From Ice and Snow to Desert Sands – Our Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona Road Trip

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Many travelers have heard about the awe-inspiring canyons of Arizona or the unmatched beauty of the mountainous landscapes of the Rocky Mountains National Park in Colorado. However, very few people have ever imagined New Mexico as something worthy of a visit. That was also me. I had been to New Mexico before, many years ago quickly passing through, never giving this state a thought in order to reach destinations more grandeur and impressive… or so I thought back then. A series of events put this Land of Enchantment back on my radar again, and my next vacation destination idea was born! A carefully pre-planned road trip took us through 3 states and let us experience the nature extremes – from playing in snow while our fingers were numb from the cold, to sweating in desert heat, seeing nothing but the vastness of sand and wilderness all around us. This also being the area of rich American Indian presence and history, added yet another exciting twist to our trip!

Even though I had a general outline of the trip and sights I wanted to cover, eventually it all came down to logistics. Out of several cities in the area, the most cost-effective route ended up being flying into Denver, Colorado, then getting a one-way car rental and flying back home from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I had always thought that renting a car one-way (renting at one airport and dropping off at another) was much more expensive with added fees included. Apparently, I have been wrong all this time as the rental cost did not change almost at all, despite our request to rent one-way. With flights booked, lodging reserved, car rented and sights aligned, we were ready to start the adventure!

Surprisingly, this was not one of our typical vacation mornings where we get up at 3 or 4am to make a torturous, extra early morning flight. With our flight leaving only at 11:20am, we had plenty of time for showers, breakfast and coffee before heading to the airport. This also kept our 2 toddlers quite happy as their morning schedule stayed pretty undisrupted. They were well rested, fed and ready for adventure! And what made them even more excited – their grandma (my mom) was accompanying us on the trip, which promised hopes of endless entertainment for the boys because my mom would be the one sharing the 2 back rows of the car with them. Oh, we shall see how this goes! We hadn’t even left but I already felt sorry for my mom! I’m sure she could take it though, she’s a tough independent woman! :-D 

 

COLORADO

Mount Evans

A straight flight to Denver, and around 2pm we were in our rental car ready to finally get on the road! Cities were not our priority, so Denver was left unexplored, and we headed straight for Mt Evans, standing proudly at 14,264 feet (4347m) high. The road leading up to the summit (Mt Evans Scenic Byway) is the highest paved road in North America and climbs 9000 feet (2743m) through 5 different climate zones. Even though the Byway is just around 30 miles (48km) in length, it takes almost 2 hours to reach the top due to slow speeds, windy curves and amazing scenery that needs to be photographed along the way.

As we had done a fair share of sitting on the airplane already, the kids were eager to get off their butts, so our first stop half-way up was Echo Lake Lodge where we wandered around the souvenir shop and sat down for some really tasty supper. 

Bathroom break. Souvenirs. Leg-stretch. And with our bellies full, we continued up. Shortly before reaching the top of the mountain, a spot not to be missed was the Summit Lake. The weather was drastically different from the 85+ degrees (29C) we had experienced in Denver just a few short hours ago. It was very cold here and there was still ice in some spots on the lake, as well as big snow patches on the mountainsides. We took the short trail to walk down to the lake to let the boys touch some ice and snow. 

On our way back to the car, we spotted our first Rocky Mountain goats of the trip! They were fairly brave, yet kept a good distance between the tourists and themselves and made sure nobody came too close. 

We climbed back into the car to finish driving the remaining 1000 feet (305m) of elevation to the summit. The closer to the summit we got, the more mountain goats we saw wandering around the hillsides and road. This is also a good place to spot bighorn sheep, yet unfortunately no such luck for us this time. We did manage to see big herds of elk (in lower elevations) and some marmots, with whom we had already become acquainted during our last year’s trip to Mt Rainier in Washington. They were equally fat, fluffy and carefree also here.

The summit at Mt Evans has a small parking lot, but as we were here in the evening, much outside the typical tourist hours, we had no problem finding a parking spot. Once I exited the car, the altitude hit me like a ton of bricks! I had felt slightly light-headed at the Summit Lake, but this was like walking around drunk, unable to hold a straight line! The body felt light and heavy at the same time and I definitely did not have full control of the direction I aimed to go. Our 3-year old got so dizzy he fell down and started crying as he had no idea what was happening. So, we opted to leave our 2 boys in the car with grandma while my husband and I walk the short ¼-mile (400m) trail to the summit overlook.

