3 Stunning Day Trips from Santa Fe: An Adventure in Every Direction
Wander a few dozen miles from Santa Fe in any direction, and a captivating adventure awaits you. Scenic byways showcase Northern New Mexico’s rugged beauty, protected areas offer outdoor thrills, and rich cultural experiences make day trips from The City Different worth the drive.
Here’s a look at a few of our favorite routes – complete with insights on the best eats along the way. And stay tuned for a second installment of day-trip recommendations. We couldn’t pick just three!
Turquoise Trail: The Old West, Revived
Named for the semi-precious stone mined in the region as early as 900 AD, the Turquoise Trail follows 50 miles of blacktop along Highway 14, connecting Santa Fe and Albuquerque. This back-roads byway offers stunning high-desert panoramas, brisk outdoor excursions, tasty bites and brews, arts-rich shopping, and stop-offs in some of the quirkiest locales the state has to offer.
Follow Cerrillos Road south out of Santa Fe and into the rolling Cerrillos Hills, where the eponymous state park features five miles of piñon-dotted hiking terrain. Don’t miss a peek into one of the handful of historic mines visible along the trails.
Los Cerrillos and Madrid
Just past the park, the revived ghost towns of Los Cerrillos and Madrid blend dusty Wild West charm with colorful hippie quirk. Settled by squatters in the early 1800’s, Madrid had evolved into a company coal town by the end of the century. During its heyday, the booming city boasted a bigger population than Albuquerque and produced 250,00 tons of coal per year. But the town declined along with the coal market, and by the 1950s, it was all but abandoned. Today, Madrid is a thriving artists’ community where hundred-year-old mining shanties have been transformed into color-blocked artist lofts. Stop off in one of the many galleries along the main drag or grab lunch at The Hollar, where classic Southern comfort dishes get a welcome kick from local chiles. The historic Mine Shaft Tavern, a frequent host of rousing live music, and the Old Coal Town Museum are also worth a visit. Hungry before you hit Madrid? The Black Bird Saloon in Los Cerrillos offers haute pub fare and local brews. While you’re there, walk the dirt roads through town and check out the Casa Grande Trading Post, Mining Museum and Petting Zoo for a peek at rare Cerrillos turquoise – and a few llamas, too.
Continue south into the Cibola National Forest and the Sandia Mountains, with breathtaking vistas and a surfeit of offerings for outdoor enthusiasts. A 13-mile detour up NM 536 will take you to Sandia Crest, where you can take in Albuquerque and beyond from 10,300 feet.
Cap off your journey at the eccentric Tinkertown Museum, located on the crest road. The hobbyist haven-turned-tourist attraction is the brainchild of the late artist Ross J. Ward. It features antique toys, mining relics, wood-carved figures and more – all arranged together in miniature scenes depicting the Old West. The labyrinthine space is a folk-art feast for the eyes. Entrance runs no more than $3.75 per person, and the museum operates daily between April 1 and Oct. 31.
The Hollar: 2845 NM-14 in Madrid / (505) 471-4821
Mine Shaft Tavern: 2846 NM-14 in Madrid / (505) 473-0743
Old Coal Town Museum: 2846 NM-14 in Madrid / (505) 438-3780 / $5 admission; $3 for children and seniors
Black Bird Saloon: 28 Main Street in Los Cerrillos / (505) 438-1821
Casa Grande Trading Post: 17 Waldo Street in Los Cerrillos / (505) 438-3008 / $2 museum admission
Tinkertown Museum: 121 Sandia Crest Road in Sandia Park / (505) 281-5233 / $3.75 admission; $3.25 for seniors; $1.25 for kids 4-18; kids under 4 enter for free
Looking for more adventures around Santa Fe? Join one of our walking food tours!
Bandelier & Los Alamos: Storied Past, Promising Future
Carved from the soft volcanic tuff of the Pajarito Plateau, the fortress-like cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument are not to be missed. Twenty minutes down the road, a handful of well-maintained museums in Los Alamos memorialize the Manhattan Project and highlight the groundbreaking research – nuclear and otherwise – still ongoing at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Archaeologists have found evidence of human activity on the Pajarito Plateau dating back more than 10,000 years, but it wasn’t until about 1150 CE that the Ancestral Pueblo people left their long-lasting mark on the spot. Follow the 1.2-mile Main Loop Trail from the visitor center, and you’ll wend your way up through a vertical city of yesteryear. Climb the ladders to explore small cavates, or carved alcoves, where the Ancestral Puebloans once made their homes. You can still see blackened ash remnants of the fires they once lit to keep warm at night. The site also showcases early cave drawings, a kiva, longhouse and several other archaeological treasures.
Instead of heading back, take a mile-long detour down the Nature Trail to the Alcove House, a ceremonial cave set 140 feet above the canyon floor. It’s only accessible via four steep ladders, though, so this climb is not for the faint of heart! At the top, take in stunning views of surrounding Frijoles Canyon and wonder at what it must have been like to occupy this site so many years ago.
