Looking for some enchantment
March 8, 2011 12:07 AM   Subscribe

Looking for fun places to go on and off the beaten path in northern Arizona and New Mexico.

I've talked myself into turning a relatively simple road trip from Pasadena, CA to Phoenix into a Southwest Extravaganza. I had already planned to go up to Flagstaff and Grand Canyon Village, but now I think I want to make Santa Fe the end of the road before I head for home. So I'd like to get the Hivemind's suggestions on fun things to do anywhere between and around Flagstaff and Santa Fe. If they're not on the way, they should be within day-trip length from either of those two cities or from Albuquerque.

I'm not really into camping, but I'd like to hear about nature, museums, great restaurants, cool antique stores, or whatever is unforgettable. Thanks in advance.
posted by dunadan17 to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Canyon de Chelly -- old Anasazi dwellings in the cliff/canyon. IIRC there's a guided tour with a native guide that takes you into the parts of the park that are normally off-limits. I thought it a pretty interesting place.
I did not get any further east, unfortunately.
posted by gijsvs at 12:45 AM on March 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Close to Flag -- Oak Creek Canyon, really pretty drive on south to Sedona, if it was summer you could swim in the creek. Walnut Canyon is a short drive, a short hike around a really interesting place and back into Flag by lunchtime.

And: Get up on Lookout Mountain, at night, hopefully it's cold and late so no-one else will be around, wait for a train to come rockin' on up the tracks from the south, and then watch it stream through Flag, hook a big right and turn off to the east, to disappear off into the Painted Desert but you can't see the desert at night. But that's okay, because watching that train stream on up, the light at first not but a tiny twinkle, and not a sound to be heard and then the light shows brighter and the noise comes on, the wail of the horn, watch the little crossing gate arms come down with the flashing red lights, it's like having a train set laid out in front of you but it's the real deal, one of my favorite train-type things to do.

You can tour the observatory on Lookout Mountain during the day and it's cute or whatever but myself, I'm more about the cold night and the pretty train scene.

No doubt you'll get a zillion other answers, these are just the first off top of my head here.

Northern Arizona is beautiful, I bet you'll enjoy it.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:26 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Go see the Very Large Array.
posted by magicbus at 3:29 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Trinity site in NM = ground zero for first atom bomb test. Only open to the public twice/year. Per wiki: "In September 1953, about 650 people attended the first Trinity Site open house. In recent years, the site has been opened for public visits twice each year, on the first Saturdays in April and October."

Unfortunately I was in the area at the wrong time of year to see it, but thought it would be cool (or hot, radiation is still elevated) to stand there even if there is not a lot to see.
posted by Kevin S at 5:24 AM on March 8, 2011

The Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque. Best tortillas in the entire world. Worst art in... well, it's no Bad Art Museum, but it's probably at least the best bad art collection in the Four Corners area. Try the carne adovada, the breakfast burritos and/or the sweet rolls and take a 12-pack of tortillas to munch on in the car.

Oh, and I went to the Trinity site once. It was sort of interesting conceptually but it's really just an empty bit of desert. If you do go, make sure to stop at the Owl Cafe in San Antonio on your way there or back. If the nuclear history thing is your deal, I'm pretty sure there are tours that go down from one of the museums in Albuquerque. There's a lot of cool off beaten track nuke history stuff-- the Nuclear Museum in Albuquerque and Bradbury in Los Alamos are the big ones but I found the Los Alamos Historical Museum pretty moving the last time I was there. I recommend reading 109 East Palace before or while you go for some great stories about the Manhattan project that would really enrich the human aspect of the Manhattan project. (You can visit the actual 109 East Palace, the office that acted as a liaison between Santa Fe and Los Alamos, but I hear there's a linen shop or something there now.)

Oh, and it's not really within day-trip range-- you'd want to spend the night there-- but Carlsbad Caverns are awesome in the truest sense of the word. You stay in Carlsbad or White City and have to drive to the National Park. It's basically one of the most alien and beautiful things on Earth, in my opinion.
posted by NoraReed at 5:36 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can't second strongly enough the Los Alamos Historical Museum. It's small, but packed full of fascinating; we spent so long there that we didn't have time to go to the science museum in Los Alamos.

In Santa Fe, Kakawa Chocolate House. It's unlikely you've ever had anything like their elixirs before.

And Tent Rocks National Monument is spectacular.
posted by rtha at 6:32 AM on March 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you go past the Very Large Array, as magicbus suggests, you MUST stop in Pietown and eat pie at one of the pie diners! (Be aware that the pie shops tend to close in the late afternoon.)
posted by scrambles at 8:46 AM on March 8, 2011

In Chama, northwest of Santa Fe, is the Cumbres and Toltec narrow gauge railroad with a number of trips behind steam locomotives through the toltec gorge. Half day or full day with beautiful scenery and the lovable clank and hiss of period steam locomotives. The railroad crosses the New Mexico Colorado state line some thirteen times on the trip.
posted by leafwoman at 8:51 AM on March 8, 2011

About Trinity site: It's a cool idea, but there really isn't much to see. You spend hours in a long line of cars, so if going, make sure you empty your bladder first. The site is undeveloped. You used to be able to pick up trinitite from the ground, but it's now difficult to find any.

A better choice would be The National Museum of Nuclear Science and Energy in Albuquerque. It has a lot of great interactive displays, The history of radiation uses, and items like the car the scientist would use to get around NM, etc.

Meteor Crater is on I-40 in Arizona, as is The Painted Desert.

Along I-40 in NM, There are a lot of fun things in the Gallup/Grants area. The Malpais is some amazing landscape, and there are a few related things to see there,like the Ice caves . Not too far from that area is El Morro, and in the opposite direction is Chaco Canon. I haven't been to Canon De Chelly, but have heard great things about it.

