Culturally and topographically, New Mexico is really several states: from Indian pueblos to Hispanic and Anglo communities; from awesome mountains to blazing white sand dunes to the uniquely New Mexican tufted desert of sagebrush, cactus and cottonwood.
It is difficult for the short-term traveler to explore this diversity, because it is spread over such an immense area: At about 120,000 square miles, New Mexico is the fifth largest state in the country. But a figure-eight-shaped tour by car, starting and ending in Albuquerque, offers a wide range of the magical beauty of the Land of Enchantment.
Albuquerque is the logical starting point, since it is the state's hub and by far its largest city. Its international airport is easily reached from most points in the country, and the scenic Amtrak "Southwest Limited" stops here en route between Los Angeles and Chicago. Motels, car rental agencies and restaurants (including some of the best mon-and-pop fast-food stops in the country) abound.
The city itself, set in the Rio Grande Valley against the Sandia Mountains, offers many attractions -- including North America's longest tranway, running from the foothills of Albuquerque's Northeast Heights to Sandia crest, at 10,000 feet. Old town is also one of the most tastefully restored city centers in the country.
But the soul of New Mexico, and the bulk of its spectacular natural display, lie outside the sprawl of Albuquerque. Two loop drives cover a good slice of this display: A northern loop bounded by the Rio Grande Valley, Taos and the Jemez Mountains, and a southern loop with the dazzling White Sands National Monument at its tip. Which loop you do first should depend on the weather and time of year. The New Mexico climate fluctuates enough that, with luck, you can go south when the blistering summer heat abates or when winter snow is falling up north, and then head north when the climate is moderate.
The southern loop covers about 580 miles.
Head east from Albuquerque on I-40, path of the legendary Rte. 66. The road takes you up and through Tijeras Canyon in the Sandia Mountains. The Sandias (Spanish for watermelon) were so named because of the red colors that seem to radiate from them at sunset. The road emerges into a Texas-like landscape of flat grazing areas, with the formidable Sandias receding in the background and an endless vista and distant dark mountains ahead.
Turn south on Rte. 41 at Moriarty, a crossroads strip; 41 is a back road threading past sleepy villages that have changed little over the years. After passing through Estancia, an inconspicuous sign will note Manzano Mountains State Park -- 12 miles to the right. Take this road for a nice find; this tidy park is one of the most hidden public recreation areas in New Mexico.
The terrain will get greener (in the fall, multicolored) and more mountainous as you enter the Manzano ("apple") range. The park, curiously, has almost no parking area. It is designed for campers, boasting new shower, picnic and trailer dumping facilities. The park's mile-and-a-half nature trail goes through the middle of a forest-fire area; hikers can see a forest returning to life amide a charred, yet strangely attractive landscape. Miniature allegator juniper (the bark looks like alligator hide) and cottonwood trees sprout among mountain flowers and wild lettuce and herbs. Placards identify the flora and the process of the forest's struggle to recuperate from the 1978 fire that swept through the area.
The road south from the park leads to the colorful (and misnamed) town of Mountainair, which lies at the dusty (and flat) intersection of U.S. Rte. 60 and State Rte. 14. Mountainair is the home of the incredible Shaffer Hotel, which now houses a National Park Service Visitor Center and an antique shop. The building sports intricate stained-glass windows, and its flamboyant interior includes brightly colored beams and moldings, with chandeliers painted in Indian designs.
About 25 miles south of Mountainair on Rte. 14 is an impressive series of Indian ruins, Gran Quivira National Monument. These majestic ruins date back more than a thousand years. The view of the distant, partially restored mission as you enter Gran Quivira, with bursts of flowering cactus lining the trail, is as timeless as it is beautiful. The setting against the green foothills and granite mountains is bold.
Rte. 14 south of Gran Quivira is as close to an Old West trail as you can find. Since it is unpaved and -- in parts -- unfenced, you may have to stop for stray cattle blocking the path while foraging for grass in the arid terrain.
What looks like one of the country's newest ghost towns lies at the intersection of another unpaved highway and Rte. 14. With the unlikely name of Claunch, the town's post office still has its plastic hanging plants in the window and a mailbox in front.
About 30 miles past Claunch, this gravel stretch of Rte. 14 joins paved Rte. 54 north of Carrizozo, a wide-open cowboy town. The Four Winds -- part Howard Johnsonesque coffee shop, part Judge Roy Bean saloon -- provides refreshment and a refuge from the afternoon sun.
An hour's drive sough of Carrizozo, Alamogordo is the home base for White Sands National Monument. (Between these two points, east of the town of Tularosa, sits New Mexico's only Apache Indian Reservation.) But about 20 miles north of Alamogordo, the observant traveler will spot a brilliant white plain of sand on the western horizon. this is the beginning of White Sands. The national monument visitor center -- the publicly accessible part of White Sands -- is 30 miles to the south, past Alamogordo.
