and spa suites are otherworldly. Stay for the afternoon and head into Santa Fe relaxed.
New Mexico is considered the birthplace of the breakfast burrito and you’ll quickly come to find this staple is eaten any time of day. Grab the best breakfast burrito in town — a.m. or p.m. — at The Pantry, located along the iconic Cerrillos Road that runs through the city of Santa Fe. Be prepared for the question: red, green, or Christmas? Meaning red chile, green chile, or both. Red tends to be hotter, but our suggestion is Christmas. Sitting down to enjoy your monster burrito, take note of the mix of old and young that flock to The Pantry, called “Santa Fe’s Meeting Place,” and wish the owners a happy 70th anniversary.
Instead of taking I-25 south from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, opt for the scenic Route 66 bypass, running through the old mining hills of Cerrillos and into the one-main-street recovered ghost village of Madrid. With a population of 149, Madrid is an art destination ripe with turquoise jewelry shops, exotic textile shops, and the quintessential biker bar, The Mine Shaft, which caters to cross-country motorcyclists and locals alike. Park at the abandoned Ball Park and walk the main street, popping into shops and grabbing an ice cream at the soda fountain. Fun fact: Madrid’s self-appointed sherriff still bears a silver star badge and rides a horse.
Blue Swallow Motel
A long drive east (here’s our recommended playlist) through land that seems to be in reaching distance of the stars will bring you to one of the best-preserved motels on all of Route 66: the Blue Swallow Motel. Marked by a vintage neon sign and noted on the National Register of Historic Places in New Mexico, the motel dates back to 1939 and consists of only 12 units. Here you’ll get your authentic dose of what road tripping used to be like in the good old days.
International UFO Museum and Research Center
Next, head south to Roswell and make a trip to the kitschy International UFO Museum and Research Center dedicated largely to the 1947 UFO crash where a giant trench littered with metal debris sparked theories of extraterrestrial life landing on Earth. Much like visiting an old wax museum, the center is old-fashioned and corny, but fun as hell nonetheless. Get your alien trinkets and novelty T-shirt with no shame.
White Sands National Monument
The perfect spot to conclude your New Mexico road trip is the divine yet ghostly White Sands National Monument, which stretches as far as the eye can see through the northern Chihuahuan Desert. Rare white gypsum sand dunes (the largest of its kind in the world) provide an empty yet reflective view that is unlike any sight you’ll see across the country. Moonrise is a particularly striking time to visit, so plan on driving home in the darkness after taking a group photo against the rippling sand backdrop.