The Ultimate Guide for a Fulfilling, Budget-Friendly Road Trip in New Mexico

Three happy Gen-Z girl friends sit in the open trunk of their car on a sunny day, enjoying their road trip in New Mexico.

Longing for an otherwordly road trip filled with breathtaking views, a myriad of authentic cultural experiences and just the right amount of surprises? Then you should be mapping out your road trip in New Mexico! Once you’ve experienced its desert/mountain landscape, you’ll understand why New Mexico is known as “The Land of Enchantment.”

The best part is you won’t have to miss a rent payment to fund this trip because New Mexico is one of the only remaining hidden gems in America where you can take a budget-friendly, epic-worthy road trip. Now clear some storage space on your phone — you’ll want to document this.

The Best Time of Year for a Road Trip to New Mexico

So when exactly should you ask a neighbor to water your houseplants so you can set out on your trip? Well, one of the characteristics of New Mexico that makes it so special is its many different landscapes and climates. You can wake up in a dry, flat desert oasis and drive to a mountainous region by nightfall. That also means there is no “perfect” time for road trips in New Mexico — it really just depends on the kind of trip you’re craving.

If you love to bake in the sun like a lizard, go in the summer. Temperatures will typically be between 80 and 95 degrees (nothing a Coachella or Stagecoach-goer hasn’t dealt with). Evenings will be balmy and lovely — perfect for dining outside. Note that summer is the busy season, so if you want to get good deals, book early (way early). Also, keep in mind that summer is the monsoon season. While downpours can be a vibe when experienced in the dry safety of a building, you don’t want to get caught outside in them, so track the weather and make sure to pack a precautionary poncho for your road trip in New Mexico.

If you prefer milder temperatures and want to see New Mexico’s superbloom (full disclosure, they only officially have one about once every decade), visit in the spring. You’ll likely enjoy temperatures in the range of 50 to 70 degrees and swoop in before the summer tourism season begins (i.e., when you can find some deals).

Looking for TikTok-worthy backdrops and the rich colors New Mexico is known for? Consider going in the fall. The foliage is so striking that you’ll swear the entire state has been photoshopped. Plus, you can begin to enjoy some light snow in the mountainous regions if you’ve been looking for an excuse to wear your faux fur-lined boots.

Where to Kick Off Your Road Trip Through New Mexico

We recommend starting your trip in Albuquerque. You can catch a direct flight from most major airports to the Albuquerque International Sunport (even the airport’s name is cute, right?). This city has tons to see, so you can relax for a few days before heading off on your adventure.

Our New Mexico road trip itinerary has you making an efficient loop starting in Albuquerque and traveling north to the mountains before heading southwest through Native American reservation territory. Then, you’ll move to the southern point of New Mexico before circling back up through the more eastern part of the state towards your starting point of Albuquerque.

On a highway map of the U.S., you’ll see I-25 that runs north-to-south through the state. You’ll be spending a lot of time on this road. That said, this is your adventure to create! So, if you want to diverge from our plan, grab a New Mexico atlas and explore some lesser-known corners of the Land of Enchantment that we don’t cover here.

11 Affordable New Mexico Road Trip Attractions

We’ve put together an itinerary as diverse and vibrant as the people of New Mexico. By the end of this trip, you’ll have sampled the many flavors and lifestyles of the state — from the funky and artsy to the serene and historical. We’ve chosen wallet-friendly activities and a mix of cityscapes and natural sites, so you’ll have all the opportunities to explore and relax. Ready to get going on your New Mexico road trip? Mapout your route, grab some travel buddies, pack your bags and let’s go!

1. Take in Spectacular Views On the Aerial Sandia Peak Tramway in Albuquerque

When you touch down in Albuquerque, you’ll instantly realize there’s a lot to take in. Our detailed Albuquerque street map is great for finding hidden treasures in the city, but if you want to get your bearings before you begin exploring, hop on the Sandia Peak Tramway. This sky tram is one of the longest in North America. It soars over the city, stretching from the northeast edge to Sandia Peak, giving you a birds-eye view. From there, you can understand the layout of the city, gain inspiration for your itinerary, and maybe even spot some of the filming locations from “Breaking Bad.”

2. Attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Even if you weren’t sure what it was, you’ve likely seen images of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. At this event, which takes place during the first week of October, hundreds of pilots take to the skies in beautiful hot air balloons, creating what can only be described as magical moments of airborne adventure. The event happens at the appropriately named Balloon Fiesta Park, attracting nearly one million visitors each year as one of the largest ballooning events in the world. It might be the most famous of all the New Mexico road trip stops.

Given the sheer number of people using their phones at the event, you could find that your cell service is slow. So, it’s a good idea to keep paper road maps on hand to help you find your way back to town in case the cell towers are overburdened.

3. Do All the Things in the Oldest State Capital: Santa Fe

Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the U.S. and is rich in history. You’ll instantly be struck by the iconic Adobe-style architecture that New Mexico is known for. The presence of the Spanish conquistadors who settled here in the 1600s can still be very much seen and felt everywhere you look. In fact, there’s no better place to witness this than the Santa Fe Plaza, a traditional Spanish-American colonial city square. Here, you can enjoy incredible street food, people watch and pop in and out of the countless shops and galleries.

If you’re still feeling the historical side of Santa Fe, cruise over to the Palace of Governors. It’s located just on the north side of Santa Fe Plaza and is the longest continuously occupied public building built by European settlers in the U.S. Hop from one cultural heritage moment to another and head over to the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to preserving, collecting, exhibiting and interpreting Native American works of art.

