5 Days 280 Miles
New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary: 5 Enchanting Days in the Southwest
As a colorful cultural and natural tapestry, New Mexico is one of the most enchanting states in the Southwest and attracts visitors from all over the globe. Known for its Native American and Southwestern culture, stunning landscapes, rustic towns and friendly locals, New Mexico is the perfect place to explore by car. Famous for alien and UFO sightings, be sure to keep an eye out for any extra-terrestrials along the way!
As a new visitor to such a diverse and fascinating state, you might be wondering where to start exploring. To give you the trip of a lifetime, we’ve put together a five-day itinerary that starts in the capital city of Santa Fe and takes you on a journey to some of the most beautiful and unforgettable locations in the area.
Day 1 – Santa Fe
As the vibrant capital of New Mexico, Santa Fe will capture your imagination with its lively art scene and an eye-catching mix of old and new architecture. Rich with culture and creativity, Santa Fe will dazzle your senses from the moment you arrive.
The Santa Fe Regional Airport is located just 10 miles from the city center. You will find plenty of car rentals here to begin your journey. If you’re flying a larger carrier, you may need to arrive in the big city of Albuquerque and take an early morning taxi into Santa Fe.
Start your adventure with breakfast from any one of the local cafes. Next, rent a bike for a scenic ride around the city’s dedicated bike routes. Bike rentals are available from local shops, including Bike N Sport and Zip-eRides. Serious cyclists and mountain bikers may opt to continue on riding the many trails around the city.
After a sunny morning of two-wheeled exploration, head to the Plaza, where you will have your pick of authentic Mexican cuisine for lunch before taking on some retail therapy in the unique shopping area. Roam the art galleries, book stores and boutiques loaded with treasures you won’t find anywhere else.
For dinner, we recommend you try the Blue Heron Restaurant at Ojo Santa Fe Spa Resort. They serve up farm-to-table organic dishes with a focus on New American West cuisine. The Green Chile Cheeseburger and Ojo Fish Tacos are delicious, but everything on the menu is simply divine. Reservations are available here.
On a Friday or Saturday, you can spend a late evening visiting Meow Wolf, an alternative art gallery with over 70 rooms of immersive installations.
Where to Stay in Santa Fe
Check in to Hotel St. Francis in the heart of the city. This charming and historic hotel was named for the patron saint of the city and features intimate wood furniture made by local artists and interesting decor throughout. From your accommodation, you can easily walk to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Palace of the Governors.
Day 2 – Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument is a special place for many reasons and where you will be exploring on day two of your trip. It is home to the ancestral and traditional lands of at least 23 tribal nations.
The massive 33,677-acre area was home to ancestral pueblo people from 1150 CE to 1550 CE. Today it is a much-admired place that draws in history lovers and hikers who appreciate the rugged and stunning landscapes that seem to go on forever.
Less than an hour’s drive from downtown Santa Fe, Bandelier is located just 40 miles to the west of the city. You’ll want to get an early start and pick up a picnic lunch for your day of hiking and exploration.
Start your adventure at the Main Loop Trail (Pueblo Loop Trail)—a 1.4-mile loop that is easily completed in about an hour. Along the way, you can see stunning rock formations, wildlife, archeological sites and pit houses on the cliffs. The rangers at the visitor center and museum can provide additional information on the area.
If the loop trail didn’t get your heart racing, it’s time to try the cave-dwelling of Alcove House. With a very steep ladder climb taking you 140 feet from the bottom of Frijoles Canyon, this adventure will give you spectacular views and a closeup of the cave’s archeological ruins. Plan to spend a little over an hour on this heart-pounding excursion.
There are over 70 trails to explore inside the park. A few others to check out include the Painted Cave Trail, Frijoles Rim and Canyon Trail and the Yapashi Pueblo Trail. From July through September, ranger-led tours can be booked at the visitor center.
Where to Stay near Bandelier
If you’ve packed your tent, there are two family campgrounds for an overnight stay in Bandelier. Or, we recommend taking a drive south toward Albuquerque. Here, you can dine at a long-standing local favorite, Garcia’s Kitchen, and spend a charming night at Casas de Suenos in the heart of Albuquerque.
