Is there any better feeling than setting your wheels on an open road? Maybe it’s an American thing, but for me, the idea of a great road trip is thrilling to plan – and delightful to do. I find it’s an especially good way to see a new region of the West I’ve never explored before, rather than just visiting one or two cities.
That’s why I was so excited to set out on my first northern New Mexico road trip in September 2022. I have been to New Mexico before (once, in 2021!) but never to this part of the state – and never to as many cool towns and natural wonders in a short span of time. Unfortunately, my originally 9-day trip was cut short due to a medical emergency back home (all good now), so I ended up only having five days for my northern New Mexico road trip.
Inspired by my experience, I wanted to put together an easy guide for other travelers who might want to feel that same thrill of a road trip but are also short on time (whether by design or due to changing circumstances!). Below, you’ll find an itinerary that closely follows the northern New Mexico road trip I did, with a few adjustments – that is, improvements – based on my experiences.
Ready to set out and explore a new part of the Land of Enchantment? Read on for a complete guide to your next road trip destination: northern New Mexico.
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of the Pueblos, Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute), Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache), and Tigua (Tiwa) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
5-Day Northern New Mexico Road Trip Route
Before jumping into the specific details of each day on my recommended northern New Mexico road trip itinerary, I thought it might help to start with a map (above) and a list of the destinations I recommend.
- Day 1: Albuquerque to Santa Fe
- Day 2: Santa Fe to Los Alamos
- Day 3: Bandelier & Valles Caldera
- Day 4: Los Alamos to Taos
- Day 5: Taos to Albuquerque
While five days might seem like a lot of time – and you could certainly pack more into your days if you want to see more of the state, I found that this road trip route (which I did almost exactly in September 2022) was a nice combination of scenic driving between destinations and time in those places to enjoy what they had to offer.
If you wanted to see more of northern New Mexico, I recommend planning for 7+ days of travel – and I hope to take a trip that allows me to write you a guide for that soon!
In any case, now you can see where we’ll be traveling together in this post – and where you’ll go if you follow my guide; if this sounds good to you, read on for tons more details, pictures, and travel tips to help you plan.
Day 1: Albuquerque to Santa Fe
A lot of resources for New Mexico road trips seem to start… nowhere? Like, you have to get to New Mexico somehow, and for most people, that means you’ll fly into Albuquerque and rent a car. (Unless you’re driving cross-state as part of a larger road trip or something, in which case, this post won’t be much help.)
In any case, your northrern New Mexico road trip begins in Albuquerque. Flights arrive into ABQ all day long, so whenever you arrive, you can get a rental car and hit the road.
If your flight arrives quite early, you might want to stay in Albuquerque for a bit and have lunch before driving north. My favorite attraction in town is The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History (most people just call it the “Nuclear Museum”). It’s a small but fascinating museum about one of New Mexico’s biggest roles in American history, as the site of both atomic weapons development (more on that later) and testing.
However much time you spend in Albuquerque, you’ll eventually need to get on the road headed north. It’s an easy drive up Interstate 25 to your first night’s destination, Santa Fe; the drive usually takes an hour so there’s no rush.
On my end, my flight was delayed from Denver to Albuquerque, so I arrived late and hit the road immediately to make it in time for dinner in Santa Fe. There are lots of options (see “Resources for Day 1,” below) but I recommend choosing somewhere near Santa Fe’s Sky Railway.
The Sky Railway is a George RR Martin-funded project – one of many in this town he calls home – and they offer two great options for your evening in Santa Fe. My top recommendation is the Stargazer train if it’s running during your visit; this 3.5-hour train takes you out of the city away from light pollution for a nice stargazing session. Another option is the shorter 2.5-hour sunset saranade. Obviously, depending on availability and which one you pick will adjust the timing for your day and dinner plans.
After riding the rails, it’s time for a nightcap. There are some great bars around the historic district, but Del Charro seems to be one of those must-visit places based on my experience. I went and tried the Green Chile-Infused Margarita (which is part of Santa Fe’s Margarita Trail, even though you won’t have enough time to try all of them).
Once you’ve soaked up a little nightlife, it’s time to call it a night – tomorrow is a full day of sightseeing in Santa Fe plus driving to your next destination and sightseeing there!
Resources for Day 1:
- Where to Eat: For dinner in Santa Fe, check out Tomasitas right near the Sky Railway, or hit up Shake Foundation for a faster option (the green chile cheeseburger with fries is a must-try).