White Sands is a rare and overwhelming experience: 300 square miles of dazzling -- blinding, at midday -- pure white dunes. The constantly shifting mountains of sand hills are ribbed by the winds of southern New Mexico and decorated by tiny clusters of yuccas and desert flowers -- yellow blazing stars, red santaris, pink, heavily-scented verbenas.
Hiking in White Sands is awesome and eerie. It's not difficult to get disoriented in the infinity of white. And why is White Sands so white? Because it is not sand. It is pure gypsom (calcium sulfate; beach sand is silica, a totally different natural mineral). White Sands is by far the world's largest concentration of this powder, and one of only a handful of such areas anywhere.
Except for dedicated aficionados of intense sun (and heat most of the year), sunset or early morning are the only times to visit White Sands. A park ranger leads informative sunset walks (about an hour's duration) every day. These hikes include frequent stops to point out special features of the flora, fauna and topography, as well as to savor the ever-changing sunset over the San Andres Mountains. If you time your visit to coincide with a full moon, you can join a special full-moon hike across the glowing terrain.
Almogordo is New Mexico's space technology center and home of the International Space Hall of Fame. Set against trhe Sacramento Mountains, it offers a variety of lodging and restaurants, including Chinese-Mexican cuisine. Its old center retains the flavor of the area's pre-space days. New York Avenue features a quaint row of shops, and the old railroad-station plaza includes the Plaza Cafe, a mammouth hard-core cowboy bar where serious drinking and pool shooting begin right after breakfast.
Much more of New Mexico awaits you on the return look to Albuquerque.
Retrace the last part of the journey to Carrizozo. Turning west on Rte. 380 brings you into a most striking area -- the Valley of Fires State Park, so named because of the lava that flowed through countless millenia ago. The three-mile-wide swatch of dark lava (stretching about 50 miles north and south), punctuated by scrub pine trees, provides a strong contrast to the bright and empty desert beyond.
The road past the Valley of Fires crosses classically lovely New Mexico terrain -- rolling desert, buttes, cactus, tumbleweed, rocks -- with slowly growing mountains on the far horizon.
The crossroads town of San Antonio is home of The Owel, an old-fashioned saloon known for its hot, hot chili. Just seven miles south of San Antonio, on old Rte. 85, lies one of the country's oldest and most unusual wildlife preserves -- Bosque del Apache. Located in marsh land along the Rio Grande River, the Bosque ("forest") is 30,000 acres of cottonwoods, swamp grass, lagoons and bushes set against the desert and the rugged San Pasqual Mountains to the west. The area is crisscrossed by primitive hiking trails and gravel roads. Deer, Pelicans, eagles and other species of birds and wildlife live in the Bosque or use it as a rest stop during migration. The National Park Service, which runs the preserve, has set aside 1,400 acres of the Bosque for raising crops -- to be harvested solely by the wildlife there.
The Bosque can get very hot and mosquitoes are a thriving part of its wildlife most of the year, but a hike on one of the quiet trails is well worthwhile.
After passing back through San Antonio, Rte. 85 follows the river into Socorro (Spanish for "help," which settlers in this parched area badly needed). The town is not particularly remarkable except for its old square, which still carries an accent of the authentic Old West: the Capitol Bar. At first, the bar looks like an abandoned building; its upstairs windows are boarded and the place seems deserted. But look again. Better yet, walk in. The Capitol boats a 10-cent jukebox, a dance floor replete with sequined chandelier, a pool room and an ornate mahogany bar, and cowboys, students and seemingly most of Socorro are patrons.
Socorro has a number of so-so eating establishments, centered along the main north-south strip feeding into I-25. The two-hour trip on I-25 back to Albuquerque is picturesque, through desertscapes that are particularly dramatic at sunset. Isleta Pueblo, half an hour south of Albuquerque, is a worthwhile excursion on the return trip; its church is typical of those built by missionaries of past centuries who worked unendingly to convert native Americans to Christianity.
The northern loop covers approximately 300 miles.
Northern New Mexico is infinitely more familiar to travelers than the vast area south of Albuquerque. It is a land where desert and alpine mountains mingle, where legendary Indian trips dwell in triving communities, and where alluent Americans from all around the country are relocating.
To sample the area, start out on Rte. 85, the old road north. This takes you across Albuquerque's West Mesa, an area of commercial and residential developments with a spectacular view of the Sandias. You go through the valley, where working farms and ranches are slowly being edged out by suburbia. Then, as the road edges away from the river, open desert returns. Bernalillo, about a third of the way to Santa Fe, is still an unpolished farm center.
