New Mexico road trip: 10 top experiences, from Albuquerque to White Sands

By: Mauri Elbel
June, 2021

Drifting weightlessly in a hot air balloon thousands of feet above Albuquerque, New Mexico we watch a golden sun peek out from behind the mountains. Sunlight gleams across the brisk, blue horizon, casting warmth on our chilly faces and illuminating the other hot air balloons that joined us in our early-morning liftoff and are now a rainbow of dots sprinkled across a shared sky.  

Flocks of birds fly beneath us: tiny fluttering perfect v-formations. Below the birds, the trees look like broccoli florets and the sprawling estate homes fringing the Rio Grande could be fancy LEGO bricks. Outside of the occasional roars from the burners blasting fire and heat up into our buoyant balloon, it’s peaceful and quiet. My pre-flight jitters were left behind on the ground where they belong –– our ride is as smooth as silk from liftoff to landing. 

Put a hot air balloon ride at the top of your bucket list. Writer Mauri Elbel booked a sunrise balloon ride with Rainbow Ryders. Photo by Travis Albrecht

I glance down at our son, sandwiched between my husband and I in a woven wicker basket with a handful of strangers, and I see the wonder and amazement swimming in his big blue eyes. We’ve chosen to celebrate his double-digit milestone in New Mexico with a rare (actually, the first-ever) one-on-one trip to enjoy with just him while his older brother and younger sister stayed behind with grandparents. Taking our kids on their own solo trip for their 10th birthday is a tradition we started with our oldest, but when our middle child turned 10 –– during a pandemic –– we racked our brains thinking of a new destination to explore together that would be both fun and safe. Teeming with majestic mountains, sandy deserts, history and culture and bucket-list adventures, road tripping through the Land of Enchantment proved to be better than any birthday party we could have planned back home. 

Below are 10 of our favorite New Mexico experiences we discovered along the stretch from Albuquerque to Las Cruces that were just as enjoyable for our 10-year-old as they were for his parents.  

1. Float above Albuquerque in a hot air balloon 

Soak in the scenic Rio Grande and southwest vistas from up in the air with a sunrise hot air balloon ride with Rainbow Ryders. Photo by Travis Albrecht

Go ahead and push your fears of heights and early wake-up calls aside (yes, check in time is really at 5:45 a.m.) and put a hot air balloon ride at the top of your New Mexico bucket list. Trust me, the breathtaking views you’ll capture over the Rio Grande Valley are well worth it. We booked this quintessential Albuquerque experience with Rainbow Ryders, which has been in operation for nearly four decades and launches sunrise flights every day of the year. They also have an impeccable safety record and employ some of the most experienced pilots in the industry, like Troy Bradley, who piloted our balloon and happens to be one of the most prolific record-setters in the history of the sport and has ballooned across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Everyone in our basket loved it, from our first-timer 10-year-old to nearly 85-year-old Marjorie Dale, who jumped at the chance to take her first hot air balloon ride when her children, who had recently moved to the area, mentioned the idea. “I thought it was wonderful!” exclaimed Dale after the ride. “It was really smooth.” Once you’re back on solid ground, everyone gathers for a celebratory toast and receives a flight certificate honoring the ascension. Broaden your ballooning knowledge at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum or attend the world-famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Oct. 2-10. 

Sawmill Market is New Mexico’s first artisan food hall and is quickly becoming the culinary pulse of Albuquerque. Photo by Travis Albrecht

2. Feast at Sawmill Market 

Imagine a playground for foodies and I’m fairly certain it would look something like Sawmill Market, New Mexico’s first artisan food hall. What is quickly becoming the culinary pulse of Albuquerque, Sawmill Market has 23 vendors and merchants and counting, including a tiny pasta shop with artisanal small-batch pastas (Tulipani Pasta), Vietnamese street food (Kulantro), lobster po-boys (Salty Catch), tacos and margaritas (Flora Taco-To-Go), loaded Belgian waffles (XO Waffle), craft chocolate (Eldora) and taiyaki (Neko Neko) soft serve, just to name a few. You could pretty much spend an entire day feasting on the burgeoning culinary offerings brimming from this food mecca that opened last year right before the pandemic. Today, it’s become a safe (social distancing and mask-wearing is practiced and sanitation stations are available throughout the space) and delicious way to eat your way through the world’s cuisines –– we had breakfast, lunch and dinner here during our Albuquerque stay and never came close to repeating the same meal. “Pretty much, if you want something, you can find it here,” says Brian Chesebro, Sawmill operations manager, who gave us a tour of the space. Located in the restored historic lumberyard warehouse in the Sawmill District, the revamped industrial-chic space is light-filled and airy, featuring floor-to-ceiling steel frame windows and linger-worthy outdoor spaces like the Yard, where you can’t help but grab a seat in the beautiful Albuquerque sunshine while listening to live music and sipping a local pint from Paxton’s Taproom.   

