A New Mexico one week family road trip is the perfect low-cost vacation with teens, an active family or couples. “The Land of Enchantment” often gets overshadowed by destinations like Arizona or California, but if you’re looking for an inexpensive, eye-opening family vacation, New Mexico is hard to beat!
Whether you’re looking for culture, sun, National Parks, amazing cuisine, sand, art or hiking, New Mexico will appeal to just about anyone in your family.
We just got back from a one week New Mexico road trip and it was truly, one of the most mind-blowing AND cheapest vacations we’ve ever taken!
While the kids were asking why we weren’t flying to Hawaii, California or Florida for spring break, a New Mexico road trip was my first choice. When we look back at the vacations that truly opened our kids’ eyes and minds, visiting the amazing US National Parks hands down provides that.
The focus of our Southwest family vacation was to explore the amazing National Parks and National Monuments of New Mexico, which did involve a bit of driving. While we flew in and out of Albuquerque, the majority of our trip was spent doing a loop to Santa Fe, Carlsbad, White Sands and then back to Albuquerque.
FAVORITE FAMILY STOPS
Bandelier National Monument
Tent Rocks National Monument
Carlsbad Caverns National Park (voted our #1 stop by 3 out of 4 of us!)
White Sands National Monument (Madi’s #1)
New Mexico Road Trip ~ Day 1
Our plane arrived late PM on the first day, so we only had just enough time to drive to the hotel and get some shut-eye. My family wasn’t impressed with the cheap hotel in the sketchy part of town I booked us for 12 hours. Good thing I nailed the rest of the trip! 😉
While we didn’t plan to spend much time in Albuquerque since we’ve been here before, visiting in late April for the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow and in October for the International Balloon Fiesta are also popular times to stay longer in Albuquerque.
New Mexico Road Trip ~ Day 2
ALBUQUERQUE to SANTA FE
We were excited to hit the ground running, so we woke up early to start exploring Albuquerque for the day before we headed off to Santa Fe for 3 days. A fun 4-hour family stop that we highly recommend is visiting the ABQ BioPark, which features a zoo, botanical garden and aquarium.
Purchasing a whole-park pass was only about $5 more per person, so it enabled us to easily bounce around to the best stops at the zoo, botanical garden and aquarium since we were short on time and only planned the ABQ BioPark as a half day adventure.
The zoo is approximately 2 miles away from the aquarium and botanical garden, if you have the whole-park pass, you can conveniently take the train back and forth both sides of the park.
One of our favorite areas at xxx was the kids’ fantasy garden, which included life-size vegetables to explore! I do admit, we’re all kids at heart, so we had no problem being the only adults climbing around the kids play area.
An example of the gorgeous cactus at the botanical garden.
Exploring Albuquerque Old Town
Exploring Albuquerque’s old town is another highly recommended stop where you can easily spend a couple hours exploring the charming pueblo shops and eating yummy Mexican food. Old town dates back to 1706, and the century-old adobe houses have since been converted into shops, galleries and restaurants.
We drove the shortest route to get to Santa Fe since we wanted to arrive before dark. If you have extra time, considering driving the Turquoise Trail, which is the scenic route to Santa Fe that passes through an old ghost town and XXX.
TIME SAVINGS TIP: if you’re headed to Santa Fe early in the day, consider a stop at Tent Rocks on the way. We couldn’t do this since Tent Rocks was closed due to Easter, so we doubled back later on Day 4. See day 4 for more info about Tent Rocks.
Where to Stay in Santa Fe
We rented a 1950s Pueblo house that was about 0.75 miles to Santa Fe’s historic area. It was surprisingly large and cozy, and would easily accommodate a party of 6 with a total of 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, 2 dining areas and 3 different living room/family room areas.
If you’re new to renting through Airbnb, you get the cozy home amenities and extra space a house provides that hotels don’t typically provide. Renting an Airbnb is usually cheaper than a hotel, plus you save on food costs by having your own kitchen and preparing many of your own meals. With us being pretty healthy eaters and my husband following a Keto diet, this worked well for us.
