While New Mexico is known for many things such as turquoise jewelry, sunshine, green chile, with an “e” not an “i”, and pueblo dances, it is not as well known for its many oddball, kid-oriented activities that are often off the beaten path.
New Mexico is vast and so many of the things that make it strange and unique fly under the radar for visitors. So in order to give your family a helping hand for the summer tourism season, we compiled a New Mexico Kids Trail made of two driving tours that will take you to attractions that appeal not only to kids but to the kid in all of us. Within this list you will find history, swimming, science, dinosaurs, art and so much more. All of it is authentic and true New Mexico.
The first route runs along the East-West axis of I-40, the second along the North-South route of I-25. These two great byways of New Mexico crisscross one another in Albuquerque, the largest city in the state.
East-West Along I-40
Exactly 100 miles from the New Mexico-Texas border is a town called Santa Rosa (pop. 2,680), originally called Aqua Negra Chiquita, or “Little Black Water.”
Don’t let the name fool you because the coolest thing about Santa Rosa is its very deep, very mysterious Blue Hole.
What is the blue hole and how can such a deep body of water be found in the dry desert state of New Mexico? The answer is a great way to trick your children into learning about geology while they explore and have fun.
The Blue Hole has a depth and width of about 80 feet. It’s a flowing artesian well, meaning that pressure on an underground aquifer caused the water to rise to the surface without the need of a manmade pump.
And to answer your next question: yes, The Blue Hole is open for swimming. The water is a consistent 62 degrees and the location is also a popular dive site, with permit, and has few rivals in the state. This gorgeous and mysterious site is a great way to embrace the unknown while challenging your notions about the desert environment.
Photo by Eric T Gunther (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Drive another hundred miles west and you’ll hit Sandia Park, home of the Tinkertown Museum, the strange and wonderful hand-made creation of Ross, now deceased, and Carla Ward. Ross was a traveling sideshow painter for three decades before he decided to settle down and create his own roadside attraction on his mountainside homestead with his wife Carla. The museum started with a single room and grew over the decades into a sequence of 22 rooms filled with mechanical carnival-esque miniatures, wedding cake couples, an automated fortuneteller, and a battered 35-foot antique wooden sailboat that braved a 10-year journey around the world.
Tinkertown is still very much a work in progress as Carla continues to rebuild and restore elements in the exhibits. It stands as a testament to the power of imagination, a showcase of new worlds built from repurposed materials and artifacts of the past. Open every day, 9 a.m.- 6 p.m., April – October.
Photo courtesy of Carla Ward
The city of Albuquerque is about a half-hour’s drive from Tinkertown. You’ll want to grab a hotel room and stay a couple nights as you sift through the many riches this 550,000-person metropolis has to offer. Some of our favorites: the Sunday farmer’s market at the Rail Yards; (10 a.m. – 2 p.m., May – October), with local food, music, dance, crafts, and art, as well as the Wheels Museum demonstration area, and Explora!, an interactive children’s museum that has a whole floor dedicated to the science of instruments and sound. All of the exhibits invite hands-on, ears-open exploration. Finally, there is the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, which exhibits animals, the cosmos, rocks and man-made artifacts with equal intensity and delight (closed Tuesdays).
New Mexico Museum of Natural History, photo by Asis Carlos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
As you head west from Albuquerque you are absolutely going to want to stop and spend some appreciable time at Sky City, the Acoma Pueblo. Sky City is built on a mesa and is one of the oldest cities in the country – “pueblo” means “city” or “settlement” – and the 90-minute tours offered there allow visitors a unique opportunity to form an understanding of the triumphs and tragedies of the people who have been inhabiting this sky-high community since 1100 CE.
Sky City is rich in history and culture and the expansive views from the top of the mesa are jaw-droppingly beautiful. You will visit authentic thick-walled adobe structures that have been around for centuries and meet some of the incredible potters that Acoma is known for and have the opportunity to purchase their wares. Make sure that you stop into the pueblo’s Haak’u Museum, which is well worth some time. Allow several hours for this visit once you arrive. You will not want to leave quickly.
Photo courtesy of Scott Catron [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Located on private land, the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano, in Grants, NM, are two extraordinary geologic structures that will capture the imaginations of everyone in the family. Visitors follow an ancient lava trail, dubbed “the land of fire and ice,” to the mouth of the ice cave where layers of natural ice glisten perpetually in the New Mexico sun. Follow another nearby trail to wind around the side of the Bandera Volcano, which erupted 10,000 years ago. The caldera formed by the volcano is one of the best examples of a volcanic eruption in the country. Take some time to peruse the old-time trading post located here, which sells contemporary pueblo arts and crafts and also houses ancient artifacts found in the area’s lava fields, some dating back 1,200 years.
