Vacation Destination

The Southern Loop

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An intriguing area, rich in history and scenic beauty, awaits discovery via a perfect day trip or a series of smaller visits along a circular route through the southern reaches of Santa Fe County. This loop embraces the legacy of Pueblo, Spanish and western frontier cultures, as well as traces of hippie and contemporary cultures, that together reflect the celebrated enchantment of New Mexico.

This high desert of grasslands, juniper and piñon encompasses an ancient seabed, with both expansive prairies and rugged, hidden canyons. It contains many ancient Pueblo sites, where people lived, hunted and gathered for a thousand years before the arrival of the Spanish. The modern visitor can reflect on this ancient history with a casual drive and frequent stops to feel the strong sense of place that defines so much of New Mexico. 

The journey begins near Santa Fe at the juncture of I-25 and US 285. A rolling, dramatic landscape unfolds as you travel south and away from the Sangre de Cristo range toward the Galisteo Basin. If you need picnic supplies or something to drink, drop by the Agora Center, just off Avenida Vista Grande in Eldorado. Time your visit to the annual Eldorado Studio Tour   (eldoradoarts.org) for a bonus.

A few miles south of Eldorado, just off US 285, is the Galisteo Basin Preserve (galisteobasinpreserve.com). It includes 13,000 acres of open space, with hiking, biking and equestrian trails open to the public. 

Just a mile down US 285 from the preserve entrance is the small community of Lamy (turn left onto CR 33), which is named for Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who built the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe. The village is mostly quiet these days, but the Amtrak Station welcomes embarking and disembarking rail passengers. The building displays historic photographs. The nearby Lamy Museum & Legal Tender Saloon (thelegaltendersaloon.com, 505-466-1650) is open for special events and by appointment. Our Lady of Light Community Church is under restoration. 

Returning to US 285, turning south you will see a vast panorama of rolling hills and dramatic uplifts. Imagine eight large Pueblo villages and numerous small settlements scattered throughout the area in ancient times, home to the Tano (or Southern Tewa) Indians. Turn right onto NM 41, passing the Center for Wisdom, Healing & Qigong and the Light Institute. Galisteo Pueblo, a ruin on private land, with more than 1,600 rooms, is located on the south side of NM 41 between Mileposts 56 and 57.

In a few minutes you enter the village of Galisteo, a quaint rural community with numerous adobe structures and home to a diverse population, including noted artists, writers and healing practitioners. Stop by the newly renovated Galisteo Art Center and the beautiful church Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Remedios, built in 1884. Or catch the annual artist studio tour (galisteostudiotour.com). 

Turn right (west) onto NM 42 (Camino de los Abuelos) and continue 7.5 miles to the Alan Houser Sculpture Garden (allanhouser.com, 505-471-1528) on Haozous Road. Houser was one of the most renowned Native American sculptors and painters of the 20th century. Private tours of the stunning sculpture garden and studios are available by appointment throughout the year.

Back on NM 42, proceeding a few miles farther west, you strike the Turquoise Trail. This national scenic byway linking Santa Fe and Albuquerque offers travelers a fascinating, dramatic landscape coupled with historic yet still vibrant Old West villages. There is a lot to explore here, including unique and varied shops, galleries, restaurants, movie locations, state parks and more, with interesting, iconic and quirky stops along the way. 

First up is the small, historic town of Cerrillos (“Little Hills”; cerrillosnewmexico.com), located in one of the nation’s oldest mining districts. Prehistoric Native Americans mined turquoise here, and lead used in pottery glazes. Early Spanish settlers and later miners searched for gold, silver, coal and zinc throughout the area. Cerrillos lies along the railroad served by Amtrak.

Amid Cerrillos’s old storefronts and dusty streets, one feels transported to the 1800s. But new businesses are slowly restoring many of the shops. These include Cerrillos Station (12 Main St., cerrillosstation.com, 505-474-9326), an arts and crafts mercantile that also serves as a farmer’s market and grocery store, and the Black Bird Saloon (28 Main St., blackbirdsaloon.com, 505-438-1821), featuring simple, fresh grub and tasty tap beers in a Wild West ambience. Also here is the long-standing Casa Grande Trading Post, Mining Museum & Petting Zoo (17 Waldo St., casagrandetradingpost.com, 505-438-3008) with turquoise, rocks, minerals, antiques and animals.

