We’ve always known we wanted to travel with our kids but my husband’s job had us moving frequently when they were itty bitty. After a big shift and more secure home base, we decided to take our first big trip and jumped on a flight sale to a region of the U.S. that none of us had ever been, New Mexico! I’m sharing our 6 day New Mexico road trip itinerary that brought us to culture, hiking, and fun kid activities all in one trip. We visited in late April/early March, which gave us mid 70’s weather and a nice escape from cooler temperatures on the easy coast. It was a relatively inexpensive trip and a great introduction to traveling as a family so I’m hoping I can inspire some other folks to spend their spring breaks in New Mexico this year!
This post focuses on this specific trip we took, but be sure to read about the more general top 10 mistakes to avoid when planning a national park trip, too!
While you’re here, you might check out these posts too:
- 7 steps to plan a family vacation
- 40+ Gift Ideas for Nature Loving Kids
- 12+ fun things to do in Albuquerque with kids
Pin this post about New Mexico with kids with this link or collage image:
Before we left on our trip, I checked out some books to read about the area if you’re looking for suggestions!
For my planning purposes:
For my kids’ benefit:
- Welcome to Josefina`s World 1824
- National Geographic Investigates Ancient Pueblo
- Can’t find the exact copy, here is a similar The Pueblo nonfiction book for kids
- Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale by Gerald McDermott
- Coyote: A Trickster Tale from the American Southwest by Gerald McDermott
- The Coyote Under the Table by Joe Hayes
- Just Josefina and Josefina’s Song
New Mexico Itinerary
Night: Howard Johnson Albuquerque Midtown – this hotel was adequate, with a free breakfast, nothing special but nice and cheap. We rented a car via Autoslash.com, they often find better deals even than Costco! We ate at Frontier, which was fast and good, the only meal I remember well from the trip!
- Rio Grand Nature Center State Park
- Pueblo Cultural Center
- 3 River Petroglyph Site
Rio Grande Nature Center State Park
I didn’t see much information about this park online but it was open early and we had time to kill that morning; it turned out to be a great visit! We learned about the bosque habitat and how this area protected it, explored the small indoor nature center, and then walked over the trail to sport lizards and take a peek at the Rio Grande river.
There was a nominal fee to park ($3 when we visited in 2018); there is no cafe but the small gift shop had snacks and cold drinks. Check out their website here!
Pueblo Cultural Center
Next up we visited the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center – This is a great spot to learn more about Pueblo people in both the present day and the past! There were several areas with hands on activities for the kids; we had hoped to eat at the Pueblo Harvest restaurant as well but they had a special event that prevented us from doing so.
Before your visit, call or check their website for the times that Native American dances will be held, it depends on the month and the day; we enjoyed the performance. There are also artisans selling their handmade crafts in the outside, along with several exhibits and lots of interactive opportunities.
(Drive 3.5 hours)
3 River Petroglyph Site
We then headed down to check out the sand dunes, stopping at this cool petroglyph site! We had the place completely to ourselves; there was a bathroom, campground, and picnic area as well.
There was just one main trail, with mountains in the distance.
We had a lot of fun spotting all the petroglyphs!
It was a great test of I Spy to spot all the lizards too, aren’t they cute! We loaded back in the car and headed down to the sand dunes.
(Drive 45 minutes)
It should be noted that the world’s largest pistachio is along the route between the petroglyph site and white sands, we didn’t stop but I wish we would’ve!
Night: White Sands Hotel Budget Inn Alamogordo, NM. This was… borderline too sketchy for us (and our standards are low!) but it was cheap at least.
- White Sands National Park
White Sands National Park
We woke up as early as possible to get to the dunes before the day warmed up! There is virtually no shade here and it felt much warmer than the temperature read. We lucked out and found a sled someone left outside the visitor’s center, since we arrived before it opened, and took off. If we visited again, I would buy sleds (and sled wax!) the night before so we were prepared the next day.
We first walked the dune life nature trail, a 1 mile loop marked by markers in the sand.
Never having spent much time in a desert, we were delighted to keep spotting lizards, bugs, flowers, and fun tracks.
Next, we drove out the the Alkali flat trail and got to sledding!
It looks so cool to camp on the dunes! This wasn’t our tent but I couldn’t resist snapping a picture. We then looped back to the visitor’s center to return the sled and get the junior ranger books, which were easily completed within the center. I was really intrigued to learn that researchers study the dunes at White Sands to learn more about the gypsum dunefields on Mars! Check out the national park website here.
I think we left around 1 pm, and by that time it was really steamy. My husband questioned driving 3.5 hours out of the way just for one day but it was totally worth it for the otherworldly desert experience.
(Drive 3.5 hours)
We then drove back to Santa Fe. On the way, we had intended to check out the Valley of Fires but missed it somehow!
Night: Santa Fe Airbnb – we were happy with this spot but then the owner left me a negative review alleging we spilled wine (we don’t drink wine). Since they also charged a cleaning fee, I think that was ridiculous and would not recommend staying there unless you plan to eat out; it was otherwise a delightful spot. If you’re new to Airbnb, use my affiliate link to save $40!
