12 Must-Do Experiences in New Mexico

New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment, rich in landscape and topography. Must-do experiences include exploring New Mexico’s mysterious Sangre de Cristo mountains, deep canyons, mesas, and river gorges; a stunning nature drive; a mountain hike; a night at the opera; and deep immersion into the rich New Mexico culture, arts, and history.

Socorro, NM 87825, USA
Featured in the 1997 Jodie Foster film, Contact (based on the Carl Sagan book), the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) is an impressive, stunning radio astronomy observatory located on the Plains of San Agustin. The massive dishes are arranged in rotating patterns and form the largest radio telescope in the world looking for complex solar system life. Visitors are allowed to walk among the array on a self-guided tour.
Entrance Rd
I’m not sure at what age humans develop the skill to stand still and appreciate scenery, but based on a scientific survey of kids who live in my house, it’s not age seven. (On a trip to the Canadian Rockies, as my wife and I snapped photos of the relentlessly picturesque mountains, my son, Luke, investigated how quickly he could break his toy helicopter.) Luke expects Mother Nature to be his playmate. At Bandelier National Monument, about an hour’s drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico, she is. The visitor center offers kids a booklet of activities that, when completed, earn them a Junior Ranger patch. (You could call it a bribe. We prefer the term incentive.) The scavenger hunt sent us off on the Main Loop Trail in search of birds, trees, and bugs, as well as the feature that sets Bandelier apart and makes it perfect for kids: cave dwellings. Ladders of salvaged wood lead to rooms that the Pueblo people carved out of the cliffs here over 800 years ago. “I don’t want to go up, Daddy,” Luke said. “It’s too steep.” “You’ve got this, buddy,” I said. “Just take it slow.” There were no lines of impatient parents pushing their children to race up the ladder. (We saw no more than 20 people on the trail.) Luke could climb the rungs at his own pace. He paused in triumph at the top, then set off to wander the caves. While Mom and Dad squatted—“Watch out for your bald head, Daddy”—Luke could explore without even hunching. After about 45 minutes, we were walking back toward the visitor center. We crossed a nearly dry creek by hopping hand in hand from one downed log to another and were back in time for lunch, before hunger, fatigue, or boredom could set in. It was a parent’s—and child’s—dream hike. This appeared in the August/September 2014 issue.
105 W Palace Ave, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA
The entire north side of Santa Fe’s downtown plaza is taken up by the 1610 Palace of the Governors, the oldest continually occupied public building in the United States. Its front adobe facade is completely shaded, and in this “portal,” the Native American Vendors Program has been operating for over six decades. A daily lottery ensures a rotating selection of artisans from the various pueblos throughout New Mexico. Yes, there might be some “finer” pieces available in the chic boutiques elsewhere in Santa Fe, but here, in the shade of a four-century-old adobe building, you can meet the artists and even haggle a bit. Be respectful, though—these are not cheap trinkets made in a sweatshop abroad: The crafts and the jewelry are usually made by the person with whom you’ll be conversing. (An interesting side note: The Palace was taken over in 1680 and occupied by Native Americans during the Pueblo Revolt until 1692, when the Spaniards returned. This is the only government seat in the U.S. to have ever been taken over by Native Americans. It then served as the residence of the governor during the Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. territorial regimes, until 1907. In 1912, New Mexico became a U.S. state. Today, the Palace serves as a museum.)
301 Opera Dr, Santa Fe, NM 87506, USA
This brilliant, partially covered amphitheater offers views not only of the stage but of the stunning Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountain ranges in the distance. The world-renowned opera company presents five works in repertory each summer. Book well in advance, and don’t miss the elegant tailgating in the parking lot (some participants go as far as white table linens and sparkling wine) before the performance. A picnic can be ordered (at least 48 hours in advance) for pick-up two hours before performances, or you can cobble together your own basket of goodies from local restaurants. Tablecloths not included.
Taos Pueblo, NM, USA
One of the iconic sights of the American Southwest, Taos Pueblo has been inhabited for at least a thousand years. The adobe architecture seems to spring, organic, from the earth at the foot of Taos Mountain. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, but a living community, not a museum. San Geronimo church, at the center of the pueblo, is a relative newcomer here--built in the mid-19th century to replace the Spanish mission that was destroyed in 1847, when U.S. troops bombarded it as part of a campaign to quell a rebellion. Its history has been turbulent, but the setting is beautiful, and Taos Pueblo welcomes respectful visitors today. Before exploring on your own, take the time to listen to one of its college-student docents on a brief guided walk. They’ll be telling you about their families...
121 Don Gaspar Ave, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA
The Chez Panisse of Santa Fe has been helmed by the same Berkeley-bred chef-owner since the 1970s. While the restaurant isn’t for New Mexican food purists, the local dishes are solid and range from classic renditions to enchiladas gussied up with griddled organic tofu, spinach, and zucchini.
1607 Paseo De Peralta #10, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA
A new Santa Fe tradition has emerged, the Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown, held at the Farmers Market Pavilion. In 2014, the Second Street Brewery burger titled Original Alien Burger reigned topped with a blue corn chile relleno with pepper jack cheese, green chile, guacamole, bacon, fried red onion and chipotle mayonnaise. Regardless of where you eat in New Mexico, each chef has a riff on the green chile burger. For more info visit: http://santafe.org/Fun_Food_Event/
21120 US-84, Abiquiu, NM 87510, USA
Located 60 miles from Santa Fe, artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio in Abiquiu is magnificently available just the way she left it. You can almost channel her ghost. Anybody with appreciation for amazing restoration, architecture, gardening, mid-century modern (Florence Knoll, Alexander Gerard), taxidermy, Japanese aesthetic, and landscape will feel at home instantly. Find a few spots that inspired such oil paintings as My Last Door (1952/54). Good to Know: Tours require advance reservations, so plan accordingly, and very sadly, no cameras are allowed.
1100 Old Taos Highway
Driving is best described as poetic on this 56-mile day trip from Santa Fe to Taos. The High Road takes you through El Santuario, in the Spanish village of Chimayo — a small adobe chapel where people gather for mass and scoop up “Holy Dirt” with magic healing properties. Weave and wind through other small towns like Córdova (known for its woodcarving), Truchas (the summit town), Las Trampas, and Peñasco. Out your window, take in the dramatic peaks, valleys, and vistas. Take the “Low Road” back to Santa Fe with equally impressive sights.
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