Ah, New Mexico. The land of Billy the Kid, hot air balloons, the Santa Fe art scene, and…? Not much else, or so we thought. How wrong we were.
Several years ago, while planning a winter trip where we knew we wanted to head south, Colette had read about the White Sands National Monument located in southern New Mexico. Her interest in this unique area spurred a full on road trip that would blend the right dosage of obscure American history with splendid natural landscapes and sites. Easy driving, with places of interest no more than 1.5 hours apart, our trip around New Mexico was amazing and could be replicated at any time of the year.
- Day 1- Fly into El Paso, TX in the evening
- Day 2 – Drive El Paso to White Sands National Monument, then to Valley of Fire, stay in Albuquerque
- Day 3 – Drive to Santa Fe; explore and stay in Santa Fe
- Day 4 – Drive to and explore Taos; stay in Santa Fe
- Day 5 – Drive to Fort Sumner (Billy the Kid museum), Roswell (International UFO Museum), and Carlsbad; stay in Carlsbad
- Day 6 – Explore Carlsbad Caverns; boat trip on Pecos River; stay in Carlsbad
- Day 7 – Brief exploration of Guadalupe Mountains National Park; return to El Paso, fly home
This trip took place in the winter of 2010-2011
White Sands National Monument
El Paso, TX sits on the border with New Mexico and made for a perfect launch base to fly into for or our road trip. Starting off in the early morning on our first full day on the ground, mountains provided the backdrop for the easy 1.5 hour drive to White Sands National Monument (WSNM).
Located just a tad off the beaten path outside of Alamagordo, NM, the pearl white gypsum sands contrasted by the cobalt blue skies made for an otherworldly setting. Adding to the attraction was the fact that “sand-sledding” is one of the activities promoted within the park. WSNM was a small but amazing treat.
We spent a few hours hiking around the dunes, and took the time to explore the 45 minute Dune Drive before sledding the dunes on round discs. This was an awesome experience – though pictures make it look like snow sledding, this was sand sledding. Sleds can be purchased at the visitor center, but it is worth noting that visitors will often leave their sleds to be reused by other visitors near the front entrance. The same goes for hiking sticks which are helpful when wandering the dunes.
When it comes to hiking, we didn’t come across many formal trails – WSNM is a literal giant sandbox to explore and play in, and I bet it can be easy to get lost within the dunes. We spent about half a day here and I would say this is a “can’t miss” stop if you are anywhere within a few hours of it. We’ve never been to a place that looks quite like it and we hope to return someday.
The Way to Santa Fe
After leaving WSNM, we planned to stay the night in Albuquerque. While on the road we made a brief stop at the Valley of Fire lava fields. We did not spend enough time here – we did a short nature hike through the blackened landscape as the sun was setting. If we were back in the central New Mexico area we would make a point to stop back, as the hour we spent here yields few specific memories.
From Valley of Fire we completed the trek to Albuquerque for a quick spin around the historic area of the city, which was worth the time. We wandered the town square and the antiquated buildings, the oldest dating to 1793. Restaurants dot the narrow streets, with the San Felipe de Neri church standing as a sentinel over the square. The evening stroll under the holiday lights made the charming experience memorable.
We awoke the next morning for the hour drive to Santa Fe. Having heard time and again what a great place Santa Fe was, we were pretty excited to arrive. Known for its arts community, dining, and history, we started with wandering through the historic plaza for a few hours, before drifting outwards to some some of the older buildings just outside of the plaza, the most memorable of which was the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assissi. We had a few great meals on the plaza, but charming as it was, Santa Fe was not quite our place – it was the right place to stay at to see surrounding attractions. If given the chance to do it all again, we would have limited our Santa Fe exploration to a half-day and spend the extra time in the abundance of nature adventures available in northern New Mexico.
While staying in the Santa Fe area, the one place we made a point to visit was Taos Pueblo, located on the northern edge of New Mexico in Taos, just under two hours away. Nestled at the base of the nearby mountains, the multi-story adobe building has been continually inhabited for the last 1000 years. While there, we took advantage of the opportunity to tour the grounds, which included the larger adobe building, along with an older church, as well as folks selling jewelry and fresh baked breads. We spent a bit over an hour here before moving on to the historic Taos Plaza. The plaza shopping was pleasant, but the unmissable Taos Pueblo was the draw.
