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The idea for this road trip grabbed hold of me when I first heard about the retro-cool-futuristic Spaceport America still under construction in the rather ominous sounding Jornado del Muerto desert of New Mexico.
Holy Smokes. We had to go.
These types of treasure hunting road warrior adventures are not for the faint of heart but sometimes you just gotta see as much as you can moving on from one killer stop to the next.
This airport for spaceships looks like a scene right out of the Jetsons and you totally expect flying robots to be operating this place. Plus the only thing that could make this crazy desert adventure more appealing was a cozy blanket of Christmastime snow.
After many intense moments of silently starring at our United States wall map I saw the skeleton of a two and a half week loop through New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.
Starting off with a dip in the hot springs of the Rio Grande River in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Then north to Taos, New Mexico just in time to see every adobe lined street and historic plaza illuminated with the golden glow of farolitos, luminarias and bonfires customary during the Christmas holiday season. Moving on with a northwest trajectory to the old west town of Durango, Colorado for a blow-your-mind scenic ride on the Durango Silverton steam train with reservations in the cocktail car, of course. Still heading further north to Moab, Utah for the ultimate winter off-road adventure at the 4×4 crusher that is Hell’s Revenge.
Finally our last stop takes us southwest to Zion National Park with a shit-ton of picturesque driving through what I will simply refer to as Utah National Park since I am quite certain that all of Utah has been declared a national park by now.
So besides the highlight reel I conjured up a whole slew of amazing south westerny sights to see on this whirlwind 4,500 mile driving adventure. This trip was definitely not going to be one of those leisurely jaunts where we stay in one location very long.
In fact, according to my plans we were moving every 3 days or so and trying something new everywhere we went. These types of treasure hunting road warrior adventures are not for the faint of heart but sometimes you just gotta see as much as you can moving on from one killer stop to the next.
Trips like this work really well for states where must-see attractions are especially far apart so our itinerary includes what we call our “Drive Days”. These DD’s note a large chunk of time will be spent driving to our new home base and to sweeten these long stretches we crammed in a sampling of local color with several foodie stops along the way.
We did so much fun shit on this trip that we absolutely knew this post would turn into one fat encyclopedia so we broke the show notes down into a simplified version of our itinerary. Listen to episode #009 Southwest Palooza to get the full story now.
Home Base #1: Riverbend Hot Springs: Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
We chose this two stop light town because of it’s proximity to Spaceport America and the bevy of hot springs resorts which provided an awesome yet inexpensive alternative to the boring chain motels dotting the area.The cozy Riverbend resort simply has the best views of the Rio Grande River. Reserve an interior courtyard room for easy access and great views. Grab a big pizza in town for leftovers. Reserve a starry filled night time romantic dip in any of the 3 private riverside hot springs.
Private space travel will be a reality in our lifetime and even if you can’t afford a quarter million dollar ticket to outer space, you can still take a tour of the facility and gawk in amazement at mankind’s accomplishments. Book your tour in advance. See Virgin Galactic and Space X in action. Sign up for Spaceport emails for test launch updates that may coincide with your visit.
Very Large Array:
Take a self guided walking tour of these giant radio telescopes. Time your visit at sunset for crazy sci-fi photo ops and maybe you’ll luck out and see these monsters all moving together in unison like we did. Check their website and call for details.
White Sands National Monument:
Get up at the butt crack of dawn to drive out to White Sands for incredible sunrise views. Check their website for seasonal hours. Stop at the visitor’s center for a passport stamp and buy a cheap sledding disk for a lil’ slip and sliding sand adventure in the glistening white dunes. Keep the disk for your visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado later in the week. Dress in layers and bring warm gloves for 20 degree weather in December.
Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge:
Check their website for fly in and fly out times, usually sunrise and sunset and plan your visit accordingly. Stop by the visitors center for a passport stamp and the 411 on where the birds are hanging out today.
This is a birders paradise so bring your tripod if you fancy yourself a wildlife photographer.