Animal lovers in your pack will find a visit to Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary to be a truly memorable experience. The sanctuary is located in the high-desert mountain village of Candy Kitchen and is home to about 75 rescued wolves and wolf dogs. They live out their days on a 90-acre tract of land at an elevation of about 7,500 feet. Once you have seen a wolf up close and understand its challenges in the wild, you will fully appreciate this animal’s charisma. Hour-long tours help fund the care and feeding of the wolves.
Regular tours are only $5-10 per person, reservations not required, but you might want to consider the option of booking a feeding tour, advance reservations required, $25 per person for two people with an additional charge of $5 for each additional person. This will allow your group to gain insight into the nutritional needs of the wolves and the resources required to keep these animals healthy. Whichever tour you choose, you and your travel-mates are guaranteed to come away with a new appreciation for these creatures.
North-South Along I-25
As you come down from Raton, New Mexico, in the north, take a bit of time to jog east off I-25 along Route 87 to hit a couple of cool natural sites that will give you a sense of the profound history of the area. First stop: Capulin Volcano National Monument, which is about 40 minutes southeast of Raton. The cinder cone, which reaches 1,300 feet above the surrounding landscape, has steep sides and a distinct crater. Visitors can drive up a two-mile roadway that winds to the crater’s rim. From the top you’ll find a breathtaking vista of the surrounding lava flows as well as sweeping views into neighboring states.
Photo by, R.D. Miller, USGS (U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
From Capulin, continue south along Route 87 to the town of Clayton, New Mexico, about a 50-minute drive, and then head north on NM-370 for another 12 miles, where you will find Clayton Lake State Park. There, you can see dinosaur footprints preserved in sandstone along the park’s incredible fossil trackway.
These tracks, more than 500 of them, make up some of the most extensive and well-preserved dinosaur tracks in the country. The so-called “dinosaur freeway,” dated at about 100 million years old, is composed of broad, three-toed impressions. In all likelihood, the tracks were made by plant-eating iguanodontidae dinosaurs, which had large hind limbs and shorter front limbs. The largest track in the field measures 30 cm in length. Smaller tracks along the trail might have been made by other dinosaurs, e.g., theropods or small ornithopods. One set of prints was made by a swimming crocodile, according to one study. Another spot suggests that a dinosaur slipped in the mud and used her tail to maintain balance.
As you head back west from Clayton toward I-25, hop on the freeway going north rather than south for one exit and head west on Route 58 toward Cimarron and the St. James Hotel. The drive, which will take about an hour and forty-five minutes, will allow you to tuck in for dinner and rest for the night. This Victorian-era hotel built in 1872 has a storied history that includes visits by Billy the Kid, New Mexico’s most infamous son, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Annie Oakley. The hotel was also the scene of many shootouts: visitors can see no fewer than 20 bullet holes peppering the dining room ceiling. Some of the rooms are said to be haunted, others less so. If you have a spirit for adventure and wouldn’t mind being awakened by restless ghosts, stop in for a sleepover. You won’t soon forget the experience.
Photo courtesy of Terri Caid
After breakfast, head back to I-25’s vertical spine and travel south toward Santa Fe. But before you sail into New Mexico’s capital city, stop along the way for a dip in the Montezuma Hot Springs, just off the side of the road about six miles north of Las Vegas, NM. The bubbling springs are contained in open-air cement pools that lie along the Gallinas River. You’ll have your choice of dipping into several small soaking pools that range from very hot, about 120 degrees, to less so, at 102.7 degrees. The drive from Cimarron to the hot springs will take about an hour and a half.
Exit onto Route 329 at Las Vegas, NM, and then head north on route 65 to find the springs. They’re close to the Armand Hammer United World College campus, which is also worth a visit if you and your kids enjoy visiting grand buildings. The main structure on campus is a bona fide castle, circa 1886.
From Montezuma, the small capital city of Santa Fe is a drive of about an hour and ten minutes, mostly along I-25. To get to Meow Wolf, the state’s most imaginative and most fervently Instagrammed attraction, get off the St. Francis Drive exit and turn left from St. Francis onto Siringo Road. Take a right onto Calle del Cielo and cross Cerrillos Road. As you turn left onto Rufina Circle from Calle del Cielo, you will see Meow Wolf’s huge red robot greeting you with a gerbera daisy from the parking lot, setting the tone for the unusual experience you are about to embark on. Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return defies simple explanation and demands personal interaction. You will experience a walk through in an unusual Victorian house, owned by a family who disappeared under mysterious conditions late one night. The House of Eternal Return is a large-scale immersive art exhibit, a sound-infused and mind-altering fun house. You will discover all these things and more and you won’t want to miss it.
