5 Fascinating Scenic Drives in New Mexico

You don’t need to be on the road long to realize why New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment. The high desert landscape will give you a new appreciation for what wild beauty really means. 

Driving the scenic byways in New Mexico is one of the best ways to fully experience the landscape, history, and top cultural attractions of the state. From downtown Santa Fe to small backcountry drives, there’s plenty to see and explore. 

Read on to discover which of New Mexico’s scenic drives would be best for you to include during your next road-tripping adventure!

1. New Mexico Scenic Drives: Geronimo Trail National Scenic Byway

  • Distance: About 140 miles, or a bit longer if you take some of the side routes
  • Time needed: 4 hours to 2 days, depending on stops 

Named after Geronimo, the famous Chiricahua Apache warrior, this incredible New Mexico scenic byway will be enough to convince any traveler of the state’s unparalleled majestic beauty. 

USA Scenic Drives in New Mexico - Chihuahuan Desert

The route starts and finishes in the Gila Wilderness and crosses through parts of the Chihuahuan Desert. You’ll be treated to cliffs lined with ponderosa pines, rugged desert, and the expansive skies New Mexico is famous for. 

There are three primary segments of the drive: the northern route, which begins in Beaverhead and leads to the Rio Grande, and the segment on the Rio Grande itself, which passes through historic towns like Truth or Consequences and Williamsburg. And the southern route, which cuts back west to finish in San Lorenzo. 

If you want to turn this scenic byway in New Mexico into a loop, you can add the Forest Service Road 150 to take you back to where you began, but you’ll need a vehicle with 4-wheel drive for this. 

Check out some of the historical attractions like the Spanish-colonial style town Monticello where the San Ignacio Catholic Church, built in 1867, still stands. 

On the Rio Grande portion of the drive, a stop in Elephant Butte is practically mandatory to get out and explore the most popular lake in New Mexico. It’s a perfect spot to spend the afternoon swimming, fishing, hiking, or ATVing across the rugged landscape. 

In the southern portion of the drive, get ready for some spectacular vistas as the road climbs almost 3000 feet to Emory Pass. Outdoor enthusiasts will also want to take the opportunity to stop to explore the hiking trails where you can appreciate the peace and solitude, not to mention the cool mountain temperatures. 

When to go: Any time of year is good, but spring and fall usually have the best weather and fewer tourists.  

2. New Mexico Scenic Drives: Jemez Mountain Trail Scenic Byway

  • Distance: 132 miles for the whole loop
  • Time needed: 3 hours to a day 

If you’re in northern New Mexico and looking for scenic drives near Santa Fe, then the Jemez Mountain Trail should be on your map.

USA Scenic Drives in New Mexico - Jemez Mountain Trail

Starting out in the quaint and picturesque town of Los Alamos, a bit north of Santa Fe, the trail brings you through high desert mountain scenery, past the dormant volcano crater at Valles Caldera National Preserve, and past historic Indian ruins. 

You can take the entire loop in a day, break it up into segments for a longer trip, or just drive part of it if you’re pressed for time. 

Some points of interest along the way include the Jémez Pueblo, one of several Native American pueblos in northern New Mexico. Nearby you’ll find the famous Jémez Springs, where you can take a dip in the natural thermal waters.

This scenic drive in New Mexico also takes you through Bandelier National Monument, one of the most popular destinations in the state. You’ll be able to see some of the Native American cliff dwellings, which date back to the 13th century as well as hike trails across flat mesas to view petroglyphs. 

When to go: Any time of year is good for this scenic byway in New Mexico.

3. New Mexico Scenic Drives: Quebradas Backcountry Scenic Byway

  • Distance: 22 miles 
  • Time needed: 1-4 hours 

If you want to explore the rugged side of the Land of Enchantment, then check out this unpaved scenic drive in New Mexico. Crossing over the high desert dunes and cutting close to stunning canyons, you’ll get to experience the Wild West in a way unlike any other.

USA Scenic Drives in New Mexico - Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Since this drive doesn’t get much traffic, it also offers excellent chances for spotting wildlife. If you want to take a slight detour, you can also visit the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

One of the characteristic features of this New Mexico drive is the colorful rock formations and topographic landmarks created by erosion from the arroyos of the Rio Grande. 

When to go: Any time of year is good to drive this route, but because it’s unpaved, it’s best to check weather and road conditions before starting. 

4. New Mexico Scenic Drives: Santa Fe National Forest Scenic Byway

  • Distance: 15 miles one way, 30 miles round-trip 
  • Time needed: 30 minutes to a day, depending on exploration

Although this New Mexico scenic drive might not have as many miles as other routes, it certainly doesn’t fall short of incredible scenery.

USA Scenic Drives in New Mexico - Ski Santa Fe

Traversing the aspen and conifer forests near the Santa Fe Ski Basin, this is a perfect drive near Santa Fe either for a short afternoon excursion or a day of adventure if you want to hike, picnic, snowshoe, or even camp for the night. 

There are numerous trailheads found along the route, as well as pull-off spots where you can enjoy a picnic lunch or just get some photographs of the landscape. If you visit in the winter, many of the trails are converted into backwoods, cross-country skiing, and snowshoe routes. Downhill skiers can hit the slopes at Ski Santa Fe, where you can cruise down the snowy sides of Tesuque Peak. 

This scenic drive starts in downtown Santa Fe, making it easy to start and end your day at your hotel or add this drive to a longer road trip in New Mexico. 

When to go: Depending on what type of outdoor activities interest you, any season can be good for driving this New Mexico scenic byway. It’s recommended to check road conditions in winter, though.

5. New Mexico Scenic Drives: El Camino Real National Scenic Byway 

  • Distance: About 300 miles 
  • Time needed: 8 hours to multiple days 

Also known as Route 66, this is one of the best-known scenic highways in New Mexico. Not only is the landscape stunning, but it’s also packed with history.

USA Scenic Drives in New Mexico - Elephant Butte Lake

This was the route the Spanish explorer Don Juan de Onate used in 1598, and it crosses through villages with original colonial Spanish architecture as well as traditional Indian Pueblos, which were present before the arrival of the Spaniards. Although several adjustments have been made to the original route traveled by Onate, this NM scenic drive stays very accurate to history.

The Camino Real is an excellent pick for a Santa Fe scenic drive since you could either start or end the trip in the city. 

We’d recommend planning for at least two days for this particular drive on account of its length and the number of interesting places to stop along the way. 

In addition to Santa Fe, this drive will also take you through Albuquerque. The museums, top-notch Tex-Mex food, golf courses, and hot air balloon rides are all more than enough reasons to spend at least an afternoon, if not a day or two.

Elephant Butte Lake and Caballo Lake State Parks are excellent places to go for a short hike or have a picnic lunch. In the southern portion of the drive, El Camino Real cuts through Lincoln National Forest. Not only is it the birthplace of Smokey Bear, but it’s also a popular destination for hiking, camping, and mountain biking.  

When to go: Any time of year is good for this NM scenic drive.

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