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While I love traveling to the edges of the earth in search of an amazing travel experience, I’m also a firm believer that you don’t need to go far from home to get it. New Mexico—just a 2.5 hour flight from where I live in San Francisco—is my perfect nearby travel destination. I recently spent a long weekend on a road trip that took me from Santa Fe to Lightning Field in western New Mexico back to Albuquerque, and left me feeling inspired and recharged. Read on for a day-by-day guide.
Day 1: Santa Fe
Upon arrival into the Albuquerque Airport, hop in a rental car and head straight to El Rey Court in Santa Fe. Originally built as a roadside motel in 1936, it’s recently been remodeled into an 86-room hotel and grounds that include a hot tub and pool.
If you can’t check into your room yet, drop your bags and head out for a meal. Tia Sophia’s, which is right off of the main square in downtown Santa Fe, is the perfect meal to start your first day. I’m partial to the hand held breakfast roll, which is somewhere between a breakfast taco and breakfast burrito, and unlike anything I’ve had before.
After breakfast, head across the square to Shiprock, a gallery rooted in Navajo and Native American traditions of the Southwest. While much of the inventory costs a pretty penny, their jewelry, textiles and homewares will leave you feeling inspired.
With a meal in your belly and perhaps a lighter wallet, head to Ten Thousand Waves for some R&R. It’s a Japanese spa set in the hills of Santa Fe, where you can spend some time in the soaking tubs and book a massage. They also offer a Japanese izakaya on site, if you’re looking to pair your spa treatment with a meal—but personally, I didn’t find it to be a match for the Japanese food that I can find in San Francisco. Be sure to make your reservation in advance.
My pick for dinner after a spa day would be Vinaigrette, a restaurant that specializes in entrée salads made with local produce. It’s also a total Santa Fe vibe, set in an adobe house with paintings and bright green tile at the end of a residential lane. Then, close out your evening with a margarita at La Reina, the bar at El Rey Court.
Day 2: Abiquiu & Santa Fe
Day 2 is all about art. But first, breakfast. Start your day at hybrid cafe, market and store Modern General. Whether you’re in the mood for heartier fare or a lighter meal, they’ve got a range of offerings—including juice and smoothies, which can be hard to come by on vacation. And, you can shop around their curated offering of goods while you wait for your meal.
From there, head about an hour north to the O’Keefe Museum & Welcome Center in Abiquiu, which is the meeting point for the O’Keefe Home & Studio tour. You’ll spend 75 minutes on a guided tour of Georgia O’Keefe’s iconic home and garden, overlooking the stunning New Mexico landscape. (Note: Tours are held from March to November for guests ages 10+. Tickets are $60 and reservations are required.) At the welcome center, ask for a map to Plaza Blanca, a nearby rock formation that’s worth a stop.
Back in Santa Fe, stop off for a lunch at Taco Fundacion—some of the best tacos I’ve had in my life. Get a sampling, and enjoy them at the picnic tables out front. If you have the energy for another activity before dinner, book tickets ($42) at Meow Wolf, a 70-room immersive art experience for all ages. Then, close out your day at Paper Dosa, a South Indian restaurant in town, or Cafe Pasqual’s, a Santa Fe institution.
Day 3: Lightning Field
Day 3, for me, is what this roadtrip is centered around: a night at Walter De Maria’s seminal land art installation Lightning Field. After grabbing breakfast (I did a repeat at Tia Sophia’s), hit the road for your 3.5 hour drive from Santa Fe to Quemado, in western New Mexico. Before leaving town, make a quick stop at a grocery store for provisions—you will be far from any offerings from here out for the next 24-36 hours.
Along the way, make a stop at the El Malpais National Conservation Area. Not only is it a nice stopping point to stretch your legs, it’s a beautiful part of the New Mexico landscape with an incredible landmark called La Ventana Arch. It’s a short walk on a paved pathway from the parking lot, though you could stop for a longer hike if you’re keen.
From there, continue your drive through rural New Mexico to the Dia Foundation office in Quemado. At this point, expect to be off the grid: no cell service, no WiFi, and an incredible absence of light and sound pollution. You’ll park in Quemado overnight, then be escorted by the groundskeeper to Lightning Field and its adjacent cabin, your lodging for the night. Lightning Field is the 1977 work by American sculptor Walter De Maria, and consists of 400 polished stainless-steel poles assembled in a grid that measures one mile by 1 kilometer.
Lightning Field offers stays from May 1 to October 31 each year, with availability for 6 guests each night ($150-250 per person per night). Reservations have already opened for 2023, but you may still be able to sneak in if your dates are flexible. During your stay, you can view and walk through the work at all times of the day, with sunset and sunrise being the most majestic. Visiting Lightning Field is an experience that should be on anyone’s bucket list—it’s indescribable, magical, memorable, and worth planning a trip around.
Day 4: Albuquerque
Because your visit to Lightning Field is only one night, your 4th day will involve a 3-hour drive back to Albuquerque. While you can take the same route back as you took on the way there, I’m partial to seeing more of the landscape.
On the alternate route back to Albuquerque, you won’t see much. But there’s one stop that makes it worth the journey: the Very Large Array. If you’re a child of the 90s, you’ll recognize this place from the iconic 1997 film Contact, starring Jodie Foster. While that made it famous, the Very Large Array is a site with 27 25-meter wide radio antennas in the high plains. Spend an hour doing the self-guided walking tour ($6 per person), and don’t be shy with the selfies.
Upon arrival into Albuquerque, head straight to Los Poblanos Inn, a historic 45 room hotel and organic farm. It’s a relaxing oasis that will offer incredible farm-to-table meals and a relaxing guest room with their own lavender bath products that will leave you feeling restored at the end of your road trip.
And, if you want to extend your trip longer than 4 days, add an extra night or two at the El Rey Court at the top of your trip or at Los Poblanos at the end of your trip for a more relaxed pace or some extra vacation time.
Shop the trip
Get the Southwest vibes going before you travel or bring a piece of New Mexico home with these items.
- A cozy knit blanket ($195) from Santa Fe-based artist Trilby Nelson, who celebrates color, pattern and unexpected materials in her sustainably-made and US-produced designs.
- Inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe's home and studio? Pick up a copy of Weekends with O’Keeffe ($21.95), which chronicles C.S. Merrill’s journals of the daily life of Georgia O’Keeffe.
- Get the look and protect yourself from the harsh Southwestern sun with Janessa Leone’s Tessa Hat ($310).
- Los Poblanos Inn’s best-selling Lavender Salve ($24), which can be used to heal dry hands or treat insect bites and minor burns. Founder Penny Rembe’s recipe remains unchanged, using only 5 simple ingredients, including Los Poblanos farm lavender.
- While not technically from the Southwest, Wonder Valley’s Oud Incense ($30) has a transportative that will bring you back.