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Whirlwind tour of New Mexico proves enchanting

By JESSICA KWONG | The Orange County Register | Published: March 2, 2017

 Having traveled through much of the American Southwest, from the golden California coast to the red deserts and majestic forests of Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, I had one state left to see.

But when I proposed a tour of New Mexico, all my California friends asked, "What's in New Mexico?" I wasn't exactly sure myself, but I'd heard of the white sands and adobes and I was able to convince my dad, who was not too thrilled at first, except for enticingly cheap flights.

I had him at "less than $100 flights round trip," LAX and Albuquerque. Allegiant Air offers fares as low $35 each way -- if you're OK with random seat assignments and just one small personal item to carry on. You leave Thursday, late afternoon, and return Sunday night.

My proposed itinerary was to spend the first day in the south at White Sands National Monument and see anything else along the way. The second day would be split between Santa Fe and Taos, and our final day would be between Taos and Albuquerque.

Soon, after doing his own research, my dad added a handful of other places to explore.

When we landed in Albuquerque International Sunport, we were greeted by a mostly empty but beautifully adorned, turquoise and tan building. Ground transport was easy -- free shuttles to the rental car area, with audio welcoming us to the "Land of Enchantment."

We drove south straight to our Comfort Inn & Suites at a town with the most unusual name I'd heard of. I-25 was flawlessly smooth compared with the highways Southern Californians are used to, the sky vast and full of stars.

At the crack of dawn, we had a continental breakfast and took pictures at the Truth or Consequences sign before hitting the road. The town with a population of about 6,500 is known for its spas, but with our lightning itinerary, we had no time for that.

After an hour and 45 minutes south on I-25 and east on U.S. Route 70, we reached White Sands. As we drove through the gates of the national monument, the landscape around us faded from generic brown to white so bright it looked like snow.

There were dunes of snowy sand as far as the eye could see -- equally photogenic, minus the ice cold. On a longer trip, I would definitely have gone sledding.

Time was of the essence, though, and we had a three-hour drive ahead so we hit U.S. Route 54 and continued west on U.S. Route 380 past the small towns of San Antonio and Socorro, then west on U.S. Route 60 to New Mexico State Road 52 south to the Very Large Array, a must for my dad, who's an astronomy enthusiast.

Driving up the dirt road, with a fleeting GPS signal, we trusted our paper maps and weren't sure we were going in the right direction until we saw several very large radio antennas in the distance. The thought of them was spooky -- 27 antennas in a Y-shaped configuration in the middle of nowhere, purposely planted to explore the universe outside our own.

This adventure brought us to the late afternoon, and time to book it to our last sightseeing destination. The weekend before Thanksgiving happened to be the Festival of the Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Luckily it wasn't far -- just south of San Antonio.

There are two times to see thousands of sandhill cranes take flight -- half an hour before dawn or half an hour before sunset. We narrowly missed the latter, but still saw hundreds of cranes flying home after a day of foraging.

An hour and a half back up I-25, we reached Albuquerque Old Town, where we had dinner at the High Noon Restaurant & Saloon, a suggestion from a travel guidebook. The ambiance was rustic and the Southwestern cuisine impressed -- we started with brie empanadas with apple pecan chutney and chipotle raspberry crema and I ordered the "plaza" platter with a boar belly blue corn enchilada, braised short rib chili relleno, pork tamale, spiced chicken taquitos and creamy hominy. Definitely not Cal-Mex food!

After dinner, we continued north on I-25 to our motel in Santa Fe. In the morning, we made a short drive to Santa Fe Plaza, the center of arts and culture. We strolled adobe-lined streets, took in the artisan crafts for sale on the sidewalks and passed more museums than we could keep track of.

On our way out of town, we drove up Canyon Road, which has more than 100 art galleries and studios within a mile.

We got to our next destination, Bandelier National Monument, driving an hour north on U.S. Route 285 to New Mexico State Road 502 to New Mexico State Road 4. The main loop trail, a 1.2-mile path, was an easy, hourlong hike through human-carved alcoves. Ladders allowed us to climb up and experience what it was like for people who lived there beginning more than 10,000 years ago.

From Bandelier, we backtracked to the White Rock overlook, an unobstructed view of the Rio Grande. By the time we got to the town of Los Alamos, which boasts the Bradbury Science Museum, it was closed and dark. Next time.

The roughly hour-and-a-half drive to Taos mostly on New Mexico State Route 68 felt long but was scenic, with multiple changes in elevation. We treated ourselves to a nice dinner at a modern northern New Mexico restaurant in the El Monte Sagrado spa and resort. I ordered a chipotle maple-glazed elk tenderloin, rich and filling, and my dad got red chili spiced halibut.

Taos was small and easy to get around. After breakfast at the cozy World Cup Cafe, we drove 15 minutes on U.S. Route 64 to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which gave us another perspective of the river -- a queasy one for those afraid of heights.

Going back the direction we came from and taking a slight detour, we took a step back in time at the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Puebloan people still thrive in the well-preserved reddish-brown adobe structures and didn't seem to mind tourists too much. We saw children playing, little girls picked up slabs of ice from a stream, and many doors were open to visitors, especially if they wanted to buy souvenirs.

Back in town, we checked out Taos Plaza, which was very quiet, and had lunch at Five Star Burgers, which served up big, bold-tasting patties made of bison, lamb and beef.

The drive back to Albuquerque to catch our plane that night took just under 2 { hours. We spent a few hours enjoying the historic Old Town Plaza area, which had a different feel from Santa Fe. The downtown was relatively small and mostly sleepy on a Sunday. I made a note to visit the city during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October.

It was a whirlwind road trip, but with more sights than I've seen within relatively short distances of each other. So what is in New Mexico? More enchanted places than you can imagine.

 

 

Bandelier National Monuments Main Loop takes visitors up a trail that offers a view of their civilization.
JESSICA KWONG/ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/TNS

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