Forget Santa Fe. Continue on to Albuquerque, where you can while away three pleasurable days in the desert.
The State of New Mexico has coined the phrase “Land of Enchantment.” (Seriously. It’s printed on the state quarter.) But most Coloradans who travel south on I-25 don’t venture past Santa Fe to Albuquerque to find out what else might be enchanting about our neighbor to the south. Perhaps this is the result of a pervasive impression that Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, is a bit of a hardscrabble burg—the less vibrant, less charming, less pretty sister of Santa Fe. And while it may be true that Albuquerque proper is not as sophisticated and polished in ways that other urban centers are—it’s not San Francisco, after all—it’s the ideal hub for a long weekend’s worth of exploring. In recent years, Albuquerque—and its immediate surroundings—has evolved into a worthy destination; in fact, this fast-growing city has been racking up its share of accolades—Outside magazine recently ranked it sixth on its “America’s Best Cities” list, while Lonely Planet’s U.S. travel editor named it one of the country’s top five made-over towns. That makeover includes playing up assets like abundant outdoor recreation, compelling regional art, and unique American Indian cultures. So try a three-day getaway to Albuquerque—it may just change your mind about the rest of New Mexico.
➦11 a.m. On the way south from Denver, about 50 miles north of Albuquerque, take Exit 264 off I-25, turn west on NM-16, then turn right at NM-22. You’ll find yourself driving through the desert toward a massive—dare we say, miragelike—body of water. Cochiti Reservoir and Dam occupy tribally owned land within the Pueblo de Cochiti Reservation. At more than five miles long and 251 feet high, the dam is one of the largest earth-fill dams in the country and keeps the waters of the Rio Grande and Santa Fe rivers at bay. The lake itself, an oasis amongst the browns and sages of the landscape, serves recreational purposes in designated areas, including no-wake boating and swimming off a sandy beach. Bring some snacks and find a picnic spot—try to snag a shelter if the sun gets too hot—to watch the windsurfers crisscross the water.
➦ 1 p.m. Just 10 minutes down from Cochiti Reservoir and Dam is the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument on the Pajarito Plateau near the Jemez Mountains. The newly opened national recreation trails here—hike the three-mile out-and-back Slot Canyon Trail—are no Colorado fourteener treks, but the geological intricacies are mesmerizing. Reaching up to 6,760 feet in elevation, the “tent rocks” are towering, striated spires, or hoodoos, that were formed from volcanic ash six to seven million years ago. The hoodoos rise into the sky alongside one another, forming a narrow, winding canyon. The local Cochiti people hold this place to be sacred and use it as a spiritual respite. Visitors will find that in the hot New Mexico air it’s invigorating—and somehow soothing—to slip into the shaded hollow between the tent rocks and lean a cheek against the cool, volcanic rock walls.
➦ 3 p.m. If you’re in need of some refreshment as you zip back along I-25 south toward the city, stop at the Gruet Winery, which sits just off the highway north of Albuquerque. With the interstate rushing by, it’s not the most scenic locale, but the sparkling wine is worth a stop—and several bubbly sips. The Gruet family, who’d been producing Champagne in France since 1952, immigrated to New Mexico in the mid-1980s to plant their own “experimental” vineyards. Today, the winery makes nine different sparkling wines, plus a handful of still versions. For $14, you’ll get five “reserve” pours (try the 2003 Grande Reserve, an aromatic sparkling white) and a Riedel Gruet Winery glass to take home.
➦5 p.m. After one final stretch on I-25, you’ll arrive at your home base in the East Downtown district of Albuquerque. The moment you step into the foyer of the new, palacelike Hotel Parq Central on the edge of downtown, you may consider never leaving. Perhaps it’s the clean lines of the lobby that welcome you out of the relentless heat, or the perfectly landscaped gardens out back; or maybe it’s your room’s cloudlike bed. Built in 1924 as a hospital for Santa Fe railroad employees, the restored building reopened in 2010 as one of the city’s most upscale boutique hotels. As swanky as the renovations are, the grand old dame is even more impressive for the detailed preservation of its original charm, like the wall decoupaged with vintage medicine labels. Bonus: The secluded outdoor hot tub is the ideal spot to unwind after an early-evening trip to Albuquerque’s up-and-coming Nob Hill district for dinner—try the contemporary American bites at Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro, and sit at the “exhibition bar” alongside the open kitchen for a culinary show.
