Begin in Gallup, the urban epicenter of Native American life in New Mexico. Head out for a half-day historic trading post journey north along U.S. 491 (locals prefer its former name, Route 666—the Devil’s Highway). Head back into Gallup, then go south on N.M. 602/Rt. 4 to the splendid and scenic N.M. 53: the Ancient Way Arts Trail, gateway to Zuni Pueblo (to the west) and El Morro, El Malpais, and other highlights—cultural, geological, and wild—to the east. Where N.M. 53 hits I-40, the route runs northwest to Chaco Canyon (Exit 53, to the park’s south entrance). Leave plenty of time for the last stretch—it’s a rugged 20 miles of clay-based dirt and gravel. Then it runs in reverse, back to the Grants area for the night—Acoma Pueblo and its astonishing mesa-top beauty await a few miles east.
WHY GO NOW
This is the ultimate trip through New Mexico’s indigenous lands. It meanders through magnificent highlights—Chaco Canyon, El Morro National Monument, and Zuni Pueblo among them—of this country’s Ancestral Puebloan past, while it catches you up with the realities and the rich cultural manifestations of indigenous Southwestern life today. Wherever you look, there are fantastical red-hued rock formations, erosion carving their sand and limestone bases into impossibly whimsical shapes; ancient ruins, with their finely chiseled masonry walls revealing the caring hands of their makers; circular hogans and fat sheep dotting the landscape … and the light. With each glint, it highlights something new and not to be missed.
DAY 1: GALLUP
After coffee and huevos in El Rancho Hotel’s hacienda-inspired café, you may want to browse its storied lobby. The grand staircase, luxe western motifs, and furnishings (which provided succor to Western film stars of yore) beckon a traveler to sit a spell. Cruise Historic Rt. 66 the 10 blocks or so downtown to the Chamber of Commerce’s small but moving Navajo Code Talker exhibit. Enjoy a quick look-see at this railroad town’s historic center, then take U.S. 491 about an hour’s drive north to Two Grey Hills Trading Post and Toadlena Trading Post and Museum, century-old purveyors of the famous brown-and-gray churro sheeps-wool rugs woven by nearby Diné artisans. Back in town, wander through the Octavia Fellin Library and the 1938 Pueblo Revival McKinley County Courthouse. Each displays a wealth of WPA-commissioned masterworks, many with Southwestern themes. The Courthouse plaza hosts Native dances throughout the summer. Enjoy dinner at Earl’s, where the whole town goes for a rib-eye or enchiladas, followed by homemade pie. Then tuck in for the night at Gallup’s most modern hotel, Comfort Suites.
DAY 2: ZUNI PUEBLO
As red rocks give way to rolling, piñon-speckled hills, take the Rt. 4 Bypass off N.M. 602 to the Zuni Visitor & Arts Center, where you can make arrangements to tour the village with superb guides who will take you through the Middle Village (Halona Idiwan’a) and the 1629 Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe church, which is graced by striking kachina murals. You can also opt to see the Zuni ancestral ruins at Hawikku, and the distinctive petroglyphs found at the Village of the Great Kivas. Meet up with Roger Thomas, the congenial proprietor of the Inn at Halona, and check in. If there’s time, stop in at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum to view their collection of Hawikku artifacts. The eclectic and well-priced Chu-Chu’s is the place Zunis and tourists gather for—believe it or not—the pizza!
DAY 3: ANCIENT WAY TRAIL (N.M. 53)
With the Inn at Halona’s unforgettable blue-corn pancakes under your belt, return east on N.M. 53, pausing to appreciate how the sunlight strikes Zuni’s sacred Corn Mesa. You are now on the Ancient Way Art Trail, one of the most beautiful routes in the state. Detour through the Ramah Navajo Reservation and down the Pine Hill turnoff to the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (guides here get you up close for a rare experience with the sanctuary’s wolves), then it’s on to El Morro National Monument for a hike to thousands of petroglyphs and inscriptions—exquisite graffiti hand-carved by early Spanish colonists and dating back to the 17th century—and fine mesa-top views. Have lunch at the Ancient Way Café, a happy meeting of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and the locavore movement, where you might try the innovative brisket burrito with apricot habanero sauce. Settle in for the night at the rustic and warm Cimarron Rose B&B, tucked into the pines in the shadow of the Zuni Mountains.
Last Exit: Heading east toward Albuquerque on I-40? With Mt. Taylor—sacred to many local native groups—in view, you’re in position to veer a bit south to visit Acoma Pueblo, which has been occupied since the 1100s. A walk among the stone-and-adobe homes that hug the edges of this mesa’s steep bluff, and to gaze beyond, provides a memorable, unique experience.
