Spectacular New Mexico serves up a rich buffet of surreal landscapes, vibrant culture and adventurous cuisine. And with uncrowded highways and warming weather (plus lingering snow in the mountains), it's the perfect destination for a fun-filled road trip over spring break.
New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment, and that accurately sums up this enchanting state, where abundant attractions range from famous cities to ancient Native American sites, and from ice-white sand dunes and otherworldly caverns to the most famous UFO site in the world.
And with this being the fifth-largest state, there are plenty of open stretches of road, where you can cruise past epic landscapes with the windows down and the radio up, in search of your own vision of America. Winters are cold and summers hot, but spring is a great time to trace New Mexico's highways, with skiing weather in the north and rising temperatures in the south.
Here are some recommended stops for a perfect spring break road trip through New Mexico.
Best for family-friendly attractions
New Mexico's largest city is the logical starting point for a highway odyssey, with plenty of family-friendly attractions for road-trippers with kids in tow. Start by admiring the land-locked sharks and sea turtles at the ABQ BioPark Aquarium, before strolling the aquarium’s extensive Southwest-themed gardens. Across Central Avenue - the local stretch of Historic Route 66 – at the El Vado Motorlodge, you can sample New Mexico craft beer and local foodstuffs while the kids play in the splash pad during warm weather or watch hot air balloons rising overhead.
For a dose of local history, check out towering dinosaur skeletons at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, learn about New Mexico art and history at the Albuquerque Museum and tinker with hands-on science experiments at ¡Explora! before browsing the stores and restaurants at nearby Old Town, Albuquerque’s most historic plaza, founded way back in 1706.
For outdoor adventures, take the Sandia Peak Tramway – America's longest aerial tramway – to the top of the Sandia Mountains for lunch or dinner at the new Ten 3 restaurant, perched at a giddy 10,300ft above sea level. Enjoy some uplifting hikes or come for sunset and watch the lights come on in Albuquerque a mile below, before getting a good night's sleep ready for the next day's drive.
Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway
Best for encounters with Pueblo culture
Taking Interstate 25 is the fastest way to get from Albuquerque to Santa Fe – it takes about an hour and you'll pass the impressive Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument along the way (check if the reserve has reopened after work to improve trails). However, we recommend taking a longer route for a cultural adventure: start by heading north on I-25 to Bernalillo, then take US 550 northwest for 25 miles to San Ysidro.
Here, the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway (NM 4) leads north to Jemez Pueblo, home to one of New Mexico’s 19 recognised Native American communities. Learn the story of this ancient people at the Walatowa Visitor Center, shop for Jemez pottery and jewelry directly from local artisans, and hike the Red Rock Canyon Trail through stunning rock formations.
Heading north on NM 4, take time to check out the art galleries, saloons, spas and shops in quirky Jemez Springs before continuing past scenic stops such as the waterfall at Soda Dam and Battleship Rock (starting point for treks to the Jemez waterfall) before NM 4 veers east.
Plan for a stop at Valles Caldera National Preserve, dubbed the 'Yellowstone of the Southwest' for its huge herds of elks and other wildlife and bubbling hot springs. After soaking up wild nature, continue east toward Los Alamos, famed – or notorious? – as the birthplace of the atomic bomb.
Learn about Los Alamo’s once-secret atomic history and the Manhattan Project at the interactive Bradbury Science Museum, then shimmy down wooden ladders at Bandelier National Monument to explore ancient Native American cliff dwellings that were constructed in the 1100s CE. The people who lived here are believed to be the ancestors of several modern Pueblo communities, including the people of the San Ildefonso and Cochiti pueblos.
Best for offbeat attractions
From Los Alamos, take US 84/285 south to the engaging state capital, Santa Fe. Stroll its historic Plaza, ducking into interesting art galleries, museums, shops and restaurants, then pause to enjoy a drink in one of the rooftop cantinas. Skiers and snowboarders shred the slopes at Ski Santa Fe through to the first week of April, and once the snow clears, attention shifts to the hiking trails that travel deep into the mountains above Santa Fe.