➦8 a.m. Few things are worth getting up early for when you’re on vacation, but paddling the renowned Rio Grande River is one of them. Book a kayak with Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures, an outfitter about 10 minutes north of Albuquerque, which opened in 2010. Although the company offers guided excursions between two and four hours long, opt for a self-guided tour of this easily navigable stretch of water for a leisurely, at-your-own-pace trip. Paddle under an azure sky and watch the distant mountains come into view as you round a bend in the river. The sun will warm your face as soft breezes ripple the water and rustle the old-growth cottonwoods that line the riverbank. You’ll only be a dozen miles outside the bustle of Albuquerque—but the river couldn’t feel more remote.
➦4 p.m. Albuquerque is flanked on the east by the Sandia Mountains; if you’re listening closely you might hear locals refer to the watermelon hues that flood these hills at sunset (“sandia” means watermelon in Spanish). And there’s no better way to watch them change colors than from high above the desert. The Sandia Peak Tramway sits in the foothills, about 15 miles outside Albuquerque. The two cable-suspended aerial cars (like giant gondolas) took two years and helicopter labor to construct and can carry up to 47 passengers each. The panoramic views are unparalleled year-round. The tram serves the Sandia Peak Ski Resort terrain from December through March, and hiking and biking trails galore in the summer. Look for the Crest Spur and South Crest trails (you’ll use a portion of La Luz Trail) for a moderate but doable loop with rewarding views and shaded relief in the woods. The tram’s 2.7-mile span is anchored by a restaurant at either end (get a discount on your $20 tram ticket with a dinner reservation). High Finance Restaurant & Tavern is the only restaurant at the top of Sandia Peak; savor a glass of Pinot Grigio while you take in the desert skyline and city lights below. Or, snag seats at the base of the peak on the patio at Sandiago’s Mexican Grill at the Tram. Order frozen margaritas to mirror the festive vibe and Latin music.
➦9 a.m. Just over an hour west of the city, the Acoma Pueblo is a traditional American Indian settlement built on a mesa atop 370-foot sandstone cliffs. Founded in A.D. 1100, the pueblo covers more than 400,000 acres and is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. The tribal members, whose dwellings don’t include electricity, sewer lines, or running water, are known for their exquisite pottery. Sign up for a living history tour ($20) of the ancient pueblo at the Sky City Cultural Center, and peruse the Haak’u Museum, which showcases the culture, customs, and artwork of the Acoma Pueblo Indians. Don’t depart without a piece of hand-coiled pottery for your living room.
➦3 p.m. On the way back to town, stop by charming Old Town Albuquerque. The adobe buildings, shaded porches, and hidden gardens look much like they did three centuries ago when settlers built the city. But today, you’ll find more than 150 galleries, eateries, and storefronts hidden within the quaint blocks and alleys. Schedule a history or ghost tour of Old Town, or just take a stroll and browse the shops and galleries in search of traditional American Indian turquoise jewelry. Then settle in for a bite at one of Old Town’s many cafes. Hit the Church Street Cafe, one of the oldest haciendas in Albuquerque, for a heaping plate of nachos delivered to a patio surrounded by traditional adobe walls.
➦8 p.m. Dig up your sassiest attire for an evening of cocktails, and then mosey to the rooftop of the Hotel Parq Central, otherwise known as the Apothecary Lounge. Order from the list of Prohibition-era cocktails and nibble on an olive plate while you gaze out at the desertscape beyond. From this vantage point, there’s really nowhere better to be.
IF YOU GO
Get there: Take I-25 south for about 450 miles directly into Albuquerque—about seven hours.
Stay: Hotel Parq Central, 1-888-796-7277, hotelparqcentral.com
Hike: Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, 505-761-8700, blm.gov
Taste: Gruet Winery, 505-821-0055, gruetwinery.com
Paddle: Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures, 1-877-453-5628, quietwaterspaddling.com
Ride: Sandia Peak Tramway, 505-856-7325, sandiapeak.com
Dine: Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro, 505-254-9462, zincabq.com; High Finance Restaurant & Tavern (505-243-9742) and Sandiago’s Mexican Grill at the Tram (505-856-6692), sandiapeakrestaurants.com; Church Street Cafe, 505-247-8522, churchstreetcafe.com
Browse: The shops and galleries in Old Town Albuquerque, albuquerqueoldtown.com
Learn: Acoma Pueblo Sky City (acomaskycity.org) and Sky City Cultural Center & Haak’u Museum (museum.acomaskycity.org), 505-552-7878
Imbibe: Apothecary Lounge, rooftop at the Hotel Parq Central, 1-888-796-7277, hotelparqcentral.com/apothecary-lounge