At this altitude, there is much less oxygen, breathing is difficult and it feels like you have climbed the whole mountain, not just a ¼-mile. And there were plenty of people who could not make this short walk. I did not believe it when I read about it, but experiencing it myself gave a whole different perspective! I kept thinking about all those workers who had to be here, up in this altitude, to build the access road! No wonder it is the highest paved road in North America – you have to be crazy to attempt this!

It was already approaching 8pm, and we had another 2hr drive ahead of us to our AirBnB in Colorado Springs. While we still managed to get off the mountain in some daylight, it was pitch black by the time we reached our accommodations. The boys had fallen asleep in the car and never woke up even when we got them out of their seats, brought them into the room, changed them into pajamas and tucked them in their beds. That fresh Rocky Mountain air must have really lulled them to sleep!

 

Pikes Peak

As new day dawned, we were ready to conquer another summit, this time – 14,115-foot (4302m) tall Pikes Peak. After a good night’s rest, everyone seemed to have recovered from last night’s altitude sickness and we hoped that today’s mountain-top experience would be a little bit gentler on our bodies and minds. 

Pikes Peak Highway is a 19-mile (30km) long, winding scenic toll road leading to the peak, with experience somewhat similar to that of Mt Evans. We also got lucky to have most of the highway to ourselves, because the park utilizes a shuttle bus service and no personal cars are allowed to be driven to the peak, with the exception of those having small children in car seats. With 2 little boys in the car, we got a pass to drive the car all the way to the top! That allowed us to freely pull over in various roadside lookouts without any lines or waiting. 

Once we reached the summit, it was very cold again, and the altitude sickness made its presence known. However, it was not nearly as bad as the day before, mostly because it had already been about 24hrs since we arrived in Colorado, and our bodies had had a chance to adjust to the altitude and it didn’t feel quite as daunting anymore. We explored the souvenir shop and headed over to the lookout area. It was the vast, Rocky wilderness with views that did not disappoint yet again.

  

On the way back down, the boys requested to stop and play in snow again, so we pulled over and spent some time throwing snowballs and tasting snow…

 

Manitou Cliff Dwellings

Not far from the Pikes Peak Highway entrance there is a historic site called Manitou Cliff Dwellings. It is a group of relocated Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings showing how Native Americans built their ‘’houses’’ 800-1000 years ago. This particular site was opened to the public for visitation in 1907. 

Despite the fact that I had several other Native American sites on my itinerary for later days, we decided to make a short stop at Manitou in order to finally let our boys out of the car. They were very eager to just get out and move around as driving up and down Mt Evans and Pikes Peak in these past 2 days included many hours in the car admiring the scenery through the car window, rather than actually physically experiencing it. So, even we - the adults - were very ready for some much-needed leg-stretch. 

The nice part about this site is that visitors are allowed to touch everything, climb the ladders, get inside the caves and dwellings to explore them etc. It was definitely what 2 little boys craved after being contained in a car, hours upon hours! I just would have appreciated if each one of them didn’t want to run off in a different direction!

 

Garden of the Gods

Our next stop was one of the main attractions of Colorado Springs area – Garden of the Gods. It is a National Natural Landmark of the USA National Park service, containing 1,300 acres of wilderness with towering sandstone rock formations 300-feet (92m) high! The park offers something for everyone – hiking trails of various lengths and difficulty levels, rock climbing, biking, jeep and Segway tours, adventure programs, educational tours and many others. 

We opted to first make a loop drive through the park to see some of the more remote corners, and then park and walk the popular 2-mile (3.2km) Perkins Central Garden Trail which is in the heart of the park, at the base of the highest rock formations. Another bonus is that this trail is fully paved which allowed us to bring a stroller just in case the 2-year old started getting too tired. 

Apart from the weather being blazing hot and the trail very crowded, the walk itself was very beautiful. The red rock formations were a huge contrast against the green grass and blue sky and looked very impressive. We saw many rock climbers at various stages of the climb – some just getting ready at the base but others enjoying the views from the very top. 

We spent several hours walking the park because our boys had a pace of their own – trying to climb the rocks, poking a cactus, smelling the flowers, collecting rocks… It was an endless outdoor entertainment world for the littles, and we were perfectly ok with that.

And just a side note - it is also advisable not to wander too far off the trails as we saw rattlesnake warnings everywhere.   

Garden of the Gods was our last stop of the day, and although our rental was just an 8-minute drive from the park, the boys were already falling asleep in the car. That meant the only place we could go was our BnB. The kids had been eating and snacking all day, but my husband and I were starving, so my mom gladly offered to stay behind with the sleeping boys while my husband and I enjoyed a night out in Colorado Springs. It was very nice to actually eat my piece of cake in peace, without trying to hide it under a napkin (while sneaking in secret bites) and explain constantly that it is a yucky piece of soap that was brought to us ''by accident’’! :-D   

 

Broadmoor Seven Falls

The morning started with a quick trip back to the Garden of the Gods to peek in their visitor center and buy some postcards and magnets which we did not manage to do the night before. The visitor center balcony offers beautiful views of the Park. 

