Away from bustling Santa Fe and quirky Albuquerque, New Mexico offers stunning natural wonders, wide expanses of desert and mountains, and clear skies that guarantee endless days of sightseeing and outdoor fun.
On a recent trip, I got to experience all that, plus delicious food, a rodeo and a hot-air balloon ride.
I based myself at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa, which is part of the Santa Ana Pueblo, a tribal settlement about a half-hour drive north of Albuquerque and an hour from Santa Fe. It's a luxury resort with all the amenities, plus regional cuisine and adobe-style architecture.
Tamaya is a convenient base for day trips. But you can also find a lot to do right there. The nearby Stables at Tamaya rescues and rehabilitates horses and other animals, even pigs and chickens, and also offers horseback riding excursions several times a day. A weekly rodeo show includes barrel racing and steer tying. For little kids, there's a hobby horse race that elicits shrieks of encouragement from the adults.
Carnivores will appreciate the delicate taste of New Mexico's grass-fed beef. I went back three times to Tamaya's Corn Maiden restaurant because of its rib-eye steak.
Millions of years ago, volcanic eruptions left a landscape of cone-shaped white rocks that look like something out of a sci-fi epic. This is Tent Rocks National Monument . You can hike one of two trails here. The more difficult trail takes you along a canyon, then climbs steeply to a mesa with views of the surrounding valleys and mountains. (Mesa is the Spanish word for table, used to describe a hill with a flat top.) The hike takes 90 minutes to two hours up and back to the park entrance.
Thirty miles (50 km) away, another volcanic eruption created a 13-mile-wide (21-km) circular depression known as the Valles Caldera National Preserve . Its forests, grassland valleys and mountain meadows offer a stark contrast to the surrounding desert. The park's 11,000-foot (3,350-meter) elevation means lower temperatures than elsewhere in the region. Whether you hike or drive in the park, look for wildlife, including elk, coyotes, golden eagles and the odd black bear.
Take double (if not triple) the amount of water you think you'll need for a hike, and dress appropriately. Fall elk hunting season runs through Dec. 6 in certain parts of the park; visitors are advised to wear bright colors outside the no-hunting zones.
I preferred New Mexico's serene desert and natural wonders to its cities, but visitors will find a lot to do in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Albuquerque's historic Old Town is lined with souvenir shops and adobe architecture. Its centerpiece is the 18th century San Felipe de Neri Church.
Across from the University of New Mexico campus is Albuquerque's most famous eatery, the Frontier . The cafeteria-style menu offers diner basics — eggs, burgers and sandwiches — plus Mexican and New Mexican classics, from burritos to green chile stew. But go for the eclectic ambience — locals, students, tourists, Western and Native decor — more than for the food.
Don't miss the ride up the Sandia Peak Tramway at dusk. The 2.7-mile (4.3-km) trip will take you over 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) above the Rio Grande Valley. The colors of the valley turn from shades of yellow and orange to spectacular red and violet before darkness settles and the whole valley dissolves in the evening lights.
Hot-air ballooning is the thing to do in New Mexico but it isn't for the faint of heart. You'll have to wake up at an ungodly hour for the year-round sunrise rides, though winter sunset trips are also available. My Rainbow Ryders balloon voyage lasted over an hour and flew up to 1,000 feet (300 meters). Landing in a cul-de-sac where the residents came out to applaud us was an added bonus. The rides are thrilling but expensive, with two companies pricing them at $159 a person in November.
Santa Fe can seem like a tourist theme park sprung from the surrounding desert. It bustles with action till late hours of the night and can be a bit overwhelming after experiencing New Mexico's natural tranquility elsewhere. Kids will enjoy the interactive and immersive art experience at Meow Wolf . The building's warehouse-like appearance betrays nothing of the near-psychedelic haunted house atmosphere inside. It's guaranteed to fascinate.
Just outside Santa Fe, you can tour the ancient Taos Pueblo with its famous adobe dwellings framed by a blue sky.
Santa Fe's Georgia O'Keeffe Museum is small enough to tour in an hour yet comprehensive enough that you'll walk out feeling like you didn't know much about the artist before you went in. You can run back to nature by driving to Ghost Ranch, a unique retreat and education center where O'Keeffe lived. The ranch offers basic food and lodging along with a variety of tours that show the landscapes that inspired O'Keeffe's work.
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