MONEY SAVINGS TIP: You can use our Airbnb code to get $40 off of your first Airbnb stay.
New Mexico Road Trip ~ Day 3
Santa Fe is a magical place like no other in the Southwest. It’s the second oldest city in the US, sits 7000 above sea level and blends the dessert beauty with stunning mountains and rock formations. In addition to the 3 district cultures represented in the area, the Native Americans, the Hispanics and the Anglo, Santa Fe is also well known for it’s art loving culture and features over 250 museums and art galleries.
Visiting Santa Fe was a perfect vacation stop with a family where we could eat southwest cuisine, experience cultural differences, visit intense rock formations and be surrounded by fun modern art.
Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument is about 45 mins outside of Sante Fe and is the perfect half day trip when traveling with older kids or for those wanting an active, hands-on historic adventure.
In the 33,000 acre canyon surrounding Bandelier National Monument, you can experience Pueblo cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, and numerous hiking trails. The popular cliff dwelling trails can be seen in about a 2 hour time period. Bandelier National Monument could easily be an all day trip if you want to spend the day hiking in the canyon.
While we’ve visited cliff dwellings before at Mesa Verde in Colorado and Montezuma’s Castle in Arizona, what sets Bandelier National Monument apart is that you can actually CLIMB INTO the cliff dwellings.
An easy hike for families the Main Loop Trail, which is a 1-mile loop trail where you can climb numerous designated short ladders to get a peek at how the cliff dwellers used to live.
One of my more questionable (but worth it) decisions was climbing up 140 feet on a windy day up to the Alcove House, I can’t even begin to image what it must have been like to climb up and down ladders like this on a daily basis.
MONEY SAVINGS TIP: Purchase the yearly national parks pass if you’re stopping at the 4 national parks and monuments like we did ($80 at the time of writing this). You’ll save a tiny bit of money if you’re traveling with a family of 4, plus you’ll still be able to visit other national parks through the year for no extra cost.
SANTA FE PLAZA
Spending the afternoon wandering the streets near the Santa Fe Plaza and eating southwestern food was the perfect way to end our first full day in Santa Fe.
The Santa Fe Plaza is a historic and well-known stop of old town Santa Fe, the original Plaza dates back to 1620 was a Spanish fort surrounded by a large defensive wall. Today, the plaza features shops, galleries, museums, restaurants and lovely park.
Another quick little stop near Santa Fe’s Plaza, is a drive by of the oldest house in the US! Dating back to the early 1620’s, the De Vargas Street house also features a quaint little museum.
New Mexico Road Trip ~ Day 4
If you ever want to feel like you’re in a Star Wars movie, Visiting Tent Rocks is a must-see destination just outside of Santa Fe that was definitely one of our family favorite stops in New Mexico.
ABOUT TENT ROCKS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is only 45 minutes southeast of Santa Fe and makes an incredible half-day stop when you’re looking for an active outdoor adventure with older kids or teens.
The cone-shaped tent rock formations called hoodoos, were formed 6 to 7 million years ago by volcanic eruptions that left pumice, ash and tuff deposits over 1,000 feet thick.
Again, if you’re traveling earlier in the day between Albuquerque to Santa Fe, you’ll save a little bit of time stopping along the way to Santa Fe instead of doubling back like we did. That being said, we didn’t find it any trouble taking a 45-minute drive to get to Tent Rocks on the 4th day of our New Mexico family vacation.
PARKING TIP: Plan on getting to Tent Rocks early in the day, one because of the heat, and two because they close the National Monument if the parking lot gets full. You’ll have to sit there at the entrance for 30-90 minutes waiting for someone to finish their hike for you to get a parking spot.
The main Tent Rocks trail is 1.2 miles round-trip that climbs uphill, it passes through a narrow slot canyon, over a few large rocks, plus you pass incredible tent shaped hoodoo rock formations.
As you can see, numerous sections of the canyon are pretty narrow and require hikers to travel in a single file line.
We were surrounded by incredible tent shaped hoodoos, what an out-of-this-world experience! It’s rock formations like these that make traveling to the southwest one of our most favorite family vacation options.