 

We stood there for a short while, taking some photos and reminiscing about our yesterday’s walk through this beautiful area until it was time to head on to our next destination.

Just a short 20-minute drive from Colorado Springs is a place called Broadmoor Seven Falls. It is a series of seven cascading waterfalls, stretching 181-feet (55m) high. There is no parking at the falls themselves, so every visitor is required to park at the Fairgrounds and then take the free shuttle bus to the park (which takes another 15-20mins). Once at the Falls, there are 2 options – to take another shuttle to get to the base of the waterfall, or walk the paved road. We are all about being active, so off we go! I am glad we chose to walk – there were towering cliffs on both sides, wildflowers along the sides of the road, burbling stream, and we even saw 2 bucks and a doe with a fawn! And yet again, it probably took us twice as long to make the walk because our toddlers’ short legs couldn’t quite keep up, yet it made us slow down and pay attention to the nature around us. 

To be honest, once we reached the end, the waterfall itself wasn’t quite as impressive as I expected it to be. It is worth a look if in the area, but not something I would go out of my way to see again. A fun activity, though, was climbing the 224 steps (height of a 13-story building) to the top of the falls for a birds-eye view. And even though I am weary of heights, this climb did not bother me one bit. Even our 3-year old did it all by himself up and down.

 

As boys (all of them, including my husband) started to get hungry (when aren’t they hungry?!), we got some corn dogs and fries at the little food truck a little down from the falls. I am not a fan of any kind of fast or deep-fried food, yet the meal hit the spot and we were ready for our hike back with full bellies. 

This was our third and last day in Colorado Springs area and we were ready to pack up and head on to our next destination.

 

Great Sand Dunes National Park

The drive from Colorado Springs to Great Sand Dunes NP takes roughly 3 hours. At first, I was a little worried as to how the boys will tolerate this long stretch of road; however, my worries were quickly answered by 2 napping toddlers! The morning spent at the waterfall took it all out of them! This, in return, meant that the 3 adults in the car could finally enjoy some peace and QUIET! 

As we drove further and further, the greenery of the Rocky Mountains, that we were so used to seeing these past few days, got slowly taken over by desert landscapes, dry grass and cacti.

And even though it might seem like long 200 miles (322km), I thoroughly enjoyed watching the changing landscape outside the car window. I am sure those would have been much loooonger 200 miles had the boys not been asleep…

Once we finally started approaching the Great Sand Dunes, the hills of sand could be seen from miles away and I just could not take my eyes off of it. It was just so different from anything I had seen before. And even though we reached the park at 5pm, we were lucky enough to have an afternoon without thunderstorms which are typical for the area in summer months (and requires everyone to get off the dunes due to possible fatal lightning strikes). 

Not to waste any time, we parked the car and headed towards this enormous sandbox (I am sure that’s at least how my boys saw it). There are no particular trails here and all the dunes, hills and ridges can be climbed as high or far as one wants. Doing so in reality is much harder than it might seem at first. While my husband and the boys stayed at the bottom, my mom and I did our best to get as far up as we felt we could (time-wise and otherwise). It was an amazing experience and a life-lasting memory, for sure! 

Due to the exceptionally snowy winter in the mountains this past year, there was still a lot of melting snow at the peaks, which allowed Medano Creek to maintain a good water volume in front of the Dunes even during our mid-July visit (usually the creek is all dried up by July). The boys (along with many other kids) took the opportunity to play in this icy water.

Thank you, National Park folks, for the outdoor showers installed right by the parking lot, which allowed us to clean this wet, sandy, muddy mess off our boys before getting in the car!

Despite all the exciting things we had experienced today, there was another one that could not be forgotten – it was our baby’s 2nd birthday! We celebrated it with dinner and cake at a restaurant overlooking the sand dunes. Happy birthday, baby boy! 

As much as we loved the Great Sand Dunes and did not want to leave, we had another 2-hour drive ahead of us to reach our next hotel in Taos, New Mexico. This was our last day in Colorado as tomorrow we will wake up in New Mexico, ready to see what the Land of Enchantment has to offer.

 

NEW MEXICO

Even though I had driven through New Mexico before, I never really thought of it as anything worthy of a special stop or trip. I am so happy though that a chance event brought New Mexico’s name back up and I decided to make a trip here, this time exploring its sights and natural wonders. 

