Northern New Mexico is a region proud of its diversity. You’ll find ranching communities, artists’ meccas, tourist resorts, pueblo and Hispanic villages, and western mining and railroad towns — in climates ranging from hot, dry desert to cold, snow-covered mountain.
Just as the communities are diverse, so too are the activities and attractions this vast area has to offer RVers.
Whether you’re looking to cool down or cash out; ride the rails or climb into caves; explore super-secret government mysteries or marvel at landscapes that inspire artistic expression, northern New Mexico has something for you. The area’s crown jewel, downtown Santa Fe, justifiably receives a lot of attention and visitors who come for its museums, art galleries, shopping, fine dining and cultural activities. But outside of this charming city are other gems to be explored and enjoyed.
Here are five attractions we discovered to satisfy a variety of travel passions:
For a peek at ancestral pueblo culture: Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos
When it comes to our national parks and monuments, natural scenic beauty is pretty much a given. But an hour north of Santa Fe off state Route 4, in a canyon next to a plateau that sits against the Jemez Mountains, you’ll find much more than trees, trails and squirrels.
Within the 33,727 acres of wilderness that is Bandelier National Monument, you’ll discover land some consider a spiritual place, an “outdoor museum” that preserves the culture of the ancestral pueblo people who inhabited it more than 800 years ago. Visitors may walk among and inside the thousands of ancestral pueblo archaeological sites that include cliff dwellings or “cavates” carved out of the canyon walls, kivas and petroglyphs. What makes this area even more special is that today’s descendants, who live nearby, have a spiritual and sacred connection to Bandelier, returning to share their traditions and artwork with park visitors.
In a national monument of this size, it’s possible to spend days here. If you are pressed for time, however, the park’s most visited trail, the Main Loop Trail, will give you a good look at the ladders, petroglyphs and ancestral pueblo dwellings on an easy 1.2-mile round-trip hike just outside the visitor center. On this trail visitors may walk through the distinctive circular pueblo of Tyuonyi. Beyond the trail is impressive Alcove House, which has a 140-foot ascent via four wooden ladders and many stone stairs. The pueblo people’s building and artistic skills are evident in the cavates visitors may climb into. Carved out of the rock walls, they vary in size, some holding one or two people and others large enough to fit 30 people, with fresco-like designs etched into the walls.
The visitor center includes a museum, theater and bookstore. The museum tells the story of the landscape and the people who inhabited it; and artwork, both ancestral and modern, is displayed. The theater features a 14-minute film, “This Place Knows Us.”
“One of the things that is very important is that it’s not just the park service telling the story, it’s the pueblo people telling the story,” says Rod Torrez, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Bandelier. “What you see in the exhibits and what you read is from the pueblo perspective.”
Beyond the spiritual and archaeological significance of Bandelier, established as a national monument in 1916, there is that natural beauty that national parks are famous for, as well as more than 70 miles of trails. “There is lots of wildlife to see here,” says Torrez. “We have herds of elk and mule deer and people often see coyotes. We even have a few black bears in the park.”
Another resident of the park is the Abert’s squirrel. The distinctive-looking animals have tufted ears, a gray body and a white underbelly. “They have become such a symbol for us that we now have a mascot called Bert the Abert’s squirrel,” Torrez says.
Bandelier operates two campgrounds, neither of which has hookups: Ponderosa Group Campground and Juniper Campground. The campgrounds have restrooms, a dump station and a filling station. There is an additional $12 fee per vehicle for entrance to the monument. Another option is to stay at an RV park outside Bandelier, such as Roadrunner RV Park (see Buffalo Thunder section).
Torrez, who says the park gets a lot of return visitors who “fall in love with Bandelier,” cites spring and fall as ideal times to come because of the milder weather. However, there are more activities at the monument and surrounding area, such as pueblo culture demonstrations, art festivals and evening amphitheater programs, in the summertime.