Brews & Chews:
Sparky’s Burgers in Hatch, New Mexico:
Stop by on your way to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico to see a town full of giants. Sparky’s is surrounded by huge robots, dinosaurs and Paul Bunyan types so you can not miss this place. Stop by on the weekends for some live music and chow down on a their famous hatch chile burger. Take a quick spin through town to check out where the other giants are kicking’ it and Instagram your amazing finds.
Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, New Mexico:
Highly rated as one of the top 20 burgers in the USA. As seen on Diners, Dives and Drive Ins, New York Times, GQ Magazine, Bobby Flay and Travel + Leisure. Try the Buckhorn Burger or the Frito Pie for some tasty artery clogging grub.
Passion Pie Cafe in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico:
Grab a tasty pizza from this cafe and keep the leftovers handy for early morning snacking when breakfast isn’t readily available.
Socorro Springs Brewing Company in Socorro Springs, New Mexico:
Hit this local brewery for a satisfying dinner after a day trip to Karl G. Jansky’s Very Large Array.
Pie-O-Neer Cafe in Pie Town USA:
Continue past the Very Large Array for an hour or so and grab yourself a scratch made pie from this tiny town. Call ahead for hours and let them know you’re coming to make sure there’s a pie saved for you. Plan to hit Pie Town before the VLA, so on your way back you can do the sunset thing and see the telescopes changing position for the outer space peep show.
Home Base #2: Taos Territorial House in Taos, New Mexico
Historic luxury vacation compound with 2 reasonably priced adobe casitas perfect for couples, the larger private adobe style Chicken Coop and the main house with multi-room accommodations. You can bring the whole gang or just rent what suits you. This place is AMAZING. Ample parking. 2 short blocks to the historic Taos Plaza.We opted for the amenity heavy Chicken Coop with a steam shower, kiva fireplace and patio enclosed jacuzzi because we’re suckers for a romantic evening dip in 20 degree weather.
Classical Gas Museum in Embudo, New Mexico:
NM Route 68 the High Road to Taos is a must-do scenic drive. It’s Free. It’s Awesome. Call ahead (505) 852-2995 so the coolest guy on earth, owner Johnnie Meier can be there to let you in. You don’t want to miss the damn fine stuff on the inside like we did. See a massive collection of old gas station memorabilia like petrol pumps, vintage oil signs, wooden indians and a ton of classic Americana. Too much good stuff to see. #CollectorsDream
Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway:
85 mile scenic loop circling New Mexico’s highest point, 13,161’ Wheeler Peak. Follow the byway route from EnchantedCircle.org which takes you through a crazy variety of scenery including mountains, valleys and national forests. Print out a paper copy of the route in case cell signal is iffy. Take a short detour to the Taos Gorge Bridge for a frighteningly high bridge experience. We utilized this byway when we took a day trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, 2 hours from Taos.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado:
Tallest dunes in North America look like snow capped mountains of Nestle Quick. An easy day trip from Taos, New Mexico. 2 hours each way. Take Enchanted Circle Byway. Bring a waxed sled or rent a board better suited to moist sand. Spotty layers of early winter snow made this sand moist and difficult to sled on. Nearest dunes are situated a quarter mile hike from the parking lot so wear layers you can remove as you heat up making your way to the sand boarding party. Check website for board rental info.
Saints & Sinners Vintage Liquor Store in Espanola, New Mexico:
Super awesome vintage sign. Totally worth the trip just to Instagram some legit #SignPorn.
Don’t forget to pick up a bottle or two of locally distilled spirits for a New Years Eve cocktail in Utah. They’ve got some draconian liquor laws in Utah so stock up here at S&S. Make this stop in Espanola on the way north to Taos from Truth or Consequences and pick up the scenic High Road to Taos on your way out of town.
Taos Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico:
Holy Mole’! 1000 + years old. One of the oldest continually inhabited communities in the US. Designated both Unesco World Heritage Site and national historic landmark. Christmas Eve procession of the Virgin Mary is a religious ceremony and reenactment showcasing the intermingling of Catholic and Native American beliefs. If you can time your travels to be in Taos for Christmas Eve you should not miss this cultural event.
