It started with a paper map and a long weekend to kill.
I had been obsessed with New Mexico for some time. Something about its large open spaces, with no people or traffic (well, unless you are in one of the few larger NM cities). Just you and the open road. It was what I needed, what I craved. If I ever wanted to figure something out or needed some time to think, unwind, or destress, New Mexico was the place I would head for.
One thing I have to give New Mexico credit for is its very diverse landscape. Most people don’t think of this when they think New Mexico. But this state has everything from tall rocky mountains, amidst dense forest, to dry, open desert – all within a few hours from each other. It has deep rooted culture that makes it feel so magical. (I guess that’s why they call it the “Land of Enchantment.”)
But enough about my New Mexican love affair. Without further ado, here is how my perfect New Mexico road trip went…
Day 1: OKC to Carlsbad
We started early in the morning. We decided we would drive through Roswell (home of famed alien crash site) and end up just north of Carlsbad Caverns. I’ll be honest, there’s not a lot of memorable scenery between Oklahoma City and Roswell. So we flew right through everything. This segment turned into a strategy, almost a game to see how quickly we could get to New Mexico (safely of course). We jammed to my homemade CD mix all the way.
Once in Roswell, it can best be described as a sleepy old town with just a few weird quirks. The street lights are
alien heads. The McDonald’s is in the shape of a flying saucer, etc, etc. We stopped into the Roswell UFO museum, which includes “artifacts” and first hand accounts of what happened just north of there in 1947. After, we stopped into a gift shop and took pictures with aliens (you know this had to happen). We stayed in Roswell a total of maybe two hours and then headed out.
The drive from Roswell to Carlsbad was probably the most painful drive of the whole trip. But we were able to suffer through the next hour and a half of barren landscape by cracking jokes about the occasional lone gentleman’s club we would pass in the middle of nowhere. (I mean, seriously? There wasn’t even a gas station out there!)
Day 2: Carlsbad to Truth or Consequences
Carlsbad, NM is about a 30 minute drive to the actual Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The caverns themselves are one of the largest in North America and even the world. Naturally, this was on the list of must sees. You enter the cave on your own (or you can arrange a tour through the nps.gov website) and follow the lighted pathways all the way down – an easy, but long walk for both kids and adults alike. With the cave being about 1,000 feet deep and having about 30 miles of mapped passages throughout, there is no lack of exploring available. Bring a light jacket (it’s about 55 degrees year round), water, athletic shoes, and a camera. These caves are something everyone must experience in their lives. After spending a considerable amount of time under ground, awestruck at this natural beauty, we decided to hit the road again. The next stop? White Sands National Monument.
White Sands is about 3 hours northwest of Carlsbad, and includes a drive filled with national forests and mountainous terrain. About two and a half hours in, once in Alamogordo, the terrain almost suddenly becomes barren desert. This shocked us, and we were worried if checking out White Sands was a bad call. Don’t let this drastic change deter you though – white sands was ridiculously amazing.
Upon entering the park, you see small dunes of fine, bright white sand. But as you drive on, these dunes turn into heaping mountains of the stuff that seem to go on forever. We rented a sled from the gift shop and had an absolute blast rocketing down the white hillsides. The area is so unexpected, so unique for it’s surrounding, that you can’t help but be amazed by it all. We ended up leaving Whites Sands begrudgingly (covered in sand of course) to make our last stop for the night.
Head on south toward Las Cruces and meet up with I-25 north, where you will get stopped at border patrol (who will then ask if you are a US citizen and wave you on). The town of Truth or Consequences looms in the distance as the sun sets around us. T-or-C is a small town that, like most of New Mexico, is very unique. It’s most known for it’s mineral hot springs. And after a long day of caving and sledding, hot springs were exactly what we needed. We stayed in one of the many hotels offering a mineral soak and headed into town (with about two restaurants) to enjoy some green chile enchiladas.
Day 3: T-or-C to Santa Fe
Just north of T-or-C, before you hit Albuquerque, ditch I-25 for the lesser traveled highway 60 and head east. Here, you will find ancient Salinas Pueblo Mission monuments and ruins. Explore the tumbling ancient rooms of the Gran Quivira and Abo missions, which existed as long ago as A.D. 1275. Once there, you will find friendly,
well-informed park rangers just itching to answer your questions and show you cool things. We met a volunteer ranger, who retired and moved from New York City because she loves the peace that the area has to offer. She offered to hike us out to some petroglyphs (ancient rock engravings, depicting life at the time of the missions – it is thought the Pueblo people received their daily news this way). Needless to say, we had an amazing time
exploring. We took our time and stopped for some home-cooked green chile in Mountainair before heading north. Santa Fe – our final destination for the day – was only 2 hours away.