DAY 4: CHACO CANYON
Make a quick stop in Grants to pick up a day’s worth of food and water. The drive to Chaco Canyon National Historical Park takes a good 2.5 to 3 hours. Plan to catch the daily ranger-guided tour of Pueblo Bonito, but also take a self-guided tour of that greatest of Great Kivas, Casa Rinconada, which is 63 feet in diameter, contains 34 niches, and boasts an underground passage. The intrepid and experienced may consider a shimmy up that sheer sandstone wall to Pueblo Alto. Allow at least 3 hours in the park; the shifting light at this awe-inspiring World Heritage Site rewards those who take their time. Stop in Grants for dinner at El Cafecito for the carne-stuffed sopaipilla. Thirty more miles and you’re “home” again, at Cimarron Rose.
NEED TO KNOW
El Rancho: 1000 E. Rt. 66; (505) 863-9311, (800) 543-6351; elranchohotel.com
Navajo Code Talker exhibit: Gallup-McKinley County Chamber of Commerce, 103 W. Rt.66; (505) 722-2228, (800) 380-4989; Free. Mon.–Sat., 8:30 a.m–5 p.m. (closed Saturdays in winter).
Two Grey Hills Trading Post: (505) 789-3270, twogreyhills.com; and Toadlena Trading Post, (505) 789-3267, toadlenatradingpost.com. U.S. 491 N. to Rt. N. 19, 4 miles past Newcomb, then 10–13 miles; Mon.–Sat., 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
McKinley County Courthouse/Plaza: 207 W. Hill Ave.; WPA art; (505) 722-3868; mckinleycountyart.org; Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–5p.m. Dances: (505) 722-2228; summer only, nightly, 7–8 p.m.
Octavia Fellin Library: 115 W. Hill Ave.; (505) 863-1291. Mon.–Thurs., 9 a.m.–8 p.m.; Fri. 10 a.m–6 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.–6 p.m.
Earl’s: 1400 E. Rt. 66; (505) 863-4201. Mon.–Sat., 6 a.m.–8:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.
Comfort Suites: 3940 E. Rte. 66; (505) 863-3445; choicehotels.com/hotel/nm131
Zuni Visitor & Arts Center/Tours: 1239 N.M. 53; (505) 782-7238; zunitourism.com. Mon.–Fri., 8:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; Sun., 12 p.m.–4 p.m. Tours: $10 to La Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Mission or Middle Village, $15 for both; Artists’ Studios, Hawikku, or Village of the Great Kivas: *$75/1–4 people. *Must book at least 3–5 days ahead for these. Note: Off-calendar ceremonial activities can affect tour schedules; call ahead.
A:shiwi A:wan Museum: 02E Ojo Caliente Rd.; (505) 782-4403; ashiwi.org. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Free (donation requested).
Chu-Chu’s: 1344 N.M. 53; (505) 782-2100.
Inn at Halona: 23 Pia Mesa Rd.; (505) 782-4547, (800) 752-3278; halona.com
ANCIENT WAY (N.M. 53)
Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary: N.M. 53 to Rt. 125/Rt. 120; (505) 775-3304; wildspiritwolfsanctuary.org. Tours: Tues.–Sun., $7.
Ancient Way Café: N.M. 53 at Mile Marker 46; (505) 783-4612; elmorro-nm.com. Closed Wed.; Dinner Fri. & Sat. only, reservation required.
El Morro National Monument: N.M. 53; (505) 783-4226; nps.gov/elmo. Daily, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. (later in summer); $3 per person.
Cimarron Rose B&B: N.M. 53 between Mile Markers 56 & 57; (505) 783-4770, (800) 856-5776; cimarronrose.com
CHACO CANYON & GRANTS
Northwest NM Visitor Center: I-40 Exit 85, Grants; (505) 876-2783; nps.gov. Daily, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. (later in summer).
Chaco Culture National Historical Park: I–40 Exit 53 (Thoreau), onto N.M. 371N to Rt. 9E, then N. on 14/57; (505) 786-7014 x221; nps.gov/chcu. Visitor Center: Daily, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. (later in summer); $8 per vehicle. Pueblo Bonito tours daily, 2 p.m., free. Always call for road conditions.
El Cafecito: 820 E. Santa Fe Ave., Grants; (505) 285-6229. Mon.–Fri., 7 a.m.–8:30 p.m.; closes at 7:30 p.m. on Sat.; closed Sun.
Acoma/Sky City & Haak’u Museum: I–40 Exit 102; (505) 552-6604, (800) 747-0181; acomaskycity.org. Pueblo Tour: $12. Museum: $4. Daily.