- Bandelier National Monument
- Valles Caldera
Bandelier National Monument
(Drive 1 hour)
Bandelier was amazing, with alcoves carved into the side of the mountains and beautiful trails to hike. I shared a bunch of tips for visiting Bandelier with kids in a separate post, but I’ll share some pictures here too! They also have an official website here.
This picture doesn’t do it justice, but they had a guided trail with numbers you could stop and learn about what you were looking at, which I appreciated.
We then took the trail out to Alcove House along the main loop trail, which took us through different habitats and finally to a challenging ladder hike up to the house itself. It was not for the faint of heart, but even not liking heights I made it up following my two mountain goat children.
We had planned to also explore the Falls Trail, but the rangers told us that the falls were nearly dry. We completed the junior ranger booklets and opted to explore the nearby caldera instead.
Valles Caldera National Monument
(Drive 30 minutes)
It’s tough to capture this area with a cellphone picture, but this postcard gave a nice aerial of the area! You can drive far into the area and find a large network of trails for hiking and water for fishing, but you have to arrive early in the morning to get one of the limited permits first. Since we came in the afternoon, we instead opted for the La Jara hike, and did the junior ranger booklet at the visitor’s center, check out their official website here.
There were lots of prairie dogs to spot!
The visitor’s center had some fun hands on options, but it was very small.
The hike around had lots of wonderful big rocks and an interpretive guide to learn as you walked around, it was about a mile and easy.
Night: Sante Fe airbnb
- Visit Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
- Meow Wolf
- Drive to Albuquerque
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
(Drive 50 minutes)
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument was one of our favorite hiking days because it had so many different things to look at! We got up early after reading that their parking can fill up fast, and headed out. There’s no visitor center but they do have a junior ranger booklet you can ask for at the entrance, and some informative brochures near the bathrooms/trailhead. We started out on the slot canyon trail, enjoying the 3 miles with beautiful views. Check out their website here.
We’d never been in a canyon like this before, it was beautiful!
Eventually you got to the amazing rock formations!
We also took the extra loop over to the “hole in the cliff”, but honestly my kids were just bummed that they couldn’t climb up in it.
(Drive 45 minutes)
Meow Wolf is really difficult to explain (this documentary is interesting!), but it was easily the highlight of the trip for my kids! It’s an immersive art experience for all ages, constructed and managed by a nonprofit artist collective. The general premise is that a family disappeared and you can rifle through their house and the surroundings for clues as to what happened, but it is completely fun and interesting just roaming around touching stuff like we did.
The most fun? Taking the tunnels through the appliances! My kids got a huge kick out of this for some reason and they still talk about it.
If you’ve been to the City Museum in St. Louis, this has some similar things with tunnels and ladders. You can touch everything, there is music and textures aplenty and we spent all afternoon there happily.
Before you go, check out the schedule for the David Loughridge learning center! They had open art making while we were there, which was a nice break from the sensory overload.
(Drive 1 hour)
- Albuquerque biopark
This area was a little confusing to understand on paper but actually visiting it was straightforward! The Biopark includes their Zoo, Aquarium, Botanic Garden, & Tingley Beach, all connected to one another via a fun short little train (or you can drive). One of our favorite parts was the Bugarium! They had lots of exciting exhibits and interesting critters to look at. The children’s garden in the botanic garden was whimisical and fun, with a slide, sand pit, and some climbing/music elements, they really enjoyed it. We didn’t stop at Tingley Beach but there are fishing ponds, ducks to watch, and paths to walk. The zoo and aquarium were fine, nothing particularly notable but enjoyable for the kids.
Night: Albuquerque airbnb
- El Malpais National Monument
- Ice cave/bandera volcano
El Malpais National Monument
(Drive 1.25 hours)
El Malpais National Monument was exciting because they have lava tubes! Several of them require special permits and equipment, but all of them require you to get a free pass at the visitor’s center. We walked through the Junction Cave, that was kid friendly and easy to navigate along the El Calderon trail.
We also walked to the end, seeing a cindercone and lots of scenic nature along the way, but if we were to go again I’d probably just explore the cave and turn back!
Ice cave / bandera volcano
(Drive 35 minutes)
Next we drove over to the privately owned Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano. At this point our kids were starting to wear out, so we went down to the ice cave (which was neat, very cold, cool history) and then called it a day. There were other activities in this area and a large gift shop.
El Malpais National Monument
(Drive 55 minutes)
We then drove over to the La Ventana Arch; there is a trail but we just poked around at the base and walked part of it.
(Drive 15 minutes)
Last but not least, we hit up the Lava Falls trail! We’d never had a chance to see the two different types of lava up close (pahoehoe and aa) and wandering around on this trail was worth the extra trip out. It was *rough* terrain so my daughter ended up in a carrier, and I’ll also note that the trail was marked by little cairns (rock towers) which was a fun exercise in navigation.
(Drive 1.5 hours)
Night: Albuquerque airbnb
Places that I considered checking out but we didn’t make it to:
North of Albuquerque
Central to Albuquerque
- Petroglyph National Monument
- Albuquerque science/natural history museum
- Tinkertown museum
- Explora (kid’s) museum
- Rattlesnake museum
- Coronado State Monument
West of Albuquerque
South of Albuquerque
East of Albuquerque
Map of where all we went, color coded by day: