Sandoval County is not only one of New Mexico’s most stunning regions—it’s also one of the most culturally diverse and historically rich ones too. Just a few minutes north of Albuquerque and a short drive from Santa Fe (most scenic drive between these two cities is via Highway 550 and Highway 4), Sandoval County is the perfect place to serve as a base for any New Mexico vacation. It’s not only close to these two famous cities, but it’s far enough away from the crowds and lights for you to truly enjoy a brilliant night sky full of stars, plus a peaceful, awe-inspiring landscape with dramatic mountains, high-desert colors, beautiful rivers, and relaxing hot springs. Just as amazing is the local culture, featuring world-renowned art, the oldest vineyards in America, and of course, green chile.
Thanks to a rich, complicated history involving Pueblo Indians, Spanish settlers, Mexican traders, and artists, Sandoval County offers endless options for tourists seeking a culturally rich vacation in one of America’s most dramatic landscapes.
Sampling Sandoval County Wine
To truly get a taste of New Mexico, you really should visit one of Sandoval County’s famous wineries. Almost 400 years ago, the Spanish settlers brought wine to the region, making it the longest history of wine production in the United States. While prohibition and major flooding of the Rio Grande set the industry back, generations of families are still making wine. Of the 20 wineries in New Mexico, seven are in Sandoval County, and you can visit them by following the Corrales Wine Loop.
Another famous area winery is Casa Abril. The owner, Raymond, has been known to jump off his tractor when visitors arrive and join them for wine tasting while regaling his guests with information about wine and stories of his ancestors. As you sample Raymond’s seven different vintages, you can enjoy almonds and chocolate and watch a stunning New Mexico sunset over the Jemez Mountains.
On the southern slopes of the Jemez Mountains, you’ll find the Ponderosa Winery. New Mexico’s largest riesling vineyard sits at 5,800 feet above sea level, and the volcanic ash deposits in which the plants are grown—as well as hot days and cool nights—is the perfect environment for the unique wine character you’ll find at Ponderosa. It’s easy to get there from Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Los Alamos, so stop by their tasting room for a sip of their award-winning wines.
Exploring Art and Culture
To learn about the region’s fascinating history, begin in the village of Corrales at Casa San Ysidro, a reconstructed home that dates back to the 1800s and serves as a living history museum. It’s owned by the historical society and provides an accurate, detailed history of how Spanish settlers lived and worked centuries ago. As visitors tour the home, passionate and knowledgeable guides share fascinating stories about the Hispanic folk art, textiles and furniture, and life during the 18th and 19th centuries.
For anyone exploring Sandoval County’s rich history, Pueblo of the Jemez is a must-see. One of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos, it’s home to 3,400 tribal members. While it’s closed most of the year to tourists out of respect for the privacy of those who live there, the village is open to the public on feast days. If you can’t visit when the pueblo is open, the nearby Jemez Pueblo Welcome Center is a great alternative destination and houses a great deal of cultural and historical crafts and arts, including handmade pottery, jewelry, and weavings. Outside the center, you can get a taste of famous Indian fry bread, slathered in cinnamon and honey. To see the volcanic tuffs that housed Pueblo ruins and cliff dwellings, there are hikes out of nearby Bandelier National Monument.
To see some of the region’s most dynamic visual art, visit the Corrales Bosque Gallery. Established in 1994 by local artists, it has become a focal point for the local artistic community. It prides itself on being not only affordable and diverse, but a staple in the community. Each year, the gallery donates the profits from at least one showcase to charitable organizations.
Shopping in Historic Corrales and Jemez Springs
If you want to get a unique New Mexico experience, spend some time shopping in the adorable the village of Corrales and stroll among it historic adobe buildings with both Native and Spanish Conquistador roots.
With the stunning Sandia mountains in the background, this sleepy village is both modern and stuck in time. Locals are known to ride their horses to town, and it’s not uncommon to see llamas and chickens wandering around too. In town, explore the Village Mercantile, which carries feed and farm products, plus a bakery, art galleries, and the Historic Old San Ysidro Church.
When it’s time for a bite to eat, you’ll also find some amazing restaurants. Village Pizza is considered some of the best in the greater Albuquerque area, butPerea’s Tijuana Bar and Indigo Crow are top choices among locals. The Grower’s Market every Sunday sells some of the best produce around, including famous New Mexico chiles. Throughout the year there are also Art Walks, parades (the 4th of July parade is not to be missed!), and the famous Fall Festival. There’s plenty to do for kids to do, and locals consider Corrales somewhat of a paradise on earth.
An hour northwest of Corrales in the Jemez Mountains is the retreat village of Jemez Springs. The Village is home to unique shops and galleries, as well as delicious roadside eateries and New Mexican comfort food, including Highway 4 Coffee, Jemez Stage Stop and the historic Los Ojos Restaurant and Saloon. Original manuscripts of late author Tony Hillerman, who was said to have loved the Jemez Valley, are available for viewing at the Jemez Springs Public Library.
Relaxing in a Peaceful Landscape
There are plenty of hikes and outdoor activities to see in Sandoval County, but Tent Rocks National Monument is a stunning geological formation with a culturally rich past. It’s an easy walk to see these massive tent-like rocks that are Instagram worthy. The area is important to the Pueblo Indians, who occupied it for more than 7,000 years and left petroglyphs and ruins as evidence.
After taking in all of this history and culture, a great way to end the day is a stop at Jemez Hot Springs or Jemez Springs Bath House.With the Jemez Mountains in the background, you can soak in any of Jemez Hot Springs’ four minerally rich pools of varying temperatures. Whether you’re relaxing in a floating chair or taking a nap in one of the many hammocks, the experience is sure to rejuvenate the spirit. The number of people allowed in is limited, so it’s never crowded and guests are asked to whisper and silence cell phones to keep the chill vibe. (It wouldn’t be an authentic New Mexico experience without at least one dip in a mountain hot spring!) Jemez Springs Bath House is a State Historical Site, offering eight indoor tubs for soaking along with spa services. The original rock enclosure where the original geyser was established in 1860 is on site. Canon del Rio Retreat and Spa also offers massages and spa services.
While New Mexico is vast with so much to see, Sandoval County offers a little bit of everything, and it’s the ideal place to fully experience the state’s history, culture, and natural beauty.
Written by Melanie Hamlett for RootsRated in partnership with New Mexico.