I loved Santa Fe during our most recent visit. As one of the oldest cities in the U.S., I loved the history. As a city filled with galleries, I loved the art. And as a culinary destination, Santa Fe was delicious. But, if you are in Santa Fe I would encourage you to plan for some extra time to take one or more of the day trips listed below.
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- Los Alamos
- Bandelier National Monument
I can’t talk about day trips from Santa Fe without mentioning Albuquerque, but honestly, Albuquerque is worth its own visit. There are some great things to do in Albuquerque and it has its own wonderful collection of restaurants. But the two cities are only an hour apart so a day trip is not difficult. If you do make a day trip out of it I would pick one of two of the following sites.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
If you’re lucky enough to visit in October, you’ll have the chance to experience the world-famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. It’s the largest hot air balloon festival in the world, with hundreds of colorful balloons taking to the skies. The sight of balloons floating above the city’s horizon is truly awe-inspiring. It starts before dawn and is over by 10 am so it probably works better with an Albuquerque hotel room the night before. Although as much traffic as there is coming in from Albuquerque, I can’t say it would take much less time to get to the fiesta grounds from Santa Fe.
Rich Cultural Heritage
Albuquerque is steeped in a vibrant blend of Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures. The city has a long and fascinating history, which is evident in its architecture, art, cuisine, and traditions. Exploring the Old Town Plaza and visiting the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center or the National Hispanic Cultural Center are excellent ways to immerse yourself in the local culture. For an overview of the Old Town history take the guided tour on the ABQ Trolley.
The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
Nerds like me will enjoy the The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History which talks about New Mexico’s connection to the Nuclear Age. See full sie strategic bombers and a recreation of “the gadget”, the first nuclear bomb.
Petroglyph National Monument
Petroglyph National Monument, located on the outskirts of Albuquerque, is a captivating and culturally significant site that showcases ancient rock art created by Native American cultures. Spanning over 11 square miles, the monument features a great collection of petroglyphs etched onto volcanic rocks by ancestral Puebloan American peoples centuries ago. The intricate designs depict animals, human figures, symbols, and other enigmatic patterns, offering a window into the spiritual and cultural beliefs of these ancient civilizations. Visitors can explore the monument through several easy hiking trails.
Manhattan Project and Atomic History
Los Alamos is widely known as the birthplace of the atomic bomb. During World War II, it was the top-secret location where scientists, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, worked on the Manhattan Project. The Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is still active today, played a crucial role in the development of nuclear weapons.
The town was chosen because of its remote location which made access easy to control for the army, but that same remoteness gives you a scenic drive, especially as you climb up the road to the Pajarito Plateau.
The town also already had some facilities because of a prep school for boys. The Los Alamos Ranch School was a private boarding school located in Los Alamos, New Mexico, that operated from 1917 to 1943. It was established by Ashley Pond Jr., a businessman, and entrepreneur, as a boys’ school with a focus on outdoor education and character development. The idea was to turn privileged kids from the east coast into men.
There is a walking tour downtown that will take you to parts of the old school which were used for the Manhattan Project as well as the houses of well-known scientists like Oppenheimer. There is a separate walking tour that explores the spys who infiltrated the project and gave some of the U.S. Nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.
Bradbury Science Museum
The Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico, is a great science that showcases the scientific and technological achievements of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Named after Norris E. Bradbury, the laboratory’s second director, the museum provides visitors with a comprehensive understanding of the laboratory’s history, research, and contributions to science and national security.
Some of the exhibits cover the history of the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb, but the majority of the exhibits cover all of the other different scientific research that has been conducted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in a large number of different scientific disciplines.
Valles Caldera National Preserve
If you are not visiting in winter as we did, the nearby Valles Caldera National Preserve is a stunning and ecologically diverse landscape encompassing a massive volcanic caldera. Spanning over 89,000 acres, the preserve offers a range of outdoor activities, including hiking, fishing, and wildlife watching. Visitors can explore its scenic vistas, volcanic formations, and archaeological sites while learning about the area’s cultural and historical significance.
Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument is near Los Alamos and can easily be visited on the same day trip from Los Alamos. I would recommend seeing Los Alamos in the morning and then stopping at the Fig and Pig Cafe in White Rock for lunch before exploring Bandelier.
The park is renowned for its well-preserved ancestral Pueblo dwellings, which date back over 700 years. Visitors can explore the cliff dwellings, cave dwellings, and petroglyphs left behind by the ancient Pueblo people. Walking through these ancient structures provides a unique glimpse into the lives and culture of the indigenous people who once inhabited the region.
The park is named for the Swiss-born archeologist Adolph Bandelier who was one of the earliest and most influential archeologists in the southwest in the late 1800s. He started his studies at a time when many in his profession considered the study of the history and culture of the American Indians to be unimportant.
The Frijoles Canyon, where most of the ruins are located, offers picturesque vistas and easy hiking trails. This is where the main visitor center is located so stop here to stamp your National Park Passport and to get an overview of the park. As you hike through the canyons, you’ll be surrounded by towering cliffs, vibrant wildflowers, and diverse wildlife, making it a haven for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.
A few of the buildings have been reconstructed so we you get a better idea of what they would have looked like, but most like in the photo above are kept as they were found. You can see from the holes in the cliff wall, where the buildings were built along the cliff and attached to natural caves in the rocks.
Taos was the one site on this list that was a bit disappointing for me. It offers another community with artists, and a profoundly deep history in the Taos Pueblo, but it seems a bit run down as if time has passed it by. This view was shared by friends who visited it 20 years ago and then visited it again recently.
Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. It offers a glimpse into the ancient Native American culture and architecture. Visitors can take guided tours, meet members of the community, and learn about their history, traditions, and way of life.
The Taos Pueblo was the big draw for me in the city and the start of my frustration. While I had checked the website for Taos Pueblo before driving nearly 2 hours to get to Taos, the website did not mention that the site was not open to visitors on the day of my visit. If you do travel to Taos, you might want to call to see if you can get more up-to-date information.
Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
A popular stop on the way into or out of Taos is the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The river cuts a narrow canyon through the high plains around Taos and this bridge gives a good view of the gorge. In the warmer months, there is whitewater rafting along the Rio Grand.
Taos Plaza and Historic District
The Taos Plaza is the heart of the town, featuring adobe buildings, boutique shops, galleries, and restaurants. The plaza often hosts events, markets, and festivals. Exploring the historic district allows visitors to appreciate the town’s unique architecture, including the iconic San Francisco de Asis Church. I will say that after visiting Sante Fe the Taos Plaza felt a bit more dated.
Of course, part of that was not being able to find a place to part because I didn’t have change for a parking meter. Who still has parking meters that take coins?
The High Road from Taos to Santa Fe
For a more scenic drive take the high road from Santa Fe to Taos. It will add at least an hour onto the drive but will get you up into the higher elevations and to small historic towns. While I drove this route, I drove straight through and would suggest you go this way when you have:
- more than the 2.5 hours it will take to drive so you can explore the area more
- a navigator
- offline maps as you should not expect cell phone coverage (I use the maps.me app)
New Mexico is an amazing state and deserves even more tourism than it already gets. Santa Fe is one of the best places to visit in New Mexico, but when you can, get out of town to some of the other wonderful areas of the state.