Photo courtesy of Kate Russell
Kid-Centric Santa Fe: The City Different
Santa Fe has many other kid-friendly activities aside from Meow Wolf. Check out the swimming pools and ice-skating options at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center, the many biking trails that wend through the city as well as the incredible mountain biking options in the mountains and hills. The Children’s Museum is a must-see for younger members of your crew.
After you have had your fill of Santa Fe (which, honestly, is difficult to achieve), start heading south along I-25 toward Albuquerque. Before you hit the state’s largest metropolis, stop in Cochiti to hike within the exquisite formations called Tent Rocks. Afterward, take a dip in Cochiti Lake or, better yet, rent a stand-up paddleboard to up the fun factor.
Photo by Marshallhenrie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Stay a few days in Albuquerque and enjoy its many sights (see east-west tour, item #3). Make sure you stop at the Petroglyph National Monument Visitor Center to pick up maps that will take you to various trails that feature the ancient and fascinating petroglyphs that can be found here. These largely varied images — which range from identifiable birds and other animals to fanciful-looking humanoid creatures — were carved into volcanic rock by Native American and Spanish settlers 400-700 years ago, though some petroglyphs date back as far as 3,000 years. The carvings, located in one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, offer a clue into the cultural and spiritual practices of the area’s original settlers and they are exquisite examples of artistic expression.
When you are ready to re-start your journey southward, consider a stop at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a surprising wetland in New Mexico’s southern region where you can find a huge colony of migrating sandhill cranes and geese in fall and winter, as well as a large array of other types of aquatic birds year round. This nationally designated wilderness spans thousands of acres and contains a 12-mile long main loop road with a couple of spur loops that allow drivers to view the area’s wetland wildlife and raptors.
There are also some short walking trails that feed off the main loop where photographers like to gather in the very early morning and at sunset to capture the majesty of the great multitudes of cranes taking off for their days of flight and later landing to feed and settle in for the night. In all, there have been about 360 different bird species observed in the Bosque del Apache since 1981, including such rarities in New Mexico as the little blue heron and least bittern. Late November to February is the best time to view the largest number of birds, typically numbering over 10,000 sandhill cranes and 20,000 Ross’s and snow geese. The spring also sees large numbers of birds here, particularly the last week of April and first week of May.
Photo attribution, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Heading south again along I-25 you will hit the imaginatively named town of Truth or Consequences. The town was branded after the radio show of the same name, which preceded the TV show, and involved itself in a publicity stunt when the host of the show came there to broadcast its 10th anniversary program and rename the town. While the unusual name gets this tiny town a lot of attention, its former name – Hot Springs – was a more apt moniker, as the place is riddled with thermal pools. After soaking in one or more of them, wander the town’s WPA-era sidewalks, visit its funky coffeeshop-cum-bookstore or have a bite at one of its several yummy eateries.
As you depart TorC as the locals call it, head west off I-25 on Route 152, which will take you through some pretty mountain towns and the Gila National Forest, a landscape of rivers and trees. You’ll pass through the old gold-mining town of Hillsboro (pop. 120) cross Percha Creek, head into Kingston, and begin a journey from there characterized by increasing elevation and a sequence of dramatic hair-pin curves. Eventually you will hit an option to travel onto roadways 25 and 15, which will take you up to the ruins of the Gila Cliff dwellings. These caves are smaller than Mesa Verde but an equally rich experience. The intimate scale allows visitors to imagine what it might have been like for families to inhabit them in the late 1200’s. You can climb your way through five interlocking caves containing more than 40 rooms. While the roundtrip through the caves takes less than an hour, it will leave an impression that lasts many decades.
Before leaving the area and finding your way back to I-25 toward Las Cruces, stop in the picturesque old west town of Piños Altos, New Mexico where you can have some food and drink at the olde tyme Buckhorn Saloon & Opera House. Then head to City of Rocks State Park, a weird and gorgeous landscape of, you got it, cool-looking rocks created 34.9 million years ago.
Culminate your north-south tour in the town of Old Mesilla, NM, five miles southwest of Las Cruces. The town was originally established as a Mexican village and later annexed and made part of the United States under the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. The place still feels very much like the Mexican village from which it grew. Dirt roads, a colorful Mexican cemetery that feels more celebratory than somber, and the exquisite colonial San Albino church anchoring the zócalo, or town square, all contribute to the authentic Mexican feel. Here you will also find the marvelous Fountain Theater, which has been in operation since 1900 and where you can still catch a flick. The theater is also located near plenty of restaurants along the town square.
Well? What are you waiting for? Get out there and explore! If you do make the trip, please tag us in your photos. We’d love to see them. Finally, if you know anyone who may be interested in this article, please share it using our social media links below.
— Bonnie Schwartz is a Meow Wolfer who shares her life with a curious 10 year-old. They like to hop in their dusty road rig and embark on adventures together that typically involve some combination of water and rocks.