Santa Fe has quite a few great museums, Like the Wheelwright and Folk Art, to name a couple.

You could drive on the turquoise trail in between SF and ABQ. That will take you through Madrid, which has a bunch of nice little galleries, and then pop into the Tinkertown Museum, which is a hoot. Albuquerque has a tram.

There are a lot of great suggestions from other mefites, and I hope you have a great trip!
posted by annsunny at 9:10 AM on March 8, 2011

Bisbee, Arizona is a beautiful old copper mining town. Most of its downtown core has survived and it is home to a thriving arts community. The Copper Queen Hotel has been open since 1902, and it is lovely.

If you find yourself in the Tucson area, be sure to visit the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. It's a world-class zoo and museum, featuring indigenous (and a few exotic) animals, a botanical garden and art institute.
posted by workerant at 9:28 AM on March 8, 2011

What about hot springs? New Mexico is full of them. There's the town of Jemez Springs, set in a beautiful red rock canyon, full of both natural in-the-woods hot springs as well as boutique springs inside the charming little town. (It's about 1.5 hours NW from Albuquerque). There's Ojo Caliente (1.5 hours north of Albuquerque) which has mud baths and mineral pools for each element (the lithium one is especially relaxing). On the north end of Santa Fe, 10,000 waves is this Japanese garden oasis of private pools and spas. In the south end of the state, just off I-25, there's the funky-grown-up hippie town of Truth or Consequences where nearly every hotel has their own individual hot spring oasis varying from large tubs set along the Rio Grande to private in-room baths. Coming from Arizona, there are also the Gila hot springs in the southwestern part of the state as well. They are more remote and off-the-beaten-path to get to but well worth the visit.
posted by caveatz at 9:50 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The petrified forest is an amazing place.
posted by Flood at 10:05 AM on March 8, 2011

If you find yourself needing a place to stay in Gallup, please stay at El Rancho. I stayed there once, and while our room was tiny (I imagine other rooms are bigger), the hotel was chock full of interesting, and there were plenty of places to sprawl out, aside from just in our room.
posted by sa3z at 11:13 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Check the Roadside America web site for quirky attractions along your route.
posted by valannc at 12:27 PM on March 8, 2011

Have you looked at the couchsurfing.com website? Whether or not you need a place to sleep, there is a section for posting trips/events in specific areas.

So if you were to post on the Flagstaff board that you were going to be in town in March for X days, you could ask locals for ideas, or start an event.

For example:

A hike- There are a lot of trails surrounding Flag, locals will know which ones are doable and which ones are covered in snow/mud. Sedona locals will know all the secret local favorites. You'll have a lot of hosts offering to go with you.

A tour of museums- The museum of northern AZ and the pioneer museum are practically next door to each other.

A tour of breweries- Flag Brew, Beaver Street Brew & Old Lumberyard Brew are very close to each other in Flag and the drive down 89a to Sedona to visit the Oak creek brewing company is about a half hour drive and well worth it.

If you do wind up in Flag needing a couch feel free to message me, I'm a couchsurfing host with plenty of references.

Happy Traveling!
posted by MansRiot at 12:52 PM on March 8, 2011

There are some really amazing rock formations out past Abiquiu, NM on US84 -- among the most striking I've seen in the state, famously painted by Georgia O'Keefe blah blah etc -- along with hiking trails and campgrounds. It starts getting cool about an hour from Santa Fe, so it'd make a nice day trip. You could stop by Abiquiu Lake on the way there or back, also. There's a little restaurant called Socorro's on US84/285 just past Espanola; they have a spaghetti plate with red chile, among other delicious things!

If you decide to go to Los Alamos you should see the Valle Grande, a large valley inside a massive volcanic caldera. If you go at dusk you can often spot elk and/or deer grazing in the area. There are a number of fun hiking trails, campgrounds, and fishing streams just past the valley itself. It's only about a half-hour trip from Los Alamos proper. If you like surplus stores and/or anti-nuclear-weapons activism, check out The Black Hole while you're in Los Alamos, too; ask about the obelisks!

If you like hot food, try the "level 2" green chile cheeseburger at Horseman's Haven in Santa Fe. Warning: it is really goddamned hot (I'm pretty sure they add pure-cap to the sauce as well as chile), but at least you'll remember your meal forever. Gabriel's is a bit out of town (though it is on the way to Abiquiu and Los Alamos), but worth it if you love guacamole -- they make it right at the table for you. The entrees and margaritas are also very good.

I also second the hot springs in TorC (try the Italian restaurant there!), the VLA, Trinity Site (worth going at least once), the Owl Cafe (and/or Manny's, across the street -- I always thought they had much better food despite not being as famous), Petrified Forest, and El Malpais.
posted by vorfeed at 1:18 PM on March 8, 2011

Lake Powell is located 2 - 3 hours north of Flagstaff. If you have the time and resources, consider renting a houseboat. While you're in the area, you MUST do a tour of the often photographed Antelope Canyon. Then travel two hours east to Monument Valley. From there go 2-3 hours southeast to Canyon de Chelley, as mentioned by gijsvs in the first post. IMO, it puts the Grand Canyon to shame - no crowds or tour buses - just the sound of the wind whistling through the canyon. Be sure to check out Spider Rock! From there, you are a relatively short drive to Window Rock, the capitol of the Navajo Nation. It probably sounds like a lot of driving, but there's little traffic and the vistas will take your breath away.
posted by kbar1 at 8:01 PM on March 8, 2011

Make sure that if you end up doing the loop thing and drive by Stewart's Petrified Wood that you stop and look at the weird dinosaurs and mannequins.
posted by NoraReed at 8:55 PM on March 8, 2011

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