When I drive to New Mexico from Oregon, I often enter the state in the northwest corner, via U.S. 64 or U.S. 491. The stately, 7,178-foot-tall Ship Rock formation welcomes me back to what will always be my second home.
I usually stop for the night, breaking up my trip with a pint of IPA at Three Rivers Brewery, or a leisurely meal at St. Clair Winery & Bistro. The following day I might set out for a walk around the fascinatingly quirky Bolack Electromechanical Museum at B-Square Ranch, or through the starkly fantastic Bisti Badlands wilderness.
With its generations-old trading posts, sacred Puebloan ruins, picturesque rivers and lakes, and extensive menu of travel services, Farmington and the neighboring towns of Aztec and Bloomfield (16 and 14 miles west, respectively) are also jumping-off points for exploring America’s fabled Four Corners region—out to Chaco Culture National Historical Park or Navajo Lake State Park, for example.
Farmington, the state’s sixth-largest city (pop. 45,000), has much to offer curious road-trippers like me. It’s home to a pair of wonderfully distinctive B&Bs (one of them occupies an actual cave carved into the side of a towering mesa), one of the nation’s most celebrated public golf courses, and the recently expanded Farmington Museum at Gateway Park. Walking along the cottonwood-shaded Animas River last October, just as the leaves had begun to turn lemon-yellow, I felt as though I’d stumbled into a remote riparian wilderness. The city’s five-mile park along the river corridor is just a stone’s throw from a busy commercial thoroughfare, but as is true throughout the region, rewarding treasures often lie right off the beaten path—you just have to slow down and open your eyes to find them. Here are 25 of our favorite reasons to stop, stay, and explore Farmington and the surrounding Colorado Plateau.
1. RIVER RAMBLES
Farmington’s River Corridor extends along the Animas River for more than five miles, featuring landscaped parks, multi-use trails, two pedestrian bridges, and a few parking areas providing easy access. The stretch of trail from Berg to Animas parks is especially scenic—pause to observe the poignant Farmington All Veterans Memorial at Berg Park (farmingtonvetsmemorial.com). Begin your riverfront explorations at the spacious, contemporary Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, which recently completed a stunning, $1.9 million expansion. A permanent exhibit explores the rich history of oil and gas assets that fueled the region’s growth (there’s a cool collection of antique gas pumps). The museum also hosts terrific temporary shows and events, from family astronomy nights to walking tours of downtown Farmington (505-599-1174; farmingtonmuseum.org). Another top draw, the Riverside Nature Center, has huge windows affording panoramic views of the river wetlands, as well as exhibits on the flora and fauna supported by this delicate yet resilient ecosystem. Kids love to ogle the neighboring colony of lively prairie dogs. Naturalists lead easy bird-watching strolls along the river on Tuesday mornings (505-599-1422; fmtn.org). In late May, thousands gather along the Animas for Riverfest, a celebration of live music, arts shows, rafting adventures, riverside strolls, 5K and 10K runs, and the famed Wiener Dog canine races. riverreachfoundation.com
2. AZTEC ASSETS
With numerous Pueblo Revival, Art Deco, and Italianate Victorian buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, little downtown Aztec is ideal for strolling, especially if you’re an architecture or history buff. Don’t miss the Aztec Museum & Pioneer Village, a dozen carefully restored buildings that include an early general store, sheriff’s and doctor’s offices, a blacksmith shop, and an 1880 pioneer cabin (505-334-9829; aztecmuseum.org). Feat of Clay is a respected co-op gallery featuring works by many of the top artists in the Four Corners region (107 S. Main St.; 505-334-4335), and the handsome old Aztec Theater hosts live music and occasional art shows (505-427-6748; crashmusicaztec.com). Downtown Aztec is the site of several festivals throughout the year, with October’s Aztec Highland Games & Celtic Festival among the most popular. aztechighlandgames.com
3. THEATER IN THE GROUND
Throughout the summer, you can watch first-rate Broadway shows performed on a stunning outdoor sandstone stage: the Lions Wilderness Amphitheater. Eighties fave Footloose is the main attraction this year. On Friday and Saturday nights, arrive early for burger and barbecue dinners before curtain time. (505) 599-1140; fmtn.org/sandstone
4. VALLEY OF THE DAMMED
The four-mile stretch of the San Juan River extending west just below Navajo Dam is hallowed among ardent trout-fishing enthusiasts. Some 80,000 sleek brown and rainbow trout, many exceeding 20 inches, populate these waters. Hire a knowledgeable outfitter to discover the best fishing spots. Rainbow Lodge & Resolution Guide Service offers wading and float adventures as well as all-inclusive overnight packages that provide all the gear you’ll need, plus accommodations and meals (505-632-5717; sanjuanfishing.com). The Orvis-affiliated Fisheads San Juan River Lodge is another exceptional guide service, with half- and full-day excursions and fish-and-stay packages (505-634-0463; fisheadsofthesanjuan.com). The on-site Back Cast Café is a great spot for breakfast burritos, burgers, and fresh-caught, slow-smoked trout.