Torrez says Bandelier has work camping opportunities for RVers, ranging from campground hosts to visitor center staffers to tour leaders. He adds that Bandelier plans to expand its volunteer program. “We couldn’t operate without our volunteers,” he says. “They’re key to our survival.”
For fans of history and government intrigue: Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos
When driving into Los Alamos, a scenic mountain town 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe, you might spy a bumper sticker that says: “Los Alamos: More Than 2 Standard Deviations From the Mean.” The slogan is a humorous reference to the fact that Los Alamos is home to Los Alamos National Laboratory, a renowned institution that conducts a broad range of scientific and technological research. That laboratory, on the picturesque Pajarito Plateau in the Jemez Mountains, is best known for its 1940s work on the highly secretive Project Y, an important part of the Manhattan Project in which military officials and scientists came together to design and build the first atomic bomb.
Although the technical areas of Los Alamos National Laboratory are off-limits to the public, you can still get a fascinating look at its operations a mile away at Bradbury Science Museum in downtown Los Alamos. The free museum — operated by the lab’s Community Programs Office and named for its second director, Norris E. Bradbury — offers a window into the history of the institution, its national security mission and its science and technology work.
Bradbury is organized into three galleries — History, Defense and Research — encompassing 10,000 square feet. A nice start to your visit is to head into the History section and view one of the two 16-minute films shown throughout the day: “The Town That Never Was.”
Imagine a town that has no rich or poor people; no jails; no unemployed; no garages; no in-laws; no sidewalks or paved roads. It was a town whose residents were forbidden to use its name: “Los Alamos.” Even on birth certificates, a Santa Fe post office box was listed as place of birth. Mail was censored and the scientists used fictitious names when traveling off-site. The film explains how and why the Los Alamos site was chosen for the Manhattan Project, and the unique community it spawned.
There are more than 40 interactive exhibits and displays representing the lab’s research on life sciences, materials science, space, supercomputing, energy and the environment. Among the notable exhibits are full-scale models of the nuclear weapons that were code-named “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” Another popular exhibit showcases the lab’s Human Genome Project.
Free RV parking is available in nearby Central Avenue Square. From Santa Fe, take U.S. 84/285 north to Pojoaque then take the Route 502 exit to Los Alamos.
For artistic inspiration: Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tour, Ghost Ranch
The striking and serene landscapes of northern New Mexico spoke to Georgia O’Keeffe. She first visited the area in 1917 and it was love at first sight. The modern American artist (1887-1986) discovered Ghost Ranch — with its 6,200-foot-elevation vistas of gray hills, red and orange sandstone cliffs, and azure-blue skies — in 1934. So began a 50-year relationship with a place she made famous through her paintings.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in downtown Santa Fe is the most-visited art museum in the state, attracting more than 2.2 million guests since its opening in 1997. But to see and experience for yourself the landscapes that so moved O’Keeffe, steer your motorhome 65 miles north on U.S. 84 to Ghost Ranch, a 21,000-acre high desert retreat and educational center not affiliated with the museum. The ranch, which has been owned by the Presbyterian Church since Arthur Pack donated the property in 1955, hosts a 70-minute Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tour that will transport you back in time to see the scenes that O’Keeffe interpreted in her paintings.
Guests are driven by van to a restricted area of the ranch where O’Keeffe lived and painted many of her most famous landscapes. The van makes several stops and tour participants disembark to take in the scenery while a guide shares stories about the painter’s life and artwork and prints of O’Keeffe’s paintings are shown against the actual landscapes.
O’Keeffe took inspiration from the flowers, shells, animal bones, rocks, natural formations and rugged terrain of the ranch. Her favorite subjects, which guests will see on the tour, include Kitchen Mesa with its red and yellow cliffs; and flat-topped Pedernal Mountain, which she often called “my private mountain.”