Day 3 – Chaco Canyon
Catch the sunrise on your early morning drive from Albuquerque to Chaco Canyon. It will take you just under three hours, but the expansive dessert views are definitely worth it. If you’ve decided to stay in Bandelier the previous night, the drive is about 3.5 hours.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a stunning, not-to-be-missed destination. With an impressive collection of old ruins, the park is culturally significant and stunningly beautiful. From AD 900 to 1150, Chaco Canyon was the cultural hub for the ancestral Puebloans near and far. Archeologists have discovered ancient artifacts and treasures which give clues to the history of the area. Many structures are still here today.
Much of this heritage site is remote so be sure your vehicle can handle the rough dirt roads. If you’re not sure, book a guided tour to get you safely and knowledgeably through the park.
At the visitor center, check out the Museum of Chaco Culture. You’ll find it easy to imagine what life was like in the park thousands of years ago. A one-mile round trip hike to Uni Vida will open your eyes to hilltop ruins, petroglyphs, and expansive views looking across the canyon.
You can drive a nine-mile loop with many fascinating structures along the way. Take your time photographing and exploring the prehistoric structures that are well-preserved despite the harsh desert conditions. Seeing kivas (ancient ceremonial sites), rock carvings, and Pueblo Bonita, the largest house in the area. Don’t miss the Great Kiva on your way out of the park.
Where to Stay in Farmington
Spend the night camping at the international dark sky park for a relaxing evening of storytelling and stargazing. If you prefer more luxurious digs, head back to one of the hotels at Aztec or Farmington (about 70 miles away). Farmington is your chance to stay at Kokopelli’s Cave, a man-made cave accommodation with all the hotel comforts you would expect but in one of the most unique places you will ever stay. Here, you can have a meal and unwind from your long day of exploring in the sun.
Day 4 – Red Rock Park
Begin day four with a desert road trip that takes you to the red rock town of Gallup. Be sure to cue up your favorite tunes because this drive is gorgeous! Your destination of Gallup has plenty to offer with tourist attractions, shopping, dining and historic sites galore.
Red Rock Park is a great hiking area and—if you’re lucky—you might see ceremonial dances or a rodeo at the arena. Explore The Pyramid Rock Trail, a three-mile route that will take your breath away. Lots of signage along the way will keep you well informed. Church Rock Trail, which is slightly shorter, is also a popular hike.
Nearby are the Bisti Badlands, which boasts one of the most unique landscapes in the Four Corners region. Scramble on rocks and enjoy a wide range of desert flora and wildlife.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, grab some authentic Mexican lunch at Cocina De Dominguez.
Where to Stay in Gallup
There are many brand hotels in Gallup, but you can have an authentic stay at El Rancho Hotel and Motel, where movie stars once relaxed and spent the night while on set for Westerns. The rustic decor, warm hospitality and central location make this the perfect stay.
Enjoy dining at the hotel restaurant that serves both Mexican and American cuisine. The bartender at 49er Bar will have a fresh margarita waiting for you, and if you ask us, this is the perfect way to end an adventure-filled day.
Day 5 – Gallup
Today might be your earliest wakeup call, but it will be worth it since you are embarking on a hot air balloon ride! View the vast, New Mexican terrain from a basket floating hundreds of feet in the air in this awe-inspiring adventure. Both peaceful and exhilarating, you will experience all the emotions on this ride, including pure amazement. Photographers are usually available on the ground to take photos of your colorful balloon, which looks spectacular against the bright blue sky.
After landing, head to Jerry’s Cafe for lunch and story swapping with other balloon riders. The enchiladas and homemade chili are the best!
Then, spend the day exploring the town. The shopping in Gallup is excellent, especially if you want to buy pottery, art, jewelry or unique home decor items. Artisan boutiques are full of gorgeous treasures that will forever remind you of the New Mexican landscape. Anasazi Traders, A Touch of Santa Fe and Apache Trading Company are a few shops to peruse. Roam around the Gallup 9th Street Flea Market for some hard-to-resist bargains. There are plenty of tasty food stalls to try some new flavors. With over 500 vendors, you can easily spend a few hours here.
Spend your final night at the Inn at Halona for a relaxing atmosphere on the Zuni Indian Reservation.
When To Visit New Mexico
In winter, it snows and the summers are intensely hot, so if you can be flexible on your travel time, we recommend hitting New Mexico from March to June or September to November for the most pleasant weather. The state is home to many colorful festivals and celebrations, so be sure to see if one is happening during your visit.