Rte. 44 west from Bernalillo goes through unspoiled New Mexico desert and past several Indian pueblos that are open to visitors. At Zia, turn north on Rte. 4 toward Jemez Pueblo. The next 50 miles are generally considered one of the most beautiful roads anywhere in the Southwest. After passing through Jemez Pueblo and its spectacular red canyons, the road climbs through Jemez Canyon, eventually reaching a heavily forested area. The Soda Dam outside Jemez Pueblo is a slowly changing natural dam with a rushing waterfall that ends in a warm-water swimming hole. (The hot springs of the area -- long a local tourist attraction -- offers baths in ancient tubs at Jemez Springs.)
Rte. 4 swings east about 12 miles past Jemez Springs and climbs steadily into heavy forest. The incomparable Valle Grande, 25 minutes past this turn, is an immense bowl that was formed by a violent eruption millions of years ago. The road then becomes a series of hairpins as it descends into Los Alamos.
The nation's first atomic city, Los Alamos was closed to the public until the mid-'50s. It is always 10 to 15 degrees cooler than Albuquerque and is surrounded by distant chains of formidable mountains. This isolation made it an ideal site for america's Atomic bomb development center. At the northern edge of Los Alamos, the former checkpoint building has been enlarged and turned into a restaurant; the vistas out-class the food, but it is an excellent way to satisfy your appetite and view northern New Mexico's beauty at the same time.
Rte. 4 east of Los Alamos goes through White Rock Canyon and White Rock, a midwestern-looking suburb devoid of New Mexico's characteristic adobd architecture. In White rock, follow the signs to the famed Bandelier National Monument. This served for centuries as cliff dwellings for Indian tribes, and the dwellings are well preserved. The soot from the fires of 800 years ago still lines the ceilings of these early-day condominiums carved out of the soft rock of the Bandelier Canyon walls.
Espanola, 25 miles beyond Bandelier, is an eclectic strip of old dwellings, new fast-food stands, some good restaurants and a continuing stream of "low-riders," flamboyantly customized '50s-vintage automobiles whose rear ends ride only millimeters above the pavement. Espanola is the junction of three major highways; take State Rte. 68, which parallels the Rio Grande River and takes you to Taos in about an hour.
Set against the very green Wheeler Peak, the Taos Pueblo is like no other in its beauty, size and vitality. The Taos Indians, still bristling from their encounter with the hippies of the '60s, are fircely independent and not overly cordial to visitors; for a fee, however, you are allowed to park in the pueblo, visit its magnificent church and (for an additional fee) take photographs. Art work and pottery are on sale at the pueblo.
The El Monte Lodge is a particularly pleasant overnight accommodation in Taos. Located just east of the main plaza, it features duplex adobe bungalows complete with fireplaces and is a popular stop for skiers patronizing the Taos Ski Valley, 16 miles north of town. The town of Taos is loaded with art galleries and restaurants and is an exceedingly popular year-round tourist spot. The old La Fonda Hotel on the square is now a very fancy and antique-laden inn.
The next leg of this northern loop takes you west on Rte. 64, across the Rio Grande Gorge. This gorge rivals the best for beauty and white-water adventure. Twenty-seven miles west of Taos is the junction of Rtes. 285 and 64 at Tres Piedras. Turn south on 285 and you are on a lightly traveled highway that once was a major route to Colorado. The terrain changes constantly in color and shape from desert to farmland to buttes. You may well see a cowboy hearding cattle along -- or even on -- 285.
Rte. 285 meets the Santa Fe road at the Indian village of San Juan Pueblo, after crossing the Rio Grande on a narrow bridge. Santa Fe, the state capital, is a town of contrasts: On the north, lavish house after lavish house set against the foothills and the Santa Fe Opera, an exceedingly popular outdoor stage. On the south, an ever-growing commercial strip reaching toward Albuquerque. In the center, a very lovely and crowded old square.
On the north side of the square, under the arcades of the old governor's mansion, Indians sell jewelry (by ordinance, only Indians are allowed to market here); you actually can get some good values, despite the touristic aura. At the west end of the plaza is the Plaza Cafe, purveyor of Santa Fe's notorious hot chili and other cuisine. The La Fonda Hotel, on the south side of the plaza, has gone through too many bouts of redocoration but still retains some of its old elegance.
Santa Fe is just a bit more than an hour's drive from Albuquerque on I-25. After the Bountiful terrain up north, I-25 seems like a regular expressway. In truth, however, it is a challenging drive, even in the best of weather, and passes through more beautiful desertscape. Both Santo Domingo Pueblo and San Felipe Pueblo, which have days-long ritual dances at Christmas, are just off the route.