Taos

Our first stop in New Mexico was the town of Taos. It was like entering a whole different world! We were surrounded by the typical beige and brown Pueblo-style homes with bright blue trims.

Pueblo architecture is the traditional architecture of the Pueblo Indians of the southwestern United States. The multistoried, permanent homes typical of this tradition are modeled after the cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) culture beginning in approximately AD 1150. Many towns in New Mexico have adopted this ancient style (yet slightly modernized) and these homes can be seen in many places around the area.

The boys got us up bright and early again, so we were ready to go explore the town before the day’s heat set in. The streets were still quiet and empty and we preferred it to be just like that! We grabbed a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop and headed on to the Taos Plaza – the heart of the Taos Historic District.

We browsed all the little side-streets and window-shopped (as all the stores and galleries were not open yet), and after a couple hours of soaking in all the sights and smells of this different kind of world, it was time for us to head back to the hotel, pack up our stuff and move on to the next destination. 

 

Taos Pueblo

The word ‘pueblo’ comes up very often when reading and researching about New Mexico. ‘Pueblo’ means ‘’North American Indian settlement of the southwestern US, especially one consisting of multistoried adobe houses built by the Pueblo people.’’ So (to dumb it down a lot) our next sightseeing stop was ‘’American Indian village / community’’. 

Taos Pueblo is an ancient pueblo belonging to a Taos-speaking Native American tribe of Puebloan people. It is the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. And although tourists are allowed to enter the pueblo and wander around its streets (and even enter some buildings), it is not a museum. It is a living community with Native American Indians and their families still living here, just as they have done so for over 1000 years.

 

Although many of the inhabitants here try to avoid tourists and keep to themselves, a few of the homes were open to public, where locals were selling their hand-made pottery and baked goods cooked in specialized, round outdoor ovens (called hornos), as seen in the picture below.

Once the weather started to get a little too hot, it was time to gather the boys and bid farewell to the town of Taos and the pueblo people.

 

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

Just a short 30-minute drive away, we made a quick stop at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The bridge stands roughly 600-feet (182m) above the river, which makes it the 10th highest bridge in the United States. There are 2 trails from the parking lot – one takes you to the bridge itself, where you can walk across it and back, and the second trail loops around to the side, giving you the views of the bridge, Rio Grande and the gorge underneath it from a different angle.

 

There are no guardrails here but a straight drop into the gorge, so we made sure our 2-year old was tightly buckled in his stroller and wouldn’t wiggle his way out. Thankfully, the 3-year old was scared enough to not even want to go anywhere near the gorge to take photos. But we still never let go of his hand… 

With another 2-hour drive ahead of us, this was a car-snack lunch kind of afternoon. And in reality, our drive was so remote that there really were no other options. Quickly after, the boys were sound asleep again.  

 

Bandelier National Monument

Once we reached the visitor center of the Bandelier National Monument, the boys were still sleeping, so we started wondering if we should stop and hike as planned, or just keep driving. Eventually, the vote was – explore the park – so we woke up the sleeping beauties and jumped on the shuttle which took us into the park itself. 

Bandelier preserves and explores the homes and territory of the Ancestral Puebloans of a later era in the Southwest. These 'homes' were inhabited around 1150 – 1600 AD. We chose to first walk the popular Main Loop trail which is about 1.2-miles (2km) long and allows visitors to see ancient cliff dwellings carved into mountainsides, and explore cavates (caves) accessible by ladders. 

The lower sections of the trail are paved and even our 2-year old could run around here. The upper sections consist of narrow stone pathways along the cliff, so we decided to carry the little guy; however, the 3-year old had no problem making the walk by himself. And he enjoyed exploring and peeking into all the caves and climbing the ladders.

As we still had enough time to spare, we decided to make the walk to the Alcove House. This alcove is located 140 feet (42m) above the floor of the canyon. Once home to approximately 25 Ancestral Pueblo people, the elevated site is now reached by 4 long wooden ladders and a number of stone stairs up a vertical cliff side. There are a lot of warnings informing people with fear of heights not to do the climb, because it is like attempting to climb a 14-storey building using vertical fire-escape ladder. Even though it looked quite scary from the bottom, it actually wasn’t all that bad once we started our way up. The kids, of course, got left at the bottom and we took turns babysitting them. 

I wonder what the reasons might have been for the Ancient Indians to choose such an inaccessible spot for their home… The Alcove House was the last site we had time to visit, as it was time to get back to the visitor center to catch the last shuttle bus of the day that would bring us back to our car.   

