Above: Rustic charm in Abiquiu, the sign of the Ol Abiquiu B&B. Photograph by Ashlie Hughes.
IN A STATE AS LARGE AND and lightly populated as New Mexico, it’s uncommonly easy to find yourself on lonesome roads with spectacular, unadulterated views. Highways and byways unfurl through seemingly endless stretches of mesa and grassland prairie, climb through pine forests, hug paprika-colored cliffs, and wend through historic villages whose rustic architecture evokes New Mexico’s timeless appeal. The state is home to 25 designated scenic byways, and there are plenty of other worthy routes, too.
THE HONDO VALLEY
The Route: Once called La Junta (“the Junction”), thanks to its locale at the confluence of the Ríos Bonito and Ruidoso, Hondo sits on the edge of the Sacramento Mountains and marks the beginning of this drive along US 70 to Ruidoso Downs. Gentle hills bookend the scenic valley, abating into bucolic lowlands dotted with metal-roofed farmhouses. Alfalfa and iris fields stretch to riverside cottonwood thickets. As the highway nears Ruidoso Downs, it enters the Lincoln National Forest, climbing into the Sacramento Mountains, where stately pines blanket the hillsides and southern New Mexico’s tallest peak, Sierra Blanca, tops out to the northwest at an often snowcapped 12,000 feet. The route also follows one leg of the triangular Billy the Kid Scenic Byway, which leads Kid aficionados to preserved Old West towns and military forts.
The Stop: Acclaimed 20th-century artists Peter Hurd and Henriette Wyeth Hurd made their home here in the Hondo Valley, near San Patricio. Their son Michael, a distinguished artist himself, now maintains guesthouses and a gallery on the pastoral estate. (See The Art of Living) You can spot the copper-patina roof of Hurd–La Rinconada Gallery from the roadside, even among the lush flora along Río Ruidoso. wyethartists.com
DRY CIMARRON SCENIC DRIVE
The Route: Northeast New Mexico is more prairies than peaks, but several distinctive geographical features enliven the landscape. Set out from Ratón and travel east along NM 72. After 10 miles, the 14-mile-long tabletop of Johnson Mesa is the first landmark you’ll cruise past. A few spent volcanic cones (such as Towndrow Peak and Red Mountain) attest to the region’s explosive past, epitomized by nearby Capulín Volcano National Monument, whose 8,000-foot-high bowl rises to the southeast. It’s a perfect place to appreciate the state’s vast scale: Across this stretch, all is mountains, plains, and sky. And perhaps the occasional quizzical cow ruminating on the short-grass canvas. Near the drive’s conclusion, the highway traces the Dry Cimarron River, from which the route took its name.
The Stop: Along the way, you’ll pass the Folsom Man Archaeological Site, where Paleo-Indian hunters used distinctive weapons, later known as Folsom points, to slay bison. The discovery of the bones and arrows led archaeologists to revise their estimates of man’s presence on the continent, a process that’s detailed in the Folsom Museum, housed in the white-clad Doherty Mercantile. folsomvillage.com/folsommuseum
Heads-up: This route often experiences winter closures due to snowfall.
HIGH ROAD TO TAOS SCENIC BYWAY
The Route: This lithe byway wends past alabaster cliffs from Santa Fe, via NM 76 and 75, through historic Hispanic villages, to Ranchos de Taos. Pilgrims follow part of this route to the Santuario de Chimayó each Easter to dip faithful hands in the mission church’s miraculous healing dirt. From there, the roadway climbs through piñon and juniper scrubland and ponderosa forests, passing through villages like Truchas and Las Trampas. The route concludes in the village of Ranchos de Taos, where the wide adobe buttresses of San Francisco de Asis church are among the most photographed sights in the state.