Sawmill Market has 23 vendors and merchants including Tulipani, a tiny pasta shop with artisanal small-batch, colorful pastas. Photo by Travis Albrecht

3. Stay at posh Hotel Chaco  

Just across the street from Sawmill Market, Hotel Chaco is an upscale home base for exploring the best of Albuquerque. The AAA Four-Diamond boutique hotel was at the top of our list of places to stay partly because my husband’s architectural firm, Gensler, was behind the design. Inspired by Chacoan architectural elements found at Chaco Canyon and in New Mexico’s pueblos, Hotel Chaco blends ultra-modern design, sustainable building strategies and ancient and local art and sculpture to create this intimate-meets-luxurious hotel tucked in the heart of Albuquerque’s Historic Old Town and Sawmill districts. We rested our heads in a sprawling king suite featuring two oversized balconies where we could gaze out on the breathtaking Sandia Mountains. After a hot afternoon hike, we cooled off in the palatial pool, and when we were too tired to venture out to dinner, we rode the elevator upstairs to dine al fresco at Level 5 Rooftop Restaurant, featuring creative cocktails and dishes (order the seared scallops with beet risotto) accompanied by stunning panoramas. 

Situated in the heart of Albuquerque in the Historic Old Town and the new urban Sawmill District, Hotel Chaco is a boutique hotel offering dining, plentiful art and world-class amenities like a fully-equipped fitness center and resort pool. Photo by Travis Albrecht

4. Hikes and history

Petroglyph National Monument offers four different hiking trails, three of which allow for petroglyph viewing including the Piedras Marcadas Canyon Trail where more than 400 petroglyphs can be found. Photo by Mauri Elbel

Chock-full of history and easy enough to trek with kids, our favorite Albuquerque hike was the 1.5-mile round trip Piedras Marcadas Canyon trail in Petroglyph National Monument, which protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America. Along the sandy trail, you can spot hundreds of petroglyphs made by the Ancestral Pueblo people between 400 and 700 years ago that are chipped and carved into the dark basalt boulders stacked along the path. It took a few minutes to spot the petroglyphs, but once we saw one, it’s easy to find them everywhere. There are 400 total on this trail alone.  

RELATED: Seminole Canyon’s world-class rock art is a lens to history 

Discover the historic heartbeat of Albuquerque by strolling through the narrow, quiet streets of Old Town, lined with historic adobe buildings, including the oldest building in the city, San Felipe de Neri Church, built in 1793. Centered around Old Town Plaza, you can wander through 10 peaceful blocks of historic Pueblo-Spanish style buildings that now house over 100 shops, restaurants and art galleries. Stop into The Candy Lady, an Old Town staple for more than 40 years to satisfy your sweet tooth, pursue vintage finds at Blue Moon Marketplace and duck into art galleries showcasing the work of New Mexican artists. When kids want to play, check out Tiguex Park, which has plenty of greenspace and a great obstacle-style playground.  

San Felipe de Neri Church, nestled in Albuquerque’s Old Town, was built in 1793 and is the oldest building in the city. Photo by Travis Albrecht

5. Family-friendly fun in The Q 

Bordering Old Town, check out the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (advanced ticket purchases are strongly recommended to ensure admittance). The ABQ BioPark is home to an aquarium, a botanic garden, fishing lakes at Tingley Beach and a 64-acre zoo that’s been around since 1927 and has animals spanning Asian elephants to Western Lowland gorillas (tickets must be reserved in advance, open Wednesday through Sunday). We purchased tickets to ride the popular Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, which ascends 2.7 miles to the 10,378-foot crest of the Sandia Mountains, but we didn’t want to spend nearly two hours waiting in line, so we hiked around the trails at the base instead. If you go, consider an off-peak weekday (we mistakenly went on a Saturday afternoon) or book a reservation at Ten 3 restaurant at the top, which allows you to bypass the long line and get on the next tram.   