This had been a long day and everyone felt tired, so we stopped at a local roadside restaurant for dinner and then headed straight to our rental. I had planned an early morning hike for the next day, so everyone had to be well rested and full of energy to conquer new heights!

 

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks is one of the most popular hiking trails in New Mexico, and the National Park website warns that during peak visitation months over the summer, the parking lot can get filled up by 9AM and no cars are let past the entrance gate until someone else leaves and a spot opens up. Sometimes these waits can last into an hour. That definitely did not seem like a fun thing to do with two impatient little boys in the car, so our only option was to get to the park for their opening at 8AM. 

As we had an hour’s drive to the park, it meant an early morning of getting up at 6AM. Not at all my husband’s idea of a vacation, and even less so – to get up at 6AM to go on a sweaty, exhausting 3+hr hike?! How about an umbrella drink and a beach chair instead?! I made promises of some extra nap-time in the afternoon and that did the trick. Soon enough we were on our way. And although we made it to the park 20 minutes before their opening, there were already several other cars lined up ahead of us waiting for the park to open.  

Kasha-Katuwe is famous for its cone-shaped formations that are a product of volcanic eruptions 6-7 million years ago. The most scenic trail is the 1.5-mile (2,4km) one-way trek that takes hikers up on the mesa top, but it requires a steep 630-ft (192m) climb over natural terrain during the second part of the trail (and then coming back down the same way). The arrow shows the mesa top overlook area we want to reach!

Our 2-year old had a hiking carrier and my husband was the ''lucky'' one to get to carry him; however, the 3-year old would have to make the hike on his own. Knowing how well he did on our hikes in Hawaii and Washington, I had no doubt he would be up to the task. If all else fails, we can always turn back around.

The beginning of the trail was fairly level across an open ground until we entered the canyon with tall towering walls on both sides. Soon enough the canyon got narrower and narrower until it was just 1 person wide in some spots with our baby’s hiking carrier barely fitting through. This is the famous slot canyon part of the hike. It was very scenic and reminded me of the Antelope Canyon in Arizona, except here the canyon was white in color, not red. 

Once we exited the slot canyon, looking up we could see the cone-shaped tent rock formations lining the canyon walls.

The most difficult part was the 2nd half of the hike once we started ascending the 630-ft (192m) incline up to the top of the canyon. However, the promise of beautiful views just pushed us higher and higher. Sweaty clothes, a few bruises here and there, a couple snack and water breaks to refuel, yet step by step we finally made it! The mesa top exposed excellent views of the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, Sandia mountains, the Rio Grande Valley and of course the tent rock formations! 

Just like many others who had made it here, we were in no rush to get down. After all, we worked hard to get here and were enjoying the fruits of our labor. That was until our 3-year old suddenly announced that he needs to go poopoo! What?!?! Don’t toddlers just have the most inappropriate timing for everything? Yes, we were up on our feet and heading down the mountain in no time. Until half way down he announced that his hiking boots are too tight and his feet hurt. Yes, he was limping and close to tears. I guess I underestimated his growth-rate because just a few months ago the same boots fit him just fine, but now they were too small. I must have missed a growth spurt or something. Mommy fail! Yet the only solution at this point was just to let him hike back barefoot. Oh, the surprised, astonished, shocked and astounded looks we got from other hikers when they saw our 3-year old hopping around barefoot. Yet he himself was happy as a lark, and joyfully jumped and kicked around the sand on the trail. ‘’Like a beach!’’ he said. Once we got back to the parking lot, he absolutely refused to go to the bathroom because he didn’t need to anymore. Oh my! That’s just life with toddlers for you… 

In total, it took us 3 hours to complete the hike, and in the end we were really happy that we decided to start out early, because we felt sorry for the people we saw who were just starting to head out on the trail. At 11AM it was already blazing hot and as the day progressed, it was just going to get hotter and hotter. This is definitely not a mid-day kind of hike. Much too hot and very little shade. 

We, on the other hand, got in our nice air-conditioned rental car and made our way back to the house. As promised, I let my husband take a nap. And the kids joined him… and then my mom decided to retire to her bedroom… and then it was just me left alone. I was tired too, I gave in and went to lay down. The next thing you know, I opened my eyes, looked at the clock and it was 5PM! I quickly woke up all the other lazy sleeping travelers and we decided to go explore Santa Fe (as we were staying just 10mins from downtown) and get some dinner there. 