On the north edge of town, just across the railroad tracks, is Cerrillos Hills State Park  (emnrd.state.nm.us/SPD/cerrilloshillsstatepark, 505-474-0196). Its 5 miles of trails provide sublime views and make a good cool-weather hiking destination. Also in Cerrillos are opportunities for horseback riding and other outdoor adventures.

Back on NM 14, a handful of miles south of Cerrillos is another colorful and small, but growing, town: Madrid (visitmadridnm.com or madridartistquarterly.com). Coal was discovered here in the 1800s, and Madrid boomed until the end of World War II. Today Madrid thrives on tourism and is home to many artists and craftspeople, with numerous shops and galleries in renovated buildings. Festivals, parades and other events are held throughout the year. The real fun here is to meet truly interesting locals and to explore the many artistic and creative boutiques, shops, galleries and restaurants. Attractions include the Mine Shaft Tavern (themineshafttavern.com, 505-473-0743), a landmark and authentic watering hole with good lunch and dinner food and entertainment nightly; the Old Coal Town Museum (next to the Mine Shaft, 505-438-7380), and The Hollar (across the street from the Mine Shaft, 505-471-4821), with casual dining, an outdoor patio and entertainment.

Backtrack north on NM 14 to the San Marcos Café & Feed Store (just north of Bonanza Creek Road, 505-471-9298). The authentic country feed store, owned by Mark and Cindy Holloway, serves area ranches and homesteads. It is also a popular restaurant, serving homemade breakfast and lunch in a rustic setting, with peacocks strutting about and other animals on the grounds. 

Backtrack to CR 45 and turn right (west). In a few miles you’ll reach Mortenson Silver & Saddles (silverandsaddles.com, 505-424-9230), just beneath a large outcrop of basalt called Lone Butte. In addition to selling buckles, saddles, and other items, the shop has a riding arena. About 5 miles farther west on CR 45 is Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch (bonanzacreekranch.com, 505-471-4248). More than 130 movies, television series and commercials — including Cowboys & Aliens, Longmire, All the Pretty Horses, Silverado, Lonesome Dove and Wild Hogs — have been filmed here. Tours are by appointment only.

Continuing west on CR 45 brings you to the frontage road for I-25. Turn right (north) and take the first left, crossing I-25 to the Village of La Cienega. In the 1700s, Spanish pioneers settled the area, where verdant springs and marshes allowed for farming. The narrow, paved road winds past scenic ranches, small vineyards, irrigated fields and homes to El Rancho de las Golondrinas (“The Ranch of the Swallows,” 334 Los Pinos Road, golondrinas.org, 505-471-2261).

A living history museum, Las Golondrinas reflects and chronicles life on a Spanish colonial rancho in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The ranch was strategically located on the Camino Real, or Royal Highway, between Santa Fe and Mexico City and now includes water-powered mills, a blacksmith shop, a morada (place of worship) of the Penitente Catholic brotherhood, homes and workshops. It hosts special events and festivals year-round. You can stroll the grounds on a guided tour or wander at will. The museum is open daily in summer, with limited fall, winter and spring hours.

Just a minute farther north, on Los Pinos Road, is Sunrise Springs Spa Resort sunrisesprings.ojospa.com, 800-704-0531 or 505-780-8145). Another ancient place of residence and a resting spot for travelers on the Camino Real, the property recently underwent a major renovation and reopening as a resort. It offers complete spa services, activities for day-trippers, and an excellent dining room — the Blue Heron Restaurant, under the direction of Chef Rocky Durham (see page ??). It makes a fitting and well-deserved end point for your tour of southern Santa Fe County, a place of great historical currents, sweeping views, hidden treasures, unique peoples, artists, ranchers and other “salts of the earth.” 

La Cieneguilla petroglyph site

The rural community of La Cieneguilla, just west of La Cienega along the Río de Santa Fe, is home to a major petroglyph site. Some 4,000 images are found here, having been pecked into the dark basaltic boulders and cliff faces circa A.D. 1200-1600 by predecessors of today’s Pueblo peoples. A foot trail, over very uneven ground after a short but steep climb, winds among them. The site is open daily sunrise to sunset and admission is free. Do not deface, or even touch, the images. The trailhead is on Paseo Real (the west extension of Airport Road).

Tom Gallegos provides educational and cultural tours throughout New Mexico. Contact him at nmtourguide@gmail.com or truenewmexico.com.

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