New Mexico is the ideal family spring break road trip

New Mexico – the Land of Enchantment – offers surreal landscapes, vibrant cultures, ancient sites and adventurous cuisine, making it a perfect family road trip destination through America’s fifth-largest state.

Aerial view, hot air balloons flying during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Albuquerque, New Mexico USA.
Albuquerque is a natural jumping-off place for a family trip to New Mexico © Blaine Harrington III / Getty Images

Albuquerque

Families will enjoy watching sharks and sea turtles at the ABQ BioPark Aquarium in Albuquerque, before strolling the aquarium’s extensive Southwest gardens. Across Central Avenue (Historic Route 66) at the El Vado Motorlodge parents can sample New Mexico craft beer and local food offerings while kids play in the splash pad during warm weather.

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 perusing the local shops and restaurants at nearby Old Town, Albuquerque’s historic plaza that dates to 1706.

For outdoor adventure, take the Sandia Peak Tramway to the top of the Sandia Mountains for lunch or dinner at the new Ten 3 restaurant at 10,300ft above sea level. Enjoy the hiking or catch the sunset and lights of Albuquerque a mile below.

Storm over grasslands in Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico
Valles Caldera National Preserve is called the Yellowstone of the Southwest for its wildlife © Jim Ekstrand / Getty Images

Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway

From Albuquerque to Santa Fe, taking Interstate 25 is the fastest way at about an hour (passing impressive Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument along the way). But for a longer scenic adventure, head 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, one of New Mexico’s 19 Pueblo tribes. Learn about this ancient community at the Walatowa Visitor Center, shop for Jemez pottery and jewelry directly from the artists and hike the Red Rock Canyon Trail through stunning rock formations. Check out the art galleries, saloons, spas and shops in quirky Jemez Springs before continuing on NM 4, passing scenic stops such as the waterfall at Soda Dam and the hiking at Battleship Rock before NM 4 turns east.

Visit Valles Caldera National Preserve, called the Yellowstone of the Southwest for its huge herds of elks and wildlife, fly fishing and hot springs before continuing east toward Los Alamos, birthplace of the atomic bomb. Learn about Los Alamo’s once-secret atomic history at the interactive Bradbury Science Museum, then climb wooden ladders at Bandelier National Monument to explore ancient Native American cliff dwellings that date to the 1100s. The people who lived here are believed to be the ancestors of today’s nearby Pueblo communities, including San Ildefonso and Cochiti pueblos.

The Meow Wolf tourist attraction which has been described as an "immersive, multimedia experiences" at its location in an old bowling alley in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Trippy art installation Meow Wolf is great for kids and parents alike © Mark Ralston / AFP via Getty Images

Santa Fe

From Los Alamos, take US 84/285 south to Santa Fe. Stroll its historic Plaza lined with art galleries, museums, shops and restaurants, and enjoy a drink on any one of several rooftop cantinas. Skiers and snowboarders shred Ski Santa Fe into the first week of April, and hiking trails travel deep into the mountains above Santa Fe.

Art lovers are entranced by Canyon Road, and all members of the family will be amazed by Meow Wolf. This interactive art installation was built inside a former bowling alley, and visitors wander through a mysterious house and enter different “dimensions” through the refrigerator and clothes dryer.

From Santa Fe, travel north on NM 68 on the way to Taos. In Pilar stop at the Orilla Verde Recreation Area along the banks of the Río Grande, a favorite area for camping, rafting and fishing. NM 68 begins to climb above the river here and high-desert majestic views of the Río Grande Gorge come into view as you enter Taos.

A classic car rolls past a pueblo building in the Taos Plaza
Shops and restaurants surround major points of the Historic Taos Plaza © Steve Larese / Lonely Planet

Taos

NM 68 leads to the Taos Plaza that’s surrounded by local shops and restaurants. Kids love Twirl, a toy store with an outdoor playground and a great place to stretch legs after a day in the car.

Three miles north of the plaza, a visit to Taos Pueblo is a must. Here, tribal members live traditionally in 1,000-year-old stacked adobe buildings that have been declared a Unesco site. Admission is $16 for adults, and kids 10 and younger are free. Most days photos are allowed, but on some days photography is forbidden due to cultural activities such as dances; make sure to follow the posted rules and requests from tribal members.

For skiers and snowboarders, Taos Ski Valley is renowned for its European flair, steep terrain and excellent ski school. In the summer, hiking the surrounding mountains and the Carson National Forest is a favorite adventure.

Wildflowers grow in front of the Taos Pueblo under a cloud-filled blue sky
The Taos Pueblo is New Mexico’s most extraordinary – and most beautiful – Native American site © Steve Larese / Lonely Planet

Enchanted Circle National Scenic Byway

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. Beginning in Taos either north on N.M. 522 or east on US 64, this route through the heart of the Sangre de Cristo mountains is a perfect way to discover the 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 its extensive mountain bike park that is open in the summer. Red River Ski Area is also a skiing and snowboarding destination and a hiking and fishing favorite in warmer months.

The sun peeks out from distant mountains as White Sands National Monument is bathed in blue shadows and orange sun
Try to time a visit to White Sands with sunrise or sunset (or both), when the dazzlingly white sea of sand is at its most magical © Steve Larese / Lonely Planet

South of Albuquerque

Southern New Mexico has plenty of road trip treasures as well. Heading south from Albuquerque on Interstate 25, drive 87 miles to San Antonio (home of the Owl Bar Café) and take US 380 east for 154 miles through Capitan (where the original Smokey Bear’s grave is), to Roswell. The International UFO Museum and Research Center details the alleged crash of an alien spaceship near Roswell in 1947, and of other UFO incidents from around the globe.

US 285 from Roswell leads south to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. This cave system is one of the largest in the world with enormous, feature-filled caverns such as Hall of Giants, Queen’s Chamber and Fairyland. Back at Carrizozo, continuing south for 73 miles leads to one of the nation’s newest national parks, White Sands National Park. Here, 272 acres of gleaming white gypsum sand dunes creates an otherworldly landscape for hikers and photographers. Families enjoy sliding down the huge dunes year-round.

From White Sands, it’s a 55 mile drive via US 70 to Las Cruces and the Village of Mesilla, an area filled with history ranging from Spanish conquistadores, Billy the Kid and space flight as explained at the White Sands Missile Test Center Museum. From Las Cruces, El Paso’s airport is an hour south, and Albuquerque’s is 3.5 hours north via Interstate 25.

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