ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Striped balloons dot a bright blue sky. Red rocks silhouette a lone dead tree. A white ladder leans on a brown adobe dwelling.
On a road trip around New Mexico, this mix of motifs and cultures seems to echo across the centuries and turn up at every stop, whether you're visiting 1,000-year-old native villages, churches from the era of Spanish conquistadors or the landscape that inspired 20th-century painter Georgia O'Keeffe.
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Logistically, a trip that includes all these attractions is easy: Fly to Albuquerque, rent a car, and plan hotel stays in Santa Fe, 65 miles away, and Taos, 70 miles beyond that. Side trips might include Abiquiu, where O'Keeffe lived; Ojo Caliente, for hot springs; Sky City, a native pueblo about 60 miles west of Albuquerque; and the Enchanted Circle, a scenic driving loop that starts in Taos. Driving between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, another scenic byway called the Turquoise Trail or High Road offers a nice alternative to Interstate 25, with stops in tiny places like Madrid, a former ghost town, and Cerrillos, a one-time mining town.
Sunrise, sunset. Those are the best times to experience two of Albuquerque's top attractions: the Sandia Peak tram and hot-air ballooning.
The 15-minute tram goes up 4,000 feet, with spectacular views of the Sandia Mountains, the city of Albuquerque and, if you time your trip right, sunset in the western sky; sandiapeak.com, $20. For dinner, head to nearby El Pinto, 10500 Fourth St. NW. Try sopapillas, "little pillows" of fried bread, and carne adovada, meat marinated in a red chili sauce.
For ballooning, set your alarm early: Riders assemble around 6 a.m. for flights in May and June. And swallow your fears. Rides are gentle and downright magical. As I floated serenely above a forest and the Rio Grande River, the balloon's shadow was perfectly silhouetted in black on the landscape below. Other balloons dotted the skies as children waved from schoolyards and drivers looked up. But get ready for sticker shock. Calls to several balloon companies found $159 was the going rate the day I went; eventually I chose World Balloon, www.worldballoon.com. Prices are higher certain times of the year.
Other Albuquerque stops: Old Town, a plaza dating to 1706, with eateries, souvenir shops and the San Felipe Church; and the Frontier Restaurant, 2400 Central SE, by the University of New Mexico campus, a lively cafeteria with simple, yummy fare like tortilla soup.
Acoma Pueblo at Sky City
For nearly 1,000 years, the Acoma people have lived on a sandstone mesa 370 feet above the desert floor in a pueblo called Sky City. Tours led by tribe members tell the story of how they have maintained their culture and traditions through centuries of challenges, including the Spanish conquistadors' violent incursions beginning in the 1500s. San Esteban del Rey Mission Church, a National Trust Historic Site that dates to 1629, was built by Spanish conquistadors using the forced labor of natives compelled to drag 20,000 tons of stone, mud, straw and wood to the mesa.
A few families live year-round in the adobe complexes, which are multilevel connected dwellings, with round adobe ovens outside and wooden ladders accessing upper floors. Beautiful pottery and other native crafts are offered for sale throughout the village. The 90-minute, $23 tour is usually offered daily March to November; confirm the schedule and get directions at sccc.acomaskycity.org/.
Abiquiu and O'Keeffe
If you time your visit to Abiquiu right, you can spend the night, take a morning hike, grab a green chili cheeseburger at Bode's General Store for lunch, and squeeze in two O'Keeffe tours.
O'Keeffe owned a rustic home at a remote place called Ghost Ranch, and a bus tour takes you around the ranch to see features in the landscape that inspired her. A lone dead tree in a field, framed by distant red rocks, is unmistakably the subject of her painting "Gerald's Tree." A flattop mesa called Cerro Pedernal, another of O'Keeffe's favorite subjects, is easy to pick out as you gaze at the Jemez Mountains. And O'Keeffe's famous "Ladder to the Moon" shows a ladder like the ones outside adobe homes in the pueblos; she used a ladder to climb on her roof for stargazing.