- Where to Stay: There are lots of nice hotels in Santa Fe. I stayed at the Hotel Chimayo, one block back from the plaza (Rooms start from $171/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com). A comparable alternative is The Inn of the Governors (Rooms start from $179/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.)
- Other Tips: Be sure to arrive 30 minutes prior to your Sky Railway departure to check in and queue up – the best seats are given to those who arrive earliest! This may mean adjusting your departure time from Albuquerque and dinner plans accordingly.
Day 2: Santa Fe to Los Alamos
Since you only have five days to pack as much of northern New Mexico as possible, I recommend rising early despite the possible late night last night (especially if you rode the later Stargazer train and enjoyed a nightcap!). In any case, rise and shine, buttercup! Today’s the only day you have to see Santa Fe on this itinerary, and you’ve got to make the most of it.
I recommend starting with two things: an easy urban hike up Cross of the Martyrs to enjoy the view over Santa Fe just after sunrise followed by the Green Chile Stew at Tia Sophia’s, a local spot in Santa Fe’s historic downtown.
After that, the morning is your own – and there’s a LOT to do:
You can’t fit all of these things to do in Santa Fe into a single day, so here’s what I recommend:
- Stroll around the central Santa Fe Plaza to get oriented
- Head to at least one museum; the New Mexico History Museum is a manageable size and gives you a great orientation to the state, this region, and the history of the people here.
- Visit the Palace of the Governors (attached to the New Mexico History Museum) which allows you to step further back in time
- Take a walk around the Historic District at your leisure to find a good lunch option – or pop into the Five & Dime General Store to try the original Frito Pie. (One of the places Anthony Bourdain ate in New Mexico!)
If you’re looking for something less conventional, you could instead head to Meow Wolf, south of downtown. This is another George RR Martin-backed project, and the original Meow Wolf location (the others are in Las Vegas and Denver). This is a good family-friendly option, too.
No matter how you choose to spend your morning and where you have lunch, it’s time to hit the road as the sun turns toward the west. Next stop: Los Alamos! (Driving time: 45 minutes)
When you tell people you’re going to Los Alamos, most will ask: “oh, to the lab?” You see, if you’re not familiar with this chapter of U.S./New Mexico history (though you should be, after the New Mexico History Museum and/or Nuclear Museum), Los Alamos was one of three hubs for the Manhattan Project. It was chosen by Robert Oppenheimer as the site where they would develop nuclear weapons; testing was done elsewhere in the state.
Today, you can visit the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which is where I recommend you start when you arrive in Los Alamos. The Visitor Center is open Friday through Monday from 10am to 3pm; you should definitely time your arrival to visit if you’re in town on one of those days.
Otherwise, you can park near the Visitor Center and take a short walk to see some historic sights in the area, like the statues of Oppenheimer and his counterpart, General Groves, and Bathtub Row where higher-level members of the Project lived in the nicest houses (the only ones with bathtubs, hence the name).
Next up, head to the Bradbury Science Museum a few blocks away; this is officially part of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), and serves as a better educational facility about the history of the Project and the modern lab.
The Museum is small but interesting; there are two films shows, a history exhibit, several hands-on activities, and lots of information about LANL and what most of the people living in Los Alamos do for work there.
After all that fun, it’s time to wind down for the day. Depending on when you visit, there may be pretty limited options for dinner, but no matter what you choose, I recommend also stopping by Bathtub Row Brewing Co-Op. This local craft brewery is inspired by the nearby historic site and has the hands down coolest tasting flights I’ve ever tried – just look at that lil bathtub!
Since Los Alamos is less on the tourist path than other cities on this itinerary, it gets pretty quiet at night. This is a good chance to turn in early and rest up for tomorrow’s full day of outdoor adventures.
Resources for Day 2:
- Where to Eat: I visited on a Sunday night and options were super limited; Parajito Brewpub has a decent chile-cheese stuffed burger and tons of options on tap. Other nights, you’ll find many more options, including Boese Brew Co., El Parasol for no-frills Mexican fare, and Blue Window Bistro for a nicer option.
- Where to Stay: As most options are targeting business travelers coming for LANL, I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites during my stay (Rooms from $142/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com).
- Other Tips: You’ll need a two-night stay here in Los Alamos.
