If you follow me on Instagram you already know that about a couple months ago I embarked on a solo road trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Around the beginning of the year I was really longing for some time to myself. I had been going through a lot emotionally and wanted some space to sort through things and understand where I was at. So I thought a little mini retreat sounded like the best idea for me. Plus getting away to warmer sunny weather and delicious Mexican food wasn’t too hard of a sell.
I took an extra day off work and made a quick plan of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. The minute I hit the open road I felt excited and a little bit nervous. It had been a while since my last solo trip and I had forgotten how it can feel when you first start out. But the feeling quickly subsided as I set into a nice rhythm on the road (and of course had all my favorite junk foods and an audiobook ready).
Denver to Santa Fe is only about a 6 hour drive one way. And for such a short distance it’s really quite a beautiful place. I decided to split my trip into more of road trip on the way down to Santa Fe, and then drive straight back on the way to Denver. On the way down I meandered around the High and Low Roads to Taos, stopping at a few select spots along the way.
The first few hours of the drive were full of stark desert landscapes, where the brutal sun beats down on the pavement leaving cracks and tumbleweeds everywhere. I love the desert, so this exotic scenery always nurtures my soul. The landscape started to change once I started cutting west into the Taos mountain range and further into Carson National Forest.
The mountains were snow peaked and rolling foothills butted up right against the desert terrain. As I drove the back roads and deserted old highways there were more signs of wildlife. Tall prairie grass, old hewn wooden fences, and abandoned adobe settlements dotted the journey. It felt similar to Colorado but more rustic and wild.
My first stop was at the Rio Grande Bridge. While not massively impressive in scale, I did appreciate the sensation of standing on the bridge’s edge and feeling it sway as cars drove by. The sun shining and air whipping around felt clean and fresh.
Afterwards I decided to stop a mile or so down the road at the sustainable architectural project called Earthships. I was way more impressed by this community than the bridge I had just came from. Everything ran on renewable energy and each home grew it’s own food and recycled all of it’s own water.
Even though it was blisteringly hot outside, inside the Earthship was cool and damp almost like the feeling of being immersed in cold earthy clay. What I also loved about the homes was the unique shapes and materials that they used, which wove a tapestry of visual interest across each area of the building.
After the Earthship, I decided to drive down to Ojo Caliente, a beautiful spa and resort tucked away along the foothills of the mountains. Once I made it down to the spa I paid the day rate and immediately had to check out the mud pool.
Like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, they say the Ojo Caliente mud pool has restorative powers and is great for the skin. While I can’t say if that’s true, it was so novel to get slathered in mud and then to let the sun bake the clay until it was hardened. It basically felt like a giant face mask, and I kind of wanted to do it over and over again.
There are so many different natural springs at the resort I decided to jump in a few different ones. Once I grew tired of hot springs I snagged a woven hammock and lazily swung in the warm evening sun.
As the sun started to set over the mountain face, I decided to get back on the road and make another pit stop along the way at a small church in Chimayo. Winding through Chimayo it looks like any other mid-size desert town. Until you reach El Santuario de Chimayo which felt almost like a Catholic fair or park. Every street is full of vendors, snack carts, and religious shrines. The church itself is humble but raw and beautiful.
While I’m not a religious person, I was touched seeing all the prayer candles flickering and the pictures of those who needed prayers lining the tunnels. I said my little version of a prayer to many people I saw, and felt gratitude at being able to be where I was.
After El Santuario de Chimayo, I had to make it to my AirBnB at a decent time so I didn’t get to check out Ghost Ranch, which I’m a little sad I missed. But once I got to Santa Fe I was immediately happy that I had chosen the room I did. Even though I only rented a room and not the entire house, my listing had a separate area to myself during the trip and I absolutely loved my hostess. If you visit Santa Fe, I can’t recommend staying here enough (or here, or here).
The next day after a delicious breakfast at Modern General, I decided to get a head start and check out the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument bright and early.