The view from the top before we started our climb down. It was absolutely beautiful and well worth it if you’re able to go all the way to the top!
HIKING TIPS: Please wear tennis shoes, numerous people had to turn around because they were in flip flops and sandals. You’ll miss the most scenic parts if you don’t wear sturdy footwear.
Make sure to bring water with you (we pack 2 bottles for each person), it’s a short hike, but it’s very hot and uphill.
If you’re staying in Santa Fe for a few days, visitng Tent Rocks is truly a must-visit destination!
Santa Fe’s Canyon Road Art District
We spent the afternoon visiting the artsy district of Canyon Road, which features over 100 art galleries, boutiques and restaurants within a half mile area. While visiting one of the many museums is often at the top of the itinerary for many Santa Fe travelers, we wanted to be outside soaking up the sun as much as possible!
Another popular art district that teens would enjoy is the Santa Fe Railyard Arts District
A last minute stop at the Kakawa Chocolate House near artsy Canyon Road was the perfect way to end our day. Kakawa is one of the top-rated chocolate shops in Santa Fe and features unique southwestern delights such as chocolate covered peppers, pinon fudge and prickly pear truffles.
SANTA FE ART TIPS:
Santa Fe is known for dozens of famous and world-renowned museums and galleries. If you have more time than we did and want to check out other museums, here are a few that older kids will enjoy!
- Visiting the sculpture garden at Nedra Matteucci Galleries
- Exploring the fantasy world of Meow Wolf
- Museum of International Folk Art
- Harrell House of Natural Oddities
New Mexico Road Trip ~ DAY 5
SANTA FE TO CARLSBAD
Driving the quickest route from Santa Fe to Carlsbad will take about 4.2 hours. Since we already planned taking a scenic and longer trip on day 7, we decided to just get to Carlsbad as quickly as we could.
We made a stop in Roswell for 2 hours to visit the Roswell UFO museum and grab a bite to eat.
The UFO museum was a fun, inexpensive and interesting stop to an otherwise long and dry stretch of road.
We highly recommend Chef Toddzilla’s Gourmet Burgers if you’re in the mood for amazing, juicy burgers. This stop basically broke every health plan we were attempting to follow before we stopped at Chef Toddzillas.
Chef Toddzilla’s won #1 place in the national food truck competition AND has been featured on the Travel Channel.
After Madi was told they were out of salad when she tried to take the healthy route and was given a blank stare when asking if she could order a sandwich without fries, we decided to have a glorious one time binge meal.
On to Carlsbad
We decided to stay in another Airbnb, that was in a nice and quiet residential neighborhood slightly north of town that sleeps up to 5 people. Our main purpose of being in Carlsbad was to visit Carlsbad Caverns the next day, so we used the afternoon to relax at the rental house.
If you decide to go the Airbnb route instead of a hotel (FYI, hotel prices in Carlsbad are outrageous!), don’t forget to use the $40 discount if it’s your first time booking with Airbnb.
New Mexico Road Trip ~ DAY 6
VISITING CARLSBAD CAVERNS
Carlsbad Caverns National Park was the honestly the highlight of our family vacation (well, for 3 out of 4 of us haha). Comparing it to a movie scene again like we did with Tent Rocks and Star Wars, visiting Carlsbad Caverns felt like we were in a Lord of the Rings movie.
I have to admit it was a little creepy being that far underground, but it was such an amazing experience, we tried not to think about what else might be down there with us.
About Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns is in southern New Mexico near the Texas border in the Chihuahuan Desert. Carlsbad Caverns features 119 hidden caves that were formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone, which left behind the caves of stunning stalagmites and stalactites.
We visited the self-guided portions of the cave, which includes the Natural Entrance Trail and The Big Room. If you aren’t up for a strenuous hike, you can take the elevator 750′ feet down to explore the easy 1-mile Big Room path.
The Natural Entrance Trail is a little strenuous, it’s a 2.5 mile round-trip trail that’s a 75 story steep hike in and out.
Unfortunately for us, the elevator was broken for the first time in Carlsbad Caverns history and 3 tourists were trapped in the elevator for 3.5 hours just the week before.
