14 Ways to Find True New Mexico in Santa Fe County
You'll fine rustic buildings, state parks and ancient ruins on the Turquoise Trail.
Santa Fe is a world-class destination, but there are fascinating sights dotting the stunning landscape around it. Lose the crowds and enjoy spectacular outdoor activities in Santa Fe County. If you drive the 62-mile Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, you’ll discover our top 15 things to do in Santa Fe County along the way.
1. Galisteo Basin Preserve
Why go: Experience dry creek beds weaving through grasslands and rocky outcroppings at this nature preserve, which offers 30 miles of trails for hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
Tip: There’s intermittent cell phone service here. Be sure to bring water, sunscreen and snacks with you.
Why go: A former bustling stop on the Atchinson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, Lamy, pronounced “Lay- me,” is a quaint town that’s attracting artists, writers and food lovers these days.
Tip: Enjoy a drink and delicious food at Legal Tender Saloon & Eating House located in a historic building built in 1881. Relax on the patio and watch Amtrak’s Southwest Chief pull into the depot across the street twice a day.
Why go: Head to Cerrillos along the Turquoise Trail where you may recognize the rustic buildings and dusty streets from the sets of Longmire or Young Guns. Stroll to see the old opera house and shops like Cerrillos Station Mercantile, which sells turquoise that’s been mined in the area for more than 1,000 years.
Tip: Stop in the restored Black Bird Saloon for lunch. You’ll feel like you’re back in the Old West days when you eat the Black Jack Ketchum burger spiked with gun-powder rub.
4. Cerrillos Hills State Park
Why go: Explore the area’s mining history at Cerrillos Hills State Park located on the edge of town. Five miles of trails in Cerrillos Hills State Park offer you a glimpse of more than 1,000 years of area mining history, plus magnificent views of four mountain ranges. Some of the turquoise mined here ended in the Spanish crown jewels collection and later was used in Tiffany & Co. pieces. Hike trails to abandoned mines or take a guided horseback ride.
Tip: Locals love the park’s Star Parties, where a sky guide reveals galaxies, star clusters, planets and constellations in the sky above you. The park also hosts birding hikes and other fun events.
Why go: Gold fever broke out in the mid 1800s followed by a boom in coal mining, when Madrid became a “company town.” Pronounced “MAH-drid” this town is an art district filled with boutiques, galleries and cafes in historic buildings. This town is also along the Turquoise Trail.
Tip: Stop in Madrid Coal Town Museum for a history lesson. For an authentic taste of Madrid, head to the historic Mine Shaft Tavern and dig into a hearty green chile cheeseburger, a regional favorite. Chat up the locals at the impressively long wooden bar, and stay for the live music. Before leaving town, stock up at Shugarman’s Little Chocolate Shop on some fair trade, organic treats such green chile cashew, white chocolate lavender and Thai lemongrass bark.
6. El Rancho De Las Golondrinas
Why go: An easy detour from the Turquoise Trail, this town celebrates the state’s culture and heritage from the 17th and 18th centuries with costumed docents, historic buildings and annual festivals.
Tip: The October Harvest Festival offers cider-making with a traditional apple press and other hands-on activities that bring New Mexico’s unique history to life.
7. La Cienguilla Petroglyph Site
Why go: Journey deeper into the past at nearby La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site, where ancient Pueblo people carved fantastical images into rocks and boulders. No one can interpret with certainty the meaning of these images, but you’ll have fun trying as you view the many petroglyphs depicting birds, deer and Kokopelli, the infamous hump-back flute player.
Tip: Bring sturdy hiking shoes to access this mysterious, majestic site along the Turquoise Trail.
8. Ojo Santa Fe Spa Resort
Why go: Stay at Ojo Santa Fe Spa Resort, an award-winning retreat offering secluded outdoor pools with spring-fed waters. Indulge in wellness by getting a hot-stone massage followed by joining a yoga session.
Tip: Savor a meal at Blue Heron, which showcases seasonal ingredients grown on the resort’s farm. The Three Sisters Tamale is a delicious blend of squash, pinto bean ragout and New Mexico’s famous Chimayó red chile.
9. Bandelier National Monument
Why go: See ancient dwellings that are easily accessible by foot in an uncrowded environment.
Tip: Hike (and climb ladders) along the Tsankawi prehistoric site, a 1.5 mile walk on a mesa, viewing cavates (human-carved alcoves), petroglyphs and the ancient village of Tsankawi.
10. The Santa Fe Opera
Why go: One of the most spectacular settings on a hill overlooking Santa Fe, the Santa Fe Opera is an open-air theater with a roof over all seating areas.
Tip: Tailgate up to three hours before in the opera house’s parking lot with a pre-ordered picnic or make reservations for a preview dinner that is opera-themed on the rehearsal grounds’ open-air cantina. During dessert, a speaker will introduce the night’s opera.
11. Pecos National Historical Park
Why go: Wedged between the Sangre de Cristos and Glorieta mesa, this park preserves dwellings left behind from Pecos Pueblo, a regional powerhouse in the 1400s, and the later Spanish colonization. See one of the largest ancient pueblos in the Southwest, tour a legendary Hollywood destination and explore the remnants of an 18th-century Spanish mission church at this park 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe.
Join a ranger for one of several fun tours, including Ancestral Sites Tour, Civil War Walking Tour and the Forked Lightning Ranch House Caravan Tour, in which you explore the property once owned by Oscar-winning Greer Garson and husband Buddy Fogelson.
Tip: Hike the 1.25-mile round-trip Ancestral Sites Trail and pass the remains of the Pecos Pueblo and the mission church.
12. Glorieta Battlefield Trail
Why go: Part of Pecos National Historical Park, the Glorieta Battlefield Trail is accessed by a gate code that you’ll get when you stop at the park’s visitor center. It’s a 7.5 mile drive from the visitor center. The battle is sometimes referred to as the “Gettysburg of the West” since it is where the Union forces stifled Confederate soldiers’ plans to take control of the West.
Tip: Interpretive signs along the 2.25-mile loop trail tell the story of when the Union triumphed over Confederate forces during a three-day battle in 1862.
Why go: Built in 1816, the quaint adobe El Santuario de Chimayó attracts thousands of people each year to attend mass, tour the grounds and collect the miraculous holy dirt found inside the chapel. Apparently, numerous miracles have happened on site with people leaving crutches and other medical devices behind to be hung on the walls.
Tip: Head to longtime legendary Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante, which has been serving traditional New Mexican dishes for more than 50 years. Try the hand-rolled tamales, blue corn enchiladas or the legendary carne adovada. In 2016, it won the prestigious James Beard Foundation America’s Classic award.
14. Nambé Falls and Recreation Area
Why go: These spectacular falls are located in the Pueblo of Nambé, which is one of six Tewa-speaking pueblos of Northern New Mexico. You can hike at this site after you’ve paid the day use and/or camping fees. One trail is a quarter-of-a-mile and leads to the top of the falls whereas the other trail, also a quarter-of-a-mile leads to a beach area near the lowest pool.
Tip: Bring water as summer temperatures can get hot.
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