 

Santa Fe

The main place of gathering in Santa Fe is its main Plaza. Although it was a weekday night, there was live musing playing, people dancing and everyone just having a good time. We sat down for a rare treat for the boys – some ice cream – and then walked the downtown streets with their typical Spanish-American colonial style architecture. 

Many of the shops and galleries here sell Native American handmade crafts – pottery, jewelry, souvenirs etc. 

As it was starting to get late and threatening storms were rolling in, we decided to head back home and call it a night.

 

Santa Fe - Meow Woolf

The next morning was finally one where we did not have any early hikes or drives on schedule, so we could take our time having morning coffee, packing up and checking out of the rental. Before leaving Santa Fe, we still had some time to spare, so we decided to visit a place suggested by many – Meow Wolf. I figured it might be a fun place for our boys to explore, and it was indoors, so at least for a couple of hours we would not have to deal with the blazing desert heat. It came with a hefty price tag of $29 per person, though. Thankfully, 3 and under were free, so there was no fee for the boys. 

The place itself is an interactive exhibit – a huge house where you can crawl into a washing machine and come out through a fireplace, walk through a door just to find yourself back in the same room… It is a little freaky, strange, definitely different… The whole thing just did not speak to me; it felt like something out of a sci-fi and horror movie at the same time. Some of the rooms felt downright depressing. My husband had the same feelings and he said that someone needs to be in a special state of mind to come up with such an exhibit.

But apparently, our opinion is not that of the majority, as Meow Wolf is opening new locations in Las Vegas and Denver in the next 2 years. And most importantly of all – our boys had a good time here trying all the doors, pushing all the buttons, crawling under and over things and just having fun time exploring and touching everything without us having to tell them ‘no’. 

I am not going to lie; I was happy when we finally left the dark rooms and walked back out into the sunshine. 

 

Turquoise Trail

On our way to Albuquerque, instead of taking the highway, we opted to drive the Turquoise Trail. The name comes from the blue-green turquoise first mined by the early Pueblo people in this area around 900AD. In later era, turquoise mining became very popular here and several mining towns flourished – Cerrillos, Madrid and Golden in particular. After the turquoise boom, the towns got deserted but there is said to be a movement to bring these towns back to life as historic tourist destinations with art, crafts, theater, music, museums and restaurants.

Having been to few other historic Western towns, I was very excited to visit them here but, unfortunately, I was very disappointed. Apart from a few restaurants and trinket shops in Madrid, there was really nothing else to see there, nor in any other of the 2 towns. There was no historic value or revival, really. They were just sad, deserted, poor 2 cross streets in Cerrillos and Golden and that was that. If you really want to see a revival and a town brought back to life, there are many other much better options, e.g. Tombstone, AZ or Calico, CA.

Hopefully, in future, Cerrillos, Madrid and Golden will get restored to their former glory, but for now, we just drove on through inching our way towards the next stop on our list. 

 

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago.

 

Once we reached the park, we stepped out of the car into what seemed like a 100+ (+38C) degree heat! It was so, so hot! The petroglyph trail itself has not a single tree in sights and it weaves its way amidst black volcanic rock that attracts even more sun and heat. Yet, we were determined to go and explore. The trail is fairly short, just 1 mile (1,6km) long, so the boys wanted to do it themselves. The terrain here was very rocky and uneven, and even the 3yo needed some assistance, so going was slow. Yet, we saw some pretty amazing petroglyphs. There were about 100 of them on this particular trail but of course we did not find all of them. Altogether, the park has more than 24,000 petroglyphs scattered around its 7000 acres. 

Once we completed the trail, we were absolutely exhausted from the heat, so everyone requested that the next activity be indoors. Our vote was the Aquarium.

 

Albuquerque

The visit to the Aquarium was short and sweet. My husband was happy to be in an air-conditioned place, and the kids are always happy with animals, regardless whether they swim, fly or walk on 4 legs. And my mom just went along with the flow… So, I had a pretty content family at this point and everyone was happy. 

Our Aquarium tickets also included entry to the Botanical Gardens right next doors, so we decided to take a little stroll through the gardens. They had an amazing kids garden section with slides, sand pit, caves and other hands-on activities. The Butterfly garden, BUGarium ad Railroad garden were also very interesting, even for us, not just kids. 

Even though we were all tired, with our AirBnB here being just a 5-minute walk from Old Town Albuquerque, we decided to go for a little walk and explore it. Old Town is the original historic site of Albuquerque, laid out by Spanish colonists in the 1700s. It was very charming with narrow streets and centuries old adobe-houses. 

