We have returned from our relatively budget-friendly family trip to New Mexico over the holidays!

While Santa Fe was really the focus of trip, we explored a ton of the state, including Roswell, Bottomless Lake State Park, Santa Fe, Bandalier National Park, Albuquerque, White Sands National Park, and Lincoln National Forest.

The kids were of course on winter break. At work, we had back-to-back 4-day weekends for Christmas and New Years, so I just took off the little 3-day work week in the middle and got 11 days off in a row. It sounds like everyone else did too. Score! Lauren worked a little from the road but also got most of it off.

Day 1: Austin to Roswell

The trusty family minivan was packed to the brim the day after Christmas. After dumping Baxter at a sitter’s house, we hit the open roads. What a nice, easy drive it was. Flat, sunny, minimal traffic, mostly divided highways. We stopped for lunch in San Angelo, and made a pit stop at the border, otherwise it was more or less a straight drive through. Lauren worked from the passenger seat, while the kids were largely glued to screens, leaving me to talk to myself reading signs and commenting on interesting scenery.

The driving was funny though. You would never see a single car coming in the opposite direction. It was always a pod of like 10 cars together with one slow poke holding up traffic and everyone else forced to wait for a passing lane. We were in the far back of a line of dozens of cars and when we finally got around it turned out to be 4 matching antique vans with “slow moving vehicle” signs. Another annoying thing was the passing lanes. I would be stuck behind some slow poke, but as soon as we got a passing lane, the car would seemingly floor it so no one could get around, and by the time it went back to a single lane they were still in the lead and back to going 20 under the limit. They had to either be complete jerks, or only felt comfortable driving fast with the extra lane.

By the time we arrived in Roswell, it was dark and Lauren was ill, so I took the kids to a late night McDonald’s run at the only UFO-themed McDonald’s. Everything in Roswell was alien-themed, of course.

The Texas New Mexico border

Here I am at the Texas-New Mexico border… also, the Central-Mountain Time Zone border. New Mexico could have come up with a nicer welcome sign, I think!

Day 2: Roswell, State Park, Drive to Santa Fe

We visited one of Roswell’s many alien attractions, which was sorta meh. At least it was only $22 for us all to explore the small museum of a hodgepodge of alien stuff. Having seen the museum, I am fairly convinced the Roswell UFO stuff isn’t a total sham. After that we visited nearby Bottomless Lake State Park which was our first taste of the rugged New Mexico landscape. We hiked up some small mountains and saw some great scenery. For $5, it was much better than the tourist trap alien attractions! We found a kitchy cowboy cafe on the outskirts before venturing north towards Santa Fe. Drives don’t get much easier than that—straight, flat, and dry divided highways with little traffic and high speed limits!

We checked in at our hotel in Santa Fe—the Hotel Santa Fe! Our only negative experience of the trip occurred at dinnertime when we tried to eat in the fancy hotel restaurant and the waitress forgot to put in our order. After 110 minutes of waiting Lauren and the kids bailed and went to the room while I stayed around and ate alone and got their food boxed up. Lauren hoped I would remedy the situation somehow and not pay the full tab. I hate confrontation, but I called over an assistant manager and explained what happened and he asked how I’d like to handle it. I said maybe take off the drinks, but he suggested I just get some free drinks for the room. I said sure, two top-shelf margaritas. He said ‘only two’? So I took three, a $51 value! I will count that as a victory.

Roswell was a fun little spot for some alien and UFO roadside thrills.

Bottomless Lake State Park was a fun first taste of rough terrain.

Day 3: Snowy Santa Fe

Part of the allure of northern New Mexico to us was the idea that it would be colder than Austin, which felt seasonally appropriate. We knew there could even be snow, something the kids love and I can now tolerate in smaller doses after being away from it for over a decade. We awoke to light snow, but too warm to accumulate. By day’s end, it was really coming down hard and beginning to stick as it got dark. Fun!

The day started with the kids and I visiting a coffee shop and loading up on pastries. I knew I was going to restart keto in January so I figured what the hell, let’s end the year big and just ignore all dietary concerns. We all then took a stroll around downtown. Right away, it was clear Santa Fe was not a normal city. Its downtown wasn’t full of skyscrapers or busy traffic. It was mostly pedestrians strolling from shop to shop, with tiny ancient single-lane streets. Even the state capitol building was a nontraditional shape. There was a famous chapel with a spiral staircase constructed without a single nail that was a sight to see, and then we had lunch downtown. That afternoon, with the snow really falling hard, we met up with my co-worker Cher at a brewery down the street. We were all too full from lunch to even have dinner, so we enjoyed the hot tub outside in the icy cold.