Once in Santa Fe, we explored The Plaza area and ate at a delicious southwest restaurant before calling it an early night.
Day 4: Santa Fe to Cimarron
In the morning, we got up and began to head eastward, toward home. We had convinced ourselves that most of the excitement from the trip was winding down. I don’t think we could have been more wrong.
About an hour northeast from Santa Fe on highway 68 is Taos, New Mexico. For those that have never been to Taos, I think the only way I can describe it is to say: it is the definition of southwest culture. The town is centered around art. Everywhere you look, you see unique shops and eateries. We noticed these eateries (because we were starving at this point) and decided to stop in an organic, vegan, hippy-esque joint that looked interesting. The food was delicious and the people were friendly. After eating, we decided to ask one of these friendly people what unique attractions lie around us, as our whole trip had had an “off the beaten path” vibe. She suggested we check out a minimalist community just north of town, called the “Earthships,” that centered on off-the-grid living. We were told the houses were made of recycled materials (some might venture to call it “trash”) and that we could tour them. To us, it sounded like the unique experience we were looking for, so we loaded up and headed out.
On our way to this famed Earthship community, we passed something magnificent that I will remember forever.
If you have never seen the Rio Grande Gorge, please add this to your list of “must sees.” The bridge that stretches across the gorge is simply part of the highway. There are no frills, no visitor centers, no real signs warning you that you are stumbling upon this fantastic natural wonder – so it’s easy to miss if you aren’t looking up and paying attention. Stop at the turn out just passed it and walk across the bridge. It’s amazing.
We get to the Earthship community, which to me looked more like a glorified hippy commune, and step out. Upon approaching what appears to be the visitor’s center, we are forced to pay a fee of $10 each for a tour. We were then herded into a room (apparently inside one of these trash-insulated buildings) to watch a 15 minute infomercial on ordering an earthship, which to own, will run you about half a million dollars by the way. After the video, we were escorted down a hall and outside. And that was it. The whole tour. And when my friend asked if he could get a refund because we didn’t actually get to tour a house, he was angrily told “you’re in one right now!” Needless to say, while it was quite an experience, I recommend you NOT go tour the earthships outside of Taos, NM. We were kind of done with Taos after that, so we decided to keep on driving. We were headed to Cimarron, NM to stay in a haunted hotel (The Express St. James).
The St. James hotel experience is something you will never find anywhere else. Ever. We had heard about the St. James hotel from my father, who loves old west and outlaw history. The hotel started as a saloon in 1872, which attracted famous outlaws like James James and well known historic figures like Buffalo Bill Cody. There have
been numerous gun fights, brawls, and even deaths within those walls. And if you go to the saloon today, you can still see original bullets in the ceilings.
There wasn’t a lot to do around Cimarron that we were aware of, so when we arrived, we are excited to see that a group of ghost hunters were conducting “investigations” and filming a show there that night. When we were told by the hotel manager that we could tag along, we met up with them later (after eating a delicious meal in the restaurant downstairs). They turned off all the lights and gave us our own EMF meters, which are good for picking up unusual electromagnetic activity (AKA ghosts). Now, I know that a lot of people don’t believe in ghosts, and I respect that. But there was definitely something weird going on in that place. If there are places that are actually haunted, I think that the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, NM is towards the top of that list. We finally went to bed and slept (and when I say “slept,” I mean “drifted in and out of consciousness constantly because I was so freaked out by where I was staying”) at around 2:30 in the morning, which made us groggy and cranky for the 7 hour journey home the next day. But it was all so worth it. I wouldn’t change a thing.
I haven’t been back to New Mexico to visit since. And I think it’s because our road trip through the area was so perfect, so “enchanting,” that I don’t think we could ever top it. What are your off-the-beaten-path road trip experiences?
That trip sounds amazing! In all of my visits to New Mexico, I had never heard of the St. James Hotel. I am definitely adding that to my list of “must visit” places.
Please do! I loved the St. James and definitely plan on going back. I wish we could have checked out more of the town of Cimarron, but we had to get home. I guess there is always next time!