A separate tour takes you inside O'Keeffe's main home and studio, located 18 miles from Ghost Ranch in a Spanish colonial-era hacienda. The decor and setting epitomizes her modernist aesthetic: molded Eames chairs, a paper lantern that was a gift from sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and a door in the adobe-walled courtyard that inspired a series of paintings.
Both O'Keeffe tours sell out, so reserve early. Ghost Ranch tours cost $25, ghostranch.org/okeeffe-landscape-tour/. Abiquiu home and studio tours cost $35, www.okeeffemuseum.org/abiquiu-home-studio.html.
The Abiquiu Inn offers lodging and a terrific restaurant. Rooms are also available at Ghost Ranch, now a retreat center owned by the Presbyterian Church; be aware that the cabins are Spartan and hard to find after dark. (The ranch logo is an ox skull, another familiar O'Keeffe image.) The ranch's most popular trail goes to Chimney Rock, a three-mile round trip.
About 30 miles from Abiquiu or Santa Fe is Santuario de Chimayo, a picture-perfect adobe church with wooden gates. This 200-year-old National Historic Landmark attracts 200,000 visitors a year, many of whom seek cures and miracles from a well of holy dirt called el pocito; www.elsantuariodechimayo.us/.
Taos has many identities: ski town, arts colony with an upscale hippie vibe, and home to the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site with centuries-old adobe dwellings framed by mountains and the bright blue sky. Pueblo tours led by tribe members tell of the Taos natives' participation in an uprising against the Spanish conquistadors in 1680 that included the destruction of a pueblo church. The church ruins can still be seen, along with a 19th-century church that replaced it. Tours cost $10, www.taospueblo.com/.
Taos also has four art museums, a historic square lined with souvenir shops, and the Hacienda de los Martinez, an 1804 frontier ranch that is now a museum. The Mabel Dodge Luhan House, 240 Morada Lane, was a magnet for artists and intellectuals in the early 20th century, with Luhan, an heiress, hosting folks like photographer Ansel Adams, dancer Martha Graham and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. The Luhan House is now a conference center that offers lodging, but anyone may visit the grounds and public areas. From outside, look for colorful patterns on upstairs windows painted by novelist D.H. Lawrence in the 1920s.
Historic hotels include the Taos Inn, which offers charming rooms with a rustic feel and a terrific restaurant, Doc Martin's, named for Taos' first doctor, who began practicing in the 1890s.
Enchanted Circle and Rio Grande Gorge
The Enchanted Circle is an 85-mile loop of lovely, varied scenery: mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, small towns, ranchland and the Kit Carson National Forest. From Taos, take 64 West; then 522 North and 38 East to the towns of Questa and Red River; stay on 38 to Eagle Nest, and pick up 64 back to Taos.
About 10 miles from Taos on 64 West, look for the Rio Grande Gorge. Walk across the bridge to see the river trickling 565 feet below.
Love spas but not the high prices? At Ojo Caliente, access to mineral springs, steam, sauna and mud baths is just $18 Monday through Thursday ($28 Friday through Sunday), www.ojocaliente.com. Historic buildings include an 1868 bathhouse, but Ojo's history stretches back to indigenous tribes and Spanish conquistadors. Also on-site: a hotel and excellent restaurant with desserts like tres leches mango cake and pumpkin tamales.
Santa Fe Plaza is ground zero for tourists. Markets, shops and street vendors sell everything from red chili wreaths to turquoise and silver jewelry to decorative cowhides. The Palace of the Governors, 120 Washington Ave., built in the 1600s as the seat of government for Spain's Southwestern territories, is now one of a half-dozen museums in Santa Fe devoted to history, culture and art.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assissi, 131 Cathedral Place, completed in 1886, was modeled on Europe's Gothic cathedrals, but includes a chapel that preserves part of an earlier adobe church, along with a 17th-century wooden icon. Nearby, the Loretto Chapel is famous for a helix-shaped spiral staircase.
The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, 217 Johnson St., ($12) is another essential stop for her fans, with artifacts, photos and artwork including from her years in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch.
Santa Fe is known for excellent dining. Expect long lines and competition for reservations at spots like The Shed, 113 ½ E. Palace Ave., and Cafe Pasqual's, 121 Don Gaspar Ave.