Art lovers will be entranced by the gallery strip along Canyon Road, and travelers of all ages will be amazed by the goofy and surreal Meow Wolf, an interactive art installation built inside a former bowling alley. Who wouldn't love wandering through a mysterious fantasy house and entering different “dimensions” through the refrigerator and clothes dryer?
From Santa Fe, travel north on NM 68 on the way to famous Taos. In Pilar, stop at the Orilla Verde Recreation Area along the banks of the Río Grande, a favorite rest stop for camping, rafting and fishing. NM 68 begins to climb above the river here affording majestic high-desert views of the Río Grande Gorge as you enter Taos.
Best for adobe architecture
Entering the famous pueblo at Taos, where adobe architecture ranges from traditional homes to mud-walled hotels, NM 68 leads to the Taos Plaza, surrounded by local shops and restaurants and a great start point for a local walking tour. Kids love Twirl, a toy store with an outdoor playground – it's a great place to stretch legs after hours in the car.
Three miles north of the plaza, a visit to the original Taos Pueblo is a must. Here, members of the community follow a traditional lifestyle in 1000-year-old, Unesco-listed adobe buildings lined up on either side of the Río Pueblo de Taos, against the stunning backdrop of the Sangre de Cristos mountains.
Admission to the site is $16 for adults, but kids 10 and younger are free. Photos are usually allowed, but on some days photography is forbidden due to cultural activities such as dances. Be sure to follow the posted rules and requests from members of the community.
For skiers and snowboarders, Taos Ski Valley is renowned for its European vibe, steep terrain and excellent ski school. If the weather is warmer, hiking the surrounding mountains and the Carson National Forest is a favorite adventure.
Enchanted Circle National Scenic Byway
Best for mountain scenery
From Taos, the Enchanted Circle National Scenic Byway makes a breathtaking 122-mile loop around Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest peak at 13,161 feet. There are some great hikes here, including the trek to the summit Wheeler Peak, which is 16 miles via the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail, or 8.5 miles via the Williams Lake Trail.
Pick up the byway from Taos by going north on NM 522 or east on US 64. The route cuts through the heart of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and on the way you can discover the mountain communities of Angel Fire, Eagle Nest and Red River, Questa and Arroyo Hondo.
Angel Fire Resort is known for its thrilling skiing in the winter and spring, and an extensive mountain bike park that opens in the summer. Red River Ski Area is another popular skiing and snowboarding destination and a hiking and fishing favorite during the warmer months.
Heading south from Albuquerque
Best for UFO encounters and surreal landscapes
As an alternative to the mountain country north of Albuquerque, consider driving south. The lower, warmer southern part of New Mexico has plenty of road trip treasures as well.
Start by heading south from Albuquerque on Interstate 25 for 87 miles to San Antonio, where the Owl Bar Café makes for a welcome rest stop. Next, take US 380 east for 154 miles through Capitan, the location of the grave of the original Smokey Bear – the bear cub who survived a 1950 forest fire and became the symbol of the nation's wildfire safety campaign.
Your next stop is famous, mysterious Roswell. Whether you want to believe or not, the International UFO Museum and Research Center details the alleged crash of an alien spaceship near Roswell in 1947, with displays on other UFO incidents from around the globe. Expect to see many enthusiasts in this area, seeking the truth about UFOs.
US 285 from Roswell leads south to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, preserving one of the world's largest cave systems. Marvel at enormous, feature-filled caverns such as Hall of Giants, Queen’s Chamber and Fairyland. Back at Carrizozo, continue south for 73 miles leads to one of the nation’s newest national parks, White Sands National Park. At this otherworldly reserve, 272 acres of gleaming white gypsum sand dunes create a surreal backdrop for hikers and photographers, and you can slip and slide down the huge dunes year-round.
From White Sands, it’s a 55 mile drive via US 70 to Las Cruces and the town of Mesilla. The local area is filled with history, from sites linked to Spanish conquistadores and Billy the Kid to the story of American space flight. Learn about it all at the White Sands Missile Test Center Museum. From Las Cruces, you can drive an hour south to the airport at El Paso, or 3.5 hours north back to Albuquerque via Interstate 25.