You can never really know what to expect on a road trip, especially to a place you’ve never been with a person you haven't spent much time with alone. I can proudly boast that, over the long Martin Luther King holiday weekend, I successfully traveled across northern New Mexico with my new, dear friend Natalie.
Together, we clocked over 800 miles in the car traveling between campsites, hiking trails, exploring art galleries, tasting restaurants, and anything else we wanted in Taos, Santa Fe, and many small towns in between.
You can see the video I put together of the highlights from our trip on my YouTube channel here!
Our trip started with a late afternoon departure from Denver to head south. It took us roughly 6 ½ hours to cross the Rockies into “the land of enchantment”. The ride down kick-started our eventful weekend with blinding snow and whipping winds to traverse. We managed to fill the car with laughter, stories, and lots of snacks between the scary moments.
Around 10 p.m., we approached our site for the night. The entire weekend we planned to car camp in the back of my Jeep Cherokee. We had backup plans in case car camping didn’t work out, but we successfully camped at safe and free places each night.
Our first campsite was my favorite. We chose to sleep at the trailhead of El Salto Waterfall just outside of Taos so we could hike there the next morning. This area was our greatest discovery of the entire weekend.
We had no idea what we had driven through during the night, so when we woke up on Saturday morning, we were baffled by our view through the car’s windows. We were surrounded by towering trees at the top of a mountain, looking down on the nearest town, and enclosed in feet of snow. It was magical, and this was just the trailhead!
After peeling ourselves out of our warm and cozy cocoon-like sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows, we got ready to hit the trail. When we started out, we were a little surprised to find out that we were on private property and needed to call and pay for permits. This only set us back about 5 minutes, and before we knew it, we were trekking through the freshly fallen snow.
We followed the trail along the banks of a small, clear creek which was frozen over in layers. The frozen creek was a perfect guide and emitted a beautifully serene sound to listen to between the sounds of fresh snow crunching beneath us.
The creek cuts through a massive canyon that we slowly ascended into. Since we started early in the morning, we barely had any sunlight, but as we kept trekking, we found incredible views of the sunrise around every new rock and boulder we came upon.
We spent hours just wandering, spinning around, inspecting, and marveling at this winter wonderland but never made it to the waterfall. When we realized the time and the remaining distance to the top, we chose to turn around. We enjoyed the views just as much, if not more, on the way back down now that everything had been drenched in sunlight.
(Here is our hike recording on AllTrails: https://www.alltrails.com/explore/recording/el-salto-waterfall-trail--67 )
We were both in amazement of what we had just experienced and neither of us were expecting such an incredible start to our day. When we got to the car, we managed to pull ourselves together and start driving into Taos.
On the way, we made a fantastic pit stop in the town of Arroyo Seco. This town was so quaint that we hadn't even noticed it while passing through the night before, but it was impossible to pass in the daylight.
The artsy town gave us the best introduction to the culture of New Mexico with art shops full of oil painting, hand woven clothing, and Native American pottery.
We wandered into every store on the small town’s main street (there were only about five) then settled in at The Wake and Take Cafe for a drink and to plan the next steps of our trip.
We decided to head toward Taos Pueblo on our casual journey into town. Sadly, their winter hours had them closing within a few minutes of our arrival, so we headed on to our next stop, The Hanuman Temple.
Again, we had no idea what to expect from the Hanuman Temple. We had seen it recommended on a Facebook page and decided to check it out. We were blown away by what we discovered. Not only was this temple to the Indian Saint Neem Karoli Baba impressive in size and decoration, I was blown away by my weird connections to its creator.
Earlier in the day as we were wandering through the woods, I shared one of my favorite quotes about people and nature from a guru named Ram Dass. It turns out that this temple was the fruition of his 40-year project to create a place for people to worship in America.
“When you go into the woods and you look at trees, you see all of these different trees, and some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever, and you look at the tree, and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned out that way, and you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.
The minute you get near humans, you lose that, and you are constantly saying, “You are too this,” or, “I am too this.” That judgement mind comes in, and so I practice turning people into trees which means appreciating them just the way they are.”
We walked between the temple rooms through the impeccable grounds absorbing the peaceful energy radiating through the space. We sat in one of the smaller rooms and read all about the hindu gods before reluctantly retreating back to our car.
It gave us both a newly found gratitude for our trip and re-energized us for the exploring to come.
We nearly made it into Taos when we stopped at a roadside shop with a large “TAOS” made of metalwork letters. This one stop turned into a marvelous hour-long exploration of a vast collection of nick-nacks, artwork, pottery, and ironworks. The collections filled a warehouse with a dozen rooms.
After wandering around the rooms, we continued our drive and arrived in the lovely town of Taos. It was around 5 p.m. when we parked the car, and the street lights were just starting to flicker on. The adorable town felt like it was reawakening as the shops were starting to close and the restaurants and bars were starting to open up.
We took advantage of the time we did have in the shops and wandered into incredible spaces like Chocolate and Cashmere to get some decadent dark chocolate squares and Earth and Spirit Gallery to see 3-D painted art.
We also checked out a few bookstores, chocolate coffee bars, and a small restaurant before deciding to get cocktails and listen to live music at the Taos Inn.
We enjoyed traditional Mexican fry bread with a margarita in the hotel lobby before the band started. Before we knew it, there were hoards of people packing onto the dance floor. It was definitely the hot spot to be that Saturday night. We didn’t stay long after the band started, because we still had one more stop to make for a relaxing soak in a hot spring.
Ojo Caliente was almost an hour drive from Taos, but it was worth every minute and every penny. Soaking in those hot pools, under the twinkling starry night, was a perfect way to end the day we’d had. We arrived around 7 p.m. and had until 10 p.m to try all of the pools, steam rooms, and saunas.