The Stop: Traditional Spanish Colonial art thrives along this route. Truchas is known for folk and fine art, with a stable of galleries to explore. Residents on the route show their creativity during September’s High Road Art Tour. highroadnewmexico.com
US 84 FROM ESPAÑOLA TO CHAMA
The Route: The sights along this roadway have inspired artists from Ansel Adams, who shot Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, from US 84’s shoulder in 1941, to Georgia O’Keeffe, who spent decades capturing the striated mesas, peaks, and pinnacles around Abiquiú. Along the way, the Río Chama dips in and out of view through striking desert country where monoliths and buttes seem more populous than people. There’s a must-have photo op at the big bend just north of Abiquiú, as the road courses through the Chama River Canyon Wilderness to man-made Abiquiú Lake. Ranch entrance gates adorned with local brands bracket the roadway as it sails into Los Ojos and on to Chama. Families have ranched this grassy expanse for generations, specializing in the churro sheep that lend their distinctive fiber to the heritage weavings found at Tierra Wools, in Los Ojos.
The Stop: Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center, outside Abiquiú, where O’Keeffe painted, still draws artists today. The public is welcome to stop in for tours, hike the landscape (on set trails), and visit its anthropology and paleontology museums. ghostranch.org
ENCHANTED CIRCLE SCENIC BYWAY
The Route: Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest, is the bull’s-eye in this loop that travels from Taos up NM 522 to Questa, across NM 38 through Red River to Eagle Nest, then along US 64 through Angel Fire and back to Taos. This byway’s stunning sagebrush mesas co-starred in the films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Easy Rider, but views on the other side of the mountains, in the Moreno Valley, are equally stunning. It’s difficult to decide on a prime season here: Summer brings grassy meadows speckled with wildflowers, while fall dapples the hillsides with golden aspens. Snowy winters may make touring challenging but are good news for ski areas in Red River, Angel Fire, and Taos.
The Stop: From the shores of Eagle Nest Lake State Park you can see the surrounding peaks, including Gold Hill, nearly as high as its sister, Wheeler. The park is best known for fishing, though it does have a couple of rambling hiking trails.
US 64 FROM TIERRA AMARILLA TO TAOS
The Route: Start in Tierra Amarilla (pop. 866), where yellow clay deposits in the Chama River Valley gave the village its name (and a 1967 courthouse raid contesting the disintegration of historic land grants drew national headlines). Follow US 64 as it climbs the back side of the monumental Brazos Cliffs, quickly entering into the ponderosa and fir timberland of the Carson National Forest. Streams rake the high-country landscape, and elk populate the region—be on the lookout as the road threads toward Tusas Mountain. At Tres Piedras, the highway drops into sagebrush mesa before crossing the Río Grande Gorge Bridge—565 feet above the river—as you approach Taos.
The Stop: Tucked in a grassy bowl, man-made Hopewell Lake is popular with fishermen casting for rainbow trout. If you want to stretch your legs, the Continental Divide Trail unfolds from the lakeside, following a spine that stretches from Canada to Mexico.
Heads-up: This route often experiences winter closures due to snowfall.
JEMEZ MOUNTAIN TRAIL NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY
The Route: Diverting off US 550, 25 miles northwest of Bernalillo, at San Ysidro, this byway hugs the Jémez River and Jémez Mountains foothills and climbs to evergreen-strewn peaks. Follow NM 4 as it skims through Jemez Pueblo, where residents often sell horno bread and jewelry in the shadow of stunning red-rock cliffs. You can stop in the Walatowa Visitor Center to peruse the small but excellent museum and grab a hiking pass to explore a gentle nature trail through the red rocks. The byway then continues through the colorful haven of Jémez Springs, where Sunday-driver-friendly restaurants and art galleries huddle along the two-lane blacktop. The road then cruises past the forested prow of Battleship Rock, in the Santa Fe National Forest, and drops into grassy meadows raked with the many tributaries of the Jémez River before unfolding into the grassy swoop of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. From here you can retrace your route or continue on toward Los Alamos and Bandelier National Monument.