White Sands National Park is an otherworldly spot tucked away in the Tularosa Basin in southern New Mexico. Photo by Mauri Elbel

6. Sand-sled at White Sands National Park 

We spent the morning of our son’s 10th birthday sand-sledding at one of the most magical places we’ve ever visited: White Sands National Park. Like us, you’ve probably heard about the awe-inspiring beauty of White Sands National Park, but until you set your own eyes on these endless white wave-like dunes of gypsum sand –– a complete anomaly in the vast southern New Mexico desert –– you really can’t comprehend it. One of the world’s most incredible natural wonders, these dazzling dunes look like snow-blanketed slopes that shimmer like diamonds in the sunshine and stretch as far as the eye can see beneath an impossibly blue sky. This otherworldly oasis tucked in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin in the Chihuahuan Desert is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world, covering 275 square miles and providing ample room for socially distanced exploration. Sand-sledding down the powdery slopes is a surreal experience and repeat climbs back to the top are better than any cardio workout you could buy at a gym. You’ll want to carve out several hours here to marvel at the endless heaps of pillowy sand, which feels like sunbaked heaven between your toes. Our sports-loving son also toted along his Nerf football and had a blast jumping and diving for the ball in the soft sand in between all of the sand-sledding action. You don’t need a reservation but go early because the sand gets hot –– we arrived by 9 a.m. and left around 1 p.m. when the wind was starting to pick up, reducing visibility and blowing sand into our eyes (bring sunglasses to help with the glare and the sand). Because our son is in fourth grade, we got into the park for free –– all fourth grade students and their families are eligible for a free annual pass to get access to hundreds of parks, lands and waters through the Every Kid Outdoors program. We purchased plastic snow saucers to sled on from the park’s gift shop along with wax to help them slide (saucers cost $20 and you get a $4 refund if you choose to return them when you leave, or, when available, used saucers can be purchased for $15). Be sure to bring along plenty of water and sunscreen –– you’ll need more than you think of both.  

Sledding down the dazzling white sand dunes at White Sands National Park. Photo by Mauri Elbel

RELATED: Dreaming of the RV Life? Lessons learned from a 10-day national park road trip 

7. Experience Ruidoso’s charms 

We rolled into Ruidoso the day before we drove to White Sands, and although we spent less than 24 hours here, we were able to experience a few of its many charms. First, we loved the comfortable, clean and quirky hotel we stayed at called the Sitzmark Chalet Inn, which has been a town staple since 1959. The Sitzmark (the German term for the depression left in the snow by a skier when falling backwards) is riddled with character and charms every bit as funky as its name –– there’s a whiskey barrel steam sauna, benches crafted from Rossignol skis and a giant smiling sasquatch to greet you upon arrival. Staying at the New Mexico Safe Certified chalet is a steal, with rates between $57-$77 per night, and complimentary homemade muffins and local coffee for breakfast. We rested our heads in an oversized ski shop-turned-double queen suite perched above the office, featuring a spacious sitting area, kitchenette and a cherry red mid-century electric fireplace. Just up the road, we sipped local craft beers on Tall Pines Beer and Wine Garden’s inviting open-air patio, and, because it was an off-season Sunday evening and most restaurants were either closed or operating take-away only due to COVID, we feasted on delicious Mexican specialties from Garcia’s Cafe from the comfort of our suite.  

Relax in the Sizmark’s whiskey barrel steam sauna after a long day. Photo by Mauri Elbel

8. Go off-roading through Ruidoso 

We couldn’t leave Ruidoso without soaking in the stunning scenery and ample thrills on offer. We booked a 2-hour GPS self-guided off-roading adventure with Backcountry Attitudes, exploring Ruidoso’s wild and rugged mountain terrain in an OHV (off-highway vehicle). Off-roading through Ruidoso was undoubtedly a trip highlight for our son, whose giant smile never faded beneath his protective helmet as we cruised, climbed and bumped along off-the-beaten-path trails weaving through tall pine forests and along craggy mountain ridges.  