No photos on feast days. Fees charged for cameras or smartphones brought onto tribal land any other time.
El Santuario De Chimayo in Chimayo, New Mexico:
Another awesome stop on the High Road to Taos scenic byway. Stop in for a tiny scoop of the healing dirt. You can buy an official dirt container and some cool candles from the gift shop and then go scoop your own miracle dirt. #URHealed
San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico:
One of the most photographed churches in the world showcased by the likes of Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. 18th century. Check it out on the way into town.
Earthship Biotecture Community in Tres Piedras, New Mexico:
Radically sustainable buildings made out of recycled bottles, tires and adobe. You can stop by and pay a few bucks for a self guided tour and check out the naturally climate controlled indoor gardens and see gray water recycling in action. We stopped by on our way out of Taos, on the way to Durango. Search for Earthship rentals on VRBO or AirBnB for an in-depth experience and to see if you’re cut out for unconventional housing.
Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in Taos, New Mexico:
Scary high bridge with crazy windy conditions and a nice little walkway to lure you to the edge. Street vendors hang out by the parking area so check out some local swag before testing your mettle and walking across the bridge. Make sure to keep your iPhone held tight or your camera secured with the lanyard to avoid a super expensive selfie. #NaturalBornKillers
Brews & Chews:
Cid’s Market in Taos, New Mexico:
Similar to Whole Foods. Stop by on your way into town and grab some groceries to tide you over on Christmas Day when lots of eateries are closed. We picked up some grass fed beef and planned for breakfast, dinner and restocked a few yummy snacks for the car.
Taos Mesa Brewing in El Prado, New Mexico:
Perfectly situated on a desert plateau in an airplane hanger. Cross the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge to find the brewery. Good beers and good grub. Board games and live bands so check their website for upcoming events. Open late on Christmas Eve when we stopped by but call for holiday hours.
Love Apple in Taos, New Mexico:
Housed in an old adobe church built in the 1800’s. Locally focused menu in a seriously romantic candle lit setting. Entering thru the kitchen is an exciting touch. Dramatic white wood and white table cloths, excellent food and a well curated wine list. Reservations required.
El Meze in Taos, New Mexico:
Fresh, regionally inspired rustic comfort food. Christmas holiday menu. Reservations required.
Orlando’s New Mexican Cafe in Taos, New Mexico:
Colorful southwestern atmosphere with amazing food to match. Tasty margaritas and super delish christmas style tamales. Too bad we tried them on the way out of town or we probably would have brunched it a few more times here.
Mineshaft Tavern in Madrid, New Mexico:
Small mountain artist community chock full of cool peeps and interesting shops. Cool old timey saloon with good burgers and beer selection. Great place to stop for lunch on our way to Durango. Attracts a motorcycle crowd as any good saloon should.
Holy Smokes Road Trippers! We totally underestimated how long it would take us to yap about this EPIC 4,500 mile road trip through the Southwest. So instead of skimping on the details we broke this baby up into two podcast episodes.
Part 1 of Southwest Palooza focuses on our madcap adventures in New Mexico and Part 2 finishes up with a whirl through Colorado and Utah.
Look for episode #10 – Southwest Palooza Part 2 to drop next week.
Subscribe to our email list to find out when each juicy new episode becomes available.
Lena & Kristina
What an amazing and comprehensive post! We’re been to a lot of these places- probably most of them except Pie-O-Neer Cafe in Pie Town. We almost got there after the Very Large Array, but alas, it was closed that day. Your photos are wonderful. Thanks for linking to our post about the Classical Gas Museum!
Wow! Thanks so much Santa Fe Travelers! Sadly, we didn’t make it to Pie-O-Neer town either. Another reason to go back. That…and Spaceport America! And thank YOU for a great post about one of our favorite spots, the Classical Gas Museum! Keep up the amazing work!