Some of the pools are said to have healing minerals that relieve difficulties like digestion issues, arthritis, stomach ulcers, and some immune issues. For us, the hot waters helped relieve the tightness in our muscles from camping and hiking and relaxed us ahead of another night of camping!
You can read more about the waters in my separate review post - ojo-caliente-spa-and-hot-springs.html
After the relaxing, warm spa treatments, we journeyed back into the wilderness and found a place to camp inside the Santa Fe National Forest.
We woke up the next morning refreshed, chilly, and excited to see what the day had in store for us! We quickly moved from the back to the front of the car and made an early morning drive to the Tent Rocks our first destination.
We arrived at the Kasha-Katuwe Ten Rocks National Monument around 9 a.m. and beat all of the traffic and crowds into the park. (John and I had attempted to visit the park after the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Festival, but we were surprised by over a 2 hour wait at the entrance.)
This time, Natalie and I had enough room in the parking lot to cook some breakfast and take our time packing our cameras and supplies. If you want to see and read more about this adventure you can check out my other blog post, just about the Tent Rocks - here!
Just like we’d been the day before, we were absolutely stunned by what we wandered into. As soon as we started on the trail, the views of the nearby cliffs and their unique tent-shaped formations were everywhere we could see as we walked toward them.
The primary trail, Cave Loop, is only 1.2 miles long, and unfortunately the mile-long Slot Canyon Trail was closed due to snow and ice. The open loop took us near the canyon walls and down into the hoodoo formations.
The formations were so enormous that we felt like we had been shrunk and were exploring around ant hills or termite mounds. Walking among the tent rocks was an even better experience, because the sun was peeping over the nearby mountains, casting strange shadows, and shining rays into spectacular places.
After a few hours of exploring, we hopped back in the car to head to the stop we were most excited about, Meow Wolf.
The famous, interactive art installation in Santa Fe was #1 on our road trip list of places to visit, and after the morning we had just had among the tent rocks, we were even more pumped for this exhibit.
We allotted half of our day to this 20,000 square foot exhibit hall and ended up spending 5 hours playing like children through the dozens of wonderful rooms. Over 100 artists worked together to create a non-linear story that intertwines reality and imagination.
We walked through spaceships and climbed through household appliances while touching, dancing, and feeling everything we could. There were so many people inside and so many things to look at, we suffered from sensory overload on our first walkthrough.
You can learn more about the Multiverse, the House of Eternal Return, and Meow Wolf in my other experience post detailed, here!
We took a relaxing break after our first go around and grabbed cocktails from the bar before heading back in for a second time.
Once we felt like we had seen it all, we finally left the fantasy world and headed back into reality.
You can see my own video recap here: https://youtu.be/TCsvTaCzcnU
When we got to the car, we realized how hungry all of that running around had made us. We went to Rowley Farmhouse Ales for a hearty farm to table dinner. We stuffed our faces with breakfast for dinner and a burger, and it took all of our might to resist the bread pudding dessert. We held off knowing that we still had to search for that night’s campsite.
We drove back into the Santa Fe National Forest at a different entrance than before looking for a place to park and rest our heads. After a few foiled attempts, we found an empty trailhead parking lot and crawled into the back. We were still on cloud nine from the day we had had at Meow Wolf.
We woke up the next morning with our car covered in a crisp layer of frost and snow. We pulled ourselves back up to the front of the car to defrost and eventually hit the road home. Since it was still early in the morning, we decided to make a few pit stops on our way back to Denver.
The first one we chose was El Santuario de Chimayó.
We again didn't really know what to expect, other than a church. When we finally got to the sanctuary and learned the history of the facility, we were amazed. We had no idea we would be visiting a holy pilgrimage site.
The inside of the sanctuary holds not only a beautifully crafted altar, but holy dirt believed to have healing powers.
The story tells that, back in the 1800’s, a giant crucifix of a black Jesus was found buried in the dirt on this site. The black Jesus was famously from Guatemala and was believed to have been buried with one of the first priests in the Chimayo region.
Interestingly, the nearby waterfalls and streams had been considered healing and sacred to the native peoples even before Christian settlers arrived.
Here is a great expansion on the story by Atlas Obscura:
Now, the church attracts thousands of visitors every year to touch and/or taste the holy dirt for its power, but we only viewed from the outside. When we ended up at the gift shop, we walked out and back to our car ready for our next stop for food.
We drove back into Taos and decided we wanted to walk around in the daylight. We wandered in and out of a few places but ultimately decided that we wanted food. While walking around, we passed a tiny shack-sized building we had seen on Yelp. Its hole-in-the-wall style drew us in.
La Cueva Cafe can probably only fit a dozen or so customers and was one of the smallest restaurants I’ve seen. The intimacy of the restaurant added to the experience of the great New Mexican meal. The workers were all friendly, and it was nice to hear conversations and laughter around us as we scarfed down our tacos, enchiladas, and tamales.
We thought the food might make us sleepy during the rest of the ride, so we made one more stop and stretched our legs as we walked across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.
As we looked over the incredible rocky canyon below us, we were figuratively blown away by the contrasting scene of the far off mountains and the rushing river below. We were almost literally blown away by the wind too. It only makes sense that the last stop of our trip would blow us away just the way we had been blown away by the entire weekend.
We were so sad to have to end our trip, but we were so happy to look back on all that we had done. The entire trip home was spent planning our next trip back. We already can't wait to come back!
Talkin' 'bout Tacos:
I'm Taylor, aka Tacos! I am sharing my journeys and experiences from across the world hoping to inspire travel and adventure in all who read.