Bandelier comprises more than 30,000 acres, so if you’re feeling peppy, trek out and explore more of the 70 miles of hiking terrain. Be sure to check the website for weather-related closures before you go.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory was established in 1943, but it would be nearly two years before any one on the outside knew why “Site Y,” as it was called, was there. Over the course of 20 months, the lab’s scientists secretly built and successfully deployed the first atomic bomb, forever altering the course of geopolitics and bringing about the end of World War II.
Today, a visit to Los Alamos is both a history lesson and a glimpse at science future. Stop by Bradbury Science Museum to view 40 interactive exhibits detailing the Manhattan Project’s history and current research. The hands-on TechLab features experiential exhibits exploring scientific concepts.
At the Los Alamos History Museum, step back in time to the days before the Manhattan Project. The land where the lab now sits was once home to a ranch school. Exhibits in the restored Los Alamos Ranch School Guest Cottage take visitors from the Ancestral Pueblo era right up to the start of “Project Y.” The Hans Bethe House, also part of the museum, features a Cold War gallery highlighting post-World War II history.
Los Alamos is no culinary hub, but there’s enough on offer to satiate a picky palate. Just across the street from the Los Alamos History Museum, Ruby K’s Bagel Café is a popular breakfast and lunch spot offering a wide selection of freshly forged bagels, homemade spreads, sandwiches and pastries. Pig + Fig in nearby White Rock serves up tapas-style small plates for dinner and tasty traditional fare – sandwiches, salads, etc. – for breakfast and lunch. And the pours at Los Alamos’s only brewery, Bathtub Row Brewing Co-Op, are worth a taste, too. But fair warning: They don’t serve food.
Bandelier National Monument: 15 Entrance Road in Los Alamos / (505) 672-3861 / $20 per vehicle admission
Bradbury Science Museum: 1350 Central Ave. in Los Alamos / (505) 667-4444 / Free admission
Los Alamos History Museum: 1050 Bathtub Row in Los Alamos / (505) 662-6272 / $5 admission or book a guided walking tour for $15 per adult
Ruby K’s Bagel Café: 1789 Central Ave. in Los Alamos / (505) 662-9866
Pig + Fig: 35 Rover Blvd. G in White Rock / (505) 672-2742
Bathtub Row Brewing Co-Op: 163 Central Park Square in Los Alamos / (505) 500-8381
O’Keeffe Country: An Artist and Her Canvas
Georgia O’Keeffe wasn’t the first artist to fall in love with the rugged outcrops and rainbow sunsets of northern New Mexico, but she may be the most famous. The Wisconsin native first visited the state in the late-1920s. By 1940, she had purchased a home and seven acres on remote Ghost Ranch, a 90-minute haul north from Santa Fe. The property’s rich color palette, with its reds, yellows, browns and greens, inspired some of O’Keeffe’s most famous works. Later, her home and studio in nearby Abiquiu – and an otherworldly collection of white rock formations called Plaza Blanca, or the White Place – showed up in her work as well. Today, all three locales are open to visitors.
Take one look at this 21,000-acre former dude ranch and you’ll understand O’Keeffe’s love affair. Towering red cliffs rise from the high desert plains, fragmenting vast vistas of mountains and crisp blue skies. Grasses of every shade of green and gray quake in the wind. Today, Ghost Ranch is a retreat center owned by the Presbyterian Church, but O’Keeffe’s legacy still looms. The facility offers five O’Keeffe-specific tours, including two on horseback. An hour-long bus tour showcases the landscape features so familiar to O’Keeffe enthusiasts, and a walking tour takes guests to the otherwise-restricted house O’Keeffe called home. The rest of the property is a draw on its own, with lodging, four museums and more than a dozen miles of hiking trails.
In 1945, O’Keeffe purchased an abandoned adobe hacienda in Abiquiu, a 15-minute drive from her beloved Ghost Ranch. Today, the property offers hour-long tours between March and November. Visitors may recognize the oft-painted door in the courtyard and the stunning panoramic view of the Chama River Valley, also a favorite landscape subject of O’Keeffe’s. The property is owned by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. You’ll need to reserve tickets in advance through their website.
Simply put: The White Place is otherworldly. Amidst a sea of red rocks, a vast, chalk-white city rises from the earth. It’s no wonder O’Keeffe painted and repainted this alien landscape. To get to the trailhead from Abiquiu, head south on U.S. 84, hang a left at route 554, then follow these directions.
Ghost Ranch: 1708 US-84 in Abiquiu / (505) 685-1000 / O'Keeffe tours range from $37 to $119; a $5 conservation fee earns you access to hiking trails and museums
Georgia O'Keeffe Home and Studio: Tours meet at the Abiquiu Inn, 21120 US-84 / For reservations, call (505) 946-1000 / Tours run March through November; Book in advance / Per-person cost ranges from $35-$65
Mamacita's Pizzeria: 20814 US-84 in Abiquiu / (505) 685-4111
Bode's General Store: 21196 US-84 in Abiquiu / (505) 685-4422 / Restaurant is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.