How to Spend 6 Days National Parking in New Mexico
My trip to New Mexico was my first-ever solo trip and I launched into planning mode before I even booked the tickets. I ordered a travel guide, started a Pinterest board, perused the National Park Service website and flipped through some of my favorite travel blogs to see if they had any suggestions on what I should be doing with my time in New Mexico.
The result of all that planning was a six-day adventure, with an early flight in and a late flight out, that took me across 800 miles of northern New Mexico, though five National Park units and one bonus park managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
SIX DAYS OF NATIONAL PARKING IN NEW MEXICO
DAY 1. ALBUQUERQUE TO SANTA FE
My early flight out of Richmond got me to Albuquerque a little after 11 a.m., and I was in my rental car and on the road by noon. I grabbed tacos and a beer at the Standard Diner, then headed to Petroglyph National Monument, for National Park #1. At the visitor center, the ranger gave me directions to Piedras Marcadas Canyon, where there’s 1.5 mile loop showcasing around 400 petroglyphs.
After marveling at the petroglyphs, I headed north on the Turquoise Trail stopping in Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) for a beer at the Mine Shaft Tavern before heading on to my Airbnb in Santa Fe. I’d plotted the parks I wanted to visit on a map during my planning process and Santa Fe was pretty much right in the middle, so for me, it made the most sense to base myself there. Once I got checked in at the llama farm, I went to Blue Corn Cafe & Brewery for dinner, where I got a beer and a giant plate of nachos before heading home, curling up and passing the fuck out.
DAY 2. KASHA-KATUWE TENT ROCKS NATIONAL MONUMENT & MEOW WOLF
I had breakfast at the Tune-Up Cafe, where I order the Veggie Breakfast Hash from the specials board. It was delicious, with poached eggs, cheesy hash browns and a whole pile of vegetables.
After breakfast, I headed to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. It’s administered by the Bureau of Land Management, so it’s not technically a National Park unit, but holy hell is it amazing. I hiked the Slot Canyon Trail, all the way to the top, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The trail takes you over rocks, under trees and through canyons and when you get to the top the view is made of magic. If you only hike once in the Santa Fe area, hike at Tent Rocks. It’s magnificent.
After the hike, I headed back into Santa Fe, to Second Street Brewery, for a beer and some tacos. Then, I went to Meow Wolf, for a non-National Park adventure. Meow Wolf is an interactive art experience, with more than 70 rooms, each designed by a different artist. It is strange and mesmerizing and magical.
DAY 3. PECOS NATIONAL MONUMENT & FORT UNION NATIONAL MONUMENT
I inevitably woke up at dawn, still stuck on East Coast time, grabbed some road snacks and set out for park #2, Pecos National Historical Park. Next, I headed to Las Vegas – the New Mexico one – where Theodore Roosevelt recruited 40% of his roughriders. I lunched at the Plaza Hotel, where those very same roughriders had their first reunion, and then I scampered further east to Fort Union National Monument, my third National Park of the trip. Fort Union is a little eerie and sort of weird, but I liked it. I spotted some pronghorn antelope on the way out, stopped my car in the middle of the empty road and talked to myself about the insanity of life, New Mexico and seeing a herd of pronghorn antelope in real life.
For dinner, I went to The Ranch House where I devoured a whole pile of BBQ and then spent 45 minutes talking to the bartender and another couple about what to see, do and eat in the area. The couple came from Virginia and their enthusiasm for New Mexico was infectious.
DAY 4. VALLES CALDERA NATIONAL PRESERVE & BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT
I woke up early again, and set out for Valles Caldera National Preserve, determined to get one of the park’s 35 backcountry vehicle passes. If I did this trip again, I’d spend the whole day here, hiking and exploring more of the park. Instead, I spent the morning at Valles Caldera, lunched in Los Alamos, had at beer at Bathtub Row Brewing, then headed to Bandelier National Monument.
These parks were probably my favorites – along with Tent Rocks – and there’s a lot to see and do at both. They’re close to one another and both deserve a full day of National Park adventure time.
DAY 5. BACK TO BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT & SANTA FE
I went back to Bandelier for an early morning hike on the Tsankawi Trail, which I had entirely to myself. If I did this trip again, I’d spend the whole day at Bandelier, exploring the Main Loop Trail, the Tsankawi Trail and one or two of the other park’s trails. Instead, I went to explore Santa Fe, where I mostly just ate food, marveled at the miraculous staircase at Loretto Chapel and shopped. After four days in the wilderness, being in a town, with people, was a bit much. Santa Fe was great, for sure, and filled with more delicious food than I could eat, but I’m a forest creature and being in the city made me miss the forest.
I spent the rest of the day at the travel trailer, skipping the nice dinner I’d planned for myself and eating in instead, watching the sunset at the llama farm.
DAY 6: LLAMA FEEDING, SNACKS & ALBUQUERQUE BREWERIES
I spent my last morning being lazy then took the Turquoise Trail back to Albuquerque, stopping at San Marcos Cafe & Feed Store for breakfast.
In Albuquerque, I lunched at Bosque Brewing Company, where I had one of my favorite beers of the trip (and some more tacos), and then, on a recommendation from both the dude sitting next to me at the bar and the bartender, I went to La Cumbre Brewing Company for a beer flight and then that was it. I headed to the airport, turned in my rental car, and scampered my way home.
When I tell people I went to New Mexico and I loved it, people have the tendency to say things like, “I couldn’t live without trees,” or, “I don’t know if I could live in the desert.” But, you guys, New Mexico is next to Colorado. At one point, standing at a beautiful and perfect lookout near Bandelier, I could see Colorado. It was more than 100 miles away, but still. I could see it, and also, a whole bunch of trees.
So, really, there are trees in New Mexico, and while there are definitely deserts, there are also forests and mountains and rivers and insane beauty pretty much everywhere. So go to New Mexico, you guys. They call it the Land of Enchantment because it’s fucking enchanting.