Go off the beaten path with Backcountry Attitudes, which offers adventure tours through Ruidoso’s wilderness and mountain terrain. Photo by Travis Albrecht

9. Ride your way to Las Cruces 

While in New Mexico, we wanted to go horseback riding and found several options in the Las Cruces area, ranging from trail riding through White Sands National Park to sunset rides to a nearby winery. I was drawn to Therapeutic Horseback Riding and Evaluation Ranch, a 501c3 nonprofit with a mission of helping people with disabilities through equine therapy that provides riding lessons for children with special needs and offers trail rides to everyone for only $20 in order to make them more accessible. However, on the extremely gusty afternoon we visited The Ranch (windy season lasts from mid-February to mid-May), the horses –– Chance, Dream, Abby and Ivy –– weren’t obliging our request for a trail ride. Instead, we got to pet the pretty mares and stallion and ride them around the property for a bit before heading to Las Cruces.  

Petting a horse at The Ranch, a nonprofit with a goal of providing riding lessons for children with special needs. Photo by Mauri Elbel

10. Last stop: Las Cruces 

We spent the last night of our trip in Las Cruces, which sits at the foothills of the Organ Mountains and is less than an hour from White Sands National Park. We stayed at Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, a 200-plus-room hotel boasting a palatial pool and on-site restaurant and bar––it also happens to be Virgin Galactic’s official preferred resort in Doña Ana County to service the astronauts and their families who will be traveling to Spaceport America. A handful of breweries have recently planted roots in town, so we headed to Truth or Consequences Brewing, which hails from (you guessed it) Truth or Consequences, N.M., and operates a beer bar in town serving up craft brews like the hazy Mothership IPA and the lighter Cosmic Blonde. For dinner we feasted on authentic plates of enchiladas and sizzling fajitas at La Posta de Mesilla, nestled on the plaza in Historic Old Mesilla, which has been serving its famous Mexican food, steaks and margaritas since 1939. We sipped a couple of the award-winning margaritas –– more than 100 tequilas and mezcal are housed in its adobe cantina and tequileria –– and dined in the festive courtyard adorned with vibrant flowers. While waiting for a table or on your way out, there are plenty of fish and feathered friends to entertain you inside the restaurant’s impressive aviary, including an array of colorful tropical birds and talking parrots as well as an aquarium that houses Pepe, the (almost) toothless piranha.  

Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces is a unique New Mexico hotel with an ambiance reflective of Spanish and Mexican Colonial history and tradition. Photo courtesy of Heritage Hotels & Resorts.

 

If You Go

Getting there:

Getting there: If you’re up for an out-of-state road trip, New Mexico is a great option. It’s an 11-hour drive from Austin to Albuquerque, but from Las Cruces back home, the drive is only 9 hours. Albuquerque to Ruidoso is a 3-hour drive. White Sands National Park is less than an hour and a half from Ruidoso and under an hour from Las Cruces. To cut down on driving time, we flew into Albuquerque to begin our New Mexico road trip, and we booked flights back from El Paso, which is only an hour from Las Cruces. 

Stay:

Hotel Chaco in Albuquerque, www.hotelchaco.com, Sitzmark Chalet Inn in Ruidoso, www.sitzmarkchaletinn.com, and Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, www.hotelencanto.com, are all wonderful hotels that are NM Safe Certified and trained in COVID-Safe practices to ensure everyone remains safe as the state reopens for business and travel. 

Do:

From hot air ballooning in Albuquerque to off-roading in Ruidoso to sledding down gypsum sand dunes in White Sands National Park, you won’t fall short of bucket-list-worthy things to do in New Mexico. Depending on where and when you go, New Mexico is home to diverse adventures spanning hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, river paddling and snow skiing, and the state brims with history, art and culture year-round. 

Eat & Drink:

Whatever you are craving, you will find it at Sawmill Market, where some of Albuquerque’s best culinary masterminds, restaurants, world cuisines and craft beverages converge in a chic, colorful industrial space. Learn more at www.sawmillmarket.com 

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