And oh, those chile peppers! We saw them in Taos, Santa Fe and again here in Albuquerque. Chile peppers are grown all over New Mexico, and it is nicknamed ‘’Chile capital of the world’’. They come in red and green, and during summer months some of the fresh red pods are picked and tied into the colorful Ristras we saw hanging all over New Mexico. Once these peppers have dried, they are taken down and used for stews, sauces, dips and many other recipes. We really had a hard time finding a dish in New Mexico that did not contain chile peppers. On several occasions I specifically had to request to make a certain dish without chile. And most importantly of all – do NOT confuse New Mexican ‘chile’ with Texas ‘chili’, they are not one and the same and you will deeply offend New Mexicans.

Another unplanned, fun event during our Albuquerque visit was the classic car show. Many brightly colored cars from the 50s and 60s were displayed around Old Town Plaza for everyone to see and enjoy for free. Me and my mom snapped a couple photos and were ready to move on, but the boys (big and small) got sucked into it for quite some time. We let them have their fun.

We spent the night at our fun rental, sipping tea on the balcony and watching the sun set over Albuquerque and the mountains, and then making some popcorn for a big-screen movie night in the media room. It was a great way to unwind after many days of busy sightseeing. 

 

Acoma Pueblo / Sky City

Acoma Pueblo was our last stop in New Mexico, before heading to Arizona. Acoma Pueblo is a Native American pueblo (village) famous for being one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. Acoma tribal traditions estimate that they have lived in the village for more than 2000 years. The Sky City is built atop a 364-foot (111m) mesa.

The only way to visit and access it is through an organized tour. The visitor center has tours departing every 2 hours and they enforce a dress code, so not to offend Native Americans. My shorts were not acceptable and I had to return to the car to put on longer pants… Once everyone was situated, we climbed aboard a bus and headed up to the mesa top for our 1.5hr long tour. There were many interesting facts told about the village, history and American Indian life.

They still speak their ancient language – Keresean language, practice their religion, and live in this modest housing according to the sun and moon cycles. There is still no running water or electricity here. Native Americans earn extra income by selling tourists their handmade pottery. And although it was very detailed, colorful and beautiful, the price-tags seemed way too much even for me (hundreds of dollars per piece). 

As we were passing one of these pottery stands, the lady selling the items called our boys and gave them a little decorative clay lizard as a gift. She said the lizard’s tail had cracked, and although she re-did it, the fix could be seen and she didn’t feel like she wanted to sell it like that, so she chose to gift it to our boys. That was very sweet. But of course, the boys started fighting over who will get to carry the lizard. So, to break up the fight, we purchased a little $5 green froggy so each of the boys could have their own souvenir from the trip. 

At the end of the tour, the guide took us to the very edge of the mesa so we could enjoy the views of the vast Indian Reservation lands.

On our way out, we saw some horses grazing in the distance. No fences, no pastures, just wild horses and endless prairies - like a picture from some old wild west postcard. 

With Acoma Pueblo being our last stop in New Mexico, we were back on the road again for a several hour-long drive to reach our next destination already in Arizona. The boys were tired, so we grabbed a few road snacks on the go and kept on driving.

 

ARIZONA

Window Rock Navajo Tribal Park & Veteran’s Memorial

To stretch our legs, we stopped at the Window Rock which was along our route, so did not require a special trip to see. The park consists of a natural sandstone arch and a Veteran’s Memorial that was established in 1995 at the base of the Window Rock to honor the many Navajos who served in the U.S. military. 

I definitely would not go out of my way to see this place, but it was nice to get out of the car after several hours of sitting, take a little walk around the paved walkways of the park, and also the restrooms and picnic tables were just nearby. 

 

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

As the afternoon approached, we finally made our way to the remote eastern part of Arizona where Canyon de Chelly lies. I had planned 2 days for exploring this somewhat remote and less visited canyon. And although it might be less known to tourists than the Grand Canyon, for example, Canyon de Chelly has had human presence for over 5000 years – longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere else on the Colorado Plateau. To this day, 40 Navajo families make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in this canyon. 

Canyon de Chelly can be seen from 3 overlooks on the North Rim drive, and 7 overlooks on the South Rim drive. South Rim was said to be better for afternoon light (and North Rim – for morning), so we chose to finish the day by making the South Rim drive. The overlooks range from just a few hundred feet high to over 1000-ft (300m) high up above the canyon floor. The most stunning one to me was the iconic Spider Rock overlook, which is also the canyon’s symbol, decorating various souvenirs, such as mugs, magnets, postcards, calendars etc. 