The Hotel Santa Fe upon arrival, still decked out for Christmas. Hard to see, but snow was in fact falling.

Little Edie dreams of one day becoming a New Mexico state legislator!

Day 4: Meow Wolf, Mountain Hike

It took some serious scraping to get the van ready for the day. After breakfast, we went and checked out Meow Wolf. It’s pretty hard to describe a place like this. It was like a really elaborate carnival funhouse for all ages. You just explore this crazy house with 70 rooms, which are like immersive art exhibits. You check all over for secret tunnels and trap doors and stuff. Apparently we didn’t find everything from what I heard, but we had a couple very fun hours. It’s astounding we didn’t lose either kid in there.

We grabbed lunch at Tomasita’s, a beloved New Mexican restaurant, and then ventured out for a really wilderness hike. We found a spot on the edge of the Sangro de Cristo range for a good family hike. It was cold and required coats, hats, and mittens. The kids at first were up to the challenge, but at the 1.5-mile mark they had had enough. John whimpered in pain and agony on the walk back down the snowy hill, with Edie riding mostly on my shoulders.

After returning to the hotel we really struggled to find a place to eat. No one was in the mood for the same thing, so Edie and I finally ventured out to a little food hall. We ordered some curry from a little Cambodian shop, but the lady refused to give us takeout containers, insisting the food will be best if presented nicely at her table. So Lauren and John were forced to trudge out and meet us much to their chagrin.

Like I said, Meow Wolf is just kinda hard to explain. Really just gotta experience it, which I would like to do again!

View of Dale Ball Trail on the edge of the mountains.

Day 5: Cave Dwellings

After a hearty breakfast at The Pantry – Rio, we hit the road to Bandalier National Park, home of the ancient Pueblan civilization in the side of mountains. The drive up there was intense, driving uphill on not fully dry roads right along a massive drop-off with only a small ledge preventing us from tumbling over. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the kids to so much look up from their devices. But we made it, and explored the caves. It is a must-do if in the area! At night we finally all agreed on a meal and found a nice Italian spot, Andiamo.

Bandalier National Park is a great little half-day trip if in Santa Fe. Fun to explore these ancient caves!

Day 6: Albuquerque, White Sands

It was New Years Eve and time to leave for home, but since no one actually had work or school until January 3, there was no sense pushing it too hard. So we ventured well out of the way and made a stop in Albuquerque, entirely to take in the Breaking Bad universe sights. Well, really all we did was visit the home of Walter White (the residents are freaking sick and tired of gawkers coming by) and then go to the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul store and museum. That was well worth the visit to ABQ. If there’s one show Lauren and I can agree on, it’s BB/BCS. They had all the show artifacts and great photo ops. I could have stayed there for an hour.

The drive south was long and arduous, but in late afternoon we made it to Alamogordo, and then White Sands National Park. I had never heard of this place before our trip, but Lauren insisted we visit, and I’m glad we did! Pictures don’t do it justice. Miles and miles of fine white sand dunes against a mountain backdrop. We got there at sunset and saw some truly breathtaking sights. Plus, we bought sleds and sled wax in the gift shop and had fun buzzing down the dunes, just like sledding in the snow. The park closed at 6 and we went back into town for the night. No one, not even I, made it up til midnight at the hotel. It was the first NYE since probably the early 90s where I was in bed before the ball dropped.

Albuquerque’s only stop was the Breaking Bad store. Edie got scolded for messing with Saul’s delicate law scale.

Really no way at all to do justice to the scenery at White Sands on camera. Doesn’t come close to capturing the views!

Day 7: The Long Ass Drive Home

I never really intended to get the whole 600 miles home to Austin in one sitting, especially after not even leaving the hotel til close to 10. Thankfully the New Mexico part of the drive was more majestic scenery. The Lincoln National Forest was another unexpected gem on the way. After that we really just powered through non-stop. I hate driving after dark out in the country, so I was getting angrily blown off the road by every other motorist as soon as we hit Big Spring, TX. But the old minivan and my peepers didn’t fail me as we arrived safely in Austin around 10:30pm.

The kids waiting for the vacuum repair guy to come sweep them away to a new identity and life? No, just a scenic roadside table.

Final Thoughts

We do a fair amount of domestic traveling, and I gotta say, this trip is right up at the top of the list. I had no idea New Mexico was so full of great attractions, from the gimmicky alien stuff and the trendy art installments, to the unique old towns, great food, and endless landscapes. I don’t very often come back from a trip with intentions to go to the same place right away again; I always like to explore and find somewhere new. But this trip was actually too much to see and do in too little time. I would definitely plan on going back soon. I could do a whole week just on the Day 6 part of the trip between White Sands and Lincoln National Forest and the skiing in between.