5. NATIVE TREASURES
Named for the iconic 1,583-foot monolith that rises above the high-desert floor 40 miles west, downtown Farmington’s Shiprock Trading Post is one of the finest sources of Navajo weavings and baskets, turquoise and sterling-silver jewelry, sand paintings, medicine bowls, carved wooden figures, and Native stone sculptures in the Four Corners (505-324-0881; shiprocktradingpost.com). About an hour southwest of Farmington, historic Toadlena Trading Post & Two Grey Hills Weaving Museum has been renowned for their Navajo rugs and other Native crafts for more than a century (505-789-3267; toadlenatradingpost.com), and in the towns of Kirtland and Shiprock, Foutz Trading Co. also carries an exceptional selection of Navajo artwork, drums, kachina dolls, etched pottery, and folk art (505-368-5790; foutztrade.com). During Labor Day weekend’s highly anticipated annual Totah Festival Indian Market, you can browse the handiwork of more than 100 artists, attend a Navajo rug auction, and enjoy local music and food. (505) 326-7602; totahfestival.farmingtonnm.org.
6. ARTISTIC LICENSES
Downtown Farmington claims a burgeoning gallery scene. Three Rivers Art Center & In Cahoots! Gallery shows a diverse range of art from local talents—watercolor landscapes, cast teapots, pen-and-ink drawings among them (505-716-7660; threeriverswomen.org). Nearby, the new Studio 116 (505-258-4514; karenellsbury.net) displays the dynamic acrylic paintings of owner Karen Ellsbury, as well as photography, jewelry, and other articles on offer from several fellow artists. Just down the street, Artifacts Gallery occupies the handsome 1905 Farmington Lumber and Hardware building; here, more than 50 artists exhibit and sell their work, including oil paintings, handmade books, pottery, and mixed-media pieces. There’s also a cute little chile store that stocks sauces, salsas, habanero caramels, and other culinary items (505-327-2907; artifacts-gallery.com). The abundance of fine early-20th-century buildings fits well with Farmington’s emergence as an arts center—check out the 1948 Pueblo-Deco Totah Theater, with its striking red sign and elegant interior. Four times annually, the downtown hosts an art walk, with about 15 local shops and galleries participating. (505) 327-4145; thetotah.com
7. LUXURY CAVE DWELLING
Spend the night (ideally, two or three) in one of the country’s most unusual bed-and-breakfasts, Kokopelli’s Cave, a comfortably furnished, expansive “house” built directly into sheer sandstone cliffs situated 300 feet above the La Plata River valley. Built by geologist Bruce Black, the cave may sound like a primitive form of overnighting, but Kokopelli’s has a full kitchen, a modern bathroom with a waterfall shower and a Jacuzzi tub, a private balcony off the master bedroom (plus a larger rock deck with mesmerizing sunset views), a big living room with a TV/DVD player, and a kiva area with a wood-burning fireplace. This quirky hideaway with natural-rock walls and ceilings even has carpeting, and can sleep six. (505) 860-3812; kokocave.com
8. FINE WINING
In Farmington, the state’s largest vino producer, St. Clair Winery & Bistro, offers tastings in an elegant space with a bar and gift shop, a handsome dining room, and a romantic patio lined with old wine barrels. Their rich and fruit-forward Shiraz, peppery and light Pinot Noir, and fresh and summery Pinot Grigio are among the favorite vintages. This is also an inviting destination for lunch and dinner. Try wine-friendly fare like Riesling chicken potpie and flat-iron steak accented with a Cabernet-infused blue-cheese sauce (505-325-0711; stclairwinery.com). To reach the region’s other notable vineyard, Wines of the San Juan, a cottonwood-shaded estate about 10 miles west of Navajo Dam, you drive along a gorgeous ribbon of blacktop—N.M. 511—through the San Juan River valley. Friendly owners David and Marcia Arnold are happy to offer tastes of their deftly produced Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and Chardonnay, as well as of sweeter treats like Blackberry La Boca Merlot and Blue Winged Olive Riesling. From late spring through early fall, usually on Sundays, the winery hosts special concerts and dinners. (505) 632-0879; winesofthesanjuan.com
