As a tourist destination, Albuquerque may labor in the shadow of the jet-set arts colonies to the north, but as a city, it’s a thriving haven for those who pride themselves on being down-to-earth and sensible.
If Santa Fe is the “City Different” (a moniker any Burqueño will razz for its pretentiozusness), then New Mexico’s largest city, with more than 800,000 people in the metro area, is proudly the “City Indifferent”—unconcerned with fads, cultivated quirkiness, and flawless facades.
Which is not to say Albuquerque doesn’t have its pockets of historic charm, well away from the traffic-clogged arteries of I-40 and I-25, which intersect here in a graceful tangle of looping, turquoise-trimmed bridges. The Duke City was founded three centuries ago, its cumbersome name that of a Spanish nobleman, but its character is the product of later eras: the post-1880 downtown district; the University of New Mexico campus, built in the early 20th century by John Gaw Meem, the architect who defined pueblo revival style; and Route 66, the highway that linked Albuquerque with Chicago and Los Angeles beginning in 1926.
Spread out on either side of the Rio Grande, from volcanic mesas on the west to the foothills of the Sandia Mountains along the east, Albuquerque enjoys a striking natural setting.
Accessible hiking and biking trails run through diverse environments: In the morning, you can stroll under centuries-old cottonwood trees along the wide, muddy river through the center of the city; in the afternoon, you can hike along the edge of a windswept mountain range with views across the vast empty land beyond the city grid. And at the end of the day, you’ll see Albuquerque’s most remarkable feature, the dramatic light show as the setting sun reflects bright pink off the Sandia (Watermelon) Mountains.
The city is also an excellent (and reasonably priced) base for exploring many pueblos and natural attractions nearby, and it’s just an hour’s drive to Santa Fe, allowing for easy day trips or long scenic drives through the mountains in between. The main outing is the 65 miles west to Acoma Pueblo, a thousand-year-old settlement atop a natural fortress of stone.
Naturalists will want to head south to the Bosque del Apache, one of the United States’ largest bird sanctuaries, which attracts 15,000 sandhill cranes in November; drive down before dawn to see the birds at their most active and then wind your way back north via the Quebradas Backcountry Scenic Byway, a dirt route through rainbow-striped hills.
Whether you’re en route to Santa Fe or just making a day loop, you have several ways to head north. The most direct is I-25, which cuts through dramatic rolling hills; take a short detour to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, where pointed white rocks tower above a narrow canyon. Beginning east of Albuquerque, the historic Turquoise Trail winds along the back side of the Sandias and then through the former mining town of Madrid, resettled as an arts colony, with galleries occupying the cabins built against the black, coal-rich hills.
The longest route north is along the Jemez Mountain Trail, a scenic byway that runs through the brick-red rocks surrounding Jemez Pueblo and then past a number of natural hot springs. The road runs along the border of Valles Caldera National Preserve, a vast, pristine valley where the daily number of visitors is controlled, so you can enjoy the vistas in solitude.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition