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We spent one night in a hotel as there wasn't much on the drive west other than good music and interesting Route 66 information. We drove through Albuquerque to the campground which was conveniently close to the Coronado State Monument which was mysteriously closed until the morning of our departure. This was a recurring New Mexico theme and you have to be flexible to enjoy this state to the fullest.
The campground was clean, quiet and scenic. There is a playground and some sites are on the river. For less than $20 a night we had money to spend elsewhere.
We had reservations south of town for dinner and music at this animal refuge. The campground host said sure, that road should get you there but I've never driven it. So instead of taking the highway we headed into the Sandia mountains and now we know why she hadn't taken this road. You climb the foothills along a rushing creek where families picnic until the pavement disappears and you go up, up, up and over Sandia Peak (who needs the tramway?). It is scenic if you've got the time and we made the drive in about an hour. We especially enjoyed the birds of prey at the refuge. They served a homestyle BBQ dinner to about 75 guests, showed us some animals and told us about volunteering and then a local band finished it off. I would say it was a bargain for dinner and a show ($17.50 adults/$10.00 children) with proceeds going to a good cause. We headed for home - this time on the highway.
A benefit of saving money on lodging this trip was looking for great eating and this place was super. The sprawling cafe filled with good smells and local art was busy but well staffed so no waiting required. The good coffee, Belgian waffle topped with loads of seasonal fresh fruit and nuts, and the Kitchen Sink omelette were both memorable. There are 2 other locations if you're not in Bernalillo. Definitely family friendly.
Beautiful museum with permanent and traveling exhibits (parking is right outside and the sculpture garden is excellent) and as it was Sunday morning - it was free! We especially enjoyed the old films of Aibuquerque's early days in the theater.
We walked over to the plaza. The Church of San Felipe de Neri www.sanfelipedeneri.org
has been in almost continuous use for almost 300 years. We had picked up a free walking tour from the Art museum but the text was uninspiring. If you're interested better go with one of their tour guides or use a guidebook.
There was some entertaiment in listening to music and just watching the other tourists at this point. Lots of cute shops though not all were open on a Sunday.
We weren't really hungry enough for lunch but we were ready for a break. This 18th century building houses a restaurant with a charming patio. We sat in shade under a pergola and refreshed ourselves with chips, salsa, guacamole and lemonade. Great for children because you are on the casual patio.
7. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science
Now our plan was to visit the acclaimed Indian Pueblo Center www.indianpueblo.org which I'm sure would have been amazing, but when you're traveling as a family everyone's opinion counts and the kids were much more interested in the Science museum. We walked over, leaving our car in the free parking spot at the Art Museum. We have visited a lot of science museums and this one lived up to our standards. We especially enjoyed the Time Tracks exhibit which takes you through New Mexico natural history from the beginning - the information we learned here truly enhanced our exploration of the state. The kids loved "Adrenalin Rush" an Imax film about base jumping and sky diving.
The final planned stop for the day was the Sandia Peak Tramway but since we drove over the mountains on the way to dinner yesterday we had already taken in the views. Instead we took 2 very happy children to play miniature golf etc. before returning to the campground after dark. There are MANY things to see and do in this city. We could have easily filled 2 more days of exploration.
We headed west out of town on highway 40, a scenic drive as the land rises and you travel through the cinder cones. We planned to visit the Acoma Pueblo but, like Coronado, it was unexplainably closed, We drove on to the Visitor Center, a great facility staffed with rangers, and watched a beautiful film about the area - honestly, it was the best National Park Service film we had ever seen and I wish I had bought a copy. We were the only people there and this was another recurring theme. The rangers recommended a cafe in nearby Grants before we drove off to explore.
We decided to start our tour at the farthest point west and work our way back. El Morro was one of the highlights of our whole trip. This striking sandstone bluff rises 200 feet and the top served as a home for ancestral puebloans around 1200 AD. The rock face itself contains inscriptions from conquistadors to pioneers who passed this way and they are fascinating to read. The rangers provide a trail guide. There was one other family enjoying the lower walk but when we climbed up to the top we had the ruins and beautiful views all to ourselves. One of the great things about outdoors New Mexico is leaving the crowds behind. We noticed a nearby campground that looked nice if you wanted more than a daytrip to the area.
Back towards Grants we began a driving tour of the Badlands but clouds were gathering and the rangers had warned us about storm patterns. A nearby lightening strike on the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook sent us scurrying to lower ground. The sky let loose with a drenching rain while we stocked up on supplies at Wal-Mart before returning to Bernalillo after another action packed day.
After 3 nights in Bernalillo it was time to head north. Pulling our pop-up camper we used the highway instead of the backroads but it was still very scenic. Our campground was in a gorge right on the Rio Grande river for $15 a night with electricity and showers. The campground is small, but if you don't want the facilties you can have spots upriver all to yourself. There was a campground host full of friendly advice.
After parking the camper, we headed north towards town and had an excellent lunch at this chic cafe. Servers were shorthanded so we spent more time here than I would have liked, otherwise the food was excellent. I had the elaborate salad bar complete with pasta and bean selections. You can also pick up gourmet deli items to go as well as beer and wine.
We didn't feel like exploring the city so instead we took this scenic 90 mile driving tour around Taos that rises to 9000 ft. We stopped at scenic spots and especially enjoyed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire. The busiest spot was the Red River resort area - too many people for us. Back to the campground where the boys fished while daughter and I walked up the scenic road. In retrospect, we missed a festival at the Taos Pueblo - but we didn't know about it at the time.
We were up early to meet our rafting guide at the nearby Rio Grande River Gorge Visitor Center in Pilar. There are a number of guides and outfitters to choose from. We did a full day for 4 for under $400 including a generous trip and it was worth every penny. We travelled with 3 boats and had our very knowledgable guide Tom to ourselves. The rapids were fun, views were gorgeous, and we stopped twice to swim and once for a shore lunch. Another highlight of our trip - be sure and get on the river while you are here. We cleaned up back at the campground and drove up for another view of the river at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge - 650 feet above the water.
Can't say enough about our relaxed and wonderful meal in this beautiful old building south of town. A truly elegant dining experience that is still family friendly. Three courses and drinks ~$120 with tip. Don't miss it! And the gorgeous sunset (so stunning that we pulled over) on the drive home was free!
We explored the shops in Taos the next day - lots of beautiful art and handicrafts available. There is also a ceremonial drum shop outside of town but I was told that prices are better in the pueblos. You're bound to find the perfect souvenier.
This was a great lunch stop as we drove south - very authentic, you'll feel like you are in old Mexico. Under $30 with tip for the 4 of us with drinks.
21. Bandelier National Monument
We pulled into the campground with dozens of spots to choose from - there was hardly anyone here. The one drawback is the lack of showers but the bathrooms have running water so it is easy to wash up. The CCC visitor center has an orientation film and lots of information. Be aware that tour busses stop here disgorging dozens (if not more) visitors at one time. Time your visit late or early to avoid them. We ate at our campsite before returning after dark for an amazing ranger led night walk through the cliff dwellings. I won't spoil the surprise but HIGHLY recommend you reserve this walk if it fits your itinerary. The stars were brilliant and we all felt the mystery and history of the gorge.
22. More Bandelier
We were up early to explore the cliff dwellings by the light of day. The children had fun climbing the wooden ladders and trying out different rooms. A short trail and a 140 foot climb up 3 ladders (not for those who are wary of heights) brings you to an alcove with a ceremonial kiva that you can climb down into. We returned to the visitor center where the first bus had arrived, had a treat at the snack bar and then hiked the Frijoles Canyon Trail, scenic but bring water, while the rest of the folks were at the cliffs.
We were close enough to walk over to this free museum about all things nuclear. There is a definite government spin on the exhibits - our favorite part was learning about the history of the Manhattan Project. Not sure how this compares to the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque as we didn't have time for that one. Back to the campgroud for roasted marshmallows under the stars.
The city was bustling with visitors to the annual Hispanic Arts Festival - it took a while to find a parking place. We wandered through the exhibits set up (but didn't find anything we really wanted to buy) around the Palace of the Governors and visited St Francis Cathedral.
The crowds were getting to us so we walked south for lunch at a french restaurant we noticed. The food and service were excellent as we dined al fresco. I had the lunch special, coquilles St. Jacques. The portions were smaller and the prices higher than other places we visited but the quality was very high. Unfortunately we didn't have room for dessert.
After lunch we walked to the Loretto Hotel to join a guided walking tour. We enjoyed the walk, there were about 12 of us, which included a stop at The Loretto Chapel. The 10 year old son equates "walking tours" with torture so he brought along a Harry Potter book to read at the stops.
We spent a few hours shopping after our tour including a stop for drinks - it was sunny and hot in the city. It was dinnertime but we weren't very hungry so what to do? Instead of the famous, and crowded, main restaurant we went to La Cantina and had a wonderful time listening to the singers - our favorite was a choral rendition of "Seasons of Love." Instead of the expensive entrees we ordered drinks appetizers and desserts (the cheese plate was $20 but memorable and the daughter loved her creme brulee) and ate for about $100 with tip. Highly recommend this for an evening of family fun.
Up early to hit the road and visit one more monument. Once again, we were the only people there until the end of our visit. The visitor center is beautiful (I believe it was built with a large donation) and we watched an orientation film before walking through the ruins of a 15th century pueblo that Coronado mentioned as "feared throughout the land." More kivas to enter, bright wild flowers, and a beautiful Mission Church - all in all a great bargain for $6 total.
There weren't a lot of restaurants open for lunch but we stopped at a busy little diner called La Cocina and got our last plates of good New Mexican food - green AND red chile this time. The historic area provides a pleasant walk.
We stayed at a Holiday Inn on our way home - a luxury after the campgrounds - and the 10 year old swam in the pool, played miniature golf and watched cable TV to his delight. Nothing like being away from modern comforts to appreciate them. Up early for our last tourist stop, and yes, at that hour we were the only people there. The museum has an audio tour that takes you through rooms divided by decades oh Route 66 history. The kids loved the 50s diner and the psychedelic 60s VW bus. Not sure how this compares to the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City but we all enjoyed it and it was a bargain at $8 total for all 4 of us. The kids spent some money in the gift shop as well and then it was time to make the long trip home.
34. The bottom line
All in all this was a great summer road trip that we have recommended to friends. The altitude makes the temperatures bearable, the landscape is beautiful, history and cultural experiences abound and over 11 days we spent about $2000 - a bargain for a family of 4. There were so many things we didn't get to see or do (Acoma Pueblo, the Turquoise Museum, Chaco Culture NHP, Coyote Cafe etc.) that we will probably return.
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