Ghost Ranch operates a campground from mid-May to early October, and you don’t need to be a conference or retreat participant to stay there. There are a small number of full-hookup RV sites available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
For train and photography buffs: Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, Chama
The best “seat” in the house on a Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad journey isn’t a plush lounge chair in an air-conditioned first class railcar. To take in the surroundings and truly experience this historic artifact of the American West, you’ll need to stand in the train’s open-air observation car, camera firmly in hand, and let the wind whip your hair into a frenzy while you enjoy a passing feast for the eyes.
Tucked into a little-known corner of the southern Rocky Mountains, Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, or C&TSRR, is America’s highest and longest coal-fired, steam-operated narrow-gauge railroad. It runs out of the small north-central New Mexico town of Chama (100 miles north of Santa Fe) on one end and Antonito, Colo., on the other.
On this exhilarating daylong adventure, passengers travel 64 miles through mountain passes and canyons at elevations ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 feet. The train weaves in and out of New Mexico and Colorado 11 times, over a number of tall trestles and through a couple of tunnels, including one that is 366 feet long. You’ll work up an appetite with all this scenic beauty, so at about the halfway point, the train stops for lunch at a dining hall in Osier, Colo. There you’ll enjoy a hearty all-you-can-eat meal that is included in the train fare.
The history of Cumbres & Toltec, built in 1880 to haul precious metals and little changed since, encompasses many tall tales of the Wild West, and you’ll hear some of those stories from one of the railroad’s 35 volunteer docents.
Flora and fauna are abundant and diverse, among them fir and spruce trees, bald eagles, foxes, coyotes, elk, antelope, turkey vultures and wild horses.
Fares start at $75 for a half trip, from either Chama or Antonito to the lunch stop and back; and $91 for the full 6.5-hour trip. A bus returns passengers to their vehicles after the daylong excursion. Chama Depot has a separate parking area for RVs. Among the RV park options are Rio Chama RV Park, Little Creel Resort and Sky Mountain Resort RV Park. Amenities include pull-through sites, full hookups and Wi-Fi. Most of the Chama parks are open from May to October.
For fun and rejuvenation: Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino, Pojoaque
Buffalo Thunder, with its lively casino and soothing spa, is that rare place where you can both raise your excitement level and lower your stress level. Located 15 minutes north of Santa Fe on Highway 84/285, the 587-acre complex opened in August 2008 on tribal land and is a joint operation of the Pueblo of Pojoaque (pronounced “po-wock-ee” or “po-hock-ee”) and Hilton Hotels Corp.
A shuttle that stops at nearby Roadrunner RV Park, a Good Sam Park owned and run by the pueblo, takes RVers to the resort and casino. The park’s features include 60 pull-through spaces with full hookups and free Wi-Fi.
Walking through Buffalo Thunder is like visiting an art museum. You’ll see hundreds of pieces of unique art, sculptures and architecture. The hand-designed furnishings and artwork by local artists include items by the governor of the Pueblo of Pojoaque himself, George Rivera.
At Wo’ P’in (pronounced “wo peen”) Spa, which means Medicine Mountain, each treatment reflects the roots of the pueblo heritage and Pojoaque philosophy.
For golfers, Buffalo Thunder’s Towa Golf Course, designed by Hale Irwin and Bill Phillips, offers 27 holes of golf and has the only island green in the state. The course is open year-round and has picturesque views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Because these five northern New Mexico attractions are less than a few hours’ drive of one another, RVers can opt to either stay at more than one RV park or set up camp at one and use it as a base for your adventures. Either way, you will find that a visit to northern New Mexico is a pathway — or as the Pojoaque Pueblo people say in their traditional Tewa language, a “poeh” — that connects the past, present and future.
For more information
Bandelier National Monument
505-672-3861, ext. 517, www.nps.gov/band
Bradbury Science Museum
Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
Chama: 575-756-2151; Antonito, Colo.: 719-376-5483, www.cumbrestoltec.com
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
Little Creel Resort
Rio Chama RV Park
Roadrunner RV Park
Sky Mountain Resort RV Park