Day 3: Bandelier & Valles Caldera
If you can’t tell, I subscribe to the idea that you might need a vacation after your vacation – especially when you’re short on time. That means it’s time to get up with the sun again to start the day. Today, it’s important to get started early because it makes the whole day go more smoothly.
See, Bandelier National Monument is a short 30-minute drive from Los Alamos, and that’s where you’re going to start the day – but you can only drive private vehicles in before 9am; after that, you have to drive to nearby White Rock, New Mexico, park, and take a shuttle – not convenient when you’re trying to pack as much in as possible.
So get up and get going! As you leave Los Alamos, you will cross onto the LANL property; be prepared with your driver’s license at the gates and the guard will give you directions on how to get to Bandelier.
Once you arrive, it’s time to set out on the Pueblo Loop Trail; this is the main trail in Bandelier and sets out from the back of the Visitor Center. The Loop is 2.2 miles and includes some stairs and gravel trails, but is mostly flat – and takes you to some awesome evidence of human settlement in the region dating back centuries. Best of all, Bandelier is less strict than higher-tier national parks, so you can actually climb/go into some of the cavates (human-carved caves).
If you’re up for a bit more effort, strike out on the Alcove House spur trail that adds another mile (0.5mi each way) to the Pueblo Loop Trail. At the end, you’ll climb four ladders up 140 feet to an ancient cultural site. This is nerve-wracking though – it’s not for those with a fear of heights!
Depending on how long these two trails take you, you may want to stop and have lunch at the cafe, Sirphey at Bandelier, before setting out to your next stop; the fry bread burger with green chiles was fantastic.
If you’re up for a more adventurous and far less crowded place to spend the rest of the day, head to Valles Caldera National Preserve. It’s a 32-minute drive from the Bandelier Visitor Center to Valles Caldera Entrance Station, where you can spend the afternoon. If you didn’t bring any special gear with you, hiking is your best bet for spending time here; you’ll need a backcountry permit and should definitely bring a map and plenty of water.
For a more challenging hike but with less backcountry bushwacking potential, head to another part of Bandelier National Monument: the Tsankawi Ruins Trail. You know how Death Valley National Park has one main section and another tiny section nearby but not connected? That’s what Tsankawi is to the rest of Bandelier.
Tsankawi Ruins Trail was my favorite of the four trails I hiked during my visit to Bandelier; it’s a 1.5-mile spur-and-loop trail that takes you up onto the mesa, then works its way back past cavates, petroglyphs, and the Ancestral Pueblo village of Tsankawi. While out hiking this trail, I was reminded strongly of Mesa Verda National Park – but as I mentioned, you can really get up close and personal at Bandelier, whereas Mesa Verde is more regulated.
After all that hiking, you’ve earned an evening of rest; head back to your hotel for a shower, then seek out dinner somewhere in Los Alamos (see “Resources for Day 2” for more recommendations)
Resources for Day 3:
- Where to Eat: For lunch, grab breakfast at Ruby K’s in Los Alamos; their breakfast bagels are a perfect start and they open early. For lunch, Sirphey at Bandelier is the easiest place to grab a bite.
- Where to Stay: Another night in Los Alamos, as already mentioned.
- Other Tips: n/a
Day 4: Los Alamos to Taos
After two nights in Los Alamos, it’s time to move on – this time to another famous northern New Mexico city, Taos. Grab breakfast before heading out, and begin making your way along the route toward Taos. About 30 minutes outside of town, you’ll find Puye Cliff Dwellings, a worthy stop to spend your morning.
Puye Cliff Dwellings is another site with evidence of human settlement dating back to pre-colonial Native American groups. The site is a National Historic Landmark and the ancestral home of the Santa Clara Pueblo people (whose community you will pass through later en route to Taos). The best way to visit the cliff dwellings is on a tour; there are several different options, so be sure to review them to decide which one you want to do.
After that morning activity, I recommend stopping for lunch in the relatively larger town of Española as it’s a short 15-minute drive from the cliff dwellings. There are lots of options here, including La Cocina Mexican Restaurant and a number of food trucks you could try if you’re feeling adventurous.
From Española, it’s another hour to Taos, so you might not want to stop. If you do, there are some good options to stop and sample New Mexico wine along NM Highway 68. I made an impromptu visit to Black Mesa Winery in Velarde; of all the wines I tried on a tasting flight, their estate wines were truly lovely.