About 40 minutes outside Santa Fe, the trail is a good hike up to the top of an overlook that showcases these amazing formations, called Tent Rocks. The trail was relatively easy until it reaches overlook, but at the top you can see the entire horizon. That part was more strenuous and required a bit of climbing. But every minute of the hike is worth it, including winding through the tight slot canyons on your way to the top.
Just as I made my way back down the trail it began to get rainy and cloudy. Once I made it back into Santa Fe it was actually pretty dreary. Most the shops were too quiet to warrant being open, but I did manage to sneak into Santa Fe Vintage Outpost.
Once inside I imagined all the ways I could excuse myself to blow my savings on every item I touched. Each piece was unique, full of western character, and had a supple texture that I love about vintage ware.
There are lots of shop on the main downtown square area, as well as plenty of art galleries. Since the weather that day was a bit rough I didn’t get to truly experience the shopping available. But what I did see didn’t really impress me since it all felt very similar from shop to shop. There are a few secret gems hidden throughout Santa Fe, you just have to do your research before you go.
While I didn’t do a lot of shopping, I did get my fair share of food in. Besides Modern General, I also ate at some really great Mexican restaurants. And when I say Mexican, I don’t mean Tex-Mex or American-Mexican, I mean truly authentic Mexican food. I recommend Casa Chimayo or La Choza for dinner, and Tune-Up Cafe or Cafe Pasqual’s for brunch. Just be forewarned that New Mexican food is spicy!
While the stores were mostly empty, the restaurants were always packed. Some places I tried both nights to get into and both times there were waits even to sit at the bar. One spot literally had a chalkboard for people to put their names on a bar waitlist… are you joking? And yes, I put my name on it. So the moral of the story? Make reservations! Or be prepared to seriously pay for it.
I also checked out Shake Foundation for their original green chili cheeseburger… delicious! I also stopped in at Whoo’s Donuts, and the Kakawa Chocolate House for foodie must-sees. Out of the three, my favorite had to be Whoo’s Donuts. I got my hands on some blue cornmeal and red chili chocolate flavors and they were absolutely delectable.
On my last day I decided to stop at the Pecos National Historic Park along the way back to Denver. Pecos National Historic Park is mostly a short trail that loops around an overlook and the remains of an ancient Native American settlement. The park maintains what’s left of the settlement so it’s not necessarily the original materials, but it helps solidify the history with tangible and beautiful architecture.
The park was absolutely breathtaking and desolate. There weren’t many other people at the park making it very peaceful to explore and walk around. The settlement itself was full of interesting historical tidbits and stories of the tribes that lived here before Europeans laid claim to the land.
It was spooky to stand under the beams of where the church had been built and again destroyed during a native uprising. The fact that you can also climb down into one of the kivas was beyond awesome. Having visited the Anasazi settlement in Mesa Verde, this had a very similar feeling in historical importance.
The rest of the ride home was uneventful. Long highways full of truckers, mini-vans, and all the not-so-exciting towns from Santa Fe to Denver. But the whole ride home I thought about my trip. What I loved the most, what I wanted to learn more about, and what I was taking away from Santa Fe.
Honestly I loved the actual areas around Santa Fe more than I thought I would. I didn’t have high expectations, and thought it was going to be a quiet and simple weekend. Surprising places like Tent Rock and Pecos National Park truly impressed me. My hostess and all the vendors at the farmers market, made me feel welcome and warm. I left knowing Santa Fe was a place to stop and take note of.
I felt the allure of the town and it’s small artsy culture. With weather similar to Colorado, I could see so many things we had in common. While no where near as modern or trendy like Denver is these days, I could see the starts of promising roots taking hold.
A younger generation is getting involved in the local art community, and the food scene is expanding outside it’s traditional Mexican background. There are nearly seven, yes seven, national parks and sites just around the city. And after only tapping a small fraction of what there is to explore in New Mexico, I know Santa Fe will definitely be a place I visit again.