9. CHILD’S PLAY
If you have younger kids in tow, don’t miss the wonderfully engaging E3 Children’s Museum & Science Center, where the Tots Turf features a playhouse, a puppet theater, giant puzzles, and other curiosity-piquing exhibits geared to the under-six set. Children enjoy the simple science experiments on Thursday afternoons, the Friday-morning sing-alongs and storytelling sessions, and the family-art gatherings on Saturdays (505-599-1425; fmtn.org). Also great fun are the free AstroFriday stargazing shows held at the San Juan College Planetarium about once a month. The facility also has daytime “sun-gazing” shows, “starry days” programs in the summertime, and other appealing events. (505) 566-3361; sanjuancollege.edu/planetarium
10. VALUE PROPOSITIONS
Farmington is one of the top destinations for value vacations in the state, as many of the attractions and activities around the region, from B-Square Ranch to numerous hiking and biking trails, have free admission, while others—such as the Farmington Museum—request just a nominal donation. You’ll appreciate the wallet-friendly prices at local restaurants, galleries, and trading posts, as well as the fact that Farmington, Aztec, and Bloomfield all have a big selection of budget- and mid-priced hotels and motels. The Hampton Inn, Comfort Suites, Holiday Inn Express, and TownPlace Suites in Farmington; Best Western Plus Territorial Inn in Bloomfield; and brand-new Microtel Inn in Aztec are clean, modern, and comfy.
11. PLANES, TRAINS, AND CROCODILES
At 12,000-square-acre B-Square Ranch, leisurely motor down the evergreen-lined drive, taking care not to harm any of the roaming peacocks, then check in at the visitor center. After that, you’re free (there’s no admission charge) to explore the working ranch and farm, a 2,500-specimen wildlife museum, and the truly unusual Bolack Electromechanical Museum, whose grounds are scattered with artifacts that relate to agriculture, electrical-power production, and transportation. This one-of-a-kind community is the brainchild of late oilman, philanthropist, rancher, and politician Tom Bolack, who served briefly as New Mexico’s governor in 1962. Drive along the property’s dirt road, past man-made lakes stocked with fish and popular with migrating waterfowl, before crossing over a rickety-looking 1899 bridge that spans the muddy San Juan River to reach the electromechanical museum, which lies at the foot of picturesque sandstone cliffs. Here, you can stroll amid a historic Southern Pacific Lines steam locomotive, a 1941 DC-3 32-seat airplane, piles of antique electric meters and relays, horse-drawn farm equipment, and old TV and radio parts. In the wildlife museum, mounted critters from five continents are displayed, from big game (leopards, elephants) to warthogs and crocodiles. (505) 325-4275; bolackmuseum.com
12. GOOD GREENS
The discerning editors of Golf Digest have ranked Piñon Hills—an undulating 18-hole layout with sneaky-swift greens, seemingly bottomless grass bunkers, several whiplash-inducing doglegs, and numerous arroyos (formidable obstacles, whether or not they’re filled with water)—the best municipal course in the country. Part of its success is a result of meticulous groundskeeping, but the affordable greens fees (as little as $30) and spectacular setting high on a bluff near San Juan College are additional assets. (505) 326-6066; pinonhillsgolf.com
