If you can withstand 26 hours in the car and 1,500 miles racked up on the odometer, get ready for a spectacular Southwestern adventure.
New Mexico, a land of desert, green chile, sand dunes, hot springs, and caves doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves. The ‘Land of Enchantment’—as it's aptly known—is a bona fide mecca for exploration, discovery, scenic (and dull) stretches of highway, UFO’s, and endless adventure.
This week-long road-trip itinerary from Denver covers only a small portion of what the state has to offer, but it offers just enough of a taste (especially from the green chile) that you'll want to return time and again in the future. Here's your guide to spending seven days in the Southwest's most enchanting state.
Denver to the Great Sand Dunes National Park via I-25 S and US-160 W
238 miles, 4 hours
In order to get to New Mexico from Denver, you have to drive a few hundred arduous miles. Passing through Colorado Springs, you’ll spot NORAD (a top secret military facility inside a mountain ) near Pikes Peak.
Instead of the straight shot to NM, what better way to pass the miles than to see one of Colorado’s most treasured national parks? The Great Sand Dunes, North America’s tallest sand dunes, are true wonders to behold. Rising north of 750 feet, with the Sangre de Cristo Range as the backdrop, these dunes are simply phenomenal, especially at dusk. Spend the night at Zapara Falls, just 11 miles south of the park, but bring an extra blanket because the elevation climbs to 9,000 feet and gets chilly.
Great Sand Dunes National Park to Taos via CO 159 S and NM-522 S
109 miles, 2 hours
If you haven’t gotten your fix of the dunes the day before, head on back to the park for a sunrise hike. From there, travel south on CO 159 and make your way past San Luis (which holds the title of being Colorado’s oldest town) as you make your way to Taos. With some of the best skiing and mountain biking in New Mexico, Taos is a veritable outdoor adventure mecca. It's also got quite a bit of fascinating culture with plenty of picturesque adobe structures typical of New Mexico. Regardless of the season, hike Wheeler Peak just off Taos Ski Valley to test your endurance and be privy to some incredible views. Las Petacas Campground , just outside of TSV, is a great place to crash and get in some fishing if you’re feeling up to it.
Taos to Jemez Springs via NM-68S and NM-4 W
102 miles, 2 hours
After leaving the mountain range, get ready to experience one of New Mexico's most hidden gems: Jemez Springs. Only 2 hours outside of Taos, Jemez Valley is thought to have been inhabited for the last 4,500 years. Amid the spiritual surroundings, you will uncover some of the most beautiful natural hot springs in the state, notably McCauley Warm Springs . After a 3 mile trek from the trailhead at Battleship Rock, you’ll encounter pristine ‘warm springs’ (80+ degrees)– just don’t mind the little nibbling fish! The Jemez Falls Campground provides the ideal place to spend the evening after a fun, relaxing day.
Jemez Springs to White Sands National Monument via I-25 S and US-54 W
282 miles, 4 ½ hours
Before heading off to White Sands National Monument, take a morning soak in the Spence Hot Springs . These 95 degree pools will relax you for the 4 ½ hour drive ahead. Along the way, grab a bite at The Grill in Albuquerque—the Green Chile Cheeseburger is ridiculously delicious. After miles and miles, you will finally reach White Sands National Monument . Like no place on earth, these wave-like dunes of gleaming white sands extend for 275 square miles in all directions, creating the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. We highly, highly recommend spending a night on the dunes themselves and trekking the 2 miles to your campsite.
White Sands National Monument to Carlsbad Caverns National Park via US-82 E and US-285 S
182 miles, 3 ½ hours
Wake up to the beauty of the White Sands and treat yourself to a sunrise hike on the dunes before the park opens to regular visitors. Just keep the trail markers in sight, otherwise it’s highly likely you will get lost in a sea of white sand. After you head back to your car and attempt to rid yourself of sand, it’s off to Carlsbad Caverns, one of the world’s oldest cave systems. Tour this natural wonder, especially the ‘Big Cave’, ‘King’s Palace’ and the ‘Big Room’. Be sure to check out the Bat Flight program in the evening to witness hundreds of thousands of bats exit the caves in search of food. And there's a decent campsite near the caves to rest your head after an eventful day.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park to Santa Fe via US-285 N
292 miles, 4 ½ hours
Get an early start on the day and head up north on US-285 to Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico. Along the way, you will pass through the town of Roswell—what trip to NM would be sufficient without a stop at the most famous UFO crash site in our country? If you want to really geek out, the UFO Museum is worth checking out.
After a long drive into Santa Fe, head to The Shed for a delicious meal and an even better margarita. This beautiful town, with pueblo-style architecture and delicious green chile, is the state’s hotbed for creative art. Be sure to visit the museum named after Santa Fe’s most famous resident and ‘Mother of American modernism,’ the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The Black Canyon Campground is an ideal place to pitch a tent for the evening.
Santa Fe to Denver via I-25 N
392 miles, 6 hours
Ski Santa Fe is only 7 miles from the campground and has some great hiking/snowshoeing trails in the vicinity, particularly the Windsor Trail , a 10 mile point-to-point trail through aspen-filled forests. Post hike, stop by Santa Fe Baking Co for a breakfast burrito smothered in ‘Christmas Chile’ before venturing back on the road. Roughly 6 hours later, you are back in beautiful Denver, CO with a plethora of pictures, memories, and sand. Sand everywhere.