Want to see the funkier side of Santa Fe? A visit to MeowWolf, an other-worldly museum with interactive installations, is just the thing. Craving a musical experience? Make your way over to the Santa Fe Opera. If you can’t spring for a ticket to a show, you can always tailgate an event! Dozens of cars park outside the space with coolers and picnics to enjoy the music from a distance and the beautiful southwest sunset you can catch from here.

4. Enjoy the Art Scene and Beauty in Taos

Your next stop is the high desert city of Taos, which is surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Taos is known as an artist community and has long welcomed residents looking to live an alternative lifestyle. Speaking of — curious about living off the grid one day? Visit the Greater World Earthship Community and see how they do it. It’s a community with autonomous structures that run entirely on renewable energy.

Unlock Taos's natural beauty by heading to the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. This massive area of public lands is open for hiking, fishing, mountain biking, and whitewater rafting. Admission is free, and parking is just $3 per vehicle.

Feeling artsy? Make your next stop the Old Taos County Courthouse. On the second floor, you’ll find breathtaking murals painted by iconic Taos artists back in 1934. If you simply want to people-watch and window shop, pop into Taos Plaza, where you’ll find small art galleries, antique stores and more. Throughout the summer months, you’ll even find free open-air concerts here in the evenings.

5. Visit Ancestral Pueblo Land at Bandelier National Monument

As you make your way through Los Alamos counties, don’t forget to stop at Bandelier National Monument, located in the Pajarito Plateau area of New Mexico. This 33,677-acre national monument preserves the homes of Ancestral Puebloans, an ancient Native American community that once inhabited northwestern New Mexico. The structures, carved from volcanic tuff, still maintain their integrity and offer a sobering connection to our history. Of all the things to see in New Mexico on a road tripthat will leave you feeling introspective for a bit, this one takes the cake, making it a significant point of interest for visitors.

6. Book a Walking Tour at the Bitsi/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area

If you’re a lover of nature, history or a bit of both, don’t miss the Bitsi Badlands/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. This 45,000-acre desert landscape contains some of the most distinctive rock formations you’ve ever seen. Simply knowing that it was once a prehistoric swamp where dinosaurs roamed will make you feel all the feels.

It’s easy to get lost here, so we highly recommend booking a tour guide. The fee can be pretty reasonable if split amongst a group, and a knowledgeable guide can ensure you see all of the most memorable spots.

7. Soak in the Hot Springs in Truth or Consequences

By this point, you’ve learned a lot about New Mexico and might be ready to relax and unwind, making it the perfect time to stop at the hot springs in Truth or Consequences. These thermal springs receive their warmth from the earth’s interior, and the mixture of heat and minerals is said to relax your muscles and joints. Some even swear by the springs as natural skin cleansers and calorie burners. Dozens of TikTokers have posted videos enjoying the various hot springs if you want a sneak peek. Hotels and lodges have cropped up around the many hot springs in the area, claiming the bodies of water as their own, but you can usually buy a day pass to take a dip for around $30.

8. Take in the Vast Beauty of White Sands National Park

Want to enjoy sands as white as those in “Dune 2”without all the war and revenge? Visit the White Sands National Park. This national park is entirely encircled by the White Sands Missile Range (don’t worry — you won’t be allowed anywhere near the actual military testing areas). The park's sands primarily comprise gypsum crystals — sedimentary minerals that form lovely crystals and are some of the world’s oldest building materials.

9. Explore Underground Caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

New Mexico is home to so much unique natural beauty, unlike anything you can find elsewhere in the world, and the underground caves at Carlsbad Caverns are, without question, one of the most remarkable destinations. You could spend days exploring the circa 119 limestone caves, with their dramatic icicle-like formations adorning the ceilings. These fossil reef caves are an estimated 250 million years old, so if you’ve ever wanted to feel that your life is just a blip in history, a visit to the Carlsbad Caverns will do it.

10. Appreciate American Southwestern Culture at the Roswell Museum and Art Center

Now that you’ve sampled some of New Mexico’s many subcultures and heritages, it seems appropriate to celebrate it all at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. This 50,000-square-foot facility contains 12 galleries dedicated to preserving the history and promoting the artists of the American Southwest. The museum honors its core value of making education accessible by keeping admission prices low — as of today, adult tickets are just $10.

11. Find Other-Worldly Attractions in Roswell

While you might not have your own real-life “Nope”experience, you can see some pretty far-out attractions in Roswell. One to note is the site of the mysterious Roswell Incident of 1947. After a U.S. army air balloon crashed, rumors emerged that it was a cover-up for an event of a more extraterrestrial nature. There were several purported UFO sightings in the area following the event, and it has since attracted visitors interested in the possibility of life on other planets.

Appropriately, Roswell hosts the Roswell UFO Festival, an annual event dedicated to bringing together people interested in interstellar experiences (and things like alien costume contests and alien-themed marathons). Roswell is also home to the International UFO Museum and Research Center, which consists of exhibits dedicated to exploring what really happened at the Roswell Incident.

Let Rand McNally Publishing Guide the Way On Your Next Road Trip

Are you ready to explore the eclectic, vibrant and historically significant corners of New Mexico? We believe in the transformative powers of travel and have in-depth, up-to-date guides, maps and atlases to help you navigate the Land of Enchantment.

As social media-worthy as NM is, you’ll sometimes want to put your phone away to fully connect to the land and be present for your New Mexico road trip. So, keep our New Mexico map on hand to find your way without notifications getting in your way of an immersive experience. It’s also pretty handy not to have to worry about a dead cell battery or lost signal. If your time in New Mexico ignites your curiosity about the U.S. Southwest, unfold one of our Western U.S. maps and pick out your next destination. This breathtaking area of the country is calling your name — answer it (for as long as you can take time off work, that is). 

Author: Rand McNally Publishing Team
Date:Jul 10th 2024