The Stop: The Jémez Springs area is known for its healing waters, and Spence Hot Springs is one of its popular natural pools. Reaching the spring requires a short hike, but dipping into the pools will restore you for the remainder of the drive. If you want to soak alfresco but with a bit more polish, stop at Giggling Springs. Copper- and magnesium-rich waters are siphoned into four concrete-lined pools, where they shimmer turquoise beneath shaded ramadas. gigglingsprings.com
Above: The historic Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House in Pinos Altos. Photo Courtesy Steve Steinmetz.
TRAIL OF THE MOUNTAIN SPIRITS SCENIC BYWAY
The Route: This picturesque route accounts for the lengthy drive time between artsy Silver City and Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Only 45 miles separates the waypoints, but the hour-and-a-half drive along NM 15 wends through juniper-dotted lowlands into the town of Pinos Altos and takes a roller-coaster ride up and down sinuous mountain roads through the thick ponderosa forest of the Pinos Altos Range before arriving at the ancient cliff dwellings. Hilltop lookout points afford views of the rolling 7,000-foot mountains and rugged terrain of the Gila Wilderness, whose expanse stretches on both sides of the two-lane road. The mountainous path may seem strenuous by car, but imagine cycling it: The byway doubles as the route for spring’s Tour of the Gila, which attracts amateur and professional riders from all across the nation. To complete the loop on the return, retrace your tracks from the cliff dwellings to the junction of NM 35, at a worthy lunch spot, Little Toad Creek Inn and Tavern. The road passes east through similar terrain, nearly to the town of Mimbres, where it drops into piñon scrubland along the Mimbres River, then on to San Lorenzo, where a few ramshackle buildings mark the turn west along NM 152 to Silver. Along the way, the road skims past Fort Bayard, a post–Civil War military installation and former tuberculosis hospital, and through the small town of Santa Clara, the first town of any size along the loop. (See Faded Glory)
The Stop: The Buckhorn Saloon & Opera House in Pinos Altos, 15 minutes north of Silver City on NM 15, has been a local watering hole since it opened in the 1860s. Today it’s one of the best places in this southwest corner of New Mexico for a steak, live music, and sunset viewing from the porch. buckhornsaloonandoperahouse.com
NM 117 THROUGH EL MALPAIS NATIONAL MONUMENT
The Route: Branching off I-40 72 miles west of Albuquerque, NM 117 bisects the lava fields of these northwest New Mexico badlands, offering remarkable views. Within the monument’s boundaries, the first waypoint is Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, which gazes across seemingly endless black rock, the Zuni Mountains to the west, and Mount Taylor to the north. Further on, you’ll pass the Zuni-Acoma Trail, an ancient trade route between two pueblos that intrepid (and well-prepared) hikers can still follow today. The next stretch is known as the Narrows, where lava fields to the west and sandstone cliffs to the east bookend the road. The Narrows Overlook offers another viewpoint, including the monument’s adjacent wilderness area. Just past the intersection of NM 117 and CR 41 (which leads south to Pie Town), head west on CR 42, aka the Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway, a gravel road that loops around the badlands and past a series of volcanic cones. At the NM 53 junction, you can turn west to check out El Morro National Monument, another of the region's gems, or turn back east/north toward I-40 at Grants.
The Stop: La Ventana (“the Window”) Arch is the second-largest natural arch in the state and the most popular to visit, as the largest one lies on restricted tribal lands. A half-mile walk takes you to the base. nps.gov/elma
For up-to-date info about road closures and conditions, including weather advisories, visit nmroads.com, call 511, or download the NMRoads app for Android or iOS. The New Mexico Department of Public Safety offers a full list of trip safety tips at dps.state.nm.us/index.php/travel-safety-tips.
New Mexico is home to more than 25 scenic byways—including eight of the 126 America’s Byways, which are recognized for their archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, or scenic value. For information, visit newmexico.org/things-to-do/scenic-byways.
From Native culture to roadside oddities, evocative architecture to yummy cuisine, discover even more road-trip recommendations with the Enchanted Eight—on newmexico.org/enchantedeight.