13. A DAY AT THE RACES
You can watch thrilling quarter-horse racing at Sunray Park & Casino from mid-April to late June. This track and entertainment complex also has a casino, a sports bar that simulcasts races year-round, a restaurant, and a venue for comedy and music performances (505-566-1200; sunraygaming.com). Head to the Aztec Speedway to watch stock cars zoom on a banked clay track that’s been exciting fans for more than 60 years; the season runs from late March through early October. (505) 258-3978; aztecspeedway.com
14. ROOM TO MOVE
Get your heart pumping at the 130,000-square-foot Health and Human Performance Center at San Juan Community College. You can rent camping gear, mountain bikes, rafts and river kayaks, cross-country skis, snowboards, and disc-golf sets at the outdoor equipment center; run or play volleyball at the gymnasium and track; work out in the state-of-the-art fitness center, and hone your mountaineering skills on a 6,000-square-foot indoor climbing wall, complete with rope stations and a bouldering cave. (505) 326-3311; sanjuancollege.edu/hhpc
15. CATCH A RISING STAR
Watch the next aspiring big-league stars at the Connie Mack World Series, the prestigious annual baseball tourney where more than 160 players aged 16 to 18 contend. Held at Ricketts Ball Park during the first 10 days of August, this spirited competition celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Plenty of pro scouts attend, hoping to spot the next Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Larkin: Both Hall of Famers appeared in the series as teenagers. cmws.org
16. COMFORT FOOD
Diners and barbecue joints, two hearty and hospitable hallmarks of America’s culinary landscape, proliferate in this part of the state. With its shimmering, stainless-steel shell and walls hung with vintage Life magazine covers and Pepsi Cola and John Deere ads, Dad’s Diner is a festive venue for breakfasts and lunches, where menu options range from prodigious breakfast burritos to juicy green-chile cheeseburgers and fluffy coconut cream pies (4395 Largo St.; 505-564-2516). You’ll find more down-home dining and convivial conversation at the Sparerib BBQ Company, where locals congregate at varnished picnic tables out back to dig into platters heaping with fried catfish, tender beef brisket, smoky ribs, and fall-off-the-bone chicken (1700 E Main St.; 505-325-4800). In Aztec, cozy and cheerful Main Street Bistro keeps regulars happy with its friendly, sunny patio, punctuated by whimsical sculptures, where you can enjoy such delectable fare as spinach-feta-artichoke quiche and seasonal-vegetable frittatas. (505) 334-0109; aztecmainstreetbistro.com
17. BORDER CROSSING
Who can resist visiting the only place in the United States where four states meet at one point? Sixty miles out of downtown Farmington, from the granite-and-brass marker at Four Corners Monument, you can reach your right arm into Colorado, your right foot into Utah, and your left foot into Arizona—without ever taking your left arm away from New Mexico. You can also buy handmade jewelry and crafts from artisans at this small park that’s administered by the Navajo Nation. (928) 871-6647; navajonationparks.org
18. GREAT LAKE
Covering an area of some 25 square miles, Navajo Lake, created in 1962 by the damming of the San Juan River, is the second-largest body of water in the state. You can access nearly 250 campsites, spanning seven different shoreline areas, at Navajo Lake State Park (505-632-2278; nmparks.com). Here, you’ll find mountain-biking and hiking trails; launches for motorized boats, canoes, kayaks, and sailboats; and two marinas—Navajo Lake (505-632-3245; navajomarina.com) and Sims (505-320-0885; simsmarina.com)—where you can buy tackle and gear and rent fishing boats, pontoons, and houseboats.