Oddities – Billy the Kid and Roswell
There is a calm to New Mexico that’s hard to imagine. Even a city as large as Albuquerque was just relaxed compared to other metropolitan areas we’ve been to. That calmness transitions to serenity during the long drives on open highways. This was definitely the case as we made our way south from Interstate 40 onto HGWY. 84 to the Billy the Kid Museum outside of the tiny town of Fort Sumner.
For us, this was not quite our typical stop. Sure, I appreciate the old west, and I really loved the movie Young Guns, but this was pretty out of the way. Though the museum would not be for everyone, it was neat to see a collection of old west artifacts-some connected to the infamous Billy the Kid (such as his rifle), and some of which were simply antiquities of the era – horse and buggy carriages, hearses, etc. Billy’s tomb is also located nearby in the town cemetery, close to where he was shot by lawmen. This was a worthwhile stop if you have even a passing interest in the Wild West.
We continued on our no-man’s land journey on down to Roswell. The roads were empty, the sky a rich blue, and tumbleweeds occasionally rolling across the road. It’s worth noting that on this leg of the drive, there is not much in the way of gas or restaurants – make sure you are fully supplied before heading into these rural areas.
Roswell greeted us with alien tchotchkes all around. Though neither of us had ever been conspiracy minded, Roswell holds an interesting place in the American mythos. Some allege an alien landing/ cover-up took place during the late 1940’s in the Roswell area, and the town has developed a small tourist industry as a result.
We chose a visit to the International UFO Museum and Research Center. To be clear, this may be worth it if you are curious, but I don’t think we would revisit. It ran along the lines of a dressed down Ripley’s museum, if you have been to one of those. Hokey but fun is probably the best way to describe it. The main portion of the exhibit focuses on the Roswell incident, which you can familiarize yourself with here, complete with mannequin replicas of the alien autopsy. The walk-through was probably about an hour and made for fun conversation through the next leg of our drive. After visiting 2 museums, coupled with significant drive times, we were eager to reach our destination of Carlsbad for the night.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
National Parks hold a special place for us – they simply never disappoint. Carlsbad Caverns, a massive cave referred to as “a giant canyon with a roof over it” has the splendor of many of the grand national parks, though it is situated underground.
The ride from our hotel in the town of Carlsbad to the caverns was a solid 45 minutes, and as we arrived we were excited to reengage with nature. Caves tend to fall rather low on our list of favorite nature adventures, but Carlsbad Caverns National Park (CCNP) was quite the exception.
We started with CCNP through the Natural Entrance – a large mouth-like opening into the underground. At the time of this trip there was an extensive guided tour. We journeyed for about 2 hours, mostly descending, until we entered the “Big Room”. Written descriptions cannot convey what being there was like. It was an enormous cavern loaded with varied formations both above and below. Natural light does not make it this deep into the cave, but the formations were lit beautifully.
A variety of guided tours are offered, and it is worth noting that you may want to reserve tours in advance. A few other notes- once inside the cave, the temperature is consistently in the high 50’s, no matter the outside temperature, so dress accordingly. The are a lot of descents on the walk, as well as quite a few inclines. I wouldn’t say the hike is taxing, but your legs may feel it. Finally, a good pair of hiking boots is a must. The floors are uneven and can be slippery. When you add in the low light within the CCNP, comfortable and sturdy shoes are a big help to keeping safe on the trails.
The town of Carlsbad was small but had the limited offerings that made it an effective place to stay. One bonus on this trip was Christmas on the Pecos boat tour on the Pecos River. The holiday based, 40-minute river boat tour rode the river slowly to view all of the decorative lighting along the river banks. Aside from the winter chill, this was a perfect book end for the trip.
Our final leg of the trip was to make our way back to El Paso to catch our flight out. The route took us within proximity of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, so we chose to make a very brief stop. The limited time we had at the park does not justify an evaluation, but I can say if we had the ability to redo this route around New Mexico again, we would make this a priority.