It was still under maintenance during our time at Carlsbad Caverns, so the only option for us was to hike an equivalent of 75 stories back out on the Natural Entrance Trail. No, this wasn’t easy but there was plenty of places to stop along the way for us to catch our breath.
Taking a road trip down to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park is definitely a worthy once in a lifetime trip!
New Mexico Road Trip ~ DAY 7
CARLSBAD TO ALBUQUERQUE
The quickest route from Carlsbad back to Albuquerque takes about 4.2 hours. We decided to take a longer path on the scenic highway 82 to spend a couple hours at White Sands National Monument.
If you have the extra time, we highly recommend driving 2 extra hours and visiting White Sands! Most people spend only 1-2 hours here, but it’s such an incredible sight, it’s definitely worth the extra time to explore the stunning white gypsum dunes.
About White Sands
White Sands National Monument is the largest gypsum sand dunes in the world and covers over 224 sq. miles. The rare, white sand dunes were formed millions of years ago when the Southern US was covered by the Permian Sea. The reason the sand doesn’t blow away is because there’s water just a couple inches below the surface and still holds the sand together.
What to do at White Sands
One of the most popular activities at White Sands is to go sledding at the sand dunes. Sledding discs can be purchased at Walmart in Alamogordo for a fraction of the Visitors Center cost.
You can also buy sledding discs at the White Sands Visitors Center, but they charge $20 each and have a limited number of used discs for sale for $10.
Even if you don’t go sledding, visiting White Sands is an incredible place to visit! You can explore the short boardwalk trail, going hiking, play in the sand, or rest at one of the covered areas.
PARK TIP: Because White Sands National Monument is right next to White Sands Missile Range, the park periodically shuts down during missile testing. Be sure to check the schedule missle testing schedule to make sure White Sands isn’t closed during your intended visit.
Back in ALBUQUERQUE
Between a 6.5 hour drive and 2 hours playing at White Sands, we arrived back in Albuquerque in the pm. We headed straight to our Marriott Hotel, which was nice spending our final night at a hotel that featured a bar, restaurant and pool on site so we could just rest, relax and not leave the property.
The Marriott was in a nice part of town and only 10 minutes to the Albuquerque airport.
Bonus Hotel Savings Tips
Madi is a Marriott employee so we were able to get a big discount on hotel rates. While we love staying in homes through Airbnb, there’s times that isn’t practical and being a part-time hotel employee definitely makes travel more affordable! My husband jokes that if she ever leaves, I have to take her job so we can keep getting Marriott and Starwood discounts!
Marriott also owns Starwood Hotels, and even before she started working for Marriott, the Starwood hotel brand was always one of my first places to check for travel lodging. Being a Starwood member is free, it has tremendous perks and the rates are only a little more than the employee rates, which is pretty amazing.
Our other favorite site to get cheap hotels is hotels.com. If you sign up as a hotels.com member, you can unlock secret members-only prices plus you can earn free hotel stays with their loyalty rewards program.
Ebates is an online shopping app that gives you cash back to make your online purchases through their website and hotels.com is included. For trying out their free app, they even give you $10 as a free bonus, which is pretty cool.
We’re taking a bucket list family trip to Europe this summer and booking most of our Europe lodging through hotels.com earned us over $200 cash back through Ebates PLUS we earned 3 nights of free hotel rooms for a future trip.
Be sure to check out our post about how we got 2 free plane tickets to Europe and other discount family travel tips, if you’re always looking for ways to travel with your family on the cheap.
NM ROAD TRIP- DAY 8
Time to go back to the rain!
We were on an early morning flight from the sunny southwest and Albuquerque and back to the raining (and lush) Pacific Northwest.
Of course the kids questioned why we left our New Mexico family vacation so early in the day, but using air miles and getting free tickets sometimes means flying in late or leaving a little early to get the best deals. The more you can save, the more you can travel 😉
What an amazing New Mexico road trip with teens we had for spring break!
If you’ve been to New Mexico and visited other amazing stops we didn’t get to, please post below for other readers! 🙂