19. INN FOR A TREAT
You’ll find the most elegant accommodations in the region at the Casa Blanca Inn, a richly appointed Spanish Colonial hacienda on a hillside that’s within walking distance of downtown, yet boasts glorious grounds rife with shade trees and flower-filled gardens and courtyards. Navajo tapestries, Pueblo pottery, and sturdy Colonial furniture fill the several common areas as well as the eight guest rooms and suites. There’s also a plush two-bedroom cottage with a kitchen and a Jacuzzi tub that’s perfect for a special-occasion getaway. (800) 550-6503; 4cornersbandb.com
20. BREAKING BADLANDS
Drive about 35 miles south of Farmington on N.M. 371, and you’ll encounter an intriguingly bizarre landscape of striated hills layered in tan, gray, and rust tones—the colors of the sandstone, shale, coal, silt, and mudstone that underlie this region. The surreal Bisti Badlands/De-Na-Zin Wilderness looks like a scene from a Salvador Dalí painting. You need only hike a half-mile into this 41,170-acre expanse to come face-to-face with weird, soaring, mushroom-shaped sandstone columns. This geological funhouse is a shutterbug’s dream, perfect for day hikes and backcountry camping. Facilities and defined trails are nonexistent; pack proper gear and water and consult with rangers before you set out. (505) 564-7600; blm.gov
21. JUST THE RIGHT NOTES
The acclaimed San Juan Symphony performs a few times a year at Farmington’s Henderson Hall, located on the campus of San Juan College (970-382-9753; sanjuansymphony.org). Established in 2013, the Boots and Brews Festival brings foot-stomping country tunes to downtown Aztec in early September (bootsandbrews.com). It follows Aztec’s Animas River Blues & Brews Festival in July. animasriverblues.com
22. MEDITERRANEAN DINNER DATES
Bringing the traditional Galician cooking of northwestern Spain to Farmington, Mon’s Spanish Grill opened in fall 2013 in a dapper downtown-storefront space, offering gambas al ajillos (shrimp and asparagus sautéed in olive oil, paprika, and red peppers and served over Spanish rice) and beef empanadas. Try the traditional crema de Galicia dessert, a delicious burnt caramel–style flan (121 W Main St.; 505-436-2577).
23. THE ROADS TO RUIN NATIONS
Farmington lies at the heart of one of North America’s most impressive proliferations of pre-Columbian ruins. In just a couple of hours, you can gain an understanding of the ancient peoples—forebears of today’s thriving Puebloans—at Aztec Ruins National Monument, a 318-acre interpretive park. Stop by the visitor center/museum, which displays intricate pottery and basketry from the region’s earliest inhabitants, then tour the extensive network of ruins—the largest contains 450 rooms—that, back in the 13th century, anchored a vibrant community. You can climb inside many of the structures. (505) 334-6174; nps.gov/azru At Salmon Ruins, just off U.S. 64 in nearby Bloomfield, tour a partially restored great house excavated along the shore of the San Juan River, as well as the 1890s homestead of early settler George Salmon. A modern museum on the site sheds light on the ancient peoples and archaeology of the Four Corners region (505-632-2013; salmonruins.com). A bit farther afield is one of the most extensive Puebloan ruins, Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Allow about two hours to drive the 80 miles south—the final 16 miles of the route are unpaved (505-786-7014; nps.gov/chcu). This ancient metropolis prospered from about the mid-800s until the 1100s. One of the best ways to see Chaco, as well as dozens of other ancient Puebloan sites and examples of rock art throughout Dinétah (the surrounding traditional Navajo homeland), is on an excursion with Journey into the Past Tours, whose knowledgeable guides are affiliated with Salmon Ruins. (505) 632-2103; chacotours.org
24. PEDAL FEVER
The Four Corners is primo mountain-biking territory. In Aztec, both relative beginners and skilled experts find plenty to like about the Alien Run trail, named for its proximity to the fabled UFO crash site. It’s part of a 30-mile network of singletrack with great views of Hart Canyon’s dazzling stone arches. The Alien Run Mountain Bike Competition is held here in May (alienrun.com). You’ll also find great mountain-biking tracks near Farmington’s San Juan Community College in the Glade Run Recreation Area, where some 42 miles of marked trails traverse boulder-strewn, sagebrush- and juniper-carpeted plateaus and slick-rock canyons (505-564-7600; blm.gov). Each October, the Road Apple Rally, the longest-running mountain-bike race in the country, draws hundreds of participants (fmtn.org). The region’s mountain-biking trails also come into play during June’s XTERRA Four Corners off-road triathlon, in which competitors tackle a 17-mile bike trail, a 5-mile run, and a 1-mile lap swim across the lake. xterrafourcorners.farmingtonnm.org
25. BEER LOVER’S BLOCK PARTY
Fans of hoppy IPAs, crispy-dry ciders, peaty Scottish ales, and hearty stouts will find that an entire stretch of downtown Farmington’s East Main Street can satisfy their craft-beer thirsts. Three Rivers Brewery, which occupies a series of historic storefronts, consists of a pizzeria, a tap and game room, a banquet hall, and the original 3RB restaurant, which turns out fantastic green-chile turkey stew, rosemary-garlic fries, chicken-fried steak, and Kobe or Angus beef burgers. (505) 325-6605; threeriversbrewery.com