The canyon also contains over 2500 archeological sites ranging from 1500 B.C. to 1350 A.D. Among these sites are several hundred Anasazi Indian villages built between 350 and 1300 A.D. After year 1100, the Anasazi built dramatic masonry cliff dwellings in caves and recesses in the canyon walls. Several of the ruins of these dwellings could be seen from the various lookouts.

The White House trail is the only trail in the whole canyon that can be hiked without a guide, and it leads down into the canyon to one of these ruins. Even though I had planned to make the hike, it was already getting much too late and everybody was too tired to attempt a 2-hour hike down into the canyon. Instead, the majority of the votes went in favor of checking into the hotel, getting dinner and hanging out by the pool. Which is what we did. 

The next morning, we packed up the car and headed out to explore the North Rim drive. Also here we saw some impressive cliffs and ancient ruins. 

By one of the parking lots, we met a local Native American who very discreetly was painting different native symbols on pieces of smoothed rocks. We started talking to him and he explained that he is one of the natives who lives down into the canyon and in his free time paints on smoothed cliff pieces that he finds right by his house, and then sells his work to tourists up here by the lookouts.

We were very upset to find out that US park rangers don’t allow them to do this and chase them away, or even worse – fine them for trying to sell their work. It is not fair, taking into account the fact that these lands originally belonged to American Indians and were forcefully taken away. Now they are forced to live on reservations and get fined for trying to earn an extra dollar with their art…

We stood there for a while talking to the nice man until the boys started to get antsy giving hints that it was time to go. And not only it was time to go, it was time to bid ‘farewell’ to Canyon de Chelly and make a looong 4-hour drive back to Albuquerque. This was our last full day of the trip as we had our flights booked for the next day to go back home.  

 

Wheatfields Lake

However, we still wanted to make the best of the little time we had left, and taking into account the suggestions given to us at Canyon de Chelly visitors center, we chose to drive to Albuquerque using the scenic Rt 12. It did not disappoint, and after two days filled with canyon dust, rocks and cacti, we were soon passing a beautiful lake. Totally unexpected, yet there was no way we could just sneak by it – the second the boys saw it, the requests to stop and play kept coming in from all directions. And even though the lake did not seem suitable for swimming, the boys had equally much fun just throwing rocks and making wood-boats.

We also used this time to have a little picnic from all the leftovers we had acquired over the last 2 days. It was a nice, refreshing break and after about an hour we were ready get back in the car and finish the remainder of the distance back to Albuquerque, with more beautiful scenery along the way.

 

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (Albuquerque, New Mexico)

With boys sound asleep, the evening and next morning was spent packing and arranging all of the bags for our flight home. As our flight was scheduled for 5:30pm, we had more than half a day to still do some sightseeing; however, exhausted from the heat and all the drives (1450miles (2335km) in 9 days!), we did not want to spend more time in the car or outdoors. So, we chose to visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center right there in Albuquerque. The museum galleries show the history, culture and art of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. There are collections of art, pottery, weaving and other crafts, old photos and video accounts of past events, and much more. Although I am not much into museums, the Cultural Center was very interesting to walk through and read even for me.

 

After the indoors museum visit, everyone gathered in the courtyard to watch the cultural dance performance. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is the only place in North America to offer traditional Native American dances every week year-round, showcasing dance groups from the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico, as well as Plains Style, Navajo, Apache, and Hopi dancers. During our visit, we watched Acoma Dance Group. 

The Cultural Center is also famous for its Pueblo Harvest restaurant known for extraordinary regional and Native-sourced, Pueblo-inspired cuisine. It is also owned by the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. Although not cheap, the dishes were very interesting and tasty, e.g. blue corn chicken, bison frites or Pueblo burger. 

 

Going home

Having absorbed enough of the Pueblo culture to last us for a while, we made one last stop before heading to the airport – ice cream! It was the perfect last treat on our last day of the trip. 

Once we made it onto the plane, the boys did not even wait for the take-off. They were just too tired and ready to crash anywhere. We were lucky enough to have a plane with plenty of open seating so we could spread across the seats and let them sleep their way home.

Where they dreaming of the Rocky Mountains and playing in the snow? Or maybe rolling down a sand hill at the Great Sand Dunes NP? Or maybe it was exploring the caves and ancient Native American dwellings in the canyons? Whichever it might be, we were grateful for another unforgettable experience and adventure together as a family. These memories will last forever, just like the ones from our trips before, and hopefully, the ones yet to come.

 

More photos of this trip can be found in the following galleries:

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, New Mexico

Taos, New Mexico

Garden of the Gods, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes NP, Colorado

Mt Evans & Pikes Peak, Colorado

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It's always a pleasure to read your travel stories!

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Thank you! I am happy you enjoy them!

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