Next, you’ll arrive in Taos! You can start by checking in to your accommodation (recommendations in “Resources for Day 4” below) and dropping off your bags before getting out to explore.
The best way to see Taos is on foot; the video above takes you on a nice self-guided walking tour of Taos, or you can explore some of the other activities I recommend if you have just one day in Taos (or part of one day!). No matter what you choose to do, be sure to get out and explore around Taos Plaza, and plan a trip to Taos Pueblo if that interests you.
As the afternoon wears on, head north out of town to see the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. This historic bridge crosses the Rio Grande, which bisects New Mexico as it flows south through the state. There’s a short path out to the West Rim Trail that’s an easy walk for anyone, or you can head to the Vista Verde Trail for a longer hike in the afternoon. (I didn’t do this hike due to inclement weather, but it looks beautiful!)
For dinner, continue on NM-567 to the town of Pilar (where 567 ends at NM-68). Here, you’ll meet up with the team at Los Rios River Runners for this evening’s activity.
Los Rios River Runners offers two evening floats down a calmer part of the river plus dinner; the Sunset Dinner Float is more conventional, whereas the Native Cultures Feast and Float is even better thanks to the presence of a local indigenous community member who teaches about the history of people in this area before introducing you to a feast of indigenous foods (i.e. all foods you would find here before European settlers arrived).
I did the Native Cultures Feast and Float during my evening in Taos and it was an incredible experience: so peaceful to be on the river (especially after my 12-day Alaska float earlier in 2022) and fascinating to try decolonized dishes.
After this activity, it’s a 30-minute drive back to Taos for the evening. If you’re up for it, head to the Adobe Bar at the Historic Taos Inn to try their green chile cheesecake chimichanga. I don’t normally have a sweet tooth, but this spicy, crunchy treat was a perfect finale after a long day of driving and adventure.
Resources for Day 4:
- Where to Eat: Already mentioned above!
- Where to Stay: I stayed at The Historic Taos Inn both nights of my time in Taos (Rooms start from $174/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com). You can also stay at the Hotel La Fonda de Taos, right on the historic plaza. (Rooms start from $189/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.)
- Other Tips: Book your river float in advance as tours change based on the number of guests and Native American guide availability.
Day 5: Taos to Albuquerque
Your plans for the final day of this northern New Mexico road trip depend a bit on what time you need to depart from Albuquerque to fly back home. Based on that, you’ll need to work backward: what time do you need to depart Taos to arrive at ABQ in time, and how much time do you need for breakfast before leaving?
There are some great breakfast stops in Taos; I really enjoyed La Cueva Cafe and couldn’t decide between their huevos enchiladas con mole and their Mexican omelet with chorizo. You can then grab a coffee to go, make sure your tank has enough gas, and hit the road.
Instead of taking the same route back from Taos to Albuquerque by way of Española (which is what most apps suggest since it’s the fastest), opt for an alternative route with a few stops: The High Road to Taos. This scenic drive crosses the Sangre de Christo Mountains and passes through several historic small towns before reconnecting with U.S. 84 south of Española.
Along the way, you can stop and stretch your legs in the Las Trampas Historic District and visit the San José de Gracia Church; this area dates back to Spanish settlers in the mid-18th Century. There’s also the Santuario de Chimayo, which is a famous Catholic pilgrimage site that welcomes visitors of all faiths.
The drive from Taos to Albuquerque by way of the High road to Taos takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes, so as I mentioned: do the math to ensure you arrive at the airport on time.
One pro-tip: there are like, NO gas stations near ABQ airport. Instead of taking the directions to ABQ to drop off your rental car, get off I-25 one exit early and re-route to a gas station along that path. Otherwise, you’ll end up spending 20-30 minutes driving away from the airport, filling up, and returning. (It’s so annoying, and I always forget!)
After that, it’s a matter of doing the normal airport thing, and flying home with a head and heart full of memories from your northern New Mexico road trip – are you planning a return trip yet?
Resources for Day 5:
- None! This trip is over.
And there you have it – a jam-packed northern New Mexico road trip that gives you as much time as possible to learn about the culture of the peoples in this area, experience the history first-hand, sample the flavors (so many green chiles), and see the scenic landscape. Have any other questions about planning your own northern New Mexico road trip? Let me know in the comments below!